Through the National Childcare Scheme and a range of other measures, I am committed to changing Ireland’s childcare system from one of the most expensive in the world to one of the very best. In designing the National Childcare Scheme, extensive research and consultations have been carried out to ensure that this goal is achieved and that the Scheme can help as many families as possible.
The National Childcare Scheme will greatly increase the number of families who can access financial support. The Scheme removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements of the existing support programmes, whereby a parent must be in receipt of certain Social Protection payments or a Medical Card in order to receive targeted supports. In this way, it aims to combat the poverty traps which may exist within the existing schemes, and to make work pay for parents.
I have also worked to poverty-proof the Scheme by ensuring that families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy rates under the Scheme. Indeed, international reports have stated that the Scheme will significantly address affordability for lower income families, with analysis showing that Ireland will, for example, change from being the most expensive country in the OECD for childcare for lone parents, to 11th position.
In addition, the National Childcare Scheme includes specific arrangements for vulnerable children and families to be sponsored by certain statutory bodies to enable such children to avail of free or additional childcare under the Scheme. The five statutory bodies specified as sponsors in the Childcare Support Act 2018, and the specific groups of children who will benefit, are:
- Minister for Education and Skills - for teen parents who are still in education or training;
- Minister for Justice and Equality - for refugees and asylum seekers, to enable parents' participation in education, integration and other relevant supports;
- Child and Family Agency - to promote the welfare of children, either where there is a child protection concern, or as a form of early intervention or family support;
- HSE - to support child development for children who are below the age for participation in ECCE and where there is an identified need for childcare as a developmental support for the child; and
- Local Authorities – to support homeless persons with children that are homeless or moving out of homelessness to access childcare services.
Arrangements are also in place to ensure that no one loses out in the initial transition to the new Scheme. All families in receipt of current targeted supports will have the choice to switch over to the new scheme when it launches or to remain on their current support (i.e. effectively remain on their current payment) until at least the end of August 2020.
Department officials have also been directed 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.