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Equality for women? It won't happen with the Irish childcare system in its current state...

It’s time the government made some tough budget choices to ease the financial burden of childcare on mothers for once and for all argues Orla O’Connor.

Orla O’Connor Director, NWCI

THE LACK OF affordable, accessible, quality childcare is one of the biggest obstacles to women’s equal participation in employment and in public and civic life in Ireland today. As we enter a period of economic recovery Budget 2016 provides an urgent opportunity to take much-needed steps to end the childcare crisis and ensure real career choices for women.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) has consistently flagged the importance of investment in childcare and in early years education. In 2005, we published “An Affordable, Accessible Childcare Model”, and the government was presented with an opportunity to develop a quality, publicly subsidised model of childcare on par with other European countries. Since this report was published, there have been numerous reports recommending a Scandinavian model of affordable childcare, yet successive governments have failed to deliver.

Responsibility

Currently, the costs of childcare in Ireland remain amongst the highest in the OECD and in the EU with many Irish parents paying over 40% of their incomes on looking after children. As the primary responsibility for childcare in Ireland continues to be placed on women, these high costs have had a devastating impact on gender equality in Ireland.

The burden on families who are paying between €800 – €1,000 per month for a full time childcare place is financially crippling and has been consistently ignored by government. Quality care costs. That these costs are mainly borne by women in the home or women in badly paid care work means we can pretend that this work doesn’t come at a price.

The failure of our policies to give visibility, value, and support to care work is a significant factor in economic inequality between women and men. Until care work is adequately valued, women will remain vastly over-represented in unpaid and low paid work, and hugely under-represented in high paid work.

Increased quality standards in the childcare sector also requires an investment in pay and conditions for childcare workers, of whom the vast majority are women.

A better outcome

Good practice models both in the EU and internationally show that the inclusion of gender equality objectives within Early Years policies leads to better outcomes for all. The optimum model for mothers and for children requires significant investment. Currently Ireland is spending between 0.2-0.4% of GDP which is significantly below the EU average of 0.7% and the UNICEF target of 1% of GDP. Delivery of this essential infrastructure will require clear commitment to increase and ring fence spending over the next five years towards that 1% target.

27/7/2015 Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bills Children minister James Reilly Source: Mark Stedman

Investment in early years education and care will both have immediate benefits and set us on a course to provide a sustainable childcare infrastructure in the future. NWCI recommends that Budget 2016 delivers a combination of paid parental leave and the introduction of affordable childcare. Minister Reilly and the government must introduce two weeks paternity leave for fathers on birth of their child, and announce six months paid parental leave following maternity leave, to be introduced incrementally over three Budgets.

The first two months paid parental leave should be introduced in Budget 2016.

To achieve affordable childcare for children aged six months to three years, Budget 2016 should cap childcare fees for all parents. Currently this would be €180 per week for a full time childcare place based on ECCE subsidization. The government must also announce a subsidisation scheme so that childcare costs will be reduced for all parents, based on a sliding scale according to income, with those on lowest income receiving full subsidization and the maximum parental contribution set at 40% of childcare costs.

Government choices

The scheme should be introduced over three Budgets with a 20% subsidy in Budget 2016.

Finally, in terms of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), government must introduce free ECCE for all children from when they reach three years until they enter primary school and also extend the hours of ECCE to 20 hours per week for up to 48 weeks per year.

The choices the government are making in Budget 2016 are not simply about how to balance or what to protect, they are decisions around our priorities and direction as a nation. Women’s equal participation in public and civic life is predicated on the delivery of affordable, quality childcare. And increasing women’s participation in the labour force is critical for recovery. No more reports, no more excuses. Deliver affordable, quality childcare now.

Orla O’Connor is the Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. NWCI is the leading national women’s membership organisation seeking equality between women and men.

Our research on an affordable childcare model is available here.

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About the author:

Orla O’Connor  / Director, NWCI

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