Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
The Minister has spoken about the review of the expert panel on childcare and early education. I am quite hopeful, on the basis of what he said, that he is keeping up to date from the point of view of ensuring that a number of issues are dealt with in the budget. Pay and conditions are vital in terms of delivering a service in the long term and ensuring it is sustainable. We also have to deal with the remaining issues with the NCS and others.
I thank the Deputy. I am conscious of the need for a significant improvement in the pay and conditions of employment for early learning and childcare professionals. The level of pay they receive does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, families and our wider society. As the Deputy knows, the State is not the employer. We cannot directly determine the wages in the sector, but I am committed to doing whatever is in my power to influence that situation.
As the Deputy knows, last December I set up a pre-joint labour committee, JLC, process with the former chair of the Labour Court, Dr. Kevin Duffy, which engaged with IBEC's Childhood Services Ireland and SIPTU. On foot of that, the chair indicated that a JLC process had been indicated as the only real mechanism of improving pay and conditions for employees in the sector. Following on from that, I wrote to the Minister of State, Deputy English, and asked that he establish a JLC. That has been established. It is an important step forward. The work on the JLC is taking place and I am looking for an employment regulation order, ERO, to emerge from that.
As the Deputy said, an expert group is examining how we increase the level of public investment. We also have strong public management. It is not enough to just put money into a sector and see it disappear into fee hikes or the like; we have to manage the system. That is really important.
We have to provide clear career pathways for childcare professionals. That is why we have the workforce development plan. Let us be honest: it is, by and large, young women who enter the sector after doing a three or four-year degree and earn less than they did in the part-time jobs they did while in college or university. That is not going to keep people in the sector. The workforce development plan is essential to creating clear pay structures and pathways and making childcare an enticing profession for more and more people.
The logic of what the Minister has said is that in the long term this will morph into a public model and that will provide a greater element of control. Within that, pay and conditions can be dealt with, possibly to a greater degree than in the context of a JLC. Beyond that, a roadmap can be provided for people in terms of a career path.
I will digress slightly because a number of people have spoken about the NCS. We accept that it works as a job activation tool. There are difficulties with regard to disadvantaged children. In fairness to the Minister, he has had a fair amount of interaction with groups. I hope in November we have a different pot of money and solution to paying for early childhood and after-school care for disadvantaged children. In the interim, there is still the difficulty of Tusla. I accept most people do not want to deal with Tusla, but if we are going to use it we probably need a directive from the Minister to Tusla so that it can provide a roadmap to individual groups which can then use Tusla as a referral service. I accept the system is far from perfect, and it is to be hoped November will offer solutions.
As the Deputy knows, we have engaged extensively on this with other Deputies in terms of local groups bringing similar issues to my attention. I have worked to put forward short-term solutions. I see the broadening out of the sponsorship element as part of that. If we need to do more to clarify roles, responsibilities and duties I am happy to do so. We are doing that piece of work in our examination of the NCS after one year. I specifically asked for a new element to be examined, namely the impact of the NCS on services in areas of disadvantage. I want to use that information to structure my response. I heard about this issue when I went to the protest on Tuesday. I heard about other related issues as well, such as the difficulties of parents with reduced English or literacy in terms of accessing the childcare identifier code key, CHICK, code. That is something I need to speak to my officials about and think about solutions for. This is all part of the enhanced public management of the system.
I welcome the interaction the Minister has had. I believe there will have to be, as I said, a directive and clarity because, even for groups that have a service level agreement, SLA, with Tusla, there is still difficulty. In that regard, long-term, I think those early intervention pieces that fall within Tusla's remit may need to be nearly separated from the acute child protection issues Tusla deals with. That is what creates difficulty, and Tusla is then not seen by many families as a fair arbiter. We need to look at that in the long term. In fairness, the Minister has given a comprehensive answer regarding the JLC and pay and conditions. We have to do whatever we can to ensure sustainability, which will happen only with the correct pay and conditions. In the long term, however, it is, as the Minister said, a case of public management and a greater element of public control to deliver a service that will deliver for our people.
As the Deputy says, the issues are affordability for parents, sustainability for services and fair pay and conditions for staff. All that coming together will deliver quality for children, which is what we are trying to achieve. Whether the children are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds or not, quality for children is absolutely essential. We all recognise that this will require very significant increased investment. It will involve not just this Government; it will be a long-term project because we are so far behind other countries across Europe in the amount of investment we put in. Regarding that additional public investment, we must have public management as well, whether it is the JLC as one example or whether there are other examples we can bring forward to ensure the additional money we are putting in is giving us those really important outcomes and, most important of all, enhanced quality for children and babies.