Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Questions (1)

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Children)

Permission has been given to Deputy Aindrias Moynihan to take questions on behalf of Deputy Rabbitte.

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

1. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the considerable capacity issues that exist within the childcare sector here, particularly with regard to the care of babies and toddlers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22403/19]

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I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The childcare sector in Ireland is under phenomenal pressure. There is a shortage of places and the cost of childcare is putting enormous pressure on parents. There are also serious challenges in terms of staff recruitment. Since the introduction of the early childhood care and education, ECCE scheme there is additional pressure on services, in particular for babies and toddlers. Is the Minister aware of this and what action does she propose to take to address the issues?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The unprecedented increase in investment in childcare over the last four budgets has helped to double capacity in the sector. We have doubled the ECCE-free preschool scheme from one to two years. We have also doubled the number of spaces for the zero to three age group. Baby and toddler places have increased from 13,700 in 2014 to over 31,000 in 2018, an increase of 128%. We do need additional capacity and I am continuing my intensive efforts in that regard. I am aware of the challenges providers face in offering services for babies and toddlers. The challenge is largely attributable to the cost of the higher staffing ratios required. The 2019 early years capital scheme has a primary focus on building places for the under-threes. I have made €4 million available for this age group and I expect to announce the successful applicants and the creation of 1,300 additional places before the year end. 

The national childcare scheme, to be introduced later this year, will also be a major incentive for providers to expand capacity. The scheme will provide a progressive system of subsidies, starting with the highest subsidy rates for children under one - up to €5.10 per hour - and the next highest subsidy for one and two year olds - up to €4.35 per hour. 

I also want to encourage further capacity for the under-threes and older age groups in the childminding sector. With this in mind, my Department has recently recruited a national childminding co-ordinator and will soon recruit a team of six development officers around the country to support the registration of more childminders with Tusla and thus enable them access subsidies under the NCS. My Department is currently finalising an action plan for childminding that will set out all the steps that we will take to improve access to high quality and subsidised childminding services.

I ensured that childcare would be identified as a strategic priority in the national development plan and I secured €250 million for this purpose, much of which will be invested in additional capacity.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The introduction of the ECCE second year is a positive but its value is diminished if people are not able to access and avail of it. According to Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland the second year provision has cannibalised the earlier years provision, in particular in areas where there is population growth, and it is more difficult to get a place for babies and toddlers. We are hearing that parents are deferring returning to paid employment because they are unable to find a place. I note that staff numbers have increased but turnover is huge in this sector, with one in four people leaving it as well. What action is being taken to address those issues? Will the Minister support the providers to ensure they can retain their staff and also to ensure there are places available for babies and toddlers in light of the difficulties being experienced in that regard.

I thank the Deputy. On the main issue he raised, and Teresa Heeney's comments, the question is whether the sector has been replacing baby rooms with ECCE rooms which are perhaps perceived as more lucrative.

I do not think there is any definitive evidence to support that assertion but we have some anecdotal claims. While there has been a significant increase in ECCE capacity in recent years, the data available from the early years sector profile reports, published by Pobal, show that that has been mirrored by an increase of capacity of the baby rooms. That is the first thing that I would say and what I have tried to outline. As I indicated, we were aware that this challenge of capacity for under-threes was coming. That is not news to us. That is why I focused the capital funding I received in 2019 on those aged from zero to three. I will be announcing those grants shortly in order that providers will have time during the summer months to ensure that they have capacity.

The Pobal report indicates that only 19% of facilities have baby rooms and that some 1,700 infants are on waiting lists, almost half of the total number of people who are enrolled. There is an especially acute issue with babies and toddlers. We know that the ECCE room will be exempt from rates, whereas the baby room is not. My colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, introduced a Bill to equalise that issue in order that childcare providers could be exempt from rates altogether. Would the Minister consider supporting such measures to level the playing field? Figures from Pobal indicate there is a move towards the ECCE rooms at the expense of the baby and wobbler rooms.

We are aware of the need to provide capital funding to increase the supply and capacity for under-threes. That is why I have moved the capital funding for 2019 in that direction. We are aware of the statistics. Pobal works closely with us. When we fully implement the national childcare scheme in November, there will be incentives of additional supports for childcare providers to have more under-threes. With regard to the issue regarding rates for baby rooms, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, has responsibility for rates. He knows my views on this and I have sent them to him in writing. I would like to see rates for services looked at and scrapped. It is worth noting that community-run services and those providing free preschool only are not subject to rates. Privately operated services are subject to rates and that is where issues arise. Within my control, I am moving to ensure that we will have capacity for under-threes.