Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Ceisteanna (26, 43)

Jennifer Whitmore

Ceist:

26. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the reason the early years sector did not receive an increase in funding in budget 2021 compared with 2020 figures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31350/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

43. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration his views on the lack of increase in funding for childcare services in budget 2021; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31315/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

The big surprise in the budget last week was that funding for the early years sector was not increased. Why did the sector not receive an increase in funding in budget 2021 compared with the 2020 figures? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 26 and 43 together.

I acknowledge the incredibly tough year that has been experienced across the sector by providers, childcare professionals, parents and teachers. The sector showed huge resilience in its initial reopening on 29 June and the subsequent reopening in September. It led the way for schools by showing how the public health guidance could be implemented, which gave real confidence that we could apply such guidance in schools.

In the budget this year, I have secured a total of €638 million for early learning and care programmes and initiatives next year. An additional €3.6 million in funding will be allocated to services participating in the action and inclusion model, AIM, in 2021 and this funding will allow for a further 10% increase in the number of children with disabilities who receive targeted supports under AIM, compared with the 2020 funding allocation. In addition, I have secured access for the sector to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, with a critical exemption to the turnover rule that applies to all other participants in the scheme. This will be worth €60 million for the first three months of next year. It is important to note that the sector received a unique and extensive range of supports in 2020, which is estimated at a value of €180 million above and beyond the childcare budget that was originally in place for 2020. That is indicative of the value and importance that is placed on the sector by me, my Department and the whole Government.

In recent times, the primary focus of my Department has been on sustaining the early learning and school age childcare sector. We have kept services open by funding the additional costs associated with following the public health guidance and lower occupancy and through encouraging greater uptake of childcare places. The key new contributor to the early learning and care, ELC, and school age childcare, SAC, sectors in 2021 is the employment wage subsidy scheme which funds up to €200 per week per staff member. That funding is now secure until 23 March next year, at which point I will continue to work to ensure that the sector is adequately provided for in any successor to the EWSS.

A second key contributor to the sector in 2021 will be to encourage more parents to access safe and more affordable early learning and childcare services. We saw a reduction in demand in 2020 in both numbers and hours but despite that, I retained all funding for childcare in budget 2021, meaning there is funding available now for up to 20,000 new families to join the national childcare scheme and access subsidies of up to €200 per child. There will also be funding for higher subsidies in 2021 for families who avail of the national childcare scheme or other schemes but are now on lower incomes because of Covid-19.

My focus has been on the sustainability of services in the context of Covid-19 throughout the past year, and that will remain my focus in 2021. I will also focus on protecting jobs through supporting staff wages and continuing to invest in schemes that save money for parents.

The Minister acknowledged the great effort of people in the childcare sector and thanked them for the groundwork they put in prior to the opening of the schools. With all due respect, I imagine that would feel to them a little like the applause the healthcare workers got. They wanted to see significant investment in their services, as did families and parents.

I acknowledge that the Government was focused on ensuring services could stay open when the Covid pandemic hit. That brought home to us how important those service are because unless we have a fully functioning childcare and early years sector, our whole economy stops turning. It is a fundamental cog. It was mooted by the then Taoiseach that it was time to re-envisage our early years sector and use this year as an opportunity to see exactly what we wanted it to do and where we wanted to go, invest significantly in the sector and move more towards a public model of care. I would like to have seen that happen.

A childcare worker called "Today with Claire Byrne" after the budget was announced. She said that all those workers were asking was for a fund of €30 million to be put in place to bring the pay of the 60% of staff who were not earning the living wage up to €12.30 an hour and for a sick pay fund to be put in place. She also noted that the childcare sector was the only sector where staff do not wear personal protective equipment, PPE, and there is no social distancing. She said that if she gets sick, she will not get sick pay.

There was a pre-existing crisis in the childcare sector in advance of Covid. It was exposed by the pandemic and the Government was forced to take some action, which it did by effectively funding wages, as the Minister outlined. That does not deal with the underlying point that we have a privatised system which is overwhelmingly dependent on public funding. Some 58% of the income of the childcare sector comes from the State. Ireland's spending in the sector as a percentage of GDP is the lowest in the OECD. The consequences are unaffordable prices for many parents and poor wages for a big majority of workers in the sector.

Yesterday's announcement by the Government about the changes to the EWSS will obviously benefit the childcare sector. That is important to note. Childcare was the only sector of the economy where everyone automatically went on to the scheme. That was an exemption I negotiated as part of the July stimulus package.

As per the new EWSS figures, almost 82% of providers' staff costs will be met by the State. That is a significant figure at a time when childcare providers, along with teachers, are out there leading and experiencing the circumstances Deputy Paul Murphy outlined. We are supporting their incomes and recognising that fact.

I discussed the issue of sick pay with SIPTU and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. As the Deputy knows, the Government is looking at a wider and much-needed sick pay scheme across the entire economy. I have been engaging with the Tánaiste's office to ensure that childcare workers are included in that.

I acknowledge the work that is being done but it is like putting sticking plasters over a broken system that does not work for children, parents or childcare workers. As my colleague mentioned, the rates of turnover in the sector are incredibly high. There are issues with sick pay and the wages paid to staff. That is not a long-term system because it will not deliver for us, as a country or society.

After the budget announcement, I found it interesting that not many parents contacted me to say they were worried or wanted to see further investment, the reason being that they are so used to paying the equivalent of a mortgage every month on childcare. Women, in particular, are used to saying they will work for two or three years and use all their earnings to pay for childcare in order that they will have a job when their children eventually go to school. That is not a system that we want in this country. Is it the Minister's intention to progressively move towards a more public model of childcare provision?

Does the Minister agree that the current system is broken and the privatised model which depends on inadequate public funding does not work from the points of view of childcare workers, parents or many small providers?

TASC produced a report last week which concluded that the single most important factor in knowing the pay and conditions of care work is the extent to which it is marketised and that for care work to be well paid, it needs to be publicly resourced and its wages set above what would be fetched in the market. That finding is particularly relevant now. There is no question but that childcare workers are very much on the front line. The positivity rates for Covid are twice as high in the childcare sector as in education for a range of different reasons. Does the Minister agree that, fundamentally, the privatised system is broken and we need a national childcare service, that is, State public provision of childcare that, I would argue, is free at the point of use and paid for through progressive taxation?

I thank the Deputies. Since I have come into this role I have been very clear that we need to change the way we operate childcare in this country. There are three major pieces of work going on at the moment which, when they conclude midway through next year, will give us the knowledge base to be able to, as the Deputy said, re-envisage how we look at childcare in this country.

One of the key problems is that we worked too much on an ad hoc basis. There has been response after response over the past ten years which is why the three pieces of work are ongoing. They involve the operating model and deciding what the infrastructure should be, which I will address in a question from Deputy Naughten later, the expert funding model, that is, how we target the money provided by the State to ensure we have good outcomes in terms of pay for childcare professionals and meeting the out-of-pocket costs for parents, and workforce planning make sure that childcare professionals have a long-term future in a career in this area. Those three pieces of research will be completed by the middle of next year and I hope to be able to start focusing investment in budget 2022 to be able to start focusing investment to achieve that new model of childcare.