Childcare Support Bill 2017: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I am so very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Childcare Support Bill 2017 to the House. In October 2016 I announced that work was beginning on a new affordable child care scheme to replace all existing targeted child care subvention schemes with a single, streamlined scheme that will provide the framework for increasing public investment in child care over the years ahead. The Childcare Support Bill will provide the critical legislative underpinning for the new scheme.

The cost of child care places a huge financial burden on many families, especially on parents who are trying to move beyond poverty, who want to take up job opportunities or take part in education or training, but who cannot afford to do so because of the financial barrier of child care fees. The high cost of child care is also a barrier to the participation of young children in high quality early care and education, which we know from international research evidence can make a lasting difference to children's life chances. Ensuring children in Ireland have access to quality child care has been at the heart of my time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and will continue to be.

To ensure access, we must make sure that child care is more affordable. Making child care more affordable to families will bring many benefits. It will improve outcomes for children by providing access to quality, affordable child care. It will help parents transition from welfare to employment, making work pay for families with low and moderate incomes. It will support lifelong learning and help parents take part in education and training. It will advance gender equality, support women's labour market participation and help to close the gender pay gap. It will also help to tackle child poverty and, through all of those effects, support economic growth.

In short, affordable, quality child care can generate many important benefits - for children, families and society at large. That is why I am so proud of the progress we have already made. Last September we introduced for the first time a universal child care subsidy for all children under three years old and increased the value of existing child care subsidies by up to 50%, thereby benefiting more than 66,000 children and their families. It is also why this Bill is so important. Of course, we are not starting from scratch. Many people have worked tirelessly over the past 20 years and more to build the child care services we have today, but it remains the case that Ireland lags behind other European countries on international indicators of affordability and public investment in child care.

According to the European Commission, child care costs in Ireland, relative to wages, in 2015 were the highest in the EU for lone parents and the second highest for couples. The OECD's 2017 report, Faces of Joblessness, examined the barriers facing groups with particularly high levels of joblessness. As part of the report, the OECD compared the child care supports previously available in Ireland with the expected impact of the affordable childcare scheme. For a lone parent working full time at the 25th percentile of the full-time earnings distribution, child care costs in Ireland were the highest among all OECD countries in 2015. The Faces of Joblessness report estimated that the affordable childcare scheme will bring net child care costs down to make Ireland only the 11th highest in the OECD, or closer to the OECD average. Of course, we have already started that journey through the measures we took last September which sought to fast-track some of the benefits of the affordable childcare scheme, without compromising on the rigour and time needed to develop and launch this landmark new scheme.

However, we would like to go even further, and the affordable childcare scheme will provide the platform through which we can continue to make child care more affordable for many families in Ireland and sustainably invest in the years ahead. The scheme will make child care more affordable for parents by providing subsidies, paid on the parents' behalf to their chosen registered child care provider. The provider must use the subsidy to offset the fees it charges parents. The scheme will provide both income related financial support, which targets support towards parents who face the greatest financial difficulty in affording child care, and non-income related or universal financial support, which allows a level of support for all parents with children of a prescribed age who use registered child care services.

The Bill also allows for additional support for families where there is an identified need for child care on grounds of child development or child welfare, naming five statutory bodies that may make referrals for free or additional child care support. This, for me, is one of the most important aspects of the Bill. It is intended to help ensure we can meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and families, families that may be a long way from participation in the labour market and would otherwise benefit from only limited child care support.

The Childcare Support Bill marks the first time that any of our child care funding schemes will have a statutory basis. The Bill is critical for good governance. It will establish clear eligibility and scheme rules. It will create clear procedures, for example, creating for the first time an appeals process for child care funding decisions. It will ensure that my Department and the scheme administrator have adequate powers to ensure that public funds are being used efficiently and to take action where public funds are misused.

Crucially, the Bill will also enable the introduction of a streamlined, automated income assessment process, providing a statutory basis for data sharing between the scheme administrator, the Revenue Commissioners, and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This new income assessment process will allow the targeting of child care supports towards those with the greatest need, in particular families who are seeking to enter the labour market but have a low or moderate level of income.

It will allow us to move away from the current reliance on social welfare payments and medical cards as the only means of assessing financial need for child care. The IT-driven approach at the heart of the affordable childcare scheme will also improve administrative efficiency and will streamline the application and registration procedures for both parents and child care service providers. My goal is the creation of a world-class system that is user-friendly for parents, efficient for child care providers, and excellent value for money for the Exchequer and society.

While I am keen to introduce the scheme as soon as possible, the IT system required is complex and I want to be sure that it is robust and long lasting. The development of the IT system, which is being carried out in close co-operation with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, is well under way and I have approved the publication of a request for tender for the IT system. While any delay is regrettable, the changes we introduced last September, which are broadly on a par with the supports that are planned for the affordable childcare scheme, mean that more than 66,000 children and their families are already benefiting from increased child care subsidies.

An important aspect of the Bill, and one that has so far been underestimated, is its importance for raising quality standards in child care. We know that child care must be of high quality if it is to improve outcomes for children. While the primary focus of the affordable childcare scheme is affordability, the approach embodied by the scheme reflects the international evidence that supply side funding gives the Government greater leverage to improve quality standards than demand side approaches such as tax credits. First, the Bill limits participation in the scheme to child care providers that are registered with Tusla, providing assurance that critical quality standards are met by all providers in the scheme. Second, all child care providers who wish to participate in the scheme will have to sign a contract with my Department, and section 8 allows quality conditions to be specified in the contracts which are more rigorous than those required by the early years services regulations. Third, the Bill allows for future development of the scheme, with section 13 allowing the possibility of quality-raising incentives to be built into the formula for determining how much funding the scheme provides.

More broadly, the flexibility of the Bill allows changes to subsidy rates over time, enabling the Government to adjust the scheme in response to the findings of the independent review of the cost of quality child care, as well as in response to the ongoing professionalisation of the early years workforce. If we are to support the move to a professional workforce with wages and working conditions that reflect the importance of the work carried out by early years educators, inevitably the cost of delivering child care will rise over the years ahead.

Subsidy rates will, therefore, have to rise too if child care is to remain affordable to parents. Finally, in requiring all participating child care providers to be registered with Tusla, I am aware of the historical anomaly that school-age child care remains unregulated. To address this anomaly, I announced recently that I would introduce regulations in advance of the affordable childcare scheme to enable school-age child care services to register with Tusla and thus participate in the scheme. In the first instance, these new regulations will be limited to registration requirements. Work will then commence on the drafting of full regulations that will cover quality issues such as qualification requirements, minimum adult to child ratios, the physical environment and programmes of activities.

Deputies will recall that in January 2017 I published the heads of the Bill and a general scheme of the Childcare Support Bill. In February 2017 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the heads of the Bill and the general scheme. The recommendations made by the committee were helpful and have helped to shape the Bill that I am presenting today. I thank committee members for their input. To a large extent the Bill is in line with the heads of Bill and the general scheme. Changes made in drafting the Bill include: modification of the residency requirements for eligibility to comply with EU rules on freedom of movement; providing the scheme administrator with the power to examine compliance and to safeguard public funds; changing the minimum age for a child to participate in the scheme to 24 weeks as opposed to 26 weeks; limiting the scheme to child care providers registered by Tusla to provide quality assurance of all participating providers; and providing for a limited number of detailed elements in the heads of Bill to be addressed in secondary legislation instead, subject to policies and principles set out in the primary legislation. In particular, the Bill provides for regulations to determine the subsidy rates and income thresholds for the scheme. Such regulations will enable these elements to be adjusted on an annual basis through the budget process.

I will now set out the provisions. Section 1 provides definitions of key terms. Section 2 provides for the establishment of the scheme to be funded out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas each year. It states that the scheme will be operated by the scheme administrator.

Sections 3 to 6, inclusive, provide for the appointment of the scheme administrator and describe its functions and governance arrangements. Section 6 allows for the scheme administrator to outsource certain functions while retaining responsibility for administration of the scheme.

Section 7 sets out the eligibility criteria for parents seeking to apply for financial support under the scheme. The residency requirements allow for applications not only from parents who are ordinarily resident in the State but also from EU or EEA citizens who are not resident in the State as well as from other categories of parents who were formerly employed or self-employed in the State. However, financial support will be limited to child care services registered under the Child Care Act 1991. These must be located in the State.

Where parents are separated, section 7 allows both parents to receive financial support, but each parent may only receive support for the days or times that he or she has care of the child. Section 8 limits participation in the scheme to approved child care service providers, which must be registered with the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, and must have signed a contract to participate.

Section 9 specifies the process by which parents may make applications for financial support under the scheme, including the information they must provide as part of an application. When applications are for income-related financial support, in most cases the income data will be gathered through an automated process involving the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Income data will be gathered with the consent of the applicant and on the basis of personal public service numbers supplied by the applicant. This section allows the scheme administrator to require an applicant to supply additional information, including income information, where needed. The Bill allows for the maximum number of hours of income-related financial support to vary depending on the parents' participation in the labour market. As a result, section 10 requires employers and training providers to verify information provided by an applicant on his or her labour market status when asked to do so by the scheme administrator.

Section 11 provides for the income assessment process, which must use the definitions of "income" and "allowable deduction" in Schedule 1. Section 12 provides for the determination of applications by the scheme administrator and specifies the information that the scheme administrator must provide to the applicant after determining the amount of financial support, if any, for which the applicant qualifies. It also stipulates that a determination may be valid for 12 months at most, after which the application must be renewed. Section 13 provides for the calculation by the scheme administrator of the amount of financial support for which an applicant qualifies and sets out the factors to which the Minister must have regard when making regulations on the calculation of financial support.

Section 14 allows for additional support where there is an identified need for child care on grounds of child development or child welfare. It builds on existing arrangements under the administrative schemes being replaced. Additional support may take the form of higher rates of payment, for example, provision of child care at no cost to parents, additional hours of financial support each week or provision of financial support for children who would otherwise be too young or too old to participate in the scheme. This section allows for agreements with statutory bodies that specify the procedures by which those statutory bodies may refer children for additional child care support and the additional support to be provided. Schedule 2 lists the relevant statutory bodies and the purposes for which they may make referrals.

Section 15 provides for procedures relating to the payment of financial support to approved child care service providers and for conditions to be prescribed that apply to payments. Section 16 requires an applicant to notify the scheme administrator if he or she is no longer eligible for financial support under the scheme or if the applicant ceases work or study, as this may affect the number of hours of financial support paid each week. Section 17 allows for parents and child care service providers to request reviews of decisions made by the scheme administrator and of the amounts paid under the scheme. In cases where an application has been assessed through an automated process, a review allows a parent to request an administrative officer to examine the application. A review is the first stage of the appeals process. This section also allows the scheme administrator to carry out reviews of its own initiative, for instance, to verify information provided by a parent or by a child care service provider.

Sections 18 and 19 allow the appointment of authorised officers who may enter the premises of child care service providers to examine attendance records, financial records and other documents relevant to the scheme to ensure the proper use of public funds. These sections also make it an offence to obstruct an authorised officer or to fail to comply with requests for information. Section 20 establishes the appeals process which follows completion of the review process under section 17. Although appointed by the scheme administrator, the Minister's consent is required for the appointment of the members of the appeals panel and these persons will be required to be independent in the performance of their functions. Parents and child care service providers will also have recourse to the Ombudsman and to the High Court, on a point of law.

Section 21 allows the scheme administrator to recover money from parents and from child care service providers in cases of fraud or misrepresentation and overpayment. Section 22 amends the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to refer to the scheme as a "relevant purpose" for which specified bodies may share information on the basis of a PPS number. This amendment will, for example, allow the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to transfer information on an applicant's income to the scheme administrator on the basis of the PPS number provided by an applicant for income-related financial support. Section 23 allows the sharing of data between the bodies specified in Schedule 3 for specified purposes, including: assessing an applicant's income; registering a child; making payments; verifying a child's attendance; carrying out a review or an appeal; and the prosecution of an offence.

Section 24 describes the regulation-making powers under the Act. Section 25 allows for reviews of the operation of the scheme.

Section 26 allows beneficiaries of the administrative schemes being replaced by the new scheme to continue receiving the same level of financial support in the transitional period. While the vast majority of beneficiaries of current schemes will see their level of support either increase or remain unchanged under the new scheme, some will see their level of support fall.

Section 26 protects the latter group from the fall for a transitional period.

Section 27 provides for expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the scheme to be paid from moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 28 creates sanctions for persons found guilty of offences under the Bill. Section 29 allows the commencement of different provisions of the Bill at different times.

I look forward to hearing the views of fellow Deputies and working with them to formulate the best possible legislation to help families to access affordable child care. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for her statement. This is the first time I have seen much of the information she has provided. For that reason, I will leave much of my commentary on the Bill to Committee Stage and focus now on the broader purpose of the legislation.

The Fianna Fáil Party welcomes the introduction of the Bill, for which we and the parents of Ireland have been waiting since it was announced in budget 2016. The Bill will enable the operation of a single affordable childcare scheme which will consolidate the existing child care subsidy scheme into a single streamlined system, with both targeted and universal subsidies. This was one of the most welcome initiatives taken in this Dáil because it gave comfort to parents that child care would be provided under one umbrella. While many parents have shown goodwill towards the legislation, others, specifically stay-at-home parents, feel aggrieved because the proposed scheme does not consider their needs. Grandparents and childminders also believe the scheme does not take them into consideration. While it is appreciated that the legislation addresses one element of child care, it does not cater for certain groups that provide child care.

I am pleased that the Bill addresses the issue of information and communications technology, ICT. In the absence of good technology infrastructure across all Departments which is particularly evident in the case of Tusla, improved ICT will be critical in gathering and sharing information and building on resources, information and knowledge. It is welcome that the Department is working with Revenue and the Department of Social Protection in that regard. I hope the company appointed to operate the ICT system in the tendering process will also incorporate Tusla's systems. We must have an ICT system that can develop and will address many of the defects not currently addressed. I do not know if this will be possible because the infrastructure the Minister is introducing may be solely financial in nature. If so, perhaps the Department might examine how it could develop capacity to integrate information on children presenting in child care facilities who may be in care, have disabilities or require early intervention. I understand this type of information is not being gathered. It would be welcome if parents submitting financial information to the system had a facility available to them to submit other information that could be signposted in a different direction. We could use the system as a net with which to catch much more information, primarily for the benefit of the children in question. It must focus on the interventions and supports we can provide for children.

Last August I criticised the proposed affordable child care model from the point of view of the squeezed middle. I noted that certain aspects of the model did not support parents, including shift workers, who got up early to go to work. I spoke about families living in the belt around Dublin where child care was extremely expensive. I was somewhat naive in my understanding of the costs and implications of child care in Dublin and surrounding areas. We must consider the possibility of providing area based funding for families because child care is incredibly expensive in the greater Dublin area. I do not believe the Bill fully addresses the needs of these families.

On the Department's engagement with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, I note that family income supplement is not included as a deduction for those seeking to qualify for the affordable childcare scheme. Perhaps the Minister might correct me if I am wrong in that regard. If it is the case, I would be concerned because some Bus Éireann workers, for example, receive family income supplement payments. For this reason, such payments should be included as a deduction. I ask the Minister to set out the position in that regard.

Based on responses I received from the Department to a number of parliamentary questions I submitted in recent weeks, there appears to be a capacity issue in certain counties. Now that the Bill has been introduced, people will have a greater degree of certainty and a better understanding of the scheme. While the take-up of the scheme has been exceptionally good and I expect more child care providers to join it, I am concerned about the capacity to develop new community based child care centres and provide more support for private child care providers. I noted before Christmas the different levels of funding that would be available to providers. Some private providers want to expand their facilities and we need them to provide more baby rooms because this element of the market appears to be contracting slightly. They will not be able to build baby rooms for less than €50,000. However, in cases where they spend more than €50,000, they cannot apply for grants. The Minister should consider providing capital funding to allow community and private crèches to expand and develop.

We must also consider the issue of child care in the context of regional development, particularly in cities such as Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Capital supports and infrastructure must be provided to support families in these areas. While the proposed scheme will be successful as more people come on board, I believe a capacity issue will arise, even if the scheme is working well.

Since the heads of the Bill were presented, much has been said about vulnerable groups. Section 14 refers to the cutting of hours from 40 to 15, although families will be able to obtain additional support if more hours are required. Speaking last week to the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, the Minister explained that the Departments of Education and Skills and Justice and Equality, Tusla, the Health Service Executive and local authorities could apply for additional funding for vulnerable children or families who needed support. I ask her to clarify this matter and set out the position in greater detail because there is much confusion and concern about it. For many families, 15 hours of child care will not be sufficient. They have been receiving good support under the current child care scheme for years.

Some crèches and child care providers will know which families in their local communities need support. The space they provide is sometimes the safest a child has. My question in that regard is aimed at providing comfort for the child care providers.

How streamlined will the system be for them to engage with any of the five groupings mentioned. Will there be a designated person in the HSE, Tusla or the Department of Education and Skills with responsibility for ensuring that when somebody presents with the most vulnerable child, a timely decision will be made? Time is of the essence in dealing with vulnerable kids. Giving a decision a week or ten days after presenting is not the answer. Unfortunately, in such cases an answer is required now. Will there be people in positions to make immediate decisions to provide support? Will child care services in each city and county be given money that will be ring-fenced? Will the scheme be administered through city and county child care services? They seem to be the natural space in which to access pots of money. Each county would then have its own allocation and be responsible for administering it.

The statistics are already available which show how much we have supported the subvention schemes during the years. Child care providers know their communities better than anybody else and know the families that need support. Is there a way of reassuring them, or anybody who works with the vulnerable in society, that the difference in the context of the figure of 25 hours is recognised? I am referring to access to the best and most streamlined support possible.

The Minister addressed one part I said I would address. If we are to support the move towards having a professional workforce with wages and working conditions that reflect the importance of the work being carried out, inevitably the cost of delivering early child care services will rise in the years ahead. Subsidies will have to rise too if the cost of child care is to remain affordable for parents. The most important point is that the Minister is acknowledging this. However, it is a concern for parents that crèche fees will go up all around the country. The reality is we have a fantastic workforce who are professionals but on the minimum wage. That is an issue we have to address. We can no longer expect people to work for €10 an hour to mind our precious children in crèches. We call them professionals but pay them the minimum wage. There are increasing numbers seeking higher level qualifications in child care and we have really professional people at all levels of the child care system. However, we have to see how we can support them financially. When we talk about that issue, it is not about putting the pressure back on the employers, be it boards of management of community crèches or private operators. However, there has to be a way to address the child care subsidy rates. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure they are increased. However, they will also have to be passed on, which is the most important point. We have to acknowledge the fact that commercial rates are so expensive, but it is a complex issue. The subsidy is one thing, but there are a lot of bills at the other end. We have a workforce that we appreciate, but the best way to appreciate it is by increasing wages in acknowledging that it is at a very low ebb. At the same time, we have the squeezed middle that is not even getting into the fray. The affordable child care model is not progressive in terms of income and I would like it to be so.

One of my statistics concerns tax discrimination, an issue about which I feel strongly. It is possible that the scheme may be discriminatory for couples who opt for joint assessment. To be included in the scheme, a married couple who opt for joint assessment can only earn up to €50,000. However, those who opt for separate assessment or co-habiting couples can earn up to €80,000 and qualify for the payment of subsidies. That is an anomaly and I would like to see how we can address it.

There is a lot to digest in the 26 sections the Minister has given us in the next few weeks before the Bill is taken on Committee Stage. I have addressed some of the key issues for me. I am articulating that a lot of providers have issues about the roll-out of the scheme. Will it be in place before September? I know that there is no real commitment in that regard because of the position on ICT. Is there a commitment in that regard or will we see another year's paperwork? We know that the workload is horrendous for child care providers. However, at the same time, they are holding together an important aspect of the fabric of society. As the Minister said, they are facilitating and enabling people to stay or get back into the workforce and engage in education. I refer also to those who think they have no other option but to leave the workforce. We have to balance this with the cost of child care.

I look forward to working with the Minister in the next few months in delivering good affordable child care services through good legislation. However, we have a lot of work to do on what has been presented.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important Bill which has been a long time coming. It is welcome to see a Minister finally making serious efforts to deal with the crisis in the child care sector. Unfortunately, the neglect of the sector for such a long time and the failure of successive Governments to invest in it have left Ireland miles behind the rest of Europe when it comes to provision of quality child care services. We all know also that the Minister cannot fix the problem with a click of her fingers. There is serious work to be done to build capacity and standards and make quality child care services more accessible and affordable.

No family should have to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for child care. That is why we need the State to lay a firm foundation for quality early years services. The studies are available. They show that for every €1 invested in child care, there is a sevenfold return to the State in the long term. I refer to the benefits that allow parents who are often highly skilled and experienced the option to return to the workforce, if they so wish.

Section 8 of the Bill deals with approved child care providers and the need for them to register with the Child and Family Agency. That, of course, is a sensible provision. However, I have concerns about people who care for children in their own home and their ability to access various schemes. As things stand, childminders must be caring for four or more children before they are obliged to register with Tusla. It is estimated that there are between 19,000 and 35,000 childminders across the country. However, in September 2016 there were only 119 registered with Tusla. Last October, I asked for the number registered in 2017 and was told that the figure had dropped to just 118.

Many parents prefer to have their children cared for in childminding settings rather than in child care centres. We need to move forward on this issue in a way that is not only about assimilating childminders into centre-based care facilities. I recently met representatives of Childminding Ireland and found them very helpful. Good engagement between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and groups like it could prove to be useful. I refer to suggesting approaches to encourage more childminders to register with Tusla. Recently the Minister said she had received a report from the childminding working group of the early years forum. I look forward to reading it and some of the proposals made.

Good engagement between the Department and groups such as Childminding Ireland can only be useful in suggesting approaches to encourage childminders to register with Tusla.

Section 14 makes provision for vulnerable children and notes the need for additional supports where there is an identified need for child care on the grounds of child development or child welfare, which includes higher rates, more hours, wider age limits and so on. That is welcome as some children have greater needs than others. I would like to hear more about this process. How will it be streamlined to enable it to work? Will the onus be placed be on parents or the various bodies? The reason I ask is to make sure we avoid a scenario where a child whose parents are less knowledgeable about the scheme will receive less support than others. We need to tease out this issue and put safeguards in place to make sure a child will not be disadvantaged in that sense.

Section 14 also designates the Child and Family Agency to authorise additional payments where a child is not receiving adequate care and protection. I consulted Barnardos on this issue and its staff believe the provision is not far-reaching enough and implies that there needs to be some parental failure for the protection to be provided. Perhaps we might consider strengthening it with a more positive declaration such as a child "in need of additional care or protection...".

Section 17 provides for parents and child care service providers to request reviews of decisions made by the scheme administrator. That is welcome, particularly as decisions will be made through an automated process and while it could greatly reduce time and workload, there will always be cases in which a person believes a mistake has been made. At least, he or she will have the option to seek a review or appeal the decision, which is positive.

I refer to the administrative burden for child care providers. I understand much of this is down to chasing parents with paperwork and so on. I hope the planned IT system will reduce the workload. However, I understand it is unlikely that this system will be up and running before summer 2019. Undoubtedly, there will be teething problems, as is natural in such a large transition. I hope all of this will not result in a dramatic increase, if only in the short term, in administration work for staff in the centres. If that happens, are safeguards in place to ensure the burden or cost will not land on the providers' doorstep? As there is a staff shortage, this could put much more pressure on them.

One concern I have about the Bill relates to the incoming European directive known as the general data protection regulation. It will come into force in May and strengthen data protection for citizens. While that is positive, I wonder whether it has been factored into the roll-out of the scheme? I hope it has, as under the new guidelines, additional information must be given to users on how their data will be used. I would like to flag that measure in advance.

One aspect on which I want to focus is the pay and conditions of staff. The Minister will say she does not directly employ the staff and that, therefore, she cannot dictate the level of wages. However, her Department subsidises the cost of child care and sets conditions and standards that must be met. We must, therefore, focus seriously on pay and conditions in the sector in the coming years. They cannot be an afterthought. If we want qualified staff and to have people who love working with children and a real interest in educating the youngest minds, we must pay them decent wages. Many of them prefer to mind children in their own home to working in centre-based child care services. This is resulting in a shortage of qualified staff in the centres and a balance needs to be struck in that regard. We seriously need to get a handle on this issue. The Bill will be great for parents and children, but the staff working in the sector will be left behind.

Overall, I broadly welcome the Bill which is extremely important. It represents a huge step forward in building a truly world-class child care system. We need to ensure at all times that the interests of children are at the core of everything we do. I look forward to the Bill being brought before the committee.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, tacaím leis an mBille seo. Is dóigh liom go bhfuil luach ann agus go ndéanfaidh sé an-difríocht. Is dóigh liom go mbeidh luach ann ó thaobh costais de. Tá feabhas le déanamh air, cinnte, agus tá tuilleadh le déanamh ach d'fhormhór is rud maith é.

I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister for its introduction. It is a step forward. There is no doubt that child care provision is one of the most significant issues we face and that while the Bill represents progress, we are starting at the bottom of the mountain in that regard. The issue has been neglected for far too long. Child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD and Deputy Denise Mitchell is correct that for many, particular those living in large urban centres, they are equivalent to a second mortgage. As the Minister identified, they are a disincentive to people returning to work and also dictate decisions on where people live, which is wrong. We need to fix this, both from the point of view of what is good for the economy and investment but also, more importantly, for society.

Deputy Denise Mitchell raised the issue of childminders. There is no sense in subsidising people who are working without regulation or oversight. Clearly, standards are needed, but a sensible approach needs to be applied. We need to engage with childminders and work towards a system where it will be possible to regulate them and provide subsidies. Regulations need to be sensible and proportionate. Other countries such as Scotland have successfully encouraged substantial numbers of childminders into the regulated system and are subsidising them. That is important because this model is much more suitable for many parents, as it allows for greater flexibility and acts in the interests of childminders and those availing of the service. The service must be regulated because we cannot have poor standards or people being paid less than what is legal and right.

The cost of child care is raised with me as an issue on a regular basis in Cork. People outline what it is costing families on top of their mortgage, rent, insurance costs and so on. I am sure the Minister also comes across this, but, fundamentally, the issue is broader than that and related to early years education. It is not only about cost. We should view child care as integral to the education system. When the issue is debated, the debate should not revolve around the savings that could accrue to families, although that is important, as we should always be conscious of the need to maintain and improve standards, to which education is central. It is related, in turn, to sustainability.

I have raised this point with the Minister before. I hope it will be further addressed on Committee Stage. There are many community child care providers, many of which were among the first places to provide child care in this country. Some of the long established community development projects and family resource centres have provided child care for 20, 30 or 40 years. Some of them are quite challenged at the moment, particularly in respect of the issue of the low staff to child ratios which exist for baby rooms which we have discussed before. The changes in that regard were in many respects sensible and logical but they need to be supported with additional investment.

The suggestion of an enhanced subsidy has been made previously. That is certainly worthy of consideration. I know the Minister has considered the idea of a DEIS-type scheme, as some people have put it. There is some merit in that. Personally I would not favour attaching any such scheme to catchment areas as closely as the DEIS scheme is attached because the people who take up places in a child care facility can live in an area radically different from that in which the facility is located, much more so than in the case of schools. It is the nature of such things that people are more likely to travel to them. Regardless of the model chosen there needs to be an enhanced subsidy for child care providers and particularly for community child care providers in disadvantaged communities in recognition of the additional needs and challenges that exist in those communities and of the role they play and the value they have.

Another element of sustainability is obviously the issue of pay. All Deputies who have spoken so far have touched on it. It is a long standing issue and one on which the child care workers' representatives have been vocal for some time. It is not acceptable that people working in the sector, with the qualifications they have achieved and the time they have invested in their work and profession, are being paid what they are. Some people are earning barely more than minimum wage, approximately €10.30 to €10.60 an hour. Indeed managers are quite often not on a much higher rate. It is a sector in which the difference between what workers are paid and what managers are paid is often quite meagre. That is very often due to the tight margins. This clearly needs to be addressed. I spoke about quality earlier. We cannot possibly retain people who are committed, educated and well-trained in the sector unless they are properly rewarded, recognised and paid.

The issue of organising has been raised, and rightly so. It is important that child care workers organise and join a union. I welcome that and I commend SIPTU, IMPACT and the Association of Childcare Professionals for the work that they have done in that regard. However, we should not have to wait for the density of workers in the sector to reach a certain point before we deal with this. It is a matter for the Department. It may not be the employer in the vast majority of cases but it is the Department that decided on the model and estimated how much it would be required to pay child care workers under this scheme and the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. That calculation-----

Is Deputy Ó Laoghaire aware that there are only three minutes left for his colleague?

Yes. I am wrapping up now. The policy papers which were used to develop the ECCE scheme and this scheme were based on a calculation related to the report, Breaking Point, which already reflected a system which was, as the report describes, at breaking point. That was an unsustainable point at which to begin and the Department should recognise that.

My final point before I hand over to my colleague - and the Minister will not be surprised to hear me say it - is that in the medium to long term we need to move beyond simply subsidising private providers. If we are taking this seriously as an educational service, we need to move towards a public system and a publicly funded system. We will not achieve that immediately, but it is the direction in which we must move.

Deputy Nolan has two minutes and 12 seconds.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis chun labhairt-----

To be helpful I am happy to cede two or three minutes to Deputy Nolan.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta.

Does the House agree to that?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an Bhille seo a chur os ár gcomhair. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach agus táim lán-sásta a rá go bhfuilimid ag tabhairt tacaíochta dó. Maternal employment in Ireland is lagging critically behind other OECD countries. With Ireland sitting in 33rd position, way behind Sweden which is to the fore in first position, it is clear that the low level of participation by women in the workforce is the most significant contributor. As we know, it has been well documented by many sources that the lack of affordable child care is one of the most significant barriers to participation by women in the workforce. It inhibits both those already in employment from seeking increased hours of works and stay-at-home mothers from re-entering the workforce or education. According to a survey of 800 women undertaken by Citrix entitled the Baby Brain Drain, more that 3,000 mothers are leaving the workforce annually due to the excessive costs of child care and it is costing Irish companies an estimated €68 million.

Globally, maternal employment rates generally fell slightly following the start of the economic crisis in 2008, and in many cases have still not yet quite returned to pre-crisis levels. Not surprisingly, maternal employment rates tend to vary with the number of children living in the household. In most countries, employment rates for mothers decrease as the number of children increases, with the decline particularly large once the mother has three or more children who are 14 years old or younger. Universally, prohibitive child care costs are identified as the biggest single barrier to labour force participation and it is high time that child care services were viewed alongside transport or technology as an essential element of economic infrastructure. Enabling women who want to work, or want to work more, brings financial benefits to their own family incomes and also to the wider economy.

However labour market participation is not the only progression indicator on which Ireland is lagging. Across the OECD policy makers are concerned about child well-being and child development. Ireland’s ranking in this regard has been determined by poor investment in pre-school child development resources, where traditionally we have left it until primary school for such investment to take shape. Needless to say vulnerable children, such as those with an intellectual or sensory disability or pre-school children with special medical needs, are failed entirely in terms of equitable access to appropriate day care or pre-school interventions. I acknowledge that the Minister mentioned the area of access for children with special needs, but I would like to see more detail and I hope that it will involve truly inclusive interventions.

In respect of child care workers, we have to address the issue of pay. We have some fantastic, dedicated committed people in the child care sector and we need to keep them there. Their pay and conditions need to be examined. I call for that to take place. This Bill is definitely an important step on the way to bringing Ireland in line with international best practice. Investment in early years care and education will mean that more children are accessing affordable, quality services and that more women are facilitated to participate in the workforce both during the pre-school years and after the commencement of primary school and, indeed, are also afforded opportunities to participate in education. The Bill provides for universal and enhanced supports for families, based on an assessment of income model. It represents a major step forward in dealing with an historic underinvestment in child care which includes an underinvestment in children, women and child care workers. It is imperative that any investment in early childhood resources reaches to fair pay and conditions for workers in the sector, as I have already outlined, and that, minimally, they will be paid a living wage. In this centenary year celebrating women’s suffrage, mná na hÉireann are still having to negotiate parity of esteem on the most basic equality issue - equal access to the workforce and to education. Removing the obstacles to participation is a long overdue step.

I call Deputy Sherlock and thank him for his assistance.

Not at all. It was my pleasure.

We do not have Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, but we have Deputy Sherlock. He has the entire time slot.

I will be brief. I welcome the Bill. It is important that we have a codification of or legislative architecture around the system of child care support. I acknowledge the work that the Minister has done. We must likewise acknowledge the role of the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I also acknowledge the role of the committee's current and previous members in getting us to this point.

I wish to highlight a number of minor issues. We will have an opportunity to discuss them further and have a greater interaction with the Minister on Committee Stage. Barnardos has, through its policy officer, raised a couple of issues with me regarding sections 7, 14 and 15. I believe that it has written to all of us highlighting these issues and I would be surprised if it had not been in touch with the Minister's office and staff regarding them as well, given that it is an effective lobby group.

I seek clarification from the Minister concerning the IT architecture or infrastructure that will be set up. In September 2017, the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs received a report on the measures that would be put in place in respect of the ICT approval process. From a user's perspective, that process is a cornerstone of the scheme's future success.

According to the note that we received, the main ICT development of the affordable childcare scheme, ACS, was subject to the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer peer review group, PRG. The PRG had reviewed the business case and approval of same was received on 21 September, subject to some recommendations that the Minister's Department was satisfied it could meet. The next stage of the PRG process was to be the presentation of the request for tender for the procurement of the ICT development. The request for tender, including detailed functional requirements, was submitted to the PRG - acronyms, acronyms - and, according to the note, a meeting had been scheduled to discuss it.

That was September. This evening, and if the House will bear with me while I find her speech among my other papers, the Minister stated:

The development of the IT system, which is being carried out in close co-operation with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, is well under way and I have approved the publication of a request for tender for the IT system. While any delay is regrettable, the changes we introduced last September, which are broadly on a par with the supports that are planned for the affordable child care scheme, mean that more than 66,000 children and their families are already benefiting from increased child care subsidies.

I want to reconcile the two positions in my mind. Perhaps the Minister will revert to the House and clarify whether she believes that the IT system as it is being rolled out has the confidence of end users and whether its tyres have been kicked by them. The Minister and other Members will know that we have all received a considerable number of representations on this piece of architecture. If there is to be public confidence in the scheme, the ICT architecture has to be spot on.

I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister last week. It will be a flagrant use of an opportunity, but I will read the question now: "To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of a child vis-à-vis access to the ECCE scheme that will reach three years of age on 18 January 2019." I put this question because it is being asked of me, not just by one source, but by a multitude of sources. It goes to the heart of the new scheme in the form of the age criteria as we approach 2019. Although changes to the eligibility criteria were announced in the budget, questions are already being asked of parents. In one parent's case, the relevant date will be 18 January 2019. If a new scheme is being designed and placed on a statutory footing, questions will be asked about the sustainability of its funding. The language of the legislation has to be neutral in terms of funding, but will the Minister clarify this matter?

The committee made a number of recommendations at the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. Across a number of headings, the Oireachtas Library and Research Service's Bills digest put green, amber and red lights around some of those recommendations as well as the Bill's contents, for example, budget ceilings under head 1, the needs of vulnerable children under head 3, approved providers under head 6, and the issues of renting out the family home and family income supplement, FIS. A number of matters have been red-lighted when benchmarked against the committee's pre-legislative process. The Minister and her officials might have regard to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service's report and revert to us on some of the highlighted issues.

I wish to address the reconciliation between the FIS, the working family payment and the ACS. The Minister has referred to this matter, but perhaps we could have further elaboration on the result of the interaction between her Department and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as regards the sharing of data about people who are on one of the relevant schemes and the permutations if they sign up to the ACS.

These are headline issues at this stage. We will have a chance to delve deeper and submit amendments on Committee Stage. I acknowledge the Minister's role in getting the legislation to this point. Broadly speaking, there is support for the Bill. There will be further questions regarding the scheme's roll-out but, speaking on behalf of the Labour Party, we support the Bill's progress to Committee Stage.

I call Deputy Coppinger. Will she be sharing time with Deputy Gino Kenny?

Deputy Coppinger has the full 20 minutes.

We are entering a debate and approaching a referendum. It would seem that the same people who are very exercised in that debate do not have the same interest in child care after children are actually born, which is noteworthy.

The cost of child care for a single child can be 40% of a lone parent's income. In the context of increasing rents and mortgages, this cost can be a second mortgage for families. It is a major issue for young people and families. Why is it that the OECD average child care cost is 12.5% of net family income when the average in Ireland is more than double that at 27.5%?

As I said, if one is bringing up a child on one's own which, unfortunately, a lot of people in the country are, most of whom are women, it involves 41% of one's income because there is obviously only one income. Why does child care in Germany cost 9.7% and cost a similar amount in France? In Sweden the figure is 4.4%.

I did some research in the Blanchardstown-Dublin West area, which is a typical Dublin suburb with a lot of young families. The average crèche cost is €898. In France it is €200. In other countries it is a lot less. The reason is very simple. In this country, there is a reliance on private companies to provide child care for the majority of people in society and the State has failed over decades to intervene to ensure that is not the case. Unfortunately, in the scheme the Minister introduced, which was obviously a flagship scheme in the last budget from the Government, the subsidy to private crèches continued unabated. Private providers continue to benefit.

As a result, we have seen abuse of the scheme. We have all been inundated with anecdotes and examples of complaints. In Fingal, the area I represent, costs have risen by, on average, 7.7% according to a report on the affordability of child care in Ireland by Ciarán Nugent in December 2017. That information is very up to date. It is happening everywhere, not just in urban areas. The Minister has been inundated with complaints, according to articles I have read. What is she going to do about it?

Crèches are profiteering because they know parents are getting a subsidy. Therefore, they have decided to increase the cost. Parents will pay the same or even more, as many currently are. Alternatively, they are deciding not to join the scheme because they think it is too onerous, some fear the Government will control their businesses and others do not want to deal with the paperwork and administration involved. They may be small operations and it is not always the case that profiteering is taking place.

The Minister replied to the complaints and said she was monitoring the situation last summer. One parent from the Swords area, near my neighbourhood, said, "It was inevitable this was going to happen. We are disgusted. We struggle each month to pay these enormous child care costs and just can't believe the first bit of help has been taken from us." That feeling is widespread. People were looking for some relief and it has been snatched back because they are stuck with private child care providers who are not answerable to the State in any way. The person who contacted me said, "With respect, the time for monitoring has passed. The time for action is now."

Nothing has been built into the scheme. It has been amusing to read letters from Ministers about individuals who have contacted their offices, and the paper trail which tends to exist in some parties, rather than the core issues being addressed. This is happening all over Ireland, not just in Blanchardstown or Fingal. All Ministers have written to the Minister about the issue. What will be done about it?

The other issue with relying on the private sector to provide child care for parents, children and workers is that it is much more likely that people working in the sector are in precarious employment. Some 50% of child care workers work part time compared with an average of 40% of workers in general. I would estimate that about 99.99% of those working in child care are women, many of whom might be unemployed during the summer months because the scheme does not run during that time. The average hourly rate for workers in the sector is just over €10 an hour. They are low-paid women, have precarious employment and can be let go at any time. The recession hit many female workers, in particular child care workers, because many people could not afford to keep working due to the cost of child care.

The area I represent has a significant migrant population. Many nurses from India live there. They came to Ireland to work in the health service, and some of their partners have given up their jobs because they simply cannot afford to pay for child care. This is something which is prevalent throughout the area.

A significant majority of parents have been left out of the scheme, an issue which was raised at the time it was announced. According to the Growing Up in Ireland survey, 27% of parents use crèches, 42% use family or relatives and 31% use non-relative childminders for child care. The scheme is particularly unjust for shift workers, that is, those who have to work at night and cannot put their children into crèches which only operate during certain hours. They are being doubly hit because they cannot avail of any subsidy whatsoever. That is particularly unfair and nothing seems to have been considered which would take account of that fact.

I will start answering the question I posed at the start of my contribution. The reason we have such exorbitant child care costs is because parents are prey to the private sector and successive Governments, not just this one, have not been willing to invest any money in preschools or child care. UNICEF has set as a benchmark that 1% of GDP should be spent on child care and early education. OECD countries spend, on average, 0.7% of GDP, but Ireland spends 0.2%, as cited by the Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI. We are far below the recommended level. A number of countries exceed or reach the 1% expenditure rate, namely, France, New Zealand and the Nordic countries, those which provide affordable child care and invest a significant amount of money in it.

This is a significant issue for a large segment of our population who have children. In particular, it is a women's rights issue because child care invariably falls on the shoulders of women. Responsibility for organising and overseeing it falls, in general, on women and they have to weigh up whether they can afford to continue to work. Points have already been made about participation.

We need to stop the outsourcing of child care to the private sector. We need to provide public State child care for all parents, first of all to ensure that workers are decently paid. I would hate to think that my child is being minded by a disgruntled, unsatisfied worker who was under huge stress. We have all seen cases of this being exposed. It is simply unfair to expect somebody to provide child-centred child care when he or she is being grossly underpaid and is under stress. What would this cost?

To bring us to a level of being able to provide State child care which would employ 50,000 child care workers and invest €1 billion in capacity and the capital provision would total €2.5 billion. That might seem like a massive amount of money, but in the context of the wealth which exists in the country it is not. Ireland ranks about 15th in the OECD in terms of wealth. We all know the significant undertaxing of big business and multinationals. The figures are quite revealing.

The Scandinavian child care provision is something to which everybody aspires. Those countries have double the corporation tax rate that we have in this country. There is a direct link. If we refuse to tax wealth and massive corporations, we will not be able to provide State services. It is simply not tenable. If there is a low tax on wealth, the State cannot provide these services. The same neoliberal philosophy which runs through the child care sector is running through housing right now.

It means that child care costs are very high while rents are extremely high and house prices are rising. It is no wonder that many young people, graduate teachers etc. are choosing to emigrate because they simply do not see a future in this country. We need massive investment and to tax wealth to provide child care.

Why is preschool education considered to be any different to primary, second or third level education? Why should people have to pay a large part of their income for preschool education, which all studies show has massive benefits for children and society? It benefits literacy for children who avail of it when they come to primary school. I saw that as a teacher. If we value the importance of preschool and early education for children's development and development of the person, it should not be any different. In years to come that is how it will be viewed. We need to end this neoliberal outsourcing of essential needs to the private sector.

I am happy to speak on this Bill. While I understand that one of its main purposes is to provide a legislative underpinning for the establishment of a new national scheme which will provide financial support for child care through universal and targeted subsidies, I have major reservations about its likely impact and effectiveness. The problems at this stage are well known. I was involved in setting up a naíonra and was chairman of its board, in my village of Caisleán Nua, cúig nó deich bliain ó shin. I still have a peripheral involvement in trying to support it in any way I can. It is a wonderful institution organised by a voluntary board, brought from seed to purchase of a site, design, building and delivery. The former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, officially opened it for us. It is going well, providing exceptional care and tuition for the daoine óga, na cailíní agus na buachaillí óga, from preschool to under-fives and then to after school. I am delighted to be back visiting it again dropping off my granddaughter, Amy, who is four, any time I get a chance on a Monday or Friday. There is a lovely warm, welcoming atmosphere. It is a community effort and a huge employer in our small rural village.

We have seen how there is widespread fear among providers about the possibility of excessive State control of their businesses, and in particular how the scheme is set to increase an already overburdened sector with even more red tape. Red seems to be the word - dearg. Red tape and bureaucracy seem to be the hallmark of this Government, the previous Government and the one before that. It is so cumbersome and frightening. Speaking as a business person I know how difficult it is for a voluntary board and group to organise and run a child care facility, keep it going, give excellent care and comply with all the regulations, which it is bound to do, for health and safety, child welfare, and hazard analysis and critical control point, HACCP, where food is involved. I support all that but it is bonkers to use a word used by the Minister’s Cabinet colleague on budget day about the unfairness of the pension anomalies introduced by the former Minister, Deputy Burton, in 2012. She does not like to be reminded of that but that is what it was. There have been a couple of schemes for early childhood schools and we should be able to make them less bureaucratic, more user-friendly for the child, na daoine óga, the buachaillí agus na cailíní óga, their parents and guardians and the staff and management of the child care unit. Instead, the Government does not seem to be able to grasp this. I am not laying all of it but a good lot of it at the Minister's door. She is the boss. Surely to God the officials and senior officials could learn to do something less cumbersome with less red tape.

The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, said several times during the talks to form this Government, and when he formed the Government, that it was new politics, new arrangements. He said the public had given them a right good wallop and he could not form a Government without the help of Independents. The Minister jumped in with him very surprisingly. We had a meeting one day and we are all ad idem on not voting for anyone and few minutes later the Minister was signed up to Enda's wagon. That is her prerogative and decision. I wish her well and she can suffer the consequences as well, whichever way it goes. Whatever way she wants her cake, she can eat it. He promised and committed time and again that with the change that came from the voters who wanted change and new politics there would be a sea change in the public service, especially in senior public service, but nothing has changed. It has got worse. We were promised rural-proofing of legislation - not at all. To hell with rural Ireland, once there is plenty of money to invest in Dublin. All the thinking is Dublin-centric and to hell with all small providers and voluntary boards.

It was women in the main who started minding children and then got into the system and provided wonderful care and tuition to our very vital future, our young. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad. Nothing has changed. It is more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Pobal was set up by Albert Reynolds when we were dealing with the other group responsible for child care funding - I cannot remember what it was - and it was supposed to cut out the red tape and streamline it. Instead, it has added layer and layer. It would be a great organisation for a person to go out in on a winter's night because they would be well-clothed, well-warmed and would not get the cold as they would this evening because there are layers of bureaucracy.

Families have been in touch with me to say that they simply cannot find child care providers willing to operate under the proposed scheme. I am sure they are telling every other Teachta Dála the same thing. If the Minister had done any little impact analysis of the effect of this scheme, she would know that herself. She does know it but there are none so blind as those who do not want to see. There are cosy arrangements and the Minister is happy to let them drift on and let the providers go to hell or to Connacht. The providers are telling parents that they will not sign up and so the parents are being left high and dry. That is an awful situation for couples, parents, single parents, guardians and whatever. They are trying to keep their employment to pay their mortgages to keep a roof, they are trying to keep up the numbers to keep the child care in their area going and then they are being told sorry and they are being left high and dry. That is a very difficult situation for them to be in with their employers and some of them are self-employed. The apparent solution has in fact become very much part of the problem.

I also want to address the fact that while the Bill provides for childminders to mind children in the childminder's own home, which I welcome, it is effectively useless when it comes to supporting those parents who wish to be supported after deciding to mind their own children at home. That is an awful problem. There seems to be something wrong with allowing our children to be educated at home. Everything is geared to forget the excellent homemakers. I salute the homemakers who day and night look after their children at home. It was a noble profession that served this State well down through the centuries. We were all well looked after at home, thank God, and good values were instilled in us. Now the home is the last place the Minister wants children to be. She wants them farmed out to any place bar home. It is unbelievable that this is the situation. The Bill is useless when it comes to supporting those parents who wish to be supported after deciding to mind children at home.

Time and again we have seen research which proves that public policy should be a response to what the public actually want unless there is a strong, compelling reason to do otherwise. That is a telling line. We are whizz kids and new people but the Labour Party carries a lot of the blame for this too.

It could not wait to get all this liberal legislation. It gave us a diet of it for five years here. I warned time and time again that it would not get it a lot of votes and it did not. It came back with six or seven Deputies. I said they would come back in a car but they came back in an eight-seater. It gave us a diet of it for years from Ruairí Quinn down.

Child care policy is mainly about early years care because that is when children are most dependent. These are vital years. When people are asked about what they regard as the best child care option for children under the age of five, research reveals that only a small minority, at 17%, see placing a child in day care as the most desirable option. These are not my figures. They come from research in case the Minister thinks they are my figures. I said earlier that I am not backward. I am not speaking from the caves. I am speaking as a man who was chairman of a naíonra I set up. I am not anti-child care. I am all for it but we cannot beat children out of the home like we would beat rabbits out of the bushes. "Don't have them at home" is a disaster as far as I am concerned. However despite this, the Government, and this Minister for children in particular, seem absolutely intent on bulldozing through a policy that is in no way responsive to the actual desired preferences of parents when it comes to child minding options.

The statistics are there if the Minister wants to look at them but she brings her own flavour and very personal stamp to this. I do not like it, will not accept it and will rail against it anywhere I can. We have to ask ourselves why that is the case. The Minister even rejects and flies in the face of research carried out by respected organisations. Just what has this Government and this Minister got against parents who do not wish to send their children to crèches and day care but who instead wish to be supported in their preference to look after their children at home? That is a very frank question and I hope the Minister will address it when she replies to me.

What has she got against families who want to keep their children at home, educate and mind them at home and give them the best nurturing and bonding they can get in their own traditions in the home in a safe environment? The previous Bill this evening was about cyberbullying. The safest place for children is in the home but, unfortunately, the homes have been penetrated by the Web, emails and everything else. At the very least, the State should adopt a neutral approach when it comes to making provision for child care and the manner in which subsidies are directed. At the very least, the Minister should do this but the fact that she wants to continue her vision and passion to take it away from the home is very concerning - for me anyway. I am sure other people can speak for themselves. Instead what we are seeing is a concerted push to drive parents into the workplace when in the majority of cases, it is their express wish to remain either at home or to be employed part time so they look after children at home. We are seeing "push, push, push into the workplace" the whole time so the Government can get the figures down and talk about "recovery, recovery and recovery", which was the Fine Gael mantra during the last election. It did not get it very far either because it is false and involves juggling and manicuring figures.

The pressure is put on individual parents all the time. Far from respecting the wishes of parents, and women in particular, and the Minister is a woman, this Bill is actually extremely anti-woman. There is evidence to prove that. How do we know this? The available data makes it clear. The national household survey from the third quarter of 2016, this is not 20 years ago, produced by the Central Statistics Office, which we all trust, showed that 315,000 women were working part time compared with 146,000 men. This is a telling figure in itself. However, 83% of part-time working women did not regard themselves as underemployed. The equivalent figure for men was 67%. These are not my figures. They are from a report produced by the CSO in the third quarter of 2016, which is little over a year ago.

What this Bill will ultimately do is entrench a systemic level of unfairness into the options around child care provision. I believe that. We talk about equality. We all rant and rave about it but where is it here? We are going in the opposite direction. We are saying one thing and doing the other. That is why I would have great difficulty supporting the Bill, even if I understand the need to offer working parents relief on exorbitant child care costs. The costs are quite exorbitant, particularly in the cities and particularly this city. These are added to the costs of transport and everything else.

I appeal to the Minister to go back to the drawing board, to reflect on some of what I have said, possibly answer my questions and issue retorts if she feels what I have said is inaccurate or misleading. I am saying this honestly. I have a large family and have had experience of them being minded at home and then being sometimes minded by neighbours or women who minded a couple of children in their homes. Indeed, I had children who went to the naíonra about which I spoke earlier so I have wide experience.

I went through the university of life in this area. I now have grandchildren, one aged four who is attending the naíonra and one aged 15 months who is being minded in a house by an excellent carer in Cluain Meala so I have a fair bit of experience. There is nothing like walking the walk if you want to talk the talk. You have to get down and dirty if you want to understand what really goes on. There are a lot of problems here and I am very unhappy with this legislation. I am unhappy about a number of pieces of legislation that all seem to emphasise that women must get out of the home and that they are not home makers anymore. They must be out in a place of employment. Then we wonder why we have problems with our young people and teenagers.

The home bond is the most vital of all - with the mother in the first instance and indeed the father or whatever arrangement there is. You will never buy it and you cannot package it. You cannot even aspire to it. It is there and is very real and tangible. It is true love and is nurturing. Whatever faith the parents have, they can pass it on and nurture children in their own beliefs, ways, habits and practices.

Apart from the cost of it and the unfairness of it in that area, there is unfairness regarding small child care providers at home and the community groups. This cannot all be commercial or commodified as if it is a commodity we are looking after. They are our future. When we are long imithe as an tír, we hope they will be around and raising their families. I believe an undermining situation is happening and I do not like it and will rail and fight against it. The unfairness and red tape are separate aspects because if we want a scheme to be successful, we do some kind of impact analysis and ask the people. We should ask the administrators of what used to be the county childcare committees, on which I also served. I served on them a number of times so I have a fair bit of experience in this field apart from being a father and a granddad. I served in all those areas. We should ask them.

I could not say enough about the HSE officials we dealt with at the time, like Phil Mackey and many others. Ask them how they are getting on. They are getting the feedback. They are getting it between the eyes every day of the week. The regime is so regimented. It is like a blindfolded jennet running so far that it cannot be stopped. Stop, halt, stad and just listen. Do not be afraid to go back and correct the mistakes before more of them are made and we lose many valuable small providers of child care in their homes and some very small community crèches. There are exceptional centres from Carrick-on-Suir right up to Kilsheelan to Clonmel. Several of them are in Clonmel. They are also in Cahir and my own village of Caislean Nua na Suir and right up to Cashel, Tipperary Town and Bansha. They are all over the place - Greenacres, Little Treasures. So many of them have wonderful names. All they want is to be allowed to continue to provide and pass on that nurturing care and early education to those young children and that we entrust them with the care of our children. They love it. They would not do it otherwise. It is a passion and vocation. They continue up into north Tipperary to Thurles and all the towns and villages. They are the lifeblood of the community because we have taken away everything else.

The last bastion was the public house and that is under permanent attack from the Minister, Deputy Ross. Let them flourish.

Little Treasures, a wonderful institution, is the one I could not think of in New Inn. We had a problem earlier this year with bus tickets, but they are so helpful; they drop off the children at 7 a.m. and mind them until they get on a bus to go to national school. They take them in again in the evening. The parents have a huge bond with those groups and those well-run and managed crèches because they would not leave their kids otherwise; none of us would. It would be unnatural to leave them some place that we did not trust or did not like.

What I do not like about this is that I do not trust the Government. While it is nothing personal, I do not trust the Minister's bona fides in the area. I do not like what I see. I do not like the angle that is being pushed, manoeuvred and manipulated to try to ensure the last place children are minded is in the home. We have so many homeless and then we try to undermine the homes we have. We have a lot to learn in this.

I know the Minister is new; I expected different and better from her. However, we are where we are, as the saying goes. I appeal to her to make haste slowly here, go back to the drawing board and examine the flaws in this. These are not my words. There is noted research from reputable companies and the CSO. We also have an examination from HSE and Tusla officials who are dealing with institutions. They will tell the Minister very fast that it is a failure.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Childcare Support Bill. The main purpose of the Bill is to provide a statutory basis for a new national scheme to provide financial support for children through universal and targeted subsidies. This scheme will also be called the affordable childcare scheme, ACS. The scheme will be open to all Tusla-registered child care providers, including Tusla-registered childminders. The Bill, if enacted, will allow specified persons, public bodies and agencies, including the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners, to share relevant personal information on applicant families so the system can calculate a family's affordable childcare scheme subsidy.

By making child care more affordable, the scheme aims to support children's participation in quality child care, to support parents' participation in the labour market and through both these effects to reduce child poverty. The Irish child-care system is one of the most expensive in the world. Irish families pay far more out-of-pocket fees than the OECD average.

Child care groups have highlighted low pay and unsustainable working patterns as barriers to recruitment in the sector. They also highlight the increasing demand placed on child-care workers to hold formal qualifications and claim that these are driving workers out of the sector.

The affordable childcare scheme will replace the community childcare subvention, CCS, programme and its various sub-programmes, including CCS plus, CCSRT, and CCS universal. It also replaces the childcare education and training support programme, CETS; the after-school childcare programme, ASCC; and the community employment childcare programme, CEC. The early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, commonly known as the free preschool year, will continue.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs expects that the new affordable childcare scheme will be more accessible than the existing targeted schemes. The affordable childcare scheme will have a single set of criteria, based on parental net income. However, some families where the parent is not working or in training will face a reduction in the child care subsidies under the proposed scheme. These families currently receive full-time subsidised child care but under the affordable childcare scheme will only be eligible for a maximum of 15 hours per week of child care subsidies.

In addition the affordable childcare scheme deducts hours of participation in school or in early childhood care and education from the number of affordable childcare scheme hours available. These families will only be eligible for affordable childcare scheme subsidies outside school term times. Currently they may qualify for part-time child care subsidies during the term times.

By streamlining the existing targeted schemes the Department of Children and Youth Affairs hopes to make them more accessible to parents and providers; provide a fair and consistent scheme of progressive financial support towards the cost of child care with the focus on low-income families, incorporating universal supports; and provide a robust and flexible platform for future investment in Irish child care.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs believes providing subsidies to child-care providers is preferable to providing tax credits to families. The regulatory impact analysis of the affordable childcare scheme states:

While acknowledging the simplicity of channelling funding through the tax system, the report highlighted the lack of progressivity in tax credit funding (with support focused on families in the tax net) and the lack of scope of such funding to leverage other objectives of State-supported child care, particularly quality improvements.

The Bill, if enacted, will allow specified persons, public bodies and agencies to exchange personal information on the applicant family in order to assess eligibility and entitlement. It is envisaged that the Revenue Commissioners will provide income data to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection so the system can automatically calculate a family's affordable childcare scheme subsidy.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has stated that it expects demand for child care to increase as a result of the scheme, but there is uncertainty about the level of increase. The Department estimates the cost of the scheme as being between €127 million to €149 million in a full year, but states that this may rise to €165 million and to €193 million. However, as noted in the Department's policy paper on the affordable childcare scheme, the additional cost will be less than this figure when the cost of the targeted schemes currently in place is taken into account.

What effect will the Bill have on parents? Waiting lists for child care could increase if the sector does not have the capacity to deal with the increasing demand the new scheme is expected to create. Payments are made to the providers, but there is no guarantee that this will be passed on to the parents in the form of lower child-care fees. Some stakeholders believe that the requirement for formal qualifications in child care among child-care workers will lead to higher child-care costs for parents.

What effect will the Bill have on child-care workers and service providers? In order to participate in the affordable childcare scheme, child-care workers will need a qualification in child care. Some stakeholders claim that requirement for formal qualification, combined with low pay is causing recruitment difficulties and driving some child-care providers out of the sector.

We must look after our children and ensure the child care is up to scratch. We must also look after the workers. It is important that we get the right people who are properly qualified. We must make it affordable for parents. When parents leave their children they need to know they will be looked after well.

I disagree with my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath. I believe the Minister has come into the job very open-minded. She has done a fantastic job and she always listens. Anyone I have spoken to has nothing but praise for her. It is very important that we look after the future of our children.

I keep emphasising the cost. An earlier speaker said that for a single parent or families with low income it is important that we make it affordable. The Minister is taking the right route. When providers receive the money it is important that they try to reduce their fees which are very high currently.

Ireland is a good country to live in. It is great that the economy is nearly back to full employment. It is important to get people out of the house and into work. I wish the Minister the best; she has my full support.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Childcare Support Bill. The Bill when enacted will among other things introduce new and welcomed financial supports aimed at assisting low- and middle-income families to meet the cost of providing child care. During the 2016 general election campaign despite what some politicians in this House tried to make us believe, water was not the major issue on the doors. Real issues such as housing and job creation along with accessing affordable child care were the prominent issues on the doorsteps in the Sligo-Leitrim constituency.

That is why I am delighted to speak in support of this Bill which aims to achieve just that. This legislation is real evidence that the Government has listened to the concerns of young parents. It is also further proof that the Government is attempting to address some of the concerns relating to the costs associated with child care.

If enacted, the Bill will facilitate the introduction of the Government's new affordable child care scheme to the public. The new scheme will provide financial supports to parents to help them to meet the costs of child care. These will include income-related supports that will be targeted at low-income families, non-income-related supports that will be available on a universal basis and additional supports for families with an identified need for child care on grounds of child welfare or child development. By making child care more affordable, this scheme is aimed at supporting children's participation in quality child care, supporting parents' participation in the workplace and, through both of these efforts, reducing child poverty, which is a major aspect of the Bill. By giving a statutory basis to the scheme’s rules, procedures and IT systems, the Bill will also provide a robust framework for future investment in child care. On this basis, it can be viewed in this instance as being progressive legislation that can act as a building block for further investment in child care in the future.

Some key elements of the Bill include provisions for the appointment of a scheme administrator. It will ensure the establishment of an application process for parents and an income assessment process so that those in real need of assistance can be identified quickly and supports provided rapidly. It will give rise to the creation of a statutory basis for data-sharing arrangements. It is intended that this will enable the income assessment process to be largely automated through data-sharing arrangements with other Departments and agencies thus minimising waiting times. Finally, it will introduce the payment of subsidies on behalf of parents to participating registered child care providers who must use these subsidies to offset the fees charged to parents. However, I must note that, there are real concerns with this particular aspect of the Bill that may need to be addressed as we move forward. We have heard of many supported crèches simply increasing their charges for attendance in order to observe this State support. This leaves the family no better off than before and needs closer attention.

The affordable child care scheme will replace a number of existing administrative child care support schemes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme. In particular, the income assessment process within the scheme will involve a move away from the current schemes' reliance on social welfare payments and medical cards as a way of assessing financial need for child care and, as such, will enable the targeting of child care supports at those with the greatest need, particularly families who are seeking to enter the labour market but who have low incomes. The scheme is also intended to improve administrative efficiency and streamline application and registration procedures for parents and for child care providers. The latter can only be welcomed. I look forward to the new measures being introduced and I look forward to seeing other measures, such as a potential tax credit for families in order to help them reduce costs further, being brought forward.

There are almost eight minutes left. Does Deputy Farrell want to use it or wait for his own slot?

I will wait for my own slot.

I believe Deputy Neville is sharing time.

He is further down but if he wishes to take the seven minutes now, I will give the time to him. Is that okay with Deputy Donnelly?

I thank the Chair and the Opposition. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and have been for some time. I have worked closely with the Minister on the issues relating to this. I want to place on record the fact that I believe the Minister has done extremely well with this and has displayed with a very proactive attitude in trying to address the concerns highlighted by my colleague, which were raised during the election campaign. I am getting a nod from the Opposition that this was raised in the election campaign of 2016. I come from a rural constituency. Child care was one of the main issues raised at doors. Perhaps my age meant that people spoke to me much more about it. It was a huge issue at people's doors at the time because the economy was on the rise, people wanted to get back to work and the affordability of child care was a stumbling block for people to get back to work. They were caught in that trap. As we progress with the economy, we need to tackle that. There are historic issues here since there has been neglect in this area over successive Governments. Child care costs have been excessively high so we are tackling that culture and, for want of a better word, trying to institutionalise this and bring it forward.

This is coupled with other cross-departmental moves to show people that the Government's attitude across those Departments is trying to marry them with this scheme. For example, children under six get free GP care. Some 10,000 children now qualify for a medical card, which has been extended to those in domiciliary care. There are 47,000 extra breakfast club places. Back to school clothing and footwear allowance was increased by 25%. We can see this as a cross-departmental Government policy. That is a reaction to what we heard at people's doors in 2016 and why we are trying to put this into place. An extra €20 million extra for the scheme has been allocated in budget 2018. Capitation rates for providers of the ECCE programme will increase by 7% in September 2018. There will also be increases in funding for Tusla. The two weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers has been introduced for the first time in the history of the State, all part of this overall cross-departmental attitude. That conveys the Government's attitude regarding what we are trying to do here, namely, facilitating people getting back to work and balancing that with rearing families. In other words, ensuring that there is a work-life balance.

I spoke to the Minister about the roll-out of the scheme at a meeting of the joint committee. We are progressing with the IT system to try to reduce cost and the administrative burden in actually applying. Requirement-gathering, putting this system in place and getting it up and running will be key to the scheme's success. We have seen IT systems fail in this House before, well before my time, with personnel, payroll and related systems, PPARS, in the health services back in 2005 or 2006. I believe, since then, that there has been a psychological fear relating to IT systems, that there would be ongoing costs and unforeseen outcomes. We have to be on point in that regard. We should have our own in-house team which is on a par with external consultants but which has ownership and power over these systems. The last thing we want is to have all that power go to an outsourced IT company that can push a button and bring the entire system down if a disagreement occurs or if an unforeseen issue arises.

If we get this right, we can roll out that model to the mental health services, for example, since we have seen in our committee that the IT systems there are insufficient. We are trying to get real-time reporting, particularly financial reporting, that we cannot get as public representatives. We are asked to provide a budget but we are not given real-time financial reporting. If one works in the private sector, is accountable for a budget and asks for real-time financial reporting, one will, particularly in the aftermath of the crash, get it in an instant. We need to start marrying that across here so that we can use those analytics to make informed choices about the business function for us as the business users, not as a financial function. That is a big problem in the mental health services. I know I am digressing but I think we can use this model. I know we will be successful if we use and roll out that particular model, although it will be a different IT system. The way the business system integrates with IT would generate success with that, particularly around administration and for ease of application as well. When the end users come to use this, it should be well-tested and simple. It should not be bureaucratic for the end user. If one looks at any business user, particularly owners of child care, they want to concentrate on the function of what they do. The business side is more difficult for them, so if we can make that administration easier, it would be much more successful on the ground.

As I said at the outset, the overall contribution to this was to show that, cross-departmentally, the Government is focusing and listening. I look forward to working closely with the Minister and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Farrell, on this issue. We are on a stepping stone. We introduced measures in 2017 and are bringing more forward this year. We hope to roll this out in 2019 or 2020.

I am delighted to welcome the Second Stage debate on the introduction of the single affordable childcare scheme. Prior to the Minister's much elevated status she and I worked closely in the previous Dáil on some detailed child care policies and I know this measure means a lot to her. It has been well thought through and is being well led but it is but one step on a long road. Earlier this evening I had a coffee in this building with a young parent whose partner took time off work to care for their child and now needs to return to work. However, given the cost of child care in Wicklow, even having only one child it is not affordable for her to return to work.

We all know the cost of child care is crippling. For many, it is similar to a second mortgage. A few years ago when putting together a budget submission I calculated that for a couple to get to where their household cash would be if the returning mother or father did not go to work, he or she would have to earn €50,000 or more. In Wicklow, the annual cost for two children in a crèche could easily be €25,000 in fully taxed cash with no tax deductibles. To get €25,000 in cash, a person must earn €50,000. The ESRI reckons it costs about €10,000 to go to work, in cash terms and to get that, a person has to earn €20,000. Adjusting each amount a little for tax between a couple the earnings would have to be approximately €60,000. In Wicklow, a person who has two children and wants to return to work would have to earn €60,000 as a PAYE worker per year to get to zero. That person would not be able to afford even an additional Mars bar at the end of the year.

I apologise for not being here for the Minister's Second Stage speech but I was in my office writing my own speech. One of the points made by the Minister in her speech, however, is that this measure will help parents transition to employment, thereby making work pay for families on low and moderate incomes. A mother or father returning to work on an €80,000 per annum salary - which is a really good salary - is probably better off to the tune of about €10,000 at the end of the year, Consequently, I put it to the Minister that it is not just about low and moderate-income families, although that is the group this scheme is targeted at. One should not forget that a mum or dad returning to work on an €80,000 salary probably will end up with only €10,000 of that in his or her pocket, which is crazy.

What do we do? We know that average costs in Ireland are almost double the European average. If one were looking at this from the outside, one might form the view that if we are double the European average and if there is a market for child care, then clearly the honest, decent parents of Ireland are being ripped off by greedy cartel-like child care providers, such as occurs in the telecommunications or insurance sectors, but we all know that is not the case. We know that most child care providers - pretty much every child care provider I have ever spoken to - is making a very modest income. Many of them are just breaking even and something needs to be done about that. What is the problem? The problem is that as a country we are not investing enough of our tax take in supporting high quality affordable child care and early years education. I acknowledge that the Minister, were she a benevolent dictator, would invest more of our tax take in early years and children, as would I. As we start to consider the fiscal space for next year, where hopefully there will be a bit of room, we need to reflect on that when considering tax cuts. It is easy for us to talk about tax cuts. Maybe it plays well before an election, maybe not, but every tax cut essentially means less money to help lone parents and low-income families out of poverty traps or even to get reasonably high-earning people into a position whereby the mum or dad - usually the mum as this is a very gender-based issue - can return to work and continue with his or her career. It will take time for that to happen but the affordable childcare scheme is a welcome move in that direction.

The new affordable childcare scheme will also simplify the process for parents as it replaces a number of schemes. As Deputies, we do not qualify for any of the targeted interventions and that is as it should be but in preparation for this debate, as a parent I reviewed the different schemes online, including the community childcare subvention scheme, the child care education, training and support programme, the after-school child care programme, the community employment childcare programme and so on. Figuring out for which scheme one is eligible is incredibly complicated and even if one can figure that out, figuring out what band one falls into is another problem. I also reviewed the Department's notes. The eligibility criteria include a medical card, a GP card, low income, in education but not all education, in further training but not all further training and so on. For a person to get the €43 per week to which he or she is entitled, he or she may have to apply to three different agencies who, in turn, have to refer the application to a particular group and the service provider who must be registered with Tusla and to the county council. It is a nightmare. As a parent of three boys, I know that parents' heads are busy and struggling parents and lone parents' heads are really busy. Finding the time to sit down and work out all of this stuff is a real problem. I welcome that all of those schemes are being replaced by one scheme.

There are various provisions in the legislation that can be improved as it progresses through the Houses. I also reviewed this scheme on the Department's website to see if I could get my head around it. It, too, is complicated. We know that there is a universal payment. In other words, regardless of whether a person earns €50,000 or €1 million per annum, he or she will receive a payment of €900 or €1,000 per annum or €20 per week and that below €48,000 the payment increases. What we do not know is whether there is a step change or if the payment increases quickly. I appeal to the Department and to every civil servant in the country to keep it simple so that it can be understood by people like me and others. I am glad that the myriad of eligibility rules are being simplified. It is incredibly difficult to understand what one might be eligible for. The criteria also act as barriers. As Deputies we all know there are people who should be getting access to payments but who fall between the stools. It may be that they have a GP card but they live in the wrong country and so on. What I like about this scheme is that it rids us of some of those unintended barriers. For example, parents in low-income employment or self-employment who are ineligible for family income supplement have found themselves excluded from a particular type of scheme for which they should have been eligible based on their income. Some parents in education and training courses do not qualify for the child care education and training support but will qualify for this scheme, which is very important.

I would like to make a few suggestions on how we could improve the Bill. I accept there were IT issues, which delayed the roll-out of the scheme. Hopefully, they have all been resolved. On progressivity, if I understand it correctly, regardless of a person's income he or she will get a payment. I made the point earlier that even households on pretty good incomes are crippled by child care costs. The amount a person has to earn for it to be worth his or her while returning to work is huge. A person who has two or three children would need to earn a huge wage to do that.

I understand the thinking behind a universal payment but it might be worth considering capping it at some level. I am not convinced that giving the payment to someone earning €250,000 is a good way to spend the money. I am not sure there are many people with young children earning €250,000. Maybe the money would be better targeted towards the lower and moderate ends.

I wish to address an issue that my colleague has touched upon. There appears to be a lack of choice. I understand there is Tusla registration, which accounts for approximately one in five children in early-years settings at present. There is a bias, therefore, towards centre-based care. Obviously, very many parents use child minders or small-scale provision. As the Minister laid out in her speech, the scheme is creating the framework for something else. It would be unfortunate if it created a bias against child minders, in whom we need to invest and who need training and quality control. I would certainly like to see this explored as the Bill makes its way through the Oireachtas.

As an aside, I am aware that some child care providers have been putting up their prices in line with recent Government changes in a way that is very confusing for many parents. Deputy Rabbitte, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, will be introducing a Bill to achieve transparency in child care pricing. This is important.

The Minister's Bill is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, however, we need to see the same respect, investment and standards applied to early years education, child care provision, crèche-based care and childminder care as are applied to teachers. Our primary school system is phenomenal. Our teachers are phenomenal but they are held to a very high standard. They are remunerated and protected with pensions and sick pay. Obviously, our child care providers do not have these. I would love to see early years education treated with the same respect as primary and further education and subject to the same degree of accountability and standards. I wish the Minister good luck with the Bill.

Fianna Fáil welcomes the introduction of the Childcare Support Bill, for which we and the parents of the State have been waiting since the single affordable child care scheme was first announced in budget 2017. As a mother of three, my youngest being 12, I was always dependent on family support for child care. Even tonight as I stand here, I am depending on my mother at home to look after my youngest. We are all very aware of how important child care is.

This Bill enables the operation of the single affordable child care scheme, which consolidates existing child care subsidy schemes into a single streamlined scheme with targeted subsidies for lower-income families and a universal subsidy for middle-income and other families. This will provide much needed support for parents for whom children's costs have become similar to a second mortgage. There is many a day on which people come into my office under severe pressure because of costs. If one has two or three children under six or seven years, child care represents a very significant cost. It can cost as much as a mortgage. Child care is all about choices. The choice some families have to make is between having both parents work outside the home to try to meet the costs and having one parent stay at home when the children are very young. It is all about choices. These choices are very difficult to make.

I am familiar with couples who work shifts in various factories, especially in Waterford. They might work based on three eight hour rotations. There are plenty of families in which both parents work opposite shifts. One might do the early shift, from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m., and the other might work from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. so one of them will always be at home to mind the child. Obviously, it is very hard on family life because people cannot spend a lot of time with one another. Owing to the prohibitive cost of child care, these are some of the options families have to choose from.

I am disappointed about the overall manner in which these child care measures have been handled. First, the delay in the delivery of the scheme has caused significant uncertainty for parents and providers. It has also prevented as many as 9,000 families from availing of their promised level of subsidy. I do not doubt for a minute the intentions behind the Bill but, unfortunately, the Government promised to deliver these measures by September 2017. Owing to chronic delays with the ICT infrastructure, in addition to delays with the legislation, these measures have yet to be delivered. It is now January 2018 and I sometimes doubt whether the scheme will actually be delivered. I hope it will because the children of the country and their parents are dependent on it.

The current circumstances are causing uncertainty and inconvenience for parents and child care providers alike. It is indicative of a total lack of joined-up thinking and planning. As matters stand, the affordability and sustainability of child care leave much to be desired. We cannot blame the Minister for that. Whereas the OECD average cost of child care represents approximately 12.6% of net family income, the figure in Ireland stands at approximately 27.4%. That is an absolutely huge proportion of any pay packet. When one factors in mortgage payments, car payments and the cost of the basics, some people are really left stranded.

There is a lot of talk about middle Ireland. I regard middle Ireland as involving two parents in a household working hard. They might have two or three children. They might be trying to educate some of them and to have the others minded. By the time every bill is paid at the end of the week, there is very little left. This is why I welcome the introduction of the Bill but I am worried about some of the issues that have already been raised.

I am a bit worried about the tendering process to establish and operate the IT system for the single affordable child care scheme. It has only recently begun in earnest. This is a key piece of the scheme. Without a centralised portal for parents to input their income details and child care arrangements, it will not be possible for the scheme to be administered. I listened to Deputy Donnelly with interest. He said he had considered the scheme, gone online and found it difficult. Why has it taken so long to put the scheme out to tender? The details should have been worked out prior to the announcement of the scheme. Sometimes when we introduce legislation, there are unintended consequences. Maybe this is one of them. The Minister needs to provide a deadline for the awarding of the contract. This is extremely important. Parents need to be sure this will happen.

Another issue raised with me by parents is that they feel the scheme will not allow them much choice and flexibility regarding their child care arrangements. To avail of the subsidy, parents will have to have all their child care provided through centre-based care. Currently, fewer than 20% of children are cared for full-time in crèches. The remainder are cared for by relatives or childminders, or a mix of both, and there is really no provision for these families. As a mother who has depended significantly on family support over the years, I believe this is a matter we can consider in the future. Parents still feel they have not a lot of choice or flexibility and that they cannot opt for a mix of centre-based and informal care, or at-home care, such as a childminder or relative. Fianna Fáil believes we should be examining means to support these families, possibly through the use of a tax credit. I hope the Minister will consider this.

Before I finish, I wish to touch on the impact on vulnerable families. We know there are many vulnerable families. Currently, certain low-income households are eligible for highly subsidised full-time child care places, even when one or both parents are not working. These arrangements recognise that not all families have the same needs and that a person's participation in the labour force is not the only determinant of child care needs.

For lone parents, for example, it may be impossible to seek and begin work if they are not already participating in a highly subsidised child care scheme. Once again, I congratulate the Minister on her work to date in bringing this Bill forward. There are a few issues that arise but I have no doubt they can be dealt with later on.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward this Bill. I know that she and the Department have put a significant amount of work into producing the Bill for the House. The legislation has already gone through the committee I have the privilege of chairing. I recognise each and every one of the members, past and present, and the former Chairman now Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for their contributions to this process.

I will start by echoing some of the remarks made by Deputy Donnelly. I accept that the complexity of the child care schemes that are available is confusing. The Department and the Minister accept that. The approach being adopted by the Department on the Bill and the provisions contained within it will clearly simplify the process. There is, however, a number of outstanding aspects of child care in general that this Bill will not capture and it is only a certain percentage of the market which is covered under the provisions of this Bill. As has already been said, we must recognise the role childminders play in informal after-school environments whether that is the next door neighbour, the grandmother or whoever else looking after children of school-going age. Everybody in this Chamber is fully aware of the complexities and these are matters we must address.

The Minister outlined eloquently in her contribution, as did other Members who spoke, the difficulties we have with the low overall investment the State has traditionally put into child care and child care service providers in comparison to other countries within the OECD. The Minister outlined that we were bottom of the list and that we are aiming to be eleventh from the bottom or closer to the OECD average. It is commendable for us to be able to attempt to achieve that within the next two to three years.

It is very clear from the level of commitment in contributions made thus far in this Chamber and in the committee when we were discussing this matter with the Minister last week that there is a great deal of goodwill towards the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in terms of the budget it requires to reach the levels we are targeting. Therefore, I hope the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and the Cabinet will take stock of that because it is a very important element of society that we provide additional educational provision to preschool children in order to improve their chances of receiving an enhanced education at an early age, which is incredibly beneficial to them in their later years within education.

I believe it was Deputy Coppinger who referenced the fact that the preschool level is incredibly important in the three levels of education. It is very clear to me and to members of the committee who referenced it that in order for us to achieve the educational standards and the level of workforce we require, it is appropriate that we begin at a very early age. That means upskilling and ensuring that the standards of the providers - whether they are in a crèche, Montessori facility or other child care setting - are at a level in which we as parents have trust and confidence in their ability to provide the level of child care that we aspire to provide in our own homes. I say that as a parent. That requires significant investment.

The Bill is the commencement of the process of improving an income-based targeted scheme which will no doubt assist hundreds of thousands of parents across the State. As a representative of the community in the State with the youngest age demographic, I am aware that north Dublin and, in particular, Fingal have acute problems and challenges that require significant Government investment and an increase in the number of child care providers right across the board from preschool right through to early teens in terms of after-school facilities. I believe the Bill is a great stride in the right direction.

Last September, when the Minister announced the affordable child care scheme, the Government introduced an important support for parents and families making child care more affordable. I intended to go through the various measures in more detail but because Deputy Neville was so eloquent in his contribution in that regard, I will not go over that ground other than to say significant steps have been taken in the right direction. The Bill signifies one of those important steps in ensuring children and their families have access to high quality affordable services. In particular, I commend the fact that this Bill will work to ensure that those families and children who are most in need of support receive the support they require.

For too long, as has been said numerous times, child care has been a second mortgage. It takes up almost 40% of the outgoing income of the average family and it is a very significant burden. The Bill is vital in making extortionate child care costs become a thing of the past as Ireland moves towards establishing a scheme which is in line with international best practice and endeavours to ensure that children receive the greatest possible benefit in their early years education and care.

In discussing the Bill, it is vital that we develop cross-departmental ICT systems, on which the Minister went into great detail with the committee last week in terms of the various reasons that it is delayed. While I and others, including the Minister, are disappointed at the delay, given the experience we had in the past with ICT problems it is most appropriate that we take the time to get it right because the worst thing that we could possibly do is go into a statutory tender process with a statutory time limit and statutory periods of consideration and make the wrong decision. It cost the State hundreds of millions of euro in the past and I have no desire to see that happen again, and not on such an important product that I hope will be produced by whoever wins the tender.

It is important that we use the ICT system to improve our position among OECD countries in terms of the overall amount we invest as a percentage of GDP. Without the required ICT infrastructure, it would simply not be possible to ensure the targeted supports under the affordable child care scheme reach every single family and support every single child who qualifies for them. As such, I am pleased that the Minister has made this a priority within her Department. I also note the Minister's remarks in that regard when she appeared before the committee last week.

I echo Deputy Donnelly's view that there is a point at which the State does not need to intervene in attempting to reduce child care costs. Unlike child benefit, which is universal, those above a certain threshold should possibly be discounted. That perhaps is a consideration at a particular level because I appreciate there will always be people who have extraordinarily high financial burdens such as mortgages as a result of the Celtic tiger and their income might in fact have only just met their outgoings. There will always be considerations in that regard but it is a conversation worth having.

In regard to the ICT system, it is positive that a full and open tender process will take place because I would hate for us as a State to get it wrong. That said, it is a bit disappointing for all of us within this sphere that we are now facing at least another year or year and a half before we get to implement or test the system that emerges from the tendering process. Nevertheless, there are a greater number of positives in the Bill, particularly in terms of the establishment of an independent appeals procedure for decisions under the scheme, measures to ensure the effective use of public money and the fact that it aims to empower parents and guardians to participate in the labour market and through both this and supporting quality child care subsequently reduce child poverty.

I wish to reference section 17. I recall that some years ago during the Thirty-first Dáil issues arose in respect of the Social Welfare Act. The Act set out certain provisions that ultimately meant the Department of Social Protection, as it was at the time, was unable to consider certain applicants who were clearly in need of support. Unfortunately, the Act precluded them from being considered for direct intervention. I appeal to the Minister and the Department to look carefully at section 17 with regard to the possibility that the provision might unintentionally exclude individuals who may be in need of financial support from the State. At this early stage during the Second Stage debate we have plenty of time to consider the matter.

Correspondence from Barnardo's has been circulated to most members of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs as well as the Minister. I believe the correspondence warrants consideration. Section 7(1)(a) provides for eligibility of applications for supports under the scheme and refers to where "the person or his or her partner is a parent of the child". This could be simply expanded to include "or guardian" and I believe that would better provide for the intention of the Bill. Barnardo's has suggested the use of phraseology along the lines of "the person or his or her partner is a parent or guardian of the child". Although that is a matter for Committee Stage, it is worth mentioning at this point that some helpful contributions have been made by stakeholders.

Section 14 provides for additional support for vulnerable children. This section along with Schedule 2 provides for the bodies that will have authority to authorise additional supports in certain circumstances. In particular, the Child and Family Agency will have the ability to authorise additional payments in cases where the child is not receiving adequate care and attention. The concern is that in order for the Child and Family Agency to use this power, it is essentially implied that some form of parental failure must have taken place with regard to the child in care. There is, therefore, a burden of proof that the Child and Family Agency would be required to meet to ensure some of our most vulnerable children and families receive the level of support they require. Would it not be better for the Minister to frame the section in a more positive light? Could she not empower the Child and Family Agency to be proactive in authorising additional supports in cases where the agency identifies a child as being in need of additional care or protection?

Another concern brought to my attention relates to the provision of a step-down approach for families whereby they could retain the supports they are to receive for the duration of the year in which the Tusla support expires. The idea is that the family would not have to reapply to receive support where those involved meet other eligibility criteria. That is worth mentioning at this point.

Section 26 provides for families to move from current schemes to supports under the affordable child care scheme and includes the phased transition as they move from their current level of supports to those offered by the scheme. The section would allow those families to better adapt to these changes. I am pleased that organisations such as Barnardo's are largely supportive of the Bill in this regard.

I encourage the Minister to engage with her colleagues in government, and the Minister for Education and Skills in particular, to explore the possibility of utilising school buildings where it is feasible for the provision of after-hours care, as provided in several facilities throughout the State. This initiative has received great support from my Fine Gael colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, in Cork. We believe it would provide better supports for parents who wish to return to work. I visited one such company last week in Donabate called Sherpa Kids. I was impressed with the service the company was providing. It is operating with the support of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs by way of adaptation grants for the room it is using. We could see the roll-out of such schemes with supports from the Department in other facilities. Indeed, the thinking behind this project is an essential component in providing the sort of service that parents really need. At the end of school, a private provider utilises a classroom or large hall, in the case of the particular school I visited. Someone collects the children as normal inside the gate rather than outside and brings them back to the classroom. Sherpa Kids provides for them during the course of the day. There is a drop-in and take-out service throughout the course of the day. Once the company has space, few parents are refused.

We really need to roll out this model throughout the State. I understand a similar project was piloted in Cork a year ago or thereabouts and that is why I mentioned my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Daly. Anyway, it is important for us to have a conversation. It is a pity the Irish Primary Principals' Network meeting was last week as I was going to suggest to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, that he would have a conversation with the principals. Having spoken to four such principals in the past month, I sense some reluctance on their part to entertain the use of school buildings. That is not right. As long as the room is suitable and cleaned afterwards, there is no particular difficulty.

We are talking about schools receiving an income. It might be non-commercial rent, but it is still moneys that the school could put into the provision of education for the students there during the course of the school day. We need to look outside the box and go outside our comfort zone and perhaps bring school boards of management with us. It is incumbent on us as political leaders throughout the country to show how good this service can be for communities and parents. Ultimately, the boards of management are populated by people within the community. If the people in the community see the importance of these initiatives, then I imagine the boards of management would catch on to it.

Anyway, it is important for us to be able to provide the standard of care that is being provided. We must be assured of the environment in which the children are being cared for. We need to ensure that the level of pay, which has been mentioned time and again, in this sector improves along with the standards that we are endeavouring to improve. Schools can benefit greatly from the investment they would receive from the non-commercial rent generated.

I have the privilege of representing the community in Fingal, which has one of the youngest and fastest-growing demographics in the State. As such, there is a great need and large demand for child care places throughout my constituency. I call on the Minister to examine the possibility of supporting the use of school buildings where possible outside of school hours to enhance the availability of child care service providers throughout the State.

The Minister referred to regulation during her contribution at the commencement of the debate. The introduction of standards for after-school child care services is a key element of the overall part of this entire debate. Of course there will be reluctance to look at ratios of teachers to children, for example. However, what we really need to do is supplement other areas of child care with direct investment from the State. I hope we will stabilise income levels and thus remove some of the barriers to parents making the decision to go back to work. As Deputy Donnelly outlined earlier, the level of income required to keep more than one child in child care is crippling.

I raised the matter of rates at committee last week. It is an important aspect for the thousands of child care providers in the State. Most, if not all, are paying commercial rates. This is something we need to look at as part of the overall investment in family life by the State. It is clear that those in the industry make little money out of it. The rates of pay are low and the operators do not appear to be making much out of it. I encourage the Minister to discuss some sort of intervention. Clearly rates vary from county to county. At the same time, we can perhaps look at the particular difficulties in urban environments throughout the country.

As indicated, geographically based targets are worth considering given that the costs of child care vary dramatically between Malahide, Mullingar and elsewhere.

I am not particularly inclined either way on the question as to whether the public service should become involved in the provision of child care. The State already provides child care through the community child care schemes. If the service is of a sufficiently high standard - the level of State investment will be uniform in any case - I have no particular difficulty with either the public or private route. As standards rise, however, I believe there will be no difference between the State and a private operator providing child care services. We have learned from experience that there are often disparities in the cost base for State versus private services. This should probably be considered in the context of ever-increasing demand on the fixed pot of money available to the Department.

I commend the Minister and thank her and her officials for the considerable efforts they have made in recent months on producing this Bill.

The Fianna Fáil Party supports the introduction of the Childcare Support Bill 2017. The Bill takes an important step towards bringing Ireland into line with international best practice on investment in early years care and education, which is extremely important. As a result of the legislation, more children will be able to access an affordable and quality child care service.

My party also has some concerns about the Bill. Parents and child care providers have been waiting for this legislation since it was first announced in the budget before last. The Bill will enable the operation of the single affordable child care scheme, which will consolidate current child care subsidy schemes in a single streamlined scheme, providing targeted subsidies for lower income families and a universal subsidy for middle income and other families. This is extremely important. It will also provide much needed assistance to parents for whom child care costs now equate to a second mortgage. Not a day or week passes that I do not speak to people who are trying to make ends meet. I am referring to families with two incomes who must pay a mortgage, public transport costs and child care costs. Many of them are living hand to mouth. At the same time, the operators of child care facilities are not making substantial profits and those working in the child care sector are not well paid. There are, therefore, many difficulties in the sector.

A previous speaker referred to commercial rates. As with schools, child care facilities provide a much needed service. Apart from caring for children while their parents are at work, they provide a social and educational service that is very important for children and should be viewed in that light. It is wrong that they receive high commercial rates bills. Under current legislation, child care facilities must be made secure for the children who use them, which is very important but also costly. When one adds rates bills to the many other costs child care providers face, it becomes very difficult for good people to stay in the business. We need a sustainable and affordable system that will work well for parents, children and operators.

As Deputy Rabbitte outlined, Fianna Fáil is disappointed with the manner in which the child care measures have been handled. The delay in delivering the new scheme has caused significant uncertainty for parents and providers and prevented as many as 9,000 families from availing of the promised level of subsidy, which is not good enough. The Government promised to deliver these measures by September 2017. Owing to delays in producing the legislation and introducing information and communications infrastructure, the measures have still not been delivered. Even now, in January 2018, doubts remain about when the scheme will be delivered. This is causing great uncertainty and inconvenience for parents and child care providers alike and is indicative of a lack of joined-up thinking and forward planning. This month, the Minister finally approved the request for tender stage of the affordable child care scheme, meaning that almost 18 months after the the scheme was announced, the tendering process has only now begun.

As matters stand, the affordability and sustainability of child care provision in Ireland leaves much to be desired. Whereas the OECD average for expenditure on child care is 12.6% of net family income, in Ireland the figure stands at 27.4% or more than double the OECD average. As I indicated, this often amounts to the cost of a mortgage, which means that for many families, more than 50% of disposable income, that is, income after tax, USC and PRSI, is spent on mortgage payments and child care costs. Despite the high costs to families, many child care providers struggle to pay themselves a wage. I know of some people working in child care who are not paying themselves a wage and are struggling to maintain a sustainable service. The current system is clearly not working for anyone.

In some areas, there is a lack of competition and transparency in the child care sector. There are 19,358 children waiting for a child care place and many crèches do not display their prices, making it difficult for parents to shop around for a provider. To help partly address this issue, my colleague, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, will introduce a Bill to make it mandatory for providers to display their prices online. The scheme applies to only a small subset of families, namely, those who use registered crèches as their main mode of child care. Only 13% of children aged under 12 years attend a crèche or after-school facility, with a further 13% of families reliant on paid relatives or childminders for their child care needs. This issue must be addressed. Depending on the nature of the parents' work, a crèche may not work for them and they must find alternative forms of child care. As the Minister has mandated that subsidies be paid only for registered crèches and childminders, of whom there are only approximately 500 in the entire country, she has effectively excluded 13% of children from the scheme. I am also concerned that the scheme, as proposed, will harm the most vulnerable children by reducing the number of hours of free or subsidised child care they are eligible to receive.

My party colleagues spoke about some of the other pertinent issues and I will address the important issue of the lack of choice. The plan, as outlined, will not allow parents to have much choice and flexibility regarding child care arrangements. To avail of the subsidy, parents must have all their child care provided in centre-based care. Many child care facilities have, understandably, very strict opening and closing times and do not offer any flexibility for parents who are caught in traffic on their way home from work or who may have to work late. I have in mind, for example, people who work in Leinster House who often work late by virtue of the work we do and our working hours. One need only imagine the rush home to collect a child from child care.

On that point, I note the fees have gone up by €500 a month in the Oireachtas crèche. I understand those who use the crèche, staff and Members, got a letter to that effect on Monday. Where is the equity in that?

I return to the general scheme. Fewer than 20% of children at present are cared for full time in crèches. The remainder are cared for by other childminders. There is no provision for these families. That has to be dealt with. Parents will have no choice or flexibility. They cannot opt to use a mix of centre-based care or informal at-home care, such as by a childminder or relative, or both. They will be restricted by availability, opening time and closing times and the mode of child care. Fianna Fáil believes we should examine the means to support these families, possibly through the use of a tax credit.

In respect of capacity, because the scheme allows no choice or flexibility, it also relies heavily on the availability of crèche capacity in an area. Some crèches are already struggling to meet demand for places arising from the expansion of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. This scheme could double or triple demand for child care places in crèches, nurseries and Montessori schools. Pobal estimates there could be as many as 19,357 children waiting for a child care place. For example, my own brother was waiting for a number of months prior to Christmas for child care places for his three children.

We need to look at impacts in respect of the issue of flexibility but there is great urgency in this regard as we have had delays of 18 months. It is particularly important as we come up to September, when other children start primary and secondary school. It is also when children start in child care and crèches. I urge the Minister to make sure everything is in place and to look at the flexibility around the arrangements.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed this evening. I have listened carefully to what they have said. It has been a great few hours because they have taken the time to examine both the Bill and many of its implications. The Deputies have been attentive to the concerns, questions and struggles of the people they represent.

I thank the current Chair of the committee, Deputy Farrell, as well as Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who chaired the committee previously. I also thank all the members of the committee who are present and who spoke. My officials and I feel supported by the way in which Deputies raised questions and interrogated the work we have done. Putting this in place will involve all the aspects that have to do with the affordable childcare scheme, not least of which is the Bill we have before us. I am grateful for the contributions.

I will address some of those points now although we will have more time when we move to Committee Stage. Some of the main points consistently raised pertain to child care in general, as distinct from this Bill specifically. The biggest issue most Deputies touched on had to do with the cost of child care. I acknowledge all the points that have been made in respect of the high cost of child care. I made some of those myself. I also wish to state clearly that I am aware that these high costs of child care have persisted for many years.

Over the past three years, the State, through the last three budgets, has provided an 80% increase in what we spend to support child care for parents and families. It is extremely significant that there has been that type of increase. All of the arguments made and the points raised will, I hope, help me to increase that investment substantially. I am acutely aware of the fact that it is still excessively costly. It is really important. To be fair, and to contextualise those points, we have significantly increased investment in the last couple of years.

We are trying to increase subsidies and affordability for families. That is always at the front of my mind. It is equally important, however, as I have indicated to many Deputies in the committee, that when I am looking for investment in this coming year, it also will be focused on the professionalisation of the workforce and additional quality measures that we can provide to those people who are integral to the development of our child care sector. On the issue of cost and expense, I note the Bill we are debating will finally establish the affordable childcare scheme and once we have such a legislative foundation, it will be easier for the State to invest. It will be easier also to invest in a way that targets the different policy priorities of the State and of the Government in charge at that time. That is a massive step forward, in addition to the ways in which we have significantly increased investment. At the same time I, along with my colleagues, acknowledge that is not enough.

Many Deputies also raised questions regarding the increase in fees by child care providers. According to the evidence, while some individual providers have increased their fees in 2017, on average fees for child care rose by just 4%. Perhaps it was by more than 4% in some constituencies but we have evidence that the average rise in full-time child care in 2017 was 4%. Fees for part-time child care actually fell in 2017. The 4% increase in fees needs to be seen in the context of no change in average fees between 2012 and 2015. I acknowledge that for many parents who experience that increase, even with significant subsidisation, that is not much consolation. At the same time, we all are aware it is critical that as the Government and the State invest, we must be focused both on affordability for families and on ensuring child care providers get the wages and pay they deserve. We must also support the professionalisation of the workforce.

Again, most Deputies are aware that the Department originally calculated and set the capitation rates that go to the different providers. In that sense we are responsible. The independent review of costs sponsored by my Department that is under way at present will be completed in time for me to have significant evidence to do my budget negotiations.

We will get clear evidence of what is required to not only provide an excellent service but also to pay professionals in a way that will ensure they are retained, that new people can be recruited and that we will have a workforce that is highly motivated to care for children.

Investing in child care does not in any way negate our valuing of parents contributions to the lives and care of their children inside or outside the home. I am directing these remarks specifically at Deputy Mattie McGrath in the context of many of the issues he raised. Clearly, we are not in agreement on them but he asked me to respond. Many women, not unlike many men, wish to raise their children as well as work outside the home. We are trying to support all families but I recognise the great value of the contribution of those who care for their children in the home. These are not mutually exclusive. I support the extension of paid leave for parents during a child's first 12 months. The Government has also increased the home carer's tax credit but there is widespread agreement that one of the greatest challenges facing many families with young children, especially those trying to get out of poverty, is the high cost of child care. This was raised by many members. It is not an either-or issue. Both the ECCE scheme and the affordable child care scheme are open to parents who are at home and who want to use early years services as a complementary support for their work and for early education. It is critical to be attentive to all of that but I am also behind that expressing my commitment and views on the policy priorities and the ways in which we are investing.

Many Members, particularly the Chairman of the joint committee, Deputy Farrell, referred to the delay in the implementation of the IT system, which we have also discussed extensively at the committee. Originally, we had hoped to use the existing framework to procure an IT system. The delay is because of the extraordinary professionalism and sense of responsibility of not only officials in my Department but the experts with whom they have engaged to identify the best way, ultimately, to go about this. Though initially we had hoped to use the existing framework, which was reasonable, it was also reasonable to seek legal advice once we agreed we were going to for the affordable child care scheme. The legal advice indicated that the framework was not suitable for this IT development. It caused us to have to proceed with an open tender procurement process instead and, although that was regrettable, we have obtained approval from the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and I, in turn, have approved the publication of the request for tender. We have a peer review group process and an open tender procurement process, which should both ensure a robust and high quality approach to the IT development, which is essential to the scheme. I acknowledge the excellent collaboration with other Departments in the development of the new scheme and the innovative IT system. Although the delay is regrettable, we will have a significantly better system as a result. Members have identified the importance of that. At the same time, despite the delays with this system, and taking this legislation to invest in child care in this way for the first time, and because of the work of my officials, we were able to provide most of the subsidies and support for most families and children that we had anticipated in September and it is important to acknowledge that. The delay does not mean that everything is proceeding as is and I acknowledge the providers who have risen to the occasion to do that. We were able to provide an additional €18 million across the different child care provides to support their administration of that system. There is a great deal of paperwork and many providers believe that funding is not sufficient to recompense them for the work but, at the same time, they have done it and a similar system will be used next September. Uncertainty in that regard has been reduced. What is most important is that families are supported through the subsidisation and we are ensuring that is the case while we build a system that will ultimately be one of the best as we move towards investing in future generations.

A few Members asked whether FIS would be deducted in the calculation of the subsidy. This issue was raised at the joint committee and we examined it subsequently. We engaged closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Having examined the interaction of the affordable child care scheme with FIS or the working family payment, including potential disincentive effects, both Departments recommended that FIS should not be deductible from income for the purposes of the affordable child care income assessment because allowing that deduction would raise issues of fairness and equity between working families in receipt of FIS or working family payment and those who are not, particularly those on the margins, and throughout the social welfare system. We can examine that issue further as we move forward with the legislation.

Questions were also raised about data protection. The scheme is being designed to meet all general data protection regulation requirements. A data protection strategy has been developed and, as part of that, a privacy impact assessment has been undertaken and the peer review group reviewing the business case for the scheme's new IT system has commended the Department's work in this regard.

Many Members raised the issue of childminding, particularly in the context of choice. We are supporting choice, particularly for parents. The scheme is open to registered child care providers. Most Members will be aware that the group chaired by Childminding Ireland examined issues relating to quality assurance and regulation of the childminding sector. On 15 January, the group furnished me with a report making recommendations to ensure more childminders can become part of the system and be supported by the State's subsidisation process. I am meeting folks in the next ten days to discuss the findings and recommendations. I addressed the issue of choice in my opening contribution for parents and families who want children minded in the home, perhaps by virtue of a tax credit. A couple of Fianna Fáil Members raised that possibility. Our judgment is that to use that mechanism provides no form of quality control in respect of what happens with the care of the children and, therefore, it does not allow for sufficient responsibility and oversight by the State of its investment. That is not just our judgment, it is based on research in other countries as to why we make the choice regarding subsidisation in the way that we do. Again, however, we continue to the debate the matter.

I also want to offer a couple of comments on the issue of offering additional support to vulnerable children, because that point was raised by a number of Deputies, and particularly on the way in which that will happen. I reassure child care providers and those working with vulnerable groups in this regard that the Bill provides the Minister with the power to negotiate agreements with the five key statutory bodies in respect of the most vulnerable children and families. The detail of how the referral procedures will operate will be negotiated in these agreements. Clearly the detail of these agreements will be critical. While I recognise the value of the suggestion that county child care committees should have a role in providing additional support to vulnerable children, I regard it as critical that a national system is in place to ensure equity in the level of support for vulnerable children and families wherever they are. I intend to take steps to ensure that additional support for vulnerable groups will be easy to access in all cases where there is a clear identified need for it.

Earlier in the debate a Deputy asked a question about early childhood care and education, ECCE, eligibility for a child turning three in January 2019. A change to ECCE eligibility was announced in the last budget which aims to ensure that all children will be able to access a full two years, or 76 weeks, of the ECCE programme. Unlike the current arrangement, in which there is variation between families in terms of ECCE entitlement, there will now be equity. While some families with children whose birthdays are between January and March will see a reduction in eligibility from 88 to 75 weeks, they will have the same two years, or 76 weeks, eligibility as all other families. In addition, any such family will be able to continue receiving the universal child care subvention beyond the age of three until the child qualifies for ECCE. The affordable child care scheme will allow child care subsidies from the age of six months and it will wrap around ECCE supports and school.

A few Deputies made points in respect of commercial rates, which we also discussed to some degree in the committee. I am committed to the provision of affordable and accessible child care and I understand that the issue of commercial rates can be a barrier to achieving those goals. My Department will continue to explore the options available to secure an exemption or reduction in rates payable by private, for-profit providers.

Although we are really just beginning as we conclude this Stage and, I hope, move to the next Stage, I will conclude by saying that there is no question that we are now on a path to the establishment of the affordable child care scheme. This will be delivered. We are on a path that no one will, or would want to, stop. It is taking longer but, as I said earlier, most of the subsidies, which for the first time include a universal subsidy, are already being paid thanks to the providers and the parents. We are in the process of establishing a scheme that will make it easier for this Government and future Governments to invest in the child care sector and that will ultimately make the sector easier to administer so that it will be better for our providers, our parents and, of course, our children.

Question put and agreed to.