I move amendment No. 1:
To insert the following after "regardless of the outcome of the Joint Labour Committee":
"— guarantee a pre-school place for every child; and
— begin the rollout of a universal public childcare system."
I welcome this motion and commend Deputy Funchion on her work on it. I acknowledge the Minister's breakthrough in securing such an increase in funding and his vision in setting out some necessary reforms of the early years education and care system. Labour believes neither the motion nor the core funding stream proposed go far enough and more could be done. In that spirit, we have put forward the addendum to the motion agreeing with what is in the motion but calling further on the Government to guarantee a preschool place for every child and begin the roll-out of a universal public childcare system. That addendum, which I hope will not be opposed, seeks to strengthen the commitments made by the Minister and by Deputy Funchion and her colleagues in putting forward the motion.
The current system of early years education and care provision in Ireland is failing parents, staff in the sector, providers and, most of all, children who are not getting an equal start in life. We in Labour want to see a total restructuring of the sector to provide for the creation of a system of universal and public childcare. We think the core funding stream provides an important and long overdue building block and starting point for the sector but more needs to be done. Like all of us, I hear daily from parents who are deeply concerned about the cost of childcare and crèches and about the lack of certainty as to whether or not fees will be frozen or, preferably, reduced. It is acknowledged in the motion that if they were to be frozen it would be at an unsustainably high level for many parents.
I commend the Minister for delivering on the €221 million core funding stream and acknowledge the commitment to ensuring €138 million of that will go towards improving pay and conditions for early years educators. I commend SIPTU's Big Start campaign that has been actively engaged in seeking to strengthen the pay and conditions of educators.
While we want to see more ambition for the early years sector, we appreciate that, pending the success of the joint labour committee, the new core funding stream can offer a base upon which to build a better system with better outcomes. We believe, as the motion says, that the Minister should commit to increasing wages and addressing the fees issue, regardless of the outcome of the process. As per our amendment, we believe a meaningful process should be initiated and committed to to guarantee a place for every child and introduce the system of universal public childcare that we badly need.
The spiralling fees we hear about daily from parents would be unsustainable in any case but, given the cost of living crisis with serious rises in inflation, increases in housing and rental costs and, for many people, unaffordable prices in fuel, energy and food, it is a particularly difficult time to be looking at such high childcare costs. Ireland has the second highest OECD household spend on childcare. Couples spend an average of 24% of their income, and single parents 29%, on fees. Parents in Dublin pay around €1,000 per month per child. Any of us who have had children in childcare in Dublin, including in my constituency, are aware of that cost of €1,000 or more. That is if we can get a place. I am hearing of many parents who have to book childcare places in anticipation of a child's birth and women and parents who cannot get a childcare place and are worried about whether or not they can return to work. They wish to do so but are being stifled in their career progression. With approximately 300,000 children in the preschool age group and around two thirds of them using some form of childcare service, this is a major crisis. As a minimum, a fee freeze is necessary but we agree with the motion that a reduction would be preferable.
On wages and pay and conditions, I have already paid tribute to SIPTU's Big Start campaign. We saw this year's report on pay, conditions and job satisfaction of early years professionals showing again that those tasked with educating our children at this key developmental stage are among the most undervalued workers in society. The Minister acknowledged that and we are all well aware of it. Pay is well below a living wage for many educators, who often also lack basic rights like sick pay and maternity pay. This came to the fore in the Government's sick pay proposal, for which we have called for some time. My colleague, Senator Sherlock, has been to the fore on that.
We are concerned that those working in the early childhood care and education sector, because many of them are seasonal and employed for part of the year, will not be covered by the Government scheme because it envisages a 13-week entitlement period before workers can access it. That is one example of the poor conditions faced by many educators. We know from SIPTU that 67% of early years educators report work-related stress and burnout and an overwhelming 90% say they struggle to make ends meet.
This is a basic issue of women's rights and gender equality because 98% of early years professionals are women who bear the brunt of an underfunded system. We have an area representative in Ratoath, County Meath, Eilish Balfe, who has been to the fore in highlighting the crisis in the sector and who tells me there will be closures and serious shortfalls in service if things do not improve for professionals working in the service.
Labour's addendum to the motion seeks to build on and strengthen the intent behind the motion, which we support. It is based on our policy and the Equal Early Years campaign that is being led by Labour women calling for a universal public childcare system and seeing this as a matter of women's equality. We know that women in Ireland spend about 20 hours more per week on care and housework than men.
We also know that providing a place for every child will ease the burden significantly, particularly on women who are working outside the home.
I am grateful to colleagues in the arts for telling me of how a recent survey of parents in the screen industry showed that there were particular issues with access to childcare supports for those working on freelance contracts and those working long and unsociable hours or irregular hours. This characterises the situation for people working not just in the arts, but many other sectors. Moving to a universal public system would support them.
This is a matter of children's rights as well as women's rights. Inequality in Ireland starts the day a baby is born. That should not be how it is in a real republic. I have called for a Donogh O'Malley moment in respect of early years education and care. Just as the then Minister guaranteed a State-funded secondary school place for everyone 50 years ago, we need to guarantee a publicly funded preschool place for every child so as to guarantee him or her an equal start. This is the change we have been seeking with our Equal Early Years campaign – to develop a universal public system, starting with a €96 million investment in the first year targeted at the needs of parents who wish to work outside the home but cannot do so because of the prohibitive cost of childcare. We believe that the over-reliance on the for-profit market-driven model should be replaced by one that is State led and universal and relies on community childcare settings in particular.
Like many of us, I have received a significant number of emails in recent days from providers – many of them very small – of childcare services and early years education outlining concerns about funding. Many of us appreciate their concerns, but we hope that they will engage with the process of reforming the system. We are all conscious that the system is not working for them as providers in many cases or for parents who are facing considerable childcare fees. Clearly, it is not working for staff and professionals in the sector either. Nor is it working for children. If we do not have an effective and adequate service and many parents cannot access places for their children, then we know the system is not working for children.
I urge the House to support our amendment – our addendum, I should say – to the motion because we have so much to gain from moving to a genuinely radical reform of our early years and school age childcare services. It is right to mention the latter as an important component of any equal early years and childcare service. An enviable system is achievable. We have seen it achieved in other jurisdictions. We can have a system that guarantees flexible drop-off and collection times to reflect modern work practices and commutes. We can have a system that is based on best practice in education, play and early learning and strengthens and supports every child's development. We can support smaller private providers who face the high costs associated with running a smaller setting but who are fearful of change. We can place an emphasis on community-based, affordable care where professionals are well paid and provide the highest standard of care. We can alleviate the administrative load on services through a new funding model. All of this is possible.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to debate this matter and I ask for the House's support for our addendum, just as we will support the motion.