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.