Childcare Support Bill 2017: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Childcare Support Bill 2017 to the Seanad. In March, the Bill completed its passage through the Dáil, following positive and constructive engagement with Deputies. There was cross-party support for the Bill and cross-party collaboration on a number of amendments which have strengthened the Bill and resulted in the text we now have before us. I look forward to working with Senators to examine the Bill further over the coming weeks.

The cost of childcare places a huge financial burden on many families, especially on parents who are trying to get out of poverty, or who want to take up job opportunities or take part in education but who cannot afford to do so because of the financial barrier of childcare fees. The high cost of childcare is also a barrier to the participation of young children in high quality early care and education, which we know from international research can make a lasting difference to children’s life chances.

Making childcare more affordable for families will bring many benefits. It will improve outcomes for children. It will also support parents to transition from welfare to employment and support lifelong learning for parents. It will advance gender equality, supporting women's labour market participation and helping to close the gender pay gap. It will also help to tackle child poverty and support economic growth. These benefits are why I am so proud of the progress we have already made in making childcare more affordable, and why the Bill is so important.

The Bill provides the legislative underpinning for a new affordable childcare scheme, which will replace all existing targeted childcare subvention schemes with a single, streamlined scheme. It is a scheme that will provide the framework for sustainably increasing public investment in childcare over the years ahead. The scheme will make childcare more affordable for parents by providing subsidies which will be paid on the parents' behalf to their chosen registered childcare provider. The provider must use the subsidy to offset the fees it charges.

The scheme will provide income-related financial support, which targets support towards parents who face the greatest financial difficulty in affording childcare. It will also provide non-income related, or universal, financial support, which allows a level of support for all parents of children of a prescribed age who use registered childcare services. The Bill also allows for additional support for families where there is an identified need for childcare on the grounds of child development or child welfare. It names five statutory bodies that may make referrals for free or additional childcare support. This, for me, is one of the most important aspects of the Bill, intended to help ensure we can meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and of families that may be a long way from participation in the labour market and that would otherwise benefit from only limited childcare support.

The Bill marks the first time that any of our childcare funding schemes will have a statutory basis. The Bill is critical for good governance in a number of ways. It will establish clear eligibility and scheme rules, it will create clear procedures, including an appeals process, and it will ensure the Department and the scheme administrator have adequate powers to ensure that public funds are being used efficiently and to take action where public funds are misused. Crucially, the Bill will enable the introduction of a streamlined, automated income-assessment process, providing a statutory basis for data sharing between the scheme administrator, the Revenue Commissioners, and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This new income assessment process will allow the targeting of childcare supports towards those with the greatest need, in particular families seeking to enter the labour market but that have a low or moderate level of income. It will also allow us to move away from the current reliance on social welfare payments and medical cards as the only means of assessing financial need for childcare. It will be quite monumental when we get to that point and will impact everyone positively, providers as well as families.

The IT-driven approach at the heart of the affordable childcare scheme will also improve administrative efficiency and streamline the application and registration procedures for parents and childcare service providers. My goal is the creation of a world-class system that is user-friendly for parents, efficient for childcare providers, and excellent value for money for the public Exchequer and society. While I am keen to introduce the scheme as soon as possible, the IT system required is complex and I want to be sure it is robust and long-lasting. The development of the IT system, which is being carried out in close co-operation with the office of the chief information officer, is well under way. A request for tenders for the IT development was published in January and the evaluation process is ongoing at present. Earlier delays regarding the IT system are, indeed, regrettable. However, the improvements I introduced last September involving the introduction of a universal childcare subsidy for all children under three years of age and increases of up to 50% in the value of existing childcare subsidies mean that more than 71,000 children and their families are already benefitting from increased childcare subsidies. These important measures allowed me to fast-track many of the benefits of the affordable childcare scheme without compromising on the rigour and time needed to develop and launch this landmark new scheme.

An important aspect of the Bill, and one that has so far been underestimated, is its importance for raising quality standards in childcare. We know that childcare must be of high quality if it is to improve outcomes for children. While the primary focus of the affordable childcare scheme is affordability, the approach embodied by the scheme reflects the international evidence that supply-side funding gives the Government greater leverage to improve quality standards than demand-side approaches such as tax credits. It does this in several ways. The Bill limits participation in the scheme to childcare providers registered with Tusla, including registered childminders, providing assurance that critical quality standards must be met by all providers in the scheme. All childcare providers who wish to participate in the scheme will have to sign a contract with the Department. Section 8 of the Bill allows quality conditions to be specified in the contract that are more rigorous than those required by the early years services regulations. The Bill allows for future development of the scheme, with section 13 allowing the possibility of quality-raising incentives to be built into the formula for determining how much funding the scheme provides. More broadly, the flexibility of the Bill allows us to change the subsidy rates over time, enabling the Government to adjust the scheme in response to the findings of the independent review of the cost of quality childcare, as well as in response to the ongoing professionalisation of the early years workforce.

If we are to support the move to a professional workforce with wages and working conditions that reflect the importance of the work carried out by early years educators, inevitably the cost of delivering childcare will rise over the years ahead. Subsidy rates will, therefore, also have to rise if childcare is to remain affordable to parents.

Finally, by requiring all participating childcare providers to register with Tusla, I am very aware of the historical anomaly that school-age childcare remains unregulated. To address this anomaly, I announced last December that I would introduce regulations later in 2018 in advance of the childcare scheme's introduction to enable school-age childcare services to register with Tusla and, thus, participate in the scheme. In the first instance, these new regulations will be limited to registration requirements. Work will then commence on the drafting of full regulations that will cover quality issues such as qualification requirements.

I turn to the Bill itself. Senators will recall that I published the heads of a Bill and general scheme in January 2017. In February 2017, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs carried out pre-legislative scrutiny. The recommendations made by the committee were very useful and have helped to shape the Bill that I am presenting today. During the Bill's passage through the Dáil, a number of important amendments were made. I greatly appreciate the positive contribution of Deputies from all parties who worked together with me on those amendments.

In setting out the main provisions of the Bill, I will briefly highlight some of the key amendments that have been made since the Bill was published. Section 1 provides definitions of key terms. In particular, it ties the definition of "childcare services provider" to the list of registered providers maintained by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Throughout the Bill, the term "childcare services provider" therefore includes registered childminders. The definition of "parent" in the Bill includes a person acting in loco parentis and, therefore, includes guardians.

Section 2 provides for the establishment of the scheme which will be funded out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas each year and states that the scheme will be operated by the scheme administrator. Sections 3 to 6, inclusive, provide for the appointment of the scheme administrator and describe its functions and governance arrangements. Section 6 allows for the scheme administrator to outsource certain functions while retaining responsibility for administration of the scheme.

Section 7 sets out the eligibility criteria for parents seeking to apply for financial support under the scheme. The residency requirements allow for applications not only from parents who are ordinarily resident in the State, but also from EU and EEA citizens who are not resident in the State and from other categories of parents who are formerly employed or self-employed in the State. However, financial support will be limited to childcare services registered under the Child Care Act 1991, and these must be located in the State. Where parents are separated, section 7 allows both parents to receive financial support, but each parent may only receive support for the days or times that he or she has care of the child. Section 8 limits participation in the scheme to "approved" childcare services providers, which must be registered with the Child and Family Agency and also have signed a contract with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to participate in the scheme. As such, I assure Senators that the wording of the Bill provides that registered childminders will be able to take part in the scheme.

Section 9 specifies the process by which parents may make applications for financial support, including the information they must provide. When applications are for income-related financial support, in most cases the income-data will be gathered through an automated process involving the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Income data will be gathered with the consent of the applicant and on the basis of PPS numbers supplied by the applicant. The Bill allows for the maximum number of hours of income-related financial support to vary depending on the parents' participation in the labour market. As a result, section 10 requires employers, education and training providers to verify information provided by an applicant on his or her labour market status when asked to do so by the scheme administrator. Section 11 provides for the income-assessment process, which must use the definitions of "income" and "allowable deduction" in Schedule 1.

Section 12 specifies the information that the scheme administrator must provide to the applicant after determining the amount of financial support, if any, for which the applicant qualifies. It also stipulates that a determination may be valid for 12 months at most, after which the application must be renewed. Section 13 provides for the calculation by the scheme administrator of the amount of financial support for which an applicant qualifies and sets out the factors to which the Minister must have regard when making regulations on the calculation of financial support. Amendments made to section 13 in the Dáil require the Minister, when making regulations on the number of hours of childcare to be subsidised, to have regard to parents' availability to care for a child, and also to have regard to transition periods between work and study, namely, those brief but crucial bridging periods before a parent's employment, self-employment or study commences or after it ends.

Section 14 allows for additional support where there is an identified need for childcare on grounds of child development or child welfare. It builds on existing arrangements under the administrative schemes being replaced. Additional support may take the form of higher rates of payment, such as the provision of childcare at no cost to parents, or additional hours of financial support each week, or provision of financial support for children who would otherwise be too young or too old to participate in the scheme. This section allows for agreements between the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and certain statutory bodies. These agreements will set out the procedures by which those statutory bodies may refer children for additional childcare support as well as the additional support to be provided. An amendment made to section 14 in the Dáil requires the Minister and statutory bodies, when making those agreements, to have regard to the objective of stability for children attending childcare services.

Schedule 2 lists the relevant statutory bodies and the purposes for which they may make referrals. An amendment to Schedule 2 of the Bill strengthened the wording regarding the purpose of referrals for childcare support from Tusla, which will be a key source of referrals for families in need of additional care. Section 15 provides for procedures relating to the payment of financial support to approved childcare service providers and for conditions to be prescribed in respect of those payments. Section 16 requires an applicant to notify the scheme administrator if he or she is no longer eligible for financial support under the scheme or if he or she ceases work or study. Section 17 allows for parents and childcare services providers to request reviews of decisions made by the scheme administrator. In cases where an application has been assessed through an automated process, a review allows a parent to request an administrative officer to examine the application. A review is the first stage of the appeals process. This section also allows the scheme administrator to carry out reviews on its own initiative, for instance to verify information provided by a parent or by a childcare service provider.

Sections 18 and 19 allow for the appointment of authorised officers who may enter the premises of childcare service providers in order to examine attendance records, financial records and other documents relevant to the scheme to ensure the proper use of public funds. Section 20 establishes the appeals process which follows completion of the review process under section 17. The Minister's consent is required for the appointment of appeals officers who will be required to be independent in the performance of their functions. Parents and childcare service providers will also have recourse to the Ombudsman and to the High Court on a point of law. Section 21 allows the scheme administrator to recover money from parents and from childcare services providers, both in cases of fraud or misrepresentation and in cases of overpayment.

Section 22 amends the Child Care Act 1991 to address issues arising from the regulation of school-age childcare which, as I stated earlier, will commence in 2018 in order to allow school-age providers to take part in the scheme from the outset. The amendments to the Child Care Act clarify the purpose of school-age childcare and ensure that the definition of "school-age service" covers services for children up to the age of 15. The amendments also set a limit on the number of school-age children for whom a childminder can care while remaining exempt from the requirement to register with Tusla. I stress that these amendments are an immediate necessity to enable the registration of school-age childcare services in advance of the introduction of the scheme.

However, at the same time, I will be advancing an action plan on childminding which I intend to publish in the year ahead. This plan will build on the recommendations of the working group on the childminding sector, which published its report in March. The action plan will set out reforms and supports to provide a pathway for a progressive increase in the number of registered childminders over the years ahead. This is consistent with my broader policy goal to continually drive quality improvement across the early years sector, including by supporting ever-growing numbers of childminders to come within the scope of regulation.

Section 23 amends the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to refer to the affordable childcare scheme as a “relevant purpose” for which specified bodies may share information on the basis of a PPS number. This amendment will allow the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to transfer information on an applicant’s income to the scheme administrator on the basis of the PPS number provided by someone who applies for income-related financial support.

Section 24 allows for the sharing of data between the bodies named in Schedule 3 for specified purposes, which include assessing an applicant’s income, registering a child, making payments, verifying children’s attendance, and carrying out a review, an appeal or the prosecution of an offence.

Section 25 describes the regulation-making powers under the Act. Following an amendment made in the Dáil, section 26 requires a review of the scheme to begin 12 months after the first payments under the scheme are made.

Section 27 allows beneficiaries of the existing administrative schemes to continue receiving the same level of financial support for a transitional period after those schemes are replaced by the new scheme. This would arise in circumstances where existing beneficiaries choose not to move over to the new scheme.

Section 28 provides for expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of the scheme to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 29 creates sanctions for persons guilty of offences under the Act. Section 30 allows commencement of different provisions of the Act at different times.

I look forward to hearing the views of the Members of the Seanad and to working with them to formulate the best possible legislation to help families to access affordable, quality childcare. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive statement. Fianna Fáil is happy to support the Bill and we look forward to it commencing. Our criticism is with the 18-month delay which did not provide certainty for families or childcare providers. I am happy that it is now being commenced.

I am very passionate about childcare, partly because I am in the throes of it as a parent of two small children. It is a key issue for women in Ireland. We need to improve the provision of childcare if we are to bridge the gender pay gap, a matter in which I have a great interest. I appreciate the Minister's commitment to the professionalisation of the childcare sector. I ask her to outline the additional supports she will provide for workers in the sector. As she said, their pay is not great. They are becoming more professionalised and their pay is not reflecting that professionalisation. They need extra support to provide the quality service they want to and have the ability to provide. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that.

I am also concerned that many people living in rural parts of the country do not have ready access to childcare centres. I know the Minister is trying to professionalise and regularise the childcare sector, but parents will often find it hard to access. Does she have any ideas for moving that forward in an acceptable fashion? As childcare has not been to the forefront of politicians' minds over the years, we are now playing catch up.

The Minister said that separated parents can apply for subsidies separately. I ask her to clarify if the income threshold will cover the two parents or will each of them have a threshold they need to reach. As separated parents run two separate households, their expenses would be greater than those of a couple living together. It becomes a catch-22 if both separated parents have separate thresholds and it might mean that parents living together in the one household might be disadvantaged. I ask the Minister to make reference to that in her closing remarks.

The budget will be presented in a few months and I presume the negotiations are going on at the moment. Is the Minister fighting for anything in particular? Is she seeking to get extra resources into this scheme? Is it for the professionalisation of the profession or is it to increase the subsidy available for parents or is there something else on her horizon?

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to the House. I welcome the drive, energy and hard cash that she has been investing in our young children since her appointment.

As the Minister said in her speech, research has proven that access to good quality early childhood care and education, integrated with maternity, parental and paternal leave is good for children, especially in tilting the balance for children experiencing disadvantage. I am thinking about the 3,500 children living in emergency accommodation, the estimated 139,000 children living in consistent poverty highlighted by CSO in December, Traveller children and children with disabilities. I am also thinking of children living in direct provision. I volunteered this summer in a holiday-placement scheme supporting them. They really are living in the most dire and limited circumstances.

Investing in early childhood care and education has a multiplier effect. It is good for children. It is also good for their mothers and fathers, in supporting them and allowing them to take up training, study and work opportunities. Investing in early education and childcare also means that Ireland is at last beginning to catch up with what parents and children take for granted in other countries in Europe, a matter to which I will return later. For too long we have been an outlier and laggard in this regard, letting down our children, compromising their parents' ability to get on and damaging our society and even our economy.

The Childcare Support Bill is a definite step in the right direction. I welcome that it is putting the affordable childcare scheme on a statutory basis for the first time. It was very heartening to listen to the budget and, as well as the usual lines we all look out for, having childcare there as a line to look out for, to monitor and to fiercely argue for because we are really only beginning as far as I can see.

I welcome that a single, streamlined system is being put in place. Bureaucracy, poor policy design and complexity often get in the way of good political intention. The affordable childcare scheme needs to be simple for providers. I remember getting an angry call from the then Secretary of State, David Blunkett, now Lord Blunkett, for being critical of the 45 funding streams for childcare the UK Government had put in place back in the late 1990s. Investment is only good if it can reach the parts, if it is straightforward and simple, and if it is under good governance. This is especially so for parents. Schemes must be user-friendly, as is mentioned in the briefing note, particularly if the Minister’s intent to reach poorer parents and reduce child poverty is to be achieved. I will be scrutinising this and other measures as the Bill progresses through the House. I may table some amendments.

I welcome the supply-side approach. Demand-side subsidies really do not work. I speak as someone who previously argued for them in the UK, but I was wrong. The Minister is right in having this supply focus.

I also welcome the amendments to section 13 when making regulations and having regard to parents’ availability to care for a child, and the bridging periods before, after and between periods of work or study. It is really important that we get this right so that the scheme can be workable in real life for parents.

Sometimes the policy makers' design is impossible to work in practice. It would be a disappointment if such a worthy scheme were to fall foul of complexity.

I welcome the amendment to section 14 around the provision of support for vulnerable children and measures to enhance the child’s stability. We are all aware of how moving around, dislocation and different arrangements can affect children’s sense of security and well-being, the very children who may already have suffered greatly. We want to do everything to support them and not make anything worse for a child by the poor design of a well-intentioned scheme.

I welcome the commitment to regulate school age childcare. This was the focus of my first job in childcare in the UK in 1990s. When we hear about scandals in sports and in scouting it is about time that Ireland brought in these much needed regulations to safeguard children. Children who attend can also benefit from the affordable childcare scheme. I welcome commitment to strengthen the quality and availability of childcare with childminding to come under the scope of the regulations.

The proposal to begin review of the scheme 12 months after the first payments are made is also welcome as is the commitment to strengthen the wording in relation to the purpose of referrals for childcare support from Tusla.

I direct the Minister to a good report from the OECD, Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Ireland, in which I was involved. This report was published in 2004 - 14 long years ago. At the time I was working as an adviser to the UK's Minister of State for Children, Margaret Hodge, embedded in the Department for Education and Skills in Whitehall. I was also part of the OECD review team under the leadership of John Bennett. I dug out the report on Sunday and in many ways it makes for disappointing reading. In spite of great efforts and energy on the part of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, Ireland is still lagging far behind our European counterparts with regard to early childhood care and education. The 2004 OECD report made many sound observations and good suggestions to the Government that have yet to be taken up. It is a useful checklist for the Minister, Deputy Zappone and her officials and I shall now highlight some key points from the report. It advises the integration of all early education and care policy under one Ministry; annual targets so that progress can be checked; and, attention to the early years and childhood needs of disadvantaged children, children from the Traveller community and children with disabilities. The 2004 report stated explicitly that the educational achievement of Traveller children is a matter of deep concern. It was then and it still is. Report after report shows this and it would be good to hear from the Minister what she is going to do about the early childhood and education gap for Traveller children through this Bill and other measures.

Other good suggestions made by the OECD in 2004 include funded parental leave of sufficient length; free accredited early education; a publicly funded morning education session for all children from the age of three; and the wisdom, positive effects and cost effectiveness of intensive early intervention. I would love to see a Sure Start style scheme rolled out in Ireland. I have seen the benefits of this type of scheme and I am heartbroken at its dismantling in the UK. We should look to this type of scheme and be ambitious about it.

The OECD strongly advised that Ireland should quickly reach the average rate of public expenditure for OECD countries for early childhood education and care. The affordable childcare scheme will help but I would like to know where we stand now regarding the average spending vis-à-vis the OECD league table of investment in early childhood care and education. As pointed out by Senator Clifford-Lee, I would also like to see how we are faring and what we should aim for in the budget with regard to achieving the goal of getting to the average.

I thank the Minister for her drive and commitment to improving early childhood care and education in Ireland and for bringing forward the Childcare Support Bill 2017. I look forward to working with her to make the Irish early education and care system fit for the modern State that we are, and above all good enough for Ireland’s children and their parents.

I welcome the Minister and her officials to the House. I thank her for her ongoing work in this area. I will be brief. I support the Bill in full but I wish to raise just a couple of points.

Ireland has come a long way in a relatively short period of time in childcare. It is in the relatively recent past that the first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was appointed. This showed a focus on children's affairs. Over and over again, the issue main raised in areas where younger couples live is the issue of childcare. It is clearly an issue the Government has listened to. Much has been done, and is being done with this legislation. I join with Senator Clifford-Lee in her question on the budget. While not ungrateful for the work done in this regard - and we give kudos for it - we also need to know what direction we are going and what it is we hope to achieve in the upcoming budget. This would be very interesting.

The Government is clearly delivering on its election commitment to help ease the financial costs of childcare for hard-pressed working families. The Minister would say, and I would join with her in this, that Ireland is building a world class, properly funded childcare system, which should last for generations. We have, unfortunately, been generations out so it will have to be done incrementally.

This universal measure is implemented to ensure that all families benefit, which is welcomed, and a further targeted payment will be made to help those families who need it most. This money is intended to help families who have borne the brunt of one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world caused by years of Government neglect and under-investment. It is about breaking down the barriers that stop people getting a fair chance to fulfil their potential and it is a big part of the republic of opportunity idea. The gender pay gap is hugely significant in this space. If we bring in more of the types of measures that have already been brought in around parental leave - rather than maternal leave - employers will not now automatically assume that a woman will disappear for a large proportion of her career with that particular organisation.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has allocated an additional €20 million in 2018 to support these initiatives. I am hopeful we will get further significant investment in this area for 2019. The new affordable childcare measures introduced by the Government in September will continue to be supported in 2018 and into 2019.

I have been contacted about some slight issues in this regard that I wish to raise with the Minister, and I shall give the Minister an opportunity to respond to them. One Family and the Children's Rights Alliance are concerned that the Bill retains an intention to means-test child maintenance. I would welcome the Minister's comments on this. From a policy perspective we want all income to be treated equitably. As the Bill stands, could it be said that the scheme acts as disincentive to employment for lone parents? Stakeholders believe that child maintenance should be seen as income for the child, not parental income. Perhaps the Minister will explain where she is coming from around this aspect. Organisations believe that the addition of this child maintenance as child income would be an excellent tool to bring more income into low income households. This will be the outcome of the legislation.

I entirely support the Bill but I believe there is a lot more for the Minister to do in this space. I wish the Minister the best of luck in her Department's interactions with the Minister for Finance in the upcoming budget. That is the only show in town in improving access to childcare and in increasing equality for families and children.

Sinn Féin will support the Childcare Support Bill 2017. It marks an important step in the right direction to bringing our childcare provisions to a more formalised standing and to give certainty to a sector, the instability of which has seen childcare costs spiral out of control. Sinn Féin wants to see childcare costs reduced and we believe this can only be achieved through State subsidies and investment.

Childcare costs disproportionately affect working class communities, single parents, young mothers and young families en masse. We want fair pay and conditions for workers in the sector where the average pay, only €10.27 per hour, is less than the living wage. The Government has consistently failed to get to grips with this issue and the Bill does nothing to address it. While the Minister has stated numerous times that the Department does not dictate wage levels, the Government dictates the standards and conditions that are to be met by childcare providers. A discussion is needed about the lack of fair standards and conditions for those who choose childcare as a career.

Sinn Féin is also concerned regarding the delay in implementing the information technology system for the new scheme. I understand it will not be in place before the commencement of the scheme in September. In the meantime, childcare providers will administer the scheme, which generates additional costs and adds to their workload. The funding allocated makes no provision for this additional burden. I hope the Minister is mindful of this and her Department provides the utmost assistance in this matter.

Furthermore, while the Minister assures us that the scheme is open to Tusla registered childminders, much more needs to be done to encourage childminders to register with Tusla. Obviously, we do not want a scenario to develop in which the State subsidises people who are not subject to regulation and oversight. This is an area on which work must be done in the period ahead. In the medium to long term, the State needs to move beyond simply subsidising private providers towards a publicly-funded system.

I commend the Minister on accepting a number of Sinn Féin amendments tabled by Deputies Denise Mitchell and Kathleen Funchion during the Dáil Stages of the Bill, particularly on the issue of holding a review of the scheme after 12 months and providing supports for vulnerable children. I hope to continue this positive relationship as the Bill proceeds through the Seanad.

I warmly thank Senators for their words of support for the Bill. It is great that they support it, although it does not surprise me. At the same time, it is important for me to receive their encouragement in respect of the Bill and my ongoing work on childcare and early years education and care. I genuinely mean that.

I found the contributions of Senators thoughtful and their excellent questions spurred me into thinking further about certain issues. In answering some of their questions, I will use the opportunity to speak briefly on our current thinking on some of the issues, which my officials and I may not articulate as much as we may like, including perhaps in the Dáil. I will also answer some of the specific questions raised. That is meant as a compliment to Senators whom I thank for preparing such excellent contributions to the debate.

All the contributions noted the significant progress we have made on the journey to date. I appreciate those comments. Statements to the effect that we have a long way to go are also helpful to me and this is a view shared by me and my excellent officials, some of whom are present. It is important that parliamentarians in both Houses offer constructive criticism as it will support our efforts to secure increased investment.

Senators will be aware that the affordable childcare scheme will not be the only vehicle on this journey. The scheme will replace a number of other schemes and result in the streamlining of financial supports. I am especially excited that it will offer a way to wrap around the early childhood care and education, ECCE, free preschool programme, our largest early years scheme as measured by funding and number of participants. While the Bill has been designed to support quality-raising measures, the quality of childcare will also be addressed through other measures, including training, the inspection regime and efforts to improve wages and working conditions in the childcare sector.

I appreciate Senators' comments, specifically regarding the amendments that were proposed and accepted in the Dáil. As Senator Kelleher noted, it is not just good policy that is important but also policy that is informed by practice. The Senator was able to speak from the perspective of her professional background. Some of our colleagues in the Dáil were also able to use their professional background when offering recommendations on amendments. We also heard from other sources, including advocates. Senators referred, for example, to organisations such as One Family, the Children's Rights Alliance and Early Childhood Ireland which work hard advocating from a perspective of expertise as well as the experience of their members. All of that is good.

I will now address some specific questions, not necessarily in the order in which they were raised. I am grateful for the support expressed by Senator Clifford-Lee on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party. I also note the Senator's focus on women. She raised the issue of additional supports for workers and asked a question on rural areas. I am keenly aware that the professionals who work as childminders are critical because many of them have told me that in some areas, particularly in rural settings, centre-based childcare is not available and parents must, therefore, use childminders. For this reason, it is important that we implement as quickly as possible the initial actions and recommendations of the working group. As the Senator is aware, I have increased the number of family resource centres and provided a slight increase in support for existing centres. While there are not as many family resource centres as I would like, some are located in rural areas and provide a base for childcare centres.

I will address the questions many Senators asked on the budget presently. Senator Kelleher focused on children living in more vulnerable contexts and those who are experiencing difficulties or harm regarding some aspects of their identity and background. I am aware of this issue and have already tried to address it. Section 14, for example, enables us to identify certain categories of children and their sponsors who can access free childcare for such children on the basis of agreement between me and the providers in question. This will also mitigate or reduce harm in the context of children in emergency accommodation and even reduce the harm of poverty. I am trying to get access to free childcare for families in emergency accommodation, even in circumstances where they move from their original place of residence. My vision for the childcare scheme is to ensure it focuses on families who have less.

The Senator also asked a question on the OECD review carried out in 2004. She is correct that Ireland lags far behind other countries in this area. It would be good to use the review as a checklist.

The access and inclusion model, AIM, takes a wider approach in developing a charter addressing what it means to be inclusive and setting out how we operate in that context.

The Department is sponsoring an incredible amount of training of professionals in order to ensure that they operate as inclusive childcare providers and that will potentially have an impact on Traveller children. We could look at that a bit more. The Senator mentioned Sure Start. Naomi Eisenstadt had a lot to do with establishing that. She will be coming here as my guest in early May. I am having her meet a number of people for them to glean her wisdom.

There were a couple of other questions. On maintenance, all means-tested schemes run by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection include maintenance payments. As they include child maintenance within the income assessment, this scheme is no different in that regard. Including maintenance payments within the income assessment is essential to the principle of treating all income in the same way regardless of the source and the principles of equity and fairness in the treatment of all applicants. Another question was raised in respect of separated parents. Each parent is an applicant in his or her own right and enjoys the full benefit of the thresholds when being assessed for a subsidy. That clearly answers the question. Each qualifies for a subsidy in his or her own right for the days and hours for which he or she cares for the child. Where a separated parent is paying maintenance, that would be acknowledged and deducted when calculating assessable income. The needs of lone parents have been explicitly taken into account from the outset in the design of the scheme.

On Senator Clifford-Lee's concerns regarding professionalisation of the early years workforce and its low wages, of course those issues are of great concern to me. On the specific requirements of professionalisation, I will mention something which I announced at the weekend when I was with the membership of Early Childhood Ireland. On Saturday I announced our new support for continuing professional development. We are now going to establish a systematic approach and a structure for the support and formation of an ongoing continuing professional development programme for workers. We will be employing a person to do that. For the first time we will provide some training for professionals that will be paid for. It will be brought to the professionals themselves or the centres from which they come will receive money to support them in replacing staff while they are receiving training. That is another step forward in terms of supporting the professionals.

There are two other things I wanted to mention. The first has to do with the money. I will reply to some of the comments of Senator Warfield and his colleagues in Sinn Féin, who are very clear in the way they articulate a focus on the model of investment which we have in Ireland and on a public model. Obviously we have a mixed model in the country. Here is the question on which my officials and myself have been really focused in recent days and on which we will be focused in the upcoming weeks as we work on the early years strategy. How do we get public moneys to the practitioner and the professional? That starts to address the question of the focus on the public but also on the professionals and the practitioners. How do we get the public moneys to the professional? We are going to be doing a more intensive examination of a couple of other jurisdictions to help us answer that, perhaps in a different way than we have in the past.

On the budget itself, the goal I have and the point about increasing the percentage of GDP invested in the area, of course I will be focused on those issues. The question is how to approach the matter strategically and in a way that will get significant investment. Again, this is something that is happening in the context of our discussions on the early years strategy. As we develop a draft, we will put it out for a big open policy debate and hear what people have to say on it. I note the headlines today about some of the conversations we have had in Cabinet recently, in which our Minister for Finance said there potentially could be a big pot there and that a lot of the focus will be on housing, health, education and capital spend. That list did not include childcare. That is not to say that childcare is outside of that focus or that it will not be emphasised but I am noting that and I know the Minister knows this.

I understand the strategy of focusing on capital spend and so on as we move towards a more prosperous economy, because capital spend is a once-off which does not result in a fuelling or heating-up of the economy in the same way as does investment in ongoing expenditure. In light of my concerns about significantly increasing the investment in childcare beyond the €20 million which we got this year - because, as Senator Noone pointed out, that will not be sufficient for 2019 - I will be asking the Minister for Finance whether there is some way to spend more. Are there certain strands of spending in which increases do not necessarily fuel the economy in the same way as would increases in other spending strands? Are there some strands of spending in which an increase may contribute to further fuelling of the economy but in which there is a greater justification for such an increase because of all we know about the state of the childcare sector as it stands? These are not comments coming from my officials or my Department. I am asking these questions myself as a politician but I am engaging with my Department in that regard.

Reducing the gender pay gap, which was mentioned by Senators Clifford-Lee and Noone, can be achieved by paying professionals in the childcare sector more. Most of them are women. That is a way to develop in terms of that issue. If many of our childcare professionals are not making a living wage, a fact pointed out by Senator Warfield and of which I am aware, then if moneys going into that sector are increased and more is given to the people earning that money in low-income households, does it not necessarily mean that the income of the household will be raised, thereby impacting on child poverty in a different way than through subsidies for childcare? I am just sharing a couple of the thoughts I have been having recently in order to begin building my arguments with the Minister for Finance. I understand the dialogue and the thinking being developed by the Government in respect of the upcoming budget. I am thinking about where I sit as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and about my absolute and passionate commitment to look for a considerably more significant investment that we have had in the past. I want to be able to indicate that ambition in the context of the next ten years and the early years strategy.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 24 April 2018.
Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.