Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (10)

Neale Richmond


10. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the efforts his Department has undertaken to increase the number of childcare places in Dublin city and county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26126/21]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

The question relates to the efforts the Department is undertaking to increase the number of childcare places in Dublin city and county, recognising not only that affordability is a challenge but also that availability is a significant challenge, particularly in my area, which has an increasing number of very young children who need crèche places.

First 5, the national ten-year strategy for babies and young children and their families, commits to maintain and extend the supply of high-quality, publicly subsidised early learning and care and childcare to best serve the developmental needs of babies and young children, ensuring that it also reflects the needs and preferences of parents and families. In this context, my Department closely monitors developments regarding capacity for both early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC.

Before the onset of Covid-19, we used the early years sector profile survey to gather data. This survey revealed, unsurprisingly, that the sector was running at near capacity and that there was some evidence of undersupply in parts of Dublin city and county. This evidence has informed the allocation of funding under my Department's annual capital programmes in recent years. Since 2015, we have increased capacity across the entire sector by 27,400 places, and 4,600 extra places have been provided in Dublin city and county.

Since Covid, there has been some evidence of depressed demand for early learning and care and childcare, largely due to changes in parental working arrangements. We have put very substantial supports in place for providers. This has ensured there has been no loss of capacity over this period. As a consequence, the supply of early learning and care and childcare currently meets demand, although there may still be a few small pockets of undersupply. However, ensuring that supply is sufficient to meet demand, particularly once work patterns stabilise following the removal of the Covid restrictions, remains a key priority.

The annual early years sector profile survey is due to commence this month. This will allow for updated information on capacity. We also have an Ipsos MRBI survey looking at parental demand for September 2022. All these data will help my Department's investment fund. My Department has made a detailed submission for capital funding in the early years sector to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the review of Project Ireland 2040.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Fine Gael has done some research with parents recently. We surveyed 2,300 parents and childcare providers, most of whom were parents of very young children. The responses were really interesting because while 76% of them talked about the need for more affordability, when they talked about flexibility, including flexibility of hours, and a choice of different types of services, whether community-based or private, it really was choice that was important to them. As a subset of choice, location was absolutely crucial. The driving forces, therefore, were not only making childcare more affordable, which was really important to many people, but also, just as important, where to bring their children and the choice available in that regard. Does it have to be the three-day week, the five-day week or the drop-off? It was a matter of providing that total flexibility, which is even more important in a post-Covid environment in which people have more adapted working arrangements and may be able to collect children at a range of different and new times.

The Deputy's point on choice and location is important. Under the planning codes, when a housing estate of a particular scale is built, there is a requirement to put in childcare places. In my area in Dublin 15, I have been disappointed too often by developers trying to subsequently get the childcare facility rezoned and sell it on for housing units. That is disappointing because we all know there is demand. I take with a pinch of salt the argument put forward by some developers that no one would take up this particular service. We are aware that in suburban areas like our constituencies there is significant demand. There is one example which I will not name where our local authority rejected an attempt to rezone and get out of that childcare obligation. It is important that local authorities and our colleagues on councils play their role to ensure that is not happening.

I could not agree more with the Minister. The provision of accessible childcare within housing communities is incredibly important.

Another point from our survey is the perspective of the professional staff involved. Pay is a big issue but so is the recognition of professional qualifications and experience. The top ask of the State is more financial support but also greater recognition of professional qualifications.

While there is a dissatisfaction with pay, one other concern coming back from the childcare professionals in this study is a dissatisfaction with the support available for children with special needs and an opportunity to plan their work. I appreciate that is not directly related to the question. However, there is huge support for the scope of a child development agency to help develop the professionalism of the sector. I know that is the ongoing work of the Department.

The Deputy will be aware that we have set up the process to initiate a joint labour committee to get a wage order in the sector. That will be important. I wrote to the Deputy's party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, about that. That process has been initiated and we hope it will provide the pay the childcare professionals deserve.

We are also working on the workforce development plan to give professional recognition to those who work in childcare. This will ensure there are clear career pathways for them that they will be able to follow and progress.

In terms of the supports for young children with additional needs in childcare facilities, we have the access and inclusion model, AIM. I discussed this earlier with Deputy Shanahan. We are providing an extra €6 million in AIM supports for this budgetary year. AIM is a good scheme and everyone recognises its success. That is why we are continuing to invest in it.