I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and compliment him on the great job he is doing as Minister of State with responsibility for horticulture and organic foods. Senator Leyden spoke to the Minister of State today and passed on compliments from Mr. Stephen Cope of Lir Chocolates for the Minister of State's understanding of the food industry.
The early childhood care and education programme provides one free preschool year at three hours per day to each child aged between 3 years and 3 months, and four years and six months. The programme was introduced in 2010 by the Fianna Fáil Government. From next September the Government proposes to take away the option which allowed the programme to be provided over 50 weeks. This option suits many working parents. Many women work three days per week, not necessarily by choice but because they are the only positions they can get. Such women are able to use the programme during those three days.
The Minister is inferring that the three hour session comprises the only educational content of the day if a child is in full day care. That is not correct as many teachers, such as those in the community crèche in Athboy, are highly qualified. These teachers also educate through play during the long day so the Minister is incorrect to state that education only happens during the three-hour session. This is a retrograde step and I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, allowed this to happen. It is against working mothers. We have to continue to promote gender equality so the women who want to participate in the economy are allowed to do so.
A report published two years ago noted that our child care costs were the highest in Europe. This is a serious matter and one frequently hears how expensive child care is. We have to give women the freedom to participate in the economy.
I produced a document on a new approach to child care. I gave the Government full marks for those areas it had improved. In a previous document I referred to the extension of preschool education to all three year olds. This was subsequently done and there is no doubt that families in Meath exerted pressure for this development. One could almost say that this initiative to provide free child care was driven by the parents from Meath.