Wednesday, 26 October 2005
Child Care Services: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann, mindful of Ireland's unprecedented national wealth and the difficulties encountered by parents of
—children attending crèches or primary or secondary schools;
—urges the Government to give far greater resources in the next budget to child care;
—insists that the Government matches any benefits given to parents in the workforce with tangible recognition of the work of stay at home parents;
—urges the Government to set up structures unlocking parents from the difficulties encountered by huge bills for crèches if they decide to work outside the home, aimed at giving them real choices about whether to rejoin the workforce or to care for their children themselves;
—urges the Government to begin the process of implementing the recommendations of a number of recent reports on child care by providing additional child care funds in the forthcoming budget in order to;
(1) make free child care places available to all;
(2) establish an overall accreditation body to ensure that all of the various suppliers of early childhood care and education are recognized and qualified and;
(3) appoint one Minister and one Department to be fully responsible for the area of early childhood care and education.
The issue of child care seems to have suddenly bitten us in the face in the past seven or eight years. It is an obvious product of the economic prosperity we have enjoyed. I welcome the advent and growth of multinationals in Ireland. I welcome full employment, for which I give the Government and many other economic forces credit. I also welcome the fact that we have a well educated workforce. The coincidence of these three ingredients, while giving us unparalleled prosperity, has also given us problems which we have been slow to recognise. They are obvious ones that have emerged as a result of the frantic pace of life that has followed the Celtic tiger and economic prosperity. We encounter them in our daily lives in the traffic problems and other activities unknown in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s.
Child care presents one of the biggest challenges of the day. Possibly the biggest downside of our prosperity is the problems which parents engulfed in the Celtic tiger face because of the fact that they have so little time. A lifestyle problem has resulted from this prosperity. On the one hand, busy people have made the decision to throw themselves into the economic cauldron and become part of it. On the other, equally worthy individuals have decided they will not get involved but stay at home and look after their children. Major tensions have arisen from the different agendas of the groups concerned. It is difficult to move in favour of one without offending or discriminating against the other. The Government will face this problem in the budget which will be discussed here in early December. There is a conflict between those who have taken the decision to take time out with their children and those who have decided not to do so but to make money in order for their families to prosper.
Both categories are of equal value and should be applauded, but there is a conflict between having time with one's children and earning money. This cannot necessarily be resolved by legislation. The problem of choice can be tackled in the budget, and measures can be implemented to give people some more time if they are suffering from the time deficit, or perhaps some more money if they are at a loss in that respect.
I have read some interesting relevant figures in a document entitled School Age Childcare in Ireland. The document does not concern crèches but rather the problems facing parents who are interested in the area of after-school care. The statistics in the document indicated that the problem was not just related to parents or their children in Ireland, but to the extended family also. The statistics pointed out that of 67,500 people involved in the survey, 46% used unpaid relatives to care for their children after coming home from school; 14% used paid relatives; 32% used paid carers; 6% used crèches; and 3% used other means. This indicates that the problem is not just a parental or business problem, but one which takes in extended families and the whole of Irish society. The Government will ignore this issue at its peril.
Grandparents are involved in this process to a particular degree. These people are no longer able to do the things that they wish because they are involved in caring for their relatives, namely their grandchildren. Voluntary or other work which they might do otherwise in the community will suffer as a result. This shows that the problem has tremendous knock-on effects throughout Ireland and its society. We should examine the pressures on the parents and consider what can be done to help them. Those parents who go to work often feel considerable guilt about ignoring their family. Nevertheless, they may naturally feel compelled to work because of financial pressures and a desire to be a part of the extraordinary economic race being enjoyed by Ireland at the moment. Those who stay at home may feel forced out of work because they cannot afford the child care costs imposed by crèches.
I hope the budget will above all consider the primacy of the child. We often hear about what the economy can afford, as though we are not talking about real people. We hear much about the employer and what he or she can afford. We also hear much about what the parents can afford. I contend that this particular burden of the good of the child can be shared far more equitably than it is at the moment. Such action would give parents a greater choice, giving an opportunity for part-time work, for staying at home if desired or for staying in the workforce but getting more leave to spend more time with one's children.
I wish to address the issue in connection with big business. It is perfectly reasonable for the State to require those businesses that can afford it to provide, at the very least, crèches for children belonging to their staff. Very few do so. Some semi-State companies, such as Aer Rianta, the ESB and RTE, do so at very subsidised rates. The Bank of Ireland also provides a crèche for its employees. In contrast, some rich companies, such as CRH, do not provide such facilities. Most large businesses do not provide crèches, although such facilities are not particularly large expenses. Although they may cost a few million euro per year, the companies could well afford them. Such provisions would meet some demands of the workforce. It is extraordinary that AIB does not provide these services, but not many multinational companies do so either. This is regrettable. I suggest that Intel and others might take the lead on this issue, and the Government might pressure the companies to do so.
If we ask big business to play its part, the problem arises of what to do with smaller businesses. Large businesses can afford and should provide crèches or other services to employees to make their life more palatable if they have children. Small businesses may state that such an act would be impossible for them and that giving parental leave is difficult. They may also argue that special arrangements are troublesome because the companies depend on their employees, and that the provision of crèches is out of the question. It would not be unreasonable in that case for the Government to provide some form of tax breaks for small businesses. We do not have to treat all businesses in the same way on this issue. Various thresholds can be put in place, for example, with big business having to provide a certain level of facilities and small businesses receiving tax allowances. The problem could be assuaged in this manner.
I was shocked by some relevant statistics that I read from various sources. Many people pay far less on their mortgages than they do for crèche facilities. Some may pay more than €30,000 for the crèche services. As this is a net figure, people may have to earn up to €50,000 in order to pay for having their children in crèches. It is an extraordinary figure and a large disincentive for people going to work.
I will finish on this point. This country spends little compared with other European countries on child care, and this is a signal that we should give people more choice. We should require that parents, business and the Government play their respective parts in paying for and providing child care. There should be a division of the difficulty to give parents more choice and allow people to do part-time work. We should also consider a great inconsistency-——
I am beginning to finish. We should consider the inconsistency in our attitude to education. For good or for ill, we have for the most part abolished third level fees, and we have free secondary and primary schooling. We should examine the possibility of having at least one year of free pre-schooling also. According to leaked reports the Government is considering this option, and the cost will only be approximately €140 million.
I second the motion and welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased to see my colleague Senator Ross joining the great and the good and supporting extended public services. It is always good to see. I thank the Minister for taking a personal interest in the matter, but he might indicate if he has had the time to read the amendment to the motion. I am prepared to try to convince my colleague Senator Ross to accept the amendment as an addendum to the existing motion so that all Members can work together to resolve an issue on which there should not be division. There is nothing wrong with the amendment, except that it notes and acknowledges the progress made. No Member would deny that. We are prepared to accept it as part of the motion if the Minister accepts the set of proposals we have tabled.
I agree with my colleague Senator Ross about this issue's importance. All Members can confirm what they hear on the ground concerning it in terms of the number of people who cannot afford child care or whose bills and invoices demonstrate that their child care costs are greater than their mortgage repayments. This is a common occurrence at present. I will put six points to the Minister which I will then develop. The first point, which arises all the time is that one Minister and one Department should be the prime movers in respect of this issue and should deal with this area. I also know the Minister's views on this matter. The idea whereby responsibility moves between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science, with one playing against another, does not work. The Minister has informed me, both publically and privately, that he does not have a problem with this step, which would simplify matters.
Second, I want to see maternity leave increased to 26 weeks in the budget. I have asked for this before and it is in line with what is happening throughout Europe. We can afford to and should do so. The third point is that we do not have paid parental leave. Senator Cox shares my views on this subject. I am sure she will vote with this side of the House by supporting our motion. There should be paid parental leave for 26 weeks.
Fourth, there should be universal access for all three year olds. It is interesting to note that the OECD report makes great play of the solid level of support in Ireland for four to six year olds. The reason that Ireland differs from many other countries in this respect is that the Irish primary school system begins at four years of age. This is despite the attempt of a previous Government in 1981 to eliminate universal access to primary schools for four year olds. We are now reaping the benefit of its maintenance. However, it is only one aspect of a wide issue, namely, the kindergarten area of primary schools. Universal access and a free place for all three year olds must be considered.
I wish to develop the theme of the importance of choice. It is important to provide various places for children, such as learning environments and play groups. Some would be structured and others would be informal. While I will return to this point, one important feature should underpin any choices available to parents, namely, that whoever supplies the service should be accredited in some way by an accreditation body. This does not mean that everyone is obliged to have the same accreditation. It could be a teacher, a child care worker, someone in charge of a play group or a child minder in some cases. However, in general there must be some system of recognition for anything that is done on a commercial basis. Everyone will agree that this would provide reassurance to those who must make choices for their children. The final issue is to recognise that parents who are not in the workplace outside of the home must also be catered for. A balance must be found and I ask the Minister to consider it.
The amendment refers to the fact that a number of reports have been published in recent months. The National Economic and Social Forum report has been examined and teased out. The National Women's Council has carried out and delivered a report which takes a structured approach to the needs of children from birth to 12 months, from one year to three years and from three to six years. The report has been delivered in a pointed, focussed and helpful manner. Work has also been carried out by the Irish Childcare Policy Network, which is a combination of an enormous number of groups.
It is important to recognise the diversity of the groups involved in the network because I remember having a long argument about this issue approximately four years ago with the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, when I was still president of ICTU. He told me that if I could secure the agreement of all the interest groups on one set of proposals, he would give serious consideration to its implementation. He stated that while he would make money available in such circumstances, he would not again be caught in the position of introducing a measure which would be welcomed silently by many people and severely criticised by those few who disagreed with it. He told me that if I could achieve a consensus view on the matter, he would be prepared to move forward. That was Mr. McCreevy's sincere view. He stated that he was unable to find the line that met everyone's needs. Subsequently, there has been a convergence of views regarding these issues as can be seen from the Irish Childcare Policy Network's proposals, which are also a condensed and focused set of policies. Similarly, the centre for early childhood development and education's report has just become available to the Government.
I make this point because we do not need a further report or further consideration. We need structures of Government policy to be implemented. Such a policy should be informed by choice and by quality in terms of accreditation. It should provide universal access, should apply to parents at different levels and should be seriously funded by the Government in the forthcoming budget. I ask the Minister to hammer the Cabinet table — he will enjoy doing so and his colleagues will listen to him — for the children of Ireland. The children will not vote next year but they will do so sometime. The Minister who delivers these proposals will leave a fair legacy for the future. I ask that this be done and that we will see direct support, new access and appropriate tax adjustments in the budget so the needs of all are met.
As I do not have time to expand my themes further, I wish to reiterate six simple points. There should be one Minister and one Department with responsibility for child care. Paid maternity leave should be extended to 26 weeks as should paid parental leave. Universal access for all three year olds should be provided as should an accreditation system to ensure quality within the system of provision, be it community, qualified people or otherwise. We should consider the needs of parents at home. I ask the Minister to respond in a positive, generous and open-minded way in this matter and look forward to him doing so.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
—the considerable progress which has been made in increasing the availability of quality and affordable child care places across the country through the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme and other Government initiatives;
—the provision of an additional 38,500 new child care places, 26,000 of which are already in place, as a result of funding allocated to date under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme;
—the very significant increase in child benefit which is available to all parents of children under 16, and children under 19 if they are in full time education, which affords choices to parents in relation to the care of their children;
—the fourfold increase since 1997 in child benefit expenditure from €506 million to over €1.9 billion;
—the staffing grant assistance which is provided under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme which aims to ensure that these grants target community-based not for profit groups which serve families who are disadvantaged;
recent reports on child care policy, notably by the National Women's Council of Ireland, NWCI, and the National Economic and Social Forum, NESF;
and endorses this Government's ongoing commitment to:
—the development of quality affordable child care to support parents in employment, education and training through the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme and its eventual successor programme;
—the provision of considerable current funding support towards the staffing costs of child care services which support disadvantaged parents;
—the provision of early education opportunities for disadvantaged children through the Early Start and other initiatives under the direction of the Minister for Education and Science;
—the development of quality early education opportunities for children; and
—the use of child benefit as an equitable way of giving support to parents towards the cost of rearing and caring for their children, irrespective of the mothers' employment status."
I am somewhat taken aback by the benign manner in which the Independent Senators have addressed this debate. I have been a Member of this House since 1997 and am completely frustrated by the lack of progress on this issue. I am frustrated by our apparent incapacity to come up with solutions that deal with it. Undoubtedly, we have made progress and the amendment outlines it in terms of the money which has been spent on child benefit and the additional spaces provided, which are important. However, we have not moved realistically to deal with the issues which have been continually discussed in this House.
I have reviewed my contributions to the House on this issue since 1999, which was the first time I spoke on it. I am disappointed that more has not been achieved. We do not have any Government initiatives to support small businesses and have not implemented real incentives to allow jobsharing or reduced working hours for mothers and fathers. We do not have paid parental leave. We finally extended maternity leave last year to 18 weeks paid leave. However, I understand that the top rate is just over €200 per week. That is nothing for anyone with any kind of a job, who has a mortgage to pay. One's mortgage and car payments do not go away when one has a baby. One is obliged to buy equipment like buggies and prams while one is on reduced earnings unless one is lucky enough to work in a company where one's salary is covered or in the public service.
As my time is short, I wish to move on. As the Minister is undoubtedly aware, Ireland spends less than 0.2% of GDP on child care. The OECD average is 0.4% and the United Kingdom is moving towards 0.8% on foot of recent initiatives. Sweden and Denmark pay 2% to 2.5%. These figures refer to governmental spending. On the cost to a family, the quarterly national household survey showed that, of 59,000 families whose principal arrangements for minding their children during normal working hours involved paid child care, the average amount paid was €97.50 per week in the last quarter of 2002. The rate per hour is significantly more expensive in Dublin than other areas. For Dublin pre-school children, the rate was €4.09 per hour and for school-going children it was €5.47 while it was €3.25 and €5.40, respectively, in the rest of the country.
As I have said time and time again, there are simple actions we could take. A significant number of people in this country employ child minders. They pay out of taxed incomes and do not receive recognition of this in the tax system. I gave an example to the former Minister for Finance, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, and other Ministers previously that, if I fall on a golf course and break my toe and it costs €10,000 to get it treated, I can claim that against tax. If I pay €20,000 to a child minder out of my net income, I cannot get any of it back through the taxation system. This is wrong and we can change it immediately. We are employing people, deducting tax and sending it to the Revenue Commissioners. Is there any justice in employer's PRSI of 10.75% paid on a salary of €20,000 or €22,000 after having already paid 40% on it? Why have we not done something about this matter? This is not the first time I have discussed this issue.
We slap our backs about how many child care places we have supplied, which are marvellous, but what about the increasing numbers of women going to work and having children? I have four children, which means I need four child care places. While the number of places is growing, we will need over 80,000 child care places for children aged less than five years according to figures notified to the Department of Health and Children in 2004. It is of no use to say we are doing brilliantly and providing many places. It is not enough. I could tell a person who had broken a leg that, while it was sad, both legs could have been broken but this would not make me feel much better. We need to tackle this issue urgently.
We could examine what has been done in the United Kingdom over the past two years. I will cite a report entitled Early Years: Progress in Developing High Quality Childcare and Early Education Accessible To All. A nursing grant, not based on income, is paid for all four year old children and, since April 2004, this is paid for all three year olds after the child's third birthday — a maximum of £407 per term. A working tax credit replaced the working families tax credit in April 2003. Through this, up to 70% of eligible child care costs and up to a maximum of £135 for one child and £200 per week for two or more children can be claimed. This is based on incomes and is given to lone parents over 16 years of age with dependent children, couples over 16 years of age, either with both of them working at least 16 hours per week or one working at least 16 hours and the other receiving disability benefit or being in hospital or prison. It is payable up to first September after the child's 15th birthday or 16th birthday if the child is disabled. There is the child tax credit, in which the family and baby elements are each £545 per year. The child element is £1,445 and the disability element is £2,155. This credit is paid to the main carer, is based on family incomes and is available to households with at least one dependent child under 16 years or one dependent young person under 19 in full-time education. In the so-called new deal for lone parents, a maximum of £135 per week for one child or £200 per week for two or more children is paid.
These are the types of initiatives we could put into place. We have discussed this issue since I became a Member of the House in 1997 but suddenly found a bright renewal of the subject during the by-elections in counties Meath and Kildare. What were we doing beforehand? Were our heads in the sand or did anyone listen? Where were the children and what was happening to them? The Minister probably did not formulate this amendment and I do not know who did but it does not refer to children at all. This is a disgrace. What is a child policy if it is not focused on the good of children? I am ashamed of this amendment but am proposing it, as that is what one does when one is a member of the Government party.
At least I admit it, although Members sometimes cross the floor to vote. Senator O'Toole pleaded with the Minister to bang on the Cabinet table. I plead that the Minister does so and gives us results. Let us see some initiatives in the next budget that will deal with the issue and look after children, families, businesses and Irish society. This is a moral responsibility and we must lead the country. We need to continue creating an Ireland in which we are proud to live and bring our children up and that manages and sustains the type of economy we need to provide these services.
I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I admire Senator Cox for her honesty and courage in standing up to the parties in Government as they have not been listening to us for many years. I believe it was the Taoiseach who admitted that he did not realise child care was such an issue until the two recent by-elections, which shows the Government was not listening. Child care should have been an issue long before now. It should not be addressed in terms of just facilitating women returning to the workforce or helping to retain them there as this matter is about providing a good quality, affordable and overall child and educational care facility in every sense of the word.
We are playing catch up but this amendment does not do the Minister justice. While we must accept many such amendments have been made, this only scratches the surface. I acknowledge and welcome that much of the work carried out under the early opportunities child care programme, EOCP, was focused on disadvantaged areas. If we are to invest money, the less well off in our society must get a leg up first. Money invested at that level brings about a good return but money invested anywhere in the child care area is well invested.
I am not sure whether my figures match Senator Cox's but I recently acquired a report launched by the Combat Poverty Agency, which states: "Public expenditure in Ireland on pre-school education and care is near minimal. Less than 0.2% of Irish GDP is invested in child care, half of that of most other industrialised countries and just a fifth of the EU target of 1% of GDP". It goes on to state: "International research has shown that the rate of return to society in the long term is significant." Money invested in early childhood education and care, irrespective of where children come from, will pay dividends in the long term, of which there is proof. Taking the prisoners in Mountjoy Prison as an example, they certainly did not get any early childhood education and fell out of education at very early ages. Look at what this costs us in the long term. If we are to start from scratch, we must target money at the early years, as we will see a return benefit to society.
Currently, 80% of children are minded in the informal economy, which is an unregulated sector that we do not place great value on. It mainly involves family members or friends and is unpaid work for many people. Some people are lucky, as they have a granny or sister down the road who will do that work but this is becoming more and more difficult because people are no longer in positions or do not want to do it. Perhaps the granny will take her daughter's child or other children in or the sister will do it. We must put such child minders into a regulated market but ensure that we do not tax them out of it. If one allows them to earn a certain amount tax free, one could regulate that market and improve the quality. We must ensure the quality is of an extremely high standard because the child must be at the centre of this.
We must also examine the first year of a child's life. All research has shown that year is better spent at home with the mother where possible. We must try to introduce it through extending maternity leave and paid parental leave. This could be done over a number of years, although not too many.
Work-life balance issues must also be considered. It is not good enough that parents must leave home at seven o'clock in the morning, drop their child to a crèche and collect the child at seven o'clock in the evening. That is not good for any child and it is not good for parents. We must consider what type of society we want. Those hours and pressures on parents must be tackled. This must be done in consultation with industry and local government to ensure parents are facilitated in getting flexi-hours or in other ways to combine work and family.
We must be careful that we do not discriminate against the parent, whether it is the mother or father, who chooses to give up work and stay at home. They are also at a financial disadvantage. We discuss parents who have high child care costs. However, the couple or single parent who chooses to give up many advantages by staying at home are also at a financial disadvantage. They are trying to survive on one income. My son and his wife have two children. They have chosen to live on one income and they make enormous sacrifices. That work must be recognised. Work by parents, particularly mothers, has been undervalued for many years. It is time to re-examine society and put a value on it. I do not mean monetary value only. It is about the child's care, education and early childhood education and providing working or stay at home mothers with the ability to access child care or early education.
I support the concept of one year free pre-school for three or four year olds. That is of enormous benefit to the child. Studies show that such a pre-school year will benefit a child's development for many years. That is a long-term benefit to society. Child care should be under the remit of one Ministry. Having it spread across so many Ministries is doing it a disservice. With so many people having responsibility for it, who is ultimately responsible? That must be tackled and I hope the Minister will examine it.
Barnardos states that the issues of affordability and lack of places are still of concern to parents. It states that child care costs to parents in Austria equates to 5% of gross average industrial earnings, in Japan it is 8% and in Ireland it is 20%. This rises to 50% if two children are in day care. Much needs to be done to make child care affordable and providing places will be an enormous task.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak here this evening and thank Senator Cox for the full and generous way in which she proposed the Government amendment. It strikes me that I should say a few words on this occasion in response to the debate we heard so far. As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, my personal responsibility as a Cabinet member is on that aspect of child care which falls within the equality section of my Department. For the first time, €500,000 million will be spent over a period of seven years on a programme on child care provision in this State. I wish to put on the record the contrast between that and the fact that less than €2 million per annum was spent by the Department in the last year of the erstwhile rainbow coalition.
In 1997 the Government was faced with a series of conflicting demands as to where it should place financial resources for the costs faced by caring and coping families bringing up their children. People demanded that we reinstate child tax allowances. Others argued that would be wrong in principle because those allowances benefit those at work rather than those who want to enter employment but find themselves excluded by market conditions. The strategic decision was made that the Government would put an enormous amount of money into the issue of child benefit so it would benefit everyone in the community and not simply those at work.
Senator Cox mistakenly stated the Government amendment, which she moved, did not refer at all to children. In 1997, the State gave parents €506 million in child benefit. Now, it is giving €1.9 billion to parents in child benefit. That is an enormous increase and goes right across the board. It is of equal value to everyone in and out of work, every week and month of the year, regardless of economic circumstances. It is a socially progressive measure to support the cost of child care across the community.
I wish to contrast what this Government does, compared with the previous coalition Government, which fancied itself as having something of the left about it. Let us examine it closely. Since 1997 every household, including those at the bottom of the economic scale, has received a four-fold increase in child benefit support.
Since 1997, the equal opportunities child care programme has been an outstanding success. In partnership with European funds, it has attracted a vast flow of money into this State for the first time. That money is directed towards equality of opportunity based child care. That is socially progressive child care. None of those expenditure programmes existed when the parties of the left were in office in this country. Let us remember that nothing of that kind was attempted. Approximately 40,000 child care places will be created and sustained by the equal opportunities child care programme. Much of this will be directed to the have-nots in our community rather than the haves.
Ireland is changing demographically. This evening's newspaper reported that we have one of the highest birth rates in the European Union. Unlike most EU members we are now sustaining ourselves through our reproductive patterns and that is a good thing. As Senator Ross wisely pointed out in proposing this motion, the participation rate of women in our economy has been dramatically transformed from over 400,000 women in the workplace in 1995 to well over 800,000. This has been a dramatic change in Irish society and carries an important agenda for political action to bring about child care facilities that match the needs of that changing society.
It is easy to come up with "back of a beer mat" and ill thought-out responses to the need for greatly enhanced child care provision in Irish society. For example, we can learn from the experience we had with grants for first-time house buyers, which increased house prices and subsidised the building industry rather than reducing the price of houses. The same applies to naive models for subsidising the provision of child care places through the tax system alone. If we subsidise a finite number of child care service providers through a tax allowance to their customers, the hard-pressed parents of Ireland, the cost of child care will jump to absorb the additional funds but the number of places will be much slower to increase. We must recognise that we need to increase the supply of high quality child care places to those who need it and to increase genuine choice as Senator Norris pointed out.
As Senator Ross said, choice is the crucial element. I accept what Senators Terry and Ross said about the need to respect the rights and values of parents who make a financial sacrifice to provide parenting in their own homes. If we talk about choice we must focus on the supply of child care places. Senator Minihan proposed that we examine the possibility of increasing the number of child care places in the community through an income tax and social welfare disregard for the suppliers of small scale services. That should be examined as a real way of increasing the number of places. Some people are lucky enough to have relatives who provide support during their child rearing years. However, many do not have relatives or live so far away from them that it is not an option. Yet many people in the community provide child care in an informal way and would be willing to provide it to a higher standard and within the regular economy if the State offered assistance. We have an income tax and social welfare disregard for certain house sharing arrangements and could use a similar approach to the supply of child care places.
Senator Minihan has also championed the provision of school age child care, and my Department has published a report to which a number of speakers have already made reference. Although there is much to be said and done about the first three or four years of a child's rearing, school age child care must be addressed. During the week I had the pleasure of opening a new school age child care facility in Goatstown, Dublin, which is exactly what my Department is seeking to stimulate countrywide. Voluntary groups of parents, in association with school authorities, could use a portion of a school campus to provide child care before and school after school hours. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, through the city and county child care committee network is now stimulating demand for this type of facility across Ireland through advertisements in local and regional newspapers. The enterprising start made by groups such as the one in Our Lady's Grove in Goatstown is an example but there are others.
Many national schools have declining school numbers and some have fought back by providing on-campus child care facilities. This attracts parents who wanted those services, which fall around but not directly through the provision of primary education by traditional means. Many of those schools find they can attract a population of school children and their schools are no longer marginal. Their future position is assured by virtue of the fact that they provide not just primary education from 9 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. but a service which starts at 8 a.m. and continues until 6 p.m. by a combination of traditional primary education delivered through conventional means along with the additional feature of a voluntary school age child care service in close association with it. That is an important development.
I am glad the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is pushing this scheme forward, through the child care committees, to stimulate demand across the country for these services and to grant aid them. I appeal to such groups in the community to realise the huge value and potential synergy that exists in marrying our primary education infrastructure, through a parallel process of topping it up on both ends, that is, pre-school and after school, with a decent service that provides a seamless system of school age child care for parents who need it.
There are tax implications in our present system for many couples. As Senator Ross correctly pointed out, some large firms are now providing crèche facilities and child minding services for their employees. These are not regarded as a taxable benefit-in-kind. However, if one does not work for one of those companies and if one's employer provides off-campus assistance with child care, it is regarded as a benefit-in-kind. That is wrong. It is also wrong that in the case of small scale enterprises, which could not possibly ever organise child care facilities of that kind, it will be a discrimination against their employees in that they are perforce excluded from that type of approach.
Senator Cox suggested there should be tax relief for those who retain the service of an in-house dedicated child minder in their home. I listened to the Senator with interest. I do not like to discuss my domestic arrangements but I am aware of how significant the cost is if one plays by the rules and pays PAYE and PRSI for such a service. However, those who are in a position to do that at present are generally among the better off in society. They have two incomes. Paying a full-time child minder at home is expensive and while consideration can be given to this, we should look to the coping families who are not, and could not be, in that position. They need some assistance. The Government will have to take a more broad-based approach.
I wish to refer to the suggestion that I should thump the Cabinet table for resources for child care. The party I represent in Government has played a very constructive role and I praise Senator Minihan for his part in leading the debate on a new departure in State policy on child care. It is open to Senator Cox and her colleagues to thump the parliamentary party table, when they meet their Ministers, to seek similar success and progress in developing the debate.
A number of Members have said there should be one effective political head of the State's child care policy responsibility. From the point of view of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the assistant secretary in charge of this programme, Ms Sylda Langford, recently told an Oireachtas committee that it is an accident of history that we found ourselves with this responsibility. However, that has not inhibited us from putting in place an excellent equal opportunities child care programme. I am proud of what the Department has achieved in that programme. Undoubtedly, other political models were available but as long as it remains my responsibility, I am committed to achieving the highest standards and the greatest result for the resources available to me. I will continue to do that.
However, I do not do this in a selfish or vainglorious way. If there were a redistribution of political responsibilities and this responsibility fell elsewhere, I can say, not merely as the political head of the Department but for the entire Department, that it will co-operate with the centralisation of that responsibility in one political Department of State which would have an overall view of the issue. There is no selfishness or turf war. I am concerned about the welfare of children. Great things have happened in the context of the equal opportunities child care programme but it makes sense that child care should be the responsibility of one person who provides for it both within and outside of the equality rubric and, possibly, in the context of one of the departmental alignments represented by the Departments of Deputy Séamus Brennan or Deputy Ó Cuív. It would make more sense to establish a single child care political responsibility under a single Minister.
In saying as much, I am not anxious to be rid of it. I found it one of the most rewarding aspects of the Department which I have the honour to lead at present. It is also an area where the Department has delivered excellent results. If it is transferred to another Department in a realignment of governmental opportunities, I hope equally excellent results will arise.
With regard to women in the home — and it is usually women in the home although some men provide parenting in the home in an enlightened, new age way — I believe they are entitled to full recognition in the Constitution. The terms of the Constitution recognise, even in 1930s language, that the parenting role of women in the home is a huge support for the solidarity and quality of life in our country. They should not be discriminated against or feel excluded. I recall what Senator O'Toole said about his dealings with the then Minister, Charlie McCreevy. When the Minister went to battle on individualisation and to give an extra incentive to those women who were leaving the home to work but were heavily penalised for doing so by the tax system, he discovered that the social partners who had egged him on and forced him forward on this matter were suddenly nowhere to be seen.
When he looked for them, after being confronted by enthusiastic coverage of the issue by RTE, they had all gone to ground.
He was right to point out that if people are willing to stick their necks out and make proposals in this area, they should stick with those proposals. My party recently held a policy conference on this issue and there is a real possibility of polarising parents, particularly mothers, into two categories — those who are in the home and those who are not — who will feel they are being set against each other over a limited pot of resources. Whatever is done, fairness must be shown to those who take their parenting obligations to the point of exiting the labour market or not going into the labour market to deliver to their children. What is written in the Constitution about women not being forced to work outside the home to the neglect of what was somewhat archly referred to as "their duties within the home" should be given some tangible social and economic reality rather than simply remaining a piece of rhetoric. I am aware that a number of Senators are members of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. I often think that while the language of the Constitution in this regard may not be exactly right, the underlying message about the importance of parenting was progressive for its time. It was intended to oblige the emerging Irish State to recognise the importance of parenting and to protect the most vulnerable economic class from being deprived by economic necessity of the opportunity to provide parenting. However critical — it is fashionable to be critical of some of the language in the Constitution — one may be, its underlying message was positive, progressive and supportive of the parenting role. Even if it was gender-unfashionable and even if some of the language is a little hard to swallow these days, the underlying message remains that society must value parenting in the home.
A reference was made here as well to the time-starved parents of today. It is certainly true that long commuting, long hours of work, traffic jams, etc., make it difficult for many families to cope and survive in modern circumstances and that this is an added pressure on parenting and raising a family. The Government, in the terms of the amendment proposed by Senator Cox, will address over the next weeks and months all of the ideas which are now bubbling forth in a ferment of political innovation on child care, but none of the proposals I have seen can provide a single solution to the problem. There must be a multiplicity of approaches to get the best possible outcome.
When I travel from time to time to London there is a point somewhere over the British midlands where one feels that the aeroplane is beginning to descend. Likewise, in the life of a Parliament there is a point at which we are on a descent path to our next encounter with the electorate.
The same applies, I am sure, to Senator Cox. I agree with her that it is frustrating there is not a more sophisticated child care system. I acknowledge that she has been calling for one, both within her party and within this Chamber, for a number of years, but let us not devalue what has been achieved since 1997. Let us not set at nought the equal opportunities child care programme which has been a spectacular success. Let us not forget or regard as totally eaten bread that must be instantly forgotten the quadrupling of child benefit. Let us not forget the extraordinary contrast between what was on offer in the support of child care under the pre-1997 Government, which was so energetically supported by the left parties, and what has been available since then.
We hear constantly that they left the economy in perfect nick, were not the incompetents and the slump coalition that I like to paint them out to be but on the contrary were an economic marvel in their time.
——let me say that this model economy, which was handed over to the profligate parties which have now brought about an economic boom, simply never managed to seem capable of paying decent child care benefits. It simply forgot to put any money into the provision of child care places. It simply forgot to provide special needs teachers. It simply forgot——
I will finish on this note. I commend to the House Senator Cox's proposed amendment to this Bill. When one looks at the records of those who have the political responsibility in this area, Senator Terry used the phrase "catch up". Catch up in terms of what other countries in Europe do is one matter, but starting from zero was very much what this Government found because zero was the policy package we inherited from our predecessors.
The last postscript I will put on this speech is that when we are comparing figures spent on child care across Europe — I agree Ireland spends comparatively less of GNP on child care than other states — let us remember that in many Scandinavian and continental European countries education begins at the age of six or seven, whereas in Ireland, as Senator O'Toole stated, it begins at the age of four. Therefore, a considerable chunk of Irish expenditure on the education of children simply falls into the pre-school category in continental European countries because their formal education does not start until later. One is not comparing like with like and those figures must carry a significant health warning.
On a point of order, I want to correct the record of the House. The Minister stated the issue on the disregard of social welfare or other income from child care was suggested in this House. Unfortunately, I do not believe it was done first by Senator Minihan and I think the record will show that if the Minister checks it.
The issues about which they are concerned depend on where the Ministers are. When Deputy Martin was Minister for Health and Children, they were largely silent on health issues, but all of a sudden, since they got a Progressive Democrat Minister to shout at, the collected ranks of Fianna Fáil have now discovered the crisis in the health service.
It is very convenient for them too that there is a Progressive Democratic Minister in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and so they have been very vocal on law and order issues for the past number of years. They are now equally vocal on child care issues. Let me point out something to the Fianna Fáil Senators.
The National Economic and Social Forum described in a policy audit how the Government was guilty of inaction, peripheral implementation and drift in the area of implementing policy on early childhood care and education. It was not the Labour Party, the Independent Group or Fine Gael that pointed this out, but the body set up by the Government to provide an objective view. Many of us are intrigued by how the Government managed to walk itself into the incredible mess in which it finds itself. It blundered into two by-elections and was quite surprised — similar to the surprise Charles Haughey got in 1989 when he discovered people were upset about the health service — to discover that young working families are in a state close to nervous collapse as a result of the struggle to pay high mortgages and the extraordinary cost of child care. The Government managed to sit on the housing price crisis for three or four years, presumably so that some people would get the opportunity to get rich. Therefore, it caused half of the burden and just ignored the other half.
I have listened to the eloquence of the Minister who has been as eloquent as only he can be. Whatever else I might dispute, I do not dispute that he is eloquent. He is a bright, intelligent man, but I am not sure of his attachment to common sense. Nobody would dispute his intellectual equipment. His speech about what he has done was impressive. However, what he has done is just a drop in the ocean. We are talking about the needs of hundreds of thousands of families and children. There may be 250,000 families, including couples and single parents and up to 400,000-plus children in primary education. This estimation assumes something I would challenge, that no child over 15 years needs child care. This was not the case in my house when my children reached 15 and I suspect many here would say the same. This estimation is a conservative figure, therefore, in terms of the required provision of child care.
I could devote my time to what I believe to be the most coherent set of proposals produced on this issue — those of my party which are coherent, costed and workable. It did not take us seven or eight years in government to produce those proposals.
What we did was to hand over an economy in better shape than it is now. It had a better average growth rate and a lower inflation rate than the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, managed and had a budget surplus that he only managed to sustain by taking large amounts of money from the social insurance fund. Those are the facts of what was a responsible Government.
The problem was that the Government's agenda, driven as it was by the minority party in government, included the Minister for Finance although he claimed to be in Fianna Fáil, and also the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Transport and probably the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for a long time. There were actually five Progressive Democrat Ministers in the Government, two officially and three unofficially, all with a common ideology that did not involve or include public provision on the scale required by this problem.
The problem is not just about public provision. It includes much more. However, when there is an ideological resistance to the idea of large scale public provision, it is impossible to come up with a coherent position. A coherent position is what is sadly lacking in the Government's position. It lacks a strategy which we can see it build on year on year, a strategy that should have started years ago. In the Minister's speech he states it is in the process of development.
I love the term "high level group". I have heard about many high level groups. The phrase usually means a few senior civil servants are having a chat over a cup of coffee. The high level group mentioned by the Minister is to recommend an integrated national policy on child care and early education that will result in improved co-ordination at national and local level, etc. The group will recommend a policy which will presumably then go to Government to be thought about before proposals are produced. When will we get these proposals? We will get them about three weeks before the next general election. They will have the same substance as the 200,000 medical cards, the 3,000 acute beds and all the other promises made in the three weeks coming up to a general election.
The fundamental problem is that the ideological conflict has re-emerged at the heart of Government. Fianna Fáil has suddenly discovered that hitching itself to the Progressive Democrat star is a recipe for disaster and that it is now being blamed for the extraordinary ideological rigidities of the Progressive Democrats. The Progressive Democrat Party will survive with its four or five seats, but Fianna Fáil will lose ten or 15 because it walked away from its roots and instincts and allowed itself to be driven by a combination of blindness and ideology.
It is about the failure to provide child care. The Government has not even started to talk about providing child care. What it has done is talk about planning to have a review to think about it. We know what should be done. Senators can read what is required in the Labour Party document. That is what needs to be and could be done. That is what the Government should say it will do.
We produced a brilliant economy. The Minister continues to laugh at that brilliant economy because that is all he can do. I will remember forever, in terms of a statement about the failure of this Government, Senator Cox's statement that she is ashamed of the Government amendment. She has every reason to be ashamed, not just of the amendment, but of the total absence of policy in this area, the absence of any sign of a future policy and the Government's apparent willingness to go off on a tangent of what happened eight years ago, which has no relevance for the hundreds of thousands of young couples struggling with the problem.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and welcome the Minister to the House. We debated the issue of child care in the House several months ago and less than a month ago we debated the equally important issue of early childhood education. That we are debating it again so soon is testimony to the gravity of the issue and how it is viewed by all parties. Since the debate some months ago various interest groups such as parents, Opposition parties, and even Government Members have clamoured to agree that something must be done to help parents with their child care needs.
I thank the Minister for his comments tonight. I make no apologies for having banged the table, as he suggested, within my parliamentary party with regard to bringing forward proposals in this area. I suggest others should do the same. I do not believe the proposals I brought forward are the only way forward. My contribution was an honest contribution. If other parties and interest groups were equally as honest in their contributions to the overall debate, we might make more positive progress in this area.
With regard to points of order about who said what first, who cares? I do not care who came up with an idea once we deliver something for children. It does not matter who proposed it, once it is right for and in the interests of children. Everybody says that something must done but the problem lies in what that something is. It has become a major bone of contention between various and, at times, divergent groups. Some groups have even changed their opinion on what the solution should be in the short intervening period since our last debate on the subject. If one looks at the debate on child care on 9 March 2005, one can see that Senator O'Meara called on the Government to provide better financial support through a refundable tax credit when she moved the Labour party's motion. It is interesting to note that when the Labour Party, through Senator O'Meara, launched its child care policy last Thursday, it proposed a subsidy which would give equal recognition to the contribution of all parents, whether they worked full-time in the home or full-time or part-time in the workforce. What is most remarkable about Senator O'Meara's latest proposal is that it echoes the amendment to the motion on 9 March 2005, which commended the Government.
The Government amendment of 9 March 2005 included the following quote, "the use of child benefit as the most equitable way of giving support to parents towards the cost of rearing and caring for their children, irrespective of the family's employment status".
I presume it was not a cynical attempt to garner votes because such an attempt would, presumably, be beneath the Labour Party. This debate is far too important to concentrate solely on political point scoring. I would prefer to attribute Labour's Pauline conversion to the power of debate and the persuasiveness of the arguments put forward by this side of the House on 9 March 2005. We all agree there is an urgent need for action on child care and I am confident that action will be delivered in the forthcoming budget. Continued debate on this issue is most important because this State, like others, will be rightly defined by how it treats children, the sick, minority groups and the elderly.
The child care debate cannot take place in a vacuum and must necessarily take account of and reflect the national character. What value do we place on the work of a parent who decides to remain at home to raise his or her children? Do we recognise this work by granting his or her spouse an extra tax allowance or do we give the parent some kind of direct payment, as the State currently does in the form of child benefit? How do we cater for parents who, either through necessity or choice, return to work? Should we establish the kind of child care system that is available in Sweden, bearing in mind that it is predicated on the need to get more women into the workforce and that its guarantee of a child care place for anyone who requires it results in very high rates of personal taxation? These high rates mean that some parents who would otherwise remain at home are forced to work. The family cannot live on the net income of the sole wage earner. Do we wish to replicate this scenario in Ireland? Do we want this type of society? Can we recognise the work of the parent in the home while at the same time, establishing a Swedish-style child care system or are these two positions mutually exclusive? Is it a choice between one or the other or it is possible to have a watered down version of both? What about the other demands on the public purse, such as the health service, education, transport and pensions?
It is very easy for the Opposition to call for major expenditure on one scheme. This is a luxury that is not afforded to those who have the responsibility of delivering services and it is a different story when the responsibility rests on one's shoulders. This fundamental truth is forgotten in the Independent motion, which opens thus —"Mindful of Ireland's unprecedented national wealth". This country is wealthier than it has ever been but the legitimate expectations of all sections of society have grown as the nation's wealth has grown, which I hope Members on the opposite side of the House acknowledge. I know of at least one political party on the opposite side of the House that recognises the truth of this statement and I applaud Senator O'Meara and her colleagues in the Labour party on their honesty on this point. I am sure Senator O'Meara and her colleagues will not be embarrassed if I quote from their child care document. The media missed one very important paragraph in the general excitement surrounding its launch. This stated: "The implementation of these proposals is subject to the overriding requirement to maintain stable public finances." It is an honest, if somewhat underpublicised, statement, which all parties and politicians would do well to remember. Even if the Labour party were inexplicably in a position to implement its dangerous increase in capital gains tax, the demands on public resources will remain strong and must be faced up to.
The child care debate has the potential to set one section of society against another — working parents against stay at home parents, single people against married people, old against young and sick people against well people. We should remember this point as the temperature rises in the run up to the next general election. In the meantime, the Government will continue to govern sensibly. It has stated that it will bring forward further measures to help alleviate pressure on parents and I am sure the budget will contain further measures to tackle issues relating to supply and demand. Perhaps, at that stage, the House will have a better idea of the direction the Government is taking and we can have a more constructive debate. If I did not support this Government amendment, I would neither propose it nor vote for it.
I hate this kind of fighting on the Government benches. To demonstrate the extent of our co-operation, may I share my time with Senators Quinn and Norris? I will speak for four minutes and Senators Quinn and Norris will each speak for two minutes.
As someone who spent all of her salary on child care at one stage of her career, I support this motion. The Minister spoke about the expense of employing a child minder to look after children in the home. This is probably the most economical form of child care today because crèches are appallingly expensive. I regret that there is still no crèche in this House despite the fact I have served here for approximately 13 years. When I first came the House, Deputy Mary Wallace, who had a young child, and I went to examine many crèches around the city. Deputy Wallace's child is now of an age to attend secondary school.
We have spoken extensively about the cost of child care for those in the workforce and the situation regarding parents at home. What about the cost of child care for those who simply cannot afford it? I am very pleased by the Minister's statement that free places will be brought forward for these have-nots. I have been involved for many years with Cherish, the organisation for single mothers which is now called One Family. Certain women interviewed by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency stated that they had abortions because they could not afford to keep a child. We should remember this in our deliberations.
Children in secondary schools who become pregnant can drop out of education and without the efforts of some voluntary organisations, will never get back into it. People in third level education, with which I am particularly involved, drop out of education again because of the cost of child care places. There are insufficient child care places in universities given the enormous increase in the number of students. We need these well-educated young women for the workforce but if they have a child and do not have support from their family or a partner, it can spell the end of their career. I have been forced to find money from various funds for students who were paying for child care outside the university in order to subsidise child care places in other crèches. We must think about the education of these women as well as their children, which is why I strongly support the proposal by Senator Ross about the availability of free places. There are people who simply do not have the money for these child care places. I am involved with places which try to run crèches for nothing or to get money to subsidise payments to crèches so that people can remain in either second or third level education.
Senator Cox and I have spoken about the French system, under which one can buy vouchers, or chèques domestiques, tax free and use them to pay people who work in one's home. I have raised this matter during the debates on many budgets, without any success. I do not know why we cannot adopt such a simple system, which has been shown to work in France over a long period of time.
I thank Senator Henry for allowing me to contribute to this debate. The motion emphasises the need to consider the needs of parents who choose to care for their children themselves. Senator Cox and others have spoken about this aspect of the matter. Tax individualisation, which was mentioned earlier, is one of the great injustices of modern times because it penalises families in which one spouse stays at home to look after the children, rather than working outside the home. Individualisation is a textbook example of how, with the best will in the world, one can inadvertently create a wrong. It has been promoted as a means of getting more people into the workplace. The tax system makes it difficult for people to return to work because it treats them so harshly. It is unfortunate that when we created an incentive to get people to return to the workforce, we imposed a penalty on those who choose to stay at home. I urge the Government to examine, in advance of the forthcoming budget, whether it is possible to satisfy both camps in this regard. It would be wrong to continue to send the message that has been sent until now, although I was glad that the Minister, Deputy Michael McDowell, said today that "society must value parenting in the home". I have not read the Minister's script to check whether he meant to say that — his remarks may have been unscripted. It is easy for him to say that, but achieving it will be quite different.
I would like to speak about the distinction that is made between child care and early childhood education. The Minister told us today that children in the Nordic countries do not start school until they are six or seven years of age. I understand why some of the figures which have been cited may not be quite correct. I have some experience in this regard because the supermarket I run has been involved in "play houses" in recent years. When children who have had experience of "play houses" go to school, their teachers say they find it much easier to adapt to the educational system. It is clear that education and child care can be mixed together.
I found the Minister's speech very interesting, particularly when he hinted he might sniff an election in the offing, a comment that other speakers have echoed. I am worried that the possibility of an election might lead to a Dutch auction. Child welfare and the well-being of children should be at the centre of the child care debate. I am afraid we might revert to the Victorian position — the poor people with their children at baby farms and the wealthy people with their children at governesses. Such people never got to see their children. There is a real problem in this regard. It is a complex issue. I accept that people should be supported, but throwing money at the problem is not the answer, as the Minister demonstrated when he drew an analogy with the increase in housing grants, which simply served to increase the price of houses.
I pity people whose lifestyles suffer because they have to commute to Dublin from places like Athlone and put their children into child care facilities for long periods of the day, having taken on heavy commitments such as mortgages. I do not think it is socially constructive that people have to live in such a manner. I am reminded of a story I heard in Cyprus a few weeks ago about a man who was living very happily and contentedly plying his trade as a shore fisherman. When he had a good catch one day, another gentleman came along the strand and said to him "I see you are a fisherman and you have had a very good catch, but you cannot continue to do that". When the fisherman asked why he could not do so, the man explained that he was an EU official and had to give the fisherman a grant to get a boat. When the fisherman asked what he would do with the boat, the man said he could hire other people and have a fleet of boats. When the fisherman asked what he would do with the fleet of boats, the man said he could retire. When the fisherman asked what he would do then, the man said he could go fishing. We are caught in a kind of catch-22 situation. The House should be aware of a series of reports, about which there is some dispute, which have suggested that too intensive an exposure to child care in the first three years of a child's life is damaging to him or her.
I am the one voice here who is critical of this situation. I have raised specific issues about the welfare of children and the nonsense of throwing money at the problem without really examining it. I regret that the Minister was so long-winded that I do not have an opportunity to say the many things I would like to say as part of this debate.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this issue. I am slightly confused, in that I would like the real Government spokesperson to stand up, like on the television programme. I admire Senator Cox's determination on the child care issue. As someone who has followed her comments on the matter since 1999, when she first spoke about it in the House, I am aware that she has been consistent at all times. I wish her luck in her further endeavours in this regard.
We all agree there are major concerns in respect of child care. Many young parents who want to work, and need to work, cannot do so because the cost of child care is prohibitive and not enough suitable child care places are available. Many young people are working under extreme financial duress because they are trying to maintain a normal work-life balance. I agree with Senator Ross that this problem crept up on us during the years of the economic boom. I do not doubt that this country's social and economic landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 or 30 years. Young parents have higher expectations nowadays. Unlike our parents, who lived for their children, young people of the current generation want to have lives to their own. They are right to want to enjoy their lives while also enjoying their children. As public representatives, we should attempt to give them some semblance of balance.
A great deal of progress has been made in recent years. I understand that this country's population is higher than it has been since 1871. That approximately 10% of the population is under the age of six is causing many problems. I do not believe that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been sitting on its hands. Much has been done since Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats returned to power in 1997. As the Minister, Deputy Michael McDowell, said, some €500 million has been spent on the equal opportunities child care programme, which has been under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform since 2000, when the expert committee published its findings. I understand that the key objective of the programme was to increase the supply of centre-based child care places by 55%. The Minister said in his speech that 26,000 of the target of 31,000 such places had been achieved by the end of June 2005. The Department believes it will ultimately provide 40,000 centre-based child care places and support a further 23,000 such places. While that is not fantastic when one considers the total number of child care places which are required, it is certainly a step in the right direction. We now need to stir the pot in a big way. If I read correctly the signals sent out by the Minister for Finance at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis last weekend, a decent level of finance will be allocated under this heading in the forthcoming budget. I hope I am assuming correctly.
When I read a document about the equal opportunities child care programme, I was interested to learn that the number of women in the workforce increased from 588,000 to 771,000 between 1997 and the end of 2004. The Minister told us tonight that the relevant figure has since increased to 819,000. It is significant to consider the proportions of women in part-time and full-time employment. The number of women in full-time employment has increased by 31% and the number of women in part-time employment has increased by 33%. It is interesting that 13,000 women considered themselves to be under-employed in 1997, whereas just 1,900 women deemed themselves as such in 2000. I imagine that such dissatisfaction has declined as employers have become much more sympathetic and flexible in their dealings with female workers. They have had to modify their attitudes because full employment has meant that fewer good people are available for work. If an employer employs a good person who happens to be a young mother, he or she will retain her services at all costs rather than trying to recruit someone else with less experience. While this may be happening by chance, there is now greater flexibility among employers.
In my place of employment, which has a workforce almost 80% if not 85% female, staff are increasingly seeking to job-share. This happens primarily on the birth of a second rather than a first child. Many parents are prepared to give the first child to the grandmother but a second child is too much for a grandmother to take on. In any event, job-sharing is a far better financial proposition for parents. If a person in full-time employment who is paying full-time costs for child care decides to work part-time, he or she saves on tax credits or can pass them to a partner. Therefore, to only pay for part-time child care, if one could access it, would save money. However, I am told that crèches which take children for half days operate from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., if they can be found, whereas employment is often from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., which presents a problem.
The situation of lone parents is a serious issue. The 2002 census suggested there were as many as 150,000 lone parents in this country, 85% of whom were lone mothers. The statistics also show that a high proportion of lone parents live in poverty and are probably only surpassed in this regard by families headed by persons with a disability. Despite what we might have read in a recent newspaper article by an eminent journalist, very few people become lone parents by choice. Death, separation, divorce or having a spouse in jail can lead to lone parenthood. Employment is much more difficult to access for lone parents than for many others. Generally speaking — I do not mean this in a broad, sweeping way — many lone parents tend to be at a lower educational level. Apart from the fact that this makes it difficult to get work, lone parents must collect children from school at varying hours but many employers would not accommodate this. In addition, lone parents are not in a position to re-educate themselves. They form a group within this debate which must not be forgotten.
It is heartening to note the changes being brought about by the equal opportunities child care programme. It is a small move, but in the right direction. I hope that following the next two budgets we will be singing a different tune on this issue.
The Minister, Deputy Michael McDowell, took 40 minutes of our two-hour slot this evening. We must address this issue. Much of his contribution was taken up in referring to the year 1997 ad nauseam. I now know why barristers claim such large sums of money in the High Court — they have an ability to speak at length but say absolutely nothing.
I heard every word of it and she spoke the truth. She expressed the kind of frustration that is felt on all sides of the House in terms of dealing with this issue. I understand that she cannot vote with the Opposition.
I wish to refer to tax individualisation. When the Government introduced the home carer's tax credit as a compensation for the spouse who stayed at home, I understood it was done on the basis that we would have an annual increase in the home carer's tax credit which has not been increased in five years. The relative position of mothers at home has deteriorated during that period despite all of the hypocrisy I heard at the time suggesting that their situation would be reflected by the home carer's tax credit. Tax individualisation was introduced five years ago. There has not been an increase in the credit in that time and the relative position of the one-income family, where the choice is made by one of the parents to stay at home to rear the family, has worsened.
If we are serious about recognising the contribution of a man or woman to stay at home to mind his or her children on a full-time basis, why in the name of God can we not introduce some recognition of this in our social welfare code? I am not suggesting for a moment that parents at home would receive a pension without paying into it. However, a spouse who remains at home for four or five years looking after her or his children full-time should be entitled to a contributory old age pension. It is a disgrace that my wife, when she reaches the age of 66, will be regarded as a dependent adult and not a person in her own right who has worked at home and contributed hugely to Irish society and the economy. If we talk about recognition, let us have recognition for everyone in our society, not just for those who choose, for whatever reason, to go into the workplace. We must reflect that work at home counts as much as work outside the home.
It was the 1994-97 coalition Government that first introduced a Ministry for children, in the name of the former Minister of State at the then Department of Health, Mr.Austin Currie.
I join with my colleagues in strongly supporting the motion, which highlights important issues in regard to child care. Most important, the emphasis of the motion is on the need for the Government to match any budgetary benefits given to parents in the workforce with tangible recognition of stay at home parents. I compliment Senator Cox in this regard. I hope she rejects the Government amendment to the motion. It is important she puts her vote where her mouth is.
The motion also calls for the implementation of the recent report on child care through concrete provisions in the budget. We have had one Government report after another — one could call it the ultimate spin. While an appearance of activity and focus is generated, the issue it seeks to address remains unaddressed. The Government is high on proposals and low on implementation. This is undoubtedly the case with regard to the recently published NESF report on early childhood care and education, which added to the pile of similar reports high on policy and low on practical action.
We have seen little action from the Government in this area. The Minister has boasted about what he is spending in specific areas but the areas highlighted by Senator Cox have not been dealt with. The Government, in the guise of a number of Departments such as the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Education and Science, has pushed the pace of policy production. However, perhaps because the "too many cooks spoil the broth" school of thought prevails, much has been attempted by the Government with little success.
Taking account of all of the contributions to the debate, it is important that any society is aware of its responsibilities to its young citizens. Ireland in particular could be said to be shamed by other countries that are less economically stable than ours but that make a far greater contribution to child care. At 0.2% of GNP, Ireland's contribution is below the Danish level of 8% which leads to a 90% pre-school participation. We are ignoring the early years of the development of future citizens at our peril. Anti-social behavioural problems, with which we are only too familiar, have been attributed worldwide to the lack of provision of early childhood education. At every public meeting this issue is highlighted. Children need to be brought into the education system as early as possible and facilities must be in place for parents. Progress in child care must become more than a series of recommendations. What matters most is the care of our young citizens. Safety and good practice must take precedence over any political opportunism.
As this motion highlights, now is the time to free parents who wish to work outside the home from large bills and offer equality of benefit to those who wish to remain in the home. Senator Cox emphasised this point in the debate. I hope the Government listens to the Senator, as a parent and a member of its party, and does not fudge a good motion with this amendment.
I thank Senators and the Minister for contributing to this debate, which was useful even if it did not elicit a great deal of information from the Minister about the Government's intentions for child care in the budget. We did not expect that anyway.
One of the important matters to emerge in this debate is that this is not necessarily a problem about money. Money helps and we have plenty of it. If it was a problem over money, it could be easily resolved. I was struck by the extraordinary balance about the interests of the stay at home parent and the parent who goes to work. Both groups have extremely noble and good motives for doing what they are doing. However, they both have extraordinary problems as a direct result of our economic prosperity. We must ensure any measures taken do not turn them into rival camps.
In the next budget, both groups could be partly satisfied by a programme of measures that recognised the extraordinary valuable role they both play. This debate is about values. We need the parent who stays in the home and the parent who goes to work. I am referring coyly to mothers rather than fathers in this case. The economy desperately needs the skills of those mothers who are going to work in their droves. As Senator Henry eloquently said, at one stage of her life she was actually paying out all her salary on child care. This is absurd and makes a nonsense of the medical skills which Senator Henry acquired at some expense to herself and to the State. We must satisfy that side of the equation.
We must also applaud the tremendous role and the sacrifices made by those highly educated people who have decided they will not use their particular skills and join the workforce. This is either because they cannot afford child care or they consider looking after their children an even more important calling. This must be recognised in a tangible form, which means money. I noticed in The Irish Times that the Government is considering a 30% rise in child benefit. This is not half enough. It should be a 100% rise. We are talking about recognising values. This must be done for the stay at home parent. I will address from where the money will come another day. In the next budget, we must satisfy the aspirations——
I will decide when the full stop comes.
We must relieve the human misery suffered by those who choose to work. They suffer from the stresses of traffic congestion when commuting and their incomes going on crèches. The solution to the problem lies in a balance between contributions from businesses that can afford to pay, the parents and the State. We anticipate with great interest a crusade that the Minister for Finance will initiate in the next budget. Public pressure demands that he addresses this problem in a radical way.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 19 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Toole and Ross.
Amendment declared carried.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 19 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Toole and Ross.
Question declared carried.