Ó Caoláin - Government must prioritise childcare
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le GUE/NGL, le Mary Lou McDonald MEP agus le Sinn Féin Átha Cliath as an cruinniú tábhacthach seo a eagrú inniú. Tá Cúram Leanaí mar príóreacht polaitiúil againn agus léiríonn an cruinniú seo, chomh maith leis na rudaí eile atá déanta againn, cé chomh dáiríre atáimid faoin gceist seo.
I want to begin by thanking our colleagues in GUE/NGL in the European Parliament, our MEP Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin Átha Cliath for organising today's conference. We have made the issue of childcare a political priority and the Sinn Féin TDs in the Dáil have placed it at the top of our agenda. Today's conference is a further illustration of the importance of this issue and of how seriously we take it.
Childcare is an Irish issue and it is a European issue. Today we are examining the experience in other EU countries and in that light looking at what solutions can be offered to address the childcare needs in this country. In this short presentation I will deal mainly with the situation in this State. But we must also remember that in the other state on this island, that is, in the Six Counties, some different conditions exist and different measures are being used to address childcare. It is yet another example of how all of us on this island bear the burden of two states, two governments and two civil administrations. Ultimately what we in Sinn Féin want to see is childcare, like other social services, being integrated on an All-Ireland basis so that the best care can be provided for all our children equally.
Compared to other European Union member states, the 26 County-state has relatively low levels of social spending. And childcare is at the lower end of that scale again. The EU Measure of Poverty Risk shows 21% of the population here living below the 60% income poverty line. This is compared to an EU average of 15%. The ESRI states that the Government will have to increase spending on social protections if it wants to reduce relative income poverty in Ireland -- and that must include childcare.
The Forum on the Workplace of the Future recently published a report which is highly critical of the lack of provision of childcare in this State. It reiterates the point that the lack of accessible and affordable childcare is a real barrier to many women participating in the labour market. The report states:
"Ireland stands out as one of the EU countries where having one or more children under the age of 15 has a very significant dampening effect on women's employment rates."
The report goes on to cite the study by the National Economic and Social Council entitled 'Ireland and the Lisbon Process -- Case Study on Childcare'.
The study uses a points system and assesses each state's childcare supports for families with two parents working. It compares all 15 pre-enlargement EU states. Denmark is placed at the top of the class with a score of 88.45. Our Finnish guest will be interested to know that her state gets the bronze medal, coming in third with 56.69 points. Our other guest from Italy has a bit of catching up to do as that country is a middle ranker with 35.66 points.
And what about poor old Ireland? You've guessed it. We get the wooden spoon again, coming in last of the 15 states with a pathetic 5.64 points. And this is even worse when you consider that the second worst scoring state - Spain - has 18 points.
That's the end of my Eurovision moment and I won't give you any more scores from the jury but I think it makes the point well. By European standards childcare provision in this state is a national disgrace. We are well on our way to meeting and exceeding the prediction of the Expert Working Group on Childcare in 1999. They estimated a shortfall in childcare places of 40,000 by 2010.
Also in 1999 the National Childcare Strategy was published and it found that childcare in this State was "uncoordinated, variable in quality and in short supply". Six years on that is still the reality.
Why is the situation so bad here in comparison to most other EU states? Clearly other EU governments have had to respond to pressure, especially from parents, from communities and from women, to ensure decent provision of childcare. They have given this issue a priority which it has never enjoyed in this State. They see childcare as a vital part of the social infrastructure. No government in this state has ever placed childcare as a priority issue.
This lack of priority is shown by the fact that childcare is nominally within the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. 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 the current Minister Michael McDowell and it should be taken out of his hands and out of his Department. I would say that most citizens would be totally unaware that the Minister or his department have any responsibility in this area. His own utterances on the matter -- let alone his actions -- could be counted on the fingers of one hand. (We know the kind of utterances he prefers, but I will leave that for another day.) Our colleagues in the European Parliament are well aware of the growth of neo-liberalism. That ideology is most strongly represented in Ireland in Minister McDowell's party. Nominally Minister for Equality, he has stated that inequality is a good thing and an incentive in our economy. He is the last Minister who should have any responsibility for childcare.
We have called in the past for a dedicated Minister and Department for Children and I repeat that call here today. Such a Department would co-ordinate all the necessary measures to place childcare on a proper basis in this State.
Our purpose here today is not to detail the shortcomings of childcare as they exist in Ireland now -- everyone is too familiar with those shortcomings. Our purpose is to outline proposed solutions in the light of the wider European experience. We hope to learn from today's conference and to inform the development of our policy. I believe we will be better able to bring forward our alternatives after today's work.
I want to outline briefly the measures proposed by Sinn Féin thus far. We put them forward last November when we used our Dáil time to put down a detailed motion on childcare. We made the rights and needs of children - including childcare - the theme of our pre-Budget submission to the Minister for Finance - 'Putting Children First'. While some aspects of the subsequent Budget were welcomed, it was noteworthy that the most widely criticised aspect of it was the failure to address the massive childcare deficit.
We believe the government should have the following goals and should work to achieve them within a definite timeframe:
- to enable all parents to reconcile their childcare needs with participation in the labour force, education and training
- to enable all parents to exercise their choice to care for their children full time up to one year of age
- to enable all parents to access affordable childcare for their children
- to establish universal state provision of pre-school for all children from the age of three to five years
- to establish universal provision of early childhood care and education based on the best models of provision in other EU states, such as Sweden.
This State's policy on childcare is based almost totally on two provisions -- the monthly Child Benefit payment paid to all parents and the EU-funded Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme. While Child Benefit does assist many parents with the cost of childcare -- and we would call for a greater increase in the Benefit than the one granted this year -- it does nothing to increase the provision of places. The Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme has increased the number of places but from a very low base and nowhere near the level required. In the disadvantaged communities where the Programme is targetted it is totally inadequate to meet the needs of children and parents.
Clearly the government is going to have to increase social spending to address childcare. But this should be seen not as a drain on the economy or an increase in the tax burden. The development of quality childcare could be largely self-financing through increased tax returns from the participation of those now able to take their place in the workforce and through less dependency on social welfare. It would allow for a widening of the tax base.
Should tax credits be used more widely to assist parents with childcare? They may have a place, but the problem with them is that they can disproportionately benefit higher earners. If they become the mainstay of Government policy they will leave disadvantaged people on the margins and allow the State to duck its responsibility to provide the childcare infrastructure. We do not want a situation where all the increase in childcare places is among private providers for higher earners.
There are a range of other necessary measures, including:
- Harmonise maternity leave on an all-Ireland basis by increasing maternity leave to 26 weeks paid and 26 weeks unpaid.
- Increase Maternity Benefit to 80% of earnings immediately
- Harmonise paternity leave on an all-Ireland basis by introducing paid paternity entitlements of two weeks per child
- Increase adoptive leave to 24 weeks paid and 26 weeks unpaid
- Introduce paid parental leave and legislate without further delay to implement the terms agreed in respect of parental leave under the Sustaining Progress Agreement
- Introduce a Childcare Supplement to be paid as a top-up for Child Benefit for under 5's
- Increase revenue for the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, including capital, staffing and operational funding
- Review the 'Childcare Facilities: Guidelines for Planning Authorities' to assess effectiveness of the guidelines and investigate the possibility of introducing legislation in line with Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to require developers to construct childcare facilities in housing developments and to transfer these to the ownership of the local authority upon completion.
- Bring forward legislation to effectively address the need for employers to share responsibility for provision of childcare for their employees.
In conclusion I look forward to the discussion and to working with everyone concerned on this vital issue in the months and years ahead so that together we can make real progress.