Thursday, 3 December 2020

Questions (84)

Kathleen Funchion


84. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the actions he has taken to address the systematic discrimination of stay-at-home parents through their exclusion from access to the national childcare scheme, NCS. [40790/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

My question is about the current discrimination of stay-at-home parents whereby they are excluded from the access to the after-school programme. We sent a correction to the Minister's office and I hope it was received. It is not about the total national childcare scheme, NCS, but specifically the after-school programme. The Minister will be aware I already raised this issue.

Initially, it is important to state that stay-at-home parents are not excluded from the national childcare scheme. More than 44,000 children have benefited from that scheme to date and included in that are many children of stay-at-home parents.

The NCS universal subsidy is up to €1,170 per year and is available to all families, including stay-at-home parents. An income-related subsidy is payable to children up to 15 years of age and the subsidy level is determined by the family's income and the child's age. The number of hours subsidised is determined by the parent's employment or education arrangements.

Stay -at-home parents who are not engaged in work for two hours per week or more or not enrolled in a national framework of qualifications, NFQ, level 1 or above course, can avail of 20 subsidised hours of childcare per week if they are not below the current maximum threshold of €60,000 net household income. The 20 hours are available all year round for children who have not started school and in non-term time for children of school age. This latter rule is based on evidence that were a parent is available to care for a child, the child's development needs are generally met through school participation. There are some exceptions to this which I will deal with momentarily. Where parents are working or studying, they can access 45 hours of childcare.

My Department and SOLAS are working to increase awareness of the NCS supports for parents considering further study and to highlight the availability of accessible courses which would grant eligibility for up to 45 hours of childcare. The NCS will advertise shortly through the further education and training course hub, My Department will also be re-engaging with Intreo offices and the education and training boards, ETBs, to promote awareness of the NCS.

We discussed before that where children and families have extra needs that general NCS subsidies or rules do not meet, special sponsorship arrangements are available. With sponsorship, families can avail of up to 45 hours of free childcare with no work or study rule, and sponsorship referrals can be made by a number of designated bodies. Already, 700 children are being sponsored.

I am conscious that I raised this issue in the last round of questions. I would not be raising it again if I did not feel it was not still an issue. It consistently comes up, not just in my constituency but throughout the country. From Donegal to Cork, people have issues specific to the after-school part of the programme.

I am aware that last time around, the Minister said it was a new enough scheme and he was willing to have a review of that. Perhaps, he could elaborate further on when he sees that review happening. Currently, children whose parents are not in either education or employment do not qualify for the after-school programme. In the past, they possibly would have qualified through the subvention payment scheme. This means an awful lot of kids benefited from after-school programmes, or possibly homework clubs that were a place they got a hot meal and proper dinner. We have often spoken about child poverty. Childcare earlier settings after-school settings are important in the eradication of child poverty. A bunch of children are falling through the cracks.

I take seriously the points raised by the Deputy on this issue. That is one of the reasons we are taking this new initiative to make parents aware of the wide range of courses they can take. If they take courses, many of which are level 1, for two hours per week, they get the full 45 hours of childcare, which will resolve that particular issue. That was probably not well known. That is why we are working with SOLAS and with Intreo offices around the country to make that information available and known to parents.

We are also aware of the sponsorship arrangements because 700 children is good, but it is only a start. I want to see more children using the sponsorship arrangements. We are, therefore, engaging with the county and city childcare committees to enable them to put that information out further.

We are also engaging with child and young people’s services committees, CYPSC, across the country so they can make parents aware of the sponsorship arrangements and link up and advise parents about how to tap into those sponsorship arrangements.

I welcome that part in terms of engagement and consultation. The reality for many people, however, is even though it might seem like a two-hour course is something a person could do and end up getting 45 hours, some people might not be in a place right now in their lives where they can access that, or have the capabilities to engage in it. I feel that kids are falling through the cracks as a result.

Does the scheme the Minister is talking about cover after-school programmes or is it just for a full day care place in a childcare setting? I have a concern, because it seems there are huge issues in the childcare and early care sector. We could discuss it at length and I would love that opportunity. There is, however, an issue right now in after-school programmes. We are seeing closures, we will see more closures and those places will be gone forever.

It is important, therefore, that something be done for the children of parents who are not at work or doing a course. Even if the course takes only two hours a week, they may not be in a position right now to take it. These children are at risk of falling through the cracks but may not quite come under Tusla's remit. It was brought to my attention that this issue applies to children whose first language is not English, such as those who come from Syria or other countries. I appreciate the work that is being done on the matter but there is a little more to be done.

I appreciate the Deputy's recognition of what we have been doing to increase knowledge about the sponsorship, both for parents and for some of the major organisations. We have to do more with Tusla to ensure that it understands, from the top of the organisation down. Tusla is a huge organisation. I will talk about the matter with the chief executive when I meet him and the chairperson for our quarterly review.

I take the Deputy's point about after-school clubs and homework clubs. While I do not have anything clear to say about it now, we are working to see whether anything can be done with regard to the appropriateness of the existing sponsoring bodies. We are looking into that further and if we have any news on that point, I will be sure to update the Deputy and the Oireachtas.