Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Early Childhood Care and Education
I thank the Deputy. In answering this question, I will expand on what I said to Deputy Tully a moment ago. I am very conscious of the need for a significant improvement in pay and working conditions for staff in the early learning and childcare sector. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for wider society and the economy. As the State does not employ staff in the early learning and childcare sector, the Deputy will appreciate that my Department cannot set pay or determine working conditions. However, my Department has, over a number of years, provided a range of supports to early learning and childcare employers to enable them to improve pay and working conditions.
There are also some important developments currently under way. In December of last year, I began a process to examine the possibility of regulating the pay and conditions of employment of staff in the early learning and childcare sector and to examine the suitability of establishing a joint labour committee for the sector, in line with a programme for Government commitment. Arising from this process, I am pleased to confirm that the Minister of State with responsibility for business, employment and retail has signed an establishment order for a joint labour committee. This order came into effect on 1 July and has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Once established, a joint labour committee could lead to an employment regulation order, which would establish binding rates of pay and working conditions for the sector. I regard the establishment of that joint labour committee as a significant and welcome development. It will help to vindicate the position of those who work in the early learning and childcare sector and offers a way forward on an issue with which successive Ministers have been dealing for many years. The move to establish the committee was welcomed by both unions and employer representatives.
As I said earlier on, work is also progressing on a new funding model. The recommendations of a dedicated expert group are due later this year and will be central to addressing both affordability and quality issues. The expert group's draft guiding principles to underpin a new funding model recognise the importance of the workforce in delivering quality services. Finally, work on the workforce development plan continues. We expect the final outputs by the end of the year.
I thank the Minister. As users of Facebook will now, one has memories come up on the platform and, funnily enough, it was four years ago yesterday that the Dáil unanimously passed a motion I brought forward with regard to the pay and conditions of those working in the early years sector. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and some others who were here at the time will probably remember that. It would be good to see progress on this issue all these years later. Obviously, the workers were waiting for this long before I ever tabled that motion.
With regard to the joint labour committee, does the Minister have any updates on timeframes or how it is progressing? Perhaps he does not. Is there a definite timeframe for it? It would be interesting to hear about that if the Minister has such information.
I thank the Deputy. It is good that we have been able to make this significant progress, particularly after a year in which childcare professionals have bravely and consistently stood up across the country, particularly in January when so many others were not working.
It is a fairly intricate process. The order to establish the joint labour committee, JLC, has been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Labour Court will establish the JLC. The parties to the JLC will then agree proposals for an employment regulation order, ERO, and submit those proposals to the Labour Court. There has to be at least a six-month gap between the ERO submissions. The Labour Court then publishes a draft employment order and a public consultation on that takes place. Where the JLC cannot agree a proposal and the chairperson feels the issue cannot be resolved, it is referred to the Labour Court. The Labour Court will then hold a hearing and make recommendations.
I reiterate that it is important to address the issue of pay and conditions in the early years sector. It is one of the most difficult jobs. One entrusts one's children to excellent people and I often wonder what their trick or skill is to get children to do certain tasks that I, as a parent, struggle to get my kids to do. It is an invaluable role. They do not want to hear sympathetic talk. One shows how somebody is valued in his or her wages. Having worked in a trade union, I believe one can offer claps and say "Well done" and "That is great", and sometimes there is a role for that, but showing the workforce that it is valued is done through wages and ensuring everyone has a decent wage. My next question is very similar to this one.
I fully agree with the Deputy. I am pleased we are in the position to start the process of giving that very justified recognition. As the Deputy says, praise is all well and good but we all accept that financial recognition is well deserved. A number of processes are coming together, including the JLC process I have established, the expert group on the funding model that the former Minister, Katherine Zappone, established, which will report later this year, the workforce development plan and the review of the operating model I initiated which looks at the infrastructure that oversees childcare across the country. That will also report later this year. I hope, with that vision of mind, the First 5 strategy will have doubled the amount we are spending on childcare by 2028. I hope these reports will give us the information and the database upon which to make some significant decisions on funding and structure for the future.