When at some time in the future we look back over the great achievements of the past ten to 15 years in the Irish economy and society and do the balance sheet, perhaps we will see that our greatest missed opportunity in the course of that time was not to put in place a reliable, well-funded and universally accessible system of child care.
Members of the Government and parties who support the Government bear a political responsibility for failing in that task. It is manifestly the case that the Government has failed in that regard.
The National Economic and Social Forum has made the point repeatedly, and as recently as last autumn, that the subvention scheme in our community our child care system is not considered to be workable and may leave low income families at risk of not being able to continue in employment.
In other words, they might have to abandon the fledgling child care services. There was little or no consultation with those who are affected by the scheme. The NESF make the point that provision of early education for children in this country is one of the lowest in the OECD countries but that child care costs, relative to earnings, are the highest in the OECD, at nearly 30% of net family income. That’s more than double the OECD average.
The pressures and dilemmas faced by child care centres in respect of taking in children, the rates they pay and trying to train and retain employees. In any sector, be it child care, education or the health service, there must be trained professional staff. Until we understand that we require properly trained people working in child care centres and that we must give them a stake in their own work and future, we will not hold onto excellent people in the way we must.
Of course, the background to this is that so many of these centres grew from voluntary activity, where people, often young parents, got together to organise a centre. This voluntary effort at the start evolved into a more long-term proposition. They obtained a grant and then became employers. They must now proceed as a business.
However, they are incredibly frustrated by the administrative requirements in running a child care centre and they have to engage in lengthy form filling and are obliged to inquire into the means of parents proposing to send their children to the centre. They are being diverted from the job they should be doing, that is, running and developing excellent child care centres. The frustration is palpable.
The Minister for Children, Barry Andrews (FF) said in his speech to the Seanad that the eight major child care organisations that are supported by the Government and how they have contributed greatly to the development of quality child care. He was correct but proceeded to state, “I hope to strengthen those links in the coming months with the location of expertise from the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education, the CECDE, into the early years policy unit of the Department of Education and Science”.
This should read that the Government has abolished the centre in recent weeks. When I referred on the Order of Business to our not being given the full story, this is the kind of action I mean. The centre is gone and the notion that it has been integrated into another is incorrect; it has been abolished. If we just used plain English, we might be able to make more progress in our discussion.