I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, and wish her well in her portfolio. I was used to her being here in the Seanad. I am not sure whether she has been here since I became Cathaoirleach.
Children and Youth Affairs: Statements
I thank the Cathaoirleach. It is a great pleasure to be in the Seanad. This is my first opportunity to be here as Minister, but I assure the House I was looking forward to it greatly. The time I spent here was among the best times of my life.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss my work in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and I look forward to hearing the views and input of Senators. As they are aware, my remarks are timely, coming one week after the announcement of budget 2017 and just as the long overdue public, political and media debate on child care is finally under way. I want to share a vision for a future which has affordable, accessible and high quality child care policies, vibrant youth services, best practice assistance for young people with difficulties and is, above all, inclusive and values all children for who they are.
Through listening to children and affording them the freedom, dignity and the respect they deserve, we can build a caring, engaged and flourishing society from the ground up. In the budget announced last week I was pleased to secure a 15% increase in funding for services to support children, young people and families. Additional funding of €173 million brought total funding for the Department to more than €1.3 billion. This is a hugely significant investment which has grown, even through adversity, and is helping to create a fundamentally different approach to how the State engages with children and young people. The increase in funding will allow us to introduce a radical new approach to child care, with high quality care and education open to all children, and to deliver extra community youth services throughout the country and better funded supports for young people and families who need it most. Children deserve to be free of fear, poverty and deprivation and feel safe and valued. I look forward to continuing my work with children, young people, parents and front-line services to ensure the money secured in the budget will be used to deliver the best possible outcomes for all.
A major policy priority for me is the development of a single affordable child care scheme which will replace existing child care subsidisation schemes, excluding the free preschool scheme, with a single streamlined scheme from September 2017. This is an ambitious timetable, but the Department is working intensively on it. The new scheme is a major step in making quality child care more affordable and will enable universal and targeted subsidies for parents towards their child care costs.
Under the targeted measure of the new single affordable child care scheme, parents will qualify based on their net income.
While I do not wish to pre-empt the input of Senators, let me, first, clear up some misinformation which has entered the debate and, unfortunately, become part of the discourse on the scheme. The policy proposals for the new scheme were always based on net income, for which there are a number of reasons. A net income approach better provides for a fair and reasonable measure of the resources available to a family. It ensures an equitable approach to assessment across incomes that are subject to taxation and incomes that are largely non-taxable. Basing the approach on net income best supports equal treatment of all types of income and best supports people to move from social welfare to employment or increased hours of employment. As such, the approach is supportive of equity and labour market activation policy objectives and should ensure the scheme is helpful to working families on low to moderate incomes, prioritising those on the lowest incomes. I hope this will be particularly effective for the children of lone parents and those children who are living in households below or close to the poverty line.
Subsidies will be available for children aged from six months to 15 years and will meet families full-time and part-time child care needs, including outside school hours and during school holiday times. This will also assist the early years workforce. I am fully aware that some of these staff currently have 38-week contracts only. The new scheme will subsidise parents' child care costs beyond term time, creating full year and sometimes full-time contracts for more child care staff.
International research confirms that access to high quality and affordable child care is particularly important and beneficial for children from lower income families. First and foremost, education and employment is the best route out of poverty. Affordable child care supports parents in lower income families to access further education and the labour market. While labour market activation is a key policy objective of the scheme, it does not force parents into the workforce but simply provides them with a choice. If families have access to affordable child care, some will continue to choose to remain in the home with their children, while some will opt to increase the household income through employment. The scheme will give families a real choice. According to data from the Central Statistics Office, 19% of people in jobless households are living in consistent poverty compared with 8% of those in households with one person working and only 1.5% of those in households with two people working.
I also want to be clear on a point about whether formal child care is good or bad for children. The research in this area is also clear. High quality child care supports child development and this benefit is greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For this reason, I have ensured the overwhelming majority of funding available under the single child care affordable scheme in 2017 will be targeted at lower income families, with a subsidy of approximately €8,000 per annum available at the highest rate based on the maximum of 40 hours of child care per week, although it is not a requirement that child care is provided for 40 hours per week. It is my hope this will help families to overcome disadvantage and contribute to a reduction in child poverty. Under the initial terms of the scheme, households earning up to €47,500 net income will be able to avail of subsidised child care and I hope future budgets will enable me to increase this threshold year on year.
At the same time, I am aware that child care is at its most expensive for children under three years of age. This is a prime reason the second element of the new scheme is a universal measure to all families with children under three years. Funding of €7 million has been made available to provide a universal subsidy for children in that age range availing of formal child care services. From September 2017, a universal subsidy of up to €80 per month will be provided towards child care costs. This equates to more than €900 per annum for parents working full time and will be paid on a pro rata basis. The programme for Government commits to the introduction of a robust model for subsidised, high quality child care for children aged from nine months to 36 months.
Currently, paid paternity leave in Ireland extends to 26 weeks or about six months, but the programme for Government commits to further increasing paid parental leave in the first year of life. I will certainly be in favour of promoting it. It is my hope, therefore, that Ireland will get to this point sooner rather than later, but until we do, the affordable child care scheme will be available from the age of six months. This approach recognises that the cost of child care can push many parents out of the labour market when paid leave ends. The gap between the end of paid leave and the start of an entitlement to early care and education is an international indicator used to examine national policies in this area. The single affordable child care scheme does not amount to discrimination against stay-at-home parents. This is a scheme to support children. It aims to make child care more affordable for all families, giving all families more choice. The Government directly supports stay-at-home parents through the home carer tax credit which has been increased to €1,100 per year. I support an increase in the earnings threshold and have already spoken to the Minister for Finance about it. A priority for my Department has been to address child poverty through further education and labour market activation. That priority was established through feedback to politicians on the doorsteps and from the European Commission which gave Ireland recommendations for two years in a row to make high quality child care more affordable and accessible. The new scheme is not an answer to all of our parenting and family support needs, but it does make high quality child care more affordable. It is just a first step.
In 2017 the expected number of children who will benefit from the new single affordable child care scheme is estimated at 79,000. This includes 25,000 children who will benefit from the universal subsidy. An estimated 54,000 children will benefit from the targeted subsidies, including 31,500 children who already receive support under the current targeted schemes and 22,500 new beneficiaries. The scheme will be open to all child care providers who are registered with Tusla initially, including both centre-based child care providers and childminders. It is important for children and families that, if the State is subsidising child care, it subsidises services that have been quality assured. Currently, Tusla quality assures child care services for my Department and over 4,500 services are already registered with Tusla. Only a small percentage of childminders are currently registered or eligible to register with Tusla. More could be registered and I hope more of those eligible for registration will do so in the next few months. I am working with Childminding Ireland to explore how a far greater proportion of childminders could be quality assured in order to access State funding under the scheme. Options to be explored will include a system of non-statutory quality assurance, possibly leading to statutory registration in the medium to long term.
The issue of capacity in the child care sector is complex. Supply can depend on demand, as well as costs, including rent and staff wages, which need to be set at realistic levels that value the work of child care professionals. Demand for child care services, in turn, depends on parental choice, among other factors. My Department has experience in assisting the sector with successful expansion, going back to its foundation and before, with the capital grants of the early 2000s that produced some excellent facilities that are still in daily use. This past year we focused on the expansion of the free pre-school scheme which is under way.
My Department projects that the expanded early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme will have a peak enrolment of 127,000 children in the April to June session in 2017. This is an increase of 60,000 children from the pre-expansion volume. Again, let me assure Senators that despite some media controversy, the timeline was not missed. The measure was announced in budget 2016 by Senator James Reilly and delivered this September on schedule. I commend the early years sector for responding to this expansion by creating capacity. As of this week, I understand there are more than 86,000 children registered in ECCE services, up almost 20,000 children on the number this time last year. It is too easy to always move to the next development, but it is right that I should acknowledge the tireless work of my predecessor who did so much under the very difficult circumstances of the past.
As a result of this expansion, parents will benefit from an average of 61 weeks of free preschool provision for their children, thereby saving an average of €4,000 on child care costs for each eligible child. Budget 2017 also enables full roll-out of the access and inclusion model, AIM, to support children with disabilities to attend mainstream preschools.
In anticipation of the increased demand for places under the early childhood care and education scheme in 2016-17 and to support the sector to meet its capacity needs, I have introduced a number of measures to assist early years providers. For example, I provided a €2.5 million increase in capital funding for early years services seeking to increase capacity, thereby making available a total of €6.5 million in 2016 and allowing all applications that met the criteria for grant funding to be approved. The capital scheme has already provided several thousand new places and this number will increase as works are completed.
The supply of child care services also depends on the availability of qualified staff and sufficient funding to pay them a fair wage. I am providing targeted learner funds to enable child care workers to attain recognised qualifications. In addition, I have widened access to the higher rate of ECCE capitation payments for the 2016-17 preschool year. That capitation rate is now set at €75 per child per week, with the standard capitation rate set at €64.50 per child per week This restoration of rates follows the cuts applied in recent years. My Department has worked closely in recent months with child care committees across the country to analyse demand for places on a geographic basis, identify shortages in provision and work intensively with services in areas where shortfalls might have been expected to occur. I am delighted the sector was able to meet all capacity demands for this September and is expected to meet demand in January for the next intake under the ECCE scheme. I thank the 30 city and county child care committees that helped my Department to assess demand and supply - a very complicated task - for the expanded ECCE programme. I look forward to working with them again in the coming years as we seek to increase capacity further to meet the increased demand we anticipate will occur because of the new scheme. I hope to be able to incentivise the sector to create new capacity through a number of measures. For instance, I am considering how the capital funding available to me in 2017 can best be invested. I would welcome Senators' views in that regard. At the outset I welcomed the fact that the long overdue national conversation on early years education was finally under way. However, if we are to transform one of the most expensive child care systems in the world into one of the best, it is important that the debate be based on evidence, facts and research. Emotive language and twisting of international research have no place in this discussion. It is only by adopting a respectful approach that we can best meet the needs of children, young people and families and improve the lives of the 220,000 people who are today at risk of poverty.
I have focused my remarks on the child care sector. I will conclude by referring briefly to several other areas of work. I attach a very high priority to the work of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which provides essential services for some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society. I have secured an additional €37 million to allow the agency to continue its ambitious programme of reforming its services and building an effective and responsive child protection and welfare system. Later this week I will outline details of an extra €5.5 million for youth projects across the country. There is also increased funding to enable the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and the Adoption Authority of Ireland to fulfil their operational roles and statutory duties.
I look forward to hearing Senators' contributions which will help to inform the future direction of services to support children, young people and their families. I thank Members for their attention.
I welcome the Minister to the Seanad and thank her for her comprehensive and informative statement. We, in Fianna Fáil, support the investment in early education and child care announced in the recent Budget Statement. That investment is the first step on the road to allowing families a greater choice and supporting women to remain in the workplace, should they so wish, following the birth of their children. The health and safety of children should be the most important concern of any Government. To that end, Tusla must be adequately resourced to allow for more inspectors to facilitate the registering of childminders who wish to register in advance of the September 2017 start date. Will the Minister address how the delays in Garda vetting waiting times will be addressed in advance of the start date?
Fianna Fáil has always been the party of education. Early years education is the first rung on that ladder and we must value the sector and those who work in it. I call on the Minister to give a firm commitment that investment in this area will be not only maintained but increased during the lifetime of the Government. The early childhood care and education scheme was introduced by a Fianna Fáil Government and expanded on by the last Government. The scheme must now be reviewed in the light of the new targeted universal scheme the Minister announced in the budget. I have concerns about how the two schemes will interact. As all parents know, the so-called provision of two free years of preschool education is anything but that. In fact, each year consists only of 38 weeks of preschool care, rather than 52 weeks. Moreover, the way the scheme is designed means that most children avail of significantly fewer than 76 weeks, with the average being around 60 weeks.
I understand the new universal scheme will run until the child becomes eligible for the ECCE scheme. However, because of the three entry points, many children have to wait for months beyond their third birthday before they become eligible for the ECCE scheme. My own daughter who was a September baby will not be able to access the scheme until the January following her third birthday. This causes problems for families who must, in order to secure a place, pay for it from September. Child care providers cannot be expected to hold places open until January or April when the children become eligible. Will the Minister consider changing the entry points and expanding the scheme to provide a full 104 weeks of care? Will she, in the meantime, allow parents to access 76 weeks of care? The lack of full-year payments is seriously affecting the sector. Many child care workers have to sign on during the weeks not covered by the scheme which leads to low staff morale, puts pressure on staff in the workplace and has the potential to impact on the children in their care.
I call on the Minister to consider providing greater support for providers based in urban centres in order to ensure there is capacity in the system. For example, providers in my constituency of Dublin Fingal have some of the highest premises costs in the country. It is very difficult for providers to offer a good quality service at a low cost to parents when they must pay astronomical rents. This impacts on capacity because the main bulk of children are based in urban centres. Notwithstanding these concerns, the ECCE is a great scheme and the universality aspect is very much to be welcomed. We must value all children. Will the Minister give a commitment that couples who opt for a joint assessment of income will not be discriminated against under the ECCE scheme? My understanding is this could happen where a couple is not jointly assessed and the income of one of the parties is below the €47,500 threshold. Will the Minister comment on this? I am also concerned about the lack of income progressiveness in the targeted scheme. It is very concerning that couples might suddenly lose the higher level of support as a consequence of a promotion or new job opportunity. Will the Minister clarify whether only earned income will be taken into account in assessing eligibility for the scheme? As we know, many young couples bought properties which are no longer suitable for their families' needs but which they cannot sell.
They are renting a property and their former family home which is in deep negative equity is rented out to support the mortgage on it. If that income is taken into account, it could seriously discriminate against those whom the Minister is trying to protect with the scheme. I ask her to ensure it is only earned income, not rental income on a former family home in deep negative equity, that is taken into account.
Fianna Fáil supports an increase in the period of maternity leave beyond the current 26 weeks and the introduction of shared leave arrangements between parents. This would support families in the precious early weeks and months and encourage greater participation by both parents in parenting their child. I urge the Minister to prioritise this issue in future budgets.
I welcome the Minister. Without a shadow of a doubt, those involved in the child care area are particularly enthused and excited by her. I also commend the clarity of the messages and press releases from her Department since she became Minister. They are excellent, clear, concise and deliverable messages that everyone can understand. I have spoken to a number of Senators who have also commented on this. I just wanted to pass on that message and ask the Minister to pass it on to her staff. The messages are crisp and clear; there is no ambiguity about them; they are simple and usually only run to one page. I do not want to associate the Minister with former politicians who referred to one page, but I acknowledge the quality of the departmental communications.
Before I deal with the affordable child care scheme, about which the Minister spent most of her time talking, it is important to point out that every Minister should keep a copy of the programme for Government on his or her desk. We talk about new politics and co-operation, but, in reality, it is a question not of new politics but of everyone working together to get business done, which is no bad thing.
I would like the Minister to address a number of issues, if not today, then at some point in the future. The first is the Government's proposal for new in-school speech and language services, for which there is a real need. I am constantly receiving representations about speech and language therapy services. That commitment is contained in the programme for Government. The Government is also supposedly committed to further investment in the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which is really critical. Early intervention is so important in children's formation and can shape outcomes into the future. I would like to hear the Minister's views on this issue. I am also interested in hearing her views on the proposal to develop a national parenting support plan which is also contained in the programme for Government. I do not want to go into too much detail on all of this now, but I ask the Minister, on her return to this House at a future date, to go through those sections of the programme for Government that relate to her Department and outline the progress made on same.
I would like to hear the Minister's views on how the local city and county councils' child care committees are dovetailing with her work and how the Department is liaising with them. There are long-established child care committees in every local authority, but I am not hearing too much about them. Are they being utilised to the full?
I would also like to hear some more about capacity in the child care sector. Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee referred to capacity in her contribution. We are constantly hearing about people who cannot access child care services. Capacity is an issue and many are leaving the sector because of new regulations. I have no problem with the new, stringent regulations for child care provision which are really important but people are opting out because of them. Capacity is a real issue in south County Dublin and, I am sure, all over the country in both urban and rural areas.
There seems to be some confusion about existing schemes which the new affordable child care scheme will replace and perhaps the Minister might clarify the matter. We currently have the community child care subvention scheme, the child care and educational training support programmes, the afterschool child care programme and the community employment child care programme. The Minister's new scheme will take over all of them. Will it replace the existing schemes and when? There is a lot of ambiguity. When is the scheme kicking in? We know that it will kick in some time in 2017. How will it impact on the existing schemes? Will the Minister tell us that her affordable child care scheme will replace the aforementioned schemes, namely, the community child care subvention scheme, the child care and educational training support programme, the afterschool child care programme and the community employment child care programme? The people involved in these schemes are not too sure what will happen.
I wish the Minister well. She is in an exciting ministry and I wish her the best of luck in it.
I welcome the Minister. I am delighted to contribute to the debate on the important measures that have been introduced.
As a percentage of wages, net child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in the European Union. They are the second highest for couples and the highest for single parents. We have a country-specific recommendation from the European Commission to improve this, but we have a long way to go when it comes to child care.
Obviously, child care needs differ in every home and parents want more choice and more affordable options. The cost of child care is a significant matter playing on the minds of working parents, as well as whether it will work out for them. It was the issue raised most frequently during the recent general election campaign. During the canvass child care was something that came up at every second door. It is something that particularly affects couples who are out at work.
The Growing Up in Ireland study, perhaps the most important piece of research ever undertaken in this country, has completed its first decade of work. It includes research on parents' child care choices. The data collected in 2008 and 2009 showed that 23% and 50% of children aged nine months and nine years, respectively, in 2006 received non-parental care. Parental care was favoured by the majority for all age groups. Where parental care was not possible, the favoured option for babies was relative care, followed by a childminder, followed by centre-based care. Centre-based care was favoured over childminders for children over three years of age. An additional source of data on parental choice is the CSO. Although the latest available data are from 2007, they showed that most parents at the time opted to have their children cared for by a parent. Of the 25% who did not do so, child care provided by a relative was the favoured option.
Since 2007, however, child care costs have increased and with the intervening downturn, many middle-income parents found child care costs an overwhelming financial burden. As such, I strongly welcome the inclusion of the affordable child care scheme in budget 2017 and acknowledge the vital role the Minister has played in bringing it to fruition. The €19 million in additional funds provided for the scheme will be added to the funding for the existing targeted schemes to arrive at an overall budget for the scheme. The scheme will be available from September 2017 and provide crucial financial support for parents towards the significant cost of child care. It will replace the existing targeted child care subsidisation scheme with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme. It will provide a system in which both universal and targeted subsidies can be provided towards the cost of child care, which is to be welcomed.
The Minister has outlined the many benefits of the new scheme, key among them being the reduction in poverty. We have been given some fairly clear directions in that regard from the European Union. The scheme will enhance affordability and encourage labour market activation. It is welcome that overall the scheme is pro-women and pro-family. It gives excellent assistance to working families.
The scheme will be open to all child care providers who are registered with Tusla, including both centre-based child care providers - crèches, preschools and day centres - and childminders. Crucially, as the Minister outlined, it is a national scheme which will be open to all child care providers. Participation in the scheme by those providers will be voluntary and the choice of child care provider will be one for parents, subject to the provider participating in the scheme. Local city and county child care committees will be able to help parents to find providers who are participating in the scheme. It is expected that the 900 community or not-for-profit services in existence will register for the scheme, in addition to a large percentage of private providers.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to the introduction of a robust model for subsidised, high quality child care for children aged nine to 36 months. Paid maternity leave in Ireland extends to 26 weeks or roughly six months, although the programme for Government commits to further increases in the period of parental leave in the first year of a child's life. In line with current leave entitlements, the universal subsidy will be available from six months. This approach recognises that the cost of child care can push many parents out of the labour market when paid leave ends.
The gap between the end of paid leave and the start of an entitlement to early care and education is an international indicator used to examine national policies in this area. I believe this provides a much needed and long-awaited break for squeezed middle income families who may have previously just missed out on several other family assistance schemes owing to means test eligibility grounds.
On the issue of informal care provided by grandparents and neighbours, it is vital that the value of the work they do is recognised. However, for the State to subsidise children’s care, there is a need to know where the children are and who the childminders are. There is scope for abuse and I would welcome hearing the Minister's view. It is the responsibility of the State to assess the children who are being minded.
How does Ireland’s early years spending compare with that of other countries? Including the spend on infant classes in primary schools, total early years spending in Ireland post-budget 2017 will be 0.55% of GDP, using 2014 GDP figures, an increase on this year’s 0.5% GDP figure. For the first time, total early years spending, including spending on infant classes in primary schools, will exceed €1 billion per year. While this represents great progress, there has been some criticism of the scheme by a number of child care providers and crèche owners who say they are not benefiting in any way. They have pointed out that the scheme should have included a subsidy for providers to ensure the quality of the child care is of a high standard. They may have a point in that regard and additional funding to assist child care providers to ensure quality should be considered as a matter of priority. I would welcome the Minister's comments.
There have also been some objections from stay-at-home parents who choose to keep their children at home and who claim they are not being valued to the same degree as child care providers. Although there is a provision in the scheme to increase their tax credit by €100, raising it to €1,100 in total, perhaps this point should be examined further. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's comments on this suggestion also.
The budget builds on universal progress made to date. The universal aspect is to help parents who want or need to go back to work or education. It bridges the gap in what is an expensive time from the end of maternity leave to the start of the free preschool year. I agree with Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee's comment that the preschool year is limited and can create difficulties for many families. Nonetheless, for a couple with a child in full-time crèche or with a registered childminder, the saving will work out at €906, which is significant. It builds on last month’s introduction of the second free preschool year, which is saving parents on average €4,000 per child. The number of children benefiting from the extension is increasing from 67,000 to some 127,000.
I commend the Minister's work in this very important area, which has been long-neglected. I welcome the Government's focus on it for the past few years and its renewed current focus.
I appreciate the Minister coming to the Seanad and taking the time to listen to the concerns and observations we have, as well as the positivity we have for her brief and the children of Ireland. I would like to provide a context for the Ireland in which children are growing up today. In the days before the announcement of the budget I attended a briefing by the economic think tank TASC. Given that we have the Taoiseach, Ministers, Deputies and Senators in line for a massive pay increase, to hear that Ireland is a more unequal society than ever is shameful. These pay rises across the public sector only serve to increase economic inequality even more and I welcome the Ministers' decision today to forgo the increases. While this was due to public pressure, it is to be welcomed.
Some may ask what this has to do with children and youth affairs. Inequality inhibits a child's ability to flourish and creates a much lower level of well-being. I will provide some of the facts that TASC outlined and which ably demonstrate the consequences of inequality. At nine months of age the household income has no impact on a child's cognitive potential. By the age of three years children in higher income families are, on average, performing better than those from lower income households. A 1% increase in household income leads to a 5% increase in educational scores. By the age of nine years children from poorer backgrounds are aware of their class image and are more anxious, less happy and behave poorly. This is directly attributed to the impact of multiple economic inequalities, for example, in housing, health, poverty, stress and education. The saddest statistic I have heard recently is that by the age of 13 years, children's expectations are reduced because they recognise they are unequal. Only 36% of children aged 13 years from the bottom income group expect to get a college degree compared to 65% of children from the highest income group.
The Ireland our politicians have created today has a child deprivation rate of 36%, double the 2007 rate. Some 58% of lone parents suffer deprivation, up from 35% in 2007. Approximately 29% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, higher than the EU average and double that in Denmark. In this, we are certainly not cherishing our children equally.
There are some welcome measures. I applaud and congratulate the Minister and her staff for getting this initiative off the ground. The single affordable child care initiative is a welcome development and, I hope, the starting point for world-class provision of child care for all. There is €37 million in additional funding for Tusla, more teachers, more school meals and automatic medical cards for children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance. While these are all positive measures, they need to be measured against the overall reality that is the structural inequality in this country.
Overall, I believe budget 2017 was an opportunity missed. Like so many previous budgets, it has far more capacity to create more inequality than it does to reduce it. There is inequality and it gets worse because of political decisions taken by politicians who seem far removed from the day-to-day realities of people living, struggling and working in communities throughout the country. This stems from an ideology of running down public services, reducing pay levels, creating poorly paid jobs and cheerleading for the markets and neoliberalism. A way of addressing inequality is through equality-proofing budgets to investigate the outcomes of the decisions that politicians make. This is committed to in the programme for Government which states: "We will develop the process of budget and policy proofing as a means of advancing equality, reducing poverty and strengthening economic and social rights". It did not happen in the budget, unfortunately, but I hope it will happen in every budget from here on.
I will conclude with one example and perhaps pose a direct question to the Minister on the area of social worker and social care staff recruitment. What is the plan for these new staff? Will they be employed directly by the HSE or will they be provided for by privatised agency companies which seem to be everywhere and anywhere and seem to be taking over public services? Of the €37 million promised to Tusla, how much of the extra funding will be swallowed up by private companies and lost? The day the Minister made citizens a commodity in the social care sector, to be bought and sold to the smallest bidder, was a sad day for the Proclamation to which we try to live up. Until there is a day when the ideology of many who serve in both Houses changes, we will not see inequality reduced, rather we will continue to see it grow. Sinn Féin and I have a different vision and we will see it through. Nonetheless, on the whole, I congratulate the Minister yet again on this exciting initiative and wish her well in advancing and equality-proofing it.
I wish to share my time with Senator Alice-Mary Higgins.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, for her statement to the Seanad and taking the time to speak to us. I broadly welcome the child care subsidy package announced as part of the budget last week and welcome the Minister's work in making this change a reality.
As a first step, it represents a significant shift in policy making, particularly in how it relates to children and child care. It represents the first major admission by a Government that the cost of child care is extortionate and that widespread subsidies from the State are needed to support parents, particularly in low-income families. It is the first major move in improving how we provide support for children. I welcome the move to a child care subsidy system similar to that in place in Scandinavian countries which are near universally accepted as being among the best in the world.
As a lone parent, I spent my entire professional career struggling with high child care costs. The subsidies announced last week will have a serious impact in making it easier for lone parents, in particular, to afford quality child care. I broadly welcome the reforms, but I have a number of questions for the Minister about the practicalities of how they will work and wish to flag a number of issues which have been raised with me by various advocacy groups.
It seems the childcare employment and training support scheme and the after-school child care scheme which allow parents to return to education and work will end under the reforms. I am someone who managed to get a degree before becoming a Senator and it was the fact that the after-school child care scheme was subsidised and I never had to pay more than €25 a week that allowed me to get me where I am today. Does this mean that the price cap under the schemes will end, thus allowing crèches to charge any price they see fit? The child care sector has been relatively underfunded for a number of years and I have heard many concerns that the subsidies will be used to raise wages which should be increased for staff and that this could result in higher child care costs. Is the Minister aware of these concerns and are measures in place to prevent it from being realised?
Lone parents in receipt of social welfare payments receive just under €30 a week for their child. It is not reasonable to assume that a lone parent receiving the one-parent family allowance or a jobseeker's transitional payment will be able to pay more than he or she receives in these payments for child care in order that he or she can access training. Is the Minister aware that a potential impact of the reforms is preventing lone parents from returning to training? Is she able to explain how this will be prevented? It is certainly possible the reforms may be of use to lone parents who are working, but many lone parents rely on childminders as they are more affordable and can work more flexible hours. Does the Minister have plans or initiatives to better support these parents?
I repeat my support for the general principles of the reforms. The State needs to provide more financial support for parents who are struggling to meet the cost of child care. I applaud the work of the Minister on the issue, but I would like to hear a response from her to my concerns. I acknowledge that it was her vision and that of Ann Louise Gilligan for education and accessible child care that set the foundations for me to progress through the education system. I ask that this be kept in mind when we look at labour activation measures. Having caps is hugely important for someone who chooses not to go back into the labour market but who would like to use subsidised child care to return to education in order that he or she will not enter the labour market at the very bottom of the pile.
I join in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, and hope we will see her again as there are issues we might want to discuss about child poverty, child protection, parental leave, the provision of mental health supports for young people and youth services which are beyond youth activation and employment services in their more holistic sense. I hope the Minister will be able to report to us on how we can ensure children will be reflected in equality proofing, not only in her Department but in others, for example, in the work of the Department of Social Protection and the area of education where there are worrying signals that the children of bankers might have access to a special school, while other children struggle to access appropriate education services. I am sure the Minister's will be a voice for equality for children in dealing with other Departments.
In the limited time available to me I will focus on the single affordable child care scheme. It is a milestone acknowledgement of the cost of child care in society. Child care services are a piece of infrastructure that has been missing for many years in Irish society. The scheme truly recognises the opportunities early years education provide for parents and children. It is most welcome. I also welcome some of the detail provided on the scheme. I will not go into it now, but thought has been put into ensuring it addresses and supports not only those returning to work but all parents. It is welcome that it links in from the age of six months when the period of maternity leave ends. I particularly welcome and have strongly endorsed the fact that it is a publicly subsidised rather than a tax credit model. One of the great strengths of the publicly subsidised model is that it allows the State, as a major stakeholder, to press for availability, affordability and quality.
I am concerned about some of the language used which is creeping in such as "shopping around" in the hope prices will happen to stay down. There is a profit dynamic at work. It is very important, therefore, that we look at capping. I strongly urge the Minister, prior to September 2017, to consider introducing an appropriate capping mechanism that will support quality, proper pay, progression and decent equipment and recognise the real cost of child care as found by the Department and Early Childhood Ireland. There should be capping in some form in order that there will be the capacity in the future to ensure we will be able to manage costs and, if there are major market players, that the profit component will not become unwieldy. Capping is particularly important in schemes for those who most need predictable child care costs in the long term such as lone parents.
We have spoken about pay and progression and the importance of securing year-round contracts. It is welcome that the Minister has addressed these issues. In this regard, particular supports may be needed for community and voluntary schemes. It is important, when we speak about getting the business model right, that we also get the service model right. Ultimately, it is not just a new sector of the market, it is also a new service. Thus far the Minister has shown courage to put forward this model. I ask her to continue with this ambition to ensure we keep a public service, public ownership, accountability and a capping mechanism.
I want to address some of the concerns we have heard in recent days. It is very important that we say that for 60 years we have found things on which to spend money instead of child care services. We have heard a plethora of new suggestions of things on which we might spend money instead of child care services, but we need to spend money on them. This is absolutely appropriate. Any new suggestion should be about affordable child care. We have heard creative proposals about a tax credit. I ask that we also examine the contributory model. If we change the PRSI system, it will reward the grandmothers of Ireland because they will receive a pension that will reflect the years they put into child care. This is a foundation for children and families on which many other supports and future investment will sit.
I am delighted to join colleagues in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone. This is the first time I have met her. It is a pleasure to do so and I commend her very sincerely for the work she has done in recent weeks, including on the budget.
I will declare my interest. My wife is a Montessori teacher and we are in the process of trying to open a Montessori school in south County Dublin, but I assure the House this will have no bearing on what I say. I wish to relay a few issues which have been raised with me since the announcement of the budget, ask one or two questions about the new scheme and discuss one or two issues which are not directly related but which come within the wider brief of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
When speaking about child care in general, particularly preschool education, young parents in my area consider various issues, of which cost is the biggest because if they cannot afford the child care service they want, they start to get angry and ask understandable questions. Another issue is choice. People want their child to go to a Montessori setting in the morning and attend a different after-school facility. Therefore, they want choice and the services provided in the area to be balanced for all children, from birth to the age of 15 years.
I have a query about the rules for what counts as net income.
Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee also brought up this issue and many people are wondering whether they will be covered. Will the Minister, in her response or maybe at a later date, set out what is covered in term of net income and whether there are areas where there might be an element of flexibility, given that so many young parents are still feeling many of the after-effects of the years of austerity and, most importantly, the crash?
I think it was Senator Lynn Ruane who discussed at length after-school care, which is vitally important. Much of the attention in previous years was not on after-school care. A number of parents have raised with me in the past few months the fact that they are committed to after-school care, that they have the resources and that they have the support necessary from the State but that they do not have the actual facility. They say there is a dearth of facilities, especially in south County Dublin, the area with which I am most familiar. Montessori schools or crèches which provide services in the morning see obstacles laid out before them by the child care committee in adapting their facilities to provide after-school care facilities. Can measures be taken to open up property for this purpose? Could more partnerships with other institutions, be they private or public, be considered to develop after-school facilities and provide the necessary sessions for parents, as their children move beyond their early years into their later years, up to the age of 15 years?
I welcome all of the measures announced in the budget last week and wish the Minister the very best with them. They are hugely important. I first started knocking on doors for Fine Gael in 2004. Ever since and in every election campaign in which I have canvassed or run in as a candidate, child care and its cost have been huge issues. The vast majority of parents see the cost of child care as a second mortgage. It is tough. I very much welcome the measure into which we are moving and the initiatives announced last week, especially when many continental comparisons are considered. The initiatives are very progressive and long overdue. As I said, I started canvassing in 2004; therefore, in my mind, they are at least 12 years overdue, but I commend the Minister for everything that has been included in the budget.
The second matter to which I refer has absolutely nothing to do with the recent announcements but it comes within the Minister's remit. I have raised the matter on the Order of Business previously, in different places and debates, even just last week. I refer to Erasmus+ and the drawdown in Ireland in respect of the scheme. In 2015, 150 out of 243 Irish applications, or just over 60%, were successful. That is a pretty good figure, but 243 applications in the first place is disappointingly low. Léargas, the agency that runs Erasmus+, and the HEA which partners with it ran 28 clinics for organisations looking to apply for Erasmus+ in 2015. This shows that when applications are completed, they are put through. However, in a previous life, I spent far too many hours compiling and filling in Erasmus+ application forms. I think the record was 111 pages; the shortest form I ever completed was 57 pages long. I ask the Minister, therefore, if at a European Council level, she will put the case to the Commission that we are simply not making the most of great programmes such as Erasmus+. The application and reporting process needs to be simplified greatly. The whole system could be improved. I ask the Department to make efforts to improve it, bearing in mind that many times when Irish organisations and bodies were successful in their applications, it was through partnering with organisations in the United Kingdom. We need to fill that gap post-Brexit. I ask the Minister to take my comments to the Council and the Commission and look for greater simplicity.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone. It is a pleasure to have her here in her new role, on which I congratulate her. I would like to say how good it was to work with her in the Seanad in the previous term. I congratulate her also on the single affordable child care scheme which received a very positive response generally. Other colleagues raised various issues and asked questions about it and I hope to speak about and focus on it too. However, before I do so, I wish to raise with the Minister two issues that also relate to her brief, given that is the focus of this debate. The first is the urgency of commencing the Children First legislation. This issue was raised by the organisation One in Four last week. The Act introduces mandatory reporting for a range of professionals. We did a good deal of work on it in the justice committee, as the Minister will recall, and we should not lose sight of it. Sometimes legislation, as the Minister will be aware, particularly in the area of children, has been passed but then languished on the Statute Book for many years before being commenced. It is, therefore, something we need to watch.
Second, I raise with the Minister the recommendations of the UN rapporteurs to Ireland on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child earlier this year which were discussed at the First Child Summit. Some of the issues they raised were also raised in the book published by the ESRI which the Minister launched in recent weeks based on the Growing Up in Ireland study which contained some disturbing findings on the expectations of children in contemporary Ireland. We find children's well-being in contemporary Ireland still being largely shaped by parental circumstance and social and economic position. I know that the Minister is well aware of the data, but the issue has also been raised at international level in the context of the number of children living in consistent poverty and the growing number of homeless children. In that context, I also raise with the Minister the condition of children living in direct provision settings and ask her to bring her influence to bear on the Government in the implementation at least of the McMahon report's recommendations on improving conditions for families and children, in particular, in direct provision accommodation. These recommendations were put forward during the term of the last Government, but it is disappointing that they have not been given more of a focus in the lifetime of the Government.
I refer to the UN rapporteurs' focus on the issue of divestment. They raised the following question which has been raised in other forums and at international and national level. How does the religious patronage of schools - currently more than 90% of primary schools - impact on children, specifically children of non-Christian families and children who are being brought up in families with no designated religion? There has been a very disappointing lack of progress on the policy of divestment originally announced by the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, but which we have seen languish. I speak as somebody who was very involved in starting a multidenominational school, under Educate Together patronage, which had formerly been a Catholic school. We were very involved in one of the first divestments in my area of the south inner city of Dublin, but it has been very disappointing that so few further divestments have taken place. Again, I know that this is not directly in the Minister's area - it clearly comes under the Department of Education and Skills - but it has been raised at international level in the context of children's rights. Again, I ask her to bring her influence to bear within the Cabinet on that issue.
Child care is an issue in which many of us are very personally invested. Senator Neale Richmond referred to it. As a parent of young children who has paid for child care and sought it for children for some years, I know personally the very direct personal impact the Minister's scheme will have and very much welcome it. As I said, it has been broadly welcomed. We are relatively unique in Ireland in that we have extremely high child care costs for parents and very low levels of State investment traditionally. Others have spoken about this. Clearly, one must consider women's role in society in Ireland generally to understand why so little focus has been put politically on child care during the years. Therefore, I very much welcome the renewed focus in that regard, but we must see it in a gendered context. The Minister will be very well aware of this and the language in Article 41 of the Constitution which recognises mothers as having duties in the home exclusively - there is no reference to fathers - and women as having a life within the home. We need to move beyond this. I hope we will see the removal of that language from the Constitution and its replacement, as the Constitutional Convention recommended, with gender-neutral language respecting the role of carers.
As the Minister said, it is also important we ensure the measures she has announced are not seen in some way to discriminate against parents who do not work outside the home. There has been an unfortunate tendency to pit mothers against one another, when, in fact, we should all seek the same thing. Of course, increasing the quality and value of early child care and education and allowing parents to spend significant amounts of time at home are not mutually exclusive and we can achieve a model in which both are valued and parents' choices and children's rights are emphasised and given priority.
Generally, we tend to look to the Scandinavian model of family-friendly work policies such as parental and paternity leave, alongside publicly subsidised early-years facilities for all. We see an emphasis in this model on parental choice and children's rights. Parents are enabled to remain at home for at least the first year of a child's life and policies are adopted on a gender-neutral basis. This applies in countries that have a much larger tax base than and a very different tax system from ours, of which we need to be cognisant.
In the Labour Party we recently heard from Ciairín de Buis, the former director of Start Strong, who has advocated that we look to other countries too, not just Scandinavia but also New Zealand, for example. There is a tax base similar to ours in New Zealand which is not as developed as that in Scandinavia. It set out a reforming early-years strategy some time ago, placing a particular emphasis on high levels of qualifications of the workforce in early childhood education. I wish to specifically refer to this. In the Labour Party's child care policy during the last general election entitled, "Standing up for Families", we emphasised the need to invest in high quality child care, not just to reduce the cost to parents. We called for the placing of a cap on child care costs for parents to reduce them to no more than €2 per hour by 2021. Coupled with this, we also called for an increase in the quality of child care settings by ensuring the greater professionalisation of those working in early childhood education. I know that the Minister has asked specifically for Senators' view on the investment of resources. That is one area in which we could really do with an investment of resources. We know that staff in the child care sector generally tend to be low paid and, until relatively recently, low levels of qualifications were required. We called in our policy for a transforming of quality by ensuring a higher premium for providers with highly qualified staff. I know that this is being started. It was started under the previous Government and we also started to enhance inspection rates of pre-school facilities. Again, we could do a lot more in that regard.
I argue for a distinction to be made between child care and early childhood education. We need to ensure we talk about early childhood education specifically. It is extremely formative and important for the development of children. It must be separate from, although closely related to, child care. All in all, we need to ensure we are reconceptualising early childhood care and education in terms of children's rights in line with the constitutional amendment brought forward by the previous Government.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo um thráthnóna. I welcome the Minister and thank her for her attention. I wish her well in her brief and compliment her on her achievements to date in this area and the manner in which she has been able to persuade her Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues to travel on the road on which she has taken them.
Many points have been raised by my colleagues. I am not going to go into them again and will try to curtail my contribution mainly to questions.
I have a couple of concerns, the first of which is the €47,000 net income figure. Was a more tiered approach looked at? What is the relevance of the figure of €47,000? I am thinking primarily of those who are earning in excess of that sum and the fact that they will lose out. Was any consideration given to having a tiered, stepped salary scale initiative rather than using this method?
My second concern is Tusla-registered child care providers, of whom there is a limited number. How do we encourage more child care providers to register with Tusla? What are the road blocks in that regard?
The other issue is the demand for places that one imagines will follow this initiative of the Minister. Are we happy that we have the infrastructure in place to accommodate the anticipated demand? Another issue is child care provision which is highly labour intensive, as I am sure the Minister appreciates. It has traditionally been an area in which there are low pay rates for those who work in the industry. This acts as an impediment for those who are trying to gain further training to heighten professionalism in the sector. How do we ensure, on one hand, that we can increase salaries and make it more attractive for people who work in the sector in order that they can see a long-term future for themselves in it and, at the same, balance the cost associated with running a child care facility which is also a business? At the end of the day, the figures have to stack up from the provider's perspective. I see this as a challenge.
The final issue is the challenge we face every day in our lives in achieving a work-life balance. It is the parent's choice to stay at home as opposed to feeling he or she would like to go out or has to go out to work. How can we ensure the two ideals are met and seen as genuine goals? I am interested in hearing the Minister's views on how can we look after both of these sectors.
I welcome the Minister. I wish to deal specifically with issues affecting the LGBTQI community, young people in particular. In June, during the Dublin Pride weekend, the Minister's Department announced that it would lead the development of Ireland's first national LGBT strategy for young people. A more suitable weekend could not have been found. The LGBT Ireland report identified the very real struggles young people faced in post-marriage equality Ireland. It outlined for us, as elected representatives, activists, politicians and Ministers, a very clear understanding of issues facing young LGBTQI people such as mental health, self-harm, suicide, coming out, school experiences, substance abuse and misuse, victimisation and harassment. Compared to the national youth mental health study commissioned by UCD and Headstrong, among LGBT young people there is twice the level of self-harm, three times the level of attempted suicide and four times the level of severe stress, anxiety and depression. I take the opportunity to welcome the undertaking of a national LGBT strategy and express my commitment to support its development. It is fair to say the Minister and I share the common goal of making it easier to grow up as someone who is LGBT.
Will the Minister provide an update on the strategy and the ongoing proposals following the budget announcements last week? Will she indicate a timeline for such developments? Will all LGBTQI organisations engaged with young people, including ShoutOut and BeLonGTo, be involved or consulted in its development? It is of the utmost importance that moneys be ring-fenced for implementation of the strategy, rather than just its development. Will that be the case? I ask because, as things stand, support services for persons who are LGBTQI are stretched to the limit in post-marriage equality Ireland. Following the passing of the referendum ensuring greater trans equality, young people are availing of BeLonGTo's services in increasing numbers. It is wonderful, heartwarming and heartening to know that young people are coming out in greater numbers, engaging in LGBT community services, seeking peer to peer support, sexual health support, mental health support and support for those misusing drugs and alcohol. The LGBT community, BeLonGTo and ShoutOut are engaging with young people, empowering them and building a sense of their being part of the LGBT community earlier than ever. In other words - the Minister will accept this - they are transforming lives and we know that that work is lifesaving. In the LGBT Ireland report the average age at which young people to discover their identity is 12 years and the average age at which they come out is 16. That space of four years cannot be spent in isolation or on the margins. Any LGBT strategy for young people must make dealing with that issue a priority.
Last week I was sent correspondence from a young trans person who attended BeLonGTo's service. I do not read it to engage in political point-scoring but to stress the importance of, as we know well, the empowering ability of youth services. It reads:
Yesterday young people attending BeLonG To's Sunday group were notified of some changes that would take place in the service, caused by a dramatic increase in attendance since the marriage referendum and a distinct lack of funding despite this increase. As this service has been put under strain, they are reducing the groups to once every 2 weeks, as opposed to have meetings every week as they have done for years prior. They are also having to close their largest group (the Sunday group) to over 18s. They've had to remove their informal hang-out group, "Drop in", entirely. Even before this announcement, BeLonG To's own building is not substantial to accommodate their 2 biggest groups, and the building is not wheelchair accessible.
The e-mail continues:
As vulnerable LGBTQI teenagers and young adults we need our weekly groups. For some of us, these groups are the only times we can be ourselves. Many young people's lives are improved by youth workers and by their LGBTQI peers at these meetings. For transgender young people, it could be the only place you can dress how you like and be called the right name. BeLonGTo gave me the confidence to write you this e-mail. Let them keep giving young people the comfort and support they deserve.
I will pass on this correspondence to the Minister, but I could not articulate in better terms the need for these youth services. I want to encourage those services to be a key part of an implementation strategy.
I received a response from the Minister for Social Protection via Deputy Louise O'Reilly regarding the Gender Recognition Act 2015 and the review that will commence next September should the legislation be abided by. We should depart from the review and open a legal pathway for young transgender people prior to it even commencing. In a sense, there is nothing to review in respect of young transgender people. Their existence was a glaring omission in the legislation. Will the Minister ensure the voices of transgender citizens not heard in the review will form part of the membership of any new group? A review undertaken by cisgender individuals is deeply problematic.
In a previous life I worked in the United Kingdom for ten years as a child care campaigner turned politician. Therefore, the Minister and I may share common ground. The budget breakthrough in 2017 was phenomenal and only somebody who has worked in the sector and who has seen what happens behind the scenes could judge it. I commend the breakthrough because, as Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said, child care is part of the infrastructure of a modern Ireland for children. In 2002, when I was living in England, I was part of an OECD team that visited Ireland and what we found was shocking in terms of how far behind Ireland was in respect of child care. It is great that in 2016 and 2017 we are finally catching up.
The Minister has inherited a messy, complicated and expensive child care system in which the positive changes she makes could have unintended consequences, as has been outlined. I offer the support and expertise of the Civil Engagement Group to wade through that messy and complicated system and for us to be her critical friends as the child care system that is needed is developed. The only measure of success will be a reduction in child poverty rates. The current rates are unacceptable and keep going in the wrong direction. Any activity in child care provision should have a positive effect on child poverty by reducing it. It should also close the 14% gender gap in order that we end up with an infrastructure that supports women and children to succeed in Ireland.
I wish the Minister every success and luck with the messiness. I am sure she will bear with it.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire and déanaim comhghairdeas léi as ucht an post a thogáil sa Rialtas nua.
This is my first opportunity as Leader to welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her appointment. Having worked with her in many battles during the previous Dáil, she brings passion and zeal to the job and we are lucky to have her in the post.
I refer to Senator Fintan Warfield's remarks about BeLonGTo, LGBT young people and, in particular, the transgender community. Everybody thought with the passage of the Gender Recognition Act, the issue had been resolved, but we have a huge quantum of work to do still and based on my own observations of, and interactions with, the LGBT community, we have work to do in youth services. I commend BeLongTo for its work under the leadership of Ms Monnine Griffith. It is a path on which we have to work and bring many people on a journey with us. The Senator's point is well made. I met members of the transgender community in the context of the gender recognition legislation and I am sure in time we will examine a pathway for people to transition. I am probably using the wrong language, for which I apologise, but it is an issue of huge sensitivity. Given the work of TENI and BeLonGTo, as an office holder, the Minister has to be cognisant of the fragility of life. The essence of what we are discussing in this context is giving people a new beginning and a new opportunity in life.
Equally, the Minister visited Cork ETB a few weeks ago to showcase youth work. Participants in the event were struck by her commitment and genuine interest and the time she spent with young people. We are lucky as a society to have a youth network that puts a value on young people and offers them a different life in some cases. The network makes them feel safe, secure, welcome and involved and a confidence is given to them that they might not experience in their own family life or in their life outside the network. We have been fortunate with youth work provision. I hope in the coming years a youth work blueprint will be produced to build on the work of Foróige and other organisations. While there are organised sports, cultural and youth clubs, including the scouts and girl guides, we need to impress on each other and the wider community the importance of youth work and building bridges with young people to make them feel part of a community. I hope that will be done.
Senator Colette Kelleher referred to the budget breakthrough and she is correct. On the Order of Business Senator Alice-Mary Higgins raised the infrastructure of life for young people, of which child care is part. As former Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I fully recognise the importance and the need for a blueprint and the need to give families a tax break to make child care affordable. Much of the commentary on the budget has dealt with different issues. Grandparents and stay-at-home parents mind children, but in some families both parents must work and a balance must be struck because affordable, quality child care is necessary, while child care providers and their staff must earn an income that is commensurate with the work they do when young children are entrusted to them.
It would be remiss of me not to refer to the importance of the Togher Family Centre, a matter I have discussed with the Minister, and the issues the staff there have raised with me. They need to be able to continue to provide quality child care for families in the area and they would like more funding. Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee will also work hard in her area in that regard. In the Togher case, services need to be extended, not reduced. It must be ensured the changes in regulation which we all accept must be in place do not create difficulties for these family centres and result in a reduction in services. I invite the Minister to visit the Togher Family Centre because it a hive of activity. It is a wonderful centre in which young people are treated as family and loved and cared for. They adopt wonderful departures from the norm in terms of child care. It is a centre of excellence that deserves our commendation and praise.
I commend the Minister for the budget she has managed to secure, which is welcome. We must all work to ensure child care and youth work continue to be represented at the Cabinet table.
I express my deep appreciation for all of the contributions from all of the Senators and the care with which they prepared them. Clearly, I can feel their appreciation for what I am trying to do and it means a lot. As we have said a few times, I believe we are taking a radical new step to ensure the support and the sustainability in the way we care for and value children in whatever setting that happens. It is extremely helpful in making such a significant step forward to receive the support of Senators, as well as their critical questions, some of which I will try to address. As the questions have been wide-ranging, I may not reach all of them, but Ms Bernie McNally, my assistant secretary, is in the Chamber and taking note of the questions asked. If I do not reach all of them, we will be willing to provide the answers in written form.
I have heard some of the ways Senators have identified that what we are trying to do is actually to rethink or reconceptualise the ways in which we provide, understand and resource the care and education of children and young people. We are trying to recognise the cost of care in a different way than we did before and ensure a greater work-life balance which is absolutely critical. Above all - I believe many Senators commented on this - I refer to the way in which changes are made in the additional investment I have managed to secure for children and young people. I will refer to some of the Senators' remarks on youth services as I conclude but particularly on the child care scheme. The plan is an attempt to ensure additional investment in children for their future. It is not in any way an effort to discriminate against families. As many Members have stated, it is an effort, in a new way, to highly value the care provided by all parents, relatives, grandparents and the way in which we balance the valuing of all who are caring for children. While this is a general response to some of the Senators' appreciation and comments in the overall approach I have taken, I will turn to some of the more specific questions.
Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee raised the issue of Garda vetting. We are working very closely with the National Vetting Bureau to decrease the time it takes in order that we can ensure organisations have access to child care professionals as soon they are required. I have already indicated that I am committed to doing this and I have already begun to prepare for budget 2018. Coming up to budget 2017, I said were we to approach the budgetary provision for the investment in child care and early years learning in a manner approaching the average of OECD countries, Ireland would need to invest at least €100 million in the next five years. This year, coming into the 2017 budget, the provision was €121 million; therefore, I would need to get at least that much, if not more, for 2018.
As we move into 2017, one great thing is the way in which the Department operates with city and county child care committees, with public representatives and child care providers, especially with the national early years forum I established recently to work closely with me in monitoring the implementation of the changes we have identified. The Department is always doing this and we are consistently evaluating the impact of the change to see if it needs to be tweaked further.
Questions were also asked about the various entry points, particularly the age levels with regard to the ECCE scheme entry points. That was an effort to respond to a situation where a child might miss an entry level point for a whole year due to his or her birth date. That is why we established the three entry points. I hear that concern and know that the officials are hearing it too. There are still some questions and concerns about it, at which we will look.
Senators asked for clarification on the early child care scheme and what net income actually meant. It means net income from households, whether assessed individually or jointly. We will consider that issue. The good thing about the scheme I have introduced is that as it will not be implemented until September 2017, we have time to prepare and continue to deal with questions and concerns. I will also ask my officials to revert to the Senators about whether income from a property which is in negative equity will be assessed.
Senator Catherine Noone spoke about how the issue of the cost of child care was often raised on the doorsteps. The election was not that long ago, although in some ways it seems like a lifetime ago. I can tell Members I never expected to be sitting in this chair and the cost of child care was raised consistently during the election campaign.
Senator Catherine Noone also made reference to the Growing Up in Ireland survey. I had a great privilege of launching the ESRI's compilation. I believe Senator Máire Devine may have also referred to it in her remarks with reference to analysing the Growing Up in Ireland study and the analysis of some of the meaning of the data from the past ten years, so much of which has to do with issues of inequality and how we are going to address them across the board as a Government.
With regard to my Department and the particular scheme, it is an attempt to address the issue of inequality for children in a way that has not been done before and to do it in a systematic way that can be built on over time. I believe some of the questions have to do with the numbers of children who would benefit from the new approach. There are some 31,000 children benefiting from the existing schemes. We have checked the new scheme against them and know that 95% of the children will actually be better off. We have made provision to ensure the balance of 5% will maintain their existing level of benefit or subsidy when the scheme is introduced. My Department will be actively monitoring the cost to ensure the top-up payment by parents does remain manageable.
Senators Alice-Mary Higgins, Lynn Ruane and others raised the issue of fees and the capping of fees. I am very much aware of the importance of looking at this issue because I too am concerned about it.
As Senators are aware, the affordable scheme is about making decisions on where to put the limited resources, even though I was able to get a significant amount for September 2017, how to allocate these resources and in what places, while having regard to affordability, quality and accessibility. In addition, the issue I have heard so clearly, having worked with people in the sector for most of my life in the country, concerns the professionals and practitioners who work within the sector. The importance of investing in staff is related to the issue of fees. In 2017 we are also investing €14.5 million in respect of the professionals and the practitioners in the centres to provide additional moneys for non-contact time and the learner fund to increase their levels of qualifications. We have raised the capitation beyond what it was and have related it to access to qualifications, in addition to restoring all levels of capitation.
They are ways in which we are spending some of the money to support providers.
The issue of fees is being examined. One of the ways of addressing concerns in that regard is to ensure investment in the professionals as they develop. On the capping of fees, a point raised by Senator Alice-Mary Higgins and others, the pros and cons of doing so will be considered in the context of the independent review that will commence towards the end of the year. I am aware that it is not expected that in 2017 demand will outstrip supply and as such it is not anticipated that fees will necessarily be raised. I hope they will not. I have talked about the ways in which we are trying to be proactive in ensuring that will not happen. Members will be aware from other commentary that capacity is expected to expand in 2018 in the light of the capital and subsidisation supports. We will be looking at this issue in the context, in particular, of the resources that will be available in 2018 with the hope that in 2017, in the light of the way in which we have moved in investing in the sector, fees will not increase.
There were a couple of questions on the scheme, including whether it would replace the current four subsidisation schemes operated by the Department. The answer is "Yes". First and foremost, the single affordable child care scheme is to amalgamate the four schemes into one and, above all, make it easier and more user-friendly for providers and parents to understand in terms of how their child care requirements may be subsidised. The subsidisation scheme is particularly for after-school care which was a concern of Senator Lynn Ruane. Effectively, this subsidisation will provide for wrap-around care in terms of after-school care for children of preschool age and for all children aged up to 15 years. The purpose of the subsidisation is largely to enable the provision of that support. The free preschool places scheme also forms part of that support.
I assure Senator Máire Devine that I am very much aware of the programme for Government commitment in terms of equality and gender-proofing of budgets. It is an initiative I brought to the programme for Government. I hope this process will be in place in my Department post-2017. I will be encouraging the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and the independent office to ensure the process will be ready to go for 2018.
I have visited many parts of the country to see what is being done in youth services. I am delighted to say the additional €5.5 million being provided in 2017 will enable me to ensure an increase of up to 10% in funding for youth organisations. I am aware that there are some national youth organisations that are not part of the scheme. I hope there may be ways to include some of them in terms of the moneys available. I am well aware of the good work of BeLonGTo and have received communication on the manner in which it has had to cut back on services because of cuts. On the point made by Senator Jerry Buttimer about youth services in his area, funding for the sector has been increased. We will look carefully at how best to ensure it goes to support the extraordinary work being done in youth services provision throughout the country and, in particular, to ensure the service will be better represented in geographic regions.
My colleague, Senator Robbie Gallagher, asked if consideration had been given to income progression and stepping down the support for people above the €47,500 net income threshold. Was that issue considered or will it be considered in the future?
We will take a look at that issue. Some of the questions in that regard come in the absence of people understanding how the new scheme will impact on their family. Subsidisation will differ according to the age, number and supervision requirements of children, as well as what is accounted for in terms of net income. A great deal of consideration went into the setting of the threshold at €47,500. Obviously, the subsidisation decreases as one moves up the scale, but the threshold was set to ensure it would capture people in the lower and middle income brackets. It is important to ensure affordability in that regard. One of the priorities is to keep the money towards the lower end. It will become more apparent as time passes how this will impact on families in their own circumstance. This is just a first step on a new path. I am determined to look for ways to ensure we can increase this funding in years to come. The scheme has been well thought out. It is research and evidence based such that it will be the most targeted and efficient way to value caring for children in all contexts and thus support all families.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.