Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Questions (53)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

53. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to address the lack of crèche spaces and the unaffordability of the spaces nationwide and in south County Dublin in particular; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51543/19]

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Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Children)

I have raised with the Minister the plight of a crèche in my area where a significant number of parents faced a major hike in charges and some lost their places because of Tusla demands to change things in that crèche. Those parents are still asking to meet the Minister. I appreciate that she gave me a response recently but they are not happy with it. They are concerned not just about their plight but about the wider issue that has emerged that the highest childcare costs in this country, which are higher than in most of Europe, are in our area, and about the lack of places. They also do not accept Tusla’s contentions about the circumstances which led to 20 places effectively going in that facility.

This Government has delivered an unprecedented package of measures to improve access to high quality and affordable childcare. Investment in the sector has increased by 138% over the past five budgets. This investment has helped to bring about a doubling of capacity and a doubling of the number of children receiving State subsidies. However, I recognise that there are continuing capacity issues in parts of the country. Pobal data has shown a vacancy rate of 4% across all services, but these vacancies are not necessarily in the localities where parents are seeking childcare places.

Staff of 30 childcare committees across the country can provide practical assistance to any parents who have difficulty finding a service. Their contact details can be found at myccc.gov.ie. I am committed to further increasing the capacity of sector and I will be launching a capital grant programme for 2020 shortly. I will be inviting providers to apply for grants to expand capacity where demand exists. I also ensured that the national development plan committed €250 million for the expansion of high quality childcare. This funding will come on stream in 2023 and will provide a significant opportunity to develop further capacity.

Many parents opt for home-based or childminding provision. To this end, I have recently consulted on a draft action plan for childminders which, when finalised and implemented, will see increased capacity in that part of the sector also.

With regard to affordability, I am aware that this is a concern for many parents, particularly in the Deputy's constituency, which has the highest childcare costs in the State, as the Deputy has identified. I am very pleased that the national childcare scheme has now been commenced. It provides significant financial support to parents for childcare expenses. It provides subsidies on a sliding scale, so those who need most help will receive the highest subsidies.

In addition, I have recently established an expert group to examine the current model of funding for childcare, its effectiveness in delivering quality, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services. One of my key objectives since becoming Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been to address the affordability and availability but I recognise that this is an ongoing agenda, with more to be done.

Two parents working on the average industrial wage will get €20 a week towards the cost of childcare. The increase in the cost for the crèche I mentioned, because of Tusla’s requirements for that crèche, is greater than that. The cost is now up to about €1,200 a month, which is mind-boggling. On that specific issue the parents would like to meet the Minister because that crèche was registered for 70 children in 2016. Now the parents have been told in the middle of the year that is too many. That is a specific problem.

They also want to discuss the wider issue of the cost which is not sustainable. The lack of places in our area is shocking. For example, as part of the planning permission for the huge residential development on the site of the old Dún Laoghaire golf club where there are thousands of new residences, there was to have been a major childcare facility. That never appeared. Crèches are full to capacity, too expensive and there are not enough places. We really need quite radical and urgent action to address that.

I agree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said. It is exactly the same in my constituency. Only yesterday I met some residents, some of whom are commuting to Dublin with their 18 month old babies. There are buggies on the trains from Meath into Dublin because the parents cannot find a crèche. Several housing estates have been built and last week the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection said that all the facilities were in place. There are 250 houses occupied, 900 to go and no crèche. It is in the plans but there is nowhere for these children to go because the capacity is not there. I have raised this in previous questions about Dunshaughlin and Ashbourne. Another constituent cannot take up a job in Ashbourne because there is no childcare. There is no childcare in the commuter belt and it is not right that children have to go on the trains to Dublin. Parents stress out about this. It is a major failing of Government and it is time that a grip was got on it.

I am not questioning the couple Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned who get only €20 more a week but that €20 a week is a universal subsidy for any child under three years. If they are on an industrial wage they are entitled to further additional supports. Have they applied for the national childcare scheme which determines how much of a subsidy they will receive? They should be entitled to more, particularly on an industrial wage.

The Deputy raised the issue particularly of afterschool places. Is that correct?

He talked about the need to reduce the numbers because they needed more space, etc. I said that was because of the regulations. We have to follow the regulations. I refer to the Deputies' questions about plans for new housing developments, whether there are childcare plans and the fact there are no childcare facilities. That is a difficulty.

Difficulties arise when new housing developments include childcare facilities in their plans but such facilities are not made available. I will seek to examine the specific areas identified by the Deputy to determine why those facilities are not in place. The capacity issue is challenging but I have identified the different initiatives we are undertaking to try to increase capacity, although it is not always the case that such an increase will happen. It is too much of a charge to say that we just do not have the capacity and that this is a problem for Government. We are doing different things to address the capacity issue. That said, I hear what the Deputy is saying in terms of promises being made in the context of childcare places in new housing developments that did not materialise. I do not disagree with his point in that regard.

I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of the issues. I will check if the people in question are availing fully of the subsidy-----

I cannot believe that they are only getting €20.

I will check that but, either way, the average cost in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown is off the Richter scale and I think the Minister would accept that point.

We need to address that but the national childcare scheme will barely scratch the surface-----

Indeed, there is nothing to stop the costs rising further as compliance requirements increase and the costs of same get passed on to parents, thus wiping out any benefit from the national childcare scheme. Costs are already unaffordable and there has been a failure to deliver new crèche places as part of major residential developments. The fact that those places were in the plans and were a condition of planning permission but were not provided is absolutely unacceptable.

I ask the Minister to consider meeting this group of parents. They are not looking for a fight with her. They want to explain the issues to her from their point of view. They want her to understand the question of affordability, the specifics of their case and the problems more generally being faced in the entire south Dublin area. They would appreciate the chance to engage with her. I am sure that Deputies from other areas would want to make the same case but south Dublin has the highest costs and the biggest capacity problem in the country.

We do not yet know or fully understand the impact of the funding model that has just been put in place under the national childcare scheme. There is a universal entitlement as well as a legal financial entitlement to a subsidy for childcare costs that is means-tested and based on the age of the child and how long the child will be in childcare. That is why I cannot believe that the people to whom the Deputy refers are only entitled to a subsidy of €20.

On the issue of fees, he is right to be exercised given the area he represents. I appreciate and understand that south Dublin has the highest childcare costs. However, under the scheme, it is not necessarily the case that costs or fees will increase. We will continue to monitor that. The expert group to which I referred is currently looking at ways in which we can link fee increases to improvements in quality. I have a list of vacant childcare places in Deputy Boyd Barrett's constituency. For children up to one year old, there are 13 vacant places; for children between one and two years of age, there are 14 places; while for children between two and three, there are 16 vacant places. This list, dated June 2019, shows that there are places available in his constituency. However, given the fact that he represents people from the area with the highest costs, I will meet the group of parents to whom he refers.

I thank the Minister for that.

I will try to meet them before Christmas.