I propose to take Questions Nos. 17, 21 and 38 together.
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 by colleagues and services very seriously.
My Department funds a number of early learning and care and school age childcare programmes and I want to see investment in this area continue to increase significantly over the coming years. I am delighted that First 5, the Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families commits to doubling investment over the next 10 years.
Given the large amount of public money invested in these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. I believe that my Department's approach to protecting Exchequer funding and ensuring compliance, is balanced appropriately with supports we provide to services to enable them continue to deliver a sustainable and high quality service.
Pobal, as administrator of my Department's funded childcare programmes, conducts compliance visits to childcare service providers. These visits check a service’s compliance with the published rules of Exchequer funded programmes.
Results from Pobal compliance visits for the first part of the programme year 2018/2019 show a significant level of non-compliance. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
In particular many childcare services have been found to be in breach of programme rules concerning attendance records and registrations. This issue has been particularly acute among services offering the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS).
Non-compliance, like the type we have seen in CCS, represents a risk to Exchequer funds as it can lead to services receiving funding in excess of their entitlement. For this reason, my Department, working with Pobal, identify incorrect registrations and apply the relevant corrections to ensure that services are receiving the correct level of funding.
The level of overclaim identified varies for each service and may impact some services more than others. Pobal has been working with services to explain the financial impacts and manage the overclaims recovery process.
I recognise fully the challenges that can be faced by community services where incorrect registrations have been discovered. That is why my Department has developed a strong Case Management system, operated by Pobal, through which a dedicated team assists services facing challenges.
This Case Management service provides non-financial assistance or support in the first instance. Where financial difficulties or sustainability issues arise however, a budget I have created to assist with these challenges can then be tapped into to assist services transition, in a manageable way, towards sustainability.
I am encouraged that the majority of services have engaged constructively with the process so far and a way forward has been found. 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. Again, I want to stress that expert assistance, and financial support is available to services who need it.
The existing or legacy targeted childcare schemes will be replaced later this year with the National Childcare Scheme (NCS). The NCS was developed based on evidence of the best interests of children and families. Its attendance rules will reflect the reality of children and parents' lives and the need for services to operate as businesses. My Department has engaged with service providers on the development of the NCS and continues to do so.
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, rules 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.
My Department has begun to roll out a major national information campaign in relation to how the NCS will operate. A significant amount of time will be invested in working with services to ensure that they are ready for it.
The Deputies will be aware that investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the last four budgets, now totalling €575m per year. Community services access much of this growing investment.
Turnover for many services has increased substantially due to the fact 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 that I published last November.