Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
98. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps his Department is taking to address childcare costs in Ireland which are some of the highest childcare costs in the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49074/21]
Nobody would dispute that parents' sole objective is to give their children the best start in life. We have to help parents to build a nurturing and loving environment, which is critical for a child's learning, emotional well-being and social development. However, the latest survey in 2019, conducted by the European Commission, revealed that childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe. The survey by Eurydice on early childhood education and care in Europe studied 38 countries. It found that Ireland had 398,000 children under the age of five years. I am not aware of another survey since that. What is the Minister doing at this point to address childcare costs in Ireland?
As I said previously, my Department currently invests €638 million per year in early learning and childcare, and affordability for parents is a key objective. The major programmes funded by the Department are the early childhood care and education programme and the national childcare scheme. The ECCE programme provides free access to early learning and childcare for 15 hours per week for the two years before the child starts primary school. That significantly offsets the childcare costs for parents at that stage. The national childcare scheme provides universal and income-assessed subsidies to parents. The universal subsidy is for children up to the age of three years and the income-assessed subsidy is for children up to the age of 15 years. They are available for up to 45 hours per week. They are very substantial and are a vital support from the State for parents. However, I recognise and agree with the Deputy that childcare costs for parents are still too high.
Covid-19 brought major challenges for the early learning and childcare sector. In line with many other services, those services had to close and then operate at lower capacity. They also had to meet the important public health requirements. We were able to support parents and children during the pandemic. In addition to the investment by my Department, the Government provided very substantial supports to the sector to keep services open and operating safely and to ensure they are sustainable and can meet the additional costs that Covid has generated for them. There is strong evidence that those supports have worked. In 2020, there was no significant increase in fees for parents, which was unlike previous years in which there were very substantial increases. In 2019, there was an 8% increase, but in 2020 and 2021 there were no substantial increases for parents.
However, affordability remains a key concern. It is an issue I am very conscious of in the context of the budget negotiations this year, but it is also an issue that is linked to the sustainability of services and the pay for staff in the sector.
I thank the Minister. I appreciate that he is doing his utmost as a new Minister, but when he fires all those figures at us I can give comparable figures for other countries so he will know that we are not investing enough in childcare. The report from Eurydice in 2019 stated that the average monthly cost for childcare in Ireland for one child was €771, compared with an average monthly cost in the Netherlands of €572. That is €200 in excess of the cost in another country which is a very close neighbour and obviously has a childcare structure that works. Recently, the OECD stated that this country invests the least amount in early years of any developed country as a percentage of GDP. I appreciate the Minister's figures and that we are increasing our input into childcare, but it is not enough. The Minister knows that too. It is not enough when compared with other countries.
The Deputy is right in saying we need to invest more in childcare. We are among the lowest in Europe and in OECD countries, and we need to invest more. We have only been investing for ten years, which is an embarrassment to Governments going back over the generations. We also need to manage how we invest that additional money. We do not want to put significant investment into the NCS for that to get eaten up by increases in fees across all services. These services are trying bring in additional income so they can pay their staff a living wage. All these elements are linked and it is important that increased public investment is linked with increased public management. We need to bring together the two elements of increased investment with increased public management a significant way over successive budgets.
Giving parents the support necessary to provide children with a strong foundation is not just good social policy but it is good economic policy. Front-loading the investment into childcare might help avoid waiting lists, mental health issues and everything else that we endure. Ireland has consistently remained at the bottom of the class and the lack of investment costs us all. Parents pay the highest amount of take-home pay on childcare fees in the European Union. Providers operate precariously in a highly complex funding model which benefits nobody. As the Minister knows, the average pay and conditions for the employment in the sector remain poor. I appreciate that he is trying to come to a conclusion on that so everything works together but the reality is that it is leading to serious challenges with staff recruitment and retention. We need to look at the social benefits as well as the economic benefits down the line.
I absolutely agree. In response to an earlier question I said that investment in early learning and childcare is a key public good and I think we are all in agreement there. We need to recognise what the investment, while not enough, is achieving at the moment. We have a fantastic childcare sector in this country which, despite the lack of investment it has received, has done so much over the years and particularly during the Covid pandemic. We need to recognise the work that the childcare professionals and providers are doing. We need to support this sector with public investment. We need increased public management. We have done considerable work on how those various inputs can work together to deliver the core goal of allowing parents provide the best possible first start for their children.