I welcome the opportunity to make a statement and take questions relating to the early learning and childcare.
Before I begin, it is appropriate to recognise that tomorrow is the anniversary of the huge march that took place on 5 February 2020, when a coalition of groups across the early learning and childcare sector took to the streets, seeking better pay, conditions and supports for the sector. Around 30,000 people joined them on that march. I know that tomorrow, last year’s march will be remembered through online actions.
All our lives have changed so much in the scope and context of the last year. I am very conscious that, across the duration of the entire pandemic, the early learning and childcare sector has shown real leadership, with the return to services in June of last year and the fact that this January the sector remained open for vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. Early learning and childcare professionals and providers have kept services open at a time of real anxiety across all of society.
As Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and as a member of Government, I offer my thanks to everybody in the sector for all they have done and all that they continue to do.
The initial closures of early learning and childcare services from March to June last year created major challenges for children and their families and led to significant pressures on a range of essential services, including our health system. That is why ensuring these services can continue to operate during the current restrictions has been a priority for me and for Government. On the announcement of the closure of services on 12 March, my Department immediately moved to guarantee continued State funding for the sector for the initial closure period. The subsequent introduction of the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme by my Department was crucial in ensuring the sustainability of the sector during the closure period by ensuring the workforce could be retained and that parents could retain places for their children, without charge.
The €75 million reopening funding package negotiated in June supported more than 1,500 providers that normally operate during the summer months to reopen their doors. In preparation for the full reopening of the sector from 1 September, I secured a sector-wide exemption, the only one of its kind, to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. With enhanced EWSS rates in place since October 2020, the scheme is estimated to cover, on average, 80% of payroll costs or 50% of full operating costs of these services, allowing them to operate sustainably even with much reduced occupancy levels. The estimated cost of this investment the State is putting into the early childcare sector is more than €7 million per week.
Owing to increased cases of Covid-19 in the community and to reduce levels of movement, the Government took the decision in early January to delay the resumption of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and restrict access to other early learning and childcare services to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. During January, my Department continued to provide funding under its schemes as long as early learning and childcare services remained open or had been directed or approved to close. The extension of these restrictions beyond 31 January demanded a different approach to funding that would ensure the significant public money which is being invested is structured in a fair and balanced way to help achieve a range of objectives. Those objectives include ensuring early learning and childcare remains open for parents who work in an essential service and for children who are vulnerable, enabling providers to reimburse parents if they do not take up services, supporting providers to retain their staff, and supporting providers' sustainability.
To provide Deputies with more detail, over the period from 1 February to 5 March this year, services that are open will continue to receive 70% of the value of ECCE programme funding and 100% of funding provided under all other Department schemes. They can also receive the additional 30% of the value of ECCE programme funding if they commit to certain conditions that include waiving fees for parents not using the service and retaining staff where possible. In the case of services that are closed, where the closure is approved by my Department, they will receive 70% of the value of ECCE programme funding and 100% of funding provided under other Department schemes. This funding will be conditional on a commitment to waive fees for parents and retain staff where possible. We have also put in place a newly designed Covid-19 operating support payment to give additional support to some providers that have a significant reliance on parental fee income, allowing them to waive fees during this period while remaining sustainable. During all of this period, the enhanced EWSS rates are available and remain central to my Department's response.
Our response is informed by evidence. In designing these funding arrangements, officials in my Department relied on the best available evidence to inform their work, including real-time data on reported occupancy levels among services. Our response is informed by stakeholders. Contributions from all parts of the sector, including extensive consultation with the Covid-19 expert advisory group, which I have met on seven occasions since 30 December, were instrumental. Our response is child and family centred. As well as addressing the needs of providers and their staff, we have sought to meet the needs of children and families at this time. The condition attached to funding to waive fees for parents not using the service offers certainty and will bring some relief to parents. The condition to engage with children remotely, where possible, means children can remain connected to their caregivers and retain some sense of normality. Our response is informed by public health guidance. In developing the necessary supports for the sector, my Department continued to work closely with the HSE regarding the latest public health advice. Just last week, at the request of the Department, the HSE hosted a webinar for the sector that was attended by more than 3,000 participants.
Our response is paying dividends. More than 1,800 early learning and childcare services are currently open and providing childcare to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. The city and county childcare committees are providing a matching service to help essential workers who need a childcare place to find one locally, particularly where their needs are new and temporary due to the closure of schools at this time. Those parents can avail of the national childcare scheme, NCS, subsidies. Undoubtedly, work remains to be done. My officials are now making preparations for arrangements from 5 March. As part of those preparations, they are engaging with the Department of Education. There is also continued engagement with the HSE, with further engagement with the Covid-19 expert advisory group planned.
I would like to update Deputies on the programme for Government commitment to support the establishment of a joint labour committee, JLC, for the sector and the drawing up of an employment regulation order. In December 2020, working in partnership with SIPTU and Childhood Services Ireland-IBEC, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address issues of pay and conditions in the sector and how a JLC might support this. I appointed Dr. Kevin Duffy, a former chairman of the Labour Court, to be the independent chair of the process. I am very grateful to him for the expertise he has shown in chairing and leading forward this important process. The series of meetings concluded earlier this week and Dr. Duffy will shortly submit to me a report outlining the issues and possible solutions raised in the process and making a recommendation on next steps.
I recognise that there are many further steps to be taken but I understand that there is broad agreement on the potential benefits of regulating wages in the sector and on the possible benefits of establishing a JLC as a way forward. I welcome the commitment that all parties have shown in engaging in the process so far. I am very hopeful that progress will continue over the months ahead. On the eve of a national day of action by the sector over pay and conditions, I hope this positive development and the wider work my Department has done on Covid-19, future funding and workforce development signals the Government's commitment and intention to play its part in resolving the crucial issue of pay.
I would like to conclude by acknowledging the ongoing efforts of everyone involved in early learning and childcare to maintain high-quality services for children and their families in the most difficult of circumstances. The Covid-19 crisis has created huge challenges for us all. I again pay tribute to this cohort of essential workers for all that they have achieved in the past year and for continuing to put children and their families at the heart of their work.