Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

95. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if he has prioritised the reduction of parents' childcare fees as part of his Department’s budget 2022 proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48267/21]

My question, which follows on from the motion my party tabled the other night, is in respect of fees for childcare and early years education. I ask the Minister to comment on his Department's priorities for the upcoming budget and if they include the reduction of the fees paid by parents.

I am very conscious of the childcare costs experienced by parents and I have been fully determined to address this issue since I became Minister.

In the context of this year’s budget, I have stated publicly that early learning and childcare is a key priority for me. In particular, I have indicated that I will be seeking additional investment to ensure providers can operate sustainably; their employees can benefit from improved pay and conditions; there is improved accessibility for children; and, as the Deputy said, there is improved affordability for parents.

Early learning and childcare is a public good and brings benefits to society as a whole. The importance of these services has become all the more evident during the pandemic we have just gone through. We need additional public investment in order to fully realise the ambitions we have for this sector. With this in mind, the programme for Government undertakes to fulfilling the commitment in First 5. That will include an investment target of €1 billion in childcare by 2028.

I am pleased that an expert group has been working with my Department to help guide future decisions about public investment in early learning and childcare. This group is comprised of national and international experts who have significant experience in the area of early learning and childcare, the systems it operates and its funding. An independently chaired group, it has undertaken an in-depth programme of research and analysis and engaged in an extensive and detailed stakeholder consultation. The group has commissioned a series of reports examining various issues, in particular international comparisons, approaches to reducing cost to parents and mechanisms to control fees internationally. The report of the expert group is being drafted and is on track to be submitted to me in November. I have met the chair of the group and I have been briefed on its progress. This has very much informed my Department’s bid in the context of this year’s budget Estimates.

I will deal with a number of closely-related questions on childcare costs and investment this morning and I hope to have an opportunity to expand further on these issues. I obviously cannot give details of the budget at this stage but I know this is an issue about which the Deputy and other Deputies are concerned.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome his statement that childcare is a priority and that he regards it as a public good because that is the model we need to adopt for our childcare and early years sector. It needs to be seen for what it is, namely, an excellent public service on which everybody relies and that ultimately benefits children. That has to be at the heart of everything we do.

As the Minister is aware, we have some of the highest fees in the world. In my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, which is largely rural like many other deserving areas, people can pay in the region of €650 per month for one child. I know some people in Dublin will probably think that does not sound too bad but the area should be borne in mind and the additional cost for those with a second child. Some people are deciding exactly when they will have children based on childcare costs. It is crazy that we are in that situation in this day and age. I take this opportunity in advance of the budget to ask again that the budget include something for this sector.

The Deputy is entirely correct that investment in early learning and childcare is a public good. In recognition of that, very substantial investment has been undertaken by the Government to support the sector during the Covid-19 period, including through payments of €34 million per month under the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Every month, this money is invested in childcare services across the country.

We have also recognised wider issues, including the very low rates of pay that staff receive. For this reason, we introduced a joint labour committee, JLC, as an important first step in addressing that issue.

The Deputy rightly raised the issue of the impact of fees on families who are struggling. It is important to see the issues of affordability, sustainability for services, pay and quality as being linked. We have to look at them together and in whatever proposals I bring forward, I will try to link all these issues, and the overarching issue of quality for children, because they are linked and we cannot deal with one without dealing with the others.

I agree that these issues are linked. I consistently make the argument that fees are an issue for parents, wages are an issue for those working in the sector and sustainability is an issue for providers. In fairness, the vast majority of providers started out as small businesses run mainly by women from home. All of a sudden, the whole system has gone insane in terms of paperwork and regulations. No one has an issue with regulation, particularly in respect of children, but a common sense approach is needed. As I repeatedly point out in this House, such an approach is lacking.

One of my other questions is on those working in the sector, early years educators, so I will not discuss that aspect now. However, these issues are linked, which is why they need to be addressed together.

While I recognise the Minister's point about what is in the programme for Government, the Government has had one budget and its second budget is approaching. We need to start seeing that investment next week.

The Deputy correctly identified the significant role of providers, many of which are small businesses run by individuals. As the Deputy stated, they are primarily led by women with a passion for providing education and care for the children and babies in their care.

While the NCS is a very good system, it has its flaws, as we discussed in the context of our debate earlier this week. We have seen in the past that where additional investment has been put into it in order to support parents by reducing fees, it has often been subsequently wiped out in the form of fee increases. In many cases, those fee increases are understandable in the context of an individual service struggling with expensive bills it has to pay or with wages it is seeking to pay its staff. Looking at all these matters in the round is important. It is an issue of investment, which is key, but so too is the additional regulation in respect of that investment.

Childcare Services

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

96. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth his plans to increase funding for childcare services to make childcare services affordable for all. [49076/21]

Ireland's childcare barometer shows that 65% of the public agree that childcare, like primary education, should be free. People Before Profit agrees. If we want happy, healthy and developmentally successful children, we need proper State investment in early childhood education and childcare. The Minister spoke earlier about all the supports given during Covid and so on, but will he accept that the previous model completely failed? It was a disaster for children, workers and families.

As I said in response to Deputy Funchion, the issue of affordability of early learning and childcare for parents is a key priority for me. We need to achieve this alongside our continuing work to improve quality, sustainability and accessibility. This year, my Department is investing €638 million into the sector and affordability for parents is a key policy objective in the context of that investment, separate from the Covid supports I mentioned.

There are two major schemes we use in regard to the direction of that money, namely, the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, and the national childcare scheme, NCS. Together, these schemes provide for two years of free preschool education, with more than 100,000 children benefiting from ECCE each year, universal NCS subsidies of up to €1,170 per year for up to 16,000 children under three years of age, and the income-assessed NCS subsidies, which can be up to €11,934 per year for up to 64,000 children up to the age of 15. This combined approach to funding seeks to provide support for all children and families while offering progressively greater supports to those who have the greatest need.

I am proud the Government has committed to that increase to an investment of €1 billion per annum by 2028, and I am determined to play my part in achieving that. The new funding model, which I discussed earlier, will be a key vehicle to ensure this. I referred earlier to the expert group established in 2019 that has been working on this new funding model based on the idea of progressive universalism, which it is seeking to achieve and deliver through its report. Extensive research has been commissioned by the expert group, all of which is available on the First 5 website. It covers various issues, such as a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, model, control of parental fees and so on. The expert group will send its report to me in November and I will publish it subsequently. In the meantime, I am using its influence in my budget bid this year.

The figures are €638 million this year and €1 billion by 2028. These are inadequate sums. Families are spending 34% of household income on childcare, compared with 3% in Austria and 6% in Sweden, and that is despite childcare workers in many cases earning just the minimum wage. There is a crisis and the Government proposes, basically, to go back to normal. UNICEF recommends that spending on childcare and early childhood education should be equivalent to 1% of GDP. Given our inflated GDP, we might instead use GNI*, but €638 million represents just one third of 1% of GNI. Even €1 billion by 2028, and who knows whether we will ever get there, is still substantially short. It would need to be €1.8 billion to reach 1% of GNI*. The Government is failing the country's children, something that will leave them disadvantaged for life. At the very least, we should have a commitment to a national childcare service and to increasing funding to 1% of GNI*.

Nobody disagrees with the Deputy's argument that we are not putting enough money into childcare. We have only been putting money into childcare for the past ten years, so we have come from zero investment then to this figure now, and we have to continue to increase that figure. I do not agree we are going back to normal. We are introducing the joint labour committee, JLC, to provide a pay structure for these incredibly low-paid workers, who tend to be women. We understand that has to be supported by the Government and the Government will take action to ensure we do so. We are creating a workforce development plan because when I speak to young women who have just completed their degrees, they often do not see a future for themselves working as childcare professionals even though they will have just spent three or four years completing their level 7 or level 8 programme. Creating a clear career pathway is another essential element of retaining staff within the sector.

Post Covid, this is not a time for half measures; it is a time to restructure the entire way childcare operates, recognise the failure of the current model and set ourselves on a short, direct, rapid path to a national childcare service, publicly provided and free at the point of use. The Minister stated nobody disagrees we are underfunding childcare but, with all due respect, he is the Minister. He can go outside, perhaps, and join a protest against his own Government, as Government Deputies like to do. He is part of the Government and it makes these decisions. If it increased the level of funding for childcare and early childhood education to 1% of GNI*, that would mean the extension of the early childhood scheme from 15 hours for 38 weeks a year to 30 hours for 48 weeks a year and increased funding for the national childcare scheme to subsidise costs for all parents. It would reverse cuts to after-school services in disadvantaged areas and it could result in wages for childcare workers moving to a minimum wage of €15 an hour. The Government can make the decision to do that.

The Deputy is correct; I am the Minister. As Minister, it is important I listen, which is why I attended the protest earlier this week to hear from childcare professionals, people working in services daily and managers of these services. It was not the first time I met many of these people. I met many of them online over the past year because I listen. Changes will be made on foot of the information we get back.

As for the longer term vision for childcare, a substantial piece of work is coming to us that will map out how we can increase public investment but also increase public management of the system. That is essential because it is not enough just to throw money at the system; we have to have increased public management. The JLC is part of that process but there will be other elements that seek to ensure the additional money we put in delivers affordability, quality and sustainability.

Childcare Services

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

97. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth if his Department will honour the commitment to children to double State investment in childcare by 2028; if the ongoing future funding model and workforce development plan processes and the national childcare scheme review will inform budgetary allocations for the sector in time for the budget 2022 announcement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48268/21]

Will the Department honour the commitment to double State investment in childcare by 2028? Will the ongoing future funding model and workforce development plan processes and the national childcare scheme review inform budgetary allocations for the sector in time for the budget announcement?

I wish to focus on the issue of the NCS and after-school care, which was the reason for the protest on Tuesday. Will the Minister comment on the workforce as well?

First 5, the whole-of-government strategy for babies, children, young people and families, includes a target to at least double the level of investment in early learning and childcare between 2019 and 2028. As I said earlier, the programme for Government commits to achieving that, which would represent an investment of €1 billion per annum by 2028. This would be a very substantial increase in the voted expenditure for the sector, which amounts to €638 million this year. The new funding model I mentioned earlier will be a key vehicle to ensure the additional investment delivers those important returns for children, families and the State. We want to ensure that when we put additional resources into early learning and childcare, we will get the best possible use from them. The expert group, which is independently chaired, is leading on this issue and has undertaken a significant volume of research. It has also engaged with the various stakeholders within the sector, which is important.

The emerging findings from the national childcare scheme are also contributing to the evidence that underpins its work. It has very transparent deliberations. It has published the research and that is available for anybody to engage with. The report is being finalised and will be submitted to me in November. It is influencing my input into the budget negotiations this year, which are still ongoing.

As regards the NCS and the issues that were raised outside the Dáil earlier this week, I have engaged significantly with the Deputy about this. We have introduced some interim changes to broaden sponsorship and to create a sustainability fund where services are in difficulty, but I have also asked for a separate piece of research in the context of how the NCS worked in its first year to look specifically at its impact on services that are disadvantaged. I am conscious of this issue and we are getting the research to ensure that our responses are properly targeted to dealing with the problems that have emerged.

I will focus my response on the NCS and the funding, where children are falling through the cracks. I have raised this with the Minister on a number of occasions and I acknowledge that he came out to meet people at the protest on Tuesday. However, I can give a few practical examples. There are several services, not just in my constituency but nationwide, which point out that siblings are in the old model and children coming into the system now are falling outside of that. The service, therefore, is trying to make up the difference. I understand the sponsorship situation, but in the vast majority of these cases people will not go to Tusla. In general, families do not want to bring that service on themselves, so they will not go down that road. If that is said to them, they will more than likely just pull their child out of the service. Services are stepping up and, through other funding streams and, basically, by robbing Peter to pay Paul, trying to keep those children in that system. They feel very guilty, even though they should not. However, they are saying to a family whom they might know for years, "Sorry, we cannot take you in". We really need something next week in that regard.

The NCS is a very good system and one I believe we can continue to develop and strengthen. Undoubtedly, an issue has arisen regarding services in areas of high disadvantage, but we must work to fix the issue with the NCS as opposed to going back to some of the old schemes. The future is with the NCS. However, the Deputy is correct. Sponsorship is not the fix. I undertook the broadening of sponsorship to give support to services in the interim. That was an element in assisting approximately 2,000 young people across the country to access services straight away, but I accept that it is not the overall fix. An issue has arisen and we have to do the research to determine how exactly we can bring about a fix that is long-lasting and ensures that those services, which are often making up the differences themselves with their own resources, are properly resourced into the future.

To comment on that, most people would accept that if something is not working, there has to be a period of time in which one looks at fixing it, but this has dragged on. What people are seeking in the interim is that the older funding be kept in place until a solution is found. In that way nobody is paying a price and nobody is disadvantaged. Otherwise, we are potentially coming up with a solution when many of the services for these children may have faced closure point. In addition, at the meeting of the committee on children last Tuesday, one of the points made by the after-school services was that, while they are not a childcare service but a separate type of service, a new funding stream or model should be examined for them. That should be considered as part of the review.

I also wish to mention briefly the people who are working in the sector. Next week, we must see something in the budget for those early years professionals. They do amazing work and are on very low wages in very difficult situations. They have to see something next week to give them hope to stay in the sector.

As the Deputy knows, the older funding mechanisms were kept in place for children who were already on the schemes, but we are seeking to move new children coming in onto the new scheme. As long as I have had this role, I have been engaging on this issue. The Deputy has raised it, and I give her full credit for that, but I have engaged on this issue. I have met with the services and listened to the issues. We have introduced some interim solutions to try to get more children into the scheme and give them the full number of hours. We are undertaking the research and we will act on foot of that. That is the way to go. This is an issue that has arisen and I know from engaging with services that they foresaw this, but rather than having a knee-jerk response to it we want to undertake that research to determine exactly how we can bring a fix to the NCS to ensure that it continues to work effectively for everybody and that nobody is left at a disadvantage.

Childcare Services

Verona Murphy

Ceist:

98. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the steps his Department is taking to address childcare costs in Ireland which are some of the highest childcare costs in the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49074/21]

Nobody would dispute that parents' sole objective is to give their children the best start in life. We have to help parents to build a nurturing and loving environment, which is critical for a child's learning, emotional well-being and social development. However, the latest survey in 2019, conducted by the European Commission, revealed that childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe. The survey by Eurydice on early childhood education and care in Europe studied 38 countries. It found that Ireland had 398,000 children under the age of five years. I am not aware of another survey since that. What is the Minister doing at this point to address childcare costs in Ireland?

As I said previously, my Department currently invests €638 million per year in early learning and childcare, and affordability for parents is a key objective. The major programmes funded by the Department are the early childhood care and education programme and the national childcare scheme. The ECCE programme provides free access to early learning and childcare for 15 hours per week for the two years before the child starts primary school. That significantly offsets the childcare costs for parents at that stage. The national childcare scheme provides universal and income-assessed subsidies to parents. The universal subsidy is for children up to the age of three years and the income-assessed subsidy is for children up to the age of 15 years. They are available for up to 45 hours per week. They are very substantial and are a vital support from the State for parents. However, I recognise and agree with the Deputy that childcare costs for parents are still too high.

Covid-19 brought major challenges for the early learning and childcare sector. In line with many other services, those services had to close and then operate at lower capacity. They also had to meet the important public health requirements. We were able to support parents and children during the pandemic. In addition to the investment by my Department, the Government provided very substantial supports to the sector to keep services open and operating safely and to ensure they are sustainable and can meet the additional costs that Covid has generated for them. There is strong evidence that those supports have worked. In 2020, there was no significant increase in fees for parents, which was unlike previous years in which there were very substantial increases. In 2019, there was an 8% increase, but in 2020 and 2021 there were no substantial increases for parents.

However, affordability remains a key concern. It is an issue I am very conscious of in the context of the budget negotiations this year, but it is also an issue that is linked to the sustainability of services and the pay for staff in the sector.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate that he is doing his utmost as a new Minister, but when he fires all those figures at us I can give comparable figures for other countries so he will know that we are not investing enough in childcare. The report from Eurydice in 2019 stated that the average monthly cost for childcare in Ireland for one child was €771, compared with an average monthly cost in the Netherlands of €572. That is €200 in excess of the cost in another country which is a very close neighbour and obviously has a childcare structure that works. Recently, the OECD stated that this country invests the least amount in early years of any developed country as a percentage of GDP. I appreciate the Minister's figures and that we are increasing our input into childcare, but it is not enough. The Minister knows that too. It is not enough when compared with other countries.

The Deputy is right in saying we need to invest more in childcare. We are among the lowest in Europe and in OECD countries, and we need to invest more. We have only been investing for ten years, which is an embarrassment to Governments going back over the generations. We also need to manage how we invest that additional money. We do not want to put significant investment into the NCS for that to get eaten up by increases in fees across all services. These services are trying bring in additional income so they can pay their staff a living wage. All these elements are linked and it is important that increased public investment is linked with increased public management. We need to bring together the two elements of increased investment with increased public management a significant way over successive budgets.

Giving parents the support necessary to provide children with a strong foundation is not just good social policy but it is good economic policy. Front-loading the investment into childcare might help avoid waiting lists, mental health issues and everything else that we endure. Ireland has consistently remained at the bottom of the class and the lack of investment costs us all. Parents pay the highest amount of take-home pay on childcare fees in the European Union. Providers operate precariously in a highly complex funding model which benefits nobody. As the Minister knows, the average pay and conditions for the employment in the sector remain poor. I appreciate that he is trying to come to a conclusion on that so everything works together but the reality is that it is leading to serious challenges with staff recruitment and retention. We need to look at the social benefits as well as the economic benefits down the line.

I absolutely agree. In response to an earlier question I said that investment in early learning and childcare is a key public good and I think we are all in agreement there. We need to recognise what the investment, while not enough, is achieving at the moment. We have a fantastic childcare sector in this country which, despite the lack of investment it has received, has done so much over the years and particularly during the Covid pandemic. We need to recognise the work that the childcare professionals and providers are doing. We need to support this sector with public investment. We need increased public management. We have done considerable work on how those various inputs can work together to deliver the core goal of allowing parents provide the best possible first start for their children.

Rights of People with Disabilities

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

99. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the ways in which disabled persons are supported to partake in public life and activities such as politics and policymaking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28224/21]

There are over 650,000 people in Ireland with a disability. As one campaigner said, participation does not mean them coming along to a weekly meeting and telling their stories. We should be encouraging full participation in all aspects of political and social life. What steps is the Minister taking in this regard?

My Department supports people with disabilities through a range of initiatives, and particular priority is given to removing barriers to, and supporting people in, active participation in public life, politics and policymaking. I watched the meeting of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, which had an active conversation on the subject. It continued to the Make Way Day conversation.

I am currently advancing the preparation of the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill, which will provide for an amendment to section 41 of the Electoral Act 1992 to make it easier for persons with intellectual disabilities to stand for election to Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and the European Parliament.

The national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, now extended until the end of 2022, has been one of the primary vehicles for supporting the participation of people with disabilities in public life. It takes a whole-of-government approach to improving the lives of people with disabilities both in a practical sense and in creating the best possible opportunities for people with disabilities to fulfil their potential.

My Department co-ordinates this strategy and I chair the NDIS steering group. The steering group membership includes the disability stakeholder group, a voluntary group of individuals with expertise and lived experience of disability, who participate in monitoring the implementation of the strategy. For that group, Covid has changed the dial of our engagement and understanding. There has also been a complete awareness and willingness of Departments to come to the table and find solutions to break down the barriers. I compliment those from the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Department of Education who have attended recent meetings and shown their willingness to work with the members involved to break down the barriers. I also compliment the Oireachtas on setting up the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, which has lent a voice and put an emphasis on disability in these Houses.

I am glad to hear there is evidence of interdepartmental co-operation, which is sadly lacking in most aspects of Government life here. I hope that continues because it is vital to ensure that all voices are heard, especially for a sector that makes up such a large part of our society, but unfortunately is largely hidden and not seen or noticed by us policymakers.

I heard at a committee meeting that 24% of people with disabilities have difficulty even accessing their ability to vote and 52% who have postal votes have difficulties in using that facility. Some 55% have difficulty contacting a public representative. I have a role in ensuring we are more accessible to people and I will be working to ensure that is the case. The Government can do a considerable amount and I am glad that it is making progress. However, that needs to continue and it needs to be strengthened because we must make politics accessible, as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities outlines.

The Deputy mentioned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Its ratification in 2018 marked an important milestone in the process of strengthening the rights of people with disabilities. the Deputy spoke about electoral reform. Dr. Vivian Rath produced a document. He has the lived experience and he was able to bring people with him to inform our committee meetings of the barriers to understanding. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his team have worked to ensure that access to polling would be one of the main barriers to be removed. We also need to be ambitious and move beyond it and encourage people to participate in the electoral process at local authority level and at national level to have their voices heard.

One of the participants at the committee noted that the party whip system further prevents many disabled people from speaking the truth when they disagree with policies that affect them. Impaired people with disabilities may fear they will get lost in the party system with no avenue to ensure their perspectives are fully considered. This is surely an indication that being an Independent is the way to go as it allows people to work independently on behalf of everybody. Does the Minister of State have any comment on how the party whip system works for people with disabilities?

That is a fantastic question. I ask him to consider my voice within a three-party government. I would like to think I have a significant advocacy role for persons with disability. The Taoiseach put me working with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. It would not be possible to have two more open-minded people within that Department who are strong advocates for inclusion and equality for persons with disability. I would like to think that our leaders and our parties have disabilities at the centre of their agenda at all times. Coming up to the budgetary process, I wrote to all Ministers to ensure that they disability-proofed their budgets. In advance of the publication of the national development plan, I wrote to ensure they proofed their budgetary submissions. Equality and inclusion for persons with disabilities is front and centre of our role in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. People with disabilities are well represented and their voices are well heard.