Child Care Services: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Eireann condemns the Government for its failure to address the crises of supply of and access to childcare services; and demands that the issue be dealt with immediately in the Social Partnership talks and in the forthcoming Finance Bill.

This is an important issue which is frequently debated in this House. I and other Senators from both sides have raised the issue on more than one occasion because there is a child care crisis, identified last year by a committee established by the Minister's Department, which produced a fine report, the National Childcare Strategy. In the introduction to that report, the chairperson of the group, Sylda Langford, said what we have all known for a long time – that there was a virtual crisis in child care supply. We know from our experience and the anecdotal evidence of friends and parents that this crisis has worsened.

We thought the child care issue had finally made it to the top of the Government agenda in time for it to be dealt with in the budget. There was a widespread expectation that a major initiative would be announced in the budget – a set of packages designed to meet the extraordinary increase in demand for child care because of the increase in the number of women, particularly married women, and parents participating in the workforce. Media reports clearly indicated the major disappointment at the lack of provision for child care in the budget. We have tabled this motion to bring attention to the child care crisis.

It is a time of unprecedented growth. I am not the first to say that – it is becoming a cliché at this stage. Someone on the other side will ask why we did not do something when we were in Government. I am sick and tired of listening to that argument which the following statistics will dispel. In 1996, the budget surplus was £15 million. We considered ourselves extremely lucky to have a budget surplus of that size. Three years later the comparable figure which is available to the Government to spend is £1,850 million. I do not want the Government telling me this issue cannot be tackled.

The Childcare 2000 group, a broad umbrella group representing those in the child care industry and those requiring child care, asked the Government to spend £500 million on child care – this is now overdue and badly needed. We got £46 million – an £8 increase in child benefit for the first two children, £10 for the third and capital allowances for those providing child care places, a system which only benefits large employers capable of generating large child care provision rather than small child care providers. In the past few months, I have heard of community crèches, especially on housing estates, closing down or doubling their fees, creating an even greater problem for parents as the crisis grows.

Against this background, the Government has failed to deliver. It has produced a budget which has benefited employers instead of what we need, which is a massive increase in places where children can be cared for, which parents can afford and which are staffed by trained, well-paid staff, located in the community and the workplace, along with a flexible approach to working time for both parents and adequate child benefit to help the lower paid, large families and single parents. I will not be entirely negative. I acknowledge that a provision of £46 million was announced in the budget, with an expectation of more. I am also aware that a considerable sum of money is being targeted at the provision of child care in the community, through the health boards and the partnerships. There appears to be a vague sense of what can, should and will be done. A lack of clear vision and policy is evident.

This Government defined itself very well in this budget, particularly as regards child care. It defined itself as a Government which has effectively abandoned the needs of the children of working parents by forcing their mothers into the workforce with a tax system which rewards those who go to work, not those who choose to stay at home. This Government will be known as one which has put the demands of employers and the labour force first and the needs of children last. I hope this Government will not be known as one which missed a unique opportunity to finally put in place, at a time when we can afford it, a system of child care based in the community and built around the needs of parents and the community in which they live, rather than the labour force where they are seen as unit.

The National Childcare Strategy recognises that the past two decades have seen a preponderance of reports on this issue, of which I think the strategy is probably one of the best. Enough recommendations have been made – this document is full of them. Considering the size of the working group, one must congratulate it for reaching agreement in a diverse range of sensible provisions, some with which I would not entirely agree. There have been enough task forces, subcommittees and working groups, particularly expert working groups. Action now needs to be taken and money spent. We are calling for the issue to be dealt with in the context of the social partnership model and hope that the partnership will not break down as a result of the pay issue. Considering the range of recommendations and issues that need to be addressed, it is our belief that it is within the social partnership model that one can get agreement on the wide range of actions necessary. I appeal to the Minister to ensure when putting in place a child care strategy that we use it, particularly at this point in our history, to generate very high quality child care in the community, particularly for those who cannot afford to invest in child care by virtue of being low paid or parents who are not in the workplace, but whose children would derive such enormous benefit from a good quality child care system based on their needs and the needs of the community. We know from research carried out elsewhere that investment in good quality and accessible child care in the community, particularly in disadvantaged areas, yields huge gains down the road. Studies carried out in poorer communities in America have shown that investment in early education and good quality child care has paid off, particularly in reduced crime rates. I am sure the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has taken this evidence on board and I hope he will implement it.

I would like to say something about how child care has become centred around the needs of the labour force. For the last two decades many groups have attempted to put child care on top of the political agenda and, in general, have failed to do so. It is only now that the demands of employers and the needs of the labour force are paramount that we are looking for ways of getting women into the workforce. Employers are on their knees, begging the Government to do something to get women into the workforce rather than looking at the needs of children and parents. Side by side with any child care strategy must be the introduction of a system of flexible working. We are just now discovering that the other side of the Celtic tiger is a reduced quality of life for families in particular. The high level of stress involved in travelling to work, competing in the workforce, returning home, barely seeing the children, leaving the children possibly in child care facilities with which parents are not entirely happy, has raised for many parents the question of whether they should continue to work.

Now is the time to take a leadership role on flexible working and introduce it on a statutory basis outside of the public service. I am aware it is available in the public service. It is extremely popular and is used, as was expected and is the experience in other countries, by over 90% of women who have children of schoolgoing age. I appeal to the Minister to look at flexible working for parents, together with a series of initiatives on child care.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his latitude and look forward with great expectation to a proper initiative on the needs of children, their parents and the community.

Mr. Ryan

I second the motion. As I look around at the Members of the Seanad I realise that this is not predominantly a women's issue, it is a family issue. The fact that the issue is articulated by women is perhaps a commentary on role models and the way in which people have fulfilled their role. However limited my fulfilment of that obligation has been, I have been married for over 20 years, both of us have been out working since then and, to my great delight, my wife is better paid than I am. I have never had this problem that men are supposed to have; in fact, I wish she earned twice as much because then I could give up work altogether. I will come back to the issue of income later.

This is an issue about family and the way in which we organise ourselves, and there are two routes to go. As the Leader of the Labour Party has said on many occasions, we are at a point of making a choice – do we follow the civilised route or do we follow the ruthless route of the United States? We either use the power and resources available to the State to facilitate civilised living by families, parents and children or we go the other route and assume that the acquisition of more and more material goods, centred around eternally reducing tax rates, is an alternative to which we aspire. The evidence of most countries is that that route has brought women in particular, because of the unequal roles, very little satisfaction. The evidence is that women in particular in successful careers are stressed out and exhausted as a result of the burden of carrying two responsibilities. This is a reproach to men but it is also a reproach to society. We may not be able to reform men as easily as we can reform society, nevertheless, we can address the issue. We all have rights but some of them, in the case of women in particular, were suppressed for many thousands of years and we have only in the last 30 or 40 years begun to address them. Among our rights is the right to marry and have children. We also have a right to a chosen career and to work inside or outside the home. This right applies to both partners in a relationship. It should not be perceived as one against the other.

The issue is not just about services for child care; it is also about those who make demands for more and more in the labour force, particularly the employer organisations who keep saying that the State should provide tax breaks for them and for parents. Has it not dawned on them that perhaps they should provide family friendly work? In desperation, many of them are now offering part-time hours and so on but that will only last as long as there is a labour shortage. Employers do not accept that they have an obligation in society to facilitate their workforce to have decent careers and a family life as well; family needs are not their concern. Every minuscule progress made by people at work in terms of their right to time off with their family, whether it be unpaid paternal leave for fathers and so on, produces a whinge from IBEC about the undermining of our half-mythological competitiveness. Competitiveness as defined by them is a myth because it has as much to do with quality as with price. The civilised countries of Europe, mainly the Nordic countries, have a seamless relationship between work and family. This facilitates parents to take long periods off work as they need it, with generous support from the State. It facilitates fathers to take time off work to support mothers during the difficult period immediately before and after childbirth. This facilitates families in dealing with the most difficult issue of all, which is that children, God bless them, are entirely unpredictable. What is one to do the morning one wants to go to work if one's children are all sick? What does one do? A flexible, intelligent employer will recognise that their employees have family responsibilities, but there are many employers who would not accept it is their problem if children suddenly get sick. There is nothing more distressing for a parent than the enormous pressure that arises at 8.30 a.m. when both parents are going to work and there are sick children at home.

Unless this is built into the structure of child care in the State, simple gestures like better child care and tax allowances will not get to the nub of the issue, which is, as Senator O'Meara said, the flexibility of employers in recognising that their employees have lives separate from their jobs. The real issue is family friendly work and that is a matter of definition of our values. Of course it involves proper provision of child care, but we will not do that with £46 million. A proper system of State-funded child care of the kind that civilised European countries operate will cost us about £0.5 billion and having such a system is a correct and admirable aspiration. However, that in itself will not solve the problem, nor will it eliminate the stress and hassle for parents. There will have to be a succession of back-up facilities together with flexibility in work written into workers' protection legislation so that they cannot be penalised for looking after their children. It is not just about money. There must be a clear recognition of people's conflicting loyalties between family and work. If we do not do that, we can have the most elaborate system of child care but we will not eliminate the stress factor.

There is a subsidiary issue which relates to the present system of child care. To the extent to which it exists it seems to be based on thede facto impoverishment of a section of women in Irish society. Even if they are on social welfare, most of us would regard the combination of social welfare payments and payments for child care they receive as profoundly inadequate and that is not the solution either. The solution is a deliberate decision to have work and family responsibilities recognised as two sides of civilised living. Most men and women today have no desire to stay full-time in the home. Most of them have an equal desire to have a decent and satisfying family life. That requires money to provide child care resources. It also requires laws and a statement of values that recognise that people's humanity is as important in the economy as gross domestic product. That is one of the issues that arises in child care. We have moved from being a country that was obsessed with growth to a country which must now become obsessed with the use of growth to give our people a worthwhile quality of life. The way the children of those at work are looked after is central to that.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:

"commends the priority given to child care in the National Development Plan, the substantially increased funding provided in the budget for child care and the measures being taken to co-ordinate the delivery of child care services.

I reserve my right to speak.

I am acutely aware of the need for quality child care provision in Ireland today and the Government has demonstrated its commitment to developing quality child care services nationally through a range of measures, including substantially increased funding supports, facilitating consultation with representatives of all of the stakeholders involved to inform policy development and facilitating co-ordination of child care service delivery.

A particular feature of Ireland's booming economy has been the increasing participation of women in the labour force and this has led to increased demand for child care services. The historical system of child care provision in Ireland, in which the mother or close family relative was the principal child care provider, no longer applies to the same extent as previously. As more women take up employment, training and educational opportunities, the pool of people willing to mind children shrinks, leading to difficulties for parents in marrying their working lives with their family responsibilities. It is with this in mind that the Government has been working towards developing child care which will meet diverse child care needs.

I acknowledge that in many ways Ireland is less advanced than some of our European neighbours in this area but would point out that the developments undertaken in those countries also occurred during their periods of economic growth. The Government recognises that child care is a complex issue and has responded by facilitating consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders in order to develop a national child care strategy. My Department chaired the Partnership 2000 expert working group on child care which comprised over 70 members representing relevant Departments, statutory bodies, social partners, non-governmental organisations, providers, parents and individuals with expertise and interest in the area of child care. They met over 18 months and commissioned research to assist them with their deliberations. On 3 February 1999 I launched the group's report, which set out 27 recommendations covering financial supports for providers and parents, regulations, planning, training, qualifications, employment and co-ordination.

The group's recommendations have since been evaluated, costed and prioritised by the interdepartmental committee on child care which was also chaired by my Department. The committee also considered the child care proposals in the Government's Action Programme for the Millen nium and the reports of the Commission on the Family and the National Forum for Early Childhood Education. The committee has reported back to Government and its recommendations are currently under consideration.

My Department has had a role in funding the development of child care facilities since 1994 within its remit for equality. Funding supports were initially provided through a pilot child care initiative targeted at services in disadvantaged areas which could provide low cost child care to parents, particularly women, facilitating them to access employment, training and education opportunities. The initiative was evaluated in 1997, leading to the development of the equal opportunities programme in 1998 which has supported a large number of services nationally. In July 1998 I announced funding of over £6 million, combining EU and Exchequer moneys, for the operation of the programme for the two year period 1998 and 1999. The programme provided funds from an equal opportunities and social inclusion perspective under a broader range of initiatives than its predecessor, including capital grants for the establishment, upgrading and enhancement of facilities which I approved for 106 community based child care projects, grants towards the cost of two senior child care personnel in each of 25 flagship community based projects, funding for an employer demonstration initiative which was developed in conjunction with IBEC to stimulate employer involvement and interest in developing child care services for their employees – to date funding has been approved for eight consortia involving 21 employers – and the development of a national child care census and database providing information in relation to child population and the level of supply of child care in group based facilities on a county by county basis. The database will inform future policy development.

In June 1999, my Department succeeded in obtaining additional funding from the European Social Fund under the Human Resources Development Operational Programme which, including Exchequer funding, increased the programme's budget by a further £5 million. This funding was secured to enhance the equal opportunities child care programme by assisting training and development for community support and capital projects already receiving funding under the programme, partnerships and community groups supported by the Local Urban and Rural Development Operational Programme, supporting the development of national voluntary child care organisations, such as Barnardos, An Comhchoiste Reamhscolaíochta Teoranta, St. Nicholas Montessori Society, the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association, the National Childminding Association of Ireland and the National Children's Nursery Association, research into the development of family friendly policies for small and medium enterprises, the enhancement of the national child care database and child care train ing for staff in crèche facilities in drug treatment centres.

The Government believes that investment in the development of child care services must be addressed as a priority. This is particularly true in disadvantaged areas if parents in those areas wish to avail of opportunities to access employment, training and education to break the cycle of disadvantage. Child care was identified as a priority area for investment under the national development plan resulting in an allocation of £250 million to my Department over the course of the plan, 2000 to 2006. Never before has there been such a significant investment in child care service provision which acknowledges the need to create more child care places and improve the quality of services.

The substantial funding planned for the next seven years will pave the way to building up child care service provision which will benefit children, parents, communities and society in general. Last December I announced the framework for implementing supports over the period the national development plan, which includes expansion of the equal opportunities child care programme including funding for capital grants for community based child care facilities, grants towards staffing costs for community based child care services, training supports, supports to enhance the national voluntary child care organisations, building on previous initiatives, for example, further development of the national child care census and database; innovative flexible initiatives, which promote the development of child care facilities for children with special needs and services in areas of particular disadvantage, grants towards the development of local child care network initiatives, which will provide training, support and advice to providers who would otherwise operate in isolation and a new capital grant scheme for child care providers caring for up to 30 child care places.

The plan will enable my Department to provide for the further development and expansion of child care facilitates, which addresses the needs of men and women in reconciling their child care needs with their participation in employment, training and education. It will support objectives such as the provision of diverse child care which meets the needs of the child, increase the number of trained personnel working in child care and improve co-ordination and deliver of child care.

Other Departments are also involved in funding the development of child care. As announced by my colleague the Minister for Finance in budget 2000, funding of more than £11 million has been allocated to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for the development of community based out of school hours services, the Department of Education and Science for grants to school managements to develop after school care and the Department of Health and Children for advisory services for child care service providers.

It should also be noted that the Department of Education and Science also has a budget of more than £2 million comprising ESF and Exchequer funding for a scheme which supports the child care costs of participants in VTOS, Youthreach and senior Traveller programmes. FÁS is also involved in the provision of child care training at community level for people working in a voluntary or paid capacity and it works closely with my Department on the provision of training to personnel in child care projects funded by the Department. In addition, my Department is represented on the FÁS-social partners steering group which is developing a traineeship for child care workers.

Changes announced in the budget mean that the child care sector can also benefit from tax relief on capital expenditure by availing of 100% accelerated capital allowances in the first year as opposed to spreading the allowance over seven years as was previously the case. The relief applies to all child care facilities whether provided by employers or commercial child care operators. They can also be availed of by investors who wish to invest by way of leasing arrangements.

The Government is conscious that child care has developed on anad hoc basis to date and that changing circumstances require a more co-ordinated approach that will benefit from the wealth of information gained from recent research and reports in the area. Last December, therefore, the Government assigned responsibility for co-ordinating child care services delivery to my Department. The structures that have been established or are in the process of being established to meet these needs include an interdepartmental committee at assistant secretary level to focus on child care policy which will be chaired by my Department and a national co-ordinating child care committee to oversee the development of a child care infrastructure in an integrated manner throughout the country. The committee has been established with effect from 17 December 1999 and has had two meetings to date. It is chaired by my Department and members comprise representatives of the statutory and non-statutory sectors, including the social partners. Another structure is the county child care committees, which will advance the provision of child care facilities within the local areas. The committees will be led by the relevant health boards and membership will comprise local representatives of the statutory and non-statutory sectors.

The roles and responsibilities of each element of the structure will evolve over time and local needs should dictate what structures are most appropriate at local level. The structures will provide a means for effective planning and targeting of resources where they are most needed. In addition to the co-ordinating child care service delivery, we are working with other Departments on specific issues that are relevant to the development of services.

Planning permission for child care service provision has been identified as an area of concern for child care service development in some cases. The Department of the Environment and Local Government has established a committee to produce planning guidelines which will assist developers, builders, child care service providers and the planning authorities in their efforts to make suitable provision for child care in their development plans. My Department is represented on the committee which also includes representation from the planning authorities, health boards and the Department of Health and Children.

The future development of our child care services will benefit from this co-ordinated approach and these structures will be instrumental in facilitating child care provision in Ireland for the life of the national development plan. It should also enable Ireland to meet its commitments to child care in the context of the national employment action plan and the national development plan.

The overriding objectives of the initiatives I outlined are to increase the number of child care places in private and community sectors and to improve the quality of child care available across the country over the term of the national development plan. I am confident initiatives being put into place will achieve these objectives and that the next seven years will see the development of a diverse child care system within Ireland that will meet the needs and expectations of parents.

It is important to underline that quality child care provision plays a major part in the development of our children. The changes in child care provision required in the new economic reality of our country must protect and enhance our children's future. The Government is committed to ensuring all the developments in child care over the course of the national development plan will have, at their heart, the interests of our children.

While I appreciate the Minister has been in the House for a long time, I hope he will listen to what I have to say. I speak on child care from the perspective of my experience as a teacher of early childhood education and a former chairperson of the National Playgroups Association.

An article inThe Irish Times the other day states that the fledgling administration in the North has provided £38 million for preschools in Northern Ireland. The heading of the article reads “£38 million for preschools in Northern Ireland”. The article states that the £38 million sterling cash grant will secure 9,000 free new preschool education places in the North. It states the allocation will bring the number of free nursery places to almost 19,000 in the statutory, voluntary and private school sectors. It also states that this means that by next year 85% of preschool children will be able to take up a free place. This is a fledgling administration. While I appreciate there will be many cross-Border initiatives and we will exchange views and learn from each other, I hope a rapid learning process will take place on the provision of child care.

I also refer the Minister to the latest National Economic and Social Council publication in December 1999, entitled Opportunities, Challenges and Capacities for Choice. It states on page 288 that the council is placing emphasis on the provision of child care as a means of increasing labour market adaptability and employability. I acknowledge that was one of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy's hopes, but I do not know if he listened to the people because he did not go about it the right way.

All Members are aware – I am sure the Minister is tired hearing about it – of problems in relation to the supply of child care. Members are lobbied constantly because of the shortages. The 1996 Act decreased the number of places, although that was in the main for the best possible reason of the provision of better physical facilities. I am sure the Minister is aware of another problem with regard to the provision of child care facilities. It does not appear that a definitive guideline has been issued to local authorities regarding smaller facilities, some of which are attached to houses – some people are getting permission for them while others are not . There does not appear to be any particular rule on why some are getting it. I am not referring to the need for a fire officer's report, etc., but it involves a loss in terms of the number of places for the people using such facilities. In some cases, the facilities could continue in operation.

On the cost of child care, the NESC report states that costs in Ireland are the fifth highest in Europe. If one was a mother in France or Belgium, one would not pay anything. One will not have to pay anything in Northern Ireland but I checked this morning and some crèches in Blackrock charge £120 a week for full day, comprehensive care for each child. Some people charge £50 a week but it is obvious that it would not be worthwhile for some women to re-enter the workforce. Their family income would fall if they returned to work because of these costs.

I have a certain sympathy with the cost factor inasmuch as it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit trained, thoughtful and responsible child care workers. Many of those who are trained are married women, but they are encountering the same cul-de-sac in that they cannot put their children into child care facilities because they do not exist.

The position is similar to the annual school report which states that one is good but must do better. Nobody is criticising anybody personally but Ireland has a burgeoning economy and many extra jobs, but a decreasing number of child care places. The equation will not balance. With regard to young, single mothers, the Minister emphasised FÁS programmes. There is always provision for children on such courses which is great because it means people can participate in them. However, once the course is finished, the women find themselves back in the same position.

It would be desirable for many young mothers with one child to re-enter the workforce. However, they cannot do so because the lists for free nursery facilities are miles long in areas of urban deprivation. There is no way one will access it under any circumstances. A barrier is being created by not having the facilities to ensure re-entry to the workforce at several different levels. This barrier affects mothers who want to re-enter the workforce, single people and others who cannot afford child care under any circumstances because it is too expensive.

Another problem is highlighted in theFamily Observer, which is a European publication. It is a matter for some thought because it states that fertility rates are likely to drop. The thesis is that Europe will be short of children in the next century. Our child care crisis could be solved by not having children at all. The mean age of Europe is currently 39.3 years and it is likely to reach a mean of 45 years by 2030. One of the main reasons for this is the drop in the fertility rate and the publication states that influencing fertility rates is a possible way for Governments to curb ageing populations.

We have all thought about how our older citizens – hopefully we will all be one at some stage – will be supported when there is a greatly reduced workforce. One example is not to support families or provide the necessary facilities for people to have and rear children properly. In Austria the Government abolished a payment for families and there was a subsequent 10% decrease in the fertility rate. It is obvious that public policy can affect fertility levels. One might think it is odd of me to raise this aspect when there are obvious signs of fertility in Ireland, and even, happily, in this Chamber, but it would be bad for the country. We read about comely or handsome maidens dancing at the crossroads.

Comely maidens.

We will all be too old to dance, although we may be shuffling around nursing homes, and there may be a small young population. Such a development would be undesirable. It is another possible off-shoot of not putting money into supporting child care facilities which are necessary given the enormous distances people must travel to work. It is an unreal existence to take a child out at 6.30 a.m. and return home at 8 p.m. It is bad for families and couples. It is also extremely bad for children and we should be able to do better locally. Perhaps the answer lies with local authorities and the provision in any major building development of a child care facility on site when houses are built.

Ireland is great at commissioning reports but it is also great at ignoring the advice given in them. The Commission on the Family, which was established initially by the former Minister, Proinsias De Rossa, and continued by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, was greatly welcomed. I attended the launch and everything was to be done for families. It was stated:

Principal to the unique and essential family function is that of caring and nurturing for all its members. It is in the family context that a person's basic needs for security, belonging, support and intimacy are satisfied. These are especially important for children.

The Minister and I know that many children are not having that experience. Good child care would assist them greatly in their development as adults.

I thank the Labour Party for giving us this opportunity to discuss once again the issue of child care. I agree with Senator Ryan that it is not only a women's issue, although that is occasionally the perception. It is a family issue and also an issue for business and society. The attendance of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, who has overall responsibility in his Department for this matter, is indicative of the Government's commitment to addressing the issue of child care.

I do not suggest that we have done it all, got it right and everything is perfect. As Members of the Opposition are aware, that is not my opinion. However, I am honest enough to say that we are making moves in a direction that will lead us on the path we all want to follow. These moves will ensure family friendly work practices and that child centred child care facilities are available to all those, whether they are mothers or fathers, who choose to use them. It will also ensure that proper facilities, stimulation and encouragement are provided to future generations to enable them to continue to move forward and maintain our economic growth. Without continued economic growth and performance we will not be in a position to pay for the care and supports needed for the less well off in society.

What annoys me about the Labour Party is its pretence that its cares about child care. Its members condemn the Government for its failure to address the crisis of supply and access to child care services. They sniffle at the £250 million in the national development plan and say it does not show commitment. They laugh at the £46 million provided in the budget for a number of initiatives which I will address later. They laugh at the idea that an increase in child benefit, which is not means tested or taxed, is paid directly to the person looking after the child, be it the mother or the father but generally the mother. Irrespective of their status it is increased by £8 per month for the first and second child and by £10 per month for the third and subsequent children. For a family of four children the increase amounts to £197 per month or £2,364 per annum paid, tax free. I am not suggesting that is enough but it is an indication of the Government's commitment.

We speak about access to crèche facilities. Everybody here knows you can flood a problem with money and still not solve it. The Government takes the view that if the number of child care places can be increased through the involvement of the private sector, employers and the Government, that is the way to address the issue. We must address not only the physical space, the room and facilities which the children will use but provide adequately trained personnel to work in this area. We are taking the issue seriously and working down that particular route. Training is vitally important. Continued development of facilities is vitally important. A grant scheme of £10 million for capital upgrading of facilities is a commitment in that area and it is not only for the big rich employers or the big child care facilities but for child care facilities for up to 20 children. There is a belief that, if there are more than 20 children in a child care facility, out of the profit one may make in running it one should be able to provide the capital expenditure. A sum of £46 million has been allocated to increase supply, £23 million to expand the equal opportunities child care programme, the £10 million grant scheme already mentioned, £2 million for local child care network initiatives – focusing on the community and the value it has to offer in the development of society, our children and future generations – £5 million to schools to run and provide afterschool child care services, £5 million to community groups to provide the same type of services and £1.4 million to health boards which play a role in advising and co-ordinating services within their areas.

We recognise this problem will not be solved by the Government alone. No problem can be solved in that way. The Minister has provided for 100% capital allowances in year one expended on construction or refurbishment of premises. Some people may say that is not enough. I have experience of putting together a cashflow plan and a building plan for developing a child care facility as an employer. When I looked at the seven year pay back on capital allowances it did not make sense. Irrespective of how one might condemn businesses, because they are not interested in being family run and family friendly, if they do not make money to pay their employees there is not much point in having a business because they have no jobs to go to. A 100% capital allowance on the first year of capital allowances makes is feasible for small and medium sized organisations to think about providing child care facilities for their employees near the place of work. That type of initiative should be applauded. We need more of it and we need encouragement from employers. That is the way forward.

When I speak of the hypocrisy of the Labour Party, I refer to Deputy Michael Higgins who had the audacity on a national programme to speak about and compare child care facilities to carparks and carpark allowances.

It is not appropriate to refer to Members of the other House here.

If he was careful about what he said, I would have not have to do that.

He cannot defend himself in this House, no more than I would like him to listen to the Senator.

Perhaps I could ask Senator O'Meara to explain if it is Labour Party policy—

It is Government policy.

Senator Cox without interruption, please.

—and if it is acceptable to say you park your children at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 7 p.m? Is it acceptable for someone to cast such a slur on working parents who, as Senator O'Meara rightly said, have the stress of taking their children to work and collecting them and wondering if one is doing the right thing? It is hypocritical to use children as pawns in this political game. I regret that that happens time and again. I do not say Fianna Fáil has not been similarly guilty in the past. We have been, and I accept it.

One good thing about this debate is that it makes us think about proactive things we can do and proactive suggestions we can make to the Department. The issue is the reconciliation of work and family life and an acceptance that family life is one of the most important aspects of the community and without it we are going nowhere. Child friendly work hours are vital. We must seek statutory requirements, as stated by Senator O'Meara, to ensure job-sharing, flexible work hours, mother friendly or parent friendly work. Perhaps we should look towards payment for parental leave. When the parental leave legislation was being debated there were calls for paid parental leave. I defended the fact that it was not paid on the basis that it should be introduced and found to work and that employers would have an opportunity to see how it works in practice. We can then move slowly towards ensuring that down the road people will not lose financially by taking time off.

There should be more expenditure on infrastructure. I refer to the £250 million available under the national development plan. It would be marvellous if in the next budget the Minister for Finance could provide computers for women at home, whose children are at school, and ISDN lines to every house in country. This would enable people to work from home while the children are at school, contribute to the economy and be at home for their children when they return from school. A little imagination would go a long way. If the key focus is not child centred and family based it does not matter how much money is put into it. I agree with the Opposition that this is not just an issue for women, the Government or employers but for all of us.

I agree with Senator Cox that this is not just an issue for women. Not for one instant do I blame the Minister for leaving the House and leaving us in the excellent hands of his Minister of State, Deputy Wallace. There are three women on this side, three women on the Government side and a woman taking the debate. I am grateful that one of the officials is a man – I hope the ushers will stay – but this matter is looked on as a women's issue. No matter what one says we will have token men say things about it. I hope Senator Ryan will forgive me for saying that. Often I have heard that it is not just a women's issue, yet I find that the running must be made by women.

The Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, will remember she and I spent a great deal of time trying to do something about getting a crèche in the House. Does she remember when we were tramping all over the place, going from location to location, trying to get a crèche established? I would be interested to know if there will be a crèche in the new block. At the time there was demand for a crèche and it was not just women who worked within the Leinster House complex who were looking for facilities for their children; it was also men who worked here. Until we set our own house in order in this regard, we should be careful about castigating other employers on not having done as much as we feel they should do. How careful are we about flexi-time and being agreeable if people have sick children, etc.? Often I do not think we are the very best. I would like to see us putting our own house in order before we tell people in other businesses what they should do.

Senator Ridge is correct that there have been incredible changes in the demography of Europe in the past generation, but the changes in Ireland have been nothing short of staggering. Until 1972, married women could not work within the public service; they had to resign. Here we are beseeching them to come back into every form of employment so we can run the country. A few weeks ago I wrote on this topic inThe Irish Times and I was fascinated to get a letter from a childless constituent asking why childless people should have to support child care with their taxes. What on earth did he think would happen in his old age? Who was going to drive the buses and who would be the nurses? Who would run the services, not to mind generate the economic growth?

This is an issue which concerns everybody here. I feel so sympathetic to young married women nowadays because we used to have a situation just 20 years ago where about 25% of them worked outside the home and now 50% do so. The percentage of young married mothers who are working is much higher.

There has been a huge change of course in the family size. The average family size is about two, which is just about the replacement rate. Indeed, the total fertility rate of women in Ireland has fallen to just under two from about four one generation ago. It is a staggering change. We are having to catch up with the infrastructural needs which these changes have brought about because unlike in the past we do not have extended families to mind children if women were going out to work. There are huge changes which have taken place and we must insist on a change within the infrastructure so that they can be accommodated.

The last budget made an attempt to address the issue. I applaud the support given for training, in particular. Senator Ridge spoke of the need for quality child care. It is no good if it is just a child-parking service. I will not go into the details of that but I would not be in favour of any sort of child-parking service. It must be quality child care and, unless there are trained personnel, it will not be very useful.

I acknowledge that child benefit was increased in the budget, but I would like to have seen it greatly increased. For many poorly paid women – many women are very poorly paid – the only way they will be in a position to pay for quality child care is by getting decent child benefit. Many of them are working in the services industries, which are not well paid but which are essential. They are also working in some of our burgeoning industries which require the input of a great deal of labour but which again are not highly paid. Unless there is an adequate amount of money to make it worth their while to go out to work after they have paid for child care, it will not do any good.

I am delighted of course to see the support for training, as I said, but I wonder if we could not go a little further in elevating the status of those who work in the child care industry. Unfortunately, as somebody said to me recently, people in Ireland should go around with their salaries stencilled on their foreheads because nowadays the main source of kudos is what one is paid, not the social responsibility one has in one's job or the contribution one makes to the community. Child care workers are not well paid. It is a labour intensive industry. I think the regulations require one to have one worker per three children under six months and then the ratio increases to one per six older children and eventually to about one per ten.

The setting up of crèches, as Senator Cox obviously discovered, is very costly. The budget concentrated on the bricks and mortar of setting up these crèches rather than also looking at the personnel within the crèches and how they could be helped. I would like to see tax relief in this area. I could get tax relief for employing a chauffeur because he would be my employee but if one employs somebody to mind one's children, one cannot avail of tax relief. This seems a little odd. If the person pays PRSI and levies and is in the tax net, would it not raise the stature of the job and encourage people to pay the person a little more if they could get tax relief on it or on the fees paid to registered crèches? I cannot see why this seems such a hot potato for the Government because these are people who are genuinely working within the workforce. They deserve better recognition for the work they are doing and those who employ them should be entitled to tax relief.

I agree that more flexible work practices would be a great help. Last year we enacted useful legislation for parental leave andforce majeure leave. However, women in particular, because it is always the woman who must take the time off work, are very reluctant because they see their jobs in danger. I had my children even before there was maternity leave. Having worked until the day before one was born and gone back eight days later, I think the improvements which have been made have been more than worthwhile but there would be a better workforce if one made even better conditions of employment. I would suggest this is the sort of area at which we must look next. We should try to make it an acceptable feature of life that one has these two unfortunate children, as most people only have two nowadays. Surely if we are to bring up a generation of Irish citizens who are worthwhile for the State, we must concentrate on the early part of their career.

On a point of order, I observe that there is not a quorum. I note that there is not one man in this Chamber. We have spoken about the fact that this is a family and societal issue, yet there are only female Members contributing. We should get some of our male colleagues in here.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Apart from me.

I observed your presence, a Leas-Chathaoirligh.

Notice taken that 12 Members were not present; House counted and 12 Members being present,

I welcome the gentlemen who have joined us for the debate. It is a measure of the value we put on their judgment and their decision-making powers that we invited them to be here to listen to what we, as women, have been saying on this fundamentally important issue of child care. A previous speaker mentioned the fact that the Minister of State who is present in the House happens to be a woman. In this instance, I am particularly pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, is here.

On a point of order, could I be excused to go home to read my child's bedtime story?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I do not think that is a point of order.

I would like to respond but since I have only eight minutes I will not do so. In the context of this debate, I am particularly pleased the Minister of State is here. Since her appoint ment she has devoted an enormous amount of time, effort and expertise to developing her equal opportunities brief. Child care is a key element in the equal opportunities agenda.

It is far from true to claim, as this motion does, that the Government has failed to tackle the issue of child care. It is true, however, that Ireland is regrettably far behind other European countries in providing a proper child care system. Until now we have had an informal system of child care that has largely developed in an unregulated way and which is inadequate to meet present day demands. The executive summary of the report of the expert working group on child care, which was published only last year, states that "there is now a virtual crisis in child care supply". That was the base from which the Government had to build a system of child care. The report of the interdepartmental committee said the most urgent need was to increase the number of child care places. It was not the only need but it was the most urgent one. I wanted to make that point for Senator Henry who said there was too much emphasis on bricks and mortar in the budget provisions. I assume that was because this was identified as the most urgent need.

The Minister – no doubt with an input from the Minister of State – responded by announcing a £46 million package to deal with the supply of child care. The details of that package have already been outlined by Senator Cox in what I felt was a very thoughtful contribution and one from which I benefited. The £46 million package lays a fairly firm foundation for addressing the infrastructural deficit that existed until now. I am confident that it will be a major factor in helping us to build a sustainable, affordable and accessible child care system.

The requirement to dramatically increase the availability of such facilities in the community and in the workplace will need much more money. As well as that, it will need much more innovation in the years ahead. It requires new thinking as well as extra resources to tackle this very real problem on our doorsteps. The Leader of my party, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, in her role as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, has more than once set out to encourage employers to see greater provision of child care facilities "as a crucial investment in their workforce". That is the beginning of right thinking, the kind of thinking that will have to take root. In many ways we need cultural changes as well as economic provision if proper, accessible child care is to become available. The Tánaiste is correct when she says it is an important element.

Currently there is much emphasis on human resources but the employee must be seen as a member of a family. In making provision for a person's well-being at a human level one must see them as part of a family. The well-being of the total family is important to the well-being of the individual. The Tánaiste is correct when she says so and I hope those listening to her will respond. Employers must see child care facilities not as an extra cost but as a key ingredient in the workplace of the 21st century in which everyone's needs, no matter how diverse, will be taken fully into account.

Tax incentives in the past two budgets contain measures to encourage companies to provide on-site child care facilities. That shows that there is new thinking and a firm commitment on the part of my party to make that contribution to the totality of initiatives that must be taken to provide proper child care. We should have a national strategy and I am glad that measures are in train to put such a strategy in place. A national strategy has to be implemented at local level, however. I am glad that county and, hopefully, city committees will be set up so that the national strategy will be put in place locally. That is the best way to look after the delivery of such services.

From now on crèches should be provided in housing estates as an in-built part of such developments. We are beginning to realise that in building estates we ought to be building neighbourhoods and thinking in terms of putting in branch libraries, health care centres and child care facilities. That would avoid the ridiculous spectacle of women driving their children miles to a crèche near their workplace. That involves time and hardship, and it contributes to traffic congestion. There is no justification for it.

Training for child care workers is as important as the provision of places for children. Child care workers do not have a recognised status in the community because of the informal way in which the system has developed here. We need to set up a national qualifications framework to establish standards for accreditation so that child care workers would have a recognised professional status, education, skills and a qualification which would give them access to proper remuneration. Such a qualification would enable them to work in child care services here or elsewhere. That is fundamentally important. I ask the Minister of State to ensure, in the context of the money available under the national plan, that proper and systematic training is put in place.

The people with whom young children are in contact in their early years are shaping the next generation and our nation. We put a great deal of resources into giving teachers skills because we believe their contact with young people is fundamentally important for the nation's health. We must put equal emphasis on the proper training of child care workers.

I have a question for the Minister of State in regard to the £46 million. There is a number of community child care service groups in my area, some of which were funded under EU URBAN pilot schemes which have now ended. Those groups are in limbo and are unclear about how to access this new money and the channels it will come through. Will it come through the ADMs? How will it percolate down to groups of that nature? I ask the Minister of State to address that in her reply.

I apologise for disrupting the flow—

The Senator was right.

The Senator was quite right.

Bhí an cheart aici.

—but I felt I had to make the point about the need for global thinking on this issue. That was my reasoning. I took seriously the decision to call a quorum. I would never be flippant about anything I do in the Seanad.

I welcome the Minister of State and I commend her and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on their work to date. We are talking here about a very complex issue. The child care programme and the quality of child care services in the future must be processed very carefully.

The motion tabled by the Labour Party has provided us with a golden opportunity to show in our amendment what is being done. They can trust us to produce a quality programme for child care services. The debate on this motion has clarified that there has been no failure on the part of the Government and that we are going to put forward a plan that will work. This complex issue must be addressed slowly. We are talking here about how to shape the future of our society. This is the way to go forward. There is increased funding in the national development plan for the co-ordination of the delivery of child care services.

The expert interdepartmental working group on child care, which was chaired by the Department, produced 27 recommendations. I do not have time to discuss of them but the global feeling is that there should be financial support for providers and parents availing of child care services, support for those in employment, an examination of qualifications and planning and a co-ordination of services.

This is a huge issue and we should not rush through it. To get it right, there must be an integrated strategy involving several Departments. We all know how long it takes to produce any report on the examination of available services. I welcome that this is being taken slowly because I would never want a rushed system of child care services.

The system is not right at the moment. We do not have proper planning. There is a lack of after school child care services for the children of working parents. There are no proper advisory services in the health area. That must be worked through. We will not be at the races in relation to quality child care unless we get an integrated plan. The national development plan has allocated over £250 million, which will expand the equal opportunities programme and includes funding for community based child care facilities, staffing, training and the national voluntary organisations.

I always understood that child care facilities were out there somewhere and that people dropped their children to them but I never knew what went on inside these facilities or whether there was proper training for the staff. We need proper training and qualifications for child care staff, otherwise they will not stay. I hope the new courses in the regional colleges will be endorsed as the criteria for assessing the training of child care supervisors and workers, otherwise the present haphazard, ad hoc arrangement will continue. I worry about that. At the moment, there is a huge turnover of staff in child care services. It is very confusing for young children and babies if the staff of a child care facility are replaced after two weeks by other young people. I would be terrified to leave young babies in a crèche with such a high turnover of staff. We will only get that right if we have proper training facilities, qualifications and structures, otherwise we will not have a respected child care organisation and the community will not feel happy and confident about leaving their babies in its care. Unless we get that right, there will always be an “iffyness” about child care services.

The initiative in the national development plan to co-ordinate Departments is the way forward. Planning is very important. The planning guidelines must involve builders, developers and local communities. Any new scheme must include a crèche. We need a community based infrastructure. We do not want a society where people are stressed out of their minds, getting up at 6.30 a.m., leaving their children in a child care facility, collecting them in the evening and then going home. That is not the quality of life we want for the future.

Employers must be involved in this. We need flexi-time working and job sharing. This cannot be done in isolation. There must be a co-ordinated national plan involving voluntary groups, employers and Departments. If we establish that co-ordinated network we will have a first class child care service in future.

I welcome the process we are going through and the slow approach. I have always believed we should work slowly in order to get this right. We are talking here about the future of our society. Those children will remember that we spoke here tonight about the need for proper child care facilities. I have great confidence in the Minister and the Minister of State to bring forward a co-ordinated strategy which will be implemented in the future and will give us first-class child care services.

This is an important debate. There was much talk about child care problems prior to the budget and there is no harm revisiting the issue. I listened with interest to Senator O'Meara say she was fed up listening to the Government side say that when the Labour Party was in Government, it did nothing. I am fed up listening to the Labour Party continually whinge ing that no matter what we do, it is never enough and using that as an excuse.

It has not been.

We have a problem with child care, which we all recognise. I am sure Senator O'Meara will agree it has developed further, particularly in recent years, probably as a result of the boom in our economy. It would be wrong to imply that couples were deciding not to have children possibly because of the problem of child care. It is a fact of life not only in this country but throughout Europe that the birth rate is dropping. Couples are making a conscious decision to have fewer children due to their careers or otherwise. It is a problem. I recognise extra stress is placed on couples trying to avail of whatever child care facilities are available.

The debate which took place following the budget was probably one of the most divisive which could have taken place. It pitted families against families, double income families against single income ones. It was unhelpful and hurtful to parents who go out to work. They were made to feel they were almost neglecting their children in that they were parking them in the morning and collecting them in the evening. I respect those who go out to work and the mother or father who stays at home. The problem is we do not have enough choices.

I listened with interest to Senator Ridge who said that when we grow old, we will be shuffling around nursing homes with nobody to look after us. It is a very sombre thought. I wonder whether it would be worse to be a lone parent trying to manage child care on my own or to be an elderly person with nobody to look after me. I have not decided which would be worse but perhaps I will decide before the end of the debate.

We all acknowledge there has been a problem with child care but we must also acknowledge what the Minister has done to date. It is a complex issue and we only have to listen to parents who go out to work, those who choose to stay at home and the employers. It was a difficult issue for the Minister to try to grasp. He has tried on all counts to take the first steps to deal with the problem. I welcome the £46 million announced in the budget and the £250 million set aside in the national development plan.

There is no point talking about what was done in the past. We acknowledge there have been problems. The Minister in his efforts to date has tried to deal with them. I welcome the suggestion of a forum to discuss the issue. The Labour Party motion referred to the social partnership talks. We should create a partnership among employers, the voluntary sector and Departments to try to come up with strategies to deal with this £250 million.

The crux of the problem is that we must recognise that society demands greater appreciation or recognition of couples who chose to go out to work, greater co-operation between employers and employees and a recognition that people have a family life as well as work.

I come from a nursing background and ten years ago a number of my colleagues sought job sharing or part-time work because they had young families at home. They were unable to avail of that facility at the time, because it was a no go area as far as employers in nursing were concerned, and many of them left the profession. Unfortunately, we are seeing the other side of the coin now with the problems there are recruiting nurses. If employers had been a little more farsighted, they would have seen that one benefits most from workers if they under less stress in their home life because they are probably able to contribute more to their work life.

We had problems in the past which we acknowledge. The Minister has done his bit in the budget to start to get the ball rolling in terms of where we go from here on the child care problem. I hope there will be greater co-operation between the employers, Government strategists and the voluntary sector when deciding the direction we take in the years to come.

I would like to contribute briefly to what is a useful debate on the question of child care, lack of same or a full recognition the issue. The problem has increased substantially in recent times due to various factors, including the increasing number of women working outside the home, some by choice, others of necessity, and it is a point which should not be lost. In my practice I see people taking out substantial mortgages which would take two salaries to fund, and they will not have much surplus income.

The Commission on the Family reported in 1998. It undertook a national survey of child care arrangements. The main findings of the survey were as follows. About one in three children not yet attending primary school experienced periods of care outside their own home and away from parents for some part of the week. This can arise in various ways and does not necessarily mean the child is away from home all day. Some people have temporary or part-time jobs or work for a couple of hours each day. The care can take various forms. There are some very qualified people looking after children. There are arrangements where a granny or an aunt looks after the child for a couple of hours and there are full time crèches. There must be a debate on the quality of care available, although much of it is of a high standard. I know some of the people in my area running child care facilities who are very dedicated and thorough, but there are areas in which improvements can be made.

Speaking as a local authority member, the question of child care facilities in certain residential areas has come up recently in the Dún Laoghaire. There is much to be said in this regard. As Senator Ridge said, if the travel arrangements could be kept to a minimum or if the child could be looked after a couple of hundred yards from their home, it would cut down on traffic problems and the child would not have to get up at 6 a.m. and be driven a number of miles causing further problems. Local authorities look at this issue and take a sympathetic and realistic approach. If there is a certain increase in need in an area and if the traffic problem is not too bad, these facilities should be allowed. A common sense approach should be taken in addressing this problem.

Our party held a forum on this issue some time ago. The variety of speakers who attended show that it is a crucial issue. I support the comments made by Senators O'Meara, Ridge and others, including the Members opposite. We must accept that there is a need for further cross-party action on this issue, particularly when one considers the horrendous amounts of money people must spend from their household budgets in respect of child care. I support the motion and I welcome this debate.

With the Chair's permission, I propose to share time with Senator Chambers.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be brief. I wish to correct people's perception that we men were not interested in this debate. As my party's spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform, at out group meeting earlier today I decided to bow to the greater knowledge of Senators Cox and Ormonde who have expressed a keen personal interest in this issue for a long period. I stated that I would give way to them instead of assuming my usual position as front bench spokesperson. I must point out, however, that as a married man with a family I have a keen interest in this issue.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights discussed child care and related matters at some length on at least two occasions with various groups. The issue of child care has been in the public domain for upwards of 20 years; it is not a new phenomenon. What came across during the joint committee's meetings was that successive Governments, including those in which my party has been involved, have neglected the debate on this issue.

The current Administration and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must be congratulated for taking the initiative and providing funds. I accept that £46 million does not sound like much but it is a start. The Government has acknowledged that this issue must be dealt with and a great deal of funding will have to be invested in providing crèches and child care facilities, educating personnel, setting up databases, etc.

I welcome the fact that £250 million is being provided in the national development plan in respect of this area. It is important to record that fact because people who are in now Opposition tend to criticise the Government and forget that when they were in power they did little more than talk about this matter. The Government has grasped the nettle. It is providing a substantial amount of money to kick-start developments in this area. For the first time in the history of the State, child care is being funded by Government. That is an important development. It may be a small step but it is certainly a step in the right direction. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must be congratulated on his efforts in this regard.

I have no doubt that a great deal more must be done. As already stated, this area has been neglected for many years. My youngest child is nearly 11 years old and access to child care is of particular benefit to me. In recent years, many women have re-entered the workforce because of our booming economy and there is a great demand for them to return to work immediately after maternity leave. The Government recognises the problems people face. There has been a great deal of discussion and action has finally been taken.

During the next four to five years, under the national development plan, child care services will improve dramatically. For the first time in the history of the State, the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition Government has put in place a financial framework in respect of child care. I welcome this and I expect to see greater financial support and increased capital grants to aid the development of crèches and other such facilities. The general position in relation to child care will improve year by year but at least we have made a start. That is very significant.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the amendment to this motion. As a parent, I realise the great importance of child care in the future development of children. I support the Government's consideration of child care, its planning in respect of it and the investment it has made in it. We face a major challenge in this area because our method of managing it will have a tremendous bearing on the society in which our children will live, on their quality of life and on their personal development.

In the past, because of the type of society in which we lived, there were many family support structures in place which greatly aided the upbringing of children. However, we must take into consideration the fact that our society is changing. We each have new roles to play because the structures which obtain in the workplace are constantly changing. That is the reality with which we must deal.

In the negotiations for a new national agreement taking place between the social partners, child care will assume a place of priority and importance. In my opinion a great deal of emphasis will be placed on how the £250 million for child care provided under the national development plan will be spent. Perhaps it should be given to the health boards to distribute in co-operation with the local authorities.

To date, a number of small groups and organisations have done very constructive work in terms of caring for children, stimulating and educating them and encouraging their personal development. However, we must now plan for the care of substantial numbers of young people in a co-ordinated way. Between 12 to 15 years ago I visited the first crèche in Brussels while on a trip to Belgium. I was amazed by it because we did not have those types of facilities in Ireland at that stage. To me it provided an indication of where Ireland stood in terms of its economic development because in Britain and elsewhere substantial numbers of mothers, fathers and single parents were out at work.

The Government is setting out a structure to deal with problems relating to child care. It is a new initiative in which we must all participate. The greatest challenge we face involves the quality of child care service we put in place. If we put in place good structures at local level, we will make better provision for the future care of our children.

I am surprised that this debate is being taken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I am aware that it is responsible for co-ordinating the national child care strategy and implementing the report of the expert group on child care. However, even the decision to place the Department in charge of that group is questionable because in the normal course of events it does not have responsibility for the delivery of child care services, other than in extreme circumstances involving conflict with the law.

I am unhappy with the wording of the amendment. The Government has tabled a woolly amendment which commends the priority given to child care in the national development plan but it could not commend the priority it was given in the budget. The Minister for Finance has produced three budgets but the Government has not shown any sense of urgency in making child care a priority. It seeks to make it a priority in the national development plan but it will not be in power to implement most of it. It is a case of live horse and you will get grass. The Government has not given a commitment to do anything in this amendment. This must be compared with the specific promise and commitment given in the Fianna Fáil manifesto of 1997, with which I am sure the Chathaoirleach is intimately acquainted, that a £2,000 tax relief for married couples would be given to allow them to access services or to facilitate one spouse to stay at home to engage in child care. It was estimated that this measure would benefit 181,000 families. That was a specific commitment but nothing has been delivered on it in three budgets. The Minister for Finance has taken the exact opposite position and has discriminated against stay at home spouses in financial terms.

An increase in child benefit of £2 per week for the first and second child and £2.50 for the third and subsequent children was granted in the budget. That is not a colossal amount to assist in child care or make provision for child care services.

The Government has offered to assist in co-ordinating existing voluntary organisations and community activities to deliver services. Schools and community groups who run after school and child care services received a budget allocation of £5 million. How does the Government intend to make provision for any substantial after school or community based service? Even if it makes provision, who will run it? Will it run on hot air? It will not. It is a totally impracticable scheme.

The one substantial thing the Government did was provide a 100% capital allowance for investment in child care facilities. In other words, any money given out is given to the private sector to provide bricks and mortar to build crèches and pre-school facilities. It is like saying we will provide the private sector with money to build parks, like car parks, to park children. Who will pay for it? The parents will pay for it. There is no tax rebate for this service. Parents will not be provided with any help and the private sector is supposed to carry the can for the Government.

The opposite position has been adopted by Minister for Education in Northern Ireland. Last week he announced that he would provide funding for a free pre-school system of education. This system extends only to three to four year olds but this age group will now be brought into the State system of education. We have not begun to consider this approach. Why can we not have a pre-school system, properly financed with facilities, rather than paying out capital allowances to the private sector to provide premises? Let us get down to the real child care services that are required, their supply and access.

We will not be able to provide an adequate system if we do not provide one that is State run. The first major announcement by the new administration in Northern Ireland has been about support for children. If it can be done in Northern Ireland then the least we can do with all our new found wealth is to respond in kind to child care.

A constitutional case would be worthwhile in relation to the commitment to provide free primary education for our children. That commitment has never been met. A provision catering for children between the ages of four and 12 years is not free primary education. The first stage of education that children benefit from should be financed by the State.

The Government's proposal is modest. As the budget did not address this matter in its earliest manifestation I ask that the new Finance Bill, with all the amendments that we are expecting, should address it. The partnership talks are taking place and that would be the ideal forum for putting together suitable amendments to the Finance Bill. This would enable us to deal with the matter adequately now rather than at a future stage in the national development plan.

Senator Farrell has two minutes before I call Senator O'Meara to conclude.

It would be impossible to say much in two minutes. Can my time be extended?

I would like to correct Senator Costello. He is wrong when he says the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has no responsibility for child care. The Department's role in child care has grown from a pilot funding initiative which had an annual budget of £800,000 in its last year of operation to a child care measure which will provide funding of over £250 million for the development of child care services under a broad range of initiatives over the next seven years.

I am referring to this budget. Many children will have grown up in seven years.

I would like a system where mothers could be given the choice to stay at home or go to work. Many mothers would like to stay at home. No mother should have to work because of necessity. We should set up a system where a woman could spend a year or two with her baby—

What about the daddy?

—and receive a refresher course at the end of the first year and another one after 18 months to prepare her for her return to the workforce. If a mother wants to work at home, fair enough. My proposal would be one way to deal with this matter.

We could talk about child care for months. However, I would like to refer to a few newspaper articles.

We have little time for reading.

A headline for one of the articles was "Group care babies troublesome tots". The article continued:

Badly behaved babies are more likely to become troublesome tots if they attend a day centre before their first birthday, it was claimed today. New findings showed children who spent more than seven or eight hours a day in group care could have more problems, up to the age of three, co-operating with other children. And they suggest the children were more difficult at home until they were six years old.

The link was disclosed in a paper given by Professor Dario Varin of the University of Milan to the British Psychological Society's developmental section annual conference at Oxford University.

An Italian chauvinist.

The article continued:

Research was carried out comparing children who had early group care with those who had home care during their first three years. Professor Varin and his colleagues discovered young children who were given group care, even when its quality was "good enough", could experience problems.

Other headlines are "Working mums threatens human race" and "Have we forgotten how to be parents?". I am sorry I do not have time to read these articles into the record because they are important.

The Senator can pass them on to the Minister for Finance.

The problem is that we have so many experts telling us about rearing children.

I compliment the Government on the amount of money provided and the work, particularly by the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, on this issue. I welcome the amendment and the work being done by the Government. If I had the time I would have thrown a few controversial thoughts into the arena to create a discussion. I would quote experts and professors who spoke at conferences.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and all Senators, male and female, who contributed to this debate for their thought-provoking, wide ranging and worthwhile contributions. This motion has been worthwhile and there has been a broad measure of agreement that, not only do we have a problem, but that we have to come up with solutions. However, there is no agreement on the range of solutions and the fundamental issue clearly outlined by Senator Ryan as to where we are, the choices we have, the manner in which we build our community and the kind of society we create.

It is clear from the Minister's response, the budget and comments made by several Ministers that this Administration still sees child care as a problem for parents. The Minister spoke about a range of initiatives, particularly supports for community groups and voluntary organisations. These initiatives are very welcome, particularly in the context of the equality agenda, but they do not deal with the major problem – the thousands of families who face into work every day and the issue of who is minding their young children. It is clear the Government is not going to deal with this issue in a comprehensive manner and that it sees it as an issue for employers, hence the introduction of capital allowances.

I wish to respond to some sharp remarks, particularly those made by Senator Cox. The Government views the building of crèches in the same way as it views the building of car parks – if one wants them built one provides tax incentives to employers and those with money to invest. I am sorry that Senator Cox is not in the House to hear my response, but once one has built the facility how are parents to pay for a crèche place, how does one ensure a standard of care, that staff are well paid and that there is quality training for staff? What of those who want to have their children cared for at home, whether by their relations or another woman from the community? One is dealing with this issue on a bricks and mortar basis by solely providing capital tax allowances. This is very disappointing.

I have come to the conclusion that the Government is going to stand by and hope that employers come forward with a solution. I hope our prosperity does not come to an end reducing demands on the labour force, but if that arises we will not have put in place a permanent structure which will have to be taken apart.

Senator Cox described this as a business issue in addition to being a family issue. It is clear that the Government sees it as a business issue and, regrettably, as a labour force issue which is only a problem because we need women in the workforce. This is an issue of how we organise our community and our society. Given the resources available, we have a unique opportunity to put in place a high quality, high standard, affordable and accessible child care system which will be of fundamental value to children, their parents and the communities in which they live. This system would not just be for the children of parents engaged full-time in the workforce. It would be for children of parents who choose not to work and to everyone in the wider community. It would be highly regrettable if this opportunity was not grasped. The coming weeks will tell us if this is going to happen.

Amendment put.

Callanan, Peter.Cassidy, Donie.Chambers, Frank.Cox, Margaret.Cregan, John.Dardis, John.Farrell, Willie.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Tom.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.Gibbons, Jim.Keogh, Helen.Kett, Tony.

Kiely, Daniel.Lanigan, Mick.Leonard, Ann.Lydon, Don.Mooney, Paschal.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.O'Donovan, Denis.Ó Murchú, Labhrás.Ormonde, Ann.Quill, Máirín.Walsh, Jim.


Burke, Paddy.Caffrey, Ernie.Coghlan, Paul.Coogan, Fintan.Cosgrave, Liam T.Costello, Joe.Doyle, Joe.Hayes, Tom.

Henry, Mary.Manning, Maurice.Norris, David.O'Meara, Kathleen.Ridge, Thérèse.Ross, Shane.Ryan, Brendan.Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Farrell and Keogh; Níl, Senators Costello and O'Meara.
Amendment declared carried.
Question, "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to", put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

It is proposed to sit at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.