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Childcare Costs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 3 December 2020

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Questions (96, 98)

Dara Calleary

Question:

96. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to reduce childcare costs for parents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40755/20]

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Neale Richmond

Question:

98. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the measures he is considering to make childcare affordable for all parents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39966/20]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Children)

The whole area of childcare costs is a major issue for families and parents. The phrase one hears regularly is that it is a second mortgage. The Minister outlined very interesting proposals in the Irish Examiner some weeks ago in terms of his reviews of childcare, the status of working conditions within childcare and also the role of the State. He mentioned that if he were to start again we would have State-funded childcare. I want to know the Minister's timeline and plans for reducing childcare costs and enhancing the terms and conditions of pay and employment for childcare workers.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 98 together.

Among the range of commitments in the programme for Government, addressing affordability in early learning and childcare is a priority for me. I am confident that work under way through First 5, including the national childcare scheme, NCS, and new funding model, will deliver on that.

Annual investment in early learning and childcare has increased by 141% since 2015. This funding has been directed towards improving accessibility, quality and affordability. It has, for example, funded a second year of the free preschool programme.

The two years of the ECCE programme are considered to save parents who use early learning and care services more than €5,700 on fees. The increased investment has also enabled the introduction of the national childcare scheme. The national childcare scheme represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support towards early learning and childcare costs.

Since it was launched in November 2019, and despite closures and reduced demand caused by Covid-19, 44,000 children have received subsidies under the NCS. Subsidies can be as high as €225 per child, per week.

The OECD's 2017 Faces of Joblessness report compared early learning and childcare costs for lone parents before and after the NCS. It found that the NCS will bring net costs down from being the highest across the OECD, to the 11th highest. This analysis did not take account of NCS enhancements in budgets 2019 and 2020.

Notwithstanding this progress, the cost of early learning and care and school age childcare remains unacceptably high for parents.

In addition to further investment, and First 5 has committed to a doubling of investment, a key project to address affordability is the development of a new funding model. An expert group is leading on this work, with a central objective being to consider a mechanism to control fees.

Extensive research has already been commissioned to inform the group's work. The research identifies international practice and learning that will be of value for the reform of the funding model in Ireland. Recommendations from this group are expected next autumn. Bearing in mind that the budget takes place in autumn, I contacted the group when I took over as Minister and suggested that we might support some of its initial key proposals earlier next year, towards the end of the summer, to shape what we were bringing forward for budget 2022, and it agreed to try to bring forward some of its final work. It has published very interesting work on models to control fees and how funding would be targeted, in particular in disadvantaged areas. That research is on the First 5 website and it is available to read should any Deputy choose to do so. There are about five detailed research papers and I would advise any Deputy for whom this is a particular issue to go to the First 5 website and read some of that research. I am happy to engage with all Deputies about this issue.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the progress of recent years by the Minister and the previous Minister, Katherine Zappone. However, that burden is still very significant for families and parents across the country. The Minister mentioned the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme but the difficulty with that scheme is that it does not operate outside term time and does not work for many parents.

We also have to address the issue of the workforce, not in terms of the workforce development plan but a workforce that is properly paid for the kind of qualifications they are now bringing to the services. They are minding, caring and nurturing our most precious resource, which is our children. We have to acknowledge that in terms of working with providers but also with State agencies to pay them appropriately without having to pass on that burden to parents who are already paying over the odds, in terms of the OECD figure the Minister mentioned, for childcare costs. When will parents will be able to see some specific actions or a reduction in their fees? When does he anticipate that his budgetary decisions will be reflected in fees?

I do not want to repeat anything Deputy Calleary said. Needless to say I agree with all of it but it is important that I declare an interest, not only as the father of two young children, including one currently in an ECCE scheme, but also as someone who is married to a Montessori teacher. It is not an underestimation to say that during the general election last February, which seems like ancient history now, this was the No. 1 issue in my constituency.

I imagine the demographics in the Minister's constituency are not too different. It was significant for the Minister too. Addressing the combination of cost and the lack of services and, crucially, as Deputy Calleary said, making sure that providers and staff working in these facilities are respected are important. Most people working as Montessori teachers and in childcare have level 8 and level 9 qualifications and deserve to be paid accordingly and, crucially, to have that security. It is unfair that they can work for nine months of the year and have to go on jobseeker's payments for two months of the year.

We are currently providing a €638 million investment in childcare. With that money, we have three core aims, which are affordability for parents; quality for the children in these services, which means ensuring that childcare professionals are well paid so that they continue to enhance and grow the care they are providing; and keeping services sustainable. When we see the amount of money we are providing and we see the dissatisfaction from parents, which the Deputies both spoke about, and when we hear the concerns about providers and the concerns of childcare professionals, we are not delivering on those objectives. That is why I am doing this research. Sometimes people roll their eyes at another piece of research. We have acted in an ad hoc manner on childcare up until this point and we need some firm research on which to base the decisions we make in the next and subsequent budgets about where the extra money goes and how we can deliver on those three objectives.

I thank Deputy Calleary for giving way. The Minister talks about the three key areas and I agree with everything he says. We need to look at the geographic constraints, with the costs in certain parts of the country, the requirements such as where a child cannot be put in for a half day, it has to be a full day, or quite simply the place is not there. The waiting lists for childcare in my constituency are through the roof. It is extremely worrying. It is not just putting a burden on the families and the parents, but on the grandparents, employers and the providers themselves. The extra work that childcare professionals have put in during these stressful months needs to be recognised. When the Montessoris and crèches were closed, they did more than just FaceTime the kids. They did drive-through Hallowe'en events and other wonderful things. We need not just to recognise that but to have a direct resolution and we need it soon.

One of the disadvantages of the system, which is a privately driven system, is that where there is a gap in provision in a geographic area, unlike in a primary or secondary school where the State steps in and sources a site, the State does not have the capacity to do that right now. It is about putting in place a funding model that supports new services and some of the organisational infrastructure that can co-ordinate that. We have city and county childcare committees at the moment. They do great work. The idea of identifying core demand in a particular geographic area and being able to act on it is not a capacity that we have right now. We are looking at how we target money to the right geographic areas to make sure that we are delivering the necessary services. We need to do that work. Our building up of childcare through extensive investment has been quite ad hoc, and it is important to plan, particularly if, over the next seven to eight years, we are going to be putting an additional €450 million into the area as was committed to under First 5.

Question No. 97 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 98 answered with Question No. 96.
Questions Nos. 99 to 137, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.
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