Recent reports, such as that recently published by the ESRI, have underlined the challenges faced by families in returning to work, due to the challenge posed by the high cost of childcare.
One of my main priorities since being appointed as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been to make high quality childcare more accessible and affordable. The recent expansion of ECCE enables children to receive two full programme years of the scheme from the age of 2 years and eight months, thus, for parents who are working or in education, reducing their childcare costs by 15 hours per week over 38 weeks of the year. The cost of childcare for children below ECCE age is very high, predominantly due to the required lower adult to child ratios involved in providing high quality care to infants and very young children.
It was for this reason that last September (2017) I introduced a new, non means tested universal subsidy, providing up to €1,040 per annum for children in this age range. Since that time, the families of more than 40,000 children have benefitted from this subsidy.
Also, for families on lower incomes that need assistance with childcare costs, I increased the level of subsidy available under existing targeted schemes. Subsidies are now available of up to €145 per week, per child to certain families. The website affordablechildcare.ie provides more information in this regard. Whilst these supports are a first step to assist families in lowering the cost of their childcare, much more must be done to provide truly affordable, accessible child care.
Earlier this year, the entitlement of families in Ireland to financial support towards the cost of child care was put on a legislative footing by my Department with the enactment of the Childcare Support Act 2018. This legislation supports a radical new infrastructure, currently under development, to introduce a new Affordable Childcare Scheme. This scheme will provide both universal and targeted subsidies towards the cost of child care. As part of the scheme, recognition is given to the additional cost of providing high quality care to children in the pre-ECCE bracket and provides a higher rate of subsidy accordingly. The scheme should also improve access to more places for children under three given the high levels of subsidisation that will be available for these services.
This country has suffered from a history of low levels of investment in childcare, leaving Ireland trailing OECD norms. The Affordable Childcare Scheme will provide a strong, sustainable platform to address this. Through this platform, I am deeply committed to maintaining the focus on high quality, affordable and accessible child care that we have witnessed in recent budgets. This is something I will also be placing major focus on in the forthcoming cross-Government ten year Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families.