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Joint Committee on Gender Equality debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Recommendations of the Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality: Discussion (Resumed)

I welcome the witnesses. Members have the option of being physically present in the committee room or joining the meeting via Microsoft Teams from Leinster House offices but they may not participate in the meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts. I ask those joining on Teams to mute their microphones when not making a contribution and to use the raise-hand function to indicate. In order to limit the risk of spreading Covid-19, please note that all members, visitors and witnesses are encouraged to continue to wear face masks when moving around the campus or when in close proximity to others, and to adhere to any other public health advice.

Today we are continuing our meetings on the report of the Citizens' Assembly and the 45 recommendations on gender equality. In particular this morning we are looking at the recommendations on care and social protection. Today we will focus on the issue of care and early years education for children. I welcome our witnesses who are representing three organisations. From Early Childhood Ireland I welcome Frances Byrne, director of policy, advocacy and campaigning. From SIPTU's Big Start campaign I welcome Mr. Darragh O'Connor, the head of strategic organising and campaigns. From Treoir I welcome Mr. Damien Peelo, CEO, and Ms Mary Roach, information and policy officer. Ms Roach is joining us via Teams. They are all very welcome. It is particularly nice to see them all in person. Many of us have engaged with them over Teams and Zoom in recent years. We really appreciate them joining us.

Before we begin, I will read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity in such a way as to make them identifiable. Participants who are in locations outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within Leinster House do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, participation is covered by the absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

Before I ask the witnesses to make their opening statements I want to say that the committee has taken the view that our work is about seeing the implementation of the 45 recommendations on gender equality, including the recommendations on care and social protection. We see these wonderful recommendations from the Citizens' Assembly as a blueprint for gender equality in Ireland and our role as providing a means to ensure their implementation and that they are put into effect. We are very conscious of the need to be practical and to look at an action plan for how to implement the recommendations. We are very grateful to all of the witnesses for engaging with us already with their submissions and for all of their work on the care recommendations in particular. We really appreciate their coming to assist us with our work.

We have already dealt with quite a number of the recommendations in a modular fashion and we will finish our work in December with a report that we see as forming an action plan. We are glad that members of the Citizens' Assembly have been engaging with us and following our proceedings online throughout. I welcome anyone who is following us online.

I invite Ms Byrne to make her opening statement on behalf of Early Childhood Ireland. I will then invite Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Peelo to do the same, after which we will go to questions and answers and a discussion with members.

Ms Frances Byrne

Early Childhood Ireland warmly welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee today. As members have seen in our submission documents, our focus is on recommendations Nos. 8 and 9. These are focused on childcare and parental leave. With regard to childcare, the recommendations the Citizens' Assembly put before the Oireachtas were that over the next decade we would move to a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality, affordable early years and out-of-hours childcare and increase the State share of GDP spent on childcare from the current 0.37% of GDP to at least 1% by no later than 2030. Having made a submission to the assembly, and appearing before it virtually during Covid, Early Childhood Ireland was very pleased to see these recommendations. We were also delighted to hear that the committee is endorsing them and this is very welcome.

As committee members know, Ireland remains a laggard in terms of investment in early years and school-age childcare. As with other issues, the Irish public and members of the Citizens' Assembly are ahead of policy makers in their recognition of the value of early years education and care. We have included in our submission document several graphs from the barometer we have produced annually for the past five years. It is based on independent nationwide opinion polling. A total of 80% of the Irish public believes that every child should have the right to high-quality accessible early years care and education.

The Government has committed to major transformation. This is very welcome. In this vein, last December it accepted the recommendations of an expert funding group. If these recommendations were fully implemented transformation would certainly be achieved. If the Government stays on track it may surpass its own commitments and the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly well before the end of this decade.

According to the Citizens' Assembly report paid leave should cover the first year of a child’s life. It should also be non-transferable to encourage the sharing of childcare responsibility between parents in a two-parent family. For one-parent families, the Citizens' Assembly has recommended that they should be provided with the same total leave period as a couple. Paid leave should be incentivised by increasing payment levels to encourage increased take up. Early Childhood Ireland wholeheartedly supports these recommendations. They are in the best interests of children and their families. The Irish public also agrees, as borne out by our opinion polling. A total of 63% of the Irish public agrees that parents should be supported with leave to cover the first year of a child's life. While it is vital that these recommendations are prioritised it is also important to ensure that additional supports that families need in the first year of a baby's life are also provided, up to and including centre-based or home-based early years care. I can say more about this if members wish during the questions and answers.

If we could urge the committee to consider one recommendation in its focus on implementation, it would be that it assign to a specific Oireachtas committee the ongoing monitoring of the Citizens' Assembly's recommendation on public expenditure on early years and school-age care. The First 5 strategy recognises the inappropriateness of using gross domestic product as a measurement in Ireland as it includes the profits of multinational firms. They do not make or sell anything in Ireland despite being based in this country. As of now, it is the only measurement we have. If our proposal is accepted then as part of its deliberations a specific Oireachtas committee could also examine this issue. It would offer important political leadership on this crucial issue.

With renewed thanks to the committee for the invitation to appear before it today we hope that its important deliberations will return time again to the right of children to high-quality provision of what is, and should be valued as, an essential public good. The indicator that should matter most to us all is that every child in Ireland has equal access to quality and inclusive early years and school-age care services.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

I thank the Chair and members of the committee for inviting SIPTU to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. SIPTU is the union for early years professionals. We represent approximately 6,000 educators, lead educators and managers working in community and private services throughout Ireland.

I welcome the Citizens' Assembly's recommendations on early childhood education and care, specifically increasing State spending to 1% in order to move to a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality with professional pay and conditions for workers. Ireland’s early childhood education and care system is marked by high fees for parents and low pay for workers. This is due to low levels of State funding and the market-based approach of delivery. The key challenge for the State is to reform the funding model so that increased government funding can achieve the policy objectives of quality, which means better pay, affordability and accessibility. The introduction of core funding from September 2022 is a significant development. It will address key structural issues and lay the foundation for further investment and reform.

High quality early childhood education and care has a positive impact on children's educational, cognitive, behavioural, and social outcomes.

However, high staff turnover undermines these benefits and is associated with lower quality services and poorer child outcomes. High staff turnover is driven by low pay in Ireland. A qualified early years educator with a QQI level 5 award earns just €11.57 per hour on average. A graduate lead educator, with QQI level 8 award, earns just €13.21 per hour on average. Research shows that 45% of early years professionals are actively seeking work in another employment, with low pay identified as being the main driving factor. It has also resulted in a staffing crisis for service providers. Some 91% indicated they were concerned that problems with recruiting and retaining staff would negatively impact the viability of their service. Simply put, low pay is undermining quality for children, the sustainability of services and leaving thousands, mostly women workers, in poverty.

At the same time, parents in Ireland are paying some of the highest fees in the European Union. Not only does this block women’s participation in all sectors of society, but it also undermines children’s rights to access early years education. A report by Frontier Economics found that free early years has a positive, and sometimes substantial, impact on women’s labour force participation, employment and increased hours. This is consistent with findings by other bodies, including the European Commission and OECD. According to the European Commission, average monthly fees are the highest in countries which rely on market mechanisms to supply early years. Currently, Ireland relies on a market mechanism to supply early years. Each provider must raise enough revenue, primarily from parents, to at least cover the expenditure and profit and surplus. This pits the goals of affordability and quality against each other. If a provider wants to attract qualified staff, and pay professional wages, they need to raise fees and this undermines affordability. If a provider wants to reduce fees to enhance affordability, they will need to reduce expenditure. As wages make up 70% of expenditure, this means having to constrain or reduce wages and working conditions, which undermines professionalisation. The current model of funding puts providers in an impossible situation as they cannot provide both affordability and professional salaries. This impacts negatively on the quality of care for children.

In September 2022, a new supply-side core funding scheme will be introduced with €172 million of new State investment. This will allow the State to effectively target spending on quality and affordability. For example, a pay agreement is currently being negotiated at the early years joint labour committee which will set legally binding rates of pay. This process will ensue that increased funding for pay will end up in workers' pockets, addressing the issue of high staff turnover. Access to core funding is also dependent on providers agreeing a fee freeze.

SIPTU welcomes the Government’s acceptance that it must play a role in the promotion of professional levels of pay in early years. Indeed, SIPTU advocates that Government take an additional step by assuming full responsibility for employee compensation. This would allow for an approximate 70% reduction in parental fees while ensuring the professionalisation of the sector.

In conclusion, a public service model of early should place the rights of children and the needs of families at its heart. We must also recognise the essential contribution of all early years professionals and providers to the provision of high-quality services that are accessible and affordable.

Thank you. I invite Mr. Peelo to give an opening statement on behalf of Treoir.

Mr. Damien Peelo

Thank you, Chair. Treoir welcomes the opportunity to address the joint committee on gender equality. Treoir works with our members to improve the lives of parents who are not married to each other, and the lives of their children. We acknowledge the work of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality, and we welcome all the recommendations in its report.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted existing issues to do with the provision of key public services, of which access to decent and affordable childcare and early childhood development and education is one. For example, a survey by the National Women’s Council on women’s experiences of care found that lone parents felt particularly under pressure to look after children, provide home-schooling, and work to financially support their families, all without the usual support networks. When asked about employment and income, 42% of parents said their major concern was childcare, followed by loss of income.

The Government response to the pandemic showed that if the State wishes to, it can provide a service on a mass scale. It has the means and the ability to do so. Over the past 12 months, the Government has made significant investment in early childhood and education care and the national childcare scheme. While we acknowledge this, it does not address the foundational problems within the system. For example, the ECEC is limited and based on access to care as an entitlement but with very limited hours. The national childcare scheme is designed as a labour activation measure and allocates childcare hours based on a mother’s links to the labour market. It is not based on need. The State’s reliance on private operators to deliver the service, while at the same time starving the community childcare sector of much-needed resources, is hugely problematic. Today, childcare in Ireland is market-driven, privatised and for profit. Provision is patchy and can vary greatly in terms of access and quality, depending on where you live.

Treoir campaigns for and supports a publicly-funded and universally accessible model of early childhood and childcare and puts the well-being of children at its core. We believe early childhood education and development should be deemed a key public service and it should be a right for all children. At societal and political levels, it should be seen as an opportunity to intervene in child poverty and to support lone parents. Such a model has the potential to address the structural inequalities reproduced from the care responsibilities imposed on women. In this context, Treoir supports the recommendations that Ireland move to a publicly-funded model of early years and out-of-hours childcare, that the State increases the share of GDP spent on childcare and introduces paid leave for parents for the first year of a child’s life, and that lone parents receive the same total leave as a couple.

Regarding social welfare, research has repeatedly shown that lone parents - 86% of whom are women - are more likely to experience one form or another of deprivation, to live in sub-standard rented accommodation, to be over represented in homeless accommodation and to be dependent on State transfers. Their life chances are severely impacted by the interconnectedness of care and the economy with the result that when employed, they will be in low paid precarious work characterised by poor working conditions and limited rights. Yet research from the ESRI suggests only full-time employment is effective in lifting families out of poverty. These findings are hugely problematic for lone parents who bear primary responsibility for care, and often cannot reconcile full-time work with the provision of that care.

The interplay of care, the economy, and the welfare system really comes to the fore when we look at the issue of social welfare entitlement and the rules which govern it. Treoir supports the citizens' assembly’s recommendation on social welfare and particularly that a fully individualised social protection system is introduced to promote the equal division of paid work and care. We agree payments should be set at a level that addresses poverty and supports an adequate standard of living, and that gender proofing is carried out in the piloting of a universal basic income scheme.

Changes to the one parent family payment since 2013 have had a negative impact on the well-being and life chances of lone parents, resulting in 30% of lone parents being at risk of poverty, compared with 12% of two-parent households. Treoir believes the social welfare system must recognise lone parents’ care responsibilities and must ensure that part-time work, combined with social welfare payments, provide economic security to one parent families.

We note the citizens' assembly’s call for the specific needs of lone parents to be addressed with regard to access to education. In this respect, Treoir is calling for the Student Universal Support Ireland grant scheme to be available for part-time, online, and blended learning and access courses.

In closing, Treoir welcomes the emphasis on the State as a key player with the ability to shape and change existing relationships via policy and legislation. We reiterate the importance of a welfare system decoupled from the labour market for the creation of more just and caring society. We note the citizens' assembly’s recognition that gender inequalities are intensified by discrimination on other grounds, and that men also suffer from inequality, lack of opportunity and discrimination. Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the child states that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing of children, and that the State should use its best efforts to ensure the recognition of this principle.

I thank members for their attention and we are happy to take any questions they may have.

Thank you, Mr. Peelo. I will go to Deputy Carroll MacNeill first and then to Deputy Clarke.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. It is great to have them here and to have this session. I have a couple of questions on foot of the opening statements. Can Mr. Peelo elaborate on a few things in his statement?

I fully acknowledge what he stated about the ESRI and the problem of lone parents bearing primary responsibility for care. I find it difficult enough between two parents to reconcile work, care and everything else, and I recognise the particular situation of lone parents. He went on to refer to combining the social welfare payment with part-time work. Will he elaborate on that? He indicated he believes the structures should be changed and overhauled. Will he give us some detail and examples of that?

The universal basic income scheme has always been a very interesting idea. Of course, it has been piloted in some sectors of the arts economy and it will be interesting to see how that works. Mr. Peelo might elaborate a little on his thoughts about that.

I was struck by the point he made in respect of gender inequalities and issues faced by men specifically. He said he would be happy to discuss that further, so he might elaborate on that. Ms Byrne made a point about centre-based and home-based years care. Will she describe what she meant by that?

Mr. Damien Peelo

I might invite Ms Roche to come in on some of those points and I will pick up from there.

Ms Mary Roche

This is a meeting of the gender equality committee, but research shows us gender interacts with other organising categories such as race and class. If gender and class are taken together, it is within that context that we can talk about the position of lone parents. They are marginalised and they experience discrimination and economic disadvantage on the basis of their gender. Women take the bulk of the caring responsibilities in Ireland and across the globe and they also parent on their own. Moreover, we know from the work done by the Low Pay Commission that they are overwhelmingly positioned within the lower ranks of the labour market. They may be in precarious, low-paid employment and have poor working conditions. Even if they are working, they tend to be the working poor because they do not have access to a public childcare system, they are caught with unpaid caring responsibilities for the child and their ability to engage in the labour market means they are open to exploitation and to very low-paid positions. They can be stuck in poverty, as all the reports going back ten or 15 years have shown.

Coupled with that, there have been changes to the welfare system. Since 2013, we have seen the dismantling of supports that traditionally existed for lone parents. Their entitlement to the one-parent family allowance, for example, stops once their youngest child reaches the age of seven. I suppose this explains Mr. Peelo's statement about the need to decouple the welfare system, if we want to address poverty and deprivation in lone-parent households, from labour market participation. That goes back to the idea of a basic minimum income standard of living for every household. We have to have a support network of income beyond which we are not prepared to let people fall. No matter what these women do, they cannot improve their lot, so the onus has to be on the State to redesign a system whereby we can lift lone-parent families out of poverty.

Mr. Damien Peelo

On the universal basic income scheme, research, including a great deal of work done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, has shown the minimum income standards that are necessary. As we saw earlier during the pandemic, when the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, came in, it was set at a level that was recognised as necessary to be able to live, yet when people daily need a level of income to be able to survive, what they are given is much lower than what the PUP was. That payment was seen as being connected to work rather than to the basic need to live. Treoir fully supports the idea of a minimum standard of income and of living, and that is connected to a range of service provision as well, whereby publicly-funded services need to be made available.

On the question about men suffering from inequality, a lack of opportunity and discrimination, this relates primarily to the traditional sense of fathers being recognised as breadwinners rather than carers. Treoir works, in particular, in this sphere with parents who are not married. This committee has examined Article 41 and the possibility of constitutional change to recognise the rights of families and parents who are not married. There is a clear recognition that people who are not married do not have the same protections and rights as married parents. In terms of care, unmarried fathers do not have automatic rights to the guardianship of, access to and custody of their children. Even if they were cohabiting for many years and the relationship has broken down, they will not have rights to the access to and custody of their children, although they may be entitled to guardianship under the new regulations brought in with the Children and Family Relationships Act. There are issues with the equality of care and that carer responsibility should be shared out more equally between parents.

That was why I wanted to ask about this issue. I fully acknowledge what our guests have said but it goes further. A couple of my constituents have had difficulty with housing and councils, and there can be certain assumptions just because they are not the custodial parent all the time. It just is not thought about in the same way.

Mr. Damien Peelo

That goes into a much deeper issue relating to inequality in regard to applications for housing. If a parent is not seeing the children through a court order agreement, he or she can apply to the local authority, in some cases, to get onto the housing list for a two-bedroom house, for example. Often, however, he or she will be seen as the non-custodial parent and, therefore, his or her right to high-quality accommodation that is appropriate for the needs of his or her children and to have carer responsibilities for the children may not be granted. This varies throughout the country and, again, there is no uniformity as to how parents can access it. Local authorities have different rules for how they will assess parents' housing needs.

Ms Frances Byrne

On our comment about the right to fully paid parental leave in the first year, it was a caveat about families who may have pre-existing challenges before a baby is born and, as we all know, families can face challenges of all kinds after a baby has been born. In the context of a wrap-around family support service, the absolute gold standard should be that parents would be supported to stay at home in order that one parent would be at home all the time minding the child in the first year of life. We absolutely agree with that, but additional supports may be needed for a variety of reasons that, as I said, may be pre-existing or may arise during the first year. We suggest there be a recognition of that, part of which could relate to expert, high-quality early years care and education, even in the first year, as a family support intervention. In our recommendations as a society and our understanding of that, we should be inclusive in our thinking about that.

What types of supports is Ms Byrne referring to?

Ms Frances Byrne

I mean where there are not pre-existing challenges. If, for example, a mum, or indeed a dad, began to experience mental health difficulties after a child has been born, spending a couple of hours a day with a childminder or in centre-based care might help her.

It is similar if there are pre-existing challenges for that family. To be clear, Early Childhood Ireland agrees that in the vast majority of circumstances, the country and society should be supporting babies being at home with mum and-or dad, depending on the family's circumstances. However, we also need to recognise, and it is recognised in First 5, that additional interventions may be needed. We cannot comfort ourselves and say that from some point in the future, crèches will only be available for one-year-olds up. If I was asked to say it more coherently, that is how I would put it. It is just a caveat. It is so important that babies are afforded the right to be with one or both parents during the first year but that does not always work for every family.

There should be no question of it becoming contingent on there being a problem. It is fine to have a baby at home for a year. That is great but there are people who might like to work a little at the same time. I would not like to get to the point where people might think this is the only way. It would be a bit like breastfeeding, where if someone is not doing it there is guilt and pressure around it. We must not create that link either.

Ms Frances Byrne

I absolutely agree. It is about having a degree of flexibility. We all hear self-employed parents on the airwaves saying they were back in work within a week. Our members and parents tell us that the childminder, provider or staff in a crèche are often a lifeline during the first year, and it is not always about going back to work. It is about the relationship, particularly if they have an older child in the crèche. It becomes a family support. We need to value that and hold onto it for families who may be in crisis or where people are making a choice. We have to get to the stage where the system is child and family-centred, as the other contributors have said. It was a caveat about automatically going down the road where there would only be places in crèches for one-year-olds up, for all those reasons.

I thank Ms Byrne for that clarification. I call Deputy Clarke.

I thank the witnesses for their time this morning. I would like to expand on some of the things Mr. Peelo and other contributors touched on around the social welfare supports that are in place. Maybe we can pull this out a little further. The criteria that exist fail to grasp the reality lived by a number of lone parents, who may go on to become cohabiting parents or a married couple, in the sense that if there is a social welfare payment, it is dependent on both of them. There is an assumption that the non-biological parent or adult in that home will take on the financial responsibilities of the child yet Revenue still treats these individuals as being entirely separate, even if they are cohabiting and have been for a considerable period of time. As the child ages, if that couple has not married and continues to cohabit, SUSI will entirely disregard the earned income of the non-biological parent. This seems like a chronic lack of joined-up thinking and a complete lack of any common sense as to what a family unit now looks like. I ask the witnesses to comment on that.

Turning to Ms Byrne and the affordability of childcare, as a mother of four I have walked this walk and I know the financial costs that can come with it. There are also very real questions around the availability of childcare, particularly in our regions and in rural Ireland, where there may be no options for either full-time or part-time childcare providers. When there is talk of increasing GDP, does Ms Byrne see any merit in targeting areas that have no or very low provision of childcare, in tandem with providing additional support to the services that exist? We heard quite recently in the media that there are significant delays in children with additional needs being assessed and receiving a diagnosis. What impact does that have on early education providers? If they know a child who is coming to their service has additional needs and is on a waiting list, what impact does that have on their ability to provide a service that meets the needs of such children?

My final question is for Mr. O'Connor. The level of pay in the childcare sector is truly beyond fathom. We value these individuals enough to leave our offspring with them and provide an early childhood education but the pay they receive is not comparable with the level of responsibility and trust parents place in them. From an international perspective, has a comparison been done on the pay, conditions and progression opportunities childcare workers have here compared to other countries? It is my firmly held belief that there has been a systemic failure to recognise the need, value and importance of early years education, as opposed to childminding. I can hire a babysitter on a Friday evening no problem. I can hire a local teenager. That is very different from what early years education looks like.

There is plenty there. I will go first to Mr. O'Connor.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

The pay and conditions are horrendous. People are living in poverty and struggling with the basics. They are leaving the sector. We have asked all these people to train up and skill up, and they are delivering a professional service, and they have no choice but to leave their profession. That is what is happening. It is not universal. There is a big spectrum. There are people who are earning the minimum wage and then there are people who are paid a decent rate. If you want good quality early years, you are going to have pay the staff. That is it. The next question is who pays. Is it the State or parents? We could double the fees for parents and give everybody proper pay and pensions and all the rest, but politically that is not feasible. Parents do not have the money to do that. Once you accept the State has a role in supporting good quality and affordability, the question is how to get the money in there and make sure State investment delivers on policy goals. Core funding addresses that in a real way but previously, when money was going into the system it might reduce fees or increase pay but there was no guarantee. It is about the State taking command and using those levers to achieve the policy objectives. Hopefully there will be a pay deal in place from September this year, which is a start. It is certainly not the finish but it would lift a lot of people up from where they are at the moment.

Regarding the international comparisons, when early years is delivered by the free market we see very similar situations, with high fees for parents and low pay. In quite a lot of Europe, where there is a mix of public and private provision, it is treated much more like teaching, with comparable rates of pay. If we are asking people to do a level 8 course and come out of DCU or Limerick with all their qualifications but one person is teaching eight-year-olds and another is caring for and educating four-year-olds, there will be a massive gap in their lived experience when it comes to pay and conditions. There should not be. They have an equal impact on the lives of children, which can be transformative.

The figures on pay rates are stark. That is very clear.

Ms Frances Byrne

The Deputy asked about childcare availability in general and particularly around access for children with additional needs.

The availability issue sometimes gets caught up in a Dublin-centric narrative; that is absolutely the case. There are horrendous waiting lists and women will say, with their tongues in their cheeks, that they rang their partners, they rang their mothers and then they rang the crèche when they found out they were expecting because it can be so difficult to find a place. Within a rural context there might be a place available but it could be 45 km down the road. The Deputy knows about the challenges with rural transport better than I do. We come back to a lack of planning and during the Celtic tiger years this was not the case for a couple of years, including in the area of Dublin I live in. However, by and large if four year-olds did not land out of the sky and the Department of Education knew there were lots of houses being built in an area then it had the demographics, it planned accordingly and, by and large, it built schools. That does not happen with early years education and there is not the same kind of planning.

Before the most recent election Early Childhood Ireland had three asks, one of which was for a single agency. We were pleased to see that in the programme for Government and to get the support of Sinn Féin and other parties for it in the run-up to the formation of that Government. It is critical so that we can have proper planning and oversight for us as a society. More and more money is coming in and we have an unprecedented €221 million promised this year in a full year, which is welcome. We want that to continue. There needs to be transparency around that and we need to have better planning in the availability of places. We also need to know that we will have universal quality. In the Scandinavian model, as the Deputy has recognised, people understandably focus on affordability. The Scandinavian model also guarantees a level of quality and curriculum delivery to every child, regardless of his or her location, be it rural or urban, and regardless of their parental income. In Ireland, we have almost 30,000 educators who are delivering quality every day but we do not have the same universality. We cannot guarantee that because we are not investing enough and because of the issues the Deputy is well aware of, including staff turnover. Staffing, quality of staff and a continuity of relationship between highly qualified staff and young children is a critical factor in delivering quality. We know that if we have high staff turnover and churning within the sector, where people are staying in the sector but moving settings, that is bad for the babies and children in those settings.

I will turn to the access issue the Deputy raised. This is one of the positive stories about our sector and there is a wonderful programme called the access and inclusion model We love our acronyms in the early years sector so it is called AIM. It is only delivered through the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, and we would love to see it extended. It is one of the commitments that has been given in Partnership for the Public Good, the funding model report I referred to in the presentation earlier. We warmly welcome that but that needs to be extended. Although we are not a direct parent support service, we heard from parents as recently as last week who were concerned that their three year-old who is doing so well in the 38 weeks in preschool is going to miss the transition to school, and this includes older children as well.

There is a discussion to be had about the model and about extending it, and leaks are starting to come out about looking at that in the context of budget 2023. I am putting this in a light way, although I do not mean to be light-hearted about it. However, it is such a good news story about the sector. There are administrative difficulties within it, and there are assessments and we hear from members every year that they have difficulties waiting for money to come through. You do not get to hear this often but providers can end up out of pocket too but they sort of take it on the chin and build it into their finances. They should not have to do that because they do not want to have to turn way children with additional needs. That programme is valued and on the hard days, because of the lack of investment and so on, the sector can be proud that it has delivered it in recent years and that it has helped children and families. It has been an inclusive mark of the sector. It is a positive programme but it needs a lot more support.

It is good to hear a good news story.

Mr. Damien Peelo

Deputy Clarke nailed it and she has highlighted the problems within the social protection system with the lack of interdepartmental co-operation and the lack of connectedness between them. The recent and high profile case of John O'Meara highlights this in a real way. For those who do not know, John O'Meara was a father who cohabited with his partner. They had three children together and were together for 20 years or so before his wife sadly died a year ago. John, in his naïveté, applied to the Department for the widower's grant and pension and was refused them based on the fact that he was not married to his partner. They were treated as two separate individuals, even though they both paid their PRSI and had both been working. For every other social welfare entitlement they would have been assessed individually but for this one they were treated separately. I know there is a Bill before the Seanad on this and that is one example.

There are other cases where we have a belief that the system is more invested in rooting out fraud and in suspicion of claimants and their need for making social welfare claims, particularly lone parents. This system is not conducive to supporting shared parenting and the Deputy has again highlighted the issue that if a mother has begun a new relationship and if that person comes to stay over there are all sorts of suspicions about whether they should be allowed to be in the house, what role they have and whether that affects the parent's entitlement. During lockdown we even had examples of parents who were subjected to social welfare inspections when the whole country was locked down to see if people were coming to stay with them and spending time in their homes. There is a lack of understanding of what shared parenting is and there is a need for training for front-line staff to be developed. That lack of understanding is ingrained in the culture and policies of the Department. There should be a requirement that anyone implementing the public sector human rights and equality duty would undergo training and understanding of what their role is, of what the shared parenting issues are and of what the challenges for many one-parent families are.

The Deputy has said it. Some of the issues that emerge in social protection and in supporting lone parents into shared parenting and developing new relationships are well documented. The means testing of medical cards, the working hours and the poverty traps that are there for people still exist, despite mountains of evidence going in to support the fact that the thresholds need to be lifted to support parents to remain out of poverty.

Ms Byrne touched on AIM and said that providers have taken those additional costs on the chin. The staff are delivering the service to the children and providing the early years education. On funding for that service, has there been any significant moves on the non-delivery of services? Multiple applications need to go into different Departments for funding and the various streams that need to be applied for. How does that balance work out and has it changed significantly? There can be core funding for the delivery of the front-of-house service but what about for the day-to-day administration to ensure that service is safe, compliant and meeting all its regulatory obligations?

Ms Frances Byrne

I thank the Deputy. I want to clarify if her question is on whether there have been improvements or changes.

Ms Frances Byrne

There have been in ways. Nevertheless, even with the improvements in reporting on funding the average full-day crèche is still reporting into and subject to inspection or auditing by up to seven State agencies, or both.

There are also environmental health inspections for those who cook food on the premises. Nobody is saying that there should not be regulations - far from it - but there is a significant administrative burden on providers. There has been flexibility within the system. During Covid, the Department very much took the fact that children may not be able to attend on board for very understandable reasons relating to lockdown, whether parents were back at work and the existence of Covid in a family and offered additional flexibility but this needs to be extended. We would hope that some of that would be dealt with when childcare Ireland is set up. This is the agency that is envisaged by the Government. We would hope that there would be one set of eyes on settings as opposed to seven pairs.

Apart from the money, which is very welcome given that up until now, we were the lowest investors across the OECD, one of the very welcome things about core funding is that it will decouple funding from attendance. This is really important. If I have an ECCE-only arrangement - picture your own area wherever you live and I live in a housing estate where there are two or three Montessori premises attached to houses - they would typically have space for 11 children or 22 if they have a second session. It concerns what happens if that crèche signs the core funding contract and has the capacity, including space, staffing, etc., for 11 or 22 children and come September, only eight of those children take up places. I know we hear about waiting lists but circumstances can change and parents can also understandably put names down in a number of crèches in the local area so the expected numbers of children do not always walk in the door in September.

What the Department has done, which is really welcome and goes back to the expert group's report, is say that if a crèche's capacity is for that number of children, it will base its core funding contract on that even if the number drops to eight during the year for whatever reason such as families moving. That is really welcome. This is what happens in Scandinavia. We talk about Scandinavia. They murder us up there. The Nordic countries are all different. There are lovely iPads and little Johan's mum, dad or guardian comes in, settles Johan and on the way out, moves like we all do when we want to get access to an app, and I should not be mentioning a brand, on our tablet or phone and at some point during the morning, an educator will go around and make sure that Johan is there and that is that. The state does not care about whether the crèche had 14 or 16 children on a particular day.

The only thing that would trigger concern would be a family support concern. For example, if Johan did not come in for two days in a row and nobody contacted the crèche, there would be a very supportive phone call to the family to ask whether everything is okay and to ask about what is happening. If those circumstances arise here or if a parent looks for flexibility, our members' hands are tied because depending on the programme, and the Deputy rightly referred to the complexities involving, four, eight or 12 weeks, the subsidy and fees will go down so providers' hands are tied even as we are encouraging remote working because it is much better for the environment and work-life balance. Because of the administration of the programmes, our members cannot offer that flexibility to parents when they would love to be able to. It is really welcome that core funding decouples that. We would love to see this applied across the board. We should be focusing on quality and the curriculum and not on attendance.

Numerous guests have appeared before the committee and have spoken at length about what is almost a pigeon holing of students at second level in terms of options and who that influences their career choices. Childcare is an female-dominated profession. If we want to see more men as providers of childcare, what needs to happen aside from wages? How do we make this an attractive career choice for young men, who may be sitting today thinking "hmm, don't really want to do this, I might have a look at that"? How do we even put it on the menu for it to be a viable career?

This has been a major issue for us. It is in the report of the Citizens' Assembly.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

The Deputy asked about everything apart from pay. Pay is 90% of it because people have to put food on the table. I think that is it. Part of it involves having the role models and men who are working in the sector. You cannot be what you cannot see. I think that is part of it as well.

The media was referenced in the citizens' assembly.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

There are men studying early years education at the moment. I have been in those lecture halls and ask how many people are going into the sector. It is frightening how many people put their hands up. It is around 10% and none of the men in the room ever put their hands up. They either look at the sector and decide to do teaching or something else. You have to get them into training and then you have to make the career attractive for them as well. It looks like the first bit is working. Strides are definitely being made in that but there seems to be a bit of bottleneck then.

Is that more reflective of society's attitude to care than the availability of training courses? I agree that it is the biggest issue facing the sector and needs to be rectified but is there a role for society and the rest of us in terms of how we value care and those who work in early childhood care and education?

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

Absolutely - it involves childcare, elder care and disability services. Traditionally, there has been a highly gendered perception of it as well. I think that is shifting but this is a long road. It denies men that caring role. If you are going to be a father, it is not just about putting food in the fridge. There is huge joy and enjoyment in having a caring and loving relationship with your children. It seems bizarre to say that.

Is it not just?

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

But it is. Part of it-----

It is not said enough.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

With regard to parental leave in the Nordic countries, the father has to take it. It is a case of "use it or lose it". When people embrace it, all of a sudden, that does shift the dynamic around that caring role and there is an expectation that it should be fulfilled.

Does Mr. Peelo wish to come in on that last point?

Mr. Damien Peelo

There needs to be a change in attitude to recognise that it is a valued and crucial role and not just a gendered role. We think back to how nursing was perceived in society for many years. Not many men went into nursing. Women have had the same issue fighting in the opposite direction. There were a lot of roles that were gendered as being suitable for men and we have had to overcome a lot of issues. Childcare and care of any kind is still seen as a role that is primarily taken up by women and is not given the importance and status it needs to have and we need to change that. We need society to change that discourse and discussion so that it is seen as being suitable for men. As Mr. O'Connor said, it seems silly to say that it is a wonderful thing to be able to say "I cared for my children and I spent time with them" and not be seen as something less than a man. That is really important. We must lift that debate and discussion.

Does Ms Byrne wish to comment?

Ms Frances Byrne

I suppose I should. I agree entirely. Without sounding patronising, it is wonderful to hear men in leadership positions saying this and we need more of that. In terms of the pre-Covid figure of nearly 200,000 children going into crèches every day, it is really important for those little girls and boys to see men and women in crèches. That visibility is so important. Of course, pay and terms and conditions are important but as members well know, it is a much wider societal issue. Early years and school-age care and all of the other traditionally female sectors are examples of that wider problem.

I will start with the questions I am dying to ask. I thank everyone for their submissions, statements and engagement with the committee. It has been really helpful and it is good we have a gender balance and that it is not just women discussing childcare which is often the case in these Houses.

On practical implementation and on the early childhood education and care recommendations, Ms Byrne noted recommendations No. 8, in particular, and No. 9. No. 8 (a) is truly radical. The citizens' assembly has called for a publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of early years and out of hours childcare over the next decade. My first question, in particular to Ms Byrne and to Mr. O'Connor, is on whether the core funding proposal delivers on that. I was struck by Ms Byrne's point that if the Government stays on track, it may even surpass those recommendations Nos. 8(a) and 8(b) on the State share of GDP to be spent on childcare. We hear her point on the specific Oireachtas committee. It is an interesting additional recommendation that we will certainly consider. Will core funding deliver and, if not, what else needs to be done to bring about the radical transformation proposed by the citizens' assembly? I am struck by how rightly critical Ms Byrne and Mr. O'Connor were of the market and its failure to deliver. Mr. O'Connor put it very starkly not just in giving the average hourly pay of early years educators but also in pointing out that the system is failing staff, parents who lack affordable and sometimes any childcare provision, providers who cannot make ends meet and are faced with the dilemma of having to increase fees if they increase pay and ultimately children from a children's rights perspective. We are failing everyone involved.

I have called for a "Donogh O'Malley moment", in that we would start to see early years education and care as a right for every child where every child is guaranteed a State-funded place in the same way that we now see secondary education as a right of every child which the State subsidises, or indeed pays for. Mr. O'Connor said SIPTU seeks that the Government would assume full responsibility for employee compensation in the sector. Can we deliver on recommendation No. 8(a) without the State taking that on? Is it a prerequisite? How do we get to recommendation No. 8(a)? Is core funding the right way? If not, can anything more be done? We will be providing our report in December when core funding will be in place and hopefully we will have seen a good deal of impact. How will it look if we get to recommendation No 8(a)? We have heard of the Nordic countries. Recently, I looked at the Berlin model of childcare where there is really excellent subsidised childcare which is community provided and often co-operatively provided by parents. How does it look in practice? The providers are still providing but with a State subsidy so it is still decentralised provision. Are the educators all being paid directly by the State as our primary and secondary school teachers are?

I am glad the citizens' assembly referred explicitly to out-of-hours childcare and also after-school care. I have been that soldier. It is not just with preschool age children where families need extra support. It is particularly the case where there is a two-parent family where both parents are working outside the home. After hours provision is so crucial to enabling women, in particular, to stay in the workforce. I have seen really interesting academic research that the ten minute journey from school to home is often the thing that takes women out of the workforce because it can be so difficult to access out-of-hours childcare and transport from the school setting to the after-hours provision if it is out of the school. How do we manage that after school and out-of-hours care?

I thank Mr. Peelo for taking us to the other recommendations on social protection and in particular to recommendations Nos. 15 and 16. I was very interested in his comments. Will he tell us more about the universal basic income scheme? Does he think the pilot in the arts sector has potential for expansion? Could it offer a real lifeline particularly for lone parents?

I thank him for mentioning John O'Mara's case. He will know I have had a good deal of engagement with John O'Mara and commend him on his courage in going public about his situation and the injustice in our failure to recognise cohabiting couples. I extend my sympathy with him again on the loss of his partner. The committee has been very conscious in our deliberations on recommendations Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, about the constitutional recognition for families that are not based on marriage. That is a really glaring anomaly in our laws and our constitutional and statutory protections. I want to acknowledge that too.

We will go to Ms Byrne first. I am conscious that there is a lot in what I asked.

Ms Frances Byrne

No, that is fine. I hope that I have noted it all. The Chair might remind me if not. It is very interesting that she repeated the point about out-of-hours because it was one of the things that I realise we might not have focused on enough in our submission. There certainly is a role for school age. We see its provision in other countries where parents are doing night shifts. That is particularly in a context where both parents might be on night shifts or in a one-parent situation. The Department has acknowledged that is one of the next things it would like to get to in relation to the national childcare scheme. That would be very welcome. It happens. There are informal systems in place but it is important in that not everyone works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is really good that the citizens' assembly recognised that. It goes back to a child-centred, family-centred system that would bring as many possibilities into the equation. I fully agree with that.

The Chair's questions on core funding are really challenging. We do not yet know if settings will sign up in their droves. We are all waiting to see and providers are waiting to get the contracts which they are due to get this month. As my colleague from Big Start said, the proposed pay scale has only just been published so all that has to be digested and considered. Presumably people in the Department are working away on the calculations around all of that.

On the question of what happens if it does not go through, it will be really stark. We have asked the Department and the Minister repeatedly. We do not want it to fail but if it does, we have asked if there is a plan B. The answer is "No." That is quite worrying. We have to be positive and hope that it will go through. The next thing that needs to happen is that it becomes multi-annual. We absolutely welcome core funding. We welcomed Nurturing Skills and Partnership for the Public Good, the two big reports which are now public policy for early years and school-age care. For full disclosure, we were heavily involved in Nurturing Skills and somewhat involved on the funding model report where there were consultations with Frontier Economics. Obviously if we did not like the outcomes, we would be suitably critical. We absolutely do. However, Early Childhood Ireland would suggest that one reason some providers have been quite unhappy, rattled and concerned about the core funding is that it has not been accompanies by a vision that brings the two major reports together and describes the journey that Ireland will go on. I would love for the Minister to answer all of the Chair's questions to describe the next five years. Prior to this year's budget announcement in October, this is what we looked for. We urged the Government to increase funding but also describe what it was going to do for the next five years. We think that would give certainty to the sector, and crucially to parents, which is very important. If you are a parent in the beloved Nordic countries or, indeed, Germany, France or other countries at the higher level of public investment, the one thing that you have that new parents in Ireland do not have is certainty. You know exactly how much money you will get and whether it will be split in a two-parent family between both parents and what will happen when the parents return to work.

In Ireland, apart from the six months of paid maternity and some paid paternity leave, the statutory leave, and the Early Childhood Care and Education, ECCE, programme which is part-time for 38 weeks over two years, a person has no certainty. It would be very important - this goes back to the point that we have repeatedly made like broken records - and to be very fair to the Government which has made these commitments, that we are not starting with a brownfield site. It is all the more important that the Government describes the next five years so that we cannot use that language of the X factor etc., but to go on and to describe a journey so that people have certainty about what the ultimate destination is and what it will look like.

Is the State, as SIPTU has urged, to take over the payment of staff and what are the implications of that? The State is quite right to describe and support continuous professional development, and so on, and so it should, just like it does with teachers, and so forth. We need the wider vision and certainty. When the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform stand up in the Dáil to speak, there are untouchables - the social welfare bill has to be paid every year as do teachers’ wages. That is the certainty. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth needs to have a Vote with a tick which we all take for granted, and the discussion should then be about how much more the State will do and what impact that will have on fees etc. The overall direction of travel is very good. It is about the bringing together of the two major reports and what that is going to look like and it is very important that the Government is describing that, as well as its vision.

It is also very important to acknowledge that childminders and school age childcare are both being brought into regulation which is very welcome. With child minders this is happening more slowly and, quite rightly, not with the same onerous regulation that other settings have. That is very important and it is sometimes forgotten that in the Nordic countries, childminders are also part of the picture. They are brought into professionalisation in rural areas or for families with very particular needs, be that because of the needs of the child or the labour market needs of the family out of hours. They are a very important part of the system and it is important also to acknowledge that and school-age childcare also. It is very good that the Government is keeping many balls in the air on all of that but it would be wonderful, remarkable, and reassuring to everybody who is involved if the Government were to produce a five-year plan of what is going to happen.

That is very clear and I thank Ms Byrne. I turn to Mr. O’Connor now and I commend him and SIPTU on the very important work in highlighting the pay and conditions for so many of those in the sector. I visited early years centres in Limerick recently and heard his point exactly that those who are training early years educators at University of Limerick said that very few of the class they train will go on to work in the childcare early years sector and settings. They go elsewhere and do not work in the sector because of low pay and poor conditions. I also greatly welcome the early years joint labour committee which he referred to.

There is also the question of the core funding model; will it deliver, what else needs to be done and who pays?

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

We welcomed core funding. There is agreement as to what the problem is among many people within the sector and there is also broad agreement on what the vision is. It is to have a high quality, affordable, and accessible service. One must then get into the nuts and bolts of it. Core funding certainly looks like it addresses the fundamental barrier to solving the early years problems in the country, which is that if one is going to pump money in, how does one know that it delivers? If one accepts that point, it opens up the path to solving it. Core funding looks like it solves that and we are very optimistic about it. It does this because it is indirectly covering pay. A chunk of money is provided for pay and we go off to do the pay deal; that is happening.

There was also the introduction of the fee freeze. One might ask what good is the fee freeze to parents because these fees are being frozen at very high rates. It has been very well signalled now by a number of Ministers that they are going to ramp up the subsidies in subsequent budgets. It looks like they have a system now where we can put money in and achieve our goals. We will see how it all comes out in the wash but we would be optimistic that a big piece of the jigsaw has been put in place.

There are two other things I would highlight. Part of what Ms Byrne was talking about is around provision. What is the shape of the sector? Where are the providers, how big are they, and how long are they open? Are they open at night and open during the day for shift work and all of those kinds of issues? That is the next phase of the debate which we need to get into. Who pays for this? Services need to increase their fees to be able to get all that money in order to have capital investment but one is then compromising the affordability piece. We would need to have a look at capital investment by the State. There is then the question that if the State is going to pay for buildings who should own them? Should the State own them? This sounds like a fairly familiar story. In areas of very high demand where one cannot get a place for either love or money, one can ask whether the State should be building there or making some kind of capital investment. That is a very interesting discussion and is going to be the next phase of the debate as we go on. That is, of course, all a question of money and whether it is there on the part of the State.

This is all underpinned in a way by the values within the sector. For those who are working on it, including the vast majority of providers, they are there to deliver good quality for their children and not because they are making tonnes of money from it; this is what they want to do and have a passion for. That informs a good chunk of the sector. We know and can look over to England, New Zealand and Australia to see what happens when it becomes commodified and when international investment funds get their claws into the sector. They are there to maximise profit and are able to bring a great deal of political pressure to change the rules and laws to suit themselves also.

We are at a defining moment as to what this is. We talk about the direction, whether core funding is good, and where the buildings are but it is also a question of the values underpinning this and the vision, which may not be talked about. Is it a free-market free-for-all. I do not believe we are going that way but let us refine our approach to see where we are going. Is it publicly funded or is it publicly provided? These are two very different things and we seem to be taking something of the middle path. Wherever we are starting from here, that is probably the direction we need to get to.

I have two other colleagues who wish to join the discussion: Deputy Hourigan and Senator Doherty. I will ask Mr. Peelo to respond briefly please and I will go then to Deputy Hourigan.

Mr. Damien Peelo

I will pick up on a point which the Chairman has not asked me but around this issue of the recommendation of being publicly funding. Treoir welcomes that recommendation and believes in a publicly funded service but it is very much about the values, as has just been said by Mr. O’Connor. The Community Platform, which is a network of 30 organisations, has developed a paper which has a set of values and principles which underpin a publicly funded service. I encourage people to look at that and to ensure that people can see it.

That is very helpful.

Mr. Damien Peelo

There are multiple models of childcare and early development out there that need to be supported including the community and co-operative model of childcare that the Chairman mentioned. That is something in which there has been under-investment and has not been supported in the past while, and which we would very much recommend.

My final point on this is that when the State invests public funding, we need to avoid the pitfalls of creating a two-tier system as we have done with education and health and we do not want that within the early years. We have got to find ways where we do not create a system where if one pays, one will get a better service. We must ensure it is equal for everybody at the point of access.

On the question the Chairman asked me around recommendations Nos..15 and 16 and the universal basic income, I will defer to Ms Roche on that because she would have greater speciality in that area. Treoir is asking that social welfare rates are benchmarked against the minimum essential standard of living which has already been calculated by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice, which has done exceptional work in this area. That is what we would say needs to be looked at because the current gap between the minimum standard and what is currently is available to one parent families is €82 a week.

It is unacceptable that €82 a week is the gap between what is minimally accepted to survive and Ms Roche will comment on this matter.

Ms Roche can speak after the next Deputy, if that is okay.

Mr. Damien Peelo


Deputy Hourigan is next.

I am sorry for arriving late but I am trying to cover a number of meetings this morning and apologise if what I am about to ask has been asked. I will focus on the area of early years and integrated disability provision or the recognition of integrated services in the sector because I guess that it is a challenge. My experience is that early years education has been an incredibly useful and beneficial service for many children and starts the process of a fully integrated educational experience or childcare setting experience. I am mindful of what I have heard in the past while regarding the level of uncertainty and the need for certainty in the area.

I am interested in the thoughts of witnesses on what we need if we were to provide in every early learning or early child care setting truly integrated service provision for families who need it. There would be a knock-on effect throughout a family when a child with additional needs receives good child care. What do we need to put in place? What certainty would the Government need to put in place in terms of training for staff? How much funding is needed to pay for capital costs to provide accommodation? Is there a different requirement in terms of capital costs? Are more extensive capital costs required to provide extra facilities or particular rooms?

One of the previous speakers mentioned the public-private model. Is there a trepidation or worry about the pubic-private model being able to provide services? Do the witnesses think that a profit-driven model can truly provide services?

Finally, how can more extended therapies be linked with publicly provided service provision? Many children need occupational therapy or speech and language therapy and parents are told to find such therapies through a community liaison point and not necessarily in the childcare or educational setting. My questions focus on the integrated disability approach and whether the witnesses think that such provision is a challenge.

I call Ms Byrne and then Ms Roche can follow-up on the previous question.

Ms Frances Byrne

I thank Deputy Hourigan for all of her engagement with my organisation. Yes, she missed an earlier intervention about AIM, which is a programme that she is aware of. The model is only available through ECCE and, therefore, is only available to a cohort of children albeit 98% of 3-year-olds avail of an ECCE place. The Department is very keen to look at the 2% who do not avail of ECCE and that certainly speaks to some of the issues that the Deputy has mentioned but also speaks to very marginalised children who are Traveller and Roma children. Our members are very conscious of the need to be involved in local interventions, which brings me to her last point. We have members who are informally involved in what might be described, and certainly would be so described in Nordic counties, as a family support framework. Our members attend case management meetings for children for whom there may well be State involvement already and-or it could be exactly what the Deputy has described around occupational therapy and so on. That work is done because there are great local people be they in State services or, dare I say it, among our membership or both. All of that work should be formalised and the First Five strategy, which is a national strategy, speaks to that.

We are very conscious that we have members who have delivered, particularly preschool education, since the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, to be gendered again, we have a couple of members who are granddaughters running what was their grandmother's crèche. We also have many adult daughters who now run the crèche that belonged to their mother. These people always describe their work as a service and never as a business. Unfortunately, some of these facilities are physically very unsuitable for children who might have disabilities and our members are very conscious of that.

One of the great things that we saw happen during Covid, which the Department gave capital funding for, was the development of more outdoor spaces. When crèches first opened at the end of June parents were not allowed to physically set foot in a crèche for public health reasons. Our members, and we are delighted to share all of this on social media and beyond, with capital funding created amazing outdoor spaces for the handover and the handover is so important in terms of relationships and quality care for children. Of course, in circumstances where children had not been in a crèche for three or four months that handover was even more important. We urge that more focus is placed on outdoor spaces. Our members are very supportive of that and want to facilitate same so the Deputy is correct to identify outdoor spaces and it is a way to include all children of all abilities.

Another thing that she missed is that we really welcomed, in the context of partnership for the public good, the funding model report because it states that the AIM model should be extended, with which we agree, because there are parents who worry over the summer period. It is crazy that a child in a full daycare crèche has his or her AIM support cut off when ECCE finishes in the morning. Such a situation does not make sense. When you say that to people from other countries they look at you as if you have lost the plot and we have not.

Finally, I wish to mention another important issue. A few years ago the Department commissioned a study on universal design on which we were very happy to work. We formed a consortium with other colleagues and then together the National Disability Authority and the Department commissioned the work. A copy of the report is available in hard copy and online. It is another moment when the sector was very proud that we led the way on universal design. One of the reasons we would like the five-year plan, the vision and description of the ultimate plan is capital funding would be described as well so that year one we will ensure, for example, that 70% of crèches have accessible outdoor spaces or become accessible internally or both. It is important that we offer certainty and a vision so that all children are included. I hope that I have addressed the questions posed by the Deputy.

Ms Mary Roche

A number of speakers have raised the issue of value and the Citizens' Assembly report. It is about what kind of a social welfare system we want and how that interacts with the labour market.

The line is breaking up and we cannot hear Ms Roche properly.

Ms Mary Roche

In terms of lone parents, it is about designing and imagining a social welfare system that can support them as opposed to being punitive in respect of their participation in the labour market. The Citizens' Assembly report mentions the importance of public services and we know that this is critical for lone parents. One of the things is access to collective bargaining.

The Maynooth University report on access to third level education for lone parents identified housing insecurity as a key issue. Obviously, there is the issue of childcare. It is important that we support lone-parent families, so that if lone parents want to go back to education they have adequate income to do so. We must ensure the welfare system is not a punitive one that punishes lone parents for returning to education.

I thank Ms Roche. The line keeps breaking up; we are only hearing Ms Roche intermittently. I call Senator Doherty.

I want to thank our guests today for not highlighting issues that we were already aware of. The frustration is that we are having the same conversations year in, year out. I say that as a person who was at the table in the Department of Social Protection five or six years ago. To my mind, the wheels of change are very slow. It feels like official Ireland and the patriarchal country that we still live in, whether we like it or not, does not really want the system to change. I recall attending meetings of the European Council with Norwegian, Finnish, Danish and Swedish colleagues who were a generation ahead of us with regard to childcare and gender equality. I always railed against the fact we linked the services we offered women, whether in the workplace or the home, the services we offered children, the interventions from an early perspective and the benefits that we got from women's participation in the workforce. It was done years ago, and a system was enforced where women went back to work so that other women could be paid poorly to mind their children without any regard for the impact on the child. That does not seem like a long time ago. I am of the view that the children should be first and centre, before the gender equality part. I am aware that one comes with the other. I note there is talk of establishing childcare educational campuses in our towns and communities, based off the back of State-owned facilities such as our schools and some larger community crèches. Why can we not advance that model, while still supporting the private home-from-home type model that we have enjoyed for many years in this country? I wonder what the witnesses think of us developing that childcare education campus model in all of our towns and villages. The biggest obstacle to achieving that is the fact that while as a State we pay for the development of the schools and the running of them, we do not own the buildings, and therefore do not control the usage of them. How do the witnesses feel we can get around that particular issue?

That is not an easy question, but it is a most important one. I do not know who would like to respond first.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

I will confess that I had not heard of the idea of an educational campus model. It is really fascinating. There are a few points to consider. If core funding is successful at reducing the cost of childcare to parents, it should increase demand.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

Ideally and hopefully, if all works out, there will be a need for a lot more services around the place. Of course, some will be looking to the local schools and wondering why they cannot build there. The educational campus model sounds really interesting. The Senator has hit the nail on the head. The biggest problem is that the State does not own the buildings. We cannot say that we are going to build a crèche in a particular location. I do not know how we overcome that obstacle, unless there is a lot of engagement and persuasion to ensure that we bring people along with the idea. The way the system is structured at the moment, the boards of management of schools have ultimate discretion as to how the buildings are used. As a model and an idea, the educational campus model seems like an obvious solution if we need more services and we are going to have to build them.

Mr. Damien Peelo

Like Mr. O'Connor, I was not aware of the educational campus model. However, as to how I envisage it, I can see huge advantages to such a model that is accessible and available at a local level. I do not intend to rehash the discussion we had earlier on ownership. We are going through issues of ownership with the new national maternity hospital. Questions are being raised about land, who owns land and how we can build on it. As Mr. O'Connor rightly pointed out, the discussion on the need and desire for the service outweighs the issue of who owns the facilities. While still trying to change that model of ownership, I think we can get round most things. The State owns property and land. When the State is publicly funding services and has a value-based system around what it is trying to achieve, people are willing to come on board with that. However, it is a difficult task and it requires us to think about it. I do not have the answers right now, but I think it is an interesting model to explore. We must look at how to engage with that and how to bring people on board with that model.

Ms Frances Byrne

In Early Childhood Ireland, we look at the issue through two lenses. The first is the child-centred lens. I think some of my colleagues would run a mile if they heard the word "campus" being used. I know that there has been a debate on the issue in bigger countries, such as the US. I have seen the debates myself. I am aware that AT&T and other big employers opened work-based crèches and there were certainly questions as to whether that was a very child-centred approach and whether they were the best places to have crèches. I think Senator Doherty's point was more about schools and using existing school buildings. Of course, it is important to acknowledge that pre-school and after-school services are provided in many of the national schools across the country.

The second point we would make is that because of the lack of planning and because there is nobody with oversight of that piece in the same way there is within the Department of Education, we are advocating for the establishment of the single agency of childcare Ireland to be established as soon as possible. There are crazy situations where a local school will decide to provide services. I am not criticising the schools. Often, such decisions are taken for the best of reasons. Much of the time it is to support children whose parents are coming and going for transport reasons and for work reasons and might have difficulties showing up at school time and so on. The school will offer a service to parents and open a breakfast club or after-school club, when there is a perfectly good crèche down the road that has been operating for 30 years. Suddenly, competition is being introduced. That is why we need planning. We need proper planning through the single agency to look at a particular area and see if the provision of services by schools is feasible. I am not referring to feasibility from a financial point of view. We want public funding going into the sector. The State is funding more and more services, as it should, and it fully funds pre-schools. It is important to say that the ECCE scheme is fully funded. We also have the national childcare scheme and core funding will be introduced. However, we are allowing further development down the road when we know, for example, there are two housing estates in the area and the three-year-olds are going to grow up and we are going to have two crèches. I hope the Senator sees the point I am making. I absolutely hear the Senator. However, it goes back to the previous point. This is not brownfielding Ireland. There are big challenges.

We have had pre-schools in Ireland since the 1950s. Now we have multiple models. Many of the models are really child- and family-centred. Families have engaged with them, whether it is out of choice or because they are looking at the system and becoming aware that it is the reality. Families have engaged with them. That needs to be brought into our conversations and deliberations about future planning. I get the fact that school buildings are empty in the afternoons and evenings. That absolutely needs to be part of the national conversation that we need to have about the issue, as my colleague from SIPTU has described.

Does Senator Doherty have any further follow-up questions?

No, that is great.

I call Deputy Clarke.

We spoke about affordability and availability. I want to return to the accessibility part, particularly outside our major cities. If we are looking at a five-year plan, if we want to be able to give parents certainty and if we are committing to a vision of where we want to be a number of years hence, one of the biggest issues in terms of accessibility is how the child physically gets from the school to the after-school place. The Chair touched on this earlier. Would there be merit in extending the school transport scheme to include not just the child's primary residence, and the criteria that are there are very limited, but also where the child goes to after school, if only for that single journey from the school to the aftercare providers and perhaps not necessarily home if the parent is going to be collecting? It is simply to get the child from the school to the after-school place because otherwise it is not going to be physically possible. My constituency is Longford-Westmeath. There are plenty of parents who live in Longford and work in Athlone or who live in Athlone and work in Mullingar. That is a 45-minute to an hour journey and there is simply no way that a parent is going to be able to get from a school gate to an aftercare provider and then back to work within a lunch hour. The witnesses' opinion on that would be much appreciated.

That is an important and practical question. I will add another before I give you all the last word. It is on the point about accessibility in settings. It is also a very gendered point. We have spoken about workplace crèches in childcare and there was a lot of debate in different workplaces about having workplace crèches and childcare. The difficulty is that if it is typically in the woman's workplace the responsibility is always on the mother to do the pick-up and drop-off. It may not be in the best interests of the child or, indeed, of the family because if there is a two-parent family, the father will not be involved in the pick-up or drop-off and will not be rung by the childcare provider. It comes back to the point Deputy Clarke is making about where parents have a long commute. This is a major issue in commuter counties around Dublin too, more generally. Should the crèche or childcare facility be near the workplace, the home or the school? Do you have any thoughts on that? There is a very interesting gendered point about which of the parents in a two-parent family is going to be responsible for the crèche drop-off and pick-up. It is a crucial, practical point.

I will call Ms Byrne first, followed by Mr. Peelo and Mr. O'Connor. This is the last round.

Ms Frances Byrne

Yes, absolutely, consideration has to be given to transport if it is 45 minutes or an hour from school to crèche. If it is ten minutes or five minutes, as it can be in cities or suburbs, the children cannot bring themselves so many crèche-branded minibuses try to do that, particularly in the cities. Crèches have been addressing it, as have schools. There has been some collaboration.

The Deputy is hitting on an important point because it is not just about what happens within the crèche, although all of that is very important. Again, it goes back to planning. There must be consideration in a rural context, in particular, because of distances and so forth, and that is part of the overall picture, whether that is the Department recognising that through capital funding or the three Departments - Education, Transport and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - coming together to realise it. We are about to invest and we are optimistic, as my colleague from Big Start is, that the core funding is the beginning of major transformation, and that absolutely must be brought into the equation as well.

There is a gender dimension, of course, and I was going to say it earlier. Sometimes we talk up the Nordic countries. I have colleagues and friends who roll their eyes at Irish women, in particular, and say that with all the equality they have, they still get the telephone call from the crèche. My male partner does not get the telephone call from the crèche. I get it, even though the crèche has both names, and the expectation is that I will drop everything. I am not criticising the crèche. It goes back to the societal point. This is hugely gendered, but it is important.

If we are moving towards, as we should and as we have seen, strides being made in respect of urban and rural transport and consideration being given to walking and cycling, obviously all of that has to be done under supervision. All of that must be brought into the equation for children as we build a better, more child-friendly, child-centred and inclusive early years and school age system.

Mr. Damien Peelo

It is an incredibly important issue. As a parent who has suffered from the anxiety of trying to get to the crèche before it closes, arriving to find the child waiting with all the gear and I am the last parent to arrive and getting a little tick because I am late, I know the stress of the distance to travel across the city with traffic. That creates huge anxiety. One of the issues is the accessibility of the crèches and whether they are closer to work. I accept that if it is closer to one parent's area, it is usually that parent who picks up and the other parent does not get that interaction. If it is too far away, there are all those other issues. It is about the flexibility of crèches being available beyond the 6.30 p.m. shut-off, when one's child is dressed and ready to go because every other child is leaving and the parent is late. That creates its own stress for the child and for the parents.

I agree with the Deputy about extending the school transport scheme to look at this. It would be very interesting. As Ms Byrne said, many crèches have had to offer pick-up from school as part of their service. They do not tend to drop home. The pick-up from schools and its extension and seeing this as an educational support as well as a childcare support would be very interesting to take on. I am in the situation where there are two parents and we have transport. One has to think of those in rural areas and one-parent families who do not have access to transport and how this is going to be met. Accessibility is extremely important in this and we need to have further discussions on it.

I will give Mr. O'Connor the last word.

Mr. Darragh O'Connor

I do not have a great deal to add. I will pick up on Ms Byrne's and Senator Doherty's point about planning where we build these. It appears quite obvious that there should be after-school facilities at school. That would be simple. The children just walk across the yard and go there. Yes, there are complications with that as well, but that would solve many of the problems people have.

Ms Frances Byrne

It is not just the local crèche. We will not go into it now as it would not necessarily be a gender equality issue for this committee, but there are many debates among educators about whether homework is part of school age. There is a lot of strong feeling that it should not be and that it should be time for play. Then of course there are parents and all of that. If it is within schools or attached to schools, it almost becomes an automatic thing. I should not be smiling and laughing, but I am because I am thinking of some of my colleagues when I get out of here and what they are going to say if I do not mention this, so I am mentioning it. It is a very serious point, however, about children and time for play and all that. Again, it has to be part of the debate if we are having a completely child-centred conversation. That was our focus, which is what I hope it will be in this committee. Certainly, it seems to be so far. All the questions have been rooted in that. We have been watching the committee's deliberations. Are schools the best place for after-school and if they are, how are we going to break the day for children so they do not feel they are still in school? That must be part of the debate and the consideration, as well as all the financial, practical and planning issues. We must bring the needs and rights of children to this, and hear their voices and what they think about walking from one building to another.

That is a nice, positive note on which to finish. When looking at the Citizens' Assembly recommendations related to children we are very conscious of the need to ensure children's rights and a child-centred approach would inform our deliberations, as they informed the assembly's deliberations.

I thank Mr. Darragh O'Connor from Big Start, Mr. Damien Peelo and Ms Mary Roche from Treoir and Ms Frances Byrne from Early Childhood Ireland for your contributions and your constructive and positive engagement. You have given us a great deal of food for thought and assisted us in our deliberations. We are very grateful for that. I thank you for attending today.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.20 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Thursday, 16 June 2022.