Child Care: Presentations.

I welcome everybody to this meeting, at which we will discuss the issue of child care. I welcome Ms Pauline Moreau, principal officer of the child care directorate at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Dr. Tony Crooks, chief executive officer, and Ms Maura Keating, child care programme manager, of Area Development Management Limited.

The committee has not really engaged with ADM Limited and is delighted to have this opportunity to do so. The name often crops up in our constituency dealings and it is great to put faces on those driving the programme and its funding.

The equal opportunities child care programme is funded by the Government and part-financed by European Union Structural Funds under the National Development Plan 2000-2006. It forms part of the social inclusion sub-programme of the regional operational programme for the BMW, south and east regions. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has lead responsibility for the co-ordination of the Government's national child care policy, including the equal opportunities child care programme. ADM Limited manages the day to day operations of the programme on behalf of and in consultation with the Department.

Before presentations, I remind everybody that members of the committee have parliamentary privilege but that this does not apply to visitors. I thank the latter for coming before the committee. Ms Moreau will make the initial presentation.

Ms Pauline Moreau

I thank the committee for the opportunity it has afforded to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to provide an update on progress being made under the equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP, to develop child care services. I am principal officer at the child care directorate in the Department and I am joined here today by Dr. Tony Crooks, chief executive of ADM Limited, and Ms Maura Keating, programme manager for EOCP within ADM.

I will begin by clarifying our respective roles. The Department has,inter alia, responsibility for the development of child care policy to support parents who are active in the labour market or who are preparing for labour market participation and for delivery of the child care measures in the regional operational programmes of the national development plan, through which EU funding for the equal opportunities child care programme, EOCP, flows.

ADM Limited has assisted in the development of child care for over ten years as part of its community development role. It currently appraises all child care project applications and undertakes all day-to-day administration of grant contracts on behalf of the Minister. Given its close major involvement with the child care sector through this work, ADM is also an excellent source of policy advice to the Department.

To set the equal opportunities child care programme in context, it is interesting to note that in the mid-1990s the growth in the economy required a significant increase in the labour force while, simultaneously, the continued participation of women in the labour market after the onset of parenthood also rose. Labour market participation was also recognised as an instrument to break the cycle of disadvantage.

Consequently, the need to increase child care availability to support the needs of working parents was identified and a national child care strategy was developed. Child care had previously developed quite informally, with a heavy reliance on the support of grandparents and child minders caring for children in their own homes, sometimes through informal arrangements, and with limited availability of centre-based child care in crèches and other child care centres.

It is noteworthy that many parents continue to have a preference for the use of child minders who offer care for children in a home-based setting. No data is available on the numbers of child minders who care for children as they are not required to notify the health services unless they care for more than three children. As I shall mention again later, the EOCP has developed a quality awareness programme which specifically targets child minders.

The publication of the national child care strategy by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 1999 was most timely in that it gave a clear framework for the further development of child care with a funding package under the National Development Plan 2000-2006. As a result, approximately €318 million of EU and Exchequer funding was set aside to deliver the equal opportunities child care programme over the seven-year lifetime of the NDP.

The programme has three key aims: to increase the supply of centre-based child care by at least 50%, a figure which would require approximately 28,000 new places; to make a contribution towards the staffing costs of community-based child care services which support very disadvantaged parents not in a position to contribute the full economic fees for child care; and to enhance the quality of child care through a series of measures.

The programme was launched in April 2000 and applications quickly poured in to establish new or enhance existing child care services and for staffing grant support. All applications are assessed by ADM against the programme criteria which include: the socio-economic profile of the area and the expected client base; the capacity of the applicant group to develop and deliver the proposed service; the extent to which the application meets the needs of working parents; value for money; and linkages between the service and other services in the area.

Sometimes, the application form submitted by a group necessitates clarifications or an external appraisal or both. In such circumstances, ADM enters into dialogue with the group, which obviously creates delays in approving projects. For larger scale capital projects, an independent external appraisal is also carried out to examine thoroughly all aspects of the proposal and to ensure value for money. This also takes time but can be beneficial in assisting groups to optimise their projects' design.

It soon became obvious that the initial package of funding for the EOCP was inadequate to meet the need to develop the sector and it has been increased on three occasions to date, bringing the original €318 million funding package up to €499 million for the current programme. The target for the creation of new places was also increased to 31,000 places.

Commitments made to date under the programme will, when fully drawn down, lead to the creation of at least 36,000 new child care places. Therefore, the programme is well ahead of target. The Department collects data on a six-monthly basis and we know that of the new places, by the end of December 2004, we had created 24,600 new centre-based child care places. Even the creation of 36,000 new places will not address all of the demand for child care places at local level and the Department has obtained a commitment for ongoing capital funding until at least the end of 2009, thereby enabling us to continue to make capital grants available to fill gaps in services.

At present, the EOCP supports approximately 750 community-based child care services with staffing grants. Staffing grants are only available to support disadvantaged families and this must be considered when reviewing applications. In assessing applications for staffing grants, apart from the standard programme criteria I mentioned previously, the issue of disadvantage is also explored. This is reviewed in a number of ways: by examining the profile of parents of the area through the analysis of numbers of medical card holders, lone parents and those in social housing; by examining the child care group's ethos and its admissions procedures and fee structures; by analysing the socio-economic profile of the area, ascertaining whether it is covered by the RAPID or CLÁR regeneration programmes, and its relative index of disadvantage compared to the rest of the country; and by consulting with the relevant county child care committee.

In respect of the issue of quality, the Department has established 33 county child care committees which deliver local child care strategies and which are internationally acknowledged as a very positive force in Irish child care. Only yesterday I received a request from Flanders in Belgium stating that the authorities there would like to replicate our model. The programme also makes support available to the national voluntary child care organisations for training and quality initiatives and, importantly, to enhance child care quality awareness for child minders who are very significant providers of child care in their own homes.

As I mentioned previously, the funding available under the programme is generous but somewhat limited. It, therefore, became necessary for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to enter into dialogue with the Department of Finance last year regarding the need for increased funding for the capital programme. This led to delays as many groups had submitted applications for the development of new services and it was not possible to make commitments until additional capital funding could be found. Since the announcement of additional capital funding totalling €90 million over five years in the budget for 2005 last December, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has announced new capital grants totalling approximately €66 million and these are now proceeding. The Minister will make further announcements of capital grant assistance in the coming months and years.

As the joint committee may be aware, the programme of grant assistance towards staffing costs is under review at present for those projects which have already received funding for three or more years. It is necessary to look at the focus of groups in terms of the issue of disadvantage and the levels of service they offer in order to ensure their continued compliance with their agreed targets and with the aims of the EOCP. Again, there are funding issues to be finalised with the Department of Finance and I hope that the outcome of the review and these discussions will be available to groups shortly.

The equal opportunities child care programme is proactive and is making available almost €500 million in capital, staffing and quality awareness programmes over a seven-year period to support the development of nearly 40,000 new child care places and to ensure the availability of community-based child care at reduced cost to very disadvantaged families. It is aimed at supporting the economy, meeting parents' child care needs and helping families in disadvantaged circumstances to break the cycle of disadvantage.

I will make a copy of a departmental report on the programme, together with the two most recent press statements which were issued concerning the commitment of capital funding under the programme, available to the joint committee. This report was circulated to all Members of the Oireachtas last summer and will be updated shortly. Dr. Crooks, Ms Keating and I will be happy to answer members' questions.

I thank Ms Moreau. May the joint committee publish the statement she has just read?

Ms Moreau

I would like to make one amendment to my presentation. The figure quoted for the amount of capital funding that was recently announced should be €66 million instead of €60 million.

Where is the figure quoted?

Ms Moreau

I think it is in the fourth last paragraph.

Therefore, it should read "capital grants totalling nearly €66 million".

Ms Moreau

I apologise for the error.

Perhaps before committee members ask questions, Dr. Tony Crooks, chief executive officer of ADM, might wish to make a comment.

Dr. Tony Crooks

The Department has delivered the paper. I did not come prepared with a presentation. Our company is a non-profit company that was established by the Government and the European Union at the end of 1992. We manage a number of different programmes on behalf of different Departments, mostly with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We also run the child care programme with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and smaller programmes with the Department of Transport and the Department of Education and Science. Within the remit of the committee's deliberations, I am more than happy to answer any questions about ADM. The Government carried out a review of ADM in 2004, which led the Government to ask ADM to continue carrying out the kind of work it was doing but to make some alterations to its governance arrangements. These alterations are currently being finalised.

Regarding the numbers, Ms Moreau stated that 24,600 child care places had been created and that there would be 36,000 child care places at the end of the programme. Will these places be created by the end of 2006? Also in the second last paragraph, it states that nearly 40,000 new child care places will created.

Ms Moreau

At the beginning of the programme, ADM carried out a census of child care facilities using funding under the previous very small equal opportunities child care programme. At that stage, it was estimated that there was approximately 56,000 centre-based child care places in Ireland. We originally aimed to increase that by 50%, which would be the additional 28,000, to which I referred. We have made commitments at this stage which will lead to at least 36,000 places. We still have funding to commit and it is in that context that we hope that the remaining commitments would bring that figure towards 40,000 places.

Are commitments made to the various groups at this point in time for capital and staffing grants?

Ms Moreau

These grants will lead to 36,000 new child care places.

Therefore, anybody who is applying at the moment could be part of the additional 4,000 places.

Ms Moreau

That is the case. We would aim to create at least 4,000 places.

There is a huge interest in the issue of child care as can be seen in the number of members who are attending the committee. I would ask members to restrict themselves to asking questions and refrain from offering opinions on child care until after all the groups have been questioned. We will then have a forum in which all members can offer their opinions on child care. I would also ask our visitors to be comprehensive but brief because the list of members who wish to ask questions is lengthy.

I will focus on the current cost of child care, where a crisis is developing. I appreciate that many of the presentations focused on the capital cost and provision of child care. The real problem lies in the current cost of child care. There are child care centres which have availed of the three-year staffing grant. This has resulted in the cost of child care being kept reasonably affordable. However, the grant has now expired for a number of people. I gather there will be a temporary carryover for a few months but there is a crisis in this area.

There is a second crisis relating to people who are not receiving any support but who are paying enormous sums of money every week for child care, which are not tax-deductible, mainly to allow both parents to work so they can pay their mortgage. Does ADM have any light to throw on the issue of the current cost of child care and how it might be lowered? If costs cannot be lowered, we will face a major crisis in child care.

Ms Moreau

Regarding the three-year staffing grants, we are in discussions with the Department of Finance. The organisation of public funding is such that capital funding now runs in forward envelopes. Departments have an indication of the capital funding that they can hope to receive through the Estimates process for the period from 2008 to 2009. Current funding still operates on a year-to-year basis. We need some assurances from the Department of Finance before we can go back to groups and tell them we can guarantee funding going forward for those groups that are still complying fully with the terms of their original contracts and meeting the requirements of the programme. These discussions with the Department of Finance are at an advanced stage and have been very active for a long period. We hope to be able to clarify the situation as soon as possible.

No group which has continued to deliver its service to date as previously agreed in its contract with ADM on behalf of the Department has had its funding cut. We are extremely mindful of the fact that all groups have funding to carry them over to 31 August 2005. We also are aware that there is a great need for clarity for these groups with regard to their numbers for the future.

The cost of child care to parents and tax deductions are issues for the Minister for Finance who deals with fiscal issues. I can draw the committee's attention to the fact that the Government decided in the 2001 budget that the best option was to increase child benefit to parents. As a result of increases in child benefit, the annual bill to the Exchequer for child benefit has increased from approximately €500 million to €1,900 million. The benefit of increasing child benefit is that it benefits all parents equally, not just those in the tax net.

I welcome all participants here this morning. This is a vast issue but I will be brief. What initial criteria were used to allocate the staffing grants? Ms Moreau indicated how ADM was going to define disadvantage. What research has been undertaken with the different child care groups regarding the effect of the removal of the staffing grants? Will it result in a reduced number of places? Will it result in further increases in fees, reduce opening hours, cause staff redundancies or lead to the discontinuance of some services?

The application forms for staffing grants are not yet available. These forms are comprehensive and it is now nearly May. When will they become available? What examination has been carried out in respect of staffing grants for pre-school facilities? Special needs children will be the first to lose out if there are to be cutbacks.

Ms Maura Keating

Ms Moreau's presentation gave an overview of the criteria used for the staffing grants. In selecting groups for staffing funding, there is a developmental process that is entered into in respect of each application. This involves an engagement with the groups in respect of their services and a discussion with their management committees on the objectives of the programme and the range of issues that they must address if they are successful in their applications. This is not, by any means, a cold process. For many voluntary committees, they are moving fromad hoc types of arrangements to becoming professional employers and issues of employment and governance are examined in this process.

The core of the eligibility for staffing funding is that the service will be of quality and respond, in compliance with the programme's objectives, to the needs of the children and parents availing of it. The groups must have an ethos, a focus or a demonstrated way in which their State-subsidised services ensure the inclusion of those who would not be able to afford market rates. Most services do this through a variety of complex and different ways. Local groups responding to disadvantage are usually flexible in their responses. There are some similarities but locals will usually devise measures and approaches that are linked to the needs of their groups, the targets they are dealing with and so on.

There is a list of indicators against which groups are judged but no one indicator stands alone. For example, the service must be in a designated disadvantaged area. There are some services that are not located so but the nature of their clients, the parents and families they support, are clearly from a specific target group, be it children with special needs or children from ethnic minorities. This range of issues is taken into account in the process. Groups are given a good back-and-forth opportunity to complete the case against which they will be judged in this developmental process.

Ms Moreau

On the issue of application forms, etc., we already have a large body of information on each of the groups. Any application form for extension of the staffing grants will be much simpler. We cannot issue application forms until the funding is sorted out, which is being pursued actively with the Department of Finance. I spoke with the Department yesterday, the day before and on many other occasions and the dialogue is taking place on a number of levels.

On the issue of children with special needs, it should be borne in mind that the Department of Education and Science provides pre-school services for children, apart from those who are catered for in our programmes and crèches, with special needs. We are hopeful that any group displaying a clientele meeting our outlined criteria for disadvantage will continue to receive support under the programme. There will not be a widespread closing down of services, etc.

The issue of staffing grants is crucial and I assure Ms Moreau that there will be a closing down of services shortly if the staffing situation is not dealt with. We are discussing voluntary organisations which have done a considerable amount of work putting the capital programme in place but which must now engage in significant fundraising to cover their staffing requirements. They are entitled to some certainty from the Government, whether from the Department of Finance or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I hope our visitors will remain for some of the remainder of the meeting because there will be groups here later that will clearly explain the types of financial crisis and prospects of closure they face.

While these voluntary organisations have done a good job, they tend to establish excellent facilities that are well run in smaller villages in rural areas. There is a lack of facilities in the larger towns because the community groups are not as active in urban areas as they are in small villages. We will end up with a situation in which all rural areas and small villages will be well serviced, while urban areas, where there is real demand, will have nothing. What can be done to reverse this trend?

Dr. Crooks

My colleagues have spoken about staffing grants. The position of ADM Limited is that, as soon as the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Finance are able to clarify the position, we will be in a position to move immediately.

I will give an example from another project that some Deputies present are involved and interested in, namely, that of the rural transport initiative. The Minister for Transport made an announcement on Friday, 15 April 2005, about an extension to the available budget. We were able to post the letters to the groups in receipt of funding later that afternoon. We will try to move once there is clarity. We listen to voluntary groups on a daily basis telling us about their issues and I hope we are fully apprised of the entire range of issues.

On the matter of the difference between urban and rural areas, it is good to hear the Deputy's views about the amount of money or places in rural areas. There is a significant number of new child care centres in urban areas but the difference here involves, as many members would be aware, considerable stretches of social housing in larger urban areas and the particular needs that would be grouped therein. We must continue to have staffing grants for these sorts of areas.

I welcome the group. I will address a different aspect of the staffing grant issue. Does capping staffing grants within strict limits ignore the desire of many crèches to expand into other services? Are those other services not the real labour market intervention supports? The real support for parents with children in crèches is in adjunct services, after school and pre-school. The capping system does not allow crèches to expand into these areas because of its inflexibility. I invite Ms Moreau to listen to the experiences of the groups which follow. I sat on the board of the community centre crèche in Moyross, County Limerick and I know the difficulties they face.

Ms Moreau

I do not fully accept the Deputy's remarks. I do not think the crèches are constrained. Many crèches supported by our organisation provide a full range of services. This involves catering for children from the end of maternity leave, aged approximately 18 weeks, to children of 12 years of age. After this age many children no longer want to go to a crèche for their after-school service. Many pre-schools offer care for children in the three to four years age group. There are also integrated services catering for the wider age group.

The staffing grants were intended as a contribution to the costs of running a service. The cap is related to the level of service but not to any specific service. Grants can cover everything from a fully integrated service to a pre-school service to an after-school service. We support all three types with staffing grants. The structure is not as rigid as the Deputy suggests. Maybe I have misunderstood what the Deputy said.

I suggest that listening to groups operating crèches might be helpful.

This issue is of significant interest to many people. When did child benefit become a child care payment as opposed to an alleviation of poverty payment? Everyone refers to it as a child care payment even though it certainly would not cover child care costs. Many people attended a meeting of child care groups in Cork city recently. I know there are parents looking for alternative care for their children for September. This is because of the uncertainty that surrounds staffing grants and it is very worrying. A letter was sent that used a term similar to "consistent disadvantage" or "severe disadvantage" and this moved the goalposts as previously specified by the Department.

How can one claim that child care is at the top of the agenda in disadvantaged areas and at the same time require the facilities to be sustainable? It does not make sense and it is not possible.

Can the Deputy clarify what kind of sustainability she is referring to?

It is not possible for the child care centres to be sustainable.

Does the Deputy mean self-sustainable?

Yes. The Chair and I both know that centres cannot be located in disadvantaged areas and be expected to be self-sustaining. It is not possible.

Ms Moreau

The issue of child benefit is dealt with by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Questions on child benefit should be addressed to those Departments. I have already outlined the commitment of the Department of Equality, Justice and Law Reform to answer this issue as soon as possible. The letter from the Department in December seems to have caused much uncertainty. We have tried to rectify this by bringing certainty. We have not moved the goalposts of disadvantage.

I apologise for interrupting. Does the Department see a difference between "disadvantage" and "severe disadvantage"? The letter makes it clear that it does. This is an important point.

The goalposts have not been moved regarding disadvantage. What is the Department's position?

Ms Moreau

I have already outlined how we look at disadvantage. We consider the number of medical card holders in an area, the relative disadvantage of that area and the client base. Disadvantage can mean different things to different people. ADM Limited developed a measure of disadvantage for every area in the country. This was based on data from the 1996 census and was updated according to the 2002 census. It is available to the Department to examine disadvantage in different areas.

Projects that receive staffing grants range from those in well known disadvantaged areas to those in areas containing pockets of disadvantage within a prosperous area. There may be a high level of social housing within a small area of an otherwise prosperous district electoral division. Our colleagues in ADM Limited do a wonderful job for us in this respect. They engage with the groups and ask them for a phenomenal amount of information so that we can build up a picture of disadvantage. We learn about the project's client base. Even though a centre is in a prosperous area it may be drawing clients from an adjoining area. None of that has changed. The amount of funding we can provide for the groups is a reflection of how much funding the Government makes available to us.

Our funding was always intended to be a support towards child care services. It is up to the child care services to introduce appropriate levels of fees. Many of the services have differentiated levels of fees. This takes into account the ability of the parents to pay. Whatever the parents cannot provide is provided by the EOCP. There are still groups that believe it is not appropriate to raise any fees. Those may well be groups from outside disadvantaged areas.

I will now call Deputy Hoctor. While Deputy Lynch may not agree, we must continue our deliberations.

I too welcome the group and it would be remiss if we did not recognise the work that ADM and the Department have done, which has changed the face of provincial towns and villages. While it is wonderful, we have much more to do on this. I have a general question that one of the three delegates might answer. I am aware of the change in criteria for child care groups on facilities and hours worked. I understand that providing longer hours is one of the conditions for continued funding. I would like clarification on that. What conditions are now being placed on child care facilities and what are the nature of services to be provided in the longer working hours? Is the delegation confident that the resources and funding will be there to service those additional services sought?

Why is the maximum capital grant for the development of new services €1.1 million? Will that amount be increased in the future in view of all other index-linked construction developments around the country? Where ADM has been working through its agencies we see much good work. How is it proposed to reach those areas where ADM does not have fully established agencies where the need is greater? Is the Department making efforts, with the assistance of ADM, to ensure those services are extended throughout the country?

Ms Moreau

I will answer the first two questions and Dr. Crooks will respond on ADM. The majority of current funding for the equal opportunities child care programme comes from the European Social Fund and the programme focuses on employment because it must link into the aims of European social policy. We currently ask that groups offer a service, in so far as is feasible, for three and a half hours per day and ideally for five days per week. I say "ideally" because sometimes a group does not have premises available five days per week. We would also like groups to operate for approximately 44 to 46 weeks each year. If they are to support the majority of parents who are in education, training, and employment in particular, they must support parents while they are at work. Opening during the school year only creates a problem for parents during the approximately 12 weeks holidays which primary schools have. It also creates a dilemma for parents of younger children who must find alternative services.

Capital grants are now at a maximum of approximately €1.2 million to €1.4 million. ADM worked with a team of architects and other specialists to examine the actual costs of creating child care places. A guidance document called "We Like This Place" was produced and at that stage typical prices for creating a service were established. Using the additional funding we received in the budget and the remainder of our capital funding, we updated those amounts per place. These are the targets against which we evaluate projects currently. We have a generous but limited budget and we want to make it go as far as possible. One can get two to three child care projects at €1.2 million each for the cost of one child care project at over €3 million. Dr. Crooks might like to outline the planning role.

Dr. Crooks

The Deputy asked about the issue of coverage. Our company's view is that the programmes we support should be available across the entire country. The social development social inclusion programme is available in most parts, but not all, of the country. We are working with the Department for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs on proposals to move towards a national programme. Broadly speaking, while the programme should be a national one, it should be delivered locally and should focus on the people and places most in need.

On the child care issue, to a certain degree the county child care committees in each county enable us to establish the needs at local level. It is important to stress that for better or for worse, we live in an age when we must comply with EU regulations. Some groups throughout the country do not have the capacity to fill in the forms necessary to draw down funding. Those groups need additional support and we have the ability to take risks on judging where Government funding can be channelled to help the weakest and most at-risk groups for which it was intended. That is a major challenge in an age of compliance.

I will ask Deputy Costello to speak now.

On a point of order, is the Chairman adhering to the original order of questioners?

No. I varied it a little because I did not want to have the Labour Party members speaking together and I interspersed people.

I am very concerned. Some of us have been waiting for half an hour to speak and we have other meetings to attend. We agreed to go with the list. As a member of this committee, I would say there is an imbalance in favour of the political parties and it is a disgrace.

Deputy Finian McGrath was to speak after Deputy Costello and Senator O'Meara was next. I was going to call Deputy F. McGrath at that point in order to split the Labour Party members.

The Chairman changed the original list without informing the committee.

I have discretion in that matter.

I strongly disagree with that.

The Chairman does not want favouritism.

The Chairman did not bring me forward. I am in the same position as was mentioned and as I happen to be a spokesperson on justice, I am not complaining.

Deputy Moynihan-Cronin who is also a spokesperson on child care did extremely well in representing the Labour Party's point of view.

She did. I wish to follow up on some points the delegation made on such an interesting and important issue.

Was any survey conducted to determine the extent of the needs of child care nationally when the programme by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with ADM as the administrator was introduced? Is it now time to look beyond the fact that because the majority of funding is coming from the European Union, it puts the programme into a labour market straitjacket? Surely child care needs are far wider than the labour market. Is a review being contemplated regarding that?

Is it a fact that throughout the country the service providers must fundraise themselves in disadvantaged areas? Funding to provide the staff is not adequate because a small child care facility for 20 children gets as much funding as one double or treble the size due to the way costs are put together. We need greater clarity on the structuring and mechanism of the costs. Is the system of delivery too cumbersome and is it time to streamline it into a single department, like the Department of Education and Science, and use some of the facilities, for instance surplus buildings, in the community context rather than limiting it to an ADM partnership, RAPID or CLÁR type structure? Is the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform the most appropriate one in terms of responsibility for the delivery of the service?

It might be more appropriate to put some of Deputy Costello's questions to the Minister, but those that ——

There is no harm in asking them, Chairman.

Absolutely. Ms Moreau can reply to those questions that are appropriate.

Ms Moreau

Deputy Costello asked about actual need. In 1999 and 2000, ADM carried out an extensive survey of child care on behalf of the Department. The Department then asked the county child care committees to update some of the key elements of that survey in terms of the actual places that were being, or had been, created locally. Not all new child care services created at local level have received support under the programme. In the Dublin area, for example, there are considerable numbers of large-scale, commercial child care services that are addressing the child care needs of parents. While the current programme is addressing labour market and labour market supports issues, it also aims to address social disadvantage by supporting parents who may be in education or training in preparation for entry into the labour market. Evidence would suggest that many of the parents availing of the services supported by the Department are in training or education rather than in employment.

I can inform the Deputy that two reviews are being conducted at present. One is being carried out on behalf of the Cabinet sub-committee on children by the high level group on co-ordination for early childhood care and education. This review was facilitated by the National Children's Office, the report has been finalised and will be submitted to the Cabinet sub-committee this afternoon. The other review is being conducted under the aegis of the National Economic and Social Forum. The forum which has been meeting since late last year is holding a plenary session in June and expects to report shortly thereafter. The Deputy can be assured that the review issue is being dealt with at present.

On the matter of the system of delivery, it is true that certain aspects are cumbersome because we are managing large amounts of public money. As Dr. Crooks pointed out, ADM tries to make it as painless as possible for groups. The teams in the development offices in ADM work closely with the groups, as do the county child care committee teams, to assist them in working through the system. There is a need for all groups to raise funding locally through fees or other methods. To some extent this strengthens the groups in that many of the facilities that are developed are a source of pride to the local communities.

Deputy Costello also asked about the amounts of funding that are available. We make different amounts available to different groups depending on the circumstances, levels of services required and so on. Typically, a staffing grant can vary from approximately €12,000 up to €150,000 per annum. The smaller amount would be for a group which appears to have a limited focus on disadvantage. We would issue such a grant and then encourage the group to target disadvantage more closely over the first year, thus strengthening its case for increased funding in subsequent years. The larger grants would go to large projects in extremely disadvantaged areas.

The situation for many groups is that they are operating on a shoestring and some are heavily dependent on community employment schemes for staff. I am familiar with the Nenagh child care centre which is an excellent, state-of-the-art child care centre that delivers a quality service. However, out of a total of 22 staff, 17 are on community employment schemes and that is not unusual.

The Department will spend €500 million over seven years and while this is generous but limited, the demand is much greater than that. There is a substantial need to fund child care adequately and we are barely scratching the surface in terms of demand.

I must ask Senator O'Meara to pose a question.

Rather than approaching the Department of Finance on an annual basis with begging bowl in hand, has the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform estimated what level of long-term funding is required to provide a child care infrastructure that is not dependent on community employment, does not operate on a shoestring and is not reliant on the fund-raising capabilities of the individual groups?

Ms Moreau

We have not been asked to undertake such an exercise and therefore would not have the detailed information required to answer that question. We have some indications but it is really a matter for politicians.

What indications does the Department have?

What does the Senator mean by "indications"?

I understood from what Ms Moreau has said that the Department has some indication of what level of spending would be required in the context I have just outlined.

Ms Moreau

I do not have those figures.

I thought indicative figures were available. I would have expected the Department to have carried out such work.

We have agreed that the expression of opinions on child care be deferred for the moment. We are only dealing with questions at this point in time.

It was stated that, with European funding, the programme is achieving its objectives of getting people into the workplace and allowing people to get training to enter the workplace. How many of the child care facilities funded under the programme are based in businesses as opposed to communities? Are the child care facilities in the community different in nature from those based within businesses? Are trends in funding changing? For example, is funding directed more towards services in the community or towards child care facilities within the corporate environment?

It has been stated that there is a preference for promoting facilities that are open on a year-round basis. Does the criteria for funding also take into account a service that allows parents to avail of child care facilities on a part-time, drop-in or flexible basis? Is flexibility being promoted through the staffing grants and so forth?

Certain political parties have raised the possibility of having child care facilities in primary schools from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I am interested in the comments on the ability of the child care facilities that have been given capital grants to provide after-school care. I imagine that this issue is being examined in the reviews that Ms Moreau described in response to Deputy Costello's questions. Has any submission been made on the suitability of such facilities to complement or replace the role of schools in this matter?

Ms Moreau

The two current studies concern early childhood care and education for zero to six year-olds. However, the Department and the national child care co-ordinating committee, which brings all child care interests together on a regular basis, have developed and plan to implement a policy document on the further development of school age child care services. School age child care is a less developed area in Ireland and Europe.

Schools which are owned by churches and managed by school boards give rise to certain issues. There have been cases where due to expanding pupil numbers, school based pre-school services were made homeless. We are supportive of the expansion of school age child care services in schools.

Ms Keating

The figure mentioned in Ms Moreau's paper referred to the number of groups in receipt of staffing grants, for which only community-based not-for-profit organisations are eligible. The EOCP has supported and built upon the existing child care infrastructure which combines community-based not-for-profit organisations with small scale private providers. Of the 2,000 projects supported by the EOCP, a relatively small proportion of 20 to 25% involve large commercial providers and a minimal number are linked to employers. There has to date been limited pro-active engagement of employers within the child care sector. Efforts are currently ongoing, particularly by the Dublin county child care committees, to motivate employers on this issue.

Patterns have changed significantly in terms of flexibility for parents. When the programme commenced, the demand for places came largely from working parents seeking care from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parents and in particular mothers have since started to opt for different arrangements. Services should be responsive to these changes but face challenges from the nature of national funding structures and EU criteria, which are slower than local groups in responding to the demand for flexibility. We are guided by the messages we constantly receive on the need to address differing child care usage.

Is it possible for us to exert influence on European criteria which restrict flexibility?

Ms Keating

Possibly but we are approaching the final part of the EU focus of this programme, which does not solely entail restricted flexibility of services. Groups on the ground are far ahead on this issue because national programmes take longer to adjust. The nature of the system means that we are informed of issues after the event. There has been wider acceptance that the programme must expand upon its initial focus to take into account different patterns of usage.

We are attempting to support arrangements between child care providers and organisations such as third level institutes. While public sector employers are more commonly involved in this area than is the private sector, we have had some success with the latter. This programme has invested extensively in school age child care. It has supported many innovative developments which follow an inclusive strategy towards school age children rather than boxing them into restrictive environments. The programme's experience can provide lessons on children's needs for the wider education sector.

It was mentioned that many parents receive 3.5 hours of child care per day depending on their needs. Has this been satisfactory for the people who need the service? It seems a short length of time, which might be consumed by travel.

Ms Keating

Pre-school regulations prohibit sessional services to operate for longer than 3.5 hours. Sessional service providers must provide a wider range of facilities in order to offer a longer service, which is sometimes beyond a child care group's capacity. Providers that have the facilities can operate for longer than the minimum of 3.5 hours and receive support for this. It would be insufficient if child care was limited to 3.5 hours but parents often look for a menu of services. Some combine childminders and sessional services and others use providers who offer longer hours. The regulations in the sector lie outside this programme's remit and are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children.

This session lasted longer than anticipated but it has been very valuable to the members of this committee. I thank the delegates for their presentation and the openness of their responses. It gives me confidence to know the child care programme is in good hands.

We will now suspend the meeting for two minutes. I ask the representatives of the Dublin 12 Childcare Consortium and of the Tallaght Childcare Group to attend.

Sitting suspended at 10.50 a.m. and resumed at 10.52 a.m.

We resume in the company of the Dublin 12 Childcare Consortium and the Tallaght Childcare Group. I welcome Mr. Brian Nugent, manager of the KWCD Area Partnership. I believe that Mr. Nugent is also chairman of the Dublin 12 Childcare Consortium. I ask him to introduce his colleagues.

Mr. Brian Nugent

Ms Tricia McCann is child care co-ordinator for the Dublin 12 area. She works for the KWCD Area Partnership, and she is the implementing person for the consortium. Ms Mary McGuane is an area manager with Dublin City Council, sits on the consortium and is chair of the KWCD Area Partnership.

We also welcome Ms DianeRichmond from the Tallaght Childcare Group. She is head of community and enterprise development with Partas. I ask Ms Richmond to introduce her colleagues.

Ms Diane Richmond

Mr. Michael Quilligan is manager of the social economy unit with Partas, and he is a board member of the Tallaght Childcare Company. Ms Liz Jackson is manager of the Tallaght Childcare Company.

I ask each group to make a short opening presentation, and we will then have general questions to both groups on the presentations that they make. I invite Ms Richmond to start for the Tallaght Childcare Group.

Ms Richmond

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to speak here today. Partas works with many community child care organisations in Tallaght. Today, we are specifically talking about the Tallaght Childcare Company. The theme of my paper is that there is inadequate funding to support the sustainability of community child care services, particularly in urban areas characterised by high levels of disadvantage. I will highlight the rationale for the support given at Government level for community child care services. There is an economic argument, which highlights the requirement for adequate child care in order to achieve full participation in the work force. Child care is a sector in its own right, and provides a high level of employment. Early education can enhance economic performance later in life. There is also a social and equality argument. The social argument underlines the need for equality of education and care. A person's early childhood can strongly influence the level of investment that the State needs to make during the life of that citizen. On the equality argument, women with young children are under-utilised in the work force, and early education is a key factor in combating socioeconomic disadvantage.

I turn now to the issues experienced by community child care services, particularly in urban communities. Community child care is the most common form of organised child care provision in disadvantaged communities, but centres constantly struggle for survival. Financial sustainability is a huge concern for centres. Given the economic profile of the communities in which they operate, they are unable to generate sufficient income to sustain themselves from parental fees. Consequently, they rely on funding from the Government. Generally, this is limited and short term. It is primarily provided through the equal opportunities child care programme and the FÁS active labour market programme.

The cost of providing child care is approximately the same irrespective of the wealth of the community. I would estimate the cost of child care for parents as being between €120 and €185 per week, with babies being more expensive. In an open market, price is determined by the ability to pay for goods or services. In areas of market failure, such as child care provision in disadvantaged communities, including communities in Tallaght, price is often determined more by that inability to pay. In response to market failure, subsidised services are provided, and the end-user pays a portion of the cost of the provision, not the full amount. The actual cost per child of the care provided by the Tallaght Childcare Company in 2003 was approximately €210, with the end-user paying about 45%. That is still a significantly high proportion of income for marginalised people to pay. The inability of community child care centres to recoup the full operating costs from parental contributions makes child care services dependent on some form of ongoing State subvention, which is currently inadequate and does not meet demand.

A number of mechanisms are available under the current subsidy framework to subsidise the costs of child care provision. The first one, which we have already heard about this morning, is the equal opportunities child care programme. This provides staffing grants to community and not-for-profit organisations that can demonstrate a focus on disadvantage with a view to enhancing quality. Those grants are intended as a contribution to staffing costs only, and they operate on the basis of strict caps within bands. For instance, staffing grants may be capped at €65,000 per annum over three years. It is expected for centres to generate the balance of the funding required. The capping system fails to give any real recognition to the actual cost of high-quality child care provision, the size of the service or the capacity of families to pay, particularly in disadvantaged communities. The onus is now on services to demonstrate self-sustainability in their own right. There is a lack of clarity on funding beyond 2006.

Other mechanisms to support community child care include the FÁS active labour market programmes. That covers community employment, job initiative and social economy programmes. Despite the usefulness and importance of ALMPs in developing community child care services to date, we feel that neither CE nor JI is an appropriate mechanism to support quality child care provision.

There are two underlying difficulties, which cannot be reconciled under the current framework of provision. Participants are generally untrained and inexperienced in formal child care provision. Criteria for selection place restrictions on the service provider, particularly on their ability to recruit. Staff on the various programmes should not be considered as core staff, but merely as trainees. By their nature, labour market programmes aim to encourage and support participants to progress into mainstream employment, which creates a high turnover. That is difficult to manage in the context of child care. There is a high level of training associated with those programmes, which places a burden on managers. FÁS programme funding is committed for a specific period of time, after which sustainability must be demonstrated. FÁS programmes are constantly under review and are consistently subjected to cutbacks, and it is increasingly difficult to manage community child care in this environment of ongoing certainty.

The next option for child care is user purchase. That refers to the income generated from fees charged to the families accessing the service. The capacity of individuals to pay differs greatly, depending on such factors as employment status, income, family size and the level of disadvantage. Within Tallaght, a community with many pockets of relative deprivation, parents pay 45% of the costs for a place with the Tallaght Childcare Company, which works out at €95 per week. This is a significant amount of money and often serves as a deterrent for some when considering re-entering the workforce.

Private purchase is the fourth option used to subsidise child care. This arises when agencies such as the VEC and health boards purchase places at cost price on behalf of their clients directly or indirectly and traditionally served as a steady stream of income for many services. Unfortunately, many of these subsidies have been withdrawn over the past couple of years, creating an additional burden for services to overcome.

To draw on the actual experience of Tallaght Childcare Company Limited, on the documents I handed out earlier there is a breakdown of the budget required to operate the company in 2005. That service caters for 42 full-time places. The source of funding is identified and the contribution to overall costs is highlighted. Fees represented just under 40% of the overall income. Grants from FÁS represented 38%, ADM grants 20% and other grants 2.4%. At this level of income the amount of operating surplus being generated is negligible. The potential to build a reserve, thereby reducing grant dependency, is almost non-existent.

Recognition is needed that child care fees within an urban context will only ever make a small proportion of income for child care centres. Recognition is needed in regard to the inappropriateness of active labour market programmes as a staffing mechanism in community child care. The use of these programmes ought to be encouraged and supported as quality training mechanisms for participants and should not be relied upon for core staffing. Adequate funding needs to be provided to employ quality trained staff.

Child care centres need to be facilitated to move from the complicated funding strands that exist now to a more comprehensive programme, including the EOCP, equal opportunities child care programme, if it has the adequate resources to do so; and user purchase and private purchase, removing the dependency on ALMPs, active labour market programmes. The contribution of the State, the EOCP needs to be at a more realistic level, one that reflects the size of the service and the level of disadvantage in the community in which it is based. One size does not fit all where community child care provision is concerned. Demand-based subsidy approaches would enhance the ability of parents to pay more realistic fees within a community child care context and should be researched and implemented.

The ongoing uncertainty associated with Government funding post-2006 should be addressed as a matter of priority as it impacts on the services' ability to strategically manage their developments and on the families and the children who use the service.

If there are no changes to the current policy, existing community child care centres will close all or part of their services due to the lack of funding. Community child care centres will continue to depend on inappropriate support mechanisms to staff their facilities. This can have a potential negative impact on the quality of provision for the family and the child. Community child care providers may be forced into a position whereby they pass on the actual cost of a child care place to parents as opposed to a subsidised fee. This will effectively exclude marginalised families from accessing essential services and will impact negatively on their pursuit of economic and social equality.

Child care provision in the informal economy will continue to thrive with no regulation or benefits to providers and the high dependency of women, in particular, lone parents on welfare, will continue.

Mr. Nugent

The Dublin 12 Childcare Consortium is made up of a group of people interested in developing facilities for the area. Its boundaries are basically the same as that of the KWCD area partnership which covers Kimmage, Walkinstown, Greenhills, Perrystown, Crumlin and Drimnagh. According to the 2002 census, the population of this area is 57,000. As Ms Tricia McCann will explain there are no community facilities in the area for a population of that size. In regard to target groups the area is best characterised as having low levels of educational attainment, high levels of unemployment, substance misuse, local authority housing, lone parent families and pockets of severe disadvantage. In the context of the discussion earlier about disadvantage and the various definitions thereof, we have done some work based on a DED level. It indicates a deprivation index at DED level. When one sees those at micro level what they reveal is quite stark, for example, 50% of the population of some of those DEDs left school prior to or at junior certificate level, and up to 15% of people are unemployed. While it is stated here that lone parenthood in the area has increased significantly from 13.9% to 23.1%, almost every fourth family with at least one dependent child is headed by a single parent. Some of these DEDs have 30% and one has 40% of lone parents. There are no facilities to cater for them. I shall hand over to Ms McCann to describe the area in greater detail.

Ms Tricia McCann

There are no community-based child care facilities in the Dublin 12 area. We have two sessional services that provide community care but they offer parents three-and-a-half hours care per day. They are being accessed by the majority of lone parents and those who are disadvantaged in the area. We have many private providers in the area who are not running to capacity, the reason being that parents cannot afford to access the service. Therefore, it is a catch-22 situation. There is a little funding from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform into the area. Partly due to red tape and bureaucracy many groups in the area do not have the capacity to fill out the application form and carry it through to the end. One service in the area has recently received a loan from the local credit union to redevelop the service. That tells us there is something wrong somewhere.

The lack of adequate child care provision is impacting heavily on the education, training and employment possibilities of those within the Dublin 12 community. There are 573 children in child care services in the area with 199 children on waiting lists. That is a staggering figure on the waiting lists and is due partly to affordability and accessibility of services for parents.

The proposed new child care centre for which we have made application to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform commenced four years ago. We propose to build a child care centre in Willie Pearse Park in Crumlin. We secured a site from Dublin City Council and we have a clear focus on social inclusion. The provision of a quality affordable child care centre will measurably address the issues and provide a real progression route for the following target groups — women wishing to return to work, education or employment, ethnic minority groups, including Traveller families, lone parents and those affected by disabilities and families in crisis with high support needs. We hope to offer 60 places in the new centre and have up to 20 staff but the concern relates to the sustainability of the centre long term and what will happen. There is also the capacity of people in the community to become members of management committees that ultimately become employers. That is a huge step for many to take and is a consideration that must be taken into account.

We can talk statistics and deprivation scores but we cannot come up with a word that would express the total and utter frustration of those working in the services in the community, ordinary women who are the backbone of child care in many communities throughout the country, not only in the Dublin 12 area. They are caught in a position where they cannot move forward and are providing a service that is valuable to the community. If that service disappears the community and ultimately everybody suffers.

If we could make some recommendations, we would like to see immediate Government investment in child care for the Dublin 12 area and an acknowledgement of the importance of child care provision in the community and that community child care will never be sustainable without Government investment. We would like better incentives for lone parents to get back into the workforce and support for new pilot initiatives such as the Swedish model for parents' co-operatives. We would like to make one Department or agency responsible for child care. The Government should put a ten-year plan in place for child care.

Both presentations were excellent. I invite the members of the committee to ask questions which will be banked. Given the number of groups coming in, we do not have time for an individual question and answer session. I ask the members of the delegation to take note of the questions asked.

The representatives of the Tallaght Childcare Company said that 45% of the funding comes from clients' mothers and fathers. Is the amount paid based on the ability of the parents to pay, in other words, the more substantial their income the more they will pay towards the economic cost of the service?

The comment about the active labour market programme was a bit of an eye-opener as far as I am concerned. How do the representatives from the Crumlin area regard that and how much dependence was placed on active labour market support in respect of the project?

For the members who were not present earlier, our purpose is to ask questions of the participants following which we will have time to express our opinions.

I will abide by your directive, Chairman, even though I want to speak in detail about the fact that I am from Crumlin and live in Tallaght. I welcome both delegations. I have an involvement in Tallaght in that I am a member of the board of Partas. I am delighted to support this particular group. It is important that we support these groups, both of whose presentations were excellent.

The Tallaght group is trying to create an environment in a major population centre where people can go back to work and, thankfully, that is happening now. If we all had the ability to persuade the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, to take action in the next budget, what would the representatives regard as the absolute priority? What are the current capital needs of the project? I am aware there are many premises in Tallaght and many challenges. Do the groups have a priority in terms of capital programme costs?

I will ask a question of each group separately. I visited the Tallaght group with Deputy Breeda Moynihan-Cronin and saw the excellent work being done. In terms of the cost to the person using the facility, particularly the lone parent or somebody in disadvantaged circumstances, reference was made to a contribution of €95 a week, which is not acceptable. What mechanism would the representatives use to support the parent? Mention was made of the vocational education committees and health boards purchasing places, which is an excellent idea, but other suggestions were made, including a voucher system for the parents or a top-up of their allowance. Would the group deliver that through the equal opportunities child care programme, the provider, other agencies or the parents themselves? I would like an opinion on that.

I was taken aback to hear about the struggle the Dublin 12 group is facing. What specific support would enable the groups the representatives are talking about to get up and running and provide the community child care that is clearly needed in their area?

We will bank the questions for the moment.

There is no difference between the problems experienced by urban-based and rural-based community groups. It all comes down to day-to-day funding of the centres and unless something is done about that immediately, we will have closures of these facilities. Even those who are contemplating setting up these facilities on a voluntary basis in co-operation with ADM now face the uncertainty. Even if they succeed in doing that, they wonder if the project will be sustainable in the long term after all the work they have put into it.

The ADM representatives said that as soon as the funding is sanctioned by the Department of Finance for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it will facilitate the funding being allocated to the voluntary groups. If there is not a quick change of policy with regard to funding, how long can these groups stay in operation?

The Tallaght group said that parents must pay 45% of the cost, which amounts to €95 per week. I presume that is for full-time care. How many hours does that involve? Does it mean that someone in a position to pay that amount of money must be in employment? What about the individual who does not have a job who wants to receive training? Is he or she in a position to access the group's service and, if not, what happens to those people?

The Dublin 12 group is in dire need of services. Under the "issues" heading in its submission it states that there are no community-based child care facilities in the Dublin 12 area but that some groups offer a sessional service. Are they community-based or in the private sector?

I welcome the representatives of the two groups, only one of which receives funding, yet they both experience problems. That is the nub of the issue.

Is it feasible for a community child care service such as the Tallaght group to attain financial viability? That is what the Department proposes. I have visited many of the groups in Dublin and elsewhere and I have asked the same question of everybody.

I hope the Dublin 12 child care consortium will get support arising from this public outing because it is frightening to think there is no service in an area where it is so badly needed. Unless we start by educating the children, we will face the same difficulty 20 years from now. The group's paper speaks for itself and I know the committee will fully support it.

Perhaps the representatives will divide the questions among themselves. If it is more appropriate for one person to answer, please allow that. I remind you that whereas the members of the committee have parliamentary privilege, that privilege does not obtain to yourselves. I ask Ms Richmond to commence replying to the questions and comment if she so wishes.

Ms Richmond

To answer Deputy O'Connor's points on the priorities in Tallaght, particularly the capital needs, one example of how this approach to child care has been neglected is the fact that one of the groups in Jobstown has secured a €1.3 million state of the art building with fantastic facilities. It secured the funding through ADM-EOCP but unfortunately, in terms of operating it, it does not have the adequate support from any Department to open the centre. In its first year it will operate at a deficit and that position will worsen in its second and third year. Everything is fine from a capital point of view but from an ongoing operational point of view the support does not exist. In terms of developing the building, therefore, unless the two are adequately resourced, there is little point in beginning the first process. Mr. Quilligan might answer the question posed by the Chairman about the ability to pay in Tallaght Childcare Company and how the figure is arrived at.

Mr. Michael Quilligan

The fee in Tallaght Childcare Company is €95 per week for full-time care, which is anything from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and it is €67 for half-day care. That is the fee charged for every child attending the service. The theory of charging staggered fee rates for different categories of parents is good but, in practice, it is difficult to ask a parent for the information one would need to make decisions in terms of implementing such a model. It can be also be patronising to ask a parent to produce a medical card, evidence of his or her inability to pay, etc. For that reason, the Tallaght Childcare Company has not gone down that route.

Ms Richmond

Mr. Quilligan answered the question posed on the number of hours during which the service is provided. I will ask Ms Liz Jackson, the manager of the company, to reply to the question regarding the ability to pay for the service of parents who are not accessing work but who are returning to training. She has practical examples of the difficulties encountered in managing in such circumstances.

Ms Liz Jackson

Some parents accessing the service participate in VEC courses and they receive subsidies from the VEC in respect of it. The VEC pays approximately €70 towards the cost of the service and the parent must make up the balance of the fee. Others participating in FÁS training or other training programmes do not receive any financial assistance and they must come up with the fee of €95 or €67 if they want their children cared for on a part-time basis.

Ms Richmond

Senator O'Meara inquired about the mechanism we use to support end-users. Our focus has been on subsidising the provision of the service rather than meeting demand for it. Many organisations have researched models, in Sweden, New Zealand and elsewhere, of ways to support individuals by way of coupons, vouchers, tax reliefs, etc. Our expertise is not in that area. That issue needs to be taken on board and more work needs to be done in that area. In terms of subsidies, it would be helpful to have a programme that would be sufficient to resource the child care sector without provision for it having to be spread over a number of different programmes, which leads to more confusion and difficulties around management of it.

Deputy Gerard Murphy asked about our day-to-day funding, about there not being a difference between the cost of provision of this service in urban and rural areas, about what will happen if no policy change is introduced and about how long can we continue to provide this service. We will not be able to do so for very long. A crisis was averted in Tallaght last year when many of the community employment and job initiative schemes were coming to an uncertain end. FÁS programmes have changed and the pressure in this respect is not as great as it was this time last year. That crisis was averted rather than the system changed. Such a crisis could happen at any stage.

Many services in Tallaght depend on job initiative programmes and if people move on, they are not replaced. It is possible that these services will cease to be provided. We are doing all we can to support them but such support is on anad hoc basis. Unless there is significant change in the system going forward, matters will not improve within the community sector in Tallaght. I will pass over to Mr. Quilligan who will deal with our priority concerns.

Mr. Quilligan

Deputy O'Connor asked what priority issues we would be put forward to Minister, Deputy Cowen. In terms of funding the mix for child care under FÁS programmes, our experience on the policy end is that priority is given to the number of staff being trained and placed in employment and the use of social economy or community child care sector as a transitory mechanism to achieve that. The objective of the equal opportunities child care programme appears to be to ensure the provision of equal opportunities to enable parents to return to the workforce. The priority in the system is on the number of places being created and there is not such a focus on the position of the child in that the priority of need for quality child care is not identified sufficiently in those programmes.

Ms Richmond

Deputy Breeda Moynihan-Cronin asked if the provision of child care services could attain financial viability. The Tallaght Childcare Company is maximising its users' ability to pay. It cannot charge any more than it does at present. The company recently increased its fee to €98. It could become financially viable if it substantially increased its fees and it could attract parents who are willing to pay such higher fees. However, that would defeat the purpose of the service. It is a community, not a private, child care service. We are not interested in it being a private service and we would not work for the company if it operated in that way. If we were to strive to make it financially viable in that sense, we would defeat our objectives. We are not interested in doing that. The company is maximising its users' ability to pay and it cannot do anymore than that.

Mr. Nugent

Regarding the question on the active labour market programme, as my colleagues from Tallaght indicated, there is a reluctance to take on people participating in jobs initiative and community employment schemes because providing such places is a tentative way of operating. We do not know how long the policy governing them will continue to be in place. There is a changeover of staff in such places on a regular basis. We are talking about salary grants of a substantive nature. To make the schemes affordable — "affordable" is the word that needs to be used when discussing them — we need grants to pay at least 50% of those salaries. The active labour market programmes are tentative. When a building is constructed at a cost of €1 million, the business that operates from it must be sustainable. The word "sustainable" has been mentioned on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, the process by which community employment schemes operate is not sustainable.

Senator O'Meara asked what specific supports would be required to make them work. I will ask Ms Tricia McCann to respond to that question.

Ms McCann

The main specific support required is finance. It is a major need and, in that regard, we must call a spade a spade. These services need money. The use of user-friendly forms and less intimidating language might encourage people to use the services. Many people are put off by the language used and by what is expected of them. Ultimately, the services need financial support, they need to be sustainable and they need support from the Department. There is no point in allocating money for capital costs if the service operated from a building is not sustainable. We are talking about disadvantaged areas and, as my colleague from Tallaght said, about running businesses. These are community child care facilities. People are put in place in these facilities to manage the services and not to be accountants or administrators. That responsibility can be daunting for many of these people, which accounts for the large turnover of staff in these services. People need practical supports. They require finance to sustain the services they provided; they do not want to be pulling their hair out year after year in terms of trying to manage those services. Training is another important need. We are talking about running quality services. We need to train people and, if we do so, we need to pay them appropriate wages.

The reference to use of intimidating language is a serious charge. In what way do people find the language used intimidating?

Ms McCann

Many people may not understand what is meant by the language used in the forms.

Ms McCann is referring to the language used in the forms.

Ms McCann


Mr. Nugent

Deputy Gerard Murphy asked about funding and about whether we can continue to operate if there is no change of policy. Given the nature of the make-up of this consortium, many people involved in it deal with bureaucracy on a daily basis and they have to persist with that. As Ms McCann stated, the programme has taken four years to reach this stage and approval for it had to be resubmitted in January 2004. The response to that came in November 2004 and we now have more forms to complete. It has been a long, drawn-out process. We respect what the representatives of ADM said earlier about the amount of money involved and about their responsibilities. However, there must be a quicker way of moving this process forward. There are child care committees, there is ADM and there is a liaison person in ADM in Longford. There are quite a number of people involved in this area. The information flow is disastrous in the sense of failure to keep people informed regarding the stage a project has reached. One only hears about that when a formal letter is issued. There needs to be not so much a change of policy but a faster way of operating this process.

Ms McCann

We have two sessional services in the area. One of these is in a VEC which gives priority places to people attending courses in the college. It also offers 15 community places. A CE scheme also runs two sessional services in a local community centre.

Ms Mary McGuane was offering.

Ms Mary McGuane

As Mr. Nugent and Ms McCann said, one of the greatest frustrations we experience relates to a lack of co-ordination. I am pleased to see my colleagues from the Dublin city child care committee present. There should be better co-ordination and co-operation from both ADM and the city child care committee. It is frustrating for voluntary groups. Basically, the Dublin 12 Childcare Consortium is a voluntary committee of people interested in child care in the Dublin 12 area. We have committed people but we require much support.

The issues have already been outlined regarding the immediate capital support. We need our application for funding to be supported. We have secured a site, which was not easy. It is a desirable site in Crumlin village so we need the application for capital funding to be supported. We also need support, in view of the areas of disadvantage within our area, for our application for a staffing grant when it is submitted. I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to highlight our plight in terms of the lack of child care facilities in the Dublin 12 area.

I thank Brian Nugent, Tricia McCann, Mary McGuane, Diane Richmond, Michael Quilligan and Liz Jackson. I will suspend the sitting for one minute to allow the Dublin 10 Childcare Action Group and the Fingal County Childcare Committee to come before the committee.

Sitting suspended at 11.32 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.

I welcome the Dublin 10 Childcare Action Group, which incorporates the Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard areas. This group is close to my heart because I have done much work with it. I am aware of the group's commitment to providing excellent community child care in the Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard areas. The Cherry Orchard area, in particular, is very much in need of support.

I welcome Ciara Hoey, the community development co-ordinator, Amy Byrne, the co-ordinator of LINK — which is the Cherry Orchard project — Angela Copely, manager of the Ballyfermot family resource centre — which got some funding recently for child care — Linda Ratigan, manager of Treasure Tots nursery and Natasha McConnell of the Base child care facility. From the Fingal County Childcare Committee I welcome Ms Michelle Butler, child care co-ordinator, Hilary Kendlin, chairperson of FCCC, and Ms Geraldine O'Reilly, board member of FCCC and a child care provider. Perhaps Ciara Hoey will make the presentation.

Ms Ciara Hoey

I thank the committee for the opportunity to present our paper. The Dublin 10 Childcare Action Group is a subgroup of the Dublin 10 Childcare Network. The network was established in 2002 with the main purpose of bringing people together to share their experience, knowledge and skills in the hope of planning a more strategic, co-ordinated approach to child care in the Dublin 10 area.

The action group was initially formed to lobby to increase the number of child care places in Dublin 10. As a number of groups in the area had applied through the EOCP mechanism for capital funding, it was suggested that it might be useful if they got together and provided a united front to lobby collectively for an increased number of child care places. The group has been extremely active during the past two years and has lobbied extensively in the local area and with local representatives. Ballyfermot's partnership role in this is to co-ordinate and convene these groups and to provide support and advice.

For those who are not familiar with the Ballyfermot area, I will outline some statistics and new developments taking place which will have a direct impact on the level of child care provision. At present, the population of Ballyfermot is 20,699. Ballyfermot and its four wards have been identified as one of the most disadvantaged categories in the country. It is one of two areas in the country that received URBAN funding in the last round, which highlights its level of disadvantage. It has a higher than average number of pre-school children, in the zero to four years age group. The total is approximately 1,464. These figures are sourced from the 2002 census, so they will be slightly altered in the next census. The youth population in the two DEDs of Cherry Orchard A and Cherry Orchard C is extremely high at 41% and 56%, respectively.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of lone parent households in the Dublin 10 area since the 1996 census. The increase has been 23%, which is double the national rate. Lone parent households are at high risk of experiencing poverty, social exclusion and inequality. At present, there are approximately 30 child care facilities. We use that term loosely. These facilities include playgroups, after school care and specifically targeted crèche facilities. However, only one service caters for the Cherry Orchard area and it is overstretched and has a long waiting list.

A significant number of women are participating in employment. That is a recurring theme throughout the country. They are also returning to education and training programmes. This is one of the factors leading to the shortfall in the level of child care provision relative to demand in Dublin 10.

One of the new developments in Cherry Orchard is the regeneration project. A new village has been planned and the plans are ready to be implemented. Approximately 1,800 units will be built in addition to approximately 350 units in infill housing. Over 2,000 units will be provided in the Cherry Orchard area during the next two years. If one assumes that there will be 2.5 individuals per unit, there will be an extra 5,500 people in the Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot areas. That is a significant burden on existing child care services.

There is also an increase in the number of new families entering the older estates. Many of the houses are being sold to Dublin City Council and new families are moving into them. This may be reflected in the youth population in the next census. The level of child care provision is far below the level of demand, which is evident in the long waiting lists of existing service providers. Some of them have over 100 on their waiting lists.

This information illustrates the need to formulate a long-term strategic plan for child care, preferably over ten years, with particular focus on community child care. There is a need to increase the number of child care places in the Dublin 10 area but there is also a need to strengthen the capacity of the existing child care services with regard to support, training and development and resources being channelled through these services. The national child care strategy, the CDB strategy, "Family Friendly City", and the national employment action plan support this view.

I have outlined some of the benefits of community-based child care but I will not go into too much detail regarding them. The benefits, particularly for the Exchequer and the State, speak for themselves. If there was a more strategic plan with community-based child care, it would obviously increase the employability of parents, increase tax returns and decrease the reliance on social welfare.

We would like to make some recommendations regarding not necessarily a policy change but rather a structural change that may be appropriate. We would like on the ground supports and resources to be provided in respect of child care services that have received funding which would enable them to effectively manage this funding. Some of the funding they have received involved large sums of money and the child care managers of either multi-service facilities or stand-alone crèches may not have the expertise to deal with architects, accountants and builders. They would, therefore, like to see on the ground support and expertise.

There also needs to be an acknowledgement that fees — which include, in some instances, user purchase fees, private purchase fees and labour market sources — will only ever make up a small proportion of the income for a child care centre. The State must recognise that moneys will need to be supplied on a long-term basis to community facilities to enable them to be viable and sustainable. The term "sustainable facilities" has been used a great deal today.

Active labour market programmes should not be relied upon as suppliers of core staff members. They should be definitely encouraged and used as a training mechanism but one that will progress on to employment. That is the theme of the labour market programmes but, unfortunately, that has not come to fruition and those on them are now being used, in many instances, as core staff members. A long-term strategic commitment is required by the State in this regard. The contribution from the State through the EOCP mechanism needs to reflect the size of the service. The level of disadvantage in the area also needs to be highlighted.

With regard to ongoing staffing grants, we would like to see a five-year commitment which we feel would be more feasible and would definitely provide more effective management. It would enable child care services to plan strategically for the future. At present, it is done on a roll-over basis and many services find it difficult to plan as they have not yet discovered whether they will have staffing grants in September. As stated earlier, these facilities could, in technical terms, be closing. In the past, one child care facility had to be bailed out at the 11th hour by a bank draft. It was literally going to close the following day. That matter can be discussed later.

We would like to see administration costs and technical assistance, as well as ongoing training and development supports, built into child care staffing grants. This would lead a much more holistic approach to child care. Ideally, we would like to see one Department or agency being responsible for child care. We have not decided which Department or agency should do so but we would like to see a more central reference point for child care.

I want to give the committee an update on our situation as a group. Four groups represented here applied through the EOCP mechanism for capital funding. In the last round of funding, which was made in December 2004, two groups from Ballyfermot or Dublin 10 received €2.5 million in capital grants. I refer here to the Base youth and child care facility and the Ballyfermot Family Resource Centre. This funding has been gratefully received but funding for two other centres — the Cherry Orchard child care project, which is hoping to build a stand-alone crèche from scratch, and the Treasure Tots nursery, which is hoping to extend its service — is still pending.

Of the two facilities that received capital funding, one has a shortfall of over €500,000 because costs had increased incrementally from the time it applied in 2002 to the time it received funding. Nonetheless, the capital costs funding was gratefully received.

I take this opportunity to thank our local representatives in Ballyfermot for the tireless work they do on our behalf. We still believe, however, that there is a long way to go to reach an optimum standard of child care provision, both in terms of an increase in child care places and improving the quality of service and resources that are given to existing child care services, in Dublin 10.

I thank Ms Hoey. I will now ask, Ms Michelle Butler, co-ordinator of the Fingal County Childcare Committee, to make a presentation.

Ms Michelle Butler

I thank Senators and Deputies for allowing us to make this presentation. The Fingal County Childcare Committee is a key element of the Government's co-ordinated strategy to develop quality child care. The need for available, accessible and affordable child care was identified as a key priority by the committee in its strategy for development. We have made great progress in achieving our targets to date and we have highlighted the successes of the EOCP programme and some of our achievements in a more detailed paper. However, like the county development boards, county child care committees are still struggling to provide integrated service delivery because they are, at present, dependent on single source of funding. This is partly due to the fact that other agencies and Departments are not being challenged at national level to provide more funding or support. While we have good local working relationships with some agencies, it is still the case that CCCs are seeking assistance to implement their plans, rather than being considered as active planning partners.

A detailed census and assessment of child care services for Fingal was collected and a report launched in January 2005. This is a valuable tool in directing us, in the most appropriate way, towards improving and developing child care locally. As a result, we are in a strong position to put forward concerns and issues facing child care and its development for all in Fingal.

Today we will be addressing five points: population projections and resulting challenges; community child care in Fingal; who pays for child care; development of quality child care locally and nationally; and Government supports and incentives needed in planning for our future child care needs.

The 2002 census confirmed Fingal County as the third fastest growing county and the youngest. In Fingal, some 10,996 children are aged under four years but there are currently only 4,600 child care places. Based, therefore, on the current population of children aged up to four years, there is still a huge lack of adequate provision for those who may want and need child care.

Fingal has a labour force participation rate of 64.8%, which is higher than the national average of 58%. Female labour force participation grew by 12,337 to 42,164 between 1996 and 2002. At 54.5%, Fingal is well above the national average of 47% for female participation in the labour force. For the first time in history, more married women in Fingal are at work than those who are not. This highlights an unswerving and affirmative necessity to provide affordable and accessible child care to meet the needs both of single and married parents.

Fingal is unique in comparison to other counties as its population is young and fast growing and it has a strong economy. There is a strong mix of rural and urban communities in Fingal and there is only one designated RAPID area in the county. It is estimated by the Fingal County development board that the population has already grown by 30,000 people in just three years to 2005. The population is expanding in an extraordinary manner, highlighting the unique challenges facing us, as an organisation, in developing existing and future high quality child care provision in line with this growth.

The increasing number of families with young children settling in Fingal County, the increased birth rate and the likely increased demand for child care highlight the need to ensure that all future service development is matched to areas with such specific requirements. Schools should be opened up after hours for child care and youth organisations to avail of and future school developments should include purpose built child care facilities. It is, therefore, necessary to ensure that any future increases in capacity must be undertaken carefully on a holistic basis, working closely with the planning departments and with service providers to avoid duplication and displacement.

Matching the establishment of new facilities to definitive areas of need is a challenge for us. According to our census data, the number of full child day care facilities has doubled since 1999 but that will need to double again, at least, in the next four years. Consequently, we face a big challenge and this is an opportunity to plan ahead. We need to consider child care provision with long-term vision. The barrier to this is that EOCP funding is short-term in nature and committed only to 2006, so we need to plan ahead.

How can we support community-based child care services in areas where communities have yet to be built? EOCP funding is primarily aimed at supporting community-based groups in disadvantaged areas. For a county like Fingal, this acts as a deterrent rather than as an incentive to develop child care.

As already stated, population projections for the county are growing at 10,000 per year. In an era of rapidly expanding spatial development and suburbanisation, the places people live are increasingly becoming a blurred mixture of housing estates, neighbourhoods, parishes, villages, towns and cities. From where then does the sense of community, which is crucial to community development, come? The reality is that a sense of community will only begin to develop after the actual physical environment is in place. This, however, takes time to achieve. It may be possible in the long term to work with local authorities and developers to physically supply the premises where child care needs are identified but, as matters stand, we face a number of problems.

Equal funding should be available to all child care facilities, whether community or privately owned, on the basis that they integrate all children, regardless of social background. Appropriate fee paying structures should be adopted to ensure integration across the board in Government funded child care facilities. Parents should be provided with financial supports, either through tax credits or increased child care benefits. Tax relief for new child care providers should be introduced as an incentive to develop child care.

There are problems in regard to voluntary management committees. The Government has very high expectations of these committees to run these sustainable businesses and that is another challenge we face. Post-funding responsibilities, recruitment, training and management are all voluntary activities. There is a lack of ongoing support for these committees and the position needs to be improved. We have issues about the sustainability of child care in disadvantaged areas in regard to the business versus the social model and also in respect of staffing, which is very dependent on community initiative employment.

The high cost of child care and the low level of subsidies and staff salaries remain a serious concern. The high costs are extraordinary. There are fees of €184 per week, with amounts of €9,557 per annum. For two children, one is talking about €17,879 per annum. I remind the committee that the average industrial wage for females in 2003 was €18,392. This is a challenge for people with two children but there is a balance of €1,000. Current costs continue to act as an obstacle to the participation of many parents in the labour market, in training and in availing of supports.

We also have concerns about subsidies. Of the 4,600 child care places available in Fingal County, only 331 places are subsidised. This accounts for a mere 7.1% of all places. In that regard, I refer to health board, FÁS and VEC places.

Staff salaries are another major concern and an issue in regard to affordable child care. Almost 10% of staff continue to work more than 41 hours per week with the majority on low pay earning below the annual average industrial female wage. All part-time staff and more than half full-time staff earn less than the female industrial wage and 96.4% earn less than the male industrial wage. The issue of poor pay needs to be addressed at local and national level to ensure better staff conditions, better satisfaction and higher levels of staff retention over long periods.

The development of quality child care locally and nationally must be centred around the child. As many people have commented on that today, I will not go into too much detail. However, we advise a holistic approach to developing child care.

Parents need to be supported. Their time is valuable and the majority of parents prioritise their time with their children outside work hours, so this needs to be looked at because they are being called on to become involved with voluntary committees and networks. They may have an interest and want to make a difference but they do not have the time. We recommend tax credits, increasing benefits, employer contributions to child care costs and the implementation of work-life balance policies as possible supports for parents.

There has been a significant increase in training and only 17% of staff working in child care facilities in Fingal are not qualified. There has been an improvement but we have a higher target and are doing everything to support the improvement of training.

After-school child care facilities are a challenge for us in Fingal as there are no child care guidelines, regulations or legislation in respect of these services. There is a significant need but schools are not available and suitable premises are an issue. The majority of after-school services charge between €100 and €110 per week for child care in Fingal.

Child-minding was not raised this morning. Legislation on national standards is needed for all child minders. We believe tax credits for parents who use notified registered child minders could be implemented. Extra supports, tax incentives and grants for child minders should be introduced and it should be recognised that different services are required to meet the different needs of families as we have a huge population of zero to four year olds who are being cared for by families or child minders.

Inclusion and diversity is another challenge with which we are faced. In regard to the EOCP guidelines, we are very happy with the work which has been done but a number of issues remain. However, it is a start. The presentation today from Planet will discuss in detail the EOCP staffing grants and will inform the committee of the serious outcomes to all concerned if cuts are made. We agree with the issues raised today and supports must be maintained.

There is a need to review the administration process for EOCP funding and funding application as there are difficulties on the ground. Private providers have expressed concerns about the difficulty and the detail in application forms. Perhaps we could work together to make them somewhat more accessible for people. Equal funding should be available to all child care facilities, regardless of social background. The development of the sector should include the existing knowledge and structures of the CCCs and NVCCs. Long-term funding is needed for the child care sector.

We are all responsible for the development of child care locally and nationally, so let us work together. As with a jigsaw, it will take all parts of the puzzle to fully complete the job successfully because, in the case of child care in Ireland, many supports need to be joined together in order to achieve the desired result. I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to express our concerns.

I thank the groups for the excellent presentations.

I welcome the groups and thank them for their submissions. When trying to prioritise issues in the child care debate, do the groups agree that services should first focus on disadvantaged children, children with disabilities and young parents who are being crucified with child care costs, such as €1,200 per month per child?

In regard to early education, do the groups agree that if there is quality child care and quality pre-school education — I base this question on experience as I worked as a primary school teacher in a disadvantaged area for 20 years — there are low illiteracy rates, more rounded children and less anti-social behaviour and that in the long-term, there are quality workers and quality people?

Is there a major crisis in child care services because there are conflicting views in the Cabinet and in the Dáil? One senior Minister informed me this week that there is no crisis and totally rejected the idea. I believe there is a crisis in child care services.

I welcome the groups. I am not a member of this committee but this issue is of interest to the broader community. Ms Butler highlighted the issues in regard to Fingal but I presume they are mirrored throughout the country. She stated that equal funding should be made available to all child care facilities, whether community or privately owned, which openly integrate all children, regardless of their social backgrounds. There are areas which would not have the same private financial resources as the lovely leafy suburbs of south Dublin. In the event of a change in Government policy in respect of tax credits for the cost of child care, would that not, in a sense, militate against those in areas of disadvantage? In fact, one would be providing more funding to people on middle and upper incomes if one opted for equal funding. Will Ms Butler elaborate on that? We would certainly support integration but, as the previous Deputy said——

I ask the Deputy to confine himself to questions because there are too many opinions. We do not want opinions but rather questions.

I will leave it at that.

I thank the groups for their presentations. Will the Fingal County Childcare Committee elaborate a little more on the type of child care provider in Fingal? Ms Butler mentioned that 90% of child care provision is in the private sector. As Deputy Kelleher mentioned, the group is looking for equality of funding for all types of provision. Is that because of the planning guidelines — perhaps more provision is coming on stream in Fingal — under which developers are obliged to provide a child care facility side by side with developments? Could that model be used in an area such as Ballyfermot, where significant development will be undertaken and child care facilities will be provided? If a child care facility is provided by the developer, can it be used for community crèches in disadvantaged areas where people are unable to pay the going rate? How well is that working in the Fingal County Council area? There is a significant imbalance.

I compliment the Chairman on facilitating the many stakeholders at this meeting. However, at the same time, we are addressing the group which accounts for 30% of child care provision and not the 70% of people who provide informal child care such as grandparents. I made a series of nine proposals to the Government. The Government increased child benefit because it did not want to exclude anyone. My proposal is that people who pay tax or women who stay at home will receive a subsidy or tax relief so that nobody is excluded. Some people believe that if tax relief is provided, the private child care providers will increase their charges immediately. Will Ms O'Reilly comment on that?

Will Ms Butler outline how a State subsidy would be best delivered? Should it be given to the parent or the provider?

I refer to a recommendation of the Dublin 10 child care group which is that "supports are required at a pre-operational stage". Does the Dublin 12 group feel it may have suffered by not having the major expertise, competences and years of knowledge of other groups, which are better resourced? I ask each group to reply to each question. Any person in the groups who would like to respond may do so.

Ms Hoey

I refer to Deputy Finian McGrath's question about pre-school services and early education. We outlined in our paper that pre-school services are providing early education. Studies have shown that education improves children's cognitive and social development. It also improves obedience and compliance and decreases anti-social behaviour. It costs €82,000 to keep one child in St. Patrick's Institution. One could imagine where that amount could be channelled if one anti-social child was taken off the streets. Pre-school services not only provide support for the parents, they also provide early education. Ms Copely will respond regarding whether there is a crisis in child care.

Ms Angela Copely

I am in crisis because we made an application in 2000 for 50 child care places for the Ballyfermot Family Resource Centre. We met the ADM architect in 2002 and were told to seek 80 places. The cost increased to €1.6 million. We were given funding of €1.4 million in 2004 to provide 80 places, which would equate to 149 back-to-back in a given week. I am left to construct a building with €1.4 million and still provide those places. If we downsize the building, the funding will be cut back. I will proceed with the project but I do not know from where the €600,000 I need will come.

That is a crisis.

Ms Hoey

Priority should be given to the disadvantaged, including people with disabilities and lone parents. Ballyfermot is a disadvantaged area and many of the child care facilities cater for lone parents and people with disabilities. Ms Ratigan has a number of people with disabilities in her service. Training and development is required for child care facilities in order that they can support individuals with disabilities. We need to be mindful of that.

Ms Joan Ratigan

I am involved in a nursery in Ballyfermot, Dublin 10, which has 41 children on its books, of whom three have disabilities. We take in emergency cases from the Health Service Executive. We also take in children of parents on social welfare supports such as the back to work scheme and drug rehabilitation programmes. Our centre is open to everybody. We believe in equal access for everybody and that is an important issue for us. We need financial support to maintain that ethos.

The ongoing sustainability of child care is an issue that all child care centres have in common. We would like to implement a more equitable system of fees based on parents' ability to pay. Our committee has agonised over this and it has tried to arrive at a formula for a more equitable system. A sub-group should be set up to deal with this issue so that child care is accessible to everybody, including children with disabilities, children from ethnic groups and children of lone parents and the unemployed. Equal access to child care, financial support and equitable fees are the main issues.

Ms Hoey

The Chairman asked about supports at the pre-operational stage and whether we have suffered. I cannot say that we have suffered because we have not had many new child care facilities in the area. We could suffer because of the funding. That is why we believe supports and resources need to be put in place quickly. Ms Copely suffered in this regard recently.

I thank the group. I call Ms Butler to reply.

Ms Butler

Ms Kendlin will reply to Deputy Finian McGrath's question.

Ms Hilary Kendlin

The focus is on the disadvantaged which should continue in the short term. There is a problem in Fingal where there is just one designated disadvantaged area. Does this mean the remainder of the county is not disadvantaged in terms of being able to support child care delivery? One must strike a balance.

On the point made about early education and quality child care services, I agree with my colleagues. There are studies, particularly in the United States, that have proved the benefits. They have also proved that child care services of bad quality can be more detrimental than having no service. The quality issue must continue to be examined.

On the question of whether there is a crisis in child care provision, the aspect on which I would like to focus is the lack of co-ordination at central Government level. There is the Department of Health and Children, the youth affairs division in the Department of Education and Children and another Department with responsibility for families. The service is constantly being fragmented. This issue must be examined.

Ms Butler referred to the co-ordination of services. As a county child care committee, we still have difficulty in getting all the agencies involved to buy in 100%. All of those involved are required to be there because that is the way the committees have been set up. However, we are not necessarily brought in as an active planning partner in the strategic planning of other agencies. It is more a case of us asking how they can help us in carrying out our plan rather than the other way round.

Ms Butler

I will respond to Deputy McGrath's question on equal funding. We are unique in the geographic breakdown and status of child care services, whether community or private. Some 90% of child care facilities are privately funded and supported through fee income while 10% are community-based. We are looking after our own patch and examining how we can support and offer incentives to those providing child care services. The maximum amount for private child care facilities is €50,000. If there is more than one facility, the maximum amount is €100,000. We are examining how they can be supported further.

Parents should be supported first. It should be their decision as to whether they access child care services. Funding should be provided on an equal basis if there is evidence that facilities are open to every child in the county, regardless of social background. A fee paying structure could be put in place. I am aware this may create difficulties but we should discuss how we can deal with the issue in the most inclusive way possible. There is a difficulty in this regard to which we must find a solution. Integration is the key because the community aspect is very important. There are challenges in building communities. Our county is developing so quickly that people do not have the time to engage in voluntary work on committees. There is a dilemma in that regard.

Senator Terry has referred to developments for which planning guidelines are in place. For every 75 new houses built in an area, 20 child care places should be available. County councils have discretion to adopt the guideline, unless it is included in the county development plan. We were pleased recently to have our submission adopted in the county development plan. However, there are barriers because developers will not wait. We have had consultations with all the main developers in Dublin on how to break down these barriers. While they must allot land, given the time factor in regard to funding, there is a gap. The county council must balance these aspects.

Ms Geraldine O’Reilly

To return to Senator Terry's question on builders who hold onto land and the enormous amount private providers pay in rent, if one were to rent a building for 100 children, one would pay €100,000 per year in the Dublin area. This does not take the cost of rates into account. One could pay up to €30,000 in rates on such a facility. When one talks about access, all of these issues must be taken into consideration.

The joint committee should consider the question of tax breaks on profits for a period of approximately three years for child care minders who use such buildings. Perhaps members will also examine the rates issue which presents a huge problem. Bed and breakfast establishments do not pay rates, yet we are trying to promote good quality child care facilities while being charged enormous amounts in rates.

As members know from the census findings, 80% of child care minders have qualifications. For someone like me who has been involved in child care for 23 years, finding people with such qualifications is wonderful. They are very interested in working in child care facilities.

Costs are increasing all the time while the regulations are very tight. On the figure of 90% referred to in the census, 60% were being catered for in sessional care facilities, that is, three and a half hours in a pre-school, montessori school or play group. The after-school facilities included in the census did not include such facilities in the informal economy. As Ms Butler said, there are no regulations covering such providers, although they earn an enormous amount of money each week. I ask members to examine these issues.

Senator White referred to tax issues. Prices are increasing all the time. Given that we now have staff with good qualifications, the issue of staff retention is very important. Some facilities could remain open for 11 to 12 hours per day. The further one lives from Dublin, the longer the hours involved. I propose the widening of tax bands. The new child allowance should be separate from the social welfare allowance. Prior to 1974 there was a tax allowance credit. While there are different ways of dealing with the issue, the primary objective is to support children. We want to involve all children, married couples, single parents and so on. No matter where our facilities are based, we deal with a lot of single parents.

There should be a system under which child care providers should provide receipts where parents or guardians are availing of tax breaks. Many providers are involved in the informal economy. The current system of tax credits should be investigated to ascertain if there is an advantage to be gained. Artists are currently being investigated. There should be tax relief at the higher rate of 42%, not 20% as is currently the case. Tax relief on a sliding scale should be introduced for parents with more than one child. This would enable people to remain in the workforce and encourage others who have been forced out to return.

Ms Butler

The last question concerned a subsidy to a parent or provider. Hopefully, we will not have to make an either/or decision but, speaking on behalf of single parents, the priority would be towards parents so that they would have the choice of whether to access child care. Continuation of funding to the providers is also very important because it adds so much quality to the service with regard to staff training, facilities, etc. There are many advantages in that. While we hope the subsidy would be paid to both, the parent is the priority.

I thank our guests. The presentations are very helpful to us. We are now more aware of the problems in both Ballyfermot and Fingal. There was a good mix in the presentations and we were delighted to hear them.

We will suspend for a few moments. Then we will have the Killorglin community child care group, the South Kerry Childcare Network and the Tír na nÓg, Ballydesmond, groups in next. That part of the meeting will continue for approximately 30 minutes and we will then have the Dublin City Childcare Committee, the Childcare Bureau from the Northside Enterprise Centre in Coolock and Planet, the partnerships network, to complete the session.

Sitting suspended at 12.22 p.m. and resumed at 12.24 p.m.

I welcome the representatives of the Killorglin Community Childcare Centre Limited, Geraldine Conroy, Mary O'Sullivan and Councillor John J. O'Connor, the South Kerry Childcare Network, Kay O'Mahony, Caroline Dennehy and Marie O'Neill, and the Tír na nÓg, Ballydesmond, representatives, Claire O'Sullivan, Kay Keane and Mary O'Riordan.

We will have a similar format to that previously adopted, with a presentation by each group followed by questions from the committee. We will begin with the Killorglin community child care group.

Ms Geraldine Conroy

We thank the committee for the opportunity to share the perspective of the management committee of Killorglin Community Childcare Centre Limited, known locally as Scamps and Scholars, on what appears to be the Government expectation that voluntary managed community child care facilities are sustainable as not-for-profit enterprises without continued Government support.

I will begin with a brief introduction. Killorglin Community Childcare Centre Limited, trading as Scamps and Scholars opened in November 2002. We have been funded substantially through the equal opportunities child care programme, receiving a total of €402,000 in capital funding and €212,000 in staffing contributions to date. The centre is based in Killorglin, County Kerry, and offers crèche, pre-school, Montessori, and after-school services to the Killorglin community. The centre currently caters for 76 families and 90 children who attend in any given week. It employs 14 child care staff, a cook, a cleaner and an administrator, in addition to the community employment and rural social scheme participants and child care students. It is the largest community child care centre in Kerry and there is currently a substantial waiting list for the crèche and pre-school services. It should be noted that the centre received the same level of staffing grant as other smaller centres that employ fewer staff.

One of the current issues for us is that the management committee of the Killorglin centre has received a letter from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform informing it that the centre is expected to be financially viable from September 2005 and that it will not receive further continuation staffing funding unless it is found to be in an area of significant disadvantage. No definition of this is available and uncertainty is the order of the day in respect of whether the €75,000 annual continuation staffing grant will be available to us from September 2005.

In addition, we are currently being assessed for continuation staffing funding for the period January to August of this year. We await confirmation that this funding will be forthcoming. We have used all of our limited reserves of funding from fundraising and have been refused a bank overdraft as we have no confirmation in writing that we will receive the funding. Our current financial situation is that the income just covers the wages but we cannot meet suppliers' bills and other overhead expenses such as builders' invoices relating to building works undertaken to deal with work required by the fire officer. The total outstanding bills requiring payment amount to €18,000.

The positions of centre manager and pre-school supervisor remain vacant, as we cannot recruit due to the current financial restraints. The centre is currently run by a small group of parents on a voluntary basis who put an average of 20 hours per week into its management.

Those affected by any Government decision to withdraw continuation staffing funding are the children, the families, those employed by the centre, the local employers and the many local firms with which the centre does business. To know how they will all be affected by any removal of the grant, all we have to do is look in summary terms at the financial situation.

The centre operated at a small loss in its last financial year, despite the assistance of the staffing grant, fundraising and other support. Fee income and donations, in round figures, were €228,000, grant income was €74,000, wages and salaries were €254,600 and other expenses were €50,000. With the grant we were down €2,000. Where would we be without it?

The current fees charged to families are already close to the commercial rate in south Kerry. To be financially viable without the staffing grant, the centre would need to increase fees substantially to the point where they would be approximately 70% of the take-home pay of someone earning the minimum wage. Taking away the grant means taking away access to affordable child care from the Killorglin community. The alternative to an increase in fees is to eliminate the more expensive services with a high staff to child ratio but the consequence would be that such services would no longer be available and those providing them would no longer have jobs.

The effect of the loss of the grant would be a reappraisal of the centre's fee policy which we would like to amend. Current discounts of 10% for siblings and 20% for disadvantaged families would have to be discontinued. Plans to offer further discounts for families in receipt of social welfare payments would also have to be shelved. Increased pre-school rates would directly affect many disadvantaged children who need the service most to deal with the transition from the home to the school environment. We have focused on keeping pre-school rates at an affordable level for all members of the community in the light of the removal of the community welfare allowance for disadvantaged families. Many parents would no longer be able to afford the increased fees at the centre and would have no choice but to leave their jobs or discontinue training courses prematurely and stay at home.

Parents may be forced into the mainly unregulated childminding sector, even though that would not be their preference for their children. Due to the uncertainty the current vacancies for a centre manager and pre-school supervisor cannot be filled. This causes additional strain for the management committee. Certain sections may be required to close down with the loss of employment. Well trained and experienced local child care staff have provided continuity of care in the past three years. There is not a high turnover of staff. The children love the staff who are excellent with them. We would like to be in a position to allay the fears and concerns of staff by receiving confirmation that the grant will continue.

We wonder how this can happen. The funding for the staffing strand of the equal opportunities child care programme is running out and there does not seem to be a follow-up measure in place to sustain the community child care places created. We are looking for confirmation that annual funding for the centre and other similar non-profit centres will continue.

Additional Exchequer funding needs to be made available on an ongoing basis to sustain community child care centres. This expenditure would be offset through increased tax returns from people returning to the workforce. I refer the joint committee to the figures for wages and salaries at the centre which amount to €254,664. Employer's PRSI and tax amount to €49,000 which can be seen as a return of some of the grant of €74,000. This should be considered when examining the continued funding of the centres.

It is not a matter of money not being returned in other ways. We suggest funding for staffing should be available on apro-rata basis. The Killorglin centre is the largest in County Kerry but its grant is the same as that given to smaller centres. We suggest there be some recognition of the size of the operation involved. Responsibility for payment of administration staff should be taken away from the voluntary management committees. The tax position of working parents also needs to be examined. In the light of the recommendations made in a recent report, one year of pre-school education should be available free of charge but this will not be possible if there is no pre-school service available. The cost to the Exchequer vis-à-vis the value to be obtained should be considered.

Ms Caroline Dennehy

Fossa community pre-school was set up in 1989 by a visionary group of parents who saw a need in the community for such a facility. It was one of the first community-based pre-schools in the Killarney area operating a child care service giving parents the opportunity to access employment, training and education services. The pre-school has become a very important focal point for community development in the past 17 years.

The inclusion of special needs children in their own community by trained and skilled child care staff, with an emphasis on their needs and integration with mainstream children in a single environment, has been the objective of the pre-school for many years. The pre-school has been very successful in achieving this objective, most especially since the provision of the EOCP grant. The assistance provided in the past five years has assisted 15 special needs children, ten of whom have progressed successfully into local national schools. Although called Fossa community pre-school, the school caters for children from four separate parishes and no special needs child has ever been refused, no matter where he or she lives, as early intervention is vital to the child with special needs.

The work with special needs children has been done in conjunction with the provision of pre-school places for in excess of 125 mainstream children. Opening and closing times have been adapted to meet the needs of parents either working or wishing to return to work in the local community. The current proposals under which EOCP grant aid will be removed will have very serious implications for the pre-school, parents and children but especially the special needs children cared for in the school. In the event that the grant is no longer available the pre-school will have to make one member of the child care staff redundant. It will not be able to cater for the six special needs children enrolled for the coming year, five of whom have been attending since the beginning of the current school year. The number of mainstream child care places will drop by over one third while some parents will not be able to remain in the workforce. The breaking of barriers in the community for special needs children will be lost.

The pre-school has always operated on a frugal budget supported by fees paid by parents, local community fund-raising initiatives and assistance from agencies such as the Southern Health Board and FÁS. Since September 2000, with the assistance of EOCP funding, we have been able to extend our service and provide placements each year for no fewer than five to six children with additional needs.

The frugal operating nature of the school has ensured that the EOCP funding rate per child is very favourable. Funding provided for Fossa community pre-school therefore represents excellent value for money per child place, catering well for the disadvantaged families and those with special needs children in our community. It also should be noted that the level of funding provided by the EOCP grant to Fossa community pre-school has remained the same for the past three years despite increased operating costs in most areas of expenditure. In real terms this represents a drop in the dependence of the pre-school on the grant provided. However, it is not in a position to maintain the services provided unless the grant is made available.

As previously stated, the level of funding required, €20,000 per annum, to maintain the extent and quality of the service in this community represents excellent value and must be provided. Who else will look after our children?

Ms Marion O’Neill

I am the manager of the Waterville early years centre, a non-profit community day-care facility offering 26 full-time places to children aged from three months to five years. The special circumstances of our location mean these places service not 26 children but 49. At present 41 families use the service. Our flexible service has been tailor-made to suit the erratic employment opportunities available in the locality. Waterville is a beautiful village on the extremity of the Iveragh Peninsula. Our only thoroughfare is the Ring of Kerry road and it is this rural isolation that attracts visitors seasonally. It is this very isolation that makes the reality of rearing a family in Waterville a challenging experience. Work opportunities locally are very limited and those that exist need to be serviced by the local community as neither the infrastructure nor the wages paid are likely to attract commuters. We are recognised to be in an area of disadvantage.

In 1987, Integrated Resource Development Waterville was successful in its bid to become one of the 25 pilot projects funded in Ireland by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We have embraced the challenge while ensuring quality remains our highest priority. None of this would have been possible without the support of the EOCP funding and the support of the Department. We feel entitled to be proud of the service we offer and the excellent results achieved by the hard working local volunteers who have driven forward this work. We are confident we represent a good example of effective use of the funding provided.

How have we been rewarded for these efforts? We now find ourselves in mid-April with no idea whether we will be entitled to any further funding after 31 August 2005. Our parents committee has worked tirelessly to investigate every scenario for the centre should the funding not be forthcoming. Having significantly increased the fees this year, in line with ADM's directive, the parents feel any further increase would prove prohibitive. The nature of the employment opportunities in Waterville is such that the sum of money necessary for parents to pay in fees to ensure the centre remains viable without the assistance of Government subsidy would be such a vast proportion of their incomes that it would never be feasible. It is therefore with great sadness they have concluded we have no choice but to close the centre. After all our efforts we feel particularly aggrieved to have to come to this conclusion.

As the only regulated child care centre within a ten-mile radius this would leave the parents with no alternative but to use childminders to look after their children, many of whom are unregistered and therefore not liable for inspection. Given that the programme is entitled "Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme", it is surely pertinent that the families in rural isolation are given an equal opportunity to access registered, regulated, quality and affordable child care as their urban counterparts. Although the figures of 41 families and six staff members affected may seem insignificant when viewed from a city the size of Dublin, it is no exaggeration to suggest that in our small village, the impact would be felt in some way by almost every member of the community.

In the long term we need to be able to plan strategically for the future. In the short term the least we ask is to know whether we will be able to offer a service after 31 August. Parents are entitled to know whether we will be able to meet their child care needs after this date. Staff are entitled to know if they will have jobs and children need time to adjust to any changes that may occur. In view of our exemplary record to date we do not feel this is asking too much.

Ms Kay O’Mahony

Any of the 19 community groups in the south Kerry area that have been funded under EOCP could have attended today and we would have heard similar stories. The Killorglin centre is a member of the network as are the other two. The situation on the ground is extremely serious. Viability by August 2005 is now required by EOCP. In the south Kerry area the lack of full-time employment opportunities for parents is very relevant. Recent CSO statistics showed Kerry with the second lowest disposable income in the country. Taking an average of €3 per hour for child care out of a €7 per hour minimum wage represents more than 40% of an income going on child care costs alone. Isolated rural communities do not have the numbers of children to make a service viable as a minimum critical number is required.

While regulations are essential for the provision of a quality service, when trying to keep costs low certain requirements cause issues, for example the need to have two members of staff when opening and closing even with only one child present. Double salaries need to be paid when staff are absent on sick leave or annual leave. While these costs need to be borne by both sectors, they are relevant issues.

Communities and parents are repeatedly subjected to fundraising initiatives for all the child care centres and only limited funding is available in local communities. The centre in which I am involved has gradually increased its fees in the recent years. However, it has also implemented the sliding scale of fees requested by ADM. While on the one hand the income is increasing, on the other hand the income is reducing. The issue of grants being issued on apro-rata basis has been already mentioned. The burden on the voluntary management committee has been mentioned. Currently members of these committees find themselves in a crisis not of their making. They have given of their time, energy, goodwill and professional experience all in good faith for the betterment of their communities and find by doing so they have landed their communities in a legal and financial quagmire.

It is a very difficult time for staff who cannot plan. The staff in the south Kerry area have been very dedicated to improving their qualifications through training and attending network meetings. It is very difficult to maintain an interest when they do not know whether they will have jobs in a few months' time.

Pre-school services have been mentioned. These need to be treated separately as many stay-at-home mothers will avail of pre-school education for their children. Having separate long-term core funding for pre-school services may help to address the problem.

Some groups from south Kerry are in the queue for capital funding. Many of these groups are now disillusioned and many of the parents who submitted the original applications no longer require the proposed crèche and pre-school services as their children are now in school. With the current staffing grant situation, the groups are also considering whether the application will put them in the same situation as the existing groups at present regarding staffing grants. Little has changed in south Kerry since the staffing grants were introduced and these are essential for the child care facilities in County Kerry.

The voluntary management committees need information urgently. They need to know whether there will be another application form for further staffing funding and, if so, when it will be distributed. They need to know how long it will take to appraise and whether the groups have roll-over funding again leading to even greater insecurity. The voluntary management committees must have answers now, as they must inform parents as to what will happen in September.

Ms Mary O’Riordan

Having been involved in the research, development and implementation of a community-based, not-for-profit child care facility, funded under the EOCP, I am pleased to have this opportunity to talk to you about the level and the future of EOCP staffing funding. Ballydesmond is a village on the Cork-Kerry border spanning the Dáil electoral areas of Cork North-West and Kerry South. It is at the heart of the traditional music area known as Sliabh Luachra. It is a CLÁR designated area.

Child care, because of its nature, has a very high ratio of staff to children, which results in very high wage costs. In an area where the level of income is low or comparatively low, child care charges must be kept at an affordable level. The early years of a child's development must be seen as being as important as his or her primary, secondary or third level education. A child care worker is as necessary to a child's development as a teacher at any level. The wages of child care workers who work full time with children should be totally Government funded. The costs of ancillary staff — managers, receptionists, administrators, cooks etc. — should be met from child care fees income.

Tír na nÓg has been providing a child care service since 1 September 2003. It caters for 59 families and 77 children, ranging in age from four months to five years. It also caters for 35 children after school each day, on an irregular basis. It has received €1 million in capital funding, which has been put to good use on the organisation's capital project. We are very proud of the beautiful state-of-the-art child care facility that has been constructed. The total cost of the project was just over €1 million, of which just over €900,000 was spent on building costs and just over €100,000 was spent on costs such as site acquisition and equipment. Of the total amount of money that was spent on the project, €124,229 will revert to the Exchequer in the form of VAT payments. I do not refer to the tax and PRSI paid by those who worked on the construction of the building.

Tír na nÓg received a three-year staffing grant of €235,000 to cover the 2004-06 period. Its total staffing cost for 2004 was over €185,000, which was far in excess of the €75,000 it had been given for that year. The group's workers gave almost €31,500 to the Exchequer in tax and PRSI in that year. Tír na nÓg has been obliged to spend almost €60,000 on staffing so far this year but the grant it was given to cover that period amounted to just €21,250. Its workers have paid over €9,700 in tax and PRSI to date this year. A three-year budget, based on projected child care fees, income and the staffing grant being sought, must be prepared as part of the application process for child care funding. Such an approach does not encourage child care groups to look beyond the time when staffing funding runs out.

I would like to explain what the shortfall of approximately €170,000 in Tír na nÓg's three-year staffing grant means in real terms. The organisation has to cope with a weekly budgetary shortfall of €1,000. There is no possibility of increasing staff wages. It has to deal with the ongoing concern of losing staff because they are not paid what they deserve. The group is not in a financial position to attract and retain the best possible staff. As it is carrying a debt, it has to make interest payments. When it increases its fees in June, there is a danger that parents will feel they would be financially better-off if they were not working.

I wish to discuss the rates being paid to the staff of Tír na nÓg. Its fully qualified child care workers, who have the minimum FETAC level 3 qualification, are paid €8.13 per hour, its child care supervisors are paid €9.93 per hour and its senior supervisor, who has overall responsibility for the management and day-to-day running of the centre, is paid €13.19 per hour. By contrast, the Department of Education and Science rate for home tuition is €30 per hour. Tír na nÓg is not in a position to pay sick leave. As one of the organisation's supervisors has been called for jury duty, the organisation will have to replace her and pay her for the duration of her service. We do not know how long it will last.

The group's staff members are due a cost of living pay increase and a wages performance review, neither of which the group can contemplate paying in the absence of a significant increase in staff funding and child care fees. It is faced with continuous fundraising. Unforeseen increases in running costs have an impact when the budget is tight. ESB charges have increased by more than expected and world events have had an impact on the cost of heating oil. When one considers that the child care workers employed by Tír na nÓg have to change the nappies of 40 or 50 children three times a day, it is clear that the introduction of the pay by weight refuse charge has had a prohibitive impact on the facility.

Tír na nÓg employs a part-time administrator to keep costs down. All other administration work is done on a voluntary basis. It organises at least two fundraising events each year, both of which involve a substantial effort. Every application for public funding, for example from the local HSE area or the national lottery, involves takes painstaking and time-consuming voluntary effort, perhaps for little gain. While Tír na nÓg faces a precarious situation at present, it is aware that matters could get worse. There are rumours that other facilities which have reached the end of their initial three-year staff funding are threatened with closure. That is the ultimate worry.

When the long-awaited current programme of Government funding for child care was announced, it was welcomed throughout the country. It encouraged communities such as Ballydesmond to embark on the mammoth task of research, surveying, organisation, grant application and building plan preparation before the child care organisation could finally occupy its beautiful building. The representatives of the organisation were assured by officials during the research stage that they were "pushing an open door". The many hours of voluntary work undertaken by child care committees cannot be under-estimated or ignored. The great deal of effort that was made over hundreds of hours when the facility was being established will have been wasted if staff funding runs out in 2006.

I ask the committee to give an assurance that community-based not-for-profit child care facilities which have received funding for an initial three-year start-up period will continue to be funded. There has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility of offering tax relief on child care payments. If such a scheme is to benefit not-for-profit child care facilities, it should involve a refund of the tax contributed by parents to the charitable status child care facility. Such a system would help ensure the availability and continuity of affordable child care for lower paid working parents and equal opportunities for their children. I would like somebody to undertake to quantify the percentage of child care funding that is actually spent on hands-on child care. I thank the committee for its interest and attention. I hope and trust that Tír na nÓg's contribution will be instrumental in formulating future child care policy.

I thank Ms O'Riordan for her presentation, which illustrates effectively the difficulties being encountered by child care organisations. Before I allow the members to ask questions, I would like to ask about MsO'Riordan's comment that she would like somebody to "quantify the percentage of child care funding that is actually spent on hands-on child care". I would like to know why Ms O'Riordan raised that issue. What was she thinking when she decided to raise the matter?

The committee has received a consistent message from all the groups today. The Government has provided good capital grants to meet the cost of state-of-the-art facilities. However, those grants will not lead to the provision of affordable child care in the manner that is intended unless staffing grants are maintained and increased. A great deal of voluntary work is being done in the child care facilities which face difficulties at present. I am not sure that the current level of local fundraising is sustainable. Is it possible to quantify the value of the voluntary work that is being done? Can the representatives of the child care organisations estimate the level of fundraising that is necessary in the context of current funding levels? If the committee is given such an estimate, it will be able to consider the level of fundraising that will be needed to continue to offer a child care service if funding levels deteriorate.

After today's meeting, the members of the committee will be aware of the financial problems that exist but will it be possible for us to discuss the matter with the Minister for Finance? I do not doubt that the availability of good child care facilities benefits the economy as a whole. Serious difficulties will be encountered in that respect if immediate financial action is not taken. Nobody knows what exactly needs to be done.

I welcome the members of the delegations, some of whom had to get up at 5 a.m. to travel to this meeting. They are satisfied to make such an effort to help to secure the future of the child care sector. The problems being faced by child care organisations are found throughout the country. We know, having heard from Dublin-based groups this morning, that the same difficulties exist in urban and rural areas.

Ms Conroy raised an issue which I raised earlier this morning but have yet to receive an answer, which I cannot understand. The group cannot answer the question. I cannot do so and I do not know if the Chairman can. Ms Conroy said her centre received the same level of staffing grant as other smaller centres employing fewer staff. I asked this morning what criteria were used to determine staffing grants. Having dealt with different groups in Kerry, I am familiar with the inequity of the provision of the same grant to each. I would like all of the representatives to speak about that. While I think I know what they will say, their responses should be recorded.

Do delegates consider that current policy focuses sufficiently on the needs of the child or is a greater emphasis placed on the needs of parents? Will centres be able to survive without staffing grants or are staff and child care place reductions expected, especially in the case of children with special needs? Will centres have to reduce their opening hours or close? It is important to understand that if not-for-profit child care facilities nationally must increase their fees, they may mirror the fee level of private operators. If so, what difference will there be between private and non-profit provision and who will lose out? Is it feasible for child care facilities like those provided by delegates to become financially viable without increasing costs?

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to sit in on today's meeting and welcome the child care groups from Kerry. I know what a long journey is like. When we dealt with departmental officials this morning, the issue of and instructions on sustainability kept arising for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Area Development Management. Is it possible in Kerry for the child care centres represented here to be self-sustaining? I reiterate Deputy Breda Moynihan-Cronin's observation that the problems are both urban and rural. Uncertainty is probably the most awful aspect of the issue currently.

While it may be silly to ask, do rent or rates have to be paid in respect of services provided in a community facility or buildings provided under the capital programme?

Before delegates reply, I reiterate that while members have parliamentary privilege, that same privilege does not extend to witnesses. Please do not libel anybody.

No matter how much witnesses wish to.

They may libel the Government. We will let them get away with that.

Ms O’Riordan

We were asked what proportion of Government child care funding is spent on hands-on child care workers. Whenever one calls a county child care committee, area development management or any of the bodies one approaches for help, there is always a different person at the end of the phone. We have gone around the hoop. One pictures tiers of people in administrative functions who help one as a volunteer to obtain €8.13 per hour to pay child care workers who work from 7.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. Does that answer the question? It is the impression one forms in this area.

Taken over the whole year, volunteers give an average of ten to 20 man hours per week outside of office time. I do not know how one would put a value on that time. Fund-raising takes up further time. We had a fashion show last week as one of our two annual fund-raising events at which we raised €5,000, which we worked very hard to achieve.

None of us knows what criteria were used to determine the level of the staffing grant. We had to make two separate applications, one for year one and another for years two and three. We applied for €135,000 based on the same set of budget figures and knowledge of what we could expect for each of the three years. We received €65,000 for year one and were told to reapply for years two and three. We received €85,000 for each of the last two years, but did not know how the sums were arrived at.

We will not be able to survive without ongoing funding. Cutting staff and hours will not help as the people to whom we provide a service require it from 7.30 a.m. until 6.30 p.m. The staff requirement is 1.5 workers for each 11-hour day. We will have to close our doors if ongoing funding is not provided and will have no idea how to repay the €1 million cost of our beautiful building.

It is not possible to make the centre viable or self-sustaining without funding. We do not have to pay rent and rates as we received €1 million to construct our building. While we were assessed for rates, we managed to convince the rating authority that we should not pay them.

That was a good precedent.

It was some going.

Ms O’Riordan

We did not tell any lies.

I would not say that too loudly.

Ms O’Mahony

I agree with Ms O'Riordan about the proportion of Government funding provided for hands-on child care and the number of people with whom one must be in contact. While there is a need for management and ancillary staff, the work of child care workers on the ground should be valued and their salaries reflective of the excellent work they do. It does not necessarily happen.

The question of voluntarism was raised. We would not have a child care facility in Killorglin of the quality we do if it were not for a group of parents which got together, made the application, went through the building process and have continued to try to keep the centre open. I think often that schools and hospitals might be built a great deal faster if a group of parents was involved to push things forward. Parental input is very important to provide a sense of ownership and value. If parents in an area have a say, the service will reflect their needs. Input may be valuable in something as simple as opening hours where a child may need to stay at a centre later if his or her mother is working a while more. If parents are involved, their circumstances can be taken into account.

When staffing grant forms were initially issued, there were two bands of staffing. The recommendation was £25,000 per year for a sessional service and £50,000 for a full day care service. A sessional service would have constituted pre-school or after-school provision.

I agree that the focus of the programme is on the needs of parents and the requirement to get them back to work. While staff in child care centres place a great emphasis on quality programmes, the development of pre-school programmes and quality improvements with health boards, the funding is provided to get mothers back to work.

I do not know if centres will survive. They will definitely have to increase their fees significantly. At a meeting of all centres in south Kerry in January, it was clear that the effect would vary. Some would have to close their doors or reduce services while others with a 1:3 staff ratio would no longer take babies. Some of the them may also stop providing after-school care, which is a vital service. Transport can be a significant cost and parents are slow to pay for after-school care for a number of reasons. If they must pay for transport from the school to the care centre, it pushes up the cost. This is a factor.

I am also involved in a child care centre in Killorglin. If it decided to increase its fees to a level that would make it viable, it would be much more expensive than the nearest private facility, which is not feasible. We do not have rent because we received grants for the building, although the position in the other areas varies. Some community pre-schools pay rent in community halls, community centres and similar facilities but, to be fair, rents are kept at nominal levels. Most groups do their best to persuade the authorities not to charge rates and few of the services are required to pay them.

Ms Conroy

Ms O'Mahony answered the questions from the perspective of the centre in Killorglin. I have no further information to add. There is a strong emphasis on the quality of child care, certainly in the Killorglin centre. The needs of the parents and the development needs of the children are examined and factored in to the development of the programmes to which they are exposed every day.

Ms O’Neill

In Waterville, we had to make up a shortfall of €16,000 by fundraising. In a residential community of slightly more than 2,000 people, this means asking every member of the community to put his or her hand in his or her pocket and give us €8. While making my round of selling raffle tickets for the third time, one man asked me whether the raffle was some kind of hidden tax. This makes one wonder. On a human level, a member of staff who was giving time voluntarily to do fundraising at one of these events was asked if she was collecting for her wages again. In a small community, people feel humiliated by the need to raise funds to keep the centre running rather than for specific items. Those who made the comments I described were correct because we were collecting money to pay our wages. It is as humiliating as that at ground level.

Ms Mary O’Sullivan

Within our community, in particular, one can only do a certain amount of fundraising. So far this year we have raised at least €6,000 and we are always supported by the same people. Without a staffing grant, no level of fundraising will be sufficient. We have organised golf classics, church gate collections, pub quizzes and special shows but we will not be viable without a staffing grant.

Ms Dennehy

We need a response to our application now because our pre-school facility has six children with special needs, five of whom have been in the facility since last June. We need an answer because without a grant these children will need to find another appropriate service which will meet their needs. It is vital, therefore, that we are given an answer. What will we do? How will we tell parents their children have no place in the pre-school facility because we have no places for them?

I thank the members of the delegation, some of whom, as Deputy Breeda Moynihan-Cronin noted, had to get up at 5 a.m. or earlier to make the journey to this meeting. Their contributions are valued and we hope they will help to improve child care facilities, not only in counties Kerry and Cork but also throughout the country.

Mr. John J. O’Connor

On behalf of child care groups in County Kerry and our near neighbour, County Cork, I thank the joint committee for facilitating us. The pertinent question was put at the end. When will the child care groups be informed of a decision in order that they can avoid taking drastic steps immediately?

We will suspend, after which we will be joined by the Dublin City Childcare Committee, the Childcare Bureau, based in the Northside Enterprise Centre, Coolock, and Planet, the partnerships network.

Sitting suspended at 1.15 p.m. until 1.17 p.m.

I welcome Ms Bernadette O'Donoghue and Ms Nuala Nic Giobúin, the representatives of the Dublin City Childcare Committee, Ms Noreen Byrne, director, and Ms Margaret Caul of the Childcare Bureau at the Northside Enterprise Centre in Coolock, and the representatives of Planet, the partnerships network, Mr. Michael Bowe, chairperson, Ms Breda Kenny, Ms Catherine Sheehan and Ms Denise McCormilla. I ask the leader of each group to introduce their colleagues with their job titles.

I am from the Dublin City Childcare Committee and I am joined by Nuala Nic Giobúin, the committee's co-ordinator.

Ms Noreen Byrne

I am director of the Childcare Bureau on the north side of Dublin and I am joined by Margaret Caul, our senior development officer and trainer.

Mr. Michael Bowe

I am from Planet, the national network of partnerships. I am joined by Breda Kenny, who chairs the child care policy group, Ms Catherine Sheehan, the vice-chairperson of the child care policy group, and Ms Denise McCormilla, who represents the Border counties community child care network.

The Childcare Bureau will make the first presentation, followed by the Dublin City Childcare Committee and, finally, Planet, which acts as an umbrella group.

Ms Byrne

The Childcare Bureau welcomes this opportunity to speak to the joint committee and we thank Deputy Finian McGrath for inviting us. This is an important opportunity for us to speak of our experience on the ground. As a local child care resource centre we have become a focal point for the issues faced by parents and child care providers. We are not looking at this on a national level and we are not a child care provider. We are a local resource centre that provides technical support, advice and information for providers. We are also an information contact point for parents. I will not go through the first few pages of our submission as that just explains our background. I will speak about what are the challenges for us in the child care environment.

They are probably replicated in other similar child care organisations.

Ms Byrne

We are looking at this on an area basis. In some sense I will be repeating what has already been said but that is the way it is. As somebody said earlier, the rural and the urban experience is the same which is good as much of the time we have to grapple with things differently.

I will begin with the national child care strategy and give a sense of what happened in regard to it. If one looks at some of the recommendations in regard to the supply-side and the demand-side, only four out of 12 recommendations have been implemented. Although a great deal of money has been invested, the child care costs for parents continue to rise, as do the costs for child care providers. The Government's twin-track approach of increasing child benefit as a means of supporting parents with child care costs and providing capital and staffing grants through the equal opportunities childcare programme, EOCP, has not led to the expected level of expansion. That is the experience we have had on the ground.

I was involved at the time in developing the national strategy. Increasing child benefit as a means of assisting parents with child care costs was an attempt to adopt a politically neutral approach to the issues of choices for women inside and outside the home. It has not worked because child care costs keep rising. They have become prohibitive for many families. The cost is almost equal to that of a mortgage, especially where there are two or more children in a family. We hear this every day in our work.

The sole emphasis on funding for capital and staffing grants has meant that there is no funding for the developmental supports needed by child care providers to improve the quality of their child care practice in the interests of children. Given the levels of underdevelopment in the child care sector prior to the EOCP, a national support structure similar to those in place in previous EU funded programmes such as NOW, INTEGRA and Employment should have been put in place.

National regulations governing the care of children in paid child care are minimal and do not relate to child care practice. There are no regulations governing after or out of school care and home based childminders do not have to notify themselves to the relevant authorities until they are taking care of more than three children who are not their own. Effectively, the home based child care sector remains unregulated. While there is new emphasis on this sector, through the provision of training and a grants scheme for equipment for home based childminders, the majority of home based childminders are not registered with the appropriate authorities and there are no measures to encourage or incentivise them to do so.

Despite years of campaigning by child care interests, there is no national vetting system for child care workers. This borders on being a scandal. Many of us are still horrified that we do not have a national child care policy. We have an Irish solution to the problem in that child care services in receipt of the EOCP grant have to provide evidence that they have been vetted. However, there is no real vetting system, although the Garda signs a form.

Training for child care workers is very basic. Academic courses are full-time which offers no flexibility for those working in the field. Most child care workers start off with a FETAC qualification but they cannot progress in terms of their professional development because they have to work and cannot attend a course at the same time. The courses are not flexible. The main child care qualification is through FETAC and there is no consistency in its delivery across the country.

Community child care providers face particular challenges. Given the level of disadvantage in many of the neighbourhoods in our catchment area, community child care providers have to rely on two or more sources of State subsidies just to break even. For example, some community providers receive a staffing grant through the EOCP, have community employment, CE, and job initiative, JI, staff and may also be in receipt of a grant through the social economy programme. One can imagine the difficulties in terms of administration, especially when funding cannot be sourced.

While many community child care providers could not continue to provide an essential child care service for those seeking to return to employment or participate in second chance education and training programmes without CE and JI staff, an over reliance on State provided work experience programmes for core staff negatively impacts on the ability of community child care providers to deliver a quality service to children.

Another important issue is the levels of fees charged to parents in the community child care sector. Anecdotally, it appears that the Department has concerns that some families who can afford to pay commercial fees are availing of the lower fees charged in the community child care sector and it wants to move the community child care sectors towards the adoption of a sliding scale approach. While this may make economic sense, the problem is that it puts child care providers in the position of having to means test parents using their services. This can be an emotive issue in disadvantaged communities where practically every family will have experience of having at some time in their lives to reveal private and family matters in regard to the means testing of State benefits. As a result, community child care providers are reluctant to get involved in this kind of role.

There is no joined-up thinking or planning at Government level or among statutory agencies for child care. One example of this, as shown in the table provided with the briefing document, is the cost of rents being charged to community child care providers for crèches in recently built civic and arts centres across the north side of Dublin. Dublin City Council and the Office of Public Works are charging from €40 per child, per year to €1,861 per child, per year. This is madness.

There is almost no integration between relevant statutory agencies and child care providers on the ground. For example, parents receive subsidies from the Department of Social and Family Affairs through the supplementary welfare scheme while parents engaged in second chance training and education programmes receive subsidies from the VEC and FÁS. The amount of these subsidies varies across the three agencies. Obviously the subsidies are not based on the actual cost of child care.

The lack of a comprehensive response to the issue of paid child care by the Government has led to the difficulties being experienced on a daily basis by parents and child care providers. It would appear that the Government held the view that the market would solve the child care problem. In fact, the market continues to drive up costs and continues to create major issues for both the community and private child care sectors. In our catchment area there are very few private child care facilities making a great deal of money. If they are making money they are doing so at a cost. They are probably doing something similar to the community sector; making a little bit on the wages paid or making money by owning a building. I thought child care chains were making money but a recent newspaper article suggested that this was not the case. This piecemeal approach will not lead to the necessary expansion in the numbers of child care places available to parents nor will it lead to more choice for parents in the type of child care available.

There is no easy solution to the issue of child care. The Government's strategy to throw money at the problem is not working. This phase is coming to an end. What is needed is a comprehensive policy on paid child care that puts the interests of children at its heart. There are many examples of effective child care strategies across the European Union. The Sure Start programme in Great Britain is a useful example of a national child care strategy. Even though that is in place since 1998, the British Government continues to invest in it and is planning to invest more in it.

Child care is a complex issue. A flexible child care infrastructure is needed that takes into account children's need of quality care and the choices parents wish to make to work outside the home or stay at home. This is essential. For it to work, the State must take a leading role rather than the minimal one it is now taking. Experience in other EU countries suggests that without the allocation of substantial resources, any national child care strategy will not succeed.

I will focus on five or six issues. First, any programme that succeeds the EOCP should increase focus to consider the 80% of children who are in informal and — normally — home-based care. One of the issues that has arisen at city level is that information tracking systems have not been developed properly. Several agencies are involved in trying to track providers of child care in the city. It is proving difficult to find out who is providing it. We have committed to the Lisbon targets and EU labour market intervention targets but do not know whether we are meeting them because we do not have accurate data. The other three areas on which we will focus will be cost, quality and sustainability.

Let us consider the impact of the EOCP in Dublin. The population affected in the city is approximately 500,000, which is almost one eighth of the national population. There are in excess of 80,000 children in the city aged between zero and 15. That the estimated participation rate for women with children was 52% in 1997 indicates that we have 42,000 children with working parents in child care. We are aware of approximately 400 services that have been notified to the Health Service Executive. Based on the census figures from ADM, we estimate this represents in excess of 7,800 places. However, as I stated, we do not have accurate information. We have built up a database of information in the child care community and have rung and written to each facility but it is proving very difficult to gather the information accurately.

The strategy of the Dublin City Childcare Committee is to divide the city into five areas — this is because it is so vast — and to have five local resource centres in place throughout the city. This ensures that the service providers are more local and aware of the relevant issues. The Childcare Bureau is one of these providers. We have sourced funding for three of the five providers to date. We operate on an annual budget of €344,000. A separate budget of €70,000 is dedicated to child-minding. This pertains to the 80% of children to which I have alluded.

The statistics indicate that certain areas are more pertinent. Of the 42,000 children we identified in child care, some 34,000 are with working mothers and are being cared for in an unregulated, informal child care setting. We do not mean to say this is a low quality setting. There are considerable benefits to it in that it is very flexible and can respond to supply and demand very quickly. Our research has indicated that there is a cultural preference for home-based care in many circumstances. The costs are often lower because the income earned is used as supplemental income for providers. In a child care setting in which the full wage must be paid, the income is often a second income or it is in addition to social welfare payments of which the provider is already in receipt. We must bear in mind that if we give tax reliefs to parents, no benefit accrues to the 80% of parents who use this system as a source of child minding. There is a need to explore how best to register child-minders and bring them into the tax net.

The second issue that arose when gathering statistics concerned the various sources of information, even in respect of the remaining 20% of children. There is incomplete information on the providers that exist in this regard. The Health Service Executive gathers information differently in different areas. It does not have information for us on the numbers of places available, waiting lists, etc. We need this to meet targets. The fundamental request from parents concerns who provides child care in their local area. How can we tell them unless we know who does?

The foregoing are areas we feel the next programme should consider. The issues that arise at present concern cost. As was mentioned, there is a belief in the Department of Finance that the market will take care of itself eventually such that, by providing child benefits to the parent, the parent is free to choose where to avail of child care. However, if we consider the staff involved in child care, we will note there are ratios to be considered. For instance, there is a need to have one adult for every three babies or one for every six waddlers. "Waddler" is a term we use within the sector. A ratio of 8:1 should apply regarding toddlers.

Let me explain why child care is so expensive. Paying the minimum wage can equate to low quality. Low quality child care can involve paying a provider whose services are available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. This implies that 50 hours of child care need to be provided for each baby. The labour cost for every baby, paying at the minimum wage, is €153 per week. It is €77 per week for a waddler and €57 per week for a pre-school child. That is the lowest cost one can pay someone in a child care centre. There is no way around it and one cannot cut corners.

Consider the additional costs, including rent and rates, and paying some qualified staff. One must have at least one qualified member of staff on the premises. One must assume that no facility is ever being used at 100% capacity because this is impossible. There are kids on waiting lists and kids who do not fill places on time. That is just the way of the world, particularly in respect of community child care centres where parents on the job initiative and community employment schemes take all the places in the morning, thus leaving part-time places available in the afternoon. This is a feature of the job.

If one increases the average wage at the centre to €8.50 per hour and assumes an occupancy rate of 80% and that overheads amount to one third of the labour cost, the cost per child rockets to €282 per week for babies, €144 per week for waddlers and €85 per week for toddlers. These are very conservative costings and we need to understand that there is no way around them. As was stated, nobody is making money in child care and therefore letting the market sort itself out is not the way forward. We must understand that intervention is an absolute necessity.

Quality must also be considered. We have examined the costs and the minimum standards required. We must facilitate parents returning to work by providing child care. No parent will go back to work if he or she believes his or her child will be placed in an environment of bad quality. Quality is a basic requirement of any parent.

The pre-school years are critical in the development of a child and strong emphasis needs to be placed on developing personal management skills at that age. The bureau has been very instrumental in promoting the High/Scope method which is a form of intervention, particularly necessary in disadvantaged areas, to upskill children in order that they will be able to enter school on the same plateau as other children.

The quality of education and care experienced in very early childhood strongly influences the level of investment the State needs to make during the life of the child. High/Scope Perry research in this area, which is considerable, indicates that there is a 7:1 return on investment in early childhood education. Unfortunately, in Ireland we are very bad at evidence-based policy making. We do not have a means of measuring long-term returns because we are short-term thinkers. However, others have done the thinking for us and it is safe for us to assume the research is accurate.

In areas of disadvantage, quality child care can counteract the negative effects of poor parenting. However, bad child care can make a bad situation even worse. Maureen Gaffney spoke about this in detail with Marian Finucane on Monday. The NESF has produced reports on this matter. Ironically, in disadvantaged areas the effects are often the opposite to what one expects. Where there is a service that relies on market intervention, such as the CE and JI schemes, the quality of staff, although they may be well-meaning, may not be sufficient to make a difference to a child through positive intervention. We do not want this kind of service, including the CE and JI schemes, to be abolished, but one must realise it is a Band-Aid solution if one is truly committed to quality child care that breaks the cycle.

There has been much talk about sustainability. In Dublin, €42 million has been invested in community child care services but how sustainable is that? It is farcical to invest so much money then fail to support its continuance. All places must be subsidised, as parents cannot afford to cover the cost of provision. This need is ongoing. I have shown how expensive it is to run a child care centre. People just do not charge this because they feel like making a profit, they charge it because costs are absolute. We are naive if we do not accept that a parent in a disadvantaged area will never be able to afford to cover even the labour cost portion, not to mention the full cost, of a child care place.

Each service within the community sector currently relies on funding from a range of agencies but there is ongoing uncertainty about the security of this funding. No two centres in Dublin city have the same funding mix, it is all based on the relationship with separate agencies because there is no single policy from any agency about the criteria under which groups should receive funding. The cost of provision should be even higher in areas of disadvantage because the quality of staff is critical if we are truly committed to early intervention with a view to breaking the cycle of disadvantage.

The cost of child care cannot be driven down because labour is a huge component of it and ratios must be adhered to. There is a need to support parents and providers to supplement the cost. The quality to cost ratio cannot be monitored in informal child care and cannot be included in statistics for labour targets unless we know who is providing child care within the city.

Quality child care can go a long way to tackling social exclusion and educational disadvantage and the State can reap huge returns in future in reduced intervention costs. Places will always need to be subsidised in areas of disadvantage and a permanent funding source must be identified. The policy focus on assisting parents to return to work should be matched with a commitment to family and child policies that aim to maximise the capacity of each child to become an active citizen in the future.

Mr. Bowe

I thank the committee for inviting us to come before it to address this issue. I will give a brief introduction and then hand over to Ms Catherine Sheehan, who will go through the main paper. Ms Breda Kenny and Ms Denise McCormilla will briefly cover the impact.

As parents, we all accept that pre-school years are the formative years and the most rigorous of studies have shown that high quality early education leads to lasting cognitive and social benefits for children that persist through adolescence and adulthood. Planet represents the 38 area partnership companies that were established in 1991 as locally-based, targeted responses to long-term unemployment and social exclusion. The issue of child care and the key role it plays in combatting social and economic exclusion led partnerships to actively address specific child care needs at a local level across a range of measures. Partnerships also contributed significantly to the development of the county and city child care committees and continue to be active participants in them. Many of the county child care committees have service agreements with partnership companies to implement their strategies.

Ms Catherine Sheehan

Planet's child care policy group is a sub-group of the Planet network and has the remit of identifying policy issues pertaining to the development and provision of accessible, affordable quality child care services for those experiencing poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. In addition, the child care policy group also seeks to identify and disseminate models of good practice which are responsive to the child care needs of disadvantaged communities.

Many community child care services are in receipt of staffing grants under the equal opportunities child care programme run by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The child care sector in Ireland started from a low base but the introduction of the EOCP in 2000 made a significant contribution to the improvement of these services. In the past four years, as a result of this funding, positive changes and a marked improvement in the quality of child care provision have been noticeably evident. It is imperative that we build on what has been put in place during the past four years.

Funding under the EOCP is for the six-year period 2000-06. Community child care services initially received a three year funding allocation and would then reapply for the second three years. The reality, however, is that after the first three years, groups were only granted roll-over funding until a new funding application became available. Most groups have now been on roll-over funding for one year at the same level of funding as they received in year three. In December 2004, groups were informed that they would remain on roll-over funding at the same level until 31 August 2005. That means there were no statutory wage increases for groups for almost two years. The funding allocation must take inflation and national wage agreements into account.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is currently reviewing the criteria for staffing grants and has stated that only very disadvantaged groups will qualify in future. As a result of the current uncertain situation, many child care workers have short-term contracts or, in some instances, no contracts at all. Under existing labour law, this is bad practice. Unfortunately, if clarification is not forthcoming on the continuation of staffing grants, child care services will have to consider putting staff on protective notice. I spoke to groups in Cork this week and they told me that unless they receive clarification, they will put their staff on protective notice from 1 June.

Community child care services cannot revert to the situation that obtained prior to 2000. At that time, child care workers were on very low pay, with poor working conditions, and child care services were struggling to provide quality child care with very little input from Government sources. The reality is that community not-for-profit services can never be 100% sustainable, they will always require some level of funding and support. The EOCP funding was greatly welcomed and any reduction thereof would adversely affect the quality of child care provision and, as with all cuts, the most vulnerable in society would suffer. Funding cuts will have an impact on the quality of provision for children, the number of child care places, parents, child care services, the workers, the community and the economy because parents cannot work if they do not have child care. All of these impacts were identified through consultation with the funded groups.

The Planet child care policy group, the Cork Early Years Network and several other community groups, the members of which have links with Planet, are concerned about these issues and wish to raise them with the committee in the desire that clarification and resolution may be achieved. We need clarification on the criteria used by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to determine the term "very disadvantaged" in respect of funding.

What is the proposed timeline for issuing the next round of funding application forms? It is our experience that these applications take a minimum of four months to prepare and process. With the 31 August deadline rapidly approaching, the window for groups to complete forms is becoming extremely tight. Will all applications received be fully processed before the end of August 2005? If this is not achieved, will there be a further roll-over of funding? The position is extremely uncertain.

There is inequality in the child care sector by age — the younger the child, the fewer the choices; socio-economic background — poor families face cumulative difficulties and are more limited in service options; gender — it is mainly women who work in the sector; affordability — with limited State support at both demand and supply levels, there is considerable disparity in costs; location — paradoxically, the more urban and more rural, the greater the disadvantage; provision — selection and quality of services differ and there is little choice; and professional supports — differentials in the investment in training.

Income levels determine to a large extent whether parents can avail of services. In the absence of State support for child care, service providers rely almost exclusively on parents' fees to meet their running costs. The capacity of parents on low incomes to pay for child care is diminished, thus excluding and marginalising those most in need of services. If the equal opportunities child care programme funding is reduced or withdrawn from community child care services, parents who wish to take up training, education and employment opportunities will be prevented from doing so because they will lack the financial capacity to pay the market rate for child care.

Planet believes the continuation of funding for community child care services will go a long way towards improving the quality of life of people in disadvantaged communities. Child care is fundamental to an integrated approach to tackling the causes of poverty and disadvantage. We ask the joint committee to please support our effort to ensure funding is not cut or withdrawn from community child care services and to recognise it must be increased.

We recommend the immediate removal of uncertainty about staffing grants, clarification of eligibility criteria for the term "very disadvantaged" in the context of receiving funding; the issuing of new funding application or subsidy forms to community child care services immediately; if there is to be a further roll-over of staff contracts after 31 August, ensuring the allocation allows for statutory wage increases. The cap on staffing grants should be removed and replaced with a scale directly related to the number of child care places available taking into consideration the other subsidies groups may be receiving, namely, community employment or Health Service Executive investment.

It should be recognised that community child care services depend on the good will of voluntary management committees. Administration costs, technical assistance, as well as ongoing training and development supports must be built into child care staffing grants. The importance of child care provision in the community and the reality that community child care services will never be sustainable without Government investment should be acknowledged. A Department or agency responsible for child care should be established. This could be similar to the Family Support Agency. A ten year child care plan should be drawn up, implemented and funded.

These problems are experienced throughout the country. We have received several reports from Cork, Waterford, Dublin and the Border counties asking us to highlight these issues. We have included some of the reports in our written submission.

We are under time constraints because another committee is due to meet in this room at 2.10 p.m. Members would like to ask some questions. We have Planet's submission which we will read. I invite Ms Pauline Moreau, principal officer in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, with responsibility for the equal opportunities child care programme, to join us. She made an excellent presentation earlier today and might wish to contribute further.

I welcome the groups represented and thank them for their excellent oral and written submissions and for bringing the child care issue into the mainstream of politics. Am I correct in thinking Ms Byrne said the concept of child benefit and the capital grants approach wasad hoc and did not work? Her submission refers to an attempt to adopt a politically neutral approach to child care services. It states some child care costs are as high as a mortgage. Does this imply that it is necessary to look again at the issue of taxation to fund child care services? I am concerned that we do not take such services seriously enough, compared with the issue of free third level fees. There is not enough investment in child care services and pre-school education. Does Ms Byrne wish this committee to move in that direction?

The group has campaigned against the absence of vetting of child care workers which it states is a scandal. Will Ms Byrne expand on this point? She also advocated a comprehensive policy on paid child care services that places the interests of children at the centre. She cites examples of good practice and mentions the British Government's Sure Start programme. Will she expand on this or give us examples of good practice in other countries?

Ms O'Donoghue mentioned that we could not get away from the labour cost issue. She also mentioned a sum of €282 per week, which is a conservative figure. I know families who spend €1,200 month. Will she cite examples of funding and quality child care programmes in other EU countries which apply good practice?

I thank the three groups represented for their excellent presentations which indicate the system isad hoc, with several providers and funders. What is the groups’ view on a single provider of funding, a single strategy and whether the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be the appropriate body?

Ms O'Donoghue has said there are approximately 80,000 children in need of child care in the Dublin area, of whom 42,000 are provided for. This exceeds the Department's total provision. She mentioned a figure of 80% in respect of informal provision.

Do Ms Byrne and Ms O'Donoghue know the reason the local authorities charge such exorbitant rents and why the Office of Public Works charges even higher rents? Is it possible for the Department which provides the capital funding and follow-up support to do a deal with the local authorities, or with the Department of Education and Science in respect of surplus buildings in its possession?

I welcome the groups represented. If they have been here since early morning, they will know that all the other groups have made virtually the same submissions. These three groups, however, are different in being clear, precise and having a well thought out policy with the supporting information, which we appreciate.

Does Ms Byrne believe the lack of child care services is a major impediment to women's participation in society? This is an important issue for us because the remit of the joint committee covers women's rights.

Does Ms Sheehan of Planet believe, as I do, that it is contradictory for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to write to groups stating it wants to retain child care places in severely disadvantaged areas — whatever that means — and then ask groups to be self-sustaining? Is it possible to be both? We have asked the Department this question but it has not answered it. Do the groups know what "severely disadvantaged" means in the mind of the Department? How can the two approaches be married?

Like Deputy Costello, I wonder if we should have a separate Department dealing with the carers of children, as opposed to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which usually meets people when they are in severe trouble.

No member would deprive anyone of the opportunity for tax relief. However, due to the nursing home issue, when subvention was provided the costs increased. From this experience, how best can tax relief be put in place for child care?

I wish to express my support for the various organisations involved in child care.

I support Ms Noreen Byrne's comments on the vetting of child care workers. How best can a system be introduced? It is critical that anyone working in the child care sector must be vetted. From experiences abroad, it has lead to many problems.

Deputy Lynch was succinct and argued for a policy driven approach. As the issue of family and children comes under the remit of 11 Departments, what are the delegations' views on creating a Department of Children and the Family? With respect to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it is only involved in the child care issue because of the equality aspect.

I call on Ms Pauline Moreau to discuss what the Department has heard at the committee.

Ms Moreau

I thank the committee for its invitation to remain to listen to this interesting debate. While we meet many of the beneficiary groups and delegations regularly in many fora, this meeting was useful for me to keep up-to-date with the concerns of the sector and to inform our thinking while formulating policy proposals for the Government.

Several members asked for more detail on how staffing grants are determined. I, along with Ms Maura Keating, my colleague from ADM, referred to the criteria used. Effectively, they are determined by looking at the age profile of the target group of children within the service and the range of services provided. A formula is based on this information.

Much discussion centred on the quality of child care. The EOCP and the Department place a huge emphasis on quality and the child-centred approach to the delivery of child care services. A significant part of our annual budget goes to the promotion of quality child care for both those involved in the delivery of centre-based child care and childminders, be they formal childminders or childminders not required to register.

The key topic has been the issue involving staffing grants and sustainability. I earlier outlined the discussions taking place. I give the committee the commitment to bring this issue of staffing grant support to a rapid and positive conclusion and to give advice to the groups that are waiting to hear from us.

Will the principal officer give an indication as to when these talks will conclude?

Ms Moreau

I sent a paper to the Department of Finance yesterday. It is toing and froing at that level. The paper to which I refer was requested late last week. We are very proactive on this matter. I hope it will be concluded shortly but I do not want to put a timespan on it.

Ms Byrne

The child care sector alone cannot deliver child care. There is a also political responsibility. It does not matter who is in power; I am not making a party political point. The Government must lead and provide a framework from within which we will all deliver.

Hear, hear.

Ms Byrne

The reason we are in a mess now is that while the Government has provided the instruments and money for child care, the person needing child care now finds it more expensive. We need a Government strategy into which we can all fit in terms of our individual roles as providers, trainers and so on. The strategy is there but it has not been implemented due to funding.

I have been involved in the business of talking to politicians. It is interesting that ten or 20 years ago, one never heard politicians talking about money. Now the question they all ask is how much it will cost. If it costs anything, it cannot be done. The evidence from Europe is overwhelming. Child care will not work unless it receives substantial investment.

Regarding Deputy Costello's question, approximately 80% of children are cared for in an informal and unregulated sector. We are talking about the remaining 20% in the formal child care sector. Within that subsection, we are talking about those children being cared for in the community sector. One critical difference between Ireland and Europe is that local government here is not involved in child care delivery, while in Europe the opposite is the case. Local level matches local needs more effectively. Policy driven at a national level only gets complicated. It is more complicated by the number of Departments involved, directly or indirectly, in child care. In an ideal world, there would be a single Department. In the interim, much more co-ordination between the Departments is critical.

Ms Breda Kenny

The issue of sustainability for community child care in disadvantaged areas will not go way. They will have to be funded and will always need subsidies because the parents simply cannot afford it. A single Department taking responsibility for child care would be wonderful. We need to address the percentage of GDP spent on child care because the current level of funding in this regard is disgraceful. It is a tiny percentage of what is spent in other countries. Examining other models, such as Northern Ireland's, is a way forward.

Ms Sheehan

The outstanding issue that needs to be addressed is the removal of the uncertainty for groups. They are really suffering and the 31 August date is too late.

That is a good point on which to conclude. It is pertinent and was referred to by all groups. I thank all the groups for attending the joint committee. This is not the end of hearings on child care, as it is a matter that needs to be seriously addressed. The committee will continue to give it the attention it requires.

I look forward to meeting many of the representatives again. They will help the committee in terms of coming to grips with the problem and trying to influence the Government to increase funding in order to improve the quality of child care. I thank Ms Pauline Moreau, in particular, for her co-operation with the committee.

The joint committee went into private session at 2.10 p.m. and adjourned at 2.15 p.m. sine die.