Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (2)

Bríd Smith


2. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to deal with the increased fees charged by private crèches and early childhood care providers in light of the fact that some providers (details supplied) increased fees by 20% recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28749/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

I want to pre-empt my question by acknowledging that childcare was one of the first industries to be severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic when services shut down on 12 March last year. Workers and parents were affected but there has also been an impact on the provision of care. My question is not getting at anyone; it is about the massive increase, by as much as 20%, in childcare fees for parents. In parts of Dublin 8, such as Islandbridge and Rialto, which are in the constituency I represent, one provider in the main, Safari Childcare, provides the care. It has increased fees by 20%, which is causing enormous problems for parents and depriving some children of the childcare needed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am concerned to hear about any individual provider proposing to increase charges to parents at a time when the Government continues to support early learning and childcare to a significant extent. In view of the amount of State support, increases of this nature are just not justified at this time.

One of my key priorities is to achieve affordability of early learning and childcare. The programme for Government commits to substantially reducing fees charged to parents while supporting quality service provision. The Government has been strongly supportive of the sector. Particularly since the onset of Covid-19, we have provided substantial additional supports to allow services to operate sustainably throughout the pandemic, acknowledging that there are higher delivery costs and that many additional practical and financial challenges need to be met by providers. In addition to their being able to participate in my Department's funding schemes, all services can currently participate in the employee wage subsidy scheme. On average, that is meeting 50% of the normal operating costs of services. That is at a cost of €35 million each month.

I recognise that early learning and childcare services are private businesses. They are free to set their own policies regarding the charging of fees and contract conditions. I am aware that the provider mentioned by the Deputy has notified parents of the substantial increase in fees. Given the substantial additional supports allocated by the sector that the provider has availed of and the assurance that there is not going to be any sudden cliff edge in terms of the withdrawal of supports, I do not believe there is any case for an increase of this level at this time.

Looking to the future, my Department will be developing a new funding model for early learning and childcare that provides additional resources for services, subject to quality but also affordability. The expert group has been progressing this work since late 2019. As I mentioned to Deputy Funchion, I expect its report to be finalised in November.

I accept all that. The problem is that despite the fact that it should not be happening, it is happening. That presents an immediate problem for parents. They have been saying to me that Covid has made it obvious that childcare needs to be a priority and that while inflation sits at 1.6%, childcare costs are being increased by 20% by the provider in question. Ireland has the second lowest rate of expenditure on early childhood care and education in the OECD. Faced with having to choose between a career and caring for children due to lack of options, many parents have no alternatives or family supports. A very worthwhile point the parents make is that having a system with a pricing structure without any regulatory restrictions lies at the heart of this. We have constantly said in this House that while we welcome the attempts of the Department to provide childcare with universal supports, it is really only a start. It does not address the key problem, which is the fragmented, privatised nature of the care of children and the lack of genuine State involvement in ensuring it is of high quality, accessible and affordable to all. I would like the Minister to address that.

Affordable and high-quality childcare is an absolute priority for me and my Department. We have gone to great lengths throughout the pandemic to keep services open across the country. In the lockdown in January, we kept services open for the most vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. We also made it clear that we will be increasing the level of investment in childcare up to 2028, under the First 5 programme. We have to know how we can target that money and we have to understand how it and the additional investment the State is making will secure affordability for parents. That is what the expert group on the funding model has been working on. It will be bringing forward its proposals in its final report in November of this year but, as I said to Deputy Funchion, we will be considering some of its initial proposals in respect of the budget allocation this year. Additional investment from the State will be predicated on guarantees from providers on a set of issues, including affordability and fees.

I want to repeat my question. Why is it that our system, which we accept, involves a patchwork of providers at this level of care and education? We should not accept a patchwork of providers, some public and some private - and without proper regulation - and a system whereby prices can be increased and workers can be paid and treated so badly in many cases. I accept they are not treated badly in all cases. There is a great benefit to a publicly funded and run system. The international evidence is jumping out at the Minister, as he will see if he cares to read any of the studies. I am sure he has. The evidence suggests there is a massive social benefit to having a properly funded, publicly run, regularised and controlled service at early childhood level. The patchwork nature of childcare provision is not acceptable or good enough.

In areas such as Clancy Quay and elsewhere in Dublin 8, parents are genuinely struggling to work and to have their children minded in a professional manner. The cost of childcare is becoming much greater than what it is possible to pay. People often compare the cost of childcare to the cost of a mortgage. It is true, particularly if there are a few children who need minding. We have to end this and reach OECD levels of care for children and a level of provision that is secure, dependable and does the best for the children and their parents.

I absolutely accept that parents are struggling with the cost of childcare, and that is why my commitment is to ensure the additional State investment in childcare is tied to conditions, including reductions in fees. The Deputy spoke about the lack of regulation. She is correct about fees but it is important to state the quality of childcare is significantly regulated by Tusla. The system is strongly regulated to monitor quality and how children are being treated.

Workers' payments are a key priority for my Department. The Deputy will know that we recently started a joint labour committee process, which will be important in providing the 30,000 people in the sector, almost all of whom are women, with a living wage.

I absolutely accept that there is patchwork provision but key to deciding how we will make advancements in the sector is the research my Department is undertaking. It will be published later this year and guide future investment and regulatory decisions that the Government will make.