Thursday, 20 September 2018

Questions (2)

Denise Mitchell


2. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to reduce the cost of childcare in the coming years; her views on the Economic and Social Research Institute’s recent report which has found that high childcare costs are a major obstacle to many women re-entering the workforce; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38070/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

My question is to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to reduce the cost of childcare in the coming years, her views on the Economic and Social Research Institutes's recent report which has found that high childcare costs are a major obstacle to many women re-entering the workforce, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I welcome the ESRI's report which highlights the challenges childcare costs present for families in Ireland, particularly for women who wish to return to or remain in work. Providing a childcare infrastructure that enables accessible, affordable and quality childcare is a cornerstone of my work as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I have stated on numerous occasions that the cost of childcare is not a problem that can be fixed in a single budget. Ireland has seen low levels of investment in this area for many decades, tailing the levels of investment across Europe and the OECD. We have started to address this underinvestment in the past three budgets, with the level of investment increased by some 80% since 2015. I acknowledge, however, that there is still a long way to go. To fully address the cost of childcare, we need continued investment in childcare infrastructure. This investment will, in turn, reap dividends for the country by enabling women who wish to work to do so, in so doing boosting the economy.

Just before the summer recess I was delighted to be able to put the entitlement of families to financial support for childcare on a legislative footing for the first time in the history of the State. This came about with the passing of the Childcare Support Act. The affordable childcare scheme will mark a major turning point in the subsidisation of childcare in this country. It will enable us to pass on to parents whatever investment the Exchequer can make available to lower childcare costs. Now that the legislation for the scheme is in place, we are focusing on the development of the IT and administrative infrastructure for the scheme and this work is continuing apace. I hope to report to the Government shortly on a timeframe for the project. To assist parents and families in the interim, as I referred to, I put measures in place last September to provide a non-means-tested subsidy of up to €1,040 per year for children aged between six months and the time at which they are eligible for the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. We have also enhanced subsidies for families that need it most by 50%, up to €145 per week for children up to 15 years of age. These and many other measures support the objective of ensuring more women will be able to return to work.

In recent weeks we have seen a number of surveys taking place on the cost of childcare. Childcare costs have risen by 5.5%. I recognise that the Minister has said this is a problem owing to the lack of funding by the State over many years. The cost of childcare is crippling working families who are paying the equivalent of a second mortgage, which puts huge pressure on family life. Despite the subsidies, childcosts are still going up. At the end of August the Minister said the investment levels identified by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, in its budget submission were necessary. Will she confirm that the Government's investment in the ECCE scheme will meet the figure of 0.7% of GDP in the short term and 1% by 2027, as advised by ICTU?

The primary focus of the question is on where Ireland is in relation to other countries in terms of investment in childcare and, therefore, reducing the cost. It is a critical question. I support research that demonstrates that we are not yet there. That is really important as it helps me in my negotiations with the Government to increase the level of investment, even though, as I have indicated, it has increased by more than 80% in the past three years. It is also important for ICTU and other advocates to identify that we still have a long way to go with our investment in order to reach what would be more appropriate levels when we compare Ireland with other countries in the OECD. The level of investment compares poorly with that in other European countries. The OECD average is 0.8%. The level of investment falls short of the UNICEF-recommended level of 1% of GDP. Every increase of 0.1% in public expenditure in Ireland, however, will cost an additional €300 million. That identifies the length of time involved. I am right in the middle of my negotiations with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and determined to get as much as I can to deal with the issue this time around.

I was surprised by some of the Minister's Government colleagues talking about the so-called granny grant, rather than investment in the childcare system. I was glad that many of us in the Chamber were of the same opinion as the Minister. We wll support her in any way we can in that regard. As women, all of us present know that a barrier to returning to work is childcare costs. Does the Minister have targets when she enters discussions with the Minister for Finance? On average, is she looking at reducing the cost by 50% over two or ten years, for example, or will she give some indication of what she considering?

I am not at liberty to say exactly how much money I am looking for from the Minister for Finance, but what I will say - this is an equally important response to the Deputy's question - is that the two main barriers to women re-entering the workforce include not only childcare costs but also capacity in the school-age sector. As the Deputy knows, there are now two years of free preschool, but it does not move into after-school care. Of course, if women want to return to work, even part-time work, sometimes not having the required after-school care support gets in the way. We need to build capacity. The lack of transport from schools to after-school facilities prevents women who wish to do so from returning to work. I have these two key practical issues in mind in considering what is required. While we need money, we also need to decide what the money is for. There is a focus on some of these issues to ensure the concern about women returning to work will be addressed.