Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Questions (6)

Robert Troy


6. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the ongoing issues regarding remuneration and conditions within the childcare sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22689/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Children)

Has the Minister’s attention been drawn to the ongoing issues regarding remuneration and conditions in the childcare sector? Will she make a statement to the House on this matter?

I am acutely aware of the pay and conditions issues that exist within the sector. I take every possible opportunity to highlight the importance of the work the sector does for children and how we must value it for this. Current hourly pay rates, as well as availability for many practitioners of only part-time-part-year contracts, do not reflect the level of responsibility that early learning and care professionals hold, nor the increasing qualifications required from them.

While we have a long way to go to rectify this situation, I am doing everything in my power to do so. I have set out my vision for the sector, as well as a roadmap to achieve it, in First 5, the whole-of-government strategy which I launched with the Taoiseach last November. Within First 5, there is a commitment to develop a workforce development plan which will ensure appropriate levels of early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, staff at all levels in the sector. The rate of employees at graduate level currently stands at 22%. First 5 aims to increase this level to 30% by 2021 and to 50% by 2028.

The steering group for a new workforce development plan for the sector will meet for the first time on 30 May. The plan will include actions to move to a graduate-led workforce by 2028 and to raise the profile of careers in the sector. It will have regard to the development of a new funding model which will also seek to address workforce issues.

As the State is not the employer, I cannot set wage levels or determine working conditions. I have instead repeatedly called for the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order, which offers a viable mechanism to establish appropriate wage levels. My Department will readily co-operate with such a process when it is under way.

In the interim, I have introduced a range of measures to support employers to improve pay and conditions. These include a 117% increase in investment over the past four budgets; a 7% increase in early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme capitation in 2018; higher capitation payments for graduates and for inclusion co-ordinators; and annual programme support payments of over €19 million to recognise administrative demands.

The early childhood care sector is in crisis. It is a significantly high cost to parents and providers are facing significant challenges with overheads, commercial rates etc. The staff, who are well educated, earn little more than the minimum wage. Staff turnover in the sector last year was 24.7%. Many childcare workers who have got a third level degree are forced to go on the dole and be in receipt of social welfare benefits for several weeks during the year when they are not paid.

I recently met a lady who has childcare qualifications and has worked for ten years in the same childcare centre. With the exception of the minimum wage increase, she has received no other rise in her remuneration.

I met another young lady with a first class honours degree in childcare who had to move back from Galway to Westmeath. She has to commute every day to Galway to work because she is on such low wages that she cannot afford to pay the high rents in Galway.

The Minister talks about valuing this workforce. The Government, however, is not demonstrating that it values them because they certainly do not feel valued at the moment.

I am building for the first time a radical new infrastructure for our children and families. The passage of the Childcare Support Act marks the first time ever parents and families have been entitled legally to a financial subsidisation. I am correcting decades of underinvestment in this arena. It takes a long time to correct that.

As I have already indicated, we have had an increase of 117% in investment in this sector over the past four budgets. Those kind of statistics demonstrate we are interested in both the children and their families, as well as the workers in the sector.

I have indicated to the Deputy the ways in which we have invested more money in the services and the providers, particularly with raising the ECCE capitation rate. It is hoped that this will ultimately be passed on to the sector and to the people who work in it.

Several times I have called on the sector to pursue a sectoral employment order.

I call Deputy Troy.

That must be initiated by the sector and not me to ensure it can complement my efforts to get more money to the sector.

The Minister must watch the clock. We all have a responsibility to do so.

I am usually very good at that.

The workers in the sector do not feel valued. Anybody working ten years in a sector who has had no pay increase in that time will not feel valued. A young girl, who went to college, got a first class honours degree but has to move home from Galway to commute to Westmeath, does not feel valued. Despite the rhetoric and the promises, there is still a bureaucratic regulatory system requirement on the providers. They are still being charged commercial rates despite the fact they are essentially providing a State service.

There are things the Government could do that are not being done. To talk about 2028 is simply not good enough. It is only 2019. Young people who have qualified want to work and make a contribution to this sector but they do not feel valued. They are leaving in their droves. If corrective action is not taken now rather than in 2028, the Minister will have a greater crisis on her hands.

First, one of the reasons some people in the sector have higher degrees is because of the investment made by my Department in providing additional training for the people. That is one of the ways in which we have valued the people working in the sector. I am fully aware of the challenges those in the sector face because I meet and speak to them when I travel across the country. I am from the sector also and I have worked closely with it in recent years. I am aware of what is happening.

As already indicated, after decades of underinvestment, there has been a significant amount of investment, with as much of it as I can ensure going towards supporting the pay, conditions, professionalisation, qualifications and training - for example, training to work with young children with special needs in particular. These are all the different ways in which we - while not being the employer - have invested in the people to the extent that we can. Admittedly, we need to do more. I am not stating that we do not. I am aware of that as much as the Deputy but I do not accept the fact that the changes we have made across the board demonstrate that we do not value those who work in this sector.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.