It is great to be here and I am grateful for the invitation to discuss matters relating to the early years sector with Members. I value opportunities such as this to inform, and engage with, colleagues on this important area. This is my first time in the new House.
Since being appointed as Minister, one of my key priorities has been to address the historic under-resourcing in the area of child care. International evidence is clear that investment in children during their early years results in long-term gains to the economy as well as society generally. Previous budgets have significantly increased resources, which has enabled my Department to advance a number of key reforms aimed at improving both affordability and the quality of service. I am pleased to inform the House that, despite the difficult financial climate, budget 2018 represents another significant step in ensuring access to high quality, affordable early years care and education. The additional resources which have been made available in the budget, along with an in-depth review of the existing €466 million base, will again allow me to make progress in key areas.
There have been considerable developments in respect of the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, also known as the free preschool year. This enhancement delivers fully on a commitment in the programme for Government that is good for children, families and early years providers. From September 2018, the ECCE scheme will be made available to all children over the age of two years and eight months for two full programme years. All children of the relevant age will be entitled to 76 weeks of the scheme - two 38-week programme years. This builds on last year’s development which extended the scheme from 38 weeks to an average of 61 weeks for children depending on their date of birth and age starting school.
The upper age limit on finishing ECCE remains five years and six months.
The extension of ECCE will be accompanied by a move to a single entry point for the scheme each programme year in September, beginning in 2018. For 2017, the January and April entry points will remain. This initiative ensures an equitable two-year entitlement for all children. Alongside the extension of ECCE, in September 2018 there will also be increases to capitation rates of 7% for early years providers who deliver the scheme. The increases will apply both to the standard capitation rate, which goes up from €64.50 to €69 per child, and the higher capitation rate for level 7 qualified staff, which goes up from €75 to €80.25 per child. It is hoped that increased capitation, as a first step, will assist early years employers to improve conditions for their staff.
Budget 2018 also secured investment to continue the child care affordability measures that were introduced in September. These affordability measures are already, in the first six weeks of the schemes, benefiting 45,000 children, with 24,000 of these registered so far for the universal under-three scheme and 21,000 registered for the targeted schemes. The additional funding will ensure the door remains open for further children and families to register and benefit from these subsidies throughout 2018.
Alongside these measures, €18 million in programme support payments in 2018 will be provided to early years services to assist with non-contact costs. Programme support payments, previously known as non-contact time payments, are now fully secured and will be available again in 2018 and thereafter. Some €14.5 million was originally secured in budget 2017, and this was topped up by €3.5 million this summer for services which signed up to the September measures. The latter was provided, however, on a one-off basis. The full allocation of €18 million is now in the early years funding base going forward.
Next year will also see further investment of €2.3 million to fund a package of measures for other early years initiatives. These initiatives include the following: further enhancement of the early years inspection services by both Tusla and the Department of Education and Skills to assure the quality of early years services; investment in capital improvements for child care services to increase provision and increase quality, which amounts to a considerable increase on capital funding from previous years; and special measures to address sustainability concerns of some community providers, particularly where they previously would have had a reliance on the community employment scheme. In parallel with these developments, my Department continues to prepare for the introduction of an affordable child care scheme. As part of this important work, an independent review of the cost of delivering quality child care was recently commissioned and will assist in providing evidence for future investment required.
Budget 2018 is another milestone for early years care and education. High-quality, accessible and affordable early years care and education benefits children, our society and our economy. The additional funding I have secured represents a big step, and I am committed to continuing to seek the investment that children, parents and providers need and deserve. We must continue to invest in our children and the early years workforce, and I am delighted that, for two budgets in a row, I have been able to take significant steps in this regard.