One of the main challenges in the area of employment policy is to increase the overall numbers of those at work, including women. The rate of employment among females in Ireland has increased by 15% since 1994. The latest female employment rate from August, 2003 of 56.7% is the highest ever and the EU target of 57% to be reached by 2005 has almost been achieved.
A number of measures are being implemented to encourage greater levels of female participation in the workforce including tax incentives, child income support, a greater commitment to flexible, family-friendly working arrangements as well as child care provision.
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which has overall responsibility for the formulation of national policy on child care and for the implementation of child care services, established structures to bring the key players together at national and local level to ensure effective development.
The principal aim of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006, EOCP, is the development of quality child care to meet the needs of parents in employment, in training or in education. Total funding made available under the programme amounts to €436.7 million up to 2006. To date, over €249.2 million has been allocated in funding under the equal opportunities child care programme. It is estimated that the grants to child care providers and community groups to date will create 27,000 new child care places and will also support nearly 26,000 existing places. The flexibility of service being provided, including opening hours, is one of the considerations taken into account when grant applications are being assessed.
Recently, the national childminders' initiative was introduced as part of the equal opportunities child care programme. It provides childminders' development grants and continuing supports for information, networking and training opportunities for childminders. It aims to improve the quality and stimulate the development of childminding services in the childminder's home and to increase the number of childminding places.
The Government has also allocated €12.7 million to provide for crèches across the Civil Service. Both IDA Ireland and FÁS have introduced initiatives designed to facilitate the increased participation of women in the workforce. IDA Ireland has identified six of its existing business parks for the development of child care services which will benefit both employers and employees and thereby enhance the attractiveness of IDA Ireland parks to international investors.
FÁS has operated a pilot childcare allowance scheme since 2001, to facilitate primary child carers who wish to seek training in order to get back into the workforce. A total of €6.7 million was allocated to the scheme in 2003. It is anticipated that a similar allocation will be made to the scheme in 2004.