Seanad debates

Friday, 30 April 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

National Childcare Scheme

10:00 am

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is very welcome to the House.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to the House. There is a glaring and urgent need to review the national childcare scheme. For many families, the subvention is very welcome and helps to pay for childcare but it would be incorrect to say it is a universal subvention available to all parents. The Labour Party acknowledges that there has been progress in the Department over the past year with regard to the support provided for the payment of wages in the childcare sector and emergency income supports. At the same time, however, we have the introduction of the national childcare scheme which effectively excludes the children of some of the most disadvantaged families in this city and across the country. Some of these children are living in the most challenging, overcrowded and difficult of circumstances, particularly where I live in Dublin Central but right across the country.

There are a number of issues with the design of the national childcare scheme. First, there is the loss of financial support, particularly for after-school care for children whose parents are on very low incomes or are not working. Second, there is the inconsistent way in which the sponsorship system operates and the rash manner in which sponsorship can be withdrawn, particularly when a family moves from emergency accommodation into a house. This is a hugely traumatic time in people's lives. I know of one instance where the support was removed within one month, while in other cases it takes six or seven months to be removed. Third, the application process discriminates against those with poor literacy or English language skills. In some cases, providers have had to fill out the form for families. The original idea was to have an application process that would allow autonomy for families to get the supports they need.

Many representatives of childcare facilities have told me they raised these issues with the Department when the scheme was being designed. I know the Minister was not in the Department two years ago. At that time, providers asked for additions to be made to the national childcare scheme but nobody listened to them. We are now approaching a perfect storm. Representatives of community childcare facilities have told me they will not be able to continue in operation owing to the lack of funding provided for the children for whom they care. When the previous scheme was introduced, band C was introduced at the last minute in recognition of the fact that those who provide community childcare places needed to be looked after and provided for.

These facilities are not just about minding children. They are a family support for the most disadvantaged of families. I pay particular tribute to the childcare after-school schemes provided by St. Mary's, the Larkin Centre, Ozanam House and many other services in the inner city with which I am familiar. They provide an incredible service to families and we would lost without them.

We have talked about breaking the cycle and tackling disadvantage. The north inner city task force has lots of money for additional security and improving the area. All of that will be worth nothing if we do not direct resources at the youngest residents and citizens of disadvantaged areas. We need to do more.

Two years ago, providers in the inner city called for research to be undertaken on the gap in childcare places and the additional therapeutic needs of children in childcare places and those who need them in the inner city. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been holding up this research because it believes the outcome will conflict with existing Government policy. We need the Department to champion children, particularly the most disadvantaged children. I know the Minister feels strongly about this but we cannot have a situation where this basic research on what is needed in the inner city is not being funded and provided. I ask that the Department take this matter very seriously in the context of looking at the overall issue of the new national childcare scheme and what is needed for the most disadvantaged families.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I might just speak broadly about the national childcare scheme before addressing the Senator's specific points.

The national childcare scheme is built on the basis families are supported in accessing early learning and childcare based on need. The manner in which the needs of families are addressed is progressive and ensures that those who have the least income receive the highest hourly subsidies. In this way, we target our resources at those most in need. More than 53,000 children have benefited from the scheme to date. The ratio of targeted to universal beneficiaries on the national childcare scheme is 2.6:1, which is a significant increase on the on the older scheme, the ratio of which was 1.6:1. The national childcare scheme has made the higher targeted subsidies available to a greater number of people.

The scheme is also built to ensure that families are supported to access a minimum level of early learning and childcare provision to support positive child outcomes. Importantly, the evidence also shows that these benefits are, in most cases, realised with part-time participation. On this basis, 20 hours are available all year round for children who have not started school, and in non-term time for school age children, regardless of whether the parents or guardians are at work or in study. During term time, the child's development needs are generally met through school participation. Enhanced hours are available for families where the parents or guardians are in any form of work or study. Where parents or guardians are working for at least two hours per week, or are enrolled on a national framework of qualifications level 1 course or above, this will qualify families for the enhanced hours. Up to 45 subsidised hours per week are available to families who meet this threshold of even very limited participation in work or training. This underpins an approach that is based on strong evidence which demonstrates that growing up in poverty negatively impacts on a child's long-term outcomes. Taking up work or engaging in training, even a very low number of hours, is key to enabling families to break that cycle and that is what national childcare scheme is designed to achieve.

I absolutely understand that there are children in exceptional circumstances for whom this is not enough. For these children, families can avail of up to 45 hours free early learning childcare, with no work or study rule through sponsorship arrangements. The Senator has commented on the sponsorship arrangements. Sponsorship referrals can be made by a number of designated bodies. Already, more than 1,200 children are enjoying the benefits of sponsorship. I must say that I have engaged with Tusla at chief executive level to ensure the organisation is generous in its discretion on awarding sponsorships.

The national childcare scheme has been in operation for 18 months. Of course, that period has coincided with the very difficult Covid crisis. My Department has engaged an external consultant to review the first year of the scheme. I specifically asked for the review to include the usage by socio-economically disadvantaged families and providers serving socio-economically disadvantaged communities. At my request, those two points will be specifically looked at in that review. At the same time, work is ongoing on the provision of a new funding model for the entire childcare sector. We have discussed it previously in this House.

That work is being led by an expert group. It is due to report later this year. It is looking at mechanisms to ensure that the very substantial amount of money the State is putting in right now and the increased amount of money we will put into childcare in the future, is targeted. It has been asked to look specifically at how we can target communities and children of greatest disadvantage. A number of papers have been published on that. I am sure that the Senator is familiar with them already. It is a specific part of what we are trying to achieve in terms of the new funding model. In the interim, my Department continues to support services, particularly those whose sustainability is in question. There is a dedicated sustainability fund with which any service can engage.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister for that most detailed reply. I very much look forward to the findings of the review of the first year of the scheme. I am heartened to hear that it is being undertaken. I must say , however, that the lack of emphasis on after-school care is most problematic. The Minister spoke about how, during term time, the child's development needs are generally met through school participation. If a child comes from a chaotic household, their capacity to do homework is limited and they may need additional help outside of school hours. These needs are not being met currently if that child cannot access after-school care.I have heard countless stories from people working in early years services in the inner city who say they are providing services in lieu of formal therapy that people cannot access because of such long waiting lists. These are children who are presenting with behavioural difficulties or who do not have the supports at home to help them with homework. These after-school facilities are providing that care. That is not being recognised in the national childcare scheme at the moment. I urge and plead with the Minister to ensure that it is a key part of his review and that it is incorporated into the design of the scheme in the future.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I am very much aware of the concerns that have been raised by providers, particularly in areas of great disadvantage, on some elements of the implementation of the scheme and particularly on the after school-issue. I have met providers, including from the Senator's local area with Senator Fitzpatrick, which is why I have outlined the three elements I am dealing with including, in the immediate term, broadening out access to sponsorship. The information on sponsorship has not got out well this year, primarily due to Covid. The HSE has not been in a position to do that, obviously its focus has been elsewhere, so we engaged with it and particularly with Tusla to ensure information about sponsorship arrangements is going out. I have asked, in the context of the review of the first year, that specific focus be given to those types of concerns we are discussing today in terms of socioeconomic disadvantage. Finally, there is a discrete part of the expert funding review group looking at the long-term issue of how we fund services in these areas. In the short-, medium- and long-term fronts, we are taking this issue very seriously. I look forward to the information from these reviews coming back and acting on it.