Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Ceisteanna (120)

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

184 Deputy Paul Connaughton asked the Minister for Health and Children the reason the Government has proposed a new approach to funding for playschools; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the playschool movement has been extremely successful, both in big urban areas and in small rural communities and that because of smaller numbers becoming eligible for playschools based on receipt of social welfare or other welfare payments many small rural playschools will find it impossible to survive financially; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25278/07]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Health and Children)

The main supports the Government makes available to parents to assist them with their childcare costs are Child Benefit and the Early Childcare Supplement. The latter payment, which is in recognition of the higher childcare costs of pre-school children, is the responsibility of my Office, and it alone amounts to expenditure of over €400m in a full year. These payments are universal and benefit all parents, regardless of their income, labour market status or the type of childcare they choose and regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas. In addition to these universal supports, Government childcare policy has also recognised the need to target additional supports towards disadvantaged families.

Under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006 (EOCP), which is co-funded under the EU Social Fund (ESF), targeted support was provided through the staffing support grant scheme whereby community based not-for-profit childcare providers with a strong focus on disadvantage were awarded grant aid towards their staffing costs to allow them to operate reduced fees to disadvantaged parents. Funding under this scheme was originally awarded for a limited period during which services were expected to move towards sustainability. This funding was subsequently continued to the end of 2007, where it was considered necessary to enable services to continue to make their services accessible to disadvantaged parents. This continuation funding was subject to the condition that tiered fee structures were implemented by the services in question.

With the closure of the EOCP in December 2007, to continue to support community childcare services to provide affordable childcare to disadvantaged parents, the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS) is being introduced from January 2008 under the Exchequer funded National Childcare Investment Programme 2006-2010 (NCIP), the successor programme to the EOCP. The CCSS has been allocated €153 million over the next 3 years, representing a 16% increase in funding over the EOCP staffing scheme, and will continue to support community childcare services to provide reduced childcare fees for disadvantaged parents, complementing the universal supports in place for all parents. Under the new scheme, it will be possible to ensure that the level of grant aid which individual services qualify for will reflect the actual level of service they provide and the profile of the parents benefiting from their service. As part of their application for funding under the new scheme, services will be required to ask parents using their services to complete a simple declaration form which will be included in a return to my Office and on which basis the level of subvention for each service will be determined. The subvention received by services will, in turn, be reflected in the reduced fees for parents who qualify as disadvantaged under the scheme.

In practice, this will mean that parents with children in such services and in receipt of most social welfare payments (or participating in a scheme such as Community Employment which demonstrates an underlying entitlement to same) will see a €80 weekly subvention in respect of full daycare (with pro-rata reductions in respect of shorter hour services). Parents in receipt of Family Income Supplement (FIS), will see a €30 weekly subvention in respect of full daycare (with pro-rata reductions). A further subvention of €30 per week will be paid where the subvented child is a baby, in recognition of the higher costs associated with the care of children aged under 1 year. Parents who do not qualify under either of these categories will be charged the cost price for their childcare service, however, as community not-for-profit services will, generally, have availed of capital grant aid under the EOCP or NCIP removing the requirement to cover rent or a mortgage, and as the services are run on a not-for-profit basis, this should still be significantly below the market price.

It is considered that the new scheme will provide an effective framework for the continued targeting of additional resources towards disadvantaged parents and their children while continuing to support community childcare services generally. The scheme has been informed by and takes account of a number of enhancements recommended by the report of the Value for Money Review of the EOCP. These include the fact that the subvention to services will be more responsive to the level of service provided as well as the degree of parental disadvantage supported and the ceiling for funding, which existed under the previous scheme, is being removed. Account will also be taken of all of the operational costs of the service rather than staffing costs alone. Services, including full-time, part-time and sessional ones, which at present are, in some cases, inaccessibly priced for disadvantaged parents, will be available to them at more appropriate rates under the new scheme.

The new scheme has clear advantages over its predecessor. There is an increase in the level of funding available under it, and a majority of services will benefit from the changes it introduces. Existing EOCP staffing grant recipients who enter the new scheme will continue to be funded at their current levels until July 2008. My Office has engaged in a series of meetings with existing grant recipients to outline to them the details of the new scheme and to gather feedback from the services themselves. A meeting with representatives of the City and County Childcare Committees has also taken place.

The Community Childcare Subvention Scheme will not discriminate against rural services and the number of parents in rural areas supported by the new scheme is not expected to be lower than in urban areas. Per capita, the majority of the social welfare benefits which are referenced by the new schemes are availed of by more people outside the Dublin area than in it and parents in receipt of Farm Assist will attract the higher level of subvention. Data available from EOCP grant applications also suggests that the costs of running a rural service, and therefore the costs charged to parents, are lower than those for services in urban areas.

Transitional arrangements have been made under which existing grant recipients will continue to be funded at their current levels until 1st July 2008. This is to ensure that existing childcare services are facilitated to adjust to the new scheme, including making any adjustments necessary to their fee structures. As signalled when I announced the new scheme in July this year, the transitional period between now and 1 July 2008 will also be used to monitor and review the impact it will have on individual groups, on the basis of the more detailed and comprehensive data which is due to be received from applicants in November. If appropriate, any adjustments necessary to the scheme to secure the best outcomes for childcare services and for disadvantaged parents and their children will be considered on the basis of this data and well in advance of the commencement of the new funding levels in July 2008.