The National Childcare Scheme is a new, national scheme of financial support for parents towards the cost of childcare. The development of this Scheme is a significant move forward in delivering quality, accessible, affordable childcare to families throughout Ireland.
The Scheme represents a fundamental shift away from subsidies grounded in medical card and social protection entitlements, and towards a comprehensive and progressive system of universal and income-based subsidies. By making this shift and by tangibly reducing the cost of quality childcare for thousands of families across Ireland, the Scheme aims to improve children's outcomes, support lifelong learning, make work pay and reduce child poverty. It is also designed to have a positive impact on gender equality in relation to labour market participation and employment opportunities.
The Scheme will replace the existing targeted childcare schemes with a single, streamlined and user-friendly scheme, providing both universal and targeted childcare subsidies. To make the transition to the new Scheme as smooth as possible, families can choose to make the switch to the new Scheme once it launches (targeted for October/ November 2019) or can remain on their current childcare subsidy programme for one final year.
With regard to income-based subsidies awarded under the Scheme, parents who are working, studying or who meet certain other conditions will qualify for an enhanced-hours subsidy (up to a maximum of 40 hours per week). The definitions of ‘work’ and ‘study’ will be set out in regulations made under the Childcare Support Act 2018 and will be comprehensive, covering differing types of work and study arrangements, such as part-time, week on/ week off and zero hour contract arrangements.
The National Childcare Scheme will greatly increase the number of families who can access financial support. By removing many of the restrictive eligibility requirements of the existing programmes, a far greater number of families will be eligible for targeted, income-related subsidies. Many families will, for the first time, be entitled to subsidies which will reduce their childcare costs significantly.
There may, however, be a small number of cases where a family who is currently receiving the maximum rate for full-time childcare under an existing programme, may receive less under the National Childcare Scheme, particularly if their child is – in reality – receiving afterschool care rather than full-time childcare. In such cases, the family can remain on their current payment in the transition period following the Scheme’s launch. I have also directed my officials to undertake research and analysis to examine any adjustments to the National Childcare Scheme which might be required to address unusual or anomalous cases, where this is the right thing to do to protect and benefit lower income parents.
In this regard, I would highlight that the new National Childcare Scheme has been designed to be flexible, with income thresholds, maximum hours and subsidy rates which can be adjusted in line with Government decisions and as more investment becomes available. As such, any adjustments deemed necessary by Government can be carried out in a quick and responsive manner.
Finally, the Deputy may be aware that my Department also funds Educational Welfare services which are operated by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. The Schools Completion Programme regularly provides after-school services or homework clubs. These are most often provided in areas of disadvantage. The funding for Educational Welfare activities is unaffected by the National Childcare Scheme.