Childcare Services: Motion [Private Members]

I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, to the House.

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

- childcare fees for parents in this State remain amongst the highest in the world;

- one of the largest financial expenses for parents is childcare fees, forcing many families into debt and financial crisis or out of their current employment; 1699

- a recent United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund survey found that some families can spend up to one half of a salary to pay for two children in childcare;

- parents, particularly women, are not supported with an adequate childcare infrastructure to facilitate their return to work after childbirth;

- early years workers, who are highly qualified professionals, are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector, with many employed on or just above the minimum wage;

and

- Covid-19 has intensified the pressure on providers, launching them into a new world of regulations, which has resulted in acute staffing pressures and has played a significant factor in staff retention;

calls on the Government to commit to delivering a State childcare system in Budget 2022 which:

- reduces centre-based childcare fees for parents by at least one-third of current average fees next year and two-thirds thereafter;

- improves the pay and conditions of workers in the sector to ensure that entry-level positions provide for that of a living wage;

- implements pay scales and full continuous professional development for all staff which properly values childcare as a viable long-term career choice; and

- ensures all children and their families have access to good quality and affordable childcare; and

furthermore calls on the Government, within Budget 2022 parameters, to:

- develop a network of Child Contact Centres across the State;

- reinstate the Childminder Advisory Officer Service including the appointment of Childminder Advisory Officers in each Child Contact Centre; and

- increase the Childminder Development Grant by 50 per cent from €1,000 to €1,500."

I thank the Minister for being here. I am delighted to introduce this motion for debate in Dáil Éireann. I must first acknowledge the early years educators who assembled outside Leinster House this morning to highlight the serious issues with the national childcare scheme. The Minister is aware that I have raised this matter with him previously. I acknowledge his statement that a review is under way. I sincerely hope he can guarantee that the under-allocation of hours through the national childcare scheme and the provision of after-school care will be looked at, and that he and his Department will take on board the serious concerns highlighted and discussed at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth just before this debate. I also acknowledge that the Minister went outside to meet and speak with the group today. That is important and should be acknowledged, in fairness.

I am very disappointed but not surprised that amendments to the motion are to be tabled. This is a case of kicking the can even further down the road. Ireland does not have a great track record on investment in early years education. That point was acknowledged by members of some Government parties over the weekend. We continue to facilitate a piecemeal approach to the early years sector.

Despite all of the commitments and policies that are unveiled, we are still faced with a situation where some parents are paying the equivalent of a second mortgage or rent for childcare. A recent UNICEF survey ranked Ireland among the world's most expensive countries for early years education and childcare.

We know that the repercussions of exorbitant fees create significant barriers, particularly to women's employment. Women are adversely affected by higher fees, with many forced to stay out of the workforce while their children are small. I have always believed it is disingenuous for us to encourage women to go back to work and, given that we are in a political forum, for us to encourage women into politics, when often we do not have the services and infrastructure to support their return to work. I regularly have to deal with this type of juggling. I will continue to raise this issue as often as I can in this Chamber until we see some changes.

The motion is about providing families with a high-quality early years education system that is affordable, accessible and sustainable. It is obvious to everyone here this evening, and the wider public, that the early years sector is in crisis. We heard comments to that effect from some of the witnesses appearing before the committee earlier today. It goes without saying that early years education and childcare were in crisis before and during the Covid-19 pandemic and will remain in crisis after Covid if we do not see the serious commitment to sustainable investment that is needed, starting with next week's budget.

I am constantly contacted by parents and early years educators and providers who want to share their experiences as users operating in a broken system. I know I am not the only Deputy who has witnessed the failings of the current funding model. It affects my constituency and all the other constituencies. Early years education and childcare must be resourced adequately to provide lower fees for parents and stability for highly-qualified professionals. It must also deliver a sustainable future for providers. The three key issues are that fees are far too high for parents, wages are far too low for workers and there is a serious issue for providers trying to keep their doors open. The current funding model is failing children, their families, their educators and early years providers.

I was struck that in yesterday's national development plan only one page was dedicated to early years education and childcare. With projections of growth in Ireland's population of nearly 1 million over the next decade, I would like to have seen real commitment to capital expenditure and a plan for how we propose to cater for this sector into the future.

I am conscious the clock has not moved so I have no idea how much speaking time I have left. I was reluctant to raise that but must do so in fairness to my colleagues.

The Deputy is being carefully observed.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

I have spoken many times about those working in the sector and I acknowledge that again this evening. It is such a difficult job and I genuinely do not know how people who work in the early years sector do it. The commitment and dedication they show are incredible.

For the most part, it is degree led at this stage. People spend years in college studying and furthering their professional development and they are extremely experienced and qualified educators. After a lifetime in the sector, in a lot of cases, many are still earning less than the minimum wage and there is very little sick leave.

I always try to give the example that much of the time during the summer, people have to sign on for social welfare. Sometimes people do not believe that still happens but we all know it is the reality. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to stay working in the sector. A recent SIPTU survey showed 81% of all workers in the sector are unable to meet unexpected expenses and 38% are actively looking for work in another sector due to low pay. That will obviously affect the consistency which is going to affect quality. We need, therefore, to see this being addressed.

As educators and parents are squeezed at one end of the system, early years services, which are mainly small businesses predominantly managed and owned by women, are being squeezed at the other. I will finish on this point. The issues are fees, wages and sustainability for providers, all of which are covered by the motion. I, therefore, commend the motion to the House.

I commend my colleague, Deputy Funchion, on bringing forward this very important motion. One thing on which we can probably all agree is that childcare costs are out of control, particularly in areas of high demand. The average cost of childcare for working families is astronomical in my constituency and it will be the same in the Minister's because we share a similar part of the city.

The average cost of childcare for a single year can be €11,000, and, in some instances, families could be paying as much as €15,000 for a single child. That same single person or couple could be also renting. Their average rent could be €22,000 per year and, of course, we have recently seen the rising costs of heating and petrol, and many other aspects of life where the cost of living crisis is just heaping huge burdens on working people.

What are the consequences of that? Increasingly, young people are putting off family formation. They are putting off moving out on their own with their partners or by themselves and having their own children, not because they do not want to have children but because the costs are simply too great. We must, therefore, accept that our childcare model is broken and we must move towards a fully public model, just as we have with primary and secondary education and just as other European jurisdictions have done.

Our over-reliance on the private sector model exclusively to provide people's childcare needs has to end. The kinds of practical, credible and fully costed solutions put forward by my colleague, Deputy Funchion, would mean the cost of childcare would start to fall. People would have greater access to childcare where the workers are better paid and the quality of the early years education is better for everybody. I urge the Minister to listen to the practical alternatives we are putting forward and help working families get access to affordable childcare in order that people can have the quality of life they require and, where they are working, their children can have the quality of early years education they rightly deserve.

I commend my colleague, an Teachta Funchion, not just on this motion but on all the work she has done and continues to do with regard to childcare. The cost of childcare has come up often in my time in this Chamber. It is one of the most recurring issues we discuss week after week. The crisis across the childcare sector has been raised in this House and, indeed, across the airwaves. It is a crisis that affects workers, parents and providers.

Childcare costs in this State are among the highest in the world. They are driving up the cost of living for families who are also struggling with rising rents and rocketing energy prices, to which the Government seems to be completely oblivious. Action must be taken because the cost of inaction is wrecking people's lives and it will damage society. The model of childcare we have is broken and we need to move towards a publicly funded model.

While average monthly full-time childcare fees are approximately €750 per child, some families in my area are paying €1,200 plus per month for their childcare needs. If they have more than one child in full-time care, however, the cost is even more again. One can see the way it adds up and people get very little by way of a discount for additional kids just in case the Minister thinks there is a bargain there; there is not. It is not sustainable. These extreme costs are causing parents to drop out of the workforce and to undertake full-time childcare duties. This disproportionately affects women and the Minister will be aware of that as well. It is predominantly women who will put their careers on hold and leave good jobs to reduce their hours to part-time to be able to care for their children.

When I was a significantly younger woman than I am today, I had access to subsidised childcare, without which I would not have been able to go to work. At the time, childcare fees were relatively manageable for most people but where I was working and with what I was earning, without that subsidised childcare, I would not have been able to go to work and neither would I have been able to go to college. It would have been too much for us as a family to be able to afford. I had the conversation with my husband about which of us was going to give up work if we could not access subsidised childcare. That is what happens. It leaves people with no choices. The Minister needs to accept that the model is broken, take on board the suggestions an Teachta Funchion has been making repeatedly and move towards a model that will work for parents because they are being creased.

I do not believe this issue gets the attention it deserves, whether it is in this House, the media or in discussion generally. This is one of the biggest issues out there, certainly in my constituency when I talk to young families in particular.

Childcare costs are absolutely crippling people. It is a second mortgage for so many families. It is a weight around their necks that prevents them from having any kind of quality of life for years on end. It means that a couple can be slow to start a family. One parent can be held back from returning to work or, very often, one parent might be effectively working just to pay for the childcare and breaking even or perhaps less than breaking even in order to be in a position to continue their career. All that time, they are paying €800, €900 or €1,00 per child and more on top of that if there are multiple children. It is absolutely crippling. It is very frustrating for parents out there who are trying to do their best and raise their families. They want to make that contribution to society and they want to work but they are not getting the support they deserve. We do not treat this as a public service like other countries do and we can see that in terms of the per head spend compared to the rest of the OECD. We do not spend enough on childcare. We do not subsidise it enough, especially compared to other countries across Europe.

That is the solution. We have to treat this as a public good and a public service. What Sinn Féin is proposing to do to drive down the cost of childcare is take on the cost of staff wages in order that fees will go down for parents. It will reduce fees by one third within the first year and then by two thirds over five years. None of this is impossible. This is about political choices.

I hope the Minister takes this on board. A large part of this is the unsustainability of the sector, and the fact that wages are too low and providers can barely break even themselves. Fundamentally, however, it is about underinvestment and about what we decide to value. This is about early years education and supporting young families. It is about ensuring that the decision to have a family and to work at the same time is not crippling or putting families into absolute penury and denying them of so many other things. Many of these families are broken in other ways too with children going back to school, energy prices, insurance fees and all the rest of it. It needs, therefore, to be addressed.

I recently met with early years educators working in counties Roscommon and Galway on their new deal for early years and budget submission for 2022. I met with so many young women, in particular, in early years education doing a job they absolutely love. You can tell that as soon as you meet them. They are really struggling to get by, however.

I recall during the previous general election meeting one early years educator in Ballinasloe who was in the middle of moving back home because she could no longer afford to rent. These people are highly educated professionals and should be paid as such. The reality for young people who leave secondary school and go on to college to study to become an early years educator is that they may not be able to afford to remain in that job. It does not make any sense and it should not be the reality in Ireland in 2021.

The issues around pay, of course, have many other repercussions. We know there is a major recruitment crisis. I know of one provider in particular in County Roscommon that is having a terrible time in filling a vacancy. It is turning parents away because it cannot fill that vacancy. We also have a major issue with retention, of course, because so many workers simply cannot afford to remain in the profession.

This motion, therefore, calls for an entry level living wage and for the pay scales to be introduced. That is really important if we are going to attract people into this sector and retain them in doing a job they love to do. As has been said, the cost for parents is crippling. A UNICEF report published earlier this year found that, on average, households with an average income in Ireland spend up to one half of the salary of a double income household to put two children through childcare.

A UNICEF report published earlier this year found that, on average, households in Ireland with an average income are spending up to one half of a two-earning household salary to put two children through childcare. This cannot continue. As a State, we are failing the early years sector including the professionals who work in the sector and those who rely on it. We have to get this right and take steps in this budget to ensure we support and invest in early years for those who work in and rely on it. I hope we will see the steps outlined in this motion taken next week.

I commend my colleague, Deputy Funchion, on all the work she has done on this Bill. This Bill is of vital importance to society and will have a meaningful impact on the lives of a significant number of workers and their families. Year after year, the cost of childcare in Ireland is among the highest in the world. These sky-high prices are having a huge impact on young families and add stress, concern and worry. Moreover, on top of the high cost of childcare, families are seeing rents skyrocket. The chances of them becoming homeowners is diminishing and household bills are rising sharply.

We now live in a society in which those who wish to have children are being severely penalised as a result. Let us not forget that having children is necessary for the development of a healthy society. In Dublin, the cost of childcare for just one child is upwards of €1,000 per month, with many parents struggling to even find a place available to them. This enormous cost is not just having a detrimental impact on working families; it is also having a disproportionately negative impact on women and is preventing thousands of women from returning to employment and is reinforcing gender inequality.

Affordable childcare is not just an economic necessity, it is vital for improving the quality of life of working families, for getting people back into the workforce and for fostering a healthy development of society. Let us be clear that childcare needs to be affordable and accessible locally in the community. Community childcare such as that in the Ringsend community centre and St. Andrew's Resource Centre is what we need, namely, childcare rooted in the community.

Childcare is not just where one sends children for a few hours while their parents are out working. It is a place that is key to the development and growth of each child in respect of how to learn and how to interact with other children. That is a very important part of their formative years and it is vital it is done right. Thankfully, those working in Irish childcare are highly skilled professionals we are fortunate to have. It is essential they are treated as such, with pay and conditions that reflect the impact they have on so many young people.

I apologise in advance to the Minister that I will not be here to hear his contribution. However, having seen the Government amendment, I am disappointed because Deputy Funchion has provided a route that will ensure we can deliver affordable childcare. This is crucially important in a State in which many families are already facing a cost-of-living crisis and we are dealing with the highest mortgage rates in the eurozone and possibly the highest rents in the western world. We couple that with the experience of many families who either decide not to have the children they would desperately love to have, as has happened in some instances of which I am aware, or remove themselves from the workforce because of the cost of childcare. That is another crisis to add to the list of crises over which the Government is presiding.

In many areas of the cost-of-living crisis, the Government can say there is nothing it can do. It says there is nothing it can do about high insurance costs, the cost of sending children to school or transport costs, which it says have to increase due to our global climate obligations. It says it cannot build houses overnight. Deputy Funchion has provided a route through which we can tackle the costs of childcare overnight. All it takes is the political will and the investment. Next week will provide a huge litmus test for the Government because we will either see another budget that fails to address childcare at all, as was the case last year, or we will see a start to the Government beginning to recognise the emerging crisis and how we can deal with it. Dealing with that crisis must be about ensuring families see the net result in that the week after the budget, their childcare costs will start to come down. We need to bring them down to approximately one third of their current rate.

When our children go into childcare settings, they are cared for by some of the most professional individuals one could meet. They work in our childcare services, one of the few sectors in which those who operate it continue their education and development. They continue to learn and ensure the care they provide is world class and yet, they come home at the end of the week on a pittance in comparison to other people who have equivalent educational levels. All that needs to change. My appeal to the Minister is to read the proposals with which Deputy Funchion and Sinn Féin have provided him and, more importantly, to start to implement them.

I move amendment No. 1:

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

“acknowledges:

— the challenges faced by the early learning and childcare sector;

— the particular challenges presented by Covid-19 for the sector and the tremendous efforts by early learning and childcare professionals and service providers during this period to keep services open and safe;

notes that investment in the sector has increased by 141 per cent since 2015 and welcomes the commitment by Government to build on this by at least doubling investment in early learning and childcare by 2028;

recognises:

— the substantial State supports that have been provided to the sector throughout the pandemic that have enabled services to operate safely and ensured that the increased costs associated with public health requirements and with lower demand were not passed on to parents, the supports provided include:

— a continuation of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth subsidy schemes on an ex-gratia basis (12th March – 5th April, 2020);

— the Temporary Wage Subsidy Childcare Scheme (TWSCS) (6th April – 28th June, 2020) which cost approximately €50 million;

— the Reopening Funding Package for Childcare Services (29th June – 23rd August, 2020) that included a €14.2 million capital grant, an €18 million Reopening Support Payment, in addition to the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and resumption of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth subsidy schemes;

— the July Jobs Stimulus package that included the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) (which cost approximately €22 million per month at standard rates and €34 million per month at enhanced rates), a Sustainability Support Fund and a full resumption of the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (from 24th August to end of December 2020); and

— tailored funding arrangements to respond to Level 5 restrictions in the post-Christmas period, that included a new €12 million Covid-19 Operating Support Payment and a new Covid-19 strand of the Sustainability Support Fund, in addition to the EWSS, that allowed services to continue to operate on a sustainable basis for children of essential workers and vulnerable children, while not charging parents who were not accessing services during this period;

— that early learning and childcare employers continue to be entitled to access the EWSS with an exemption to having to demonstrate the drop in turnover that applies to other sectors and since October 2020, EWSS has been paid at enhanced rates and these rates are estimated to cover, on average, 80 per cent of staff costs in the sector, or 50 per cent of total operating costs; and the cost of this measure is €34 million per month;

— that there is strong evidence of the effectiveness of these supports, including:

— the data on services that have closed and opened in 2020 are directly comparable to 2019 so there has been no loss of capacity;

— data from the Office of the Revenue Commissioners indicates that the number of employees in the sector has not changed substantially over the course of the pandemic; and

— data from the Annual Early Years Sector Profile Survey reveals there have been no significant increase in fees charged to parents;

welcomes the commitments in the Programme for Government to:

— establish an agency, Childcare Ireland, to assist in the expansion of high quality childcare, spearheading leadership, best practice and innovation, and professional development in community and private settings;

— continue to invest in the National Childcare Scheme, reducing costs for parents and introducing greater parental choice and flexibility;

— reform the childcare system to create one that brings together the best of community and private childcare provision, is focused on children’s rights and quality outcomes, reduces inequalities, supports staff retention, and substantially reduces costs to parents, in consultation with providers, staff, and parents;

— ensure sustainability within the Early Learning and Care and School-Age Care sector, by fast-tracking the work of the Expert Group in considering a new funding model;

— examine the approach of other European countries to set a cap on parental fees, irrespective of income;

— support the establishment of a Joint Labour Committee in the childcare sector and the drawing up of an Employment Regulation Order, which would determine minimum rates of pay for childcare workers, as well as terms and conditions of employment; and

— extend paid parental leave for parents, to allow them to spend more time with their baby during the first year;

further acknowledges and welcomes the significant progress made to deliver on these commitments, including:

— the introduction and roll out of the National Childcare Scheme to provide subsidies to 80,000 children and reduce costs to parents as well as the review of the Scheme which has recently been completed and will be shortly laid before the Oireachtas;

— the development of a new funding model by end 2021 that will ensure additional investment committed by Government will reduce the costs to parents, ensure additional supports can be provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, compensate providers so that they can deliver early learning and childcare on a sustainable and high-quality basis, and attract and retain a well-qualified workforce;

— the development of a workforce development plan for the sector by the end of 2021 that will ensure appropriate numbers of early learning and childcare professionals, support the achievement of qualification targets for the workforce, establish role profiles and a career framework and set out plans to develop a national system of continuing professional development;

— the launch and initial implementation of a National Action Plan for Childminding, that sets out a phased approach to bringing childminders within the scope of State funded supports and regulation over the period 2021-2028, with regional Childminding Development Officers already working with city and county Childcare Committees to provide local-level supports to childminders and commitments to review and reform financial supports for childminding such as the Childminder Development Grant;

— the introduction of regulations for School-Age Childcare, and the publication in September 2020 of National Quality Guidelines for School-Age Childcare Services;

— the recent establishment of a Joint Labour Committee in the early learning and childcare sector to draw up an Employment Regulation Order, which would determine minimum rates of pay for early learning and childcare professionals, as well as terms and conditions of employment; and

— the recognition of early learning and childcare as a strategic investment priority in the revised National Development Plan with significant funding earmarked to increase capacity in the sector in the coming four years;

further notes that the European Commission has welcomed ‘the major efforts and targeted investments in early childhood education and care, which have clear milestones and a plan for evaluation and follow-up’ and encouraged Ireland to ‘maintain the momentum of reforms in improving affordability, access and quality of ECEC’; and

while noting that further developments and investment are required, recognises that there are many positive and progressive elements to the current early learning and childcare sector and acknowledges the planning and preparation that have been undertaken to progress reforms in the sector in the coming years."

I welcome this timely opportunity to debate the important issue of early learning and childcare. Before speaking to the substance of the motion, I will briefly reflect on the 18 months gone by. I agree with what was said by Deputy Funchion and other speakers, in that Covid-19 has posed huge challenges to the early learning and childcare sector and the people working in this sector and primarily the women working in it, have shown incredible resilience.

I always think back to the dark days of January this year in particular, during which childcare providers and professionals stepped up. They kept their services open for the children and their parents and especially for the most vulnerable children and those whose parents were essential workers and they continued to deliver an incredibly high standard of learning and care. People throughout the country are very grateful for their actions. Whenever I visit a childcare facility, I am always struck by the absolute commitment of childcare providers and professionals to doing what is in the best interest of the children in their care.

I also understand that people working in this sector want more than just words of praise. They want to see action. Across the Dáil, we all share the same goals of affordability, accessibility and high-quality early learning and care; pay and conditions commensurate with the dedication of staff and the demands of this job and providers who are able to operate in a safe and sustainable manner. We would all acknowledge this area was neglected for far too long and for decades, the State failed to invest in childcare and left women to juggle their own childcare needs and careers. We know that Ireland can do better than that and the Government is committed to doing so.

I have tabled an amendment to this motion as while the Government accepts there is a need to continue to develop and reform the early learning and childcare sector, the programme for Government makes extensive commitments in this regard and, more importantly, we have already begun work on delivering those commitments, bringing real and lasting development and reform that will benefit children, parents and early learning and childcare professionals and providers.

We all recognise the complexity of this issue and its seriousness for children, parents, providers and childcare professionals. That degree of seriousness requires detail and I note we have not been presented with any costings on the measures proposed in this motion and nor have any costings been addressed in any of the presentations we have received so far. Stating that one third of the costs of childcare will be paid this year and two thirds thereafter, without any reference to the figures, does not speak to the seriousness of the issue about which Members are speaking today. In the amendment I have tabled, I set out the costings and investment the Government has put into the childcare sector over the past year. I am always happy to talk about and debate this issue but it must be on foot of detail and on foot of recognising the cost and value of childcare to our State, parents and children.

The past 18 months have been profoundly difficult for many sectors of our society and economy and the early learning and childcare sector is no exception. Since coming into office, I have sought to ensure services remain open, have been supported and could retain staff. The July stimulus package of 2020 included the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, sustainability funding and full resumption of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme.

In August 2020, we provided the reopening support package, which included a €14.2 million capital grant for childcare providers and an €18 million reopening support package. Last Christmas and in the following January of this year, we created tailored funding arrangements in response to the level 5 restrictions that were reintroduced, including a €12 million Covid operating support payment and a new strand of Covid sustainability funding, in addition to payment of the EWSS to providers.

With regard to the EWSS, last July I negotiated a sector-specific exemption in order that childcare providers did not have to demonstrate the drop in turnover that applies to all other sectors. Since October 2020, the EWSS has been paid at enhanced rates. Those rates are estimated to cover an average of 80% of the staff costs in the sector and an average of 50% of total operating costs of childcare providers. This amounts to €34 million invested every month in childcare providers around this country.

There is strong evidence that this level of investment is paying dividends. The data on services that closed and opened in 2020 are directly comparable with 2019. There has not been a loss of capacity despite Covid-19. Data from the Office of the Revenue Commissioners indicate that the number of employees in the sector has not changed substantially over the course of the pandemic. Data from the annual early years sector profile survey reveal that in 2020, unlike in previous years, we did not see sharp increases in the fees that parents were being forced to pay across the sector. I am proud of the work my Department has done across the pandemic. In particular, I thank the childcare advisory group, which has been invaluable in co-ordinating with my Department throughout.

Rapid Government responses were required by the sector in response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. While they were successfully delivered, the importance of long-term and long-lasting development and reform is now even more significant. A number of related challenges face the childcare sector. Parents are faced with fees that are beyond their ability to pay. Pay and conditions of staff are not commensurate with the job that they do and many providers are struggling with sustainability. It is not enough to make fees affordable for parents if staff still are not paid enough. It is not enough to increase the pay of staff if services end up struggling to survive. It is not enough to support providers if parents and staff are left behind. All three elements must be addressed together.

We have put in place a reform agenda that recognises the scale and complexity, that is, the interlinked elements of each of these three factors. To reduce fees for parents, we already have rolled out the national childcare scheme, NCS. It now provides subsidies to 80,000 children, reducing the costs of early learning and care. While progress has been made, I understand and recognise the substantial stress still placed on too many parents by the costs of childcare. It for this reason that we are developing a new funding model. It will ensure the additional investment committed by the Government will further reduce the costs for parents. Beyond that, it will ensure that additional supports can be provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It will compensate providers in order that they can deliver early learning and childcare on a sustainable and high-quality basis. It will attract and retain a well-qualified workforce.

To improve staff paying conditions, we have established a joint labour committee in the early learning and childcare sector. It will draw up an employment regulation order, ERO, which will determine minimum rates of pay for early learning and childcare professionals, as well as terms and conditions of employment. We are creating a workforce development plan for the sector, which will be published by the end of this year. It will ensure appropriate numbers of early learning and childcare professionals; will support the achievement of qualification targets for the workforce; will establish role profiles and career frameworks; and will set out plans to develop a national system of continuing professional development, CPD. Of course, earlier this year we launched the National Action Plan for Childminding 2021-2028, which sets out a phased approach to bringing childminders, who are so important to so many families, into the scope of State-funded supports and regulation. The national development plan launched yesterday recognises early learning and care as a strategic investment priority, with significant funding earmarked to increase capacity in the sector in the coming years.

Deputy Funchion referred to the protest outside the Dáil today. I was pleased to be able to go out and speak to providers, many of whom I have met over the past year. I have listened to the issues they have raised in respect of the NCS. I have heard those issues. We are undertaking research about how we can address those issues in a targeted manner. I look forward to bringing back proposals to address that specific issue in order that no children, particularly the most disadvantaged children, are left behind.

To conclude, it is important to recognise the scale of the challenges we face in this sector, as well as the complexity of the solutions. It is important to state, which is why we are putting forward this counter-amendment, that substantial work already is under way. Early learning and childcare are a public good. They benefit all society. This has become even more evident in the context of the pandemic we have just undergone. Work is being progressed by the Government that will deliver needed and long-lasting reform to this essential sector. The Government has supported the sector, as the sector rose to the challenge posed by Covid-19. As the pandemic abates, the Government will work to continue those supports. Through the new funding model, through the joint labour committee, through the childminding action plan, through the workforce development plan and through additional investment, we will deliver a better deal for parents, providers, childcare professionals and most importantly, for children.

First, I commend my colleague, Deputy Funchion, on bringing forward this important motion. She and Sinn Féin have consistently called for immediate investment in the childcare sector in Ireland in order to ensure its viability, reduce the burden on parents, acknowledge and properly pay professionals within the childcare sector and to keep facilities open, as many are finding it hard to so do.

Childcare fees in Ireland are the highest in Europe and they continue to rise. While there was a commitment in the programme for Government last year, they have continued to rise since then. When that is coupled with the high cost of living, it is impossible for the ordinary working family to make ends meet. According to a UNICEF report from June gone by, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland have the least affordable childcare for the middle classes. Couples on an average wage pay between a third and a half of their wages for two children in childcare.

I can recall how, when my own two children were young and in a crèche, I was paying €300 a week at that time towards the cost of their care in order that I could go to work. Luckily, this was only for a few months because the way they were spaced meant my eldest could go into the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, which was at that time only a one-year programme. Even with that scheme, the cost of sending the two children to be cared for in what was an excellent facility about which I had no complaints, was my biggest outgoing at the time. Fees have increased since then, along with the cost of everything else, but wages have not. This has to be addressed as otherwise, many people will have no choice but to give up their work and abandon pursuing career choices. We know that this will predominately affect women.

Within the sector itself, highly qualified professionals are being paid a pittance. Most professionals in this sector are earning less than a living wage and yet, many of them have level 7 or level 8 qualifications. They feel strongly that they not being treated right. They are not be treated with respect and they are not being acknowledged as educators. The turnover of staff is extremely high as the work is hard, it can be stressful and the pay is dreadful. It is not fair to the childcare professionals and nor is it fair to the children, who develop attachments to staff. There is a capacity issue in some sectors, which I have raised with the Minister previously. Childcare providers are now unable to cope with the demand because staff turnover is so high.

I also will highlight a fact that was brought to my attention, which is that there is no preschool in all of west Cavan that has autism spectrum disorder, ASD, facilities for children with additional needs. Cavan is a large county. This means people have to travel long distances to get the assistance that they need. It is good that Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte is present as well in order that I can raise the issue with her.

I support the motion.

Childcare fees have become a second mortgage for families. People are struggling to meet these crazy costs. There are parents in Dublin who are paying around €800 to €1,000 per month for one child. Working families simply cannot afford this and it cannot continue. The situation for struggling families has only got worse in recent years and will continue to get worse unless the Minister does something about it.

The sector needs intervention from the Government. We need a publicly-funded childcare system that is accessible to all. The current approach to childcare has failed miserably. We have seen in the last few budgets that the Government is not committed to making the changes that are required. I hope that next week will be different. We have to start paying childcare professionals a proper wage and must start treating them as professionals. They are leaving the sector in their droves at the minute because they cannot make ends meet after a week’s work due to the terrible pay.

They must be paid a proper wage that reflects the important work they do. Their current rate of pay is insulting.

We are way off the European average when it comes to the amount of money we invest in childcare in this State. The programme for Government made any amount of promises when it came to dealing with childcare reform but the fees have continued to rise. We need the Minister to act now. He needs to reduce childcare fees by one third next year and by two thirds the year after. That is what we in Sinn Féin would do but we all must do better for parents, for children, for the sector and for the childcare professionals involved. The recent years have been wasted and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Childcare desperately needs reform in this country; the dogs on the street know this fact. It is expensive, inaccessible and has become akin to a luxury item. It is a service many families struggle to pay for and refer to it as being similar to a second rent or mortgage and that is absolute madness. We know Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs in the world. The European Commission's research put us behind only the likes of Switzerland and England and we have some of the lowest-paid professionals, with 60% of them earning less than the living wage. UNICEF research published in June of this year stated that Ireland ranked among the world's most expensive countries for childcare.

Ireland's childcare system has been in crisis for a long time. Our current allocation of 0.3% of GDP lags far behind the OECD average of 0.8% of GDP and the UNICEF 1% benchmark. We know families are suffering. Early years and childcare professionals are suffering. Ultimately, children are suffering as the sector struggles to retain highly skilled professionals because it has consistently undervalued them.

This motion, which I am proud to stand behind, received unreserved support from a broad church of representative networks such as Early Childhood Ireland, SIPTU and the Association of Childhood Professionals. The motion seeks to address the main issues. First, for parents, it seeks to cut the costs of childcare by up to one third. Second, for professionals, we will introduce a proper wage scale starting at the living wage; and third, for providers we will extend a sustainability fund to all childcare providers thereby ensuring sustainability in the sector. Having done outreach work with Big Start campaigners and professionals working in this sector, during the recess, I was appalled to hear the depth of the ongoing challenges they and everyone in their sector face. They raised three points with me. First, 94% of educators struggle to make ends week. Second, 84% are unable to cope with an unexpected expense, such as replacing a washing machine, which is absolutely shocking. Third, the sector is 98% female and one of the lowest paid in the country.

Good childcare is an essential cog in the social and economic structure of a country and is essential for a proper functioning society and economy. Proper childcare facilities allow parents to pursue employment, for example, with the knowledge that their child or children are being safely looked after. People need an income to pay for bills, rent, mortgage and healthcare etc. Without the facility of childcare, many parents would not be able to work, would be dependent on the State for support and would not be in a position to pay their bills. In many instances, childcare in Ireland is not affordable for parents and costs can be prohibitive, thereby putting childcare out of the reach of many parents.

According to figures released by the then Department of Children and Youth Affairs at the end of 2019, the average rate for a crèche place in Ireland was approximately €800 per month per child. Monthly costs, however, can exceed €1,000 in some areas of Dublin. These figures show that those who can afford to pay for childcare, pay the equivalent of a mortgage in fees and parents are often left with no expendable income. It is also the case when two parents are working that one parent's wage goes almost entirely on childcare fees. Lone parents find the high cost of childcare to be a disincentive to returning to work. Childcare providers are struggling with increasing costs and recruitment issues and find it difficult to recruit qualified childcare professionals.

These are some of the problems relating childcare in Ireland. Sinn Féin is putting forward solutions to these problems some of which, as outlined in this motion, seek to implement proper pay scales for childcare professionals, to reduce centre-based childcare fees, and to raise the childminding grant to €1,500. Parents entrust their children at an important point of the child's development into the care of these professionals, who are expected to socialise and educate these young children. It is time we gave childcare professionals, who do an incredibly difficult job, the proper pay and conditions they deserve.

I am glad to speak for the Labour Party to support this motion and to have the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I have just come, as has Deputy Funchion, from the hearings of the committee on children, where we heard from a number of witnesses about childcare and issues facing workers in the early years sector. We heard from representatives of SIPTU and its Big Start campaign, and about how changes in the funding structures under the national childcare scheme has had an impact on after-school services. We were glad to hear from representatives from the Dublin 8 After School Alliance and Urlingford Community Childcare. One thing that all speakers had in common was that they all referred to childcare as being in a crisis situation. They all said that, through our lack of proper coherent vision for childcare, we are currently failing parents, staff, providers and, of course, children too. They said we are failing because we are not providing an equal service to all children, adequate rates of pay for professionals working in the sector, and, indeed, security for the provider.

As other Members have said, we know parents face enormous costs in childcare. In my constituency of Dublin Bay South, high rates of fees are the norm. Approximately €1,000 a month is the norm for child and that is really difficult for parents to pay, as anyone can appreciate. We have heard witnesses say that Irish childcare policy for too long has been characterised by creative ways of stretching inadequate funding further. We heard there is a real danger that we will build on the current piecemeal provision. One representative from SIPTU described the occurrence of the financialisation of childcare and it struck me that we do not want our childcare system becoming financialised and commercialised in the same way we have seen happen in housing, with housing provision dominated by a number of big investors. There is a real risk in childcare, where there is a reliance on the private sector and piecemeal provision, that it will become financialised to the same extent and then it will cease to be seen as a public service. That is a real concern where we have a system held together by subsidies to private providers, where parents can barely afford fees and where there are such low rates of pay in the sector. We have the second highest OECD household childcare costs with couples spending an average of 24% of income, and single parents spending as much as 29%, on childcare costs. We know this has an impact on women, in particular. In Ireland, we have the lowest rate of participation of mothers in the workforce within the EU.

We need to move to a different system of childcare in Ireland. On Saturday, I was pleased to launch with Labour Women a childcare policy calling for equal early years and a universal public childcare system based on three key criteria, namely, equality for children to ensure that each child in Ireland is guaranteed a place in early-years education and childcare; affordability for families whereby we move to a system with investment to ensure parents find crèches and childcare affordable; and fairness for professionals. The Big Start campaign has made it clear that early-years educators need to be paid a living wage. We very much welcome initiatives like the joint labour committee, but not enough is being done. I have received testimonials from SIPTU, from early-years educators. One described themselves as a single parent of two teenagers. They state:

The low pay in my job has left me wondering how much longer I can stay in this sector. ... I presently work for 10.20 per hour, 25 hours per [week] ... I just finished my Level 6 in childcare and wondering now why did I bother.

Rightly, we introduced higher levels of qualification requirements in the sector but we have not introduced higher levels of pay commensurate with those professional requirements.

We must change that aspect. It is a crucial change addressed in this motion and one that we are also addressing in our policy in this regard.

On a broader level, we need to move to what I have described elsewhere as a Donogh O'Malley moment. Just as when in 1966, some 55 years ago now, Donogh O'Malley, the then Minister for Education, introduced free secondary places for all children, we must now move to see early years education and childcare as a right for each child. We must move to a position where we can guarantee each child a place in early years education. I looked again at the visionary speech given in 1966 by Donogh O'Malley wherein he stated, "We will be judged by future generations on what we did for the children of our time". We will be judged for not having made sufficient provision for children of preschool age and for children of school age in respect of after-school childcare and support.

We are again out of step in this regard. If we look elsewhere in the EU, there is much bigger spending nationally. Sweden, France, Denmark and Finland all invest more than 1% of GNI, which is the international target set by UNICEF, in the early years education sector. In Ireland, we are investing just 0.3% into the sector and this places us far behind the European average. We will be launching our Labour Party alternative budget tomorrow. It will seek to address the discrepancy relating to our low rate of spending in this regard. We ask that the run-up to this budget will see the Government outline how it will use this opportunity to move Ireland towards a universal public childcare system with a level of spending in keeping with the European norm. We ask the Government to replace the for-profit, market-driven, piecemeal model currently that currently characterises our childcare system with one that is State-led, universal and guarantees each child a place. We need a Donogh O'Malley moment or a National Health Service, NHS, moment in order to ensure that we move towards such a model and away from the existing type of provision in this area.

Unfortunately, some Government innovations have had unforeseen consequences. This predates the Minister's time in office. I refer to the national childcare scheme introduced in 2019. We had powerful testimony concerning this scheme from witnesses who appeared before a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. That meeting was chaired by Deputy Funchion. We heard that some of the unforeseen consequences of the scheme have been a move to a work activation model from a child-centred model and from enrolment to hourly rates as the basis for funding. Serious consequences have resulted for community childcare providers and for children in those services. There is a real concern that equality of access is being hampered in that way. My colleague, Senator Marie Sherlock, took the lead on this issue and instigated the event held outside Leinster House earlier. I acknowledge that the Minister met with the community childcare providers. That was welcome.

This issue is fixable. The providers that we spoke with at the committee meeting this afternoon asked all the members of that committee to ensure that this issue is fixed and that targeted interventions are reintroduced, if necessary, to ensure that children from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds are not adversely impacted by the changes to the national childcare scheme. Those consequences seem to have been somewhat unanticipated or unforeseen outcomes of the change to the funding model. The Minister addressed this aspect to some extent when he stated that the Government is moving to a new funding model. This is urgently required because we heard the community childcare providers saying that it is simply not sustainable to continue with the current model.

We in the Labour party are supporting this motion because we believe in the need for a radical revision of childcare services and a move to a State-led, public and universal system. We must move towards such a system in other areas of care because we believe that there should be a continuum of care. As the term "NHS moment" suggests, there should be a continuum of care and we should have supports in place for all those who need them from the cradle to the grave.

I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forward this important motion. It is important and timely. It would also have been timely a year ago or two years ago, because this issue has been with us for so long. Many parents and families have struggled through the current system. I have found that when parents are able to pay for their childcare, they put their heads down and spend. They know that they will have two or three difficult years. Usually, it is the mother who ends up not being paid because her salary goes straight towards meeting childcare costs. When parents get through that difficult period, they look forward to finally having some money that they will be able to put into either their home or their family life. However, that is not the way we should be operating. We must start taking this issue seriously.

I reiterate my support for calls for a renewed commitment in the national early years strategy. Investment in childcare should be doubled by 2028 and a plan showing how this will be achieved should be published as part of budget 2022. We have been saying for far too long that the costs are too high, quality and pay for childcare staff is too low and Government spending on childcare is insufficient. This is a failing of not just this Government but of previous Governments as well. It is a systemic failure. Part of the problem is that successive Governments, essentially for the entire history of the State, have been primarily led by men. Men have never been and still are not impacted as much by childcare issues as women.

When one looks at the OECD, one finds that parents in Ireland are already paying the third highest proportion of their incomes to meet the costs of childcare. This is a direct result of the lack of spending over generations by successive Governments. For staff, the situation is also grim. Representatives of Early Childhood Ireland have stated that most early years educators are earning less than the living wage and can no longer afford to remain in the profession. Officials from SIPTU indicated at today's meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth that there will be a mass exodus of workers from the childcare sector unless significant new funding is allocated in the budget. It was also noted that Ireland's spending on early years services and education, at just 0.3% of GPD, falls far below the European average of 0.8% and the benchmark recommended by UNICEF of 1%.

There is also a recruitment and retention crisis in the sector. All parents putting their children into early years services or childcare understand the importance of having staff in the sector who are happy and secure in their jobs. Staff should also be able to build relationships with children and the children, in turn, should be able to get to know the staff, trust them and feel safe. The parents must also have trust as well. The system we have now is undermining children's ability to form such bonds with people who are very important in their lives. According to a recent survey, those running crèches and other childcare settings are reporting challenges in attracting new people to the sector. Some 71% said that it has been extremely difficult to recruit new staff in the past 12 months, with low pay cited as the biggest obstacle by 55% of respondents. Some 97% of managers and owner-managers, an incredibly high figure, are concerned that problems being experienced in recruiting and retaining staff will have a negative impact on service provision.

A survey of early childcare workers in Ireland carried out by Early Childhood Ireland found that eight in ten, or 80%, plan to leave the sector within a year if things stay as they are now. I do not know if such findings have been recorded in other sectors, but that is an incredibly high figure. It highlights that there is a real crisis in this sector. Slightly more than 40% of childcare workers are looking for work in other areas, with three quarters citing low pay as their reason for seeking to leave the sector. The situation is so bad that Early Childhood Ireland has warned that we could soon see childcare services collapse, just as we are set to reopen the economy, parents will be returning to work and wage supports will be winding down. My experience, and what I am hearing from people in my constituency of Wicklow, is that many childcare services are at maximum capacity. People are finding it difficult to find places for their children. It is particularly impacting on areas like Wicklow that are commuter counties with a major need for childcare provision.

Interestingly, the Department of Education monitors changes in population and projects future demand when it comes to building schools. My understanding, however, is that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, however, does not. Pobal looks at things at a national level, but a specific county-by-county projection is not undertaken. That is a big gap and it could, potentially, be something that the childcare committees could take responsibility for. The Minister is reviewing their remit and this could be an area that those committees could examine. I say that because we see fluctuations in population, with some areas experiencing major population changes. We must be able to predict what is going to happen in that regard and to provide the requisite supports where they are needed and before they are needed as part of planning for the future.

Early Childhood Ireland and other advocacy groups have been calling for a five-year plan or budget to help the sector to adapt to a rising demand for places. This is a responsible approach. We must look at this from a long-term planning perspective.

A five-year plan or budget would provide the necessary security.

As we come out of Covid, there will be much more flexibility in how people work, which is welcome. It is very positive that the Government has been pushing for flexible work arrangements as parents return to work after the pandemic. It will have many benefits for family life and for communities if people have more time to spend at home with their families and in their communities. That will be a very positive change. Unfortunately, I do not think the flexibility we expect or hope for in our working arrangements will be translated into the flexibility that is needed in response in the childcare sector. What I find is that childcare providers are not in a position to provide flexible childcare, so families must take the full five days or they get nothing. They cannot pick or choose days or times. As we move to more remote working environments, that is the kind of flexibility we need. That would be beneficial for children and families. The Government must examine how it can create a more flexible childcare model that will support remote working opportunities.

Childcare providers are not inflexible by choice. It is an inflexibility imposed by the funding models that successive Governments have put in place. The childcare model must adapt to a post-Covid working structure. In Scandinavian countries, a provider is not punished if parents are in a position to reduce their child's hours or days, and the parents are not punished financially either. Here, parents are forced to pay a flat rate even if their hours are reduced. This rigid system was designed by previous Governments which did not see childcare as a public system, but as a strictly private domestic matter, the burden of which has mainly landed squarely on women. We are all aware of the impact this has on women entering and remaining in the workforce. Studies have shown the impact that the high cost of childcare and the inflexible system have on women in the workplace and their earning capacity.

The Minister and Deputy Funchion met the Association of Childhood Professionals at the protest outside Leinster House this morning. As Deputy Funchion says, it was very welcome to see him out there talking and listening to what was being said.

While the scheme has been positive for many families, it has impacted negatively on thousands of children from disadvantaged and marginalised families who were previously supported under targeted schemes that recognised that some families need additional supports. It also helped those wonderful children access safe, stimulated child-centred environments, including the hot meals and emotional supports that are all vital to a child's development when living with disadvantage.

When the schemes were amalgamated into the national childcare scheme, the supports available were substantially less. Unemployed parents are now entitled to far fewer hours, or no subsidised hours at all. Instead of the scheme being about the child and child-centred development, care and education, it has become a labour activation measure. It is not about the child at all, but about the Government's drive to get parents back to work. The balance has been lost in that regard. Early education cannot be about getting people out of social welfare, it must be about the child and supporting families around the needs of the child. The shift in Government childcare policy could widen the gap of inequality between children and push disadvantaged children into more vulnerable situations.

The Association of Childhood Professionals states that access to formative education and care should be a universal right, not conditional on compliance with a wider Government agenda of activating vulnerable parents into work. We must start to see access to childcare as a right in this country not as a private, domestic decision, a business or a labour-activation measure, but as a right built around the needs of the child.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Tóibín. We will have five minutes each.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is important to all of us. I compliment Sinn Féin on introducing the motion and giving us an opportunity to discuss and debate it.

I listened to the Minister's opening address. He pointed out that there are three different sections that need to be dealt with in order for the service to work right. I will give my thoughts on the three separate parts of the service. One of these relates to early educators. What we need to do for them is give them recognition. I spent nearly ten years lecturing in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT. When you see students come into first year and go out four years later with a degree, you expect that they will get an income that is reasonable and that there is a career path for them, continuing professional development, and that they can aspire to go wherever they want. There should be no limits to what they can do in terms of the choices they make. In educating people, we sold them a pup by telling them that they would have great careers, particularly when they have ended up getting less than the minimum wage. They are leaving the industry. I know people in my constituency who have done that. The reason they are leaving is because they are totally demoralised and have decided to follow another path. We have done a disservice to the young people who were brave enough to take on the challenge after their leaving certificate and to become educated. We have not shown them the respect they deserve for what they have done. It is important that we calibrate our minds in terms of what we need to do in that regard.

The Minister mentioned sustainability in the context of the early years providers. Again, what they need to know is how the service will be funded and supported by central government. The sector faces lots of challenges, but the biggest is trying to get staff. Costs, including those relating to insurance, are out of control at times. In my constituency, a childcare service has closed. It did not reopen in September for the simple reason that the owners could not afford to run it and were better off doing something else. The service is a huge loss to the rural community where it was located.

We talk about the affordability of the childcare service for families in a glib way, but the cost of childcare is outside the bounds of most working people. How can we encourage parents, men and women, to go to work, to provide a basis for our economy? We have been encouraging women in particular to get educated, go to school and third level, get a degree and get a career. Parents find that they are fighting fires all the time between trying to look after their children and trying to work. The stress of what they are going through sometimes outweighs the benefits. Parents should be enjoying life and the fact that they have children. It should be the happiest days of their lives with their young children. I am afraid that with the bundling we do in lots of cases in terms of the fast track of life, we have forgotten that children need to be cared for and that parents need to know this is being done properly.

When thinking about this issue, it strikes me that when I was growing up, my mother was at home. She did not get past sixth class in her education. She raised the family while my father went out to work. There were seven children in the family and there were no childminding services at that time. Times have changed and society has changed. The work ethic has changed, but the only thing that has not changed is that we have not been able to provide the services to back up the changes. I look forward the opportunity to do that in the upcoming budget.

Ireland is simply an outlier in terms of how little State funding is spent on childcare. UNICEF recommends that at least 1% of GDP be invested in childcare. The OECD average is 0.7%. The optimal amount is 2%.

Ireland invests a mere 0.3% in childcare. We cannot simply provide high-quality childcare if we are not prepared to fund high-quality childcare. It is not rocket science.

I have spoken to many parents and providers over the past number of years in this regard. The sector can be boiled down as follows: providers want sustainability and parents want affordability. The providers do not want to be charging parents additional fees to make up for the inadequate Government supports yet in most cases they have no option if they want to sustain the sector. There is a huge turnover of staff within the sector, as the Minister knows, and even though it is a degree-led sector, many people are getting the lowest wages that could possibly be given.

I tis very simple to tell what is a Government's priority. We do it by looking at the amount of money it spends on a sector and the amount of money it pays people working within that sector. Whether it is looking after older people or educating and looking after the youngest, typically, people involved in that sector in this State get the minimum wage. I find that incredible. It shows that the Government affords minimum value to people working in this sector.

The wage subsidy during Covid was the most stability that childcare workers have had for years. The low level of Government funding means that sustainability of wages in this sector falls upon the parents to pay. Meanwhile, the suspension of income during the pandemic and the inadequacy of Government supports has put many providers out of business. In the first year of the pandemic, 193 childcare providers were forced to shut their doors, adding further pressure to the supply of childcare places. We in Aontú were the first to bring this to the knowledge of the Dáil at that time and we put significant pressure on the Government to ensure that the sector, which was in danger of collapse, was protected. We still do not know how many of those childcare facilities have closed in the intervening time. In the words of one childcare provider we spoke to, it could take a decade for the sector to get back to where it was pre Covid.

All of this Government-induced mess has led to a sector that is broken and incapable of meeting the needs of children or parents. I spoke to one Montessori school which said it is getting calls from parents who are trying to get children as young 12 to 18 months in because they cannot afford other opportunities for them. In many ways, the child's early years development is actually being determined or dictated by the level of funding that is happening in this State. I know of another self-employed parent who has to bring her newborn child to work with her because childcare is unaffordable for the family. Another family living in the city centre pays €1,000 per month to bring their child to a childcare facility in Swords. They have a commute to bring their child to a particular location. Parents of children with additional needs are currently faced with even more difficult prospects.

What is in place? We have the universal child subsidy, which is 50 cent an hour for up to 45 hours a week per child aged six months or older. This works out at a maximum of €22.50 per week, or €90 per month. How in the name of God is that adequate? The lowest available rate for part-time childcare is €109, rising to over €250 for a child in full-time care. ECCE capitation grants need to be increased, access and inclusion model, AIM, funding needs to be increased, the universal childcare subsidy is wholly inadequate and the percentage of our GDP investment is totally out of sync with the rest of the developed world. Budget 2022 needs to include a radical increase in funding for this suffering sector. If it does not, we are simply going to see this pain, suffering and instability continue for another year.

This is not rocket science. It should be a matter of priority. The Government has, in my view, shown the lack of priority, first, for children and, second, for early years educators, childcare professionals and struggling parents by not prioritising funding. It has created a contractor model. We would like to see a situation where there is increased funding to providers, but also where parents are given a tax break so they can choose whether to send their child to a childcare provider or take time off work to be able to look after their children themselves.

Next is the Rural Independent Group. There are four speakers sharing time. I call Deputy Carol Nolan.

We have fantastic workers in our childcare sector who we should be immensely proud of, but I feel they do not get the credit they deserve. That is why I am starting on this point. We have these workers who do so much for so little, and who prepare children so well for their school life. I have seen this first-hand as a school principal, particularly the preparation by the preschools and what they put into the work. For example, Aistear is one programme where a lot of preparation and meticulous planning is involved. I want to put on record that the work these childcare workers are doing is second to none. They need to be valued and respected. We can all utter nice words here but if that is not matched by properly financing and assisting them, then it is no good.

I sincerely hope that we support the childcare sector - the workers and the providers - and parents, who need assistance as well, in the forthcoming budget. We all know that childcare costs have risen to an all-time high and, for many parents, they can be like another mortgage. There are many issues that need to be addressed within the childcare sector. I am hopeful that we can get to grips with these because I feel we will be failing our children and the State if we do not. We need to ensure that everybody is looked after and that we have true equality and true inclusion in that our children are able to attend a childcare facility.

We know that, at the minute, there is very little incentive for childcare providers to continue. Hopefully, there will be changes. I will end on that note.

The hospital waiting lists for children are unthinkable. Many of the children on these waiting lists are just waiting for treatment for minor ailments. If they do not get an early diagnosis, there will be lifetime effects. Some 106,000 children are waiting for tests in the public system, Some 8,000 are waiting for CT scans and 2,700 children and young people are waiting for access to mental health services. There is an incredible shortage of neurological nurses throughout the country, but particularly in Sligo and Limerick. We need to look at the support these nurses would be for the families of patients suffering from epilepsy, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions. Diabetes is being missed and there is no development test for babies. There are so many issues. I am talking about basic speech therapy, eye and ear treatment and mobility, all issues where early intervention would prevent a lot of problems.

I spoke to the Minister last week and called for an audit of the hospitals. I want to go on the record again. I ask whether the Government knows that the consultants in the hospitals in Limerick and other areas are clocking out in the evening and also clocking out on a Friday evening. The Government is wondering why there are waiting lists. It is not the front-line services or the doctors in the hospitals; it is the consultants who we need to make a diagnosis, whether it be an X-ray or whatever is needed to deal with the problem.

The motion is on childcare.

This is on childcare. Children are coming into the hospitals for diagnosis, and to have their needs catered for.

Look at this House. There is a roster here. Everyone knows who is here, what time they are due to be here, what time they will be speaking and what people are in their offices, but that is not the case with the hospital system. We need to get this right. We need to tackle it. If the managers and CEOs of the hospital cannot manage this, it is our children, our parents, our brothers and our sisters who are going to suffer. Let us get it right. If the management cannot do their job, get rid of them and put in management that can. We must start with the children and get the basic services they need. We need to stop the lists. It is the Government that is going to have to stand up. It is going to have to make those hard decisions. It is going to have to stand up and tell the management, if they cannot manage, to please leave, and to give us something. The private sector is doing it for young children and adults throughout the country, but our public system is letting us down. Why? There is no roster and no accountability. I am asking the Government to please get it right.

I thank Sinn Féin for giving us an opportunity to talk about childcare services. Many childcare workers have contacted me in recent weeks pleading that we ask the Government to do something about their pay and conditions because they are not being properly looked after. That is the truth of it. Providers are under pressure as well, as are parents. Parents are being asked to pay more than they can afford for childcare to allow them go out to do a bit of work and make a bit of money to keep the roof over their heads.

There can be no functioning economy without a functioning care economy. We must invest in the care economy, both in those caring for the ill and elderly and those caring for our nation's children. We must raise the pay and improve the working conditions of care workers, including the many women on which the sector depends. As we count down to the budget next week, much depends on what the Government does for these workers.

As we all know, many parents have to work to pay the bills, keep a roof over their heads and pay their mortgages. Ireland has one of the most poorly funded childcare systems in Europe. The system locks women out of the labour market and wider participation in society and traps the childcare workforce in low-paid employment.

I mention briefly elderly parents who are trying to look after children who have physical and intellectual disabilities. Those people need to get recognition in the budget.

I am grateful to Sinn Féin for bringing this important Private Members' motion before the House as it provides an opportunity before the budget to speak about the crucial role of all carers in Ireland, from childcare carers to carers for our elderly and people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The problem with childcare has a number of different elements. First, if the people providing childcare are in the private sector, they are charged with paying additional costs such as energy bills, wages and rent for the premises. They are struggling to make a profit and keep their doors open. Today, I dealt with a person who is opening up a new facility and is facing insurmountable difficulties. All this person is doing is seeking to provide an excellent service in the community for parents who want to put their children in a safe and happy environment.

I am grateful to all those, whether in the public or private sector, who provide this very important care for our children. Nurturing and helping our young children to develop and become little individuals is one of the most wonderful roles that anybody can play. However, we have to make it profitable to do so and, at the other end, it must be affordable for the parents who pay for it. Young parents go out to work every day, have large mortgages and car loans and face various other types of pressure. They then have childcare costs and they find it very difficult to survive.

That is one aspect of the motion Sinn Féin has brought before the House tonight but there are also other carers, those who care for people in their homes. We all know and believe, and it is right to think, that the best place an older person can be is in his or her own home. It is probably the most cost-effective place for them to be but, what is more important than any money, it is the happiest place for them to be. They need assistance and care and need people to come in to their homes. I am grateful to all the carers I know in County Kerry who provide an excellent service, day and night. In bad weather and despite all kinds of problems and difficulties, they go into people's homes and take care of them.

I must mention congregated settings. Barring people from going into congregated settings puts further pressure on people who are keeping at home someone who might benefit more from being in a congregated setting. I ask the Government to reverse that rule which was brought in back to 2011. We all know that one shoe will not fit all sizes. I ask the Government to look at that rule.

We now have the Independent Group. Deputy Connolly is sharing time with Deputies Harkin and Fitzmaurice.

I thank Sinn Féin, in particular Deputy Funchion, for using its Private Members' time to introduce this motion, which I fully support.

In the past 11 years, I have stood in three general elections - in 2011, 2016 and 2020 - and on two occasions, I had the privilege of being successful. I mention that because on each occasion the issues of housing, public health, public transport and childcare were raised. I see the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, nodding. At every pre-election meeting, the astronomical costs of childcare were raised. This problem did not arise overnight. Here we are, in 2021, with another motion and I very much welcome it.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, tabled an amendment. I know his heart is in the right place and he set out the good that he has done. However, the fundamental change required is completely absent. We have a piecemeal, profit-driven childcare system.

We have had many television programmes and I often think that we have democracy here by "Prime Time", "RTÉ Investigates" or other investigative programmes. Does the Minister remember the programme about childcare in Dublin? We seem to have learned nothing.

In all of those elections to which I referred, the constant theme for me was that the people were way ahead of us. They wanted honesty, action on climate change and coherent thinking that everything is interlinked. We cannot have a thriving economy if we are underpaying the predominantly female workforce. It is simply not possible to have a thriving economy. It is thriving on the backs of abuse of those who are in that workforce. Of course, there is a role for the private market in everything - in housing, absolutely - but the State must be the primary mover.

Having reached my age, I have had the privilege of working in different careers. I despair sometimes, but I keep saying I will not give in to despair because I am paid to do a job here, as my colleagues are, to articulate a different vision and different way of doing things.

It makes absolute sense to have a public childcare model. I am disappointed the Minister did not address that aspect. I do not expect him to change things overnight but I expect him to commit to a public childcare model because it is the best in the end. How do we know that? Let us look at what we know. In its recommendations published on 24 April, the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality asked us to "Move to a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of childcare over the next decade." It did not ask the Minister to do it overnight. It pointed out, as all Deputies have done, the small percentage of GDP we spend on childcare, and asked us to raise it to 1%. It asked us to slowly raise that figure up.

If we take the countries that are successful in the area of childcare, the introduction of universal early childcare in Germany in 2013 was associated with a significant reduction in cases of child abuse and neglect, an increase in birth rates, an improvement in children's social and emotional development and an increase in maternal life satisfaction. In the Nordic countries, the position was similar.

My experience, when I worked as a psychologist many years ago, confirmed that public access to childcare makes a phenomenal difference. All of the research has confirmed that. Three elections later - it has been much longer for other Deputies - we are still talking about public childcare. It seems childcare should be top of the list. I am a university graduate. I am absolutely supportive of universities but I would put childcare top of the list. The reason that has not happened, of course, is that childcare is dominated by the female gender and we have never once put an emphasis or a value on women's work in this country.

I believe that we should build into that choice and make it much easier for mothers or fathers to stay at home and mind their children. I would describe myself as a radical feminist. We must have choices for people and within those choices, we must have public care as an essential ingredient.

The Opposition can table another motion. When it comes to our turn, we will table one. We will keep tinkering and the Government will keep making speeches telling us about the money it is investing. Ultimately, however, the Government is supporting the private market using the exact same model as it does for housing. Until the Government changes that model, we will not improve matters.

I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion.

I also thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion on childcare.

We all agree that, for too long, childcare and care in general were seen as women's work - work that was carried out behind closed doors, necessary but without much value. That view has been changing in recent years, but that context shaped how we supported, recognised and financed the provision of childcare and how we ensured access to childcare facilities for parents. Our record in the provision of childcare is dismal compared to our European partners. For example, the salary paid to early years educators in Germany is approximately €18 per hour. In France, it is approximately €20. In the Netherlands, it is €26. Here, it is between €12 and €13. During a Topical Issue debate three weeks ago, I asked the Minister for an extra allocation of €150 million in next year's budget, including €75 million to help ensure those working in the childcare sector earned the living wage. We are not talking about moving them up the European scale. Rather, we are asking that the Minister lift them from the bottom of the pile.

We know that 40% of people in the sector are looking for work elsewhere. They are being poached into other sectors. After all that training to provide quality childcare, we are losing committed and dedicated workers. The majority of the workers love their jobs and look forward to their work. It is a vocation for most of them.

The crazy thing is that, on top of everything, Irish parents pay the highest fees in the EU at approximately €180 per week. That is way above countries like Sweden, Denmark and France. In that context, and as I have told the Minister previously, there is a need for a further €75 million investment in next year's budget in order to ensure that parents can afford to access high-quality childcare.

To be honest, I prefer to use the term "early years education" rather than "childcare" and the term "early years educators" instead of "childcare workers". My reason for this is the context. While we have moved on, there are still too many people who view care as a secondary matter. It does not appear when we are calculating our balance of payments or feature when we assess our GDP, but it is central to how we organise our society. We believe we have moved on, and we have to some extent, but we still have such a long way to go. The value we place on childcare is reflected in the value we place on those who work in the sector. Too many people think of childcare as minding children. Of course, children need to be looked after, but early years education is so much more than that. It provides high-quality, play-based early years learning, supports families to manage their work-life balance, and provides a positive transition to primary education, as the Minister knows. However, our childcare system can do none of that because it is not properly resourced. It is the poor relation.

Childcare providers are at the end of their tether, with many of them holding on by their fingernails, knowing that another year like the past one will sink them. Many of them do not know whether they will still be around in six or nine months' time. Equally, those who work in the sector - 98% are women, which is the most telling element - are among the lowest paid people in the country. We cannot expect them to continue working for a salary that is below the living wage. The childcare sector is looking to next week's budget for an indication from the Government that, one year into its term, it is serious about supporting the sector.

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, Deputies Dillon and Richmond, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, are sharing time.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the importance of early learning and childcare. I support the Government's amendment. As public representatives and family members, we all know the importance of early learning and childcare. The early years are the most formative period in any child's life. Quality childcare is important in ensuring that parents and guardians can return to work if they wish. After both of my sons, I returned to work after eight weeks. I appreciated the value of good childcare. It is important. From this debate so far, it is clear that we are all agreed that reform is necessary. We need to reduce the cost for parents, improve pay and working conditions, reduce the regulatory and administrative burden on providers and ensure that children get the best possible start in life.

I wish to highlight the work of my party in developing a comprehensive report on the care of the child, focusing on parents, providers and staff, following an extensive consultation process. The report is in line with Government commitments and focuses on areas such as accessibility of services, affordability, support for providers, pay, training and apprenticeships.

The Government is not claiming there are not challenges in the sector, but rather that we have the strategy and drive to address those challenges and have already made significant progress. The introduction of the national childcare scheme in 2019 has gone a considerable way towards addressing the affordability of early learning and childcare. Most importantly, the number of families now eligible for support has been significantly increased and we are moving towards a progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies where eligibility is no longer based on medical card and social protection entitlements.

As the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am aware of the importance of inclusion of all children in early learning and childcare services. That is why I welcome in particular the work under way by the expert group to develop a DEIS-type model for early learning and childcare. This model will ensure greater levels of affordability, accessibility and quality.

The expert group's terms of reference also include improving pay and working conditions for early learning and childcare professionals. The Government accepts that the level of pay in the sector does not reflect the value of the work these professionals do for society. We have pledged to address this issue. The recent establishment of the joint labour committee, JLC, for the sector is a significant and welcome development.

The closure of services due to Covid-19 has brought home to us all how much we as a society rely on early learning and childcare to allow the economy and society to function and how valuable the sector is for children and their families, including the peace of mind it gives their parents. This is why the Government has implemented a substantial package of supports for the sector since March 2020. These have proven to be effective and have allowed services to continue operating safely in unprecedented times.

The excitement and happiness shown by children when returning to services in June 2020 demonstrated the importance to children and society of learning as well as care outside the home. The programme for Government sets out the best way to strengthen early learning and childcare, which is why I am supporting the amendment.

I welcome this debate on the important issues around the early learning and childcare sector. I am acutely aware of the challenges facing many parents, childhood professionals, childcare providers and childminders. There is an immediate need for a major reprioritisation of early childhood in our national ambitions. Its importance must be embedded in the goals of the Government and the strategy statement of every Department.

I welcome the programme for Government commitment with regard to continued investment in the national childcare scheme, reducing the costs for parents and introducing greater parental choice and flexibility, and to reform of the childcare systems to create one that brings together the best of community and private childcare provision. I have engaged locally with childcare workers. Time and again, they have highlighted the issues they face and their needs which must be met head-on without delay.

I call on the Minister to support childcare workers in the challenges they face and to respond in a meaningful manner to recognise their qualifications and the important and enormous contribution they make to our society. Their professionalism came to the fore in the worst of the pandemic to ensure our essential front-line workers could work to protect our families. I acknowledge the published research which indicates that workers employed in the early care sector in Ireland are paid less than their counterparts in other countries. Early years professionals are struggling to make ends meet. This is driving them out of the profession they love dearly and leading to a huge issue for childcare providers in finding staff.

The contributors to the Fine Gael policy lab on the care of the child told us that the care of the child should be embedded in the strategy of all Departments and form an essential pillar in our national, social, economic, cultural and spatial strategy. This must be represented in a major policy shift. I hope the Minister will make good on his earlier promise to address the issues of low pay in the early years sector, accessibility and affordability for parents and pay and conditions for staff while also protecting the sustainability of providers.

I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forth this motion on an issue that she and I have discussed many times at length outside this Chamber. I also thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, for their contributions this evening and for the work they have been doing in this area. I say that not as a Government backbencher, but as a man who, unlike Deputy Dillon, has only one child at home. Regardless of what decision is taken on this motion, I will hear about it as I am married to a Montessori teacher who reminds me every day and night of the issues facing the sector.

It must be noted that the report by the European Commission on what Ireland is doing in early years education commended the targeted investment by this Government and the previous Government to address the real challenges. I would like to refer to three of those challenges which came up in the Fine Gael policy lab's discussion on care of the child, and which need to be at the heart of this issue. First, we need to address the challenges for parents and make sure that the national childcare scheme is delivered upon. Second, we need to address the gap for providers to ensure they have access to State facilities and, third, we must ensure that staff in this sector have a real and genuine pathway to a full-time, sustainable career in this area.

I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forward this Private Members' motion. I was on the children's committee of which Deputy Funchion was also a member and I know how dedicated she is to this area. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I are equally committed to it. I thank our childcare workers and providers for their commitment and work throughout the pandemic.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion on the early care sector. I will be supporting the amendment put forward by the Minister. I will explain why. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I put childcare at the front and centre of our proposals. The programme for Government commitment puts childcare front and centre in terms of delivery. The work of the Minister since taking office has, I hope, shown the childcare providers, staff and organisations his commitment to engage and to ensuring that families, providers and staff are front and centre. In creating that pathway, which Deputy Funchion and I talked about during lengthy discussions in the committee, we need to ensure we appreciate and acknowledge the professionalism of the childcare and early years sector. We are committed to doing that. I am supporting the amendment because I see the vision in terms of where we want to get to.

I agree with colleagues on this side of the House on the need to put the funding with the sector. That was demonstrated as well. On 13 March 2020, one week after Covid hit, funding was increased by €11 million per month. The Minister has now increased funding to €34 million per month. This time last year, he secured the support of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, for a special sectorial arrangement for the childcare sector. The EWSS remains in place in the sector. In all but name, it is a public childcare sector. I have every faith in the Minister in terms of the work he has put in with regard to the budget for next year. I support the amendment he has put forward.

There is common agreement that our childcare system is not fit for purpose. Fees are too high and wages are too low. Childcare in my constituency costs, on average, €217 per week or €870 per month, but costs can be higher or lower in one part of the constituency as compared with another. As stated, childcare costs are equal to that of a mortgage.

This motion is about giving families a break. Childcare fees for parents in this State are among the highest in the world. However, early years workers, who are highly qualified professionals with degrees, are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector, with many working on or just above the minimum wage. Some parents cannot even find a childcare place for their children. Centres across the State are full to capacity because of a lack of staff or crippling costs. Many parents rely on grandparents. This is probably not ideal, but increasingly it is the Irish solution. Grandparents do not retire. They are expected to keep giving.

Childcare needs to be dealt with comprehensively, not in a piecemeal manner. The collapse of the Government's childcare scheme for front-line workers during Covid was entirely predictable and inevitable. The Government did not seem to realise that a press release from a Minister is not a magic wand that can mend fundamental problems in service delivery. Clapping and goodwill speeches wear thin when you are working long hours and putting your health and life on the line. We need a State childcare system. The market has shown that it is incapable of providing a service that is either affordable to parents or fair to workers. The Sinn Féin plan would reduce childcare fees for parents by at least one third of the current cost for this year and next year and by two thirds the following year. Sinn Féin has long advocated for a publicly funded childcare sector that works for families, early years professionals and providers. Sinn Féin in government would ensure all children and their families have access to good quality and affordable childcare.

The Minister will be aware that the childcare crisis has been ongoing for years. It has been ignored by successive Governments, which have been more than happy to leave the enormous burden of paying for childcare to parents while the sector struggles with low pay for childcare professionals and providers struggle. Fine Gael has been in power for ten years now and nothing has changed. With all due respect to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, I do not have much hope that anything will change.

The burden of childcare costs on couples is enormous. We have the highest childcare fees in the world, which in itself is damning. In Louth, in 2019 and 2020, the average weekly fee for one child was over €175. Families also have astronomical housing and energy costs to contend with. It is hard to see how parents, especially those with more than one child in full-time childcare, can be expected to manage this financially. We know that people, usually women, are being forced to drop out of the workforce owing to childcare costs and that many couples are putting off having children owing to the housing crisis and the cost of childcare. Despite the cost of childcare, childcare and early years professionals are paid among the lowest wages in any sector. Many work for minimum wage despite being qualified professionals. They deserve so much more than this. If only the Government would recognise that we would all benefit from providing decent pay and conditions for childcare professionals.

This Government needs to change its attitude and to value childcare and early years education as a long-term, stable career choice. Its response this week was to increase funding through the national childcare scheme, which is wholly ineffective. It is not the solution to the childcare crisis, as stated by every Deputy who spoke in favour of this motion. Sinn Fein's plan is to reduce childcare fees for parents by at least one third of the current average fees in 2022, reducing by two thirds thereafter. My colleague, Deputy Funchion, also has a plan to improve the pay and conditions of early years and childcare professionals, including the introduction of payscales and full continuous professional development for all staff.

We need a seismic change in how we address childcare in this State. The Government must step up and play its part. Its budget next week will tell us whether it is listening to the people or not.

I thank everybody for their contributions, including the Minister and Minister of State. They will be aware it is an issue I have been talking about for a long time. I welcome some aspects because we seem to be largely in agreement but it would not be the first time we have been in a debate where people are saying they are in agreement, yet their actions perhaps do not always match that. I like to see people talking about the workers and the wages in the sector, the providers and the sustainability issue, and the issue of fees. They have always been the three key issues. Looking at the positives, I feel that message is at least getting out there.

I first brought forward a motion on this issue in 2017. That was after a committee report. Deputy Rabbitte, now a Minister of State, was on that committee. There was unanimous support both for that report and the motion that night in the Dáil. Despite that we did not really see any changes. I appreciate neither the Minister nor the Minister of State were in their posts then but in July 2020, shortly after the Government was formed, one of the first motions we brought was on early years childcare, and here we are a year and three months later. When the Minister and Minister of State say they have a new funding model and a new vision, many people are wondering when that is actually going to kick in. I think the Minister saw for himself how welcoming people from the sector actually were when he went out and spoke to them. Nobody expects this to happen overnight. Everybody knows it is going to take time and significant investment. That is where we must get to. We must get to a publicly funded early years sector and it will take time but we must see some action. We must see the start of that. You cannot have a plan on paper and expect people to constantly have trust and faith in you if they do not see any actions coming out of that. That is one of the keys.

I am really hopeful we will see the start of that investment in next week's budget, in terms of the workers, providers and fees for parents. We can all tell countless stories, all day and all night, about the various issues. We heard some examples at the committee today from those working in the sector who cannot afford unexpected expenses. To actually go and be qualified and do a degree and be working for years and to still be in that situation is very disheartening. Providers, who are largely women and who possibly started out with this service in their home and it perhaps grew from there, are now all of a sudden totally bogged down in paperwork and regulation. Nobody has an issue with rules and regulations, particularly when it comes to children, but there must be a commonsense approach to that as well. I always try to focus on the three issues of fees, sustainability and wages but obviously there are other issues too, including around the inspections and perhaps having one body to do them. I always keep to those issues to try to focus the mind.

I will finish with a quote from someone who works in the early years sector and who was in contact with me over the weekend. What he said was very simple:

We cannot continue as we are. We need a new, fairer way for everyone.

That sums it up. It really is that simple. As I said, no-one expects this to be done overnight but they do expect something they can actually hold on to. Somebody at committee today said they need that hope, that level of hope. There needs to be something in the budget next week and I really hope there will be. As I said, we cannot support the amendment. I do not support it and I am disappointed. It is coming up on six years now since 2016 and that is how long I have been raising this issue. Some people in here will say that is not very long but to me it seems like a very long time to be constantly raising the same issue. The message is perhaps getting across a little bit more but we still have to do something tangible and something people can see and hold on to. We will not be supporting the amendment. I look forward to the budget next week. I really hope there is something in it for those working in the sector, those providing in it, for the parents who rely on it and ultimately for our children, who benefit from this. Sometimes, in the middle of it all, we forget the benefits the early years sector offers children.

Amendment put.

A division has been called. In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), it is postponed until the weekly division time tomorrow evening, Wednesday, 6 October 2021.