On 11th March, I announced the launch of the National Childcare Scheme- our pathway to truly accessible, affordable, quality childcare. The scheme will open to applications this October, with payments flowing from November.
As previously noted to the House, the provision of a timeline for the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme has always been dependent on having the necessary legal and ICT infrastructure in place. Good progress is currently being made in this regard.
Last July, the primary legislation establishing the Scheme, the Childcare Support Act, was signed into law. Detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines made under the Act are now being finalised.
Last July, I also awarded a contract for the development of the Scheme's supporting IT system. The contractor, Codec, is currently working intensively with officials from my Department and Pobal to develop the scheme's supporting IT system so that it will be available on schedule in October.
In December, I signed regulations to provide, for the first time, for the registration of school-age childcare services with Tusla, and these regulations came into force on the 18th of February. This means that school age childcare services will be able to participate in the scheme from the outset.
A national communications campaign on the Scheme is also underway. This involves a sequenced programme of information, training and supports, to allow everyone- parents, providers and representative groups- to prepare for the Scheme. Key elements of the campaign in March included the launch of a new website- www.ncs.gov.ie - as well as a major nationwide training programme for providers, offering over 12,500 training places across 600 venues. I am happy to report that there is very strong interest in both the website and the training.
In September and October, my Department will run a large information campaign across a number of media channels to ensure there is full awareness amongst parents of their potential entitlements under the new Scheme.
In the interim, in order to fast-track many of the benefits of the National Childcare Scheme, and to ensure all Government investment was being fully utilised, in September 2017 I announced a series of enhancements to the existing targeted childcare subsidy schemes. These enhancements involved a new universal subsidy for children under 3 years and increases of up to 50% in targeted childcare subsidy rates. The interim measures exceeded our target and benefitted 84,000 children in the programme year September 2017- August 2018. These measures remain in place for the 2018 /2019 programme year and continue to experience high demand.
As stated above, the National Childcare Scheme is due to go live this October. As part of Budget 2019, I was pleased to have been able to further enhance the Scheme by raising the upper and lower thresholds for income related subsidies. These increases will poverty-proof the scheme for families on lower incomes, and enable more families with middle and higher incomes to access support.
I continue to work intensively with my officials to deliver this landmark scheme which will alter the landscape of early learning and care and school age childcare in Ireland, support families, provide a sustainable platform for investment and, crucially, allow us to continue to invest in giving our children the best start in life.
In parallel with this work, I will continue to support providers with regard to increased provision of early learning and care and school age childcare places. In 2019, I have secured a capital budget of €9.606m for the sector which will enable a focus on increasing the number of places available, and supporting the transition of services to the forthcoming National Childcare Scheme.
I am also very pleased to have ensured that childcare was identified as a strategic priority in the National Development Plan ( 2018-2027) and to have secured €250m in capital funding for early learning and care and school age childcare under the plan. This represents the kind of large scale investment in the sector by the State that has not been undertaken since the National Childcare Investment Programme that concluded in 2010.
This capital investment will be essential, I believe, to respond to the increased demand we expect as the National Childcare Scheme is introduced. Research is on-going in my Department to determine areas of specific need that the NDP funding will address when it comes on stream in the coming years.
Finally, many families and children opt for home-based rather than centre-based early learning and care and school age childcare. Continued access to childminding services is important. I will soon publish a Childminding Action Plan which will set out short, medium and long term objectives to regulate childminding in this country, hence enabling a larger volume of childminders access the NCS over time. This action plan will also set out the supports required to enable childminders meet the regulatory requirements that will be developed over an extended period.