I understand that the NESC report referred to by the Deputy has not yet been published and therefore I am not in a position to comment on any findings it might contain until such time as it is published and available to me for consideration.
My Department has responsibility for the development of child care to meet the needs of working parents and those in education and training preparatory to labour market participation through the equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP.
In relation to the costs of child care, it is my view that an international comparison of the costs of child care can only be undertaken by looking at the full package of taxation, both central and local, and other supports, direct and indirect, made available to child care providers in each country together with a review of the structure and disposable income of family units in each country and I am not aware of the existence of any thorough and up to date study which shows a valid comparison of the costs of child care in Ireland and in other countries.
The programme for Government and the progress of my Department's equal opportunities child care programme are confirmation of the Government's commitment to developing child care services and to keeping child care at the forefront of its social agenda.
The Government is making considerable progress in increasing the supply of centre based child care places and in enhancing the awareness of quality issues among childminders while affording financial support towards the costs of child rearing through child benefit which has increased very significantly over the past seven years. To date the Government has favoured the use of child benefit for this purpose as it is income neutral and affords parents choices with regard to the arrangements they choose to make in relation to the care of their children.
The Deputy will be aware that there have been significant improvements in the provision of supports for the development of child care over the last number of years. Child care was identified as an investment priority under the National Development Plan 2000-06. This was a direct response to the recommendations of the expert working group on child care established under Partnership 2000 to develop a strategy for the development and delivery of child care to support parents in employment, education and training.
The equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP, has an equal opportunities and social inclusion perspective and facilitates the further development and expansion of child care facilities to address the needs of parents, in reconciling their child care needs with their participation in employment, education and training and aims to increase the supply of centre based child care places by 55% by programme end.
The programme also has a focus on many of the quality issues which were identified in the child care strategy and aims to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of child care services throughout the country. Since it was launched in 2000, the funding for the programme for the 2000-06 period has increased from €317 million to €499.3 million or by 57%, the most recent increase being €50 million in budget 2005. The multi-annual capital envelopes announced that day include the injection of a further €40 million in additional capital funding into the EOCP between the programme end and 2009.
The programme provides capital grant assistance to create and enhance new and existing child care facilities, staffing grant assistance to community-based not-for-profit organisations whose child care services have a strong focus on the support of the child care needs of disadvantaged families, and offers supports to the city-county child care committees, to the national voluntary child care organisations, such as Barnardos, Childminding Ireland, the IPPA and the National Children's Nursery Association, and to others who are working to improve the quality of child care in Ireland.
Total funding committed under the EOCP to date will create 33,254 new child care places, and will support 28,839 existing places. Of these, 20,500 new child care places were already in place by June 2004, an increase of 36% in the supply of child care places in four short years. These new places offer parents greater access to child care throughout Ireland as they meet their work and family needs. The EOCP also contributes towards the staffing costs of child care services which support parents who are disadvantaged to enable those services to offer differential fee scales.
The above measures relate to the supply of quality child care. I would also like to draw the Deputy's attention to the recommendations of the expert working group in relation to the demand side of child care. Government policy in the area of child support aims to provide assistance which will offer real choice to parents and which will benefit all children whatever care options their parents choose for them. As I mentioned previously, child benefit is the main fiscal instrument through which support is provided to parents with dependent children, and it provides support to all parents irrespective of income and employment status. In his 2005 Budget Statement, the Minister for Finance announced further increases of €10 per month to €141.60 per month for the first two children and €12 per month to €177.30 per month for third and subsequent child from April 2005. This means that over the period since 1997, monthly child benefit supports have been increased by more than 380%. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents in relation to the care of their children.
Further measures on child care are being provided by the Government in a range of different ways and I have outlined a number of examples for the Deputy's information. In 2001, the Department of Finance allocated €12.7 million capital expenditure for the provision of up to 15 Civil Service creches for the children of Government employees. Five creches are in operation and a further creche opened in January 2005. Proposals for additional creches are being considered. In March 2001, the IDA launched a scheme to provide for the creation of high quality, workplace child care facilities in IDA Ireland business parks around the country. Four of these have opened, with another under construction and a sixth at contract stage.
Since the start of 2002, the city and county enterprise boards have approved funding of over €1.6 million to 153 child care centres across the country. This funding comprises mainly of staffing grants, with a small number of capital grants available. Capital allowances for capital expenditure on the construction, extension and refurbishment of a building, which is used for the purpose of providing a pre-school service or similar service. There is also an exemption on the usual benefit-in-kind provisions for employees who enjoy free or subsidised child care facilities provided by their employers. In such circumstances, the employer must be wholly or partly responsible for both financing and managing the child care facility.
The outcomes of the present programme will be monitored closely to inform the forward planning process in order to support the twin needs of quality child care provision and labour market supports. This Government's record in providing enhanced child care services is without parallel and I am confident that we are moving rapidly to ensure that there are quality services available to parents throughout the country.