Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Ceisteanna (13, 33)

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

13. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to expand the availability of ECCE places in Cork city and county; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22686/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

33. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if parts of Cork city and county with rapidly growing populations will be prioritised for funding for the creation of new ECCE places; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22687/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

The second year of the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, has been a positive move. The value of it is diminished when people are not able to gain access to the scheme. Recent parliamentary questions show that in Cork there are 1,300 people who are waiting, while at the same time there are 1,300 vacancies. Clearly, there is an imbalance and the spaces are not where the demand is. We need to establish what the plan is to expand the provision so that people can get access to the ECCE scheme in their area when they need it.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 33 together.

One of the key priorities for my Department's capital programme is supporting private and not-for-profit childcare providers to extend their existing services, or to establish new services, where the need or the demand exists.

Each year my Department reviews the early learning, care and school age childcare sector to determine how the capital funding available can best be invested. For the 2019 capital programme, grants will be allocated to applications of the highest quality.

The decision on where to target capital spending is informed by an analysis of the current state of the childcare sector, learnings from previous capital programmes and feedback and input from stakeholders, including childcare providers, and data from Pobal and other sources. While the prioritisation of a particular area or region has not formed part of the capital schemes to date, the design of the scheme has regard to Pobal's geosparsity index.

Early years providers from Cork compete alongside services from all other parts of the country and all applications are appraised in a fair and impartial manner and solely on the basis of the quality of their application.

As regards capacity issues more generally, each year Pobal conducts research on behalf of my Department to examine a number of factors related to childcare services in Ireland, including capacity. The latest early years sector profile report, based on a survey completed in May 2018, outlines a 7% vacancy rate as a percentage of children enrolled in Cork. It simultaneously reports a 12% waiting list rate, indicating both under supply and oversupply but in different areas or for different age groups.

Pobal reports that nationally the trend for waiting lists suggests a reduction in waiting lists for older children and an increase for under twos but cautions that its data on waiting lists cannot by itself be used to inform capacity decisions as parents often place their children on more than one waiting list.

Finally, if the Deputy is aware of any specific cases of parents having difficulty accessing childcare places, they could make contact with their local city or county childcare committee who will be pleased to assist them.

The figures the Minister outlined are consistent with those furnished in the replies to parliamentary questions where people are waiting and there are vacancies in different parts of Cork. There is a mismatch and availability needs to be provided locally. People are having to travel further. One service provider, a person on the edge of the city, has people coming from more than a 22 km radius because people are not able to get a service in their area and are having to travel greater distances.

These issues should have been visible to the Minister before the scheme was launched. Providers should have had the opportunity to get ready for this. Looking a year or two ahead, this will be a serious challenge for parents because they will only have one year or two years benefit from the scheme. There needs to be faster response to ensure that the spaces are available locally and that people can gain access to the ECCE programme in their community.

I appreciate what the Deputy said and he has drawn attention to these issues in particular areas previously. We are aware of that. Matching supply and demand is not an exact science, as the Deputy is well aware. I do not accept that in planning forward we have not identified, to the extent we can, where demand will surface and supply will need to be met. There are at least two factors operative here. One has to do with our planning, efforts and investment. In 2017 and 2018 we have invested more than €1,304,000 in developing the supply in Cork city and county.

The other part of it is the providers and ensuring they are ready to step up and to increase the capacity and the places for the delivery of more services in the areas where children live. We are trying to support them to do that to the best of our ability but we must work together to move forward in order that there will not be the mismatch identified by the Deputy.

One area of which the Minister does have control is the availability of capital funding and the ability to ensure that the various providers are able to get access and to build and that services could be built in areas where they do not exist. I understand that €9.6 million is available this year but when one spreads that across the country, it is only a couple of hundred thousand euro per county. The scale of the funding is mismatched with the demand and a lot of catch-up is needed. Is the Minister in a position to provide further funding to address those gaps and to have the services provided in time for parents, given there is only a short window of opportunity in a child’s life when he or she is able to benefit from the scheme? One must have the facilities available for them to learn at that time.

As for the identification of where the money will go and what it is for - let us say it is €9 million this time - our policy is to target the under-three cohort in particular this year. We know there is a capacity issue in that regard. That affects the design of the scheme. The assessment for capital applications also has regard to Pobal’s geosparsity index, which means we also look at geography.

When the applications come in they must be of a certain quality for us to be assured that the money invested will deliver what is required. We try to support that too. All of those things need to be in place.

The Deputy asked whether we can provide more investment. I would like to see that. Let us see how the first round goes. If there is a need, we can request additional applications from providers that are ready to ensure they can provide facilities of the quality that is required.