In recent years, I have secured significantly increased investment in early learning and care (ELC) and school age childcare (SAC). The annual investment towards high quality, affordable ELC and SAC has risen to €574m, which represents an increase of 117% since 2015.
The significant increase in supports I announced in April 2017 represented a major step towards accessible, affordable and quality ELC and SAC after decades of neglect and under-investment by successive Governments. These increases reflect my ambition to support quality ELC and SAC services with appropriately supported staff.
As part of the Government policy to make childcare more affordable, I introduced new measures in September 2017 (September Measures) aimed at improving access to quality, affordable childcare for families in the interim until the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme.
The September Measures included the universal childcare subvention payment (CCSU) of up to €20 per week for families using eligible childcare providers for the care of children aged from 6 months to the first eligible point of entry to the ECCE scheme. This non-means tested support amounts to as much as €1,040 per year for children in full-time childcare. The total number of children who availed of CCSU in the 2017/2018 programme year (between September 2017 and August 2018) was 39,319. Almost two thirds of services (65% or 2,188) that had CCSP contracts, had at least one child registered under CCSU.
To date 33,410 children have availed of CCSU in the current (2018/2019) year.
The September Measures also included an average 50% increase to the band rates of the CCS/CCSP targeted schemes. In 2017/18 36,367 children benefitted from the targeted CCS strands (CCS and CCSP) compared to 24,715 in 2016/17. This was an increase of 47% on the previous year. The growth in the number of registrations and participating children is associated directly with the increase investment in the early year’s sector. For the period September 2019 to June 2018 the value of the registrations amounted to €363,691,841. These increases were considerable and significantly decreased the amount of payment required of low income families or parents in education or training.
These changes are waypoints towards our goal to deliver genuine affordable, accessible, quality ELC and SAC.
Furthermore, the National Childcare Scheme (NCS), which is a new, national scheme of financial support for parents towards the cost of childcare, will be significant move forward in delivering quality, accessible, affordable childcare to families throughout Ireland. NCS will launch this October, with payments flowing from November. The Scheme entails a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements, and towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies that will benefit a much greater part of the population, and in particular working families. It is a single, streamlined and user-friendly scheme which will ultimately replace the existing targeted childcare schemes. However, the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme will not be affected.
By making this shift and by tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the Scheme aims to improve children's outcomes, support lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in relation to labour market participation and employment opportunities.
The Scheme has already been amended to expand the benefits for working families. As part of Budget 2019, the income threshold levels used for assessing the level of subsidy to which a parent may be entitled were raised.
The significant increase in the Scheme's maximum net income threshold from €47,000 to €60,000 per annum means that an estimated 7,500 more children will benefit from the scheme relative to the original proposals. Over 40,000 other children, already eligible, will see increases to their subsidies.
I am also very pleased that I have managed to adjust the lower income threshold, meaning that maximum subsidy rates will now be paid to all families with a net annual income of up to €26,000 (up from €22,700).
This ‘poverty proofs’ the Scheme by ensuring that families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the very highest subsidy rates under the scheme. It will also make work pay for parents in employment or training as they will now be able to avail of help with their childcare costs.