Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Government must make childcare a priority

2 November, 2004


Opening the debate on the Sinn Féin Private Members Motion on Childcare the Party's Dáil group leader, Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said, "There is no more important concern for parents, families, communities and our society than the care of our children. There has never been a greater need for a comprehensive and accessible childcare infrastructure."

The Cavan/Monaghan TD went on to say, "This is a quality of life issue. It is firstly about the quality of life of children who deserve the best care at all times. It is about the quality of life of parents who should be able to spend as much time as possible with their children, especially during their first three years. And it is about whether we as a society value quality of life above the current drive for material gain and the greed of the Celtic Tiger.

"If our society is judged by the quality of its health services and of its care of children then I am afraid we fall very short of the highest standards. After seven years in office this Government has failed to ensure comprehensive childcare provision. The lack of comprehensive childcare is restricting the participation of parents of young children, especially women, in the workforce, in education and in training.

"This motion outlines the range of measures that are required in the short term and in the medium term. Paid maternity and paternity leave needs to be extended so that parents can spend the most vital formative months with their infant children. Parents need assistance with the cost of childcare and we propose substantial increases in Child Benefit and Child Dependent Allowance and the introduction of a Childcare Supplement to be paid as a top-up for Child Benefit for under-fives. The petty and penny-pinching cuts in Creche Supplement and VTOS childcare support must be reversed.

"Our motion sets out goals which Government should work to achieve within a definite timeframe. We should look to the best practice in other countries and that's why we cite the example of Sweden where childcare provision is comprehensive and among the best in the world. We should strive for nothing less. We need to enable parents to reconcile their childcare needs with participation in work, education and training. We need to allow parents to look after their children full time up to one year of age. We should aim for accessible childcare for all parents and for universal provision of earlychildhood care and education from the age of three to five years. " ENDS

Full text follows

There is no more important concern for parents, families, communities and our society than the care of our children. All parents aspire to the best quality of life for their children and make sacrifices in their own lives to ensure that their children receive the best possible care and attention.

But now more than ever the care of children is affected by the working lives of their parents. More people than ever before are working full time and part time in this State and there has never been a greater need for a comprehensive and accessible childcare infrastructure.

Let us be very clear. The primary reason for that demand is not the requirement of industry for more labour or of parents for the opportunity to work. No, the primary reason for demanding childcare provision is the right of all children to proper care. Everybody in this society must share responsibility for vindicating that right which is at the core of the motion we are presenting here tonight.

This is a quality of life issue. It is firstly about the quality of life of children who deserve the best care at all times. It is about the quality of life of parents who should be able to spend as much time as possible with their children, especially during their first three years. And it is about whether we as a society value quality of life above the current drive for material gain and the greed of the Celtic Tiger.

In Éirinn na linne seo tá brú mór ar thuismitheoirí, ach go háirithe ó thaobh chostais na tithíochta de. Bíonn ar an mbeirt tuismitheoir, ma tá beirt ann, dul amach ag obair go lán-aimseartha chun an morgáiste a íoc. Bíonn sé deacair orthu ach go háirithe nuair atá páistí óga acu.

If our society is judged by the quality of its health services and of its care of children then I am afraid we fall very short of the highest standards. In 1999 the National Childcare Strategy was published and it stated that childcare in this State was 'uncoordinated, variable in quality and in short supply'. Five years on that is still the reality. After seven years in office this Government has failed to ensure comprehensive childcare provision. The lack of comprehensive childcare is restricting the participation of parents of young children, especially women, in the workforce, in education and in training.

Childcare is nominally within the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. With all due respect to those in the Department who work on the issue I believe it is totally inappropriate for that Department to be responsible for this vital area. The childcare issue is clearly not a priority for Minister McDowell and it should be taken out of his hands and out of his Department.

But it is not only Minister McDowell who sees childcare as a low priority. This Government's abysmal record is there for all to see. There is a shortage of pre-school, after-school and out-of-school childcare places. Many of the places that do exist are beyond the affordable reach of most parents.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has pointed out that for many working parents the cost of childcare is now second only to mortgage payments as the biggest weekly expense. Indeed it has been described as being like a second mortgage. That is confirmed by the survey carried out by the National Children's Nurseries Association. They show the average weekly cost of a full-time place at €156 for a private facility, €88 for a community place, and €141 for the workplace. Clearly these costs are crippling for many parents and totally prohibitive for others, with the result that many simply cannot exercise their option to take up full or part-time work, education or training. It is predominantly but not exclusively women who are barred in this way. Our economy is losing out hugely as a result and we argue in this motion that the development of quality childcare is self-financing through increased tax returns from those who, as a result, will be able to take up paid employment and less dependency on social welfare.

The Government's approach to childcare is almost totally dependent on the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme which runs out in 2006. While much good work has been done under that Programme - and no doubt Government speakers will tell us all about it - it must be pointed out that the Programme cannot provide the comprehensive childcare provision that is essential. And the delivery of the Programme itself has been fraught with problems. In the course of researching and framing this motion many childcare providers have told us of the delays and excessive bureaucracy they have experienced. In fact opportunities to provide extra childcare places have been lost due to these delays. I will just give one example from my own constituency. I believe it typifies the ramshackle nature ofthis Government's childcare provision.

Farney Community Creche in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan operates out of three different buildings - one houses the crèche, another is rented for pre-school

children and an after-school club operates out of the local school. Early last year the Community Creche had identified a building in the town that would be suitable as a new home for all these facilities. They put in their application for capital funding under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme in May 2003 and to date they have received no response from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. 17 months later they are disappointed and disheartened.

In March 2002 the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform John O'Donoghue visited Farney Community Creche and I have here a copy of the letter of thanks he sent to the crèche. He stated:

"The [Equal Opportunities Childcare] Programme could not succeed without thededication and commitment of those members of the local community involved in the management of childcare facilities in their areaI am aware that your Committee has plans for the further development of the service provided by the Farney Community Creche and want to assure you that my Department will provide every assistance possible in enabling you to achieve your goals in this matter."

Fine words but the delivery has not happened. Similar experiences can be found throughout the country and throughout the region I represent as the Border Counties Childcare Network can testify. As the motion states the Government must increase revenue for the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme including capital, staffing and operational funding and it must expedite all outstanding applications which have been delayed due to the protracted review of the Programme.

But even that will not be enough. The Programme alone cannot provide what is needed. We require a multi-faceted approach. This is a motion and not a Bill or a detailed policy but it does outline the range of measures that are required in the short term and in the medium term.

Paid maternity and paternity leave needs to be extended so that parents can

spend the most vital formative months with their infant children.

There are many families who would choose to rear their children on the income

from one working parent, with the other parent caring full-time in the home. But

that option is now closed off for many families, primarily because of the

outrageous cost of housing, with massive mortgages being serviced by two working

incomes thanks to the disastrous housing policies of this Government.

Parents need assistance with the cost of childcare and we propose substantial

increases in Child Benefit and Child Dependent Allowance and the introduction of

a Childcare Supplement to be paid as a top-up for Child Benefit for under-fives.

Others have proposed tax credits for childcare costs and capitation grants for

childcare places. These and other options need to be considered and in all of

this, it is essential that disadvanataged communities and families on low income

are not excluded. Of course this Government is good at excluding people. The

petty and penny-pinching cuts last year in Creche Supplement and VTOS childcare

support were perfect examples, with parents and children losing out so the

Department of Finance could save a miserly couple of million euros. Those cuts

must be reversed.

Ba chóir go mbeadh seirbhís cúram leanaí ar fáil do theaghlaigh Gaeilge agus

Gaeltachta. Tá gá le tacaíocht sa bhreis dóibh siúd atá ag freastal ar phobal na

Gaeilge. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuoíochas a ghabháil leo siúd atá ag eagrú agus ag

obair sna naionraí Ghaeilge, ach go háirithe Naíonra Ultain i mBaile

Mhuineachán. Tá mo mhac Óran, trí bhliain d‚aois, ag freastal ar an naoínra sin.

Our motion sets out goals which Government should work to achieve within a

definite timeframe. We should look to the best practice in other countries and

that‚s why we cite the example of Sweden where childcare provision is

comprehensive and among the best in the world. We should strive for nothing

less. We need to enable parents to reconcile their childcare needs with

participation in work, education and training. We need to allow parents to look

after their children full time up to one year of age. We should aim for

accessible childcare for all parents and for universal provision of early

childhood care and education from the age of three to five years.

We should aspire to the very best for our children and for our society and for

that reason I urge all Deputies to support this motion and I urge the Government

representatives to consider it carefully and address it seriously in this

debate.

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