Thursday, 29 May 2014
Child Care Services Provision
I welcome the Minister. I raise the very important matter of a decision by the management of Tallaght Hospital to close the hospital's crèche. This decision, if not reversed, will cause undue hardship to the staff who work in the hospital and who have provided a first class service to the local community. I call on the Minister to meet the hospital management and find a solution to this unacceptable situation which is causing significant stress for the parents who work there.
The Small World Crèche has been operating in the hospital for more than 11 years during which time it has provided a valuable service to hundreds of families of staff. It is an integral aspect of the hospital's necessary infrastructure because it allows working parents to access excellent quality child care and do their difficult jobs with the peace of mind that their children are being well provided and cared for. It is a model of best practice in that it provides an on-site crèche that allows hospital staff to work. We should encourage and promote this model of child care in other hospitals and workplaces rather than shut it down.
Out of the blue, without consultation, discussion or agreement the management of the hospital advised the crèche on Wednesday, 14 May 2014 of its intention to close the crèche on 29 August 2014. Although one reason given was the fact that new regulations are to come from Tusla for 2015, they have not even been published and will afford organisations at least six to 12 months to achieve compliance. A financial reason given was the fact that there was a short loss. Infrastructural reasons were also given, although the crèche occupies one of the best portacabins on the hospital site. A significant concern to parents is that ten children are due to commence their early childhood care and education, ECCE, year in the Small World crèche in 2014 and if it closes in August they will probably not find places in other settings in Tallaght. I urge the Minister to assist parents working in Tallaght Hospital to find a solution to the unacceptable situation.
I welcome the Minister. I have spoken to him and the Minister for Health about this before. This is closing a crèche by e-mail. No parents have seen the report by Canavan and Byrne, only the board of management has seen it. Will the Minister ask for a copy of the report? What is in it? I visited the crèche and there is no reason it should close. The Child and Family Agency inspected it in August 2012 and there was no reason for it to close. As Senator Zappone said, it is due to close on 29 August. This must be halted and will not close without a fight.
Senator Zappone has outlined the benefits of child care, which I will not enumerate because time is limited. A parent has advised me she will have to quit her nursing job in the hospital. She starts at 8 a.m. and must be on the road by 6 a.m. Where would she find a crèche open at that time? Many feasibility studies have been done, but I am asking the Minister to ensure monetary and social issues are taken into consideration, for example the hospital may have to replace staff. The auditors charged the crèche €1,500 to audit its books, which it could have had audited for €1,000. Such things must be made easier.
Feasibility is about people, not just money. It is difficult enough for parents, particularly mothers as they mostly look after the children, to go out to work and leave their children anywhere. We should not make it more difficult to balance work and home care. Will the Minister meet them immediately? There will be a board meeting tomorrow. While the Minister will probably will not be able to attend, the date of 29 August is urgent. The Child and Family Agency has examined the crèche.
There is no reason for it to close. I have looked at the crèche and at the inspection. With regard to the monetary element, when I visited the hospital I noticed a lot of new build. I want the question asked and answered whether it will be moved. It is in a portacabin to allow a new build ambulatory care unit to go in there. If it is, I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Health to get in touch with someone to get an inbuilt, purpose-built crèche in any new build in the hospital. I had one incorporated in South Dublin County Council 20 years ago and it is still there. It works well for the staff there. Happy staff are good staff and they are more productive. All these issues must be taken into account, including those with long commutes. I ask the Minister to do his best.
I thank the Senators for raising the matter. I have been discussing the matter with Senator Keane and I am happy to respond to Senator Zappone, who raised the issue in the House. Almost all of the early years services in this country are provided by either private commercial or community not-for-profit providers. A small number of these services are provided in workplace locations.
In general, private and community child care facilities are developed in response to the needs of the local community. Child care services in workplace developments result from an agreement between employers and employees to put in place a child care facility that is conveniently located and which addresses the child care needs of the parents who are part of the workforce. The on-going viability of such enterprises is a matter between the employer and the facility management. In this case, I understand that a sub-committee of the hospital board of management is responsible for governance decisions about the service.
A number of representations have been made to my Department by parents who use the facility at Tallaght Hospital about the proposed closure of the facility. I must inform the Senator that my Department has no responsibility for the sustainability of commercial or community crèches or those facilities established specifically to meet the child care needs of a particular workforce. Representations made to my Department have suggested that proposed changes to the child care regulations will impose additional costs on child care providers and that this is a factor in the proposed decision to close this facility. This was mentioned with Senator Zappone in respect of compliance with regulations. I am not sure if she makes a valid point.
There have been a number of amendments to the Child Care Act 1991 which were introduced to underpin a number of key reforms being implemented as part of the preschool quality agenda. The amended legislation aims to strengthen the current inspection regime, provides a statutory basis for the registration of early years services, and also provides for the setting of minimum qualification standards for staff working with children in early years services. To provide for the implementation of the changes to the Child Care Act, it will be necessary to amend or make additions to the child care regulations and these are currently being finalised. It is not intended to impose any additional costs on services as a result of the new regulations, other than an increase in the annual fee payable by services to the early years inspectorate. In the case of the facility in Tallaght Hospital, the increase in the fee payable is expected to be in the region of €80 per annum.
Mandatory training qualifications for staff working with children in early years services are being introduced. Legislative provision for these mandatory qualifications has been made and it has been announced that, from September 2015, all staff caring for children in preschool services will be required to have a training qualification in early childhood care and education at level 5 on the national qualifications framework. This requirement will apply to staff in new services from September of this year. In order to enable existing child care staff to upskill to meet the increased qualification requirements, a new learner fund has been put in place. Funding of €3 million has been committed over the two years 2014-15. More than 2,200 child care staff have applied for funding and a range of accredited training providers have been identified to provide the required training courses.
Considerable capital funding was made available to develop child care infrastructure in this country in the period up until 2009, with approximately €425 million in capital grants approved. This investment has ensured that there are now sufficient child care places available to meet current child care needs. There are currently some 4,500 preschool services operating across the State and providing the free preschool year programme. The South Dublin County Childcare Committee, which is funded by my Department to provide support to parents and to child care services, is well-positioned to offer advice and support and I know that it has been engaging with the Tallaght facility since the proposed closure was announced. The committee has established that there are sufficient child care places in the local area to accommodate the children if the closure proceeds. I acknowledge the Senators' point about the quality of child care available on site at Tallaght Hospital. I agree with Senator Zappone that it is a first-class crèche and I acknowledge, as she did, the valuable role of the staff and all involved with the unit. While I am sympathetic to the fact that the parents who have been using the service would like to be in a position to continue doing so, the service is privately operated and I am not in a position to intervene in the closure.
I thank the Minister for his response. With regard to sustainability, strictly speaking, the Minister is not responsible for sustainability but the issue is rampant throughout the provision of child care places throughout the country. It may require more closures than in this instance. The Department must keep its eye on the issue. My comments emphasise that it is a good model because it is onsite in the workplace and I encourage the Minister to think about that in terms of the development of child care facilities in the future, including in the context of his policies.
One of the Minister's final points was that the South Dublin County Childcare Committee has established that there are sufficient places to accommodate the children if the closure proceeds. While that may be the case in principle and strictly speaking, the parents have lined up their children for early year places next year and, given that the closure will happen prior to that, if children are not the list they will not receive the early years care. In fact, that point may not be true in the case of these particular children.
I take the point that the Minister cannot intervene. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, said that she cannot intervene because it is against legislation and I do not know whether there is legislation in this case but some form of effort from the Minister to offer support could be useful so that management engages with parents.
I ask the Minister to ask his Department about one of the reasons I was given by the parents. The crèche is using the new child care regulations to close and that must be contradicted. I am trained in inspecting crèches and I know what is needed. I visited the crèche and I contacted the agency. It is passing and it will pass the new regulations. It is up to the Minister to ensure it does not use that as an excuse to close it if is viable in monetary terms. It sends out the wrong message.
I will certainly take on board the point about the evidence in the matter of the regulations. The matter was mentioned by both Senators. I am not satisfied it is the case but if the Senators have evidence in that regard I will be glad to receive it.
My Department funds the South Dublin County Childcare Committee and I will make contact with the committee in order to see whether matters can be advanced. I take on board the point that management should be invited to engage directly with those involved and I would like to see it happening. I take on board the point made in general terms, which specifically applies in the matter of the new build, that there should be purpose-built crèche facilities in any new build. I am not in a position to give the House information on plans and specifications in developments for Tallaght Hospital but I am happy to make inquiries in that regard. I agree with the principle that there should be onsite child care facilities available in the form of a crèche in centres of employment such as Tallaght hospital. I will assist in any way, notwithstanding the fact that it is not appropriate for me to intervene in a matter that is not directly funded by, or related to, my Department.
It would not be appropriate for me to intervene in a matter that is not directly related to my Department. In the context of private or not-for-profit crèche facilities, I do not have a positive role to play in terms of interventions or mandatory decisions. Having said that, I take on board what the Senators have said and I know from representations I have received that this is a very important issue, not only in the hospital but in the community at large. I will address the points raised and communicate directly with both Senators.