Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Questions (30)

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

30. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a gap in funding is causing significant difficulties for providers and families in the delay between an application being made to NCS and then Pobal processing this application and as the NCS does not backdate payments, this means that either the parents or services are paying the full price until the application is fully processed. [31309/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

This question is to ask if the Minister's attention has been drawn to the fact that there is a gap in funding which is causing significant difficulties for providers and families and a delay between an application being made to the national childcare scheme and Pobal processing the application. As the national childcare scheme does not backdate payments this means that either the parents or services are paying the full price until the application is fully processed. It is a somewhat similar issue to that which Deputy Whitmore raised regarding administration issues.

The NCS was launched in November 2019. There are currently 33,700 children accessing NCS subsidies. In addition, there are children benefiting from the legacy schemes also.

The online application process was designed to be accessible and user-friendly, although I acknowledge that not everybody found it so. The flexibility of the NCS means that the scheme is designed to recognise that each family's childcare needs are different and, depending on the particular application type and family circumstances of an applicant, the processing time can vary between applications.

For income-based applications, the quickest way for a parent to have income assessed is to use the Fast Track option online. Fast Track assessment gathers information from the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for the most recent year for which full income information is available. A parent can choose not to use the Fast Track assessment if he or she wants - for example, if his or her income decreased significantly in the previous tax year or if he or she wants to opt out of automatic assessment. This will require the parent to upload documents to support the application. The NCS advises parents choosing this option that the assessment will take longer to process than Fast Track assessments.

Applications take longer to process where the scheme administrator is awaiting further documents to be submitted by the applicant. Subsidies can only be paid when an application is successfully completed, a childcare identifier code key, CHICK, has been registered with a childcare provider and the parent has confirmed on the system that all the details are correct. It is a key aspect of the scheme that all claims are paid in arrears based on the attendance of a child. This is a key financial and governance control to ensure we are maximising the benefits of public moneys and that the investment is following the child. Once the process is completed, parents and providers can access subsidies of up to €200 per child, per week, for many years. The process being adopted is, in general, fair to parents and providers.

Maybe it is an administrative issue but when an application is received and it can be seen that a child has started with a service, it is verifiable. Providers and staff working in the sector will state there is no shortage of paperwork and forms to be filled in. In terms of accountability, they are certainly up to standard. Therefore, is there not some way of backdating? I am being told by providers, and parents in certain instances, that during the time it takes to deal with applications, parents are paying either the full fees or, in certain cases, the childcare provider is trying to take the hit. This is definitely not sustainable. I am aware that there is a sustainability fund but I do not believe its purpose is to address what I describe. There is a crazy situation and it relates to potential issues concerning the scheme. While we want to see an increase in funding, I have many questions about the funding in general. This matter definitely needs to be considered.

I thank the Deputy. The ECCE scheme involves a flat rate per child. The really good point about the NCS is that the subsidy can be tailored to the particular child. The NCS gives greater subsidies to those children who are most in need because of their familial circumstances. Therefore, the amount that each provider is getting has to be linked to the particular child, and that is done through the CHICK. It is a more complicated system than the one used under the ECCE scheme but this is because the result and support provided to each child are far more tailored. Under the ECCE scheme, every child has got the same irrespective of the income of the parent. This is probably related to what Deputy Whitmore mentioned. We did have problems this year, and we do accept that. I hope that, in future years when we do not have a pandemic and people are more familiar with the system, many of these problems can be addressed.

I have a question on CHICKs but we are not going to get to it. There seems to be an issue arising regarding the registration of the numbers. There are obviously issues and everybody accepts that any new system will have teething problems. It is good that the Minister has acknowledged that there is accountability in this regard but the key point concerns the question of what providers and parents should do in the interim if parents cannot afford to pay the fees. We do not want providers leaving themselves short because they are paying the fees. That is the crux of my question. What advice would the Minister give people in these circumstances? Who can they contact? They need to be able to contact somebody who will deal with the question of who will pay in the interim. What is happening is not fair to parents, nor is it fair to providers, who are hard pressed. The sustainability fund should not be used to address this. Who will take up responsibility while there are teething problems?

My Department has been providing a substantial amount of money to all childcare providers across the country this year though the employment wage subsidy scheme and predecessor schemes to reduce greatly the burden of paying staff. I hope that same system will not be needed next year, assuming we move away from the current Covid circumstances. Where there are problems, both Pobal and the city and county childcare committees, CCCs, are available to support parents to the extent that they can. It is a consequence of creating a very responsive and child and family-centred payment like the one under the NCS that there has to be a link to ensure the correct payment is going to the correct service based on the needs of child.