I thank the Deputy. My Department provides public subsidies through both private and community services to facilitate access to early learning and care and school age childcare services throughout the country.
The 117% increase in investment in early learning and care and school age childcare since 2015 has doubled the number of children accessing the subsidies.
The 2017-8 annual early years sector profile survey reported a 2.2% or €3.76 increase to the average cost of early learning and care. This is half of the increase from the previous year and there is evidence to suggest that costs are stabilising.
The survey also provided some evidence of small increases in wages for early learning and care staff, although wages remain unacceptably low, whether staff are employed by private or community services.
I have always been unequivocal in my support for better working conditions for early learning and care staff, while acknowledging the limitations of what my Department can do given that it is not the employer.
I have called on the sector to bring forward a sectoral employment order and I have introduced initiatives to improve working conditions. These include, for example, a 7% increase in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme capitation from September and €55 million to support services with their administrative role over a three-year period.
The model of service provision is divided between three quarters private, for profit, and one quarter community, not-for-profit, providers. The most appropriate means of funding these services, and the overall model that should operate into the future, is obviously a matter for debate and further examination.
With that in mind, I launched First 5, A Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families. It articulates an action to develop and introduce a new funding model for early learning and care to support improved quality of provision, while also improving affordability for parents. It will mechanisms to fund quality, especially supporting employers to offer favourable working conditions to staff. It will examine potential ways for promoting a link between fees, supports and wages, subject to any legal and practical considerations.