Dáil debates

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Early Years Childcare: Motion [Private Members]


8:50 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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This business is to conclude in two hours, in the usual way. I understand that Deputy Funchion is sharing time.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I will take five minutes and my colleagues will follow. They know the order in which they will speak.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I invite the Deputy to proceed.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: notes:
— the early years sector has been acutely underfunded for many years and as a result Ireland is ranked the lowest country in the European Union (EU) for investment in this vital area;

— this lack of adequate and sustainable funding has ensured fees for parents are amongst the highest in the EU;

— that the steep costs accrued by parents in securing early years childcare places a significant financial burden on families;

— this sector, which employs approximately 30,000 people, has some of the most highly qualified professionals who are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector, with many existing on minimum wage;

— that the public health emergency has further highlighted sustainability issues within the sector, with many early years providers fearing closure; and

— the barrier to employment, particularly for women, as a direct result of accessing childcare and the exorbitant costs which are particularly cumbersome; and
calls on the Government to:
— introduce a comprehensive early years plan that:
— defines the early years as a distinct phase with unique learning and developmental requirements;

— recognises the diversity of the early years sector and acknowledges that a onesize-fits-all solution is insufficient to address this diversity;

— delivers an early years sustainability fund for the whole sector;

— commits to significantly ramping up investment year-on-year, fast-tracking to a spend of at least one per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as recommended by the early years sector and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF);

— reinstates the wage subsidy scheme at the full amount, as the basis of investment in the sector, so that entry level wages increase to the living wage;

— fully commits to implement pay scales and full continuous professional development for all staff which properly value childcare as a viable long-term career choice; and

— ensures, once proper investment is in place, that a maximum weekly childcare fee is set, incrementally reducing until the service is free at the point of use; and
— commit to engage with the sector in the development of the plan and ensure that representatives of the sector are consulted with.

I am delighted to introduce this motion for debate. I wish to acknowledge the involvement of our stakeholders, who could not be with us today due to Covid-19 restrictions.

I thank each and every one of them for their campaigning, advice and expert opinion. This motion was drafted in close consultation with the childcare and early years sector and has been significantly influenced by the hundreds of emails from parents, workers and providers in the sector that both myself and my Sinn Féin colleagues have received.

Families are crying out for a high quality childcare system that is affordable, accessible and sustainable. It is obvious to everyone here and to the wider public that the early years sector is in crisis. The current funding model is failing everyone. It is failing children, their families, their educators and childcare providers.

As the party spokesperson on children, disability, equality and integration, and as a mother of two boys, I am keenly aware on a personal level the serious issues facing the sector.

Childcare was in crisis before Covid and during Covid and it will remain in crisis after Covid if the Government does not seriously commit to sustainable investment in the sector. I and my Sinn Féin colleagues believe strongly that this phase in a young child’s life should be recognised as a distinct phase with unique learning and developmental requirements and all funding models should reflect this. While other parties suggest tax credits will reduce costs, they will do nothing to address the pay of workers. The childcare sector and the workers deserve better.

I am constantly contacted by parents, workers and providers wanting to share their experience of using, working and operating in, unfortunately, what has become a broken system. I know I am not the only Deputy in the Chamber who is witnessing the failings of the current funding model in their constituencies.

The major issue facing the sector is sustainable funding. Our early years sector must be resourced adequately to provide lower fees for parents, stability for workers and sustainable businesses for providers. There are three main areas that this motion seeks to address. First are the workers. Of the approximately 30,000 workers in the early years sector many, who have spent several years at college studying and furthering their professional development and are extremely experienced and qualified after a lifetime in the sector, are still earning less than the living wage. Many do not get sick leave and many have to sign on for social welfare during the summer break. Yesterday, SIPTU published a survey, the Big Start Campaign, showing more than one quarter of all surveyed have suffered significant pay cuts post Covid. It also shows that 32% indicated they intend to leave the sector due to low pay. I know they do not want to leave the sector, but they are being forced out.

This needs to be addressed and one move the Government could take immediately is to reinstate the wage subsidy scheme and extend it past the end of 2020. Workers would have certainty and providers could concentrate on educating our young citizens. In response to Covid a key and critical component of our plan was implemented: the State took on the wage bill, so it is possible to do this.

Parents are burdened with some of the highest fees in Europe, which evidence shows creates a significant barrier to maternal employment. Women are adversely affected by higher fees and forced to stay out of the workforce while their children are small.

As workers and parents are squeezed at one end of the system, childcare providers, mainly small businesses and predominately managed and owned by women, are being squeezed at the other end. The vast majority of childcare providers are delivering high quality education to our young children at an important stage in their learning and emotional development.

The programme for Government rightly states that childcare should “promote quality, better outcomes for children and make a career in childcare more attractive”, but what is the Government’s plan to deliver this? To date we have seen lower wages for its workers, parents are more or less guaranteed fees will continue to rise and providers fear closure due to inadequate funding

The motion sets out three clear objectives that Sinn Féin believes will deliver a fairer deal for the provision of childcare. We are failing children, we are failing workers and we are failing childcare providers if this motion is not passed. I am asking every Deputy here tonight please to support this motion and finally to give childcare and the early year’s sector the funding and the recognition it deserves.

8:55 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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This Sinn Féin motion, tabled by my party colleague, Deputy Kathleen Funchion, sets out to address the three big issues in the early years childcare sector. The first of these is the crippling costs of childcare to working families. The second is the lack of real respect, fairness and remuneration for the 30,000 highly qualified and skilled workers who deserve career opportunities and recognition for the essential work they do. Finally, I refer to the need for financial support in the form of the 100% restoration of Covid-19 temporary wage subsidy scheme to enable childcare providers to continue to operate. It is time to decide. Either we see the early years sector as a cost and a burden to the State or we see it as an opportunity to invest in our most precious commodity, our children and our families. It is an opportunity to invest in something that will give back many times over.

In economics, we talk about the multiplier effect. Investing in our children and the early years sector certainly has the multiplier effect. While many multinational companies and financial institutions look for all kinds of innovative ways to shift their profits to avoid paying our corporation tax rate of 12.5%, this sector has been starved of investment and acutely underfunded for many years. It is not by chance that we are the lowest-ranking country in the EU when it comes to investment in our early years sector. Apart from the benefits of protecting the health, well-being and education of our children, the sector enables parents to work outside of the home, progressing their careers and returning higher levels of taxation and spending to underpin economic growth.

The families that are most affected by this are entitled to nothing. They pay through the nose for everything, including healthcare, school transport, third level education and everything else in between. It is time to give these families a break. I urge the Minister of State to use this opportunity to set out a new vision, underpinned by proper investment in our early years and childcare sector.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Funchion, for tabling this crucially important motion and for her extensive work on this issue in general. I wish to show my support for this motion and I strongly recommend that the other Members of this House also support it. The childcare industry has seen a serious lack of investment on the part of successive Governments. This has led to rising fees for parents while workers in the sector are paid some of the lowest wages among their peers. This is shameful, but it is the unfortunate reality.

Childcare costs are far too high here. They are among the highest in the EU. I can still remember, as I canvassed with my team during the run-up to the February election, continuously hearing about the same issue concerning childcare throughout the whole constituency of Clare, namely, the issue of cost. The cost is not manageable and every week and every month is stressful. I was stopped at many doors listening to many parents telling me of their struggles to pay for childcare, finding themselves questioning whether it is worth returning to work following the end of their period of maternity leave. Some mothers told me they were sitting at home with their partners, adding up the costs, weighing their options, trying to make ends meet and struggling. One mother told me of the real hardship of trying to work out if she could afford to go back to work after the birth of her third child. This lady was working full-time with the HSE and earning a good wage, but she was still left in a position where she had to question whether she could justify the outrageous cost of childcare.

I was deeply saddened to learn that other women I heard from had no choice at all. They simply could not afford childcare and had to leave their jobs. This is a disastrous state to be in. No family should be worse off at the end of the week due to the cost of childcare or have to make these truly difficult decisions. We must also ensure that the amazing staff working in our early years sector are paid properly for the work they do. They are highly qualified and skilled and the value of their work often goes unnoticed. It is about time they get the fair pay they deserve. Again, I strongly encourage all Members of this House to support the motion.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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Childcare,a two-syllable word, is enough to put the heart across any parent, first from finding it, then from paying for it. Fees are among the highest in Europe.

It could be called the baby mortgage. Parents who are already working flat out to keep a very expensive roof over their heads are paying an absolute fortune for the privilege of dropping their children off in the dark of the morning and collecting them in the dark of the night for most of the year. Many parents remarked to me that they have enjoyed being able to see their children in the light of day mid-week during the Covid crisis, which has raised new issues and is something we must consider as a society. With workplaces now reopening, what parents need most is affordable childcare.

We have excellent childcare workers in Ireland. They are highly skilled and very well qualified. The problem is the extent to which they are valued by the Government. Parents value them. They hand over the most precious loves of their lives to be cared for while they go out to work. However, the Government has repeatedly shown that it believes these highly qualified childcare providers and early educators should be paid approximately the minimum wage.

I have spoken to many crèches and childcare providers in north Kildare. Some of them have been forced to close their doors. The Government must step in or many of them will find it impossible to carry on.

We must rethink how we look at the sector. We must invest in it. Sinn Féin wants better. We want more for our people. We want to be able to give families a chance and workers a break. By and large, those are the same thing. In the greater scheme of things, restoring the 100% wage subsidy scheme would subsidise everybody. By looking after one group, we would look after the other. Look after each other and we look after our community. I commend my comrade, Deputy Funchion, on the motion. I hope the House will support it.

9:05 pm

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to support the motion. I commend Deputy Funchion on tabling it. Childcare in Ireland is at crisis point and has been so since long before Covid. It has been edging towards disaster for years, but little or nothing has been done to address the situation. It is now urgent. The cost of childcare was astronomical even before Covid. Prices are now being forced upwards again as a result of restrictions on numbers due to Covid and the cost of necessary personal protective equipment, PPE, and deep cleaning essentials. This means higher costs for parents.

The State needs to take responsibility for childcare. UNICEF recommends that 1% of GDP be spent on childcare. Ireland is lagging well behind in that regard. It is behind the majority of EU countries. The average cost of childcare is €184 per week. For families with two children who require care, that means almost €400 per week or €1,600 per month. That is more than the cost of a second mortgage. It is not sustainable for families. Many couples are faced with the prospect of one parent giving up work to stay at home to care for their children. They have no other choice.

Many staff working in childcare facilities have level 7 or level 8 degrees but are in receipt of the minimum wage. It is no wonder that staff retention is a problem.

I recently spoke to a parent who had to take 16 weeks' unpaid leave at the end of her maternity leave as she could not find a childcare service that would take her child. She was told that children under one year of age could not be accommodated. She could not afford to take the unpaid leave. She did not know what she was going to do when her 16 weeks were up as she still could not find suitable and affordable childcare but had to return to work.

It is time for greater investment to ensure affordability for parents and proper wages for workers. Immediate action should be taken to reinstate the wage subsidy scheme at the full amount. In addition, there must be a gradual increase in investment in the childcare sector to try to improve the wages of workers and reduce fees for parents. It is time to start moving towards a publicly funded model of childcare.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Funchion for tabling the motion. She has championed this issue for many years and brought it to the fore.

My colleague, Deputy Wynne, stated that childcare was the number one issue on doorsteps during the general election campaign. The Minister will be aware that in the week of the general election there was a massive rally in Dublin. Tens of thousands of people, many of them workers in the childcare industry, came onto the streets. They were marching for decent pay, to ensure that the future of childcare was protected and that families could afford childcare for their children. They were marching for their work and education and the courses they undertake to be reflected and valued by the Government as they are by Sinn Féin.

Two-income families with two children struggle with childcare costs, but for single-income families the burden is even greater. People need to see some positive action and they need a break. If the motion is agreed to, it will be a good day for families, workers and businesses. I refer to the many parents, mainly mothers, who have invested in their education, earned promotions and established themselves in their jobs but whose achievements are being risked because, to put it simply, childcare costs are too high. Affordable childcare makes sense. It is an economic necessity. Without it, skilled workers will be forced from the workplace.

The current childcare system is not just a difficulty for families of children being cared for, it is unfair on staff. Working in childcare is not an easy job. Aside from the qualifications and skills required, a particular temperament is needed. The workers are often paid close to or slightly more than the minimum wage. How can we expect these skilled professionals to make childcare a long-term career choice? We cannot do so. Every year, more and more childcare professionals switch careers to avail of opportunities in other sectors. How could one blame them? They deserve at least a living wage. Of course, judging by the vote last week in the House, the living wage will remain just a dream.

The wage subsidy scheme was crucial at the height of the pandemic. It saved jobs. However, it has since been reduced to 85%. It needs to be restored to 100%. If that is not done, there is a risk of increased fees, lower wages and the closure of childcare facilities, which would only worsen the existing difficulties.

The average cost of childcare is €184 per week or €744 for four weeks. How can single parents who wish to work and own a home afford childcare? After childcare costs, how can they afford a mortgage? These costs are just not sustainable for young families. The Sinn Féin proposal would see the average cost drop to €160 per week within a year of its implementation. I am proud to support the motion. I thank Deputy Funchion for tabling it and I urge all Members to support it.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Is ar éigean is féidir le mo ghlúin íoc as cúram leanaí. Cuireann sé bac agus constaic ar dhaoine dul ag obair nó ó thaobh ioncaim de. Most parents I know who look for childcare simply cannot find it. Even if they do find it, they very often cannot afford it. The reality is that the model of childcare and early education that successive Governments have relied upon for many years was all but broken anyway. The pandemic has just made the cracks more obvious. They have become crevices.

I have a young family. My two boys are nine months and nine years of age. This is a significant issue for my generation. The cost of childcare has been allowed to spiral to eye-watering levels which simply are not affordable for ordinary families and workers. Ireland has among the highest childcare costs in the EU. It is unfair and unsustainable. Without affordable childcare, many parents, particularly mothers, are being forced out of the workplace. It is preventing people from going to work or going back to work. It is the cost of a second mortgage. It is crippling people. In many instances, the cost of childcare accounts for an entire income. Some people find that they must give up their entire income to pay for childcare in order that they can get back to work and sustain their career. People are faced with these absolutely unfair decisions.

I commend Deputy Funchion on tabling the motion. We need to decide whether we wish to treat childcare and early education as a public good and a public service. We must move towards a radical transformation. There will be significant changes in society in the coming years. Central to that has to be a model of childcare and early education that is flexible, affordable and responds to people's needs. It is in the interests of society, the economy and families. Deputy Funchion has brought forward an ambitious and comprehensive plan that involves yearly increases to ensure sustainability and reduced fees and to ensure fair and lower costs.

The situation faced by childcare workers and early years professionals is one of the major workers' rights issues in society. Níl an t-ioncam a bhfaigheann siad ceart go leor. In many instances, workers who have achieved very high qualifications, sometimes at their own cost or with very little support, are still on very low wages. The situation needs to be resolved urgently. I urge the Minister not to take the attitude taken by the previous Minister, who asked the workers to organise themselves and get a particular number of the workers involved in a union, at which stage a sectoral employment order, SEO, could be put in place. There are already significant questions over the SEO system. If the Government is to be the main funder of childcare, as is the case currently, then it needs to insist on a labour unit cost in the context of ensuring that those who are employed through its funding receive a fair wage.

It has to be built into the calculations that go into any subsidy or funding scheme. They cannot be operating on the basis of assuming the work only costs this much. The work has to be paid well. The Minister has control over that and I urge him not to wash his hands of it.

9:15 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges the challenges faced by the early learning and care sector, and welcomes the commitment in the Programme for Government to reform the childcare system to create one that: —brings together the best of community and private childcare provision, using key State supports to ensure affordable, quality outcomes for children and parents;

—is focused on children’s rights and providing a trusted developmental environment for our young children to flourish in;

—is inclusive, ensuring access to quality childcare is provided fairly to all children, including children with a disability or with additional developmental needs;

—promotes quality outcomes in terms of both education and care;

—addresses current inequalities;

—appropriately values the work of staff and encourages their retention; and

—substantially reduces costs for parents; and furthermore, welcomes the Government’s commitment to: —increase State investment in the sector in a manner that improves the affordability of early learning and care for parents;

—establish an agency, Childcare Ireland, to lead in the expansion of high-quality childcare and the professionalisation of the workforce;

—build on the benefits for children and parents of the National Childcare Scheme and the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme, to deliver increased investment and reduce costs for parents;

—develop and introduce a long-term, sustainable funding model by fast tracking the work of the Expert Group to develop a new Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare;

—develop supports for parents, whether they choose childcare outside or inside the home;


—support the achievement of appropriate terms and conditions for the early learning and care workforce.”

I welcome this motion from Sinn Féin as an opportunity to debate this issue of fundamental importance to society. I congratulate Deputy Funchion on her appointment to the role of spokesperson and I look forward to working with her and the other spokespersons as we seek to ensure the highest possible standard of early learning and care for our children and our young people. I am pleased to have this opportunity, as newly appointed Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration to present my own vision and that of the new Government for a transformation of early learning and childcare services in the State.

I am tabling an amendment to this motion. Although the Government accepts that there is an urgent need to continue to develop and reform the early learning and childcare sector, we believe the actions set out in the programme for Government are the best way to bring real and lasting development and change that will benefit children, parents, the sector and its workers. Before discussing the various policy elements relevant to this sector, I want to begin by recognising the valuable work being done every day by early learning and childcare practitioners and service providers, including childminders. The commitment of the people who work in the sector to the children they look after is unquestionable. I have met a number of early learning and care and school age childcare providers and their representative groups in the past few weeks and their dedication to the children they educate and care for is obvious. I have been particularly struck by the positive experiences which providers have shared with me on the return of children to childcare centres since 29 June.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but has the speech been circulated?

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I have been told that the Business Committee has said speeches cannot be circulated any more for Covid reasons. That is what I was told by my own officials.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The previous one was circulated.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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They are supposed to be circulated by email as well.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It might be possible to make a call.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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There is a long-standing convention in this House that speeches would be circulated.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Point taken. It might be no harm.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I assure Deputies that we will get it circulated by email afterwards. I apologise for that.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Can we get a copy of it now?

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Will the Acting Chairman allow me to contribute? It is an important issue.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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It allows us to digest the speech while the Minister is speaking and if there are issues inherent in the speech that we do not necessarily pick up on on first hearing then we can digest them. It is vitally important that we do not lose that convention, Acting Chairman.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Point taken. I am sure it can be arranged as quickly as possible. The Minister to proceed.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I would also like to pay tribute to parents and children. When the childcare providers and schools closed their doors in March, many parents were juggling working full-time while caring for their children at home. For children, growing up during the pandemic has meant missing school and friends. This has been a profoundly difficult time for everybody but both parents and children have shown real resilience and compassion since this crisis began.

I am pleased that Government has been able to support providers since they were closed by Covid and particularly as they reopen their services. I also refer to what a majority of childcare providers are saying regarding the lifeline that the financial supports to date are providing to the sector and that the continuance of these supports will help them to bring their business back to full health.

The Covid pandemic has undoubtedly been extremely difficult for the early years sector, coming as it did after a number of challenges in 2019. My Department has provided tailored supports for the sector to try to reduce the impact on service sustainability as much as possible. The most recent package of €75 million provided for services reopening from 29 June, including access to the Revenue's temporary wage subsidy scheme to cover up to 85% of staff wages; reactivation of Department of Children and Youth Affairs childcare schemes; a capital grant to assist with purchase of equipment or minor capital works-----

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry to interrupt again. I understand the speech has been circulated by email. If that is not satisfactory, Deputies should say so.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I do not have my Oireachtas email on my phone and I have to say it is the first I ever heard of the Business Committee agreeing that. I do not mean to interrupt the Minister but it is extremely unusual.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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It has not been circulated yet either.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I accept the point. We will proceed and let it be a learning curve.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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The most recent package provides for the measures to which I have just referred as well as a reopening grant to assist with the extra staffing costs and the purchase of cleaning and hygiene products. As we turn to the next phase of reopening from September onwards, I will be working with my Government colleagues on measures to continue to support the childcare sector in the period from 24 August onwards.

I turn to the issue of investment in the early learning and childcare sector. The Government has clearly set out the need for increased investment in childcare. The past five years saw a significant increase in State funding by 141%. Obviously, it has to be acknowledged that this was coming from an extremely low base. This sector received virtually no State support for decades. We are still catching up on this historic failure to invest. As the Opposition has said, parents in Ireland pay very high childcare costs. Like Deputy Wynne, when I meet constituents in Dublin West, many parents describe childcare fees to me as essentially a second mortgage. This is not sustainable for parents, society or the economy, and reducing the fees which parents pay is a key objective of the Government. The Government is committed to increasing funding and I want to use this to build on the national childcare scheme and make increased subsidies available to more parents. I want to continue to develop the ECCE free preschool scheme, and the access and inclusion model for children with additional needs. I want to make more childcare places available so that parents have real choice, and I want to improve the quality of service offered to children. State support for childcare has traditionally been targeted at centre-based childcare provision. We will provide financial supports for parents who choose other types of childcare, such as childminding. I also want to support those parents who choose to look after their children themselves.

To ensure that this extra State investment delivers as effectively as possible on affordability and quality, I will ensure that the new funding model for the sector being developed by an expert group will be delivered next year. This group is examining models from across the world to design a model for Ireland that will ensure that extra investment will be used to support a sustainable and high-quality service, while ensuring that parental fees are significantly reduced. I will ensure that there is an evidence base for the policies I will implement and I will consult with all stakeholders to ensure that their voices are heard, including parents, practitioners and service providers.

In addition to developing a new funding model for the sector, I believe that structural reform is needed to ensure an effective system for the oversight and delivery of childcare services. This Government has committed to establish a new national childcare agency, Childcare Ireland, to assist in the expansion of high-quality childcare, spearheading leadership, best practice and innovation. Its goal will be to ensure that childcare is affordable, accessible and of high quality. The creation of such an agency was a key ask of service providers in the sector. As this measure is a significant element of the Government's commitment in this area, I will be bringing forward a memo to the Cabinet next week to advance the development of Childcare Ireland.

I am committed to leading on the further professionalisation of the early learning and care workforce. All childcare staff currently have qualifications of a least a level 5, with 25% of the staff having degrees. I want to increase the proportion of graduates in this sector to ensure that we retain staff and that they have rewarding and fulfilling careers. The workforce development planning group will publish an interim report by the end of this year and a final report in 2021. The final report will set out a series of actions to ensure that by 2028, 50% of staff in the sector are graduates and that there is an attractive career structure with clear career pathways and a funded and accessible continuous professional development, CPD, programme for staff.

The Opposition has accurately pointed out that Ireland has low staff wages in the childcare sector. This has to change if we are to show that we value this workforce and if we are to attract and retain staff. The staff need to be rewarded appropriately.

I am fully committed to the introduction of a mechanism to determine minimum rates of pay and terms and conditions of employment for childcare practitioners. I am fully committed to working with sectoral representatives to deliver this and will meet with SIPTU this week to progress this further.

I already mentioned the Covid crisis. Deputies may be aware from media reports that a person who works in the childcare service has been confirmed as having Covid-19. The HSE has been involved, as has Tusla's early years inspectorate. My officials have been assured by them that all necessary actions have been taken. In times such as this, our concern is for any person impacted and to ensure that the necessary actions have been taken to prevent any spread of the virus. Guidance made available by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, the regulator, Tusla, and my Department has proven valuable in ensuring the appropriate management of the case. I hope Deputies will understand that it is not possible to comment on individual cases, but I want to assure Members that the HSE and Tusla have been involved and that all appropriate action has been taken.

I realise there is much to be done in the childcare sector. We have set out clear commitments in the programme for Government outlining the type of childcare system we want to provide. We are already taking action to develop the new national childcare agency, Childcare Ireland. Work is ongoing to create a funding model that, with additional investment, will deliver affordability to parents while creating a workforce structure that appropriately values the staff working in the sector. I am heartened there is broad agreement on the challenges facing us and the urgency in addressing them. I look forward to engaging with all political parties and all stakeholders to develop a more affordable early learning and childcare system for everybody and delivered by a more valued workforce.

9:25 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Sinn Féin has the next slot with Deputies Martin Browne, Mitchell and Crowe.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I also thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forward this motion to the House. The challenges faced by childcare workers in my constituency of Tipperary are mirrored throughout the country. They have been underfunded, under-resourced and undervalued by successive Governments. Locally we have been warned that the sector is in great danger unless it receives the funding it needs and deserves. Childcare workers need to be given the respect they have earned.

The sector has been historically under-resourced, with high costs and low pay. Attempts to sweep this under the carpet have gone on for years, but this pandemic has shone a light on the weaknesses in the system caused by underinvestment. That has created severe hardships for families who give large chunks of their incomes to take advantage of these services.

Tipperary is as aware of the challenges facing these services as anywhere. Many childcare services there have not opened because they cannot afford the additional costs involved. Those which have speak of the additional costs and workload which they must bear while they also despair that the tradition of not giving them the support they need continues. Sinn Féin's plan is to address this. We propose proper investment in the childcare sector, which brings the wage subsidy scheme to the sector back to 100% to keep childcare services open. Our plan fully commits to implementing pay scales and full continuing professional development for all staff. This would show that we properly value childcare as a viable long-term career choice. Our motion would also ensure that when investment reaches the right level, a maximum weekly childcare fee is set, incrementally reducing until the service is free at the point of use.

Action is what is needed now. The reports and talking have been done, as well as spin from previous Governments. Now is the time to move. We look forward to a better way of providing childcare and I appeal to all the Members of the House to support the motion.

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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When we look at childcare, we see a sector that has been in crisis for many years and whose workers do not have the pay or working conditions they deserve. Childcare costs in this State are among the highest in the OECD. It is the same as the cost of a mortgage payment for many families. We require a State-funded model of childcare that is in line with international best practice, that views childcare as a start of a child's educational journey rather than somewhere for them to wait until they are ready for primary school. We need to ensure that access to childcare facilities is convenient for parents and that we do not have the limited numbers of spaces that cause parents to find places nowhere near where they live. The system's lack of capacity is driving prices sky high. People simply cannot afford the costs they are asked to pay each month.

Turning to workers, the Big Start campaign featured in a big piece in this morning's journal.ie.It painted a bleak picture of the reality faced by workers in the sector. The most startling statistic was that over 60% of early years educators are paid less than the living wage. That is disgraceful. The coronavirus crisis has shown us that they are the definition of essential workers. They should not have to struggle to make ends meet. They should be treated with the respect they deserve.

This motion will keep crèche doors open, reduce fees for parents and pay a living wage to early years educators. All Deputies should support that.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Funchion, for putting forward this timely motion. We all agree that childcare is the keystone that holds together the building blocks of our economy and society. Unfortunately, it took the dual crisis of outrageous insurance premiums, which almost shut the industry down permanently, combined with a global pandemic for some in this House to understand how important the sector is for workers and families.

This wilful ignorance has for too long created a system that is creaking at the seams. Many parents rely on grandparents. Many people I know in the area where I live are the childminders while the daughter or son go out to work. We should not be over-reliant on them. We saw the challenge many of those grandparents faced during the Covid pandemic when many had to cocoon, creating a crisis for many families. We are still in the middle of the pandemic and there is much talk of a second wave. What will those families do? Everyone wants to go back to work but the parents are faced with this difficult choice.

Hardly a parent in the State would disagree that, without some childcare provision, they would not be able to rejoin the workforce after starting or growing a family. That is the reality. No responsible parent will disagree that the cost of childcare is overwhelming and downright scary at times. It is nearly a cliché that too many families pay the equivalent of another mortgage, that their children can be taken care of while they go out to work. Fees are too high while the wages of many of the workers are described by my union, SIPTU, as poverty wages. At the same time, many childcare facilities cannot afford the costs of doing business. That is the conundrum. Why is that? On the one hand, people are not being paid enough - SIPTU's survey has shown that many childcare workers are on tiny wages - and they are expected to upskill. We went from little or no regulation to a system where multiple agencies demand endless reports, and from affordable insurance to unaffordable demands.

It is simply not credible to me and to many others out there to expect young people to achieve the high qualifications necessary to mind children, for them then to be unable to live on the wages that many in the sector provide. That is the big challenge we have to face and what we are trying to address here. This has to be about affordability and about parents, particularly women, being able to participate in the labour market. This reduces inequality and benefits society and the economy as a whole. It also helps them to return to education. Again, I know from the experience in my own constituency and from many of the courses that are being run, that without that childcare element people would not be able to continue with their education.

What do we need to do? We need to transform the childcare sector if we are to have any hope of getting parents back to work and jumpstart our stalled economy. We need to be looking for a 21st century childcare service which should be about child minding, child learning and a child’s development but not endless form-filling and living in fear of the next bill in the post. When one talks to anyone who has run a crèche, the big complaint is that multiple agencies are looking for repetitive reports and with the time spent on that, there is less time available to look after the children. Some of the signage seems to be a duplication of many of the things that are needed. If we want to see quality outcomes we need to bring about positive change. The big headline issue that we are facing at the moment is that fees are set to rise. This is the challenge for the Minister. We need to sort out one way or another that the people who are doing the job are paid a fair wage, that those working in the sector are looked after, and that it is safe. It must also be the case that parents who are bringing their children to these childcare facilities are not being charged another small fortune to try and get their child into that system.

9:35 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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In the Labour Party slot I call Deputy Sherlock to speak.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I thank the Acting Cathaoirleach and I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak and support the motion brought forward by Deputy Funchion and Sinn Féin.

I welcome the Minister’s speech on the basis that he has set out some form of a blueprint here to be proceeded with. It is only fair that we give the new Minister an opportunity to set out his stall and follow through on the many promises that are being made within the speech. It is for us then to support that as those initiatives roll out or call the Minister to book if he is not progressing with his own vision.

I do not need to rehearse for the House the issues that are inherent within childcare as we have been talking about them here for years. I do not need to rehash old arguments about the insecurity of employment and the costs of childcare. These are well-rehearsed and well-known to everybody and to all of us as public representatives and Members of this House because we are representing the people who are affected by these issues day in, day out.

The Minister will have regard to SIPTU’s research on the rate of attrition within the sector, of which his own officials will also be aware. The bleeding needs to stop very quickly. The Minister states that he is putting in place some structures to seek to stop the haemorrhage of people moving out of the sector. I welcome the fact that the Minister is meeting with SIPTU next week to address some of the issues that it has been highlighting for quite some time. Let us take that at face value, accept the Minister’s meeting with SIPTU and see what arises from that. I am hopeful that the Minister will be in a position in the short term, after 23 August, to give us some solace on the status of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS. While the Minister states that he is working with his Government colleagues in respect of the time after 23 August, I ask that the Minister and Government give consideration to the continuation of the TWSS. He is not telling us outright that this is what will happen but I am hopeful that if we are talking about real support for the sector, this is one of the bedrocks by which one can support employment in the sector. If one looks at the rates of attrition, with due respect to the Minister, I would not be trumpeting as a win the fact where he states in his speech that over 85% of all services which are usually open in the summer months have already reopened just three weeks into the reopening period. That signifies that there is a rate of attrition already of those services that would normally open in summer. I know that there is a natural rate of attrition which the Minister’s officials might tell him of and which he will be aware of. What I fear is that, come September, with the uncertainty that exists now around the reopening of schools, where we do not have a clear pathway, this will feed into a further uncertainty for childcare.

For the fourth time in this House I will speak about the regressivity that exists for women and working mothers as a result of Covid-19. We have to stem that immediately. If there is uncertainty about September and the further reopening of schools, that has an obvious knock-on effect on crèches and on preschool and early years. What we need now, and what parents and those who work within the sector demand, is that there is some certainty brought to bear as soon as possible. I am not talking about weeks but days, so that people can plan and have some certainty and confidence.

The Minister speaks about a package of funding measures that have been put in place by the Department and they are to be welcomed. We will also be aware of the fact that there has been some pushback on that, with some justification, by the sector where the package of measures that were announced would not necessarily meet the true costs of meeting the public health regulations. Perhaps that is something that is being addressed on an ongoing basis.

One cannot stand here tonight and talk about childcare without talking about all children. I refer briefly to children in this State who are users of disability services. It is a frightening fact that there is still no certainty about children who use services such as those in my own area such as St Joseph’s Foundation, Enable Ireland and Cope Foundation, where the perception is that there is no communication directly with parents with respect to their children and as to whether or not they will have access to services come September. This distils down to services provided by St. Joseph’s Foundation as regards its respite facility called Cooleens House. I will quote from a letter I received which stated that this was the only residential facility available to St. Joseph’s Foundation to accommodate residents who require isolation as per HSE and public health guidelines. It is liaising with the HSE on reopening services but states, "While we await a positive response from the HSE, we are exploring possible alternate options in St. Joseph’s Foundation to provide urgently required breaks for priority families."

The funding position of organisations like St. Joseph’s Foundation, which we have right across our constituencies, is that their ability to fundraise at present is severely hampered and there is still the uncertainty. I take the point that the Minister will make and welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is here. I have no doubt that the Minister of State is working with the HSE and through her Department to work through these issues.

If we could treat this issue with a sense of urgency to give all families who access disability services some certainty about where they stand for September, I think it will give people some confidence. There is no doubt that it will require a funding package because there is no way that organisations such as St. Joseph's, the Cope Foundation or Enable Ireland will be able to provide or adhere to the public health guidelines unless they are provided with a funding package to be able to meet the regulatory requirements. This particularly relates to transport and access to services that are so vital, such as Cooleen's Respite House. There are hundreds of Cooleens throughout the State.

I do not think we can talk about children without talking about all children. I want to speak for those children, as we all have and do through our parliamentary questions, whose parents are beside themselves with worry about where they stand in all of this. They feel like forgotten people at present. I do not want to sound condescending or patronising but I know both Ministers to be inherently good and decent people. I was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with people such as Deputies Function and Rabbitte when we were all in opposition, because they fought the good fight. I know the Ministers will fight the good fight for the people I speak of tonight.

I give some welcome to the Minister's speech. It is a guarded, cautious welcome, as the Minister will appreciate, but we need to move towards a fully-funded model. If it is a fully-funded model and private operators are operating within that system, there is a challenge which everybody acknowledges. The one thing that I think everybody is united on is that we have to stem the tide of attrition of workers within the sector. If the Minister, through the working groups, comes up with a model of childcare that every parent and child can be happy in, whether it is a blended model, a fully-funded model, a for-profit or a not-for-profit, then let us work through all of those when the proposals come before us. We have not even got to that starting gate yet. We recognise that it is funded to the tune of 60% but I think that we can go further. In the current climate, there has never been a greater opportunity to take that one step further, and in this crisis that we have at present, now is the time for lateral and imaginative thinking. The Minister will find that if the Government moves in that direction, we in the Labour Party will certainly move in lockstep with the Minister if we feel that it is a genuine effort to create a properly and fully-funded model of childcare.

9:45 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank Deputy Funchion for introducing the motion. I would like to address two issues relating to childcare. The first issue is the short-term needs of the sector post Covid and the second is the long-term reforms that are required. I think we are all in agreement that significant reforms are required in the sector to meet the needs of families and providers.

On the short-term issue, many parents, providers and staff are worried that they do not have any certainty about what will happen after 24 August. I know that the Minister is working on it and needs time to get those plans done. The uncertainty is causing significant concern. The recent discussions in the media about capping fees have added to pressures and concerns and I am aware of a number of providers who are raising their prices. The kite flying about fee capping may be forcing them down that road. I ask that the Minister expedite those plans for the sector. It is important to give them some certainty as quickly as possible. With regard to the long-term reforms that are required, the reality is that successive Governments have failed to properly support families in this country when it comes to childcare and early education. Governments have failed to invest properly, and have failed to put children front and centre of childcare provision. While all countries throughout Europe have managed to get it right, Ireland has not. It has refused to shoulder its responsibility to support parents and to provide the publicly-funded, universal system of childcare and early years education that we need and that our children need. Instead, we are forcing children into a system that is piecemeal and under-funded. It is not meeting their needs or the needs of parents, staff or providers.

Ireland's predominantly market-driven approach to childcare has not worked. It has failed to provide parents and children with the flexibility required by modern working families. It is expensive, creating barriers for women entering the workforce. We know that the market-driven model has not worked for the majority of childcare providers either, since they have been saddled with layers of bureaucracy and over-reliance on Government supports because they cannot compete in a full free market model. This approach has also riddled the sector with chronically low pay and little job security for early childcare workers and professionals.

It is evidently clear that we need to move away from the existing market-driven approach and towards a public service model which has the child at its centre. Not only will this address the sustainability issues within the sector, it will benefit our children as well. We can see this in other countries which have similar provision of childcare. Available research has identified positive outcomes of public early childcare programmes including improvements in children's social and emotional development. Increasing investment in a public childcare service is not just beneficial to the economy. It benefits children's development and that will affect their outcomes later in life. We need to look after our children. If we get childcare right, everything else will follow.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to look towards other countries to see what works and to identify where Ireland is falling down in comparison. Ireland has the highest level of private provision of early childhood care and education in the OECD, along with relatively low Government investment, low wages for educators and high fees for consumers. Some 99% of children attending pre-primary education were enrolled in private childcare institutions compared with the OECD average of only 34% and the EU average of 27%. That is a shockingly high number and shows where we are going wrong.

The evidence base also indicates that in countries where there is public provision, childcare tends to be more affordable, accessible and of higher quality than in private provision countries. The OECD states that the predominance of public childcare institutions in the EU reflects a policy shift towards public provision in this sector. It states that sustained public investment is vital for the growth and quality of early childhood care and education programmes. Further, if these programmes are not sufficiently subsidised, the ability of parents to pay for childcare will greatly influence the participation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That means our current market-driven model perpetuates educational disadvantage from when the child is an infant. That is a shocking indictment of the current system.

In 2016, despite tripling of public investment in childcare programmes between 2011 and 2016, Ireland spent the second lowest amount on education for three to five year olds in the OECD as a percentage of GDP. In comparison, Norway, Sweden and Iceland each spent 1% of GDP, which is more than double Ireland's spend of 0.4%. Our model reveals that we have the worst of both worlds. Not only do we have a high level of private service provision in the country, we have some of the lowest levels of public investment in the sector.

The current childcare model creates a two-tier workforce, reducing the workforce participation rate by women. This is something that I have raised repeatedly in this Chamber, especially since Covid struck, because it has highlighted the vulnerabilities in our system. I have a fear that once we get to September, if there are issues opening the childcare facilities or schools, it will be predominantly women who have to shoulder that responsibility, whether by taking time off work or seeking more flexible work, which means that they are moving out of their role in the workforce. That is not something that we can afford to happen because if it happens in September and October, it will be with us for years. It will take a long time to roll back on that issue.

The Parliamentary Budget Office identified a higher workforce participation rate among males than females in the 25 to 44 age group in Ireland. We can see the gender gap, which is larger in Ireland than the EU average. In 2018, a study conducted by the ESRI found that mothers with higher childcare costs when their child was three tended to work fewer hours when their child was five.

This indicates that high childcare costs are a barrier to maternal employment. Lack of childcare supports also affect maternal well-being and this is important to acknowledge. Greater investment in childcare increases maternal life satisfaction, which in turn benefits the child. Covid-19 has revealed the stress on women who have taken on the burden of childcare and school closures, and who have been affected disproportionately by the public health crisis. Without providing clarity and direction urgently, the challenges for this sector and for families will just be compounded, with a serious impact on the capacity of women to return to work. This will have an impact on both women, their children and their families and on the economy. We can put as much money back into businesses as we want but if we do not have the staff to work in those businesses it is really all for nowt.

In Ireland, despite the relatively high fees, details of which we have heard much about tonight, the wages of workers in the childcare sector remain low. The average hourly rate for early years is €11.44, which is below the living wage of €12.30 per hour. These are the people we want to care for our children and to educate them. We are not valuing these people enough to pay them a proper living wage. This sector employs approximately 30,000 people and has some of the most highly qualified professionals who are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector, with many existing on minimum wage rates. Last week, the Social Democrats acknowledged the chronic problem of low wages in the sector by introducing a motion calling for a living wage. The Government shot it down but I believe the message came through from the public that we no longer want to see workers who educate and care for our children exploited and undervalued despite the incredibly important work they do. I made a point in my speech last week that it is no coincidence that sectors which are predominantly female have some of the lowest wages in the country. Care work is undervalued and exploited and this has to change. This must be a central tenet to any new public childcare model that we seek to introduce.

I agree with the motion calling on the Government to fully commit to implementing pay scales and full continuous professional development for all staff, and which properly values childcare as a viable long-term career choice, and I hope to see some commitment by the Minister on this today. The evidence proves that Ireland's market-driven model does not work. It does not work for children, parents, staff or providers. We need a tailored public childcare model that meets the specific needs of children, families and communities but which also incorporates the 3,000-plus small providers who have invested so much in the sector when Governments have failed to do so. Using evidence-based approaches, we need to visualise what kind of national childcare service we want, one that puts children front and centre of the system. A pathway towards implementation must also be matched by investment, the likes of which we have not seen to date but which will be absolutely necessary if we are going get this right.

9:55 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome the motion. I commend Deputy Funchion on her consistency on this issue. It is a very good, structured motion. I welcome some elements of the Minister's statement, especially with regard to meeting representatives of SIPTU, and good luck with that. I put it to the Minister that it is not an exaggeration to say that the provision of childcare is extremely fragmented in Ireland, if not almost archaic. There are very high costs and the workforce of educators is underpaid and undervalued. According to the latest SIPTU survey of workers in the childcare sector, they are going under and leaving the sector. The SIPTU Covid-19 Back to Work survey shows that since the end of June some 29% of the workers indicated they are earning less than before the pandemic, with 32% of the workers intending to leave the sector in the next 12 months, which is very alarming. Most early years professionals earn below the living wage of €12.40 per hour. This has resulted in a turnover of more than 40% of workers leaving full day care services.

Only five months ago there was a huge demonstration of childcare workers. It seems like years ago but it happened five months ago, with at least 15,000 to 20,000 people attending that demonstration. It was one of the best demonstrations I had been on in a long time. Those workers were demanding a couple of simple things, including, obviously, pay and conditions. The early years educational sector is not working for those workers, it is not working for parents and it is not working for children. We cannot be unambiguous about this. We need a State-led childcare system. It is a fact that in other countries such as the Scandinavian countries the best outcomes are State led. There is a very good article in today's edition ofThe Irish Timesthat names three of the leading countries with the best outcomes in childcare. They are Iceland, Sweden and Norway. They each spend more than €4.5 billion every year on childcare. The Oireachtas report says that Ireland needs to spend €2 billion to match that. We need to do this through general taxation. Hopefully this campaign is the start of a national childcare service that can benefit everybody, that is not fragmented and is not left to private operators. It should be a national service that benefits everybody.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I do not know if anything quite like it was ever seen before when more than 20,000 childcare workers came out onto the streets on 5 February. There was an emotion and anger about it that had been building up for years. One could see it being released on 5 February. There were demonstrations in Dublin, Cork and in other towns and cities across the country. There are 4,200 childcare centres in the State and it is estimated that more than 2,000 were closed on that day. This is a quote from one of the workers at the Dublin demonstration:

I’m paid €12 per hour for 38 weeks a year. I can’t get a mortgage. I have a level eight course. I’m still where I was seven years ago – and still paying education loans back.

She was paid €12 per hour, which is actually higher than the average rate in the profession, which is €11.45 per hour. This is nearly a full euro less than the official living wage.

Reference was made to last year's SIPTU survey of more than 3,000 childcare workers and early years educators. One of the questions in the survey asked "Are you able to cope with unexpected expenses?" An example was given of a broken boiler in the person's home. A total of 84% said "No." Another question asked "Do you think childcare workers are paid a fair wage?" Does the Minister know how many people answered positively? It was 1% of those surveyed. The situation now is worse than it was then with 29% of childcare workers on less money now than before the pandemic struck, according to reports in the last few days. This is the paid work, but what about the unpaid work such as record keeping, cleaning or liaising with parents? A total of 72% who were polled said they do unpaid work, including working through breaks for many workers. More than half, 52%, said they do not have time to take a break. When asked if they purchase their own supplies in the workplace or pay out of their own pocket, 65% said "Yes". When asked if they do training in their own time, of those polled 85% said "Yes". Training for what? The survey asked if higher qualifications led to higher wages and 68% of respondents said "No". Only 13% stated that having done more training and receiving more qualifications, they felt their professional qualifications were recognised in society.

No wonder demoralisation in the sector is so great. It is no wonder that more than two thirds, 67%, said they were probably going to leave the profession within five years if the situation remained the same.

The Covid crisis is an opportunity to change all of that. It can be a fork in the road. What kind of sector do we need and what kind of sector now needs to be built? There was an interesting three-page report done by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service several weeks back in which it asked what the barriers are to the universal provision of childcare in the State. It named two factors. It did not give one greater prominence over the other. Instead, it gave them equal prominence. Number one is the negative economic consequences of Covid. Number two is the market-driven approach to childcare provision in the State. I believe that the campaign for decent pay and conditions for childcare workers goes hand in hand with ending the market-driven approach and replacing it with childcare provision for the needs of people based on State investment in a State child care system. I am not referring to State investment at one of the lowest levels in all of Europe but bringing this up to the EU average at least.

According to The Irish Timestoday, to bring it up to the EU average, one would need an investment of €2.27 billion. It is not cheap. It is a lot of money but it is worth doing. It is possible to do if one goes after the likes of the €14 billion in the Apple escrow account rather than joining forces with Apple and saying that we do not want it. It is possible if one goes for a steeply progressive taxation system which makes the people who have got serious money in our society, the upper echelons and the big corporations, pay at a rate they can afford to create a pool of initiatives such as a free childcare service provided by the State.

10:05 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion.

This day last week the House discussed the need for a temporary extension on maternity leave to mothers of young babies. I stated then that the one point we must accept is that Covid-19 has changed matters utterly and we cannot simply dismiss proposals like those that were rejected out of hand by Governments in the past. Who would have thought that the Government would introduce a one-tier health system overnight or ban rent increases, a policy the very same Government had opposed previously? The same approach is now needed with regard to both childcare and maternity leave. As I stated last week, both are inextricably linked.

The issue of maternity leave masks a far greater problem with regard to childcare capacity, as well as the reopening of schools. These two issues will impact women in particular. We must do everything possible to ensure that the schools can fully reopen this September. My concern is that any reduction in the number of hours or days that children can attend school, particularly primary school, will disproportionately impact on thousands of women across the country. We have already seen the impact of the lack of childcare on our front-line staff.

We are seeing this again as parents are struggling to find care for young children where they cannot work from home and grandparents are unable to help out as many would normally have done. If schools do not fully reopen, we are going to see this childcare crisis on a far wider and greater scale. We are looking at a situation where childcare facilities may not open, provide for reduced numbers or not cater for children under two, while schools may only take a limited number of primary school students. Due to Covid-19, grandparents are no longer available to provide the support they historically have provided. All this will create a perfect storm, leaving parents without childcare options. We now need to look at innovative solutions which we would not have contemplated prior to Covid-19.

I listened to the Minister's speech earlier and welcomed his determination to bring about a review to consult with the various partners to bring about a new scheme. I wish the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, the very best in their endeavours. I know the Minister is sincere and that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, knows this sector inside out and upside down.

With all due respect, however, it is kicking the can down the road. If we had time, I could understand that. At the end of this road, however, we will be at a cliff edge. My fear is that we could be on that cliff edge this September. We do not have that luxury of time. I wish we did but I do not believe we have. It would be great if we can come up with a solution to this. We have had consultation after consultation, review after review and engagement after engagement. We need to see real and practical movement now. We need to see this in weeks, not months or years. Due to Covid-19, we do not have that luxury of time that every new Minister should have to carry out consultation and engagement.

I find it bizarre that the education spokespersons were informed by the Minister for Education and Skills today that she is to set out a plan for the reopening of schools after the Dáil closes next week. I am concerned about that. I sat on the other side of the House. If the Government has bad news, it will wait until the Dáil closes. Whatever the Minister is going to announce next week, it will be approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday. She can then go from the Cabinet meeting to the Dáil to tell us exactly what is going on. She does not need to wait until the end of the week, unless there is something that she does not want to have debated. That really concerns me. If that is the case, the Minister opposite is going to have a far bigger problem in a few weeks' time than he currently has today.

The programme for Government states under the heading for a new social contract that it will progress a living wage over the time of the Government. That is commendable. However, we need to use the childcare staff sector as the pilot for the roll-out of the living wage across society. We cannot accept a situation which was highlighted to me by an individual, qualified both as a beautician and as a childcare practitioner, that she would earn more money painting nails than educating preschool children. We need to prioritise the sector. We need to put our children and their early years educators first and use them as the pilot to model the new living wage for all. It must be one that is not funded out of the pockets of parents who are already paying a second mortgage in childcare costs.

That would be an innovative approach to take instead of doing this incrementally across a broad range of sectors. No sector would disagree that this particular cohort of staff, who are mainly women, need to be prioritised because without access to childcare, other women cannot get into the workforce or earn that additional income.

The Government subsidy under the ECCE scheme pays childcare providers just €4.60 per hour for three hours a day to provide a preschool service. Many childcare providers were struggling to deal with the large number of challenges facing the sector even before the onset of Covid-19. It will be impossible to reopen the sector and provide the type of capacity needed for working families without a new funding model.

We saw what happened last December when providers faced a hike in insurance premiums. Prior to Covid-19, there was also an ongoing problem in recruiting and retaining staff due to the sector's inability to pay them a living wage. Before Christmas, I facilitated a delegation of childcare providers from across the west in meeting the then Minister, Dr. Katherine Zappone, where a number of issues were raised concerning financial support and the need to ensure staff were properly paid.

Many childcare providers are struggling to recruit staff because of the pay they can offer. That is unsurprising, given the fact that staff packing baby wipes on supermarket shelves can earn more than the staff member using those very same wipes who is responsible for the care of that baby along with two other babies. That is fundamentally wrong. We need to ensure that proper pay scales are put in place for those providing this vital service across the country.

I wish to highlight that the policy behind our funding model is primarily based around child benefit as the main mechanism to support childcare costs rather than a properly structured and funded sector, as is the case in other EU countries. This was outlined in budget 2001. In the past 20 years, that monthly payment has increased by 34%, a far cry from the rate of increase in childcare costs in a sector that is so dependent on low-wage employment. This policy is flawed and unsustainable.

10:15 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We now move to the Rural Independent Group. Are Deputies Nolan, Mattie McGrath and Danny Healy-Rae sharing ten minutes?

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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It will just be two of us.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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At five minutes each.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar an rún seo a bhaineann le cúram leanaí. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Funchion a rinne sár-obair ar an rún agus a chuir é os ár gcomhair. I commend Deputy Funchion on highlighting what is clearly an issue of major importance and relevance for thousands of working families across the State. For too many of them, the cost of childcare is equivalent to a mortgage. It is a significant financial burden that many families struggle to carry.

In budget 2019, it was announced that income thresholds for assessment under the national childcare scheme were to be raised substantially, with the maximum net threshold rising from €47,000 to €60,000 per annum. The purpose of the scheme as formulated was to ensure that the maximum subsidy rates would be paid to all families with a reckonable income of up to €26,000. According to the then Minister, Dr. Katherine Zappone, the scheme was supposed to be poverty proofed by ensuring that families at or below the relevant income poverty line would benefit from the highest subsidy rates under the scheme. That has not happened, however. Families are still making an enormous, and almost unsustainable, level of childcare payments to providers who, through no fault of their own, have faced unmanageable increases in operational costs such as insurance. Like many other businesses, they were treated disgracefully by the insurance sector.

Childcare providers need support urgently. A large number of them are struggling to get back on their feet. From speaking to many childcare providers in my constituency, I know that Government intervention is urgently required to sustain the sector, which some parents depend on as their preferred childcare option. Not all parents choose this option, of course, but it should be there for those who do.

In 2018, an ESRI study stated that the high cost of day care was leading to fewer working mothers and that "greater government support for childcare costs will increase maternal employment." For many women, it is a significant barrier to working. It is also a barrier to further education. I am aware of many young women who cannot pursue the careers or education they would like due to childcare costs.

The ESRI study stated that the high cost of childcare was a major issue, but as one stay-at-home father commented at the time, "The Government must not use this study to justify further big subsidies for day-care at the expense of other child-care options." Government support must be fair and balanced, all options need to be available to people and the childcare sector must be sustained. We cannot ignore those parents who want to mind their children in their own homes. All of them would prefer it if a family member minded them during the day. It is all about choice and preference. The State must support all parents equally regardless of their childcare preferences. That is the model that we should aim to work towards, one where both the providers and the parents are supported equally instead of an insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into account what parents want for their children if given the choice.

I commend the childcare workers who work diligently and hard in preparing children for primary school. I saw this at first hand as a primary school principal. When the children came to school, they were fantastically prepared for primary education as a result of the roll-out of the Aistear programme. The childcare workers did fantastic work and a significant effort was made during the programme's roll-out. It was done to a high standard, efficiently and effectively. It is just unfortunate and disheartening to see that the workers are undervalued and underpaid and that morale is at an all-time low. This matter must be addressed urgently in addition to the many other issues I have highlighted previously.

It is evident that many cracks are starting to appear in the childcare sector. Rebuilding it and ensuring there is a solid foundation is urgently required and, indeed, the only way to proceed.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank Sinn Féin, in particular Deputy Funchion, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. As we all know, our children are our future and we must try to promote and protect them at every opportunity we get. I agree fully with some of the comments that have been made. The steep costs accrued by parents for childcare places them in a vulnerable position, one that they cannot afford. It is clear that, even before the coronavirus started, many crèches were in a serious situation in terms of keeping going and providing a service. It will be much more difficult for them if they can get going again in September. We hope they can, but I fear that will be impossible for many. It is sad because the people working in those crèches were capable, properly trained and vetted and worked under strict regulations. If we do not have crèches, many mothers will not be able to return to work.

People working in crèches do not get holidays. I do not know what they do. Perhaps they draw from their stamps. They are paid very low wages. This is not fair or right. We want properly trained, responsible people dealing with our children. As the saying goes, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

I congratulate Deputies Rabbitte and O'Gorman on their appointments and I wish them the best in their new roles. We are facing a serious predicament come September if the schools do not reopen. I am very worried. If the schools were going to reopen in September a lot of the necessary measures would already be in place or being put in place. If the schools do not reopen fully, we will need to organise extra space in community halls and churches. If school buses cannot cater for all of the children on one run they will have to do another run later and work later in the evening. All of those things need to be done but I do not think anything has been done.

Unlike the Labour Party Deputies, I am not criticising the new Minister for Education and Skills or political points scoring. We all remember what the Labour Party did to the mothers of Ireland who raised the current generation of people that are running the country. They cut their pensions. For all of the motions and talking done in the last Dáil they still have not got their pensions back yet. Instead of working with the new Minister, Deputies Alan Kelly and Ó Ríordáin chose to take a pot shot at her. We must work together to ensure that our schools are reopened in September. There is an awful lot of work to be done. If we cannot finish it off next week I am happy for the Dáil to sit another week because this is important. People were hurt about the rural pubs not being allowed to reopen. They are listening to hear if the schools are going to reopen fully. If they do not, many mothers and fathers will not be able to go back to work. Parents have to mind their children. If the schools do not reopen and the crèches are not operating many parents will not be able to go back to work.

The Minister and Minister of State are in government. They must collaborate and work to ensure that if schools and crèches need more money to deal with the Covid regulations they will get it. They need to be assured that they will get it. One cannot live in the wind. If these people are to provide a service they must get funding. It is clear to me that more funding is needed for the schools and crèches. It is our children and the future of Ireland we are talking about and we need to get our act together.

10:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We now move to Deputy Catherine Connolly who is sharing time with Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Funchion and Sinn Féin for tabling this motion and allowing us the opportunity to put the spotlight on childcare again. I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on their appointments and I wish them the best of luck.

The Minister referred to this sector as "chaotic, inefficient and an indictment on our country", particularly in that it forces parents to pay the money and it is disproportionate to women. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong but I understand from the Green Party document on childcare that it is committed to public childcare. While I welcome the discussion, what is absent from the speeches is a commitment to public childcare and a recognition that childcare based on market driven ideology has not worked, is not working and will not work. If the Ministers do not believe me they need only look to the research. I agree with Deputy Naughten that the Government is kicking this down the road. I am all for consultation but what is missing is leadership. I am not sure which Minister will make the closing statement but if it is Deputy Rabbitte, who is a strong Fianna Fáil Deputy, she might show leadership in regard to the provision of public childcare, which is what we are looking for, and which came up on the doorsteps frequently, along with climate change, housing and public transport.

Again, I find myself thanking the Oireachtas Library and Research Service and the Parliamentary Budget Office on their excellent work. The key message in June of this year from their research - and they say more research is necessary - is that Ireland has the highest level of private provision of early childcare and education in the OECD, along with relatively low Government investment, low wages for educators and high fees for consumers. Let us make a connection here. I acknowledge the work done by the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, and her predecessor and the amount of money that goes into childcare but it is going in in a piecemeal fashion. It is being provided to enable people make a profit. There is nothing wrong with profit but not in childcare. We must have public childcare because the research shows it is best. The existing research shows it is best all round. It gives continuity, it is good for the children, it is good for the mothers and for parents.

The available research has identified positive outcomes of public early childcare programmes, including improvements in children's social and emotional development and an increase in maternal life satisfaction. The evidence also indicates that in public provision countries childcare tends to be more affordable, accessible and of higher quality than in private provision countries. As has been already said, the key challenge is our system which is market driven and the challenges of Covid. Once again - I made this point earlier in regard to the credit guarantee scheme - it has taken Covid to put the spotlight on childcare and how badly we are doing it.

Let us look to the northern countries that have already been mentioned by my colleagues. The Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, which are considered to have the best systems in the world in regard to early childhood care and education, recognise universal childcare as a social right. We do not do that here. Another piece of research found that childcare services in three public provision countries - this time Iceland, Slovenia and Sweden - were characterised by high service, accessibility, availability, affordability and quality, although there was some variation.

I make my contribution tonight in a country that has 230,000 children living in poverty, one in five children under 18 in families with income below the poverty line and one in four children living in households experiencing deprivation of one or two basic necessities. Let us show leadership.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing this motion forward and allowing us the opportunity to debate this important issue in the House. I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House. I would like to be able to welcome their response to the motion but, unfortunately, I cannot but I will elaborate on that later.

It is important to reiterate that childcare is a huge cost and burden on everybody across the State. For people who do not have children, it is a huge burden too because it prevents citizens from participating fully in the State.

Although there has been much talk of it tonight, it has to be restated that there are people who simply cannot get a job because they cannot afford childcare. I know and have spoken to many people - mostly women - who work purely to pay the rent and to cover childcare costs, and that is it. That is their entire income. They make good salaries but that is the entirety of what they can hope for. They cannot afford to have another child because it would increase their childcare costs and they would have to give up work. They would probably also lose their place to live. That is the reality of the system the Minister faces, which he has taken control of to ensure that it works.

The current system does not work for anybody. It does not work for the children who are in it, for the parents, who must pay unaffordable costs, or for the workers, who are very well qualified with degrees and so on but are working for the minimum wage. It has been stated by many speakers but it has to be stated again and again that workers with degrees are working for the minimum wage. That is what we expect them to do and then we wonder why they leave the system. Why would they even consider staying? The system does not work either for many of the people who have started a business in the industry, because it does not pay and because the private sector we have devised in the State to provide for childcare does not and cannot work.

In the Minister's countermotion, the Government commits to "establish an agency, Childcare Ireland, to lead in the expansion of high-quality childcare and the professionalisation of the workforce". It has been said by many speakers that there have been talks, consultation and discussion about the matter. Now the Government will spend the next couple of years setting up Childcare Ireland and getting it up and running, and then we will have to wait a further couple of years for Childcare Ireland to do all the research and so on and come up with proposals. I am sad to say that what will happen is the next three or four years will be spent on the establishment of Childcare Ireland, waiting for it to work and happen, and nothing will happen. Every response to questions we have submitted to the Department states that when Childcare Ireland is up and running, people will be doing research and that is what we will be getting. It is very unfortunate that that is what we will get.

It is disappointing but it is not very surprising. Given that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in government, that is what we will get. Fianna Fáil established the system in 2000 or whenever it was, and we saw how that worked, while Fine Gael worked with it through the subsequent years. The Green Party will show that it will do the same as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and work with a system that will not work. Unfortunately, in five years' time, when the next Government is in office, we will probably be talking about the matter again. That is sad.

It is sad for families who will live through the system, but we could talk about it in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil way and say it is sad for the economy because it means our economy cannot grow. Perhaps that is the way we have to talk about these issues, to shake that magic money tree. It is about the economy and about making the economy grow. If we can get proper childcare facilities for these people, it will free up workers and help the economy, and it will probably even reduce wages by increasing the availability of labour. That will all stimulate the economy and keep it going. Perhaps if we change the way we talk about it and we talk about it in economic terms and the benefits to the economy, it might sink in with the Government and we might get a system that delivers. That, in itself, is sad too.

10:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and congratulate her on her appointment. We wish her well.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forward the motion. Like her and Deputies Sherlock and Mitchell, who contributed earlier, I sat on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Deputy Connolly is correct that I have been very outspoken on this matter. There are so many reactions I would like to give, having read the motion and understanding the programme for Government in depth. I am sure the Minister would like to respond to all the Deputies who contributed because he will have an answer for each of them individually.

I begin with the final Deputy to speak, Deputy Pringle, who took a negative tone that I do not think contributes to the spirit of where the Minister and I will be coming from within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I might remind the Deputy of what happened last September, when an expert group was formed to consider the best funding model for childcare in Ireland. Its report is due at the end of the year and we all welcomed the expert group's formation at the time. The needle has been moved because of Covid-19. I want to see the findings and the report of the group, because it will include the advice of international experts and will consider international best practices in recommending a new model. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Will the Government implement the group's findings?

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Give us the opportunity. I have been in the job for only 20 days, while the Minister has been in his current role for only 24 days. In all fairness, I welcome the debate tonight because it is urgently required and we need to set out our stalls. It also gives both of us an opportunity, from where the Department is sitting at this time, to flesh through where we are coming from and discuss what we are going to do and what is in the programme for Government. We do not want to shy behind one or another agency; that is not what this is about. It is about the parents, the workers, the providers and ensuring the Exchequer is protected. What anybody would want from a Minister who addresses the House is that all segments be protected. It is not simply a matter of approaching it or simplifying it in one move because it demands a multifaceted approach. Approximately 25% of the sector comprises community centre-based settings, while the rest comprises mostly private individuals, as well as a small number of childminders, a group that has shrunk in recent years. I am highly critical of that trend because it is not one size fits all. We need to ensure we can provide childcare options with subsidies for parents so they can afford to go out to work in the morning. That is what it is all about.

While I welcome the motion, I will support the countermotion put forward by the Minister. It is gas that we are all in agreement tonight, although that probably will not happen often. It is clear from the debate that the provision of early learning and care of school-age children needs to be reformed. We need to reduce the costs for parents, improve wages and conditions for the workers, reduce the regulatory and administrative burden on the providers and, most important, ensure that children get the very best possible start in life.

The Government has set out its commitments to childcare in the programme for Government, which sets out a wide range of reforms, including increased investment, the establishment of a new agency, Childcare Ireland, and the introduction of a new funding model. In opposing the motion and putting forward an amendment, the Government is not saying there are no challenges in the sector but is putting forward proposals to improve fundamentally the structure, regulation and funding of the sector, to make lasting changes to the way that childcare services are subsidised and supported.

Opposition speakers have set out problems faced by parents and providers, but some Members of the Opposition have been a little disingenuous. In an attempt to tackle insurance costs, Sinn Féin's election manifesto proposed to guarantee insurance cover for childcare providers under public bodies such as schools and hospitals. While it is a good suggestion, I am not sure whether providers are aware that such a plan implies that private providers, which constitute 75% of the sector, would have to be nationalised to qualify for the insurance. From my discussions with providers, I know that most did not realise this could mean the loss of the business they had spent years building up. It is only fair that Sinn Féin at least be clear with providers as to what its plans mean and that it reveal where the money tree for funding such an option would come from.

The Government recognises that the issues in the sector were highlighted with the insurance crisis in December last year and the massive protests that took place in February 2020. This really brings home how the Department can respond to this Covid-19 crisis.

I recognise the contribution of the State's 4,500 providers in centre-based settings to the development of the early learning and care sector, with 31,000 staff working in those centre-based settings. Much of the push for reform comes from the sector, which has always demonstrated a commitment to getting the most for children in its care. The Government will continue to work with providers, practitioners, parents and children's representatives as much-needed development and reform continues. I also acknowledge the important work of childminders and say that the Department hopes to continue the development of this sector to enable much larger numbers to avail of Government supports.

The closure of childcare services during the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home to many the importance of childcare to our economy, specifically to working families, and for children's positive development. The excitement and happiness shown by children returning to crèches on 29 June demonstrated the importance of learning and care outside of the home and the value that children put on fun, play and play-based learning and social interactions in crèches, preschools and minders' homes.

Childcare is the shorthand we use for early learning and care services, and it is an inaccurate term in many ways. For children, their crèches, preschools and minders' houses are not just somewhere they go when their parents go to work; they form an enriching contribution to their well-being and development. We need to ensure not only that parents are supported in working with accessible and affordable childcare but also that children receive a world-class early education provided by valued educators.

The reforms set out in the programme for Government will ensure the quality of early learning and care will continue to grow. Ireland has made strides in the past five years, with all staff qualifications at a minimum of level 5 in early learning and a quarter of staff qualified to degree level in early childhood studies. These qualifications allow staff to deliver the best learning and care to the children they look after. The Government is committed to increasing the number of staff with higher qualifications in the sector. We are aware that the providers will need to ensure staff wages, terms and conditions improve. There is a legacy of low pay in the sector and we will work to change that to ensure that staff earn a fair wage and that they can build an attractive career in the sector.

I have mentioned the happiness of children in returning to childcare from 29 June. There was undoubtedly also great happiness and perhaps relief experienced by parents. I thank all those services that have opened so far for the preparations they made to address the health, safety and well-being of children returning, for their adherence to public health guidance and for the way they reached out to parents to assure them of the measures being taken. It is great to see over 85% of services normally open over the summer now open.

Deputy Sherlock mentioned disability and I will address it in the few seconds I have left. He should be aware that the guidance around the reopening of services has been issued by the HSE, with the aim of services opening from August onwards. It is very important to note that each service must incorporate HSE guidance as part of the reopening roadmap for adults. There are 1,000 services and 18,000 adult service users. At this time, the HSE and individual service providers are putting together individual care plans for users so they can step back into those services. Funding will be required and proposals are being put together on what is needed and the funding model. This is an open piece of work and I am happy to say I have asked the HSE to update its website with information on the 1,000 services so there can be clear communication on when they are anticipated to open. This is ensure everybody can know what is going on, and all service users, parents and guardians can be informed of the pathway to reopening.

10:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In concluding this important debate, Deputy Kerrane is sharing time with Deputies Ó Murchú and Munster.

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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Like others I begin by commending my colleague, Deputy Funchion, for bringing forward this really important motion. I acknowledge the work she has done on the many issues around childcare over the years.

I contacted the manager of a local crèche in my constituency ahead of my contribution this evening. She told me she is down two full-time staff and two part-time staff and has advertised the positions without success. Not one curriculum vitae has been received by her for the positions. If at least one full-time position is not filled, one of her rooms cannot be opened. She has told me the voluntary management committee will have to decide if that will be the baby room, the toddler room, the preschool room or the after-school room. This will leave parents who rely on the crèche without childcare, and these are the kinds of decisions being made in crèches right across the State. Of course, such issues are nothing new.

I re-read an email I received from the same crèche manager back in June 2018 telling me about the number of people leaving the early years sector. Two years later, the numbers leaving the sector are only rising. The staffing crisis has repeatedly been brought to the Government's attention but the response to tonight's motion is similar to that last week when we discussed the extension of maternity leave. The Government acknowledges the issue but does not propose to do anything to address it. This is quickly becoming a trend of this Government.

The Government argues it values the work of early years educators but it does not want to pay them properly for that work. It speaks about encouraging retention and supporting the achievement of appropriate terms and conditions for the early learning and care workforce but how is it proposed to do that? It has not told us that and there is nothing in the amendment to the motion about pay. Parents will take little comfort from the Government response to the motion this evening. For some families, because of the crippling cost of childcare, they are better off with one parent at home. It does not pay to work, which is a very poor reflection on any Government. The issues are clear and the solutions are in front of us in this evening's motion.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Covid-19 has demonstrated the weaknesses in how we look after the young and elderly and how we have not appreciated our caregivers. With our current system of childcare we have been failing parents, children and those working in the sector. Deputy Funchion, my Sinn Féin colleagues and others have made arguments and condemned the system we have while offering the economic and societal alternative of a working and sustainable childcare model. Deputy Funchion has offered a roadmap for the transition to such a public childcare system, free at the point of use.

We have seen through the pandemic the failings of our outsourced system of care for the elderly and the difficulties this created when preventative action was needed. Today's HIQA report states nearly 60% of nursing homes inspected after Covid-19 outbreaks were not following proper infection prevention and control measures, possibly with devastating consequences. We need elder care, disability services and childcare systems worthy of all our citizens. We need to deliver for our people from the cradle to the grave.

As we open greater parts of our economy and society, I ask the Minister of State to ensure we have and maintain the capacity to test, trace and isolate, particularly following the news today that a crèche on the north side of Dublin has become one of the first childcare facilities to report a case of Covid-19. All reports are that all protocols from the HSE and Tusla have been followed.

I ask the Minister of State to look into the case of four childcare schemes within County Louth that deal with disadvantaged kids and will close unless exceptions or changes are made to the national childcare scheme.

He needs to deal with his ministerial colleagues or we will have a complete disaster. I commend the motion and the only long-term viable system of childcare as espoused by the Sinn Féin motion.

10:55 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I want to use my couple of minutes to wholeheartedly support the motion brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Funchion, but also to raise a major childcare issue that is ongoing in my constituency. We all accept that we are in a childcare crisis that has been caused by long-term Government inaction and compounded by the Covid emergency. Sadly, I did not hear anything tonight from either Minister that would give me any optimism that we will see any real improvement or change in the near future.

We have a situation in Togher, County Louth, where a facility called Scallywags that provides crèche services and afterschool care for children in the locality has closed down. The service is run by the Togher Community Project and it is a limited not-for-profit company and registered charity. The 40 parents and the 14 full and part-time staff members who have now lost their jobs were informed of the closure out of the blue by a text message. Parents and staff believe that the business is viable and say that it has cash reserves of €450,000. Media reports say that the Garda has launched an investigation. Media reports also say that the board of management of the crèche blame the pandemic for the closure of the business. It is unacceptable that community crèches under the remit of the Department and in receipt of significant State investment would close under those circumstances. Parents and staff were not even consulted so it is important that the Government is on top of this issue and ensures that it is not happening at a time when childcare is already in a shambolic state. I have sent all the details to the Minister and I will send them to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, also. I trust that both Ministers will look into the matter given its urgency. In general terms we need to ensure that these services are accountable and that parents and staff can feel secure with local community services. I trust that the Ministers will revert to me on this issue and ensure that their offices leave no stone unturned to make sure that this viable community crèche stays open.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I did not see the Minister of State's amendment until late this evening. I should know better at this stage but I actually thought that the Government might support my motion because what is contained in it is solutions. It is all done in very serious consultation with the sector, and it was not done overnight. It was not a case of a few phone calls a few days before we decided to put down this motion. This consultation has been going on for years. I recall doing a report for the children's committee in 2017 about the terms and conditions and the wages in the childcare sector. Three years later the same issues exist. I got a text during this debate from somebody to say that they have heard of a closure just today in Limerick, with 90 staff let go. These are very serious issues. Part of me wants to give the Minister of State the benefit of the doubt. As someone who has worked previously with her I genuinely wish her, and the Minister, well. I see myself as somebody who wants to work constructively with people but, unfortunately, my instinct is telling me that if the Minister of State were genuine about this and really wanted to see solutions and action she would have supported the motion and not tabled the amendment.

The amendment states that the Minister wants to support the achievement of appropriate terms and conditions for the early learning and care workforce. What does that even mean? What does she believe are the appropriate terms and conditions? I believe everybody should start on at least the living wage and deserve to have a wage scale. That is an issue we have been talking about for years in this Chamber and in the children's committee. The consultation has been done. I can give the Minister scores of names of people in organisations who will happily consult with her in the morning. All of them support this motion. The sector supports this motion. The consultation and the solutions are available. If the Minister of State is genuine and serious about this, and if she does want to work with people, I urge her to withdraw her amendment and support our motion. The one thing she can do because it was done at the end of March or in April is reinstate the wage subsidy scheme at 100%. I refer to the number of people who have had their wages cut, and it is not the fault of the providers. They do not have the funds. If she did that much at least it would demonstrate that she is serious and that she wants to take real action. It would also mean that people could keep their jobs and their wages. That would be the very first step. There is much more to be done but those of us here who have been working on this issue for the past number of years have many solutions, in consultation with the sector. The one piece of advice I would give the Minister is to consult with the sector. Do not use it as an excuse to draw something out over years but have meaningful and genuine consultation. I really hope that the meeting she has with SIPTU is not to say to its representatives that she supports a sector employment order. As someone who worked in the trade union movement for years, that is not the answer here. The Minister of State has the power to introduce a wage scale starting at the living wage. She should at least start at reinstating the wage subsidy scheme at 100% because there will not be a sector this time next year if there is not genuine investment and if this issue is not taken seriously. That is the reality. Every Deputy on this side of the House has said that, and both Ministers have acknowledged that there are issues. I appeal to the Minister of State to do the right thing and withdraw her amendment, support our motion, be serious about it and work with us on the solutions.

Amendment put.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 23 July 2020.