Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Child Care Services
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank her for being here today to address this issue. First, I commend her for the passion and commitment that she has demonstrated for early years education and child care in this country, which has been on the back foot for many years. The Minister secured a 35% increase in this year's budget, on the back of a 35% increase in 2016. I welcome the extension of the free pre-school programme from one to two years and the commencement of the affordable child care scheme which will kick in this September. The Government is urging parents who were pushed out of the labour market because they could not afford child care to revisit their decision to stay at home to mind their children and to see if they can now re-enter the workforce. There is a whole suite of measures to which the Minister will refer, I am sure, including additional funding for the child care subvention scheme. The Minister also provided funding to address short-term issues that arose such as the removal of unqualified CE scheme workers from the child care provider ratios and for non-contact hours. I highlight all of these measures because I recognise the serious inroads that the Minister is making. However, issues remain to be addressed, as I am sure the Minister is very aware.
The fact that the early years education and child care sector is undervalued is not new. This has been the case for many years and Ireland is really trailing behind. It is fair to say that it is no coincidence that this is an area that has been and continues to be dominated by women. There is a direct correlation between that and the fact that the work is undervalued. Notwithstanding the fact that most of those working in the sector have been undervalued for many years, it is the case that the sector has become increasingly more regulated in terms of buildings and physical infrastructure and the requirements placed on service providers by the State, particularly with regard to education.When children go to child care, it should not just be about childminding - they should also be stimulated and educated. We all recognise that if children can get a good start at a formative stage, it can set them up very well for the future.
As the Minister will be aware, there is a crisis in this area. Regulatory and educational requirements have increased. The service providers and professionals working in this sector are at their wits' end because of pay issues. The highly qualified people who deliver these services want to be able to stay in this sector. We know their hourly rate of pay, based on the average for the entire year, is approximately €10.
SIPTU is running a campaign on this issue. I attended a meeting it organised in Castlebar, County Mayo, last Thursday night. There was palpable frustration among the many workers in attendance about their terms and conditions. I will mention two particular issues they raised. They are paid for just 38 weeks of the year. This means professionals have to sign on or find other work for the summer. That is the position in respect of employees. Service providers do not get paid at all during this period.
I know the Minister has secured some funding to recognise the administrative preparation that is required to deliver child care services. Frustration has been expressed by those who believe this is way too little and argue that they need much more. The suggestion is that all of this leads to unsustainability.
There is a disparity between community service providers and private service providers. Many private service providers are frustrated because when problems are noticed by the State in the community sector, providers in that sector are immediately supported and financed so that those problems can be fixed, but the contrary is the case in the private sector. In my experience over the years, the private service providers are doing their best.
A great deal of frustration was expressed at the meeting in Castlebar about poor communication. I pointed out that there is an early years forum, but people generally-----
I appreciate that. I would be happy for the time to be deducted from my response, with the consent of the Chair. I think the Minister knows the landscape. I hope we can give some hope. I support the Minister in her efforts to try to get more funding for child care so we can show people we are serious about providing early years education in this country.
I thank Senator Mulherin for raising this important issue and giving the House a valuable opportunity to reflect on this matter, which is the subject of debate in the early years sector and touches on some of the key policy considerations that are driving the reforms being progressed by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Senator has already mentioned some of the ways in which the Government is investing in the early years sector. As she indicated, the 35% increase I achieved in budget 2017 was on top of a similar increase in 2016. Such increases reflect the emphasis being placed on developing a quality service with appropriately supported staff. As a means of addressing the cost pressures being faced by providers in the sector, I secured €14.5 million for 2017 to enable providers to be paid for non-contact time. For an average early childhood care and education service with 25 children, this will mean an additional payment of approximately €2,400 per annum. I announced yesterday that an extra €3.5 million will be made available to child care providers in the form of a non-contact time payment. This will benefit child care providers who participate in the community child care subvention and training and employment child care programmes. All services that sign up to deliver these schemes from September will be invited to apply.
In the slightly longer term, the programme for Government commits to an independent review of the cost of providing quality child care services. When this review has been completed, it will feed into future policy development and into the design of the new affordable child care scheme, including payment levels to services. A new national scheme of financial support for parents towards the cost of their child care, to be known as the affordable child care scheme, will eventually replace the existing targeted child care subsidisation schemes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme. The affordable child care scheme will encompass universal and targeted elements which can be incrementally expanded over time. It is designed to be flexible, with the ability to adjust income thresholds, subsidy rates and income taper rates over time as further Government investment becomes available. In advance of the introduction of the new affordable child care scheme, changes are being made to the existing schemes to improve subsidy rates. From September 2017, up to 33,000 children aged between six months and 36 months who are availing of registered child care will benefit from a new universal child care subsidy. The maximum weekly subsidy payable will be €20 for children attending full-time care. Moreover, from September up to 23,000 children and their families who currently avail of child care support under the community childcare subvention, CCS, programme will benefit from significant increases of up to 50% in the subvention rates provided under the programme. Up to 7,000 children and their families currently availing of the training and education child care support programmes will also see increases in subsidy rates. Up to an additional 7,000 children are expected to benefit from the CCS scheme for the first time from September 2017 due to improved access to the scheme.
Capital funding is in place to support the sector. Funding of €4 million was made available under the early years capital programme for 2017, with a separate €3 million allocated for services providing school age child care. Applications for these schemes are being assessed currently.
Notwithstanding these improvements in the area of affordability and the significant additional resources that have been secured for early years, it is recognised that the sustainability of services remains an issue. A fund of €1 million has been made available to child care services to help replace unqualified community employment scheme workers. Further, officials from my Department have met several providers to understand better the sustainability challenges they face. The learning from these interactions is informing policy in this area, especially as it relates to the annual Estimates process and the decisions around resource allocation.
Staff in the child care sector play a critical role in delivering high-quality child care services, and they deserve to be recognised, valued and respected for this. It is acknowledged, however, that pay and conditions are major issues facing the sector and can lead to difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. My Department is engaging with colleagues in relevant Departments and with the early years sector to explore how this might be addressed in the short, medium and long term. While my Department is somewhat constrained in what it can do in this regard as it is not an employer of child care workers, it accepts that it is a major funder of the child care sector and, as such, has a role to play.
I wish to acknowledge the good work going on in partnership throughout the early years sector to bring about improvements in all the areas we are discussing today. While much has been achieved to date, much work remains to be done to ensure Ireland achieves its aim of being a model of early years delivery.