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Q+A: Here's what the parties say they will do to reform childcare in Ireland

After a childcare protest marched across Dublin today, here’s a look at what the political parties are promising.

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WITH THE GENERAL election less than a week away, TheJournal.ie has been asking political parties for their positions on a variety of issues affecting people across Ireland.

Throughout the rest of the campaign, we’ll be publishing their responses on issues that matter. So far, we have published Q&A pieces on a range of issues including housing, insurance, and cycling policy.

Childcare costs were drawn into the spotlight last year, with some parents claiming they are charged a fee equivalent to their mortgage in monthly childcare payments.

Some childcare providers went on strike today over low pay and high insurance costs. 

After a major childcare insurer pulled out of the Irish market just before Christmas, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone was forced to give providers a “one-off” grant of up to €1,500 to keep the industry afloat.

So what are political parties promising to do in the long term to solve the issues faced by parents, as well as childcare providers?

We asked the political parties, and had a look at their manifestos. Here’s what they said.

Fine Gael says it will increase childcare payments from September 2020, is this enough to help parents struggling to pay for childcare

The National Childcare Scheme (NCS) is designed to help parents afford to pay for childcare in Ireland, as childcare (creches, preschool, and afterschool) is in the private sector. It’s to replace all childcare subsidies by 2021.

There are two types of NCS subsidies: the first is a universal subsidy for children between 6 months and 3 years of age, which is not means tested and worth €20 a week if you use up to 40 hours of childcare.

The second is a subsidy for children aged between 6 months and 15 years old, which is means-tested and for families with an annual income of €60,000.

Those subsidies are paid directly to the childcare provider, but the parent must apply for the subsidy. 

Fine Gael: Last year, the Fine Gael government announced that they would increase the maximum subsidy available per child from €145 per week to €204 per week from November. This increase is to happen through shifting the childcare system to the NCS.

The NCS subsidy will then increase to a maximum of €229.50 per week for up to 45 hours of childcare from September this year.

In its manifesto, the party said that it has “made progress” in its 9 years in government: increasing investment “up by 141%” from €265m in 2015 to €638m for 2020, but adds: 

“…We know people are still paying too much. We will reduce childcare costs further, increase quality and support the childcare sector.”

In 2019, 175,000 children received average subsidies of €64 per week.

More than 9,000 children are receiving the highest weekly subsidy of €145.

Over the next five years, we will invest an extra €400 million, as we reduce childcare costs for parents and increase quality and accessibility.

Investment in childcare Source: Fine Gael manifesto

“This will bring annual investment in childcare to more than €1 billion in 2025.”

Fianna Fáil: In response to our questionnaire, the party said that the NCS subsidy of €229.50 is for families “with incomes of less than about €30,000″ each per year.

“This is a vital support for these families, but it will not lower childcare costs for households earning closer to the average wage,” it said.

At the minute, these families are entitled to just €20 per week, a subsidy which covers just over 10% of their childcare costs and leaves them with an average bill of €174.

The party said that subsidies for middle-income families should be increased, “who at present must bear close to the full cost of childcare themselves”.

The party also said that families who use registered childminders rather than childcare providers like creches should have access to financial support from the State, which they don’t at the moment. 

Sinn Féin: In the party’s manifesto, it pledges to reduce the “exorbitant” cost of childcare “by €500 per child per month”. This would cost €500 million per annum, according to its manifesto.

On childminders, Sinn Féin is pledging if it gets into government to establish a task force to carry out a study of childminder-based care to identify supports needed by the sector.

It says that “in the interim”, “we also propose to reinstate the Childminding Advisory Service with County Childcare Committees to aid childminders in registering with Tusla and supporting childminders’ work”.

It also pledges to “extend the six Childminding Development Officer positions” with a dedicated officer employed by each of the 30 city and county childcare committees.

Labour: In its manifesto, the party says that it wants to “try something new” because the “current model is not working”, as Irish parents are paying three times the cost of their European colleagues.

It aims to set up a system where “regulated and inspected childminding services will be eligible to provide government funded schemes”, and that the scheme “will prioritise community-led, not-for-profit childcare models”.

This will eventually lead to “a universal public childcare service” for all parents, which will replace other existing childcare schemes and subsidies, it says.

Green Party: The party’s 14-page Childcare Policy Document says it’s aiming for “publicly run State creches delivered predominantly by local authorities”.

In this same document, it argues:

Private providers are key to a transition to an increased State sponsored scheme for childcare in Ireland, however much like the housing crisis, an over dependence on state funding for private provision of services will lock the sector in to a complete reliance on private provision over time.

On the figures it gives, it promises to:

  • Increase the State spend on pre-primary childcare from 0.3% of GDP to 0.6% of GDP to be phased in over a two-year transition period
  • Bring Ireland into line with the EU average for childcare payments (between 10% and 13% of family income) in Europe through an integrated scheme of direct subsidies to families and supported caps on costs through local authority provided childcare.

Social Democrats: The party’s manifesto says that “despite some recent improvements, childcare remains a huge expense for many families”.

The party says that the “average full-time weekly fees now over €200 per week in parts of Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare. For many Irish parents, especially those with more than one child, childcare represents the cost of a second mortgage.”

To fix this, the party is promising to “significantly improve support under the National Childcare Scheme to allow far more families with children under the age of 12 to qualify and to improve supports under the universal element of the scheme”.

“Parents with young children who have not yet reached preschool age would be given the choice of the Early Years Payment or assistance under the National Childcare Scheme.”

People Before Profit: In response to TheJournal.ie‘s questions, the party said of the €229.50 payment: ”No, it is not enough. We need to move to free childcare.”

No one – not even a right-wing fanatic – would argue that a child aged four should pay to go to school. So why should a child age three pay to go to a creche?

“Currently, a poor country such as Bulgaria can charge as little as €20 a month to provide childcare. Sweden limits cost to just 3% of income. This is the direction we need to go.”

The Taoiseach was told that high childcare costs are pushing educated women out of the workforce, how will you fix this

On the first day of the election campaign trail, a woman told the Taoiseach that 70% of her wages go towards childcare, and that this is “pushing educated women out of the workforce”. We asked the parties for their responses to this claim and what they would do to address it. 

Fine Gael: Fine Gael did not respond to queries from TheJournal.ie on this issue. In response to the woman, who said that the National Childcare Scheme was helping her “slightly”, Leo Varadkar said that the NCS “was only going to be a start, it has started and as you said helped a little bit, but we need to be more generous I think.”

The Fine Gael manifesto says that the NCS is “fair – it ensures those who need most, get most”.

The party said that it would work with employees and employers “to bring in flexible working” across the workforce.

Flexible working encompasses a wide range of practices including part-time working, remote working, compressed hours, working from home and job sharing.
A labour market that offers flexible working solutions can result in a win for employers, workers and society alike. Fine Gael is pursuing this initiative, which will assist in retaining talent and balancing family commitments.

Fianna Fáil: The party made the point that Ireland has among the most expensive childcare of all OECD countries. The party also said that as of 2018, the national average for a full-time childcare place came in just over €184 or €736 per month.

A family with two children under the age of 4 years old could very easily be paying more than €2,000 per month for childcare alone.

To fix this, Fianna Fáil is promising to “quadruple childcare subsidies for parents using creches, from the current rate of €20 to €80, meaning that just over 40% of childcare costs will be met through subsidies”.

This will drastically reduce creche fees for the tens of thousands of families relying on creche-based care. Over a year, a family could save over €4,000 through our new subsidy.

Secondly, the party is planning to introduce a €2,000 per year tax credit for people using registered childminders.

“Thirdly, we will extend the ECCE scheme, which provides two years of free pre-school care to children, to 40 weeks instead of 38 weeks per year. This should further bring down costs for parents,” the party said.

Sinn Féin: The party is promising in its manifesto to deliver an additional 26 weeks of maternity or paternity leave “to enable a parent to be with their child for its first year of its life”.

Maternity benefit is currently available for 26 weeks and paternity benefit for two weeks.

It also plans to increase the rate of benefit paid by €50 to €295 to allow mothers and fathers avail of their leave “without financial hardship”. This will all cost an additional €366 million.

Sinn Féin also wants to roll out a baby box scheme at a cost of €15 million. In Scotland, all new mothers are provided with a box of essentials for their new-born baby with the aim of giving every child an equal start in life.

Labour: The party says that “parents should never have to choose between their children and their job”.

It wants to roll out a Childcare Scheme for Working Parents which would include “early drop-off times and late collection to reflect modern work practices and commute times”.

This would be rolled out “in a number of areas around the country, targeting parents who cannot currently work because of the prohibitive cost of childcare”.

This would be a “first step” towards a “universal public childcare service”.

Green Party: Of the pressures on parents, the party says that “in 1986 there were 653,843 people categorised as homemakers. According to the CSO 2016 that figure had declined to 305,556. However 62% of families have a parent listed as the sole care provider.”

Among the party’s promises to tackle this, they say that: 

  • Child benefit “must should remain intact” (sic)
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave must be extended to one year
  • Parental leave should be extended for parents of children up to age 13 for all workers and change this to paid leave
  • Tax breaks should be introduced for firms recruiting parents who have been out of paid employment and for those introducing flexible working arrangements
  • A streamlined system of pension rights should be implemented for stay-at-home parents.

The Green Party also says that it will introduce “a suite of measures to support lone parent families who make up a quarter of all families with children”.

Social Democrats: In its manifesto, the party says that it will introduce “additional paid parental leave from the end of maternity and paternity leave to the child’s first birthday”.

A new ‘early years payment’ would cover children from the end of paid parental leave until entry into preschool, the party states.

People Before Profit: In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the party said that it would “develop a system of publicly run childcare – rather than relying on private for profit childcare providers”.

Over a period, the current owners of childcare companies should be invited to join a public system.

Was the once-off EUR1,500 payment to creches in the wake of the insurance problem before Christmas necessary

Fine Gael: Fine Gael did not respond to queries from TheJournal.ie on this issue. 

Fianna Fáil: The party said that high claims and a lack of competition in the market has resulted in “a very precarious” situation, which was exacerbated by the exit of one of two providers from the market in December 2019.

“Urgent action was needed to prevent widespread closures, and for this reason, we supported the insurance fund,” the party told TheJournal.ie.

Long-term, it is clear we need to reform the insurance market to prevent the need for such an emergency fund. 
We will establish a National Claims Information Database to track the level of claims. We will crack down on insurance fraud by establishing a fraud unit within An Garda Síochána and by increasing the penalties for fraudulent claims.

Sinn Féin: The party said in its manifesto that it would tackle the insurance industry which is “squeezing incomes and crippling businesses”. 

Labour: The party says that it will set up a pooled group insurance scheme which will ensure significantly cheaper premiums for businesses, voluntary and community groups who could act together to negotiate lower premiums.

Under a Labour government, the Department of Enterprise will be in charge of supporting sectors such as childcare providers to help them pool together to get insurance.

Green Party: The party didn’t respond to questions from TheJournal.ie on this, and there is no specific policy on insurance in the childcare sector, nor were there specific policies on tackling the high cost of insurance in general.

Social Democrats: In its manifesto, the party says that it will deal with insurance hikes in the sector through “significant reform of Ireland’s claims regime and the regulation of insurance companies”.

People Before Profit: The party said in a statement to TheJournal.ie that the “insurance problem needed more radical solutions as it will emerge again”.

As long as there are only a few private insurers, they will jack up costs to make greater profits. We need a publicly-owned insurance company.

Childcare providers are protesting on 5 February to highlight their low pay, how would you rectify this without increasing costs for parents

Fine Gael: The party said in its manifesto that whilst helping parents to reduce the cost of childcare is a priority, so too is ensuring Ireland has a new funding model for the Early Learning and Care sector that is sustainable, high quality and attractive to work in.

“We want those running services and those working in services to make a fair income, have a successful career in childcare and be able to plan ahead.”

We therefore support the work of the expert group considering a new funding model for Early Learning and Care and School Age Care.

A childcare Joint Labour Committee will be established to draw up an Employment Regulation Order, which would determine minimum rates of pay for childcare workers, as well as terms and conditions of employment, the party said.

Fianna Fáil: In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the party said that it would provide “a commercial rates relief fund” to creches and will reduce the cost of business insurance to reduce the cost of doing business.

It also said that it would develop 1,000 apprenticeships for childcare workers.

Sinn Féin: Under the party’s ‘Children and Youth Affairs’ heading in its manifesto, it’s promising to:

  • Turn childcare into “a fully fledged public service” so that workers are paid more and fees are “slashed” by 66% or more than €500 per month on average
  • Establish a dedicated early years and school age care agency with responsibility for all aspects of funding, oversight, planning and administration to ensure consistency in reporting standards and minimising duplication of administrative work.

Labour: The party says in its manifesto that it will “raise the pay floor” in childcare to a higher minimum wage through a Sectoral Employment Order for that sector.

It said it would develop a professional career pathway in recognition of the number of graduates in the sector.

Those working in the public scheme will be paid at the very least a Living Wage and Labour will implement a programme to raise qualifications of at least 60% of staff in the early years sector to degree level (Level 7 on the NFQ) by 2025.

Green Party: The party states in its manifesto that childcare workers “now require a level of qualification equivalent to a degree and yet they are amongst the lowest paid in society”.

“We call for a salary review that recognises the important work of all childcare workers in creches and other formal settings and for this wage to be negotiated between the government and a worker’s forum.”

More specifically, it promises:

  • To link qualifications to pay, so that workers are incentivised to stay in the sector 
  • To call for a salary review that recognises the important work of all childcare workers in creches and other formal settings and for this wage to be negotiated between the government and a worker’s forum.

Social Democrats: The party’s manifesto states that it would “improve” direct funding to the childcare sector and “seek to reduce” the administrative burden.

It said that it would introduce a single Early Years and School Age Childcare Agency.

“If childcare fees continue to increase in line with subsidies, we will introduce measures to cap them,” the manifesto states.

People Before Profit: The party said in a statement that “childcare staff need to be paid much better.”

“Many have spent years in training and are highly professional. We need a public system where they are employed directly by the State.”

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