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Affordable Childcare Scheme to be debated in the Oireachtas

January 3, 2018

On Thursday 14th December 2017, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr Katherine Zappone TD, presented the Childcare Support Bill 2017 before the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dáil Eireann and Seanad Eireann. The Bill, which is a proposal for legislation, aims to provide the statutory basis for the Affordable Childcare Scheme.  With a few exceptions, a Bill can be started in either the Dáil or the Seanad and it follows a prescribed legislative process through one House followed by the other.  The stages of the legislative process are key to democratic law making because they allow elected representatives, TDs in the Dáil and Senators in the Seanad, to examine the proposed legislation and to make suggestions and amendments to the Bill.  By extension, this process also allows interested organisations, such as Early Childhood Ireland, and members of the public to engage with a Bill by requesting TDs and Senators make representations on our behalf. For more information, please see A Brief Guide to the Legislative Process . You can also find the contact information for elected representatives by constituency here.

The Childcare Support Bill 2017 will begin the various legislative stages when the Dáil reconvenes later this month.  The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) has described the introduction of the Bill as “a major milestone on our collective journey to delivering accessible, sustainable, affordable, quality childcare to families in Ireland.” DCYA has made the key documents relating to the Affordable Childcare Scheme: Childcare Support Bill 2017 and Explanatory Memorandum; the Regulatory Impact Analysis; and Childcare Support Bill Frequently Asked Questions available online: Affordable Childcare Scheme-next steps 

 

Towards the Affordable Childcare Scheme

A single Affordable Childcare programme was first announced in October 2015 by the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly TD, as part of an extensive package of childcare measures in Budget 2016. Dr Reilly stated that a dedicated project team would be established to develop the programme. It was hoped that the scheme would be introduced in 2017. Minister Zappone, took up the baton and secured €19 million in Budget 2017 to assist parents with childcare costs from September 2017. DCYA quickly followed with the publication of a detailed Policy Paper on the Development of a new Single Affordable Childcare Schemein October 2016.  However, the government was unable to develop the necessary IT system for the Affordable Childcare Scheme in time for September 2017.  Instead, More Affordable Childcare was introduced and comprises the originally planned universal subsidy, along with enhanced subvention rates and eligibility criteria for the existing targeted supports. It will continue to operate throughout 2018 until the Affordable Childcare Scheme is fully developed and the legislation to underpin it is enacted.

 

ECI and the Affordable Childcare Scheme


Early Childhood Ireland has been engaging with the Minister and Officials in DCYA on the development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme from the outset, as well as on the interim ‘More Affordable Childcare’ initiative:

 

Results of our Advocacy

The DYCA made substantial changes to the information available to both providers and parents on the relevant website and beyond, following ECI’s feedback from our members.

We were also pleased to see changes ECI had sought reflected in early technical changes to the proposed scheme. For example, the decision to extend the funding model from 48-weeks to 52-weeks.  

However, ECI has remained concerned that the stated objectives of the Affordable Childcare Scheme are not capable of being achieved in its current design. According to the Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Childcare Support Bill 2017 “[b]y making childcare more affordable, the Bill aims to support children’s participation in quality childcare, to support parents’ participation in the labour market, and – though both these effects – to reduce child poverty. Our concerns in this regard, chiefly about the lack of specific quality enhancement measures in the Scheme, are clearly set out in a recent article by ECI Policy Officer Amy McArdle Towards the Affordable Childcare Scheme: An opportunity to improve quality of provision for our youngest children, which features in Ireland’s Yearbook of Education 2017-2018.

A prevailing concern, since the publication of the DCYA Policy Paper back in October 2016, has been the proposal to reduce the means-tested subsidy to a maximum of 15 hours of childcare per week, inclusive of time spent in school or preschool, for children where one or both parents are not engaged in formal work or study. ECI felt this was motivated by labour market activation without proper consideration of the many and complex reasons that keep parents, particularly woman parenting alone, distant from the labour market. Such reasons include poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction, mental health difficulties, and disability.  We argued that early years policy must prioritise the best interests of the child and recognise that not all children receive the same start in life. While we will continue to advocate for the removal of the 15-hour cap from the Affordable Childcare Scheme, we are pleased to see a far more nuanced approach in the Childcare Support Bill, including a specific section on provision for vulnerable children (section 14) and the inclusion of the Health Service Executive as a statutory body that can make a referral for additional support under section 14.

We note that the Childcare Support Bill 2017 does not define “work” and “study”.  Rather, the Bill vests power in the Minister to define work and study for the purposes of the Scheme through regulation. ECI will be looking for assurances from the Minister during the debate of the Bill that unpaid work experience, where appropriate, will be included for the enhanced hours subsidy. ECI has already made this representation to DCYA in respect of a member service operating in a residential drug and alcohol treatment centre for women and children. Following completion of the programme, many clients undertake a minimum of 20 hours of unpaid work per week for a number of weeks. This is an important part of their step-down programme, which reintroduces structure and routine but also helps in building confidence and skills acquisition for re-entry into the labour market. It has proven very effective as part of the overall programme with the majority of clients in this service, on average 7 out of 10, transitioning into work or education after completing their care plan. ECI believes the definitions of work and study need to be as inclusive as possible and recognise the importance of unpaid work such as outlined here, and the need for childcare support, in parents’ transition into employment.

 

School age childcare and childminders

ECI believes that all services and settings that provide education and care for children must be regulated with proper oversight and inspection of quality for children.  The Childcare Support Bill 2017 provides that only those childcare services who are registered with Tusla will be eligible to participate in the Affordable Childcare Scheme. The Minister will introduce regulations in 2018 to enable stand-alone school age services to register with Tusla and thus participate in the Scheme. According to the DCYA, the initial regulations will be limited to registration requirements. Work will then commence on drafting full regulations that will cover quality issues such as qualifications, staff ratios, the environment, and the programme of activities for school age services. 

Childminders already registered with Tusla have access to the Affordable Childcare Scheme. The number currently registered with Tusla represent only a fraction of the overall number of childminders operating throughout Ireland. DCYA is still awaiting the report from the expert group on childminding and as soon as it is received, it will begin consideration on how childminders can be regulated and brought into the scope of the Affordable Childcare Scheme.

 

Moving forward

ECI looks forward to working constructively with Members of the Oireachtas to ensure the Childcare Support Bill 2017 is robust and keeps the best interests of children at its core. We will continue to represent our members at the various DCYA fora that are shaping the policy and roll-out of More Affordable Childcare and the Affordable Childcare Scheme. And, overarching all our work, we will continue to advocate for significant and sustained investment in the three essential, interconnected pillars of a world-class childcare system: quality for children sustainability for both childcare services and their staff; and affordability for parents.

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