Wednesday, 14 November 2007
Community Child Care Subvention Scheme 2008-2010: Statements (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister of State. There is no doubt that the Government's planned changes to the subsidies paid to certain child care facilities will cause immense problems for working parents. Single parents will be pushed out of the workforce and working couples on lower incomes will struggle to meet the full commercial charges of child care facilities. Anyone working part-time or in receipt of family income supplement will be disadvantaged. As a result, parents will effectively be forced to withdraw their children from these facilities altogether.
The equal opportunities child care programme 2000-2006 was created to develop child care to meet the needs of parents in employment, education and training and to help them to return to work or access resources which would have been previously impossible to avail of without affordable child care. With this new initiative, many of those originally targeted will be precluded from re-entering the workforce simply because they cannot afford to pay the rates charged in their local child care facilities. From next year, most parents will receive no financial assistance and subvention payments will be restricted to those on social welfare payments of €80 per week and family income supplement payments of €30 per week.
A tiered system whereby parents on higher incomes would pay an appropriate rate is essential and I see no difficulty with this. Many child care providers — such as those at Abbeylara, Kilbeggan or Clonmel — already operate such a system. However, low income working families will be priced out of these facilities if this decision is proceeded with. The current course of action was not recommended in the review that took place and, when the manner in which they receive financial support is changed, it could potentially herald the end for many community-based child care facilities.
The existing equal opportunities child care programme is excellent. Affordable, high-quality child care is delivered with the involvement of the Health Service Executive, and public health nurses and environmental health officers visit to assess and ensure the ongoing quality of the service. A staff support grant is paid to child care facilities which helps them meet the cost of the children's care. This has clearly been an essential support for those on low incomes. It was especially relevant to single parents entering the workforce and has ensured the provision of affordable, quality child care for 62,000 children through 33 city and county child care providers.
If this change is implemented, it has the potential to ruin many village communities that have developed throughout the country in recent years and I can only see a negative fallout from this revised approach. Feedback from urban and rural facilities demonstrates one common opinion from management and staff alike, namely, they feel certain they will be forced to close as the numbers availing of the service inevitably fall. Many of these committed people have invested valuable time and effort in obtaining certification in child care and are delivering an excellent standard of care to our children.
Providers of not-for-profit child care had already implemented a tiered structure to facilitate different needs. The structure the Minister of State proposes will be a disincentive to many parents and can only contribute to a culture where people will avoid employment in the event that they might lose their subventions.
This decision must be reviewed and the Government must ensure the current staff support grant is maintained and developed ultimately to provide an equitable system of access to community child care programmes. Additional support for child care to those in receipt of social welfare payments can be provided through the increased financial provision set out for the next three years in the child care budget. If the Minister of State does not revise this decision, facilities throughout the country will be forced to close because there will not be enough working parents in a position to afford the full costs facing them.
On a number of occasions during his contribution, the Minister of State emphasised the amount of money being set aside for this scheme. He indicated that €153 million will be dedicated to the scheme over three years. Global figures relating to schemes of this nature are important and are always welcome because it is good to know how much taxpayers' money is being spent in respect of them. However, it is not enough for a Minister or Minister of State to come to the House and merely trumpet the fact that so much money is being spent on a particular scheme because other issues are involved.
The issues to which I refer revolve around equity and sustainability. As Senator Prendergast indicated, there is a concern throughout the sector regarding the likely sustainability of many facilities as a result of the changes the Minister of State proposes. In this area, perhaps like no other, it is most important to have the confidence of parents, managers and volunteers that the service will be able to be provided into the future. There is no point in stating that everything might be fine this year and that we will see what might happen next year. To some extent, that is what the Minister of State is saying.
The Minister of State indicated that he lacks data and that he must collect it. He justified the change in the scheme largely by saying that his Department does not have sufficient information to indicate whether some disadvantaged parents are perhaps no longer disadvantaged. That is the way the Minister of State pitched this matter. He stated that we need to discover whether people who should not be getting it are, in fact, in receipt of the subvention. Essentially, that is the argument he is making and it moves the emphasis away from promoting and expanding a valuable community service towards an approach which is restrictive and which seeks to root people out and discover whether they are claiming that to which they are not entitled.
I am not stating that people should avail of services when they are not entitled to do so. As many speakers on both sides have stated, however, in the area of child care the situation is already quite precarious for many facilities. It would not be right to introduce a further uncertainty regarding the future for these people, many of whom initially established their operations as voluntary schemes when they identified a need in their communities and banded together to set up facilities. As already stated, their situation is precarious, especially in terms of the numbers of people they can recruit and the numbers already working for them, the use of community employment schemes — some of which are under threat — etc. There is already a great deal of uncertainty in the system. Unfortunately, this change increases the uncertainty rather than reassuring people and giving them confidence in the future which is what we need to do.
Last week I listened with interest to my namesake, Senator Mary White, in particular when she wondered why would there be a fundamental objection to people making known basic information. That is a fair point. We fill in forms every day of the week. What is the objection to people setting out clear and objective information? It should not be a problem. In fact, it does raise a problem in the context of the facilities themselves.
This problem has various aspects. Increasing the extent to which forms must be filled and administrative work must be carried out within these facilities will tie up the time of people who should be working on innovative approaches to child care, improving services and looking after children. Nobody objects to people giving information where it is appropriate to do so. However, surely it is wrong to ask people to give personal information such as a PPS number, schemes they are on or, in the new band, earnings. Where a voluntary group has come together with a voluntary board of management people know each other and will be concerned about sharing intimate personal information with other people in the community.
The Planet group made the point that the difficulty is that requiring people in a community to give information across the table to people they know and with whom they have worked will cause concerns. How many of us in this House would be interested in sharing such information with people we know in our communities? It would be interesting to see.
It is not. Senator Mary White has not examined the proposal if she believes it is only a PPS number. The PPS number and the number of children using the service are not controversial. However, one must also state whether one is on social welfare or any other scheme and which scheme one is on. Senator Mary White should read it. The so-called "third band" has not been clarified by the Minister of State and we are all waiting to see precisely what he means and how it will work. It will require information on people's earnings.
Senator Mary White may not have a difficulty with this and many people in the community may also not have particular difficulties with it. However, it will affect many parents already vulnerable in terms of the community or the workforce and who would consider it extremely invasive and ultimately divisive. It could put at risk the participation of many parents in the schemes and on the management committees of these bodies at a time when we are all trying to encourage an increase in voluntary participation in facilities such as these.
Women's participation in the workforce is at the heart of this debate. We want to ensure that where possible, women are encouraged to return to the workforce. However, life is never as straightforward as it sometimes may appear to us in this House. Women's participation in the workforce varies over time and it is not as straightforward as deciding to take one course or another. People may move from welfare to work and back according to the ages, stages of development and needs of their children. We must encourage women to engage in the workforce as far as possible but we must also allow for the changes which take place over the course of time.
This is a complex issue and its complexity is neither addressed by the initial version of the change which confined the subvention to social welfare beneficiaries nor by the changes signalled by the Minister of State. The emphasis in the system is restrictive. Instead of expanding, promoting, seeking new ideas and new people, taking a positive view of the future and encouraging people to be progressive about the type of child care provided it is regressive, restrictive and puts people off.
If this is an excessive form-filing exercise in which people must share this information, those who put a great deal of work into child care over the years, built it up and received grant aid for buildings will wonder where is the child in this. Rather than turning the managers of child care facilities into administrators and stigmatising particular parents why cannot we simply ensure the child is at the heart of this? We should all be interested in providing quality child care.
Nothing should be done to undermine the commitment of people to improving quality child care in the community, particularly those who come from the voluntary sector. Unfortunately, the scheme as it was introduced, the failure to explain it properly and the abject failure to consult with anybody in the sector has not been to the benefit of the child care sector. The Planet group stated it was aware of one group which was consulted. I hope the Minister of State will at least extend the six-month time period to a year and ensure we have a child care system that is grounded in a child development policy.
This morning, during the Order of Business we discussed briefly the issues which arise in many communities throughout the country where young children are at risk and which have a high dependence on welfare or a lack of incentive to work. Children find out about these and are affected by them early in their lives. Early start programmes driven by the child care system is the way to address these issues. I do not doubt the Minister of State's personal commitment to addressing them. However, I suggest to the House the scheme he proposes will have the opposite effect to what we seek to introduce.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Power, to the House. He is representing his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, who has responsibility for children with regard to the proposed changes in child care. I emphasise these are proposed changes and the time for consultation is now. The proposal is to be implemented in June 2008, which provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to have an input into the shape of future child care facilities. That is welcome.
My colleague, Senator Mary White, is our spokesperson on child care and she has taken a deep interest in the issue. Long before she became spokesperson she brought out a document, A New Approach To Child Care. I commend her on it because while many people recently woke up to the question of child care she was ahead of the posse and wrote a very good document.
The previous programme on equal opportunities child care which ran from 2000 to 2006 was of great benefit to parents across the board. It was a free structure which meant those most disadvantaged benefited most. The interesting aspect of this debate on child care is that we have become accustomed to the fact that we have completely free first-class primary education.
The question of charging has been introduced to pre-primary school education. If the Minister of State wishes to consider future staffing arrangements he should re-consider the entire staffing of the HSE which is completely over-staffed.
I am a former Minister of State at the Department of Health. When the health boards were amalgamated under the Health Service Executive no redundancy programme was put in place. Instead of a reduction in the number of managers along the line, there has been an increase in that regard. There is room to consider some of them moving to the child care area if they are qualified in that regard.
Even though it is true that the overall funding for child care will increase by 16%, the new system with its stringent rules will mean that some rural child care centres may face closure as many of their customers, generally low income parents just above the threshold for receipt of social welfare, will be unable to afford these services. The matter is under debate in this House, in the Dáil and in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, which is a very important forum for debate regarding these issues. It is not going to happen all of a sudden in January 2008. It is under very careful consideration by the Minister of State and all the members of the parliamentary party.
One typical child care centre in Roscommon has 50 children in attendance. Of these, four children are from families in receipt of social welfare benefits. In effect under the new scheme 92% of the parents with children in these centres will be paying more than they are at present, with the increase being especially hard on families with incomes just above the social welfare threshold. This is the group being hit hardest in this regard. For example, a job sharing, low income family with one child in part-time care could end up paying €160 per week as opposed to €60 to €80 under the existing scheme. With mortgage repayments rising by €120 per month for many families in the current economic climate, this could result in great difficulties for many of them.
An example is the Drumshanbo community child care centre in County Leitrim. A representative of the centre brought this case to my attention at a very early stage when the dangers of the proposals became clear. The centre with 125 children availing of its services expects to lose eight of its 22 staff if the new scheme is introduced, which would lead to the loss of either a number of child care spaces or the level of care provided. Ultimately the children would lose out on the crucial early stages of their development.
The Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, met the Fianna Fáil group of councillors in County Roscommon on 15 October. I received a copy of a submission made by Councillor Orla Leyden. I declare that she is my daughter. However, she made this submission in her own right as a councillor, young mother and someone in regular contact with young parents. She made a very detailed submission to the Minister of State outlining her views, which I will put on the record of the House because she has considerable experience in child care and is in touch with other parents with children in child care. Her submission stated:
The new scheme only provides a subvention to the parents of children that are in receipt of social welfare ... it is equally important that children with parents on low to middle incomes have access to affordable childcare. Many parents are struggling as it is to provide for their families, their pay package is gone very quickly between the rising cost of mortgages, utility costs and the general high cost of living.
This new scheme will force many parents and women in particular out of the work place due to the higher cost of childcare ... This scheme will mean that it will no longer be worthwhile financially for a woman with for example two young children to work part-time, as the cost of childcare will be too great ... Parents should have the choice to care full time for their children, to work full time and employ childcare or work part time and also care for children.
The availability of high quality, low-cost childcare facilities is key to enabling the participation of parents in the workforce.
In the case of many childcare facilities in rural areas only a small number of parents meet the criteria under the new subvention scheme.
Although this refers to the scheme as proposed now, that will not reflect the final shape of the scheme when completed.
In fairness to the Minister of State, he must be given additional funding to provide for an enhanced scheme, which I am convinced will happen. Fianna Fáil is around too long as a political party for its members not to have their ears to the ground.
Councillor Orla Leyden makes the point that many child care facilities will be under threat. Fianna Fáil has an excellent record in education, of which we are very proud. A scheme has been presented which I believe represents a discussion document.
As far as I am concerned it is a discussion document because we are discussing the document at this point in time. I know the two sides of this coin. There was a feeling that certain people availing of the community care services had very high incomes. The Labour Party would not be interested in that kind of thing.
I do not hold the Civil Service responsible or blame the Civil Service. However, the advice from some very experienced people was that the scheme could be revised in a certain way. That revision is unacceptable to the majority of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Having given the scheme some thought it is clear that following research by the Office of the Minister for Children, the Minister of State is trying to find ways to disqualify middle income families from benefiting from community child care as it stands. These are the families that have created huge revenues for the Government and built our economy. These families find themselves under increasing pressure to pay for mortgages in the current climate, especially those who took out 100% mortgages. The need for leniency for those in the middle income bracket is crucial to allow parents remain in employment. The Government has a responsibility to these families. We do not want this scheme to create a spiral in which parents have to give up work to take care of their children, thereby increasing unemployment figures and reducing the skilled workforce our economy so badly needs to remain competitive.
The economic implications need to be considered carefully. According to the Chambers Ireland labour force 2007 survey people are already making work decisions around child care. Currently, 30% of company employees have reduced their working hours due to child care demands and 50% of all companies have introduced flexible working hours specifically to meet employee child care demands. It is important to proceed with caution if we are not to tip the balance against the attractiveness of work at an uncertain time in our economy.
The proposal has additional social implications. Currently, those who are unmarried and not cohabiting qualify for benefits such as council houses and free child care while working up to three days per week, provided they earn under a certain amount. We do not want to encourage a society in which it is economically preferable to be an unmarried mother living alone rather than married or cohabiting with the support of a father. We should never promote one-unit families or force women into dependence on benefits.
This subvention scheme is going to cause job losses in the majority of crèches and the closure of a large number of facilities, resulting in a similar move towards privatisation to that seen in the health sector. The dependency on the private sector will probably drive up child care costs because of the sudden monopoly the scheme will create. Private crèche operators have told me the scheme could benefit them by permitting them to charge any fee they see fit for children on their waiting lists for vacancies. Yesterday, one play group leader told me that if the local crèche closed, parents would be forced to travel more than nine miles to find alternative child care because the private facility in the area is already full. Another leader spoke about a crèche with only two staff which would close without funding. That community playgroup has been operating for the past 25 years but only five of its 19 children would qualify under the new proposals. The building was redecorated a few years ago and it would be a waste of money if it did not receive funding from somewhere else. Children are the real victims in this new scheme. A play group leader noted that children will lose out on the early childhood supports, such as speech therapy, which help to develop language, learning and social skills.
As an educator, I see the severe negative social effects this scheme will entail. It will split up communities, particularly those in rural areas. Only socially disadvantaged children will end up in the crèches, which is not good for children or the social mix. The Minister may not have thought through the social segregation that will result. Shame on her for that. Socially disadvantaged area schools already experience low retention and high drop-out rates and under-achievement by at least 20% of students. At least the former scheme facilitated a good start.
The new scheme will not benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A disadvantaged background should not mean a disadvantaged future. It is shortsighted in the extreme to ignore the overall effects on people's lives across the socio-economic spectrum. I urge the Minister to redraft the scheme, bearing in mind its implications for young families and the nation's most precious resource, children.
I acknowledge the capital investment made by the Government in community crèches. Ten years ago, child care facilities were non-existent. We have come a long way. I would like to extend the current facilities. However, the tiered fee structure the Minister has instructed community and not-for-profit facilities to implement is socially backward and should be reconsidered. The new scheme assumes parents who are not in receipt of social welfare payments can afford higher child care costs but that is not the case. With several interest rate increases in the past year, families are put to the pin of their collars in trying to make ends meet, never mind paying child care costs equivalent to the private sector.
A rural village in County Westmeath which provides an excellent before and after school service costs €100,000 annually to operate, including staff costs. Approximately 20 families use the service on a daily basis and another 15 use it on a drop-in basis. To continue under the new scheme, this wonderful facility will have to charge €9 per hour, which is a lot more than some parents are earning. Parents in the area face the prospect of quitting their employments, cutting their hours or reverting to having locals look after their children because they will be unable to afford the service. The implementation of the scheme will encourage latch key children, with some parents reporting their children will have to wait an hour or more at home for them to return from work. It is also a serious disincentive for parents on social welfare to enter the workforce. Children will be boxed in when their families are told they are disadvantaged. There will be little or no social mixing because subvention will be available only to those in receipt of social welfare and family income supplements. Sadly, parents on social welfare are less likely to use child minding services because they have less need of them other than for the social, educational and developmental purposes.
If this scheme is introduced, there will be no access or equality and parents will feel disenfranchised, which contradicts social inclusion and equality. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science stated last week that he will collate and analyse the data he received from parents throughout the country. I understand he also undertook to change the income threshold for families on low and middle incomes in rural and under-populated areas. These are the people who are completely reliant on not-for-profit community child care services. He also stated, "It is recognised that there may be particular issues for smaller scale services, but they will be considered when the data due to be returned this month are analysed." I hope the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party is also behind this initiative.
Last week I attended a meeting convened by the Mayor of Longford County Council, Peggy Nolan, at which Councillor Alan Mitchell proposed a resolution that was unanimously passed by all members of the council and supported by all Oireachtas Members from Longford-Westmeath. The resolution proposed postponing the current proposals in order that the Department could engage in open consultation with child care providers and parents, maintaining the current level of funding pending the completion of an analysis of the data, introducing a system of long-term guaranteed core funding for the administration of community child care facilities, and providing staffing grants to community child care facilities in addition to funding provided under the subvention scheme. It was also proposed that the Minister would introduce a system in which each child, irrespective of parental income or family circumstances, is entitled to a capitation grant for attendance at a quality child care facility which is community or privately operated, thereby ensuring all our children are treated equally and given equal educational opportunities by the State.
I am a youth and community worker by profession and in the 1980s when I was thinking about progressing along that career path, I sought a professional qualification which would help me to do so. At the time there were not many standard educational qualifications in that area so the course I chose was one in child care at the then Regional Technical College in Cork which is now the Cork Institute of Technology. One of the subjects we had to do as part of that course was child psychology.
The work of a British child psychologist called John Bowlby was quite often quoted in the course. He helped define a theory called "maternal deprivation". It was not a theory for which I had much time. Controversial as it was then, it is even more controversial now. It was along the lines that infants were shown to be more progressive in their cognitive development if brought up by a stay-at-home mother. I had even less respect for that theory when I learned the study had been done in the late 1940s and that it was paid for by the British Government as a way to encourage women to leave the workforce after the Second World War.
I mention this because it is not unlike the situation the Irish economy and society now faces. A number of policy measures have been taken in the past decade to encourage more women into the workforce, some of which were done for progressive reasons. There was an imbalance in the workforce. The quality of work being promoted in the economy lacked a particular skill set which only women could provide. It was very much needed and benefited the economy subsequently.
Some of the policies adopted were to appeal to people's wish for a better livelihood, such as tax individualisation and other incentive measures. We now know that the way they were implemented had a societal impact. Corrective measures have since been taken in respect of those policies.
Alongside that, there was a major policy to put in place a child care infrastructure where none had existed, as was admitted in this debate. A large amount of Exchequer and EU funding went into that. It was always understood that the level of funding required to put in place the capital infrastructure for a child care network would not be followed by current expenditure support. In the current climate in which we now find ourselves the budget which can be allocated for this is less than what it has been. How that is allocated in a socially just way is at the heart of this debate.
A sincere attempt has been made to try to put in place a tiered set of payments which is generally lacking in our social welfare system. The lack of staggered rates of payments in terms of State services has created unnecessary poverty traps in the past. How we pay people in terms of social security and how they can access social services according to need will determine how successful we are as a society in the future. No one in this House has accepted, or would accept, that the set of figures produced in the first instance is a successful way to do that. As Senator Healy-Eames said, the problem is not with those on middle incomes but with the likely effect of the figures which exist on those on lower incomes. The changes which need to be made, which are being considered in debates such as this and the concerns expressed by the child care sector must take into account that people on modest incomes could be cut off and expected to pay an exorbitant amount in terms of increases in chid care costs.
The salient point I make is true.
In raising this issue on the Order of Business, the leader of the Fine Gael group read out a letter she received from someone known to me who I would call a friend and whose circumstances I am very familiar with. She is a young mother with a young child who has chosen to work in the arts sector on a minimum wage because she gets job satisfaction from the job she does. Her circumstances would see her child care costs increase by €50 per week which her current salary would not meet.
The difficulty I have with the current tiering is a criticism I would make about how social welfare payments and services are generally assessed in that there is no consistency in this area. For instance, if someone qualifies, as does this young woman and her family, for a doctor only medical card that, in itself, is a cut off which means there should be better tiering in regard to this payment. I hope the debate will help to inform that. I have every sympathy for the civil servants who came up with this package. They were told the budget is so much and to produce tierings which would spend that amount.
We can still address this by devising a more socially just and equitable method which will see child care services of the highest quality produced in local communities. Child care services are best provided in a community based way rather than by way of private child care. Following this debate, the final tweaking of these proposals and following ongoing consultation with the child care sector, figures will be produced which will allow that to happen.
I am particularly pleased this debate is taking place and that I have an opportunity to speak. It is six weeks since I first raised the matter on the Order of Business. I did so on a weekly basis until there was a groundswell of support for the debate now taking place. My party has been to the fore on the issue of child care funding. I have met child care providers. Sinn Féin's health spokesperson in the other House, Deputy Ó Caoláin, has also raised this issue. We believe the new system of funding community and voluntary child care facilities is causing grave concern in this sector. There are real fears that it will result in crèche closures, job losses, fee increases which will have to be borne by many parents and the development of a two-tier system. This scenario has arisen primarily due to a lack of consultation with those working at the coal face of child care provision.
Nobody disagrees with the stated intent of the new programme. It is about making child care more accessible for low-income families. Far too many families continue to be unable to access child care due to a lack of affordable places, with serious consequences for parents who wish to improve the lives of their families by working in part-time and full-time employment. Under the new scheme, community child care providers will receive a subvention to enable reduced fees to be charged to disadvantaged parents. Such parents must be in receipt of social welfare payments, however. Many families using community child care facilities earn low incomes but do not receive social welfare payments. Community crèches which do not have a sufficient number of welfare recipients on their books will be forced to close or to raise their fees for those who do not qualify for the subvention. Therefore, many low income families which are already trying to cope in straitened circumstances may be forced to pay more for child care. That would make a nonsense of the claim that the new scheme will be better for the disadvantaged.
There are genuine fears that the new scheme will lead to the creation of a distinction between welfare recipients and other service users. We could end up with a two-tier child care system, mirroring our two-tier health system. Sinn Féin is calling for the new scheme to be suspended pending an urgent review of it, including full consultation with people in the community and voluntary child care sectors. It would be shameful if an ill-thought-out scheme were to undermine this country's voluntary child care infrastructure, which has been built up from scratch over recent years. Sinn Féin favours the development of a comprehensive and universal system of child care.
It was interesting to listen to some of the arguments which were made by Government Senators. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was in the Upper House of the Oireachtas and not anywhere else. It was difficult to believe what was being said. This scheme is in place — it is not still at the discussion document stage. It is not still being promoted by civil servants — it is in place. The extent of this problem is not being exaggerated by people on the Opposition benches, or even by the 41 members of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party who raised it at a recent meeting of that body. This problem is being brought to the attention of politicians by those working in the child care sector and those sending their children to community child care facilities. These people are asking politicians to govern and to ensure there will be enough child care places for children on 1 July next.
I have no problem with Government Deputies and Senators articulating the views of those who have first-hand experience of this sector, but if they want to support such people they should support my call for the Minister to suspend the scheme. There is no reason that cannot be done, as the scheme does not come into effect until 1 July next.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Smith, spoke about this issue last week, he claimed there has been full consultation with the child care sector. I discussed this issue directly with the Minister of State during a debate. My information is that just 11 voluntary community child care groups, from a total of more than 1,100 such groups, were consulted. That does not constitute full consultation with this sector. The Minister of State suggested that these forms are simple and the information demanded is simple. Having spoken to and listened to those who have filled out the forms, or asked parents to fill out the forms, I can inform the House that the voluntary committees were required to put the forms in envelopes, accompanied with a cover letter stating that they would not open the envelopes to look at the information being provided to the Department. It is unfair on members of voluntary committees to be given access to information on the social welfare payments of their neighbours, friends and, in some cases, family members.
The Minister of State suggested that there is ill-information and misinformation among the public. If he attended some of the meetings which are happening throughout the State, he would hear that people's concerns are based on real facts, rather than distorted information. If he had been at a meeting in County Donegal that was attended by more than 100 people, he would know that some child care facilities are having to increase their fees by 95%. He would have heard that a playschool in the county is closing down because of this scheme. He would have heard that a woman who is currently in employment in County Donegal intends to go on social welfare from 1 January next because that is the only way she can afford to get child care for her child. She is falling into a poverty trap. The Minister of State would have heard that the Government's investment of €1.3 million in child care facilities in Ballyshannon will be a white elephant unless this scheme is suspended and then altered. He would have heard about the countless parents who are so concerned about the Government's introduction of this scheme that they are considering taking various forms of action, such as strikes and marches.
I had thought the days of devising policies on the back of an envelope were gone, but that seems to be how this scheme was drawn up. I do not think it is fair to blame the Civil Service. The Minister of State spoke about introducing a scheme that he has already introduced. He said he would collate the data to find out what impact it will have. Why did that not happen prior to the introduction of the scheme? The Minister of State's attempts to defend his position on this scheme show he is completely out of touch with what is happening on the ground. It is not good enough to talk about adjusting the scheme — it needs to be suspended fully. We should listen to those who are providing community child care throughout the State, including the voluntary committees. We need to come up with a better scheme. I do not doubt that all Opposition parties would support some changes. The Minister of State needs to listen to the many Deputies, Senators and Ministers from the Government parties who do not support this scheme. It is unfortunate for the Government, which has done a number of U-turns in the past after trying unsuccessfully to implement various ill-thought-out policies, that the Minister of State will have to do another U-turn in this instance. He will have to suspend the scheme, embark on full consultation and try to come up with a valuable scheme that will secure the future of the voluntary child care sector.
I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on this important matter. Child care has become one of the most symbolic issues in modern Irish society. It is worth noting that this Government and its two predecessors built a formal child care structure from scratch. We now have a fantastic and evolving professional structure. The workers in this sector deserve to be consulted at all times on all child care matters. More than 35,000 new child care places have been created since 2000. Some €500 million was allocated to this sector between 2000 and 2006, under the equal opportunities child care programme. More than 3,300 grants were allocated to a mixture of community and private providers. However, Pobal should be criticised for the manner in which it has impeded progress in this area. Child care places could be provided far more rapidly if Pobal's administrative problems could be resolved.
The child care subvention scheme is part of the national child care investment programme, which succeeded the equal opportunities child care programme. A budget of €575 million has been made available for the national child care investment programme over the next three years. The programme aims to provide 50,000 additional child care places, with a greater focus on pre-school places for children aged three and four. By 2010, the Government will have spent more than €1 billion of public money on the child care sector. We should ensure these funds are not wasted, however.
I have some real concerns about the new scheme. We need to examine the changes which need to be made in respect of low-income parents who depend on community child care facilities to enable them to access work. Some of the parents who have raised their concerns with me have also said they benefited enormously in the past five or six years from the availability of valuable community child care centres. Child care places which are based in community centres are accessible and do not cost very much. They facilitate people who would not otherwise be able to enter employment. It is good for children to be able to avail of this form of child care. Many parents feel the proposed changes under the new scheme will freeze them out. They suggest that as they are unable to avail of prohibitively expensive private child care, their only option is to become welfare-dependent again. We should acknowledge that many of these parents do valuable work in the community.
Child care facilities were originally intended to allow people to return to education and work. The proposed new scheme could represent a backward step in that regard. I noted Senator O'Toole's comments during last week's debate, when he said that child care is regarded almost exclusively as a woman's issue. He argued that if more men took an interest in it, we would go a long way towards tackling the problem.
I agree with him. If we are to obtain greater support for the implementation of a more progressive programme, not only should we encourage the electorate to elect more women, but we should also promote the fact that men share the economic cost of child care. Paternity leave is essential and we must also consider other radical measures including tax breaks for middle and high earning income brackets to allow such parents to provide child care in the home or in other private facilities. Such measures would also free up publicly-funded child care places for those on lower incomes.Creativity is required when dealing with this issue.
There must be progress towards universal early education for three to four year-olds, as advocated by Senator Mary White. Community child care must be the cornerstone of our policy. I urge the Minister of State to make the changes necessary to make this scheme workable and to continue the wonderful work that has been done over the past seven years. I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government for providing the hard cash for this scheme and a few hard thoughts are needed now and perhaps a few hard changes. The budget is in place so we must push forward and there is no need for any suspension. We must ensure a poverty trap is not created as a result of the changes to the scheme. This programme is an opportunity to solve the problems rather than to subsidise them.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire Stáit, Pádraig Ó Ciardha. I have sympathy for the Minister of State because he has to listen not just to speakers on this side of the House but also Members from both his own and the Green Party who are lamenting the work of his senior Minister. It is not the fault of the Minister of State because he is not the Minister responsible. I wonder what Piaget and Erikson would think of this debate. Senator Boyle referred to the issue of cognitive development and he quoted an infamous British psychologist. Cognitive development is important but so too is child-centred education and child care.
This debate should consider a holistic approach. I proudly acknowledge the immense investment in child care in the past decade or more and a structure has been established. I congratulate all Governments who have been responsible. However, it has been a case of playing catch-up. The parents of this country were the ones who created the wealth to allow for investment in child care.
Some people are vulnerable and cannot afford to pay. As Senator Mary White stated in her contribution last week, many women are now being forced to make choices. Women who are on the minimum wage are opting to work in order to better themselves and to provide child care and education for their children.
When Senator Leyden was making his wonderful speech, I wondered if I was in a dream. For a moment I pictured myself — but perish the thought — sitting in the RDS at a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis because there was a clarion call, a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" speech from Senator Leyden announcing that, "I am going to save child care, hallelujah". Senator Leyden, on his own, the white horse of the west——
I will speak about Senator Mary White in a moment.
Since this scheme has been proposed and promulgated, Senator Leyden and others have listened to their own constituents and to the women and the men who are equal partners in child care and this should not be forgotten. They have been told that this scheme in many cases is unworkable, cruel, anti-woman, anti-family and anti-child.
I will pay tribute to Senator Mary White of Fianna Fáil. I am not being patronising but she has a genuine passion and interest in this subject. I read her document before I became a Member of this House. If she was in Government, this scheme would not be here today.
If she is, I advise her to start talking more to the Ministers and they should listen to her.
We need to support parents who are raising families, the young people who are struggling. They are getting up earlier, they are stuck in traffic and there are no buses, as was the case in Dublin yesterday and today. I know that children are in school at 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Being a parent today is becoming more stressful and it does not need Government to make it worse.
The partnership approach has been espoused by all sides of the House and child care is deserving of support because it is a central pillar of raising a family. When I was young my mother opted to stay at home rather than go out to work. That was her choice——
We need to strengthen the pillar that is child care and put supports in place for young families but also for those who are most in need. However, this scheme will not do this.
The Members opposite are putting forward a scheme of polarisation, stigmatisation and segregation. If this is what they want they should vote for the scheme. A meeting was held in Cork last Thursday to discuss this issue. The 120 women in Cork could not all be wrong and neither could they all be anti-Fianna Fáil.
If they want change, then this scheme should be changed because child care is no longer a luxury but rather it is a necessity for thousands of families. Deputy Doherty stated that eleven schemes out of 11,000 were consulted. This is not consultation.
Last Thursday night, the women of Cork spoke at a meeting and they had a common bond of frustration at the proposal before them. They said it would lead to further marginalisation and that many qualified child care workers would lose their jobs. They feared it would be impossible to maintain quality standards of child care and many services would be forced to close down. The community child care facilities play a pivotal role in this debate and they deserve to be recognised. Children are the most important and central focus in this debate.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, to the House. I hope he will talk to Senator Leyden before he gives his speech because he will hear the cogent views of the Member opposite.
Quality child care is important and it is not too late for the Minister of State to admit he is wrong, to say in the words of Senator Leyden, "The scheme will be changed", and to climb on the horse with Senator Mary White and take credit. Senator White deserves credit in this regard because she promulgated this view long before anybody else. Middle and lower income couples will be caught and that is not right.
Deputy Alan Shatter described the scheme last night as "anti-family, anti-child and anti-parent". Members opposite have spoken and we all share a commonality that the scheme is wrong and should be changed. I look forward to the Minister of State's response and I congratulate Senator Leyden on his Pauline conversion. It is great that Christianity is alive and well in the House.
I listened carefully to the Minister of State's contributions on the scheme in this House, the Dáil, at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting and at other meetings. I am under the impression the scheme will be fluid and the reason he is seeking information is he wants to amend it. I am glad he is present for the debate because it is a live issue in Donegal. A number of people there would like the scheme to be forgotten about altogether and the old staffing grant retained while others do not consider the staffing grant to be an appropriate solution but they also have a problem with the new scheme. While there are misunderstandings about the scheme, it also contains a number of discrepancies. It would be much better to deal with them as soon as the Minister of State obtains the relevant information rather than delaying that process, and this is his intention.
I congratulate the Government on the serious capital investment in child care in the recent past. While it may have been well overdue, in the case of Donegal, 64% of such facilities have been developed on a community basis. The involvement of communities has been maximised on the basis that their need drove them to draw the moneys down and they were central to the development of the service from the bottom up. When Deputy John O'Donoghue served as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, he met a number of community activists in Buncrana. He implored them to make an application to draw down money under the then scheme to Pat Murray, the relevant official at the time. He also moved on to greener pastures. While applications were slow in arriving initially, its success is visible nowadays in many locations.
Expertise has been developed in Donegal because many of those who lost jobs in the textile industry were encouraged to consider child care as a new employment source. Generations of young girls pursued the qualification and they are well qualified in child care. They feel most under threat currently and I would like to know whether they are right. The goal of the new scheme is to assist those in greatest need achieve affordable child care. It also goes beyond those on welfare payments and assists those on family income supports.
A public meeting on child care in Letterkenny last Monday night was well attended and a number of people stated all child care should be free and if that was not possible, the cost should be the same for everybody. I believe in the concept of free preschool education and I am a firm advocate of investment in the zero to six years age group. If wisely spent, this would be the greatest investment made by the Government because it would ensure the neurological development and socialisation of our children through music, co-ordination and rhythmic development and speech development. By a child's seventh birthday, it would be too late to invest these funds if the Government wished to attain the same results. This would be the wisest investment ever made by officials in the Department of Finance because lower investment would be required as a consequence tackling issues such as juvenile delinquency and learning disability. Solutions to many attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder related issues that evolve later in life could be provided earlier.
I have a problem with how seriously we are taking preschool education and prenatal care.
If tomorrow will not dawn with free preschool education, it is incorrect that a person on a low income should be prevented from securing an affordable preschool place for his or her child. Therefore, resources need to be targeted so that families can avail of the advantages of child care for the sake of the parents and the child.
I was accused on Monday night of only being interested in children, which is an interesting accusation at a child care meeting. However, I would not like to overstate the comment in the recent Health Service Executive report that Donegal is only one of four counties in which none of its crèches that were inspected were given the all clear because minor issues can prevent a crèche from obtaining a clean bill of health. However, the child and his or her welfare should be to the fore in the provision of child care.
I refer again to the issue of those who sense their jobs are threatened by the recent changes. Both at Monday's meeting and on other occasions, the priority placed by facilities in Donegal on keeping abreast of best practice and ensuring staff undergo constant training was highlighted. This concerns balance because it is important that if a national preschool programme is to be developed, facilities must be given the ability to buy expertise or to ensure training is undertaken. If the subvention is provided as outlined, will the development of expertise be impeded? I may bore people by continually referring to the connection between music and the brain but the neurological proof and research is only being published now. To maintain this expertise, we cannot call a halt to such research and we must always try to keep people up to date.
Small community facilities are legally required to maintain a minimum number of staff. Is it proposed to provide a minimum level of support through the subvention scheme? How will such facilities survive otherwise? When two-teacher primary schools were under threat, Fianna Fáil made a decision to support them, whether the pupil numbers were maintained. A minimum subvention payment should be provided for community and other child care facilities to ensure the staff can be retained. For those working in crèches and other child care facilities, a recent report by the Border Counties Child Care Network revealed that only 12% of child care workers earn wages deemed acceptable by child care groups and trade unions. Can we stand over this continuing? Will the subvention be sufficient to support the facilities in place even to deliver wages in compliance with the national minimum wage legislation?
I wonder about voluntary groups incurring charges under the scheme. For example, I asked a number of the child care groups in Donegal to forward precise information. I received a fax from one group in this regard last Thursday while the debate was under way and I raced to the Chamber to give it to one of the Minister of State's officials. The group felt that instead of paying €30 per week, clients on social welfare would have to pay €95 a week under the new scheme, which is a significant increase. However, the officials examined the case and it transpired the group had made a substantially incorrect calculation. Category C clients will pay €36, an increase of €6 while category A clients, those on social welfare, will pay a greatly reduced fee of approximately €12 per week.
I do not condemn the group's administrators for providing incorrect information because they are only volunteers. The difficulty is a group does not look after five children in five specific categories for five hours a day, five days a week. The cases of which I have heard involve complex computations. For example, two children under the age of one may be in a child care facility for two hours, three days a week and the parents may come from different social backgrounds. The calculations involved are much more difficult than people might believe.
The other case that was brought to my attention involved a girl whose first child is autistic. I appreciate that tough cases made bad law. This girl said that she did not mind my referring to her case. Her second child was born and she has suffered from depression. She began working because her doctor said it would be the best thing for her. She was working 17 hours per week. She looked into this scheme and noted that if she continued to work 17 hours, she would not qualify for the type A subvention, whereas if she worked 15 hours she would qualify for social welfare benefit. Her case was an anomaly and I wonder how many more anomalies exist in the case of other people.
Not every facility will accept children with special needs. I wonder whether we have to separate the ability or disability of the child from the financial aspect. We talk about disadvantage but sometimes geographical disadvantage can be as bad as financial disadvantage.
I am delighted the Minister of State has agreed to meet a delegation from the Donegal child care forum to discuss its issues first-hand. That meeting is urgent. I thank the Minister of State for the forthrightness with which he has spoken when people were listening and that we have seen the best scheme emerge and that it is an evolving one. I look forward to the Utopian days when the Opposition can freely advocate when everything is free but I realise that will take a decision by the people of this country——
——as to whether they are prepared to pay for the future generations through their taxes and give children aged up to six years of age the best possible start in life. That is what I want.
If it came down to me — I will be speaking in detail on the Adjournment tonight on the increasing evidence of the correlation of the role of music on the development of the brain — I would invest heavily in developing responses to the research emerging. From the perspective of the Department of Finance a euro invested in children aged up to six would involve a great saving at a later stage in terms of expenditure by the Departments of Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The benefit of such investment has yet to be realised by those who hold the purse strings.
The unemployment statistics for County Donegal offered——
——by various economic statisticians should make us eligible under the new scheme. I would like to think that we will be able to draw down a significant amount of the extra €11 million that is in fund. I would like that to be used to provide further assistance.
I apologise to Members for not being able to be here for the earlier debate as I had to attend a Cabinet sub-committee meeting. I understood that this debate was to be finalised yesterday. I apologise for my absence.
Senator Keaveney made valid points, as she has done since August, in regard to this scheme. As I outlined to the House last week, the scheme was announced in July. It was stated clearly on numerous occasions by myself and Department officials that there was a transition period up July 2008 and that the community facilities that were in receipt of funding would be funded for the first half of 2008 on the basis of the funding they received in 2007. A 12 month transition period was introduced from the outset on the basis that we wanted to get more specific data on the profiles of the parents who had children attending these particular community-provided facilities.
Another phrase that I, politically, and the Department officials used continuously was that if there were particular trends emerging that would cause difficulties for people, we wanted all the data to be available so that we could make further decisions and enhance the scheme. That has been the stated position since last July.
I was here last week and I could not be here earlier because the business of the House was changed yesterday——
I am well able to listen to people. When I was here last week the only person who I recall mentioning the word "equality" in regard to the provision of child care was Senator Mary White on this side of the House. Other speakers pontificated about what they saw as deficiencies in the scheme, but nobody made the point that as the scheme is being operated in some places, the most needy children were being deprived of a place in some of these community facilities, the children from whom these schemes were devised initially.
I want to ensure that the tiered fee structure that was supposed to be in place in all the facilities is more uniformly applied. I want to say to the community providers who have done excellent work in providing child care facilities, and who applied the tiered system in a proper way on the basis of the ability to pay to ensure that more children could avail of that service and that there would be less demand on the less advantaged parents, that we want a uniformed tiered system introduced. Some Members of the Lower House and Upper House have said that the tiered fee structure was never part of the criteria, but itwas.
I remind Members that there was no child care sector in this country until recent years. We built a child care sector a number of years ago that is providing good child care throughout the country. In the decade up to 2010, €1.1 billion will have been spent by Government, mainly through Exchequer funding and some of it supported through European Union sources. We will have invested directly in the provision of new facilities and in assisting the staffing costs. We will have invested €1.1 billion. It is ludicrous for anybody to think that the Government will walk away from that investment.
We will ensure in Government that we protect and build on that investment and we will continue the major programme of investment that was undertaken under the equal opportunities child care programme and that will now be continued with greater momentum under the national child care investment programme.
I have been in Leinster House for a number of years and I have listened to Opposition parties and people who belong to other political groups——
——run down consistently the equal opportunities child care programme. When I moved a Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Health and Children, particularly for the Office of the Minister for Children, in the Dáil two weeks ago, I was delighted that every member of the Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin parties who spoke about that scheme was fulsome in his or her praise of it. I was in the Dáil on numerous times previously when that scheme was denigrated by the same people.
In that Dáil debate when I was securing extra money for the Office of the Minister for Children towards the early child care supplement and towards the national children investment programme, the Fine Gael and Labour parties voted against that Supplementary Estimate.
I want to comment on a number of points that were well made by Senator Keaveney. She outlined cogently the value and great contribution that the community child care sector has done throughout the country, with which we are all familiar. Senators Keaveney, Wilson and I, who all come from rural communities, appreciate it is not always possible for a facility in a remote rural area to have the critical number of attendees that would justify and make it viable. I can assure the House that in the enhancement of the scheme, as we stated from the outset, in regard to issues such as peripherality, a rural factor or an isolation factor, we will ensure there is a weighting in favour of those types of projects.
I am glad we have created almost 40,000 new child care places under the EOCP and we have the target of creating a further 50,000 places under the national child care investment programme. We will ensure that we will deliver those figures. I also re-emphasise that from the outset when we announced the scheme in July, we stated that there would be a 12 months' transition period that the new scheme would not take effect in reality until July 2008. We stated clearly that we wanted the data back from every community child care sector in order that the officials in the Department could analyse it.
That is not wrong. It is absolutely correct. There was a campaign by some people to tell groups throughout the country that the questionnaires and forms should not be returned to the Department.
The Department's officials at every seminar they attended insisted we wanted all the data possible. In the past, as the scheme grew we had only generalised data available, whereas now we want specific data to ensure we have the profile of the beneficiaries who use the service. I am very glad to report to the Seanad, as I did to Dáil Éireann last night, that we indicated to all groups that we wanted the data back as early as possible in November. At this stage 75% of the groups have responded in complete detail to the questionnaires we sent them. Quite a large percentage of the remainder have contacted the Department by telephone to state the data are being compiled.
Senator Cecelia Keaveney has made a very valid point. She spoke to me on the telephone late one night regarding the group's data for which she wanted a quick analysis. When we analysed the data submitted by a number of the groups we found they would get a higher subvention under the proposed scheme than they get under the outgoing scheme.
I obviously did not miss too much earlier, when I was not here if that was the type of contribution. I just want to thank all the people who contributed.