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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 May 1999

Vol. 505 No. 3

Child Care Regulations.

I welcome the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the crisis in child care and the impact of the child care regulations and inspections on the number of child care places available in the Dublin area and throughout the country. Yet another child care campaign has been launched today. There have been over 20 years of campaigning to try to put the issue of child care on the agenda.

I was told by the Minister, in reply to a parliamentary question some time ago, that 1,720 inspections of child care places have taken place throughout the country. It is absolutely clear, from information on the ground, that there is a reduction in the number of child care places. There is concern that not enough child care places are available to meet demand. People are calling child care services on a daily basis, asking where they can find a place and what supports are available to them as parents. The lack of places affects those who work full-time and part-time outside the home and those who work full-time in the home. We know from research that child care is used by families where parents work inside and outside the home.

A nursery owner told me today she no longer operates a waiting list because there is no point in having one. Another owner told me she receives queries every day from frantic parents asking whether child care places are available. A mother and father who recently returned to this country told me they are considering seriously leaving again because of the lack of child care places. Another couple who returned recently from England told me they had supportive child care services available locally in England which were of high quality and affordable. They checked out 18 crèches in Dublin and were unable to find a place. When they eventually found a place they were not satisfied with it.

I want to bring it to the House's attention that this situation is placing great stress on families. The Irish Pre-School Playgroup Association said today that 2,000 places have been lost recently. We are facing a serious situation. If this were an agricultural, fodder, training, industrial relations or any other sort of crisis, the Government would not be as complacent as it appears to be.

Providers must get support to implement the regulations and grants. These grants should apply to those who have already made the effort, as well as to those who have not yet brought their crèches to the standard rightly demanded by the regulations. Compliance with the Act costs money and the industry and parents can no longer afford full compliance.

As the Minister of State knows, there are issues of concern with regard to child care at present, namely, quality, quantity and qualifications. There is a major problem finding staff willing to work in this area. Training is also a problem. We must address this urgently and seek consistency of standards in the area. Many crèches have not yet registered with the health boards.

Quality child care in this country, particularly in the Dublin area, is moving beyond the reach of many parents. The consequences of this are extremely serious, particularly for children. If parents have to move children from quality child care to other services with low standards, as they are doing, we can imagine the consequences and scandals we will have in years to come. This is at a time when we say we care very much about children and in light of the experiences of the past.

About 600,000 Irishwomen are in paid employment today. About 46 per cent of children under four years and 25 per cent of full-time working mothers use child care facilities. It is projected that a further 218,000 women will rejoin the labour force in the years ahead.

The Child Care 2000 campaign asked today for a number of points to be considered, including an allocation of £3 million for the establishment of national and local co-ordination of child care; a national child care committee; county child care committees – which were first recommended by the Commission on the Status of Women five years ago; £2 million for the upgrading of premises and an information campaign to help providers. These issues must be seen as a priority. I ask the Minister of State to get the Government to agree to introduce an emergency package of measures to deal with this crisis. That is the least that is called for at the moment, given the scenario I have outlined.

I thank Deputy Fitzgerald for her interest in this subject. I know of her ongoing concern about this and I share many of the sentiments she expressed.

The Deputy is aware of the introduction of the child care regulations, which are determined to build on the existing good standards in our pre-school services, to improve standards throughout the sector and to secure the health, safety and welfare of pre-school children. I am the first to acknowledge that the implementation of those regulations has had a significant effect on crèche and playschool owners. The fact that we are implementing much more stringent standards brings added pressures because of the reduction in numbers, the need for an increased staff to children ratio and the need to improve the standard of playschool facilities.

I welcome the fact that everybody, without exception, has welcomed my initiative in introducing those regulations and ensuring standards are upheld, registrations are made with health boards and inspections are carried out. I acknowledge that, as the Deputy said, the impact of this is causing increased costs. However, the require ment to reduce places is related mainly to the availability of adequate space per child in the premises and the requirement to have a sufficient number of competent adults supervising the pre-school children in the service at all times.

It is important to point out that where deficiencies are identified, I have asked the health boards and the providers to work in a co-operative manner to make specific improvements in a planned way, provided that any delay would not affect the welfare of children adversely. The plan may include a reduction in numbers, achieved through natural reduction – that is, not replacing children who leave during the year – reducing numbers on a phased basis, reducing numbers at the beginning of the next school year or the provider moving to a larger premises. The time scale for making improvements may vary from a requirement for immediate action if the health and safety of the children are at risk or may extend to six months if it is appropriate to use a phased approach. I have asked the health boards to be flexible in their approach to the implementation of the regulations so they do not drive people into the black market as is happening in some cases.

The Government is fully committed to expanding the availability of health care. Health boards provide financial support to pre-school services which cater for children who are regarded as being at risk or disadvantaged. I have asked the health boards to get together with the other State agencies, such as local partnerships, city and county enterprise boards and the local authorities, in which there are significant difficulties with the implementation of planning regulations in a haphazard fashion, so we can respond to the difficulties now being experienced. I hope to provide a forum for all those agencies to get together in the various health board areas.

I am aware of the difficulties in Dublin. I am determined to tackle those difficulties and I am determined that, between those agencies, we will put the considerable amount of money being made available this year into the creation of new places. I urge those who have difficulties to form their own groups to provide community crèches and playschools and I will try to respond with some financial support to create the extra places.

This problem has arisen in the past two years. My ability to respond may not be as good as it should be; I admit that. I assure the Deputy that we are making a spirited effort to implement the regulations fairly and flexibly to create new places throughout the State. I will be holding discussions with all the health boards in the next ten days to decide a programme for extra places by September. The Government is committed to quality child care at an affordable price.