Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Ireland's childcare barometer shows that 65% of the public agree that childcare, like primary education, should be free. People Before Profit agrees. If we want happy, healthy and developmentally successful children, we need proper State investment in early childhood education and childcare. The Minister spoke earlier about all the supports given during Covid and so on, but will he accept that the previous model completely failed? It was a disaster for children, workers and families.
As I said in response to Deputy Funchion, the issue of affordability of early learning and childcare for parents is a key priority for me. We need to achieve this alongside our continuing work to improve quality, sustainability and accessibility. This year, my Department is investing €638 million into the sector and affordability for parents is a key policy objective in the context of that investment, separate from the Covid supports I mentioned.
There are two major schemes we use in regard to the direction of that money, namely, the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, and the national childcare scheme, NCS. Together, these schemes provide for two years of free preschool education, with more than 100,000 children benefiting from ECCE each year, universal NCS subsidies of up to €1,170 per year for up to 16,000 children under three years of age, and the income-assessed NCS subsidies, which can be up to €11,934 per year for up to 64,000 children up to the age of 15. This combined approach to funding seeks to provide support for all children and families while offering progressively greater supports to those who have the greatest need.
I am proud the Government has committed to that increase to an investment of €1 billion per annum by 2028, and I am determined to play my part in achieving that. The new funding model, which I discussed earlier, will be a key vehicle to ensure this. I referred earlier to the expert group established in 2019 that has been working on this new funding model based on the idea of progressive universalism, which it is seeking to achieve and deliver through its report. Extensive research has been commissioned by the expert group, all of which is available on the First 5 website. It covers various issues, such as a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, model, control of parental fees and so on. The expert group will send its report to me in November and I will publish it subsequently. In the meantime, I am using its influence in my budget bid this year.
The figures are €638 million this year and €1 billion by 2028. These are inadequate sums. Families are spending 34% of household income on childcare, compared with 3% in Austria and 6% in Sweden, and that is despite childcare workers in many cases earning just the minimum wage. There is a crisis and the Government proposes, basically, to go back to normal. UNICEF recommends that spending on childcare and early childhood education should be equivalent to 1% of GDP. Given our inflated GDP, we might instead use GNI*, but €638 million represents just one third of 1% of GNI. Even €1 billion by 2028, and who knows whether we will ever get there, is still substantially short. It would need to be €1.8 billion to reach 1% of GNI*. The Government is failing the country's children, something that will leave them disadvantaged for life. At the very least, we should have a commitment to a national childcare service and to increasing funding to 1% of GNI*.
Nobody disagrees with the Deputy's argument that we are not putting enough money into childcare. We have only been putting money into childcare for the past ten years, so we have come from zero investment then to this figure now, and we have to continue to increase that figure. I do not agree we are going back to normal. We are introducing the joint labour committee, JLC, to provide a pay structure for these incredibly low-paid workers, who tend to be women. We understand that has to be supported by the Government and the Government will take action to ensure we do so. We are creating a workforce development plan because when I speak to young women who have just completed their degrees, they often do not see a future for themselves working as childcare professionals even though they will have just spent three or four years completing their level 7 or level 8 programme. Creating a clear career pathway is another essential element of retaining staff within the sector.
Post Covid, this is not a time for half measures; it is a time to restructure the entire way childcare operates, recognise the failure of the current model and set ourselves on a short, direct, rapid path to a national childcare service, publicly provided and free at the point of use. The Minister stated nobody disagrees we are underfunding childcare but, with all due respect, he is the Minister. He can go outside, perhaps, and join a protest against his own Government, as Government Deputies like to do. He is part of the Government and it makes these decisions. If it increased the level of funding for childcare and early childhood education to 1% of GNI*, that would mean the extension of the early childhood scheme from 15 hours for 38 weeks a year to 30 hours for 48 weeks a year and increased funding for the national childcare scheme to subsidise costs for all parents. It would reverse cuts to after-school services in disadvantaged areas and it could result in wages for childcare workers moving to a minimum wage of €15 an hour. The Government can make the decision to do that.
The Deputy is correct; I am the Minister. As Minister, it is important I listen, which is why I attended the protest earlier this week to hear from childcare professionals, people working in services daily and managers of these services. It was not the first time I met many of these people. I met many of them online over the past year because I listen. Changes will be made on foot of the information we get back.
As for the longer term vision for childcare, a substantial piece of work is coming to us that will map out how we can increase public investment but also increase public management of the system. That is essential because it is not enough just to throw money at the system; we have to have increased public management. The JLC is part of that process but there will be other elements that seek to ensure the additional money we put in delivers affordability, quality and sustainability.