Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (1)

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

1. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his attention has been drawn to the official complaint by an association (details supplied) to the United Nations and the Ombudsman for Children regarding the systemic discrimination against children and families by his Department in the context of its childcare policy under the national childcare scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28588/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

Is the Minister aware of the official complaint by the Association of Childhood Professionals to the United Nations and the Ombudsman for Children regarding the systemic discrimination against children and families by his Department in the context of its childcare policy under the national childcare scheme? Will he make a statement on the matter?

I am aware of the complaint and of the concerns raised. I am strongly committed to supporting all children to develop to their full potential, especially those who are most disadvantaged. There will always be some debate about how best to do this, but I do not believe that the national childcare scheme, NCS, discriminates in the way that is stated. The NCS represents the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for early learning and care. It marks a shift away from previous schemes, which were based on medical card and social protection entitlements. We now have a progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. Thanks to the NCS, significantly more families are eligible for support.

The scheme is designed so that those on lowest incomes receive the greatest support. It is also designed to ensure that access provided is at a level necessary to support positive child development outcomes regardless of whether parents are in work or study. This approach is taken in other jurisdictions, and there is strong international evidence that it is to the benefit of children. The definition of work or study is broad, covering all forms of work or study arrangements. This makes the scheme as flexible as possible. Indeed, the minimum hours required to engage in work or study to qualify for enhanced hours is very low, at just two hours per week.

Officials in my Department have engaged with Solas to increase awareness of supports available through NCS for parents considering further study. There is a link to the NCS website on the further education and training course hub. The NCS also includes sponsorship arrangements that allows for additional support for vulnerable families where there is an identifiable need for early learning and childcare. I have directed Tusla to take a broad interpretation of the sponsorship referral criteria.

On the complaint, I recently contracted Frontier Economics to undertake a review of the NCS and have asked that this review specifically considers the concerns raised. Separately, my officials have brought the complaint to the attention of the expert group convened by my Department to develop a new funding model for early learning and childcare. This group is reviewing the effectiveness of current approaches to funding and will submit recommendations later this year on how additional funding could be structured to deliver for children and families including the most vulnerable.

My issue with this, which I have raised previously, relates to after-school and children who are being shut out of that scheme. A whole cohort of children is falling through the cracks. I thought that there was a commitment given to review the scheme last year. A parent working outside the home or in education can avail of this but we should be looking at the needs of children. When we talk about childcare people automatically think about fees and parents but we need to think about what is best for children. There are children whose parents are not working outside the home who are at very high risk and very vulnerable. They may not be in the Tusla system or brought to its attention because things may not be that bad but they rely on childcare service for hot meals for a safe and secure place, to help them and maybe bring them on to a homework club or other supports. Those children are very limited under this scheme. I see the point the Minister is making around medical cards but these children are falling through the cracks. There will be difficulties about that in the future so we need to deal with this now.

The Deputy is right. We discussed this matter previously and I put in place a number of short-term measures to deal with some of the some of the issues around the NCS, particularly the issue of sponsorship, which will come up later today. When I began as Minister there were perhaps 30 children sponsored across the country, now it is 1,900 so there has been a very significant increase in identifying specific vulnerable children.

On the wider issue, the review has initiated. We had to let the NCS run for a full year. It was only introduced in 2019 and for this year, of all years, for it to have its initial roll-out, it has had all the additional issues. Before we make significant changes, we need the data and that is why this review is important. I did ask him to specifically look at this issue of disadvantage. The review will come back at the end of this year, that is the one-year review. There is also the expert funding model group which is also looking at this issue. It is not being ignored, it is being acknowledged and research has been done and how we address it.

I apologise if I missed it, but what does the Minister expect the timeframe for the review will be? I welcome the review and think it is vital. I really hope that it will be a genuine review and the issues will be taken on board. It is becoming a big difficulty particularly in areas of disadvantage where parents just need a little bit of extra support. They may not be working outside the home, they may not be involved in education but their children have been benefiting for years from after-schools in particular. That is such a vital time because if it is possible to help a child with their education and bring them on through homework that is crucial because it is around where the children start falling through the cracks. They stop doing the homework, they start slipping back, then everything starts going wrong for them all of a sudden and it becomes a question of confidence. Early years intervention should be at the heart of any scheme we do for children, whether childcare or education. We need much greater focus on the children and the benefits for them.

The Deputy's point about school-age childcare is well made. I recognise that there is a specific issue there in how the NCS has operated in the context of existing provision of school-age childcare.

There are two reviews. The first is the review of the first year of the implementation of the NCS. We expect that to be completed in the final quarter of this year and the information to come forward. The expert funding model group has been working for approximately two years. Its final report will be issued in November of this year but I hope to engage with it over the summer to get initial information from it, particularly in the context of the budget negotiations. Key research and data will be available at the end of this year and we will be responding appropriately.