Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 4 Feb 2021

Vol. 1003 No. 8

Covid-19 (Childcare): Statements

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement and take questions relating to the early learning and childcare.

Before I begin, it is appropriate to recognise that tomorrow is the anniversary of the huge march that took place on 5 February 2020, when a coalition of groups across the early learning and childcare sector took to the streets, seeking better pay, conditions and supports for the sector. Around 30,000 people joined them on that march. I know that tomorrow, last year’s march will be remembered through online actions.

All our lives have changed so much in the scope and context of the last year. I am very conscious that, across the duration of the entire pandemic, the early learning and childcare sector has shown real leadership, with the return to services in June of last year and the fact that this January the sector remained open for vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. Early learning and childcare professionals and providers have kept services open at a time of real anxiety across all of society.

As Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and as a member of Government, I offer my thanks to everybody in the sector for all they have done and all that they continue to do.

The initial closures of early learning and childcare services from March to June last year created major challenges for children and their families and led to significant pressures on a range of essential services, including our health system. That is why ensuring these services can continue to operate during the current restrictions has been a priority for me and for Government. On the announcement of the closure of services on 12 March, my Department immediately moved to guarantee continued State funding for the sector for the initial closure period. The subsequent introduction of the temporary wage subsidy childcare scheme by my Department was crucial in ensuring the sustainability of the sector during the closure period by ensuring the workforce could be retained and that parents could retain places for their children, without charge.

The €75 million reopening funding package negotiated in June supported more than 1,500 providers that normally operate during the summer months to reopen their doors. In preparation for the full reopening of the sector from 1 September, I secured a sector-wide exemption, the only one of its kind, to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. With enhanced EWSS rates in place since October 2020, the scheme is estimated to cover, on average, 80% of payroll costs or 50% of full operating costs of these services, allowing them to operate sustainably even with much reduced occupancy levels. The estimated cost of this investment the State is putting into the early childcare sector is more than €7 million per week.

Owing to increased cases of Covid-19 in the community and to reduce levels of movement, the Government took the decision in early January to delay the resumption of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and restrict access to other early learning and childcare services to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. During January, my Department continued to provide funding under its schemes as long as early learning and childcare services remained open or had been directed or approved to close. The extension of these restrictions beyond 31 January demanded a different approach to funding that would ensure the significant public money which is being invested is structured in a fair and balanced way to help achieve a range of objectives. Those objectives include ensuring early learning and childcare remains open for parents who work in an essential service and for children who are vulnerable, enabling providers to reimburse parents if they do not take up services, supporting providers to retain their staff, and supporting providers' sustainability.

To provide Deputies with more detail, over the period from 1 February to 5 March this year, services that are open will continue to receive 70% of the value of ECCE programme funding and 100% of funding provided under all other Department schemes. They can also receive the additional 30% of the value of ECCE programme funding if they commit to certain conditions that include waiving fees for parents not using the service and retaining staff where possible. In the case of services that are closed, where the closure is approved by my Department, they will receive 70% of the value of ECCE programme funding and 100% of funding provided under other Department schemes. This funding will be conditional on a commitment to waive fees for parents and retain staff where possible. We have also put in place a newly designed Covid-19 operating support payment to give additional support to some providers that have a significant reliance on parental fee income, allowing them to waive fees during this period while remaining sustainable. During all of this period, the enhanced EWSS rates are available and remain central to my Department's response.

Our response is informed by evidence. In designing these funding arrangements, officials in my Department relied on the best available evidence to inform their work, including real-time data on reported occupancy levels among services. Our response is informed by stakeholders. Contributions from all parts of the sector, including extensive consultation with the Covid-19 expert advisory group, which I have met on seven occasions since 30 December, were instrumental. Our response is child and family centred. As well as addressing the needs of providers and their staff, we have sought to meet the needs of children and families at this time. The condition attached to funding to waive fees for parents not using the service offers certainty and will bring some relief to parents. The condition to engage with children remotely, where possible, means children can remain connected to their caregivers and retain some sense of normality. Our response is informed by public health guidance. In developing the necessary supports for the sector, my Department continued to work closely with the HSE regarding the latest public health advice. Just last week, at the request of the Department, the HSE hosted a webinar for the sector that was attended by more than 3,000 participants.

Our response is paying dividends. More than 1,800 early learning and childcare services are currently open and providing childcare to the children of essential workers and to vulnerable children. The city and county childcare committees are providing a matching service to help essential workers who need a childcare place to find one locally, particularly where their needs are new and temporary due to the closure of schools at this time. Those parents can avail of the national childcare scheme, NCS, subsidies. Undoubtedly, work remains to be done. My officials are now making preparations for arrangements from 5 March. As part of those preparations, they are engaging with the Department of Education. There is also continued engagement with the HSE, with further engagement with the Covid-19 expert advisory group planned.

I would like to update Deputies on the programme for Government commitment to support the establishment of a joint labour committee, JLC, for the sector and the drawing up of an employment regulation order. In December 2020, working in partnership with SIPTU and Childhood Services Ireland-IBEC, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address issues of pay and conditions in the sector and how a JLC might support this. I appointed Dr. Kevin Duffy, a former chairman of the Labour Court, to be the independent chair of the process. I am very grateful to him for the expertise he has shown in chairing and leading forward this important process. The series of meetings concluded earlier this week and Dr. Duffy will shortly submit to me a report outlining the issues and possible solutions raised in the process and making a recommendation on next steps.

I recognise that there are many further steps to be taken but I understand that there is broad agreement on the potential benefits of regulating wages in the sector and on the possible benefits of establishing a JLC as a way forward. I welcome the commitment that all parties have shown in engaging in the process so far. I am very hopeful that progress will continue over the months ahead. On the eve of a national day of action by the sector over pay and conditions, I hope this positive development and the wider work my Department has done on Covid-19, future funding and workforce development signals the Government's commitment and intention to play its part in resolving the crucial issue of pay.

I would like to conclude by acknowledging the ongoing efforts of everyone involved in early learning and childcare to maintain high-quality services for children and their families in the most difficult of circumstances. The Covid-19 crisis has created huge challenges for us all. I again pay tribute to this cohort of essential workers for all that they have achieved in the past year and for continuing to put children and their families at the heart of their work.

I would like to be associated with the Minister's remarks in paying tribute to childcare providers and their staff. While rapid Government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be required, long-term and long-lasting development and reform are ever more important. A development and reform agenda has been under way in the Department for some time and Deputies will be aware of the progress made. New regulations in 2016 introduced a minimum qualification requirement for the early learning and care workforce for the first time. A contractual requirement for a higher level of qualification is in place for the ECCE programme. The higher capitation payment under that programme has incentivised graduate employment, which is now at 25% of the workforce. When I first became a Deputy four years ago, that figure was at 4%. The learner fund has provided financial support to thousands of practitioners to upskill. New criteria and guidelines have been produced to support the development of education programmes in early learning and care at levels 5 to 8 of the national framework of qualifications.

There has been a 141% increase in State investment in the sector since 2015. In recent years the number of children benefiting from the ECCE programme and other State subsidies has doubled. Barriers to participation for children with disability have been removed with the introduction and roll-out of the award-winning access and inclusion model. Despite this progress, many challenges remain. The high turnover in the workforce is of particular concern as research suggests that children are affected by the continuity of their experience.

The average wage in the sector is just €12.55 per hour. Forty-four percent of the staff work part-time and 40% are on seasonal contracts, making employment in the sector an unattractive option for many. Despite unprecedented levels of investment, Ireland still trails behind international investment norms, and costs to parents still remain among the highest in Europe.

First 5, Ireland's first ever whole-of-government strategy to support babies, young children and their families, commits to significantly developing and reforming the early learning and childcare system. Three major targets have been set to be delivered over the lifetime of the strategy: there will be a graduate-led early learning and care workforce, with at least 50% of the staff working directly with children holding an appropriate degree qualification; all regulated school-age childcare staff and childminders will hold a minimum qualification; and the level of State investment in early learning and care and school-aged childcare will at least double from the 2019 baseline of €574 million. To ensure we meet these ambitious workforce targets, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and his Department are developing a workforce development plan that will raise the profile of carers in early learning care and the care of school-aged children; establish a career framework and leadership development opportunities; set out mechanisms by which representatives of employers and staff can work together to agree salary scales and employment conditions with the backing of the Labour Court; and work towards building a more gender-balanced and diverse workforce.

To ensure that the additional State investment pledged in First 5 delivers the best outcome for the children and their families, an expert group is developing a new funding model that will continue to reduce the out-of-pocket costs for parents; ensure a range of additional supports can be provided to children from disadvantaged groups; compensate providers so they can deliver early learning and childcare on a sustainable and high-quality basis; attract and retain a well-qualified workforce; and create more supportive working conditions where the workforce feels valued and where there is time for preparation, reflection, teamwork and parental engagement. Work on both projects - the workforce development plan and the funding model - commenced in 2019 and has continued throughout the pandemic. Already, significant progress has been made and extensive engagement has taken place. These coming months will be crucial for both projects in generating proposals and recommendations that the Minister can bring to the Government.

I have a short statement and about four questions. I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

I will start by making a special mention of our early years and childcare professionals, who often feel forgotten and overlooked. They often feel undervalued and ignored. They have been back at work for several weeks now. They have reopened their sector for essential workers and vulnerable children as the third wave of this horrible pandemic rages through the country. Ironically, tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of 30,000 childcare professionals, crèche owners, various practitioners and parents marching though Dublin to demand better terms and conditions. The service they have provided to essential workers and vulnerable children has been so important and a lifeline for so many families. They have really stepped up to the challenges posed by Covid-19, and many services have taken in older children, of school age, to try to help facilitate front-line workers.

Early years and childcare professionals were absolutely essential in alleviating the stress many parents felt during the last wave we went through. Their skills, their professionalism and the contribution they make to the education of young children are invaluable. I sincerely thank them for their commitment but they want more than just thanks and admiration; they want and deserve better pay and conditions and they want their work to be valued through action by the Government. They want their voices to be heard.

We continue to have a broken childcare system that has been underfunded. The unfortunate reality, which I hear daily, is that people feel the Government does not value early years and childcare professionals. I am aware and appreciate that there has been much focus on protecting people's lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of this terrible disease on our health, freedom, liberty, home-grown businesses, children and mental health, including our children’s mental health cannot be overstated. When we look at the list, we see it is endless. The disease has had an impact on every aspect of our lives. It has, however, presented us with a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely overhaul the current childcare system. The reality is there can be no recovery without a properly funded childcare sector that works for everybody, a strategy that does not simply patch up what we have but that thinks big and is brave.

I am conscious of time so I will move on to my questions. Ironically, my first one covers much of what I have said about wages and terms and conditions for early years educators and childcare professionals. Now that we have the wage subsidy scheme in place, can the Government commit to continuing it after the pandemic? Obviously, the payments would need to be increased and we would need to see a proper wage scale in place.

I have three more questions but I am conscious of the time.

I thank the Deputy for her questions and her recognition of the sector. As she knows, the employee wage subsidy scheme is an all-of-economy support. We were successful in having it applied to the entire childcare sector and in having an exemption from the turnover requirements. It has been essential in supporting the sustainability of services. It is due to end at the end of March, at which time the Government will be reviewing the additional supports that need to be put in place for the economy.

I am very conscious of the low wages in the sector. The Government has committed to prioritising addressing that. As I outlined today, we have made the first steps towards that in the pre-JLC process, which I am very pleased to see has taken place successfully. I am to get a report from Dr. Kevin Duffy in the coming days. I look forward to updating the House on the measures I will take to make progress on that.

I thank the Minister. I should have said I recognise that he mentioned the JLC process, with which I am familiar from previous work with SIPTU. I hope it will be beneficial but I believe the Government can actually make the intervention regarding wage scales without having a JLC process. I welcome it as a step in what is definitely the right direction, however.

My second question is on emergency funding for the sector. Will it be continued? Will there be increased investment in the sector once we are out of this pandemic?

We have put a very substantial amount of money into the sector to keep it sustainable, keep services open and match the considerable determination of providers and childcare professionals in this regard, both in the context of the continuation of the existing payment schemes and the additional money invested through the employment wage subsidy scheme We are examining what will happen in respect of the measures from 5 March onwards. Obviously, the longer-term funding of the sector is also a key issue. The Deputy is aware of the expert group on funding. It has produced a number of papers already. I hope to have substantial information from it halfway through this year to inform my advocation of additional funding in budget 2022.

I have one more question, on the vaccine. There has been some confusion over whether it is category 6 or category 11. Category 6 refers to "key workers", not childcare workers or early years professionals. I wonder whether the Minister could clarify whether they are in category 6. Are they still in category 11? If the Minister does not know, he may revert to me.

I acknowledge there is some confusion about that. I regret it if there was any confusion in the ether. Responsibility for the programme rests with the Department of Health and the HSE. Currently, early learning childcare staff and school-age childcare staff are in vaccination category 11.

I have advocated with the HSE and the Department of Health that that prioritisation continues to be re-examined. I know Deputy Cullinane got a response that indicated a higher priority. I have asked the HSE to contact him and I think it may have done so this morning with a correction on that point. It is important to say that I and my Department continue to engage with the Department of Health on the prioritisation of childcare professionals within the vaccination programme and as evidence changes we will continue to do so.

I raise an issue that my colleague, Deputy Ward, raised with me. It is in relation to the €700,000 the State has spent defending court cases taken in the last two years by parents of children whose assessment of need did not comply with the timeframe within the Disability Act. How can the Government defend spending that amount of taxpayers' money on court cases when it is supposed to ensure that assessments of need for children who have or are suspected to have a disability or learning need be carried out in a timely fashion? It is defending the indefensible, it has to stop and the €700,000 or whatever sum might be available to defend court cases should be spent on the children who need the assessment.

I know the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has invested a lot of additional money in getting assessments of need carried out in a more timely fashion and that is welcome. However, it has been pointed out to me time and again that an assessment of need is fine and well but if a therapist is not available to follow up with the treatment identified in the assessment, it is difficult. Parents tell me that children spend years waiting for assessment. Then, when the assessment is done and the needs identified, they spend more years waiting for treatment. I hope something can be done in relation to that sector.

On children in preschool, some of them missed out on three months last year and four weeks so far this year. Those two years are very important because they prepare them for primary school. Parents worry that it might take ages to settle a child back into preschool when they do get back and to prepare them for primary school. Are there any plans to assist in preparing the children for primary school to make up for the time they have missed in the two preschool years?

On the childcare sector generally, the problems relating to pay and conditions continue to exist. Many childcare workers have level 7 or 8 degrees, yet they barely earn the minimum wage or slightly over it. There is, as the Minister of State pointed out, a large turnover here and parents are paying extremely high fees so there needs to be a higher level of investment by the State in childcare on a par with our European counterparts.

I am also contacted regularly by workers within the childcare sector wondering if they will be prioritised for the vaccine. They are working with little people who do not understand social distancing. While children are not generally badly affected by Covid, they are carriers of it, so some workers are quite nervous and feel like they are forgotten about.

Maybe the Minister will correspond with the Deputy because we must move on to the Labour Party contributor, Deputy Sherlock.

My first question relates to the roll-out of the vaccine. There are queries coming into my office from parents of children who have very specific highly dependent needs and where carers are coming into the home or particular settings. They are asking me if any consideration is being given to vaccinating children within the "disability sector" - that might be an unfortunate use of that phrase but I mean where there is a high level of disability and dependency - so that we are vaccinating the child being cared for. Is there any discussion taking place around that cohort at Government level?

Both I, in my Department, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is still with the Department of Health, continue to advocate for all children in the context of the vaccine programme, but particularly for those who are most vulnerable. If there are particular constituents or others with conditions that the Deputy wishes to highlight, he might correspond with us and we will endeavour to engage with the HSE and the Department.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate his response and I certainly will do that. We have sight of the survey that took place in relation to the early years sector, which I am sure the Ministers have also had sight of. Some 2,000 professionals took part in the survey. It found that 22% of early years educators earn more than the living wage of €12.30 per hour and 90% of all professionals struggle to make ends meet with difficulty or great difficulty. There is an online strike this Friday. The Ministers will be aware of that. We acknowledge that and give it our support, from a Labour Party perspective.

I note the positive commentary in relation to the interaction with Dr. Duffy. I note the Minister's statement that he expects to receive a report within a matter of days. What will determine an outcome that will lead to a recommendation of an improvement in pay and conditions for workers? I doubt the report will, for instance, recommend the status quo remain. One could anticipate with some degree of common sense that there will be an advocacy of an improvement in pay and conditions. If there is such an outcome, how soon thereafter do the Government, the Ministers and the Department anticipate that they will act on those recommendations?

Like the Deputy, I recognise the online day of action taking place tomorrow marking last year's march and I also recognise the crucial issue of pay and resolving this in the sector. In every session of questions and answers, we have engaged on this matter and we are seeing progression, in that last time we were talking about a JLC preprocess. Now that is done and I am expecting the report.

The Department is not the employer of childcare professionals. They are employed by private service providers. We are putting in place the infrastructure to bring those representing the employers and those representing the trade union childcare professionals together and we are providing as supportive an environment as we can and wider supports throughout the economy to enable that process. A sustainability fund was introduced by my predecessor, also with a view to sustaining that process. I see the crucial importance of increasing wages across the sector and there will be no lack of speed on my part or that of my Department to take the recommendations we get from Dr. Duffy and work towards implementing them.

It will be about money flowing into the sector if the Government decides to improve the pay and conditions. The question arises as to the balance of the onus: is the onus on the employer or on the Government through funding via the schemes into improving pay and conditions? That is the question that will be asked.

I thank the Deputy. I am sure the Minister will correspond with him. Our next contributors are Deputies Lahart and Flaherty.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State and I compliment them on how nimbly they have responded over the period of their responsibility in relation to the pandemic. A number of questions I wanted to ask have been addressed, so I will not go back over them. There might be one or two questions but the bulk of my contribution will be by way of statement.

The area of childcare has been problematic in Ireland for many years in terms of funding. A previous Minister for Finance sought to deal with the exorbitant cost of childcare in the early 2000s, which approached - as it does now - the cost of a second mortgage, by putting more cash in the pockets of parents through a significant increases in children's allowances. That subdued the discussion for a long period while the economy was roaring. Once those measures were introduced, there was very little reference in subsequent election campaigns from parents to the cost of childcare because it had been covered by the significant increases in children's allowances, much of which has been reduced.

According to a well-worn phrase, it is only when the tide recedes that we see who is not wearing swimming trunks. We heard during a debate earlier today a number of references to a tsunami in respect of children's mental health. It is a word used to describe what we are going through in a range of sectors and Departments and the challenges that face Ministers, but it is only when the tsunami recedes that we will see how childcare has been exposed. We need to have a serious conversation about that and to learn from it. The State has stepped up to the mark - that cannot be understated - and I compliment the Ministers on acting so swiftly in the six or seven months they have been in office. Nevertheless, the figures being invested by the State, despite the State owning nothing in the sector, amount to another example of the State keeping education, health and childcare at arm's length. It has been forced, as a result of the pandemic, and rightly so, to honour the unwritten contract between citizens and the State that guarantees that childcare will be delivered. It is well past time.

Looking at the figures, the EWSS rates have been in place since October 2020. The EWSS is estimated to cover 80% of the payroll costs or 50% of the full operating costs of these services and to cost the State €7 million per week. That amounts in a full year to €364 million. Imagine the State childcare sector that could be provided for €350 million annually. I have advocated for this since 2013 and 2014, in my time as a councillor. There was a massive rapid school-building programme in this country. We ought to have taken advantage of that time to co-locate childcare facilities on primary school sites and make them one-stop shops.

As the Minister pointed out, the EWSS covers 80% of payroll and 50% of the full operating costs. In suburbia and the cities, one of the highest costs for childcare providers is the capital cost, whether in the form of the mortgage or the repayments. If the State stepped in, with a real partnership providing the infrastructure but employing a blended service of public and private sector workers to operate and manage that, suddenly an awful lot more money could be in place to support those front-line childcare workers.

One issue the receding tide has exposed is that the economy simply cannot function without childcare and we have to put a value on that. Perhaps it is something that, in the interim period, the Minister could begin work on and perhaps he could do something radical. The State has shown that in a time of crisis, it will produce whatever funding is needed to support this essential service, so why does the State not get directly involved in providing this service, whether in the workplace for civil and public servants or by co-locating on school sites and other infrastructural sites such as community centres? We could grasp this nettle and something really positive could emerge from it.

A review is under way into the access and inclusion model, AIM, but we are unlikely to see an outcome from it for another two years. In the interest of vulnerable special educational needs, SEN, children in particular, it has to be fast-tracked. I am aware of an early age manager from County Longford who has been in touch with the Minister and the Department. She is desperately seeking funding and support for two children with special needs who, unfortunately, are not yet of ECCE age. It is clear we need a strong suite of supports for SEN children in the early years sector, which means interim support for SEN children who to date do not qualify for additional supports, such as the two children identified in County Longford. In respect of the case brought to the Minister's attention, I know how hard the team at the facility work and the additional strides in training that staff and the owner have undergone to provide the necessary supports for these children.

If we are serious about promoting an inclusive service that caters for all children, the operators, parents and staff need to know that the supports will be there to help children who need additional assistance. Of the two young children brought to the Minister's attention by my constituent, one has Angelman syndrome but, unfortunately, as they are outside the ECCE age group, they have no AIM worker, yet the facility is required to provide full-time one-to-one care and supervision. The second child is due to join the facility in March. He too will be outside the ECCE age and, similarly, will need a dedicated primary carer to help ensure he reaches his optimal development.

We have seen over recent weeks how hard parents of SEN children have to fight for the most basic educational rights. I am heartened by the early efforts that both the Minister and the Minister of State have made, but the clearest signal we can send to parents and children, if we are serious about SEN education, is to address it from the bottom up. We need to set out a marker for ourselves and how we move forward with the early years education system.

I could sum up my contribution but I do not think I could accurately communicate the magnitude of the problem or of the issues facing many early education providers. If the House will indulge me, I will endeavour to give voice to the young crèche and preschool owner from County Longford who stated her case so eloquently and passionately in her email to the Minister. She wrote that these children come from working-class backgrounds and that she is appalled and ashamed that people like her need to beg and plead on behalf of the children and their families for the Government to listen to them and to put appropriate supports in place for the children and many others in the country who are in a similar position.

I am aware of that case. As the Deputy noted, the AIM funding does not apply to those children, although it is a very beneficial and useful scheme. There is a gap in the provision at the moment, but we recognise it and the Minister of State and I, at the higher level, will be conscious of addressing it. When the Minister of State's disability brief moves to my Department, we will have the ability to examine the issue in a more joined-up manner. On the specific case, I will ask the Minister of State to engage and see what can be done on the health side.

To respond to Deputy Lahart, I take on board everything he said and thank him for his comments directed at me and the Minister of State. We have to recognise the nimbleness of childcare professionals and providers. The expert funding model will give us significant guidance as to how we can best use the increased State investment to get the best outcomes.

I want to raise a very important issue from my constituency of Donegal, namely, the plight of the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation, which is based in Donegal town and serves south County Donegal, and iCARE, based on the Inishowen Peninsula. Both organisations have provided a tremendous service to children and young people with disabilities and their families for about 20 years. For 18 years, they did not have any fixed financial support from the State. There was a campaign in Donegal to change that, and two years ago they were allocated €36,000 per annum. That equates to one quarter of the real needs identified by the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation and about one third of the needs of iCARE. Their representatives met Ministers with responsibility for health and disabilities in the previous Government. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for meeting them last year and I understand she is trying to resolve the issue.

The issue is urgent. The Minister will be aware that during the pandemic, the usual supports from the statutory services have not been there. iCARE and the Bluestack Special Needs Foundation are assuming the burden. I think we will all agree it was harrowing to read the recent correspondence. I urge the Minister and the Minister of State to ensure that the services get the necessary funding. The HSE and other statutory services refer young people and children with disabilities and their families to these community services.

I thank the Deputy for bringing up this issue. He is correct in saying I met with iCARE and Bluestack Special Needs Foundation last November. As we know, at the moment, the HSE's operational plans are being put together. I have liaised directly with Dr. Cathal Morgan from the HSE on this in the last week.

These organisations do positive and fantastic work right across the whole county of Donegal and provide a service for more than 400 families. The Deputy is correct; the HSE refers to them. In conjunction with the HSE in County Donegal, we are trying to put in place a solution that will continue to recognise the good work done by iCARE and Bluestack Special Needs Foundation. That, hopefully, will work out positively.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate her response. As per meetings with previous Ministers, the difficulty has been that, unfortunately, the HSE in County Donegal is continuing to take up the financial flack. Therefore, it will be necessary for central government to release funding to assist with this.

We will move now to the Social Democrats. I call Deputy Whitmore.

I have two questions for the Minister. Perhaps he can answer the first one and then come back to me. I want first to acknowledge the huge work done by those in the early years sector. They have operated selflessly over the course of the pandemic and despite all the challenges have really stepped up. I thank them for that work.

I know that when the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, was set up initially, a real effort was made by the Minister and the Department to ensure it worked for the early years sector and provided that continuity between the providers and staff. Unfortunately, I do not think this worked.

I am not sure if the Minister has seen the latest figures I received from the Department of Finance. On 21 December 2020, 1,992 childcare workers were on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. That number has since risen to 4,175. Those latest figures were from 1 February so there has been a 110% increase in the number of childcare workers who are receiving the PUP. Therefore, a significant number of childcare providers are not availing of the EWSS scheme. The downside of that is those staff will lose part of their entitlements, such as holidays and PRSI. It also means, however, that there will be a disconnection and there will not be continuity between the provider and the staff. That continuity is important for the providers but also for the children who will want to see the same faces when they go back into crèche.

Is the Minister aware of that issue? Has he investigated it? Will he look at the EWSS and reform it to ensure he can fix whatever is not working with us and not working for providers and the staff themselves? We should not be left in a situation where we have many highly qualified staff who are now on the PUP and do not have that continuity back to their employer.

The maintenance of staff and of childcare professionals in employment is an absolute key priority for me. I was aware in January that creeping numbers of staff were claiming the PUP. Therefore, one of the conditions we have put in place with the enhanced funding measures, which will come in from 5 February, is the maintenance of staff on the payroll. That was certainly a key demand of SIPTU in our engagement with it on the childcare advisory council. That condition has been put into the new contract. To be able to avail of the remaining 30% of the early childhood care and education, ECCE, payments and the Covid-19 operating support payment, childcare providers must sign up to the new contract, which includes the maintenance of staff. That measure is in place.

The policy and law around the EWSS is a matter for the Department of Finance. I am doing what I can within my Department, however, and doing it quickly to make sure we can maintain staff in employment because of the disadvantages that occur if they end up losing their position, as the Deputy has outlined, even if it is for a short period of time.

I thank the Minister for that response. It would be good if there was some way of retrospectively dealing with it because there has obviously been a severing of relationships with some staff and their employers.

While I have the Minister here, I will mention a separate matter because it is of real urgency. I refer to the destruction of the 550 files, that is, the testimonials from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and the fact that the commission will be wrapped up on 28 February. We must investigate and see how those files were destroyed. We must ask why survivors did not give their consent for those files to be destroyed and ascertain how it was allowed to happen.

Will the Minister extend the remit and time period for the commission rather than it finishing up on 28 February? We need it to hand over the documentation it has in its possession on 28 February, as per the legislation brought in by the Minister in October. We need the commission to remain in operation for another year to enable survivors' questions to be asked and answered regarding the documentation.

I apologise if I do not have a more detailed response for the Deputy. I thought the focus today was on Covid-19 and childcare. With regard to that issue, however, I am conscious of the responsibilities of my Department as regards general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the transfer of the archive to us.

In the context of the deletion of these tapes, at the moment we are in the process - I must be clear that it is a process - of looking particularly at Article 16 of GDPR on the right to rectification, and gaining an understanding of what the consequences of that will be for my Department when the archive transfers to us on 28 February.

The next round is a Government slot with Deputies Murnane O'Connor, Richmond and Jim O'Callaghan. Perhaps the Deputies will speak first. If the Minister has time at the end he might respond and if not, he might correspond.

That is perfect, a Cheann Comhairle. I will perhaps get a written reply if that is okay. Early learning and childcare is important to children and families across the country and these services have done an incredible job throughout the pandemic. I wish to thank our front-line workers, without whose efforts these supports would not be available.

Childcare is something we should all care about. If we have appropriate childcare, society can function. Some 7,000 front-line workers needed childcare last month and their availability for work was impacted by the lack of options for childcare. It would be helpful even if restricted childcare services were open for vulnerable children and children of essential workers.

It is welcome that those who cannot attend work due to childminding responsibilities are able to claim their PUP. The funding to enable providers to reimburse parents who do not take up the service and help support them to retain staff and reopen as normal once restrictions are lifted is welcome. It does not solve our childcare issues, however. School is not childcare. It is, however, care for children who are not in the care of their parents or guardian. More options must be in place for those adults to return to work.

While we are beginning to stagger a return to education next month, we need to know if primary schools will be prioritised. Is the ECCE scheme going to be back on stream? While financial support is welcome, it does not enrich a child or provide respite for exhausted and worn-out parents and caregivers. Our model of childcare provision needs serious reflection. We need to look at how provisions by our European neighbours have been made throughout this pandemic. Everyone wants to know when the full option of childcare is coming back including primary schools, crèches and ECCE schemes as well as youth programmes for teenagers.

While I welcome the reopening of special education and the ongoing work to achieve this, I was alarmed to read that in the few hours after the announcement, applications for the few additional educational needs, AEN, classes were oversubscribed by two to one. Most of these children are in mainstream schools because the facilities for them are just not there. I would like a written answer on this. What are we doing for these children?

It is most welcome that special needs assistants, SNAs, will now be prioritised for vaccines because they are returning to schools. Early years workers have been working in direct contact with children since January, without adequate personal protective equipment, PPE, and social distance supports because of the nature of the work. When will they be prioritised for their vaccination? I listened to the Minister a minute ago when he said he was working with the HSE. I welcome that; it is important.

Lastly, €10.41 for a childcare worker is not enough. It is seriously not enough. I bet the Minister that every parent who is at home and homeschooling at the moment will agree with me. I ask the Minister to look at it because this needs to be addressed urgently.

It is unacceptable for a childcare worker to only receive €10.41 per hour.

As the Minister knows, I have quite an expressed interest in this area, not only as a parent of preschool children but also as someone who is married to a Montessori teacher. In advance of this session I received dozens of questions, which I will submit to the Minister in writing, and I thank him for already answering some of them when questioned by other Deputies. With the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence, I am going to ask a series of short questions and hopefully I will be able to leave about a minute for the Minister to address them. If the time goes over, of course I will give way.

With respect to childcare providers, will the Minister commit to simplifying the system for drawing down supports, bearing in mind that most of these services are single person-operated? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that any future announcements will not be made on a Friday evening, after hours, giving providers just the weekend to prepare? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that proper PPE is provided to all early years and early school providers? Will the Minister commit to looking at a new VAT recovery system for childcare providers, bearing in mind that while childcare is VAT exempt, the heating, maintenance and so much else are not?

From the perspective of parents such as myself, can the Minister provide clarity - and this may have to be done in writing - on fees? Parents are still paying fees even though they cannot access the service. They are being required to pay holding fees for places that have not been drawn down or for after-school places. This is providing quite a bit of frustration and confusion and that feeds into the issue that there is a chronic lack of places, not just in our constituencies but across the country, particularly for younger children. Drawing on what Deputy Murnane O'Connor said, is it the Minister's intention to reopen the ECCE scheme at the same time as national schools are reopened, whenever that may be?

There are a range of questions there. I wish to reopen the ECCE scheme as quickly as we can. We continue to look at that and to make preparations for its reopening. It will be linked to the wider reopening of the primary education sector.

On parental fees, in order to avail of the new funding model that we introduced from 5 February, services have to sign up to a new contract which says they will not charge parental fees. That will offer important clarity for parents.

The Minister might correspond with Deputy Richmond to clarify the other matters.

I commend the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on the excellent work they are doing in respect of childcare.

The pandemic has underlined the fact that childcare is fundamentally important to the operation of our economy. Prior to this, people have looked at childcare as though it is the responsibility of an individual or an individual couple and a difficulty for them in their lives. However, the pandemic has shown that it is crucial to the operation of our economy. I agreed with Deputy Lahart when he said earlier that the State probably needs to get more involved and get more of a return on its investment in childcare. We need to look again at what community facilities are available that are owned by the State. National schools and the lands beside them seem like an obvious example of that. The State can provide space for childcare in such facilities into the future. That is something we have to look at.

The most significant step that can be taken by the Government in order to return some normality to childcare is the reopening of primary and secondary schools. Many parents who have kids in childcare also have children in school and the fact that the schools are not open is making this lockdown much more difficult than the previous one. I am fully aware that there are issues in respect of public health that have to be considered and that the safety of teachers has to be considered. I wish to echo and repeat - and I do not expect the Minister or the Minister of State to respond to this - what the then acting Chief Medical Officer said in a letter to parents on 31 August last in advance of the opening of schools. He said that the sustained closure of schools was having "very real harm" on children. That is something the Minister needs to take into account and bring to the Cabinet table. There are balancing issues here in terms of public health but when we have a statement from the then acting Chief Medical Officer that "very real harm" was being done to our children as a result of the sustained closure of schools, we need to act upon that. Hopefully we will be able to get that conversation going in the near future. I welcome the fact that in recent days, it was announced that schools in Scotland will be reopening later in February. I would hope to see the same thing happening here because we cannot allow damage to be inflicted on our children.

The last year has been difficult for all children, with schools closing, sports being cancelled and all the other activities that children do grinding to a halt. The Child Care Law Reporting Project has stated that already vulnerable children have been made more vulnerable by the coronavirus pandemic. It said that some children were so severely neglected that they had to be hospitalised. The coronavirus has exposed the State's failings. Children received support, security, welfare and nutrition in school and in other settings that in some cases was not available at home.

I have huge concern about these children and the situations they are in. In situations where the teacher, youth worker or sport coach was looking out for at-risk children, who is keeping an eye on them now? I recently received a response to a parliamentary question which stated:

From June 2020 to end of December 2020... a total of 100 social workers left the Agency of whom 90 resigned and 10 retired. An additional 7 social workers commenced a career break.

The cracks are there so who is filling them?

Child poverty was there before Covid-19, it has gotten worse during Covid-19 for some children and it will be there after Covid-19. Warm meals in schools and in other places filled the gaps but these children are missing that now. My party, Sinn Féin, has solutions. We put down a number of motions during this term and the last term to address poverty for children and for wider society. Just yesterday, the Government advised that it would not be supporting a motion to increase fuel allowance, with Met Éireann advising that a deep cold spell and significant snow will be in Ireland in the coming days. I advise the Government to revisit this position for all of society.

While I welcome the gradual reopening of special schools and wider services for children with disabilities, we have to recognise the particular difficulties that Covid-19 caused for these children and for their families. The regression and the lack of structure and familiar settings for children and the lack of respite for most parents who are full-time family carers will leave a deep and lasting impact. We are where we are now and we must learn from those mistakes. We must make sure that above all, this will be the last lockdown for these children.

I also want to briefly touch on the childcare sector. I recently received another parliamentary question response which told me that 192 early years childcare providers closed their doors for good between March and December 2020. We need to make sure there are no more closures because this will have a big impact on access and affordability for families and children.

I have two sets of questions, the first on the disrespect shown to childcare workers by the Government and the second on the lack of supports for parents during this pandemic, including the proposal we have brought forward for paid childcare for working parents. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated again just how essential childcare and childcare workers are. It is worth noting that over 90% of childcare workers are women. The Government and the Department have completely failed to support either parents or those childcare workers during this pandemic. They have been full of praise and claps but have failed to put their money where their mouths are.

SIPTU carried out a survey in the last month which found that 89% of childcare workers disagreed with the statement: "Early Years Professionals have been valued as frontline workers by government during the pandemic."

Is it any wonder that they feel undervalued when childcare is the lowest paid sector of the economy, when 90% of childcare workers say they struggle to make ends meet, when 88% of childcare workers earn less than €12.30 an hour with an average wage of just under €11.50 an hour, and where almost 12 months into a pandemic, in a front-line job, working in a situation where social distancing is often impossible, 77% of childcare workers are not entitled to any sick pay from their employer? The positivity rate of mass testing in childcare is running at 10% compared to 6.6% generally and there have been 42 outbreaks in childcare facilities in the past two weeks, and yet the Government will not even provide workers with proper sick pay or a living wage.

It seems a long time ago, but it was this time last year that 30,000 childcare workers took to the streets to demand improved wages and conditions. They had the left's support then. They have it now. They will be protesting again online this Friday. They and I are looking for a commitment from the Minister to introduce a living wage of at least €15 an hour for childcare workers, to commit to making the massive investment in State funding needed to pay childcare workers properly as the essential public servants that they are, and to make free public childcare available to all parents who need it.

The other question I have relates to the situation of many parents. They are at this stage at their wits' end trying to juggle work and childcare during the lockdown with no support from the State. They are expected to double job - holding down the regular work while also home-schooling - and many are simply not able to do it. Last week, I questioned the Minister for Social Protection about the supports available and was told the answer from her Department is to give up one's job and to go on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. The Minister also passed the buck to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, stating that parental leave is his responsibility. At present, in Ireland, there is zero entitlement to paid leave for parents after one's child reaches the age of one and even when the new entitlement to parents' leave is finally brought in, any entitlement to paid leave for parents will end at the child's grand old age of two. Other countries across Europe have brought in new entitlements to paid childcare leave from work during the pandemic. Does the Minister not agree that it is about time that we did the same? Germany, for example, introduced an extra ten days' paid leave per parent to enable them to mind children at home because of Covid measures, such as school closures, illness or self-isolation. Austria, Italy, Portugal and Slovenia have all introduced paid leave for parents with children. There are similar measures in France. Once again, it is women who are hardest hit by this, shouldering the bulk of the childcare work. What is the Minister doing to help parents, especially mothers, remain in the workforce and assist them with their additional childcare responsibilities during Covid? Will the Minister agree with our Bill? Will he agree to give parents a break and introduce a special Covid parental or childcare benefit, as in Germany and other EU countries?

I thank Deputy Paul Murphy. I disagree with the Deputy's statement that we have not supported childcare workers during this period. The employment wage supplement scheme, EWSS, has been a very significant investment by the State in supporting the wages and the position of childcare professionals. The childcare profession is the only profession which had a sector-wide exemption, which I negotiated. I did so because I understand the importance of childcare professionals to our children and to our economy, but also because I understand the poor wages that childcare professionals have experienced over the past number of years. As I stated in my introductionary speech and in speaking to other Deputies, the focus on the level of pay and resolving that through the joint labour committee, JLC, process which I have worked closely on with both Childhood Services Ireland and SIPTU, will bring forward proposals that, I believe, can address the very low levels of pay that we must address.

We go now to a Government slot. Deputy O'Sullivan is sharing with Deputies Bruton and Cathal Crowe.

I would also disagree with Deputy Paul Murphy who spoke before me. I believe that both the Minister and the Minister of State have done their level best to address many of the concerns in the childcare sector.

I am a parent of two children under two. I will appreciate much more the work that childcare workers do and, I suppose, the impact that it has on our pockets. As Deputies Lahart and Jim O'Callaghan mentioned earlier, it is becoming like a second mortgage. I suppose I am beginning to experience that for myself.

The steps Government has taken need to be acknowledged. Some 80% of payroll costs and 50% of operational costs for the vast majority of these facilities have been covered because of the supports that both the Minister and the Minister of State have introduced.

I have three distinct queries or questions, and I was wondering if the Minister could comment. The first relates to reimbursements. I have come across some cases in childcare facilities where I wonder whether it is a question of must there be a reimbursement or should there be a reimbursement. The importance around that language is that I am coming across some facilities where that reimbursement is not forthcoming or there seems to be some kind of confusion around it. It is merely to clarify whether it must or should be reimbursed.

The second question is in regard to pregnant crèche workers. According to the guidelines, "Pregnant teachers and SNAs are to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff is developed by occupational and public health doctors." Could the Minister explain why that distinction is there? What is the difference between a teacher and an SNA being allowed, if they are pregnant, to work from home as opposed to somebody working in the childcare sector? It is important that that distinction be explained.

My final question is regarding the JLC. I welcome the Minister's comments today that it is progressing. The Minister cannot reveal too much, but if he has anything else that he can elaborate on in terms of how that process will unfold, I would appreciate it.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for his comments. I am aware that we always have more to do in this sector, particularly on the issue of pay.

As regards reimbursements, for the period of 1 January to 5 February we did not have any legal requirements. We did not have a new contract in place with childcare providers and we could not compel reimbursements. During that period, we requested that childcare providers make a reimbursement. For the next period, the period of 5 February to 1 March, if childcare providers want to avail of the enhanced package of funding they must sign a new contract including a commitment to a mandatory reimbursement. They do not have to sign up to that new contract but if they want to avail of the enhanced funding, they must sign up to it and make the reimbursement.

The JLC process is one that I am confident will be able to deliver a significant increase in the wages of childcare professionals. It will involve SIPTU. It will involve Childhood Services Ireland. I will receive more detail, hopefully, later on in the week. I will let Deputies know about that.

On the issue of the guidance as regards childcare professionals who are pregnant, all the information our Department uses is based on public health guidance from the Department, from the HSE. I might come back to the Deputy in writing, specifically, on that, so that he has a clear understanding.

The Ceann Comhairle will remember the old Joni Mitchell song,

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got

Till it's gone ...

That is certainly true of the case of childcare where we realised during the restrictions that have been imposed in Covid just how important childcare, early childhood education and support are. I refer to the social interaction but also the early start that many children, particularly children from disadvantaged areas, are missing at present.

The State has been slow to respond to this. I suppose it is not surprising, given that the Constitution still states that the place of a woman is in the home. We have a lot of ground to make up. I suppose it is understandable that much of the focus in trying to make up that ground has been on standards, enforcement and inspection. There are as many as three bodies charged with that responsibility. That can only get one so far. The real challenge here is how we face up to the problems, that, indeed, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, pointed out, such as high staff turnover, no time for planning and development of programmes, and not being able to hang on to people, particularly highly qualified people, in the sector. These are real issues.

It amazes me, having spent much of my time in the enterprise sector, how a similar number, approximately 4,000, of exporting companies have the support of Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, IDA Ireland and numerous others helping them develop their programme and we have none for a sector that is dealing with 200,000 of our most precious asset for the future.

When will the Minister table draft proposals for the child development agency, which will be crucial in developing leadership, the potential for innovation and better approaches to the Early Start programme and early intervention, a transition from early childhood education to primary school and placements for trainees? There is considerable potential in this regard and I look forward to the Minister's proposals.

The review of the childcare operating model is ongoing. It was put in place with a view to undertaking initial work to allow us to make determinations as regards the child agency.

We must go to Deputy Cathal Crowe. Perhaps the Minister will correspond with Deputy Bruton.

I can reply in more detail in writing.

I have a four-year-old son who attends our local preschool. I value the work that Ms Catherine Hickey, Ms Clara O'Dwyer - I believe they might be watching us - and others do.

I wish to make a few points briefly. Frustratingly, my time is limited. Regarding the access and inclusion model, AIM, scheme, there are too many children in preschool who need to be referred to CAMHS for an assessment after an alarm bell rings only for that assessment not to happen before the child enters primary school. I saw this happening too often as a primary school teacher. A child could be six or seven years of age before an appropriate assessment and therapeutic practices are put in place even though flags were raised when the child was three or four years of age.

The 38-week contract is unfair to staff in the early childhood sector. They must sign on despite many being educated to degree level. I attended Mary Immaculate College. When I went into a primary teacher lecture hall there, they went into a lecture hall across the way. The pay grades and work conditions are incomparable. There are too many regulatory bodies - Pobal, the Department of Education, Tusla and the HSE. Many childcare staff have no pensions on top of the old age pension.

Will the Minister respond to some of these points briefly, please?

I take on board the Deputy's point about the AIM scheme. We have put additional funding into it this year because it has been successful, but there is a lack of joined-up thinking. We hope that the transfer of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the area of disability issues to my Department will give us the opportunity to focus on children and consider disability throughout all life stages. We can do much better in terms of joined-up thinking.

The Deputy rightly identified the issue of pay. A joint labour committee, JLC, gives us an opportunity to enhance pay in this sector. I will do whatever I can to support the work of bringing together a JLC process.

I wish to raise with the Minister the precarious situation of the early years and childcare sector. We all know the great work being done by people in the sector and how important that is to everyone in society. Unfortunately, some vital childcare facilities in my constituency of County Clare had to close their doors in 2020. It was disheartening to hear the news as it came in and it is disappointing to know that they will have no opportunity to reopen. Many others are struggling to keep their businesses afloat.

Childcare and early years professionals are some of the lowest paid in the wider educational sector and are now back at work with little or no protection. Ireland is at the bottom of the European league in terms of childcare investment. Budget 2021 did nothing to address that, which was disappointing. This disappointment was felt by all staff members and operators in the sector. The majority of the sector's employees do not get sick pay and earn less than the living wage. It remains difficult to attract prospective employees, which leaves the sector in a difficult situation.

In recent weeks, I have received emails from many concerned professionals in the sector who feel they have been treated differently than the wider educational sector in terms of a lack of personal protective equipment, PPE. The most pressing issue being raised with me is the fact that workers in the childcare and early years profession have been placed 11th on the vaccination priority list. However, I welcome the Minister's comments in that regard. Early years educators and childcare staff are essential front-line workers. They are not required to wear face masks and they cannot practise social distancing despite that being common sense. This makes them vulnerable in their line of work. Those with underlying health conditions or who have family members with such conditions still have go to work. I urge the Minister to fight for these workers and have their place on the priority list reviewed.

I wish to raise a few issues on the back of several recent announcements about the reopening of special education. Parents like me have been at home and have been the only platform, as it were, from which our children can seek answers and gain a better understanding of what is happening in society. We are doing our best to protect them, but we have had difficult conversations with them, and we are still having difficult conversations with them, and we have tried to find ways of explaining what is happening to them. It is difficult for parents as well as other children in the family to watch the regression of a child in need and see a lack of support and therapy. I will take this opportunity to ask the Minister to review the local supports and services that are in place for children with special needs. They have gone a long time without speech and language therapy, for example.

I welcome the Minister's statement and the measures he has announced in recent weeks. I welcome the announcement of youth funding of €67 million for 2021. In particular, I welcome the announcement of €968,490 for the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board. However, this allocation seems low compared with allocations in other areas. Will the Minister clarify the rationale for the difference in allocations to various education and training boards? I welcome the announcement of €12 million for national youth organisations and €2.25 million for the local youth club grant scheme. Although I welcome these announcements, it is my strong belief that the funds will not go far enough. In fact, the sums mentioned are inadequate.

As the Minister knows, I have constantly spoken out about mental health issues, in particular those facing our younger generation. Today's world places significant pressure on the younger generation and they need support now more than ever. The Covid pandemic has put them under further pressure. They have effectively been cooped up for the past 12 months and it is clear that this has caused serious mental health issues. As chairman of the GAA's Louth County Board, I know from first-hand experience the issues being faced by the younger generation in these times. Organisations like the GAA and others can only do so much. Will the Minister examine the funding announcements he has made in recent weeks to determine whether more can be done? These organisations need more support in terms of funding. This is a matter that the Minister needs to re-examine.

Childcare is an issue for many parents, particularly with the country in another lockdown. I know from dealing with matters in my constituency that parents are at breaking point. They feel let down by the Government. In many cases, they are being forced to work from home while also looking after their children. It is not feasible for many. Childcare is available to essential workers, but thousands of people are being forced to work from home with no childcare supports at all because they are not deemed essential. I appreciate that there is no easy answer, but the Government needs to do more for these workers. I know from speaking to special needs assistants that their childcare needs are forgotten about. When schools were to reopen in January, they had difficulty accessing childcare. School staff are now being advised to take parental leave or unpaid leave should they be unable to secure suitable childcare when schools reopen. That is wrong. School staff should be treated as essential workers when schools reopen. Will the Minister reconsider this matter? A simple solution would be to classify school staff as essential workers and give them the same supports as those already classified as such.

Another suggestion I would like to make is that all special education needs staff should get vaccinated as a matter of urgency. They often deal with children on a one-to-one basis.

Unfortunately, in many cases, they lack proper personal protective equipment. Will the Minister confirm whether this has been discussed at Cabinet? If not, will he give a commitment that he will bring it to his Cabinet colleagues? As I have stated, I have on numerous occasions spoken in the House about the mental health challenges faced by the younger generation. The lockdown has compounded the problem. If we look at what has happened, schools, community services, primary care, early year settings and even the homes of extended family and friends are no longer accessible to the younger generation. Can the Minister just imagine the effect this is having on them? They are without normal day-to-day interaction with their extended families. Their social gatherings are all but gone and unavailable, whether it be the local GAA club, soccer club or youth club. I fear what the long-term effects of this will be. I understand completely that we are living in unprecedented times but, at the same time, is the right thing to do to shut off the support chain completely for this generation?

Another aspect of the lockdown is the very worrying fact that Tusla has reported a significant drop in the number of children being referred while schools are closed. In the second week of January, the number of referrals dipped to 990 from the average of 1,500 a week. I am deeply concerned about this. I do not believe for one minute the actual number who need referral has reduced but that we are, in fact, missing upwards of 600 referrals a week. These are for the most part very vulnerable children who need support now. We need more action to address this. I know additional funding has been allocated to Tusla but it is obviously not enough. Is it simply the case that with schools being closed we will miss 600 weekly referrals to Tusla? This is not acceptable and we must address it now. I would like to hear the views of the Minister on this and what proposals he intends to introduce to address this serious and immediate problem.

I welcome the recent announcement of additional funding by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, but I also want to make the point that it is not enough in these difficult times. I would also like to ask the Minister for support to classify school staff as essential workers so they can access childcare. Will the Minister also clarify the rationale in the allocation of funds to the education and training boards? Will the Minister support me in calling for additional support for parents who are now forced to work from home while, at the same time, having to provide childcare in the home? Will the Minister support me in my request that all school staff get the Covid vaccination before schools are reopened? Will the Minister comment on the fact that referrals to Tusla have dropped dramatically from 1,500 to 990 per week since schools were forced to close due to the lockdown?

I thank the Deputy. On the issue of the allocation to Meath and Louth Education and Training Board I will correspond in writing to him and give the rationale behind it. We secured a €5 million increase in funding for the youth services sector, which is the biggest increase in the past decade so it was very substantial. I will always be looking to put more money into that sector but we should acknowledge it was a significant increase. Certainly the youth groups to which I have spoken see the extra use to which the money can go.

With regard to Tusla referrals, Tusla has identified vulnerable children during the lockdown as one of the core groups it is focused on. I have engaged with the CEO of Tusla on this particular issue and I am confident it will continue to focus on these vulnerable children. I am aware of the fact that with schools closed the extra vigilance that teachers and special needs assistants provide with regard to vulnerable children is not there. Tusla will step up and seek to bridge this gap.

I am glad to have this opportunity to make a few points on childcare. With regard to the systems and structures review I caution against any change to the county childcare committees, which have been serving us very well. More resourcing and supports for these structures is a better way to go rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. I was concerned when the Minister took office that this was a suggestion, and I hope it is one he will suppress because it is a good structure. It is one that can work and, with the proper resources, can work much better.

The next issue I want to raise is that of remuneration. We have many professionals working in the childcare sector but we choose not to acknowledge this. What we have, in effect, are many people with masters degrees, fourth level education and level 9 qualifications working for €12 an hour who, during the summer, are forced to sign on and look for other jobs. This is not commensurate with the contribution they make. Other Members have said that the Covid crisis underpinned our level of dependency on, and the importance and critical nature of, the childcare sector and what it does for us. We also choose at times to acknowledge the educational contribution it makes but then at other times we do not. There clearly is a huge educational and development side to early years care and we do not acknowledge this. For example, a private sector crêche has to pay commercial rates but a school does not. This is something I have mentioned many times before and it is something the Minister will have to petition his colleagues in government around the Cabinet table to address.

During the Covid crisis we have to ensure the employment wage subsidy scheme is available to the end of the year, until such time as we have herd immunity through wholesale vaccination throughout the country. I made this point to the Minister for Finance yesterday. We need this support. While I acknowledge some additional supports that were put in place, in terms of investment when Katherine Zappone was in office, we need substantially more, particularly on the capital side. We will need a rolling capital programme to support this sector if we are going to give it what it deserves. In essence, this is proper recognition for the qualifications and professionalism of those working in the sector with appropriate remuneration. It is simply miserly what they are expected to work for measured against the contribution they are making.

There is also the issue with regard to acknowledging the educational and developmental role for all of our children. The Minister must maintain the county childcare committee structure as the delivery agent. He must also secure from the Minister for Finance a rolling appropriate capital budget that supports the sector throughout the country.

I very much hope the Minister will take these matters on board because, as with some other aspects of our society, the childcare area is hugely overlooked and undersupported. I do not doubt the Minister's personal commitment to remedy these matters but I hope he can embrace the couple of points I am putting forward. I am not looking for a response today and the Minister can drop me a note in writing. I do not want to eat into my colleague's time. I very much hope the Minister will make his mark in highlighting these three or four issues I have put forward today and that we will be able to identify some tangible actions over the coming months.

I welcome the opportunity to put a few points to the Minister and perhaps he will respond in writing. I would like to articulate the issues and concerns I have. The people running childcare facilities throughout the country have to be commended for the amount of work they are doing. As a society, we have to acknowledge and accept that this is the very foundation on which the State will be run. We are starting with childcare facilities and the various schemes being run for very young people in their very formative years. We should compliment all those who work in the sector. As a State we have to be very careful to ensure they are properly rewarded and properly remunerated and that the services they give are properly accepted by the Government, the State and society as a whole. As a society we owe them a great debt of gratitude for the work they are doing.

Over the pandemic, we have seen many challenges and issues in the childcare sector. It has shone a spotlight on the challenges with regard to the orderly running of essential services in society. Therein lies the problem with which we have to grapple and look at. I want to raise a number of issues. Under the programme for Government, disability services are being moved to the Minister's Department from the Department of Health. How is this planning going? When is the move likely to take place? When will the memorandums be done? We are now seven, if not eight, months into the Government and we want to ensure this body of work promised in the programme for Government is completed because there is so much to be done in the disability sector.

Essentially, for those in the disability sector, we do not want bureaucracy to hold up the work that needs to be done. In questions I have put to the Department of Health again this week in regard to waiting lists for services for people with disabilities and assessment of needs, the replies showed up the chronic need for staff recruitment and for proper, thought-out practice. Young people are not getting the services they need and are not getting assessments of need. While people are completely dependent on the public service for occupational therapy or speech therapy, it is non-existent. We have to accept that right here and now, today, 4 February, it is non-existent. We are failing those kids who need those therapies. We have seen many families going private and using whatever available finances they have. We have to ensure this is highlighted at every level, that it is accepted by Government Departments and agencies, and that that challenge is met head-on.

The latest figures again show that the waiting lists are utterly unacceptable. I challenge the Minister to come back to me on when the transfer of powers will take place and how urgently the Government is going to tackle the waiting list issue immediately after that takes place. It is a fundamental issue. It will continue the good work of the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in the sector. I look forward to further engagement.

As we are on the issue of disability, there is a huge crisis in regard to school transport, the way school transport is being carried out by the State and the inadequacies that are being thrown up on a daily basis for kids who need transport. I will come back to that in further debate.

I call Deputy Michael Collins, who is sharing time with Deputy Carol Nolan.

It is claimed that NPHET and the Government deem schools safe to reopen. Therefore, why has it taken so long to get special education schools open? We welcome the decision by the Government, or the agreement in principle, to reopen schools on Thursday, 11 February, with a 50% student attendance. Special classes in other schools are to open on 22 February. However, what level of consultation has taken place with the unions, parents and teachers around these announcements?

While I am talking about the reopening of schools, leaving certificate and junior certificate students are mentally drained from the lack of clarity from this Government. The main message from students is to put a predictive grades system in place for the leaving certificate and, if students are unable to use this, to allow them the choice of sitting the leaving certificate. I have voiced these concerns numerous times. It is time decisions were made. I urge the Minister to share this with all of Ireland's students because, even though he is not the Minister for Education, he is the Minister with responsibility for children. The junior certificate students seem to be forgotten in all of this, so let us not forget them. They are only 14 or 15 years old. These children have no idea what exams they will be doing, when they will be doing their mock exams or what is happening with their classroom-based assessments, CBAs.

It is time decisions were made. We are not just talking about their education; we are talking about their mental health also. Many leading front-line mental health professionals have reported there is a mental health tsunami coming when Covid-19 recedes. Ireland's mental health system is not prepared for such a crisis, and this is mainly because the Irish system was in crisis mode long before the pandemic.

Cork South-West has such a shocking broadband service, from Adrigole to Kilmacsimon and right throughout west Cork, that these leaving certificate and junior certificate students cannot have remote access. One family, and there are many others, cannot even get mobile phone coverage in their own house so the students there cannot even use their own data. Can a plan can be put in place for such disadvantaged students to go into their schools and access the school Wi-Fi to learn, or even to go to their local community centres? I met several parents by phone at my office yesterday, and a mother told me she had to pick and choose from her five children who could access the Wi-Fi in the house as it is too slow for all the children to use. This is the case for many families. It is all very well to say children can learn remotely. However, in practice, in rural Ireland they are far more disadvantaged, and not alone for learning, as this is the only way our young people have to contact their friends and peers.

The Minister will accept that finding solutions to the problem of childcare in the midst of a pandemic is no easy task. That difficulty was compounded by the fact the early years sector in particular, prior to the pandemic, felt it was unheard and disrespected, and that its solutions were only nominally accepted. Recently, I participated in a Zoom call with SIPTU and the early years sector. The message was very clear. This is a sector full of hope but it is being continually let down.

The Minister will be aware SIPTU recently launched its early years professionals survey. The survey shows that 67% of early years educators earn below the living wage of €12.30 per hour and 90% of all professionals struggle to make ends meet. Sick pay, maternity pay, pensions and other basic conditions are virtually non-existent. Some 38% of early years professionals are actively looking for a job outside the sector, and this rises to 42% of room leaders, where most graduates are employed.

From what I understand, SIPTU is calling for the establishment of a joint labour committee, as promised in the programme for Government, and this would allow the introduction of an early years pay scale. What we also need is for the small-scale early childcare providers to be supported with financial supports and measures.

The other issue I want to raise is that of waiting lists in Laois and Offaly for occupational therapy and speech therapy. I have raised the issue several times because children with special needs are really suffering. In Laois-Offaly currently, 2,014 children are waiting for occupational therapy and 1,453 children are waiting for speech therapy. I have already put forward a possible solution. Given there are regions that do not have the same backlogs as Laois-Offaly, could the staff from those regions be redeployed until the backlog of children is cleared in Laois-Offaly? This is a pragmatic solution and while recruitment is ongoing, I think it is a fair solution. I ask the Government to take that on board.

I ask the Minister to consider an extension of carer’s leave for family carers who find themselves unable to return to work because of continuing care needs during the pandemic. There are many reasons we need to extend carer’s leave for now. Children with special needs have been unable to return to school and when they do, many will return on a phased basis. I congratulate all involved in ensuring the continuation of day services but, for many people, the hours are reduced.

In these instances, family carers have to fill the gap and many will need an extension of carer’s leave. If the cared-for person has been unable to secure a replacement care package because of staff shortages or the fact that workers do not want to enter family homes, that family carer needs an extension of carer's leave. If the person who is cared for is especially vulnerable and is waiting for vaccination, family carers need an extension of carer’s leave.

The precedent has rightly been set by the Government for new parents on maternity leave. It is vital that a similar arrangement would be made available to family carers at the end of their two years of leave. The numbers are limited to a maximum of about 3,700 and the extension of this leave would be a strong signal that the work and commitment of family carers is valued by the Government.

My second point, which has been raised by many Deputies, is that there were staggering figures from a recent SIPTU survey of 2,000 childcare professionals, which clearly illustrates the extreme financial insecurity of many in this sector. Almost 70% are earning less than €12.30 an hour. They must at the very least be entitled to a living wage of €15. Many have no sick pay, no maternity leave or no pension. Is it any wonder so many are looking elsewhere for jobs?

I am pleased the Minister is discussing pay and conditions with SIPTU and that Dr. Duffy is compiling a report. However, this report must be followed by action. The Minister said there would be no lack of speed in implementation. Many in this House, including myself, will hold him to account for that.

As I have told the Minister many times, he has inherited a situation. He is more than aware that a year ago tomorrow, that childare workers went out on protest about pay and conditions. He is fully aware that of the approximately 26,882 childcare staff, 98% are female. That says a lot about how we treat women and their conditions for work in this country in the 21st century.

I wish to raise two issues. It is important to pay tribute to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Last June, it produced a document and its key messages are worth looking at. I acknowledge the amount of money that has gone into the sector over a particular period and that it is multiples of a hundred. Notwithstanding that, what we need is a new model of public childcare. The Library and Research Service research showed that "Ireland has the highest level of private provision of early childhood care and education in the OECD with relatively low Government investment, low wages and high fees for consumers". It is a no-win for everybody. It notes that "the available research has identified positive outcomes for public early childcare" and that "the evidence base also indicates that in public provision countries childcare tends to be more affordable, accessible, and of higher quality than in private provision countries". The key challenge is to have a new model and for this Government to actually learn from the pandemic. I do not expect the Government to get things right in the middle of a pandemic - it is difficult - but to learn from it and from the crisis that the pandemic landed on and let us have a different public provision of childcare.

Different groups were set up and an interdepartmental group to look at this. What stage are they at? The Minister will not have time to answer this but I would appreciate a reply.

I will use my remaining 20 seconds to raise the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes. Will the Minister please return with clarification as quickly as possible on the destruction on the recorded evidence. Is it possible to retrieve it? Do we need legislation to extend the time to get an explanation and to get the evidence? At the very least, can we have clarification?