Wednesday, 1 February 2006
Child Care Investment Programme: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann congratulates the Government on the child care package set out in budget 2006;
—welcomes especially the new five-year child care investment programme which will support the creation of an extra 50,000 child care places;
—maintains that the new early child care supplement of €250 per quarter for every child up to the age of six will assist parents further with the cost of caring for their children during those years when expenses tend to be at their highest;
—notes that the early child care supplement, taken together with the increases in child benefit, which budget 2006 increases to €150 per month, brings the amount a family will receive for each of the first two children to €2,800 per year;
—supports the policy of an intensification of training arrangements to support quality child care delivery and notes that it is expected that 17,000 child care workers will be trained by 2010; and
—commends the further extension in maternity leave which will enable mothers of newborn children from 2007 to take six full months of paid maternity leave.
As Government spokesman on health and children I am particularly pleased to speak on this innovative approach in response to an issue which demanded attention. I am delighted it has been addressed. I acknowledge the long-standing commitment of Senator White and others on this issue.
This strategy will cover both current and capital spending, costing a cumulative €2.65 billion over the five years 2006 to 2010. Funding for the national child care strategy will be allocated in the Revised Estimates. From April 2006 a new early child care supplement worth €1,000 per year is being introduced for all children under six years. In effect, the supplement will end on their sixth birthday. The supplement will take the form of a direct, non-taxable payment of €250 in respect of each eligible child. Payments will be made every three months, that is, in each quarter. The first early child care supplement payment, covering the second quarter of 2006, will be made in mid-2006.
This will provide a major boost to families with young children. It will greatly alleviate the financial burden that many working families face in meeting rising child care costs, while recognising and rewarding stay-at-home parents. It is significant that in the budget, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, has given due recognition to stay-at-home parents. It is unfair to say that such people do not work when they are at home with children. Parents who work in the home are gainfully employed in so far as I am concerned.
A tax-free allowance of €10,000 has been introduced for those who mind children in their own homes. This is an initiative that has been long awaited and I am delighted the Minister has taken this step. Almost 80% of families paying for child care rely on informal arrangements. This will bring the many experienced and dedicated friends and neighbours performing this function into the tax net. Moreover, it recognises the vital role they play in our community.
Child benefit has also risen by €10 a month. From April 2006, monthly child benefit rates will increase to €150 for each of the first two children and €185 for each subsequent child. Child benefit has risen by 300% since Fianna Fáil came into Government with the Progressive Democrats in 1997. The greatest asset any country has is its people. Our children are the future leaders of the country and will be the bedrock of society. This package is of great importance for that reason. It is not today or yesterday that the need arose for a child care package. The need existed for some time. The Government has recognised that and has taken proactive measures to address it.
This historic child care package provides both children and parents with choice and support. Budget 2006 proposes an increase in funding for child care training services to train more than 17,000 qualified child care workers from 2005 to 2010. A new multi-annual investment programme is being introduced with the aim of funding 50,000 additional child care places by 2010. This will be over and above the 41,000 places provided under the existing equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP. A total of 26,000 places have already been created since the start of the EOCP and a further 15,000 places are due to come on stream before it ends in 2007.
The new national child care investment programme will consist of Government funding with grant aid available to both private and community providers for the building or expansion of child care facilities; and an ongoing current funding system to assist with the staffing and other operating costs in those community facilities that cannot meet the costs from fee income alone and to underpin further development of the role of city and county child care committees. This is an important measure, one which will bear fruit in the near future.
The amount of paid maternity leave from employment will increase from 18 weeks to 22 weeks from 1 March 2006. In addition, employees will also be entitled to take an additional four weeks unpaid maternity leave from the same date. In other words, from that date, one can avail of an additional 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave, after paid maternity leave ends. From March 2007, employees will be entitled to 26 weeks paid maternity leave, together with an additional 16 weeks unpaid maternity leave. The rise in housing costs in recent years necessitated both parents going out to work to pay the mortgage and, accordingly, this measure will be of great assistance to them. My wife always worked in the home even though she was a trained nurse. That was our decision and I am glad we took it. This important measure assists the people who cannot avail of that option in getting over a difficult period, especially if there are childbirth or postnatal difficulties. The rate of maternity benefit is set to increase to 80% of reckonable weekly earnings with a minimum weekly rate of €182.60. Previously, maternity benefit was based at 75% of one's weekly earnings.
We have heard inside and outside this Chamber of the large demand for child care and rightly so. Since 1997, the number of working women has risen by nearly 45% to 810,000. The majority of mothers now go out to work. I have given one of the reasons and there are several more, a main one being the increase's importance in light of the marriage bar some years ago. It was an outrageous insult to women and debarred society from availing of a tremendous level of expertise. I welcome its reversal.
The participation rate of mothers at work is lower among lone parents, who comprise 20% of all families with school-going children. Ireland has one of the lowest rates of lone parent labour market activity at 45%. This is an area that must be focused on and improved. I exhort the Minister of State to take it up as a matter of urgency. I know he will.
The number of births has also increased. The number of children of four years of age or under is expected to increase by 11% in the next ten years. It has been said ad nauseam that, with the drop in Irish childbirth rates and longevity on the increase, we will become an ageing population. This statistic will hopefully reverse that belief.
We have introduced the largest increase in child benefit in the history of the State. Since coming into Government in 1997, monthly rates have increased by €93.51 at the lower rate and €115.78 at the higher rate, increases of 246% and 234%, respectively, compared with inflation of 26.9%. Child benefit is a contribution towards the costs of raising children, regardless of a household's income or employment status. It does not distort parental choice about labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty. If it serves to do the latter alone, it is doing a good job.
The Book of Estimates has provided an extra €18.8 million for the EOCP in 2006. The total spend will be €102.308 million compared with €83 million last year, a substantial increase of over 20%. Since 2000, over €458 million has been approved under this programme, which led to the creation of 26,000 places by June 2005 and funding, when fully spent, is expected to lead to the provision of an additional 39,000 child care places.
As of June 2005, over 1,700 facilities are receiving funding under this programme. Over one third of its expenditure is in RAPID and CLÁR areas, in which 8,100 new child care places have subsequently been created. Overall, there is a total of over 82,000 child care places compared with 57,000 in 2001. One does not need to be a rocket scientist or mathematician of any great standing to recognise that this is a significant increase.
The aim of the establishment of the Centre for Early Childhood Education is to develop a quality framework for early childhood education. The link between education and care is well proven. Children aged two years or more who access good quality early child care and education are more sociable, better behaved and better able to learn than those who do not do so.
I commend this motion to the House. The Minister and the Government have taken a proactive step forward in caring for the children of this State, who are the people who will advance the State in the years ahead. We are told that children are our greatest asset. Why should we not invest in them?
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House and happily second the motion.
It was deplorable and outrageous behaviour by the Opposition, especially the larger party, Fine Gael, to leap up and down and jump around the place for the past number of days, citing figures off the tops of their heads of anything from €50 million to €150 million. It was scaremongering of the worst sort and beneath the dignity of any responsible politician. This sort of behaviour creates racist attitudes. Not for one minute do I believe that Fine Gael or any of its members are racist or have racist tendencies but one should think before one speaks, especially on such matters. There was uproar in the media over Fine Gael throwing out figures it had not substantiated or researched.
Now that I have got that off my chest I will speak to the motion. I congratulate the Government and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, on the substantially increased resources allocated to child care in last December's budget. I will quote from his Budget Statement as we have been accused of making an ill-thought out budget, particularly in respect of child care. The Minister stated:
Where are the greatest pressure points for parents? How can I be fair to everyone, to both lower and middle income groups and to working parents, to those who are in the tax net and those who are not, to working parents as well as those who make their contribution to society through their work in the home? What is the administratively simplest and most user-friendly system? What is sustainable for the Exchequer? Having carefully considered all the complex issues involved, the Government has developed a five-year strategy to tackle the problem.
He went on to say one can only do so much in one budget but that this was a major start and he looked forward to continuing.
It was a major increase, far in excess of inflation. In June 1997, as my colleague, Senator Glynn, has already outlined, child benefit for first and second children was €38. Last December, the Minister for Finance announced that monthly rates were to be increased to €150 for the first and second children and €185 for subsequent children. This is a fourfold increase in child benefit. As the Minister stated in December, this was the first budget wherein child care was seriously examined. I do not care on which side of the fence one is. One must say that this has made and will make a substantial difference. This was only last December's budget and there is another budget to go before the Government will see its term of office end. After our re-election, we look forward to delivering another five budgets, which will have even better child care packages. We are building on everything.
I welcome the new five-year child care investment programme to create an extra 50,000 places. My adopted county of Sligo, a small county in the west, has seen major investment. A total of €1 million has been provided for state-of-the-art child care facilities in the town itself, creating child care places and bringing in child care personnel to run them. In Senator Scanlon's home town of Ballymote on the outskirts of Sligo, another €1 million has been used for child care development. In Enniscrone, west Sligo, more than €1 million has been spent, for which the people of Sligo are most grateful.
When I see the figure of €1,000 per year for children under five years of age, I am saddened I did not stop my biological clock. Twenty years ago I had four children under five and I wish that such money had been available. I was a young married mother who gave up work to look after my children. I would have welcomed such income so I envy the young mothers who receive this sum, which will assist in educating and caring for their children.
I am delighted that mothers of newborn children will have six months paid maternity leave from 2007. As a woman and a mother, this is a wonderful initiative. This six-month period can be followed with a further period of unpaid leave. Returning to work and leaving one's child to be looked after by someone else is daunting, particularly with a first child. One wonders if the child will miss the parent. If one can look after the child for nine months, one is leaving a little toddler rather than an infant. This will take the pressure off new mothers who would have had such a draw on their emotions.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
—welcomes the Government's belated and limited recognition of the costs borne by parents in bringing up their children and the need for additional maternity leave;
—regrets that the Government has not provided for paid parental and paternal leave; and
—further regrets that the Government's financial package did not include an additional element which would allow access to quality assured early childhood education and care for all children.
I am delighted Senator Feeney has opened her contribution with an attack on the Fine Gael Party. Senator Feeney is not correct about many matters but she is correct in stating that this five-year plan has been unveiled in the Government's ninth year in office. This is in response to the frustration of taxpayers who have to meet the excessive costs of child care. Having lost two by-elections humiliatingly and having failed to get its message across when it became socialist in September 2004, the Government has resorted to publishing a five-year plan during its ninth year in office. That is the only statement from the Senator that resonates with any truth.
I wish to address her ill-thought out, juvenile remarks on comments made by my party members and me. When creating its child care package, and specifically the child care supplement, the Government did not factor in the potential claims of a significant number of migrant workers. When RTE, which ran this investigative story, raised the matter the Government was unaware of this potential cost. Subsequently, it conceded that it would have to pay on these claims. In his Budget Statement the Minister for Finance was referring to assisting people in this country to deal with the excessive costs of child care. That was the rationale behind the proposal.
The Taoiseach apologised to our party and effectively withdrew the charge of racist slur but I ask Senator Feeney, who persists in making that charge, to read what was said by the leader of her own party.
I hope I will have more time because of Senator Feeney's rather silly interruption. The question is whether the Government had prepared for, was aware of, and had put in place the mechanisms to deal with this matter in the context of its statement in the Dáil last December. The Taoiseach is correct that a variety of reciprocal arrangements exist in many EU countries. Is there a specific arrangement in place to deal with the payment of €1,000?
The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated on Monday evening that the matter would be kept under review. In the context of such a review, will 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 claims be made? Rather than the reactionary, over the top, juvenile remarks of Senator Feeney, the Government needs to be clear on this issue. This is the Government that displayed an inability to deliver the over 70s medical card at three times the original estimate and was wildly inaccurate on pension provisions for those who worked before 1953.
My party has raised these matters in a rational manner but the Government has responded to this debate in an ugly, silly way. If a racist slur is cast upon me or my party every time a matter of public importance is to be discussed in the manner in which I am debating, it is a sad day for democracy and a new type of McCarthyism has taken over. I appreciate the Taoiseach's clarification of his remarks in the other House yesterday and I request Government Members of this House to be aware of what he stated and to be consistent with his position.
Regarding the Government's self-congratulatory motion, some minor improvements have taken place in child care provision, as announced in last December's budget. I welcome these improvements but many of these measures were made in anticipation of the next general election. It is utterly wrong that hard-pressed taxpayers should pay an additional benefit in kind if their employers provide a cash subsidy towards the cost of child care.
I ask the Government to examine this issue in the Finance Bill. If a progressive employer will provide funding to help meet excessive costs of an employee's child care bill, benefit-in-kind should not be levied. I ask the Government to review rates charged to child care facilities throughout the country. When the Government announced its €1,000 subsidy, child care costs rose in many facilities in Dublin the same week. The manner in which we should deal with commercial rates is to charge at a different level.
The Government should undertake a complete audit of provisions for State agencies, semi-State bodies and Departments as a means of ensuring the public authority and the Government implements its strategies on child care. There is no point in lecturing the private sector if the public sector is not doing enough to provide additional child care places. I ask the Government to commit to such an audit and publish the results.
Sums of up to €800 for two-income families for child care amounts to, in effect, a second mortgage. Not only must we act in terms of a universal provision, we must also do more to help with those additional costs faced by many new families, particularly in areas of new housing. The way to do more is to deliver an additional benefit to those families. I welcome the positive announcements in the budget on the basis that it is a small step by the Government after nine years in office. However, the public will not be fooled by this Pauline conversion and that is the context of our amendment.
The Minister of State is welcome to the House for this debate. It certainly is a self-congratulatory motion and I must agree with Senator Brian Hayes in condemning Senator Feeney's opening remarks. I am surprised she raised it in the manner in which she did. While she went on to state that she believes nobody in Fine Gael is racist, it was her opening comment. If we read the report afterwards she will understand why we are concerned about what she said. I know she is not that type of person, but what she said was unnecessary. We do not want to fling insults at one another.
I second the Fine Gael amendment. It is about time the Minister of State felt the need to address the child care issue. It is backslapping of the greatest order for Senator Feeney to state what the Government has done. She must remember how long the Government has been in office and wonder why it was not done before. There is no point in all of the time going back over what we did when we were in Government. We stated before that they were different times, as was the case when the Government came into power nine years ago. Time has moved on and I agree that our economy has improved.
There was a time, when Senator Feeney and I were much younger and had young children, that the money was not there to provide the type of child benefit that women get today. Senator Feeney stated she envied women today. I am not sure I share that envy. Their needs are as great now as our needs once were. In fact, the needs of young mothers and fathers today are even greater. Many women of my age stayed at home and in many cases they were forced to stay at home. We did not have the costs or stresses in our lives that young mothers and fathers have today.
I acknowledge we have come a long way and much has been done in the budget, but not before time. If we examine the package in the context of our economy, we are doing little and playing catch-up with the rest of the EU. Accepting that somebody can pay up to €500 per month for one child, the budget gives approximately €20 per week towards helping a parent with the costs of child care.
Child care is not only about paying a child minder. A child care package is and must be much greater than that. I urge the Minister of State to broaden the package. Providing money is not good enough. Many parents will be glad of the money but it may not necessarily be spent on the child. What about the early education of the child? We are examining all aspects of the child and not only child care costs. Much more must be done.
We must recognise and take into account that children have varied and individual needs. An issue of equality is also raised. We recognise that stay-at-home parents have an equal right to this money as mothers who go out to work. The well-off parent receives the same amount as the poorer parent. Many issues must be addressed and improved. The issue of providing quality child care must also be addressed and much more must be done in that regard.
My secretary told me that apart from an increase in child benefit, the child care package has done nothing for her as a working mother. A single working mother with children over the age of six does not benefit from the payment of €1,000 per year. There is nothing for parents of children in school. Parents must pay for after-school care. There is nothing in the budget to help them. Let us recognise that it is not a panacea for every issue. Much more must be done.
With regard to the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill I do not want the Minister of State to reply by stating that the Government has improved maternity leave. We took Second Stage of the Bill 12 months ago and it now awaits Committee Stage. The delay is unacceptable. Parents of six and seven year old children contact me and are concerned that their children will be too old and they will not be able to avail of it. Some of them will already have missed out on the opportunity to avail of the Bill's provisions. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that Bill is returned to the House as quickly as possible. I contacted the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and asked it to deal with this issue. No date has been set to do so. I fear it will not deal with it before Easter. I ask the Minister of State to examine the matter.
The National Women's Council of Ireland contacted me regarding the €10,000 tax allowance for child minders. I presume it also contacted the Minister of State. It stated it is a positive initiative to encourage child minders into the formal economy. It is critical that when this measure is introduced child minders will be given the same rights and entitlements as all workers. That is extremely important. A child minder willing to mind three or more children in his or her own home for many years will not receive pension or other benefits on retirement or on falling ill. We must examine this issue and I ask the Minister of State to address the anomaly.
I am concerned that the Minister for Finance took the easy option. It was administratively easy to act as the Government did. I can see how one could go down that line. We must now examine the quality of care given to the child and see the value of early childhood education and the opportunities presented to children. It must be available. The Minister of State is aware that for too long in our area community crèches were in danger of closing down if they did not have the finance or were afraid they would not have the ongoing finance to pay the wages of the staff. We must get away from that and ensure there is an ongoing system that will be available to everybody. We must eliminate fears that sufficient funds will not be available from one year to the next. I ask that, instead of clapping themselves on the back, Members of the Government parties get on with addressing the outstanding child care issues. The child care package is long overdue.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators who tabled the motion, which recognises the Government's sustained commitment to the development of quality child care and the measures that made up the child care package announced in budget 2006. An important point to note is that the package is not just for the year ahead but for a number of years thereafter.
I take Senator Terry's point that self-congratulation on the part of Members on the Government benches is not an enjoyable sight, but the fact is that when our Government first took office in 1997 there was no effective child care system or policy. At that time this country lagged behind many of our partners in the European Union in our thinking and in the development of such policy. With the formulation of the first equal opportunities child care programme for the millennium, we at last had a definite Government policy on child care. However, I am always surprised that in contemporary political discourse in the State so many individuals profess to have discovered that child care was an issue when they were canvassing in the counties of Meath and Kildare.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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A Member of my party may have said it first, but it was echoed by Members on all sides of the House. I find that extraordinary because, not only as a Deputy or a Minister of State but at the time of my election to the Dáil, I was aware of the issue——
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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——and I have frequently participated in debates on the subject.
Child care is an important issue that has been to the forefront of Government policy development since 1997. The equal opportunities child care programme was intended to last from 2000 to 2006. In several debates on the programme in this House last year I think everyone agreed that the time had come to take a long-term view of current child care policies, to adopt a more strategic approach to the delivery of services and to meet the current demands of parents.
As far back as June 2003, the Cabinet committee on children established a high level working group on early childhood care and education that was to consider the options. I was very much involved with the working group as it came under the aegis of the then National Children's Office. The group's terms of reference were "to recommend an integrated national policy on child care and early education which will result in improved co-ordination at national and local level and which incorporates a child-centred approach to service delivery". Therefore, I welcome the emphasis that Senator Terry placed on the importance of a child-centred approach and of incorporating quality measures into the system. I can assure her that a key feature of the child care strategy that the Minister for Finance announced in the budget will be the introduction of early education and quality into child care provision.
The working group included representatives from the various relevant Departments. In October 2005, the Cabinet committee on children received from the group an options paper that has informed the Government's recent decisions on child care. Essentially all the key players in the child care sector, in particular parents, called on the Government to make greater funding available for child care and to adopt a more cohesive approach to the delivery of child care services. Those two demands were clearly stated in the public debate on child care that took place prior to the budget.
After considering these matters with great care, in the budget on 7 December the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, announced a national child care strategy for 2006 to 2010. I believe the national child care strategy is a comprehensive and strategic approach by the Government to the emerging needs and the future development of the child care sector. The strategy will stand the test of time and will serve the successor to this Government well.
It is true that the complexity of the cross-cutting nature of child care policy is sometimes understated. Given the well known difficulties surrounding multi-agency programmes, the location of child care under the remit of a particular Minister or a Department, emerged as a pressing need. We all know the need was addressed when, immediately after the budget, the Taoiseach announced a Government decision to create the office of the Minister for children under the Minister of State with special responsibility for children. I am honoured to have this unprecedented opportunity to develop and deliver policies and programmes that will help to ensure the well-being of all our children. My responsibilities include the issues of child protection and welfare, early childhood care and education; and juvenile justice. The housing together of all these issues in one vision of care, protection and provision for children will empower me to make real change and progress on these vital issues. In recent years as Minister of State I worked across the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Education and Science. During this time I was keenly aware of the pressing need for a more co-ordinated and integrated approach to the diverse but fundamentally interlinked child care areas under the remit of these Departments. The office of the Minister for children has been staffed with key officials from these Departments who will bring with them their expertise in each of their areas of child care policy and services.
A key element of the new national child care strategy is the child care investment programme, which will run from 2006 to 2010 and be delivered in a strategic way through the new office of the Minister for children. As the new programme came into effect on 1 January 2006, the Government in effect decided to terminate the equal opportunities child care programme before its due date and to replace it with another programme. Unlike its predecessor, the new investment programme is entirely funded from the Exchequer and there is no question of it being co-funded by the European Union. The Government has committed €575 million to the programme over its five-year term. That is substantially in excess of — in fact, it is almost double — the allocation for the previous programme. The Government's decision to create a major new five-year investment programme immediately rather than wait until the expiry of the equal opportunities child care programme is evidence of the Government's commitment to the provision of quality child care. Personally, I was anxious to dispense with the EOCP acronym — I think Senators will agree we have an abundance of acronyms to describe different public programmes — so the new programme is simply called the national child care programme. Its name just describes what it is, but it will no doubt become known as the NCP in due course.
In any event, the national child care programme aims to provide a proactive response to the development of quality child care supports and services grounded in an understanding of local needs. It will build on the previous programme and will incorporate a number of objectives. A key objective is the creation of 50,000 additional child care places, including 5,000 after-school places and 10,000 pre-school places for three and four year olds. The programme also aims to improve the quality of early childhood care and education services, including part-time, full day care, school-age child care and child minding. It will support families, break the cycle of disadvantage and support a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of child care centred on the needs of the child. In that connection, I have already mentioned Senator Terry's speech, but I ask her to note that the early education side of the Department of Education and Science has been co-located in the office of the Minister for children and put under my devolved direction. That is an important point because whatever child minding arrangements are in place must be informed by the best early education practice.
The Government has set ambitious targets for the next five years, including the creation of 17,000 additional trained child care personnel. I am committed to ensuring that we meet these targets and objectives in a way that takes account of the needs for pre-school child care, school age child care and for wrap-around services that meet the specific needs of parents and their children. Meeting the targets will require careful planning and incremental development but I am confident I have been given the necessary tools and resources to deliver on them. As Senators will appreciate, the fact that the previous programme was co-funded by the European Union and related to female labour market participation and equality in the workforce meant there were constraints on the types of programme that could be devised under the previous equal opportunities child care programme. Those constraints will not apply to the new programme, which will be funded exclusively by the Exchequer.
Additional capital funding was announced in budget 2006 that will enable me to allocate capital grant assistance to groups that address significant child care service gaps. The maximum capital grants available for the building or expansion of child care facilities will be €1 million per facility for community-based, not-for-profit providers. There will be a strong focus on private provider applications as well with a maximum capital grant of €100,000 per facility and a maximum of €500,000 per provider in the case of multiple services in different catchment areas.
The new national child care investment programme will continue to assist with staffing and other operating costs in community facilities that cannot meet the full costs from fee income alone. In fact, I received many representations about the uncertainty of personnel in the community facilities who were in receipt of staffing grants. Staffing grant assistance under the previous programme is being continued to the end of 2007 to ensure there will be no break in the momentum that has been built up and that the transition to the new programme is a smooth one.
A key element of the new programme is the decision to deliver it at local level through the city and county child care committees. I have had the privilege of visiting many of the city and county child care committees and I put on record my appreciation of the tremendous work they do. They were established at city and county level under the previous investment programme and have been a very active force at local level. They will identify and meet local child care needs and facilitate greater flexibility in our responsiveness to those needs.
Even with these new structures in place, it will not always be possible to deal with child care as a discrete administrative area. One example I put to Senators is the need for interaction between infrastructural development and the planning structures and regulations under the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. In regard to planning issues, I propose to strengthen linkages at national and local levels between the relevant parties, including the planning authorities, the county development boards and the county child care committees. In co-operation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, officials from my office will address local planning authorities shortly to ensure greater understanding of the issues and to foster a co-ordinated approach.
For understandable reasons, Senators tend to be very familiar with the operations of local government authorities and I am sure they are aware of the difficulties at local level in regard to the planning of child care facilities. It is important we have a much more co-ordinated approach to this issue and that clear goals are set and clear norms are laid down by officials and authorities.
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As Senator O'Meara is aware, requirements have been imposed on planning conditions to build child care facilities per a certain number of houses. This has led to circumstances where there are, on occasion, too many child care facilities located in one area while none are located in another. There are also questions in regard to the negotiations which take place between officials and developers about the development of child care facilities and when the requirement can, on occasion, be waived in favour of alternative contributions or approaches. We need a standardised approach to this because as Senators and Deputies have pointed out for some time, there is national need and the forward planning by local authorities must meet and accommodate it. That is why we intend to organise a major conference with local government officials to see how we can progress this forward.
One cannot transfer responsibility in this area to a Minister with responsibility for children. It necessarily involves the proper physical planning and development of the country and it is germane to the functions of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
I note the motion welcomed the new early child care supplement of €1,000 per annum which is being introduced in respect of all children under six years of age with effect from April 2006. This will be a direct, non-taxable payment of €250 paid per quarter year in respect of each eligible child. The payment is intended to assist parents with the high cost of caring for children, especially in their early years. As will be appreciated, it will take some time to set the administrative arrangements in place for these payments but all parents eligible for these payments can expect to receive the three payments due in 2006.
The early child care supplement makes no distinction as to the income or employment status of parents, and this is deliberate. Some might be critical of this feature but the Government believes it is right that parents should have choice when it comes to child care. It is not the role of the State to tell parents which child care arrangements are best suited to their families — rather it is for the State to support them in any such arrangements that are appropriate.
A trend which has worried me in the recent child care debate has been the attempt by some to pit one group of parents against another, which is wrong. Parents, whether they work to support their families while paying for child care or stay at home to mind their children, each in their own way are doing their best for their families and we should not be privileging one set of parents over the other. Both have made sacrifices for their children and in both cases, it is appropriate for the State to offer a contribution towards the costs they incur as a result.
This week Fine Gael attacked the applicability of the payment to those EU migrants working here and paying Irish taxes while supporting their pre-school children in their home country. This is despite the fact that Irish workers have benefited from similar payments in European Union countries over the years — not only child benefit-type schemes but also payments made explicitly towards the childminding costs of children. This is a requirement under European Union regulations and benefits our citizens employed throughout the EU. Indeed, other European Union countries have made savings as a result of those children remaining in Ireland as we pay for their health and education costs. Of course, we make similar savings when EU migrants support their children back in their home country.
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I will deal with the points as they arise.
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What is surprising is that yesterday Fine Gael called for this payment to be scrapped and replaced with a voucher system, which would be paid in respect of receipted child care payments. In other words, this would not go to families with stay-at-home parents minding their children. Leave aside for one moment that, on the basis of current case law, my advice is that it is far from clear such a payment would be exempt from EU regulations — that is a complex point of law and not one into which I intend to go here — but the Fine Gael proposal would take this €1,000 payment away from those parents who had made that choice.
Is that the best solution Fine Gael can come up with? In order to stop a few thousand hard working, taxpaying EU citizens receiving their entitlements, the same as any Irish worker, it would take this money away, not only from them, but from Irish mothers who have put their careers on hold and who have taken a hit on their family income in order to give their children what they consider to be the best start in life. Of course, we know this would never happen. Such a move would be unjust and, in the event Fine Gael ever found itself in Government, it is doubtful any of the many prospective partners which have been canvassed for it would support it in such a step. However, it is disappointing that it is threatening it.
Senator Terry reiterated the claim that the Government's estimated cost of this scheme did not include migrants with children in their home country. As I said, the costing of this payment was based on the take-up of child benefit. Child benefit includes migrants workers' children who remain abroad. Like any payment, the future costs of both payments have always been subject to a number of variables, including future birth rates, the number of children who travel with their migrant parents and the take-up. Both schemes will be monitored but the possibility that take-up will increase in the future should not prevent us making a payment now that will support parents.
Figures of €50 million and €150 million were plucked out of the air and broadcast by persons who subsequently admitted they did not have a clue how much this would cost, thus adding more heat than light to this debate. Indeed, the figure of €150 million is now stated to have included a possible future increased take-up by migrants of their child benefit entitlements totally unrelated to the introduction of this payment and based on unscientific figures. Quite how the child benefit system could be changed to exclude other EU-based children was not explained by any of the contributors to this debate and I suspect the statement was made without fully thinking it through. If it is now accepted that this entitlement is unaffected by the new payment and cannot be taken away from these workers, this debate would be an appropriate opportunity to say so and to accept this figure was unfounded.
I regret Senator Brian Hayes said the Taoiseach apologised for me, although I can understand how he was unintentionally misled into saying that by the parliamentary report in today's edition of The Irish Times. Of course, I do not believe any member of Fine Gael in this, or the other, House is a racist and I never suggested any such a thing. The Taoiseach also made it clear that he does not view any member of Fine Gael in that light or context. However, I said that on the basis of the production of this figure of €150 million in a press release circulated by the party, it seemed to be playing on racial card. If the public is told this vast sum of money is about to be spent on persons who reside overseas, to what else is that to amount?
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I thank the Acting Chairman. I note that the learned editor of The Irish Times suggested that it would have been better for me to have used the term "xenophobic". For the purposes of this debate, I am happy to suggest that Fine Gael was xenophobic on this issue.
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I have concluded on this subject, but as Senator Brian Hayes raised this issue in his opening contribution, I therefore felt entitled to reply to it.
However, I understand that my time has elapsed and my course is run. Other aspects are to be welcomed, such as the maternity leave referred to previously and the child minding relief. I look forward to the Members' contributions and thank them for their contributions to date on the subject.
Members have just witnessed a fairly unedifying spectacle. However, it is to be expected because we are in the run up to an election. All the parties, along with some of the Independents, are trying to offer more to the electorate and accuse others of racism and xenophobia. It is all totally and pathetically irrelevant.
It is perfectly obvious that this House is being used. I was astonished to receive the preliminary Order of Business and to find that Private Members' time was occupied by this motion, which was signed by the Department of Health and Children rather than by the Government. This is not the intended purpose of this House. Motions should be generated by Members and if the Government Members do not have the wit or imagination to so do, the time should be handed over to those who do. It is about time that everyone, including Ministers and all parties, treated this House with a little more respect.
I take an unpopular view of the child care issue. Obviously, I believe that children should be cared for. They are vulnerable people whose educational and welfare needs must be met and the State has responsibilities in this regard. However, I am sometimes astonished by the claims made in newspapers. I read interviews with people who have two cars, foreign holidays, a big new house and two children, who want the taxpayer to produce money for them to have more. They should not get it.
I make a serious point when I state that this tiny planet faces a cataclysm of overpopulation. While I have been making this point for years, eminent scientists now state the same thing. Instead of providing people with tax incentives to have more children, I rejoice in population decline. I include Europe, where people caterwaul about the decline in population, and am delighted the population is dwindling somewhere on the planet, particularly in those countries where the ecological footprint is proportionately much more disastrous.
We should think of this issue in a global context and not simply in terms of electoral advantage, without considering it fully. Since I left school, the population of this planet has doubled and it will increase by another 50% within 25 years. We simply cannot cope. The global icecaps are melting and the appalling problem of overpopulation lies behind resource wars, hatred and struggles. As a human and, I hope, a humane person, I have no dislike for families or children. However, they should be born into situations where they are genuinely cherished.
The Minister's speech rang with money. Are we getting good value? I know the Minister and he is a decent and caring family man. However, I have heard the most astonishing amounts, such as €20,000 or €40,000, as examples of what people are obliged to pay to keep a couple of children in a crèche. Why do they pay so much? If one has a number of children in a crèche, where does this enormous sum go? Has anyone conducted a cost benefit analysis to establish what is the most efficient way of spending money?
As a matter of principle, people should be encouraged to have two children only. It is in the planet's interest. While I am 61 years old and will be gone before we are drowned by the melting icecaps, if the other Members have any real vision of what they are getting their children into, they should take this issue seriously.
The question of child benefits has been turned into a issue of racism or xenophobia. Xenophobia is almost as bad as racism. It means "fear of foreigners", from the Greek. I hope we do not have an unjustified fear of foreigners. Certain groups appear in every race and we should not accept anyone, simply because they are Polish, Yugoslav, black or whatever. We should consider people's quality. If this money is being granted, it should also go to such children, who are still children, whatever their origin. However, I want the payments to be monitored to ensure that the money goes towards the children's welfare. The taxpayer is entitled to know that this is the case.
I have a point about the wonderful notion of "family" about which I have been preached at for so long. I agree that the family, rightly regulated and filled with love and mutual respect is a wonderful institution. However, in this regard, where is it now? Will people not take any responsibility for their children? I have heard programmes on the wireless in which people stated that the children would be cared for by their extended family and grandparents and then asked who would pay the grandparents. While I am becoming a grumpy old man, I have a certain amount to be grumpy about. Why should the taxpayer pay people to look after their children's children? Everyone appears to want money. I do not have children. I do not want children, because for reasons with which I will not burden this House, it is unlikely that the kind of activities in which I occasionally and sporadically engage will generate children.
——I would want to spend as much time with them as possible. I would prefer that to commuting in the car. What of the plight of the children of refugees and asylum seekers? I heard a radio discussion on this point today and they are expected to survive on €9 per week, even to buy nappies. We should consider the entire picture and not indulge in an election fest.
I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time with me. I agree with some aspects of his speech, in that a great deal of this debate is focused solely on money and not on the fact that people should be able to have extra time with their children. To me, this is one of the most important facets of the entire child care debate. I deeply regret that the issue of flexitime has not yet been raised.
It is not fair to state that remarks made by any Fine Gael Senators have been racist. It was not so.
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No one stated that any of their remarks was racist.
I am not accusing the Minister of State in this regard. There have been accusations outside the House to that effect. The Minister of State should note that I am also allowed to make statements in the House. I do not think any of those remarks was meant to be racist. It was that they were considering whether this accounting exercise had been properly carried out.
There is quite a bit to be said about vouchers for child care. I cannot go back on this now, seeing as for years I asked the former Ministers for Finance, Deputy Quinn and Charlie McCreevy, and the current Minister, Deputy Cowen, to introduce them stating that they would be a good way of ensuring that what money we were giving for child care was being spent on child care. Senator Norris is correct in mentioning the money side of this being the most important matter but of course the most important matter is to get women back to work as fast as possible.
The early care of the child is not being given sufficient attention. While I acknowledge the importance of the extension to maternity leave, we know that this is an extraordinarily important time of the child's life, not just for bonding with the mother but also to encourage breast-feeding. We have made efforts in this direction and in ten years the proportion of mothers breast-feeding when they leave hospital has risen from 30% to 44.5%. However, 66% of mothers from the professional class and those with third level education will leave hospital breast-feeding whereas 21% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds will leave hospital breast-feeding. We are still not giving enough support to mothers when they leave maternity hospital, where a considerable amount of work is put into this issue, but there are overworked public health nurses trying to continue it.
We need to do more to make this seem a positive aspect of women's life rather than tolerate the sort of remarks that are sometimes made about women who breast-feed. I was grateful on two occasions recently to find that fine big children of six months were continuing to be breast-fed. I was on the Enterprise to Belfast recently, when the train broke down at Poyntzpass for three and a half hours. There was no question of bottles being heated and I was glad that the child opposite me was being breast-fed.
On another occasion on a flight from London with Aer Lingus, where there was still some idea of public service for passengers, a child was putting up a fierce fight with his mother. She told me that she was trying to wean him and I replied by asking if she could not wait until we got to Dublin to try. She obliged which made for a much more peaceful journey for all on the aeroplane.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the Government for what they have done but again add their slogan that there is a lot more still to do.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. This is just one of a series of debates in this House on the issue of child care and early childhood education. It is both commendable and significant that this is the case. Child care continues to be a topic that challenges, poses questions and in some ways divides us. When I first contemplated the motion before the House, it occurred to me that it might be less divisive than those in the past. I expected the usual cries from the Opposition of, "Is this the best Senator Minihan can do?" However, in discussing the child care package set out in the budget, I optimistically expected some harmonious support for the latest positive steps taken by Government. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
One element, in particular, the early child care supplement, has become a topic of some heated discussion in recent days. Of course some of this heat is generated by large amounts of hot air emanating from some quarters. I will turn to that specific issue in a few moments.
I congratulate the Government, and the Ministers responsible in particular, on the child care package set out in budget 2006. While may congratulations may be seen merely as expected and customary, I would point out that many interest groups, employer groups and charities have also welcomed recent developments. I could list at length the groups welcoming the measures announced in December.
However, it was the reaction of parents, rather than interest groups, that I watched out for most keenly after the Budget Statement. Comments from parents include the following: "The budget represents the most equitable way [they] could have done it", "I think the idea of allowing people to earn €10,000 without paying tax is excellent", "The maternity leave helps people who are working and the early child care supplement helps everybody", and "The €10,000 helps people in the home because they can probably take another kid in while they're minding their own". This is the context in which our debate should take place.
Of paramount importance is the fact that action on child care is child centred. We should not lose sight of this fact as we discuss the recent budget measures. Furthermore, we should recognise that no single party, from either side of the House, has a monopoly of wisdom on child care. There have been many considered and important policy papers on this issue, particularly, but not exclusively, in the run-up to the budget. I am heartened by the amount of work that was put into contributions to the debate made by all parties, interest groups and the public. That effort should be acknowledged and placed on the record.
Moving to the points raised in the motion, the Progressive Democrats are particularly supportive of the new five-year child care investment programme which, as we have heard, will support the creation of an extra 50,000 child care places. As Members of this House will be aware, my party and I have long stated the belief that increased supply is a key element in reducing child care costs. The Government is to be commended on adopting a partnership approach to implementing the programme. This will provide the essential framework within which Government will deliver on its commitment to quality child care services.
The child care investment programme is but one part of the co-ordinated and strategic approach taken by the Government, to be administered by a single office under one Minister. The establishment of the office of the Minister for children provides a new and indispensable focus on ways of delivering the best services for children. This is to be warmly welcomed.
Moving to the second element of the motion, the one I referred to earlier, the new child care supplement of €250 per quarter for every child up to the age of six is an important step in assisting parents further with the cost of caring for their children, particularly, as the motion states, during the time in a child's life when expenses tend to be the greatest. We must acknowledge that this direct payment of €1,000 a year, available equally to all parents regardless of whether they work, for each child up to his or her sixth birthday, is a truly significant measure, not just in itself but also because when combined with the increases in child benefit, now €150 per month, a family will now receive €2,800 per year for each of the first two children.
This represents real progress and real support for parents across the country. Despite the help it provides to parents, the early child care supplement has become an issue that greatly concerns Members opposite. Indeed, Senator Brian Hayes of Fine Gael is reported to have concluded that if even one third of the estimated 166,000 accession country workers registered to work here claim the child benefit and new child care payment, the extra cost to the State could reach €150 million. The criticisms appear to be based on the cost and the belief that this was a surprise to Government and that this supplement was only meant to cover child care costs in this country. I wish to address each of these briefly.
First, Senator Brian Hayes and Fine Gael are almost right in that some 160,000 people from accession countries have been issued with PPS numbers since May 2004. However, the number of workers actually still residing here is likely to be smaller. In fact, in contrast to the widely varying high numbers being bandied about by Fine Gael, just 300 accession state workers are in receipt of child benefit in Ireland for children living in their home country. Despite a further 2,000 claims being processed, it is obvious that in terms of cost, the Opposition has again proven itself rather suspect when it comes to the national accounts.
The second point is the intimation from the Opposition that this issue came as some surprise to the Government and, perhaps, even that the measure was not properly costed as a result. The precise topic was discussed with the Department of Social and Family Affairs two months prior to the budget. Furthermore, receipt of the supplement is based on receipt of child benefit. The budget figures were based on the total number of recipients of child benefit, which includes migrant workers. Unfortunately for the Opposition, this is another paper argument.
The third claim is that the supplement was only meant to cover child care costs in this country. The new early child care supplement is intended to assist parents with the cost of caring for their children and it is not exclusively for child care or child minding costs. The nature of the payment means it may be spent on other costs. Even, for example, if a parent has to live in one country but his or her children remain in school in another, he or she still has to bear a cost of caring for them. It is, therefore, not that complicated. Ireland should honour its commitments under Regulation 1408/71, which is concerned with the EU social security schemes and the free movement of persons. Irish people have benefited from this system for 30 years, availing in other countries from benefit systems more generous than those we could ourselves put in place in the past. Thankfully, under this and the previous Governments, our economic development has been such that roles have been reversed and to suggest this supplement should not be paid to people from other member states, when we have availed of reciprocal arrangements in those states for decades, smacks of something unpleasant. The regulations are in place to protect the social security rights of persons moving within the EU.
It is imperative that the correct training arrangements are put in place to support the delivery of the type of child care all Members seek for parents. The motion notes that it is expected that 4,000 or more child care workers will be trained annually over the next five years. While this is necessary and welcome, it must be properly managed and administered. I add the voice of the Progressive Democrats to those calling for the maintenance and development of best practice in child care. As I stated on budget day in this House, in contrast to approaches proposed by Opposition parties, in so far as a coherent policy can be discerned, the Minister considered all family configurations and choices. I, and the Progressive Democrats, have long made clear in our policy documents that we support increasing child care supply, choice for families and extended maternity leave. It is in this context that I support the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important matter. We have a proud record of keeping this issue high on the political agenda and, with the exception of this debate, of generally reaching a consensus on what needs to happen regarding child care. I very much regret the tone of the debate in the past few days during which one element of the issue has been politicised unnecessarily. That has not contributed to the debate but, hopefully, we have moved past that and we can focus on the core issues in the debate.
With regard to the Government's package, I welcome the early child care supplement, as it goes some way towards meeting the proposal in our policy document, which was published last October. However, we proposed a payment of €50 a week whereas the Government proposes a payment of less than €20 a week. While this represents a significant divergence, the principle is agreed. Having examined the issue, the Labour Party considered that a universal payment was the best way forward, similar to the Government proposal. When one is committed to the care of children, one does not want to create an unnatural divide between parents who work outside the home and those who work within it.
The Government missed an opportunity in the budget. While, as the Minister of State pointed out, the budget delivered on a number of child care issues, the Government could have gone much further and I regret it did not do so. The Government's response was limited but the Minister of State made a virtue out of his interest in child care while in office. He has attended the House on a number of occasions to debate the issue and he has been erudite and articulate but a number of his colleagues in the Cabinet only woke up to the urgency and importance of this issue when they arrived on the doorsteps in counties Kildare and Meath. That was unfortunate because, clearly, they were not listening to him. Perhaps, if they had, we might have moved further down the road.
The Government parties have been in office since 1997 but the equal opportunities child care programme only came into operation in 2000. It has been a great programme and I acknowledge the contribution of Sylda Langford in developing and administering the programme as well as she has. The programme has made a difference in many communities, including my own in Nenagh, where a state-of-the-art community child care facility was built with the aid of considerable funding under the programme. However, like many others, this facility is struggling because of the cost of staffing. Despite using 17 community employment scheme workers, all but one of whom are women and all of whom are benefiting greatly as a result of their involvement, the crèche continues to struggle. I have visited crèches in disadvantaged areas, which need more public support. This is where our approaches diverge.
Investment in early childhood care and education, particularly in disadvantaged areas, is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. If good quality pre-school education is provided, it will make a difference to the children and families involved. The Competitiveness Council published a report two years ago, in which it pointed out that, despite our economic success, the rate of early school leaving among teenagers was as high as ever. While in the 1980s the drop-out rate might have been put down to bad economic circumstances and so on, that is no longer the case. The council pleaded for the provision of a pre-school education infrastructure and I was disappointed the budget made no provision in this regard.
The Minister of State referred to the provision of 10,000 pre-school places. How are they supposed to be delivered? Who will deliver them? Will existing private sector facilities provide the places or will community pre-school facilities be involved? Unless pre-school education is available to all children, not only to the 10,000 referred to by the Minister of State or those whose parents can afford it or live near a Montessori school, a significant opportunity will be missed. We will fail in our duty to all the children of the nation.
I very much welcome the proposed establishment of an office of the Minister for children. Child care provision badly needs to be co-ordinated but we have known that for years. It will finally happen and that is great but it is less than 18 months to the election and, therefore, we will believe the Taoiseach for the moment. I hope the office will be well established by the time the election is called. It will take time to co-ordinate everything and to roll out the office but children cannot wait.
I was disappointed that nothing was done about flexible working or paid parental leave. The take-up of parental leave is low because people cannot afford to take unpaid leave. As Senator Terry pointed out, the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill was dealt with in this House a year ago. I had a conversation at that time with a woman in Nenagh who read in the newspaper that the new parental leave provisions would be in place by the following summer. I said I was sure it would be the case because the Bill was in the Seanad. The Bill was debated in the usual efficient manner in this House this time last year, but it is now in the Dáil. I hoped it was in the Dáil because the Government had plans to introduce some element of paid leave. However, this is not the case, which is a pity.
I am pleased that the Minister referred to planning guidelines. I am considering this aspect because I am trying to get my head around what is going on. Even though all these planning applications include crèches, when the development is built there is no crèche. I agree with the Minister of State that one does not need a crèche in every corner in a town the size of Nenagh or Thurles. However, the Government put the regulations in place for a reason and something is not working. The Minister of State is using language around linkages, co-ordination and so on but I would like to see what this will mean in practice. A conference will be taking place in the near future to which I look forward, because much needs to be done in this regard. I spoke to a woman recently who is operating a crèche out of her private house, which is not satisfactory, and who would like to have a purpose-built crèche. While this woman wants a purpose-built crèche, developers are just not building crèches. There is something wrong somewhere. It is correct that the role of the county child care committees is significant.
The phrase has been used "A lot done, more to do". I would say "A limited amount done, a huge amount left to do". We do not have in place the proper infrastructure. It is a case of putting a bit in here and there and hoping it will look like an overall co-ordinated plan. I have my doubts as to whether this will happen. The proposal is still lacking. What has been done is welcome but it is very limited.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate. It is good that the issue of child care, which we have debated on many occasions in the past, is being debated again in the Seanad.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The first aspect I welcome is having one person in charge of child care and children, and the upgrading of the position to Minister for children. This will address some of the concerns people had at different times that there was no joined-up thinking in this regard.
As Senators will be aware, I have had many difficulties in recent months in regard to the issue of child care and what I saw as a lack of attention and radical initiatives in the area. I welcome the initiatives being put in place by the Minister, Deputy Cowen. They are a move in the right direction, which I would like to acknowledge.
I wish to focus on a number of issues that have not been addressed so far. The first aspect to which Senator O'Meara referred is working parents. If one carried out a survey of mothers and fathers, particularly mothers, one would find that what they would like most is more time with their children. They would like to be able to get home to do the homework with their children and to attend school plays. They would like not to be under constant pressure. Parents would like to be able to provide a house, car and so on for their children so that they can have the best education, avail of the best after-school facilities and learn music, art, drama and so on. People accept that two parents may need to work because parents, including mothers, are entitled to a career.
The Government must put in place the kind of structures that facilitate this way of life, which may be for a limited period. My children range in age from six to 11. I have missed a lot of time with them because I have not been at home to help them with their homework. Fathers and others might think that I am lucky. It is awful not to know what one's children are doing in school. It breaks one's heart. All parents want is time, which must be examined.
I plead with the Minister of State to introduce job-sharing and flexible working hours. Even though he might say there is job-sharing, he should visit small and medium sized businesses in the private sector which have huge problems in this regard. I run a business and we had to introduce initiatives in this area. Were it not for the fact that I understand how these women feel, as a small business, we would not have decided to accept that cost. It is very difficult to run a business with job-sharing and flexible working hours, particularly if one is involved in the service industry and is trying to support services from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. How does one deal with the additional cost of employing and training people and managing two or three people who are doing the one job?
Supports should be made available to organisations on a daily and weekly basis. I pleaded with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, when he was in this House. Obviously he was not interested in what I had to say. He was too upset that I was frank with him. Some of the money being put into child care places should be put into a pilot scheme. The Government should say to small organisations that it will provide a grant if they introduce initiatives that would make life better for parents working in the organisation by allowing them to job-share. Businesses should be given grants to train two people to do the one job or to provide for flexible working hours and so on. They should be given grants to put in broadband and to put a computer in homes which would allow parents not to have to come to work until 10 a.m. and to be able to leave again at 3 p.m. This works very well in America where it is called "moms' hours", "dads' hours" or "parents' hours".
Something must be done about the women and men whose employers cannot allow them the flexibility and freedom which exists for workers in the public sector. The officials in the Minister of State's Department have access to three-day and four-day weeks because they can take parental leave on one or two days a week. Small business cannot afford this. It is not the way things are in the real world. We must create an environment in the real world whereby the Government will support businesses which contribute to the economy, paying their taxes, PAYE and PRSI to provide flexible working hours for the men and women who work for them.
We can no longer ignore the need for paid parental leave. I welcome the extended maternity leave, which makes a significant difference to mothers. For a mother not to have to return to work until her baby is seven or eight months old makes a huge difference. They have finishedbreast-feeding, seen their child's first teeth cut and are getting into a sleeping pattern. It makes a huge difference if the baby is old enough and sturdy enough to go into a crèche or to someone else's house to be looked after. It gets rid of the guilt feeling of which we are all aware. I am sure fathers suffer from it just as much as mothers.
Parental leave should be provided for parents who are working, which would be easy if one were earning lots of money. It would be easy for me to take parental leave. I would not even notice the drop in income because I would be saving 40% of my tax and I would have fewer expenses. However, low paid workers and families on the average industrial wage of €30,000 or €40,000 a year, cannot afford parental leave. In this respect, mothers and fathers lose out but, most important, the children lose out.
If we leave any legacy in this House, it should be as follows. First, all of the parties should get together and instead of using it as a political football, we should strive for all-party consensus on the issue. We all have great ideas. We all want to make a better world for children, therefore, let us go into the next election and not fight each other on our child care policy. We should have a common acceptable ground that will make sense and make a difference. There should be all-party consensus on this issue. We had it previously in regard to certain referendums and this proposal is even more important than referendums.
We need to be united in our approach to this issue. We should not fight over it, take pot shots at each other or say one party is better than another parties in its approach. None of us is better than any other; we are parents and adults and at some stage or in some way we will all be involved in Government. I would like us to be united in our approach to this issue.
My message to the Minister of State is that I welcome that his position has been upgraded and that he has been made more powerful in the Cabinet. It is a marvellous step forward. I also welcome the child care measures introduced in the budget. If as a result of those we have to pay €1,000 to the children of parents from Poland or any of the other EU member states who are working here, that does not matter. The issue is about children. I ask my colleagues in the House not to make this issue a political football. My children are too precious to me and I know other Members' children are too precious to them to do that. We should strive for all-party consensus on this issue. If we are united on this issue when we go to the electorate, it can decide on all our other policies, but child care is too important an issue on which to divide the country.
When canvassing in the Kildare by-election, the question of child care cropped up on practically every doorstep and that was also the case in County Meath. That was a barometer of child care being an issue in other constituencies. Therefore it was no surprise that given the hammering the Government received in both by-elections, the Minister for Finance at last began to address the child care issue. Typical of its response to the health crisis, the Government believes throwing money at the issue will solve the problem. The Government started to address the problem by examining it strictly from an economic viewpoint.
The main focus of child care should always be on the child having an appropriate curriculum, which is stimulative and developmental for the child. There appears to be no Government policy on the standards and quality of child care. The vast majority of child care workers are not vetted. I read recently in a newspaper the heading "How sure are you that your child is safe?" This is also a cause of concern to many parents.
The Government has no idea of the quality of child care in the unregulated sector in particular, which is not open to inspection. Recent reports from the HSE are worrying when one considers that regulation breaches such as inadequate security on doors and toxic materials being left within the reach of children were found in some child care facilities. It is vital that these inspection reports are published in order that all parents are fully aware of the status of the facility in which they have placed their child. It is essential that the safety of children is paramount in all such facilities. Parents must know that their child is safe, secure and happy.
In the Government's policy there is no link to quality and no recognition of the value of the quality of early childhood care and education for all children. Without this link the child care supplement, as it is called, is really only child benefit by another name. When it comes to child care and early education, quality matters. For children, it is an investment in their healthy growth and development; for the care provider, it offers meaningful work; and for society, it has measurable gain.
The Government has missed an opportunity to develop the pre-school sector in particular. We still remain one of the worst countries in Europe for pre-school provision. We welcome the €1,000 supplement but it is not enough on its own. I stress that what is missing is the vital link, supporting the care and early education of children inside and outside the home. We encourage the Government to take on board many more of the Fine Gael proposals on child care rather than to put a spin on matters, as it tried to do this evening, which is most unedifying.
As far back as budget 2000, Fianna Fáil and the PDs were lamenting the dramatic rise in child care costs and the huge burden it placed on families. It took them until this year to get around to doing something about it. We should be clear that it is not the nation's children or the nation's family that roused the Government to act on child care, it was votes. The Government had a change of heart on child care. That did not take place on the road to Damascus but on the byroads of the N2 and N7 and the estates in counties Meath and Kildare. That is where the Government had its change of heart.
The primary focus of child care should always be on the child. I welcome that the Government has belatedly made a start on addressing the child care crisis. "A lot more to do" is definitely an understatement.
I had not intended to participate in this debate because our party's spokesperson on the issue, not only in the Seanad but nationally, contributed and, as always, her delivery was sensible, rational and far from partisan. That is not to say my contribution will be any different.
There are a few points to be made, however, in the light of the controversy about the early childhood supplement and the fact that the children of immigrants here, who are living in the immigrants' home country, will be paid the supplement and that there is a reciprocal arrangement in place. Viewing this from outside the House, one sees the Government making a virtue out of something that perhaps it had not thought about it. I do not know whether that is true but I know that the evidence until now was that there was no great concerted effort to inform the approximately 100,000 or 150,000 immigrants in the country that these reciprocal arrangements existed. I am not aware of literature in Polish advising our new and welcome immigrants that all these benefits are available to them. However, I am aware that recent reports, extracted from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, about the conditions in which the children of asylum seekers have to live, in some of the hovels which is the best way to characterise how they were described, have not shown much of this warmth and compassion for recently arrived new residents in our country.
I wish to put a scenario to the Minister of State, in his capacity as the new super Minister with responsibility for children. If we accept, which we do and should, that we have an obligation to the children of those who have come to work with us, assuming that at some stage in the immediate future we will try to ensure that workers who come here get the same rights as Irish workers and that those rights are enforced, I cannot help guessing, without evidence, that there are a considerably greater number of civil servants diligently checking out the claims for child benefit of immigrant workers than there were ever available to check out the working conditions of our immigrant workers. I am sure there are many more than 21 civil servants involved in investigating all these claims for child benefit. It is correct that they should investigate them, but it appears that the enthusiasm for making sure that nobody claims a benefit to which he or she is not entitled as an immigrant worker is far greater than the enthusiasm for making sure that immigrant workers who are here are working in conditions that are the same as those of Irish workers, not to mention being required, either by an ungenerous welfare system or by a lack of knowledge of their rights, to perhaps work at lower rates and then contribute to the significant wage degradation that many trade unionists and many of the rest of us believe has begun to happen. I would love to hear from some Minister about the campaign the Government is about to launch to ensure all our immigrant workers know they are entitled to €1,000 per annum in respect of their children under the appropriate age in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania or elsewhere. I look forward to hearing someone on the Government side describe the campaign, which I am sure will be launched in many languages through the labour exchanges, IBEC and similar organisations. It is obvious that the Government wants us to believe that its policy in this regard is rational and well thought out and that it knew this issue would arise. I note that an official said the relevant authorities were processing 2,000 claims. His statement that there will probably be a few more claims, now that the matter has been publicised, represents an admission that it has not been publicised up to now. Where was the generosity when nobody knew about this matter? Is generosity something one adds on when one is caught out? That is what I suspect in this instance.
I join Members on all sides of the House who have welcomed in broad terms the Government's child care initiative that was announced in the budget. I am sure the House will endorse the comments which have been made about the new office of the Minister for children. The Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has brought the various disparate elements of child care provision, as we have known it over the last seven or eight years, together under the aegis of a single office. Those of us who are involved in the child care sector recognise not only that the Minister of State is now at the top of the pyramid but also that the expertise which has been available within the equal opportunities child care programme since the mid-1990s has been transferred to the new office. I wish to express my personal appreciation and continuing support for Ms SyldaLangford, an outstanding public servant who has been driving child care policy at national and regional level and will continue to do so in her new role. My comments in that regard should not be seen as casting a reflection on any of the other fine people who are operating within the Department.
As someone who made the case for a child care facility in my home county at a time when such a proposal was not popular in County Leitrim, I have a particular reason to thank Ms Langford. I advocated the development of a facility to cater for between 60 and 100 children, in a town of 800 people that is in a catchment area of 2,000 people, in the context of the imminent arrival in Carrick-on-Shannon of MBNA, which is now the largest employer in County Leitrim. Many people at national level thought the proposal was pie in the sky and many people at local level thought it was overly ambitious. I am pleased to say that Ms Langford and her officials supported from the outset the development of the community-based facility which is now up and running. The facility, which missed out on previous allocations of money, will receive €400,000 for a further extension under the most recent allocation that was announced just before Christmas. Some 105 children are catered for in the facility during the day and between 20 and 30 children are on the waiting list. It emerged at a board meeting earlier this week that there is growing demand for an after-school service, like similar services being provided across the country. That is an indication of the level of demand in what is perceived to be a rural area.
I endorse much of what was said about the need for flexibility to be built into the working day. As someone who is involved in the management committee of the National Economic and Social Forum, I am aware that the Irish Business and Employers Confederation has been making negative noises in that regard. The confederation does not seem to be fully on board. Now that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, is driving this policy, I expect that the industrial and commercial sectors will issue a positive response. Greater flexibility would benefit those sectors as much as it would benefit the economy as a whole.
I agree with Senator Cox that mothers want to work, but I also believe that mothers want to be mothers. Some mothers who have to cope with the competing elements of their lives — their costs are increasing, for example, because they have to travel greater distances to work — would like to be at home for part of the day. I ask the Minister of State to address this key area by trying to change the industrial law in this regard. Many women in the new Irish society in which we live are beginning to find that the Celtic tiger has drawbacks as well as benefits. I referred earlier to the proposed extension of after-school care services in Drumshanbo, which was supported by many parents who wanted their children to be looked after from the moment they were dropped at the child care centre at 8 a.m. until they were collected at 6 p.m. In other words, the children did not see their parents between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. It was time for them to go to bed by the time they got home. While I accept there are some harsh economic realities to be borne in mind, I do not believe that is what this country should be about. I do not wish to detract in any way from the genuine efforts of parents who are trying to make ends meet. I understand they have to travel long distances in gridlocked traffic and pay high house prices. Something is going to give in our society if this continues. We will not leave a positive legacy if we do not address the matters which have been highlighted by Senator Cox and others.
I am pleased about the rapid expansion in the number of child care places. There are 50,000 such places at present, including 5,000 after-school places and 10,000 pre-school places. The upskilling of child care workers is also a positive development. Some 17,000 additional child care personnel have been recruited. I was also pleased by the Minister of State's reference to what I understand to be the maintenance of the social economy. I welcome the flexibility that has been built into that over the last few weeks. I know from my experience with the child care facility in Drumshanbo that the social economy is vital for its continued success. The Minister of State has said the status quo will be maintained until 2007. The social economy is vital if we are to continue to provide a high quality of child care services in rural areas.
As chairman of the County Leitrim child care committee, I would like to outline what the committee is doing. In 2005, it assisted 32 child care facilities by providing information, training, network and developmental support. The facilities in question provided 97 services to parents, including nine full day care services, 29 play group services, 22 after-school services, one sessional montessori service, one drop-in crèche, 24 summer programmes and 11 parent and toddler groups. The committee also provided supports to home-based childminders and potential childminders. The committee operates under the equal opportunities child care programme, which has provided €6.7 million to County Leitrim to date. Some €5.8 million of that funding has been allocated to a mixture of community groups and private provider child care facilities. Almost 70 headline projects are under way in the county, in areas like transport, childminding development grants, summer scheme grants, pre-school capital grants and after-school grants. The statistics I have outlined constitute the best answer I can give anyone on the other side of the House who wishes to criticise the Government's child care policy.
I thank Senator Mooney for sharing his time with me. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, well with his new responsibilities. I have spoken in the House about child care on three or four occasions over the past year. On the first two or three occasions, I called for five things to be delivered on. First, I asked for overall responsibility for the entire child care sector to be given to a single Cabinet Minister, but I am happy that a Minister of State has been given these duties. It is a welcome move. I ask the Minister of State to furnish Senators with a copy of the flow chart in the new office so we can understand how it will work. I assure him that everyone involved in this area has given a great welcome to the appointment of Ms SyldaLangford to her new position. People have great trust and confidence in Ms Langford. The second thing I spoke strongly about in this House was the need for extended maternity leave. I thirdly asked for funding for parents, whether they are at home or in the workplace, to be increased. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that all those things have been done. I welcome the progress that has been made, which is outlined in the main motion before the House. I do not have any difficulty with that, other than to state that, as a matter of course, Governments should not table motions congratulating themselves. To seek support for such a motion is a fairly serious political error. It is better to be congratulated without having asked for such congratulation.
I feel equally strongly about two further issues which have been raised in the Fine Gael amendment. It is a mistake not to provide for paid paternity leave and extended parental leave. The fourth thing I asked for was that parents should benefit from some form of support when they are on parental leave. I ask the Minister of State to look closely at the fifth thing I asked for, which has already been discussed by Senator Cummins. We need to have trust and confidence in the safety of the system. When parents leave their children in supervision, they should have confidence in the facility in question, regardless of whether it is located in a school, a playschool or a pre-school or whether it is provided by a community group or a group of parents. We owe it to parents to give them such confidence.
As a priority I ask the Minister of State to find a way of co-ordinating qualifications. A person may be a teacher, a classroom assistant, a community worker or a person may have a child care qualification. However, there should be a clear vetting arrangement so that people would know the level of qualification. They do not all have to be the same. The whole question of choice is crucial in this area. People should be able to make the choice whether they want to send their child to a pre-school, a school, play-school, community group or whatever. All those choices should be available and they should not be in competition with each other. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the vetting of qualifications.
I disagree with the idea that these places can ever be self-sustaining and pay for themselves. That will not happen. It will take more money. The point made by Senator Mooney is correct. In fact, I could give other examples even from his constituency. The Life Start office in Sligo is extraordinarily successful also and there are a number of areas in Monaghan and Cavan of which I am aware. They are doing extraordinary work and the variety is attractive.
This is my final point. I welcome certain issues and ask that the questions in the Fine Gael amendment that parental and paternal leave be paid for be answered and that the qualifications be vetted. There can be all sorts of qualifications. Whatever the qualification, we should know that a person has done a course and what is their level of experience. Parents should know that when dropping off their kids. Money will have to be used to pay some of these people. Government talks are beginning tonight or tomorrow in Government Buildings. People working in these areas should also have the opportunity of being benchmarked. They are providing an extraordinary important community service. We need them and cannot get on without them. This is a welcome move forward.
In terms of how I deal with my position on the motion and the amendment, I will vote for the Fine Gael amendment because I am clear that the two issues it seeks are things I want. In the event of a second vote, I will support the amended motion, whatever that might be.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in to respond to the debate. I thank Members on all sides for their contributions. In particular, I am delighted we have a child care programme to debate. As I said in my earlier contribution we are speaking about an important section of society, namely, the leaders and pillars of future society. However, I omitted to mention earlier the issue of responsibility. In the first instance, parents have responsibility for their children. That is an issue that has to be borne in mind. An issue I have raised ad nauseam in public life is that young children, de facto teeny boppers, are on the streets of our towns and cities at all hours of the night. When people of that tender age fall into the hands of the proverbial Fagins of Dickensian fame there are no marks for guessing what they get up to. It is a fact that children of a young age are involved in drug dealing in certain areas and that is a worrying factor.
The measures that have been provided in the budget and that have been discussed here today are of particular importance. Apart from helping the family in an overall sense, it gives an important section of society, namely women, an improved role. As a result of what was the tradition up to 25 years ago when women in professions and others areas, my wife being one, decided to marry they had to vacate their positions. While that position has been reversed in the interim there is an issue that has to be corrected for people of that time. I appreciate that the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, have accepted that wrongs have been done but that is a debate for another day.
I am delighted that this motion on child care is before the House and that we have debated it. Some worthy comments and proposals have been made. I would remind the Opposition that jealousy will get it nowhere. It is this Government that has done the job and will continue to do it. I revert to some of the comments made by colleague, Senator Mooney, pertaining to what is available in his county. That is a prime example of what can be done in the area of child care. There is also the whole area of child abuse. While we debated that issue in the debate on the Ferns Report, as elected Members and as citizens we must cast ourselves in the role of the nosey neighbour if we have the slightest hint of suspicion that a child is being abused.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 21 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Michael McCarthy, Joe McHugh, David Norris, Kathleen O'Meara, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)
Against the motion: 29 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Maurice Hayes, 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, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Cummins and Terry; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
—welcomes the belated recognition in the budget of the need for the Government to begin to meet the high cost of child care through the early child care supplement;
—regrets the limited nature of the child care package, particularly the failure to commit to the development of free pre-school education;
—regrets the failure to provide for paid parental leave;
—regrets the failure to make any provision for flexible working for all parents when needed;
—regrets the failure to develop an infrastructure for after-school child care; and
—regrets the ongoing failure of this Government to make the necessary investment to ensure that all parents, children and communities have access to high quality affordable child care.