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Protestors outside Leinster House in Dublin today. Órla Ryan/The Journal
growing costs

O'Gorman doubles down on need for fee freeze as childcare providers protest at Leinster House

Childcare providers say they are at risk of closure due to increased costs.

LAST UPDATE | 26 Sep 2023

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has reiterated his support for the fee freeze in the childcare sector despite pushback from providers.

A large crowd of childcare providers protested outside Leinster House today calling for the government to increase funding for the sector.

The Federation of Early Childhood Providers (FECP), which represents about 1,500 childcare providers, organised the protest. There are about 4,800 providers operating nationally.

The FECP said many providers, particularly small independent crèches, are at risk of going out of business due to increased costs and an inability to increase their fees.

Childcare providers agreed to continue to freeze their fees last year to avail of over €200 million in core funding from the government.

However, many providers say this funding comes with too many stipulations which make it difficult for them to do business.

The FECP is calling for government funding of the sector to increase by €138 million each year between now and 2028.

Screenshot 2023-09-26 09.25.12 Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman (file photo) Niall Carson / PA Images Niall Carson / PA Images / PA Images

Speaking to reporters in Dublin while the protest was ongoing, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said it’s important the fee freeze remains linked to core funding.

“The fee freeze is absolutely central to core funding. We’re putting in a huge additional investment directly into services – €287 million this year.

“And in exchange for that we seek a fee freeze so that parents can have certainty in terms of the fees they’re paying and can then benefit from any improvements we secure under the National childcare Scheme,” O’Gorman said.

50% reduction

The minister previously indicated he wanted to reduce childcare costs for parents by 50%. Many people have experienced a 25% reduction to date, but when pushed today on achieving a further 25% reduction, O’Gorman did not commit.

He said the initial 25% reduction was a “very significant cut”, then noted he has “a broad focus” in terms of what he wants to achieve this year.

“I want to continue to reduce the cost of childcare for parents, but I want other parents to benefit from those reductions as well. For example, parents’ fees on childminders, they’re excluded from the NCS [National Childcare Scheme] right now…

“I also want to broaden out the Access and Inclusion Model which [helps] children with a disability. Those are all schemes that require significant investment,” he told reporters.

However, the Taoiseach later told the Dáil the government remains committed to the 50% reduction.

When asked about the issue by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald during Leaders’ Questions this afternoon, Leo Varadkar said:

It remains the government’s objective to reduce the cost of childcare by 50%. We set that out some time ago and we’re halfway there already.

“We also need to invest in capacity because we need to make sure there are more places available too and we also need to invest in quality and that includes better pay for staff which of course has to be funded, at least in part from the public purse.

“Exactly how much we can dedicate to each of those three objectives, that has to be negotiated between now and Budget Day involving the ministers concerned.”

Siptu today renewed its call on childcare employers to restart pay talks.

The trade union said an offer of €13.65 per hour for Early Years Educators, which was made at the Joint Labour Committee (JLC) yesterday, is “unacceptable”.

Siptu Head of Strategic Organising Darragh O’Connor said in a statement: “Low pay in the profession has directly led to a major staffing crisis, which will only get worse if this rate of pay is introduced.

“According to official figures released by the Department of Children, 60% of childcare services reported extreme difficulties in recruiting staff in 2022. This is an increase of 11% from 2021 and is simply unsustainable.”

“We are again calling on the employers to restart pay talks at the JLC and agree a rate of pay that recognises and values these essential workers.”

‘Enough is enough’

Members of the FECP are planning further protests around the country tomorrow and on Thursday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Children said that 64 providers are officially recorded as being closed at some point over the next three days, with 26 providers expected to close on all three days.

However, the actual number of centres closed may be higher. The spokesperson said that if a centre closes without giving the required notice, it could result in deductions from future payments.

“Some of these services notified they would be closed on one or more of these days as far back as May and June and so not all closures are related to this action,” the spokesperson told The Journal.

A statement noted: “Under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme, providers who are planning to close over the protest days are required to give 20 working days’ notice in writing to parents about a change to calendar days.

“For closures on 26-28 September, parents should have been notified by 29-31 August. While these providers can make up ECCE Programme closure dates with alternative dates, these must be suitable days for children and their parents.

“If providers have not adhered to the above, this may result in payments in respect of closure days being deducted from future payments.

“The National Childcare Scheme allows for providers to be paid for up to 10 closure days a year. If these three protest days are additional to their 10 closure days, the service will not be paid for these days. Where a provider is marked as open on their calendar, but it was in fact closed, these payments may be recouped by the Department.”

IMG_20230926_120924 Frank Keane speaking at the protest outside Leinster House today Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

More than 1,000 people attended today’s protest.

Speaking to the crowd, Frank Keane, a childcare provider who owns Bright Beginnings in Mayo, said he and others decided to close their centres as they are “fed up of being on the hind heel all the time”.

Keane said: “It’s no good. The funding is not working. Core funding is not working. We are providing a service, we’re providing buildings, we’re providing all the care and the government are not paying attention and they’re not paying enough money to us.”

Averil Sheehan of Full Day Care Childcare in West Cork told her fellow protesters that the victims of the “poorly planned” funding are the children who depend on the service, saying “enough is enough”.

Workers’ wages

Speaking to The Journal ahead of the protest, Sheehan said she understands why parents are worried about potential fee increases.

“Parents have to be given a tax break of some sort or something [to offset any increase]. I genuinely look at some parents here with three kids in my service, I don’t know how they’re doing it financially, it’s a huge strain on parents.

Absolutely parents have to be looked after, absolutely staff have to be looked after, but we can’t look after either of them if services are going to be closing down here, there and everywhere due to the fact that we’re not able to pay our bills because we’re not getting the funding.

Sheehan told us she wants to increase her employees’ wages but can’t.

IMG_20230926_121437 Averil Sheehan speaking at today's protest Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

“I’m in the office the whole time but my staff are my front of house. I think they should be on way more money but you can only give them what we can afford.

“It is a vicious circle because if we’re not getting the funding then we can’t pay our staff accordingly. The staff aren’t staying in the sector, and they’re only using it as a stepping stone to move on to primary school teaching or another job,” she said.

Speaking at a separate press conference earlier, Labour Senator Marie Sherlock said O’Gorman and the wider government have “very serious questions” to answer about the “sustainability” of the childcare sector.

Sherlock acknowledged that not all stakeholders want a public childcare system, but said many people do.

“I know certainly from talking to the many providers in the area that I’m based in, they want the State to play a bigger part. They want this State to support their wages, they want the State to ensure that they have a functioning early years system,” she said.

IMG_20230926_115753 A large crowd of childcare providers gathered outside Leinster House this afternoon Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

The FECP also wants an increase in the money paid to providers who take part in the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme which provides care and education for children of preschool age.

The State pays participating playschools and daycare services €69 per week per child for the ECCE service.

However, the FECP says this figure has not risen in line with inflation, increasing by only €5 per child since 2011. The group wants the payment to be increased to €100 per child.

‘Significant investment’

Earlier, O’Gorman told Morning Ireland he’s “working to grow more investment in the sector in this year’s Budget” and wants “to continue to decrease fees for parents”.

“I’ll also be looking to continue to grow core funding so we can support providers,” he added.

O’Gorman said “really significant investment” has been secured for the childcare sector in recent years after decades of underinvestment.

We’re coming from a long way behind, Ireland historically underinvested in childcare for decades.

“We’re playing catch up, but we’ve made really important strides over the last three years – a €400 million euro increase, that’s 60% growth in State investment. I don’t know any other area of state funding that has grown so much so quickly.”

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