Thursday, 7 July 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
88. To ask the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he will clarify in relation to the 9,000-plus childcare places in Dublin where the provider is refusing to accept the State subsidy, if parents who have no alternative to these places can be supported in some way; if he has plans to support them in the coming period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36736/22]
My question relates to the situation whereby there are 9,000 childcare spaces the providers of which have refused to accept participation in any of the schemes that are available. The condition that providers must not raise fees does not apply to them. I am seeking clarity on the position of parents, particularly in parts of Dublin in which spaces are very scarce and there is a real problem for parents in this regard, when a provider does not accept any of the funding streams the Minister is providing and charges the parent accordingly. What supports are available to those parents?
Ensuring the availability and affordability of early learning and childcare provision for parents is a key priority of the Government.
The transition fund referred to in the question is a temporary, once-off scheme to support providers between the end of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, in April and the introduction of a new core funding scheme in September. The primary objective of the transition fund is to ensure that the fees charged to parents do not increase. Participation in the transition fund is optional, but I am glad to see that 96% of providers have signed up to it. In Dublin, 991 providers are now participating and providing 43,541 places for children. The transition fund remains open for new entrants to sign up to for the remaining months of its operation. City and county childcare committees are available to support providers who have not yet signed up.
The transition fund requirements that fees remain at or below September 2021 levels continues in September under the new core funding scheme. Under this core funding scheme, partner services will also be required to offer the NCS and-or the ECCE programme to parents. Taken together, these options will benefit parents by ensuring that the full affordability effects of the NCS are felt. This will give parents greater certainty about what they will be charged and prevent increases in NCS subsidies from being absorbed by fee increases. The NCS is supporting thousands of families to offset the childcare costs. Budget 2022 has expanded access to the NCS and ended the practice of deducting time in preschool and school from the NCS subsidised hours. It has also extended universal subsidies for children up to the age of 15.
I recognise that the burden of childcare fees for many families remains too high and that more needs to be done to ensure affordability. The introduction of core funding from this September, combined with developments in the NCS, will improve affordability. I have also made it very clear that in this year’s budget I will look to do more in respect of investment in the NCS.
The Minister’s figures are interesting. While it is very good that 96% of providers have signed up to the scheme, that still leaves 4% who have not. The figures the Minister gave me referred to approximately 9,000 places in Dublin City and in Cork and in Limerick, but there are another 12,000 places nationally and the relevant providers have refused to sign up to any scheme. Those providers are then free to push up the cost to parents. Regarding that small percentage of providers, desperate parents come to my clinic, and I am sure to other people’s clinics, who have no other option for alternative childcare provision in their areas. Those parents are left high and dry. If we are talking about 12,000 places, then we are talking about many desperate parents. I wish to find out where this leaves them and what supports the Minister will give them to ensure they do not drown under their childcare costs, particularly in the context of the current cost-of-living crisis. Those costs are being put up by providers who will not sign up to the scheme, because it is possible for providers to not sign up to any scheme.
We are providing significant new core funding. The allocation for this first year is €221 million. We have also made it clear that we are going to be putting additional money into the NCS. Therefore, we are making these schemes as attractive as possible to support providers as far as possible. As I said already in my answers, one of three challenges we face is the sustainability of providers. We cannot force providers into schemes. That has always been something we have been clear about. We are, however, making these schemes as attractive as possible to providers in order to support them and allow them, in turn, to support and retain their staff and to be able to improve delivery of childcare services to parents. We are seeing strong take-up in this regard, as has been demonstrated by the 96% of providers participating in the transition scheme.
I still maintain that there are 12,000 places in respect of which providers have not signed up. I suspect that they are probably, in the main, the more commercial and bigger childcare providers. That information is not in the answer, so I cannot elaborate on it. We are still left, though, and this is the problem, with a dysfunctional, fragmented and piecemeal approach to childcare. The Minister is doing better than anyone has done before, but we are being left open to the consequences of the fact that we spend less on childcare services in this State than in any other EU member country. The provision of childcare services here is fragmented and privatised, in the main, and it is a very difficult system to manage. I maintain, therefore, that what we need to do is to fund parents in circumstances where providers are not accepting the provisions that the Minister has allowed for and encouraged them to take up in the context of this scheme. The parents are being left high and dry in that type of situation. In the long term, what is needed is a national early learning and childcare scheme. We would not put up with this fragmented, privatised and dysfunctional system for our national or secondary schools. Somehow, though, we are putting up with it, forever now, in respect of early learning and childcare. This is the real political problem here.
One of the key reasons we have linked the provision of core funding to services and the NCS is to ensure that we can get that agreement for the additional money being invested to go to pay staff. Without some element of conditionality regarding the money we are giving, we would not be able to guarantee that those enhanced levels of pay, that are being negotiated now, would actually be delivered to staff. Therefore, our mechanism in delivering on that is to link the NCS and core funding. To do otherwise would be to put at risk the opportunity to finally ensure that we can channel additional funding to delivering better pay for staff. We will, however, continue to look at the wider elements of the system.
As the Deputy is aware, in the review of childcare services, the expert group discussed the issue of there being some element of public provision and indicated that further examination of this aspect is worthwhile. That is also something I certainly agree with as well. In the context of the crisis we have right now, however, my focus has been on seeking to address those three big challenges in the existing system.