Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Child Care Services Data

10:30 am

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the interdepartmental group which was established by his Department to address the child care crisis is addressing the issue of low wages for early childhood professionals whose work is critical during this key foundation stage of child development; and his views that Government must take responsibility for the issue of training and upskilling professionals in the sector. [19984/15]

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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Before I begin, I want to register my objection to the fact that Question Time to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been cut by 50 minutes this morning on such an important issue.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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That said, I want to ask the Minister if the interdepartmental group, which was set up by his Department to address the child care crisis in this State, is addressing the issue of low wages of early childhood professionals whose work is critical during this key foundation stage of child development. Does the Minister believe that the Government must take responsibility for the issue of training and upskilling of professionals in this sector?

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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My Department currently provides approximately €260 million annually to early years and school-age care and education services. This funding is directed towards a number of programmes, which aim to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of early years and school-age care and education.

To ensure that all the benefits of this and future investment are fully realised, it must be evidence-based and strategically co-ordinated. It is critically important that any investment is designed to achieve the best outcomes for children and their parents. Accordingly, I have established an interdepartmental group to develop a coherent whole-of-government approach to investment in early years and after-school care and education.

This group, which includes representation from seven Departments, including Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance and An Taoiseach, is tasked with developing a series of options for future investment, and is required to report to Government by next month.

I recognise the difficulties being faced by providers and the concerns of early childhood professionals in relation to levels of remuneration in the early years sector. Salary levels are a matter for agreement between providers and their staff. I am aware that staff salaries make up the greater proportion of costs and that an increase in capitation and subvention payments through the child care support programmes would assist providers to address this and other cost issues.

I have indicated that if resources become available, I will review the scope for increasing the level of payments. Any decisions in this regard will be informed by the recommendations of the interdepartmental group.

As regards upskilling, my Department has provided support to early years professionals to meet new qualification requirements that I plan to introduce. Under the Learner Fund, €3 million was allocated in 2014 and 2015 to almost 2,500 early years professionals who have or are currently in the process of upskilling.

The objective of the Learner Fund is to ensure that all existing early years professionals are supported, so that they are in a position to continue to work in the sector when the new qualification requirements are in place. When this is achieved, other measures can be considered which would further support the upskilling of the early years sector.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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At a recent meeting of the Committee on Health and Children, a representative from a children's advocacy organisation stated that during the course of their research on the quality of child care in this State, one woman commented that she earned more in her local chipper than she did in her role as a child care worker. It was pointed out that it was common for workers to subsidise their child care wages with income from a second job.

We know that most child care workers are not entitled to sick pay and teachers delivering the ECCE scheme are forced to go on the dole for the summer months. In a sector that is so critical for the development and well-being of children, there is no encouragement to stay in jobs long-term. Many have commented that, as a result, the quality is being bled out of child care.

Pay rates for child care workers in Ireland are extremely low. Hourly pay rates vary from €9.27 per for four years' experience up to €10.03 for ten years' experience. These rates are less than the living wage and the burn-out and turnover rates for such workers is shocking.

The nature of the job and hours demanded of child care workers are intense. The work undertaken, both by providers and workers, is critical in the development of early childhood years. If we recognise these facts, should the Government not be supporting a fairer wage which reflects the input, hours and personal contributions? Does the Minister agree that if we do not have fair wages for child care workers, any plans to rebuild the sector and improve quality will fall flat when there is little incentive to enter the sector as the situation currently stands?

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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First, I want to place on the record of the House my appreciation of the work that the early years professionals do. They have been very much minded to upskill in the interests of the children they look after. I really appreciate and thank them for that.

In the past, I have made it clear that the issues of the capitation rate and reductions forced upon us by the economic situation we found ourselves in, are matters I want to examine urgently as resources become available. It is a difficulty for us that it is only for 38 weeks per year and therefore we have this long hiatus during the summer when there is no work. All these issues will be addressed by the interdepartmental group in terms of the recommendations it might make or options it might put to the Government. We need to address the issue of the second year versus issues that still exist in the first year.

The interdepartmental group is also examining older school-going children and their care requirements when school is finished, and the different type of setting they need in order to afford their parents an opportunity to enter the workforce if that is what they desired.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I am the special rapporteur for the preparation of an all-party Oireachtas Committee report on child care. During the course of that research we were told that for those who are willing and hopeful to upskill, there is simply no incentive to stay as there are no employment benefits.

Does the Minister agree that the economics of child care have long been skewed? Amid an absence of sufficient Government subsidies, child care providers are being forced to survive partly by keeping their labour costs dangerously low, driving trained, educated, skilled people to abandon the field? Does the Minister also agree that without a significant increase in Government investment, quality will be compromised? Does he have plans to increase the subsidisation of child care providers so they can better invest in their services and workers? The child care crisis is not only one of cost, but also a quality crisis. Does the Minister believe that both are inextricably linked?

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I absolutely agree that the issues of quality and affordability are inter-linked and very important to parents. Research will bear that out. We must remember though that in the darkest and deepest of recessions that this country ever experienced, we did protect funding for the ECCE programme. Without that funding, many of these facilities would not exist as it was the only funding available to them when parents were stretched by the general financial considerations they had to deal with.

Child care is critically important and that is why we have put together this interdepartmental group. We have asked that group and experts to come together to evaluate, analyse and cost various options that will be made available to the Government to choose from in plenty of time for the next Estimates.