Health Minister must review Childcare Subvention Scheme – Ó Caoláin
Speaking from the Dáil this evening Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said he had no objection to a Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Health and Children to cover the shortfall in funding for the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme.
However Deputy Ó Caoláin noted that many of those hundreds of community facilities, providing childcare services to thousands of families, are extremely concerned at the Government's plans for the ending of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme and its replacement with the new Community Childcare Subvention Scheme.
Deputy Ó Caoláin said:
"Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet Minister of State Smith on this matter. At that meeting were representatives of community childcare providers in County Monaghan and all expressed their very serious concerns at what lies ahead for childcare in this State if the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS) is implemented in its present form and on its current timetable for implementation.
That concern is echoed throughout the 26 Counties.
"Nobody disagrees with the stated intent of the scheme which is to make childcare more accessible for low-income parents. Far too many families still cannot gain access to childcare due to lack of affordability. This has serious consequences for children and for parents who wish to improve the lives of their families through part-time or full-time employment.
"The Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme addressed the need to some extent but it did not provide, nor was it intended to provide, a comprehensive, universal system of childcare. Such a system is the one favoured by Sinn Féin and we detailed our proposals in a Private Members motion in the last Dáil and in Pre-Budget submissions to the Minister for Finance.
"This Supplementary Estimate will probably be the last block of funding to the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme. Funding for grant recipients will continue into the first six months of next year during the changeover from the EOCP to the new subvention scheme. Therefore we are at a crucial point and we must use this opportunity as a matter of urgency to press the Minister to reconsider the new scheme in its present form and to suspend its introduction pending essential review and necessary changes.
"The new scheme requires community childcare operators to work a complex tiered fee system according to the income of service users. Community-based childcare workers will be asked to process social welfare information about friends and neighbours. The new scheme will require a lot more administration and bureaucracy which small community-run facilities will find very difficult.
"Under the new scheme community childcare providers will receive subventions to enable reduced fees to be charged to disadvantaged parents. But these parents must be in receipt of social welfare payments.
"Many of the families using community childcare facilities are on low incomes but do not receive social welfare payments. Yet receipt of such payments is now to be a requirement to qualify for the new subvention scheme. Without a sufficient number of welfare recipients on their books community crèches will be forced to close altogether or raise the fees for those not qualifying for the subvention. Thus low income families (and many more in already stretched circumstances) could be actually forced to pay more. This makes nonsense of the claim that the new scheme will be better for the disadvantaged.
"There are very genuine fears that the new scheme will also lead to division between welfare recipients and other service users. We could end up with a two-tier childcare system mirroring our two-tier health system. The facilities under threat are community-based and community-run. Many people give time voluntarily to sustain them. In many cases EOCP staffing grants are insufficient to cover all staffing needs which are supplemented by voluntary effort. It would be shameful if an ill-thought-out scheme undermined the voluntary childcare infrastructure which has been built from the ground up in recent years.
"One of the strongest points made to me is that the supposed consultation exercise before this scheme was commenced was no such thing and that people have not been listened to. This must be put right. There must be widespread and thorough consultation. In the meantime the introduction of the new scheme should be suspended and the EOCP continued until a reworked scheme is developed. If that requires the Government to come back here to the Dáil for a further supplementary estimate for the EOCP then so be it. The most important thing is to get this right now and not to put in place a flawed scheme that will cause further problems in the years ahead." CRÍOCH