Covid-19 (Childcare): Statements

I am pleased to be in the Dáil this afternoon to outline the measures the Department has taken to ensure the care and protection of our children and young people during this pandemic. I will begin by placing on the Dáil record my gratitude for the ways in which our children and young people have responded to what is happening in Ireland and in our world at this time. They have co-operated with the ways in which their lives have been restricted. They have responded with great care for their friends and the adults in their lives, especially their families. They have lifted our spirits with their innovative ways of minding our communities. For all of this and more I thank the children and young people of Ireland. Their courage and kindness leads us all on.

When childcare services closed on 12 March, the Department and I moved quickly to put in place the best possible supports for the childcare sector. Our key focus was to ensure that when we emerge from this crisis our childcare sector would be in the best shape possible to reopen. For those working in early learning and school-aged child care, the children they care for and educate, the parents and our economy, a functioning childcare infrastructure is critical. The sector is an extension of our education system. This has been recognised by the Government in approving significant bespoke supports for the sector. A sustainable functioning service needs to retain our early learning and childcare professionals. At a very early stage, we identified the need to ensure they could receive at least €350 per week to keep them with their employers so families would not lose them. I also introduced a measure to contribute towards the overheads of providers. In addition, the Department brought forward a proportion of the programme support payments to providers to assist with cashflow issues.

Every year, childcare services close. In the past three years, approximately 150 services a year have closed. In each of those years, new services opened and almost every year we had net additional capacity in the sector. As a result of increased investment, the average size of services has grown from 33 places in 2015 to 47 in 2019. During the months of March and April, Tusla was notified by seven services of their intention to close and we are monitoring this closely through our city and county childcare committees. I am hopeful the measures we have put in place will go a long way towards sustaining the majority of current services. On 5 May, 3,733 providers had signed up to the wage subsidy childcare scheme, which is 83% of our providers.

Our challenge is to hold as much of the current capacity as possible. I and the Department have worked consistently to keep all of our stakeholders updated on developments through ongoing consultations with individual providers and representative bodies. We are constantly updating our frequently asked questions and they are being updated again today. They now consist of 60 pages on the Department's website. I believe the introduction of the scheme was a relief for many parents who will not be requested to pay childcare fees or a contribution to childcare fees while services are closed. Through the scheme they will maintain their child's place when restrictions are lifted and so many of these parents are themselves struggling financially and worried about the future. They may lack certainty about whether their jobs are secure. They may be on the pandemic unemployment payment or the wage subsidy scheme in the hope they will return to work, and do not need the additional or impossible strain of having to pay childcare fees during this time.

Thankfully, we now have a roadmap for the future. As has been reiterated many times in the past few days, the speed at which we progress is dependent on our ability to control the spread of the virus.

From 18 May, my Department will oversee the provision of childcare in the homes of essential healthcare workers. This is part of the first phase of easing the Covid-19 restrictions. Tomorrow, we will invite registered childcare services to participate in this much-needed measure. I will also outline how families can access the scheme. Participation will be voluntary. Many services have expressed an interest in supporting this initiative and being part of Ireland's call during these challenging times. We have been planning this for a number of months and have listened to suggestions from the childcare sector. Yesterday, we had an extensive question and answer session with the early years forum. Based on current figures, we are planning for provision for 5,000 families. We estimate that the cost of the scheme will be in the region of €4.7 million per week. The majority of this cost will be borne by the State. There will be a shall parental contribution required of €90 per family per week. This will provide essential healthcare workers with 45 hours of childcare a week. We are recommending that childcare workers volunteering for the scheme are paid on average €15 per hour. As part of the scheme, we will also cover employer PRSI, leave accrual and any management and administrative overhead to providers. In the coming days, eligible health workers will be advised to contact a Pobal parent support centre to request the service and to indicate their childcare needs and preferences. It is initially intended to run the scheme for a period of four weeks. There will be a review after two weeks and also at the end of the four-week period. We have also commenced planning for phase three, which will see the phased reopening of crèches and preschools for the children of essential workers. This is the first step in the phased reopening of centre-based childcare.

It is inevitable that childcare services will not open at full capacity. Fewer children attending a childcare service will increase the cost of the provision of childcare for these children. As outlined previously, 70% of the costs of provision of childcare are related to pay costs. I do not anticipate that services will be in a position to absorb all of these costs. Parents will also be unable to pay the associated increase. I will be inputting into future Government decisions to make the case for the need for State subsidies to compensate. However, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the current State investment in childcare during the Covid-19 crisis. Prior to Covid-19, the State invested approximately €638 million per annum in early learning and care and school-age childcare services, and parents contributed approximately €400 million per annum in fees. Initial projections anticipated that the Department's temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme would cost on average approximately €6 million per week for the Department itself, subject to the level of scheme demand. This weekly cost, though, does not include the cost of the Revenue wage subsidy scheme on which the Department's scheme is built. The total estimated cost of State supports to early learning and care in school-age childcare during the Covid-19 crisis far exceeds the total State expenditure prior to the pandemic, and demonstrates my commitment, that of my Department and that of the Government towards the sector. Parents previously contributed approximately 40% of the sector's income and the State 60%. The new Government-wide package of measures for the sector, across the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, retains the State investment which was there previously and compensates for the loss of some of the parental income.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has called on the global community to build back better. We need to share that vision for the future of childcare. This will form the basis of the options that we are considering into the future. I held a meeting with the early years forum yesterday evening and committed to engaging with it on how we plan for the phased reopening. Our objective will be to continue to support as many services as possible and to retain as many educators as possible in the childcare sector.

Many providers are already exploring the design of the guidelines for reopening. We will welcome all suggestions and co-operation to guide and drive the safe reopening of services. Tusla has recommitted to a fair, reasonable and pragmatic approach to inspections for reopening. Consideration needs to be given to how children are prioritised for returning to childcare. This will be done in consultation with the sector. It is my hope that significant additional investment will be provided to the sector as it reopens. It seems to me to be the primary requirement to ensure that capacity will be sufficient for Irish families as the pandemic recedes. These decisions, however, are yours not mine. The road ahead will have twists and turns. We will work at it step by step and hand in hand with the sector. We all want to achieve the same goal. We can get there and I believe that we will get there.

I thank the Minister. Following her opening statement, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin each have 15 minutes for their statements, questions and answers. There are ten minutes each allocated for Fine Gael, the Green Party, the Labour Party and all the other groups, including the Rural Independent Group.

I thank the Minister. The two aspects of childcare I will address are the provision of childcare services in any programme for Government and childcare for front-line and healthcare workers throughout this pandemic. The ethos of a programme for Government must be to meet children's right to a quality service in policy, in provision and in practice. Before Covid-19 we saw 30,000 childcare providers and workers march outside this building protesting a crisis that already existed in the sector. With more than 60% of workers earning less than the living wage, and with parents paying some of the highest fees in Europe, I put it to the Minister that this is unsustainable. Before Covid-19, the sector was at breaking point as a result of escalating insurance costs, various guidelines arising from different regulations and low wages. Currently, Ireland takes a very mixed approach to childcare whereby there are private crèches and community sector providers. This ends up with one part of the sector pitching against others and there is no level playing field. Commercial rates, spiralling insurance costs and poor pay and conditions inevitably lead to a high staff turnover, which leaves managers in a terrible position that is clearly unsustainable. Any new Government must develop an integrated, systematic and quality support system that engages all the relevant sectors. I feel very strongly that it is important to establish a single comprehensive streamlined inspection system instead of five or six groupings giving different guidelines to the sector.

There has been an absolute failure on the part of the Government to provide adequate childcare for front-line workers during this pandemic. Although crèches have been closed, many parents' obligations have increased. They have increased dramatically in the case of front-line workers such as nurses, gardaí and doctors. The lack of availability of childcare has caused considerable distress. I am aware of this from cases in my constituency but I have no doubt that the position is the same across the State. The head of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has clearly stated that after the personal protective equipment issue, concern regarding childcare is the most common issue for front-line workers. I put it to the Minister that many front-line staff had no choice but to put grandparents, their children and themselves at risk because up to now the Government has not provided an alternative. That is truly unforgivable during a global pandemic.

I wish to speak on the impact the ongoing lockdown is having on young people and children. All of us recognise that back in March it was absolutely necessary, in order to protect elderly people and the vulnerable, to introduce emergency measures. When we saw what was happening in Spain and Italy, it was imperative that we introduced measures for the purposes of ensuring that our intensive care units were not overrun like those in the countries to which I refer. It would have been reckless for us not to do so. Those regulations and the lockdown have had a significant impact on and caused inconvenience to people..

We have been prepared to go along with it, however, because it is for the common good. Nevertheless, there is one category of people who have not been given sufficient attention for the sacrifices they have made, namely, children and young people. All of them have had their social, personal, educational and sporting development affected by the lockdown and regulations. They have behaved selflessly and have been prepared to go along with the measures. They have subordinated their own interests to the interests of the common good and those who are vulnerable in society, particularly the elderly. We need to recognise that and the role played by young people and children.

The Government and the Minister need to place greater emphasis on trying to reinstate some normality into the lives of children and young people. We need to get a plan in place in order that they will know when they are going to go back to school and to playing or exercising with their friends. We have done well in reducing the spread of the virus in this country. We have flattened the curve but we will not eliminate the virus until such time as we have a vaccine, which will take a number of years. We cannot indefinitely put our children's and young people's lives, or the lives of others, at a standstill while we await the development of a vaccine. We need to learn to live with the virus. That means we need to have a proper, efficient and speedy testing system in place. It is the only way in which we can live with the virus. With such a system in place, people could be tested and know within 24 hours whether they are positive or negative. Those who are negative can go about their ordinary lives without any inconvenience, while those who test positive will have to isolate themselves for a period. That is how countries that have handled the pandemic well have succeeded. Unfortunately, to date the Government has not handled the issue of testing well. We need to ensure that our testing is much more efficient and speedy in order that we can get our children and young people back to normality and back among their friends.

I would have liked, if I had more time, to talk about the particular issues of children in direct provision, who are greatly affected, and young women who have been smuggled into the country and are suffering as a result of being part of the sex industry. I shudder to think how those women are coping now.

I raise the July education programme. I have been contacted by several constituents in Carlow-Kilkenny who are worried about whether the scheme will operate this year. It provides funding for an extended school year for children with a severe or profound general learning disability or with autism. The extended year is commonly known as the July provision or the July education programme. Where school-based provision is not feasible, home-based provision may be granted. As the schools have been closed and are not due to reopen this academic year, parents and caregivers are concerned that no clarity has been given on applications for next year or on whether, like in previous years when an eligible school has participated in the programme, an additional month's education will be provided to a pupil who meets the scheme's criteria. Already there have been marked repercussions due to the difference in homeschooling opportunities. Some schoolchildren have much access to learning, whereas others do not. Some children who live in rural Ireland do not have the ability to see their friends if they do not live in estates or in streets where they can see others. Some do not have access to video-calling facilities, an issue especially in homes where there are children with special educational needs. I would appreciate some clarity on the matter.

I echo calls for action on the deep unfairness that is the exclusion from the wage subsidy scheme of those returning from having received maternity benefit. This needs to be rectified and we need more information on it.

I highlight the need for childcare provision for front-line workers. Many of those on the front line do not have crèche-age children. I join with many principals of primary schools throughout the country in expressing disappointment that while other countries have included such measures in the first phase of easing restrictions, we did not, making caring for schoolgoing children more difficult. There are many issues we all still need clarified while we work through this pandemic, and information is crucial.

That is what people are constantly asking for. There is a lack of information. If we could get more information on the different phases, it would be a great help to parents and to their children, who are really feeling the impacts of this.

I thank the Minister for her address earlier on. With the seating arrangements, we are continuously rotating to get space in here.

With the usual funding streams such as the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, suspended, the majority of crèches have signed up to the wage subsidy scheme, which has been welcomed by most staff, providers and parents. From speaking to several providers and representative groups yesterday, there are numerous issues with how the scheme operates, such as self-employed crèche owners being placed on the Covid-19 payment, the 15% overhead falling well below what many providers need to pay their bills, the returning from maternity leave - as my colleague has mentioned - and the lack of clarity around how many staff members and how much they will have to pay back to the Revenue when they reconcile their payments. This extended period of closure will have considerable impacts on the long-term viability of the sector, which was already struggling.

I want to highlight three areas of concern with the Minister and hopefully we can get some clarity on them. They are mainly questions. Will the Minister clearly outline the public health advice that the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has issued for the scheme? What is the definition of an essential worker? Nurses and doctors are clearly included but does it include the cleaners and porters in hospitals, for example? Can staff of section 38 companies avail of the scheme? What payment model is being used? Is it possible for the Crowe report to be published while the Minister is still in office? If a childcare worker gets sick while placed in someone's home, what are his or her entitlements and who will be paying them? What is the small flat rate that we can expect that parents will have to pay?

On capacity, there is considerable concern that many childcare providers will be forced to close their doors for good as a result of this period of closure, worsening already dire capacity constraints. The reopening of crèches to all workers is scheduled to take place during phase 4, which begins on 20 July. The Government's roadmap says that when it happens, it will be for one day per week to begin with. I need an explanation on how exactly the one day per week of childcare will be rolled out. The Department needs to be clear on how the reopening of crèches will work as we face the majority capacity crisis. Transparency and planning are key in this. For example, there could be a crèche that normally has space for 100 children that is now reduced to being able to cater only for 50 children due to social distancing. If the parents and providers have already entered into a contract to secure a space and they then want to see if they can get access to their service, how does the operator prioritise and decide who comes in and who does not come in after phase 4 has come into place? How do we decide, when all businesses and various sectors are opening up, which sector is more important than the next? This will all impact on females. Are we doing a little bit of outside-the-box thinking, therefore? Are we thinking about using some of our national schools for the month of August? Are we thinking about using our community centres and GAA pitches? I would like to know what engagement is taking place and what the NPHET is saying about the roadmap in conjunction with the Department.

I refer to future funding. We all know the access and inclusion model funding has been sent out to the providers but they have used that to pay some of their wages in recent weeks and now it is being recalled. That is under the control of Pobal. Is there any way Pobal can halt the recall of that funding? While there was a gap, some providers were using that funding to pay wages. I would love if the Minister could respond to those points in the time remaining.

Am I to respond to all of the questions of all of the Deputies in the two minutes?

Is that right? Is that is the way the rules are now?

The thing to remember about all of this is that if Members extend their time taking questions, the answers will be somewhat truncated.

I will make a couple of comments in the two minutes allocated. I refer to Deputy Niamh Smyth's initial question on what has happened with the Government and the difficulties therein etc. I have referred many times to the growth of the sector and the 141% investment increase.

I support the voices and representatives of the sector and the 30,000 who marched. I said that at the time. I suggested that we establish a sectoral employment order to ensure we get the sector organised in order to get better wages. I agree we need a single comprehensive streamlined inspection system and I began that conversation with Tusla and others before the election. I agree largely with all the things Deputy Smyth said. We already started and that must continue in the new Government.

I am very much in favour of the provision of childcare for healthcare workers. I spoke about that before the NPHET ultimately said it was time and we could do it. We followed the advice from the NPHET in terms of when to begin, just as the Government is following the NPHET advice on most of the significant decisions. We prepared and we are ready. Hopefully, we will begin the implementation on 18 May. I agree that it was needed before then but we waited for the NPHET to say when we could begin it, as we did with regard to many matters that are significant. It was the expert advice.

In response to Deputy O'Callaghan, I could not agree more with regard to the importance of children and young people and them requiring supports. My Department in the last month or so initiated and launched a number of supports, particularly regarding play for young children but especially the youth. There are many things in which the young people have taken their agency and resilience in their hands and there are a number of ways in which my Department has supported that.

I believe I have to stop now.

Provision can be made to reply in writing if necessary.

Unfortunately, we have a particular amount of time for Members. Deputy Funchion is next.

I am taking seven minutes and Deputy Martin Browne and Deputy Carthy will take four minutes each. We will do our questions and answers within each of our time slots.

Among the matters I wish to raise are the logistical issues with the wage subsidy scheme. Some of them have been mentioned already. Sole traders, for example, seem to be outside this category. It is ironic for them because they are administering the scheme and ensuring staff are paid, yet they cannot access the payment. I know the Department is aware of these issues but it our first opportunity to put them on the record in the Chamber. There are also difficulties for people who are either returning from or going on maternity leave. Given that they are technical issues, I believe some solution should be found. It is not good enough that it is seen as a matter for the Revenue Commissioners. We need to examine solutions for providers and services in that situation.

Sustainability is the key issue in all of this. I welcomed the fact that staff were to be paid by the State. As somebody who has long advocated for a publicly delivered childcare model, the idea of staff being paid by the State would appear to be a first step, but if there are inadequate funds available to keep services open and if some services did not even sign up for the scheme because they felt there would not be adequate funds to keep their businesses afloat, it is bittersweet in a way. There is a fund of approximately €2 million which is ring-fenced for the community sector as a sustainability fund. I would like if we could explore if it can be expanded and also take in the private services as well as the community sector, but obviously we would have to see a great deal more investment and money being ring-fenced for that.

This discussion is mainly about childcare but given that domestic violence is in the remit of the same Department, I wish to mention domestic violence services. We have all seen the reports of an increase of approximately 30% in the incidence of domestic violence. That is only the incidents that are being reported, but we are all aware that a large amount of domestic violence is unreported. While it is tragic and sad that we have this virus and people are dying from it, we also have a situation where many women and children are potentially going to die as a result of the increase in domestic violence. We must do a great deal more in terms of increasing funding to that sector. Many refuges have had to decrease the number of places they can provide due to social distancing. While they must abide by that, they are left in a very difficult situation. I give the example of a refuge in Carlow-Kilkenny.

The Minister is well aware of it because she came down to visit. Everyone was delighted with that. A problem arises if the refuge is full. People from Carlow have to travel to Kilkenny, which is not great, but if the refuge is full, the victims have to find a refuge elsewhere, perhaps in Clonmel, Waterford or Wexford. Many of them will just walk away and end up going back into very violent and difficult relationships. It just seems there is no hope. If we were able to provide more spaces, they could be precisely what the women and children need to get out of their circumstances.

I have seven minutes and I want to give the Minister some time to respond. My final point does not even relate to her but to an article in The Sunday Business Post that referred to some talk in the negotiations on forming a Government to getting rid of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I hope that was an error. Unfortunately, the talk is coming from our colleagues in Fianna Fáil. I am open to correction, and really hope I will be corrected because I cannot emphasise enough how much of a retrograde step it would be to get rid of the Department. As somebody who has been critical over the years, who will always continue to be constructively critical and who has a lot of difficulty with areas within the Department, I believe the solution is not to get rid of the Department but to work on it and reform it. All one has to do is look at the history of how this country has treated women and children over the years. I am totally opposed to even considering getting rid of or axing the one Department we have that deals primarily with women's and children's issues. Sinn Féin is totally opposed to it. I commit to doing everything in my power to ensure it is not axed. It would be a very dark day for this country, given our record on women and children. I hope the proposal does not represent a widespread view in Fianna Fáil and that people will be strong enough to voice their opposition to it. I am going to give the Minister the opportunity to respond, within my allowed time, on sustainability, domestic violence and the logistical issues. I would also be interested in hearing her opinion on my point on the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

The Minister has two options. She may reply to all three together or reply individually.

Could we have individual replies?

On the Deputy's initial questions, on the wage subsidy scheme, especially the focus on the sole trader, she will be aware that it was an issue at the beginning. We made strong representations. The solution was not the perfect one but at least those affected could have access to a payment of €350. This did not feature originally in terms of the initial negotiations for the bespoke model.

I agree absolutely in respect of all the other issues the Deputy identified. We continue to represent those concerned. Some of the issues have been identified and are part of the revenue scheme that sits underneath the childcare scheme. We are aware of those.

I agree absolutely on the issue of sustainability . As I believe the Deputy will be aware, everything we have done since the outbreak of the pandemic has been with the objective of having sustainability, in addition to the significant number of different supports, provided in different ways, for the sector itself, whether in respect of wages or overheads. Programme support payments were brought forward to support the cash flow. All of these must be borne in mind. As she identified, there is a sustainability fund that takes in the private sector, etc. Conversations in this regard are ongoing in the Department. I am supportive of anything in favour of sustainability. We want to find ways to ensure we keep the sector with us. Of course, everyone decides for themselves whether they will sign up to schemes such as the temporary wage subsidy scheme for the childcare sector. The figure of 83% is really good. At the same time, it means 17% are not encapsulated. There are all sorts of reasons for this but most of the employees are probably supported in some way because they may be on the pandemic unemployment payment. We will, however, continue to find ways to see whether we can keep them with us. Maybe when we open the childcare for healthcare workers and move on to the next phase of reopening, some of the other services would come to that scheme. To be clear, as the Deputy will be aware, the current temporary wage subsidy scheme for the childcare sector is one scheme and there is another for the childcare for healthcare workers. Those are two different schemes. Some may opt for the second who have not been able to opt for the first.

I agree with what Deputy Funchion said about domestic violence. As we know, it is a global issue as well. It is going on in probably every country and in every setting. I think Deputy Funchion is aware that this was one of the top priorities for Tusla in its initial response to the pandemic and in our work with it. As the Deputy pointed out, Tusla advised that there is currently reduced capacity within some refuges due to the requirement for social distancing. To mitigate the impact, an additional 46 refuge and non-refuge accommodation units for service users have been secured in the community. Tusla has advised that a number of services also have access to additional spaces on an as-needed basis but there is still not a sufficient number yet.

I am conscious that I am eating into my colleague's time.

I will hand over to Deputy Martin Browne.

The Minister can provide the remainder of her reply in a written response.

For now, I will hold off on responding about what I think about the things I have read in the newspapers as well.

I thank the Minister.

This is not how I envisaged making my maiden speech but it is where we find ourselves in these strange times. I will start by extending my condolences to all the families that have lost people to the virus. I thank the front-line services across the sectors who have kept everything open for the rest of us.

It is an honour to stand here on behalf of the premier county. It has taken us 102 years to make a bit of history and win back a Sinn Féin seat in Tipperary. For that, I thank the party members in Cashel and all over the county who worked day and night and covered a massive amount of ground in the canvass. I will be forever grateful for that. I thank the 10,000 voters who placed their trust in me and assure them that I will work tirelessly on their behalf. I assure those who did not give me a vote this time around that my door is always open to them, as is my phone. I will represent each and every one of them to the best of my ability.

I thank a few people who are not around, who are looking down on me and who would be very proud, such as my own mother and father, and Frankie, Timmy and Mickey as well. They were a great help to me down through the years. I thank my own family for all the support that they have given me. Only for them I would not be here. I again thank Helen, Gavin, Katie, Molly and Murty.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, when all of us were faced with the uncertainty that lay ahead, early childhood educators in particular were left in limbo by the Government which had failed to act on the concerns raised by the representatives of the sector prior to the election. The challenges facing the sector were well known by all of us prior to the election. On the doorsteps in every corner of Tipperary, the costs to parents and the working conditions for staff and providers were a common concern during the election and they have been since. Unfortunately, since the start of the crisis there was an initial lack of clarity regarding staff wages. After immense work by the sector itself and my colleagues in Sinn Féin, among others, it is welcome that the Minister saw sense on this issue. However, many other serious concerns remain. The larger challenges facing the sector have not been addressed. In our election manifesto, Sinn Féin called for a fully publicly funded early years model of childcare and it is clear now that this is exactly what is needed to protect this vital area of service.

What long-term measures to support the early years sector have been considered as part of the Government's roadmap for reopening Ireland. As the early years sector goes back to work from 18 May, we cannot simply go back to the dysfunctional system that existed before the lockdown, which providers, workers and parents had united in protest against through the Big Start campaign. In Tipperary, I have been contacted by workers and providers in the early years sector who are concerned with the lack of engagement on this issue. They are worried that in the rush to reopen, that the concerns they spent months trying to get the Government to act on will be ignored. Many of them are smaller providers whose very viability, which was already precarious, has been threatened even further by the lockdown. They fear that the Government will settle for getting back to normal. Unfortunately, normal was not good enough for parents, children, workers or providers in the early years sector.

I wish to ask the Minister two questions. The first is what long-term plan the Government has to support the early years sector. The second is whether the Minister will commit to supporting a publicly funded childcare model that would reduce the cost on parents and improve the pay of workers in the sector. The Minister can provide written responses. I will not eat into the time of my colleague, Deputy Carthy.

Throughout the debates on the provision of childcare it is natural that there has been an amount of discussion considering the impact it is having on parents and those involved in essential services.

However, there seems to have been one glaring omission in the consultations, namely, with childcare workers themselves. Last week, the Taoiseach announced that childcare services would open on 29 June for the children of essential workers. That was a major announcement but childcare workers have told me that there has been virtually no discussion with the sector about how this will work. If I may, I will put the questions that those workers have asked me to put to the Minister and ask that she respond in a written reply.

Given that other educational settings will not reopen in June, how does the Government intend to ensure the safety of staff and children in crèches? Will PPE be provided to all staff? Will children be expected to wear masks? If so, will childcare workers be expected to keep the masks on the children? Will the staff be expected to operate social distancing with and among children and how will this be done? This must be considered not only with toddlers running around but also feeding, changing nappies and putting children to sleep. What provisions will in place in those instances? What is the childcare worker to do when the four year old in their care wants a hug? How will a parent hand over a baby to staff while observing 2 m physical distance? What of childcare workers whose partners are also front-line workers - who will mind their children? What of single parents working in childcare whose children are usually cared for in school or by an elderly relative? The cost of their childcare may be almost equal to their wages. Will the Government pay for that? What of childcare workers who live with vulnerable people? Will they be exempted or will they be penalised if they are unable to go to work for fear that they might bring home an infection? As the Minister noted, many crèches will operate below capacity in these circumstances but they will still have full outgoings such as rent, wages and other bills, as well as additional expenses such as sanitation costs. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Government will make up the shortfall?

Has the Government considered the wide array of childcare settings? What will happen in the case of those located in bigger premises such as shopping centres or community buildings in which there is considerable other activity and where facilities such as toilets and washrooms are sometimes shared? Will different guidance be provided to different childcare operators working in those settings?

I will conclude with two short questions, if I may. Will the Government underwrite and compensate the cost of insurance? Is the Minister satisfied that insurance companies will actually provide any cover? We all want our childcare services back up and running but we must ensure that it is done in a manner that is safe for childcare workers, children and their families.

It is deeply worrying that, as of this morning, workers in the sector did not have the answers to those questions. These workers, who will be pivotal to the success of the return to work in the economy, must be consulted and engaged with immediately.

I am sorry but the Minister will have to respond by way of written reply as it is not possible for her to reply in the time available.

A written response would be perfect.

I did not make the rules, but they are there and we will keep them. Deputy Alan Farrell is next and has ten minutes for questions and answers.

I will share my time with Deputy Higgins who will join us in a moment. Having worked with the Minister on various committees over the past nine years, I wish her the very best wherever the next chapter of life takes her once her Ministry ends.

I have eight questions which I sent the Minister in advance and I would appreciate if she could answer them on the record. She answered my question on the number of childcare providers that have engaged with the wage subsidy scheme. The figure she provided was 3,733. How many employees will benefit as a consequence?

On the sector's ability to rebound after the Covid restrictions have been entirely lifted, how many facilities will resume activity and at what capacity will they do so? The Minister said she had been notified by seven providers that they plan to close. I expect that number will rise. Has she done any work on that?

During the Minister's engagement with key personnel in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Tusla and Members of the Oireachtas, I raised, on behalf of one of my Green Party colleagues, the issue of insurance coverage and rebates to providers for the period of closure.

Does the Minister have any analysis or results in respect of the work she was undertaking? What ongoing supports, outside of those being implemented during this period, does she envisage will be required in the coming months? I appreciate that this is a somewhat open-ended question but the Minister might endeavour to answer it. Should there be a second wave of the virus in the winter, as Deputy Carty mentioned, what expectation is there that childcare providers will be given personal protective equipment? Are there plans afoot within the Department to cater for that scenario? What additional supports does the Minister envisage for the access and inclusion model for children with additional needs? Deputy Rabbitte rightly raised the issue of the clawback by Pobal, the impact that might have on certain providers and whether the Department will step in.

From time to time, capital grants have been made available to the industry. I appreciate that we will most likely be entering a difficult financial scenario as a result of this pandemic. I am keen for certainty to be provided to operators throughout the State that may be planning ahead. Of course these plans often take months, if not years, to come to fruition. Therefore, some comment on the record would be appreciated. What steps are the Department taking to plan for and provide additional supports for the development of career pathways for childcare workers? This has featured in a framework document between those of us in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Finally, is education in Oberstown continuing? Was it closed down? I am afraid I did not catch the answer to that question during our recent conference.

I thank the Deputy. Does he propose to get the answers to all questions in first?

I am happy to give way to Deputy Higgins.

We will get all the questions first and then we will get the answers. I think that is fairer on the Minister as well.

I thank the Minister for Children and Family Affairs, Ms Zappone, for everything she has been doing for children. My thanks also to all our front-line and essential workers who are keeping us safe during this time. My thanks to everyone who is leaving their family day in and day out to join the fight against Covid-19. Others are spending day in and day out with their families. I wish to pay tribute to them as well.

In particular, I wish to pay tribute to parents throughout the country. Parenting in Covid-19 is tough out. It comes with considerable added pressure, heightened tensions and raw emotions. Parents' skills have been stretched and their patience has been tested. Today, in over 850,000 households, parents are double-jobbing as home school teachers. They have had to become technologically able to access schoolwork online and intellectually able to teach it. If they have teenagers, they are trying to coax them away from their friends on the green, smartphones or online games and encourage them instead into the possibly less attractive world of schoolwork and exercise. If they have children preparing for the leaving certificate, then they have had to become guidance counsellors leading them through what is traditionally a stressful time during a unique period of uncertainty. If they have toddlers, they have had to become preschool teachers, experts at arts and crafts and ways of developing their child's creativity and imagination in an entertaining way. If they have a child with special needs, then they are doing their utmost to create a new routine amid chaos. Many parents have children spanning different age groups and they have had to learn how to prioritise what is virtually impossible. All that is before they start cooking, cleaning or, as in the new trend, baking.

Every parent has had to parent at a new level. They are managing their children's anxieties and worries through uncertainty. They are managing their children's development and education through unprecedented times and it is tough going. They love having more time at home with the children but it is full-on. It is particularly challenging for working parents who are struggling to balance all of these new demands with working from home or working on the front line. These parents are not simply double-jobbing; they are triple-jobbing. I have many friends in that situation and I am in awe of them. I am so proud of them and so impressed by their ability to do it all. However, I know that many parents are feeling the opposite of impressive. Instead, many are doubting their abilities or feeling guilty about having to juggle so much. They are afraid they are not doing enough or that they are neglecting their child or professional responsibilities or both. They are afraid they are not as good at this as some of the people who share their perfect stories on Instagram.

However, I would say to any one of those parents, "Please know that it is enough." Their best is all they can give and all anyone can expect of them. I know there will be many parents looking forward to getting a break when this is all over. For some that will be a holiday down the country; for some it will be reuniting their kids with their grandparents and for others - there is no shame in admitting it - it will be going back to work. The only way to make sure those parents can go back to work and contribute to rebuilding our economy is to make sure their childcare services are back in operation. We have seen the plan to reopen childcare gradually but we are still missing the plan for the childcare service itself. I am working with childcare providers in Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown, Newcastle, Rathcoole, Saggart and Brittas, many of whom have not charged one family since March. They have had no income from families in all that time and, like every other business in Ireland that has had to shut its doors, their rents, rates and bills are all still coming through those closed doors.

The time is up. The Minister must have a reasonable amount of time to reply to both contributors. There are two minutes and 30 seconds left.

If crèches close their doors permanently, prices will rise. That is simple economics. Without accessible or affordable childcare, childcare providers who want to return to work, and families who need them to be able to return to work, will not be able. For many working families their childcare service is the most important cog in their wheel. That is why we need to look at how we support this industry. Will the Minister clarify how sessional services will operate under reduced ratios or new square footage constraints?

Glaoim ar an Aire. I am sorry but I am trying to get a reply to each contributor.

The Acting Chairman is doing a great job, if I may say so.

I am not so sure about that. The Minister has only two minutes.

I will start with the last question. Much of this is about planning for the future. I will address that a little. Many have asked a variation on Deputy Higgins's question. Needless to say, like other Departments, we have begun planning for the phased reopening of services. As the Deputy knows, when the pandemic hit we immediately started the wage subsidy scheme. We have it planned and are implementing it, and we have been planning for childcare for healthcare workers. That was the next thing we did. That scheme is about to open. That is the first part of the phased reopening, as I said. The next phase of reopening concerns going back to centre-based childcare, especially for essential workers.

Deputies Higgins and Rabbitte asked whether it was 29 June or July, what the dates are for the phasing, and the plans for all that. One of the most important things to say is that the services will not open at full capacity - I think the Deputies are aware of that - due to the ongoing public health restrictions. That will impact not only access to the services, but also their sustainability, the cost to parents and the cost to the State. One of the reasons for the cost of childcare services is that it is heavily shaped by the adult-child ratios. As I have said at other times, 70% of the costs are associated with pay. Part of our planning is looking at what the initial adult-child ratios will have to be. We must be in conversation with NPHET and the Department of Health in that regard.

As for the early years forum consultation, on which many people joined me yesterday evening, we have begun that planning with the sector. We have invited members of the sector to meet us again in a couple of weeks. We will put together a small group of the representative bodies of the sector to help us plan many of those things. I will have to address some of that as we move along. Deputy Rabbitte asked earlier about the statement in the phased reopening map that we will start with one day a week. That was just to give people an example of what it might look like. It does not mean those decisions have been made, to be clear.

We now move to the Green Party, which has ten minutes. Again I will try to facilitate the questions and answers within the ten minutes.

Perfect. I thank the Minister for her update. I have just a couple of questions from that and then some general points. The Minister stated 83% of providers have engaged with the scheme, which leaves, by my very quick calculations, 764 who have not. When we had our briefing last week, the Minister's Department said it would engage with those providers to find out why. Has she had any engagement with those 764 who have not signed up?

Can she provide any information as to why they have not signed up? Are we likely to lose those providers? The Minister stated that only seven providers have closed so far but that number of 764 would dwarf everything that has happened in the past three years. Some information about that prospect would be useful.

W all talk about essential workers whereas the Minister is carefully using the words "healthcare workers". As Deputy Rabbitte indicated, there are many more essential workers who require childcare and early years support. The people in my local supermarket are as much essential to our survival at this point as any other workers. Some clarity on the phasing and who will be able to access these services would be welcome. The phasing is important. The Minister stated that she is consulting with providers. That is great to hear and I accept that this issue is difficult and complex, with many moving parts, including the guidance from NPHET. I encourage the continuation of engagement with the early years forum and providers because it would be a shame to lose providers that are unable to engage with the phased opening when we have held onto them so far.

It is important to remember that many of our early years and youth work settings, for which the Minister has responsibility, as well as the family resource centres and these sorts of services provide much more than care and education. Many of these services are also providing a simple hot meal to children who might not otherwise get one.

Deputy Funchion mentioned the increase in domestic violence and we know that there has been a fall in the number referrals to Tusla at this time. It is important to remember that these services provide supports for vulnerable people and I would hope that, in any phased reopening, we can focus on those who are more vulnerable and who need the wider protections that these services offer.

I echo the comments about July provision. I have been lobbied by several parents in my constituency who rely heavily on July provision and asked me to raise the issue because of how important it is to them in dealing with vulnerable young people.

I will pick up on something from our briefing the other day during which the Minister mentioned a change to fostering regulations. Would she be able to provide the technical details of those proposed changes in writing? The wording of the change would be useful. I do not know if it has happened yet but it would be fine if the Minister could provide that in writing.

There is plenty of time left so the Minister should feel free to reply to Deputy Funchion about any thoughts or comments she may have about newspaper articles.

I thank the Deputy. It is good to continue the conversation. In addition to the early years forum briefing and consultation I had last night, I met many of the Opposition spokespeople a few days ago and answered their questions. It is good to meet Deputy Costello again.

Why did 764 providers not sign up to the scheme? We are continuing to discuss that with the various representative bodies. I agree with the Deputy that we need carry out that analysis. We are today publishing some new frequently asked questions which might assist. There may be issues in getting workers who originally went onto the pandemic unemployment payment to move to the wage subsidy scheme. As I indicated earlier, we tried to create the best possible supports in the wage subsidy scheme so that people would come back to the industry. We are attentive to the issue and the Deputy is right to continue asking those questions.

I indicated that the first phase of opening will be childcare for healthcare workers and perhaps some providers will come back for that. That may be more attractive to the workers when we are able to release the details of what that actually means. I indicated in my opening remarks that we are suggesting an average rate per hour.

The Deputy asked about the distinction between essential workers and healthcare workers. I am using that language because it is the language of the roadmap and what NPHET has recommended. The recommendation is that we begin with providing services to healthcare workers and then move on to the other essential workers, to the extent that we can attract the workers to provide that childcare.

As indicated, many of them want to answer that call. That is the reason for the difference in the use of language.

The Deputy made a point about when we start to reopen in that third phase. In the childcare sector, we hope that we will have more of the essential workers, which is a wider group than the healthcare essential workers. What children have priority in terms of coming in? My view, which I have already shared with the Department, and it agrees, is to find a way in which we can begin to recommend those children who are most vulnerable, who have additional needs and who have not had the kinds of supports that other children have had during the pandemic because of their particular backgrounds, circumstances or whatever. I agree with that but those are things that have to be decided in the planning as we move forward. As I have indicated, we are engaging with the sector in order to do that and are preparing that. I expect that the Deputies will be part of what happens in this regard.

I wrote down the word "emergency" when the Deputy asked his final question. What was-----

It was in regard to Tusla and the proposed-----

Yes, the emergency regulations. I intend to sign regulations for emergency foster care effectively to establish a unique panel to fast-track that if we need it. We do not know that we need it yet but if there are additional children who need foster care parents it is to try to get them to those as soon as possible. To ensure that the regulations have the best possible protections, I invited the special rapporteur on child protection and the Ombudsman for Children Ombudsman to look at what we have done. This has now happened. They have added a few more suggestions. We are amending the regulations and I will be signing them as soon as I can in order to implement that.

I read in the newspapers about documents relating to plotting the demise of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but I also note that it is the sixth largest spending Department with a budget of €1.6 billion. That has increased over the past number of years thanks to good negotiation on behalf of the great team I work with. I have also heard that 60 NGOs have come out, at least under the leadership of the Children's Rights Alliance, and made the points made by Deputy Funchion. Not unlike other times throughout the past four years, I am in agreement with the Deputy.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard Durkan)

The next slot is the Labour Party. Deputy Sherlock has ten minutes for questions and answers. I have no doubt he will be excellent in his management of the time.

The Acting Chairman is very kind. I propose to make a short opening statement and then have a rapid-fire round with the Minister. I, too, welcome the competence of the Minister in respect of the vital role the Department plays in Irish society. I know there are Members present in the House who are part of a tentative Government who would be very sensitive to the needs of children and ensuring that we, as a society, recognise the role of children and the importance of maintaining a Minister at Cabinet level. That is vital.

I thank the Minister sincerely for her work to date. I say without any plámás that she has been one of the most progressive Ministers that we have had in respect of her role. I genuinely wish her well for the future and thank her and her officials for the progressive role they have played in terms of protecting and progressing the rights of children in society. I thank her for being here today.

I want to outline in brief terms that there is an element to this crisis that has not received the attention it deserves. For working mothers, the burden of childcare continues to fall predominantly on them during this time. As progressive as we like to believe we are as a society, the demands that have fallen on working mothers in the absence of a proper childcare structure means that women are effectively being held back because they are again assuming traditional household roles for the most part.

That is the sad reality of the situation. As a parent of two young children, as progressive and all as I like to think I am, I know the reality is that working mothers still assume the vast bulk of the role of maintaining and managing a household. It is having an impact on their career progression as we speak. That is why it is vitally important that we restore the childcare system and have a pathway or roadmap which ensures all workers have access to the service in the shortest period of time possible. It is vital that we step up the energy levels that are required to achieve that.

I wish to make a point regarding the wage subsidy scheme as it relates to women who are returning from maternity leave. The Minister may not be able to answer it as she is probably not the line Minister for the issue. It is vitally important that the legislation be amended, as articulated by SIPTU, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the National Women's Council of Ireland and Members in this House today, so that those returning from maternity leave are eligible to apply for the wage subsidy scheme. The Labour Party lends its voice to that call. If we are to talk about equality and the progression of women in society, we must ensure this anomaly is corrected by way of legislation.

I thank the Minister for giving us some clarity today regarding the roadmap. My questions in regard to it are very simple. The first is specific and relates to the €15 per hour the Minister says will be paid to workers to go into the homes of healthcare staff. Has there been an assessment in real time of demand for that service? Do we know how many healthcare workers are actively looking for this provision? Second, what is the anticipated supply of workers? Third, where is the incentive for somebody who is currently availing of the wage subsidy scheme or Covid-19 payment as an employee to move off that payment and into work in the home of a healthcare worker? Fourth, what protocols will be designed around ensuring the safety of the worker going into the home? We recognise the needs of healthcare workers but we must also ensure that where a childcare or early years worker decides to volunteer, he or she can feel safe going into a particular house. Will there be Garda vetting of members of the household to protect the volunteer who is going in? Will that be a requirement of the scheme? What are the insurance permutations for the household into which a worker is coming? Those are my opening questions.

The time is running out but I will give the Deputy plenty of opportunity to come in again.

I hope I will be able to come in with a second round of questions.

We will get the answers to that set of questions from the Minister first.

I thank the Deputy for his questions and his opening comments regarding the importance of childcare and the reality of, although he did not use that phrase, the double jobbing and extra responsibility on mothers. I thank him for his honesty in that regard. As we move forward, we need to find a new way to fund some forms of increased provision. I already indicated that even in the reopening phase there will be a substantial requirement in order to begin offering childcare again because of the social distancing and staff-child ratio requirements, etc. I agree fully with Deputy Sherlock's points in this regard and with the point Deputy Funchion made that if we are now paying the full wages of people in the sector, it may be the right time to move towards a really substantial increase in provision that would make the sector more affordable and, therefore, less burdensome, particularly for women.

I understand the House recently established a cross-party committee to examine the issues related to Covid-19. This is an additional forum where these issues can be raised. On the €15 per hour, I want to be clear that this is just a recommendation and an average amount. As the Deputy knows, these are private providers and we cannot tell them what to pay. I think it is significant that we are indicating that amount and I would hope that they can reach it. On the Deputy's question regarding an audit, the HSE did carry out an audit to try to get a sense of the demand among the 8,000 families it was indicated anticipated supply. The Deputy is correct on the need for incentives.

We know that Early Childhood Ireland and others have engaged with the members of their organisation on whether they would be willing to participate and many responded that they wanted to but, obviously, it was dependent on what was being offered. I hope that when I am able to identify more of the detail tomorrow at the launch it will be attractive to some people in terms of the wage and proposed working hours. As I said earlier, this scheme will provide for up to 45 hours per week of childcare. There is a small co-payment that the parents will be asked for, which I indicated earlier will be €90 per family. On the protocols, we will provide guidance in regard to many of the questions the Deputy asked.

In regard to insurance, it will be extended with the worker going into the home. There was a great deal of discussion and debate around insurance cover where a worker contacted Covid-19 during that period. That is not possible. Those discussions did not result in that being a possibility. These are people who have been Garda vetted. We have recommendations, protocols and guidance from the HSE in regard to what they should wear, etc.

The Minister has approximately ten seconds remaining.

In regard to the Deputy's other questions, perhaps he would put them on the record.

They can be responded to in writing.

My closing questions relate to who the eligible healthcare workers are and the point made by Deputy Anne Rabbitte, which is a vital one, regarding the phasing in of this measure in July. The Minister said, for example, it will be one day per week but that throws up major issues which I think we need answers to now in this House. There needs to be detailed answers to those types of questions because I can foresee families contacting me saying that they are being told they cannot avail of the service on Monday when they need it on Monday or on Tuesday when they need it on Tuesday. This is going to have a massive impact. It will put massive pressure on the providers in a way that will probably force them into a lottery system, which again will have negative impacts for families. These are the issues that need to be teased out in this forum, now I would argue.

I thank the Deputy but we do not have time just now. We will arrange for the Deputy to be issued with a written reply to his specific questions. The next speaking slot is for the Social Democrats. Deputy Whitmore has ten minutes. We will do our best to allow time for both the Deputy and the Minister.

It is hard to believe that it is only nine weeks since Covid-19 first arrived in the Republic of Ireland. To date, the focus has been on the immediate health impacts which have been devastating for so many families. However, the impact of Covid-19 goes far beyond the immediate threat to physical health. It will leave a long-term scar on our society that will take time and effort to heal.

One group that will find this period particularly difficult are our children and teenagers. Unfortunately, much of the discourse around children and teens since Covid-19 has arrived has been negative. They have been described as super-spreaders and as vectors, they have been banned from shops, which makes it nearly impossible for lone parents to shop for food safely, and teenagers in particular have borne a considerable amount of negative commentary. In reality, our children have done an amazing job over the last few months. What we have often forgotten in all of this is that their world has literally been turned upside down. They can no longer hang out with their friends in school or in their clubs and many have missed out on the rites of passage that accompany their big milestones, such as moving from primary to secondary school. They have had to adjust to remote learning, which may be difficult for many and impossible for some. Their routines have been completely interrupted, impacting on children with additional needs in particular. Social distancing measures, while necessary from a health perspective, mean that many children's social skills may regress.

Therefore, while many children will do okay, many others are lonely, confused and anxious. Some are experiencing digital poverty, some are facing issues of food poverty and some will be isolated at home with their abusers. We do not know what we are going to find when we finally get to open the door on homes across the country. There are some certainties, however. Our children will need help to reintegrate. From an educational perspective, the usual summer slide, where the long summer break means that children lose some of the skills they gained over the previous school year, will be greatly increased. Our usual summer slide will now be super-charged into a Covid-19 slide. This will disproportionately impact on children and young people who are already at a disadvantage, whether educationally or socially. The gap will widen. Unless this is addressed, some children will never be able to make up the time and the learning experiences they have lost.

While we can say we could never have imagined the Covid-19 crisis that has hit our shores, we will not have that excuse when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable children into the future. What we need is a cross-departmental task force that develops a transition plan specifically for children and young people. It needs to involve the Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Justice and Equality, as well as the children's rights organisations. It needs to pre-empt, plan and prepare the supports that children require as we move through the next number of months. Vulnerable children and those with additional needs should be a priority and the resources of the State should be directed at those children. For example, could schools open for children who are currently under the care of Tusla, for those children who require educational supports or for children of front-line healthcare workers? As this has happened in other countries, is it something we could do here?

Transition questions need to be asked and answered in a proactive manner. How will our children be reintegrated into the school community? How will we make sure every child has access to mental health and wraparound supports if they need them? Does the curriculum need to be revised to take into account the six-month educational gap? How do we make sure that our schools are better prepared for remote learning? How do we make sure that childcare is being provided in a safe manner that is appropriate for children and families?

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs needs to be the lead agency on this transition task force. It has demonstrated that it can work successfully across agencies and Departments, representing the best interests of children. This is the key reason the reported proposal by Fianna Fáil to disband the Department would be such a regressive step. There needs to be a Department and a Minister whose sole purpose is children and that has children and young people at its heart. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is needed now, more than ever, to ensure that children are protected as we move through the recovery. Will the Minister set up a transition task force, led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that specifically deals with children and young people, and that develops a child-focused transition plan, working with key agencies, and ensures that children and young adults get the supports and help they need over the coming months?

My next questions relate to childcare. Our childcare sector, much of which is already operating on a knife-edge, faces an uncertain future. I am aware of some providers which, unfortunately, have closed their doors. This is obviously difficult for those businesses and the families they support, and, unfortunately, it is likely that many others will follow suit, despite the best efforts of the Department. When parents are in a position to rejoin the workforce, they will need to know their children have a place with their childcare provider.

As a parent, I know how important it is for a family to click with a carer. Families would absolutely hate to give those people up. It is very important for these relationships to continue. It is important for the Department to consult and engage with providers, listen to suggestions and make all efforts to ensure the sustainability of the sector. It is a key cog in the context of restarting our economy and for families and children. Previously, I requested that the Department expand the remit of the sustainability fund to provide additional financial supports to those providers who may find they just cannot make it through the next few months. I reiterate the importance of this additional support for providers and ask the Minister for an update on my proposal to repurpose that fund to support at-risk childcare providers so they can be there when parents go back to work and need them most.

There also needs to be some clarity on the reopening of crèches, and the Minister has gone through some of this, because there is considerable confusion as to how that will happen. Home-based childminders also seek clarity on where they fit into the phasing plans, and whether there is an opportunity for them to look after one family in particular and be that family's provider. This could help them open up earlier than is in the phasing plan at present.

I thank Deputy Whitmore. The way she laid out the complexity of the challenges, her empathy, her representation of her constituents and her concerns, as many of the Deputies have done, demonstrates how big the issue is in general and especially for our children and young people. I thank the Deputy and I am with her in this regard. I understand a little bit about it, in trying to take responsibility for it in the current period

Deputy Whitmore spoke about children and young people and what they may have lost and what they still are giving. I tried to indicate some of this in my opening remarks, to acknowledge their agency, resilience and actions, and to be aware in particular of those who have additional needs or backgrounds that require additional supports when we come to reopen in a different way. We are conscious of this. In this regard, for 2020 I got an additional €10 million for the Department's access and inclusion model. This money is still in the budget and will be used for children with additional needs. Our Better Start team is available to work over the summer with parents who are concerned about a child with additional needs who will be starting in school and who may have lost out. We are working with the Department of Education and Skills in this regard. Some of this is happening.

I have already referred to some of the measures in other sections of the Department, particularly for young children who are not in preschool. We have set up a number of videos and resources to help support parents in this regard. I also referred to how the sections of the Department that deal with youth affairs are responding with an innovative approach.

I will bring to the Department's attention Deputy Whitmore's recommendation on a cross-party transition group to look particularly at the challenges as we move forward, and we will take a look at it. Initially, I thought she was talking about the wider task force recommended by her leader. I am in favour of that idea and I have spoken about it at Cabinet. I was also in favour of the establishment of the committee that has been established today in the Dáil and I spoke about it at Cabinet. I will bring back the Deputy's suggestion and we can take a look at it and continue a conversation with the Deputy in this regard.

With regard to the Deputy's other questions on childcare, as we move forward and parents having a place, she is right and we are carrying this awareness and responsibility. I have only started to indicate some of the complexity of trying to deal with it. The Deputy spoke about a sustainability fund, as did other Members. Not unlike always in recent years, the Department is there for somebody in trouble to come forward. We want to help. I have been trying to indicate that everything we have been doing and all of the additional huge number of supports and significant funds have been about sustainability. This is not to say there is not also a fund that might continue to support it but it is part of all of the wider measures being taken.

I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. It seems like an eternity since, on 5 February, we saw the biggest national demonstration by childcare workers calling for a national investment in childcare. It seems like a different century almost, and it was three days before the general election. I was at it, like others in this Chamber, and it was an unprecedented demonstration. There must have been about 20,000 people at it. There was an incredible atmosphere. The main issues were in respect of low pay, retention of staff, high cost of crèche places, affordability and insurance costs. Those issues almost created a perfect storm around childcare. One of the main messages from that demonstration was the fragmented nature of childcare in Ireland. Generally the Minister has done a good job in her position but childcare is - I do not like using the word - slightly dysfunctional in Ireland. One thing that needs to come out of the post-pandemic world is that childcare for all workers, front-line and essential workers, should be free and should be funded from the point of central taxation.

I welcome that places will be available for front-line workers. I think a figure of 5,000 was mentioned for the home setting. Why did it take so long for that to happen? Why did it take nine weeks to happen after all the schools were closed in the State? A large number of front-line workers were extremely frustrated about getting access to childcare. Before, sometimes they would give their children to grandparents and so forth, but that was not feasible whatsoever. This shows the dysfunctional aspects of childcare in Ireland. If there is one thing that needs to come out of the post-pandemic situation, it is that childcare needs to be looked at and made free at the point of availability.

I thank the Deputy. Starting with his last question first, and I think I tried to answer this before, it is reasonable to ask why it took so long. I heard the frustration from the healthcare workers as well and I spoke to many of them myself. I went on radio and was public about saying I thought we should have it, and this was before there was a decision by Dr. Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET to say yes, it was okay. The issue they were grappling with was the potential public health risk. Ultimately, they made a decision that we could begin and it will begin on 18 May. My Department and officials have been preparing for that for a number of weeks. We will put that in place and we hope we are ready. It is not going to be straightforward, I am sure. There is a lot in that. That is why it took so long. We are ready. It is not going to be straightforward and I am sure there are going to be difficulties and challenges. From my perspective and that of my Department, we were not responsible for that. It was the responsibility ultimately of the experts who were offering the advice to Government.

The Deputy talked about the issues within the sector, of which I am fully aware and, as I indicated, I have tried to address many of them in different ways over the past four years. By the way, in the last year before 2000, I think I was actually the first one to hold a childcare march when I was chief executive of the National Women's Council. We went down O'Connell Street and I had lots of people behind me.

As the Deputy knows, I believe in marches. Yes, there is criticism that it is something on which we did not move fast enough, but part of the work I did as Minister was to encourage the voice to be raised, and that is what they did. I am proud that that happened. At the same time, I point out that there are still a lot of issues and problems. I have said before that I, too, believe childcare should be free. Ultimately, I would love to see that. This is why affordability was so central to the work as well as the professionals who work there. Maybe that answers a little of the Deputy's query.

Maybe we could do question and answer, if we get to it. I will pick up where the Minister left off. I agree that we should have free provision of childcare as a public service. We need to develop a national childcare service in this country, and it can be done. The question is, is now not the time to do it? Our so-called normal model of childcare was a failure. It was a failure for families who were spending, on average, one fifth of their income on childcare, which was one of the highest in Europe. It was definitely a failure for workers who were not getting even the €15 per hour the Minister has spoken of, which would be a big improvement for many, but were on barely over €10 per hour, part-time contracts, casual work and so on. It was also a failure for many small crèche owners who were faced with a crisis in insurance costs and everything else. The Minister said earlier that the State was already paying 60% of the total costs. Now the State will pay more than ever. Is now not the time to seize the moment and say goodbye to that privatised model of childcare and instead to begin to build that sort of national childcare service today?

Deputy Murphy will not be surprised if I say that I do not think it was all a failure. We have gone through a lot of those arguments before so I do not think I need to identify them again and come back at the Deputy, as I often would, with regard to what did happen. I do not think it was all a failure. The Deputy is looking at the Minister who helped to negotiate the temporary wage subsidy scheme that now pays the wages of the childcare workers. That was a huge thing, working with my Department and with other Departments who ultimately agreed to that. It was a huge thing. When the Deputy says "Is now not the time", I think, yes, we ought to take a look at what has happened already. That is part of the planning as we move forward. As I have said before, it is up to you.

I have another more specific question relating to huge numbers of workers who have been forced to stay at home to mind children in the course of this crisis. It seems that for many workers this will continue to be the case for months to come. Does the Minister agree that parents must not suffer as a result of this, that those who need to stay at home to mind their children, and for whom that is the reason for staying at home, should be given leave on full pay with no detriment to them when they return to work, and those who have already been forced to take annual leave should have that annual leave returned to them if they were forced to take it in the context of the coronavirus crisis and having to mind children?

I will ask my other question as I may not get time later. I welcome the fact that it is hoped these childcare workers engaged in this scheme for front-line healthcare workers will get €15 per hour. If this is the case for those childcare workers, and it very definitely should be the case for them, should it not also be the case that all childcare workers at a minimum going forward should be on €15 per hour?

I am glad the Deputy asked that question. Let our actions stand. Did the Deputy's second question refer to healthcare workers?

It referred to people who have taken annual leave at all-----

Including healthcare workers.

Exactly. My sentiments are with the Deputy, but I do not think those decisions are up to this Department.

I acknowledge, welcome and recognise the suite of measures the Minister and her staff have brought in to support and protect the childcare sector during these extraordinary times. I highlight four of the measures in particular. The first is the fact that parents or guardians will not have to pay for childcare while the crèches and preschools are closed, which is an important step; second, that the children's places will be protected and assured for the duration of the crisis; third, that the salaries of the staff will be paid in full, which is a fantastic measure; and fourth, that there is a contribution from State funds to the overheads of the crèches and preschools, which works out as 15% of the staff costs, a significant contribution. By any measure, this is the most substantial support being provided to any sector of Irish society during the Covid-19 emergency, and the Minister and her staff should be commended on securing such a deal.

I had a list of approximately ten questions but I am happy to report that eight of them have been answered so I will not ask them again. I nonetheless have two specific, technical questions that the Minister might assist me with. The first relates to insurance, and while the issue has been mentioned, my question is in a slightly different capacity. Our crèches and preschools will be closed for at least four months, which works out as approximately one third of the year, and only one insurance company provides insurance for the vast majority of centres in the sector. Would it be unreasonable to look for a pro rata rebate for one third of the year in the policies? It would be worth negotiating. If it is not possible, or if the insurance company says "No", another approach might solve the issue raised by Deputy Sherlock. If we are looking for insurance for childcare professionals to go into healthcare workers' houses, could that risk cover be transferred onto the childcare professionals going into those houses? It is only an opinion of mine that I give freely and the Minister may do with it what she wishes, but it would be nice to know whether any negotiations have taken place between her officials and the insurance company mentioned. If not, is it something that might be considered in the future?

My second question relates to term-time contracts. Many Deputies may not be aware than many childcare professionals are not on full-time contracts but instead are employed for only nine months of the year, specifically for the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. Traditionally, these precariously employed workers are laid off at the end of June every year and re-employed in September. They are out of pocket, therefore, for three months. Can we get the Minister's assurance that they will not be laid off from the Covid-19 payment, at least? Will any measures given to their peers who normally have a 12-month contract be extended to ECCE workers, who are on a term-time contract?

I wish the Minister the best of luck in whatever endeavours she takes from here on and thank her very much for her contribution to Irish society in recent years.

On the Deputy's first question, Deputy Farrell raised something similar but I did not get to it. Allianz will give a rebate for insurance costs and Early Childhood Ireland is working with it further to maximise the return. An absolute sum has not yet been decided but Allianz has agreed to provide a rebate. On the other insurance issue, Allianz has agreed that when childcare workers go into homes, the way in which they normally insure will be extended to them.

I think the Deputy will be aware that we have sanction to continue the wage subsidy scheme until 18 June and we will consider what further measures will be appropriate beyond that point, including for ECCE, which the Deputy mentioned. We are planning the introduction of childcare for healthcare workers, as I have indicated. It is open to anyone working on ECCE to apply to volunteer for this so, potentially, some wages will continue to work towards the measure to retain the childcare workforce in line with plans for a phased opening. Whatever the measures are that move into the future, those workers will be part of it somehow.

We hope to find a way so that what we are doing is done in tandem with measures that are agreed by Government when the current scheme comes to an end on 18 June.

I am sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath. The response to childcare needs, especially with respect to the front-line healthcare workers and essential workers has been disappointing overall. I accept that it is an issue complicated by public health advice but the fact remains that the approach to date has been fragmented and marked by much confusion. I note that on 1 May, the Minister issued a statement to say that existing registered childcare services will be invited to participate in overseeing the provision of childcare in the homes of healthcare and essential workers from 18 May. That is almost two weeks away and it is of great concern to these workers, who are doing fantastic work in our communities and who have to be commended. Initially, it was reported a fortnight ago that the HSE had estimated that more than 8,000 healthcare staff are in need of childcare support. Subsequently, another report estimated that the figure was much higher, which shows there is an urgent need for quick action. Is it acceptable that a voluntary scheme that aims to respond to this will not be in place until 18 May? It is putting those workers under incredible pressure. Can actions be taken urgently in this respect? Can a process be sped up and can the bureaucratic difficulties that are holding it up be dealt with? I would like the Minister to take that on board and to answer those questions.

Another issue I would like to raise is how child welfare is being prioritised in this time of crisis. As I understand it, Tusla, as a critical provider of essential front-line services for children and families, remains engaged in several key areas: child protection and children in care; emergency out-of-hours services; and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services. I noted the comments made by the chief executive of Tusla, Bernard Gloster, that all referrals or concerns about children are being screened and assessed in line with normal practice and that where a child is at immediate risk, he or she will receive an immediate protective response. However, the chief executive also noted that Tusla is seeking indications that the number of referrals to child protection and welfare services are lower than usual at this time. Some of this may be down to school closures and the lowering of referrals through that route but some of it may be more concerning. Is the Minister certain that Tusla is capable of responding to the potential scale of this problem? I know my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, has previously noted from his research on this matter that a shocking 248,000 referrals across all categories of abuse, including physical and sexual abuse, were made to Tusla during the period from 2011 to 2018. Those children are still out there and they need our assistance. We have to ensure that child welfare remains a top priority, and I hope the Minister will engage with this particular aspect during her reply.

The third issue I wish to raise relates to the concerns that have emerged around the increase in the incidence of domestic and gender-based violence. From what I can see, there are clear indications that the number of such incidents are increasing in recent months. Will the Minister outline the practical support measures she has put in place to respond to this in terms of increased refuge supports or access to volunteer helplines? I wish to mention also that I am very aware there is a chronic lack of refuge supports and services in County Laois. I ask the Minister to put emergency services, such as refuge services, in place immediately because it has been raised a number of times.

I will call Deputy Mattie McGrath and the Minister can then reply to both Deputies.

If not, we can get a written response. I welcome that the Minister has come to the House despite the fact that she lost her seat in the election. I wish her well in the future.

There are serious concerns among self-employed owner-managers of childcare facilities who have been forced onto the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment while all their staff are receiving the wage subsidy scheme aimed at the retention of staff, which is good. These owner-managers are still working with parents, supporting the staff and carrying out large amounts of administration duties, but are left on unemployment payment. Will the Government examine this important cohort of managers, who appear to have fallen through the cracks, and ensure that they too are put on the wage subsidy scheme? What will happen after mid-June? Can they claim unemployment benefit for the summer months as well? These people are vital. They are owners and managers. They planted the seeds for those crèches, built them up and employed their staff. They are very good staff. We do not want to have a "them and us" situation with the staff. It is a team, an important team that grows around the love of caring for children.

Ar an dara ceist, there are major concerns about the capacity issues in the early childcare sector after Covid-19. While the wage subsidy scheme is welcome in the context of the retention and support of staff, there is great concern regarding the large loss of revenue that some services are facing. Many services are reporting losses of over €600 per week. There is great concern about whether these services will be able to reopen. They cannot sustain such losses. They were already struggling and had experienced huge rises, sometimes a quadrupling, in the cost of insurance. Some could not even get insurance. We must address that. At present, the sustainability fund is only available to not-for-profit services. Can this fund be extended to include all services to improve the chances of reopening in September? It is unfair; it is not a level playing field. It should include everyone.

On the wider childcare sector issues, given that all childcare facilities are currently closed, with staff paid directly via the wage subsidy scheme and a top-up from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, this is an opportunity to examine, regenerate and reinvest in the sector. It is ironic to think that it takes a pandemic such as this to force a root-and-branch review of what is happening in the sector. I salute all the workers and the public and private providers. I was a founder member, and am still a board member, of Naíonra Chaisleán Nua, which works through the medium of Irish, so I am aware of the work they do. I also know about the onerous duties that fall on the voluntary board members. They are getting more onerous due to regulations. Deputy Nolan mentioned Tusla. There is a need for that, but we are over-regulated in many areas and there is no proper, sustainable funding stream for the future. Live horse and one will get grass. One is always waiting. There are also big pressures in all areas, including rural areas. Children from 60 miles away are attending our crèche. It is a wonderful facility at the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains in Newcastle. I pay tribute to the voluntary board, the staff and the management.

I note that a new model is being proposed. The Minister's programme for the period 2020 to 2025 was outlined before the election. We must reinvest in what we have and look at the anomalies that exist and try to close them. That is very important. Despite the lip service paid to them over the years, there has been totally unfair discrimination against the carers in the home, be it mothers or fathers. There is also the great effort and support provided by grandparents and the wider family. The people who stay at home to mind their children must not be discriminated against. There is discrimination against families in many areas across the Minister's Department, and I have raised this with her previously. That is unacceptable. We are making it almost undesirable for parents to stay at home. There is no better place for the child to learn than the home. That has been proven by studies carried out across the globe.

This is a timely opportunity. I believe many blessings will come out of this sad pandemic as well.

We must insist that Governments, Departments and officials have due regard for the family as the best vehicle to rear children and do not have it discriminated against, as under many of the schemes in the past. I have debated this with the Minister across this floor but nothing has changed. Ní neart go cur le chéile. We support the parents in the first instance and, indeed, the local and voluntary crèches, in addition to the public ones. I would appreciate answers. The Minister does not have time to respond this evening but I appeal to her to provide a written reply to them, más é do thoil é. It is important that we get replies.

The Minister has a long list of questions to reply to. I am sure she will be delighted to do so in due course. We shall move to the Independent Group, which has ten minutes. I call Deputy Harkin.

Unlike many Deputies, I have not had the privilege to work with the Minister in this House but I have from a distance observed her progressive work and that of her officials in the area of childcare. I wish her well in the next phase.

I have three brief questions. Covid-19 has upturned everything. From my conversations with providers and workers in the sector, I realise that many of them feel right now that they are in a kind of limbo. Let me explain. I refer to the email that arrived on Monday asking staff to volunteer to work in the homes of people who need childcare. Issues arise regarding the provision of a proper service, personal protective equipment and guidelines on how specifically staff should operate. We have heard about the low wages. Are staff expected to travel to the houses? Who will bear the cost? There are many issues. I am aware the Minister is trying to find a solution at a difficult time but the providers have to deal with the matter on a day-to-day basis.

On the reopening of the sector, there are many issues. The sanitisation of the centres comprises an extra cost. Are there proposals to help the sector in this area?

On the model of childcare, the Minister has given her view. She spoke about her support for a fully funded childcare sector. The Big Start campaign, supported by Siptu, is a measure we can consider. Many of the community childcare providers are run by volunteers. They survive only because of voluntary effort and the effort of other community groups. Given where we are now, many of them may be unsustainable in the future. I would like the Minister's views on that sector in particular.

I thank the Deputy for her kind comments. I acknowledge her extraordinary work over the years, which I have observed from a distance.

In making her first point, she referred to an email calling for childcare for healthcare workers. I understand what she is saying about the response and the feeling of being in limbo. We felt we needed to at least begin the process so we could be ready when called on in that regard. We are working with representative bodies of the childcare services to put together suggestions and guidance on how to move forward, and we are doing so as fast as we can. We are responding but I understand it is not at the speed we, the workers and professionals would like. I believe we will have the package relatively shortly, and it will be a good one.

On the reopening and the proposals, I have talked a little here already. We have begun the planning. We have been engaging with the representative bodies, and individual service providers are sending us ideas on guidelines on what we need to lay out that would ensure the best possible safety for the children and workers and the ways in which we move forward in terms of the phased reopening. That process has begun and we are working with the people who know best what is required. We hope to meet again, within a two-week period, members of the early years forum, whom I met just yesterday or the day before to begin to talk about this process.

I will refer to the model as we move forward. A number of months ago, I established an independent expert group that is looking at a new model of public funding. The group is continuing to do its work. I hope it will be a resource for the new Government.

In terms of the community and not-for-profit sector, we have always had our eye on that group of services which have particular and extraordinary gifts and resilience. We have found ways to continue to support that sector. Given its special circumstances and what I spoke about earlier, the Department will initially provide services to children in that sector, whatever their special needs or socio-economic circumstances, who have lost the most during this period. I apologise to Deputy Connolly.

This is the first written copy of a speech we have got from any Minister today, so I thank her very much for that. I welcome that. I thank the Minister for her work to date. I was often very critical, I hope constructively so, especially regarding delays with various reports on mother and baby homes. I might come back to that in a moment. I wish the Minister the best in whatever path she takes.

I loved every contribution Deputy Connolly made.

I thank the Minister. She certainly took the constructive criticism very well.

I was most alarmed by the kite that was flown at the weekend in The Sunday Business Post. It has already been mentioned by Deputy Funchion. I welcome the Minister's clarity on that. In particular, I was alarmed that a kite would be flown suggesting that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs would be abolished in a year when we are waiting on a report from the commission on mother and baby homes, which is looking at a period from 1922 to 1998. It is looking at 14 mother and baby homes and four other county homes. We have had five interim reports. I note the disrespect alone in that regard.

We know that the referral rate to Tusla is way down. Given the background of the Charleton report, the HIQA report and the various other reports into Tusla – I mean no disrespect to its staff - it is clear there are gaping holes in the protection of children, yet a kite like that is flown in a Sunday newspaper. The Minister has answered that point.

She also answered the question regarding the delay, which I welcome. I have looked at the minutes concerning the delay in setting up emergency childcare for essential workers. It was first mentioned in a NPHET meeting on 16 March. The matter was also to be placed on the agenda for a meeting on 24 or 26 March but it did not. It came up on 31 March as an ad hoc item. Interestingly, we went from essential "healthcare staff" to essential "workers", a more general term. It seems that a paper was presented on 16 March. It was mentioned ad hoc on 31 March and again on 3 April that there was a deliberative paper. I would be interested to hear the Minister's view on whether the paper could be published. I ask that it would be published. It seems that there was a deliberative paper – that is an interesting word – entitled Emergency Childcare Provision for Essential Healthcare Workers. We are back to "healthcare" workers again, yet nothing was done. Then we move forward to 7 April. At this point, the Department of Health refers to two recent reports, one from the ESRI, which is very interesting, on "essential" workers again – a broader term – and the need for emergency childcare. It told us that essential workers constituted 20% of the workforce and 40% of them had children and would need assistance with childcare. However, nothing was done and it is now May. The Minister is now in a position to announce something. I thank her for giving us as many details as she can, but it raises the question as to why this was not done before now. The Minister said she was waiting. The minutes say it was an essential item but it then went into never-never land. The minutes state that the Minister was notified twice. I ask her to respond to that point.

I take the opportunity to raise children with a disability, an issue that has been raised by other colleagues. I do not have the time to read out the letters I received but I will read three of the words used in one letter.

This is a child with autism and very special needs and who is doubly incontinent. He needs and breathes routine, structure and certainty. Who was the voice for that child on the NPHET committee? Who was the voice who made those needs known for that child, one of many at home who are begging us to reopen the schools in some way so they can go forward? They do not want computers or to talk about technology. They want human contact. Who was the voice for that child and those children?

I will stop at that. I was going to raise public provision but the Minister has confirmed that as well. Has that voice been heard at Cabinet?

A Aire, I think it will be a written reply to those questions.

Perhaps we could get one or two responses as we did a little time.

We are running the gambit of time. I will ask the Minister to make a very quick response.

I share the Deputy's frustration at the situation around the provision of childcare for essential or healthcare workers. I spoke about that. We certainly were encouraging it as much as we could along the way.

I understand that the mother and baby homes commission is still on schedule to submit its report in June. I have been in communication with the commission and hope to meet the membership in some way before I finish. I thank the Deputy for her extraordinary advocacy on this.

The Dáil adjourned at 7.05 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 7 May 2020.