I propose to take Questions Nos. 685 and 686 together.
The Deputy will be aware that investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the last four budgets, now totalling €575m per year. Given the large amount of public money that is used in funding these programmes, there needs to be an appropriate level of oversight and accountability. Ensuring that this money is properly accounted for, and that as many children as possible benefit from it, is a core responsibility of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Pobal assists the Department in the administration of the funding and in ensuring that services are compliant with the clearly documented rules of the schemes.
The Public Accounts Committee on June 13 paid significant attention to this matter and highlighted the importance of compliance with scheme rules. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs' approach to compliance, and supporting services, strikes a necessary and appropriate balance. The approach involves setting out the rules for the receipt of State funding, supporting providers to deliver services, and at the same time, the approach offers assurances to the taxpayer that the funding assigned is being spent as it was intended through a strong compliance framework.
A high level of compliance with the rules of the various childcare schemes is vital to maintaining existing investment as well as ensuring future investment. It is a requirement that services operating the early learning and care and school age childcare programmes funded by the Department must be compliant with the ‘Rules for DCYA childcare funding programmes’, which are available on the DCYA website. As stated above, compliance with these Rules is overseen by Pobal on behalf of the Department.
Part of Pobal’s role in overseeing compliance is to carry out unannounced visits to services to check their compliance with programme rules. Subsidies for the Early Learning and Care and School Age childcare programmes are paid based on child attendance, which is a vital governance component of the funding for which my Department is responsible. Where Pobal discover that the actual attendance of a child does not match registrations for that child on Pobal’s Programme Implementation Platform (Pobal's IT system) they will calculate the amount of funding that has been overclaimed. The service will be advised by Pobal to make the necessary corrections to PIP registrations to ensure that the total amount of funding received for the programme year is correct. There is an appropriate amount of flexibility applied to this corrections process and Pobal works with services on a case by case basis. However, the recovery of overclaimed funds is an integral part of ensuring that public money is properly accounted for.
Results from Pobal compliance visits for the period October 2018 – March 2019 show some issues in relation to non-compliance which required immediate attention. Under CCSP, if a child increases or decreases their attendance, the service provider must update PIP registrations to reflect the actual attendance of that child. Following a compliance visit, funding is only corrected to account for the time a particular child actually attends a service. My Department does not collect information on the number of children for whom incorrect registrations are identified through compliance visits. However, in the period October 2018 - March 2019, 233 services operating CCSP contracts were found to need to update PIP registrations to match the actual attendance of children. Over this six-month period, Pobal estimated that approximately €1.4 million in potential overclaims were identified and prevented on the CCSP programme, with approximately €4.7 million potential overclaims identified and prevented across all programmes. These figures come with caveats owing to the type of data involved.
It is important to note that the compliance activity should not result in any child having any service withdrawn, rather that the service provider only claims from the Department for the hours the child is attending. Data available to the Department shows that the number of children accessing Government subsidies continues to increase.
Significant support is available to services facing sustainability issues to bring their service onto a sustainable footing, whilst being necessarily compliant with scheme rules. My Department oversees an integrated Case Management system operated by Pobal through which a dedicated team assesses services facing challenges. This Case Management service provides non-financial assistance or support in the first instance. Financial supports are also available for community services facing certain challenges which may also be accessed through Case Management following a financial assessment. I would recommend all services to get in contact with Pobal or their local City / County Childcare Committee if they need support or advice, or if they believe a sustainability issue arises.
The existing targeted childcare schemes will be replaced later this year with the National Childcare Scheme. Its attendance rules will seek to reflect the reality of children and parents' lives and the need for services to operate as businesses. The attendance rules will reflect a certain degree of flexibility whilst honouring the requirement to ensure that Exchequer funding is used for the purposes it was intended.
The National Childcare Scheme will mark another significant milestone for early learning and care and school age childcare in this country, creating an infrastructure from which Government can further increase investment in services over the next decade. This is in line with the commitment made in First 5, the Whole of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families, which I published last November.