Child Care: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— child care provision in Ireland encompasses a mixed model of provision with services delivered through the community, private and public sector; there are approximately 4,300 child care centres in Ireland and approximately 23,000 staff work in the area;

— quality early childhood care and education is paramount for positive development outcomes for children;

— early childhood professionals play a vital role in supporting children and families at this foundation stage; and

— underinvestment in the early childhood sector is leading to lack of long-term sustainability, varying levels of quality provision, a high cost to parents and poor working conditions for the early childhood workforce;

further notes that:

— there is no child care cost support or tax relief for working parents;

— the cost of child care to parents is high with the annual cost of full-time child care for two children being €16,500 per year;

— support for children with disabilities or special educational needs is limited and inconsistent across the country;

— subsidised child care places are not equally accessible in all areas of the country;

— capitation rates for delivering the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme are insufficient for the majority of child care providers;

— the early childhood workforce cannot access the learner fund for higher level qualification;

— early childhood professionals are undervalued and under-resourced and have high employment insecurity; and

— current child care funding policy is absent of any supports for working families who do not avail of the community child care subvention, CCS, programme;

acknowledges that:

— children with special educational needs face too many challenges to avail of a preschool education which is tailored to suit their individual needs;

— mainstream early childhood services do not have appropriate funding or supports to provide equality of opportunity for children with special needs;

— there is a lack of a nationally agreed pay scale and low levels of remuneration for the early childhood workforce; and

— paid professional development opportunities are absent and the early childhood workforce is generally not paid for all of the work undertaken;

and

calls on the Government to:

— introduce a child care tax break for working families;

— provide a second full free preschool year for all children, particularly those with special needs;

— reinstate 2011 levels of capitation with regard to the ECCE scheme with immediate effect as an interim measure;

— increase investment from the current 0.4% to 0.7% on an incremental basis within the lifetime of the next programme for Government;

— extend the CCS programme to enable children to access the programme in private child care services;

— publish and resource the early years strategy so that there is a blueprint for investment and policy development;

— extend eligibility for the existing learner fund to include all staff to access higher level qualifications to support building on the current graduate level workforce;

— introduce an agreed national pay scale for child care workers;

and

— extend the ECCE capitation rate to cover statutory holiday pay, continual professional development and introduce an agreed national pay scale for child care workers.

I wish to share time with Deputies Dara Calleary, Colm Keaveney and Éamon Ó Cuív.

Each speaker has ten minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the motion which concentrates on a critical sector of society, an area that, unfortunately, the Government has failed to give the priority it deserves. This is only the second time in the lifetime of the Government that we have had a substantial debate on the issue, and both times the debate has been facilitated by my party. We now have a situation where early childhood care and education in this country has the highest cost in the OECD. We have a workforce that is undervalued and demoralised.

Early childhood education is a fundamental component of this country’s education system and the unique learning experience that takes place in early childhood provides an essential cornerstone for lifelong learning and educational attainment. Effective early childhood care and education has a significant role to play in improving outcomes for children, in particular those who are faced with barriers to learning, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for later interventions. A balanced, effective early childhood care and education system is about delivering horizontal policy co-ordination to create an early childhood system that serves children, families, the workforce and society as a whole.

Last year, in reply to our motion, the then Minister spoke about how we were data rich in terms of Irish children and how empirical evidence showed the benefits of early intervention regarding school-readiness and cognitive and behavioural developments. She quoted from the medium-term economic strategy statement which said our increasing child and youth population is a significant resource for our country and, therefore, ensuring the best possible outcomes for this group is an important element in our future economic planning, yet the Government has failed to live up to the statement. The early years strategy - an overarching plan and a roadmap of how the Government wants this critical sector to develop in the coming years - has yet to be published. In the absence of such a roadmap or plan, we have a very disjointed, un-co-ordinated and ad hoc approach.

The Department of Social Protection cut the child benefit rate, reduced and taxed maternity benefit and changed the eligibility criteria for one-parent families, all of which affect affordability. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs reneged on its promise to introduce a free preschool year in the lifetime of the Government. The Minister should acknowledge that will not happen. The promised review of the community child care subvention scheme and the community education and training scheme has yet to be published. We do not know whether the review has started, if it has been completed or what stage it has reached. The Minister cut capitation rates for the free preschool year and increased the adult to child ratio. While the necessary reforms of this critical sector have been announced, they have yet to be implemented or costed in terms of the financial impact they will have on the sector, which is already under-resourced and undervalued.

The workforce of the sector amounts to 24,000. Those are the people parents entrust with their children on a daily basis for their education and care. The Government does not recognise the pivotal role they play in delivering quality early education and care. In the context of affordability, in his counter-motion the Minister refers to the funding available for the community subvention scheme and the child care education and training support, CETS, scheme - €70 million per annum, and the €175 million for the free preschool year. I do not dispute those figures, but the community child care subvention scheme was introduced to help the most marginalised and vulnerable, people whose only source of income is social welfare. The review of the scheme was promised in excess of 18 months ago but we have yet to hear about progress in that regard. The children of those less well-off in society are segregated because the only people who can avail of the scheme are those who attend community facilities. There is nothing wrong with community facilities, only that we do not have enough of them. The scheme must be extended to all facilities because, of the existing 4,300 services, only one third are community facilities.

The Minister referred to the €175 million for the free preschool year and the €2,500 in savings for child care costs for working families. That is not enough. Did the Minister see the "Claire Byrne Live" show last night where a firefighter spoke about the exorbitant costs he and his partner must pay to have their three children minded? We all remember the harrowing story of Donna Hartnett that appeared in the Irish Examiner earlier this year. She asked whether her children would look at her grave and say she was a great woman as she had paid all her taxes.

The costs are exorbitant for all sectors of child care, not just full-day care services. I was contacted by a constituent who is facing an 11% increase in after-school costs. She said the crèche she uses provides an excellent service and employs 16 staff. She said that as a family they could not function without it and they are fortunate it is not closing. Report after report will confirm that the cost of having two children minded full time is €16,500 a year. That is a second mortgage. A total of 45% of the average income of a single parent, whom the Government chose to target with its change in criteria for the one-parent family allowance, goes on child care costs. There must be critical action on the issue now. The Government is in power for four years and we have not seen any action.

Reference was made by the Minister to a graduate-led professional workforce. That is a great aspiration. It is something we would all sign up to, yet the learner fund introduced by the Minister is restricted to level five or level six for team leaders in the ECCE schemes. How could people who are earning just above the minimum wage, and who have no professional development days, afford to enhance their qualifications if they are not supported by the State? How can we aspire to a graduate-led professional workforce if we do not match it with the necessary resources?

The existing free preschool year is contracted to provide 15 hours per week, 38 weeks in the year. That does not take into consideration the non-contact time and administrative responsibilities, yet the Government reduced the capitation level payable for the scheme. That is having an unbearable effect on the sustainability of the services.

I made the point last week in committee that, at the very minimum, the Government should look at restoring the capitation to 2011 levels. This would make a significant difference to the sustainability of this sector. There is no standard nationally agreed pay scale. The low pay commission may provide the opportunity. Will the Minister give a commitment that this Government will ensure that the 24,000 workers in this sector will be included in the low pay commission? Will he ensure a link to State-funded child care schemes?

I refer to the issue of opportunity for all, regardless of background or ability. There is no plan for inclusion or additional funding supports for children with a disability who are in mainstream early childhood services. This flies in the face of equal opportunities for all, especially when every child is entitled to participate in the universal free preschool year.

I have raised this issue continuously for the past number of years. Every time I raise it, whether with this Minister or with his predecessors, the responsibility is bounced from Department to Department, from education to health to children. No one will take up the responsibility for the provision of special needs education. While no one in government accepts this responsibility, it is the children who are suffering. I want to see a national policy for special education so that it does not matter whether a child is in Cork, Kerry, Westmeath, Longford or wherever, and a clear policy exists for the delivery of education for children with special educational needs.

Thank you, Deputy Troy; you are well over your time.

The Government should consider the introduction of a second free preschool year for children with special educational needs and consider rolling out all the provisions of the EPSEN Act to ensure that those children get the start in life they deserve, the same as everybody else.

The time for the Deputy's colleagues has been eroded considerably.

I thank the Acting Chairman for keeping an eye on my time. I thank Deputy Troy for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the issue of child care and early childhood care in particular.

I refer to the hype that came with the formation of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011. The energy in the sector at that time was the result of the work of our late colleague Deputy Brian Lenihan, which was continued by Deputies Brendan Smith and Barry Andrews. This work laid the foundation for community-based child care organisations across the country, with top-class facilities which attracted a whole generation of people to work in child care services. Much of that energy has been lost. What remains is a corps of very talented people working in the child care sector who are frustrated at the lack of progress in their careers and their profession - which is what it is. They have been forced to take to the streets this day week to draw attention to their plight.

There are many inconsistencies in how children are treated. The Department was established to do away with the silos in the area of child policy, which the permanent government loves in order to avoid responsibility. However, four years on, there is still an evasion of responsibility in so many sectors and particularly in the area of early childhood care.

The first issue is cost. I noted that the Minister looked quizzically at Deputy Troy when he referenced the OECD figures. An Indecon report commissioned by Donegal County Childcare Committee showed an annual minimum charge of €16,200 for child care fees. The fees in Dublin are probably much higher. As Deputy Troy stated, that is another mortgage and it is money that people do not have. Yet the Government's amendment makes no recognition of the need to do something. There is talk of increasing the number of places - which is welcome - and talk of increasing investment. However, there is no commitment by the Minister to take a specific initiative to relieve that burden. One must assume there is no interest in even looking at this issue, an issue that could be considered under the Action Plan for Jobs, for example. The cost of child care is preventing people from going back into the labour force, because the cost of €16,200 must be factored into the household budget if someone is considering taking on a job. It is a big job that would give that kind of money or support.

There are still not enough places in community subsidised child care services for people who wish to return to work. Many people, when given the option of a job, are staying on the live register with the supports that this provides. The cost of child care is within the control of the Minister and it is probably the hidden factor that prevents people from returning to work, which they will not refer to for fear of being branded. It is important that people be encouraged and incentivised to return to the workforce. Child care needs to be brought into the open, considering the number of informal child care networks around the country, which are important in themselves. Parents make use of family and friends for child care support. This aspect needs to be formalised without destroying these arrangements, which make up for the shortage of places. The shortage would be much worse if this informal system was taken away.

I refer to professional carers. The people involved in child care have walked the walk. They have studied for FETAC qualifications and taken courses. We trust them with our children every day and they deliver on that trust. They are responsible for helping young children to prepare for the tough world outside the home and for the educational process. Yet we do not value those who work in the early childhood sector and we take them for granted. No professional training courses have been set out for them and there is limited career progression. The workforce development plan for the child care sector was launched in 2010, but little has been done to make that a reality and little has been done to lay down a career path for that workforce. Pay scales for the sector are still being negotiated. The complete lack of pay scales in the sector undermines any notion of professionalism and erodes the prospect of career progression. The need to place child care workers, whose work is very responsible, within the remit of the low pay commission speaks volumes. If we value our children and their care then we should value those who care for them at all levels. We should give them proper rewards in a proper career structure and give them the professional respect they deserve.

I refer to the many anomalies between the community child care sector and the private sector, which was developed when the community sector was not resourced and did not exist. The two parts are treated differently in terms of rates, State services, subvention and subsidies. This situation needs to change. The private sector is providing a vital service in areas where the community sector does not exist for whatever reason. The community service has a commercial advantage over the private service where both are located in a town or community. This would not be permitted elsewhere, and the Minister needs to examine this aspect. I hope that in this regard his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will deal with the issue of rates. If child care costs are to be reduced, then the cost of provision must be reduced. Private services are expected to pay rates, but child care is a service that allows so much more commerce to happen. This is wrong and the situation needs to be examined.

I referred to the energy which was apparent in the latter years of the previous decade. Communities came together to provide a child care service. This shows the success of the county child care committee model. We have wonderful people working in that system. The Minister needs to engage with those people who are working at the coalface and dealing with all aspects of the system every day, and they are aware of the difficulties. They provide the research and the statistics. I suggest that other Departments examine this model in terms of delivering policy objectives and investment.

We must reharness this energy, and go back to the spirit that was there in the mid and late part of the previous decade and get it going again in the community and private sectors. We must provide services in areas where they do not exist, and give those communities the model and template which worked so successfully in other communities. We should tell the private sector it is an equal partner in this and we should not dismiss or penalise its involvement in favour of the community sector. They should be joint partners in providing the places the Minister seeks to provide, and the services they provide should be treated equally. Most importantly, the cost issue must be dealt with as child care is the biggest cost facing many families today. Society cannot continue to stick its head in the sand and hope the issue will go away. A total of €16,200 a year is a hell of a lot of money. For many people it is the cost of bricks and mortar, but it is also what it costs for two children to be minded. It is a huge amount of money, for which there is no support. This Government and the next Government will have to face up to this. The lack of any reference to cost in the Government's amendment shows its priorities.

I acknowledge the dedication and commitment of Deputy Troy for being at the forefront of this very important issue which affects many families. Despite the significant improvements to regulation and funding made during previous administrations, early child care and education here have fallen significantly behind our European competitors. The Minister is aware of the White House report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, which stated, "Early childhood, beginning in infancy, is a period of profound advances in reasoning, language acquisition, and problem solving, and importantly, a child’s environment can dramatically influence the degree and pace of these advances." It is a critical period in a child's development, and effective early childhood care and education play a significant role in the outcomes for children in society, particularly for those with barriers to learning, such as intellectual or social barriers.

Approximately 266,000 households in the country have a child under the age of five, which is relatively high compared to our EU partners. The number of children aged under five is set to increase significantly. Child care costs in Ireland are the highest in Europe and many parents, including me, pay more in child care than we do on our mortgages. This leaves families under terrible domestic financial strain. The difficulties in accessing affordable child care is pushing women in particular out of the workforce, and leading many of them to make a stark choice between quitting the workforce and sacrificing their long-term potential or working at a net loss.

The choice for one-parent families is even starker. For these parents, child care costs can have the perverse effect of driving them deep into poverty as they cannot take up employment. Figures produced by the Minister for Social Protection show that 12,000 one-parent families will be €86 worse off per week following the implementation of reforms on the single parent package. These reforms are being driven by the Government. They should have been aimed at encouraging parents into the workforce but they are having the reverse effect. They will leave many parents trapped in low-paid employment or will drive them into poverty through a mixture of poor employment and poor reforms in child care costs. The changes to the eligibility requirement mean that in July supports for more than 30,000 families will be removed, which will create difficulties for them. The Government is using a carrot to reduce the cost, but it is a very difficult stick for families to face in the context of addressing affordable child care.

All of these measures are part of what I regard as an anti-family and anti-woman approach by the Government. It has engaged in a campaign which has had negative consequences for women. All one needs to do is examine the budgets the Government has introduced, which have cut child benefit, reformed maternity leave negatively, cut respite care and reformed one-parent family supports which has also involved cuts. These are having devastating consequences for lone-parent families trying to access the labour market but finding it next to impossible to do so because of the Government's lack of ambition in child care.

This country does not have a national plan for early intervention for children with special needs, particularly those under the age of four. We need to see a special emphasis in policy, or the development of a child care strategy, which provides children with a minor disability with access to child care settings that address their needs. Mainstream early childhood services do not have adequate funding. We need to provide equality of access to ensure children who may have a minor disability have the same chance as able-bodied children to succeed in society. The first step of this success is access to affordable child care. The lack of specific inclusion guidelines for early childhood is a major barrier for achievement in this country. The practice in providing mainstream child care access for children with disabilities is not a priority for the Government.

It is estimated that approximately 6,300 children with disabilities attend early childhood services throughout the country. Parents or service providers are expected to meet the additional costs of employing special needs assistants. This is completely unacceptable and leads to the isolation of the most vulnerable children in society who may have a disability and who want this first step to equality in society. Their families are struggling with these difficulties and this is unacceptable. That these children also face a barrier to accessing the universal free preschool year is evidenced from research. Targeted initiatives would enable children with disabilities or special needs to participate with their peers as equals in society. This is not the situation and it is not a priority for the Government. It is not enough for parents alone to invest in the provision of child care without significant investment by, or a strategic engagement or approach on the part of, those who provide a consistent service to the children, as this would ignore the research and would devalue the contribution and commitment of, and education provided by, service providers in our communities.

The key problem for the child care sector is the poor pay and benefits of the workers. This is despite increased regulation, an increased workload and an increased requirement for training. On average, early educators get paid less than €9.50 per hour. This is despite the fact they must hold significant diplomas and FETAC qualifications. They are not financially rewarded for their endeavours to provide childhood services. The average size of a preschool service in Ireland is five staff members per service provision.

Having regard to ratio in terms of the Government's regulation requirements, small to medium-sized services struggle every day to meet those targets. They face difficulties in terms of labour costs, as have been outlined, and in terms of rates. The Department has failed to demonstrate any meaningful engagement, particularly through the Minister, to provide leadership in terms of a direction to those who are grossly underpaid in the service and to those who provide a service who have invested significantly at great cost to their domestic circumstances. Unless the Government commits directly to intervening in the early childhood years area, we will postpone a significant issue and we will see a time bomb in the context of the education of our children. That is why we ask the Minister to consider positively intervening directly to ensure that the investment that is required for early education is provided in the learner fund.

A universal system of in-service training is required to be established for the provision of qualifications and practices in the professional development of staff within the childhood services. This is a genuine attempt to be progressive, to engage in a dialogue and provide recognition of the qualification of professional workers within the child care sector. It is required of and incumbent on the Minister to engage immediately in a dialogue with the child care services and to ensure that we do not have the fragmented approach that has failed in respect of years upon years of commitment and investment where successive Governments have successfully invested in this area. That will soon be lost to society by the Minister's inaction and the lack of leadership.

Molaim an Teachta Robert Troy as ucht an rúin seo a chur os comhair an Tí. Creidim go bhfuil go leor ceisteanna sa rún atá thar a bheith tábhachtach do dhuine ar bith atá ag plé le cúram leanaí nó atá ag tógáil leanaí. Tá go leor dúshlán roimh thuismitheoirí an lae inniu.

Unfortunately in the time available, I will not have an opportunity to span the huge number of issues that have been raised in the motion put forward by Deputy Troy. It is interesting to note that before the previous election, a second year of free early education was promised, but that did not happen. When the Minister went ahead with a decision to reduce the age, from 13, which was set when I was Minister, to seven, at which entitlement to lone parent's allowance would be stopped, she promised we would have a Scandinavian-type child care service for the parents involved. I understand the scheme that was introduced was availed of by approximately 200 parents.

When the age at which the cessation of entitlement to allowance was reduced from 22 to 13, it is reasonable to say that there was no reason a lone parent or the parent in a one-parent family could not work because of child care commitments. As I used often to say, one could have had a scenario under the old regime where the child could have been in the same class in university as the parent and he or she being paid lone parent's allowance and not being required to seek employment on the basis that he or she needed to care for the child. That was not a sustainable or a good situation, and most of the lone parent groups accepted that.

The initial proposal was to reduce the age to 12, but I raised it to 13 on the basis that some children are still in primary school until their 13th year and they are in school for a relatively short day. I thought that in the case of secondary school children, parents could make arrangements to have cover for the period from when the child would leave school until they would come home from work. Also, children of that age are not as dependent on their parents as younger children. I still believe that the reduction of the age to seven, without pervasive backup services throughout the country, is too young. The Minister, in introducing that change without backup changes in child care services, was unfair to one-parent families. I still believe she should re-examine that issue.

I wish to touch on the lack of a career structure in the child care sector. The sector has grown incrementally, which means there is not a proper career structure for people involved in it. That should be introduced and a proper structures should be put in place. A dialogue should be engaged in that would obviate the necessity for people to protest outside Leinster House on this matter.

I want to deal with he issue of the day-to-day reality faced by many parents, which is not necessarily directly related to the quality of child care provision, although that is very important. As the Minister is aware, 100,000 people are in mortgage arrears. That is 100,000 families. In many of those cases there are young children involved and in very many of those cases it will take two incomes to come to a resolution of the financial difficulties. The problem is that there is no assistance or recognition given to the cost of child care for these families, except in terms of the medical card. If one takes a person earning €800 a week, when the universal social charge, income tax, PRSI, union fees and other deductions are made, 50% of the wage is left, leaving the person with €400 a week. If one deducts €200 a week for child care costs, especially if the parent has to travel and therefore has a long day away from the home, that means for their 40 hours of work, they have €200 to contribute to the household costs and the mortgage. These are a particularly hard-pressed group of people in our society. Some of them have better jobs than others, but if they do, they also tend to have big mortgages. Those mortgages were taken out in the Celtic tiger era when people had expected, for example, that there would be promotions within the public service rather than cutbacks and that they would be on an upward career path over time rather than what happened. In some cases people over-stretched themselves in their ambition in terms of, perhaps, buying a house that was slightly beyond their means in the expectation that, over time, most people's income increases, but that did not happen. As I have often pointed out, if one takes the example of a couple comprising two executive officers in the Civil Service who bought a house in 2005, they would have expected to get increments, an increase in their wages and promotions between 2005 and 2014, but due to the fact that there has not been recruitment, which was necessary, the introduction of the pensions levy and so on, what was a reasonable expectation changed into something different. For those who do not have high mortgages or child care costs and have progressed in their careers before this happened, most of that period was difficult but bearable, but for the people caught in the perfect storm, even those in relatively secure employment, and many people were not in secure employment, they found that the two ends did not meet.

One of the challenges which has to be tackled is how one differentiates between those who incur large costs because they have children and those who do not. We must remember that children are the future of our country. We need to formally recognise that those incurring high child care costs because they have to work need assistance. This goes beyond the much wider issue, which I accept is valid, of the development of the child by providing preschool education, etc., and goes to the hard, day-to-day reality for many people who are trying to survive in the circumstance in which they find themselves. That is the challenge we face in trying to isolate the scarce resources to help those who need it most.

Children are part of a family, but children and, therefore, families are the future because it is the children of this generation who will be the providers in the next generation. If we do not sustain families in reasonable comfort and allow them the ability to provide the normal things a child would expect growing up, we are not only being very unfair to families and children, but we are damaging the future of this country. I would like to say many other things, but unfortunately I am out of time.

I move amendment No. 1:

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

“acknowledges the importance of:

— early childhood care and education as a vital element of promoting positive outcomes for children; and

— affordable, accessible and high quality child care for parents of school-age children in enabling them to participate in training, education and paid employment;

acknowledges and supports the valuable role played by early childhood professionals;

welcomes:

— the support given through the learner fund to staff who need to upskill to new qualification levels and the payment of a higher capitation grant on the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme for higher qualified staff; and

— the introduction of the better start national early years quality support service – a national co-ordinated approach to supporting quality in child care services;

acknowledges the importance of continuing co-operation between the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Education and Skills in this key area and welcomes the steps taken by the Department of Education and Skills in developing the Síolta and Aistear quality and curriculum frameworks for children aged under six years, and more recently the announcement by the Minister for Education and Skills of a review of all levels of education and training in the sector which will support quality improvement; further welcomes:

— the Government’s commitment to supporting high quality, accessible and affordable child care for parents, represented by a total annual investment in the region of €260 million, benefiting over 100,000 children, in a range of child care programmes for children, including the preschool ECCE scheme as well as a range of supports for low income parents;

— the Government's continuing commitment to early childhood care and education, as demonstrated by protecting, in budget 2015, its annual investment of some €175 million in funding for the ECCE scheme, which benefits 68,000 children annually, and which is equivalent to an average annual benefit to parents in the region of €2,500; and

— the Government’s commitment to maximising the returns that can accrue from investing in child care by supporting children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, and generating long-term returns to children, families and society more broadly;

supports the Government’s policy of seeking accessible, affordable, high quality child care as a vital means of achieving a number of key priorities including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents’ participation in the labour market and welcomes the support of the Minister for Social Protection in providing funding for the initial phase of the after-school child care scheme in 2013;

notes that the forthcoming early years strategy will set out policies and priorities across a wide range of areas for children under the age of six, including, but not limited to, early childhood care and education;

acknowledges that parents need access to affordable, high quality child care both at preschool level and for children during their school years, and welcomes the Government's decision to establish a high level inter-departmental group, which will report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs by the summer, and which will set out a coherent whole-of-Government approach to future investment in child care by:

— clarifying the policy objectives to guide future investment;

— reviewing current provision in light of those objectives;

— analysing evidence and best practice in relation to how best to achieve those objectives;

— identifying and assessing options for future investment, conducting a cost-benefit analysis on each option; and

— making recommendations for future investment; and

supports the implementation of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures – the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020 as a key means of making Ireland one of the best small countries in the world in which to grow up and to raise a family.”

I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues relating to child care and to propose the Government's amendment.

It is widely recognised that participation in high quality early childhood care and education services results in better outcomes for children. From the point of view of parents, access to affordable, high quality child care for younger and older school-going children is an essential support to allow them to participate in education, training and the workforce. It is clear that investing in high-quality affordable child care can contribute to addressing a range of Government priorities, including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty, supporting children and young people to avoid risk taking behaviours and, of course, supporting parents.

I want to acknowledge the considerable contribution of child care providers and staff to the provision of quality services and the delivery of child care programmes. While not underestimating the work to be done, the continued support by Government for those programmes has been key to keeping services in operation and maintaining staff employment through a period of unprecedented economic difficulties. The Association of Childhood Professionals is holding a rally to promote support for investment in the sector next week. I have previously indicated that as money becomes available I would welcome such investment and I have no argument with the association on this issue. I have previously met representatives of the association and will do so again later in the week to hear at first hand their views.

We should put this debate about the supports for children and their parents in a clear context. We are committed as a Government to helping parents with child care costs and to making quality child care accessible to a greater number of parents. For this purpose, we are investing some €260 million this year in a number of child care support programmes. These programmes include the community child care subvention programme, which provides funding to community, not-for-profit, child care services to enable them to provide quality child care at reduced rates to disadvantaged and low income working parents. This programme brings significant benefits to a large number of parents and their children. More than 25,000 children each year are supported under the subvention programme.

The most significant programme in terms of State investment is, as other Deputies have mentioned, the early childhood care and education programme, which was introduced in January 2010 and provides for one free preschool year for all eligible children before commencing primary school. The programme represents an annual investment of approximately €173 million and parents availing of the provision have their annual child care costs reduced by €2,375 for each eligible child. Some 68,000 children avail of the free preschool provision each year and more than 4,300 child care services which deliver this service benefit from the guaranteed funding that the programme provides.

We also have a number of further initiatives under the training and employment child care programmes to support parents who are entering or seeking to return to the workforce and who are participating in training or educational courses for this purpose. These include the child care education and training support programme, which provides child care places to qualifying Solas or education and training board trainees or students for the duration of their courses. Many parents who are at home rely on this programme to allow them to do short courses to help them build their skills without having to worry about the well-being of their children.

The after-school child care programme was introduced under the training and employment child care initiative and provides after-school care for primary school children for certain categories of working parents for a one-off period of 52 weeks. This programme provides €40 per week for after-school care or €80 per week where a pick-up service is provided, and €105 per week for full day child care during the holiday period. We introduced the pick-up arrangement because parents found that sometimes it was not practical to get to a school. For example, a young mother who had been unemployed was delighted to get a job, but found it very difficult to get away from it for the time needed to pick up her children and drop them to the after-school service. The pick-up arrangement has solved her problem, allowing her to stay in her new job.

Community employment schemes often provide the first opportunity for parents to engage in the workforce. To help support these parents, a new community employment child care programme was introduced. This programme provides part-time care for children up to the age of 13 whose parents are participating in community employment programmes. The programme includes an after-school option, which enables qualifying parents of primary school children to obtain after-school care at a weekly cost of €15. A young father who takes part in a community employment scheme with a local community service finds the after-school service ideal, as the hours suit the scheme and he knows his children are in a safe and positive environment. My Department will continue to fund these programmes, with an emphasis on improving the quality of the service and as funding becomes available, I would hope that the capitation rates for all programmes could be increased to provide further support.

While my Department's programmes that invest €260 million annually are the primary means of supporting child care, we should not forget that the Government also provides all parents with a direct payment, child benefit, in respect of every child. This payment, administered by the Department of Social Protection, amounts to just over €1,600 annually per child and is intended to support parents with the costs of bringing up children. In fact, our child benefit payment is, relatively speaking, very high, unlike countries where funding is directed to the provision of services rather than to cash payments, and runs to almost €2 billion per annum.

The introduction of a second free preschool year could be of considerable benefit to many children. However, this provision would require considerable additional funding, broadly in line with the cost of the current one year provision of €173 million. We want to be sure that we direct any additional funding that becomes available to the greatest benefit for children. Whatever we do in this area, we need to focus on quality. All of the available evidence indicates that the quality of preschool provision is key to good outcomes for children.

Some of our funding is very specifically directed to encouraging child care providers to deliver a higher quality preschool provision. One aspect of this is influenced by international evidence which indicates that raising the qualification level of staff in early years settings results in higher quality provision and benefits the children in the settings. For this reason, the free preschool programme provides a higher rate of capitation to participating child care providers who employ staff with a higher level of child care qualifications. The higher rate of funding enables child care providers to offer employment opportunities to child care staff who have obtained professional child care qualifications. In the school year 2013-14, more than 1,400 child care services received the higher capitation rate.

In view of the evidence about the importance of qualifications to quality, we decided to introduce a minimum qualification for child care staff. From September 2015, these staff must have a minimum level five qualification on the national qualifications framework in early years care and education, or an equivalent qualification. In addition to the general requirement for a level five qualification, preschool leaders delivering the free preschool year, who are currently required to hold a level five qualification, will have to have a minimum level six qualification, or equivalent, by September 2015.

I am very conscious of the low pay of the sector and anxious to support child care staff to meet these new requirements. In 2013, we made nearly €1 million available to support existing staff working in the child care sector to meet the new requirements. To support child care staff further, we launched the learner fund last March. The fund, which is administered by Pobal with the help of local city and county child care committees, has a total allocation of €3 million for the years 2014 and 2015 and is being targeted to subsidise the cost for child care staff who are required to undertake accredited level five and level six courses. To support the child care sector in improving quality, the national early years quality support service - Better Start - is being introduced as part of the quality agenda. The Better Start programme is a national approach to quality improvement supports and incorporates the work of city and county child care committees, the national voluntary child care organisations and the work of a new element, the early years specialist service. The aim of Better Start is to provide a nationally coherent continuum of support to providers to help them improve quality. An innovative element of Better Start is to employ 30 graduates in early childhood care and education who will work directly with services to improve quality, including assisting services in the implementation of the Síolta framework and the Aistear curriculum. These specialists were recruited in October and, following a training programme, are now starting to work with services on the ground.

It is clear that accessibility and affordability of high quality child care can play a critical role in achieving a number of Government priorities, including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents' participation in the labour market. I want to ensure that all the benefits of child care investments are fully realised. It is crucial that we develop a coherent whole-of-Government approach to investment in child care services. To do this, we need future public investment in child care that is evidence-based and strategically co-ordinated. With this in mind, I am establishing a cross-departmental group to examine the provision right across the zero to six age group and to consider the after-school needs of older school-going children. I will welcome submissions from interested parties to the cross-departmental group for their consideration.

This new group will include representatives of the Departments of Education and Skills; Social Protection; Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Public Expenditure and Reform; Finance; and the Department of the Taoiseach. It will be led and supported by my Department. I will be asking that the work of this group be carried out within a short timeframe and I expect that the group will report to me in the summer. It will have its first meeting before the end of this month.

Our annual spending on child care related programmes has been in the region of 0.2% of GDP in recent years. However, this does not include expenditure under other early intervention programmes or by other Departments on early years programmes and services and therefore does not represent the full extent of State expenditure. The OECD indicates that Ireland spends approximately 0.4% of GDP relative to an OECD average of 0.7%. I would of course very much like to increase spending on early child care and education programmes over time but we also face difficult budgetary realities and tough choices about spending across government.

Considering the actions called for in the Private Members' motion, I note they would require very significant funding over and above what we currently have available. For example, the proposal to increase the level of investment to the OECD average would cost in the region of €450 million annually. The introduction of a second preschool year would cost at least as much as the existing provision of €173 million and more if the capitation level was increased. Extension of the community child care subvention programme so that it is available in all private services could cost in the region of €150 million. We should bear in mind that the last Government in 2008 spent €480 million on the previous scheme, the early childhood supplement but dropped that scheme at the end of 2009, when the preschool year was announced. However, of the €480 million, only €170 million went back to support the preschool year; the rest went to the Exchequer. What is being proposed in tonight's motion would cost multiples of even current spending, let alone what we have been able to afford in recent years.

I am aware of the concerns being expressed about special needs children and in particular their access to the free preschool programme. A number of measures were introduced to ensure that the early childhood care and education programme is more accessible to these children. These include an exemption from the upper age limit for the programme where it would help a child, and an arrangement where a child can participate in the scheme over two years if that would suit the child better. For example, he or she could attend three days per week in the first year and two days per week in the second year or vice versa. I know the Health Service Executive, where possible, provides additional supports to children with special needs to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream preschool settings. My Department has been working with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills to build better supports that facilitate children with special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support special needs children in mainstream child care settings. However, an early indicative cost for this within the preschool year is some €40 million, and clearly a similar cost would arise if a second year was introduced.

The question of tax allowances for working parents who incur child care costs is an issue that has been raised from time to time and is referred to in the motion. This was considered prior to the introduction of the targeted child care supports which I have outlined. A number of issues emerged at that time which did not favour the introduction of tax relief for child care. Tax reliefs would favour the higher paid and those on the minimum wage or in part-time work would not be in a position to benefit to the same extent. There is also a view that introducing tax credits could lead to increased prices and therefore have limited impact in terms of savings to parents. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has looked at funding in a range of member countries, has expressed the view that tax reliefs do not promote quality and do not result in lower prices, making them a very ineffective intervention.

I consider that direct investment in provision would be a fairer way of supporting parents who require child care support. I am aware that despite the substantial Government investment, the issue of child care costs remains a significant concern for many parents throughout the country. Increasing the State supports provided to help parents with these costs would require a considerable level of funding and these are matters that will be explored in detail over the coming period, including by the cross-departmental group.

Any action we take in this regard must be fully costed and there must be a benefit analysis, with the Government presented with well-costed options in order to achieve best outcomes for children and support, in the best way possible, parents struggling with the cost of child care. It is a well known fact that this is like a second mortgage for parents, which is why the Government is taking this so seriously and we have a cross-departmental group that will explore these issues, formulate and cost options and present them to the Government by the summer. We will be able to make well-informed decisions as we come into the budget cycle at the end of the summer.

The issue of rates was mentioned by a Deputy but rates have always been paid by child care services under all Governments, including the previous Government, which was in office for 14 years. That has not changed.

Most community services have been exempted, so they did not pay. For an Opposition party to object to something that was part of its own policy is a little disingenuous.

Child care providers and the staff employed in child care services throughout the country are key to the delivery of high-quality child care services. These employers and employees have made considerable adjustments in recent years to facilitate the implementation of the new child care support programmes. I am very much aware of the concerns of child care workers about the levels of remuneration in the sector, and I am happy to acknowledge the important contribution they make to children and families. However, as child care services are provided by private commercial and community child care providers, pay levels and conditions of employment are ultimately matters for the management of these services.

The early years strategy is one of a number of more detailed strategies under the children and young people's policy framework, and this strategy is currently being developed by my Department. I have said that I will conduct focused consultations with relevant parties across the early childhood care and education sector before concluding my deliberations on the strategy. I expect to be in a position to publish the strategy once my consultations have concluded in the coming months.

I have covered a wide range of issues affecting child care provision and the staff who do such sterling work in the sector. I would strongly welcome future investment, but we must build it on a coherent national policy that helps us build better services, supports higher-quality employment and, as always, ensures better outcomes for our children. I therefore commend the amendment.

I support the amendment tabled by the Minister, Deputy Reilly. There is little doubt that early childhood care and education are vital elements in the promotion of positive outcomes for children, and it is essential that affordable, accessible and high-quality child care is available to parents throughout the State.

The 2013 Indecon report commissioned by the Donegal County Childcare Committee found that 77% of preschool child care is provided by parents or relatives. The report also indicated that 12% of preschool children are cared for by childminders, and 19% use crèches, Montessori schools, playgroups or after-school facilities. Today in Ireland, many young parents simply do not have the choice of staying at home to rear their families. Many have very challenging mortgages and other financial commitments that cannot be met unless both parents are working. I am aware of the huge daily challenge faced by parents in getting their children up and out the door early in the morning and collecting them late in the evening. My wife and I are blessed to have two children: Alma, who is five, and Dan, who was three last week. They both attend a fantastic child care facility in Clarecastle called the Ladybird Lane Crèche.

This Government is spending approximately €260 million annually to support the provision of early childhood care and education through three child care support programmes, the community child care subvention, CCS, programme, the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and the training and employment child care programme. The child care programmes implemented by the Department support the provision of childhood care and education for more than 100,000 children each year.

The free preschool year under the ECCE programme was introduced in January 2010. Almost all of the 4,300 preschool services in the State are participating in this scheme, and it is expected that 68,000 children will avail of the free preschool year this year. The objective of the programme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to children in the year before they commence primary school. All research illustrates the fact that the early years of child care are very important. From speaking with parents, child care providers, primary school principals and teachers, it is quite obvious that this scheme has been a tremendous success. It is clear that children would benefit greatly from the provision of a second free preschool year, and I support the Minister wholeheartedly in his efforts to realise this objective.

The CCS programme provides funding to community child care services to enable them to provide high-quality child care at reduced rates to disadvantaged and low-income working parents. Approximately 25,000 children each year benefit from this programme in more than 900 community child care services.

I welcome the approach taken by the Minister in planning for the future and in establishing a cross-departmental group to examine investment across the zero to six age group as well as to consider the after-school needs of older school-going children. This group will be chaired by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and will have representation from the Departments of Social Protection, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance, and the Taoiseach.

International evidence shows that increasing the qualifications of the workforce increases the quality of service provision. From September this year, all staff working in child care services will be obliged to have a minimum qualification of level 5 on the National Framework of Qualifications, and team leaders delivering the free preschool year must have at least a level 6 qualification. Providing full-time professional care to children is a most important job and merits the requirement to have attained a specific qualification in line with best international practice.

Recently, the Spraoi community child care facility in Miltown Malbay in County Clare has run into difficulties. I welcome the hands-on approach of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, in helping to sort out the difficulties it is encountering. Last week we had a very successful and productive meeting with a number of his officials, and I am confident that a solution can be found in conjunction with all the stakeholders.

In conclusion, there are challenges in delivering an affordable, accessible and high-quality child care system. Undoubtedly, as the economy improves, we will have further scope to improve on the current system in a planned way in line with the recommendations that will be forthcoming from the interdepartmental working group.

I thank Fianna Fáil for tabling this motion. At the risk of sounding sarcastic, I am curious to find out whether the party won the EuroMillions and did not tell anybody, or if it has Charlie McCreevy up its sleeve, because if one looks at all of what Fianna Fáil wishes to do in this motion - and that is before we work out what a child care tax break would cost - it amounts to approximately €1.2 billion. What other services would the party cut to be able to provide this myriad of extensions of services?

I have four children who have gone through the private child care sector, and with parents and grandparents in our house also minding our children, we have the best of both worlds. The service available from people in the private sector is second to none. Their commitment to excellence, high-quality education, home-from-home environments and playfulness in afternoons after school is incredible, particularly given that their wages probably are not what they should or could be on foot of their dedication. I take my hat off to them and I pay tribute to the services they provide.

I also pay tribute to our community services sector. There are wonderful establishments in every second village and town in the country that are provided and subvented by the State. They also provide excellence in care.

The changes that were made in the last number of years by the previous Minister regarding the levels of education are testament to this Government's quality agenda in the delivery of child care. Obviously, quality must be supported. The learning support schemes, the learner funds and the CETS programme are in place, and I would support the provision of more money for these. If the Department gets more money this year, I hope we can provide some to give people the leg up they require to extend their qualifications from level 5 to level 6 and up to level 8. They want to improve their level of education and their qualification status, and it is important to ensure they can do that.

I acknowledge the benefit of the ECCE year. Although it is called the early childhood care and education programme, I do not believe it is about child care. For me, the three hours in the morning that one's child receives for the year before he or she goes to primary school is all about early intervention. It is about intervening educationally with the child to develop not only the child's education but also his or her self-esteem and communication skills. It works. I am not sure about the merits of a second year, to be honest. I am more concerned about perfecting the first year we already have before we look to extend it to a second year. I acknowledge that it works.

However, when we speak about affordable child care, we should not slip into the mistake of thinking the ECCE year is about child care. It only addresses an issue for four year olds and it only addresses it for three hours a day. We all know and acknowledge that families are paying mortgage-style rates for having their children minded. My children are older now, but when they were younger I was working and at the end of the month I was getting my wage in one hand and handing it to the crèche with the other. This was my choice. I wanted to continue working. However, we all know and acknowledge that the cost of child care is very high in this country. We also acknowledge that the people in the industry would like to work more hours and would like to earn more.

I welcome the cross-departmental group the Minister has established. With respect, it is easy to say we should give tax breaks or that we should double the ECCE year provision. Fianna Fáil's motion shows little imagination. We need to think outside the box. We need to look at all of the establishments, in every single town and village, which are already owned by the State. We need to look at the resources which are available to communities to see how we can best maximise the potential of those resources in communities by providing services and allowing access to those facilities, perhaps after hours. We need to look at the wealth of resources available and the qualified people in the sector to see how we can extend the hours and offer them more reach to our children after school.

I wish to mention one thing which is not in the motion. People who have children with disabilities have often said the ECCE year is difficult to access if the support services are not available to these children. By this, I mean special needs assistants or other support or resource hours teachers. An example of this is to be seen in my county. The HSE, from its disability budget, which is entirely separate to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, provides and pays for resources in child care facilities in order that children who have disabilities, once they arrive in their ECCE setting, do not have to suffer any more than they already do. The disability budget of the HSE is already paying for this and this is something I would like to see extended to every single county in the country. I know it is not within the remit of the Minister but he may be encouraged to speak to the Minister for Health and to ask him to extend this. This is the biggest criticism on the part of parents of children with disabilities. The accessibility to the ECCE year is sometimes difficult. This would make a big difference to them.

I commend the Minister on the changes he has made and is making and on his cross-departmental group. I wish the Minister every success with it. However, it is important that we do not just take submissions from the vested interests and the providers, but that we extend the submission to all parents and to anyone else who has an interest in this sector.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, not only as a public representative but as a parent who, like other Deputies in this House, has experienced first-hand the outworking of successive Governments' failure to oversee a coherent and equitable approach to child care provision. Families have suffered as a result. Those fortunate enough to have work are lumbered with an undue financial burden. Women, particularly low-paid women or those reliant on social welfare payments, continue to be excluded from participating in work. Workers in the sector face a future of low pay despite their training, and exacting standards are not being met.

Most important of all is the impact of this shortfall on children. Budgetary decisions by Government have made a bad situation worse. The Government has relentlessly targeted children despite all their fine words regarding our youngest citizens' rights. Budget 2015 may have increased the monthly child benefit payment by €5 but only after Fine Gael and the Labour Party cut it by €47 for the fourth child and €10 for other children. The Government has also cut the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance in successive budgets, amounting to a total cut of €100. This is a means-tested payment which is only made to children in the poorest of families and was already grossly insufficient to meet the real cost of returning to school. For families who are just about keeping their heads above water, this has been a devastating blow. The lone parent income disregard was cut from €146 to €90, as a consequence of which a working lone mother is down €28.

Many of our poorest children are in lone parent households and these cuts hurt them even more. In addition, this Government has lowered the cut-off age for the one-parent family payment to ten years of age and later this year it will drop it to just seven years of age. However, the Government has not put in place the necessary affordable after-school care which is required to keep these children safe while their mothers are forced out to work, despite the Labour Party leader promising she would not proceed with her planned cut to the lone parents scheme unless she had a credible, bankable commitment from Government on child care delivery. As is so often the case with the Labour Party, the Tánaiste over-promised and under-delivered.

The entirely foreseeable result of all of these cuts has been a sharp rise in child poverty. A report from UNICEF published last week put the child poverty rate at 28.6%, which accounts for 130,000 children. Ireland ranked 37 out of 41 countries studied. Child poverty rates are rising more steeply than here only in Croatia, Latvia, Greece and Iceland. In addition, the latest CSO figures tell us that one third of children are living in deprivation. These are children who do not have a warm coat or two pairs of strong shoes or who cannot afford to eat meat, chicken or fish every second day. These are children whose homes are not adequately heated. This is a direct consequence of the policies of this Government. It chooses to place the burden of recovery squarely on the shoulders of our most vulnerable children.

The Child and Family Agency published figures in early September which showed 9,000 children at risk or suffering from neglect or welfare concerns are waiting to be allocated a social worker. It reported that there were 3,250 high-priority cases over the summer waiting for a response. The bottom line is that, under the Government, recruiting and retaining social workers in sufficient numbers has not been a priority. Some 36,000 teachers in our classrooms have yet to be Garda vetted. Garda vetting is a cornerstone of the child protection system, but this Government has failed to resource the Garda vetting unit sufficiently.

Thousands of children with disabilities and severe life-limiting conditions had their medical cards withdrawn under this Government's so-called probity drive. Under intense pressure from the public, most of these were returned. However, some holders have begun to lose them again as the renewal dates come round. Children with disabilities and their carers have been neglected by this Government. Child care and after-school care remains unaffordable and inaccessible. However, this coming summer, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection will lower the cut-off age to just seven years, regardless. This will impact on thousands of lone parents who are working a few hours each day while their child is at school, bringing in a low wage. They will lose the flexibilities and specific earnings disregards attached to the scheme. Her failure to deliver on child care coupled with her determination to proceed with the cuts to the scheme will push this group deeper into poverty and welfare dependency.

The cost of child care is extremely high in Ireland. It is the biggest cost facing most young families today. A recent survey demonstrated that a person would need to have a gross wage of €30,000 just to cover the cost of child care for one toddler and one baby. It costs up to €2,035 per month to keep a toddler and baby in a crèche. Thousands of couples are caught in a situation in which their mortgage was based on two full-time wages. However, when they start their family, they discover that one parent cannot afford to work but cannot afford not to work either. The Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton, compounded this by cutting payments to young families, such as child benefit and maternity benefit.

Many child care workers are grossly underpaid. Most are paid little more than the minimum wage and many are also expected to fund continual upskilling and education themselves. It is extremely unfair to expect child care workers with qualifications to provide such an important service for the minimum wage. Sinn Féin's budget 2015 proposed to address immediately the most significant inequity in existing public child care provision, which is the exclusion of many children with disabilities from the free preschool year. It will cost just €12 million to make the free preschool year accessible to many more children with disabilities. The sum of €12 million would provide 1,000 children with 15 hours per week of SNA support to attend the free preschool year.

This fund would supplement the existing ad hoc provisions from the HSE and other disability service providers, which are grossly insufficient. The free preschool year is supposed to be a universal benefit for all children, but many children with disabilities are prevented from availing of it due to the absence of the necessary supports. The availability of a special needs assistant to enable a child's attendance depends on where the child is living and ranges from none at all to cover for a portion of the week only. Many parents are forced to hire special needs assistants, or else the child is denied the opportunity to attend altogether.

Any review of the community child care subvention and child care education and training support schemes is focused on providing supports for low-income families and on keeping local community crèches open. We support the provision of restored core funding to all local community-based crèches. We want all councils to adopt a local authority child care policy. We will campaign for high-quality training for child care workers and an adequate inspection regime to ensure child care is of high quality and high standards. The Government could take a number of actions tomorrow in the absence of a coherent, affordable and equitable national child care strategy. I welcome the establishment of a cross-departmental group to look at provision across the age group of those aged six and under and to consider the after-school needs of older school-going children. Parents and their children do not need fine words and they certainly do not need the Labour Party's broken promises.

The Private Members' motion before us this evening recognises many of the elements that are essential to child care and to catering for the needs of both children and families. It refers to "a mixed model of provision" delivered through the three arms of "the community, private and public sector". It makes it clear that the "4,300 child care centres" and "23,000 staff" in this area must be supported and further developed. It recognises the positive influence of "early childhood professionals". While I welcome these elements of the motion, I am cognisant that Fianna Fáil failed to achieve them when it had an opportunity to do so in better times.

Even though we have known for many years that investment in services at a young age pays dividends, the early childhood sector has been poorly resourced and under-valued by this and previous Governments. Low levels of public investment have led to high costs for all users, with many of the staff employed on low wages and often on precarious contracts. We need to re-examine early childhood capitation and link wage levels to nationally agreed levels. We must ensure all children can take up early childhood education and continuing professional development is provided by Government-funded schemes.

I understand the child care sector is plagued by fears that it will lose many of the dedicated people working in it. The welcome and much-needed push for rising qualifications which we have seen and welcomed across care and health care provision is not universally in evidence across providers in the child care sector. Equally, the wages do not reflect the standards of training that are now expected. Those who work in this sector do so because they have a passion for their work and for helping to form and sustain a safe and suitable environment for our youngest citizens.

There is limited equality in supports for children with disabilities and special educational needs. Parents have a right to expect that their children will be given the best early years education and support, regardless of what part of the country they live in, the amount of money they earn or the levels of challenge their children face. There is also a lack of support for mainstream services to provide equality of access for children with special needs.

The report of the expert advisory group on the early years strategy informed us that Ireland spends 0.4% of GDP on early childhood care and education services. Clearly, we need to ask the Government to say when it proposes that we should reach the international benchmark of 1% of GDP on such services. Other recommendations made by the expert advisory group also need to be examined. We need a detailed assessment of access to the free preschool year and a national plan for the phased, supported and simultaneous implementation of the Síolta and Aistear frameworks.

Research conducted by Early Childhood Ireland showed that in 2012, some 15% of services did not have a policy on supporting children with special educational needs. This situation must be ameliorated. Last year, some €3 million was provided for the development of the early years workforce. This sum represents just a drop in the ocean. High-quality child care is a goal for all of us who desire a totally equal playing field for women and men in the workplace. Paternity leave must also be examined in this context.

I support the childhood professionals from across the country who intend to march on Leinster House next Tuesday, 17 February, in a bid to draw public and political attention to the need for greater Government investment in the child care sector. They will march on the issues of poor wages, the lack of recognition for the amount of additional work they perform and the lack of appreciation of the specialised and necessary role they play. We expect so much of them, but give them so little. We need to resource and pay them appropriately. Quite clearly, the bottom line is that good-quality child care might be expensive, but bad-quality or non-existent child care is much more costly.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak during this very important debate on child care. I thank and commend everyone who works in the child care sector in Irish society. Approximately 4,300 child care centres in this country employ approximately 23,000 staff, who are doing an excellent job. They need to be supported, as do their families, who are under extreme hardship at the moment. We all accept that early childhood care and education is particularly good for the child, but it is also very good for this country and its future. Many members of the child care profession are earning little more than the minimum wage. As a result, we are losing qualified and experienced people who can no longer afford to remain in the profession. Earning a professional wage and supporting a child's development should not be mutually exclusive. It is important to stress that we have to look after those who provide front-line services.

What is the current situation? There is no child care cost support tax relief for working parents. The cost of child care to parents is extremely high. The annual cost of full-time child care for two children is €16,500 per year. That is very costly on working families, mothers and fathers. Support for children with disabilities and special educational needs is very limited and inconsistent across the country. Subsidised child care places are not equally accessible in all areas of the country. The capitation rates for delivering the early childhood care and education scheme are insufficient for the majority of child care providers. The early childhood workforce cannot access the learner fund for higher level qualification. We also see that early childhood professionals are undervalued and under-resourced and have high employment insecurity. The current child care funding policy is absent of any supports for working families that do not avail of the community child care subvention. That is the situation for many families on the ground.

I would like to acknowledge and focus on children with special educational needs. They face too many challenges as they try to avail of preschool education that is tailored to suit their individual needs. Mainstream early childhood services do not have the appropriate funding or supports to provide equality of opportunity for children with special needs. There is a lack of a nationally agreed pay scale. As I have said, low levels of wages are a problem. Paid professional development opportunities are absent. The members of the early childhood workforce, many of whom go above and beyond the call of duty, are generally not paid for all the work they undertake.

What should the Government and all the political parties in the Dáil do? They should consider the idea of introducing a child care tax break for working families.

We should provide a second full free preschool year for all children, particularly those with disabilities. As an interim measure, we should reinstate the 2011 capitation grant levels under the ECCE scheme with immediate effect. We should increase investment from the current 0.4% to 0.7% on an incremental basis within the lifetime of the next programme for Government. We should consider extending the CCS programme so as to enable children to access private child care places and publishing and resourcing the early years strategy so there might be a blueprint for investment and policy development. We should introduce a national payscale for child care workers. I also support the extension of the ECCE capitation grant to cover statutory holiday pay and continuous professional development.

When discussing child care, we should be broader in focus than the issues I have outlined. Child care is an important strategy for tackling child poverty. In recent days, we have learned of how the poverty rate has increased from 7.7% in 2012 to 8.2%. This is a national scandal. Some 1.4 million people, representing 31% of the population, cannot afford basic items. Some 135,000 children are in poverty. We should work on providing preschool education and child care and then tackle economic, social and educational disadvantage. I urge everyone to support the motion at 9 o'clock tomorrow and the protest outside the Dáil next Tuesday.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 February 2015.