Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

4:00 pm

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address this House on the budget for 2009. I thank Senators for requesting a debate on this matter at this time, especially as major changes are taking place in the Irish economy and on a global scale.

As the Minister for Finance outlined in his budget speech, and as reiterated by all of my colleagues in Cabinet, there is no doubt that the economy is facing major challenges. However, the Government is rising to these challenges through the package of targeted interventions and corrective actions unveiled in the budget for 2009. These actions are necessary for the responsible management of our public finances and to safeguard our economy for the future.

I wish to outline to the House those key aspects of the budget that impact on the Vote of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in particular subheads A and B which contain the main funding allocations and which are most affected by the budgetary changes. I look forward to exchanges with Senators and to hearing what suggestions they might have to improve child care services in general and on the operation of the services provided by the city and county child care committees. Their ideas will be useful to me in planning strategy for 2009. There is no question but we will have to make changes and think laterally and strategically. That applies to every sector of the economy. I believe everybody shares the common objective of having better outcomes in child care. How we achieve that is a matter for consultation with the national Parliament, which is why I welcome the opportunity to hear the valuable and timely views of Senators.

A key area of Government policy, which is implemented by my office, is the National Childcare Investment Programme 2006-2010, NCIP. The NCIP has a total allocation of €575 million between 2006 and 2010, of which €358 million was in respect of capital funding and €217 million for current funding. The programme was launched in December 2005 as a successor programme to the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, EOCP, which was introduced in 2000 and continued to operate until the end of 2007. The introduction of the NCIP at that time, and its inclusion in the national development plan demonstrated a clear and ongoing commitment by the Government to meeting the needs of parents and their children for quality child care services.

The proposed allocation for the NCIP in 2009 consists of both capital and current funding and I would like to outline the position regarding the current funding allocation first. I am pleased the Government has recognised the importance of sustaining our commitment to quality child care services and has maintained the 2009 current funding allocation under the NCIP at its full 2008 level of €73.578 million. That will enable my office to continue to support child care across the State as well as to provide sufficient funding for the community child care subvention scheme, CCSS.

Due to administrative savings that will be made in 2009, the funding level for the CCSS will increase by €1.4 million. The CCSS was introduced in January of this year and supports community-based child care services to enable them to provide reduced child care fees to disadvantaged and low income parents. While €37 million was spent in 2007 on the previous support scheme for community child care, more than €50 million is being spent on the CCSS in 2008. The proposed current allocation to my Vote in 2009 of €73.578 million confirms the Government's continued commitment to supporting community child care services and to assisting disadvantaged and low income parents.

As more than 100 new services have entered or are in the process of entering the scheme, that will mean approximately 900 community services will be supported with significant levels of grant funding in 2009. Members will be aware that in different parts of the country community child care facilities face challenges and different circumstances. Equally, private child care facilities face challenges. I am interested to hear what points Senators will make in their contributions. There is no doubt we planned for increased investment in improved child care facilities in the context of the expansion of the economy, and the increased demand on services given the greater number of people at work. We need to plan for a different situation in the coming years, and new thinking is required. I welcome today's debate and look forward to what Senators have to say.

The current allocation will also enable my office to continue to support the network of 33 city and county child care committees, CCCs, which were established in 2001. With the introduction of the national childcare investment programme in 2006, the child care committees have worked more closely with my office to deliver the objectives of the Government's major investment programme in child care and they now play a key role in assisting grant applicants to avail of both capital and CCSS grant funding. They also continue to provide essential local supports to both child care providers and parents, including organising training and other quality raising measures. The committees work closely with childminders who continue to be significant providers of child care in Ireland. As with all bodies in receipt of State funding, they will be subject to a 3% cut in their administrative budgets in 2009. However, I am pleased that their funding in 2009, which is expected to amount to €13.8 million, will still be at a level which, on average, is 60% more than was the case in 2005 prior to the introduction of the NCIP.

The current allocation will also continue to support the work of eight major child care organisations, including Barnardos, the IPPA, the NCNA and Childminding Ireland. Those organisations have contributed greatly in the past to the development of quality child care in Ireland and I hope to strengthen those links in the coming months with the location of expertise from the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, the CECDE, into the early years policy unit of the Department of Education and Science, which is co-located in my office. I believe this development will provide a clear starting point for a new focus on early years care and development at central level.

I have already asked officials in my office to draw up proposals that will ensure a more effective use of our existing framework and resources, taking account of the deployment of the expertise and of the supports given to child care organisations. The eight organisations that are funded by my office are expected to receive €3.2 million in 2009, which is 23% more than was the case in 2005 in advance of the NCIP. The current funding allocation will be accompanied in 2009 by a capital allocation to the NCIP of €60 million. That capital allocation will meet the capital funding requirement, which is expected to arise in 2009. In 2008, the capital expenditure is expected to amount to less than €80 million.

The commitment to the NCIP and to funding commitments until 2010, will continue to be met. However, in the context of a reduction in public expenditure during 2009-10 it is considered appropriate to target the programme's resources in a way that ensures the continued delivery of quality child care services as well as to ensure sufficient resources to meet existing capital commitments. In effect, the capital allocation available to the programme will be extended over a longer timeframe, beyond 2010. That approach was adopted under the previous EOCP child care programme, which was extended by an additional year to 2007. That provided additional flexibility to child care projects, in particular those in the community-based, not-for-profit sector who qualify for large-scale grants of up to €1.2 million.

Applications for capital grant funding for child care projects, particularly large-scale projects in the community sector, generally require a significant period of time to bring proposals for grant funding through to the point at which they are in a position to draw down funding. That process can take up to two years, or longer in some cases. Extending the timeframe for expenditure is expected to bring each year's allocation of funding more closely in line with the actual demand for grant drawdown each year. That will help to ensure that all of the capital allocation for each year is fully utilised. I wish to make it clear, therefore, that capital grant applications under the NCIP will continue to be accepted and processed by my office. I understand that applications amounting to over €200 million in grant aid have been approved to date and a further round, with a value of over €80 million, is expected to complete the assessment process before the end of the year.

In the context of the longer timeframe which is now envisaged for the NCIP, the review process that was expected to take place with a view to considering any successor programme, will now be undertaken at a later point. The NCIP is already well on the way to achieving its target of creating 50,000 additional child care places and the funding approved to date will result in the creation of approximately 30,000 additional child care places as well as supporting a further 44,000 existing places.

A further important area of direct support that my office oversees for parents with young children, is the early child care supplement, ECS. The ECS was introduced in 2006 as an additional, direct quarterly payment, in arrears, of €250 per quarter, or €1,000 per annum, to parents of children aged under six years. The payment was increased in January of this year by 10%, bringing it to a total of €275 per quarter, or €1,100 per annum. I am pleased that payment will continue to be made to assist parents with the high costs associated with caring for young children in their pre-school years.

The 2009 allocation for the ECS within my Vote will amount to €397 million. In 2008, expenditure on the ECS is expected to amount to approximately €480 million and that would have been expected to increase in 2009, to €490 million. However, arising from the budgetary changes introduced, the administrative arrangements for the ECS will be revised with effect from January 2009. The revised administrative arrangements are expected to result in savings of €93 million in 2009 and savings of €54 million in subsequent years.

From January 2009, the ECS will be paid on a monthly basis, which should assist parents in managing their ongoing costs, many of which are monthly, in providing for the care of their children. As a result of this change, parents will receive an ECS payment for January 2009 in February, a payment for February in March and a payment for March in April, rather than having to wait for the three payments to be made as one single payment in April. As the monthly ECS payment will be rounded up to €92, the annual payment will increase to €1,104 at a cost of €2 million. It is proposed to have the ECS payments made to parents on the second Monday of each month.

Given that the ECS was implemented as a quarterly payment, it was decided the quarterly payment in respect of the final quarter of each year, October-December, would be paid in December rather than January. Arising from the fact that the ECS will from January 2009 be paid on a monthly basis, the question of making an advance payment for the final quarter will not arise. As a result, a once-off saving to the Exchequer amounting to €39 million is expected to arise in 2009.

In addition, as a quarterly payment, despite being a payment made in arrears, the decision was taken to assist parents during the first quarter of their child's life. As a result, parents receive the payment in respect of the first quarter of their child's life and the quarter in which their child ceased to qualify. This issue will not arise when the change to a monthly payment, as in the case of child benefit, takes place. This is expected to result in an annual saving to the Exchequer of €20 million.

I have mentioned that savings will arise from paying the early child care supplement on a monthly basis. A separate budgetary change to the scheme is expected to yield a further saving of €36 million in a full year. The age at which children cease to qualify for the payment will be reduced from six to five and a half. The early child care supplement was originally introduced as an additional, targeted measure to support parents as they care for young children who have not yet started school. Children generally start primary school at the age of four or five. Their parents will continue to receive early child care supplement payments in respect of them during this period. As the compulsory age to commence primary school is six, virtually all children who are aged more than five and a half in September of each year go to school. Therefore, this measure is not expected to impact significantly on the parents of pre-school children.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me an opportunity to speak on this important subject. I hope we can have a frank exchange of views in the course of this discussion. I am keen to hear Senators' opinions on the shortfalls that continue to exist in the child care sector. I apologise because I will have to leave before the conclusion of the debate. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, will take my place. I will review the comments which are made.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for attending this debate. As Minister of State with responsibility for children, he has an important job. It is accepted that last week's budget was a difficult and disappointing one for the elderly. Equally, it was not sufficiently supportive of children and their families. The Minister of State mentioned some of the cutbacks which are to be made in the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The periods of eligibility for early child care supplement and child benefit are to be reduced. Parents who try to support their children as they go through college will have to pay certain fees. A number of other decisions were made which were not supportive of children. The question of values that has arisen in respect of the elderly is also relevant in this instance. We need to consider how we value different groups in society. What sort of funding do we want to put in place to support our children? Parents are concerned about critical issues like child care, which I will focus on in my contribution to this debate. I will also mention two other matters which I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, to comment on when he brings this debate to a conclusion.

The issue of trafficking was highlighted yesterday in a report on RTE's "Six One News". Society needs to reflect on the disappearance of over 400 young people who had been taken into the care of the HSE. Other countries provide "safe sanctuaries" to protect children who are at risk of traffickers. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, will agree that the story outlined in the RTE report was horrific. The young woman who was interviewed spoke about the horrific experiences she had endured in this country. From the age of 12, she was subjected to appalling sexual abuse in the towns of this country. As she was involved in prostitution, paedophiles had access to her. We need to examine the sanctuary we give to young people in such circumstances. I have visited hostels to see for myself the conditions many children are in. I will send the Minister of State a copy of the report I have produced on unaccompanied children. The case highlighted by RTE yesterday illustrates that many young people are not secure in hostels.

The second matter I would like to comment on was the subject of an article in last Saturday's The Irish Times. I am sure the Minister of State read the article in question, "Life and a Death on the Streets", which was written by Carl O'Brien. It recounted the case of a young person who had an horrific time after he was taken into care. He died after he failed to get the kind of supports he needed. A separate debate in this House, on the question of what happens to children after they go into care, is required.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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Children who are taken from their families, for all sorts of reasons, often end up in care. If proper supports were available in the community, they would not end up in care. I know from my own experience that the assertion in The Irish Times article that care placements "can cost in excess of €500,000 a year" is true. If we were to invest the same amount of money in family support services, up to 40 children could be supported. We need to reflect on the kind of supports we offer to children in care and vulnerable families.

I would like to highlight the pressures which are being faced by community care teams at present. As jobs are not being filled, community care teams are not in a position to react to the most serious cases. The Seanad has previously discussed the plight of children in vulnerable families who are at risk. I know the Minister of State is well aware of the huge pressure that is on these services.

Many people were concerned when the community child care subvention scheme was introduced last year. At the time, the then Minister responded to some of those concerns by making some changes. However, a day of action and protest is being organised by incensed child care workers, stressed providers and pressurised parents who are not pleased. The flaws and difficulties in the scheme are evident to employees, service providers and parents. I have spoken to child care providers in Clondalkin who are concerned about the many problems associated with this scheme. I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with the new report that has been produced by the Lourdes centre. Those who worked on the report interviewed service providers and highlighted key difficulties.

After ten years of the Celtic tiger, it is sad that this country does not have the sort of child care services it should have. I do not doubt that many parents are spending the equivalent of a second mortgage to meet their huge child care costs. I recently read a newspaper interview with a young couple who have two children. When the reporter asked them how they can get high-quality child care at a reasonable cost — €300 a month — they said they managed to do it by emigrating to Spain.

A recent OECD report highlighted this country's failure to provide affordable and accessible child care of a high quality. Those of us who have been arguing over many years for high-quality child care are disappointed that matters have not improved after ten years of prosperity. I recognise that significant amounts of money are being invested in child care. There is no doubt about that. I welcome the increase that has been provided for in some areas this year. The manner in which child care has been planned has led to the provision of services which are expensive and difficult to access. Child care is not available to some parents. For those who can access it, child care is very expensive.

This House debated the issue of universality earlier. If we had taken a universal approach to the provision of child care, for example by guaranteeing three and four year olds a year of high-quality pre-schooling, I wonder if we would be in a better position on foot of all of the money that has been spent. As things stand, access to child care is uneven. That is why workers in this area are preparing a day of action. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the new report, which I mentioned a moment ago. I am sure his office has examined it. Those who compiled the report have told me that the feeling on the ground is that the community child care subvention scheme is misjudged. It is not working as well as it should be. It is creating a set of new problems. I ask the Minister of State to comment on the problems in question.

I wonder whether an extraordinary point that emerged recently can be correct. A recent meeting in Dublin, involving Pobal and the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, revealed that just one child care provider was consulted during the early stages of the formulation of the community child care subvention scheme. As there are 161 community child care providers in the greater Dublin area, there should have been more consultation. Further consultation is necessary at this stage. The scheme needs to be reviewed again. Many of the problems associated with it need to be resolved. The Minister of State needs to consider whether some aspects of the scheme are helping people as it was thought they would. The scheme is based on uneven foundations. The Minister of State has misread the situation.

The report I have mentioned, A Study of the Effects of the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme, illustrates some of the negative consequences of the scheme. I wish to highlight some of the consequences in question. Those who compiled the report consulted widely within the sector. They argue that the entire scheme is inequitable. They suggest that it has deprived many low and middle-income families of child care. Such people can no longer afford the massive increases in the payments sought under the scheme. It has been estimated that the increase in child care fees for working parents since 2007 has been between 50% and 166%. In real terms, those who were paying €80 last year may be paying as much as €200 this year. The Minister will agree that in the current economic situation the scale of increase in child care fees is unsustainable for people who were just about holding onto their jobs and are getting no increases, where job security is threatened, especially since if they go on social welfare they can get full-time child care. There is something very problematic about that. It needs to be examined.

The fundamental problem with the scheme is that it is based on a per-child subvention and is means tested in a way that penalises low-income and single parent families. Given that their children receive a smaller subvention, they are charged more than parents on social welfare. The scheme penalises parents who work and makes it seem more beneficial for a parent to be on social welfare and avail of the scheme than to work full time in a relatively low-paid job.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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This pushes the disadvantaged into the poverty trap and encourages the black economy. There is no logic because there is a poverty trap for hard-working families trying to make ends meet. The State should not support a scheme that does that.

The other aspects of the problem are that community child care providers experience a continuing decrease in direct funding. This makes it extremely difficult or impossible to maintain services. A number of services have closed. One cannot definitively say this is because of the subvention scheme but I would ask what reports the Minister's Department is receiving about services closing.

We have been told that many services will have no alternative but to shut their doors on communities which depend on the provision of child care. The number of children with whom community child care providers work will be vastly reduced if this happens. Jobs will be lost in the sector and the quality will be compromised. This is a real problem. One child care provider in Dublin's north west inner city has estimated a total loss of income as a result of the scheme of €151,000. That is enormous. These are services being provided to the most disadvantaged areas and it is a serious loss of revenue to pay staff and build up child care places. There will be job losses.

Providers cannot assess their annual budget because funding depends on the number of children availing of the service and working parents cannot afford the large increases in child care costs. Forward planning is very difficult for those child care providers. This will affect families but will have a disproportionate effect on women. Women will leave the workforce if they do not get the kind of support they need from child care. The number of women entering the workforce is increasing. The recent OECD report, Babies and Bosses, revealed that 51% of women in the workforce have a child aged between zero and three years and 52% between three and six years of age, yet we continue to lag behind many other countries. The OECD report also found that in 2006, 30% of disposable income was spent on early child care. That compares with an 8% average in the rest of Europe. Despite all the money going in, the expense of and lack of access to child care is still extremely problematic. It impacts on families and quality of life for women and men.

Ireland's rating for publicly funded child care facilities is very low. We are still failing to provide the sort of early child care services that we should and that would be good for children and families. The Minister of State is doing his best to watch over his funding and ensure he can change the situation. I ask him to radically overhaul the community child care subvention scheme. All sorts of segregation will arise in the community child care facilities for them to get their funding. There will not be the kind of mix of families on different incomes — families on social welfare and working families — in the community child care services. The mix worked well; it was good for children, families and services. There is serious pressure on the community child care services and I ask the Minister of State to radically overhaul it, to liaise and consult further with the providers, parents and community. The early research on the subvention scheme suggests that it does not work.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I am the Government spokesperson in the Seanad on children. The Minister of State said he welcomed a frank discussion today, so I hope he will bear with me.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thought the Senator might say that.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It is my responsibility to spell out my position.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I was only joking.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I know that. Many times in this Chamber I have said we have free national school, secondary school and third level education, however we continue to neglect the education and development of our youngest citizens in the zero to five age group. There is clear evidence from the literature around the globe that while all investment in education yields a rich dividend for the economic and social well-being of society, the highest returns accrue from investment in early life education. The benefits of investment in early-life education are proved to be more pronounced in the poorer socioeconomic groups.

In July, the National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, expressed disappointment that its recommendation to provide free high-quality child care in the year before a child goes to school has not been implemented. In my White Report, A New Approach to Childcare, published in 2006, I did a class report and gave good marks to the child care supplement, the establishment of the new Minister of State with responsibility for children and the increase in paid maternity leave to 26 weeks, however I said I was disappointed no vision had been spelled out for a free pre-school education. We have made no moves on that. Pre-school education would enhance the all-round development of children, including their emotional, intellectual, social and behavioural development. Disadvantaged children would benefit to a greater extent from such provision, especially where there is a mix of children from different backgrounds.

I have had discussions with Professor Tom Collins, the dean of teaching and learning at NUI Maynooth, who has a vision for education on this island. He and I are on the same wavelength regarding the benefits of pre-school education. I was with Professor Collins yesterday and he pointed out that the benefit of pre-school education lasts until a person is 40 years old. The advantage pushes through until middle age, particularly regarding issues such as crime-prevention, health, family and children. Pre-school education is an effective mechanism for addressing child poverty. Our children need to enter primary school with a pre-developed disposition to learn. They do not need to be able to read before they go to school, but they need a passion to learn, discover and realise their potential. If they do not have that in their little hearts and souls by the age of six it is too late.

Considering the social and other benefits a pre-school year would generate, both immediately and in the longer term, the cost to the Exchequer of such a new approach would be relatively minor. Two years ago the NESF published an estimated cost of €136 million per year for a sessional period of 2.5 hours per day, five days per week. When it launched the report this July I called the chairperson and asked if she stands over that figure. I had that figure in my document but was told it could not be correct. However, the chairperson of NESF stands over it.

It is somewhat surprising that this issue has not been addressed by now because it is the last hurdle in the development of our mass education in Ireland. It is all the more surprising when one considers the difficulties and costs associated with problems that might have been avoided by earlier pre-school intervention. Experienced teachers say they can identify a future drop-out at the age of six. If this is so, it is imperative that learning opportunities prior to this age are not missed.

There is no doubt there have been major improvements in recent years, including the establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children, a commitment to providing 50,000 extra child care places by 2010, the early child care supplement and the increase in paid maternity leave to 26 weeks. We must acknowledge also the tremendous work being carried out by the 33 child care committees throughout the country as well as the exemplary work being carried out by parents on the boards of such committees. Roscommon child care committee estimated that the voluntary work done by parents on the board of that committee is worth approximately €270,00 per year.

I called for this debate when I read an article in The Irish Times on 4 October outlining the findings of a European Commission report on availability, costs and Government spending on child care services in the EU. While the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Mr. Vladimír Spidla, said that most countries are not reaching the targets set under the Barcelona agenda, Ireland's record is particularly bleak. Next to the United Kingdom, Irish parents pay more for child care than parents in other European countries. The Irish Government spends less on child care and early education than any other country in the EU. A typical Irish two-parent family with two children under three years of age spends 29.2% of net income on child care costs. In contrast, parents in Finland spend only 7.2% of their income on child care.

We have built almost all our economic hopes and aspirations on investment in education. However, we are making a mistake as a society if we believe that by investing in fourth level we will sustain our economic and social well-being while neglecting the earlier levels. We all know that the first five years are the most important in every person's life.

The current recession affects everyone but some socioeconomic groups feel it more than others. It can be reasonably argued that one of the biggest sources of the divide between social groups is education. Now is the time for us to foster an equitable system of childhood development where all children, irrespective of circumstances, have the opportunity to develop to their full potential. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, to come up with an innovative response to this issue. This is an opportunity for the Minister to make his mark. We need a comprehensive child care development programme such as the one-year preschool measure outlined by the National Economic and Social Forum. It is high time that early childhood care and education provision for all children became a political priority.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Feargal Quinn. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the opportunity to debate this important issue.

I wish to take up a theme rightly addressed by Senator Fitzgerald on the universal provision of child care services. Before doing that, however, I wish to say how delighted I was to hear what Senator Mary White had to say. She has spoken sensibly about the need to invest in early childhood education, with which we all would agree fully. It is just a pity that the Government, which has been in power for more than 11 years, has not been listening to what Senator White has had to say on the issue. Clearly, money should have been invested in preschool education, at a minimum. This debate is not only about preschool education but also child care from an earlier stage in a child's or baby's life. None the less, in terms of preschool education, the cost of rolling out a one-year, universal programme of preschool education for all preschool children, that is, children aged three and four, would not have been immense. While I acknowledge the considerable sum of money that has been spent on various programmes, as outlined by the Minister of State, would the cost have been that much greater — certainly the benefits would have been immensely greater — had we invested in a more comprehensive programme of preschool education?

Buried within the text of the Minister of State's speech is the economic context in which we are operating, where cutbacks and closures are a feature of life. In that context, the Minister of State referred to the early childhood education centre and the expertise built up there. Unfortunately, as I understand it, the Government is closing that centre. It is most unfortunate that we are seeing cuts in a programme that has never really achieved its full potential.

There have been attacks in this budget on the idea of universal provision generally, and especially on the universal provision of medical cards for those over 70. There was also a very sinister suggestion in the budget speech by the Minister for Finance last week that universal child benefit will be the next benefit to be targeted and means tested. I wish to address this matter briefly before returning to the broader issue of child care provision.

Attacks on universal provision have a superficial attraction. We have heard numerous Ministers asking why millionaires' children should have free fees or millionaires over 70 be given medical cards. It is for the same reason that millionaires' children have free access to primary education, which no one is challenging. That is uncontroversial and we all would accept the enormous benefit to society in having universal access to primary education at a national level. That is a principle to which we have long adhered in this State.

This point was expressed eloquently by Ms Maev-Ann Wren, a recognised expert on health care, when she wrote in The Sunday Tribune, that: "Of course people on higher incomes should pay more for public services but the European way to achieve that is via tax or social insurance, so that we collectively fund services according to our ability to pay but, crucially, access them equally according to need." An enormous public good is served if we allow that.

That is the basis on which we pay for and fund our primary education system, so that millionaires' children and the children of those on social welfare all attend the same national school. That should also be the basis upon which we provide preschool education. This is not a controversial view. Segregation is not good for children or society. Unfortunately, we do not adhere to that model in our health care because we have a two-tier health service. Through the changes that have been made to the community child care subvention scheme, we are unfortunately seeing greater segregation creeping in to what was a very positive model of having child care available to children in a particular community on a subsidised basis, so that children of both working parents and parents on social welfare equally could access that child care. However, changes to the scheme have meant that children with working parents are being priced out of the community child care sector and a creeping segregation is emerging. Soon, community child care centres will only cater for children of parents on social welfare, which is most unfortunate. It is regrettable to see that sort of segregation at such an early age.

If we all accept the principle of universality at primary level, we should also accept it preschool level and earlier. Clearly, there is a need to provide child care as increasingly, both parents of children are working and there are also increasing numbers of single parent families. It is important that parents have a choice of working outside the home that is not solely based on financial considerations. The current system of child care and preschool provision, which is almost entirely left to individual parents and the private sector, means that most people are trying to juggle with enormous private costs, which can be €1,000 or €1,200 per child per month in the greater Dublin area. The Government has not seen fit to try to address this difficulty for parents of all income levels. There should be equal access to quality child care and preschool education.

Unfortunately we are seeing enormous encroachments on the rights of preschool children. There are attacks on children's rights through the effectively abandoned referendum promised on children's rights. Will the Minister of State clarify the matter? I have heard from public pronouncements and from other quarters that the referendum will not proceed. There has not been a clear announcement to that effect, but many of us understand it will not now proceed, which is a great shame. Part of the reason we have fallen so far behind other EU countries, as other speakers stated, is that we do not really recognise the idea of children's rights or give the idea any teeth in Ireland. We have been criticised internationally for our failure to provide at a constitutional level for children's rights.

The potential abandonment of the children's rights referendum, the signal that there could be an end to the payment of the universal child benefit and the swingeing attacks made on the education budget, admittedly the preserve of the Minister for Education and Science, clearly will affect young children and seem to be especially directed at the most disadvantaged, including Traveller children and children with special needs. Given these developments, it is time to say clearly that the Government has fallen down badly. I do not place all the blame with the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, but the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children has failed in protecting preschool and older children. Brian's botched budget will be remembered for hurting not only the old, sick and handicapped, to use the Fianna Fáil slogan from many years ago, but also the young, poor and disadvantaged and it will certainly hurt children.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank Senator Bacik for allowing me to share time. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, and I was delighted to hear his comments. I have found the debate so far very interesting, especially the passion of Senator Mary White in discussing a topic she knows so well, and the commitment of Senators Bacik and Fitzgerald shows how far behind I am on this issue. I do not have such experience or knowledge, but I have five children and I remember what it was like when they grew up. I have 11 grandchildren and I can see the joy this brings, but I can also see the needs in those early formative years.

I examined how we compare with other countries in the area of child care. Ireland lags substantially behind other European countries in the provision of child care facilities. According to a new European Commission report on child care, published earlier this month, Irish families with two working parents and two children spend 29.2% of net income on child care — this was already mentioned — the second highest level in the EU. Only the UK spends more at 32% of net income. Similar families in Belgium, Portugal and Poland all spend less than 5% of net income on children.

It is estimated that working parents of preschool children in the country can spend more than €1,000 per month for every child in day care. This puts into perspective the early child care supplement of €1,100 given to parents. It barely covers a single month's fees for most parents. This supplement has been cut back in the budget and will only be given to parents with children up the age of five and a half years, whereas previously it was given for children up to six years of age. This is a further hardship for pressurised families and seems like another step backwards.

This is in marked contrast to what families pay on the Continent. In Spain, for instance, a final monthly crèche bill for two children is €330 after the Government contributes €100 per child. A similar crèche bill in Ireland is estimated to cost almost €2,000 per month. Other countries in Europe have better provision of child care. In Denmark, for instance, parents pay a maximum of 30% of child care costs with the state subsidising the rest. In France, parents with children in crèches are eligible for a subsidy of €600 per month while the Écoles Maternelles open their doors to children aged between two and five years between the hours of 8.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. This is funded entirely by the state. Some 99% of children attend these schools in France. A comparable system is in place in Italy for children aged three to six years. In Sweden parents pay no more than 3% of household income on crèche fees for their first child, 2% for their second and 1% for their third child. I apologise for providing all these figures but it seems we have much to learn from other countries. In Norway parents pay between 28% and 45% of the cost of children's crèche fees, depending on their income.

In Ireland parents pay 90% of the cost themselves. It is estimated that parents in Ireland with two children in private child care will spend at least €60,000 in four years on crèche fees alone. Then there is the vulnerable end of the spectrum and other changes have come this summer. The level of Government financial support for child care is means tested, as Senator Bacik stated. As a result, many parents on lower or middle incomes are not eligible for any funding and must pay the full cost of community child care.

Senator Bacik made a good point. While I am one of those who question why the State should subsidise the wealthy, the State insists on paying for national schools and primary schools and has done so for more than 200 years and we never question that. It is certainly not a question of saying it is for the wealthy. The Government argues that the changes means State funds are targeted at children most in need of support and such children will receive greater levels of funding. It states a majority of service providers will benefit under the new system.

In discussing child care we must keep in mind families living on the bread-line. The cost of child care services is increasing rapidly with increases of between 50% and 166% in 2007. Because of the changes in the way the Government funds community child care facilities, which came into effect during the summer, the level of Government financial support for parents is now means tested. This means child care services for some of the most vulnerable children are in danger. If the Government does not ensure the most vulnerable children are looked after and that crèches are available at an affordable cost to disadvantaged families, it may result in greater problems down the line. In looking to the future and when discussing the past, including the Celtic tiger and how well it performed in those years, we say the primary reason was education. We have forgotten that education for those under five years of age is so important. What if children cannot access quality preschool education and are, therefore, left behind even before they start school?

The formative years are the most important in a child's life. The children of parents who cannot afford child care should not suffer. The Government must keep its promise to provide essential child care to the most vulnerable in society. Remember when we discussed the success of the economy in recent years, which we hope will return again, we said we must invest in education. If anything, we have fallen down in this area. I have examined the figures which compare Ireland with the rest of Europe and it is those very formative years before they go to school which make the difference.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House. I believe he probably has the most important job in the country because he is dealing with our young children. We must make a major investment in our young people for the future. The Government takes its responsibility for young people very seriously and their futures depend on it. We have been late starters in this regard. I take on board the criticism, some of which we deserve, that in past years we did not invest in young people, children, crèches and so forth as we should have.

The position of Minister of State with responsibility for children was created ten years ago. When I worked in the health services, there were no services for children. We have been developing this new service in past years. It is an expensive service but I believe in the long term there is more value for money investing in services for young children. We have made some gains. I was a member of a local authority in the Dublin region and there were no playgrounds for children until a few years ago. There has been significant investment in play areas for young children at local authority level. There was also no provision by local authorities for crèches in new developments. Local authorities insisted on the provision of child care facilities in new housing developments over a certain size. This was an important contribution from local authorities in this area.

A high standard of safety rightly has been created in all child care establishments and crèches. Working mothers and fathers must feel comfortable that their children are being looked after by the best people and in the safest environment.

It is important to recognise the substantial allocation of €575 million to child care services in the budget. When we are dealing with scarce resources, as we are now, it is one area we should hone in on and ensure the Minister of State's office is looked at favourably for investment in the future. In these difficult times, we are restricted by budgetary restraints. However, like the old age pensioners and the health services, child care is a most important priority. What we invest now in child care we will see a return on in the future. The young people are the future of the country.

It is important that the Minister of State ensures the resources he has available are spent wisely on behalf of the taxpayer and imaginatively. Imagination in child care provision is necessary, especially with the current budget restraints. We can all crib about being confined to budget but imagination and creativity could go a long way in child care provision.

I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, will make a difference in his portfolio. He is a young father and knows the importance of the safety of his children when he leaves them in someone else's care. He must be ambitious for the future expansion of the child care programme. Senator Mary White said we must invest in and expand the programme but also examine where we can get better value for money. We also must look out for the less well-off in our communities. I remember a time when areas such as Ballyogan had no crèches. They do now. The Minister of State is improving the services, something on which I commend him. There is much work still to be done and he will have to fight his corner for moneys for his office.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Senator Frances Fitzgerald already intimated her concerns about the protection of young people. In August 2008, the Minister of State launched a review of reports on child protection services. The review condemned services for children who were suffering from abuse and neglect as hostile, intimidating and unsympathetic.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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That was somewhat unfair.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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At the time the Minister of State stated the child protection system was not perfect.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Health and Children; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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These are two separate issues.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is a reasonable man and in my experience as a local representative I find the system is unsympathetic. Social workers involved in child protection are worn out from being both understaffed and under-resourced. No social worker is available after 5 p.m. or the weekend. While I accept the service has improved under the Minister of State's leadership, the system is still failing our young people. Victims of domestic violence find it difficult to have their concerns taken seriously by the system. That is an outrage. The Government and the Department needs to support families in crisis. People should not have to wait until they are in absolute crisis to go to social services. Early intervention is necessary.

One child, with a heart condition, in my area roams the streets at night, even as late as 11 p.m. in the pouring rain. His mother is inadequate and not able to cope. I have tried to contact social services about the case but there is no support for the mother because the services are understaffed and stretched.

We all saw the "Prime Time" programme showing stacks of files on social workers' desks. It is an outrage that the report containing the Health Service Executive's figures for 2006 for services for children in welfare was only published yesterday. How can the Minister of State put in place services for children who are suffering abuse and neglect when he does not know until two years later the figures for the number of children affected?

I understand the Minister of State is in a new portfolio and it is difficult, but at the same time, we are failing our most vulnerable members in society. As Senator Larry Butler said, they are also the most valuable, the largest asset to our society. It is every child's constitutional right to be protected and cared for.

I applaud the Minister of State for taking time out of his schedule to visit the Longford-Westmeath constituency as often as he has. We have fantastic capital projects with beautiful crèches, both private and community-based, which he has visited. I hate to be negative but through staffing and doing away with the subvention, as Senator Ivana Bacik stated, a two-tier system in child care has been created. Many parents cannot afford to send their children to private crèches because of the prohibitive costs. In turn, the staffing arrangements for the community crèches are under threat and they are not able to function. Many single mothers who want to work but cannot afford child care costs or get a subvention have done the sums and decided to stay languishing at home. This is an anomaly I know the Minister of State will address.

The issue of ghettoisation also arises in this debate. I attended school with children who were both well off and not so well off. One nurtures a society by having children who have different experiences of life socialise, play and educated together. Those who have and those who have not should not be in different crèches or play groups, which is what is happening because of the community child care subvention scheme. That is reported to me, both by parents and by the providers.

Mothers who have gone to university and who want to contribute to society find that when they have their second baby they cannot afford the cost of child care and opt out of the workplace. Society is at a loss that these intelligent women are not able to contribute in the workplace. It is lovely for the children — do not get me wrong — but it is a shame that their mothers do not have the choice to be able to work because of the prohibitive cost of child care.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House and the opportunity to make a statement on the provision of child care services.

There is little disagreement in the House that a considerable challenge faces this country in terms of developing a quality child care infrastructure, but there is a clear need to establish a workable, flexible, equitable and affordable model of child care in Ireland. There are a number of problems and difficulties facing us in this country, one of which is that Irish child care services are provided largely on an informal basis which does not meet the needs of parents. CSO statistics show that child-minding or family home-based child care is still by far the largest sub-sector in Ireland, accounting for 80% of child care places for infants, pre-school and schoolgoing children. The remaining 20% of parents access private and community child care services which can take many different forms, including sessional services, full-day services, employer-based child care, after-school care and the Early Start Programme.

Despite clear improvements to the child care system, unfortunately, the current provision does not address the demand. It would appear that the child care services have the capacity to support little more than 15% of the children aged up to three years, and we have the second lowest rate of coverage in Europe for those between the ages of three and six years, according to an OECD study of child care in Ireland of two years ago.

The second problem in terms of developing an adequate model of child care is that traditionally we have viewed child care as an adjunct to employment policies rather than as a highly complex and important issue in its own right. Much international research shows that the early years of a child's life are crucial to his or her cognitive, emotional and social development and that many of the benefits are transferred to the family and to the wider community. Child care is not just about employment or even about educating children; it is an important social support mechanism and developmental service. Research has demonstrated that the influence of the first few years of a child's life can determine whether he or she will remain in school, will access employment and-or proceed to third level education. We need to take all of these factors into consideration when considering the development of child care services.

On Saturday morning last I attended a SIPTU meeting which examined the organisation of people who work in the community child care sector, and these issues arose repeatedly. I would welcome a proposal to organise workers in this sector because part of the difficulty is that the sector, because it is largely informal, has been relatively invisible and its workers have not pushed for issues such as proper training, better standards and, obviously, pay and conditions, which also would come into the equation. It is in everybody's interest that the sector organises itself to a greater extent, and I think the Government has been trying to do this. It has been trying to put in place structures to help the child care sector organise itself in a way that will benefit the children who are in receipt of the services.

In 2000, 33 city and county child care committees were established to deliver local child care strategies and these committees received funding under the Equality Opportunities Childcare Programme. They also have strategic plans, employ staff and implement actions. Will the Minister comment on whether the effectiveness of these child care committees has been evaluated, and whether the area is regularly evaluated to learn from best practice and from those who are succeeding in making good inroads into developing good child care structures and programmes in their areas?

One of my aims today, rather than focusing on the challenges and the negatives, is to point to one programme of which I became aware recently, which is funded by the Government and which is a positive model that I hope will be replicated around the country in years to come, namely, the Fledglings Childcare project. The first of a number of sites opened in Fettercairn in Tallaght on 1 September last and the second site is due to open at Brookfield probably at the beginning of January.

I will outline the background to how this project arose. The original project, The Shanty Educational Project, was founded 21 years ago by Ms Ann Louise Gilligan and Ms Katherine Zappone. Their belief was that education was the key to eradicating poverty. The Shanty programme has provided an extensive range of second-chance education and training opportunity for thousands of women in Tallaght West.

In 1999, the Government provided a grant of €1 million to help build An Cosán and Rainbow House was established. This is the organisation's in-house early childhood education and care centre and provides high quality education and care. This enabled many parents in the locality to avail of education and training. At a later stage, an innovative social enterprise project was developed and Fledglings Childcare was then registered and created. This centre was set up to provide child care training for local women. By May 2007, it had more than 220 women on 11 different courses including FETAC level five child care, FETAC level six supervisory and management and other courses including child-minding and parenting.

This is an innovative and radical new social enterprise which can be replicated. The hope is that it will be replicated outside Tallaght west in the Dublin area and nationally in due course. Economies of scale will apply and once the front-end set-up costs have been covered, the costs of the extended roll out will be much lower. The model is based on research into local community needs and responds to the real unmet need for affordable early childhood education and care, particularly in disadvantaged areas. It is also a social franchise model that has been recognised by Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.

Under its contract with the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Fledglings Childcare has committed to opening ten child care centres using this social franchise model. When operating at full capacity, the first four of these locations will provide more than 115 additional child care places and more than 20 new child care jobs.

I congratulate the Government and the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on having had the foresight to support a project like this, but also argue strongly for the replication of this type of project in the rest of the greater Dublin area and around the country.

5:00 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, to the House. He has been having a rather rocky day, I understand, but I welcome him to the House. I am afraid I cannot agree with Senator de Búrca and I cannot go along with her congratulating the Minister or the Government on this issue.

When at some time in the future we look back over the great achievements of the past ten to 15 years in the Irish economy and society and do the balance sheet, perhaps we will see that our greatest missed opportunity in the course of that time was not to put in place a reliable, well-funded and universally accessible system of child care. We failed to do this and I do not personalise this failure around any individual Minister. Members of the Government and parties who support the Government bear a political responsibility for failing in that task. It is manifestly the case that the Government has failed in that regard.

I also attended the SIPTU organised meeting on Saturday last, to which Senator de Búrca referred earlier. It was attended by representatives and workers from community child care centres throughout the country, but mainly from Dublin city. When one attends meetings such as this one expects to see genuine anger, as the Minister of State experienced earlier today, but in a sense this was worse than anger. At least when anger occurs there is a prospect or possibility that it can be focused and ultimately achieve something. However, the feeling in this case was worse. It was the frustration of people who believe they have been completely ignored by the State.

They visited a Government office recently. I cannot remember the exact office but they were due to meet some officials — I would not seek to personalise this matter around an individual official — who were responsible for the administration of the subvention scheme. They outlined their genuine concerns regarding the pressures they are under in respect of the rates that are charged, the administrative work that is now associated with running the centres and other frustrations. However, they were told, perhaps more in sorrow than in anger, that they were not even on the radar. We know who has been on the Government's radar in recent weeks but, unfortunately, it has not been the people who run the community child care centres in our cities and towns.

One of the best things about recent days has been the explosion in debate about universalism. I have never previously seen debate at such a level. People have become politicised and are asking questions. I heard the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, say in recent days with regard to the medical card for people over 70 years of age that we should not give medical cards to people who can well afford to pay for care. However, my position, and I understood it to be the position of the Green Party, as it was in the past, is that we should strive to provide the same excellent level of service to all members of the community, irrespective of whether they are high, middle or low earners. The way to achieve equity and ensure we can fund the provision of those services and ensure that the people who have money actually pay their fair share is through our taxation system. We are shirking this, and we have shirked it again in recent days on the other issue I mentioned.

We are shirking it in particular in the area of child care provision. As Senator Mary White correctly pointed out, the National Economic and Social Forum has made the point repeatedly, and as recently as last autumn, that the subvention scheme — our child care system is essentially a combination of the subvention scheme and the supplement — is not considered to be workable and may leave low income families at risk of not being able to continue in employment. In other words, they might have to abandon the fledgling child care services. There was little or no consultation with those who are affected by the scheme. The NESF went on to make the point, as other Senators have made in the course of this debate, that provision of early education for children in this country is one of the lowest in the OECD countries but that child care costs, relative to earnings, are the highest in the OECD, at nearly 30% of net family income. That is more than double the OECD average.

The NESF's principal recommendation is that the Government provide, free of charge, a high quality pre-school child care session of three and a half hours per day, five days per week, for all children. The forum expressed its disappointment that the recommendation had not been accepted and implemented. The Labour Party has supported this recommendation. As I understand it, and some journalists and commentators have commented on this recently, if the Government introduced the type of universal provision advocated by the NESF, the funding necessary to sustain it would be less than the current combination of what it pays in the subvention scheme and the supplement. Perhaps the Minister of State will comment on that. It is a specific statement. I understand it to be true but if it is not, I would welcome an elucidation of that point. If the Minister of State can demonstrate that it is wrong, I would like to see the figures and to ascertain whether that is the case.

Other Senators have spoken about the pressures and dilemmas faced by child care centres in respect of taking in children, the rates and trying to train and retain employees. In any sector, be it child care, education or the health service, there must be trained professional staff. Until we understand that we require properly trained people working in child care centres and that we must give them a stake in their own work and future, we will not hold onto excellent people in the way we must. We have failed to do that. People are paid very little. Of course, the background to this is that so many of these centres grew from voluntary activity, where people, often young parents, got together to organise a centre. This voluntary effort at the start evolved into a more long-term proposition. They obtained a grant and then became employers. They must now proceed as a business.

However, they are incredibly frustrated, as they made clear at the meeting last Saturday. The issues were raised in this House when we debated the subvention scheme last year. I will offer one example, the administrative requirements on these centres whereby people who are employed to run a child care centre have to engage in lengthy form filling and are obliged to inquire into the means of parents proposing to send their children to the centre. They are being diverted from the job they should be doing, that is, running and developing excellent child care centres. The frustration is palpable.

There is something lacking in this area. The Minister has said previously that information and assistance are available but the people who run the centres say there is no information or support available. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong. Perhaps the information that is available is not made available in an accessible or digestible way. Perhaps the Minister should consider holding a series of conferences or seminars, in Dublin and other cities, to train or assist these people with regard to what is expected should they be required to carry out these administrative duties into the future. Perhaps a roadshow of some description should be organised. There must be a way of addressing the information deficit for the people who run these centres. One finds incredible frustration when one talks to them. They are genuine people who are seeking to provide a service.

I welcome the remarks of Senator Mary White, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on children. The Leader of the House often tells me I am only a new Member of the House and only learning, but it is extraordinary the extent to which Members on the other side of the House make contributions in debates with which one entirely agrees. However, it is the delivery and action at the end that appears to be woefully inadequate or non-existent. I agree with Senator Mary White's emphasis on the NESF report. She speaks as somebody who has taken a genuine interest in this issue, but I wonder to what extent the Minister of State listens to her. He does not appear to have been able to convince the Minister for Finance to deliver what Senator Mary White and others have sought.

I have a few queries about the Minister of State's speech because what he said is not entirely clear. Can he confirm what the funding is for the subvention scheme and for the sector generally? With regard to the allocation for 2009 under the national child care investment programme, the Minister of State said that he has sustained the 2009 current funding allocation at its full 2008 level. I understand that if the funding for 2009 is the same as that for 2008, it denotes a drop in real terms because it does not take account of inflation and other factors that must be knitted in. Is this correct?

The Minister of State referred in his speech to the eight major child care organisations that are supported and how they have contributed greatly to the development of quality child care. He was correct but proceeded to state, "I hope to strengthen those links in the coming months with the location of expertise from the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, the CECDE, into the early years policy unit of the Department of Education and Science". This should read that the Government has abolished the centre in recent weeks. When I referred on the Order of Business to our not being given the full story, this is the kind of action I mean. The centre is gone and the notion that it has been integrated into another is incorrect; it has been abolished. If we just used plain English, we might be able to make more progress in our discussion.