Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Childcare Services

10:30 am

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and I will cut right to the chase. Two weeks ago, the Minister conducted a feature interview in The Business Postwith the journalist, Michael Brennan. It was a very large splash. In that interview, the Minister set out his plans for childcare in this country, a practice that is becoming the norm in modern politics whereby politicians brief the newspapers rather than the Dáil or the Seanad on their policies. In the interview, the Minister alluded to the fact his civil servants in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are distinctly unenthusiastic about the 30 county childcare committees that provide support for approximately 4,900 childcare services in Ireland. He referenced a briefing note provided to him by them that states the structure does not lend itself to providing the national consistency sought by the Department. Michael Brennan is one of the most respected journalists in the building. He does not make things up and those comments did not come out of fresh air onto the pages. For a new Minister and, in fact, a new Deputy to belittle an entire system like that was, quite frankly, galling.

This followed a period when the childcare system in this country was working flat out to try to implement whatever was coming out of the Department on a daily basis during lockdown when nobody knew what they were doing. I do not think I have to tell the Minister that the 26,000 underpaid, overstressed and completely undervalued childcare workers in this country do not ring the Department's offices in Miesian Plaza for support on the ground; they ring the childcare offices in the counties, which they know intimately and trust and which provide on the ground support for those who need it and have done so for the 20 years since they were established. I know this first hand because my wife is at the coalface with them. Neither do they ring Pobal, an organisation the Minister praised in the interview, while belittling the childcare structures. Pobal is another quango that has grown bigger than anyone can comprehend. The transcript of its appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts last December, which I was at, is something the Minister should read.

In the interview, the Minister referenced the annual cost of the county childcare structure of €11 million, creating the impression of being reforming by axing the committees. Let us look at the money the Department spends. As the Minister said, 30 childcare committees receive €11 million to support the 4,870 childcare services throughout Ireland. When they were established in 2000, they received a total of €7 million. Back then, they supported 1,163 childcare services. We can see how childcare has grown in the country over the past 20 years, where some additional 4,000 providers are in the system. In that 20 years, by how much has childcare funding increased? It has merely gone from €7 million to €11 million to support an additional 4,000 providers. The system the officials think is not fit for purpose has managed to support an additional 4,000 providers with just an additional €4 million in support over that 20 years. In stark contrast, the big beast that is Pobal was managing a budget of €750 million when last we looked at it at the Committee of Public Accounts in December.For those same 4,800 childcare providers customer satisfaction with regard to that organisation would not be glowing, which I am sure he will find out when he engages with it.

I sincerely hope the Minister improves the lot of those in this sector. Lip service has often been paid to it but it has not received the support it requires. People believe this is a system that is awash with money but it is struggling to make ends meet and has the lowest-paid workers who are providing essential education. I stress that point. It is the first entry point to education for our youngest citizens. I hope that when the Minister engages in the reform that he promised he will acknowledge what is being done by highly-qualified professionals in the county childcare structure rather than trundling out what the civil servants wanted to see published in the paper.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss the future of early learning and care and school-age childcare in the country, particularly the role of the city and county childcare committees. I appreciate the Senator pushing back this Commencement matter by a week to allow me address the matter directly.

The 20 city and county childcare committees, CCCs, which operate nationwide and are funded by my Department, act as the local agent for my Department in the co-ordination and delivery of national early education and childcare programmes and the implementation of Government policy at a local level. They have a key role in facilitating and supporting the development of quality, accessible early learning and care and school-age childcare services for the overall benefit of children and their parents.

The CCCs provide invaluable support, guidance and advice to the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector. Over the past number of months they have been a vital mechanism whereby my Department has been able to disseminate the information and the guidance needed by the sector to respond to Covid-19. I want to recognise the major role CCCs have played across this time.

CCCs are often the first point of contact for service providers and in that respect they have assisted service providers with a broad range of issues from reopening supports such as how to implement a play pod system and comply with the public health guidelines, providing services with sustainability supports, providing information on funding and assisting services, and childminders, in accessing capital and reopening grant programmes to name but a few. CCCs also provide training, mentoring and information on quality practice and how to meet statutory regulations. As well as assisting service providers, they also have a key role in providing guidance for parents and families in sourcing quality, early learning and care and school-age childcare services.

It should be noted that no decision has been taken on the future of the city and county childcare committees nor has any decision been pre-supposed by the Department, its officials or myself, as Minister.

In reference to the quotation, the Deputy is right that Michael Brennan is a brilliant journalist but he was quoting something that was in a briefing docent. What is in quotes in that are not my words. If it was taken in context as my words I could see how the CCC sector would be very concerned but those are not my words.

In First 5: A Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028, which was published in November 2018, the Department committed to completing a comprehensive review of the operating model for early learning and care and school-age childcare in the country.

Following a Cabinet decision that was taken in July, my Department has begun to undertake an independent review process regarding the many bodies and organisations under its remit as part of the existing system and of which CCCs form a part. The review's objective is to ensure that the operating system is equipped to ensure continued high-quality childcare can be delivered to the scale and standards required in the sector which has seen substantial growth in the past decades, with parents and children as the core beneficiaries.

The final operating system will support high-quality, accessible and affordable early learning and care and school-age childcare services to children and families through the efficient and effective administration of a number of programmes, schemes and quality initiatives and other functions such as compliance and communications. The operating model will support providers, operate transparently and accountably, provide value for money to the Exchequer and demonstrate good governance. The model will also enable appropriate linkages and effective working relations with all the other agencies and Departments charged with delivering better outcomes for children and families.

The review will formally commence at the end of this month and will conclude in July 2021. The review will be led by my Department, with appropriate assistance from external bodies secured by tender. In addition, the Department will engage with all relevant stakeholders, including CCCs, in the process.I assure the Senator that no decision has been reached as to the future status of any of the support structures operating within the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector, including city and county childcare committees.

Next week, I will be meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland, the representative body in this sector. Any decision taken on the future structure of the system used to administer childcare will be informed by a robust evidence base and high-quality, independent analysis. To this end, I will be awaiting the report on the review before making any determination as to the future landscape of the sector.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response. He spoke about a review but that review has clearly been prejudiced. Any report on the system has clearly been prejudiced by the interview in the Business Post. I acknowledged a briefing note was provided to Michael Brennan and prepared by civil servants but Mr. Brennan was going to publish it. As a result of this, the Minister has adopted a scorched-earth approach, beginning a Borg-like attack on the childcare system and creating yet another monster like Irish Water. The approach is taking away the on-the-ground structures. The old water departments in the councils knew what they were doing. We are now creating a giant of a body that will not. How can anyone have confidence in the independence of the review if it has been prejudiced from the get-go?

When he was proceeding in the way that he did, did the Minister think about the professionals who were reading his remarks without his having engaged with them? Imagine if the Minister saw an article by the Taoiseach in the Sunday newspapers in which he wanted the Minister gone in the belief that he was not providing the consistency sought by the Taoiseach's office, thus echoing the words used by the Department about the professionals, without having a chat with him. It would not be nice to read when listening to "Sunday with Miriam" and eating one's corn flakes. I ask the Minister to think for a moment about the thousands of professionals who had that very experience two weeks ago as a result of the interview, and about the hurt it caused in the profession. I ask him to acknowledge that.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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Absolutely nothing has been prejudiced by me. I am listening very carefully. Over the past 12 weeks, since I have taken on this role, I have met a large number of providers in the sector. I am meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland next week and we will discuss its valuable role in this process.

In any public engagement I have had, and in every opportunity I have had over the past 12 weeks, I have noted the incredible work done across all areas in childcare. It has been a tough year. The childcare sector led the way on 29 June when it started to reopen across the country. The good model and way in which the public health guidance was applied with such rigour by childcare professionals and other providers across the country made me genuinely confident that when we were to reopen schools at the start of this month, September, it would work well. We have had only 63 instances of Covid among all the childcare providers in the country. These have been addressed in accordance with the public health guidelines.

I am incredibly supportive of the work done by everybody in this sector. I am aware that some bodies, such as the city and county childcare committees, have been invaluable in supporting providers. I look forward to meeting representatives from Childcare Committees Ireland next week to discuss these matters.