Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
77. To ask the Minister for Finance if he is considering extending enhanced employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, supports for childcare providers indefinitely; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48657/21]
I thank the Deputy. The objective of the EWSS is to support employment and maintain the link between the employer and employee insofar as is possible. It has been an important part of our response to the Covid-19 crisis. While the criteria for eligibility for business in general is based on a reduction in turnover as a result of the pandemic and having regard to the importance of maintaining the provision of childcare facilities so as to enable parents to continue in or take up positions of employment, the legislation provided that childcare businesses in possession of tax clearance and registered in accordance with section 58(c) of the Child Care Act 1991 are eligible for EWSS. On budget day, I announced an extension of the scheme in graduated form until the end of next April. Since the introduction of EWSS, there has been detailed engagement between my Department and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Analysis undertaken by the latter Department and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, informed the approach taken with regard to the childcare sector.
I assure the Deputy that the childcare sector will continue to benefit from the EWSS exemption until the end of April. As announced by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, it is intended to put in place a transition fund between May and August 2022 which early learning and childcare providers can access. From September of next year a new funding stream will be in place to support providers in meeting their operating costs in return for a commitment that fees for parents will not increase.
To answer the Deputy's question, a coherent approach has been taken with regard to the exit strategy from EWSS and the introduction of a new funding stream for the childcare sector. As such, I do not believe there is a need for a further extension of EWSS for the sector because it should be accommodated between the extension of the scheme and the work the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will do.
I thank the Minister. He rightly pointed out that this measure was in response to Covid-19 and, importantly, it kept people working in the sector and provided jobs and income. At a higher level, we need to demonstrate how we value childcare in that whole sector before primary school. They do immense work in educating our young children and preparing them for national school. During Covid, we have been haemorrhaging staff from the sector. When that happens, women in particular are challenged and it creates further barriers for them taking up the positions the Minister talked about and being able to go back to work and take up roles outside the home. I welcome what the Minister has said and in his conversations and discussions with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, I ask him to take that formal step when it comes to early childcare providers.
In recognition of the issues the Deputy referred to, we ensured that the childcare sector would be able to participate in the EWSS even if particular providers did not meet the revenue decline threshold. It is also the reason that it is the only sector referenced in the scheme. A provider who is in it now will continue to be in it until next April. The sector is undergoing huge change. We need a successful and viable sector to support families, particularly when parents decide to go back to work or to be in the office or workplace for some of their working day. Between the extension of the scheme that I have confirmed, the continued participation of the childcare sector in the scheme and the work the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is doing beyond that, it should meet the issues the Deputy referred to.
That is welcome. I call for a whole-of-government approach when the Minister is around the Cabinet table and conversations are happening with the Ministers for Education and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in order that we can start to look at the sector in a formal setting and see it as part of the Department of Education. They are teachers and educators and provide so much value. We need to value them in terms of our State's response to that.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The sector, like many others across the board, was in jeopardy for many people providing the service and it was haemorrhaging staff. Ultimately, for women who have lost their jobs or are considering going back to work, if the childcare providers are not in place, it creates further barriers.
I echo what has been said. We need to look at this sector as a matter of urgency. The staffing situation in the childcare sector is at crisis point. The facilities cannot recruit staff. There is something fundamentally wrong when childcare staff using baby wipes are, in some instances, being paid less than the staff who pack those wipes onto supermarket shelves. The system needs to be looked at urgently. In a small county like Roscommon, some childcare facilities did not open in September. I got word today that another childcare facility will close at the end of December. The situation urgently needs to be addressed in the context of staff and, more importantly, of providing access for women into the workforce.
I accept many of the points the Deputy has made. I know how important the childcare sector is in supporting parents to go back to work and giving young children the support they need at the start of their life. I repeat what I said to Deputy Niamh Smyth. She made the case for a whole-of-government approach. I cannot give any better example of such an approach than saying that the childcare sector will continue to be in the EWSS, regardless of how an individual provider performs. Access to this scheme has been one of the most raised issues over the era of the pandemic. Deputies are aware of the debates we have had regarding whether sectors should be able to come into schemes, how long they should stay in schemes and what support they get. The childcare sector is the only sector where, regardless of the performance of an individual provider, the provider stays in the scheme until the end of April.