Childcare Support Bill 2017: From the Seanad (Resumed)

The Dáil went into Committee to resume consideration of amendments from the Seanad.

We stopped at amendment No. 5 the last day. It had already been discussed with amendment No. 4.

Seanad amendment No. 5:
Section 13: In page 14, to delete lines 11 and 12 and substitute the following:
“(e) the number of children under the age of 15 years who reside with the applicant or with his or her partner and in relation to whom the applicant or his or her partner is a parent.”.
Seanad amendment agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related and may be discussed together.

Seanad amendment No. 6:
Section 24: In page 22, line 28, to delete “Schedule 3,” and substitute “Schedule 3”.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are minor technical drafting amendments. These amendments simply involve punctuation changes to clarify the meaning of section 24. There is no change in policy and the amendments have no practical consequence.

Seanad amendment agreed to.
Seanad amendment No. 7:
Section 24: In page 22, line 30, to delete “shall” and substitute “shall,”.
Seanad amendment agreed to.

As the Minister will know, I am not familiar with this Bill. I am representing Deputy Rabbitte, who has worked constructively with the Minister in respect of this Bill. I know there was a general consensus for the Bill in the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. As Deputy Rabbitte is unable to be here tonight, I want to represent her. She told me that she and the Minister had agreed these amendments previously and that they were mostly technical. Fianna Fáil is delighted to support the Bill. Well done to the Minister for all her work on it.

I am here on behalf of Deputy Mitchell. She is at a family event. Her child is graduating from school. I would like to say a few words on the Bill on her behalf. Overall I welcome the Bill and commend the work done on it by the Minister and her Department, as well as by Deputies, Senators, the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and the Select Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. It was a long process and it is good to finally see it near completion. I particularly commend the staff in the Minister’s Department, who were very helpful in organising briefings for Deputy Mitchell, in answering questions and in discussing amendments that Opposition Members brought forward.

As we have said before, this is only an initial step in bringing about genuinely affordable childcare for those who need it. Over the next few years, we will need to see a number of things happen. Subsidies and capitation grants must increase to bring down the overall cost of childcare. There is a crisis in staffing when it comes to the early years sector and we need to see action in that regard because if we do not, we risk losing an awful lot of highly skilled educators. They are people who have a real grá for working with children and we need to ensure they see a future for themselves in that area of work here in Ireland. I assure the Minister that any progressive initiatives she takes to address the issue of low pay in the sector will have the full support of Sinn Féin. We also need to see more being done to bring childminders into the scheme and to encourage them to register with Tusla. We need to work with them to ensure that childminders do not feel left behind in this process.

Overall I commend the work done in this area and the Minister herself. There is a lot more to be done and I hope this will remain a key issue for the Government over the coming years. I trust the Minister will keep this House updated and informed on the scheme's progress.

I congratulate the Minister because this is a major legislative foray for her. I congratulate her and her officials because they have done a stellar job in bringing forward this legislation. To quote from the Minister's own speech on this legislation, it will 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". Now that the legislation is done and dusted and on a statutory footing, we look forward to marking the Minister, in the most respectful way. We hope that the Minister will be able to deliver further within her Department with regard to bringing resources to this sector at a time when we are being told that greater funding is available in the Exchequer pot. We hope that the Minister will be able to fight her battle internally with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to do even more good work in this space. I congratulate the Minister.

I thank Deputies and Senators for their support throughout the passage of the Childcare Support Bill. It is a very historic Bill for all sorts of reasons. I am particularly grateful for the engagement of the Deputies present and that of the colleagues they are representing and for their enthusiasm and co-operation. Both Houses have approached this important legislation in that way. The amendments brought forward and made both in the Dáil and in the Seanad have undoubtedly strengthened the Bill. I also thank the officials in my own Department - and I am delighted to hear everyone else doing so as well - and the Office of the Attorney General for a lot of substantive work on this Bill. As I have stated before, affordable, quality childcare can generate many vital and long-lasting benefits for children, women, families, the economy and for society at large. In order to ensure access to quality childcare we have to make childcare more affordable. The Bill provides the legal basis for doing just that.

In establishing the affordable childcare scheme, the Bill will create a platform that embodies the principle of progressive universalism, with both universal and targeted elements and with strong governance, a focus on quality and the ability to flex and expand to allow more children and families to benefit from greater State investment - public investment - in childcare in the years ahead. In short, it is essential for my pledge to transform our childcare system from one of the most expensive in the world to one of the best. We cannot make that step change without the Bill.

The affordable childcare scheme is only the beginning of the journey. From this very robust starting point, we will seek to grow and develop our funding model for early years care and education. We have identified some of the ways in which we are considering doing that in the early years strategy to tackle disadvantage, to recognise that high-quality services are dependent on a valued workforce whose working conditions support retention and, through all of this, to invest in the future of our children and families.

This is a great day for early years provision in Ireland. The Bill represents a milestone on the journey towards the childcare system we want to see. As I already indicated, it will be complemented by and coupled with the publishing of the early years strategy, which refers to many of the initiatives that the Deputies in their concluding remarks have said are outstanding. We now have a legislative basis for a system which ensures that all families have access to high-quality preschool and school-age childcare, a system that will work with families to give children a great start in life, and a system in which all families who need childcare can afford it.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Seanad amendments reported.

I congratulate the Minister and all involved in this very important work. Agreement to the Seanad amendments is reported to the House. A message will be sent to Seanad Éireann acquainting it accordingly.