Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
53. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he plans to take to fully address the devastating impacts that the national childcare scheme will have on the provision of care to disadvantaged children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36034/21]
I have dealt with the Minister previously in respect of the national childcare scheme, NCS, and I welcome the interaction we have had in that regard. Much as we might welcome the national childcare scheme as a job activation scheme, the problem relates to funding for groups that deal with disadvantaged kids. The Minister has already answered questions relating to some of the review processes but, obviously, there is still a need to look at Tusla in the context of sponsorship and expanding sponsorship. I will deal with that at a later stage.
The Deputy and I have engaged in substantial discussion on this issue. I addressed similar issues with Deputy Funchion earlier today. I am strongly committed to supporting children to develop to their full potential, especially those who are most disadvantaged. The national childcare scheme has been designed specifically with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in mind. It represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and childcare. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements, to a more progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Under the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support, with families on the lowest incomes getting the most support.
Similar to schemes in other jurisdictions, the scheme is designed to ensure access to early learning and childcare is provided at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes, regardless of whether parents are in work or study. Where parents are not engaged in work or study, the NCS subsidises up to 20 hours per week. Where parents are engaged in work or study, the scheme subsidises up to 45 hours of per week. As Members know, the definition of work or study is broad and covers all forms of work or study arrangements. The minimum number of hours required to activate the full amount is small, at just two hours per week.
As we have discussed, the NCS includes sponsorship arrangements that allow for additional support for vulnerable families where there is a need for early learning and childcare on the grounds of child development or child welfare. I have engaged with the sponsorship bodies, particularly Tusla, to encourage them to take a wide definition of children’s vulnerability and this has seen an increase in the number of sponsorships being provided.
In line with the Childcare Support Act, I recently commissioned a review of the national childcare scheme. This will assess how well the scheme is serving the needs of children, among other issues. As the Deputy is aware, I specifically asked that the review deal with the issue of disadvantage.
I very much welcome the review process and the fact that the Minister wants it to look specifically at disadvantage. The problem is that the facility at Moneymore in Drogheda now has 12 children but capacity for 26. The number in The House in Cox's Demesne is 24, down from 32, while in Lios na nÓg it is 45 although the facility had capacity for 72. In Toberona, it is 14, down from 22, and in Muirhevnamor it is 17, down from 26. Those services are interacting with Tusla. The House in Cox's Demesne might have a bit more interaction because it has a service-level agreement, SLA. There is a possibility that the others may enter a meitheal-type scenario but none of this is guaranteed. These groups are going to contact the Minister soon to seek a meeting. That would be useful, particularly in dealing with those specific issues relating to disadvantage.
I continue to listen to providers on the ground with regard to issues they are experiencing because that is one of the best sources of information. I have set out the measures I have taken in the short term in terms of broadening the applicability of sponsorship. I have also made reference to the sustainability fund, which is open. Any service across the country that is facing a challenge in terms of its overall sustainability can apply for the sustainability fund. We opened it up for Covid sustainability challenges in particular, but also for wider sustainability challenges.
As regards the short term, we have taken the action on sponsorship, have provided the sustainability fund and are undertaking the specific review of the NCS and its impact on services working in disadvantaged areas. As I discussed earlier, we have the bigger piece, that is, the expert group on the funding model, which is specifically looking at funding for disadvantaged services as part of its terms of reference.
I welcome the Minister's remarks. As regards Tusla, there are certain families that are incredibly frightened when they hear Tusla mentioned, which can create its own difficulties. However, there are specific issues which I will discuss later with the Minister relating to the interactions with some of these groups. We do not necessarily have it across the line in the context of meitheal or how exactly the process will work for some of these groups.
One of their asks will be to expand the sponsorship, particularly in the context of the Department of Education. Many referrals were made by home-school liaison teams and the school completion projects that were operating in DEIS areas and those are specific areas at which we can look. I have spoken to the Minister before about the fact that as much as we see the absolute necessity of the NCS in terms of job activation and, in particular, those at the lower end, but there are specific needs of disadvantaged families and children that need to be considered.
We might need to look at a separate pot of funding. I hope the review process will deal with that.
In its terms of reference, the expert group established by the former Minister, Dr. Katherine Zappone, was specifically asked to examine what I believe was described as "a DEIS-type model" of childcare. That is being looked at. We hope the expert group will report by November of this year. As I have said to the Deputy previously, the NCS is two years old. A significant change has been rolled out in the middle of the Covid pandemic. We must accept that there is an element of bedding the system down. However, I also recognise that a system that works very well on the macro level can sometimes have impacts on the micro level. I welcome the Deputy's engagement and that of other Deputies and Senators who have voiced concerns about impacts in certain areas. I will continue to listen. We have introduced some short-term measures. The safety net of the sustainability fund is available. We commit to continue to look at that issue and act on the data we receive.