Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Questions (48)

Pauline Tully


48. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps he is taking in relation to assessing the childcare needs of parents in County Cavan where service providers are indicating that they are no longer taking children under two years of age due to the financial strain in meeting the Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016; the consideration that is being given in this regard to forward planning of the provision of places or services or both at both local level in County Cavan and national level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36217/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

What steps is the Minister taking in regard to assessing the childcare needs of parents in County Cavan, where many service providers are indicating they are no longer taking children under two years of age? They are claiming that this is due to the financial strain of meeting early years services regulations under the Child Care Act 1991. What consideration is being given to forward planning for childcare places and service provision in County Cavan and at national level?

I thank the Deputy. Officials in my Department closely monitor developments in relation to early learning and childcare capacity, including the supply of and demand for places.

Before the onset of Covid-19, data gathered through the annual early years sector profile survey revealed that the sector was running at near capacity, with evidence of undersupply for certain cohorts, including children under the age of three, and in certain areas, including Cavan. This evidence informed the allocation of funding under the Department's annual capital programmes. We have been able to increase capacity by 27,433 places nationally since 2015, with 494 of these additional funded places in County Cavan.

Since the onset of Covid-19, there has been evidence of some depressed demand for early learning and childcare due to changes in parental working arrangements. The very substantial Covid supports we have put in place for the childcare sector have ensured that we have not seen a loss of services. We maintained the same number of services in 2020 that we had in 2019. Ensuring that supply is sufficient to meet demand, particularly once work patterns stabilise after the Covid pandemic, is a key priority for my Department. We are doing the fieldwork for the annual early years sector profile survey at the moment. This will allow us to update our data on capacity, which will inform capital investment plans and the prioritisation of future capital funding.

The cost of delivering early learning and childcare is higher for children aged under two years. This is because of the lower adult-child ratios. However, we also give higher subventions for younger children under the national childcare scheme, NCS. The maximum weekly subsidy rate for children under one is €229.50 and for children aged one and two years it is €195.75. These rates exceed the average full-time fee for children under one and aged one and two years in Cavan. The data the Department has gathered says that these fees are €166.33 and €165.36, respectively.

This year's early years sector profile survey will also include an income and cost module. Data from this module will form a key input into the setting of future funding rates and will also be considered by the expert group I spoke about earlier.

Constituents have been contacting me. One lady told me that when her maternity leave finished and she tried to find a place for her little baby, she could not because no crèches in her area would take a child under one. She ended up being forced to take 16 weeks of additional unpaid maternity leave even though this had not been her intention and was not what she wanted to do. She was worried about what she would do when she had to return to work because she was finding it extremely difficult. She had even tried to source a childminder to work in her own home but they were charging exorbitant rates.

Another mother recently told me that she had one child aged two in a crèche and when she attempted to enrol her ten-month-old child in the same crèche she was told it was not taking any babies under two. She tried six other crèches and they all refused. They were either not taking babies or were full and did not have a waiting list. She is a civil servant and was able to work from home while trying to mind a ten-month-old. Trying to work with a ten-month-old in the house is practically impossible. What is the timeframe for the review about which the Minister was talking?

The Deputy made a point about childminders. The Government is advancing plans to allow childminders to be paid through the national childcare scheme. The subvention that many parents get for centre-based childcare will also be available to childminders following registration. That was discussed at the Oireachtas joint committee earlier today. That is an important step forward. I absolutely take the point. There can be increases in demand both in geographical areas and in specific demographics. The Deputy pointed out that it is often harder for parents to access services for children aged under two. We are gathering data at the moment and hope to have it in the third quarter of this year. That data will then guide my Department's capital allocations to support new services in 2022.

That is welcome and the sooner it is done, the better. The situation is at a crucial point at the moment. There is a lack of availability and affordability. It is difficult to retain staff and fees for parents are increasing. All of these things need to be dealt with. This applies in Cavan but I know it also applies elsewhere. There is a severe lack of crèche places in Cavan. I am also hearing about a severe lack of community crèche places. Many in the workforce can afford to pay these fees, which are quite high, but those who are not in that position do not have a choice. They either have a community place and supports offered to them or they have to stay at home and mind their children. There are no such places. There are a number of resource centres working with the Cavan County Childcare Committee and Tusla to try to source premises for a community crèche. Any support that can be given in this regard would be more than welcome.

Many staff in childcare facilities are highly trained professionals and yet they are paid basically the minimum wage or certainly under the living wage. Can something be done that would result in increased pay for the workers and decreased fees for parents?

No provider should be increasing fees at this time because the State is providing a great deal of support, offering the employment wage subsidy scheme at the upper rate to all childcare providers across the country regardless of the turnover rule. That is a decision we made and I know the vast majority of childcare providers really welcomed that additional support and have acted fairly. No provider should be increasing fees at this stage. I see no reason for that.

With regard to the wages and salaries paid to childcare professionals, I absolutely agree with the Deputy. I was delighted when the Minister of State, Deputy English, signed the commencement order for the joint labour committee a number of weeks ago. I initiated a process earlier this year to create a joint labour committee for the childcare sector. This will lead to an employment regulation order setting a salary scale for childcare professionals. That is very valuable and I am very pleased to have been able to lead on that.