Assisting families to access high quality, affordable early learning and care and school age childcare is a priority for me as Minister and hence I take all questions and concerns raised by services very seriously.
My Department funds a number of early learning and care and school age childcare programmes. Given the large amount of public money that is used in funding these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. My Department believes that our approach to compliance and supporting services strikes a necessary and appropriate balance. Our approach involves setting out the rules for the receipt of State funding, supporting providers to deliver services, and at the same time, the approach offers assurances to the taxpayer that the funding assigned is being spent as it was intended. Subsidies for the early learning and care and school age childcare programmes are paid based on attendance, a vital governance component of the funding for which my Department is responsible.
Part of Pobal’s role in overseeing compliance is to carry out unannounced visits to services to check their compliance with programme rules. Where Pobal discovers that the actual attendance does not match registrations on PIP (Pobal’s IT system), the service will be advised by Pobal to make the necessary corrections to ensure that the total amount of funding received for the programme year is correct. There is an appropriate amount of flexibility applied to this corrections process and Pobal works with services on a case by case basis. However, the recovery of overclaimed funds is an integral part of ensuring that public money is properly accounted for.
The service in question received an unannounced compliance visit from Pobal in October 2018. During this visit, discrepancies between attendance of children and registrations on PIP were identified. The service subsequently made the necessary corrections. This led to the funding to the service being adjusted to ensure that total payments for the year were correct. As funding is based on attendance, the Department cannot restore funding which was provided on the basis of registrations which did not match actual attendance.
The local Childcare Committee (CCC) and Pobal Case Management have been engaging with the service in question since March 2019 regarding their sustainability issues. During this time, an Operational Review was carried out in July and a projected cash flow for the 2019/2020 programme year in October was completed. In November 2019, Pobal submitted to the Department a formal Sustainability funding request to address the financial issues raised as a result of the Overclaim identified in the 2018 Compliance visit. The Department approved this request on 6th December 2019 and the Service will receive the funding upon signing of the Grant Agreement and all pre-contractual conditions being met.
Pobal and the local CCC will continue to monitor and engage with the service in order to address any other outstanding sustainability and compliance issues. If the service requires further details, I would encourage them to get in contact with their local CCC.
As part of Budget 2020, I have secured funding to pilot a meals programme in Early Learning and Care settings – delivering on a commitment in First 5.
The pilot will run in a sample of community, not-for-profit Early Learning and Care settings. It will focus on the ECCE Programme and will operate for the full duration of the 2020/2021 programme year (i.e. 38 weeks from September to June). A range of meals options will be piloted, including a hot meals option. Rates for meals will be based on the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection’s School Meals Programme.
My Department has begun work on establishing a Working Group to oversee the development and roll-out of the pilot. As mentioned, the pilot will run in a sample of community and not-for-profit ELC settings which have not yet been decided on. We will endeavour to be fair and impartial in the selection of setting but, in this regard, must be informed by the evaluator and working group in that the sample may need to include settings of various sizes and in various locations to be feasible. No decision has yet been made on how the settings will be selected.
Following the conclusion of the pilot and the subsequent evaluation of results, consideration will be given to extending this meals programme to a larger number of Early Learning and Care settings and on a more a permanent basis.
The school meals programme is not a matter for my Department.