Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation

Anne Rabbitte


48. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the implementation of the affordable childcare scheme. [30422/19]

I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the implementation of the affordable childcare scheme. It is fitting to ask the question as this is our final opportunity for questions before the introduction of the scheme and providers and parents would welcome an update on it.

I thank the Deputy. The national childcare scheme is fundamental to delivering quality, accessible, affordable childcare to families throughout Ireland.

I am pleased that we are making good progress on the development of the scheme. Many of the major elements are now in place in preparation for the scheme’s opening in October 2019.

Following the enactment of the Childcare Support Bill 2017 last year, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are being finalised for my approval and signature.

I have formally appointed Pobal as scheme administrator under section 3 of the Act. This has enabled Pobal to open a parent phone line. The phone line is now available to assist parents or guardians with any queries on the new national childcare scheme. Providers have been invited to sign up for the scheme and I am delighted that, to date, almost 2,300 have done so.

A national communications campaign is under way. As part of this, my Department launched a dedicated website, which has received more than 175,000 hits, and we have distributed more than 60,000 parent information booklets nationwide. It also delivered a nationwide training programme to more than 3,500 early years professionals.

In September and October, my Department will undertake further training for providers and will run a large multimedia information campaign to ensure that parents are aware of their entitlements.

The development of the scheme is highly complex and has thrown up challenges. That was expected with a scheme of this size, which will benefit many families throughout Ireland.

We are designing a highly innovative supporting IT system for the scheme so that we have the option of a user-friendly, paperless, automated assessment process for parents. While the main IT system to deal with online applications is largely built, work is continuing on the supporting structures to deal with postal applications. With this in mind, the experts overseeing development of the scheme have recommended a phased launch approach but in accordance with the expert advice, we are working towards delivery on time in October. The paper-based system will be available in January for those who do not wish to apply online.

I thank the Minister for her openness in responding to my question. Some 2,300 of providers, or approximately 50%, have signed up to the scheme so far. What is the cut-off date for signing up? The Minister said the main ICT system is largely built. Is the Department on budget for the roll-out of the ICT system? Since we last spoke on this issue, have more providers signed up? Has the scope of the IT system been expanded on a trial basis to include more childcare providers throughout the country?

The broadband network in Leitrim is not great. What will the Minister do for childcare providers or parents in areas that do not have a good broadband network? The Minister said the paper-based system will be available in January. What will be the position in October for those parents? How will the Minister transition them and give them reassurances that everybody will be catered for?

On the numbers of providers signing up, I will have to get those for the Deputy. We are trying to emphasise that 2,300 is a significant number-----

-----in a relatively short period. I will share the cut-off date with the Deputy. I apologise; I just do not know that directly.

On the ICT issues, the project management team and all the other people who are engaged in this, especially Pobal and the contracted provider who has been developing this with us and providing oversight, have worked exceedingly hard. The online system will be delivered on time for applications.

Regarding the Deputy's questions on an appropriate broadband speed, I understand it does not have to be very fast. We are designing it in a way that will allow people to apply on the phone.

The final issue I want to focus on is the sensitivity of the data. Is the Minister happy with the transfer of people's personal private data? I refer to the Data Protection Commissioner ensuring that the website is sufficiently secure for the uploading of the sensitive material that will be required. Will it be protected? A cohort of parents are conscious of the need for their data to be protected.

I was in Moylough last week where I met a number of community providers who have concerns regarding the support for small community childcare providers such as themselves. I was talking to a gentleman from Wexford yesterday about the Bunclody Traveller movement and, separately, Coolcots, Wexford town. As part of the affordable childcare scheme, is the Minister hearing about the fears of some community childcare providers that the funding will not meet their demands?

The Deputy has asked two questions, the first of which is on the transfer of data in the application process.

I assure the Deputy as well as parents that over the past couple of years in preparing for this, we have gone back and forth in respect of all of those obligations and in terms of data protection, especially in respect of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, as well as in our work with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection. This has been complicated work and part of that is to ensure that we are doing it appropriately in respect of privacy provisions and at the same time ensuring the willingness and engagement of both systems to talk to each other in order that we can provide this kind of benefit. I assure the Deputy that all of those regulations have been adhered to in respect of the small community providers. I understand there are concerns because something new is being introduced. At the same time, we have fantastic supports through the community, county and city childcare committees and I hope they will be their first port of call in looking for that kind of support. If there are other questions, we are always available to answer.

School Completion Programme

Denise Mitchell


49. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to expand the school completion programme, SCP; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29679/19]

My question is to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has any plans to expand the SCP and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I am conscious that the school completion programme continues to deliver a valuable service for some of our most vulnerable young people. Currently, the SCP receives annual funding of €24.7 million. My Department works with the Educational Welfare Services, EWS, to ensure that necessary resources are available to support this programme and to ensure staffing levels are sufficient to deliver a high quality service for those young people most at risk of early school leaving.

However, a number of long-term complex issues continue to exist in regard to both the governance and the staffing of the programme. In recognition of the need for a strong policy platform for EWS, including the SCP, I requested that my officials establish a task group to support the further development and integration of these services. The work of this group is near completion and I am eager to ensure that the output will result in a clear blueprint for the development of the three strands of the EWS, which include the SCP. A consultation event on the blueprint was held on 10 June - I was present for some of it myself - where those working with vulnerable young people as part of the EWS were able to express their views and help shape the policy blueprint prior to its publication.

As part of the implementation of the actions contained in the blueprint, I have requested that a new SCP scheme be scoped out and developed to ensure that its reach, resources and impact are maximised in supporting young people. I am also continuing to examine options in respect of the employment status of SCP co-ordinators and project workers. In budget 2019, I secured an additional €500,000 in funding for the EWS and the alternative education assessment and registration service. I will continue to lead on advancing supports both in policy and provision in this crucial area.

I cannot speak highly enough of the work being done under the school completion programme. Unfortunately, under previous Governments resources for this important programme were cut. Its move to Tusla seems to have led to many complaints from staff and teachers about how long it takes for the scheme and the activities to be approved. With everything else Tusla has on its plate, it is probably not the best body to be overseeing this. We also have a bit of a problem that it is mostly DEIS schools that can avail of the programme but now many students are travelling to Gaelscoileanna and non-religious schools. These students who would have been able to avail of the supports are no longer able to do so because they are no longer attending school in a DEIS area. Has the Minister given any consideration to placing this programme back under the remit of the Department of Education and Skills?

I agree with the Deputy about the incredible work of the SCP, the co-ordinators, project workers and all the other people they bring in to help them work in the context of usually difficult circumstances for children and families. I have visited a number of them in my own constituency and outside it. I cannot speak highly enough of them. I also understand the challenges and frustrations regarding the programme itself, knowing that we need reform and I am looking forward to that. Tusla has a dedicated unit with a national manager and others working on that who are strictly focused on this work as distinct from child protection and everything else. The decision was made a long time ago to transfer the programme from the Department of Education and Skills to Tusla. They have a history of doing that. One of the things the blueprint does is offer some guidance particularly in integrating the SCP with the other two streams, which has not been done previously. That is why it needs to be done.

The half-year Exchequer returns boasted of another year of record tax yields. I hope there will be more investment and supports, particularly for our young people in this programme. The Minister said there is an allocation of more than €24 million but ideally I would like it to be much more than that and I hope the Minister will champion this. We heard from co-ordinators who feel that the reduction in funding has resulted in more targeted intervention. They feel more targeted intervention is causing a stigma among young people and a broader approach might be helpful. We have also had issues with contracts of employment and pay for staff who work in the scheme. I understand this has been raised by their trade union. Can the Minister outline whether any progress has been made on that issue? The Minister said a new task force has been set up and there will be a new SCP scheme. When will the task force's recommendations be published?

On targeted work versus universal supports, and what is going on currently in the SCP, several co-ordinators were part of the consultation event and my Department is in ongoing engagement with them and one of them is represented on the task force. I hope there is enough of a vehicle or pathway for their engagement as we develop the blueprint for the SCP, listening to the concerns and the best way forward. The programme works in schools in tandem with the home school community liaison programme and the work of educational welfare officers. The programme has never had a well thought-out policy base, not to mention a legislative one, upon which it can do its work and and which outlines how that relates to other work that is going on in that context and that is why that is so important. We expect to have the blueprint published relatively soon and we will then move forward with the scoping of the programme itself.

Childcare Services Regulation

Anne Rabbitte


50. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her Department’s commitment to devise more appropriate Tusla registration standards for childminders; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30423/19]

Will the Minister provide an update on her Department's commitment to devising more appropriate Tusla registration standards for childminders?

I am strongly committed to supporting positive reform of the childminding sector to enable more parents to access affordable and high quality early learning and care and school age childcare. I intend to develop regulations for childminders that are proportionate and appropriate to the home setting in which childminders work. The current regulations both for early learning and care settings and for school age childcare settings are not tailored for childminders, and the extension of regulation to childminders will require a full review of these regulations.

My officials are at the final stages of developing a childminding action plan, which I hope to publish shortly in draft form, for the purpose of public consultation. The action plan will cover a period of approximately ten years, and aims to improve access to childminding as one means of delivering affordable, quality early learning and care and school age childcare. My intention is to work towards an expanded workforce with many more registered childminders available. This will support the growing demand for childcare. The action plan will enable parents who use childminders to benefit from subsidies under the national childcare scheme. The action plan will also aim to bring childminders into the mainstream of regulation, funding and support, and to recognise childminders for the valuable work they do for children and for parents.

In respect of registration standards, the action plan will support the quality assurance of childminders and the safeguarding of children by extending the scope of regulation and inspection to all paid, non-relative childminders. In doing so, my priority will be to ensure that regulation and inspection are proportionate and appropriate for childminders. Public consultation will form an essential part of this process, and I look forward to working closely with stakeholders and with childminders, in particular, in the review and reform of the regulations.

I appreciate the Minister's answer. According to the previous census 10% of children from birth to 12 years are cared for by paid childminders, and approximately 90,000 young children are cared for by childminders in Ireland. One of the most shocking figures I ever received via a parliamentary response was on the question of how many childminders are registered, which I asked three years ago. The figure I got back was there are 120 registered Tusla childminders in the entire country. Some counties had no registered childminders at all, which is quite hard to believe given that the census tells us quite differently with the 10% figure. In 2012, the post of childminding advisory officer, as part of the city and county childcare committees, was disbanded or no longer used. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House when it is planned to put that childminding advisory officer back onto all of the city and county childcare committees as a link between the childminders and the city and county childcare committees so that we can start doing the support.

My Department is working very closely with the city and county childcare committees to ensure the recruitment this summer of a team of regional childminding development officers. I understand that we have the national person in place. The immediate task of the regional development officers will be to work with all of the city and county childcare committees to maximise the number of childminders who can register within the current regulatory framework and to take part in the national childcare scheme, NCS, in the short term. As the Deputy has indicated, a huge number of childminders are used by parents for the purposes of ensuring that their children are well looked after with regard to their requirements. I am, however, committed to finding ways to bring in more of them but they need to come in to register. We have to find ways to regulate in an appropriate way that perhaps is different than the centre-based regulations.

Absolutely. It is about regulating in an appropriate way. I believe this is where the consultation around childminding comes in. Perhaps the Minister will give the date she plans for this. She speaks of the action plan and the ten-year aims. We need to hear whether childminders are part of that consultation. When do we plan to roll it out so there is a more informed basis for childminders to encourage them to come in? From talking to childminders, as the Minister has also, Garda vetting is also an issue because childminders provide a different service. Another issue is that parents may be able to access the subsidies, which would be very welcome, but not everybody works 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and there has to be the flexibility around the different shifts worked by different parents. Many parents would be delighted to think that their childminder could access funding for those subsidies of which parents can avail, and this could stop the parents having to use centre-based organisations. This is where the childminders and the parents would very much welcome that consultation date.

The Deputy's question centres much on the public consultation. As I said, we will publish the draft action plan relatively soon. I do not have an exact date. It is then that the public consultation process will take place. It will be a full public consultation over the coming months, which will be relatively soon. The responses to that will assist my Department in finalising the action plan to ensure the consultation is comprehensive and reaches as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, including childminders and parents. A range of methods will be used, including an open call for submissions, an online survey, focus groups, including focus groups of childminders, and an open policy debate. As a result of that we will put in place a set of regulations that will form the basis for childminders to sign up and register with Tusla. It is my intention and hope that this will support them to do that. We will also have a number of other short-term supports in place for childminders while that public consultation process is ongoing.

Recreational Facilities Provision

Mattie McGrath


51. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the funding applied for and allocated to the local authority in County Tipperary under the capital grant scheme for play and recreation in 2017, 2018 and to date in 2019; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30424/19]

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs what was the funding applied for and allocated to the local authority in County Tipperary under the capital grant scheme for play and recreation in 2017, 2018 and to date in 2019, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The capital grant funding scheme in my Department for play and recreation was introduced in 2013 to support the development or refurbishment of play and recreation facilities. A total of €250,000 was provided each year between 2013 and 2018 for new and innovative play and recreation spaces and facilities, with a maximum grant allocation of €20,000 per local authority. Each local authority was required to match funding of the amount requested from my Department.

In 2017, 21 local authorities received funding under the scheme. Tipperary local authority applied for €20,000 and was awarded €8,000 for the refurbishment and replacement of the safety surface at Templemore Park playground. In 2018, 26 local authorities received funding. Tipperary applied for €12,500 and was awarded €7,500. This funding was for the refurbishment of Fair Green playground, Carrick-on-Suir, and the refurbishment of Duneske playground, Cahir, County Tipperary. In 2019, I increased the amount of capital funding available under this scheme from €250,000 to €450,000. In consultation with the local authority play and recreation network, we agreed to allocate a maximum of €30,000 per local authority for the upgrade and refurbishment of existing play and recreation facilities. This includes the provision of new equipment, the development of natural play local authority play and recreation network areas, and the refurbishment of existing play facilities. The local authority is required to provide 25% of the funding requested from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for the application to be considered.

In 2019, Tipperary local authority applied for €28,350 and was awarded €21,262 for the refurbishment and rehabilitation of the multi-use games area in Three Drives, Carronreddy, Tipperary town. A total of 23 local authorities also received funding.

There is continual engagement between my Department and the local authority play and recreation network to ensure that the play and recreation scheme is highlighted at a local and national level.

I know the Minister accepts the fundamental importance of play and activity in a child’s development. It is also important for families to have a dedicated public play and recreation area that can be utilised when needed.

From the most recent information on this, in response to a parliamentary question, I note that from 2016 to 2018, only three playgrounds were developed or refurbished in County Tipperary. While the communities who had these playgrounds all benefited, I am sure the Minister will accept that it is a fairly insignificant number of refurbished playgrounds.

I salute all of the communities that put playgrounds in place. The Minister referred to one at Duneske in Cahir. I salute Ms Nellie Williams and the community development association in Cahir for having the brainchild there. The same goes for Carronreddy in Tipperary town. These areas have a lot of deprivation and a demographic profile conducted by the Tipperary Education and Training Board shows that south Tipperary continues to show an above-average proportion of young people, which is great. The ETB also found that the youth population in south Tipperary is likely to grow to approximately 19,000 by 2026. It is in this context that a greater expansion of public play amenities will be necessary. The community groups cannot do it all. It is fine to put in the infrastructure and the community groups were the enabling bodies that drew down the funding and put the facilities there, but we need to have the spaces maintained and upgraded. We cannot have them closed. I salute the community development association and others who at this time are trying to reopen their playground in Cahir.

I completely agree with the Deputy on the importance of this funding for play areas and that more are developed to offer the opportunity consistently for refurbishment and development. This is the purpose of the funding.

The Deputy referred to only three playgrounds with regard to Tipperary. In 2019, our investment went from €250,000 in 2018 to €450,000, which is a significant increase. It is important to note again that the current criterion is that we offer €30,000 per local authority. It is within this that decisions are made. It is also critical that rather than asking for 50% matching funding, it is now 25% matching funding from the local authorities. All of that is moving in the right direction in supporting local authorities, including in County Tipperary, for more investment in this kind of work.

Communities have not been found wanting and will not be, but the Minister's Department is.

I accept that most local authorities have applied and I acknowledge the work the Department does with local authorities through the local authority play and recreation network, LAPRN. In 2018 the Minister's Department began holding annual meetings with LAPRN members and established a subgroup. All of this is fine. Through this process the Minister and the Department have been able to identify particular issues with respect to insurance costs for local authorities. There is a huge issue in this regard right across the community spectrum. We have invested a great amount over the years, in good times and bad, through the enabling bodies of the communities. Ní neart go cur le chéile. It was they who put us on the road. They are the people with the vision and the passion. We need funding to keep such facilities maintained and to upgrade them. There is no point in investing for years only for a facility to be closed due to a lack of funds. People do not have the energy, the funds, or the capacity to repair these facilities. We must invest more in our community facilities. It is fine to allocate grants to get them up and running and to have a ribbon-cutting and a big hoo-ha and hurrah, but we must ensure there is sufficient funding to keep them active. We should carry out a small amount of maintenance every year to prevent big issues developing. We must support the communities that support themselves.

I certainly agree that it is important to maintain and service facilities. Some funding goes towards upgrading them. As the Deputy indicates, there has been ongoing and really good engagement between the local authority play and recreation network, my Department, and other local authorities. We need to take account of his suggestion that some of the investment go towards ongoing servicing, as well as upgrading in the future. I hear that. It needs to be part of the consultation and conversation, which will ultimately impact the way in which decisions are made and in which the criteria for funding for 2020 are developed. I thank the Deputy for his points.

Childcare Services

Catherine Martin


52. Deputy Catherine Martin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her Department will carry out an assessment of the impact of the forthcoming national childcare scheme on lone-parent families. [30421/19]

In light of the forthcoming introduction of the national childcare scheme, will the Department of Children and Youth Affairs carry out an assessment of the impact of this scheme on lone-parent families? Will the Minister show how the scheme will impact on subsidies for childcare and the hours of childcare available to lone parents?

The OECD's 2017 Faces of Joblessness report compared the childcare supports for lone parents previously available in Ireland with the expected impact of the national childcare scheme. It found significant improvement for lone parents. It found that, for certain lower-paid lone parents working full-time, the scheme will bring net childcare costs down from being the highest across the OECD to the 11th highest. Analysis of the impact of the new scheme conducted using the ESRI's simulating welfare and income tax changes, SWITCH, model indicated that, on average, the boost to disposable income provided by the scheme will be larger for one-parent families than for couples, reflecting the typically lower income profile of one-parent families. Employed lone parents are the family type that will experience the greatest gains, with an effective average disposable income increase of €48 per week. These findings reflect the very considerable work undertaken to poverty-proof the national childcare scheme by ensuring that families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy rates.

Many parents will see an increase to the level of subsidy they currently receive and many new families will benefit for the first time. The scheme removes many of the current restrictive eligibility requirements to receive supports, such as those linked to social protection payments or the medical card. In this way, the scheme aims to combat poverty traps and to support parents and ensure they are not disincentivised from taking up a job.  Arrangements are in place to ensure that no one loses out in the initial transition to the new scheme. Families can continue to access their current targeted supports and can remain on their current payment until the end of August 2020. In addition, I have asked my officials to undertake further analysis to identify if any refinements are required to the scheme in order to ensure that we fully achieve our aim to deliver quality, accessible, affordable childcare for families in Ireland. 

I thank the Minister for her reply but I do not feel it will ease fully the worries of the more than 215,000 single-parent families in this State who are not seeing the benefits of this scheme and who are fearful. There are parents, predominantly women, who feel they are at risk of being forced to forgo work or education because of the potential impacts of the national childcare scheme on existing support schemes for single parents. According to Single Parents Acting For Rights of Kids, SPARK, lone-parent families could face losses of up to €350 per month through the loss of these schemes. The schemes are invaluable in helping lone parents to work or upskill and in helping them to fall into welfare dependency.

With the greatest respect, the Department allowing people to stay on their existing schemes until August 2020 if they are not better off is equivalent to admitting that some people may be much worse off as a result of the introduction of the national childcare scheme. That measure is actually elevating fears rather than easing them. I fear that, while the scheme will potentially benefit 95% of parents, it will have a negative impact and possibly awful repercussions on the other 5% and will push them deeper into poverty. Will the Minister outline how the level of subsidies under the scheme will not have a negative impact on such families?

The first point I will make is that we have outside evidence and analysis that suggests a significant number of lone-parent families will be better off after the introduction of the national childcare scheme. Let us get that word out there. That is really important. Outside evidence being given to my Department supports the analysis it has done of the impact of the national childcare scheme. That is the first really important point I want people to hear. That does not take away from the other points the Deputy makes.

The Deputy made a point about the saver, as we call it, which we have developed. If people are concerned that they might lose out or that their provision will be less, we are offering them the opportunity to stay on their current scheme until August 2020. This measure is designed to increase certainty and reduce fear. It is not necessarily an admission that there will be major problems with the scheme. It will give us time to see whether any anomalies arise during the implementation of the scheme. When lone parents apply and see how the scheme will benefit them, this measure will give them time to take a look at it. This is meant to support parents and increase certainty, rather than as an admission that there will be a major problem for lone-parent families, although I am not saying there will not be hard cases in respect of some families.

I agree with the Minister that we should get the word and the proof out to all stakeholders that the level of subsidies under the scheme will not negatively impact on lone-parents' current supports. There must be much clearer two-way communication with single-parent families and with advocacy groups. It must be clear to a mother who is hoping to return to her studies in October that she will still be able to do so under the national childcare scheme. People need to be able to plan their lives and the lives of their families with certainty. I ask the Minister to consider holding a briefing with the persons affected, women's organisations, and Oireachtas Members because we all need clarity on this issue. Families need to know because they need to plan for their future. I have heard that parents are being told subsidies will be based on their own personal circumstances, but it is not clear to them how much they are set to lose once the scheme is up and running. That is where the clarity is really needed. Will the Minister commit to meeting with stakeholders and to giving them concrete answers to their questions?

I will answer that question. It is a very good suggestion. I have had discussion with my officials in recent weeks on the need to prepare for that and on the potential need for more ongoing communication with a wider group of lone parents because of the concerns raised by some of the advocacy groups. With regard to the Deputy's first input, we have heard the concerns of SPARK, other advocacy groups and those providing childcare to lone-parent families. Arising from those concerns, we have been looking at the areas of greatest concern, including some lone parents and community employment workers. That kind of analysis is ongoing with a view to ensuring that our policy intention for lone parents to have at least as much support as other parents, if not more, is realised. The Deputy's suggestion regarding communicating with the stakeholder group is really good. We will do that.