Thursday, 28 March 2019

Questions (7, 12, 37)

Anne Rabbitte


7. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether existing levels of capital funding for childcare providers are sufficient; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14503/19]

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Aindrias Moynihan


12. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when capital spending plans for the early learning and care and school age capital programmes for 2019 will be announced; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14499/19]

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Thomas Byrne


37. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to provide increases in childcare provision in County Meath. [14450/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Children)

What are the views of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on whether existing levels of capital funding for childcare providers are sufficient, and will she make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 12 and 37 together.

A key priority for me, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is to support the early learning and care and school age childcare sector through the provision of capital funding where it is most needed. I have allocated significant funding in recent years for this purpose and for improving the quality of infrastructure nationwide. In 2019, I have secured a capital budget of €9.6 million for the sector which will enable a focus on increasing the number of places available, and supporting the transition of services to the forthcoming national childcare scheme.

I have allocated €6.1 million of this funding for the 2019 early learning and care and school age childcare capital programmes. This funding will be delivered in three strands. A total of €4.23 million will be available under strand A, which will offer grants of up to €50,000 to early learning and care providers for the creation of new places for children from newborns to aged three where demand for these is clearly evidenced. I have allocated €875,000 to strand B, which will offer individual grants of up to €15,000 to aid community or not-for-profit early learning and care services in addressing fire safety issues. Finally, there will be €1 million for strand C, which will offer individual grants of up to €20,000 to school age childcare providers for the creation of new school age places where demand for these is clearly demonstrated.

The application window for the early learning and care and school age capital programmes opened on 25 February and closed yesterday, 27 March 2019. Applications will now move to the appraisal stage, which is undertaken by Pobal and overseen by my Department. Applications will be appraised using a fair process based on a number of criteria, including demonstration of need, value for money, capacity of the organisation, including compliance with scheme rules, project achievability, and socio-economic deprivation in the service's location. Grants will be allocated to applications of the highest quality. In accordance with the principles of fairness and equity, no funding will be earmarked in advance for any particular area in the country, but County Meath and other counties identified will be able to compete fairly alongside all other parts of the country.

Capital programmes are necessarily a budget limited exercise. The maximum grant size available under each of these strands has been determined to optimise what can be delivered by each grant and to maximise the number of providers and children who will ultimately benefit from the funding. Decisions on the award of capital grants are due to be delivered in June 2019, once the appraisal process has concluded.

I am also pleased to have ensured that childcare was identified as a strategic priority in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 and to have secured €250 million in capital funding for childcare under the plan. This represents the kind of large-scale investment in the sector by the State that has not been undertaken since the earlier national childcare investment programme that concluded in 2010. This investment will be essential to respond to the increased capacity we expect as the new national childcare scheme is introduced. The national childcare scheme, NCS, will radically alter how this country supports the cost of early learning and care and school age childcare. Research is ongoing in my Department to determine areas of specified need that the NDP funding will address when it comes on stream in the coming years.

I thank the Minister for her response. Can she get the following information? How many places will strands A and C support on average throughout the country? With the creation of the additional early childhood care and education, ECCE places arising from the second year of it, has the Department enough funding for capital projects to support that expansion? Certain providers, be they in the community or the private sectors, feel restricted. They would like to take on extra children but they cannot fulfil the agreement for the two years because they just do not have the funding, although they might have the space.

I refer to the idea of accumulating some of the grants. Grants are provided for the ECCE in the morning. If providers can also get access to the grant for the after-school care in the evening and they can tie that in with the fire safety grant, how many crèches or providers get full return and how many can get only a part of that grant mechanism?

On Deputy Rabbitte's first question on the number of places, I will ask for that information for her. I gather she asks the question because she is wondering if there is enough funding for the places that are required where they are required. As I said, I will certainly ask for that. As the Deputy will be aware, my Department, along with Pobal, has worked diligently and with considerable technical expertise, at least in the past, to try to answer these types of questions and to develop methodologies to ascertain, as we move into the future, how we ensure that we do that. It is good that the Deputy asks that question and that they will continue to do that.

One of the concerns may be around where we have newly built estates with young demographics. With the kind of methodology that is being developed, the monitoring capacity is conducted through the use of a so-called geosparcity index which categorises a geographical area in regard to the supply of and demand for childcare. That merely demonstrates that there is attention to this and methodologies being developed to ensure that we can keep up with what we need and where we need it.

The Minister addressed some of the points. While the €9 million sounds like big money, I am concerned about its scale when spread across the country where there will be various demands. The Minister has set maximum figures for the various different schemes. What level of funding does she see being allocated to each of the different providers? Is the Minister looking at providing a grant of €5,000 to €10,000? Will she give a smaller number of providers the maximum grant in each of the headings or will it be spread very thinly throughout the country?

Pobal has also set out a chart on how it will distribute and one of the priorities relates to disadvantage.

Will areas with very quick and dramatic population growth, such as Ovens and Ballincollig, be considered or have an opportunity to be prioritised?

Under Straitéis 20 Bliain, the need for Irish language support is recognised by the Government. We are aware that early years are more significant in this regard. Will Irish language providers be prioritised in recognition of Straitéis 20 Bliain and the Government's commitments in that regard?

I thank the Deputy. My answer to the first set of questions was trying to identify grants, up to certain amounts, according to the various strands. In strand A, for example, grants of up to €50,000 will be offered to early learning and care providers for the creation of places for those between zero and three. The Deputy is wondering how, given the limited resources, it will be determined how much to give various providers in light of applications of really high quality. I understand this is partly what he is asking about. As he knows, I do not do the work in question. Pobal and my Department receive the information. I have tried to identify the criteria whereby the decisions are made.

The Deputy also asked about increasing populations and the Irish language. We work on this. I may address it in response to another question. The First 5 strategy and the commitment to the Government in that regard need to be attended to also. I hear that in terms of the Deputy's question.

My question follows on in regard to capacity. I have already said many of the providers have space. When there was population expansion, the national schools rented portakabins to ensure the demand was met. Childcare providers want the maximum number using their services and to offer an affordable, accessible, quality childcare service but their capacity is limited. Has the Department costed the leasing of suitable portakabins to the providers while they are awaiting the approval of capital funding? Considering that so many new schools are being built, are there portakabins available that we could hand over to some of the crèches?

I thank the Minister for the information. I need clarification on Straitéis 20 Bliain and the support for the Irish language providers. As the Minister said, they need to be attended to but this does not appear to be in the criteria. Could the Minister outline how she intends to attend to Irish language groups and to put in place supports for language development in the earlier years, the crucial years?

On Deputy Rabbitte's question, I do not know whether the Department has considered the matter. I will feed that in. It is an interesting recommendation. What the Deputy is suggesting is a form of transition to ensure that a year or a couple of years do not go by with insufficient capacity. Anything we can find that offers support in this regard would be helpful. At the same time, resources are limited, and this must be considered also.

All the Deputies' questions are critical in the sense of trying to be a little ahead of the curve to ensure we have enough places and sufficient capacity. As the Deputies know, we have been developing methodologies for this for quite some time, but their suggestions are helpful.

There was a question on additional criteria in respect of grants for preschools, crèches and childcare centres, including naíonraí. The suggestion that learning through Irish could be part of the criteria is very interesting. I will feed that back. It would need to be considered in the context of the capital grant section that does the work or the working groups being formed to consider how to make progress on all the commitments in the First 5 strategy, in addition to commitments regarding preschool, in particular, and Irish language initiatives in the context of the work of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I will raise the matter with my Department to determine the best way to consider it and possibly include it.