Thursday, 6 December 2007
Child Care Services
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Smith, for coming to the House and the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I welcome the introduction of the community childcare subvention scheme. I congratulate the Minister of State on a number of aspects of the scheme in particular. I am pleased the total funding for the scheme will be increased by 16%. I particularly welcome the fact that the scheme seeks to direct funding on a more targeted basis. It will support all community based child care services regardless of their location. It will be based on the actual number of children of disadvantaged parents using their services, opening up the support funding for community services throughout the country and standardising the way services and individual parents benefit from affordable child care. It demonstrates the Government's continued commitment to child care and measures targeted at tackling social inclusion, a commitment reiterated in the new programme for Government.
However, there are a number of concerns that some vulnerable parents may be disadvantaged inadvertently. When the Minister of State came to the Seanad some time ago he assured Members there would be ongoing analysis of this situation. Will the Minister give the House an update on the commencement of the community childcare subvention scheme?
I thank Senator Corrigan for raising this important issue. I appreciate the important and valid proposals the Senator made to my office regarding the childcare subvention scheme and child care in general. She has highlighted in particular the need to address the issue of children with special needs and the important points made by some disability groups in that regard. I thank Senator Corrigan for bringing those issues to my attention and for continuing to be a strong advocate for those groups. I very much appreciate it.
Under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006, which is co-funded under the European Union Social Fund, targeted support was provided through the staffing support grant scheme. Community based not for profit child care providers with a strong focus on disadvantage were awarded grant aid towards their staffing costs to allow them operate reduced fees to disadvantaged parents. Funding under this scheme was originally awarded for a limited period during which services were expected to move towards sustainability. This funding was subsequently continued to the end of 2007 where it was considered necessary to enable services to remain accessible to disadvantaged parents. That continuation funding was subject to the condition that tiered fee structures were implemented by the services in question.
With the closure of the equal opportunities childcare programme in December of this year, to continue to support community child care services to provide affordable child care to disadvantaged parents, the community childcare subvention scheme is being introduced from January next year under the Exchequer funded national childcare investment programme which runs to 2010, the successor programme to the equal opportunities childcare programme. The community childcare subvention scheme has been allocated €153 million over the next three years, representing a 16% increase in funding under the equal opportunities childcare programme staffing scheme, and will continue to support community child care services to provide reduced child care fees for disadvantaged parents, complementing the universal supports of increased child benefit and early child supplement in place for all parents. Under the new scheme it will be possible to ensure that the level of grant aid individual services qualify for will reflect the actual level of service they provide and the profile of the parents benefiting from their service.
As part of their application for funding under the new scheme, services are required to ask parents to complete a simple declaration form to be included in a return to my office and on which basis the level of subvention for each service is being determined. The subvention received by services will in turn be reflected in the reduced fees for parents who qualify as disadvantaged under the scheme.
As signalled when I announced the new scheme in July this year, the transitional period up to July 2008 is being used to monitor and review the impact it would have on individual groups on the basis of the more detailed and comprehensive data being received. Where appropriate, any adjustments necessary to the scheme to secure the best outcome for child care services, and for disadvantaged parents and their children, will be considered on the basis of this data and well in advance of the commencement of the new funding levels in July 2008.
As I stated previously in this House, this analysis will be completed as early as possible in 2008. I indicated in the Seanad and in the Dáil on other occasions that our aim is to have the relevant analyses completed before the end of February if at all possible.
Applications from groups entering the new scheme are currently being processed and, when validated, these groups will be issued with letters from the child care directorate of my office approving transitional funding under the national childcare investment programme community childcare subvention scheme.
At the outset, 780 groups in receipt of EOCP staffing funding were identified as having no compliance issues concerning their existing grant and were written to and asked to make returns. A further 45 were added to this list and written to in November and invited to make returns. I am glad to advise the House that, to date, returns of information have been received from 669 groups and 415 letters have issued from my office approving transitional funding, which brings the groups' funding up to 1 July next. For the first six months of 2008 this funding will be based on the level of funding currently being provided to the group under the equal opportunities childcare programme staffing support grant scheme and is approved subject to the necessary contractual arrangements with Pobal.
At the outset there was no shortage of people who told me and my officials that this data could not be collected, that parents would refuse to provide it and that services would not forward it. It is vitally important, therefore, that my office engage with the sector at a series of regional seminars and explain the necessity of this process to the scheme and indeed the community child care sector. The level of returns, at over 80%, has therefore been heartening and has allowed my officials commence analysis of the data and examine the enhancements to the scheme that are appropriate and necessary in the context of the framework it establishes and the increased resources it makes available.
This high level of co-operation is a strong vindication of the Government's position and a firm indication that the new scheme is on the right track. I compliment the various groups who have forwarded the relevant information to us, and the other support groups and county child care committees that have been active in encouraging groups to get all the data to our office as quickly as possible. I also compliment all those involved in collating and processing the data and forwarding them to my office.
There is a huge amount of information to be entered and verified involving hundreds of services and thousands of families but from the receipt of the first returns this process started and with every new return entered, a more complete picture emerges. One of the facts which has emerged is that in most groups the level of employment among parents appears to be substantially higher than it was at the time of their approvals for funding under the equal opportunities childcare programme. This is something all Members of the Oireachtas welcome and I believe the provision of community based not for profit child care has enabled many parents avail of employment opportunities. The second point is that most groups appear to have a lower cost base than in the private sector, largely as a result of little or no rental costs, and this, combined with the not for profit basis of these services, means that even non-subvented parents using these services will still be charged affordable fees.
It is important to restate that the more detailed and comprehensive data which are being generated by the new scheme between now and the end of December are being analysed by officials in my office. I am committed to ensuring that the necessary adjustments to secure the best outcomes for child care services and for disadvantaged parents and their children will be considered by the Government as early as is practical to allow services plan well in advance of the commencement of the new funding levels in July 2008.
I wish to restate that the Government, having invested over €500 million in child care in the past seven years, will not walk away from the community sector or indeed any sector of the national child care infrastructure that is receiving such substantial support. It is worth repeating that the Government has built a formal child care structure from a very low base. Since 2000 we have created over 35,000 new child care places in the community and private sector and supported over 26,000 more.
Given that the new subvention scheme increases funding by 16% over the equal opportunities childcare programme's staffing scheme, I refute in the strongest possible terms the suggestion that the Government has suspended such support. Nothing could be further from the truth and, as I said earlier, any adjustments which might be considered necessary will be considered by the Government once the relevant data has been analysed.
I thank Senator Maria Corrigan for raising this important issue. It is an issue that was raised with me by my own constituency colleague, Senator Diarmuid Wilson. I reiterate that we are determined to enhance the scheme as it is currently outlined. I appreciate the many groups, individuals and Members of the Oireachtas who spoke to me about this issue and made worthwhile suggestions. All of those proposals are being analysed in my office in the Department. We are determined to ensure the equal opportunities child care programme will be built on and further progress made in the child care sector with the major investment of €575 million which the Government has provided for the national child care investment programme up to 2010.
I welcome the Minister of State's response and thank him for his kind words. The 80% level of returns is heartening and is a credit to the Minister of State and his Department. I particularly welcome the fact that 415 letters have been issued approving the transition. The most important aspect of the scheme is that it offers us the opportunity to ensure that the people who most need affordable child care will receive it. The Minister of State's response provides further reassurance that where adjustments are indicated to be necessary, from analysis of the data, for more vulnerable people, they will be made.
I had the opportunity to meet different groups throughout the country as well as Oireachtas colleagues and, in many instances, there was misinformation. At the meetings I was able to allay the genuine concerns that were raised. We have told groups that if they have particular concerns or want further data analysis of the position in their centres, they are welcome to contact the Department directly. All possible assistance will be given to ensure people receive proper guidance and advice on the new scheme.