Thursday, 14 July 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for attending and wonder whether he pulled the short straw in having to do so this evening. I recognise this issue is not his area. It relates to childcare in Wicklow. It is no secret that childcare in this country is at crisis point. The costs, which are exorbitant, are putting severe pressure on families who are just trying to keep their heads above water. Wicklow is at the forefront of that crisis, given parents there pay the highest fees for childcare outside of Dublin, at approximately €924 per month, or between 20% and 25% of their disposable income on average. That is an incredible sum for any family to find, not least for a service the Social Democrats believe should be publicly provided. I cannot quite understand why we are so far behind our European neighbours in how we deal with childcare. In raising the issue of costs, I understand the budget is approaching and hope the Government will make that serious investment we need in respect of childcare costs in order that parents will be supported.
Childcare availability and flexibility are equally important issues that need to be addressed in this context. In regard to availability, many parents in Wicklow have found that no crèche or childcare spaces are available when they have gone looking for them, whether coming off maternity leave or having found out they are pregnant, which is when many parents start searching for childcare places. It is difficult to find places for children under 12 months, in particular. Capacity in Wicklow stands at 0.6%, meaning that percentage of all places in the county is set aside for children under the age of one. That is the second lowest rate in the country, which means many parents, primarily women, have to decide between their job and staying at home because they cannot find any facilities that will take their babies. I have spoken to parents who have spent a year looking for places for their children and to a woman who had to turn down two job offers because she could not find childcare when she looked for it. Similarly, I have spoken to parents who, when they went looking in April, were told it would be next July before they would be able to get a place, which is not acceptable.
Parents need to be able to work, particularly in my constituency in Wicklow, in order that they can meet their incredibly high mortgage repayments or afford their rent. In addition, we do not want women being unable or not having a choice to continue with their careers because the service is not provided.
I also wish to raise the issue of childcare of a part-time and flexible nature. It would be really useful if flexible full- and part-time childcare were available to parents in order that they could pay for three or four days' childcare as opposed to the full five. If such childcare were available, it would facilitate with the type of remote working policies at which we are currently looking. People could also take their parental leave and make their work-life balance a bit more manageable. The three main issues I wish to raise with the Minister of State in the context of childcare are cost, availability and flexibility.
The Deputy will appreciate that this is not my specialised chosen subject. I have served on voluntary boards of community-based childcare services for many years, however, so I have a great interest in the sector. I appreciate the points the Deputy raised.
High-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible is a key Government priority. Before the onset of Covid-19, national data indicated that, on the whole, the supply of early learning and childcare places was meeting demand, notwithstanding the points raised by the Deputy, with evidence of some undersupply for the youngest children in certain areas. Capacity data gathered throughout the Covid-19 pandemic revealed lower demand for early learning and childcare places. An initial analysis of the data captured in June 2021 found significant vacancy rates across the country with the national vacancy rate averaging at 21% and a vacancy rate in Wicklow of 16%.
In April of this year, the network of county childcare committees undertook a nationwide survey of capacity in early learning and childcare services. This was followed in May by the early years sector profile survey, which is undertaken annually by Pobal on behalf of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. An initial analysis of this data shows that there is currently a vacancy rate in Wicklow of 12.5%. However, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is aware that, in some areas, capacity issues have re-emerged for some families.
A key priority for the Government is to support the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector through the provision of capital funding where it is most needed. Assisting childcare providers in extending their existing childcare services or establishing new childcare services have always been key areas of focus for the Department's capital programmes. The Department has demonstrated its commitment to increasing capacity through having secured €70 million in the revised national development plan for the early learning and childcare sector. This funding will enable significant capital investment in early learning and childcare and much of it will go to increasing capacity in the sector in order to fulfil the Government priority of ensuring availability of high-quality early learning and childcare that is affordable and accessible.
In order to assist with increased capacity, the Department secured €70 million for the sector under the national development plan for the period 2023 to 2025. The majority of this funding is earmarked for new places. This will enable significant capital investment in early learning and childcare during 2023 to 2025 across the three pillars of modernisation, new capacity and First 5 initiatives.
Parents in Wicklow who are experiencing difficulty in respect of their early learning and childcare needs should contact their local city or county childcare committee, which can provide assistance on centre-based childcare, childminders and other options. City and county childcare committees in areas with unmet demand are actively engaging with early learning and childcare services to explore the potential for services to increase capacity. Where services can increase capacity, their applications to Tusla to increase their capacity in the service area have being fast-tracked to ensure that as many places as possible are made available to families.
We are aware of media reports that suggest there has been a high level of service closures this year. Data from Tusla on the actual number of closures over the last three years does not support this claim, however. There are more than 4,500 early learning and childcare providers in the State and, as can be expected, some services close each year and new services open. In 2019 and 2020, more than 190 services closed, while 140 services closed in 2021. By Aril 2022, only 25 services had closed, which is similar to the same period in 2021. These closures were balanced by new services opening.
As I have set out, there will continue to be capacity in the sector as a whole. I will come back to the Deputy and follow-up regarding the issue relating to children under one year, which is a particular challenge in many counties, and the flexible and sessional three to four days of childcare to support remote working.
I thank the Minister of State. I understand that this is not his area. The response that the vacancy rate in Wicklow is at 16% is quite disappointing. Many parents have contacted me to say the opposite. In fact, one parent said she contacted 46 crèches and minders before she found someone. There is obviously a problem. When we talk about averages, what needs to be reflected is that Wicklow is a very diverse county with many towns and villages. Some villages have no access at all to any childcare and they will obviously not be reflected in those figures.
The other issue is that when we talk about childcare, we are looking at a wide range of ages. Although the Minister of State showed me the same statistics, Pobal also said that only 0.6% of the childcare places in Wicklow are for children who are aged under one year, which is the second lowest in the country. There is an obvious issue in Wicklow, particularly when it comes to younger children and babies. That is not reflected in that figure either. To say that we found an average vacancy rate and that everything is fine is to dismiss the problems parents are facing. It indicates that the Department is not listening to people or aware of what is happening on the ground. One could do a desktop study and come out with these averages, but that is actually not what parents are feeling or what they are finding. We are talking about women who had to give up two job offers because they could not get a crèche place. That is completely unacceptable.
I ask the Minister of State to bring that message back to the Department. It needs to look closer at the granular data in respect of the ages of children and at the different locations in Wicklow to identify where there are problems. When the it identifies a problem, the Department needs to go in and focus on it. It cannot be left to the market because the market is not delivering when it comes to childcare.
I agree with many of the points raised by the Deputy. From my experience in volunteering in the sector, there are challenges around the requirements for facilities for children aged under one year. That is perhaps something that has not been responded to by the providers. There is a significant challenge around the actual layout of physical premises in terms of sleeping areas, etc. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons.
It really falls back on the county childcare committees to work with providers in the county to look at where the deficits are. Certainly, what the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, has done over the past two years is address much of the sustainability of the sector and the capital funding to help crèche providers to really provide the full range of services possible. It is really important that the Wicklow county childcare committee works with the providers to look at that granular data the Deputy is seeking. That would get to the nub of some of the challenges.
Second, I wish to provide reassurance in respect of the budget package. This will be a cost-of-living budget, as has been widely stated. The Minister is committed to working on the core funding issue but also on the retention of staff to ensure the professional development of people working in the childcare sector can also be addressed. It is critical to ensure that we have a sustainable childcare and early learning sector that can respond to the needs in a particular country or individual community. It goes back to the county childcare committee to support that.
I will absolutely take back the points the Deputy raised. The response does not really give the Deputy the answer she is looking for, which I appreciate. Again, that issue around the flexibility of sessional provision and three to four days' remote working really is something providers should be able to supply families with.