Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Child Care Services: Statements (Resumed)

 

5:00 pm

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on child care and its provision. Before doing so, in addition to welcoming the visiting delegation, I welcome my colleagues, the Ministers of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputies Barry Andrews and John Moloney.

I intend to examine briefly the various issues surrounding the provision of child care services. These include the funding and regulation of services and the provision of these services for children with disabilities. Since coming to office in 1997, the Government has steadily and progressively increased the provision for child care services. It has taken a two-pronged approach to funding. In the first instance, there are increased direct payments to families through the use of the child benefit scheme and the early child care supplement. In tandem, the Government has dramatically increased capital funding through the equal opportunities child care programme and the national child care investment programme. Child benefit has been increased from €38 per child in 1997, when the rainbow coalition Government was in power, to €166 per child in 2008. This represents an increase in excess of 300%, which is far in greater than cumulative inflation over the same period. The increase in funding has contributed to easing the burden on families as the cost of living has increased. It has contributed to the ability of a parent to stay at home and look after the needs of his or her children. It has enabled other parents to meet some of the costs associated with child care, which gives them an opportunity to seek work outside the home.

While the children's allowance provides some finance to meet the costs of child care, which is an acknowledgement of the increasing costs associated with very young children, in the 2006 budget the Government initiated the early child care supplement scheme. The purpose of the supplement is to support parents in meeting the higher costs associated with caring for pre-school children. Initially a payment of €1,000 per annum was allocated but this was increased to €1,100 in the 2008 budget. In light of the economic circumstances the State is facing in the months ahead, the 2009 buget provides for this payment to be paid in monthly instalments, in line with child benefit.

In recognition that the vast majority of children start school well in advance of their sixth birthday, the 2009 budget has made changes to the scheme. Children will now only be eligible for the payment until they reach the age of five and a half. This minor, but significant, change will result in savings of €35 million in a full year. Such savings have made possible the decision in the 2009 budget to extend the national child care investment programme to beyond 2010. This programme was established in January 2006, with a total allocation of €575 million over five years, of which €358 million and €217 million have been in respect of capital expenditure and current expenditure, respectively. The main intention of the programme is the creation of an additional 50,000 child care places, including 10,000 for children between three and four and 5,000 for after-school care. At its heart is a commitment to seek a majority of child care places through the community sector, with the remainder to be provided within the private sector.

While significant sums have been allocated to groups nationally, more time is required to allow community-based providers to bring their proposals to a stage in which they are in a position to draw down the funding. I welcome the decision in the 2009 budget to provide for that extension.

The need to regulate those offering child care provision to our children to the highest levels must be central to any Government policy on child care. Parents must have the peace of mind of knowing their son or daughter is in a safe place of the highest possible quality. The Child Care Act 1991 stipulates that the HSE is charged with ensuring the health safety and welfare of pre-school children attending services. All child care providers are required to notify the HSE that they are providing services and, consequently, they are required to take all reasonable measures to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of pre-school children attending their service. The establishment of, and provision of additional resources to, the Garda Central Vetting Unit are valuable in ensuring the safest possible child care environment exists. Overall, the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has responsibility for these regulations and for developing policy in this area.

The HSE is required to inspect and regulate pre-school child care services and has published a list of tips on choosing a pre-school. I urge all parents who are choosing a child care facility to consider these guidelines and ensure the facilities they intend to use meet with them.

In line with my role as the Government's Seanad spokesperson on disability and mental health, I will consider the provision of child care services for children with disabilities. The Disability Equality Specialist Support Agency's recent report, Profile of Inclusion, 2007, contains research on the inclusion of children with disabilities in child care and play settings. It notes that 57% of the services surveyed have included or include children with disabilities. These providers should be commended on this. However, the report has also shown us that of the providers surveyed, 21% said they had previously turned a child with a disability away. The main reasons, as highlighted by those who specified, include accessibility issues, not being able to meet the child's needs and a lack of training.

The benefits of including children with disabilities in mainstream child care facilities far outweigh any challenges that may arise from doing so. Respondents in the aforementioned survey also believe this. They believe inclusion would promote understanding and acceptance, allow all children to learn together and promote children's rights and equality.

I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to work in tandem with his ministerial colleague, Deputy Moloney, to provide the necessary supports to providers to make them feel more confident in providing care to children with disabilities. I commend the Disability Equality Specialist Support Agency on its role in supporting operators of child care facilities to address these challenges. I congratulate the Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on maintaining the high level of child care provision in the 2009 budget, despite the economic downturn. I look forward to working with the Minister of State over the coming months and years in developing child care facilities for all our children.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Deputy John Moloney. It is extraordinary that we are debating child care again today. I do not believe speaking on child care should be the preserve of female Senators. I speak as an uncle and godfather of five children under six. The formative years of children are vital and those of us in education understand this.

Sometimes I wonder if Ministers lose sight of the fact that children are very important. It is acknowledged that we are, and are becoming, more and more laid back in the provision of child care. We are now, as Senator Quinn said, falling behind other European countries. For many parents today child care has become a second mortgage. Another important point is that children today may not see their parents from 7.30 or 8 o'clock in the morning until 6 or 7 o'clock in the evening. Under the Constitution the State has a duty to our children. We are not fulfilling that duty. As a consequence of community child care, are we going to make childcare the preserve of the private sector? Is that what the new ideology of Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the few Progressive Democrats is going to be? Is that what we are trying to do?

We have had 11 years of plenty, and of boom and bloom. Senator de Búrca mentioned building child care infrastructure. Why do we not do it? We are discussing means testing and universality yet again today. If we are serious about being child-centered in 21st century Ireland — and one can take Piaget, Erikson or Freud — early intervention through child care and preschool is very important. As Senator Corrigan knows well, by the time children come to secondary school or even into bunscoill, it is too late in many cases, and they have lost the whole cognitive development period of their lives.

The debate is welcome. The cuts in funding community child care are imposing much restriction and hardship on people. I ask the Minister of State, if he does nothing else today, to go back to the Ministers for Health and Children and Finance, and readdress the community childcare subvention scheme. Senator Fitzgerald, in her remarks, made reference to the manner in which the 2009 budget has affected the elderly and children. Child care support, child-based subvention for those over 18 and registration fees in colleges all affect young people. I will return to a question I asked a moment ago. I do not believe the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, or Senator Corrigan believe that the value of Government is to impose cuts on young people and education for savings of several hundred million euro. Is that the value we place on young people and young parents?

Whether we like it or not, we are hitting the low paid and the vulnerable in community child care schemes. We are forcing women in particular to make difficult choices. A young mother was in my clinic on Friday and she had to make a choice between returning to work for a few hours a week or putting her child into a scheme that would cost her several hundred euro, and would cause her to lose family income support. Are we forcing people to make hard choices? There is also a real risk that child care facilities will close. We can discuss capital investment, but that will be no good when there is nobody to provide services.

We are making people struggle. The scheme is not working. We are creating, as Senator Bacik stated, a type of segregation. That is not good enough. Access and provision are important. Universality is the buzzword today in Irish politics. Let us not force parents to make choices regarding their children. Let us give our children every opportunity to have access to child care that is affordable and helps their development. If we do not, we are failing in our duty. Will the Minister of State give a commitment to this House to return with a review of the bands laid out in the current scheme?

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I, too, welcome the Minister to this House for this important debate. I glad to have an opportunity to make a contribution as a parent myself and on behalf of many parents of my generation, and younger, who are now faced with huge challenges in the present economic climate, not only to remain sustainable in their own family lives, but also to give their children an upbringing as good as, if not better, than we received from our parents.

When discussing child care, we must acknowledge the role of grandparents. There is not one family in Ireland who has not utilised or sought the help of grandparents when parents are working. The grannies and granddads of the country have stepped into the breach, often after rearing large families of their own, and have helped to raise their grandchildren. They have set an example for many of us now rearing our children.

Prior to the introduction of community child care schemes, and fancy crèches and Montessori schools, there were many individual childminders in communities all over the country, both urban and rural, who operated little childminding facilities. They started them themselves, minding two or three children a day, without assistance or help from anyone. They provided a beneficial role, allowed people to work and gave children the care they deserved. They also need to be acknowledged.

We all agree we have moved on from that. The role of the county and city child care committees under the various boards must be acknowledged. They have played an important role. They are supported by the Department in achieving guidelines and standards, and the establishment of new facilities, all over the country.

There are many areas where there are no childminding or crèche facilities at all, and people are still relying on their families. That is a pity in this day and age, and is an area I hope is addressed in the future, where county and city child care committees do engage with communities and identify areas where there are no facilities. It is often the case that communities have the best capacity and organisation reap the rewards. They are the people who have the capacity to apply for grants and organise themselves to get the facilities. However, there are areas in the poverty trap. They are the places that need help. The Minister of State must bring this message back to the Department. These are the areas that need direct assistance and engagement from officialdom, whether it is through local authorities, county child care committees or the Department itself. We must give those communities the capacity to organise themselves to bring proper community childcare facilities into their areas. They see them happening in more affluent areas, but they see vast housing estates around themselves that local authorities built, with the approval of Departments many years ago, with no child care facilities whatsoever. That must be addressed.

We have had a U-turn in the Dáil today; the last U-turn I remember was last year when the child care subvention was due to be hit. There was a revolt in the Government and a Senator said, "We will sort that out in our parliamentary party". It went some way to addressing the issue because it adjusted the bands to keep community crèches open. However, according to today's headlines there is a real threat to these crèches. After all the good work and the progress they have made, there is now a threat of funds being pulled from them.

The reality is that there are people who cannot afford these crèches unless they are subsidised. If we weaken the support to people who are already trying their best to get into the workplace and put their children into proper child care facilities, the whole structure will take a step backwards. We do not want that. We want to see genuine progress and we must continue supporting community child care services.

I agree with Senator Buttimer. While there are excellent child care facilities available, we cannot leave it to the private sector alone. That would be a dangerous road to go down. We would be leaving whole sectors of our community without these facilities and badly exposed, and it is the children of those families who will suffer if we allow that to happen. As an elected representative and a parent, that is something I would not like to see happen.

I wish to mention children with special needs because child care extends to all children. There are many children with conditions such as autism, dyslexia and other special needs on which we have had debates in this House. Those children are not getting the response from the State they deserve. These are innocent, vulnerable children with small voices but no powers. I am aware of cases where there could be over 250 children in a school but only four children per year can go for assessment. Even if four children are being assessed and their difficulties addressed, whether behavioural or otherwise, there are many more children in that school who need assessments and the services of the State but they are not getting it. They are suffering for those reasons.

I understand that in tough budgetary times we must be able to account for public expenditure but the last people who should suffer are our children. I often hear economists talk about productive investment and that we should not invest unless there is a productive outcome for that investment. I can think of no better investment than investing in our children and in their future, and helping those with special needs. The outcomes from the assistance they will receive will help them in their future years when they will have to become sustainable and perhaps live alone in many cases. As Senator Buttimer said, it is in their formative years that children need the most help. It is an area that should not be neglected. This is an issue for the Minister for children but he must consult with the Minister for Education and Science to ensure that proper resources are provided in our schools to children with behavioural difficulties or special needs.

Children at risk and children in families that are in poverty traps need to be identified quickly and given the assistance of the State. Despite the Celtic tiger boom we experienced, there are still families that are experiencing high levels of poverty and are socially excluded. It is important we remember all of these children as we adopt policies in Government or otherwise going forward.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to respond. I have taken into account the issues raised by Senators Buttimer and Coffey, and indeed Senator Alex White, and I hope to respond to as many of the issues as I can during the few minutes available to me.

By way of explaining my presence here, the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, had a previous ministerial appointment and I was asked to step in for him. In reference to the issues raised by Senators Buttimer and Coffey, I pledge to bring them back to the Department and I am sure they will have a response as quickly as possible.

Regarding the budgetary changes that affect Vote 41, I listened to the concerns expressed, and I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, has listened to them also. The issues raised by Senators Fitzgerald and McFadden refer to child welfare and protection. Recent years have seen a period of major investment — €240 million since 1997 — in child and family support services to enable an appropriate response to child welfare concerns.

I am aware of the value of community child care. In my own town of Mountmellick I am proud to say we have an excellent child care facility as a result of €1.5 million in capital grants some time ago. I would be the first to acknowledge also that there are certain concerns in that regard that I want to work toward but I see the value of community child care in a rural area.

It is also important to make the point that the focus for development in recent and coming years is on preventative community based services which provide early intervention within the community care context. The Health Service Executive has stated there has been an increase in funding of family support services of 79%, from €45.7 million in 2003 to €81.8 million in 2008.

I wish to refer to future policy issues raised by Senator White. As regards future policy plans in the area, the Agenda for Children's Services is the overarching policy document of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The agenda, with its clear renewed emphasis on family support coupled with reflective questions to enable service providers' self-evaluation, represents the fundamental change now under way as to how Government policy in regard to children is formulated and delivered.

In response to the Agenda for Children's Services, the HSE is developing a policy dealing with child welfare and child and family support services. The core principle of the policy is supporting the child within the family and within the community. The office is working closely with the HSE in this regard and it is anticipated it will be published some time early in the new year.

I would also like to make mention of the fact that continued work in areas like the child care information project, the knowledge management strategy and the review of the Children First guidelines is ensuring availability of far better information, improved communications, application of research findings to child welfare in protection provisions and management evaluation and policy analysis.

With regard to the National Childcare Investment Programme, the NCIP, for which the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, has specific responsibility, I understand that the precise details of the extended timeframe for delivery of the capital programme is not yet available. However, I understand that the Minister's personal view is that the NCIP will benefit from an extension of two or possibly three years beyond 2010. As the Minister of State made clear to the House, this approach will provide additional flexibility to child care projects, in particular those in the community based, not for profit sector which qualify for large-scale grants of up to €1.2 million and which can often take two years to come to contract and draw down of funding. An extended timeframe will, in turn, help to ensure that the amount of grant funding that becomes payable each year under the NCIP is more closely in line with the allocation provided for in Vote 41. This will ensure that the take-up of the appropriate allocation is maximised.

With regard to whether the NCIP's full capital allocation can continue to be available to the programme over the extended timeframe, I take this opportunity to confirm that the Minister's understanding is that subject to the normal rules of accounting, which reaffirms Vote allocation on an annual basis, this continues to be the case. While the capital allocation in 2009 is €60 million, at this point it is not possible to say for certain what will be the position in respect of 2010 in advance of the Estimates process for that year. However, it is the clear understanding of the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, that the commitment to the provision of the NCIP's full capital allocation remains intact.

The Community Child Care Subvention Scheme, CCSS, was introduced in January of this year to continue to support community based child care services and enable them to provide reduced child care fees to disadvantaged and low income parents. I also understand that the officials in the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs are not aware of any service participating in the CCSS which has closed as a result of its introduction. It is fair to say that some 100 new child care services have either entered the scheme at this point or are due to enter it at the end of the year, bringing the total number of services participating to approximately 900.

The CCSS has provided detailed and useful data to the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, and his office regarding the level of service provision in the community sector. This is far more comprehensive than the study to which Senator Fitzgerald referred. The latter considered 12 services, of which five have a reduced funding level of 5% in 2008. I also understand that the data provided in 2007 from applications for 2008 funding will be updated shortly. Processing of funding applications for 2009 has been completed. The updated data will enable also a comprehensive exercise that will be of assistance in supporting the programme to be carried out.

Senator Fitzgerald referred to the cost of child care for parents in general. The CCSS targets funding to disadvantaged and low-income parents. The family income ceiling in this regard is €45,000. Average costs in the private sector are in the region of €200 per week. In the community sector, such costs are €150 per week and this means that parents earning €50,000 who will not obtain a subvented rate will be able to access a more affordable child care place. With a guaranteed minimum level of funding of 95% in 2008 and 85% in 2009, the loss of grant income of €151,000 to which the Senator referred would mean they would have received €3 million in 2007 under the previous scheme. The latter represents 8% of the entire funding for the 780 centres funded.

Under the CCSS, the average price parents pay for full-time day care is €84 per week. Some 80% of parents attending are subsidised and 50% of them are paying less than they did under the previous scheme. The new scheme is far more targeted and effective and will not be reviewed while it remains in place until the end of 2010.

Senators Bacik and McFadden referred to segregation in the support of agencies, especially in the context of a focus on parents receiving social welfare payments. Most social welfare recipients benefit from affordable preschool services of three hours and do not require full day care services. It is often middle to lower income parents who avail of the more affordable full and part-time child care services.

The CCSS is a targeted scheme and is only available in community-based settings. Any move to extend it to the broader child care sector would need to be considered in the wider policy context. In developing Ireland's child care infrastructure, the achievements to date under the NCIP in the context of child care places created will be built on in the future. This will involve considering a range of policy objectives, including more broadly based preschool provision.

Senator Quinn referred to child care costs in other EU states, citing lower costs and higher tax rates and stating that Ireland and the UK are low-tax economies. At present, the NCIP and other initiatives undertaken by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, together with the universal supports provided for child care in early childhood, are the main provisions in this area. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, indicated his intention to ensure more effective use of the framework and resources available to his office, including the co-located early years policy of the Department of Education and Science to provide a clear focus on early years care and development.

Senator White raised a number of points. In response to the first of these, I must state that the allocation of current funding is not automatically increased each year. It can be increased by 0% to 3% or more. While many Votes have seen a reduction in the current funding proposed for 2009, funding for Vote 41 has been sustained at the existing level, despite the need to make administrative savings of 3%. This represents a real increase in the money available to services funded under the CCSS.

Another issue raised relates to the preschool years. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide access to preschool years by 2012. The Government is meeting this commitment through the NCIP and the creation of places, many of which are specifically for three to four year olds. The Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Deputy Barry Andrews, is also committed to developing care and education as a single and best-practice approach. This will begin to happen over time.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to reply to the debate.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. That concludes our statements on the provision of child care services. When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.