Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Questions (59)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

59. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the difficulties for certain parents arising from the national childcare scheme, for example, parents on special community employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29959/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to the difficulties for certain parents arising from the national childcare scheme, for example, parents on special community employment schemes? Will she make a statement on the matter?

I am pleased to be able to assure the Deputy that arrangements are in place to ensure no one will lose out in the initial transition to the new national childcare scheme. Families can continue to access their current targeted supports, remaining on their existing payment if they so wish, until the end of August 2020. They include parents availing of the community employment childcare scheme. The national childcare scheme will greatly increase the number of families who can access financial support and see many families qualify for a higher level of support. The scheme removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements of the existing programmes, whereby a parent must be in receipt of certain social protection payments or a medical card to receive targeted supports. In this way, it aims to combat the poverty traps within the existing schemes and ensure taking a job is not a disincentive.

I have worked to poverty-proof the scheme by ensuring families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy rates. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, analysis finds that the scheme will significantly address affordability for lower income families, with one analysis showing that Ireland will change from being the most expensive country in the OECD for childcare for lone parents to the 11th position. The new scheme is designed to be flexible, with income thresholds, subsidy rates and maximum hours designed in order that they can be adjusted over time as more investment becomes available. The hours and thresholds published have been costed and funded, but they can be enhanced in future years. The existence of the saver mechanism for the first year gives us time to monitor the position and ascertain if further policy change is required. As such, the scheme provides the pathway to quality, affordable and accessible childcare. It is central to my commitment to changing the childcare system to ensure it is the best.

The projects and groups that brought this issue to my attention will be interested in the Minister's reply as there are some assurances in it. Nobody denies the need for affordable childcare services for parents, but the reality is that people on special community employment schemes availing of childcare or a community aftercare services are primarily lone parents, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, have mental health or addiction issues and require that support. While it might not be full-time, it appears that they are not getting the childcare support they had been getting. There are significant concerns that their progress and recovery to make themselves more eligible for employment will be affected because they are not able to attend in the way they did because their childcare hours have been reduced.

Deputy Catherine Martin raised the question in another way. I am aware of the concerns of both lone parents and their representatives. Deputy Catherine Martin suggested we might need to meet them to communicate what was going on and identify how the changes would impact on them. Ongoing communication is very important. When we move to the national childcare scheme, it will be based on household income. In the past, certainly on community employment schemes, people gained access to subsidies based on social welfare or other related entitlements. It is shifting towards that. I will try to describe how I think the changes to the community employment scheme should involve the provision of supports which are at least as good, if not better, as we move towards the future.

I acknowledge the tremendous support the projects give to women. I have seen the difference they are making in the number of women who are being supported to return to employment and in dealing with the various issues in their lives. The idea of a meeting is a very good one. If the Minister is organising one, I would love if it included some representatives of the groups I have mentioned. I know that there is concern about online applications because some of the skill set is missing for certain people for many reasons into which we will not go now. There is a need to provide that support. I am talking about people who are particularly vulnerable. They have children and want to do the best for them and themselves. It was disappointing when they saw this, as it was supposed to be beneficial and positive. They saw the unintended negative consequences.

We have an information and education campaign that we want to roll out for parents who are applying for support under the national childcare scheme. Part of it is through the city and county childcare committees, Intreo and Citizens Information offices. We will find ways to support people who face challenges in making online applications. On whether they will be worse off, I certainly know that under the community employment scheme, as well as on some education and training courses, parents, especially lone parents, received a capped co-payment. The concern is that they will have to pay more as they move into the national childcare scheme. I have a table in front of me which I will share with the Deputy, on which the maximum subsidy payment under the current scheme is listed as €145 for a child under the age of one year, plus a co-payment of €15, meaning that the provider gets €160. Under the national childcare scheme, the maximum subsidy payment for a child under the age of one year is €204, meaning that it is more rather than less. That is just one example. I have others. There are many circumstances. I understand there is uncertainty, which is why we have put the saver mechanism in place. I accept that there is a need for more communication and hope that it will ease the concerns and fears and that the policy intentions will be clear. If there are hard cases, we will work with them.