Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Department of Children and Youth Affairs
Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation
450. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the new parental online application form for the affordable childcare scheme will cause difficulties for some parents who may not be used to filling in forms online; and the measures she has put in place to mitigate same. [20703/19]
In designing the National Childcare Scheme's online application system, including the application form itself, the Department has been very conscious of the needs of parents. In order to ensure the best experience possible for parents, the Department has put in place a number of initiatives and supports including:
- Dedicated expertise in the area of the user's experience to ensure that the application form and process is as accessible and user-friendly as possible;
- Ongoing consultation and focus groups with parents, with further user testing planned;
- A dedicated phoneline for parents, which will be in place from June onwards and will provide advice on all aspects of the National Childcare Scheme, including the application process;
- Support for parents from the staff of 30 City and County Childcare Committees nationwide, all of which are fully trained and available;
- Ongoing consultation and engagement with a large variety of stakeholders who provide services to the public, such as Libraries, Citizens Information Centres, Local Government Offices etc., to ensure that there is community level support available to parents who may not have used an online application process previously; and
- Engagement and training for groups who represent and support vulnerable families or sections of society.
There will also be a range of dedicated information materials, including detailed step by step 'how to' guides available on www.ncs.gov.ie to support parents on their application journey.
A postal application will also be available should applicants choose not to apply online. However the online process is designed to give applicants an award within a matter of days (or minutes in some instances), depending on their application type. Postal applications will take longer and will affect the start date from which the new childcare subsidy can be paid.
451. To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the parental application system for the affordable childcare scheme will cause uncertainty in the childcare sector due to the fact that providers will not know in advance the value of their annual subventions; if her attention has been further drawn to the fact that uncertainty will be caused by the fact that funding will now be allocated on an hourly rather than sessional basis; and the steps she will take to ensure the continued viability of childcare facilities. [20704/19]
The National Childcare Scheme is a new, national scheme of financial support to help parents with the cost of quality Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare. It will ultimately replace all previous targeted childcare programmes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly scheme, providing both universal and targeted subsidies. The development of this scheme is a significant move forward in delivering quality, accessible, affordable Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare to families throughout Ireland.
When the scheme is introduced in October 2019, many families will become eligible for childcare subsidies for the first time and many more families will qualify for increased levels of subsidy. The Scheme also provides a vital platform for future investment in the sector. This is a very positive development for the Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare sector.
It is important to note up front that ECCE, the scheme Government invests most in, remains as is for providers, with no changes for the sector.
The new National Childcare Scheme is designed to be flexible, recognising that childcare needs are different for each family. In creating a single, national scheme, it was important to recognise these differences and create a system that could respond to them without affecting service operations for providers. For this reason, subsidies will be awarded as an hourly rate, along with a maximum number of hours for which that rate is payable. The hourly rate of subsidy illustrates to parents their level of subsidy and will not affect service operations.
Parents and providers will continue to work together, as they currently do, to decide on the amount of childcare that is needed and can be provided. Providers will continue to set their own fees, sessions and admissions policies; there is no change to this. The scheme will pay subsidies based on the hours of care agreed between the provider and the parent, up to the maximum hours awarded to the parent. Providers are not required to change their operations to run their services on an hourly basis.
As with the current targeted subsidy schemes, subsidies will be awarded for a set period of time, normally twelve months. As such, providers will have visibility of the annual subsidy payments applicable to each child in their service, subject to the child regularly using the childcare place. This is similar to the current CCSP scheme which an increasing number of services have signed up to, it is also similar to the arrangements in place for the TEC schemes. In these latter schemes currently, services are not guaranteed a set income for the year, but they can continue to earn it if they retain the same number of children attending for the same hours overall. As such, these schemes are already based on attendance, not merely on enrolment, or attendance during a particular snapshot.
The National Childcare Scheme will have rules in relation to circumstances where a child leaves the service, is continuously absent from the service, or is not fully using the agreed place over a prolonged period. These rules will be child-centred, fair and proportionate, clear and consistent and will recognise the need for flexibility for parents. The rules will not disadvantage services for what would be considered minor non-attendances. At the same time, they will recognise the need to protect State finances by ensuring that Exchequer funds are used to support the maximum number of families in need of financial support, represent value for money for taxpayers, and are allocated in accordance with robust and appropriate procedures.
On 11th March, I launched a communications campaign for the National Childcare Scheme. The campaign encompasses a major nationwide training programme for providers. I would encourage all providers to sign up for a local training session on the new website -www.ncs.ie -so that they can learn more about the operation of the scheme, including the rules on attendance and payment.
With regard to the viability of childcare facilities, I am committed to increasing investment in the Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare sector. Over the last four budgets, my Department has increased funding for the sector by an unprecedented 117%. A significant proportion of this funding has been targeted at families who use community childcare services, thus assisting with the sustainability issues faced by some services. The National Childcare Scheme will further increase investment in childcare and will reduce the top-up many parents have to pay for their childcare. This will have corresponding benefits for providers. The National Childcare Scheme is also expected to increase demand for services, thereby supporting services to operate efficiently and at full capacity.
For any services facing issues with financial sustainability, my Department oversees an integrated Case Management system which is administered by Pobal. This Case Management service provides non-financial assistance or support in the first instance. Financial supports are also available for community services facing certain challenges; these may also be accessed through Case Management following a financial assessment. Any service which is currently experiencing sustainability challenges, or which fears that the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme could potentially affect its sustainability, should contact its local Childcare Committee or Pobal.
Finally, my Department is currently undertaking a sustainability review which is examining the financial situation of a range of childcare services in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Ireland. This review is also taking account of the future introduction of the National Childcare Scheme. The review is expected to be completed in the second quarter of the year and will serve to inform any further sustainability measures or supports which may be required.