Dáil Éireann - Volume 486 - 29 January, 1998

Ceisteanna—Questions. Priority Questions. - Child Care Regulations.

2. Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Health and Children the proposals, if any, he has to regulate the entire child care and childminding industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2260/98]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. Fahey): The implementation of Part VII of the Child Care Act, 1991, and the introduction in December 1996 of the Child Care (Pre-school Services) Regulations has been the first measure to regulate child care/pre-school services including certain childminders. My remit in regulating these services is as defined in the Child Care Act, 1991, which refers to “regulations for the purpose of securing the health, safety and welfare and promoting the development of pre-school children attending pre-school services”.

The Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations apply to pre-schools, playgroups, day nurseries, crèches and child-minders looking after more than three children and other similar services which cater for children under six years of age. Childminders looking after fewer than three children are exempted from the provisions of Part VII of the Act in order to avoid interfering with arrangements made by working parents with a relative or neighbour to look after their children for them. It is intended that the operation of the regulations will be reviewed after three years, with a view of effecting any changes considered necessary at that stage.

Currently I do not have any proposals to introduce further regulations in this area. However, the expert group on child care, established under Partnership 2000 to devise a national framework for the development of the child care sector, is currently examining the possible regulation of the child care and childminding industry in its broadest sense. The expert group, under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, is expected to issue its report in [663] December 1998. The Department of Health and Children is represented on the expert group and on a number of sub-groups of the expert group.

Ms Shortall: I am very dissatisfied with the Minister of State's answer. The Department of Health and Children seems to be abdicating its full responsibilities in the area of child care and the child care industry. I accept what the Minister of State said in relation to the Child Care Act, which deals with some aspects of the child care industry, though not satisfactorily, but that is a matter for another day. I would not like the Minister of State to be under the impression that everything is all right in relation to child care facilities for more than three children.

The Minister of State will agree that in the majority of cases where children are being cared for by people other than their parents, there are fewer than three children. The majority of our children, therefore, are being cared for by people in an industry operating by and large in the black economy. Does the Minister of State believe that is satisfactory given that the senior Minister, Deputy Cowen, has responsibility for health and children?

The circumstances in which a person spends their childhood dictate the way they will turn out as an adult and as a future parent. For that reason, will the Minister of State agree it is of the utmost importance that we properly regulate and monitor all child minding arrangements? It is entirely unsatisfactory that this area of child care, which has not received the political attention it requires because of the buck passing that is taking place among Departments, is not being monitored because it involves the majority of children being cared for by people other than their parents. How can the Minister justify that, particularly in light of the cases recently highlighted and the widespread concern among the public generally about the unsatisfactory nature of current arrangements?

It is imperative that the Minister addresses this area because the people working in this industry are operating in the black economy. He must also address the problem of the absence of tax relief for parents to allow them ensure quality of child care and the lack of any supports for people caring for children. I regret the Minister of State is not giving this issue the political priority it deserves and the fact that he is not providing any reassurance to the many parents concerned about this area.

Mr. Fahey: I accept the Deputy's point that historically the provision of child care/pre-school services has been grossly inadequate but I remind her that the regulations were only introduced in December l996. Since then a very proactive approach has been taken by my predecessor and myself since I entered the Department, and much work has been done also by the health boards in putting these regulations in place.

[664] Under the regulations, pre-school providers were obliged to notify their health board of their existence prior to 30 June l997; approximately 1,100 such facilities notified their existence prior to that date. I am not satisfied with the numbers who have notified as I understand there may be as many as 3,300 such facilities across the country. I have asked the health boards to ensure that all providers notify their existence so that inspections can be carried out.

I have provided an additional £8 million this year towards the provision of child care services, thanks to the Minister, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister for Finance. Of this amount, £500,000 additional money has been provided for the continued implementation of the Child Care Act in this specific area. The health boards are now inspecting facilities throughout the country and it is intended that within a two year period all facilities will be inspected and, thereafter, annual inspections will take place.

Given that the regulations only came into operation a little more than 12 months ago, a proactive approach is currently being taken by the Department. We will shortly provide a guide to good practice in pre-school services which is currently in draft form. We also have a monitoring committee in our Department made up of all the health boards. That committee is involved in ensuring that a consistent approach is taken to the implementation of the regulations.

I reject the Deputy's contention that work is not being done. I agree that the amount of resources being put into this area is inadequate but a significant increase has been provided. The Minister for Finance, in his Budget Statement, said he will revisit the issue of tax relief for parents with children in crèches, etc., in the forthcoming budget. I hope that such tax relief will be introduced which will have a significant impact on the parents and on pre-school industry.

Ms Shortall: The Minister of State is missing the point. I am not talking about facilities covered by the Child Care Act. That situation is not entirely satisfactory but I will deal with that matter again. I am talking about the fact that the majority of pre-school children are being cared for in facilities not covered by the Child Care Act. We currently have a large number of children being cared for in facilities where no statutory guidelines apply, and the Minister has not addressed that problem. I am talking about neighbours caring for children, people who advertise child minding services or who are caring for one or two children in their own homes. A whole array of private child care arrangements are not covered by any statutory guidelines. Does the Minister propose to regulate this part of the industry which is the largest part in terms of the number of children involved? Does he have an estimate of the number of children being cared for under private arrangements?

Another point the Minister has not addressed is the extent to which this part of the market [665] operates in the black economy. Is the Minister concerned about that? Garda checks are not carried out on these people. There are no guidelines in place or supports for parents who do not have any come back in the event of abuse, neglect or harm to their children. The Minister of State did not mention this part of the sector in his two replies. Has he any plans to regulate that area and what does he intend to do to address the problem that most of the industry is operating in the black economy?

Mr. Fahey: Childminders caring for fewer than three children were exempted from the provisions of section 7 of the Act to avoid interfering with the arrangements made by working parents with a relative or a neighbour to care for their children. That exemption was introduced by amendment to the Bill during its passage through the Oireachtas. The intention of the Bill was to regulate playgroups and crèches which catered for young children from different families. If the Deputy examines the Official Report she will see that much concern was expressed in the Oireachtas at that time to the effect that if we were to regulate for every neighbour or relative caring for one or two children, people would be regulated out of the business. Because of that an amendment was included to provide this regulation would apply in cases where more than three children are being minded, and I agree with that. Parents who leave their child or children with a neighbour or relative have a responsibility to satisfy themselves that person is responsible and capable of looking after their child or children. The majority of parents are satisfied with such arrangements. A recent case highlighted a major problem that arose in such circumstances, but I am satisfied the regulations introduced through the Oireachtas are adequate. If I were to contemplate making a change to cover every neighbour or relative who minds one child, I would be interfering too much in the parenting business. However, we will keep this area under review.

It is not correct for the Deputy to contend that most children are outside the provisions of the Child Care Act, but a number of crèches and pre-schools have not registered to date. In the coming 12 months I will insist that all the facilities obliged to notify the health boards under the Act do so and, if they do not, action will be taken. If and when tax relief applies to those facilities, it will apply only to those crèches which have notified the health boards and are operating in the legitimate economy.

As the regulations will be implemented I am satisfied the people engaged in this area of the black economy will be rooted out and a level playing pitch will be created for all those engaged in pre-school child care. The majority of people involved in this industry do a great job under difficult circumstances. There are a range of issues from planning permission and regulations which will impose additional costs [666] on those engaged in the industry to a variety of other issues which the nurseries association brought to my attention and on which I am engaged in discussions with it. I have had a number of discussions with the nurseries association. I intend to regulate this area. We will implement sensible regulations to ensure that as far as possible the provisions of good pre-school facilities throughout the country.

Ms Shortall: It is extraordinary the Minister of State with responsibility for children should talk about the State avoiding interfering in child care.

An Ceann Comhairle: A supplementary question please, Deputy Shortall.

Mr. Fahey: The Oireachtas has spoken on this. I am not avoiding that.

Ms Shortall: It is precisely that approach that has led to so many serious problems arising in the child care area. Does the Minister of State consider he has any responsibility in regulating the child care area? Most pre-school children are cared for in conditions not covered under the Child Care Act. Has the Minister of State considered drawing up a register of child care workers? That would be one way of establishing how many people are working in this area and introducing some regulation into the industry. The Minister of State said the Child Care Act will gradually regulate all these situations, but that is not the case. The Child Care Act does not apply to many people, many of whom are in the black economy, working in the child care industry. The Minister of State's approach of depending on the Child Care Act to cover this area is misguided because the problems coming to light indicate a great section of the industry is unregulated. Has the Minister of State any proposals to regulate that section, to “interfere” in that area because that is what is required? We should have learned from past mistakes that the State must be involved in the area of child care. It must find out what is happening and regulate to ensure there are proper standards in all matters concerning the care of children. I am worried by the Minister of State's approach of avoiding interference in an area of child care. That is what has brought us into such disrepute in regard to many different aspects of child care services. Has the Minister of State any proposals or does he intend devoting any attention to regulating the entire child care industry in the near future, in particular those circumstances where fewer than three children are being cared for by one individual?

Mr. Fahey: I would like examples of where the child care industry is not subject to regulation.

Ms Shortall: There is no regulation in circumstances where fewer than three children are being cared for.

[667] Mr. Fahey: That does not account for the whole child care industry. I do not accept the premise that the whole child care industry is not regulated. In cases where fewer than three children are being cared for, the Oireachtas, including the Deputy's party, which was very adamant——

Ms Shortall: I asked the Minister of State for his views.

Mr. Fahey: Let us not adopt an a la carte approach.

Ms Shortall: The Minister of State has responsibility for this area now.

Mr. Fahey: The Deputy's party was adamant that one area of child care should not be regulated, where parents leave their child or children with a neighbour or relative. I share the view of the Deputy's party.

Ms Shortall: So the Minister of State does not intend to anything about that area.

Mr. Fahey: No, I do not. The Oireachtas agreed an amendment whereby a cut off point of three children would apply in this area. We can introduce regulations to apply to all families, but that would not represent common sense. Parents have a responsibility in this area. Those who leave their child or children with an adult who is looking after fewer than three children have a responsibility to ensure that they trust that person and are satisfied that their child or children are in good care. If they are not satisfied, they have an alternative option. They can put their child or children into a crèche which is regulated under the Child Care Act. A number of crèches have not notified the relevant health board to date, but I intend to ensure that they will notify it and that they will be inspected and regulated. I cannot wave a magic wand to ensure that will be done. The regulations have been in place for only 12 months. I provided additional resources and we are moving as quickly as possible to regulate those in this sector who should be subject to regulation. We should not introduce regulations to apply to the woman who minds her neighbour's child. If we did that we would be attempting to introduce regulations which, in the majority of cases, are not needed. Child care is the responsibility of parents in the first instance and, in most cases, these arrangements work well.

Ms Shortall: Without any guidelines.

An Ceann Comhairle: We have spent almost 40 minutes on two priority questions when only 20 minutes is allocated. We must proceed to other questions on the Order Paper.

Ms Shortall: Given the widespread public concern expressed after the Castlepollard case came to light, is the Minister of State saying he is not offering any support to parents who are concerned [668] about this position, that he thinks the present position is satisfactory and that he has no intention to regulate that area?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is continuing to make statements. I have extended her great latitude. Double the time allocated for priority questions has been spent on two priority questions. I now call Question No. 4 because under Standing Order 38(2). Question No. 3 cannot be taken.

Mr. Fahey: Questions Nos. 4 and 5 deal with the same general areas and, therefore, I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

Mr. Shatter: On a point of order, perhaps that decision is based on a ruling of the House, but I am curious about it. Why when there are five priority questions have we skipped from Question No. 2 to Question No. 4 and Question No. 3 cannot be regarded?

An Ceann Comhairle: That is covered under Standing Orders.

Mr. Shatter: That is an illogical way to deal with priority questions.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair must proceed logically by abiding by Standing Orders. There is no other logical way it can proceed.

Mr. Shatter: That Standing Order will have to be changed because it makes very little sense in reality.

An Ceann Comhairle: It is my duty to apply Standing Orders and I must proceed to Question No. 4.

Ms McManus: We need an explanation on this. Question No. 3 covers an important issue and is on the Order Paper.

An Ceann Comhairle: The solution to this problem rests with the Deputies, particularly those who spent 40 minutes on two questions. That is far too long to spend on two questions. Statements were made rather than supplementary questions asked. Maybe I am at fault for allowing Deputies to break the rules in the manner in which they broke them.

Mr. Shatter: I reject the suggestion I raised anything other than supplementary questions. I want to be clear about that.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy took 19 minutes to deal with one question.

Mr. Shatter: On a very serious issue.

An Ceann Comhairle: All the questions are very serious. In fairness to all the Deputies who tabled questions, if Members spend 19 minutes [669] on one matter questions that should be answered will not be reached. That is the logical conclusion of spending 19 minutes on each question. I appeal to Deputies to abide by Standing Orders which provide for short supplementary questions, not statements. If that happened, important questions would be reached.

Unfortunately, my hands are tied with regard to Question No. 3. Standing Order 38(2) states that where the fourth or fifth question nominated for priority is not reached, such question or questions shall be answered as oral questions on the same day. However, Question No. 3 is not included. This has happened a number of times previously and I am surprised the Deputies are not aware of the position. It should be borne in mind when the House is dealing with priority questions.

Mr. Shatter: I am aware of it, but it is illogical and must be changed.

An Ceann Comhairle: The only logical thing I can do is follow Standing Orders.

Mr. Cowen: Its purpose is that it is felt at least three questions will be reached. Otherwise there will be long questions of the type the Ceann Comhairle is trying to avoid.

An Ceann Comhairle: In fairness to Deputies who table questions, their expectation is that questions will be answered. However, they cannot be answered if Deputies at the head of the queue take 19 minutes to pursue a question.

Mr. Shatter: The Deputy was second in the queue.

An Ceann Comhairle: Question No. 4 will be taken in ordinary time.