I propose to take Questions Nos. 498, 499 and 502 together.
The Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which I published in 2011, provides clarity and guidance for individuals and organisations in identifying and responding appropriately to child abuse and neglect. It also sets out what organisations that care for or work with children should do to ensure they are safe whilst in the care of the organisation. The Government has committed, as a priority, to the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First.
The Deputy will be aware that I published the Heads of the Children First Bill in April 2012. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that organisations and professionals who work with children have a statutory responsibility to report reasonable concerns about the abuse or neglect of children in their care to the HSE Child and Family Services.
I asked the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children to consider the Heads of the Children First Bill and make recommendations. I received their comprehensive Report in July and I thank the Committee for its work on this matter. My Department is currently considering the broad range of submissions to, and recommendations of the Joint Committee, including those submissions pertaining to the issue of childminders.
Preschool services are regulated under the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No.2) Regulations 2006, as provided for under Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991. "Childminder" is defined in the Regulations as "a person who provides a childminding service as defined in the Regulations". A "childminding service" is defined in the Regulations as "a preschool service which may include an overnight service offered by a person who single-handedly takes care of preschool children, including the childminder's own children, in the childminder's home for a total of more than 2 hours per day, except where the exemptions provided in Section 58 of the Child Care Act 1991 apply."
Services providing care for children who have not yet commenced primary school are required to notify their service to the Pre-School Inspectorate of the Health Service Executive (HSE) and are subject to inspection and report by the Inspectorate on a regular basis. Services covered by the Regulations include full-time, part-time and sessional services as well as childminders taking care of more than three preschool children from different families in the childminder’s home. Childminders taking care of not more than three preschool children from different families are not covered by the Regulations, recognising parental choice to place children with friends and neighbours, and the challenges of the over-regulation of the more informal arrangements chosen by parents. As a result of this exemption it is not possible to provide a figure for the number of childminders currently providing childminding services.
The National Guidelines for Childminders, compiled by the National Childcare Co-ordinating Committee which oversees the development of an integrated child care infrastructure throughout the country, provide guidance to childminders on good practice, and assist them to decide whether they are subject to the Regulations, as well as providing other useful information on the role of the childminder in the provision of child care services.
The 2006 Regulations replaced the earlier Regulations, introduced in 1996, and made a number of improvements to the regulatory environment, including the introduction of a requirement for all staff and students working in a preschool service to have been Garda vetted.
As is the case with all regulatory requirements, the Child Care Regulations set the minimum standards which services are legally required to comply with. However, my Department is proactive in monitoring, promoting and developing the highest standards of care and education throughout the sector, including the regulatory environment, given the important role which these services play in this crucial phase of children’s lives.
My Department also has begun work on Ireland’s first Early Years Strategy which I envisage will be a creative and dynamic blueprint for the future development of Ireland’s Early Years sector aimed at providing a coherent approach to seeking to improve the lives of children from birth to age six. One of the issues of policy which I have identified for consideration in the preparation of the new Strategy is the development of the childminding sector as a fully-integrated component of early childhood care and education, in particular for the under-one age group.