Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Youth Services Provision
I thank the Minister for taking the debate on this Topical Issue matter, which has been exercising me for the past five or six weeks. It is time sensitive, given the roll-out of the new childcare scheme.
I will provide some context. I am speaking on behalf of the Carlow Regional Youth Service, CRYS, which provides a great service in Carlow town. Carlow is like most commuter towns and has a population of 20,000 or 25,000 people. Like most towns throughout the country, it also faces challenges. There are very good and middle of the road parts of the town, but there are other parts that can be challenging. This is where the CRYS plays a leading role, in that it ensures that children in difficult areas have futures.
The new childcare scheme is being rolled out on 11 October. While it is welcome in general, it is missing a key element. Childcare is meant to look after kids, in particular vulnerable children. In Carlow town, the CRYS looks after 59 vulnerable children. They are vulnerable in different ways. For example, there could be drug related or other issues that have a knock-on effect. These kids need to be given the same opportunity as everyone else, including us in our time, to progress from primary level education to second and third level education. If the new scheme is implemented as presented, however, such kids will miss out on that opportunity. Its roll-out is concerned with job activation. While that is welcome, the heart of the programme overlooks vulnerable children. I am sure that Carlow town is like other towns in that it has many such children. They need to be given the same opportunity as everyone else.
Will the Minister re-examine the scheme's format? She is engaged in an ongoing review. Unfortunately, the people involved in the CRYS are disappointed about not being asked to make a contribution to that review. They would have played a large part. Maybe other organisations of a similar status were asked to make contributions. Before the Minister makes a final decision, will she engage with the CRYS to determine how the issues can be resolved? It would be unfortunate if vulnerable children were not given the same opportunity as other kids. The CRYS looks after 59 kids from difficult sectors of society. They need to be looked after and given an opportunity to move to second and third level education. If they are not, then they may go the way of other kids from difficult backgrounds.
The scheme in general is welcome and a great deal of extra money has been invested in childcare in recent years. The Minister deserves to be complimented in that regard and on her work, but there is an anomaly in the system that is due to be rolled out in October. If it is not addressed now, the scheme currently operating in Carlow town will have to be closed at the end of July and the kids in question will lose out on a valuable future. Will the Minister address these points in her reply?
Let me address the issue of the national childcare scheme, on which the Deputy focused. When introduced, the scheme will represent a major landmark for all children and families, especially lower income families and lone parents. It will be accessible to all families, not just those working or studying full time. The new scheme will replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly one. It entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift and tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the scheme intends to improve children's outcomes, support their lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in terms of labour market participation.
Under the current targeted schemes, many families with low income levels are able to access subsidised childcare because they are either in low-paid employment or are rotating between short periods of employment, unemployment and training. The national childcare scheme will change this. In terms of the income-based subsidies awarded under the scheme, parents who are working or studying or who meet certain other conditions will qualify for an enhanced hours subsidy up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. The definitions of "work" and "study" will be set out in regulations made under the Childcare Support Act 2018 and will be comprehensive, covering differing types of work and study arrangements, such as part-time, week on-week off, and zero-hour contract arrangements. The legislation will also provide for so-called bridging periods when a parent is moving between work and study. Where a parent is not engaging in work or study, the child will still be eligible for the standard hours subsidy of 15 hours per week. These 15 hours will wrap around school and preschool provisions. This means that, when the child is in school or preschool, no subsidy will be payable during term time.
This approach reflects the policy objectives of encouraging labour market activation and reducing child poverty and persistent poverty traps. It is consistent not only with the evidence of the strong benefits of early learning and care for young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but with the evidence that these benefits are in most cases realised with part-time participation. For older children, it recognises that, during term time, child development needs will be met through school and preschool while still providing part-time early learning and care and school-age childcare outside of those times.
I emphasise that families with high levels of need who require childcare for child welfare, child protection or family support reasons may be referred for childcare support by a specified so-called sponsor body.
If such a referral is made, the family will automatically qualify for a subsidy for the number of hours considered appropriate by the sponsor without having to satisfy the scheme's eligibility, income or enhanced hours requirements. I hear the significant issues the Deputy is raising and I share his concerns. This is the reason I commissioned an independent sustainability review last year. I think the Deputy referred to the review, which analyses a number of services in highly disadvantaged communities to explore any potential financial sustainability issues and the potential impact of the work-study rules within the national childcare scheme. I expect to receive that analysis, which will inform any necessary refinements of the national childcare scheme, shortly. In the interim, arrangements are in place to ensure no one loses out.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I reiterate that I firmly accept and appreciate the work that is being done. I acknowledge that the new scheme that is coming in will be very beneficial. The Minister's reply referred to a question I asked approximately ten days ago. I initially raised this matter a month ago. The Minister is missing the point I am making about the vulnerable children in this sector. I welcome anything that will reduce the cost of childcare, which has been too expensive in this country for far too long. We have been playing catch-up in the childcare sector for a number of years. Anything that is introduced to try to improve the sector is very welcome. It is important to point out that we need to get people back to work. I agree that the only way to secure people's future is by getting them back to work. A number of people who come from difficult or vulnerable sectors may never work. Their parents and grandparents never worked, unfortunately. If we do not look after the kids in such families, they will never work. We do not want to have cases in which historical issues are repeated time and again. I am highlighting this issue for that reason. The Minister mentioned that support is available when issues arise. Referrals for special subsidisation can be made. I am open to correction on my understanding that this support may be in name only. I believe only one social worker is available in this sector to deal with any issues that arise. Although there may be a list of areas to which kids or families may be referred when extra issues are involved, the reality is that the necessary supports to deal with such cases and ensure children have an opportunity to move forward are not available. I might be repeating myself when I say it is essential that every child in this country has the same educational opportunity. Every child should be able to progress from primary to secondary level and from secondary to third level, rather than being left behind as others were in the past. I ask the Minister to provide more substance on the issue I am trying to highlight today. Where can we deal with the issue of the anomaly in the system I have described?
I have tried to outline the overall objectives of the national childcare scheme, which shares many of the objectives of the schemes that have supported the Carlow youth service in the past. I have indicated that some things will change in light of the underlying policy objectives that support the national childcare scheme. Those objectives have been debated fully. The second major point I would like to make in response to the Deputy is that I appreciate his concern that some of the changes in this service will have a negative impact on the financial sustainability of subsidised supports for young people and children. I think that is what the Deputy is saying. Of course I am open to that point. I am considering it. My understanding is that during April and May of this year, the Carlow County Childcare Committee gathered data on the potential impact of the national childcare scheme on early learning and care and school-age services in County Carlow. Information was sought from seven community services, four family resource-type services and three stand-alone school-age services. Departmental officials will meet some of those involved in the Carlow pilot impact study on Thursday, 13 June to learn more about their work and their findings. When those officials feed into our work, we will have a deeper understanding of what is going on with the shift in financial support for these children, as described by the Deputy, and we will seek to find a way to move forward to ensure the service is sustainable. I think the first step in this regard will involve meeting the officials to hear at first hand about the findings of the work that is being presented and moving forward from there. We will take those steps and see where we are then.