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'The granny grant is a trivial pre-Budget kite, indifferent to parents and disrespectful to grandparents'

Our government can and should do better, writes Frances Byrne.

Frances Byrne

IT WAS NOTHING short of dismal to wake up on Wednesday morning to read that the Independent Alliance had a Budget 2019 proposal which quickly became branded as the ‘granny grant’.

The Alliance is proposing an un-vouched payment of €1,000 to be paid directly to grandparents who look after a grandchild for more than 10 hours per week.

Minister Shane Ross went further on the ‘Today with Miriam O’Callaghan’ show when in response to a listener’s question, he mused that, potentially, up to four grandparents of one child could each receive the payment; though the Minister did not discuss the impact this might have on his original estimate of the cost to the exchequer of €70 million per year.

Thousands of grandparents are involved in looking after their grandchildren whether that is minding them at home, or being involved in school/crèche delivery and collection, or ferrying to and from afternoon activities. They support parents to work or study and lots of them wouldn’t have it any other way.

As Anne Dempsey from Third Age Ireland said in the segment after the Minister, older people who contact their helpline, also report having had to step in during the recession for parents who could no longer afford the cost of childcare. Some older people find long days of minding active young children very hard work, notwithstanding that they want very much to support their adult children. Yet, payment for this has not been brought up. Nor has it ever been raised in any policy report on early years here. Ever.

‘Ireland has a major problem’

As anyone involved in early years provision here can quickly tell you, Ireland has a major problem. We have failed historically to invest properly in this important area.

We would need to devote 20 times what we spent in 2017 to come close to the Scandinavian countries, which are world leaders in the provision of quality care and education for babies and young children, as well as having the lowest child poverty rates.

The impact of our under-investment means that providers are forced to charge fees which parents describe as a second mortgage; unlike in other countries, where parents pay according to ability to do so and where quality for children is uniform, because the state ensures that it is.

The current Minister for Children, Dr Katherine Zappone has made important progress, which has gone some way to improve the situation. For example, we now have a second ‘free pre-school year’, though this is part-time and not a full 52 weeks, as parents know, but it has an uptake of almost 100% among families with three-year olds.

That spells success. The full affordable childcare scheme is still on its way, but the interim measures have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of young children accessing care and education, with just over 200,000 of them now in formal early years settings, all of whom receive a universal or targeted subsidy, as they should.

‘Should do better’

The government also needs to focus on bringing the families of the 88,000 children, who are looked after by some 35,000 childminders, into the subsidised schemes. And there is so much else to be done.

Early Childhood Ireland estimates we would need €250m per year for the next five, just to catch up with the recommended level of investment.

There are convincing social and economic reasons why we should do this, or at the very least have a very serious national conversation about it, leading to an evidence-based, multi-annual policy response.

These are after all the lives of an important group of our citizens – babies and young children. They deserve more than a trivialising pre-Budget kite, which disregards their right to quality care and education, is indifferent to the pressures on their parents, and is ultimately nothing short of disrespectful to their wonderful grandparents.

Our government can and should do better.

Frances Byrne is Director of Policy and Advocacy with Early Childhood Ireland

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Frances Byrne

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