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Child Care Costs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 26 September 2012

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Questions (4)

Éamon Ó Cuív


4. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has had discussions with groups representing childcare providers regarding the impact that Minister Burton’s proposed sick pay proposals would have on the provision of childcare services and the additional costs such a measure could impose on these services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40692/12]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Children)

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I have prioritised early years care and education. International evidence shows that early intervention can improve outcomes for children and families, particularly with regard to emotional, cognitive and social development. However, child care takes many forms, consisting not only of early years interventions but also of services such as after-school care for school-aged children. Child care is used by families in many different ways.

With the exception of a small number of nurseries subsidised by the HSE and preschools funded by the Department of Education and Skills, the State does not operate child care and play school services. Child care services are generally operated as either commercial or community not-for-profit concerns. Child care costs are dictated by the costs for service providers and by the market. According to a survey of child care providers carried out by Pobal in 2011, the average cost of a full-time child care place is €165 per week, with the cost of a place for a younger baby approximately €10 above that. However, prices vary across the country.

I appreciate the point the Deputy makes that child care costs continue to be a significant challenge and burden for many families.

I also appreciate that the child care costs for parents in this country are high relative to other countries. That has been commented upon in various reports in the past decade, including by the OECD. The Government does support a number of child care programmes through the provision of the three separate child care support programmes: the community childcare subvention, CCS, programme. I have seen examples all around the country of the support the programme gives to local families in the community; the childcare education and training support, CETS, scheme which helps where parents are involved in education and training; and the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme which funds the universal free preschool year. These programmes are administered by my Department.

We are lucky to have 94% of young children who are eligible benefitting from the universal free preschool year, which is available to all three to four year olds in the country. I commend the work of my predecessor in introducing the scheme when the early child care payment was abolished by the previous Government.

Additional Information not given on the floor of the House

Protecting and, if possible, further developing the universal free preschool scheme has been a key priority for me and the Department. In last December’s budget I secured an additional €9.8 million in funding to maintain the universal free year which has seen an increase of approximately 3,000 in the number of children participating in the programme. In 2012, the total expenditure by my Department on the three child care programmes is expected to exceed €240 million. These programmes have been maintained despite the ongoing need to reduce Government expenditure and these schemes represent a significant investment in supporting parents with the cost of child care.

It is good that the Minister acknowledges her predecessor an odd time. She cannot simply wash her hands and say markets dictate the cost of child care. It is too big an issue. The Minister correctly outlined the various figures that have been bandied about on the cost of child care. It costs up to €1,100 a month in parts of Dublin for child care. The cost is restricting the ability of people to return to the workplace. It is more expensive than the average monthly mortgage and something must be done about it. A significant amount of money was invested in community child care facilities in recent years. We should consider providing more community facilities because they provide greater affordability of care. At the same time community child care facilities are being attacked by the savage cuts to the community employment schemes. I am a board member of a community child care facility. Without the community employment scheme workers on the staff it would not be possible to continue in existence. I urge the Minister to examine the issue seriously. We must bring about a situation whereby child care in this country is affordable. The cost of child care in this country is one of the highest in the OECD. That is not acceptable and something must be done to address it. The Minister could consider splitting maternity leave between parents. We must be innovative in how we approach the issue to ensure that we reduce the cost of child care because it is unsustainable.

I share Deputy Troy's view on the provision of child care facilities. I have worked over many years to ensure that parents have proper child care available to them. What has happened in this country in the past ten years is that instead of delivering a universal free service the money was put into, for example, the child care supplement, which was then withdrawn. A total of €1.2 billion was withdrawn from that payment but it was put into the ECCE scheme. We have tended to focus on direct cash payments to parents rather than developing the kind of service Deputy Troy says ought to exist. I would like to have seen such a system being developed in recent years but it was not and now parents are paying the price of commercial rates which are very high. I agree with Deputy Troy that they are like a mortgage for many parents. I fully understand the situation parents face. It is extraordinarily difficult for families and makes it extremely difficult for many families who want to avail of those services to combine work and family life.

As Deputy Troy indicated, there are 950 community services throughout the country. They have been built up in recent years and they are participating in the CCS programme all over the country from which 25,000 children benefit, in addition to 90% of three to four year olds. I would like to see a second ECCE year. I would like child care to be provided for all children between the ages of three and five before they go to primary school. I would like to think that when the budgetary situation improves and we are in a position to put more money into child care that will be one of the places it will be invested.

The Minister has agreed with much of what I said on the need to tackle the cost of child care. What will she do to tackle it? She is lucky and honoured enough to be Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She has the authority to bring about changes. What are the Minister's plans to ensure change is introduced? We will support her and bring ideas to her.

The first thing I have done, which is important given the budgetary situation I inherited, is to ensure I got the extra budget I needed to keep the ECCE scheme available as a universal service for all three to four year olds. I also ensured that we can continue to provide the community childcare subvention programme and the CETS programme which assist parents in education and training. As the budgetary situation improves and finance becomes available it is one of the areas on which I would like to focus. Currently, I am keen to ensure we maintain the current range of services. That is why I was pleased that the budget in my Department and the part of the HSE budget that deals with child and family support services were increased by 4% at a time when many Departments face huge cutbacks.

It is expensive for the State to provide child care. I wish it was possible for us to do more at the moment but I want to maintain what we have and focus on quality because that matters as well in terms of the delivery of services. We must continually examine the quality of schemes and the inspection regime. A range of areas require attention and I am currently focused on them.