Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 May 2015

2:50 pm

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for attending to take this Topical Issue debate and the Ceann Comhairle's office for giving me the opportunity to raise what is an important matter that has been debated for the past ten or 15 years, namely, the high cost of child care. The financial strain placed on families, particularly young families, by having to pay €2,000 per month for two children to be kept in child care facilities is, as the Minister knows, unfair on parents. It creates difficulties for families' budgets, given the other cuts people have had to take in recent years because of the country's economic problems. For example, they must pay property taxes, water charges and USC. The high cost of child care has made it financially unfeasible for both parents to work. It makes more sense for one of them to give up work to look after their children, even though they desire to return to the workforce. As the Minister is aware, a study entitled, The Baby Brain Drain, concluded that 3,000 new mothers left the workforce annually, giving rise to a figure of €68 million in recruitment and training costs. This is having a detrimental effect on the economy. We must keep women in the workforce, contributing to the tax coffers, but doing so is uneconomic for them.

My colleagues and I in Renua Ireland have devised a policy. With the economic position improving, we must consider providing a tax credit for parents and crèche operators to help the hard-pressed, squeezed middle. Many families are being sandwiched by costs and cuts.

The inflexibility of maternity leave arrangements needs to be examined. We propose that six months of maternity leave be taken by both parents, with three months being taken by each, with the leave being renamed as "parental leave".

The local property tax was to provide money to improve communities, but that has not happened. In 2013 the Commission on Taxation recommended the introduction of a site valuation charge. This would have ring-fenced money and ensured the availability of more affordable child care facilities in communities, thereby relieving families of an unfair burden. I plead with the Minister to consider this suggestion on behalf of families. Many talented women are denied an opportunity to contribute to and play their part in the workforce because of exorbitant crèche fees. Will the Minister outline his plan of action? He is in discussions with the Minister for Finance and has set up a cross-departmental group that will make recommendations by the summer on how to deal with this issue. A second year of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme has been mooted.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to answer the Deputy and outline the Government's position on child care. I thank him for his question.

High quality and well structured investment in the early years of a child's life is widely recognised as being one of the most strategic investments we can make with public funding. Children are at a critical stage in their development in their early years and we have a golden opportunity to set them on the right path for their future - for all of our futures - by investing wisely in them at that stage. They are not the only beneficiaries. When they are given opportunities to develop to their full potential, we all benefit - parents, families, communities, wider society and the economy. It is because the Government recognised the critical importance of investment in children's early years that we worked hard to protect expenditure in this area, despite the dire economic circumstances that we had inherited. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs invests more than €250 million in child care each year. This is before spending on children by other Departments is taken into consideration.

The Government is well aware that Ireland's investment in this area is lower than in many other OECD countries and that parents face considerable difficulties in accessing quality and affordable child care. It is constrained in its ability to increase this investment significantly, as the recovery in the public finances is not yet complete and resources remain limited. Furthermore, I am strongly committed to ensuring every euro we invest in children is invested wisely. This is the area in which we get the greatest return for every euro we invest.

A number of programmes are in place to support parents with child care costs, the most significant of which in terms of State investment is the ECCE programme. This universal programme provides for one free preschool year for all eligible children before commencing primary school. More than €170 million is invested in the programme annually, reducing the child care costs of parents by more than €2,300 per child. Approximately 67,000 children benefit from the guaranteed investment for which the programme provides.

The community child care subvention programme funds community not-for-profit child care services to allow them to provide quality child care at reduced rates for disadvantaged and low income working parents. More than 25,000 children benefit from this programme annually.

A number of further initiatives have been introduced under the training and employment child care programmes to support parents who are participating in training or educational courses in order to return to the workforce. They include the child care education and training support programme which provides subsidised child care places for qualifying trainees or students for the duration of their courses. The after school child care programme provides after school care for primary school children for certain categories of working parents for one year. Last year it was enhanced in a number of ways, including by providing funding for a pick-up service at no extra cost to parents where providers were in a position to do so.

Community employment schemes often provide the first opportunity for parents to engage in the workforce. The community employment child care programme subsidises the cost of child care for participating parents. Following a number of enhancements, the programme now includes an after-school child-care option at a weekly cost of €15 for parents of primary school children, as well as a part-time day-care option for up to ten weeks during school holidays.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has been working closely with the Department of Social Protection to ensure that these initiatives provide the maximum benefit to parents in an economy that is now delivering an increased number of work opportunities.

The current level of State investment in child care, at more than €250 million per year, is very substantial. To ensure that all the benefits of child care investments are fully realised, public investment in child care must be evidence-based and strategically co-ordinated.

In order to develop a coherent whole-of-Government approach to child care investment, I have established an interdepartmental group to examine and develop options for future investment in child care, both in the early years and for children of school-going age. The work of the group will be informed by documented best practice and current policy commitments, and through consultation with relevant stakeholders.

On 31 March, an open policy debate was attended by 40 invited representatives including parents, child care providers, academics, child-care committees, and non-governmental organisations. A range of views on future policy directions were put forward, and a number of options for future investment were examined and discussed. A report of the debate is currently being compiled and will be published in due course.

An online consultation process was also provided for stakeholders with an interest in the field, including policy-makers, practitioners, providers, advocates and academics, as well as one specifically for parents and guardians. Almost 400 submissions were made by stakeholders and nearly 1,000 submissions were made by parents and guardians. These submissions will feed into the deliberations of the interdepartmental group. I take this opportunity to thank all who made submissions for doing so.

I have asked the group to consider a wide range of options, which must be rigorously analysed and properly costed, to develop sensible solutions to the challenges families face, rather than an expensive shopping list of "like to haves". I have asked that the final report of the group be submitted to me by the summer - next month in fact - to inform Government deliberations on this important area.

3:00 pm

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his response. The crux of the matter is that our child-care costs are among the most expensive in the world; we are up there with the US. It costs €2,000 per month for two children in a crèche, which is a shocking indictment.

We are told that the country is in a better position financially and that €500 million to €700 million to give out in the next budget. Is the Minister considering providing a tax credit to couples so that in particular talented women can remain in the workforce to help towards the cost of mortgage repayments, which is a second mortgage in the case of many families? It is costing the economy a considerable amount of money.

I previously quoted from the baby brain drain study which indicated that 3,000 new mothers leave the workforce annually which costs €68 million. We are depriving women of the opportunity to work and this could easily be remedied. I know that the country has been in a very bad place financially over the past ten years or so. We now have an opportunity to help families in the squeezed middle who are facing huge weekly costs. I hope the Minister can provide some hope for those people.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. People often speak about the Government spending 0.2% on children when compared with other OECD countries. However, in reality is it more than 0.4%, which is still lower than it should be, when we take into account the moneys spent elsewhere in education, social protection and now our commitment, on which I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, to give free GP care to all children under six.

This morning I launched a new initiative, called Better Start, which is to support early childhood care and education providers. It is a mentoring service with 30 highly qualified mentors who will visit and support providers with ongoing advice on how to improve quality and care in the work they do. I welcome this as an initiative that will support people as they continue their professional development through life, which is something we need to do in all areas. It has existed for years for doctors and nurses.

The cost of child care is like a second mortgage and the Government has acknowledged that many families are struggling. That is why this group was established. It is not to come up with a wish list but to come up with properly analysed evidence-based options from which the Government can choose. They need to be properly costed so that we can start a process to address this. I favour giving parents a choice and affording Government the opportunity to have an input into standards and quality of the placements available, much as the ECCE programme works now.

We need more investment in child care and I will strongly fight for that. The Deputy compared the costs here to those in the United States. It is not that they are out of kilter per se, but the issue is our ability to subsidise care costs and we need to address that.