Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Questions (12)

Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to deal with the accelerating crisis in relation to childcare places; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22690/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

There is a growing crisis in childcare in this country. The crisis is threefold: the extortionate costs of childcare, often reaching over €1,000 a month; the staffing and pay for workers in childcare, which is low and precarious or seasonal; and increasingly, the major problem in accessing childcare places. What is the Government intending to do to address this crisis, particularly the lack of spaces?

The annual Pobal early years sector profile is based on a survey of all services which participate in State-funded early learning and care and school age childcare schemes. The latest report, containing data from May 2018, indicates that while the sector is experiencing significantly increased demand, it is broadly meeting this demand nationally. I am, however, fully aware of the challenges many parents experience to access high quality and affordable places, particularly for younger children. This is why I have worked intensively with my officials to introduce a number of measures to address the situation.

The substantial increase in investment in childcare over the past four budgets has delivered a range of improvements, including a doubling of capacity in the sector for both ECCE and the birth to three years age group, but clearly more needs to be done. I am taking a number of steps to address capacity issues. I have provided €9.6 million in capital funding for the sector in 2019 to focus on increasing the number of places available.

My Department is also helping services to get ready for the forthcoming national childcare scheme. This capital funding, decisions on which will be published very shortly, is expected to produce approximately 1,300 new spaces for birth to three year olds and 2,300 new school age childcare places this year.

The national childcare scheme, which will 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.

As I have mentioned in responses to earlier questions today, I will publish a childminding action plan in the coming months that will set out the actions my Department will take to support more childminders to offer high quality and subsidised childcare.

I am sceptical that the efforts the Minister has outlined will deliver the affordable childcare that we need. There is already evidence that the childcare scheme may merely push up the prices charged by the private providers and wipe out the value of the subsidy. That highlights the overall problem. A little like the housing crisis, the Government's plans for childcare depend on the private sector. I am not sure the private sector will deliver. It may merely increase prices but also not deliver the places.

To my mind, unless the State directly provides affordable childcare places, which will also deal with the issue of precarious work and pay, we will not get the sort of affordable childcare that we desperately need.

In my area, there is a large new housing development called Cualanor and Honeypark. A crèche was supposed to be provided as part of planning. It was never provided because when we are depending on a private developer to do it, it just does not happen.

I will address the first couple of issues there. As I said to some of the Deputy's colleagues, I appreciate that childcare is not yet fully affordable. That is because of decades of underinvestment in childcare. Even though we started from a very low base, we have 170% more investment in the development of a systematic effort over the last couple of years - to look at ways in which we can enable a financial entitlement to subsidisation of childcare for families, which we have now, and build a capacity, as well as provide the providers with the qualifications required to offer the quality that we require. That is going on.

On the second issue, I, too, have that concern on the raising of fees that meets the subsidisation. A certain increase has happened since we have been monitoring this, but costs have increased too. I will actively discuss this concern with my Department over these coming weeks.

Is it not the problem that because we are relying on the private sector, this will inevitably happen? The evidence is there and the Minister acknowledged it. As to the provision of places, the issue was highlighted to me in my area where there was a crèche in the Holy Child school in Sallynoggin. For reasons I do not understand, the school closed the crèche in the middle of the year, leaving a number of mothers, children and families high and dry with nowhere to go. They were told to find somewhere else, which they simply could not do. People in Sallynoggin were told to go to Rathfarnham, which was totally unsustainable for people working in education and so on. There are simply not the places. The local childcare committee in the council acknowledge the problem but does not have the resources because we are not directly providing the affordable childcare places. That is the only way we are going to get the affordable childcare on the scale we need to address this need.

My heart is with the Deputy in what he said. It is correct to say that we are going in a different direction. On the Deputy's comments on places, in answering a number of earlier questions, I have stated that we have a systematic approach, especially in our work with Pobal, to try to identify where we need to increase capacity so that the supply meets the demand. That does not sometimes always work. I am happy to listen to what the Deputy is saying about his particular area and we need to be refocused on that. I accept that it does not always work but it is an exaggeration to say that it does not work across the board. That is not the case.

With this model and a higher percentage of private providers than community not-for-profit providers, I have looked at many different ways to see how we can maintain in a better way the level of affordability for parents. What we have arrived at as part of our First 5 approach is to develop a way of using public funds to ensure that fees increase more reasonably for parents but in a way that can assure that the providers, namely, the professionals, are paid what they are worth. That will take a longer time to develop. That is part of the vision of the First 5 and ultimately that will happen.