Thursday, 28 March 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation
On 11 March, I announced the launch of the national childcare scheme, our pathway to truly accessible and affordable quality childcare. The scheme will open to applications this October and good progress continues to be made as we work towards that timeframe.
Following the enactment of the Childcare Support Act last July, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are now being finalised. An IT development contractor, Codec, is working with officials from my Department and Pobal to develop the scheme's supporting IT system so that it will be available on schedule.
Since 18 February, school-age childcare services can register with Tusla and will be able to participate in the scheme from the outset. A national communications campaign is also underway. This involves a sequenced programme of information, training and supports to allow everyone - parents, providers and representative groups - to prepare for the scheme. Key elements of the campaign in March included the launch of a new website, wwv.ncs.gov.ie, as well as a major nationwide training programme for providers offering over 12,500 training places across 600 venues. I am happy to report that there is very strong interest in both the website and the training.
By raising the thresholds for income-related subsidies in budget 2019, I have poverty proofed the scheme for families on lower incomes and enabled more families with higher incomes to access support. Families with a net household income of under €26,000 will benefit from the maximum subsidies while families of a net household income of up to €60,000 will also benefit.
I will continue to work intensively to deliver this landmark scheme, which will alter the landscape of childcare in Ireland, support families, provide a sustainable platform for investment and, crucially, allow us to continue to invest in giving our children the best start in life.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I know that Codec is the name of the company involved in the ICT side of the scheme. Is the ICT on target or up and running? Are there any flaws that will prohibit it being fully rolled out in September? Regarding the communication teams and training and support, will there be adequate time and training for the various providers? I am delighted to hear about 600 different locations around the country so I am sure there are adequate opportunities for people to attend. Is an allowance to enable them to attend this training available? Has extra time been allocated to their facility because it must take in somebody to enable another person to go or are events scheduled for the evening? Is it being delivered through the city and county childcare committees? Could the Minister repeat the name of the website?
Regarding the development of the IT system, and it is important that the Deputy asks these questions in an ongoing way because I know she does and has a particular interest, my information is that it is on target. As the Deputy is aware, an oversight group was established at the very beginning and continues to monitor the development of it. Part of that involves ongoing risk assessment relating to the timing. It is not to say that it is completely without risk regarding being delivered on time. I must be honest about that. However, with regard to having that kind of risk approach to assessing the development of it, I am assured that it will be delivered on time and we will have an opportunity to pilot it before it goes fully live.
We have launched an initial communications approach and programme. There will be a couple of others particularly geared towards parents. We are offering training for providers. I will have to revert to the Deputy regarding her questions about the details of the training.
What about broadband in counties like Leitrim where broadband is very poor? Has the Department carried out a risk assessment regarding the uploading of documents, particularly from the childcare providers? It is my understanding that more than half of the premises in Leitrim do not have access to broadband. Perhaps the Department needs to do this as part of its risk assessment. It is a very valuable piece of it, particularly with regard to Leitrim, based on the feedback I am getting. What will the Minister do regarding the upcoming budget negotiations? Does she plan to see the expansion of the net household income threshold as part of budgetary negotiations?
I thank the Deputy for those questions and for alerting me to information she is receiving on not having access to broadband in County Leitrim. I will feed that in and get back to her in terms of looking at and assessing that issue. The ultimate success of the national child care scheme is rooted in that. It is also important to say that there is still the possibility of parents making applications on paper to the service provider. It is not the case that it is totally dependent on online facilities. It is worrying nonetheless and I will ask my officials to look at that and see how we can assess risk in that regard.
On the Deputy's second question, the investment in the national childcare scheme and that we will finally have it provides us with a much easier way to increase investment, both at the lower as well as the higher end. It will be my ambition to look for increases on both sides.