Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Childcare Services Funding

Senator Murnane O'Connor is fortunate that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is here to address her issue. I welcome the Minister back to her alma mater, which was her crèche in a former life. I think she enjoyed her stay here. I ask Senator Murnane O'Connor to outline her case.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am thankful the Minister has come to the House today to address this issue. I have been contacted by a number of early childcare providers for a variety of reasons over the past year, but I was alarmed to be told just last week that there is a system of withdrawing funding based on how promptly parents drop off or pick up their children at childcare facilities. Is this the practice of Pobal, which administers this fund, that childcare providers are being unfairly penalised for parents leaving children late or collecting them early? Are we really that inflexible? Parents could be running late for an enormous number of reasons or they could get off work early and want to spend quality time with their child. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is being rather mean if money is being withheld from providers for these reasons. The childcare staff still need to be paid, and the heat and light still need to be paid for. Why would we have a system where providers have to take the hit for parents needing time in their lives to spend with their children? Time is something that is becoming more and more precious for all of us. Could the Minister clarify and explain the thinking behind this?

This kind of thing does not happen to the capitation grants in our schools, so it should not happen in our preschools. We have a massive issue with childcare in this country, and I hear about it on the doorsteps when I canvass in Carlow for the local elections. We need a massive overhaul of how this is done. In other countries preschools and schools fall under the same umbrella. Until we classify things properly, we cannot do things right now to reap the benefits later. I am eager to see what the new national childcare scheme will bring because parents and providers both need help, and staff need to be well paid. Early childhood education and care should be affordable and high quality, but out of all the OECD countries, Ireland's childcare is the second most expensive for couples and the most expensive for single parents. We only invest 0.2% of our GDP in childcare, which is miles behind the OECD average of 0.7%. UNICEF recommended investing 1% to catch up. We need to triple our investment in childcare. Working parents spend around a fifth of their income on childcare, which is four times more than in Sweden, while childcare in Canada can cost as little as $10 a day.

We have seen significant economic changes in Ireland over the last decade. We have seen both a birth spurt and a birth decline. We have seen opportunities expanded and possibilities opened for families. We have seen a sea change in both women's and men's roles, and there is no such thing as normal anymore. We are who we are and we live as we live, and we need to embrace that. It is a major change and a whole new culture, but we are not keeping up with these changes. It is said that politics lags behind reality by about 20 years, so it stands to reason that we are investing in what was needed in 1999, but it is now 2019 and significant investment and change are required.

Providers in the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, say capitation of €69, where staff have minimum qualifications of levels 5 and 6, over 38 weeks, does not come close to covering the costs and delivering the scheme. The higher capitation rate of €80.25 per child per week depends on a high standard of staff with paid experience. The Minister is aware of the importance of this stage of education, and while the sector has seen an upsurge in parents being able to send their children to this stage, providers suffer because they are constantly making up the shortfall, or even going unpaid. Several of them have told me they feel they are not making a wage. These providers print and process all the paperwork for the scheme at a cost to themselves, and they do not get paid for non-contact time when they are working on curricula, staff meetings, etc. Insurance, commercial rates and other utilities have all increased dramatically, and more work needs to be done to invest in those who provide the high-quality childcare which we all seek. It is wrong to make the provider pay when funding is being withdrawn due to the time keeping of parents.

Carlow has one of the highest percentages of qualified early years staff in Ireland, yet many of them cannot afford to live on their wages.

When they qualify they often go into another field because they do not get enough pay and cannot get mortgages etc. I know the Minister is aware of this and I believe she will be working on it. We need to ensure that staff in this area are properly paid.

Ultimately we should bring this sector under the umbrella of education so that it can be properly funded. It all boils down to the funding. I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. It is a major issue. As a parent, I see how people are struggling with paying for mortgages and childcare. It is getting harder.

Assisting families to access high-quality, affordable early learning and care, and school-age childcare is a priority for me as Minister. The Senator and her colleagues will be aware that investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the past four budgets, now totalling €575 million per year. This funds a number of early learning and care, and school-age childcare programmes. I want to see investment in this area continue to increase significantly over the coming years. I am in agreement with the Senator.

I am delighted that First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families, commits to doubling investment over the next ten years. Given the significant amount of public money invested in these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. I believe that my Department’s approach to protecting Exchequer funding and ensuring compliance with programme rules is balanced appropriately with supports we provide to services to enable them to continue to deliver a sustainable and high-quality service.

Pobal, as administrator of my Department's funded childcare programmes, conducts compliance visits to childcare service providers. These visits check a service’s compliance with the published rules of Exchequer funded programmes. Results from Pobal compliance visits for the first part of the 2018-19 programme year show a significant level of non-compliance, which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. In particular many childcare services have been found to be in breach of programme rules concerning attendance records and registrations. Subsidies for the early learning and care, and school-age childcare programmes are based on actual attendance. Attendance rules and their application do not penalise parents who occasionally pick up or drop off children early. Pobal, when determining a pattern of attendance during a compliance visit, aims to apply the rules in a manner that maximises the amount payable to providers.

Non-compliance with attendance rules represents a risk to Exchequer funds as it can lead to services receiving funding in excess of their entitlement. For this reason, my Department, working with Pobal, identifies incorrect registrations and applies the relevant corrections to ensure that services are receiving the correct level of funding. This is an important protection for the significant public funding invested into these programmes. I fully recognise the challenges faced by services where incorrect registrations have been discovered. That is why my Department has developed a strong case management system, operated by Pobal, through which a dedicated team assists services facing challenges. This case management service provides non-financial assistance or support in the first instance and is focusing on engaging those providers with an identified overclaim. Community services can access a budget I have created to assist them to transition towards sustainability in a manageable way. I am encouraged that the majority of services engage constructively with the compliance process and I would recommend services to contact Pobal or their local city or county childcare committee if they need support or advice.

The existing targeted childcare schemes will be replaced later this year with the national childcare scheme, as the Senator is aware. The national childcare scheme was developed based on evidence of the best interests of children and families. Its attendance rules will reflect the reality of children's and parents' lives and the need for services to operate as businesses. The national childcare scheme will mark another significant milestone for early learning and care, and school-age childcare in this country, creating an infrastructure from which Government can further increase investment in services over the next decade.

I thank the Minister for her reply. We need to find a balance here. We have excellent childcare providers. Parents should not be penalised for matters over which they do not have control, nor should the providers. We need a balance. I understand that the need for accountability applies to all businesses, including childcare providers. However, leniency should be shown. What is happening now is frightening people. This is a big thing now. As the Minister knows, things that people cannot account for happen at certain times. There has to be a balance. I acknowledge the Minister has said there is leniency there, but people need to be made aware of that. When there is a good reason, it needs to be accepted. There are great parents, just as there are great childcare providers.

I absolutely agree that there are great parents and great childcare providers. On the Senator's specific question, I am stating clearly that if Pobal finds any non-compliance, it does not relate to parents dropping children off later or earlier or anything like that. It is relevant to another system on which providers have guidelines. If childcare providers are found to be non-compliant, Pobal and my Department work closely with them to support them in finding a way to move beyond that. With the national childcare scheme that will come on stream pretty soon, we are taking a different approach from the ways in which we ensure that children are attending. The Senator will find that we will still have accountability but more flexibility in terms of the lives of parents and children.

This is a very interesting topic and, as a grandfather, I know what it is like. I thank the Senator and the Minister.

It is a pleasure, as always, to be here.

Sitting suspended at 10.50 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.