Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, to the House and I invite him to make his contribution. Group spokespersons have eight minutes and all other Senators have five minutes, and the Minister will be called on to reply not later than 2.40 p.m.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to come to the House today to outline my Department's position on a wide range of issues relating to early childhood care and education. High-quality and well structured investment in the early years of a child's life is now widely recognised as being one of the most strategic investments we can make with public funding. Children are at a critical stage of development in their early years, and we have a golden opportunity to set children on the right path for their futures - indeed, in a very real way, for all our futures - if we invest wisely in them at this stage. For example, the benefits of participation in high-quality early childhood care and education have been widely evaluated over a considerable period, and a strong consensus exists that all children benefit significantly from participating in this kind of provision, while the greatest benefits are reaped by children from disadvantaged backgrounds. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am very concerned about the rate of child poverty in Ireland, and I know it is this kind of investment in children that will make a real impact in tackling that problem.

Of course, children are not the only beneficiaries, because when children are given real opportunities to develop to the fullest of their potential, we all benefit - parents, families, communities and the wider society and economy. It is because the Government recognises the critical importance of investment in children's early years that we worked so hard to protect expenditure in this area, despite the dire economic circumstances the Government inherited. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs invests more than a quarter of a billion euro in early childhood care and education each year - and that is before spending on children by other Departments is taken into consideration. I, along with many parents and practitioners working with young children, would like that figure to be higher. We are well aware that Ireland's investment in this area is lower than in many other OECD countries. Currently, the Government is constrained in its ability to significantly increase that investment, as the recovery in public finances is not yet complete and resources remain limited. Further, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am committed to ensuring that every euro we invest in our children is invested wisely. Today, I would like to outline some of the work we are undertaking to realise that goal.

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, which isthe national policy framework for children and young people, commits us to developing an early years strategy to create an innovative and dynamic blueprint for improving the lives of children in their early years, from birth to six years of age. The early years strategy will address a range of issues affecting children in their first years of life, such as child health and well-being, parenting and family support, learning and development and play. The strategy will also address the future development of the early years sector itself. Considerable work has already been undertaken on the development of the strategy. The work of the expert advisory group, Right from the Start, has greatly informed progress to date. In the interim, the Government has continued to progress policy initiatives for children in their early years. I have welcomed, for example, the introduction of free GP care for all children under six recently announced by my colleague, the Minister for Health. I have signalled my intention to conduct focused consultations with relevant parties across the early years sector before concluding my own deliberations on the strategy. I am also mindful of the importance of other work that is being undertaken in parallel in respect of the future investment priorities in early childhood care and education. Taking account of these developments, I expect to be in a position to publish the early years strategy once my own consultations have concluded in the coming months.

I would like now to discuss in more detail current developments in child care. As I mentioned earlier, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs makes a considerable investment in child care provision, at approximately €260 million per annum. This investment supports more than 100,000 children and their families. Most of the funding is directed towards three national child care programmes: the early childhood care and education programme, otherwise known as the free preschool year, or ECCE; the community child care subvention programme; and the training and employment child care programmes. The early childhood care and education programme is universal and provides for a free preschool year for all children in the year before they start primary school. Approximately 67,000 children avail of the programme each year in more than 4,300 services nationwide. Currently, the cost of the programme is approximately €175 million per annum, which translates to an annual reduction in child care costs for parents of approximately €2,300 per child.

In Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for the period 2014 to 2020, the Government made a commitment to introduce a second free preschool year within the lifetime of that framework. To realise this goal, we need not only to secure the considerable resources required, but also to ensure that the service offered is of sufficiently high quality to achieve the outcomes we want for our children. That is a critically important point. Very often we spend money with the best of intentions without realising that it is not delivering the outcomes we require because we have not assessed it or carried out an evidence-based study. I know that is a point that is well understood by child care providers, and it is the reason work on the early years quality agenda - involving a range of actions on which I will speak in more detail later - is so important.

The community childcare subvention programme funds community-based not-for-profit child care services to enable them to provide high-quality child care at reduced rates to parents on low incomes. For example, parents qualifying for the higher subvention have their child care costs reduced by €95 per week. Each year, more than 25,000 children benefit from the support of the programme. To ensure that access to subvention funding is not a disincentive for parents to return to employment, the programme allows parents in receipt of the higher level of support, and who secure employment following initial enrolment, to retain that level of funding support until the end of the school year in the same service, and also to have a reduced level of funding support for one further school year.

Finally, a range of initiatives provided under the training and employment child care programmes support parents who are returning to training, education or the paid workforce. These .include the child care education and training support programme, which provides child care places to qualifying SOLAS or education and training board trainees or students for the duration of their courses. This programme provides €145 per week towards the cost of full day child care, with pro ratarates for parents who receive a reduced level of service.

The after-school child care programme provides after-school care for primary school children for certain categories of working parents for a once-off period of 52 weeks. This programme provides €40 per week for after-school care, or €80 per week where a pick-up service is provided, and €105 per week for full-day child care during the holiday period. Pro rata rates apply for parents who require support over a shorter weekly period.

The community employment child care programme provides up to €80 a week to support qualifying parents who are participating in a community employment scheme.Following a number of enhancements to this programme, part-time care is now provided for children up to the age of 13 whose parents are participating in this scheme. The upper age limit was previously five years. A further enhancement to this programme includes an after-school option which enables qualifying parents of primary school children to obtain after-school care at a weekly cost of €15.

The Department is looking at ways to improve this investment in early childhood care and education. We are also placing an increasing emphasis on improving the quality of early years services. For example, we are working to improve the early years regulatory and inspection regime. The current inspection regime is being strengthened because quality is so important for children, parents and practitioners. Children deserve this, parents demand it, and for practitioners, a robust regulatory and inspection regime is critical to maintaining confidence in one of the most important investments we can make in a person, high quality early childhood care and education.

A new registration system is being introduced that requires early years child care providers to register with Tusla's early years inspectorate before they open. The inspectorate will inspect services before registration is granted, and there will be ongoing inspections of all aspects of early childhood care and education once the service is operating and children are attending. This early years inspectorate is now managed by Tusla on a national basis and inspectors are working to common standards. The inspection tools and the report format have been reviewed, and new inspection arrangements will accompany the new regulations later this year.

Importantly, these new regulations will also be accompanied by new national standards for early years' services, against which services will be inspected and reported upon. The aim is that services will be supported to work towards higher quality standards, based on clearer criteria for measuring levels of compliance. The aim of this strengthened regulatory regime is to ensure that every child, in every service, can benefit from high quality early years provision. In addition to this work, the inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills is, at the request of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, leading focussed inspections of the quality of educational provision in the free preschool year provided under the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme.

These education-focussed inspections aim to improve educational provision for preschool children, because as we all know, quality educational provision in the early years pays multiple dividends for children. These inspections are intended to have a developmental focus, examining how we can support the quality of children's learning experiences and achievements, whether that be how the service is managed, the curriculum and learning environment, through interactions between children and adults, and of course, by using play-based approaches to learning.

Early years practitioners will have an opportunity to engage in professional dialogue with inspectors who have expertise in early childhood education. This professional dialogue, together with the publication of reports, will, I hope, provide valuable advice to practitioners on how to improve the quality of learning experiences for the children. The Public Appointments Service will shortly begin the recruitment process for the early years inspectors, who are to be drawn from practitioners and experts in the early years sector. I welcome the fact that the Department of Education and Skills will soon begin an intensive consultation with the early years sector about these inspections.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills are very much committed to ensuring that these inspection systems work closely together and complement each other. We are conscious of the need to avoid unnecessary administrative burdens, while ensuring appropriate levels of transparency and accountability in everything we do and to minimise disruption to the valuable work early years services do.

As a step in this direction I have provided up to €350,000 to fund the development of an information and communications technology, ICT, infrastructure to support inspection work carried out by Tusla's early years inspectorate. This will be hosted on the same platform as the inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills. I have also drawn these stakeholders together under one working group to strengthen collaboration and engagement. This improved system of regulation and inspection, while important, is just one part of a multifaceted agenda led by my Department to improve quality.

The early years quality agenda also includes workforce development and a range of quality supports. For example, and as part of the strengthened inspection regime, we are demanding higher quality through the introduction of a minimum qualification requirement for all early years practitioners. In the new regulations, all staff will be required to have a minimum level 5 qualification on the national qualifications framework in early years care and education, or an equivalent qualification. In addition, preschool leaders delivering the free preschool year will be required to have a minimum level 6 qualification, or equivalent, by September of this year. To support early years staff to meet these new qualification requirements, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs established a learner fund which allocated €3 million in 2014 and 2015 to almost 2,500 early years staff who have upskilled or are in the process of doing so. My colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan, is working to improve the professional training system for early years practitioners while my Department is incentivising higher qualifications by specifically directing additional funding, through a higher rate of capitation, towards early years services that employ higher qualified staff benefiting more than 1,400 services in the school year 2013-14.

There are several other ways in which we are supporting providers in meeting the challenge of continually improving the quality and standards of early years services throughout the country. For example, we provide substantial capital funding, on an annual basis, to early years services. Indeed, I recently announced that €7 million of funding will be provided under the Early Years Capital Programme for 2015. The establishment of Better Start, the national early years quality support service which is fully funded by my Department, also demonstrates this Government's commitment to excellence in early years services. The aim of Better Start is to provide a nationally coherent continuum of support to providers to help them improve quality. It incorporates the work of city and county child care committees and the national voluntary childcare organisations, who receive annual funding of €13 million from my Department. This funding supports the valuable work of these bodies in supporting early years services around the country, through training, continuing professional development programmes, networking and cluster-type support groups. Critically, Better Start also incorporates the work of a new early years specialist service, which has recruited and trained 30 graduates in early childhood care and education to work directly with services in a mentoring capacity to improve quality, including assisting services in the implementation of the Síolta framework and the Aistear curriculum.

I mentioned earlier that my Department is considering ways to improve investment in early childhood care and education. This is largely being driven by the work of the interdepartmental group on future investment in early years and school-age care and education, which is being led by my Department. I established this group earlier this year to allow us develop a coherent, whole-of-government approach to future investment in early years and after-school care and education. Membership includes representation from across Government, including the Departments of Education and Skills, Health, Social Protection, Justice and Equality, and Jobs and Innovation as well as the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance and the Taoiseach. The group is tasked with developing a series of options for future investment, and is required to report to Government by June of this year, next month.

To help the group develop the strongest set of options, its work is informed by research and evidence of best practice, as well as current policy commitments. I was also keen to ensure that we consult at an early stage on policy development with all relevant stakeholders. On 31 March, my Department hosted an open policy debate attended by some 40 invited representatives including parents, providers, academics, child care committees, and non-governmental organisations, NGOs. A range of views on future policy directions were expressed, and a range of options for future investment were examined and discussed.

Two separate online consultation processes, one with the early years sector and one with parents and guardians have also taken place and my Department is analysing approximately 400 submissions received from the early years sector and almost 1,000 submissions received from parents and guardians. Reports on these consultations are being compiled and will be published in due course.

While the focus of the work for this group is on all children, I have also asked it to consider children with special needs. Access to the free preschool year for children with special needs concerns many parents, and indeed it concerns me greatly as a parent. I have very personal experience of that. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs recognises this problem and several measures are already in place to ensure that the free preschool year is more accessible to these children. These include an exemption from the upper age limit where a child would benefit from starting primary school at a later age.In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro-ratabasis - for example, availing of the programme for two days a week in the first year and three days a week in the second year. The HSE, where possible, provides additional supports to children with special needs to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream preschool settings. Previous groups, chaired by the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the Department of Health, agreed that the best approach to meeting the needs of children with disabilities at preschool age was through mainstream preschool services, but no agreement was reached on what the model of provision would be or who would lead in developing this. The Secretary General of my Department has recently agreed with his counterparts in the Departments of Health and Education and Skills that my Department will seek to gain agreement, in a relatively short timeframe, between the three sectors - children, education and health - on the most appropriate workable model for supports to preschool children with special needs. This will be followed by close co-operation between the sectors in defining and developing the model and in making an agreed cross-departmental proposal for the resources required to implement it. It is my intention that a proposal will be available in time for the Estimates process.

There will be several challenges to agreeing an appropriate and workable model, including reviewing existing resources in the system to determine how they can best meet children's needs and accessing the additional investment needed. My Department has committed to leading this process, and, as I stated, we intend to have a proposal available in time for the Estimates process.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Deputy Reilly, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to the House.

Fianna Fáil has put forward a range of fully costed measures that will lead to significant quality improvements and additional capacity in the child care sector and the inspection regime. Once these improvements in the sector are made, we are committed to expanding the ECCE scheme to a second free preschool year. However, these quality improvements will take at least two years to implement properly, as most interest groups have recognised, and as a result it is necessary in the interim period to introduce additional measures, such as our child care tax credit, which would ease the cost burden of child care on working families in the immediate term.

Fine Gael and the Labour Party have substantially under-invested in child care and early education, resulting in crippling child care costs for families. Failing to invest in early child care short-changes children, families and taxpayers, because the return on investment is greater than for almost all other economic development policies. Fianna Fáil's investment in child care will serve a multidimensional function in ensuring the well-being and development of children from an early age, as well as encouraging labour force participation of men and women and reducing the cost of child care for working families. It should be recognised that Fianna Fáil in government, in coalition with other parties, provided extremely good child care facilities throughout the country. Under former Ministers of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, former Deputy Barry Andrews and the late Deputy Brian Lenihan junior, there was tremendous development of community child care facilities in rural areas, towns and cities. It is something that should be recognised, but it has not been.

The free preschool year, which was implemented by a Fianna Fáil Government, has been very successful. Many families have availed of this facility. It is worthwhile. It is very much appreciated by families with young children. It provides a great start in life for young children. Of course, the ideal is the lovely opportunity for the child to be at home, particularly with one of his or her parents. It is a great start, but that is not always possible due to demands and commitments. The cost of child care is very high. Indeed, the cost of living has increased dramatically, and it is difficult for young families, single parents and others to maintain themselves and pay all the debts that are coming in. Unfortunately, with water charges and other charges that arise, these are increasing by the week and month. The ideal is not always the case. Many of us, probably including the Minister, were at home with our mothers and fathers, as I was, and had a great start in life. It is ideal, but not necessary or practical in this day and age.

In the European Union, child care costs on average approximately 12% of a family's income, while in Ireland it accounts for 35%. Preschool care for two children - on average €400 per week - is not manageable for many working families. The average annual cost of full-time child care for a two-child family is €16,500, according to national research. These costs have a disproportionate impact on working mothers, forcing many to manage their working hours to reduce their child care bills or opt out of labour market altogether. This has a knock-on effect on their pay and career progression and is reflected in the low labour market participation rates for mothers with preschool-aged children. Child care for those under three years in Ireland remains among the most expensive in Europe and the OECD, amounting to more than 50% of the net income of some families with two children.

While child care costs are high in most member states across the European Union, they are offset by similarly high child care benefits. However, this is not the case in Ireland, where most families with children under three years receive no financial assistance with child care costs, other than child benefit, which has been cut significantly in recent years. During the significant gap between the cessation of paid maternity leave at 26 weeks and the commencement of the free preschool year, which applies at three years and two months at the earliest, there is no tax incentive or cost relief available to help working parents meet child care costs.

Child care in Ireland encompasses a mixed model of provision, with services delivered through the family, the community, and the private and public sectors. There is a wide diversity of child care arrangements in Ireland. The predominant form of child care is care by the parents themselves, at 58%. For parents who engage in some form of child care, grandparents or close relatives are the predominant form of non-parental care, at 59%, with 25% being cared for by childminders and 25% using a crèche. However, non-parental child care is important for working parents, with 68% of couples with preschool children using such care where both work full-time. In the case of lone parents who work full-time, 60% use non-parental child care. The proportion of preschool children in formal centre-based child care is small by international comparison. This is especially true of the zero-to-three cohort, for whom the predominant form of care is by a relative or childminder outside a centre-based setting. However, informal child care, particularly by grandparents, who provide care for provide care for 49% of children aged four and under, also tends to be relied upon for the three-to-four age group, who have the highest rate of participation in centre-based child care due to the State-funded preschool ECCE year. Hence, even where there is direct public provision of child care, informal care is relied upon by parents who work full-time because suitable formal care is not available for enough hours or is too costly for the hours that parents work.

On early childhood education and care, or preschool, severe under-investment in early childhood has led to a lack of sustainability in preschool sector. Providers are stretched to the pin of their collars in terms of the resources they receive to operate the ECCE scheme, which has been cut significantly in recent years. During the past four years, preschools have experienced reduced capitation levels, an inspection system that is not fit for purpose, increasing administration and compliance responsibilities, and high commercial rates.

On Monday evening last, the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party was in the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, where we met a group of participants in preschools who have deep concerns. They are really under pressure. I appreciate that the Minister is under pressure financially. I hope he will get an opportunity, if he visits Kilkenny, to meet some of the parents and families, and particularly the carers, to assist them in their work. Their submission was extremely good. My party's spokesman, with myself, is Deputy Troy. He has put forward a good policy document, which the Minister should look at, but not steal from us at this stage because we need it for our manifesto to get back into Government on the next occasion.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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There is no fear of either.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister will steal our clothes.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister with the most important portfolio in the Government. If we get it right, like the foundation of a house, it will stand strong. According to Dr. Maria Montessori, "It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was." If we take that and go from there, every Minister will be diverting a bit of his or her budget into the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly's, budget.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Hope springs eternal.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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Hope springs eternal but when they hear what I have to say about how they would save their own budget in the long run, they will be running to his door with a few bob to ensure this is put in place and that good quality child care is provided. Child care provision in Ireland was one of the eight specific recommendations of the EU Council's 2014 national reform programme. When the EU was delivering a Council opinion on Ireland's 2014 stability programme, it asked Ireland to tackle low work intensity households and address the poverty risk of children, facilitate female labour market participation and improve access to more affordable full-time child care, particularly for low income families. I would put the provision of high quality early childhood care and education first and provision for the labour market second. I want to ensure that in meeting this objective, we do not lose the debate on the child itself. Provision for the labour market is very important but the child itself should come first, particularly to prevent under-privileged children from getting lost in the fray.

The services provided should be of high quality, affordable and accessible. By balancing parental responsibilities with work, it is easier for families to achieve a work life balance. I will say more on parents because they are most important in a child's life, as we all know. Bricks and mortar are not the only important things. We could have a poor building with very highly qualified staff providing very good outcomes. Capital expenditure is important but bricks and mortar are not all that are needed.

High quality must be defined. In 1999, Gillian Pugh quoted the following as an indicator of quality: "clearly defined aims and objectives and serious consideration of what we want for children as the starting point of how to achieve that." I refer to the expert report of 2014 on the issue of quality which stated that there is little data on quality of preschool early education services in Ireland today and that those indications we have raise concerns.

I want to compliment the many child care facilities that provide very good quality care but there are some concerns about variable quality. According to the expert report from 2014, levels of professional development and training have begun to improve recently but from a low base and it remains low by international standards.

The Minister mentioned quality analysis and he is very well versed in that regard. I invited him to a child care meeting in Tallaght and many people spoke of his knowledge and interest, particularly in the preschool and the special needs sectors, on which I compliment him.

It has been proven scientifically that the first years - from nought to three and from three to six - of a child's life are particularly important. As a trained Montessori teacher, I know that Dr. Maria Montessori stated that the first three years were a sensitive period for laying down a child's foundation. In those years, we are laying a foundation for cognitive functioning, behaviour, education, physical health and so on and yet many children face various stresses during these years which can impair their healthy development. Early childhood intervention programmes are designed to mitigate factors that place children at risk of poor outcomes. Such programmes provide support for parents, which is so important for the children and for the family as a whole. There are many reports, particularly from outside this country. We have only very recently begun the research here. I mention two reports. The Rand longitudinal study in America and the Perry preschool project, which provided 35 years of study of what preschool can do. A total of 20 were evaluated over 20 years and of the 20, 19 proved that quality and training of staff were so important. After 35 years, the intervention was proved to be long lasting and to deliver substantial gains and outcomes.

We will save money in the long run if we invest in child care. I know Governments in the past had very short outcomes for budgetary processes with the five-year term. However, this Government has said that it is looking at the long term. We had consultation on budgetary processes to make them more long-term. It is a false economy to put in a few bob here and there in the short-term, although it might be politically advantageous. For the country as a whole and the outcomes, it would be better to do it right.

Programmes with better trained care givers are sometimes more effective where the head teacher has a college degree, although not always, at levels six and seven. Suitably trained home nurse visitors or teacher visitors from age nought to three require the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to work together. Suitable qualification must be mandatory and I understand work is currently under way to continue developing a training framework to support implementation of Children First. This is the first time any Government has put key elements of the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing since they were first published in 1999.

It is only in the last two years that we have had seen any recognition of continuous professional development. The Minister has made a start, as did the previous Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. We must expand the eligibility criteria for accessing the learner fund. Budget 2014 included an allocation of €1.5 million to support training staff, although I will not repeat what the Minister has covered. I recommend having a national continuous professional development training day as it would give certainty to staff that they will not be working on a wing and a prayer.

We have three hours left but there are only a few speakers. I just want to say a few things because it is so important-----

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Leader allocated time and I cannot break that rule, otherwise somebody will complain and----

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I will skip the economic returns to society. The Departments of Justice and Equality, Education and Skills and Social Protection would gain so much by providing €1,400 per child per Department. It would cost €240,000 to keep one person out of jail and crime - that is what we will gain. Children would be better prepared for school. There is less special education in countries where high quality analysis and research is done and there are better high school graduation rates and fewer criminal arrests, so investing in child care is cost-effective as a social element.

As regards inspections, the Minister mentioned co-ordination between the Department of Education and Skills and Tusla. Inspection is so important and we do not want it going in one ear and out the other. The Minister mentioned there is currently no requirement for inspectors be qualified in early childhood care and education. That must be corrected. With the extra workload on child care staff and the poor pay they receive, we cannot expect good outcomes. We must recognise all the work they put in with all the regulations they are given.

The child care providers are self-employed and we are always talking about the need to help the self-employed. The people who go into child care are very caring but they must be helped in the same way as any business. The Government should provide money, through Enterprise Ireland, for child care. The Minister should get Enterprise Ireland to go to the Department to ask: "Where is the money for that business?" We need big money because we will save it in the long run.

I will not go into paid parental leave. I know the Minister is looking at something in that regard. According to Tusla, grandparents are being used to mind children because, as was said, child care is so expensive that parents cannot afford it. Grandparents do the work very willingly but they do not want to do it 24 hours per day. Increasing participation in the workforce should not depend on abuse of the elderly. This is volunteers' week and grandparents are volunteers. In 1997 President Clinton declared November as a national family caregiver month, which is what we should do here.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I was very lenient with Senator Keane. I would like to speak on the Legal Services Regulation Bill for half an hour or more later today, but I get ten minutes. I have to stick to the rules. I am sorry as the Senator is very passionate about the issue.If different rules are applied to different people, it will create problems for the Chair.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I understand.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and his officials to the House to debate this important aspect of social and economic policy. The Minister's statement laid out very comprehensively what is being done in this area and the rationale behind it. I am aware of the research and expert views that underlie these policy considerations, and it is great to have this overview. I am delighted the interdepartmental group is exploring ways in which our investment in early years education and care can deliver better outcomes for all children. In particular, I look forward to the publication of an early years strategy in June. The interdepartmental group has consulted widely with stakeholders, including parents, in the course of its work. In fact, the Minister extended the original time given for the consultation process, which was very welcome and was reflected in the number of submissions received.

I submitted a proposal to the working group in collaboration with Deputy Stephen Donnelly in which we made several recommendations which, if implemented, would bring early years education and care provision in Ireland more into line with international best practice. I acknowledge that this also is the Minister's intention. We recommended in particular that the group look to Finland as an example of a country where family policy is viewed as an essential part of economic and social strategy and where educational outcomes for all children are some of the best in the world. Like Finland, we need to change the narrative on this issue from having a focus solely on social policy to a broader discussion that is inclusive of economic strategy. The Minister touched on this when he referred to investment in early years education. In 2015, he indicated, our investment in this area will be €260 million, which is less than 2% of GDP. In 2013, by contrast, it was around 2%. One of the reasons for this decrease is a good reason, namely, that our GDP is rising. However, we need to be attentive to that. Given that the Department of Finance is forecasting a GDP of €198 billion in 2015, we would need to invest €396.55 million this year, or some €129 million more than the Minister is proposing, in order to keep the provision at 2.2% of GDP. That percentage measure is the means by which we can compare ourselves with other countries in order to determine best practice.

Senator Keane spoke about the large return on investment in early childhood care and education. The benefits that are there to be availed of certainly do require investment, but investment alone will not guarantee success. We need a long-term vision for what success actually looks like. I understand the Department is considering an action plan to achieve that vision. It requires a consideration of what is best for children in each year of their life and the provision of services and supports to promote the best educational, social and health outcomes regardless of individual family and socioeconomic circumstances.

Some of the recommendations Deputy Donnelly and I put forward were also endorsed by the expert advisory group on the early years strategy, which was established by the previous Minister at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, indicated that the report of that expert group is informing the work of the interdepartmental group he has established. I hope the earlier report does have a significant influence on where the Minister is going with the current group and that we see progress towards an implementation plan.

It is widely accepted by leading experts in the field that children benefit from parental care during the first year of life. Sensitive and responsive parent-child relationships are associated with stronger cognitive skills and social competence and linked to better work skills. Senator Keane referred to parental leave and proposals for extending it beyond the current six-month entitlement to a provision of 12 months. That is what we recommended, and it is also the recommendation of UNICEF. We recommend, too, that the role of fathers be recognised as part of a progressive family policy. International evidence shows that paternity leave can promote women's participation in the labour force, boost male participation in household responsibilities and improve father-child relationships and bonding. Most men who have children would be very supportive of that. I welcome the recent indication by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, that consideration is being given to how we might realise those aims.

As children grow, their needs change. The evidence shows that from age two and beyond, children do better in high-quality early years education and care services than if they remain at home. In particular, as shown from the extensive and excellent work done in this area by organisations such as Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong and the Tallaght West Childhood Development Initiative, vulnerable children in families experiencing high levels of disadvantage or with complex needs benefit from entering the early childhood care and education services at a younger age. The Minister's comments regarding children with special needs was well articulated and I look forward to his recommendations in that regard.

More generally, we need to extend entitlements to early childhood care and education services to all children from three years of age onwards and for 48 weeks per year. Simultaneously, we must make sure early childhood care and education is of a high quality. The current programme should be improved by investing in the professionalisation of the sector and all that goes with it. We must look carefully at how to prioritise aspects of that investment to improve professional standards and ensure our professionals are supported. That includes increasing investment so that staff can be paid for non-contact time, receive holiday pay and avail of continued professional development.

Another excellent recommendation from the expert advisory group was to strengthen child and family support services by establishing a dedicated service led by child and family public health nurses. This would provide integrated support for parents and children spanning the antenatal period and through the early years. I could say a lot more about this but my time is up. I look forward to further engagement with the Minister as we move towards the publication of the early years strategy.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Zappone's timekeeping is impeccable.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Reilly, back to the House and thank him for his comprehensive statement. One message that is clear from all the contributions today is that if we invest in our children, our future will be safe. As Senator Keane said, we must make sure the foundations are very strong when we are building the house. There is plenty of room for improvement in the early childhood education and care sector, as the Minister would acknowledge. This is recognised by parents, grandparents, politicians, service providers and the early child care sector as a whole. We have made strides, to be sure, but we are falling down on the hugely burdensome cost for families. There are thousands of situations in which both parents must work and where a large chunk of one salary is going towards the cost of child care. Parents should not have to work in order to afford child care, which is something we are hearing more and more often. Likewise, parents should not be excluded from work due to the prohibitive costs of child care. A recent study highlighted that many mothers are leaving the workforce each year due to the cost of child care or seeking a different job when they return in order to secure more flexible hours.

We had a debate in January with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on the closely related topic of improving the quality of early years education. The Minister very clearly and publicly outlined areas of particular focus in her portfolio, which include increasing investment and making early years education a priority in our education system. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, referred today to the importance of cross-departmental co-operation in getting this right. Work in this area has already begun with the introduction of preschool inspections and an allocation of €600,000 in budget 2015 for the immediate recruitment of a new team of early childhood education inspectors.I would like to note that while I take on board the issues raised by Early Childhood Ireland regarding the inspection process, the inspections carried out should be consistent and complement each other, not create further work and duplication for the service provider. Further work has also begun with the introduction of Better Start, the new national early years quality support service, the announcement of the first major review of education and training programmes that lead to qualifications in early years care and education, and the creation of an advisory group for early years education with a range of stakeholders represented. It is good to see so many submissions and people participating actively in it. In budget 2015, Tusla also received a welcome additional €26 million.

At a local level, I am aware of excellent work being carried out by the Genesis programme in Louth. We can discuss the money and systems in place, but when one sees something working, one has proof that things are working. Those involved in the Genesis programme were very grateful that the Minister went to Dundalk for the launch to witness the excellent work which is ongoing. The programme delivers the Incredible Years programmes to disadvantaged areas in Dundalk and Drogheda. The Genesis programme officially commenced on 1 December 2014 and is already making a significant impact locally due to the dedication and extensive planning of local stakeholders, including parents, primary school principals, community leaders and HSE representatives. I acknowledge the work done above and beyond the call of duty by all the stakeholders. I cannot single out any particular area, but the principals and teachers of the schools involved had a love for the programme. One sees true educators who are dedicated to the profession and have given young people opportunities. We have all seen the statistics and know how much money we can save if we invest in the early years. We have statistics which show that giving children the right start prevents them getting into trouble later on. I say that as a teacher of older children.

The Genesis programme targets children from birth to six years old and aims to promote and enhance the cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of the child at an early stage in life. As mentioned, the programme is already providing an effective service locally for children from birth to six years of age. This age range is crucial in children's development. There is plenty of evidence from the US to show that investment in our children at a young age reaps rewards later in life, such as better test scores, grade retention, graduation, reduced criminal activity and better labour market outcomes, to name an important few.

Children from all backgrounds deserve quality education and care at an early stage, and this includes children with all levels of ability. I welcome the Minister's reference to children with special needs. A matter that has often been raised in the run-up to a budget announcement is accessibility for children with additional needs in the preschool or early years setting. Early Childhood Ireland has identified 48% of early childhood settings with at least one child with a diagnosed additional need, and 70% of these settings have at least one child with either a diagnosed or undiagnosed additional need.

I know from experience and through meeting parents of children with additional needs that an assessment of the child usually happens just prior to going to primary school, if they are lucky. If we are going to provide the best opportunities early on, we need to provide the necessary services for children with additional needs in early child care settings. For example, psychological assessments are necessary and children should be afforded the opportunity to get special help. We need to have services in place, something which is lacking and which I have mentioned many times.

I know from many years of teaching experience that it is true for children of all abilities that when a child falls behind at an early age, it can be very difficult to gain back the ground that has been lost. Sometimes it can be done, but it proves at times more costly and difficult. We have stated today that the early years, such as two and three years of age, are the key years. This needs to be an area of priority.

I welcome the Minister's statement on qualifications. They are important and people need to have them. Qualifications for people with expertise in dealing with children with special needs is something on which I am working in the area of special needs assistants and teachers working in special schools. We refer to FETAC and different levels of qualification, which I welcome, but there needs to be specific modules in the area of special needs.

I have a 17 year old and when he started in a mainstream school, I was, and still am, grateful to it for taking him for a preschool year. He started at the age of three and it was brilliant to see him in the same uniform as the other four children and all of them heading off to primary school together. However, I got a shock when I saw that the other children in the preschool classroom were all sitting in a circle, while he was barricaded by a desk in a corner with an assistant. That stigmatised the child, and such things happened in subsequent years. It broke my heart to wonder if this was the way things would be for him in the future. I welcome the strides we have made and that things are more inclusive. The person involved with my son had no qualifications, did not know what to do and decided it was best to keep him away from the others in the class. We cannot focus highly enough on such difficulties.

We need to plan for a sustainable and affordable child care structure for families into the future. I know countless child care services throughout the country are providing an excellent service in difficult circumstances. We need to initiate a change of pace in this sector in order that children are provided with the best possible opportunities early in life and parents can choose to return to work for reasons not associated with the cost of child care but because it is what they deem is best for them and their family. An investment early in life will yield invaluable returns for thousands of children throughout the country.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this issue. I applaud him for the work he is doing in setting up an interdepartmental group on future investment in child care. It is very encouraging to see the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking ownership of and showing leadership in the area.

I was surprised recently when I saw a map of the State, Department and agencies involvement developed by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUI Maynooth. The list was large and I wonder about resources and costs, purely on the State side. That issue needs to be re-examined to ensure the system is streamlined. The map is an exemplar of the role of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for which I applaud it. The role of the Minister is to co-ordinate and bring people together and to fulfil the missions of the strategy of the Government in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.

I hope the template will give us all an agreed map in order that we can declare where we need to go to. Difficult choices will have to be made, but at least we can agree at last what needs to happen. Parallel to this, as the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is having hearings on this issue. Deputy Sandra McLellan is our rapporteur, under the excellent chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer. The hearings have started and last week Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong, the NWCI and the Children's Rights Alliance came before the committee to set the scene for the issue. We have already had a good debate.

I want to discuss special needs and additional needs, which came up at the hearings last week. I mentioned the fact that the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 SNAs in primary schools, yet, apart from some local resources, none is allocated to children in early years education. I know that very often the focus is, correctly, on a child with needs, but we all know, and it was stated in the hearings last week, that the importance of inclusion and mainstreaming for all children in a setting cannot be overestimated.What came out of it was that perhaps the special needs assistant model is not the right model, so I hope the Minister is examining other models. It was about how they could access resources to support children in order that they were included in the settings and about adequately resourcing the preschool setting to include and mainstream the child rather than having a shadow with the child, . I advise the Minister to examine some of the answers we received from the organisations at that hearing.

What also came out very strongly from each of the organisations that presented was the importance of the first year of the child's life, and that we must do everything we can to ensure this first year is at home. This came from all the organisations and it is something I ask the Minister to bring into his consideration. Perhaps over time, as we are trying to be ambitious, the Minister could look at how we ensure we have maternity and paternity leave. In Sweden either parent must take three months of the leave and it is up to them to work out how it is done. We need to look more inventively at this.

I strongly urge the Minister to ensure any money allowed goes into investment and not into cash transfers. We do not have to look too far back in history in this regard. The early child care supplement was withdrawn by the former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, and the free preschool year was started at the beginning of the recession. I am hugely surprised to see that Fianna Fáil has gone back to tax credits in its plans. For me it is about investment. I urge the Minister to examine this.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We are going for a second year.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I have read the plan and you are looking at tax credits.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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No, we are going for a second year.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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There are three points in it. There is the first year, tax credits and the second year. You want it all. I urge the Minister to look at investment and encourage investment, whether in the first, second or additional years.

I am also concerned about the development of the sector. Who is working to identify the capital investment needs of the children and their families? The Department of Education and Skills has a very clear process, but I do not see the process in this sector. It is a role for the child care committees, which could feed up nationally. We are seeing unplanned expansion, oversupply in some areas and not enough supply in others. Pobal estimates there are 31,500 vacant spaces in the country. We need to ensure we link with local authorities on planning permission. Where does capital investment go? All of these areas need to be examined.

The Minister is very good to have met individuals at the Early Childhood Ireland conference and to have spoken about issues such as being laid off for 14 weeks in the year. In what other profession would we allow this to happen? It is a gender-specific issue. We hear someone earns more cleaning or working in a chipper than educating young children.

With regard to increased investment, the Minister spoke about workforce development. We need to reward, encourage and incentivise people to have qualifications. There are people with these qualifications and I know the Minister is convinced. We must do more. We need to ensure more access to the community schemes for struggling working parents. We need to ensure supports are available, as the Minister stated, in order that we meet the additional needs of children. All too often I hear an assessment will come for a child in the months leading up to starting primary school because it is seen as a need for primary school. We need to ensure children with needs are assessed earlier. Some of the outlier peripheral issues include childminders being very unregulated and after-school services, which we are beginning to see being developed. It needs regulation and guidance if we want to be consistent. There is also the issue of au pairs, as we are seeing increase and I am working on this issue to see what we can do in the area.

As the Minister can guess, I could say much more on this issue. I wish him every success and I encourage everyone to get involved in the work he is doing with the group. I look forward to seeing the plan. We will have difficult decisions, but I say a huge well done for doing this. It is real leadership and is exactly what has been needed for a long time in the sector. I look forward to seeing what comes out.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the house for this important debate on early child care. A recent newspaper report indicated a third of women in this country could not avail of work if they wished to due to the cost of child care. Several reports highlight the issues of the quality and cost of child care. The 2012 starting well index, published by The Economistintelligence unit, attempts to rate the quality, affordability and accessibility of early childhood education services. Finland, Sweden and Norway receive the top three scores in the world. Ireland comes well down the ranking in 18th place, between the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

The 2008 UNICEF report card set ten international standards for high quality, accessible early childhood services. Of the 25 countries studied, Ireland came joint bottom of the league table, with only one out of ten standards met, although some progress has been made since 2008. Sweden came top, meeting all ten standards, while Denmark, Finland and Norway followed close behind, meeting eight standards each.

We all realise there are serious issues to be dealt with. What we need to discuss is how they are tackled. I will not have time to go into every issue in detail so I will devote my time to a few major concerns. In doing so I reiterate there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem and the issue must be tackled holistically. One of the proposals is some form of increased child care tax credit, and Senator van Turnhout has addressed this. I do not think this is the answer for a number of reasons. Research from the OECD shows the best way to make child care affordable and of a high quality is to directly subsidise places in early years services and tie this funding to quality. We need to learn from other countries and not repeat their mistakes. Providing a tax credit will benefit those who need it least more than those who need it most. Someone on the minimum wage would get very little relief while someone earning €100,000 a year would get substantial relief. In this light I impress upon the Minister that the Nordic countries, which have the most accessible and affordable child care systems, use a method of subvention and not tax relief. It is a much fairer system and it works. Tax credits for child care can lead to costs increasing, as has happened in other countries where they have been introduced.

While recent public debate has focused on tax credits as a way of tackling child care costs, they can and have had exactly the opposite effect elsewhere in recent years. When the Netherlands and Australia moved to child care tax credits during the 2000s, both subsequently saw the rise in child care costs outstripping inflation and negating the financial benefit of the tax credits for parents. Child care costs more than doubled in Australia between 1996 and 2007, even though a child care tax rebate was introduced during that period.

Another issue is investment. The OECD average investment in child care is 0.8%. In Ireland our spend is approximately 0.2%. The simple fact is that quality services cost money. As a general point, if we as a country want these services accessible and affordable, our tax take must reflect this. It is not possible in a small country such as ours to have very high-quality public services and low taxation. It is simply the case that we do not expend sufficient tax revenue in areas that would lead to a greater supply and quality of child care. The free preschool year has been a great success. Many of the parents and child care providers in Galway to whom I have spoken say they would rather have the first year extended, should parents wish to avail of it, than a second free preschool year. In his future considerations the Minister might examine ways of making the free preschool year as flexible as possible for parents.

Quality is another issue. Much has been said in recent years about the cost of child care. This is very true, but there is no point in providing affordable child care that does not meet a child's developmental needs. In this light I note the provision of high-quality services is central to the Nordic model of early care and education and after-school services. The quality of these services rests above all on the skills and experience of staff. Those working in early care and education and after-school care are recognised as professionals, with high levels of qualifications. Quality standards are high in services for children throughout the age range from one to 12. The proportion of contact staff in early years services who have a three-year graduate qualification ranges from 30% in Finland to 60% in Denmark. In Denmark and Sweden, after-school services are staffed by pedagogues who have three to three and a half years' tertiary qualification.

While there are moves to improve the qualifications of staff involved in the Irish system, I will make a few points in this regard.If we are to insist that child care staff are educated to degree level, retraining supports must be put in place for those currently in the system as without them the system will be drained of personnel.

Degrees are not the be all and end all. Many of those working in the child care system provide sterling services without a third level qualification. For this reason, a balance must be struck between ensuring a suitable degree of formal education and the practical and often long-term experience of child care workers in the system.

I am pleased the House is debating this issue. It is important that we seek to provide accessible, affordable and high-quality child care services. The Minister is committed to reform. Child care costs are second only to mortgage costs in terms of the financial headache they create for many households.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for their contributions and comments, to which I will respond by making some general points. I fully concur with Senator Cáit Keane that the future of the country lies in our children and we must invest in them. The earlier in life money is invested in children, the greater the return on investment not only in euro, but also in terms of its wider value. During the Celtic tiger years, people knew the price of everything but forgot the value of many other things. True value lies in families, children and communities.

We all share the goal of improving outcomes for children and there is now a greater realisation that we need evidence-based services to achieve such outcomes. We must reform, invest, learn and reform again because this issue is not static. Life is changing, as are the lives of our children and the challenges and demands facing families. We must continually evolve to meet these challenges.

I will not respond to the issues raised by Senators in any particular order. I fully subscribe to the idea that we should consider investing in child care in a manner that allows the Government to have a say in standards and quality and affords the parents the widest degree of choice. While I do not believe the introduction of tax credits would achieve this objective, I will await the outcome of the deliberations of the interdepartmental group as I do not propose to pre-judge a deliberative process that will add value to our ability to make policy and stand us in good stead in the years ahead. The way forward is to ensure the Government has before it a menu of options that has been properly analysed and costed and from which it will make decisions. To this end, the interdepartmental group will report in June. The early years strategy, which is the subject of further consultations, will be completed in the coming months. The interdepartmental group process is running in parallel with the early years strategy but is being fast-tracked to allow for consideration in the context of the Estimates process. Both processes will be informed by the expert advisory group's report.

It is important to emphasise that during the worst of the financial crisis, the Government protected the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme. We can be proud of this achievement, which demonstrates our commitment to children. While there is no disagreement on the value or importance of the provision, the question is what is the best and most strategic platform for a process for further investment over time. Quality is central to what we do and is of great importance in terms of outcomes.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the role played by parents. In speaking to parents, whether in my current or previous ministerial roles or my previous position as a doctor, I have always pointed out that while some people are experts in particular fields, parents are experts on their children and experts need to listen as well as advise.

The links with health and well-being and the role of public health in the early years are important areas, particularly in light of the recent OECD report. These links will be a key feature in the early years strategy. The strong cross-over between Healthy Ireland and Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures will continue. I will work closely on this matter with the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, and all my fellow Ministers. We are taking a cross-government approach to Healthy Ireland. One of the nicest photographs of the Cabinet features all its members holding a copy of the Healthy Ireland document. The commitment to its implementation extends across the Government.

Several Senators noted that I mentioned a model for children with additional needs. I have an open mind on how this will be best achieved. While we seek to achieve uniformity of approach, I also accept that one size does not fit all. I also recognise the need to ensure there is robust planning for current unmet and future demand for services. It is critical that we establish a system of needs assessment that is linked to local planning processes, as has been done in the case of schools.

Senators raised the gender issue and issues related to laying off child care workers for 14 weeks each year. I do not have reason to disagree with the sentiments expressed in this regard. I also agree that remuneration should reflect training.

I wish to continue to discuss with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, the issue of assessing children area for special needs. We can discuss the issue of au pairs at a future date.

I wish to correct a point made by a number of Deputies.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I beg the Senators' pardon. I hope the tone I hear does not mean Senators do not wish to become Deputies.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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This is the Upper House. Senators do not have an ambition to become Members of the Lower House.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I am sure if we leave that decision to the people, the electorate will recognise quality.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I am sure it will.

Senator Naughton made some interesting points on Australia and New Zealand and the use of tax credits. The early childhood education programme has been a major success. To dispel any doubts anyone may have in this regard, people vote with their feet and it speaks volumes that 95% of the cohort of children who are entitled to avail of the scheme do so.

I will correct a misapprehension because speakers who refer to the OECD figures are comparing apples and oranges. The average OECD rate of investment in child care is 0.8% of GDP as compared with 0.2% here. However, the 0.2% figure refers to investment by the Department and does not include investment made by other Departments. The State invests closer to 0.45% of GDP in children, which is still not good enough. I concur with Senator Keane's view that more resources should be invested in early childhood education because we cannot correct the matter at a later stage. Children have but one chance at childhood. When we speak of children and our future, we need to remember that children are experiencing childhood now and we must ensure this time of their lives is not only safe and one in which they can develop, but also one on which they will look back with fond memories. Sadly, this has not been the case for many people in this country. It is our job, as legislators, to ensure it will be the case in future.

Sitting suspended at 2.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.10 p.m.