Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Questions (8)

Niamh Smyth


8. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the affordable childcare scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21810/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

Will the Minister comment on the status of the affordable childcare scheme?

On 11 March, I launched the national childcare scheme - our pathway to truly accessible, affordable, quality childcare.   The scheme is scheduled to open to applications later this year in October-November.

We are making progress in preparing for the scheme's introduction. Following the enactment of the Childcare Support Act 2018, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are now being finalised.  Intensive work is also progressing on the scheme’s supporting IT system.

A national communications campaign on the scheme is under way to ensure that providers and parents are ready for the scheme when it opens.  This involves a sequenced programme of information, training and supports. Key elements of the campaign include the launch of a new website, www.ncs.gov.ie; the distribution to date of 5,000 information packs and 50,000 parent booklets to providers, libraries, Government offices and other key stakeholders; and a major nationwide training programme for providers, offering more than 12,500 training places across 600 venues. I am happy to report that there is very strong interest in the website, the parent booklets and the training.

In September and October, my Department will run a large information campaign across a number of media channels to ensure there is full awareness among parents of their potential entitlements under the new scheme.

The agreement for service providers to participate in the scheme will be published shortly, and will be available for signing in June. To support providers who enter into contract for the scheme, I recently announced capital funding of €3 million for the provision of ICT software and hardware for providers. Individual services will receive between €500 and €2,000 depending on the number of children who are actively registered on one of the Department’s childcare programmes. Applications for this funding will also open in June.

I will continue to work intensively to deliver this landmark scheme which will alter the landscape of childcare in Ireland, support families, provide a sustainable platform for investment and, crucially, allow us to continue to invest in children.

To start on a positive note, it was great to see the Minister in County Cavan last week for the second arts festival the county has had. Ms Kim McCafferty and the other volunteers were delighted about that. It was great to see the Minister taking an interest in that area.

In the context of the single affordable childcare scheme, it is likely that families receiving very low levels of subsidy may be worse off than they were prior to its introduction. Childcare costs are cripplingly high. The average household spends approximately 35% of its income on childcare costs alone. The average cost of a full-time early years place in Ireland is €167 per week per child and this rises to €214 in certain areas. It is a large amount and accounts for a major chunk out of parents' incomes. With the astronomical burdens on families in terms of the costs of housing, rent and electricity and other bills, how will low income families be able to cope with the cost of this scheme?

I appreciate the different numbers the Deputy provided. I am probably more aware than most of the challenge of the affordability of childcare for parents. That is the reason I have worked intensively during the past three years to ensure that there has been such an significant increase of investment for families. That is not to say the costs for families are as affordable as we would like. With services and the subsidies being provided under the national childcare scheme in a new way from October and November onwards, it will make it much easier for future Governments to make investment in streamlined and targeted ways in future years, especially for those families who are on the lowest incomes in order that they receive the highest subsidies. I am aware of what the Deputy said and that is the reason we have made such intensive efforts and have increased the investment 117 % during the past four years.

The Minister referred to the ICT requirements and the infrastructure that must be in place for this scheme to come into play in September. Will those in the childcare sector be given adequate time and training to use this system? Will childcare providers be compensated for the non-contact hours they will have? It is no surprise that certain parts of the country do not have broadband connectivity. My constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is badly affected and has black spots in terms of such access. What provision will be in place for childcare providers to be able to deal with this ICT system? Is the Minister confident that the system will be up and running and that those in the sector will have time to be trained in the use of it?

As indicated, training will continue to be provided. We are also providing moneys to those childcare providers who sign up to the contract with the national childcare scheme, as I indicated, to receive the appropriate software and hardware and support in the use of it. Considerable training in taking place and I am confident that they will be ready. That is not to say that some might not be but, generally speaking, there is an intense effort and an awareness that this is what needs to happen. That addresses the Deputy's first set of questions.

As she will be aware, in recent years I put in place and then increased the amount of what we now call programme support payments, which used to be called non-contact time payments, for providers by way of recognition of the amount of time required to do the administration work. Ultimately, the time involved should reduce under the national childcare scheme we are implementing.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.