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'Laughable', 'a joke', 'cynical', 'opportunistic' - Zappone brought to task by parents over childcare fees crisis

The introduction of a universal subsidy for childcare in September saw many creches across the country raise their fees at the same time.

shutterstock_557145823 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Oksana Kuzmina

THE DEPARTMENT OF Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) has been inundated with complaints and queries about the introduction of a childcare subsidy last September, which saw many creches around the country raise their fees in tandem.

The new subsidy, which went live on 1 September last and is not means-tested, sees families with children aged between six months and three years in childcare receive a subsidy of €20 per week (€1,040 per year) per child in order to alleviate the high cost of early years care in Ireland.

Unfortunately, the nature of the scheme has seen both parents and creches alike almost of one voice in their criticism of the department.

Correspondence released to TheJournal.ie via Freedom of Information shows that worries that were in place many months in advance of the scheme’s launch proved to be well-founded as the subsidy officially kicked in.

Delays

The subsidy is part of what has come to be known as the Affordable Childcare Scheme (ACS) – a set of measures designed to provide some relief to hard-pushed parents. That scheme itself was beset by problems at inception, with issues surrounding the introduction of a new computer system seeing it dogged by delays.

OBERTSOWN 046_90532183 Minister for Children Katherine Zappone Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Irish childcare lags behind most other EU nations, where such costs are largely subsidised by the state. By contrast, the cost of care for just one child in Ireland can easily amount to €12,000 per year, especially in eastern counties.

Two fundamental problems are repeatedly cited in the complaints – creches in regions across the country raised their fees at the same time the subsidy came in thus negating its impact (and in many cases, causing parents to be even further out of pocket), and a large amount of childcare providers refused to sign up to the scheme, citing an unworkable increase in administration and the lack of clarity around the scheme’s terms and conditions as the chief reasons, leaving parents howling in frustration.

20180114_182642 Source: DCYA

One creche wrote directly to parents of the 100 children it provided care for explaining why it wouldn’t be signing up to the subsidy (which requires parents to register with their creche, who then lower their fees and process the application via DCYA):

“The main fear that many service providers are having is that through implementing all these schemes the government will control our business.”

Unless you are currently running an ‘affordable’ childcare service you would have no idea what the expenditures are.
We have no idea where the government has got their research but what we do know is that it has not got it from services like us.

Letters of complaint from parents about the raising of fees are ten-a-penny – with the levels of frustration expressed ranging in tone from quite muted to apoplectic.

“I am disappointed to report that our creche decided to increase the fees from September and we will in fact be even worse off than we were,” one woman wrote to the department’s minister Katherine Zappone in late August.

Many parents forwarded on the notification of raised fees they had received directly to Zappone.

‘Nothing but an insult’

“This strikes me as nothing but robbing Peter to pay Paul and opportunistic to say the least,” said one disgruntled parent.

It has left me very angry and is nothing but an insult to parents.

20180114_183806 Source: DCYA

“I am sure I am not the only parent who is absolutely disgusted and shocked, but not surprised, that once again the attempts of our government to improve some matters by bringing a grant in have ended up in the wrong hands,” wrote another.

“It was inevitable this was going to happen. We are disgusted. We struggle each month to pay these enormous childcare costs and just can’t believe the first bit of help has been taken away from us,” said yet another parent, from Swords in north Dublin.

Citing a report from August which suggested Zappone was ‘monitoring’ the fees situation, a parent complained that “with respect, the time for monitoring has passed and the time for action is now”.

shutterstock_439653562 Source: Shutterstock/Anutr Yossundara

The evidence is overwhelming. What will be the action and when?

Reports of creches raising their fees are not confined to any one area – they were delivered to the department from every corner of the country, from the south-west to Mayo, the midlands to Wicklow and Wexford (in September, DCYA told TheJournal.ie that it believed the number of creches that were planning to raise their fees was in the region of 5%).

This has not been lost on the country’s political operatives – and the majority of those registering their concern were government TDs (and indeed ministers).

Worried politicians

Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan (Kildare), Patrick O’Donovan (Tipperary, a junior minister), Richard Bruton (Dublin North, Minister for Education) and Paul Kehoe (Wexford, Minister for Defence) all lodged expressions of concern with Zappone, as did the Independent Alliance’s Shane Ross (south Dublin, Minister for Transport) and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran (Westmeath, and also a junior minister).

20180114_183528 Wexford TD and Minister Paul Kehoe wrote to Zappone in late August Source: DCYA

20180114_183912 Patrick O'Donovan's submission to Zappone on the subject Source: DCYA

Many others referred complaints from constituents directly to the Department of Children – including Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien (Dublin Fingal) and Willie O’Dea (Limerick), former Fine Gael Minister Frances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West), and Labour’s Joan Burton (Dublin West).

Some parents complaining make it clear they believe the department has the best intentions in trying to provide some aid to struggling families, but say that nevertheless no positive impact is being made. “I truly believe that you and this government are doing your best to help,” wrote one parent. “To my grave disappointment, our creche has decided that come September they are raising their fees by 8%. So instead of being 80 euro a month better off, our family is now 140 per month MORE stretched.”

I thank you for your time and effort in trying to ease the burden, but I think in this case it has failed.

20180114_183647 Source: DCYA

Still more complaints come from families either with no creches available who will sign up for the scheme (which is available to child and family agency Tusla-registered businesses only – Bray in Co Wicklow is cited as an area affected in this manner), and those who use childminders (who are not eligible), and from childminders themselves. Other families state that they are being penalised by across-the-board hikes in fees when they cannot avail of the subsidy because their children in creche are more than three years old.

“Did your department investigate fully how many childcare providers are actually registered with Tusla? Very few I would imagine,” wrote one parent.

“I’m fully registered with Tusla but I might as well not be as it is adding no benefit to my business,” a childminder meanwhile wrote in late June.

I’ve worked tirelessly over the last seven years to build my business working 60 hours a week only for the government to brush me to one side.

Both creches and parents petitioned the department to allow them to register for the scheme directly in order to cut out the middle man, as is the case for free GP care for the under-sixes for example.

“Minister, you would be better off spending your time in discussions with the prime stakeholders of this scheme, the early years providers, instead of having photo shoots of choochoos and interfacing with the innocents in all of this,” one disgruntled provider wrote in May.

Another parent simply states that the scheme is not fit for purpose, stating they “thought it was a joke” when the terms were first revealed.

“€80 a month for childcare costs when one child costs €1,000 is not going to make much difference,” they wrote in late May. “I am actually shocked that such a poorly thought out and weak proposal has been put forward. A tax break that can be applied for at year-end would be of more assistance than this laughable proposal.”

But yet another parent gave a rare dissenting voice: “I would ask you not to scrap this new subsidy.”

I suspect that as little as the saving is, it will be of benefit to the vast majority with children in creche.

“It’s not much but it’s better than nothing!”

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