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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Vol. 285 No. 4

Childcare Provision: Statements

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the important issue of early learning and childcare. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of early learning and childcare to society, the economy, parents, but most importantly, to children. Recent years have seen an unprecedented growth in the level of State investment in early learning and childcare, and in the numbers of children in receipt of State supports to access these services, including children with disabilities, who are being supported through the award winning access and inclusion model, which has been recognised internationally as a really strong practice in terms of supporting accessibility to early learning and childcare.

Despite the major progress that has been made, significant challenges remain. The level of State investment remains low by international standards. The level of pay and working conditions in the sector does not reflect the fundamental value of the work that childcare professionals, who are young and nearly all women, do and the significant time they invest in their own education to achieve level 7 and level 8 degrees. Fees remain unaffordable, particularly for families who are availing of long hours or who have a number of children in childcare.

This Government is committed to addressing these challenges. We have set out an ambitious programme of reform for early learning and childcare through commitments made in the programme for Government as well as other key policy documents, including Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for the Sector; Nurturing Skills: The Workforce Plan for Early Learning and Care; the National Action Plan for Childminding; and the First 5 strategy. We have backed up these commitments with significant additional investment in budget 2022 through the introduction of a new €221 million core funding scheme and we have pledged to reach an annual investment target of at least €1 billion by 2028.

We all know that poor pay and conditions undermine the quality of early learning and care provision. Just last week, I published the annual early years sector profile 2021, which revealed the average hourly rate pay in this sector was €12.60. While my Department does not set wage levels or determine working conditions for staff in the sector, it has over a number of years provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions. These include higher capitation payments for graduates working in the sector and year-on-year increases in State funding. These supports make it easier for providers to offer full-time, full-year employment contracts to their staff.

In December 2020, I began a process to examine the possibility of regulating pay and conditions and the suitability of a joint labour committee, JLC, for the sector. That process culminated in the establishment of a JLC in December 2020 bringing with it a real prospect of addressing this perennial issue, particularly with the backing of that additional investment by the State through core funding to improve rates of pay across all roles in the sector and a further €38 million graduate premium in respect of graduate lead educators and managers. I acknowledge the independent nature of the Labour Court and JLC process and the hard work of its members to negotiate pay and conditions for employees in the sector.

The first stage of the work of the JLC has been completed with the recent publication by the Labour Court of a recommendation for an early years' educators and school-age childcare practitioner minimum pay rate of €13 per hour. A draft employment regulation order, ERO, was published by the JLC on 11 May 2022. There is now an opportunity for anyone interested to make representations to the JLC by 31 May 2022. The JLC will consider any representations it receives as part of its deliberations. The JLC must now decide whether to formulate proposals for an ERO for early years educators and school age childcare practitioners based on the Labour Court recommendation and also to consider its next steps as regards the other roles in the sector and whether there is potential to secure consensus with regard to these roles as regards pay rates and graduate uplifts. I have been informed that the Labour Court sat last week in respect of a referral from the JLC on the outstanding issues for a further ERO for other roles in the sector. The court's recommendation is awaited. The JLC will continue to meet and exercise its statutory function with a view to formulating and potentially adopting proposals for one or more EROs in the sector.

In addition to supporting the JLC, core funding will give providers a stable income source based on the nature of the service they deliver. Core funding is based on operating hours, number of places offered by services and the age group of children for whom the places are offered and, therefore, is proportionate to each service's operating costs. Structuring core funding primarily based on capacity means that services will have an allocation each year that will not fluctuate in line with children's attendance, as happens with the other Department funding schemes - the NCS and ECCE. With recent data from Pobal showing significant unfilled capacity across the sector, core funding should bring increased funding certainty and stability to providers. A very small number of providers, 1% in total, will have the same level of State income under core funding as under the current funding arrangements. These services have the highest levels of public income from the existing funding schemes. To ensure that no service will lose out through the introduction of core funding, I have committed to the funding guarantee under which no service that signs up to core funding will face a reduction in State funding. Full-time services and part-time services will see substantial increases in funding. Sessional ECCE standard capitation services will see an increase in income of at least 9.5%. Most ECCE higher capitation will also see increase in funding. No service will be left out of pocket. In addition, there will be a sustainability fund attached to core funding to provide an extra safety net for providers. Unfortunately, some misinformation has been circulated about the implications of the funding.

In particular, there have been suggestions that small services and services which only provide the ECCE programme will lose out. My officials have examined the evidence carefully and are satisfied that core funding does not create sustainability problems for services. Indeed, it will substantially improve the sustainability for the overwhelming majority of them. We have strong evidence to indicate that the ECCE in addition to core funding provides more than sufficient funding to cover the operating costs of sessional preschool services.

I am very encouraged by early indications of willingness to participate in the partnership for the public good, which is on offer through core funding. Already 92% of services have agreed to freeze fees in advance of core funding by signing up for the transition fund. Approximately 83% of providers have also completed the sector profile survey, the first step required for coming into contract for core funding, and more will have the opportunity to do so next month.

My officials and I continue to engage with representatives of some providers who have concerns in order to better understand these issues. However, it is important to be clear that the Department will not be accepting proposals made by sectoral representative groups to extend the scope for additional optional extras or voluntary contributions to be charged to parents whose children are participating in the ECCE programme. It is my view that this risks parents incurring additional charges for a universal service which is designed and intended to be free at the point of use and available to all families, regardless of ability to pay. This would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the programme.

I am happy, however, to make very clear my view about the centrality of the ECCE programme within the new funding model for the sector. The view of the expert group was unequivocal about ECCE being a fundamental component of the funding model in future and I was happy to bring its recommendations to Government and receive full approval. I will shortly award a contract for a review of the ECCE programme, which will prepare the ground for putting ECCE on a statutory footing, demonstrating the commitment to fully-funded preschool provision.

Core funding introduces a new fee management scheme that will maintain fee levels this September at the same level they were in September 2021, ensuring the cost of early learning and childcare to parents does not increase. This a step change in how we resource this sector. With these fee controls now in place, the real cost of early learning and childcare to families is set to reduce further this year through two national childcare scheme measures introduced under budget 2022. The end to the practice of deducting hours spent in preschool or school from the entitlement to national childcare scheme subsidised hours is benefiting an estimated 5,000 children from low-income families. I introduced this on 2 May, ahead of schedule. The national childcare scheme universal subsidy will be extended to all children under the age of 15 from September. This is worth up to €1,170 per annum and will benefit up to 40,000 children. The Government is committed to further investment through the national childcare scheme in budget 2023 to substantially bring down the cost of early learning and childcare for parents.

I commend the work of early learning and childcare services in assisting with the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. The Department has developed a comprehensive action plan to respond to the early learning and childcare needs of Ukrainian children and their families but it would not be possible to implement it without the enthusiastic support of providers. The Department is providing a range of supports to help the integration of Ukrainian families, including providing information, supports and practical resources for them. We are identifying vacancies for Ukrainian children in services nationwide. We have increased grants for local parent and toddler groups to help them to welcome Ukrainian families. We are providing training and resources for early learning and childcare providers to help them to support Ukrainian children who attend their services.

I acknowledge the clear and significant challenges facing the early learning and childcare sector. These challenges are something on which many of us will agree. Fees are unaffordable for many parents. The level of pay for those working in the sector is too low. There are issues of supply among certain cohorts of children and in certain areas. The Government is committed to addressing these challenges, as I have outlined, through improving pay and conditions, reducing fees and increasing the availability of quality early learning and childcare.

I thank the Minister for his work to date. This is a tricky sector. I have started a preschool, a school, after-school programmes and parent and toddler groups so I have experience of the challenges, costs and difficulties that parents face. The Minister has probably been the most successful to date in grasping the nettle and addressing the situation. It has been very difficult with the cost-of-living increases. The are some important highlights I want to talk about.

The number of services that closed in 2021 was lower than in previous years. The number of staff in the sector held steady. The additional costs of operating during Covid-19 were not passed on to parents through increased fees, meeting an important and shared objective of the State and providers. I have always said that we have it all wrong. We pay the lecturers the most and the childcare workers the least. It is in the first few years of life that people are the most impressionable. We really need to value childcare workers more.

I welcome the core funding. It is additional funding for ECCE standard capitation. The ECCE has been of huge benefit to parents as their children prepare to go to school. Having two years of preschool is hugely beneficial. The total fund is €221 million. The Minister secured €78 million additional funding in last year's budget. This is brilliant because it is what we need. Of the €221 million in the new core funding the Minister has secured, €138 million is to support staffing costs and improve pay and conditions. The Minister witnessed the gratitude the head of the crèche in Inagh had for him on the day he came to visit the brilliant childcare services there. She was grateful to the Minister and it was so nice for a Minister to get appreciation. She is very apolitical and a great childcare operator. She was genuinely grateful for the work the Minister has done in helping her with staffing costs. It is very hard for staff to be motivated if they are not paid and valued properly. I have to hand it to the Minister. He has done great work. I have also been to other childcare providers who are very grateful for the work the Minister has done on this.

There is also €25 million to support administration. This is a huge issue. Many childcare providers have said they and their staff end up spending so much time dealing with administration rather than with the children. The funding of €25 million to solve this is very important. Childcare workers want to spend their time with the children and not filling out forms and being up to their necks in administration. It is excellent that the Minister has dealt with this. There is €20 million to reflect increases in non-staff overheads. Everything costs more money these days. I thank the Minister for looking at overheads and recognising this. He has put money where his mouth is. There is €38 million to support the employment of graduates. This is important. We have had instances where people with a master's degree in childcare are on the minimum wage. The Minister finds this appalling and has worked hard to try to rectify the issue.

This is a new way to allocate funding in the sector. It is a good model. A lot of research has been done. The Minister commissioned two seminal reports. The first, Partnership for the Public Good: A New Funding Model for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare, was done independently. It was not done by the Minister, civil servants or a political party but independently to find a new funding model, which the Minister has taken on board. The second is Nurturing Skills: The Workforce Plan for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare. I thank the Minister for his commitment to the sector. It is very important that we value our children from a very young age. Lecturers get paid to work with those aged over 18 but we have to look at the value we place on our childcare workers. They really are our heroes. They become another parent to very young children. Young children are impressionable and it is important that we value our childcare workers.

There is another issue I want to raise, which is not of the Minister's doing. It is the school programme for children with special needs. The funding has been put in place but many schools rely on their teachers for the summer programme. Many teachers need their holidays. Even though the money and venues are there, schools are struggling to find staff to run the summer programme for parents of children with special needs. They need it the most. We have to look at this and see who else we can get in and what staff we can access. If teachers have had a long hard year and need their holidays, we cannot make them stay for all of July. We have to find a new way around this. I have been approached by many people with children with autism. Funding is not the issue; it is the staff. The Minister and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will have to address this.

I thank the Minister for his opening statement and for coming to the House.

I thank the Leader and her office for organising this engagement. Many Members requested a debate or statements on childcare and I thank the Leader for facilitating these statements on childcare provision.

It is important that we are increasingly learning of the importance of early experiences, development and learning and how critical that is to the ongoing development of children into young adults. Of course, society itself benefits from early intervention in the context of how we care for, support and nurture children. I do not need to tell the Minister about it; he knows it already, as do all present.

There is no doubt that there are issues in respect of childcare. It is in crisis. The Government has identified it as a key issue. Along with housing and health, childcare and education are key issues on which the Government will be judged. I acknowledge the enormous amount of work the Minister has done in this area but there is far more work to be done. Childcare has become a political issue as well as a public one. That is good. It brings it centre stage, puts demands on the services and obliges the politicians to prioritise. People have been talking about childcare for so long. It is diverse, including services such as play groups. We see the outcomes. "Outcomes" is a recurring word when we are talking about children and childcare.

Play groups are the most widespread service in terms of early childcare intervention. Some of them are informal, while others are more regularised and formal. There needs to be some sort of uniformity in that regard. I acknowledge the importance of community play groups. They have a powerful and transforming effect on the lives of many women involved in running these groups. That has been my experience. Community play groups are an important resource, particularly in disadvantaged areas, not just for children but also for their mothers. They enable people to meet the needs of their family. Doing that collectively and together in a community is empowering and builds stable relationships going forward.

I refer to the concern in respect of waiting lists. I think the Minister is going to deal with that. More capacity and supply are urgently needed. It is an issue of capacity and supply and those are key priorities. There is also the issue of affordability, which is very important.

I ask the Minister to address the relationship of his Department with county childcare committees. I believe the latter are underutilised. They are particularly effective groups. I do not think they are in all local authorities. I might be wrong. Approximately 28 local authorities have a county childcare committee. That is an issue.

There is another issue I wish to throw into the mix. We need to consider a move to a zero rate of VAT. VAT is charged on childcare providers. I was not aware of that previously. Childcare providers are also charged commercial rates, whereas early childhood care and education centres are not. There are anomalies here. We should take down any blocks in this regard.

Experience in community development tells me that parents working together form the nucleus of strong community development, as well as forming strong character and support in children. That is important.

I know the Minister is doing a lot of work on this issue and there are many asks of him but I ask him to focus on how older children are being cared for outside school hours. That is an important area. What childcare arrangements and supports are being provided for Traveller families, recognising the particular needs of that group? I refer to children with disabilities and children of migrant communities. These are challenges.

There are streets in Dublin where one sees young children who are neither in school nor in play groups or otherwise supported. There are young children having burgers and pizzas from cartons for breakfast at 8 a.m. I have spoken to parents in parts of Dublin who are being put out of bed and breakfast accommodation and what is referred to as support accommodation. It is not supportive or conducive to the personal, health, development and well-being of their children. These are serious challenges.

I am deeply disturbed to see vulnerable children on the main streets of Dublin. One can see them down on the boardwalks. Their parents may have addiction or mental health problems. In what way is the State supporting them? I am not even talking about them having the luxury of a roof over their heads. We have to consider that. Too many children in this country are still at risk due to circumstances of social and economic disadvantage. It is no fault of their own. They have to be the priority. It is not about the loudest mouth or the person who says he or she cannot fully afford it. There are children on the streets at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. who have no supports. They are vulnerable and at risk and they have to be our priority.

Childcare supply and demand are at crisis point. It is important. It is about an equal start for all children and improving outcomes for them. It is about development of all forms - cognitive, communication and language, social and emotional, and physical. It is about creating a safe and healthy environment for children, promoting active learning in a conducive and safe environment, positive parenting or guardianship, good mental well-being, knowledge, skills and the spoken and written language. That is a hell of a lot but that is what we have to do. Every child is entitled to an equal start. I know the Minister is committed to that but somehow it has to happen faster. The current situation cannot go on. These children are our future. They are the next generation. If we have learned anything from all our discussions on the past and how the State cared for or failed to care for children, then we must do something positive for these children to ensure they have better outcomes. That is now within our grasp

The Minister is very welcome to the House. It is great to have him here. He attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth earlier today. I listened to the proceedings. The Minister made a strong contribution on the Ukrainian crisis and I thank him for that.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on childcare. We have to recognise the significant lived difficulties families are facing as a result of the lack of childcare and its significant cost. The availability and cost of childcare is one of the biggest barriers to women going back to work after having children. The ECCE scheme has been a great success. The extension of the age criteria has been wonderful. It is of such benefit to families to have that. I would not have put my children into a preschool if it was not free to do so. I was not working at the time, so it just would not have happened. I refer to my personal experience. When I wanted to go back to work after having children, it was not for me. I could not afford it. Why would I disrupt my family life by pulling my children out of bed at crazy hours and commuting to a job? It would be living to work to pay someone else. That did not make sense for me. I was better off having no independence and no money of my own, but autonomy over my time and my children. We cut our cloth and made things work. That was my only option.

It is not easy being a working mother either. My youngest son is sick at the moment and when I was leaving my house this morning he was pleading me not to go to work. He said, "Dublin is closed today, mammy. I hate Dublin. Dublin does not need my mammy; I need my mammy." It is so hard to leave your wee person behind. No option is easy but we need to have options. The option I chose meant that I felt that guilt as I walked out the door and left the Cooley Mountains. The irony is that I could not afford to go to work and I almost could not afford not to work. It is a difficult one.

The State does not have a good record of paying due care to the caring economy. I am glad there is more of a conscious bias towards this and a new focus on the importance of that care, as well as a realisation of the significant value and worth of the care that is provided. I ask that the Department carry out research into identifying the percentage of GDP that is facilitated by the caring economy. For example, what percentage of it is facilitated by grandparents who provide childcare? They facilitate entrepreneurs and businesses and that leads to the generation of income tax. We do not currently have those data.

Overall, I congratulate the Minister on his work in respect of childcare. We came into this Government with a focus on seeing what can be done with childcare.

I refer to getting stuck in to radically transform childcare. We have started on that pathway. We really have done so. The Minister has the support of Fianna Fáil in pushing this process so far down this path that it will not be possible to go back. This is the way forward. I refer to having core funding and to constantly increasing this core funding in every budget. We must ensure we are moving towards the public provision of childcare, which we need. We must put in the foundations for fair, public, accessible childcare in the communities in which people live and wish to be in.

All childcare providers would say the support provided during the pandemic was incredible and that they would not exist now without it. They would not have been able to keep providing services and to keep their lives going. This is what we need. We have seen what the Government can do and how best to do so. I refer to more than 90% of expressions of interest being in favour of moving towards such a core funding model. The provision of those pandemic supports has caused these providers to realise this is a good thing and that the Government is on their side and wants them to provide a good service. They want to get on board because they know the Government is not out to get them, but instead wants to work with them. This is a testament to the work of the Department and of the childcare providers in endeavouring to create this path forward. To see this, we only have to look at budget 2022 and the core funding scheme, which allocated more than €221 million to this area. It is a colossal amount. Of that, €173 million is new investment. That must be some sort of record for investment in any social service or provision.

There are a few layers to this childcare cake. We must ensure we have all the ingredients together to enable us to make progress in going down this path and to ensure we have the proper childcare provision that we want. We must encourage new childcare providers to enter this sector. There is a great need for growth in the number of providers in this market because there simply are not enough places available. We now have an opportunity in this regard. The census has been done and data are coming on where we are at, what we need and who we need, as well as where we need these elements, in the context of the provision of these services. We must ensure costs are reduced dramatically. Again, this is not a secret. We all know this is necessary and that the Minister is working on it.

We must also reimagine the childcare sector. It is early education and the people working in the sector are professionals. It is not babysitting. These are qualified people. It is incredible what they have done for my children and the benefits they have derived from these services. I could speak all day on the topic of childcare. So many positive things are going on. The Minister has our full support in creating this public childcare system, which we all want and need. I refer to there being better pay and conditions for the staff. We must look after our children and the staff. A healthy childcare service is a healthy child.

I thank Senator McGreehan for her contribution and for recounting her interesting personal experiences of the system.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for taking these statements on childcare. We have long since moved on from the concept of childcare as childminding. We see it now as the vital, wrap-around care of children, entailing the provision of and support for their early development. Childcare is pivotal to the functioning of our society. That was never driven home more at any point than during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first 1,000 days of a child's life require incredible levels of investment and support. Families must be supported as they live their lives in our busy society and economy. The pandemic gave us the perspective that allowed us to see just how pivotal childcare is. Quality care for our children enables access to the workplace for parents and supports families. Predominantly, however, it enables support for women and their access to the workplace. It is extremely important that it is entrenched in the programme for Government. We have been on a trajectory of increasing supports for childcare over several years. Under the Minister's stewardship of the Department, we have seen that provision grow exponentially. I am grateful for that.

I am delighted to see the profile of childcare raised. I refer to the professionalism evident in this context. When the preschool regulations changed in 2016, we saw great momentum in moving towards developing qualifications in this area, quality input, tracking development and having bespoke responses for certain children. I was a mentor with the city and county childcare committee in Dublin. That entailed going into many of the services being provided to see the detailed level of support being provided for children. It perhaps reflected the needs of the families concerned. It is a vital personal support for our next generation. The Minister is aware of this and his speech highlighted just how much is being done in this area. Staff working in childcare have been undervalued for a long time. Their rates of pay did not improve as they became more professional and more qualified. Therefore, the employment regulation order is a vital extra step. It is a fantastic vision and its realisation cannot come soon enough.

Trying to retain childcare staff is important. I refer to situations where I was perhaps sent in to troubleshoot difficulties in a service. Many people who would have said they were going to come to an interview did not show up. They were undertaking that process through Intreo, but it was not financially viable for those people to take a job in childcare. I am glad we are moving away from that situation and that we will see structured rates of pay for the different areas in this sector. It is not just the rates of pay that are important, but also a structured career path in the childcare sector. I see us as having embarked on this path.

This is a precarious enough time for childcare providers. We did not know how remote working was going to go. We did not know if that would change the pattern of working or how it would be possible to make available the childcare services offered. I say that because a great deal of childcare relies on structure, structured hours, children arriving at a particular time and on routine in that regard. I refer to anticipating what that context will look like and then having universal provision that will ensure that no matter where people might be in the country they will have access to good quality childcare. This is an important aspect. From that perspective, the core funding approach is an excellent model. Even going through the notes we sought regarding extra information, it is apparent it is an excellent model.

I have come across one challenge in this context. Based on what the Minister said in his statement, I think there is probably going to be a positive response to it. I refer to situations where I have gone through the procedure with some childcare providers as they entered the details of their services through the ready reckoner. They came out with a great amount of money at that stage. When one provider went through that process, she said the ready reckoner gave her a total of €39,800. That was for a small provider. Representatives of the city and county childcare committee then did the calculations with her manually and they were only coming out with €18,200. That is quite a disparity, and it would lead to the end of that service if it were to be the case. Obviously, everyone is optimistic and hoping the ready reckoner is spot on, but we must be absolutely clear that either the ready reckoner outcome is the definitive funding allocation or that clarification will be provided if there is some kind of misunderstanding or miscommunication regarding how funds are being calculated. This is important. I refer to where there are disparities. This has happened in the cases of a few childcare providers I have spoken to, so clearly something is going on in this regard. It is unfortunate that there has been misinformation regarding what is a very positive development.

I spoke to the Minister before about after-school services, especially those in Dublin 8, and about ensuring there is provision in this regard, particularly in situations where mothers are at home. There are some cases where children are going to DEIS schools because that is the need. Therefore, it is important to have after-school services available when children are doing their homework and to ensure such services are financially viable. I appreciate these services are also going to come under the auspices of the core funding model and I would value an opportunity to go back over this issue again with the Minister at some point.

I also take this opportunity to thank the Minister for allowing myself and other members of the Fine Gael policy lab to present our "Care of the Child" policy to him. It was the result of 2,500 people engaging with us. Those included providers, parents and childcare professionals. One of the many things that came out of the process was this idea of having a childcare agency. I am delighted that the report from Indecon International Economic Consultants on the review of the operating model has suggested something similar. I refer to having a central agency that oversees the inspectorate, education and funding and development.

When there are planning applications in my constituency of Dublin South-Central and there is a requirement to have a childcare facility within that because they reach the criterion of the number of apartments in a complex, they get to set aside the need based on there being a certain number of places in local crèches. I appreciate that is a Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage issue and is not something the Minister can control but while he is at Cabinet, he might have a word. The criterion according to which the need to provide a childcare facility is set aside is incorrect because there can be a childcare service close by but it is full to capacity and has a waiting list. That would assist in the Minister's drive for more facilities and places.

I commend some of the previous speakers, including Senator McGreehan for speaking personally. I welcome the Minister to the House. He has been at four or five events today and probably more besides. We appreciate his coming to the Seanad and always giving time to hear our contributions.

For years, childcare and the early years sector have been underfunded. This State last year was ranked one of the lowest EU member states for investment in this area. The resulting burden on families raising children is immense. Household finances are under stress and childcare fees for parents are among the highest in the European Union. A report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, titled The Social Wage, just published, states that the average couple spends 20% of their joint disposable income on full-time fees for two preschool children and that this is a bigger share of the family budget than is typically spent on housing costs.

The issues in childcare amount to a significant barrier to employment for women. The high costs force many parents, especially women, to leave work to care for children at home. All European welfare systems were built on the assumption of women as carers in the home. From the 1950s onwards, that began to change but gender stereotypes are still part of policies here. Ireland has one of the lowest rates of working mothers in the EU 27 alongside Italy, Greece and Spain, with one third of women with children outside the workforce. At the same time, as has been mentioned, the 30,000 people in the early years sector are some of the most highly qualified professionals in our economy but are paid some of the lowest wages of any sector. Many earn the minimum wage, which is an insult to any worker. What does it say to primarily women carers that we pay our childcare and early year educators some of the lowest wages of any sector? Entry-level wages must increase to the living wage. The public sector should become a living wage employer. The benefits have been outlined. Doing this, particularly in childcare, would show we value childcare and the people who work in it and make it an increasingly viable long-term career choice. UNICEF has recommended that public spending and investment in the early years sector be at least 1% of GDP. If we move to get that investment, we can ensure we have a maximum weekly childcare fee and gradually reduce it until childcare is free at the point of use.

The Minister has given substantial time to the Pobal sector profile, published last week. It shows that early years educators earn €12.10 per hour on average and many earn the minimum wage of €10.50 or just above. Managers earn around €16.35 per hour, while many earn less than that. That is bad for workers and providers. It means qualified professionals are struggling to make ends meet and do not see a future for themselves in the sector. Low pay also means providers struggle to recruit and retain staff, undermining the sustainability of services and causing some to close. I acknowledge the core funding of €138 million to improve pay and the €38 million for graduate uplift. These are welcome investments and it is essential they are implemented this year.

I have three questions. What does core funding mean for preschool services? If providers are unsustainable, what measures will the Minister put in place to support them? For those who do not sign up to core funding, what does it mean for those services, parents and staff?

Senator Boyhan touched on Traveller, migrant and disadvantaged children. I want to make clear that those children are not the problem. Sometimes it is not what we say but the way we say it. We need to be careful around funding and equal access. I thank the Senator for bringing that to my attention today. While we are talking about childcare, we are not talking about equal access to childcare services for poor people or those from ethnic minority groups. I and my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group, Senators Black, Ruane and Higgins, are passionate about childcare, and they were passionate about it long before I came to the House.

I welcome the Minister. At its best, childcare keeps our children happy and healthy and helps them develop skills they need for school and throughout their lives. As a parent, there is nothing more important to me than the safety and happiness of my children. Still, for many parents, being able to afford childcare and even being able to find a place for a child can be a nightmare.

I know this has been a priority for the Minister and I look forward to his reforms of the funding model for early learning and childcare. I understand this funding model, as the Minister mentioned, will deliver improved services, better pay and conditions for staff and affordable childcare, as well as better matching supply to demand, addressing issues of disadvantage and supporting providers to be sustainable, so that people know they will have a job in two or three years and the crèches will still be there. I welcome these goals. It cannot happen soon enough because what we have had for many years is not working.

During the last general election, childcare was already a serious issue for parents. There is frustration among parents because of the problems they have had in accessing services for some time and the costs involved. With all the respect in the world, I want to believe the reforms will do everything the Minister says they will and I believe everyone wants to see action on them. Across parties and groupings, Senators want to see implementation. From discussions I have had over the past two years on many issues beside childcare, I see that we lack, first and foremost, implementation. We can have the best will in the world, but without implementation it is pointless having it on paper and it does nobody any good.

I could talk about this all day. When we talk about women's equality, as has been happening a lot lately, the core conversation around the table should be childcare. If Senators were to look at me and my partner Liam and say which of us would give up our job for the children, it is more likely that it would be me than my partner.

I believe women would give up their job more quickly than men, and that is without getting too personal. It is only an example. A lot of the time there are hard decisions to be made within a family setting about childcare. I believe childcare should be free. It should be an essential public service for everybody and we see models of that at a European level. We see this in Finland and, I believe, Switzerland. I know that at least three European countries provide it for free. It works and it is evident it works, and that is what we should do in this country.

My colleague, Senator Garvey, was singing the praises of the childcare services with which she was in contact. When we are talking about childcare, again we do not speak about childcare services in rural Ireland. People in rural Ireland work as well and in some cases, as we have heard from Senators here, it is extremely difficult to access childcare. I invite the Minister to our community crèche in Ardara, County Donegal. If he takes that opportunity to visit Donegal, I also invite him to visit a Traveller-specific and Roma childcare service at the Donegal Travellers Project in Letterkenny that needs a lot of support when it comes to funding. It would be a lovely event.

When we talk about women's equality, childcare should be at the heart of those conversations. I genuinely hope with all of my heart that we provide free childcare for the many women, men and parents in Ireland. I have heard it said that paying for childcare is like paying two mortgages or rents, and we all know how expensive rent is in Ireland. We have many different crises within our society and I hope childcare can be one less. I am sure it will be, and I hope it is one that is solved sooner rather than later.

I believe I am sharing time with Senator Maria Byrne but she is not here. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and putting this matter on the agenda.

It does not take long for me and my friends or any group of mums in whose company I am to get on to the topic of childcare and how cost and supply are such barriers. At the moment, friends of mine who have babies say they cannot find a place in a crèche for any child in the area under the age of one. That is not a good position to be in if they want to return to work. I appreciate we are doing everything we can to give people the option to stay with their children for the first year, if that is what they want, but the option is increasingly not there if they want to return to work. In Castleknock we are talking €1,300 per month for childcare, which is close to what I pay. The cost of childcare still results in women dropping out of the workforce, particularly in the 25 to 44 age group and especially if they have more than one child. That also contributes to the gender pay gap.

We all know that when the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme was brought in, it was fantastic, but we have moved on since and the national childcare scheme has been introduced. The Minister will introduce improvements to the scheme this year, which are very positive. The new core funding scheme is also very positive, as is the commitment to increase it to €1 billion by 2028.

Capacity and supply are issues. How do we ensure more childcare providers open up in communities? The Minister and I both know they are not opening up in communities. The town centre first model is something by which we could assist the opening up of more community infrastructure and supports, if that is an option. The town centre first funding is linked primarily to the urban regeneration and development fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. We are talking about using the town centre first option to reinvigorate towns and villages and move towards 15-minute cities. Could childcare feature as part of this? I know that, traditionally, they have been bigger projects. Could the likes of this scheme and co-working hubs feature as part of these proposals? If we are talking about bringing together local groups such as businesses, Tidy Towns committees and community childcare groups, I presume we are giving them a say in our urban planning frameworks, for instance, and that there would be access to more funding for things like community childcare, which could be not-for-profit. Is that a potential driver? If those funding streams are not a good fit and are not accessible, we should find some that are.

On the issue of the buildings that Senator Seery Kearney mentioned, we have seen them as well and how they have been part of plans and then have not opened. Another reason they have not opened is because some of those buildings have not been appropriate for childcare facilities. If we are going to make it mandatory that there is provision for childcare services in a development, then we must make sure the buildings are suitable.

I wish to ask about the 26 weeks of unpaid parental leave. At the moment a person can avail of it in one continuous block. He or she can ask for it from his or her employer, and while the employer can postpone it for six months, he or she must give it to the person. It is stronger than a right to request flexible work. It is a right to have flexible work. A person can get unpaid parental leave in one continuous block or in two with a certain amount of time between the two of them. At the same time, a person can ask for the leave to be divided up between hours and days, but an employer can refuse that and it is entirely at his or her discretion. Have we not moved to a stage where we should amend the unpaid parental leave Act to say that, under the same strength of provision, a person can access flexible working, whereby, for example, he or she can work four days a week under that entitlement as well? It is the strongest entitlement there is in terms of access to flexible working. Could we amend it? I am out of time, and I have more questions.

I thank the Minister for being with us today. A little bit of the feedback I have been getting locally on the funding models we are seeing in childcare, and perhaps the Minister might comment a little on it, has been around the idea that smaller childcare providers can still survive with this new funding model. I know it may be challenging in terms of having to expand their premises or being able to take on more staff, but perhaps the Minister might have some comments about how we can protect smaller childcare providers in rural areas. The challenge they sometimes have is that populations can fluctuate, with there being more children in some years and families suddenly moving out of or moving into an area, with the result that there can be a lot of changes. It can be very difficult for independent small providers to manage that, so perhaps the Minister might have a number of comments on that.

Childcare is crucial. When I speak to people, particularly around flexible working, what emerges is that they are trying to manage flexible or hybrid working. Childcare has always been crucial. On a number of occasions, my own staff member has needed to be able to work from home for childcare reasons alone. Any investment of funding in this area is crucial.

I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad to discuss childcare and for all the work on childcare he has done since taking office. I have had to go to him about a number of issues and he has always been very responsive. I believe he places a very high value on childcare, including in the early years. This can be seen in the changes and improvements being brought about by this Government. In particular, I welcome the changes to the national childcare scheme, particularly how they apply to those who are socially and economically disadvantaged - the children who need support the most. I thank him for taking the time to engage with the community childcare service providers from the north and south inner city of Dublin. They really valued his time. He listened to them and took the issues on board and he and his Department worked with them. I am not suggesting that everything is done but I acknowledge that and thank the Minister for it.

The increase in the ECCE hours, the increase in maternity and paternity leave, the increase in core funding and the commitment to get to €1 billion per annum by 2028 are really welcome. They signal that this Government recognises that there is a crisis arising out of how we provided childcare in the past and is seriously committed to improving that. We all recognise that childcare is important, not just for children and their parents but also for childcare workers and our economy generally. This debate should also be framed in the context of what is the debate of the moment, namely the cost-of-living crisis about which everybody is talking and with which everybody is crippled.

There are three elements - access, affordability and value, and sustainability. By access, I mean being able to access childcare. Every childcare service provider in Dublin Central has a waiting list. Every parent with a child who is considering going back to paid employment outside the home has to really battle with and take on the enormous challenge of securing a childcare place. You are at a really vulnerable point when you have just had a child, particularly if it is your first child. You are learning on the job and you have this push-pull. On the one hand, you want to go back to paid employment but on the other, you have this enormous life-changing responsibility. When you are going to trust strangers to mind your child, it is a mind melt and a heart melt for parents. On top of that, there are very few places so your choice is limited. You cannot be selective, choosy or critical. It is a real crisis for new parents. The north-east inner city, which is only a little pocket east of O'Connell Street reaching as far as Seville Place, has about seven childcare providers. These are community childcare providers - not the full gamut. They can provide about 450 places and have a waiting list of more than 350. There are almost as many children on the waiting list as there are in the childcare services so it is a massive crisis. I cannot overstate this.

I know the Minister is aware of this because he is engaged with this issue but we must keep in mind that within that same area, there are more than 11 facilities providing services for and welcoming Ukrainian refugees. There are about 1,000 Ukrainian refugees in the north-east inner city alone where there are already as many children on a waiting list as there are in childcare services, where we are already providing 60% or 70% of all the emergency homeless accommodation and where there is less than 10% home ownership. We know that two thirds of the Ukrainians coming here are women and children. There are roughly 1,000 of them in the north-east inner city, an area that is already bursting at the seams. I know the Minister is engaged in this but I provide this example because it is a real-life example. I know people talk about their towns and villages. This is my town and village. This is my community. We want to welcome people. We want the Ukrainians who come here to have a positive experience but when we cannot get childcare places for our own children, it sends the wrong message.

The cost of childcare is roughly €20,000 per year. You must earn in excess of that. That is €20,000 after you have paid your taxes, so you are talking about €30,000. It is a second mortgage. In the north inner city and Dublin Central, people are paying the most in terms of rents and property prices. I know the Minister and the Government get it, but we must go further, particularly in terms of affordability and the cost-of-living crisis. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues in government to introduce a tax rebate for parents. They need it. They need a tax rebate. The Government needs to make it affordable in addition to continuing with core funding. We need both. We are spending less than 0.5% of our GDP on childcare. We all value it and say it is necessary. We all know the dividend it pays in the future is enormous. As a country, we need to make that firm commitment to it. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues in government to do that.

The Minister and I met recently to discuss my views on the Government's childcare policy. A lot of good things are happening. I have spoken to a number of providers, predominantly across County Mayo where I engaged with all providers in the county. Most of them are saying that it is good to finally see a commitment to core funding for childcare and an acknowledgement that it is an important service. As I said to the Minister previously, many providers that provide nothing more than the ECCE are not entirely happy with what is being proposed. They expected it to go further and feel that it is not quite meeting their costs. Some providers have told me that they are not sure if they want to continue operating in the system so there is probably more work to do with those providers to bring them with us because as Senator Fitzpatrick has just outlined, there is a shortage of places and we cannot afford to lose any providers.

Speaking about the wider policy on childcare provision, I appreciate that the Minister came in at a time when we essentially had private providers providing childcare in the country. We are now trying to in some way turn that into a public system, although it is still a private system. We must ask ourselves whether retrofitting the current private system to give it the look of a public system is the right way to go. It is probably the quickest way to reduce costs for parents and stabilise the sector but I question whether it is the right way for us in the long term. At the end of the day, and I have no difficulty with this, private providers are there to make a profit as well to provide excellent childcare services, which they do. We want to do two things. We want to improve pay and conditions for those working in the sector and we are trying to do this through core funding. I get this and I think they welcome that. Certain providers are saying that because of the way the system is being changed, there is a disincentive for those with a level 7 or 8 to go that bit further and that if you get a level 5 or 6, you might be as well staying at that level because the difference in pay is not that significant because of core funding.

Pay and conditions make up one aspect of it but we also want to reduce costs for parents. The way we are proposing to do that is to provide core funding. We are saying to private providers that we will give them core funding if they adhere to certain rules and guidelines set by us, one of which is that providers do not increase their fees beyond 2021 levels. I get this. We do not want to tell providers they can increase their fees at some point because many providers could quickly increase them this year and try to access funding next year so I get that. The Minister is trying to cut it off. However, what we are trying to do is to essentially control how private companies charge for childcare by dangling a carrot saying that we will give them core funding.

It will probably work for some, but again, the question is whether it is the right policy. Is it the right way to go to have an essentially private childcare system that we are trying to make public through the backdoor? If we are being honest, it would take us at least a decade to achieve a fully public system. That is not desirable either because it would take us a long time to get to that point. However, I have concerns that in the long run it will be very difficult for the State to reduce fees if we are trying to do that by offering core funding in return for not increasing fees.

I also want to come at the issue from the childcare providers' perspective. I will cite two examples of providers my area, without naming them. One of them has not increased its fees in seven years and the other has not increased its fees in ten years. They are quite reasonably priced, taking into account the standard cost of childcare in the country, which is extortionate in comparison with other EU countries. These providers are now dealing with rising inflation, like everybody else. They are dealing with increased energy, insurance and running costs. If they want to get core funding they cannot change their fees, which is an unusual position for a private company to find itself in. Normally, if costs go up, they can be passed onto the consumer or client. These providers cannot do that. Some providers are saying they do not know if it is the right thing for them to do to sign up to the system.

I understand what the Minister is trying to do. It is a difficult task. The Minister has been handed a private system and has been told to make it public, effectively, and to curtail fees and increase wages. The Government is doing that by investing in core funding, stopping providers from increasing their fees and, in time, increasing the money going to parents through the national childcare scheme. The two should balance each other out. However, we need to ask whether that is the right policy, long term, or whether we need to see a focus on public childcare that is run by the State.

A good friend of mine is an early years educator. She did her level 7 degree 12 or 13 years ago. She has been working in the sector for a long time. In my view, and her view, the job that childcare providers do is akin to that of primary or secondary school teachers. They are educators and teachers. They are not just minding kids. They are not just childcare providers; they are educators. If that is the case, their salary should reflect that. It currently does not. It is probably because it is a predominantly female profession that until now it has not been recognised for the importance that it has. I know the Minister has changed that. His Department is doing fantastic work in acknowledging that the level of qualifications in the sector is exceptional. That message is coming back to those in the sector. They see that. Early years educators feel that they are now getting the respect they need and that their wages need to reflect that. There are issues in respect of sick pay and holiday pay, for example. Some of those working in the sector are signing on during the summer. They have a level 8 degree and they are signing on. That needs to be addressed. Is there any other profession where workers with a level 8 degree have to sign on, as standard, every summer? Probably not.

Acknowledging that we have to address what is in front of us today, in the long term, I would like to see a move towards a public system where early years educators are paid just like any other teacher. They should be paid their salary, get their pension entitlements and get everything else that other teachers in the country do. I want to see a system where the State has control over the fees that parents pay. As it stands, we have a very delicate balance to strike in trying to curtail fees and basically retrofit a private system to make it look public when, in effect, it will always be a private system.

Before I get to the substantive issue of childcare provision, I want to take a moment to comment on the operation of this House. I know we have done this many times of an evening here. It is now 8.15 p.m. and the Seanad is due to sit until 8.30 p.m. tonight. That makes it a very unfriendly working environment for family life. When I began in the Seanad, there was a lot of talk about creating a family-friendly set-up and a family-friendly Oireachtas. Obviously, the Ceann Comhairle is not here at the moment, but I hope he picks up the mantle again and addresses this issue in a meaningful way so that we can better accommodate family and general life balance. I say that as someone who does not have children. I spent the best part of last year as a carer for a sick family member. Obviously, it is not the Minister's fault, but considering the topic, these late evening sittings are not reflective of a family-friendly work environment. We want to see changes made in order to get more women and a more diverse group of people into politics. Given that it is women who do the lion's share of caring for children and family members outside of work, it is not an ideal optic to have us all here in the evening. However, that is neither here nor there.

Childcare provision is an issue that has faced workers for generations. As previous speakers have said, there has never been a public childcare system that is sufficient to meet the needs of families. Deputy Bacik has called for a Donogh O'Malley moment for childcare. It is not just a catchy, zingy phrase. There is real meaning behind it. There is an opportunity now. I know that the Minister has outlined his plans in this area. We need to have a guaranteed publicly-funded childcare space for every child in this country. If we expect people to be able to return to work or be available to work within a number of months of giving birth, it is unconscionable that we expect them to effectively pay a second mortgage to have their children taken care of. For many, there is no way to pay it. For many others who can manage it, there are not enough spaces available. It is a bit of a double whammy.

There are serious problems with Ireland's childcare system. The Minister has outlined his plans for tackling some of them. Places are increasingly limited and costs continue to rise for parents and childcare providers, despite early childhood care and education subsidies. In the past two years, friends have often told me that they can only have one child or cannot have children because they cannot afford, or comprehend how they could afford, childcare. They have told me how one parent would have to give up their job to care for the child. We have a slightly perverse version of State-sanctioned family planning. It is awful to hear such stories. If people want to have families, they should be able to do so. It is sad when I meet my friends and they tell me they cannot afford childcare or cannot comprehend how they could afford it. They are begging, borrowing and stealing childminding hours from family friends and parents. That is sad. It is not how we should be doing things. We have highlighted a lot of that today.

Currently, parents in Dublin can pay as much as €1,000 per month per child, yet low wages are the norm for many of those working in the childcare sector. It is no wonder that we read reports of women having to book their child's childcare place long in advance of the child's birth. There is a scrum to get a place before the child is even born. Providers are saying that places cannot be reserved until the child is born. There is panic. My friend told me she was nearly trying to register her child for a childcare place from her hospital bed. There is a lot of pressure. We need a new approach. We need a publicly-funded, universal and affordable childcare scheme that is available to all. That will require an enormous investment. The Minister has outlined the investments he is planning to make and his plans for the sector. As always, I do not doubt his commitment to the issue. However, an ideological shift is required. It is not just as simple as putting money into it. The conversation is about whether to introduce a public, State-funded childcare system or to continue to try to prop up the system we have. There is a difference between the two approaches.

In addition to the increased concern about the availability of places in future, with many childcare providers having closed during the pandemic, as has been highlighted, significant hikes in costs have also been reported as providers prepare for the new term. The providers are under pressure as well. Our society is only ever as strong as our weakest link. We cannot wait to fix our care failures. I hope the Government considers the Labour Party's proposal for a State-led childcare system that would improve the situation for parents, staff, providers and, most important, children.

My area of responsibility is further and higher education. There are what are considered to be well-subsidised childcare places available in further and higher education, but there are not many. It is a real pot luck situation for students applying for childcare places. Over many years, I have heard stories of many students who have had to withdraw from their studies because of this. Some parents cannot even comprehend being able to study. I am firmly of the belief that everyone should be able to access education. When young mothers, fathers and carers are saying they cannot do so and cannot afford childcare, it is sad. We should not be limiting people's ambitions because we do not have the supports in place for them. As I said, these people are wholly dependent on friends, family and neighbours to fill the gaps. We might be taking the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child a bit too far.

I wish to refer to the SIPTU Big Start campaign. The rates of pay in the childcare sector do not reflect the level of professionalism, skills and qualifications of staff. A colleague of mine, Eilish Balfe, tweeted the following:

33% of the Early years sector now hold a degree or higher. Our sector has come along way. It is a career, it’s not just pocket money... We upskill & strive to give children the best start in life."

I thank all the Senators for their detailed contributions. Senator Garvey made the point that I had the opportunity to visit the childcare centre in Inagh when I was down in County Clare recently.

It is a community service in a rural area. It has a baby room, an ECCE service, school-age childcare and general childcare. These services are all small but all elements are offered. Those concerned were extremely happy with what was being provided under core funding. Contrary to what has been said by some, core funding does not just benefit big services; it also benefits small services with several elements. That is important to mention as an example.

Senator Flynn spoke about the importance of supporting rural childcare. I am very aware of that. Coming from a very urban area, I am very much aware that we have to support services in all parts of our country. Senators Boyhan and Flynn spoke about children who are most at risk of disadvantage. Senator Boyhan referred to some Traveller children and Senator Flynn referred to children from migrant groups and disadvantaged backgrounds. A key step already taken is the removal of the wraparound hours. That was really important. We were able to bring in the arrangement early. We thought we would have to do so in September but we did so in May. It means that children with no parent in work or education will not be deducted hours during term time. That is particularly important in school-age childcare. The application of the former rule had a particularly negative effect on school-age childcare provision for Travellers. The rule has now been reversed, which is really important. The Senator and I discussed this in respect of services. I discussed it with several service providers in Dundalk also. This step taken was really important and significant.

On Senator Flynn’s comments on educational disadvantage, I am very much aware that the take-up under the ECCE programme is 10% lower for Traveller children than children in the settled community. I am really worried about that because, on day one in junior infants, a gap has already been created. I am working on the early years aspect and also on the equality aspect. The Travel and Roma unit is working on doing something to address this. I am very conscious of it.

Senator McGreehan spoke about options. They are essential, and that is why we have added significantly to parental leave to give parents the opportunity to stay at home in the first weeks. When I started, the period of paid leave was two weeks per parent. By July, it will be seven. That is a really important extension. By the end of this term, I hope to introduce the work–life balance Bill, which will introduce several important measures. It will be tight if we are to introduce it at the end of this term. At the end of this term, we might have one or two late nights with the Senators. To refer to what Senator Hoey mentioned, I am afraid those evenings will not be work–life-balance evenings. However, the work will be important.

The childminding action plan recognises that many parents rely on childminders. It is a question of bringing them into the State system in respect of regulation but also in respect of access to the national childcare scheme.

Senator McGreehan is absolutely right about the professionalisation of the sector. Several others have spoken about that also. We have Nurturing Skills: The Workforce Plan for Early Learning and Care and School-Age Childcare 2022-2028 and we are seeking to develop that. We are linking it with better rates of pay, which I will revert to later.

Reference was made to the support of Fianna Fáil regarding further investment. Core funding is the start. It is a start, but a very significant start. I remind those service providers that are concerned about core funding that this is year one. We are seeking to build on it. In next year’s budget, budget 2023, affordability for parents will be my core focus. I am referring to affordability through the national childcare scheme. I disagree slightly on the point made on the scheme in that I believe it is the way to go. This year, we are broadening it so every child between zero and 15 will be able to avail of it. It used to be for those up to the age of three; now it will cover those all the way up to 15. The scheme is designed to target all parents irrespective of their income group. We just need to put the money into the scheme. That is the most effective way to have a direct impact on what parents are paying. It directly decreases the amount they pay for childcare. That is much more targeted than using the taxation system. When there is a high cost of living but also high inflation, a targeted approach like this one is really valuable. I hope it attracts support across the House.

Senator Seery Kearney spoke about the undervaluing of childcare staff in the past. Senator Warfield and others also spoke about it. That is why the joint labour committee and the employment regulation order were so important and why I am so happy we are seeing real progress in this regard. A basic rate of €13 per hour, which is higher than the living wage, will be set for the first time. It is higher than the average rate of pay in the sector at present, according to the sector profile. Further work is taking place within the joint labour committee to deliver other rates for those with more experience. The Senator and I spoke about the joint labour committee quite a bit when I took on this role, so I am very happy with and really welcome the involvement of all the parties to deliver on that.

Senator Seery Kearney spoke about supply but also about planning. I was delighted to hear this was mentioned because, as it happened, the assistant secretary in the early years division, Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks, and I had a meeting with several county and city planners yesterday specifically on the 2001 planning guidelines, whether they are delivering and how they can be improved. It involved a call for housing, obviously, but I wanted to hear directly about the experience of planners. We met planners from Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council and several others. It was a really interesting meeting. It was a first step. Knowing the significant amount of housing that will be built privately and by the State in the coming years, the rule stipulating a childcare facility must be installed if there are 75 units and how the rule is not delivering — there are various reasons, some legitimate and others less so — it is a matter of determining how we can design the planning system to allow us to have more but appropriately designed childcare facilities as we expand the number of houses.

Senator Warfield spoke about the underfunded system and where we stand in the EU. He is absolutely right in this regard. It is important to note, however, that the OECD, in its review of Ireland, specifically noted the change in approach here, the additional investment and the research undertaken to chart a new direction. The Senator asked several specific questions, including on services whose sustainability is still in question. The core funding will address sustainability issues for the vast majority of services but we still have the sustainability fund for services in difficulty. A service might have significant debts built up over a period. The fund requires a service to open its books, which is understandable if the State is providing additional support. The support is attached to court funding.

Services that do not sign up for core funding still have access to the standard ECCE capitation rates and the national childcare scheme. They do not have access to the higher ECCE capitation or the programme support payment as they have been folded into the core funding service.

Senator Currie spoke about supply. She is absolutely right. The work we are starting with planners to examine the guidelines is part of the process. Another element is the capital investment programme. My Department has €70 million under the national development plan for supporting capital investment in childcare. Next year, we will be introducing an application programme for existing services that are seeking to upgrade or expand, and the following year we will be introducing a capital programme for brand new services. That is how the roll-out will occur.

Another key element is core funding. Core funding is designed to offer a greater reward regarding those elements of childcare that are most expensive, such as a baby room, recognising that the number of staff has to be much higher in a baby room and that the cost is much higher as a consequence. Core funding arrangements recognise this and provide more where a service is providing a baby room.

Senator Dolan referred to population flux.

That is another reason core funding is so important. Core funding is based on capacity and not take-up. Right now, the ECCE and the NCS are based on take-up. We know from demographics that the population bulge is moving up and is now moving past the ECCE stage. Many ECCE services around the country may find they are not filling 11 or 22 spaces. Core funding rewards them for having 11 or 22 spaces. If a service only has eight, or even seven, spaces this year, it will continue to be rewarded for its capacity. That is an important point. It provides stability in terms of overall supply.

I have spoken to the point made by Senator Fitzpatrick on accessibility in respect of the matters raised by Senators Currie and Seery Kearney. In terms of affordability, the NCS is where we are at. That is where I will make my push in this year's budget. There is strong support across all Government parties. This year, we have worked for services and childcare professionals. Once core funding is signed up, we will deliver on that. Next year, the focus has to be affordability.

I had a very useful discussion with Senator Chambers. A significant part of core funding is focused directly on rewarding graduates. We may need to be clearer on that, but it is very much part of the core funding element. As I said earlier, this is year one of core funding. We are only asking people to sign up for one year, and I ask services to try it for this one year. The fee freeze is for one year and is linked to that. Services should try it because it is where the focus of the Government is in terms of trying to support services.

In response to Senator Hoey on the guarantee of a childcare space for everybody, I must point out that we want to put the ECCE scheme on a statutory basis and ensure children will have a statutory entitlement to a two-year free ECCE service. This recognises that ECCE will always be at the centre of our childcare offering. I agree with her about a family-friendly Oireachtas. Tomorrow we will be in the Dáil until at least 9.30 p.m, and that is an early Wednesday. Both Houses of the Oireachtas have a lot more to do in terms of recognising that constant late-night sittings are contrary to what we are talking about in debates like this.

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