Wednesday, 9 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Childcare Services Provision
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, for coming in. I hope he will not mind me saying that I am disappointed the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is not here. I believe she has a budget press conference at 12 noon but it is only 10.30 a.m. I would have hoped that she would have come into the Chamber to discuss this important issue but I thank the Minister of State for his presence. I hope he will be able to give me some answers and maybe convey the message that I am going to relay today.
I live in north County Dublin, which has the youngest and the fastest growing population in the country. There is a severe issue there in regard to the provision of childcare facilities. When I talk about childcare facilities, I am talking about full-time childcare facilities and not sessional facilities. We have some of those, although we could do with more. We have good coverage of the part-time ECCE-funded facilities but I am talking about full-time crèche facilities. North County Dublin has a very young population that is growing rapidly. Much housing is being built in the area, particularly in Donabate, where I live, and in Lusk. That brings families, people starting families or people who have children. They are moving into areas in the expectation that there will be crèche facilities but that is not the case.
What we are finding is that developers have been granted planning permission for hundreds of houses on the basis that they will provide a crèche in the development. People buy their houses, and spend a lot of money on them, with the promise that there will be a crèche on their doorstep. What is happening is that the second phase of a development might have to go to An Bord Pleanála and the requirement for a crèche is being taken out at An Bord Pleanála level, or at local authority level.Instead, a proposal for more and denser housing provision is submitted and, suddenly, the community is without the childcare facility it expected to have. When that happens three or four times in a small area, it becomes a real crisis. It is something I have faced personally, as have neighbours of mine. It is upsetting for parents to discover that there is no childcare facility to which they can send their children. This is an ongoing crisis and it is creating all sorts of problems. In the case of large-scale developments which might consist of up to four phases, what is happening is that the provision of a crèche is postponed until the last phase, which may be many years after the first phase was built. In some instances, when the final stage is reached, the builders do not bother to build the crèche and instead leave a small part of the site on which nothing is constructed. By that stage, they have sold 600 or 700 houses on the promise of there being an on-site crèche.
I have an example of this type of thing in Donabate, where planning permission for a development was granted on the basis that a crèche would be provided. The builders have now gone back to Fingal County Council and applied for a change-of-use permission that would allow them to construct two more houses instead of the crèche. When Councillor Adrian Henchy and I arranged a public meeting to discuss the change, there was great interest from families outraged that this was happening. Following that successful meeting, more than 30 submissions were submitted locally to the council and a decision in the case is pending. The developer argued that there was no local demand for a crèche, in response to which we clearly proved there was such demand. The developer also claimed to have been unable to find any local provider willing to offer a childcare service from the proposed crèche. In fact, there are plenty of local providers who are interested in running a crèche from the building if and when it is built. As it emerged, what the developer actually wants is to sell the building for €1 million. The developer simply does not want to rent it for a ten-year term to anybody willing to avail of it to provide a childcare service to people in the village.
Will the Minister of State convey to the Minister, Deputy Zappone, the urgent need for her to get involved, through the local childcare committees, in the planning process? She needs to make submissions to Fingal County Council and, on behalf of communities, to An Bord Pleanála. Parents of young children in the area are already flat to the washers trying to work, provide a home and pay mortgages and other bills. We cannot leave it to them to fight for these essential community facilities. We need the Minister to get on board. All the schemes and reform measures in the world are of little use if we do not have the necessary physical infrastructure in growing and emerging communities and if we allow developers to lead the development of communities to the detriment of families. I could talk forever about the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling and the stress caused to families by the lack of childcare provision, but the Cathaoirleach has indicated that my time is up. I urge the Minister of State to take the message to the Minister that we need her to engage actively in the planning process.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, sends her apologies for being unable to attend the debate this morning. As the Senator will understand, all matters relating to planning, including crèche developments, fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government rather than the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, published last year, has the strategic objective to maintain and extend the supply of high-quality, publicly-subsidise early learning and care and school-age childcare to best serve the developmental needs of babies and young children while also ensuring that such provision reflects the needs and preferences of parents and families. The agreed action in the First 5 implementation plan related to planning is to "review and update the National Planning Guidelines for the development of Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare settings". The lead partner is named and agreed as the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Implementation of this action point has begun but will take some time to complete.
The unprecedented increase in investment in childcare over the past five budgets has helped to increase capacity in the sector by 100%. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has doubled the provision of free care under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme from one year to two years. The number of childcare places has also doubled. Baby and toddler places have increased from 13,700 in 2014 to more than 31,000 in 2018, a rise of 128%. In the 2018-19 year, 4,598 early learning and care and school-age childcare services were approved for funding. More capacity is needed, which is why the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is continuing her intensive efforts in this area. There is a need to encourage further capacity for the under threes and for older age groups in centre-based care and to support increased capacity in the childminding sector. With this in mind, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs recently recruited a national childminding co-ordinator and will soon recruit a team of six development officers around the country to support the registration of more childminders with Tusla and thereby enable them to access subsidies under the national childcare scheme, NCS. The creation of places for younger children aged from six months to three years of age was prioritised by the Department in all three of the most recent annual capital programmes for early learning and care services. This year, a specific strand of capital funding was earmarked specifically for the creation of places for under threes, and more than 1,000 extra places will be delivered before the end of the year.
The Minister ensured that childcare was identified as a strategic priority in the national development plan. She secured €250 million under the plan, much of which will be invested in additional capacity. The good news is that there is sufficient capacity in the ECCE scheme. When the programme still had three entry points and before the entitlement to a full two years of care, there were approximately 120,000 children participating. Now that there is two full years and a single entry point, we have approximately 108,000 children participating. The parents of some ECCE-eligible children are using other Government childcare schemes instead. This means that, broadly, there is sufficient capacity under ECCE and the focus of providers and departmental capital schemes can now shift to building places for the under threes and school-age children.
Funding for early learning and care and school-age childcare was increased by a further €54 million in yesterday's budget. This brings the total increase in the past five budgets to an unprecedented 138%. The extra funding will support the continued provision of two years of ECCE provision for all children, ensure the full participation of children with disabilities under the access and inclusion model, and support the introduction of the NCS later this year, which will be a major incentive for providers to expand capacity. The NCS will provide a progressive system of subsidies, starting with the highest subsidy rates of up to €5.10 per hour for children aged under one. The next highest subsidy, for one and two year olds, will be up to €4.35 per hour.
I realise that the Minister of State is deputising for the Minister, Deputy Zappone, but, unfortunately, much of his statement has absolutely no relevance to the points I raised. He referred to providers being able to expand capacity as a result of subsidies. The point I am making is that they do not have the accommodation to do so. This is particularly the case in north County Dublin but also, I am sure, in other growing communities, especially in Leinster. Developers are being allowed to take proposed crèche facilities out of their plans and put in more housing. I want the Minister to start making submissions to Fingal County Council and to An Bord Pleanála in order to solve this problem. Giving more subsidies to providers does not work when there is no building to accommodate them. Are they supposed the run the crèches from a field? Capacity under the ECCE scheme has nothing to do with the problem I am highlighting.
Childminders are an important piece of the jigsaw of childcare provision. However, in areas with a young population like Donabate and Lusk, there is no large cohort of older parents who have raised their own families and now have time on their hands to mind other people's children. People are busy with their own families. Incentives for childminders are no good to the people in Donabate and Lusk who are fighting urgently to secure crèche facilities.
We must move on. If the Senator is not happy, she will have to raise the matter with the Minister on another day.
I take this opportunity to point out that, pro rata, Members on the Government side of the House, including Fianna Fáil Members, are entitled to be allocated at least two Commencement matters every day. Some Members have complained that their submission was not chosen. Given that Senators Kieran O'Donnell and Maria Byrne, for different and genuine reasons, were unable to take up their slots last week, I decided, in order to be fair, to select them again this week.Senator Wilson had his first matter for ten months and that is why his was chosen. I try to balance everybody's requests.