Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Questions (22)

Kathleen Funchion


22. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the situation in regard to disadvantaged children being locked out of after-school programmes under the national childcare scheme (details supplied); and the reason new children to after-school services are ineligible for the national childcare scheme due to the employment status of their parents. [31304/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

This question is on after-school services. What is the situation with regard to disadvantaged children who are locked out of after-school programmes that are under the national childcare scheme? Why are children who are new to after-school services ineligible for the national childcare scheme due to the employment status of their parents?

The national childcare scheme represents a significant step forward in combating the poverty traps that previous targeted childcare schemes created. It removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements, for example, dependency on social protection payments. I emphasise that those using school-aged childcare services are not ineligible for the national childcare scheme. In fact, 45 subsidised hours are available where parents are engaged in work, training or study and 20 subsidised hours are available for parents who are not engaged in work, training or study. In this way, the scheme has anti-poverty or disadvantage objectives built in by encouraging work or training. The definition of "work" is extremely broad and covers full-time, part-time, week on week off and zero-hour contracts, and the study rule is also generous and allows parents to access 45 hours of childcare when competing any qualification from level 1 of the national framework of qualifications, even for a small number of hours per week.

I was pleased to increase the number of subsidised hours from September, partly to address the concerns that some providers had raised. A sponsorship arrangement is available within the national childcare scheme that offers additional support for families with complex needs. Once a child meets the criteria for sponsorship by a given sponsor body the child can automatically avail of 45 hours per week.

We have undertaken a series of measures to raise awareness about the sponsorship programme. The Department has been working directly with the sponsor bodies to build their capacity and support the new relationships been built between the sponsor bodies and the providers. We have been working with the city and county childcare committees to assist them with their queries. We have also been working with the teen parent support programme to ensure teen parents are aware of their right to access childcare under the national childcare scheme.

Overall, the national childcare scheme is designed to be highly inclusive and meet the needs of the most economically vulnerable children and those living in other forms of disadvantage. I will always keep the scheme under review and I will continue to work with the officials to identify any refinement needed.

I often think there is a disconnect between what we hear in the Chamber and what people experience. The reason I have raised this point is that a number of people not only in my constituency but throughout the country have raised the difficulty they are having in accessing after-school services, particularly where parents are unemployed or stay at home. They could fall into a vulnerable category but they are not vulnerable enough to come to the attention of Tusla. This can be where the breakdown is. The Minister mentioned the sponsorship programme. Under the new system, the HSE can refer only children aged under four, which rules out after-school services. Many people who think they might have to go to Tusla first for assistance or additional help would run a mile because they are afraid of the system and that somehow they will be highlighted as bad parents, when this absolutely might not be the case. There is definitely a disconnect between what the Minister is saying and what people are experiencing.

I thank the Deputy. I have engaged quite extensively with her colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú, on this issue. This is a new scheme, it is in its first year and we are in the middle of a pandemic. The manner of informing the sponsor bodies of their obligations and letting parents know about what is available has not worked as it should have and I fully accept this. This is why we have been engaging with the sponsor bodies, in particular on what they can offer. With regard to Tusla, it can be a sponsor for any child up to the age of 17 and there is a range of criteria it can apply.

I take the Deputy's point on some element of concern about engaging with Tusla but any child known or connected with the child protection system from level 2 onwards, which does not involve a high level of issues but perhaps some difficulties in the family, can avail of the sponsorship arrangements.

Is the Minister open to a review or consultation or submissions, particularly in this regard? It is definitely coming up as an issue with more than one or two people. I know we have an issue with Covid, and some after-school services have closed for a variety of reasons, but there is definitely an issue with funding after-school services. I would appreciate if he would examine it.

I cannot let this opportunity pass, a week after the budget, without mentioning the disappointment of the early years sector. Those working in the sector, those trying to keep crèche doors open and parents felt totally forgotten about in the budget. The Minister will say he pointed to a review but many people have been cut out of the workforce due to the cost of childcare, and those working in the sector certainly are not benefiting from the high fees. Their wages are very low. There is a lot of anger and hurt among people who provide the services, people who are working in the sector and parents who feel forgotten about in the budget. I want to take this opportunity to raise this issue with him.

I thank the Deputy. I will be able to address some of these issues in later questions from her and other Deputies. I am always open to reviews and examining in particular new structures to ensure they operate as effectively as possible. This is why I have had extensive engagement with Deputy Ó Murchú and other Deputies on this point. A significant part of the issue is the newness of the scheme and the lack of information out there. The Deputy mentioned services that have closed. We have the sustainability fund and it should support those services if there is a sustainability issue caused by the pandemic.

With regard to the expert funding model review, which is ongoing at present, one of the issues it is looking at is how we direct streams of funding to areas of disadvantage and have a DEIS-type model for childcare. This is part of the considerations and it will be very important.