Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ceisteanna (6)

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

6. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the considerable negative impact that the affordable child care scheme's proposed reduction of child care subsidy for parents who are not in full-time work or education will have on low-income families and lone-parent households. [8995/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

Has the attention of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs been drawn to the considerable negative impact of the proposed reduction in the affordable child care scheme subsidy on parents who are not in full-time work or education, those on low incomes or lone-parent households?

I assure the Deputy that the enhanced subsidy proposed under the affordable child care scheme will not be limited to parents in full-time work or education.

The Government policy on the new affordable child care scheme was informed by evidence with the best interests of children and families in mind. When introduced, the affordable child care scheme will represent a major landmark for all children and families in Ireland, especially lower-income families and lone parents. It will be available to all families and not just those working full-time or studying full-time. I will explain this further.

Support for labour market participation as a route out of poverty is central to assisting low-income families and lone-parent households. Consistent with this objective, participation in work, education or training by parents will determine the maximum number of hours of subsidy available under the new affordable child care scheme.

When parents are engaged in work, education or training, they will be eligible for what we call an enhanced subsidy of up to 40 hours per week. The enhanced subsidy of 40 hours per week will be awarded to parents in full-time or part-time work, including those on zero-hour contracts as well as those in full-time or part-time education and those participating in labour market activation programmes. Indeed, it is my intention to define work and study in regulations made under the Bill in broad inclusive terms to recognise the diversity of progression routes to labour market participation. As such, it is not the case that the enhanced subsidy of 40 hours per week will be limited to parents in full-time work or education. That is my point.

When parents are not engaged in any form of work, education or training, child care will be subsidised on a standard basis of up to 15 hours per week. This reflects international evidence that the child development benefits of early childhood care and education are, in most cases, realised through this level of participation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I am committed to keeping this aspect of policy under close review. Indeed, I plan to commission further research exploring the labour market status and child care needs of those currently using child care services, especially in disadvantaged communities.

There is a small but important group of families for whom child care is needed on child welfare or child development grounds or for whom child care is necessary as early intervention support. Where this is the case, a referral system under the affordable child care scheme will ensure that families will automatically qualify for a subsidy without having to satisfy any income, work or study test. Schedule 2 of the Childcare Support Bill lists five statutory bodies with which the Department of Children and Youth Affairs may make agreements on referral procedures for such families. My officials are currently in discussion with relevant statutory bodies on how this referral process will operate under the affordable childcare scheme.

I thank the Minister for her reply and for bringing considerable clarity to many of the issues involved. The latter is much appreciated. I intend to focus on one point relating to the Childcare Support Bill. Subsidies will be paid on a 48-week basis. Some child care providers operate on a 52-week basis. Is there scope to change this? Is the Minister planning amendments to provide the scheme on a 52-week basis? If the subsidy was averaged out over 48 weeks, it would represent an increase for some of the families I have in mind. I know the Minister will agree with me in this regard. Perhaps it is something we should consider. Child care providers do not operate for 48 weeks and close their doors for four weeks. That is not how they run their business model. Most provide full-day child care facilities and operate for 52 weeks. Is the Minister considering any such amendments?

That is a great question. Obviously, it relates to the current work of the Department and providers trying to average out the 48-week period to a 52-week period. As we move to the affordable child care scheme, I can understand how that would be an issue with regard to the determination of the subsidy on the basis of how much parents work or for how long they are in education and training. The enhanced subsidy is dependent on the hours. Deputy Rabbitte's question relates to the basis of hours over 52 weeks rather than 48 weeks. Many of these issues are being worked through and dealt with in the regulations, including the definitions of "work", "study", etc. I will bring that excellent question to my officials, who may have an answer already. We will get back to the Deputy or we will take a look at it in the context of that work.

I might be able to help the Minister's officials. I tabled amendments to the Childcare Support Bill in recent days on the basis of recommendations from organisations, including Barnardos, to address the 48-week period rather than the 52-week period. I am hopeful of the Minister's support for those amendments. Perhaps when the Bill was being devised, consideration of best practice meant people looked at a period of 48 weeks rather than 52 weeks. It could be a genuine oversight in the way the Bill was produced. This has now been identified as a concern for those on whose behalf I have articulated the point.

I am pleased to hear about the enhanced subsidy for zero-hour contracts. That is welcome and I compliment the Minister in that regard.

I am pleased to hear that Deputy Rabbitte will be tabling amendments. We will take a look at them. As indicated, I have acknowledged the proposal of a 52-week period as against a 48-week period and how we need to be flexible in terms of provision. From the perspective of my Department, supporting child care financially, and figuring out our rules accordingly, is important. We have done it in the past and we need to do it in future. I have indicated that some of this will be dealt with in the context of regulation, as distinct from in the Bill. We need to take a look at it more clearly. I accept that the issue identified by Deputy Rabbitte, our colleagues and advocates in the sector is key.