Assisting families to access high quality, affordable early learning and care and school age childcare is a priority for me as Minister and hence I take all questions and concerns raised by service providers very seriously.
The Deputy will be aware that investment in the sector has increased by an unprecedented 141% over the last five budgets, now totalling €638m per year. Community services access much of this growing investment. 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. My Department believes that our approach to compliance and supporting services strikes a necessary and appropriate balance. Our approach has been informed from a variety of sources, including audit reports which needed to be taken seriously. Our approach now involves setting out the rules very clearly 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.
I very much appreciate that settings, such as the ones referred to in the Deputy's question, provide a valuable service to children and families across the country. I also appreciate the impact potentially reduced income, as a result of compliance visits, can have on their service, but, there are also opportunities that can be explored that will benefit children and the service.
Significant support is available to service providers to ensure sustainability, whilst ensuring the necessary level of compliance 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.
Results from compliance visits during the 2018/19 programme cycle showed high levels of non-compliance within the sector. Pobal, local City/County Childcare Committees and officials in my Department have engaged with service providers to support them through this process and help them to become compliant. This has involved listening to the concerns expressed by service providers and interest groups through proactive engagement with the sector, sometimes involving meetings with such groups.
I, along with officials from my Department, met a group representing community services in the Carlow Kilkenny area, where I was able to hear their concerns first hand. Such meetings are valuable in building an understanding of the realities for services on the ground. During a compliance visit, Pobal, when determining what constitutes a pattern of attendance, aim to apply the rules in a manner which maximises the amount payable to providers. As such, while the rules link funding to attendance levels, flexibility is shown in the way those rules are applied. Officials in my Department continue to review the link between compliance and sustainability, to ensure that it operates in an effective manner. As has been the case in 2018/19, funding and repayment plans will be available for community services who are facing sustainability concerns in the 2019/20 programme year.
Compliance visits for the legacy programmes (CCSP, CCSU, CCSR(T), TEC) and ECCE have begun for the 2019/20 programme year. My Department will once again be focused on balancing the responsibility to protect public monies with the need to support children, families and service providers. Along with the supports that were previously available, the National Childcare Scheme is also now open for families to access.
The National Childcare Scheme is Ireland’s pathway to quality, accessible, affordable ELC and SAC. The Scheme replaces the existing targeted childcare programmes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme, and includes ‘wraparound’ care for pre-school and school-age children. The scheme seeks to address poverty traps that have been identified on a cross government basis. The demand for the scheme, covering almost 20,000 children in its first 4 weeks of operation, is positive.
The scheme rules, particularly the attendance rules, are designed to be flexible and responsive to family life. The rules recognise the business requirements of our dedicated childcare service providers, as well as the need to protect State finances and represent value for money for taxpayers.
The National Childcare Scheme has marked another significant milestone for ELC and SAC 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. First 5 also commits to a DEIS type model for early learning and care services in areas of disadvantage, and to exploring the extension of AIM beyond ECCE and disability. Both these commitments, and many others within First 5, will have a positive impact on community services.