Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
97. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his Department will honour the commitment to children to double State investment in childcare by 2028; if the ongoing future funding model and workforce development plan processes and the national childcare scheme review will inform budgetary allocations for the sector in time for the budget 2022 announcement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48268/21]
Will the Department honour the commitment to double State investment in childcare by 2028? Will the ongoing future funding model and workforce development plan processes and the national childcare scheme review inform budgetary allocations for the sector in time for the budget announcement?
I wish to focus on the issue of the NCS and after-school care, which was the reason for the protest on Tuesday. Will the Minister comment on the workforce as well?
First 5, the whole-of-government strategy for babies, children, young people and families, includes a target to at least double the level of investment in early learning and childcare between 2019 and 2028. As I said earlier, the programme for Government commits to achieving that, which would represent an investment of €1 billion per annum by 2028. This would be a very substantial increase in the voted expenditure for the sector, which amounts to €638 million this year. The new funding model I mentioned earlier will be a key vehicle to ensure the additional investment delivers those important returns for children, families and the State. We want to ensure that when we put additional resources into early learning and childcare, we will get the best possible use from them. The expert group, which is independently chaired, is leading on this issue and has undertaken a significant volume of research. It has also engaged with the various stakeholders within the sector, which is important.
The emerging findings from the national childcare scheme are also contributing to the evidence that underpins its work. It has very transparent deliberations. It has published the research and that is available for anybody to engage with. The report is being finalised and will be submitted to me in November. It is influencing my input into the budget negotiations this year, which are still ongoing.
As regards the NCS and the issues that were raised outside the Dáil earlier this week, I have engaged significantly with the Deputy about this. We have introduced some interim changes to broaden sponsorship and to create a sustainability fund where services are in difficulty, but I have also asked for a separate piece of research in the context of how the NCS worked in its first year to look specifically at its impact on services that are disadvantaged. I am conscious of this issue and we are getting the research to ensure that our responses are properly targeted to dealing with the problems that have emerged.
I will focus my response on the NCS and the funding, where children are falling through the cracks. I have raised this with the Minister on a number of occasions and I acknowledge that he came out to meet people at the protest on Tuesday. However, I can give a few practical examples. There are several services, not just in my constituency but nationwide, which point out that siblings are in the old model and children coming into the system now are falling outside of that. The service, therefore, is trying to make up the difference. I understand the sponsorship situation, but in the vast majority of these cases people will not go to Tusla. In general, families do not want to bring that service on themselves, so they will not go down that road. If that is said to them, they will more than likely just pull their child out of the service. Services are stepping up and, through other funding streams and, basically, by robbing Peter to pay Paul, trying to keep those children in that system. They feel very guilty, even though they should not. However, they are saying to a family whom they might know for years, "Sorry, we cannot take you in". We really need something next week in that regard.
The NCS is a very good system and one I believe we can continue to develop and strengthen. Undoubtedly, an issue has arisen regarding services in areas of high disadvantage, but we must work to fix the issue with the NCS as opposed to going back to some of the old schemes. The future is with the NCS. However, the Deputy is correct. Sponsorship is not the fix. I undertook the broadening of sponsorship to give support to services in the interim. That was an element in assisting approximately 2,000 young people across the country to access services straight away, but I accept that it is not the overall fix. An issue has arisen and we have to do the research to determine how exactly we can bring about a fix that is long-lasting and ensures that those services, which are often making up the differences themselves with their own resources, are properly resourced into the future.
To comment on that, most people would accept that if something is not working, there has to be a period of time in which one looks at fixing it, but this has dragged on. What people are seeking in the interim is that the older funding be kept in place until a solution is found. In that way nobody is paying a price and nobody is disadvantaged. Otherwise, we are potentially coming up with a solution when many of the services for these children may have faced closure point. In addition, at the meeting of the committee on children last Tuesday, one of the points made by the after-school services was that, while they are not a childcare service but a separate type of service, a new funding stream or model should be examined for them. That should be considered as part of the review.
I also wish to mention briefly the people who are working in the sector. Next week, we must see something in the budget for those early years professionals. They do amazing work and are on very low wages in very difficult situations. They have to see something next week to give them hope to stay in the sector.
As the Deputy knows, the older funding mechanisms were kept in place for children who were already on the schemes, but we are seeking to move new children coming in onto the new scheme. As long as I have had this role, I have been engaging on this issue. The Deputy has raised it, and I give her full credit for that, but I have engaged on this issue. I have met with the services and listened to the issues. We have introduced some interim solutions to try to get more children into the scheme and give them the full number of hours. We are undertaking the research and we will act on foot of that. That is the way to go. This is an issue that has arisen and I know from engaging with services that they foresaw this, but rather than having a knee-jerk response to it we want to undertake that research to determine exactly how we can bring a fix to the NCS to ensure that it continues to work effectively for everybody and that nobody is left at a disadvantage.