ON PAPER, OUR recent figures for childcare investment may look impressive, but I have been clear from the outset they must only be the first big step.
Yes, investment in early years is up 80% since 2015 and yes, my department will provide €466m in supports this year. But these figures must be viewed in the context of one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world caused by years of under-investment by successive governments.
As Minister I am delighted that we are providing extra supports to families from September. Our changes will make a real difference in particular for those parents who need it most.
We can’t stop now
Public interest has been huge – the special website www.affordablechildcare.ie has recorded 300,000 hits with 27,000 alone last Wednesday when the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and I launched the It Starts Now information campaign. Some relief is on the way. But we cannot stop there.
If we are serious about having genuine accessible affordable quality childcare, then the increases in funding secured in the last Budget cannot and must not be a once off.
I am ready for the negotiations ahead and have already made clear that the increases secured in Budget 2017 must at the very least be matched this autumn.
Accessibility and quality are just as important
Addressing affordability alone is like building a house of cards. Accessibility and quality are just as important. To achieve these goals we need the support and the continuing hard work of childcare providers. Throughout the country providers are again showing their goodwill by signing up to deliver the new benefits.
They are being provided with supports – including €18m in payments for administration work, a doubling of capital grants to €8.4m, and a 33% increase in funding for services for school age children to €4m. The sector has welcomed this. But I accept the view that this piecemeal approach is not the way forward.
In order to build a sustainable system, that will stand the test of time, we need proper structures and regular funding for providers. To do this we need more investment. I am aware too that pay and conditions are serious issues. They have formed the basis of many discussions at the first ever National Early Years Forum established last September. As Minister I fully accept the concerns raised are genuine.
Pay and conditions
While the government is not the employer in the sector, it does have responsibilities as the largest provider of funding. What is needed is an imaginative response to address these issues.
Under the Labour Court or the Labour Relations Commission the pay and conditions in any area of employment can be examined under a Sectoral Employment Order. I know that the trade unions are working to kick start this process. They have my support. Interested bodies are invited to make submissions for consideration. I can confirm that my department, as an interested body, would definitely make a submission to such a process.
As already stated, correcting years of under-investment by successive governments, was never going to be achieved in one budget – it will not be achieved in two. We must plan much further ahead. For that reason, for the first time ever, a comprehensive independent review of the cost of delivering quality childcare is to be undertaken. This should have been done years ago. We have been operating in a vacuum.
The findings of this review will give us a path forward. It will ensure that our investments into the future are the right ones and will deliver for children, parents and providers. A deadline of 10-months has been set for this work. Most importantly it will report back in time for next year’s Budget negotiations providing hard evidence that we need another successive childcare centred Budget for 2019.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves
Even with the progress that has already been made, the government must be ready for a report which may make for some uncomfortable reading. It will be another call to action for government.
A lot of work is now being done – but it can only be the beginning. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s commit ourselves to significant improvements in Budget 2018, 2019 and beyond. Failure to continue the upward path of investment would be foolish and will only deliver short term and short lived achievements.
As a government we must finally get serious about providing the childcare system which families deserve. In one month’s time, up to 70,000 children, will start enjoying some of the benefits – but as the only independent woman in cabinet I am determined this will not be a once off.
Katherine Zappone is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.