Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Child Care Services Provision

1:15 pm

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for including this issue for debate. Like most Members, I welcome the initiatives taken by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, in the recent budget in regard to child care. Any improvements in the child care sector must be welcomed. As Members are aware, there are shortcomings in the sector, principally due to the fact that child care is so expensive in this jurisdiction. Child care costs here are probably the most expensive in Europe. In some European countries child care is provided for as little as €150 a month and in France subsidised child care is provided. In Ireland, particularly in large urban centres, child care costs can be as high as €1,000 a month per child. Costs are lower in rural areas, but in general the cost is prohibitive. Repeatedly, people say the cost of child care is the equivalent of having an additional mortgage. This is true for many families.

While we welcome the improvements announced in the budget, the additional places, etc. many of us have pointed out some of the shortcomings in regard to the initiatives. My concern about the findings of the survey conducted by Early Childhood Ireland which was published yesterday. Some issues raised in the survey are of concern. The survey highlighted that 62% of respondents said they did not plan to expand their child care service as a result of the budget proposals, while 27% said they were not sure whether they would. The big issue in terms of the challenge to expand to meet the needs of the proposed scheme is capitation. Child care providers say capitation is too low. Another issue is the lack of space and funding to expand their facilities.

The survey also highlighted that in response to the question of whether the changes in the budget were good for child care providers, 23% said "No", while 49% said they were not sure yet. These are serious issues if we are to improve child care services. The Minister acknowledged when the budget was announced that we are on a new journey in terms of bringing about improvements in child care. If the results of the Early Childhood Ireland survey are true, we face serious issues in regard to improving child care in the future, which is why I have raised this issue.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I am pleased to outline the Government's position on recent measures introduced in budget 2016.

Budget 2016 implemented a key recommendation of both the expert advisory group on the early years strategy and of the interdepartmental group on future investment in child care, by providing for an entitlement to free preschool for all children, from age three until they start school, and by funding a new model of support to ensure children with disabilities can participate in free preschool alongside their peers. The value of these measures is underpinned by the findings of extensive consultation during the course of the interdepartmental group's work. These were key priorities for parents, preschool providers and experts on the early years.

The expansion of the free preschool programme, which will take effect from September 2016, means that the number of children benefitting from the free preschool provision is expected to rise from around 67,000 to 127,000 in a given year. The decision to implement this new entitlement from September 2016 was made to allow the early years sector time to build capacity and adjust to the new parameters of the programme. Accommodating change can be challenging, but as demand is not expected to peak until January and April 2017, this should provide the necessary time to make any infrastructural and-or service changes, and to put in place additional staff to meet the increased demand.

A number of factors indicate that the additional required capacity in the preschool sector will be realised. The annual survey of early years' services, conducted in December 2014, estimated that there were more than 24,000 vacancies in early years services across the country and that almost 13,000 of these vacancies were in sessional services. It is also the case that a significant number of services apply to be providers of the free preschool programme every year. This increased demand for and additional investment in free preschool is likely to encourage a greater number of applicants.

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for that reply. I have mentioned the high cost of child care in Ireland. It is worth mentioning that for many low income families, child care costs are so high that parents have little choice but to leave the workforce. Those of us with constituency clinics are aware of many examples of people who are working in low paid jobs who cannot afford to continue to work because of the high costs of child care. We must be conscious of this and must try to follow the European model of investing in child care and allowing families avail of child care facilities.

Another issue which was a criticism I raised when the budget for child care services was announced is that a significant omission was a provision to deal with how overworked and badly paid those who worked in the child care sector were.

It causes all sorts of problems in terms of qualifications, etc. It tends to be a sector in which the workforce is, in many cases, in transit. The level of wages is so low. It is hard work and badly paid. That was one of my criticisms at the time it was announced during the budget. I hope the Minister will address the matter in the very near future, as other jurisdictions have, particularly in respect of qualifications of those working in the child care sector. There should be some kind of scheme that will give them a living wage in order that they will not be on the sort of wages most of them receive.

1:25 pm

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I note the Deputy's genuine concerns about staffing, recruitment and training and retention of staff in the sector. He makes a very important and valuable point which I will pass on to the Minister.

The restoration of capitation rates to pre-2012 levels from September 2016 and the introduction of additional capitation payments under the new model of support to ensure children with disabilities can participate in free preschool facilities should also encourage a greater number of new applicants and encourage existing preschool providers to expand. It is clear that more capacity will be required and January and April enrolments may pose a challenge. However, officials in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are committed to assisting with these challenges. They are undertaking a mapping exercise to identify where the additional capacity will be required. They are working closely with all of the city and county child care committees and voluntary child care organisations on a range of measures which will assist preschool providers to meet the increased demand for free preschool provision. That engagement is very important and timely. Further information on these measures will also be made available very shortly.

The Dáil adjourned at at 2.55 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 8 December 2015.