Private Members’ Business.

Early Childhood Care and Education: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

is concerned:

about the financial implications of the withdrawal of the early child care supplement on many families, particularly middle and low income families;

that the pre-school year in early childhood care and education scheme was announced in absence of information on the number of participating service providers;

about the viability of the scheme in practical terms, as currently set out;

at the lack of detail published about the scheme, information provided to parents and the absence of proper consultation with service providers on the roll-out of the scheme, bearing in mind that the scheme is to be available on the 1 January 2010;

about the availability of participating pre-school places, particularly in remote or more rural areas;

at the inflexibility of the terms of the scheme and the fact that this may act as a barrier for service providers to participate; and

that the flat-rate capitation grant may not be adequate in areas where the cost of providing pre-school services is more expensive than in other parts of the country;

calls on the Government to:

provide parents with detailed information on how they can access the scheme in their area;

outline the exact number of eligible children by county and the location of participating service providers;

ensure that the terms of the scheme are flexible to reasonably accommodate differing family circumstances and the age profile and needs of the child;

engage in proper consultation with service providers with a view to addressing and resolving outstanding issues; and

apply a capitation fee structure that ensures the scheme is acceptable and affordable in all areas.

I wish to share time with Deputies Olivia Mitchell, Catherine Byrne, Joe Carey, Paul Connaughton, James Bannon and Pádraic McCormack.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This budgetary move by the Government is another in a long line of budget and other announcements by a Government, which, like its predecessors, has not done its homework on the implications of such a move. This fact is what makes the viability and workability of this scheme so questionable. The introduction of the early child care supplement in the first place was made without any idea of the cost implications. At least six separate times, the then Taoiseach, the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, who now is the Minister for Finance, as well as other Ministers all gave different responses as to the cost implications. At the time, the Government had no idea that it would be obliged to pay the supplement for all EU children with a parent who was resident here, regardless of where the child was resident. This was despite the fact that its purpose was supposed to meet the costs of child care where it was most expensive and unaffordable, namely, in Ireland.

This was of course at a time when the Government thought money was no object and its approach was to find a problem and buy it off or to throw money at it. Instead of attempting to find the best solution or attempting at that point to begin to develop and nurture a successful and viable preschool system in Ireland when the money was available, the Government ignored the sector. It has decided instead to develop it during a recession. The Government simply gave parents a few more quid to use howsoever they wished and ignored the opportunity to develop a long-term system that would serve generations. That is the background to this issue. Fine Gael and other parties produced detailed proposals for the development of a preschool system that recognised the practical steps that had to be taken to develop it. I wish to make clear that Fine Gael fully supports the concept of one year's free preschool for all children and regrets it took the Government so long to recognise its importance.

While the Government finally appears to have seen the light, the details remain hidden, perhaps even to itself. Its amendment to this motion sheds no further light on the issue and does not even reflect what the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, himself has admitted, which is there will be areas in which places will not be available in January 2010. Fine Gael has tabled this motion because of the deep uncertainty among both providers and parents, who need time to plan their arrangements, particularly when they are operating on far tighter budgets.

One should not forget the Government pulled the rug out completely from under Irish families. Young couples who struggled to pay massive mortgages in an era of pay cuts, job losses and pension levies at least had the early child care supplement to help meet child care costs and originally had the benefit of it until the child reached the age of six. However, the Government began to pull that back last year and then removed it completely for all children from the end of this year. No one has been fooled by the Government's sudden conversion to the importance of preschool. It introduced this measure suddenly in an attempt to blunt the impact and response to this massive cut to families. To use the Government's favourite phrase, "we are where we are". However, the problem is that no one knows where we actually are with this commitment as there are a number of key difficulties, none of which are addressed by the Government's amendment to the motion.

The first and possibly the biggest problem is the issue of cost. According to the Irish Preschool Play Association, IPPA, following meetings with the Minister of State, it seems the capitation fee was set by surveying costs notionally and taking an average the Department believes to be viable. Coincidentally , this figure is practically the same as that offered by the vocational education committees, VECs, for these services. However, this conveniently ignores the fact that the VECs require the service from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and allow extra charges to cover this extended period and in effect, the child care provider is able to ensure it is adequately covered for the entire period. Most worrying is that in trying to sort out this issue, there appears to be a veiled threat on the part of the Department, which according to an IPPA statement is insisting "the fund is hard won and generous", to the effect that if services do not make it work, the €170 million may be withdrawn as the sector would be perceived as being unready to implement the funds. In other words, it is a case of take it or leave it, regardless of viability, of whether one can afford to stay open and give a quality education to children. How can one expect a sector to be in a position to implement something so new and unexpected in eight months? It is the manner in which the Government has gone about this that has made it unimplementable, rather than the response of providers.

Has the Minister of State thought about where his plan will stand, were the providers to decide not to take it but to leave it? While he is concerned about creating a two-tiered system, there may be instances in which providers simply cannot continue to exist because of the scheme's impractical nature. How then will the commitment to a year's free preschool for every child be met? Although the providers are practical and know that parents will opt for places offering the scheme, many of them believe they will not be able to remain in operation on these figures. The Government announced this measure without any consultation with the sector on its roll-out or its practical implementation. It has asked the services to be creative and to ensure the scheme works. While they want it to work and parents desperately want and need it to work, it will not and cannot work because providers cannot afford to participate in it. I have met some providers and have examined their figures. This is not a case of seeking more simply for the sake of it but is a genuine issue of viability. Costs are not the same across the country as almost everything varies and rents, rates and wages in particular.

There is also an issue of affordability for parents. This is paramount and the Government should have taken that into consideration before it removed the early child care supplement and before it set the blanket fee of €64.50 for 38 weeks. Many providers will be unable to provide the service for this fee and those that charge below this rate will move up to this figure. If providers cannot offer this service, children will lose out either way. The Government should have negotiated on this issue this prior to the Budget. Did it learn nothing from the over-70s medical card fiasco? The difference in this regard is that families and children will lose out. These services pay wages, PRSI, PAYE, accountancy fees, telephone, ESB and heating bills, water rates, mortgages on premises and loans for equipment. They also rightly must meet strict HSE requirements in terms of staffing numbers and space. The Government is said to be considering the issue of what will be the fee. When will Members know the outcome? When will parents and providers have certainty in this regard as the notion of a voluntary top-up will only make an uncertain situation worse? Members are familiar with the experience of voluntary top-ups in primary schools.

The Government has created this problem and now must solve it in a way that allows preschools to operate and allows parents to afford to send their children. It could consider, for example, a regional difference index based on local authority areas. This would take the basic capitation fee and index it to regional differences in the cost of living, wages, rent and rates and would account for much of the variance that is raising concerns at present. The newly-founded National Association of Private Childcare Providers has also made suggestions and I believe it is meeting the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on Thursday to discuss them. However, the Government cannot simply ignore the real difficulties many operators are raising. At an IPPA consultation meeting held to discuss this issue, only two out of 200 present voted in favour of the scheme as presently formulated and this was from a group that has campaigned so long for its introduction.

There is a related issue of duration of service. While the recommended duration for Montessori training is three and a half hours a day, 38 weeks a year, the Government only is offering three hours per day. Parents can be charged for the additional 30 minutes but those who do not wish to pay this can still avail of the three hours. What is to stop a provider only accepting children whose parents are willing to have them stay for three and a half hours? Moreover even if a provider is willing to operate on the basis of both periods, Members can imagine the practical difficulty in a class full of three and a half year olds in which half get up after three hours, pack their bags, put on their coats and exit the classroom. Nothing will happen for those who remain for the final half hour anyway. Montessori training also ideally starts at age two and a half. However, under the rules, children of that age cannot be in the class of those coming under the scheme. For smaller child care or preschool providers, this will mean that where space is limited, such children now will only be minded in crèche-type or child care settings, rather than being educated through the preschool model.

To judge by his statements and replies to parliamentary questions, the Minister of State seems to be convinced that availability will not be an issue and I genuinely question this conviction. The Government's amendment to the motion also states that more than 65,000 additional child care places will have been created by the end of 2010. Ignoring the fact that this will be a year too late to honour the Minister's commitment, this motion is not about child care but pertains to preschool, which is not the same thing.

The Government is now admitting that some issues of under-supply may arise in the initial period, although that is not mentioned in its amendment, but that it will monitor the situation carefully. How big does it expect that gap to be and how does it intend to address it? How will it be addressed for the children affected? Will they simply get nothing, that is, neither early child care supplement nor a year's free preschool? When the Government states that many providers are reporting vacancy rates of up to 25% in their facilities, does it refer to preschools or crèches? Moreover, exactly how many is many? How many areas has the Government examined to ascertain that such facilities have full occupancy and cannot afford to expand because it has removed all financial supports for set-up and expansion?

Finally, there is a difficulty with the imposition of a minimum quota of eight eligible children. It will be a nightmare to administer for smaller services. If only six eligible children are enrolled, they will not be allowed to operate and where will such children then go? This issue must be addressed. Moreover, the tax implications of the scheme must be addressed. I assume that people will only be taxed on the profit at the end of the year, rather than on the fee that will be paid to them.

In short, the principle is something that Fine Gael and I have long supported but the devil is in the detail, or in this case, the lack thereof. The Government has made this commitment and it is up to it and not the providers, to ensure it can be honoured in a workable way.

At the outset, I very much welcomed this idea because it recognised in a tangible way the value of early education and the role of pre-school in giving children the best chance of a good start in life and enabling them to maximise the benefit of all future educational opportunities. This is particularly true of disadvantaged children but the research underpins the point that all children benefit from early pre-school education. Given the way this scheme was introduced, however, I wonder if the Government is serious about it because it appears so clearly unworkable that it actually seems designed to fail and designed to create a scenario where the Minster could claim he went to the trouble of introducing a scheme and it was the pre-school providers who refused to co-operate, and so the money was lost. I hope the Minister is not so Machiavellian. I hope I am wrong and that he would not contrive to create a scenario where the scheme must fail. However, there are many issues with the scheme, including a dearth of hard information, which has gone on for some months.

I wish to deal with two specific areas, both of which have been raised by my colleague. The first is the decision that the cost of child care on average is €64.50 a week and that this will be the capitation fee per child. This may well be the average cost of child care to parents when one includes child care across the country, including heavily subvented and subsidised community play schools, low rent rural play schools and also urban play schools, such as those in my constituency where rents are mortgages are the highest in the country. If €64.50 is the average cost, then it is reasonable for the Government to pay that on average, which would mean less than €64.50 in the low cost areas and more in the high cost areas. However, to introduce a flat rate irrespective of location and other subsidies being received is the lazy, easy option. When this is coupled with the diktat that no top-up is to be allowed, it becomes an unworkable option which is bound to fail.

Put simply, the vast majority of urban providers cannot provide the service. For four weeks' work, this would yield €250 per child and for ten children would yield €2,500 to provide two salaries, rents, mortgages, materials, equipment, light, telephone, heat, insurance, water and bin charges, accountancy fees and, of course, income tax if there was any profit, which there would probably not be. The "no top-up" rule may initially be popular with the public but if it results in the local play school closing down, with all the family and educational disruption this entails, it will not win any popularity. If it is a principled position and the Government is genuinely opposed to a top-up, then it does not make any sense and is not consistent when one sees that every national school and secondary school in some guise or other charges a top-up fee to parents. Why is there one rule for State providers and a completely different rule for private providers? If this scheme could be introduced as it stands, the State would be the monopoly buyer of this service therefore, by dictating the maximum price, it is abusing its dominant position. If this were to happen or even be attempted in the private sector, it would be deemed illegal.

In the case of State schools where there is a top-up, parents have little or no choice as they must send their child to the local school. At least in the case of pre-schools, there is huge competition because there are pre-schools in many areas and they tend to be smaller. A top-up would ensure there is competition and that parents would not be fleeced. If it is a principled stand that the Government is against the top-up, the rate that must be paid must be the one that makes the scheme viable — that is the bottom line. If the scheme is to be viable, one must pay the rate. If the Government tries to go ahead with the scheme as it is, only a fraction of schools will sign up for it. Community schools which perhaps have a subsidy and perhaps some rural facilities, which are sparse enough as it is, would sign up but none in urban areas would do so, certainly none in my constituency, which means not one parent in Dublin South will avail of the scheme.

A point made several times by Deputy Enright is that there is no prospect of this scheme being introduced in January as planned because the basic infrastructure is not in place. Even at the current rate of fees, only a fraction of the places that will be needed are in place and, at the rate the Government proposes to pay, there will be even fewer places in January than there are today. This brings me back to my original question, namely, is the Government serious about this scheme or is it designed to fail?

I welcome this motion because it serves to highlight a serious issue which is putting huge pressure on parents, families and service providers throughout the country. In 2006, the Government introduced the early child care supplement to facilitate and support families in caring for young children. To assist with the child care cost in particular, they committed €1,000 per year and then increased it to €1,100 in 2008. However, the Government clearly did not plan ahead or think past the PR exercise. It was easy to make a grand gesture to gain public support during a time when the country was enjoying an economic boom. Now, the parents have grown used to the additional income but the Government finds itself no longer able to foot the bill, which is almost €500 million. In April, therefore, in the emergency budget the Minister for Finance announced that the early childhood supplement would be reduced in 2009 and eventually abolished in 2010.

To soften the blow, the Minister then announced that child care would instead enjoy a year's free pre-school education. It sounds good in theory but, again, is to put the cart before the horse. The new scheme is for children aged between three years and three months and four years and six months, which means that approximately 80,000 children will in theory benefit from the scheme from next year if it goes ahead. How does the Government propose to create these many pre-school places, which would mean that all statutory requirements must be in place in a little over six months? There is huge confusion about this scheme and how it will operate on the ground. It is clear the Department of Health and Children is making up the rules as it goes along.

When the scheme was first announced, very little information was made available to parents and pre-school providers. Even now, almost two months later, it is not clear how the scheme will work into the future. Those who run private crèches and pre-schools are naturally concerned about the implementation of the scheme. There is a serious discrepancy between the capitation grant of €64.50 which is paid by the Government to cover 15 hours child care per week and the current fees some of these play schools must charge, which is up to €90. The Department is effectively fixing the price of child care across the board, which would not be allowed to happen if it was any other business. Private pre-school providers are understandably worried that the grant will not cover the running costs such as have been outlined by many speakers in the debate.

A top-up grant will not be allowed. If a pre-school accepts the maximum number of children it can accommodate under the new grants scheme it will be under huge pressure to stay afloat and pay day-to-day running costs. The new scheme will only pay providers for 38 weeks of the year but staff must be paid for 44 weeks, which will mean there is a shortfall in their salaries as holiday periods and maternity leave are not covered. This could lead to cases being brought to the Labour Court. In some cases, providers have been told to let their staff sign on the dole for the extra weeks, which is a ridiculous situation.

The choice to opt in or opt out of the scheme is also not as cut and dried as the Department leads us to believe. Many pre-school providers cannot afford to opt out because they risk their places not being filled as parents would naturally choose a free play school over a fee-paying one. On the other hand, we have thousands of parents who want to avail of the new scheme but are finding it difficult to establish who would actually be willing to participate in the scheme. The cut-off age point is wrong. It should be from three to five years, which would give children an opportunity to be ready for school in time. The Minister of State with special responsibility for children must be careful not to create a two-tier child care scheme but I fear this is the way we are going, as if the situation was not bad enough for the young parents being hit by increases in income and health levies, PRSI and so on.

I urge the Minister to listen to the suggestions from the service providers and to establish a workable scheme which will not discriminate against children or providers. I ask for fairness and common sense on this important issue. Our children and their future are at stake.

I commend Deputy Enright for bringing this Fine Gael motion before the House. The Minister has recognised that there are challenges and difficulties for the service providers in the implementation of this scheme. However, it would appear the bottom line is that the Government believes the challenge is for the provider to come up with creative solutions within the current constraints of the scheme. This whole concept smacks of something that was hurriedly thought up, with little consideration on its implementation.

The Minister has assured the House that spaces will be available from the start of the scheme. However, we continue to wait for specific detail. I cannot help thinking that in devising and presenting this scheme, the Government had an eye on the debacle that followed last October's disastrous and clumsy supplementary budget. On that occasion, there was no sugar-coated pill to accompany the Government's proposal to withdraw the automatic entitlement of people over the age of 70 to the medical card. This time around, it seems that the bad news — the abolition of the early child care supplement — had to be softened somewhat. The measure being used to that end — the introduction of a preschool year scheme — seems ill-conceived. The details of the scheme have deliberately been kept vague. I have received many representations on this issue over recent weeks. I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Minister to try to get clarity and flexibility on the scheme. I am sure the Minister and his officials are aware of the real dangers faced by service providers. It is likely that they will be unable to plan for the provision of a proper service.

Significant investment has taken place under the national child care investment programme. Service providers have told me that the current rate of unemployment allows many parents who are in work to choose alternative child care methods. The easy part of the equation has been the capital investment of €300 million that has taken place since 2006. Some €28 million has been invested in my own constituency of Clare. This national infrastructure, which is a significant resource, must not be allowed to wither and die. Having invested these capital moneys, the Minister must fund the ongoing running of child care services in a sustainable manner. He needs to protect the Government's capital investment. To a large extent, the voluntary sector is responsible for building and running child care facilities. Much credit is due to the many committees around the country that have risen to the challenge of providing child care in their own communities. The voluntary sector has driven child care developments in County Clare, for example in Kildysart, Liscannor, Tuamgraney, Mountshannon, Ruan, Flagmount and Killaloe. These volunteers are in the dark, just as parents are. There is confusion about how the volunteers should provide this new service from next year.

Approximately 75,000 children will qualify for this supplement next year. According to the relevant guidelines, there is a requirement to provide 2 sq. m per child in crèche or preschool facilities. Therefore, using a crude instrument, the Government will have to provide a minimum of 160,000 sq. m of space. Where is the evidence that this space is available? There are strict guidelines on staffing ratios, depending on the age of child. It is ironic that many of the facilities being built, including those I have mentioned, are adjacent to national schools. It has not escaped the attention of voluntary service providers that the strict space and staffing criteria that apply to them no longer apply when children walk across the yard at four or five years of age to commence their primary education and their interaction with the State. Prefabs, converted cloakrooms, hallways and increasing pupil-teacher ratios are the norm in our primary schools. It is an example of the ultimate Orwellian approach, in that the State can do what it likes but everybody else must bow to its directives. This new scheme, which is being hurried, does not fulfil the necessary criteria and does not allow parents and service providers to plan properly. It is more geared to getting headlines than offering a genuine service to parents for their children. I commend this Fine Gael motion to the House.

I congratulate Deputy Enright on bringing this motion to the floor of the House. As I do not want to repeat what has already been said, I will focus on two aspects of this debate. Regardless of what end of the scale one comes from, one cannot deny that we have had a series of anti-family budgets. When the early child care supplement scheme was introduced in 2006, many people believed it was a good thing. In retrospect, it is clear that it was introduced with a view to the 2007 general election. At that time, funds were being sent around the country in a most flaithiúil way. I do not believe anyone gave any sort of in-depth thought to where it would lead. In essence, it was directed at the kind of people we hoped it would help. I do not believe any overall thought — good or bad — was put into the scheme. Certainly, no thought has been put into its successor. I suggest that someone in the Department of Finance decided to start making cuts and came up with this scheme. I assume the Minister for Finance was involved in that process. I have to accept what service providers around the country are telling me. They do not think this scheme can be implemented. If it is not ready for next year, and the money that is to be provided is not spent, the only winner will be the Government, which will make more savings.

As Deputy Carey said, hundreds of volunteers have spent endless hours, over many years, getting crèches built in every constituency in the country. There are new crèches in the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, and in my constituency. The volunteers in question have no idea where they stand under the new funding arrangements that will accompany this measure. A fine system was being built, but the rug was pulled out from under the whole thing before we knew it. The Government has been damned with a lack of joined-up thinking over the last ten years. This is another example of it. Surely a lead-in period of five or six years is needed to get schemes of this nature bedded down. Just two years ago, everybody concerned, including officials in the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Education and Science and Health and Children believed that the early child care supplement represented the best system for this country. All of a sudden, the Government decided to perform an about-turn. While I do not suggest that there is anything wrong with the philosophy that underpins this measure, I am concerned about the stop-start nature of the Government's approach. It seems to perform an about-turn every couple of years. Can the Members of the House imagine how upset the service providers who invested their money are feeling now? It is clear that they are sour about what the Government is doing.

I would like to refer briefly to child benefit. I ask the Minister of State to make his colleagues in the Government aware that the many mistakes they have made over the years will be nothing compared to the reaction they will get if they tamper with child benefit. I mean this genuinely. Child benefit, which is paid principally to the mother, has been of huge help to many families. Even in those households with the highest incomes, the woman of the House often has no access to any money other than that coming from the child benefit scheme. We are now being told that the Government is proposing to use the resources available to it, in the Department of Finance and elsewhere, to provide for a flat rate reduction in the amount of child benefit that is paid. It appears that people at the bottom of the ladder, as defined by various socioeconomic data, will have to take the same beating as this country's top-rated bankers, county managers, Deputies and Ministers. Can the Members of the House imagine the unfairness of that? The Government reaped a whirlwind from the old age pensioners when it tried to take their medical cards, but it should watch for the kind of whirlwind it will reap in this instance.

I compliment my colleague, Deputy Enright, on bringing this important motion to the House this evening. Even by the standards of this Government, it seems incredibly unfair to take the early child care supplement from families that are already struggling in the wake of one cutback after another. The Government is proposing to replace the supplement with a so-called "free" preschool scheme, which bears all the hallmarks of administrative chaos. While the new scheme essentially sounds straightforward, it throws up a rake of questions. The obvious question relates to eligibility. Who will meet the eligibility criteria? What exactly will those criteria be? I ask the Minister to bring some logical thinking to this matter. In the current Government-driven economic downturn, one would assume that a replacement scheme will be cheaper to implement.

I can safely assume that the free preschool places may be few and far between. Parents not only are in the dark about whether their child will qualify for a free preschool place but they are totally unaware of how to access the scheme in their area. A total of 15.4% of families in Longford-Westmeath have children at preschool level, which is slightly below the national average of 15.9% according to the Census of Population 2006. Can I assure them that all of these children will be entitled to a free place and that there will be sufficient places for all of them in their localities? I hope that the Minister of State will answer these questions in his summing up.

I very much doubt there will be sufficient places. I have a letter dated 17 April 2009 from Cluid Housing Association, which had applied for a grant of €744,000 for the provision of new child care facilities as part of the overall regeneration project at St. Michael's Road in Longford, only to be told by the local council that capital grants for the provision of child care facilities no longer exist and that there will be no money for such projects for the foreseeable future. This is a fact, in the Minister of State's heartland, the midlands.

I have an abundance of letters and e-mails from individual constituents who are paying huge sums for child care, and are left in an extremely difficult position, due to the withdrawal of the early child care supplement. Changes to child benefit on top of the withdrawal of this supplement, have led to a very high level of anger and despair among parents, as outlined by previous speakers.

Thousands of parents will not be able to avail of the new "free" preschool year because the places simply will not be there and even if they are, payments have been capped well below the fees many child care providers charge. The proposal is that the Government will pay preschools a maximum of €64.50 to cover three hours education, for five days a week. This would work out at a monthly payment of €258 for a four week month. Many preschools, especially in urban areas, however, are charging over €500 a month for a 15 hour week. Where does this leave parents as they will not be allowed to top up the grant? Service providers may in fact not participate, due to concerns about the implications of the scheme for their businesses.

The Government's amendments to the motion have only added to the confusion. It is stated that the Government will redirect over €170 million in savings from the removal of the early child care supplement into what is described as the child-centred approach of the scheme, which at the same time is designed to maximise flexibility for parents and service providers, including smaller services in rural areas. This is extremely puzzling.

While the Government is redirecting €170 million in savings from the early child care supplement, how much exactly will remain in the Exchequer? How exactly will the new scheme "maximise flexibility for parents"? Given the restrictions on the new scheme and the mysterious eligibility criteria, flexibility would not be the word I would use to describe it. As for the "child-centred" approach of the scheme I can only suppose that these are empty words designed to put a spin on the proposals such as the Government's spin at the weekend when it promised to bring back the bonuses. It is an election gimmick and that is what Fianna Fáil has been good at since the foundation of the State, codding and hoodwinking the people of this country. It will get its answer on 5 June because it has deceived the electorate time and again and the electorate has wakened up to that. It is time for the electorate to scuttle Fianna Fáil out of office and the quicker, the better given that in many parts of the country the jobless rate has increased by 90% in the past 12 months under this corrupt regime.

The Social Welfare and Pensions Act, passed in the Dáil on 29 April abolished the early child care supplement replacing it with a one year preschool grant. The Bill was passed by guillotine at midnight that night with the result that the Fine Gael amendment dealing with this problem was not reached. Until now parents received €83 per month in child care supplement for all children up to five years of age. Since 1 May this year this has been halved to €41.50 per month until 31 December 2009. That is a loss of €249 per child. A family with four children under the age of five will be at the loss of €1,000 in the second six months of this year.

From 1 January 2010 the early child care supplement will be abolished altogether and will be replaced with the early childhood care and education scheme, a one year preschool grant. Parents will be eligible for this grant if their child is between three years and seven months and four years and ten months on 1 January and if they use child care services their child will qualify for a grant of €64.50 for 38 weeks per school year. This is equivalent to an entire child care supplement grant of €2,451 while under the old supplement of €83 per month the total was €4,980. In other words, the child care supplement has been reduced by half and parents will lose €2,529 for each child over the five year period.

The new cutbacks will put a severe strain on low and middle income families. Worse still, this is anti-family legislation. The greatly reduced rate of payment which is worth half of the old rate will be paid for only 38 weeks if the family uses child care services. If one of the parents, usually the mother, works at home and decides to keep her child at home, which is normal in many houses, the family will not qualify for any supplement so they will lose their €5,000 over the five year period. This clearly discriminates against parents who look after children at home.

If the preschool service does not register with the Health Service Executive, HSE, or the Irish Montessori Education Board, IMEB, the reduced grant will not be paid. Some preschool services may not wish to register with the scheme. Those who opt into it will have to provide services for only three hours a day five days a week for 38 weeks. If the service provider charges more than €64.50 a week over 38 weeks, or more than €48.50 a week over 50 weeks the parents will have to pay the balance. To qualify for the scheme the preschool leader must have a qualification in child care services to level five or six. I fear that many preschool service providers may opt out of the scheme which will also deny parents the preschool grant.

What about the preschool child cared for by grandparents? That is an invaluable service that many grandparents provide for parents. I went every year to my grandmother for my summer holidays and learned more there than in my first two years at school. I learned about life and how to play cards. I learned many things that could not be taught or ingrained in a person and that probably got me to where I am today. Apart from being a cost-saving exercise this is an anti-family policy whereby people who wish to care for their children at home and not send them to preschool will lose the child care supplement and will not qualify for the preschool grant. Child service providers may choose to opt out of the service. Parents cannot get the money instead of sending their child to a preschool service. If the parents were eligible to get that money then they or the child's grandmother could mind the child, which might be more beneficial in the long run to the child and to the State.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

commends the Government on its decision to introduce a free preschool year in early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme with effect from January 2010 and supports:

the fact that the Government will re-direct over €170 million in savings from the removal of the early child care supplement in 2010, to provide for the introduction of a free ECCE scheme which has long been a key objective of the sector in accordance with international best practice;

the fact, following a decade of investment of over €1 billion in developing a quality child care infrastructure, including the creation of 65,000 additional child care places, there are almost 4,700 preschool services notified to the Health Service Executive;

the efficiency with which the scheme is being implemented, including the fact that applications will be accepted from 8 June, within nine weeks of the scheme's announcement, ensuring that some 70,000 children due to commence primary school in September 2010 will not miss out;

the action taken to make comprehensive information in regard to the scheme available from the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs from 20 April 2009 and the fact that 5,000 information packs will be sent to all existing and prospective preschool services on 5 June 2009;

the child-centred approach of the scheme while at the same time its design to maximise flexibility for parents and service providers, including smaller services in rural areas;

the proposal to contact parents of preschool children in the coming months with full details of the scheme and that they will be able to finalise enrolment of their children in participating services from October 2009, three months in advance of its introduction;

the introduction and supports provided for additional requirements for quality in preschool services, including qualification levels and the implementation of Síolta; and

the fact that equality of opportunity is a core principle of the Scheme so that all children will have equal access to a universal system of early childhood care and education provision.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, who cannot be present because he is attending a special Cabinet meeting.

I welcome the opportunity to provide details of the free preschool year in early childhood care and education, ECCE. The introduction of the scheme is one of the most significant developments in early childhood care and education that has taken place in Ireland to date. Building on the progress made over the past decade in terms of investing in child care and developing educational frameworks for young children, we are now taking the first major step in providing universal preschool education for all children.

Children will be eligible for the free preschool year when they are aged between three years and three months and four years and six months on 1 September of each year. Exceptions will be made where a child has special needs or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school.

Research underpins the importance of delivering preschool education in a consistent format based on an appropriate educational framework. For this reason, the preschool year scheme has been designed to provide some 570 hours for each participating child. Delivery in this regard will be on a weekly basis over the course of each year. Where children attend a sessional play-school, they will receive three hours per day each week over 38 weeks. To take account of the fact that young children are cared for in a variety of settings, a child attending a full-time or part-time service will receive two hours and 15 minutes per day each week for 50 weeks.

An annual capitation fee of over €2,400 will be paid to participating service providers. This is equivalent to €64.50 per week where a service provider participates for 38 weeks and €48.50 per week where it participates for 50 weeks. Service providers will be paid in advance at the start of each term.

With regard to the free preschool year, participating service providers must agree to provide the service in return for the capitation grant. This does not preclude a service provider from charging for additional services provided these are clearly optional to parents. Optional services can include the provision of additional hours, over and above the free preschool year requirement, and additional services in the form of various one-off or ongoing activities, such as outings or birthday parties, and specific teaching resources such as dance, music or food.

By their nature, full-time or part-time service providers will offer hours in addition to those associated with preschool provision and sessional play-schools can offer an additional 30 minutes per day. However, providers must ensure that all such additional services are offered and charged for on an optional basis and are not compulsory. A parent's agreement cannot be a condition of initial or continued enrolment. It is also essential that appropriate programme-based activities be provided to children not participating in an optional activity where this takes place during the required period of preschool provision.

Flexibility is also provided for where a sessional service is, for good reason, unable to operate over five days. Such cases will be considered and, where accepted, will be accepted on the basis that they provide a service for three hours and 30 minutes per day for four days in each of 41 weeks per year.

Up to 70,000 children are expected to participate in the scheme following the early stages of its introduction when the pattern of enrolments in the year prior to starting primary school settles into place. A sufficient number of preschool places is expected to be available based on existing capacity in the sector and it will be open to all preschool service providers, of which there are almost 5,000, to participate. There has been significant interest in the scheme since its announcement and there have been many calls to the Department seeking details of the application process.

They were seeking clarification.

I am not too sure.

The introduction of this scheme, at a cost of €170 million in a full year, has been made possible at this time of extreme economic pressure because the decision has been taken to redirect the savings which will arise from the abolition of the early child care supplement to a targeted and child-centred measure, as has been called for by the sector for many years.

With the changed economic climate, it is no longer possible to sustain the early child care supplement payments. However, despite the economic crisis in which we find ourselves, I am very proud that this historic opportunity has been seized. We will now take this first crucial step in our nation's development of its early childhood care and education system.

From the motion proposed, Fine Gael appears to have major misgivings about the introduction of the free preschool year——

Not the principle but the operation of the scheme.

It is the cutbacks.

I am just making a point about major misgivings and not about the principle. Many of us will remember the vehemence with which Fine Gael denounced the introduction of the ECS in 2006. It should be careful it does not follow the populist approach it took to the supplement — it objected to workers from other EU states, who were paying tax and PRSI in this State, being entitled to receive that payment — with an even shakier approach given the welcome for the scheme from parents and most preschool service providers.

One Fine Gael Deputy claimed——

The Minister of State would do better to concentrate on his own Deputies.

I am just responding to criticism and no more than that. Must I seek the authority of Deputy McCormack to continue? I believed I had possession.

The Minister of State has total possession. If he did not respond to Deputy McCormack, we would probably be able to proceed very quickly.

I only kicked the ball out of his hand.

The Minister of State should be allowed to make his contribution without interruption, as was Deputy McCormack.

The reality was that some €13 million to €14 million, that is, between 2% and 3% of the total expenditure, comprised the annual cost of meeting our EU obligation. Given the contribution such workers made to the Exchequer and the economy, Fine Gael's approach was unreasonable.

The introduction of the ECCE has been widely welcomed across the sector, including by Barnardos and the other major national child care organisations. Unfortunately, rather than supporting the first major intervention by the State in ECCE, the Opposition parties, particularly Fine Gael, appear to be bent on its destruction. Once again, rather than welcoming a positive step forward, their first response to a new policy is to oppose it and then look for reasons for doing so. The scheme was barely announced when Deputy Enright rubbished it and asked how we would meet the ambitious targets that have been set.

I am still asking that.

This is, of course, a reasonable question. Noting that the scheme will be open to children aged between three years and three months and four years and six months, the Deputy assumed that all children in this category — 81,000 — would require places each year. It is difficult to understand how a pattern of full participation by children in the 15-month age range could arise year after year. In any event, based on CSO data, the potential number of children within a one-year age range will be between 61,000 and 64,000, which is significantly different from the number Deputy Enright claims will arise.

Deputy Barry Andrews, the Minister of State responsible for children, claims it is 71,000 also.

I am just going by the CSO figures. One must rely on them because they cannot be interfered with.

Deputy Enright expressed another concern and asked, "How exactly does the Government propose creating 81,000 preschool places in just eight months? Out of thin air?" Her failure to account for developments under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006 and the National Childcare Investment Programme 2006-2010 and to acknowledge the introduction and revision of the child care (pre-school services) regulations and Síolta, the national framework for early learning, is deeply disappointing. Almost 5,000 preschool services are currently in operation in the State and the suggestion that places for the preschool year, irrespective of whether they amount to 61,000 or 81,000, would need to be created out of thin air is unacceptable.

Deputy Olivia Mitchell followed a different tack and argued that the scheme should not in fact be free for parents but that service providers should be subject to the capitation fee and then be allowed to charge what they want in the form of a top-up. Calling fees a top-up, as Deputy Mitchell did, does not stop them from being fees. Most Deputies will recall the widely held view that the funding provided by the State for the first-time buyer's grant was simply added to the sale price of houses. This was certainly what led to its ultimate abolition. Most parents would recognise the potential for this to happen if the same route were taken with the ECCE scheme.

Allowing fees to be charged by participating services would reduce the benefit of the scheme to all families. While better-off parents would probably continue to send their children to preschool, children associated with the unfortunately growing number of families suffering unemployment would lose out. Given that all research shows that the greatest relative benefit from preschool is experienced by disadvantaged children, this would be doubly unfair and would be an outcome over which we could not stand. As I have already outlined, services will be allowed to charge for additional hours and optional extras such as dance classes as long as the other children receive a full programme on those days. However, the principle of this scheme — that is, that children should be accepted regardless of the means of their parents — is one that will not change.

Some of what is contained in the motion proposed by the Opposition does not even make sense. For example, the motion states that the scheme was announced "in the absence of information on the number of participating service providers"; however, services could hardly have applied for the scheme in advance of its announcement.

The exact number of participating services will be known by the start of October, when the application process is due to be fully completed. In addition, a census of preschool services which will be undertaken in September 2009 should yield valuable additional data on a range of issues regarding current service provision levels. While the majority of services will participate, there may be some that will choose to stay outside it, in much the same way as private primary schools do to collect school fees. Many qualified child care workers in the sector have contacted the Department and the county child care committees with a view to setting up new services in anticipation of the scheme. Interest from existing providers is high and a large majority of telephone calls to the Department concerning the scheme have been positive.

The motion also takes the Government to task for not having enough details nailed down from the start while at the same time stating there should be greater consultation with the sector in advance of deciding upon these details. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has met with child care providers and their national representative organisations since the announcement of the scheme as a budget measure, and this has provided an important input into the shape of the scheme and its roll-out. Most of them have been calling for some years for the introduction of a free preschool year and have welcomed the opportunities presented by the scheme. The application packs are due to be sent to all preschool services at the end of next week and will be also available on the Department's website and from the county child care committees.

The motion's call for parents to be provided with information regarding the scheme is welcomed. I recall that when the early child care supplement, ECS, was announced, the current Minister for Finance, who was then Minister of State with responsibility for children, sent a mailshot to qualified parents informing them about the scheme. Fine Gael accused him of wasting money despite the fact that such mailshots generally result in Exchequer savings as some are returned as "not known at this address", thereby allowing for a data clean-up.

Who wrote this stuff?

Fine Gael suggested at the time that it was a pointless exercise and that everyone knew about the payment, yet one of its own Deputies distributed a leaflet giving details of the scheme to his constituents. The Minister of State intends to contact qualified parents in the coming months to be sure they are fully informed about the scheme and inform them of how to ensure a place for their children.

The motion also appears to suggest that the capitation rate should be higher in some parts of the country and, given Deputy Mitchell's previous intervention on the matter, such areas would apparently include south Dublin. However, this is a national scheme and the Minister of State remains unconvinced that a higher rate should be paid in some areas and a lower one in others. While there is variance in the fees charged by different services, the underlying costs do not vary as much as one might think.

On average, about 65% to 70% of the cost of running a commercial preschool service consists of wages and PRSI. Unfortunately, wage rates in this sector tend to be relatively low and anyone who checks the FÁS jobseeker's website for rates of pay in the area of child care will be aware that many, if not most, services operating in the south Dublin area pay between €8.65 and €10 per hour for qualified staff. There are of course exceptions, but this would not be limited to one part of the country. Given that services in other parts of the country cannot pay below the minimum wage, this means that any higher cost levels are based in the 30% to 35% of costs which are non-wage. I am not saying these would be insignificant, but they would not amount to the disparity claimed in some representations made to the Department. It is not the intention of the scheme to provide some services with a higher profit margin simply because they operate in an area that previously tolerated higher fees. The Minister of State does not propose, therefore, to introduce a higher capitation fee for such urban areas, and notes that paying a lower fee in rural areas would undermine another concern raised in the Fine Gael motion, namely, supply in rural areas.

The Fine Gael motion calls on the Government to provide details of the exact number of children who will qualify for the scheme. As I outlined earlier, a certain flexibility has been built into the scheme to enable parents to match their take-up of the preschool year with their child's school enrolment. The Department has already provided a county-by-county estimate of the number of qualifying children to the National Children's Nurseries Association, which is using these to promote the scheme to their members. Given that the scheme was announced only last month and services will be sent their application packs next week, there is no list of participating services at this stage. However, the county child care committees will act as a key local link between parents and providers, particularly in the autumn period as parents seek to enrol their children. A list of participating services will also be maintained on the Department's website.

Many of those reading the Fine Gael motion will be disappointed that such a long motion on early childhood care and education, ECCE, is so silent on matters relating to outcomes for children. ECCE has been introduced as a child-centred measure. The benefit of a preschool year for any child who avails of it is immense, and the benefits for society as a whole are well documented.

We had a full policy on it long before Fianna Fáil came up with the idea.

Yet there is not one mention in the motion of any issue relevant to the quality of provision or the best way to provide equal opportunities for all our children. Nor, curiously, is there any probing of the qualifications required by staff in the delivery of the scheme.

The scheme will, for the first time, introduce requirements for staff to hold qualifications in child care. This is an enormous step forward and I expect to see further advances being made in the next few years, supported by the workforce development plan for the sector. There will be flexibility in the initial period of the scheme to enable services to meet the requirements in a short timeframe. If the motion were more clearly concerned with children rather than profit margins, I would have expected such issues to appear prominently.

The counter-motion being presented by the Government contains a more accurate summation of the scheme. The introduction of ECCE has answered calls made over the years by many bodies, such as the OECD and the NESF. The Labour Party called for such a scheme to be introduced a few years ago, which would similarly have involved the payment of a capitation rate to community and commercial preschool services. This was costed by the Labour Party at €180 million in 2007, although I understand that would have had to accommodate 48 weeks' provision, making the weekly rate of capitation some 15% to 20% lower.

I was particularly interested to note a comment made by Fintan O'Toole in the run-up to last October's budget. On 14 October he wrote:

[T]here's a very simple test of Brian Lenihan's first budget. If it contains a commitment to scrap the early childcare supplement and to create a universal preschool system, we have intelligent government.

It is worth reading a second time.

He has made many comments about which the Government would not be so enthusiastic.

He did not know the Government was halving the grant at the time.

As I have already stated, research shows that a preschool year is of great benefit to all children, but particularly to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These benefits extend long after the year, with a much lower likelihood of anti-social behaviour, lower drop-out rates in school and higher lifetime earnings. That is why I am pleased this scheme, while having a number of benefits to recommend it, puts the best interests of the child first.

We already have high standards in the sector with the preschool regulations, and the standards required for participation in this scheme raise the bar higher. This will not affect the highest quality services, but those with lower standards will be required to improve the quality of the service they supply if they wish to be funded under the scheme. preschool leaders delivering the early childhood care and education year will, for the first time, be required to hold appropriate qualifications. They will be required to implement the Síolta framework for early learning and will be supported in this process by Síolta co-ordinators and by the city and county child care committees.

The scheme will encourage workers in the sector to develop their skills and qualifications and this process will also be facilitated by the new workforce development plan which will be published shortly. It will provide a framework for future training and education for early years workers. The national voluntary child care organisations, which are funded by the Department, have already been invited to work to support the new scheme and its implementation of Síolta.

The ECCE clearly provides a real opportunity to bring all of the developments which have taken place over the last decade together in a new cohesive framework which encompasses care and education as intrinsically linked components of high quality preschool provision. This is a very important opportunity to secure the best outcomes for all of our children and I ask the Members of this House to forget partisanship and support the Government's initiative.

Some have commented on the 38 weeks provision, and the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has received representations from services variously stating that preschools open for a greater or a lesser number of weeks. The reality is that most preschools mirror the local primary school, which will open for 183 days over the course of 38 weeks, and that is the requirement under this scheme.

Some services have argued that they should be paid for weeks that they are not open, saying that they have received fees for these weeks up to now. However, there are a great many services which only charge for the weeks they are open at present, and holiday pay is another overhead absorbed into their costs, paid for from fees received during the weeks the children attend. This will remain in principle the same under the new scheme.

Aside from the benefits for children, there are very significant benefits for the sector itself. The Minister of State has met many commercial child care providers over the last year who have been badly hit by the current economic downturn. As parents have lost their jobs, they have withdrawn their children from child care and preschools, and where their wages have been cut, many have started using childminders.

They will get nothing now.

Vacancy rates of 15 to 20% are now the norm, and many services, particularly in the preschool sector, were concerned that enrolments next September would be well down, forcing many services to close. This scheme will allow those services to instead ride out what are very trying times for all sectors of the economy.

While there are some high cost services that have argued that the rate of capitation should be higher, the majority of services contacting the Department since the announcement of the scheme have expressed their support for it in strong terms.

I refer the Deputy to Fintan O'Toole again.

The level of capitation allowed for in this scheme is significantly higher than that proposed under the NESF's proposed free preschool year scheme and is far higher than that allowed for under the equivalent scheme operating in Northern Ireland, which amounts to £30 per week, despite having similar conditions. Given current budgetary circumstances, I am glad that it is higher not just than the fees charged in most services in Ireland but by a great many in Dublin.

It is a reduction by half of what was there.

For most services, the scheme will see an increase in their income and this will allow them to meet the higher standards required for participation relative to the existing requirements under the child care regulations. These higher standards concerning qualification of staff and the educational programme guided by Síolta will ensure that a quality service is provided to all children in their preschool year and not just those whose parents can afford to pay higher fees.

Some high cost services may choose to stay out of the scheme in much the same way as fee paying private primary schools choose to operate outside the national school system but the very large majority of eligible services will participate in this scheme. To allow commercially based preschools and Montessoris to continue to charge fees in addition to collecting the capitation fee, in the form of a top-up, would greatly reduce the benefit of the scheme for those families, and would also make the scheme inaccessible for families who are under financial pressure, inevitably leading to disadvantaged children losing out. Research demonstrates that the greatest benefit from preschool is found among children who are from disadvantaged backgrounds so this would be doubly unfair.

Participating services may charge for additional hours or extras such as dancing classes, provided these are offered on an optional basis. However, the principle of free access for all eligible children in participating services will not be undermined, and all participating services must remain available to all in their community, regardless of the ability of parents to pay for additional services.

I am delighted that the Government has made the far-sighted decision to introduce this new scheme. It will give equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised, who would not otherwise be able to attend preschool, as well as helping parents who, up to now, had to meet the cost of preschool provision themselves. It will also benefit services which will gain certainty and sustainability in what are, for most, very trying times.

The long-term benefits will be enormously significant to all of our children and to society as a whole. It will involve time and effort to ensure the greatest possible levels of participation in the scheme and to reach the highest standards of early years care and education provision but I am confident that the scheme which is being introduced provides the framework to achieve this ambition.

I commend the Government's amendment to the motion to the House.

The Minister of State should ask the parents what they think of the cutbacks.

I thank Deputy Enright and Fine Gael for bringing this motion before the House. The issue has been debated several times in my short time in the House. In October 2007, when the community child care programmes were under threat, we debated a similar issue on the Adjournment and, subsequently, in November, the issue was debated once more.

One of the founding principles of an independent Ireland was that the Republic would cherish all the children of the nation equally. The recent publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse demonstrates the appalling consequences of a failure to adhere to those guiding principles. The State, along with the important duty and responsibility to protect children, also has a responsibility to create an environment where children can flourish and reach their full potential. That is why the Labour Party has consistently argued for a universal preschool system, something Fianna Fáil has only belatedly come around to. Even now it seems Fianna Fáil's late conversion to universal preschool education has more to do with saving money than creating a high quality preschool system for children.

Despite references to Fintan O'Toole from the Minister of State, questions must be asked about how the Government arrived at this position. As my father would say to me, a stopped clock is right twice a day. Fianna Fáil might be locked into a position at present so inevitably it will get it right on occasion. Time moves on, however, and we must move with it.

With only seven months to go before every three year old child is entitled to a free year of preschool education, we still do not know what curriculum they will be following, if any, or if there are enough places or qualified staff to meet the demand. While investment in high quality preschool can pay for itself up to seven times over, research has shown that poor quality preschool education delivers no dividend whatsoever and can even hold children back.

While I welcome the announcement of a year's free preschool provision, the Labour Party will be monitoring its development to see if Fianna Fáil will yet again opt to be penny wise and pound poor when it comes to education. How did we arrive in this situation after child care being such a significant issue for the last 15 years?

There are approximately 25,000 attending University College Cork. If 10% of them are parents, 2,500 of them would have been in receipt of the €1,100 per year supplement. That would have realised a childhood campus to the value of €2.5 million per annum. The return the State, the parents and the children would have got for that money when times were better would go a long away for a very long time. Given our situation, we cannot ignore the changing needs of 21st century families or the importance of education for a child's life chances just because Fianna Fáil has blown the boom. The issue is still on the table; the question is how we address it. We need to act to protect children and develop their potential so this recession does not blight their future long after it has passed, and pass it will. The question we need to ask is where we will be at the other side of it and where education eventually brings us if we take the approach that education is a lifelong journey which begins at the cradle and continues through adolescence and adulthood.

The Government promised to abolish the early child care supplement in April's supplementary 2009 budget. This supplement was introduced in recent years and provided €1,100 per year per child to cover the cost of putting children under the age of five and a half years in crèches and day care. From 1 May this year the monthly supplement fell from €83 to €41.50 and from 1 January next year the supplement will be abolished. It is proposed to be replaced by a universal preschool year system where the State will pay for one year of child care before the child reaches school-going age. Some 292,000 families have been receiving the early child care supplement, providing a fund to 414,000 children.

When the scheme was first introduced it was criticised as a fudge. It would have cost less to introduce a universal child care service, as the Government opted to do in April 2009 and as mentioned in the example I gave of the UCC campus. The money given to parents was likely to cause further inflation in the cost of child care. Thus it did not solve the core issue facing many families, namely the expense of providing child care and ensuring children are in quality preschool education at a sustained and ongoing level.

Before being abolished the €1,100 supplement was estimated to cover a mere 10% of the cost of child care. Parents had to fund the remaining 90%, and this illustrates the complete failure of the supplement to tackle the cost of child care and suggests the supplement was responsible for placing much of the burden for children on parents. Some had even commented that the supplement was a deliberate fudge so the State could not be seen to be choosing between families with two working parents and those with one stay-home parent. The supplement, as first introduced, was not targeted at any particular sector of society and fits very well with the years of the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, and his philosophy that if one has it, one spends it, which was so dominant during the period of waste this Government delivered.

The Labour Party has called for the creation of a universal preschool scheme since 2003. It was part of our 2007 general election manifesto and the Government's decision to implement our policy in light of the economic downturn shows Labour always had the correct idea. Fianna Fáil's conversion to our policy of universal child care shows the key difference between Labour and other political parties. We support genuine public services which are equitable and cost-effective, and which play a role where only the State can. Labour has always shied away from using the State as a mere means to dispense largesse to bribe the electorate. We want decent child care for our children and have consistently argued that in this House.

The Labour Party has always understood that child care is also about the child. For example, investment in high quality preschool pays for itself, as I mentioned, seven times over in reduced spending on education, social welfare and prisons, and in higher income tax receipts. Investment in child care in the early years unlocks potential and the ability of each child to contribute fully to our society over time. It is a short-term investment that provides a long-term delivery.

The rise and fall of the early child care supplement is much like Fianna Fáil and its handling of the economy over the last ten years. It let the boom time roll on and now that the economy is in a dire position, every basic level of public provision is subject to cutbacks. Although the decision to launch an early child care and education scheme, which has been done in the recent budget, is welcomed by the Labour Party, there is no guarantee the scheme will be fully operational by 1 January next year. The Minister's comments in the House this evening add further to that concern.

Significant and unanswered concerns have been raised in this House this evening on the capitation grant of €64.50 to cover three hours of early child care for five days each week. Many preschools in urban areas charge approximately €500 per month, but the capitation grant will cover only €258 of this. This brings me back to the Adjournment debate of October 2007 when I spoke to the Minister about concerns in the community child care sector. That sector is very focused on its position in the new scheme, which is proposed to come in on 1 January. It is critical that this vital and important sector continues to do its vital work and is not sidelined into some sort of ghetto of providing a particular type of child care for the most needy that is not delivered in any integrated fashion and becomes some sort of secondary, second-class child care provision as a result.

There has been no decision on what sort of curriculum children in the proposed scheme will be taught. Will it be a sort of baby-sitting service or will it be preschool in the true meaning of the word where a curriculum, ethos and philosophy governs the type of provision and structure these children are engaged in? We do not even know if there will be enough places or qualified staff to meet that demand if those structures are put in place. In rural areas child care places are often divided on a pro rata basis. Some parents want their children in care for two or three days a week. Under the Government's proposal, children must avail of the programme for five days per week and there is no provision to reallocate resource as needs dictate. This may act as a barrier to the success of the scheme. This is a central issue in that many people who avail of child care do so because they are in part-time education and do not require child care Monday to Friday but need a provision that is flexible and attuned to their needs. Anything structured on a whole-time basis will prohibit them from participating in it.

As with all forms of education, there is a philosophical question to be asked. Over the last 15 years, particularly during the McCreevy period, the philosophy of education in the preschool sector was to leave it to the private sector. If we ran our primary school systems like that — allocating schools a couple of thousand euro per year per child and telling them to look after the primary education themselves — people would be up in arms. That has been the State's approach to child care during that period. There has been no consultation with many of the stakeholders in the area and the policy decision this evening still smacks of a desire to cut costs rather than any real aim of providing high quality, affordable child care for families.

I hope Fintan O'Toole is correct and this is the beginning of a new type of Ireland where children are not only protected but cherished and allowed to flourish. I hope we are beginning to see a change in direction and that the Government understands that.

I thank my Labour Party colleagues for sharing time.

Ba mhaith liom tacú ar son Shinn Féin leis an rún in ainm na dTeachtaí ó Fhine Gael ar chúram leanaí, sampla eile é den bpraiseach atá déanta ag an Rialtas seo de pholasaí poiblí fíor-thábhacthach.

On behalf of the Sinn Féin Teachtaí Dála, I support this motion in the name of the Fine Gael Deputies. It is timely and necessary to highlight the issue of child care which, regrettably, has received relatively little attention recently and which has been almost lost among the many other public policy disasters perpetrated by this Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government.

Having failed to put in place a proper child care infrastructure during the past decade, the Government announced the preschool year in early childhood care and education scheme. As the motion states, the scheme has not been properly explained, seems ill thought-out and certainly appears to be undeliverable by the start of 2010, as promised. I hope the Minister will address that specific issue at some length and with some certainty.

The announcement of the scheme accompanied one of the Government's many savage cuts, that is, the withdrawal of the early child care supplement which was supposed to make up for the very poor State provision of child care. Sinn Féin, over a series of pre-budget submissions, had argued that Government needed to properly address the clear requirement of State provided early child care provision. Time after time, regrettably, the Government has failed to heed that appeal and the appeals of many non-governmental organisations which have been lobbying in this regard over many years.

That poor provision over which this Government has presided was confirmed embarrassingly for everyone on 11 December last when UNICEF issued a report which found that this State came last in a league table of the 25 OECD countries in terms of provision of early childhood education and care. That was a damning indictment of the Government's policy on child care.

This is a direct result of Government neglect over the past decade. I have no doubt this will be seen as one of the greatest policy failures by this series of Fianna Fáil-led Governments since 1997 and during the so-called Celtic tiger years when they refused to put in place high-standard care and early education accessible to all children.

In the very week the UNICEF report came out, parents, children and child care workers were forced to protest in Dublin and Cork at the Government's community child care subvention scheme. The ill-conceived scheme has created divisions between children from families who receive social welfare payments and children from families who do not. It is inadequate to fund community child care and many crèches are closing as a result, something I have witnessed in my constituency. Crèches have been burdened with bureaucracy to administer the scheme. The Government has failed to address the disgracefully low pay of child care workers in the community sector. This glaring need must be addressed.

Last September the Dublin inner-city partnership and the Dublin inner-city child care providers network published a critical study of the effects of the community child care subvention scheme which reflects the experience of child care providers throughout the country. Of the 12 child care providers studied in the research, seven, or 58%, saw their funding increase on their average annual grant under the previous scheme, the equal opportunities child care programme, and five saw their funding reduced. Those whose funding was reduced experienced the equivalent of a 4.8% reduction in 2008 from the average annual grant level provided under the EOCP. The study found that community child care providers who experienced reductions in funding in 2008 would continue to have their funding reduced to 85% of their 2007 level in 2009 and further reduced to 75% of the 2007 level in 2010.

It was found, most critically, that child care providers no longer have discretionary power to provide for the most needy cases. That merits emphasis because that discretion is critical in being able to respond to specific cases of hardship which we all must realise and recognise are in every constituency. If we are doing our work as Dáil representatives, we will know the cases concerned and we must use the opportunity to press Government to restore some measure of discretion in order that the most needy of cases are properly addressed.

The implementation of the scheme was found to be cumbersome. Given that subvention payments are paid forward based on enrolments in previous years, projects are now no longer able to plan in a coherent and business-like fashion for the subsequent year. Some 58% of projects were worried there would be an impact on quality of services for children and families. It is stated in the report:

There is a real risk that services will close. Local people in some of the most disadvantaged communities may not be able to afford childcare. Some of the most vulnerable families will be affected, and some families who struggled the hardest to get themselves out of poverty and into employment are very likely to lose their support. Vulnerable children, will lose their valuable access to preschool education and care. Working parents may see increases in childcare fees ranging from 50% increase to 166% increase over 2007 costs.

That report surely must be a wake-up call for the Government.

The report highlighted the low wages and salaries in community child care in comparison with other similar employments and found that implementation of the scheme would result in reduction of job security for community child care workers. Given that experience, is it any wonder people are sceptical about the latest announcement from Government in regard to child care? The community child care subvention scheme caused huge confusion when first introduced and, clearly, the problems about which the Government was warned came to pass.

We now have this latest addition to the tattered patchwork of child care provision in this State. In place of that patchwork, we need a new approach based on the rights of children to the best care and on the needs of parents for adequate child care so that they can avail of their rights to education, training and employment to sustain themselves and their families.

We in Sinn Féin have set out our vision of how the State should address the vital issue of child care and we have submitted our proposals repeatedly in a series of pre-budget submissions over the years in which we have focused on the need for child care and on child care provision as a critical area almost as important in terms of family budgets as the provision of home itself.

Debate adjourned.