Assisting families to access high quality, affordable early learning and care and school age childcare is a priority for me as Minister and hence I take the issues raised in the letter very seriously. My officials have responded separately to the service provider who wrote the letter referred to in the Deputy's question.
My Department funds a number of early learning and care and school age childcare programmes. Given the large amount of public money that is used in funding these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. My Department believes that our approach to compliance and supporting services strikes a necessary and appropriate balance. Our approach involves setting out the rules for the receipt of State funding, supporting providers to deliver services, and at the same time, the approach offers assurances to the taxpayer that the funding assigned is being spent as it was intended.
A high level of compliance with the rules of the various childcare schemes is vital to maintaining existing investment as well as ensuring future investment. It is a requirement that services operating the early learning and care and school age childcare programmes funded by my Department must be compliant with the ‘Rules for DCYA childcare funding programmes’, the most recent of which was published on 9 August 2018. Compliance with these rules is overseen by Pobal on behalf of my Department. Because subsidies for the early learning and care and school age childcare programmes are paid based on attendance (not enrolment), this is a vital governance component of the funding for which my Department is responsible.
I very much appreciate that community childcare settings provide a valuable service to children and families across the country. I also appreciate their stated concerns regarding their sustainability. Hence, significant support is available to them to bring their service onto a more sustainable footing, whilst being necessarily compliant with scheme rules.
My Department oversees an integrated Case Management system operated by Pobal through which a dedicated team assesses services facing challenges. This Case Management service provides non-financial assistance or support in the first instance. Financial supports are also available for services facing certain challenges which may also be accessed through Case Management following a financial assessment.
Results from Pobal compliance visits for the first part of the programme year 2018/2019 show some issues in relation to non-compliance which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I am encouraged however that most services have engaged constructively with the process so far. I would recommend all other services to get in contact with Pobal or their local City / County Childcare Committee if they need support or advice, or if they believe a sustainability issue arises.
The National Childcare Scheme (NCS) will replace the targeted schemes later this year. My Department’s policy relating to the NCS was informed by evidence and with the best interests of children and families in mind. The legislation that I brought forward, supporting the scheme, the Childcare Support Act 2018, was the subject of much discussion in the Houses and many elements of the policy were considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children on a number of occasions.
The new scheme will not have a snapshot window. Its attendance rules will seek to reflect the reality of children and parents' lives and the need for services to operate as businesses. The attendance rules will reflect a certain degree of flexibility whilst honouring the requirement to ensure that Exchequer funding is used for the purposes it was intended.
My Department has begun to roll out a major national information campaign in relation to how this new scheme will operate. A significant amount of time will be invested in working with services to ensure that they are ready for it.
Under NCS, subsidies will be paid to a service provider for a child regularly using the childcare place. In other words, the scheme will contain rules in relation to circumstances where a child leaves the service, is absent or is not fully using the agreed place over a prolonged period. The rules have been developed to be fair, proportionate and child-centred, while also being clear and consistent. Importantly they will recognise the need for flexibility for parents. My Department has worked hard to ensure that they will not disadvantage services for what can be considered minor non-attendances. At the same time, they will recognise the need to protect State finances by ensuring that Exchequer funds are used to support the maximum number of families in need of financial support, represent value for money for taxpayers, and are managed and allocated in accordance with robust and appropriate procedures.
The Deputy will be aware that investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the last four budgets, now totalling €575 million per year. Community services access much of this growing investment. Turnover for many services has increased quite substantially (given that the number of servicers operating has increased only slightly) and co-payments / top-up payments made by parents has decreased, both measures assisting many services to strengthen their sustainability and review their business model to meet compliance requirements.
The National Childcare Scheme will mark another significant milestone for early learning and care and school age childcare in this country, creating an infrastructure from which Government can further increase investment in services over the next decade. This is in line with the commitment made in First 5, the Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, I published last November.