Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Ceisteanna (51)

Anne Rabbitte


51. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the public consultation process on the draft childminding action plan will be extended in order to facilitate childminders who have attended focus groups in relation to the plan; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51844/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the public consultation process on the draft childminding action plan will be extended in order to facilitate childminders who have attended focus groups in respect of the plan; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I warmly welcome the high level of participation by childminders in the recent public consultation on the draft childminding action plan. I strongly believe that childminding has an important and distinctive role to play in the future of early learning and care and school-age childcare in this country and this is why I appointed an expert group, chaired by Childminding Ireland, in 2016 to revert to me with recommendations.

Childminding is different from centre-based provision. That is why regulation of childminding must be proportionate and appropriate to the home setting in which childminders work, and that is why it was important to have a consultation process in which the views of childminders themselves would be heard.

At the heart of the public consultation was a series of 31 focus-group meetings across the country with childminders. These were organised at county level by childcare committees. They took place in the evenings to make it possible for childminders to attend. In addition, one meeting of stakeholders took place during the working day to enable other stakeholders, such as parents or parent-and-children representatives, to take part, and I am delighted that some childminders were also able to attend that meeting.

The consultation also involved an online survey and a call for submissions. There were 471 respondents to the online survey, of whom nearly 60% were childminders. In addition, there were 14 responses to the call for submissions.

All aspects of the consultation are important and each will be fed into the final plan. The views of those who attended the focus groups were carefully noted and will make a significant contribution to the analysis of the consultation that officials in my Department are now undertaking.

If there are specific issues which the Deputy feels have not been reflected in the extensive consultation to date, my officials would be happy to consider them. However, given the scale of consultation already undertaken, rather than extending the consultation I believe the priority now should be to review the childminding action plan in light of the views childminders have shared, and then to begin the processes of reform that they have called for. My Department will continue to engage with Childminding Ireland and other relevant representative groups as the process continues.

Although approximately 19,000 childminders currently operate in Ireland, only 81 of them are registered. One child in ten aged between zero and 12 years of age is cared for by a childminder. When one looks at the preschool children where non-parental care is used, almost one third of these children are cared for by childminders. If we want childcare to be affordable and accessible, childminding must be part of the solution.

At present, a parent can only avail of the affordable childcare scheme by using a registered childcare facility. A big part of the reason that fewer than 100 childminders in Ireland are registered is that the current regulations are written with a centre-based setting in mind. Taking into consideration everything the Minister has said, there is a fear within the childminding sector that we will see a cutting and pasting of whatever has been done already for centre-based settings with standards and regulations to be forced upon childminders. That is why they are looking for an extension of the consultation. They do not feel that they were represented because they were not registered.

I agree with everything that the Deputy outlined in terms of the concerns, which is why we put in place an extensive consultation led by Childminding Ireland in the first place to recommend what the draft plan ought to include, the substantial majority of which became part of the draft childminding action plan that is still to be put out for further consultation. The Deputy's points are well taken, which is why I listed all the different ways in which we tried to have the consultation with childminders to inform the finalisation of that plan.

In fairness, we have done extensive work in including, enabling and supporting childminders to drive what will be in that plan. It is true to say that, ultimately, those are decisions for Government but it is not the case that we have not been asking or listening. There are several issues that the childminders are particularly concerned about, particularly what level of qualification will be required, but we certainly are hearing those issues. I agree the childminders need a bespoke set of regulations that are appropriate and proportionate for the childminding setting.

The reason that question was tabled is that childminders who approached me stated that the consultation had finished when the draft plan was released. They felt that they had not enough time to engage on it.

The childminders do not want academia to write the report. They want it to be childminding-child led. Childminding, as opposed to a centre-based setting, is a completely different animal. The childminders want to be in control of their own rules and regulations with everybody else because it is a completely different setting. I think the Minister would agree with me on all of that.

Can the Minister give me details of the appointments to the various working groups and expert panels? Can the Minister assure me of some of the names that come from the childminding sector that would reassure the childminders that their voices and representations are at the core of this?

In response to Deputy Rabbitte's first question, it will not be academia that is writing it. In fairness, it was Childminding Ireland that led that first piece of consultation out of which the draft action plan was put in place ultimately. I absolutely agree with the Deputy. It will not happen under my leadership.

On the Deputy's second question, I do not have specific names in front of me. However, in terms of the steering committee that will be appointed to drive and oversea the implementation of the action plan once it has been finalised, I can state there is an explicit commitment that it will include representatives of childminders, parents and other key stakeholders within the sector. The role of the steering committee will including monitoring and reviewing of the implementation of the plan. During phase 1, it is proposed four advisory groups will be established and they will work with officials on regulation and inspection, qualifications and training, funding and financial supports and consultation and communications. I can only say that I expect and anticipate that, of course, some childminders will be part of that.