Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 5 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 5

Childcare Fees: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

recognises that the cost of childcare fees, which now range from an average of €800 to highs of €1,350 per month per child are causing a generation to put their lives on hold, impacting decisions to start or expand their families, to return to work and putting household finances under immense pressure;

notes:

— the inadequacy of the new Core Funding Stream for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare which will be extended to childcare providers on condition that they freeze fees at these unaffordable levels; and

— the precarious nature of the Joint Labour Committee for the Early Years' Service Sector established to address low wages and improve the conditions of those working in the sector; and

calls on the Government to:

— further increase public investment in order to enable providers to reduce fees for parents by two-thirds, commencing with a reduction of fees by one third this year; and

— guarantee the commitment to increase wages and improve conditions for staff, regardless of the outcome of the Joint Labour Committee.

The motion relates to the early years and childcare sector, with an emphasis on the cost of childcare. The cost for parents is crippling. Families are put off having children or sometimes they have one child. I have seen situations where people try to predict when a child might be born, since one would be in school when the other needs childcare, along with other strange situations, as well as the cost. In the past weeks in this Chamber, we have had debates about the increase in the cost of living and how that is impacting on families. The cost of childcare is one of those issues. Sinn Féin has made proposals over the past number of years that would relieve the pressure on families by cutting the costs by two thirds over two budgets, with one third in the first year and another third in the second year.

This would not only benefit families, but would be a game changer for women in accessing employment and progressing in the workforce. Many women end up working part-time or try to have parental leave days. I remember what that was like. I had an issue with childcare myself, today. It is a constant issue. Having access to quality, affordable childcare is a game changer. I know and I am sure every Deputy knows people who have left work due to the cost. It often becomes too much pressure after a second child is born, or people feel like they are racing out the door in the morning just to pay the cost of childcare.

I will give two examples of people I know. Both women were highly educated and had degrees. One lived in Dublin and the other in Carlow. When they had their second children, close to when they had their first children, they both decided they had no option but to give up employment. The fees for two children in Dublin were about €1,800 monthly. If our proposal was introduced, that would reduce by €600 and €1,200 in the second year, which would be a game changer for that woman. The second person was in a more rural area in Carlow, where the fees were €1,400 monthly for two children. That would reduce by €466 in the first year and €932 in the second year. Those two women would remain in the workforce. There would be many benefits for children. I am always amazed at what they can learn in the crèche environment. They listen to it much more than they do to parents.

Cost is a key issue. I also want to address wages and conditions, as I do whenever I get the opportunity to speak about the early years sector. Early years educators are undervalued. It is an issue. We all know that there is a staffing crisis. I am sure nearly every Deputy has been contacted about that. The Big Start is the SIPTU campaign about terms and conditions. Is there an update on the joint labour committee process? I have serious concerns that September is a tight timeframe. What happens if there is not an agreement by September? Will the Minister update us about that?

We feel that our proposals over the last budgets tackle the issues that face the early years and childcare sectors. I want to mention the serious concerns of smaller providers. I am not talking about the big providers, which we all know make a serious profit. The smaller providers are struggling and are concerned about the new funding model. I know they would appreciate an update on how exactly that would work for them and having details about that. I will listen to the debate with interest and will pass over to my colleagues now.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. I cannot say that loudly or often enough and I am very proud of it. I would not have been able to do it without access to affordable childcare. At the time, the crèche in UCD was subsidised from the student hardship fund. One had to make an application but getting it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. There was recognition that people like me who were young and had children would need extra help to get through college. Without that access to affordable childcare, I would not have been able to go to college or to work. At the time, I was making £3.06 an hour. I worked in catering. I am, in fact, that old. I was able to work because I had subsidised childcare. My wages would not have been able to keep pace even then. I would have ended up working catering on the night shift so that my husband could work during the day. Access to affordable childcare changed our lives. As a family, it meant that we could gain qualifications, get experience, have careers and build a life for ourselves as a family. If we had not had that start, that would not have happened for us.

Sometimes there is a bit of a disconnect between people on the Government benches and real life.

Freezing the fees at the rate that they are at the moment will not help families. There are far too many women who have been forced out of the workforce because of the current rate of fees. Those women would love to go back into the workforce but they cannot do so. Therefore, stopping the fees where they are at the moment is not good enough. Far too many people in the State, far too many families and couples, are putting off having kids. They are limiting their family size, simply because of the unaffordable level of childcare.

I am urging all of the Deputies here to engage with the proposal put forward by Deputy Funchion and to acknowledge the leadership she has provided for the last number of years in this area. In recent weeks, I heard some talk and some chatter about the provision of childcare from people who I would class as very recent converts to it, although they might not like to admit that themselves. We need to seize the moment and act now. We need to listen to what workers and families are saying to us now.

If you live in my constituency, you are probably paying €2,000 per month in rent and added to that you have the crippling cost of heating and lighting your home and the cost of transport because the metro has been delayed again, so you will probably have to run a car. Families are getting squeezed. This proposal put forward Deputy Funchion and Sinn Féin will alleviate that burden. I would encourage Deputies to engage with the proposal and to support the motion.

First, I would like to commend my colleague, Deputy Funchion, on bringing this motion forward and, indeed, on all the work she does on raising awareness around the issue of the exorbitant childcare costs. Childcare fees are far too high. They average at €200 a week per child. That is €800 a month, or even up to about €1,300 a month in some areas. It is like a second mortgage for families. People cannot afford to continue to pay such exorbitant fees.

The proposals in the Government’s budget 2022 simply do not go far enough. They will lock in fees that are at a completely unaffordable level as it is. Fees need to be reduced. Deputy Funchion and Sinn Féin’s proposal would see fees reduced by two thirds - by one third in the first year and by one third in the second year. It would see the Government taking on the cost of staff wages for childcare services in exchange for the services cutting fees for parents. That is a sensible policy response to deal with the spiralling cost of childcare. As it is, some of the professionals who work in the childcare sector have level 7 or level 8 degrees and they are being paid the minimum wage. They are leaving the jobs and going to other jobs. Childcare providers tell me they cannot retain staff and that it is a huge issue and a huge problem.

Controlling childcare fees is not rare and is not uncommon. In fact, the vast majority of countries in Europe do so, according to the European Commission. The failure of the Government to introduce fee control mechanisms as part of its national childcare scheme was a fundamental policy flaw. Without fee controls, there is no guarantee that increasing public investment will translate into a fee reduction for parents.

Many families are under huge financial pressure with the rising cost of living and they cannot afford to pay these childcare costs. This means that many people cannot take up employment. Many mothers are telling me that they cannot go back to work after their maternity leave because they cannot afford the childcare or they cannot find a childcare provider to look after their child. They are, therefore, extending their maternity leave by taking unpaid leave. Some of them choose not to go back to work at all especially, as Deputy Funchion said, when a second child is born.

I again commend my colleague on bringing forward this motion and I urge Members to support it.

The childcare system is simply not fit for purpose. Fees are far too high and wages are too low. The system is not working for parents, for staff or for providers. Rising childcare costs are like a second mortgage for families. They cannot catch a break. People are absolutely broken. It is keeping people from going back to work. In Cork, families are easily paying on average €800 per month per child. Many families are paying over €1,000. That is even before you get to families with two or more children, who are paying well above €1,000. That is crazy money altogether.

I listened to the Taoiseach earlier and to listen to him you would imagine that, first, the cost of living crisis only happened in the last couple of weeks and, second, that it only happens at the petrol pump, although that is a huge issue and an enormous component to this. However, childcare costs are the part of the cost of living crisis as well, as is rent. If you are in the situation where you are renting and you have to pay for childcare, even though many people who are renting cannot realistically afford to have children at the minute, between rent and childcare, two thirds of your income is gone before you do anything else. That is the reality the Minister and his predecessor have failed to confront.

For families trying to find a place in crèche in Cork is like trying to find a needle in haystack. Many childcare facilities are being forced to close due to staff shortages. The Government was warned about this. A few years ago, the Cork Early Years Alliance identified that a number of services would close unless action was taken. Many of the services closed. While not an entire service closed, many of the rooms and places were reduced. That is the reality. Childcare workers are often on little more than minimum wage. It is not sustainable.

Families across the State are sick of limp promises from the Government on this. As my colleagues outlined, a freeze is not going to cut it, because these costs are already completely unsustainable. They are keeping people back from working and putting people through immense hardship. The funding stream announced will not make any real impact on reducing sky-high childcare fees. It will freeze them at unsustainable and unaffordable levels. In the context of a cost of living crisis, where families are already seeing their energy bills, fuel costs, rent and groceries prices soar, the Government plans for childcare are completely out of sync with the reality of what is affordable for families in Cork and across the State. It is not as if the Minister and this Government have not been warned. This issue has been there for years and has been getting worse. It has not been confronted.

I thank Deputy Funchion and the Sinn Féin team for bringing forward this motion. This motion will be welcomed by any young family facing the prospects of having to choose that one parent not to work and having to try to live on one wage due to cost of childcare. With the rising cost of heating, electricity, gas and fuel, people are already way overstretched.

We had Senan 17 years ago. He is nearly 18. We were paying the guts of €1,000 at that time. It still has not changed. In fact, it has gotten much worse. It is horrific to think that nearly 18 years later, families are in exactly the same position as we were. They have to pay the equivalent of another mortgage or one person does not go back to work. Those are choices people should not have to make.

A genuine cut in childcare costs will cost an additional €267 million in public investment for the childcare sector. This is an important investment into our children's future. Along with this, it would give working families a genuine break and take the pressure and stress off couples who genuinely just want to live, work, pay their taxes and care for their families. These are people who Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have let down now for many years. Unfortunately, this Government is continuing to let them down.

I am incredulous when I hear the Government coming out with lines like, “We can only do so much about the cost of living”. Yes, there is only so much that can be done, but the Government does not have the political will to do the right thing. Instead, this Government tends to look after investors and big businesses while family struggle day in, day out to make ends meet. We need only look at the massive profits made particularly by the energy companies over the last couple of years to see that those companies are not being challenged, but ordinary people are.

Here is a perfect example of where the Government can do the right thing. It can back this motion and not stop it. It should commit to seeing it through. The Government must also guarantee its commitment to increasing wages and to improving conditions for staff. It is time to step up and to help all those who are involved in this sector, including parents, carers, workers and children.

At the outset, I want to thank my colleague, Deputy Funchion, for all the work she has done on childcare, and for tabling these solid proposals. The Minister will know that we are often accused of not having the solutions or the answers. Yet, time and again the solutions are put forward to the Minister around what we need to do in childcare. The Minister needs to listen to parents and the childcare providers, particularly those in rural areas.

I am very concerned about the core funding model the Minister put forward. I am concerned particularly for the smaller providers and for those operating the early childhood care and education, ECCE, services. Some of them are in danger of closing down, particularly in the more rural areas. I would ask the Minister to look at that again and to consult those providers to get that right.

We have put forward substantial proposals time and again and we do not do it just for the sake of it.

The Minister has a key role now when we are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. In terms of escalating inflation, we see the costs of childcare for parents. Even looking at it from an economic point of view, however, the Minister knows all the studies that have been done right across the globe in terms of why we need to invest in childcare. One of the ways we can protect or insulate ourselves somewhat from the recession that may follow this and the cost-of-living crisis is by investing properly, once and for all, in childcare in order that we get that model right.

We also need to look after the childcare providers, particularly the smaller ones in rural areas that served us during the pandemic and otherwise. I spoke to one provider in my local area who has not increased prices for seven years and now faces the costs of food bills, water rates, energy bills and all of that. We need to ensure that they stay open in communities and can provide for childcare into the future.

I have a conflict in this area because I am a director of a community crèche and have been for many years, long before I even had children. It was one of the most rewarding but challenging committees to be on because on a weekly basis, we had to deal with parents who were making tremendously difficult choices. Those choices continue to be made by families to this very day. They must make decisions about whether to have a child at all or as to whether one parent stays at home or another cuts his or her hours to balance the childcare costs.

The staff within the childcare facilities, who are predominantly women, it has to be said, consistently go to training and education in order to better themselves and make themselves more qualified to care for children, and do so on minimum wage, essentially, to get very little reward for what, in many cases, are extensive qualifications. Right across the western world, childcare is considered a service. If a person provides a service and he or she works in that service, he or she deserves to be remunerated. In recognition that it is a service, however, it should not be the burden that it is on too many families.

This motion puts forward the roadmap to cut childcare costs by two thirds to give those families a break and allow them to actually decide on the size of their families or the jobs they take up on the basis of the merits of those decisions, rather than on the burden childcare costs will be for them. Too often, the Government has failed to recognise the importance of this. We have the worst of both worlds because childcare providers, whether they are community, private or voluntary, are expected to adhere to the rules and regulations that are set down by numerous statutory bodies such as the Minister's Department, Tusla, the HSE and the Department of Education. Yet, when the providers meet a challenge in respect of soaring insurance costs or the increase in fees that are, in many ways, being put on hold for several years, the Minister and his Department say it is none of their business and that it is up to the childcare providers. That is not good enough. Our childcare providers need to be treated as a service and that means they need have the direct financial input that allows them to charge a fair set of fees. Those fees must be reduced by two thirds, as Deputy Funchion's motion before the Minister tonight has set out. I hope the Minister hears that call.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of early learning and childcare. We will not be opposing this motion this evening. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of early learning and childcare to society and the economy, but most importantly, to children. The pandemic served to shine a light on the contribution made by childcare professionals, who kept the doors open and our children safe. I know Deputies from all sides of the House want to join me in paying tribute to that work.

At the outset, I want to be clear and honest because significant challenges remain within the sector. Those challenges are something on which many of us will agree. Fees are unaffordable for many parents, particularly those who are availing of long hours or have more than one child using services.

The level of pay and working conditions in the sector do not reflect the value of the work that early-years educators and school-age childcare practitioners do. Poor pay and conditions undermine the quality and lead to a high staff turnover, which negatively impacts on children. Despite the unprecedented levels of State investment in recent years, the level of State investment still remains low by international standards. I believe the staff working these services and the parents paying those fees deserve more than sound bites and lip service in the face of those challenges.

This is why the Government has set out an ambitious programme of reform for early learning and childcare. We have backed up that reform with significant new investment and core funding representing €221 million in the full year. This reform agenda encompasses all of funding including pay and conditions, professional development, sustainability and administration. I genuinely believe that reforming early learning and childcare actually deserves more than the five-line motion we have before us today. I listened carefully to colleagues from Sinn Féin, seven of whom have spoken, and I have not heard how much Sinn Féin will invest in childcare to deliver its proposal.

It is an extra €267 million.

I have not heard that. It is not in the motion before us today. I know from Sinn Féin's budget proposals this year that a figure of €168 million was used. That is €53 million less than the Government is delivering.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle. On a brief point of clarity, it is an additional €267 million on top of what the Government is spending.

I look forward to examining that proposal because it is not the motion before us today. It is really valuable to have that figure. Deputies from Sinn Féin have today highlighted both the problems of pay and fees. In its pre-budget submission, Sinn Féin kind of conflated those and suggested that one figure can contribute to addressing both of those problems. Those are two separate problems that require two separate sets of investment, however. We are bringing forward core funding to address the issue of pay for childcare professionals. We have committed to addressing the issue of fees in next year's budget through enhanced investment through the national childcare scheme, NCS.

Reforming early learning and childcare needs real substantive and sustained change to deliver reduced fees, improved pay and conditions and to ensure sustainability. It is clear to me that relying on the market to deliver early learning and childcare in the absence of strong State investment and public management will not work. That is why we have set out a new model of how funding will work, which clearly states that early learning and childcare is a public good. That requires more investment by the State and a closer working partnership with providers. That is the central ambition of core funding. Core funding will provide substantial additional funding to the sector related to the cost of the delivery. That will support improved quality through better pay and conditions for the workforce by supporting the agreement of an employment regulation order, ERO, through the joint labour committee, JLC, the employment of graduate staff and improved sustainability and stability for services.

A new fee management scheme attached to core funding will also maintain fee levels this September at the same level they were in September 2021. This is just the beginning. We intend to and will go further. That is why all three parties in the Government are committed to further investment through the national childcare scheme in budget 2023 to substantially bring down the cost of early learning and childcare for parents. The new funding model will offer supply-side funding to providers in addition to the NCS, the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and the income that childcare providers receive from parental fees. This a step change in how we resource this sector.

We have shown our readiness and willingness to invest. The equivalent of €221 million in full-year funding has already been secured. With significantly increased investment of such substantial amounts of public money, there are, of course, additional requirements on providers The funding is intended and designed to address the most challenging issues that face the sector, that is, staff pay and conditions and affordability, and to offer providers who want to provide a service for the public good to come into partnership to do so. The investment is to enable improvements in pay and conditions and ensure that fees to parents do not increase, and adequately compensate providers to ensure that point.

Core funding will largely be distributed based on the amount of provision offered, which is the primary driver of costs. This is a fair, balanced and reasonable way of distributing funding. The overwhelming majority of services will benefit substantially from core funding. Most services, regardless of size or model of operation, will see significant increases in public income.

A very small number of services, 1% in total, will have the same level of public income as before. These are the services that, proportionately, have benefited the most from the existing public funding. To be clear, however, funding for these services will continue to be paid at the same rate. No service will be left out of pocket and the vast majority will see significant increases in funding.

The Opposition's motion refers to the precarious nature of the joint labour committee, but I do not accept that framing. The JLC was set up under statute and is intended to negotiate an employment regulation order. If an ERO is agreed, it will have a legislative underpinning. The motion seeks a guarantee in respect of a commitment to increase wages and improve conditions of staff, regardless of the outcome of the joint labour committee. That request misses the essential feature of the JLC, namely, that both the employer and employee representatives jointly negotiate pay and conditions. I have made available funding of €138 million of the full-year costs of core funding, 62% of which is for staff funding. That is to ensure staff who educate and care for children will be paid a sum that reflects the work they do. It is deliberate and intentional that this funding will be contingent on the JLC agreeing that ERO. Importantly, without an ERO, there is no guarantee the additional State investment will go towards achieving that key goal of delivering additional pay for childcare professionals. Without the ERO, that will not be delivered, and I have not heard any better mechanism for delivering increased pay for staff. That is why the ERO process is being engaged with by the SIPTU Big Start campaign and others who represent childcare professionals.

In line with the recommendation in Partnership for the Public Good, core funding will be made available to providers to support the drawing-up of the ERO. Given part of the objective of core funding is to support an ERO, if an ERO is not agreed, that element of core funding announced in budget 2022 cannot proceed. I understand the parties involved in the JLC are working intensively to agree an ERO. Officials in my Department have been supporting them and I am very hopeful of the outcome of that process. I was recently informed by the chairperson of the committee that she has made a referral to the Labour Court under section 42B(4) of the Industrial Relations Act 1946, as amended, and it is understood a hearing has been scheduled for 7 April. This constitutes a key moment for the workforce and has the potential to improve substantially rates of pay in the sector as a whole. It is major progress and something the Government, and I as Minister, have supported.

I reiterate the sector needs significant and sustained reform, and the Government is working to reshape early learning and childcare, changing the relationship between the State and the provider to one of partnership that will work together to deliver the public good. We delivered additional funding in this year's budget of €221 million in a full year but we have also committed to doing more and delivering more funding to increase affordability as well. Like every Deputy, I want Ireland to have a world-class early learning and childcare sector. We have a roadmap to get there and we have put the funding on the table to achieve it. Working with the sector, we can and will achieve this.

I am sharing time with my party colleagues Deputies Cronin, Seán Crowe and Mythen.

It is essential to have proper childcare services available because of the beneficial impacts they have throughout society. Childcare benefits everyone, even those who do not directly use or have a need for such services. In light of the negative impact a lack of childcare can have on parents, employers, communities and children themselves, we can see how important it is to society as a whole. Childcare services come in many forms and include childminders, preschools, after-school clubs, crèches and so on. They are a part of parents' and children's lives from early on, when the child is a baby, until he or she is old enough to attend school. It has been shown high-quality childcare increases the opportunities each child will have to improve his or her quality of life. This is especially important with regard to disadvantaged children who come from poorer homes with fewer opportunities. Childcare provides young children with a great foundation in life, and it has been shown that high-quality childcare can have a positive impact on both the learning and the emotional and social development of the child, enabling him or her to build healthy relationships.

Families have many reasons for using childcare. It is essential for those families where, for example, both parents work outside of the home. Some parents might need to place their child in childcare because they would like to continue their studies. Childcare is important for the local and national economy, given it allows more parents, and in particular mothers, to work. Investment in good-quality childcare, therefore, will benefit children, parents and the wider community. The value and benefits of childcare are clear, yet a UNICEF report of last year showed Ireland is among the most expensive countries for childcare in the world. The report found a couple with an average income will have to spend between one third and one half of one salary to pay for two children in childcare. Childcare in Ireland is just not affordable for many people. In fact, the high cost is forcing many women out of paid employment. Childcare was expensive before the latest rise in the cost of living, given the rapid escalation in the cost of fuel, rents and energy, but for many it is now a debilitating cost on an income that, as each week passes, has less and less purchasing power. For many of those on low incomes, the costs have put childcare beyond reach.

The motion seeks to cut childcare fees for parents by two thirds and help all those families facing high childcare costs. I hope all parties will support it and help give struggling families the break they deserve.

As my party colleague said, childcare fees for parents in this State are among the highest in the world, yet early years workers, who are highly qualified professionals, many with degrees, are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector, with far too many working on or just above the minimum wage. Sinn Féin's plan would reduce childcare fees for parents by at least one third for this year and next year and by two thirds the following year, but the Government saw fit to oppose that idea. Just like its response to the housing crisis, this approach is nothing new.

Parents have to struggle for basic supports and services and childcare is no different. Many of them struggled even to find places for their children when they were returning to work as society reopened after the Covid-19 lockdowns. The Government had a two-year window for reform of the sector but could not even put an emergency system in place for front-line workers. It also failed to take on the insurance industry, whose cynical exploitation of Irish people only puts business under further pressure and drives up costs for consumers. Fine Gael has been in office for 11 years. Homes and a childcare system cannot be built overnight, but a lot can be done in 11 years. Living in a bubble, the Government just does not get the cost of living crisis that faces families and individuals. Its Deputies maintain here and in the media that we cannot rush things and have to be responsible. Based on its poor advice for householders so far, the Government’s plan to reduce childcare costs will probably involve telling people to stop having children.

My party, Sinn Féin, has long advocated for a publicly funded childcare sector that works for families, early years professionals and providers. In government we will ensure all children and their families have access to good-quality and affordable childcare.

I commend Deputy Funchion on the motion. It is difficult to believe that mothers in north County Kildare are being forced to give up work not because of the marriage bar but because they cannot afford, or sometimes cannot secure, proper childcare for their children. Even their own mothers say they cannot believe this is the case in 2022. This issue affects mainly women given that, while we are nowadays allowed to continue working after getting married and having children, we have to earn enough to pay two women because it is mainly women who work in the childcare sector. In reality, therefore, this is an equality issue. We need a mandatory national fee structure for childcare, led by the Department, that will immediately reduce fees on a compulsory and incremental basis. We need this because, as every Deputy knows, parents are up the wall trying to manage rent or a mortgage, on top of which they have this baby mortgage.

The Minister asked what we would do if we were in government. We will increase Government funding by €267 million to allow providers to slash their fees to parents by two thirds, starting with one third in the first year.

We will enter into a contractual agreement with the providers and they can opt in. Then we will bring in, to start with, a living wage for staff and payscales for the well-qualified people working in the most important job in the State, namely, looking after our children and educating the next generation. This is all costed, practical, achievable and necessary and derives from the idea that childcare is a service to the public, our workers and our children.

We have serious concerns about core funding and how those proposals will impact on the small and excellent local providers who went into childcare to offer a service to their community and make a reasonable income. None of them expected to become a millionaire. My comrade, Deputy Funchion, has raised core funding with the Minister and we need the details because small local preschools across Kildare are worried about core funding and need the details too. Without the information on core funding available to us and them, they are worried this could be the death knell for the local and often family-run provider. I take this opportunity to tell them we hear them and will continue to push the Minister on this.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. We have seen the empirical evidence in recent years that Ireland has among the highest childcare costs in the OECD. Full childcare fees for children under three were estimated at €771 per month in 2019. Today it is nearer €800 per month, reaching almost €1,300 in some cities. Therefore, we in Sinn Féin want to increase public investment to allow childcare providers to reduce these by two thirds, including a reduction of one third in the first year.

Public investment is key to helping struggling parents, single parents and guardians. This should be backed up by legislation and contractual agreements with the relevant providers on condition providers reduce fees by two thirds over two years. The investment of an extra €267 million will allow children to be educated in a safe and friendly environment, reduce substantially out-of-pocket costs for hard-working families, give the early childcare learners the recognition the profession and the high level of skills involved deserve and guarantee an increase to at least the minimum wage and pro rata payscales based on the Mercer report scales. Money invested in this way will benefit working families, especially working mothers, and create a better society based on a more inclusive and affordable childcare package. The financial relief and taking away the pressure of modern-day living is worth the price and is unquantifiable in family terms.

Childcare fees are far too high. Families are spending over €400 million on such fees. Something must be done. Workers in the sector need decent wages. We ask the Government parties to adopt our strategies in this motion and to act to protect struggling parents and guardians who face the highest cost of living and inflation increases in decades.

I thank Deputy Funchion for her work and dedication on this motion and hope it will be supported by as many Deputies as possible.

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.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the key issue of the childcare sector and I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion for debate.

For years, parents, children and early years and childcare staff have been let down by successive Governments, which closed their eyes and ears to the significant investments the sector required. It will be difficult for our system to catch up. Covid was an eye opener in terms of exactly how important this sector was to the economy. It had often just been seen as an issue for young families, one that had nothing to do with anyone else in society. Without a strong and affordable childcare sector, however, it was made clear that the economy would crumble. It was primarily women who were unable to take part in the workforce.

We need to value childcare and create a society where choice is available. Each family is different, each family's requirements are different and each child is different, in that what suits one child might not suit another. Therefore, there needs to be significant choice for parents in the provision of early years and childcare services. It needs to be a decision for a mother or a mother and a father as to what services they want. When they make that choice, the State needs to support them in it through the provision of quality, affordable and accessible services. We have not seen that happen to date, though. There is a large gap.

I acknowledge the efforts that the Government is taking to address the problems of high costs and low pay in the sector. These efforts include the transition fund from the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the JLC's announcement on the employment regulation order for the sector and the full roll-out of the core funding model, which I hope will occur this September. I acknowledge that the Government has invested €221 million under the budget. Compared with what previous Governments have done, it is a significant amount, but the bar was low.

There are two key points to the Sinn Féin motion. The first relates to whether that amount is enough money. While we can agree on the destination, what is in question is how quickly we can reach that destination. If we are asking ourselves whether the €221 million is enough, the Social Democrats would have to say "No". Parents in Ireland pay some of the highest fees in Europe, childcare staff are some of the lowest paid workers in the State and quality within the sector does not adequately reflect the high fees paid by families. Ireland spends the second lowest amount on early childhood education and care in the OECD. The Minister views his capping of fees at 2021 levels as a positive because fees are being capped for the first time, but he is actually capping them at the highest level in the OECD.

I understand the Minister's two-phased approach of dealing with staffing and dealing with pay. Although that needs to be done, childcare is a partnership between the provider, the parents and the State. In that jigsaw, the parents have not had a fair shake. When we discuss increases in the cost of living, we talk about fuel and food, but childcare costs place major stress on families. We have heard about how some families stall having children or do not have children. The cost of childcare impacts on every element of people's lives. Speaking as the parent of four children and whose youngest is six years of age, I know the relief when you get to the point where you are not paying out that money anymore. It is a constant stress on any family, particularly those on low wages.

Sufficient investment has not been made. In crisis situations like Covid, we have seen what the State can do and how much money can be provided when there is the political will. We have seen that in the energy and fuel crises, where €400 million has been provided for the electricity rebate and €320 million has been provided to cover cuts in fuel excises. While these measures were necessary, why was the same level of investment and strength of political will not shown in the childcare crisis, an issue that has been placing great burdens on families, particularly women? Women have been prevented from reaching their full potential in their careers and parents have had to decide to have one child instead of two. Where was the political will when it came to this matter and where was the money behind that will? It is difficult to understand. The Minister is providing money as part of the budget, but the EU has been telling us this for years and the OECD has raised the issue of affordable childcare with us because of the low levels of labour participation.

External pressures have indicated to us that we need to get this sorted, but we still have not done so.

The other issue raised by this Sinn Féin motion relates to the JLC process. We have the matter of fees and whether there should be more investment to assist parents with the costs of childcare. The other element is the process itself, in addition to the timeframe and the timeline. I am hearing from providers that they are concerned. There is a lot of uncertainty at present. I understand that the JLC process is statutory in nature. It has to be confidential and it has its structures and phases to go through, but that is not helping the providers on the ground, especially the small providers who are very worried about what this will mean for them. The difficulty, and I have raised this with the Minister, is if there is not an agreement that will become clear around July or August. People have to plan. What does it mean and what will happen if there is no agreement? How do people plan for September when providers are meant to be reopening? There is all this uncertainty. Businesses need certainty to survive and it is an uncertain process. The Minister does not have any control over that process but the level of uncertainty providers are going through is making it very difficult for them. What is plan B? What happens if there is no agreement? If the Minister could communicate regarding what plan B is for providers, that would ease some of the concerns I am hearing. It is not good enough to say it has gone into this confidential process and we will tell providers whether that process has worked a month before we expect them to reopen. That is not good enough for people.

The other issue I ask the Minister to be cognisant of is the need to avoid having a two-tier early years and childcare sector. We have the big providers that because of the function of their size, and the fact they have more capacity, can get more funding, but we must not disadvantage smaller providers. This comes back to the choices made by families. While one family may want to place their child with a big provider, many families do not. Many want that smaller setting because it is more family oriented and provides a different caring environment for children. I ask that the Minister is cognisant of making sure that does not happen and supports those smaller settings as we transition. It is a necessary transition and was always going to be challenging, but there are measures he can take to make sure there is not too much concern, stress or pressure put on those smaller providers in particular.

This is a crucial process. I ask the Minister to review it to see whether there is something he can do in the event the JLC process does not come to an agreement because that is a major risk. I ask the Minister to look into that.

I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion. The starting point for a discussion on childcare in this country is acknowledging that the system we have is thoroughly broken from almost every point of view. It is broken from the point of view of parents, who are struggling and scrambling to try to find places for their children, and then trying to afford another mortgage, in effect, to get their children the care they need. This is a crisis for women in particular, on whom the burden of caring falls if they cannot find or afford childcare, which restricts their ability to go back to work in many cases. It is a crisis for children who are not getting the care they need and deserve. It is a crisis for the small providers who find themselves squeezed in a very difficult situation and it is a crisis for workers, who are doing vital and essential work that sets people up for life and, in the majority of cases, are paid poverty wages that are much less than they deserve for the vital work they do. It is a system that is broken and that causes crises for so many people.

The only winners out of the current system are the big providers. They are happy to get State money, happy to charge parents significant amounts of money and happy to pay out small amounts in wages and pocket very significant profits. At its base, the problem comes down to the whole childcare sector model, which is about a reliance on private, for-profit operation, with the mix of State money given to fund the majority of the income the childcare sector gets. It is up to almost 60% at this stage, with just over 40% coming from parental fees. That went even higher in the course of the pandemic as private childcare providers were bailed out with large amounts of public money, which was necessary to keep the whole thing going. The root problem is the for-profit model of childcare, for which the State tries to paper over the cracks with public money, as opposed to saying we need a fundamentally different model that is about free public provision of quality childcare as part of a national childcare service, which could be done. At root, that is what we will come back to again and again in respect of resolving or fixing the broken system and building a very different type of system that prioritises children, parents, workers and so on.

I will read part of an email from a constituent that is very typical of people's experiences and the many stories I hear from friends and so on who are struggling to get childcare and struggling to afford it. The email is from a woman who lives in Hunters Wood in Firhouse. She highlights that there is no childcare local to her but she is also aware there is a serious lack of childcare in Dublin as a whole. She says:

I cannot return to work until I can find a place. I’m on the list for the 5 local creches in my area since I was 3 months pregnant back in October 2020. When parents ring creches asking if there is any update, all they are told is that their child is on their “list”. When I pushed asking what the chances of a place are at some stage this year, they all said that there is zero chance of a place in 2022! One of the creches has informed me all along that my daughter is “next” on their list. When I asked them why they cannot promise me a place come September (due to kids naturally leaving and starting school), they explained something to me that they should have explained back in October 2020. My daughter is not “next” on their list like they have confirmed all along. She is “next” on a cancellation list in order to move onto their actual waiting list! It is a complete mess. I’m aware that I live in an area whose population is nearly full of young families hence the demand for childcare. Why are local TDs/Government departments ignoring this issue? There seems to be no correlation between establishing creches in areas highly populated with young families. I’m aware my scenario is no different than thousands of parents in Dublin.

She goes on to make a point about the colossal cost of childcare, but she is not even at the point of being able to pay that colossal cost because she cannot get access. Again, it comes down an absence of planning and this reliance on a for-profit market.

Let us consider the colossal cost. There is a discussion in society about the cost-of-living crisis, which is good. A major part of that crisis for families with young children is the cost of childcare. If we had free, publicly provided childcare, that would have a big impact on how people are experiencing the cost-of-living crisis. It is vital we put forward the free public provision of public goods as part of the answer to the cost-of-living crisis. We have the third most expensive childcare in Europe, with parents paying an average of €800 a month. You hear many stories of people paying more than that.

Most of those parents will be aware that the workers minding their children are some of the lowest paid in Europe, with 60% on less than a living wage and many lacking basic rights like sick pay. It comes back to the point that Ireland has the greatest reliance on private, for-profit childcare in the OECD. The large chains are increasing their grip on the so-called market of childcare and are squeezing large profits out of parents and staff. Instead of this, we need a national childcare service that is free at the point of use and publicly provided, and a public education system.

There are also important issues with the Government's new core funding proposals for the sector. The small providers are telling us that the new approach is skewed in favour of the large chains, which will pocket the lion's share of the funding while the smaller operators will see very little, if any, of it. These are massive chains making millions in profits every year. The Government policy is essentially lining their pockets while many smaller providers are in trouble. They are also very worried that they will not be able to meet the Government's 22 April deadline for applying because they have not yet heard back from the Minister about important questions they have asked and they do not know if they will get a response before the deadline.

The issue of childcare has been put on the agenda because of parents but also because of workers organising, campaigning and getting on the streets together with small providers. Because childcare workers have organised, they have put pressure on the State by fighting for an ERO in order to increase their remuneration to the level of a living wage. However, their perception is that the State is dragging its heels on this. The joint labour committee to look into wages in the sector was established more than nine months ago yet the workers are still left waiting. A recent survey showed that 41% of childcare workers are actively looking for employment in another sector, with low pay being the single biggest factor in encouraging them to do so. The Government cannot and must not delay any longer. We need an ERO to increase the wages of workers in this sector to the level of a living wage. We should really say that the minimum wage for people in this sector and the vital, life-shaping work that they are doing is €15 an hour.

Fundamentally, childcare has been left to the market. That is why we have all these crises that we are in. If we want to see early years education as an integral part of education that is not some sort of add-on that happens prior to school but that is part of education and that should be publicly provided as part of the education system. Just as we made primary education free, secondary education free and, in theory, third level education free, we need to make childcare provision free and bring it into the public system where we guarantee workers decent wages. It would be for the best of all of society. We need a fundamentally remodelled system and a national childcare system as a crucial part of that.

I thank Sinn Féin for presenting this motion on childcare fees. The motion mentions that the cost of childcare per child ranges from €800 to €1,350 per month. Looking at the headline figure, it is easy to see why there is a problem with the cost when one considers the average income. A number of problems have affected the childcare sector in recent years. In 2019, it was headline news that childcare providers were struggling to get insurance for 2020. It also emerged that those who did succeed in getting quotes were quoted almost double the amount they had been charged the previous year. This was exacerbated by the fact that there were only two insurance companies in the market and one had decided to leave. That left no competition in the market and meant that the remaining company was the only option. If it was unwilling to provide a quote or quoted a vastly increased rate, there were two possible outcomes. One was that some childcare providers had to close. The other was that childcare fees were increased by the provider. This is all particularly relevant because it meant a double whammy for parents; less supply of childcare places meant that the prices went up and the increase in insurance costs also causes prices to go up. This presents two significant issues. First, why are only two insurance companies willing to quote in the market? Is there an issue with claims and the court system that has kept providers away? It remains to be seen if the new personal injury guidelines will help on this.

The second and most recent issue is the way the sector is being funded by the Government. Funding plans have been announced from September. The Federation of Early Childhood Providers has been clear about the funding problems facing the sector under the new plan. The Government funding model will reward large providers with excess funding and leave the small providers balancing on the edge between viability and non-viability. The funding received by the large companies per child is far above what small providers receive. This reminds me of a speech made by Deputy Fitzmaurice on a different issue some months ago when he made the point that Government policies and regulations are far too focused on the big monopolies and the big providers to the detriment of small and medium providers, which are all too often left on the back foot or unable to satisfy onerous qualifying criteria. This funding issue is another example of where the big companies are getting the support and the small companies are facing ruin. The Government may choose to hide behind a headline figure to show that more money than ever is being invested in childcare. That may well be true but it is necessarily about the amount of total funding but about the breakdown of that funding.

It seems from the Government's funding plan that it wants a small number of big operators and it is happy to let the small and medium providers leave the market. We need the small providers in the local villages, however. They are a central part of our communities and provide vital services to support families and allow parents to work. These small providers are being asked to cap their fees but they are not being sufficiently remunerated in return and they are being overwhelmed by paperwork. In other words, Government policy is causing major problems for many of the 2,000 small and medium operators. Government policy can be, and should be changed, because it is obvious that there will be major problems from September if this situation is allowed to develop without the problems being addressed. To quote from a report in the Irish Examiner this morning, 80% of childcare providers surveyed stated that "despite the Government introducing new sick pay legislation this week, they would be unable to meet any demand for sick pay, while at the same time providing the necessary relief staff to meet required ratios of carers to children." It is just another example of where Government regulations are imposing burden after burden on employers between paperwork, regulations and generally cumbersome systems. Successive Governments have destroyed businesses and disincentivising entrepreneurship. The burdens only further drive up the cost of living which is something this Government seems prepared to do little about.

I welcome Ms Elaine Dunne of the Federation of Early Childhood providers to the Visitors' Gallery. She has done Trojan work over the years to strengthen providers' ability to function within the sector and strengthening the services that are delivered to children and workers as well.

The day the Minister was nominated to his role, I congratulated him and welcomed him to the post. I did warn him then that it was important for him to drive the Department rather than be a passenger there. Departments are notorious for running Ministers rather than Ministers running Departments. No doubt it is more difficult for a first-time Deputy.

What is happening here raises massive questions. There are several key stakeholders in the sector. First and most important are the children themselves. The system needs to be built around the child. The fact this is not in the bailiwick of the Department of Education shows that the child is not at the heart of this process as they should be. The next most important stakeholders are the parents. Parents in this country are getting hammered. That is because Irish Governments are outliers in terms of the level of support they provide to this sector.

Parents are getting squeezed by the equivalent of new mortgages just so they can get care for their child. This has enormous consequences. One such consequence is many people not having children because they feel they cannot do so. Another is that many parents, mostly mothers, not entering the workforce when they want to. That is happening simply because the Government will not fund the system properly. That is the bottom line. That is the fact of the situation. Parents are not the only group being squeezed right now. Workers are being squeezed, as are providers.

The funding proposal the Department and the Minister have come up with is a monster. It is a Frankenstein. It is a system that makes no logical sense. It tries to mash together the public and the private in the most cumbersome fashion. It tries to put controls on the income providers can achieve but does not do anything about the cost base providers must deal with. Of course, if the cost base changes, providers have no option but to change their income base to allow for that. It also has the effect of putting downward pressure on wages. That means well-educated, hard-working childcare staff are simply not being paid to do the work they are doing in this State. It never ceases to amaze me that the people we pay to care for our children and our older people get paid buttons. It shows what kind of country we are when the people we are in charge of and who we are meant to be protecting and caring for are not on proper salaries for the work they do.

The Government has created a ticking time bomb for the providers in the childcare sector. Parliamentary questions I have put to the Minister's Department show 789 childcare providers have closed their doors since 2017. These were predominantly ECCE services and small providers. Parents and providers are at the end of their tethers trying to get proper funding for this sector. The new core funding proposals were meant to build upon the limited stability the EWSS brought about during the pandemic. We were waiting months for these new proposals and when they finally came they brought nothing but despair to many in the sector. Since the new proposals were announced 21 providers have announced they will close their doors. In the last two weeks, two providers in Waterford closed their doors. This system is closing childcare. How is that the objective of the State? When you have closed childcare, parents and children must go further to seek the service they need. They need to wait longer on waiting lists for places. They need to drive longer first thing in the morning to and from the childcare provider and work so they can manage to get their child in. This is obviously bad for providers but it is bad for parents and children as well. It is the opposite of what we should be achieving. It is amazing to me that a much simpler system the Government could have come up with was to simply increase the level of funding to the system. It could have done that through an increased childcare payment or through a tax break. More money could be given to parents to pay for the system they are getting, thus leaving the choice with parents and allowing the system function as it should.

The other problem I have is this whole system is weighted towards the bigger chains. It suits the bigger chains and is better for them financially. It makes the smaller providers unviable and that is the big problem. I, therefore, ask the Minister to go back to the drawing board. He should bring in all the stakeholders, including representatives of the providers, children and parents and ensure we have a functioning sector that does right by the children but also pays a decent wage and ensures providers can earn a decent profit. If that does not happen more will close.

I too ask the Minister to go back to the drawing board. Cuirim fíor-fháilte roimh Elaine freisin to the Gallery. I salute the champions of childcare, especially the small providers. I was proud and privileged to be a founder member of Naíonra Chaisleáin Nua with Helen McGrath and a couple of others. That institution is flourishing now. It is of the people, by the people and for the people. We are told, and studies state, that the most important years of our lives are the formative childhood years. I have two little grandchildren ins an naíonra anois and it is wonderful.

However, this Government is squeezing all the small people. This Government, the last one and the one before that all had some personal gripe against ordinary small businesses. Government wants all the big businesses to flourish and to hell with the small people. These small providers provide very dedicated nurturing - as I hope all people involved in the sector do - but they are beautiful, they help people and they instill all the values that are best in them. There are costs like insurance, gas, electricity - you name it. We have been saying this for years and the subventions the Government throws to providers are crumbs. Why does the Government have to wait, just as with the farm contractors that are disappearing now like snow off a ditch? As Deputy Tóibín said, two providers are imithe as Contae Phort Láirge. How many more will be gone while it waits? Think of the work the voluntary boards of management put in. People gave and give countless hours of their time freely. It is all that is best about the meitheal and the sense of support in rural and urban Ireland. Those people cannot sleep at night wondering where their next pay cheques are going to come from and whether they are going to have money to pay for the heat and light. The Government is squeezing them and squeezing them and squeezing them. We are denying mothers and fathers and parents their right to go out to work because they cannot get childcare. As the places close, they must travel farther and it is not viable. There are huge issues here. If the Minister does not grasp it and get his hands around it, then it will all have been in vain. I beg him to do something about it.

In the past few weeks I have had numerous phone calls from constituents expressing their grave concern about the new core funding model for early learning and care and school-age childcare providers. On 7 March the Minister announced this €221 million core funding scheme. This announcement was welcomed by parents and providers alike. Among its benefits will be improved affordability for parents supporting the employment of graduate staff and improved sustainability and stability for services. However, for many of the smaller ECCE providers this new core funding scheme will militate against their very survival. It will mean in most cases that smaller preschools will receive even less funding than they had been heretofore and their businesses will no longer be viable. In Bandon, for example, there are seven early childhood education providers and four of these are likely to close by September due to this new funding model. This is replicated throughout the country and will affect every village and town. While the new core funding scheme will benefit the larger provider, it will strip the ECCE providers of vital funding such as the higher capitation they had been receiving for employing level 7 and 8 graduates. It will also remove the programme support payments for non-contact hours. The new core funding contracts are calculated over a 52-week period instead of the existing 38-week model. This will mean small and medium business providers that are creating employment within their communities will be unable to sign on over the summer months while they are out of work. The very high insurance premiums and rising electricity and heating costs will further impact on the smaller providers.

Let me put this in context for the Minister. In my own county alone, there are 440 ECCE providers. Of these, more than half are ECCE-only services. This figure is replicated in every county in Ireland so more than half of our preschools will be forced to close as a result of this new core funding model. Hundreds of workers will lose their jobs and many hundreds of preschool children will be without places. Working parents will be faced with either having to stay at home or travelling outside their own community to find a preschool for their children.

Irish parents pay the highest childcare costs in Europe, according to IBEC. In fact, they pay three times more than those in any other European country. Fair play to the Government. The Minister can make a difference today. Outside in the rural areas people must now travel further to get childcare spots. What does his Government do? It takes the extra tax on the fuel increase. People are paying exorbitant ESB costs for their childcare. What does the Government do? It gets 13.5% VAT plus a levy and standing charges on ESB costs. As the price goes up, the Government's margin goes up. That is what it does. It is not giving anything back to anyone. It is actually taking it from them and giving them back a portion of what they are giving it. The tax regime in this country is completely wrong. The Government loves inflation. Inflation causes more pressure on small providers that are looking after our children and grandchildren and the Government cannot see this. It is taking everything from the people. Regardless of whether people live in a city or the countryside the Government is taking tax off every service. It is creaming off the top. Government takes and takes and takes. It gives back a portion of what it is taking and yet it is trying to create a feel-good factor.

The next generation will not forgive this Government and this generation will not forgive its members for their lack of understanding of how to support the people who put them in their seats. Nobody will forget it. Neither our children nor our grandchildren will forget what this Government has put this country through.

I thank Sinn Féin sincerely for bringing this very important motion before the House. I think of all of the excellent childcare providers in County Kerry, including the excellent management and staff of Little Acorns in the village of Kilgarvan. I think of all of the people I have worked with over many years in different parts of Kerry, trying to help them to set up businesses which are so important in our localities. For parents, particularly young parents starting out, to have affordable, nearby, accessible and safe childcare facilities is so important. In terms of the workings of our country and to allow parents to have the opportunity to go to work, it is so important that people are able to provide the service, run their business, pay their staff, pay for the accommodation and insurance. As Deputy Mattie McGrath said, small business is so important. I will not call childcare a business because of the professionalism and care that is involved. The most important function that any person could ever have is minding somebody else's child. It is everyone's nightmare that something would go wrong when one is minding somebody else's child which is why those people are so important in our communities.

Again, I thank the people in Kerry but they have been coming to me with concerns. Small providers in particular are worried that the core funding system will not help their businesses. Instead, it will be detrimental to them. We want to ensure that the businesses, whether they are large, medium or small scale providers of childcare, are enhanced, allowed to grow and exist and can continue to do that terribly important job of minding other people's children and ensuring they are safe and protected, thus allowing the parents to go to work, at an affordable cost.

I thank Sinn Féin for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important matter. There is so much involved in this area but I will start by thanking all of the childcare providers in Kerry for the great work they are doing. I think of places like Little Acorns in Kilgarvan where my two grandsons, small John and Dan, go. I also think of places like Raheen and the Two Mile School which do so much work in very rural areas. These are the types of crèches and childcare facilities that are under savage pressure. They are worried. Listening to the Minister earlier, one would think that the whole lot was sorted but it is far from sorted. There is an awful lot of work to do and money to be provided to ensure that they can continue to do the great work they are doing. This is very important for couples when they have children because both parents have to work to keep a roof over their heads, to pay mortgages or rent and to pay for everything else, including insurance and getting to work. Everything is so expensive now and couples need to work. Both parents need to work and they have to be able to put their children into a crèche or early childcare facility.

The crèche operators have to answer to at least four different agencies, including Tusla, Pobal, the Department of Education and their local authorities. They have so much to do. They are highly qualified and they mind our children well. They must be looked after or we will lose them. Many of the smaller providers are indicating that they will not be able to survive and only the bigger facilities will continue to operate but parents can only travel so far. Childcare facilities have to be within their own catchment area. We must ensure that the smaller providers continue to operate. Otherwise, we are doomed and they are doomed. Our future is in our children and we must ensure they are looked after properly. It is vital that early childhood care and education is given to youngsters. It is vital that they start early and get an early education.

I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing this motion on childcare fees to the Dáil tonight. I support the call for a further increase in public investment in order to enable providers to reduce fees for parents by two thirds, commencing with a one-third reduction in fees this year. I also support the commitment to increase wages and improve working conditions for staff. These are stepping stones. The Minister had a slip of the tongue earlier when he said "muddle" rather than model but childcare in this State is a muddle. What we need is a publicly-run and publicly-funded childcare system because childcare is not a business, although many crèches are being forced to run as businesses.

I received an email from a childcare provider called Muire regarding the new core funding package that has been announced by the Government and which is due to be implemented this September, in line with the new school year. She wrote that many providers like herself are upset and dismayed by this new funding model which will force a lot of services like hers to close their doors as they will just not be sustainable any longer. She runs a Montessori pre-school, sessional only under the ECCE scheme in Dublin 12. The school opened in 1993 and is very well established. Muire herself has lots of experience in early education. She trained in the Montessori method of education after completing her leaving certificate. The course was full-time over three years and Muire qualified with a primary diploma in Montessori education. She also completed a two year course and gained a qualification in neuro-development therapy to help her to understand how children learn and how to help children with specific learning difficulties.

Muire went on to say that in 2010 her facility was receiving Government funding of €64.50 per child per week but two years later this was reduced down to €62.50 per child per week. Then a higher capitation grant of €75 per child was introduced for services whose staff had higher qualifications and with her advanced qualifications, her service was awarded the higher capitation fee. Levels of capitation funding have changed somewhat over the years, with the last change introduced in 2018 with the rate set at €69 for standard qualifications and €80 for higher qualifications. This is the current rate, representing only a 7% increase over 12 years.

There was an overhaul of qualifications gained from different colleges which saw Muire's professional level 7 Montessori qualification reduced to a level 6 award, which in turn saw a reduction in capitation from €80 down to €69. The money has been reduced but the workload in the service has increased dramatically. She says that the paperwork is unending and all of it is done on the provider's own time, out of hours, for no fee. She asks if I know of any other professionals who would be able to do that.

Muire and other sessional providers around the country are upset to learn that this year's new core funding package brings nothing to the table to help to keep small services afloat. The capitation stays the same, at just €69 per child per week, with a paltry 65 cent per hour, per child for administration costs. At the moment, Muire receives the programme support payment which equates to €110.40 per child as a one-off payment to support the extra administration and out-of-hours work required to run the ECCE scheme. This will now stop under the new core funding model. She asks how she is to make her business viable and that is the essential point. These are businesses rather than schools to be run for children, to provide care and to educate them.

Muire's staff are contracted to work 20 hours per week, so that is five hours extra pay per staff member per week, multiplied by 38 weeks, which is 190 hours. Muire argues that providers need to see an increase in the standard rate of capitation in the ECCE scheme for every child and that it needs to be paid for more than three hours per day per child. The rate must also take into consideration the administrative duties involved. The Minister must intervene here. He must meet childcare providers.

I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion and giving us the opportunity to debate it. The provision of a quality, universal, public childcare system is essential for families, not just for parents who want to go to work, but for all families because quality childcare has a significant positive impact on the development of young children. In Ireland, historically, we have had significant underinvestment in childcare and while the Minister's proposals are an improvement, they are starting from a very low base. The Minister recognised this himself when he said that significant challenges still remain, including poor pay and conditions, high staff turnover and the fact that childcare is unaffordable for many families.

I am concerned that the Minister's proposals will not address those issues he recognised. One of my reasons for saying this is the recent survey carried out by Early Childhood Ireland on the proposed core funding contract. Of those who responded, 94% had engaged with the ready reckoner which is designed to allow service providers to calculate their allocation under the Minister's proposal. One of the shocking statistics is that six out of ten of those who responded said they would not be able to continue to provide a high level of quality to the children in their setting. Crucially, a similar number said that they would not be able to continue employing the same number of staff as they currently employ. Some of the other findings are also pretty shocking, although not as bad. I consider these findings bleak. The Minister issued a press release today with further information. Nonetheless, I find the outcome of this unacceptable. Surely, the Minister must be concerned that 25% of those who were surveyed said they are either unlikely or very unlikely to apply for the new funding, while 44% said they have not yet decided.

I have received a number of emails from small providers, in particular small sessional preschools and other providers in my constituency. Many of these people had high hopes that the core funding of which the Minister speaks would allow them to increase the wages they pay to their small teams. However, this seems not to be the case and they are really concerned that they are going to be squeezed out. Can the Minister offer any reassurance to these small providers? I will send him the details. I sincerely hope there is no possibility that this new funding stream and proposals would in any way disadvantage these or other small providers.

What do Barnardos and IBEC have in common? The answer is very little, usually. One thing they have in common is an emphasis on the necessity for childcare, which they both emphasised in the run-in to the last budget and previous budgets.

Previous speakers have outlined the impact that childcare is having on the ability of parents to go out to work. There are many parents across the country, male and female but particularly female, who cannot join the workforce. We know that our economy is rebounding well notwithstanding the huge pressures that inflation is putting on it, but there is a labour shortage across much of the country. I would advocate that the Minister really look at childcare and that we have a Donogh O'Malley moment whereby we introduce the fundamental right to childcare in Ireland which is free at source. One of the reasons I do so is the impact the lack of childcare is having on our economy. Another very fundamental reason is it is a way to target childhood poverty and to be absolutely certain that children have a place to go where they are not disadvantaged. Unfortunately, no matter what State interventions we put in place, children from certain backgrounds incur huge disadvantage in their homes.

As men who are fighting cannot leave the Ukraine, a high proportion of those who are coming here at women. The lack of childcare facilities in Ireland will come as a huge surprise to them, I expect. Across the Soviet Union, one of the things that they did get right - they got an awful lot wrong - was an emphasis on childcare in every town, village and community. I would urge that this country move in that direction. We need to really look at the feasibility of doing that. It will cost a lot of money, but the returns are equally great.

Like many previous speakers I too have been contacted by childcare providers from across my constituency. I was contacted by a provider from my home town of Scarriff, who pointed out that in 2011 the Government effectively took over the sector in which she had worked for almost 20 years prior to 2011 and paid €64 per child per week to her. Eleven years later, the rate is €67 per child per week. We talk a lot about inflation. The rising costs involved are not reflected in that increase. That is something that needs to be reflected on.

We also talk a lot in this House about trying to encourage more representation from women, in particular young women. Childcare provision in the Houses of the Oireachtas is utterly inadequate. One has to book a child in years in advance. That is fine if one is a civil servant in the Houses, and they too need to be looked after, but as a Deputy cannot know when he or she is likely to elected or re-elected how can that Deputy book in a child in advance? There is an Oireachtas crèche but there are no children of Oireachtas Members in it. If there are, they are very few in number. There are bigger issues for society than Deputies-----

It certainly is an important issue, but the clock is against us.

It is. I would urge the Minister to reflect on that issue as well. Were I not paired tomorrow night, I would be supporting this motion.

We all need affordable childcare. We all acknowledge the burden that high fees for early learning and childcare places on families. It is vital that providers, parents, staff and all other stakeholders work together to ensure that the welcome increased investment in the sector of €221 million does not fall at the first hurdle and that similar funding is also provided in 2023.

We know there are legacy issues and that the Minister is working on them. He is as committed as I am to reducing the burden for parents who pay high fees, to ensure better pay for staff and to provide those who operate businesses with the supports to do so. The intention in terms of linking of the new funding model with a potential employment regulation order is to direct public investment into improving quality for children. We must all support that.

Earlier today, I spoke with childcare professionals, childcare providers and parents. There is a sense that everyone is adopting a "wait and see" with regard to the core funding model. Many providers with whom I have spoken will wait until the contract is published in June. I would ask that the ERO be published as soon as possible. I call on everyone to work together to achieve this. It is important that we do not pit parents against providers or vice versa. It is important that this be published so that we can all make informed decisions.

I am concerned about the core funding model being unfair to small providers such that they might have to close and the impact this could have on families and children. These are concerns I am hearing from providers, parents and staff. We have to strike a balance. I know the Minister is aware of this. I welcome the recent OECD country policy review of early childhood education and care which states: "We are currently pursing a strong policy agenda and adopted a long-term whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families up to 2028." We are committed to improving access to affordable and quality early childhood education and care provision. I support all of us working together. While we all welcome motions and amendments, all of us need to be working together. We have a great committee in the children's committee, where we work well with the Minister. All of us can work together to do what needs to be done. We have to make sure that childcare is affordable. As the Minister said, we now have a roadmap. A lot of funding is being allocated to this area. We need to make sure there is delivery. We need to work together to deliver for everybody in the childcare sector.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, I welcome the opportunity to close the debate on this motion. This is a sector I have a huge interest in. I have been a volunteer at a direct level with community childcare for some 20 years now, as Deputy Funchion would know. It is a sector I truly value, as we all do.

I commend the Minister on the work he has been doing since his appointment as Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I thank Deputy Funchion for tabling the motion. There is a constructive working relationship between the main Opposition spokespersons and the Minister on this matter. The Government accepts that there are long-standing challenges in the early learning and childcare sector. The cost of early learning and childcare remains high for some parents. There is evidence of barriers to accessing early learning and childcare for some cohorts of children. The level of pay and working conditions in the sector does not reflect the value of the work that early years educators and school-age childcare practitioners do for children, families, society and the economy. One consequence of this, namely, high staff turnover, negatively impacts on children. The level of State investment, although increasing at an unprecedented rate, remains low by international standards.

We do believe, however, that the commitments we have made in the programme for Government and the progress we have made on those commitments, backed by our promise to increase State spending on early learning and childcare to at least €1 billion by 2028, are the best ways to bring real and lasting development and reform to the benefit of children and families, the early learning and childcare workforce and providers, and the State.

Recent achievements of this Government include the substantial State supports, totalling in excess of €1 billion, that have been provided to the early learning and childcare sector throughout the pandemic that enabled services to operate safely and ensured that increased costs associated with public health requirements and lower demand were not passed on to parents. As a direct consequence of these supports, fees charged have not increased for most families since the onset of Covid-19 and the number of service closures throughout the pandemic was lower than in previous years. A national childcare scheme was introduced and rolled out to provide subsidies to more than 80,000 children and reduce fees to families. Findings from a recent review of the scheme revealed that 38% of families reported that half or more of the early learning and childcare costs were covered by the scheme. Some 56% reported that the scheme meant they had more money to spend, with 11% of respondents reporting that they had much more money to spend. Some 26% reported that they were using more early learning and childcare. Some 28% reported that they were working more, with 8% reporting that they would not be in work without the scheme.

The national action plan for childminding has been published and initially implemented. It sets out a phased approach to bringing childminders within the scope of State-funded supports and regulation over the period 2021 to 2028, with an extension of regulation to childminders expected to happen within the first two to three years of the national action plan. That will allow families who use childminders to access subsidies under the national childcare scheme.

The Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare report has been published. It makes 25 recommendations for a new funding model, all of which were adopted by Government, with funding secured in budget 2022 to commence implementation to include the introduction of a new core funding scheme.

A joint labour committee has been established in the early learning and childcare sector to draw up an employment regulation order, which will determine minium rates of pay for early learning and childcare professionals, as well as terms and conditions of employment, with a new core funding scheme intended, among other objectives, to enable employers to meet additional costs that may arise from an employment regulation order, thus preventing an employment regulation order putting upward pressure on fees.

There has also been the publication and initial implementation of Nurturing Skills, the workforce plan for the early learning and care and school-age childcare sector. That plan contains commitments to develop career pathways, promote careers in the sector and support staff recruitment, complementing efforts under way to improve pay and conditions of employment in the sector. The recent publication of an independent review of the operating model for early learning and care and school-age childcare sector recommends the establishment of a dedicated State agency to support delivery of accessible, affordable and high-quality early learning and childcare services for children and their families. The Government has committed to a significant reform agenda.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in his opening statement, described the wider transformative package of measures that is being introduced this year, including a one-off transition fund that will be put in place between May and August 2022 to ensure fee levels do not rise as the Covid-19 supports are unwound in the period running up to the introduction of a new core funding scheme at a cost of up to €6.4 million per month.

There will be an extension of the national childcare service, NCS, universal subsidy to all children under 15, worth up to €1,170 per annum, and benefiting up to 40,000 children. We will end the practice of deducting hours spent in preschool or school from the entitlement to NCS subsidised hours, benefiting an estimated 5,000 children from low-income families, which I am pleased to announce will take effect from 2 May.

A new core funding scheme worth €221 million in a full year was described by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in his opening statement. This progress is acknowledged in the OECD country policy review of early childhood education and care in Ireland, which concluded that, "Ireland is currently pursuing a strong policy agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), with the adoption of a long-term Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families covering the period 2019 to 2028".

That early learning and childcare are public goods, with benefits across society, became more evident throughout the pandemic. While the Government accepts the challenges and acknowledges that further development and investment is required, the work committed to and progressed by the Government and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will deliver much-needed and long-lasting reform to this essential sector.

I thank Deputy Funchion for bringing forward this important motion. I acknowledge her work, along with others, in the childcare sector. It is important that we get this right. Many families are struggling to meet the cost of childcare. Parents in my constituency of Laois-Offaly tell me about the costs they are paying per month, which are often well in excess of €800 and in some cases over €1,000. We have one of the most expensive childcare systems in the European Union.

I was involved in establishing and running Treo Nua in Portlaoise, where there is an excellent childcare facility. I have also dealt with some of the smaller providers in the constituency and heard about the struggles they are trying to manage in running their facilities. I urge the Government to be more cognisant of how to structure the fees and so on.

Childcare fees have become so expensive that they are basically equal to a second mortgage or second rent payment every month. We know the pressure that families are under. Sinn Féin has a plan to cut childcare costs and to give families the support they badly need.

Fees and wages are the issues. We are hearing from parents that the standards of childcare are good. The fees and wages are the issue. Our motion proposes to cut childcare fees by 66% over two years. It would also ensure that staff in the sector are paid at least a living wage. We are talking about staff who have level 5 and level 6 qualifications. They are entitled to a living wage.

Wages in the sector need to be increased urgently. We understand that cannot be done by waving a magic wand but these are highly qualified staff and that needs to be recognised. Staff are leaving the sector. There is a drain from the sector and we are losing important learning and qualified staff we should not be losing. People are leaving the sector because of the issue of wages. That is what workers are telling me.

We have put forward a detailed and fully costed policy to invest in childcare services, to support staff and providers, and to provide a good service at a much reduced cost to families. The Sinn Féin plan would see the Government take on part of the cost of the wages of childcare services and subsidise the fees for parents. That would be done on a phased basis, meaning that fees would be cut by 33% in each of the first two years of the scheme. It is a voluntary, opt-in system. Nobody would be forced to do anything.

Delivering such a significant change to the childcare system would result in an initial spend of €276 million. The Government will ask where that money will come from. We provided a fully costed alternative budget for this year, into which a lot of thought and research went. This investment can be made and we have shown how. It is important to invest in children's future.

We need to give families a much-needed break. They are already struggling with enormous cost of living issues, including sky-high energy bills, fuel costs, transport costs and the price of rent and groceries. The cost of everything is going sky high. In some cases, that state of affairs is being exploited. Some businesses do not waste a good crisis. Capitalism never wastes an opportunity such as this one, unfortunately, or some capitalists do not. Sinn Féin wants to deliver real change to society and to help families. Childcare is in urgent need of reform and we are calling on all other parties to support this costed policy.

I thank everybody who has contributed. I welcome that fact that the motion is not being opposed by the Government and I have no difficulty supporting the Labour Party amendment.

I was struck by the amount of unity in the House, on all sides, including the Government side and across the Opposition side. The same key issues keep coming up, which include the worry and concern that the small providers have, particularly those that are only running facilities under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. Wages are obviously a major issue, as are the fees involved. Those are the three main issues.

The issues are not only for small or rural services. All providers face issues relating to rising costs now and the various inspections required.

While there are many issues, the three distinct issues I have mentioned have always existed in the early years and childcare sector, and they still remain. It is good that we have had the opportunity to debate these issues and acknowledge them. The people in that sector will understand that they are being acknowledged and recognised and that these issues are being brought to the floor of the Dáil. We want fees to be decreased but we also want the issues of wages, core funding and the small providers to be addressed. Maybe the Department can look at them now that they have been raised by so many Deputies. Many people from all parties have said they have received emails and been lobbied about them. This could be an opportunity to get in contact with some of those providers to talk through the issues.

I welcome the fact that the JLC will report this week. I think 7 April is the date that has been given. I support the JLC process. I used to work for a union so I know that process. However, that is where my concern comes from because I know it can drag on and can often take up to 18 months. As others have asked, what will happen if agreement is not reached? Will there be an extension? What is the plan after that? Is it just a case of time being up in September or what is going to happen? That is where some of the issues and concerns come from. That sums up the issues. Sometimes the word "crisis" is overused, particularly in this Chamber, but it is a crisis for childcare services trying to find staff and for the staff trying to keep a roof over their own heads. That is especially true for those who have to sign on during the summer or who are working for the minimum wage, having studied hard in college. It is also true for parents trying to access childcare, trying to find a place and trying to afford it. All these things can potentially lead to a crisis situation and we have an opportunity to address those issues. I welcome that the motion is not being opposed.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.
Top
Share