Dáil Éireann - Volume 497 - 26 November, 1998

Other Questions. - Child Care Facilities.

8. Mr. McDowell asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the progress, if any, made in developing a national framework for child care referred to in his Department's strategy statement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25177/98]

23. Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his Department's response to the crisis in child care; the timetable of the expert group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23789/98]

48. Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Justice, [800] Equality and Law Reform the Government's policy in the development of adequate child care facilities. [22406/98]

140. Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the Government's approach to tackling the child care crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20380/98]

Mr. O'Donoghue: I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 23, 48 and 140 together.

Child care is clearly a very important issue and I am committed to the development of a national child care infrastructure as an equal opportunities measure in partnership with the EU.

In July 1997 we established an expert working group on child care to devise a national framework for the development of quality child care services in Ireland. It is intended that the child care infrastructure which will be recommended by the expert working group will form the basis of demands for EU funding in the context of the next round of Structural Funds. Membership of the expert working group includes representatives of the relevant Government Departments, statutory bodies, employers, unions, non-governmental organisations, service providers, parents and individuals with expertise and experience in child care.

The group is considering a range of child care issues all of which contribute to the development of a framework for quality child care, including the financial and employment implications of an integrated approach to the development of a child care framework; registration, training and qualifications; resourcing and sustaining child care in urban disadvantaged areas; equality of access and participation in relation to a national framework; needs and rights of children in relation to a national framework; early childhood education and standards and regulations. The group is exploring the benefits, limitations and implications of a range of policies bearing in mind the diversity of the needs of parents and child care providers. I understand it intends to finalise a report and recommendations in December.

My Department has provided funding to support the development of child care services in disadvantaged areas since 1993. In July 1998 I announced expenditure of £5.2 million on the equal opportunities child care programme over the 1998-9 period which marks a significant increase in my Department's child care budget. The equal opportunities child care programme is designed to support local communities and employers who are trying to facilitate women and men who have child care responsibilities while accessing training, education and employment. It is targeted primarily at community based projects in disadvantaged areas. The programme is part funded by the EU and provides funding for capital infrastructure upgrading, enhancing or establishing facilities; core funding to meet salary costs for child care workers in 25 community child care projects nationwide and funding for an employer [801] demonstration child care initiative which is being developed in partnership with IBEC to stimulate employer interest and involvement in the development of child care services. In addition, a child care database is being established by my Department in conjunction with Area Development Management Limited to document and quantify the range and extent of child care provision and training being supported under EU funding and to establish baseline data on other facilities and services in child care supported by the State. The child care database is also part funded by the EU.

Dr. Upton: Will the Minister give a commitment that whatever system is introduced it will maintain equality between different income groups and working and non-working parents? Is he prepared to guarantee the provision of a comprehensive service which will meet the needs of all people irrespective of circumstance or the area in which they live? Does he agree that introduction of the minimum wage will create some new burdens in terms of finance available and has he measures in mind to cope with this?

Mr. O'Donoghue: The structure of the labour force has altered dramatically in recent decades. Twenty years ago the number of women in the workforce was extremely low. This has dramatically and irrevocably changed, with women constituting in excess of 37 per cent of the workforce. In these circumstances there is a need to follow the equality agenda to its logical conclusion. It is unquestionably true that unless something is done for women in disadvantaged areas they cannot have the kind of equality of opportunity to enter the workforce as women in a more advantaged situation. The child care programme which I funded in 1998 concentrated very heavily on attempting to bring about equality. In this context I believe it is necessary to expand the private projects to ensure funding goes to disadvantaged areas and that women who are disadvantaged for one reason or another are not prohibited from entering the labour force because of child minding responsibilities. We have embarked upon an enlightened path which strikes the correct balance.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): Does the Minister recall that An Action Programme for the Millennium includes under the heading “Children” a specific commitment as follows: “Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in Government will implement the Child Care Act in full, including——

An Ceann Comhairle: It is not in order to quote during Question Time.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): I know that, but I have the phrase off by heart. I do not want amnesia to take over. Does the Minister recall the commitment which continues “provisions relating to the [802] regulation of child care and cre che facilities“? After seventeen months will the Minister say where the regulations in relation to child care and cre che facilities are? Does he agree we have gone past the stage of pilot projects or extending them? Is he aware that we have a major crisis, that work outside the home for women is no longer an option but a necessity in the vast majority of cases? Is he not aware that women are prevented from working because of a lack of affordable child care facilities? Surely he is aware that the gap is being filled by up to 30,000 people providing child care facilities in the black economy? Is there not an urgent need to put properly organised management of child care in place to enable women to go to work, which is not an option for them but a necessity in the vast majority of cases? Those women are entitled to the mental assurance that their children are in safe custody.

Mr. O'Donoghue: One of the difficulties with the equality portfolio is that the area of responsibility straddles other Departments.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): Why not give it to the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace?

Mr. O'Donoghue: Child care is a matter for the Minister for Health and Children. However, I will try to answer the Deputy within the confines of the remit of my Department.

An expert working group was established in this area on 18 July 1997 which is chaired by an assistant secretary from my Department. The group commissioned a number of research projects which are quite comprehensive. In addition, Goodbody Economic Consultants were engaged to carry out a study of the economics of child care following a tendering process. The objectives of the study included an estimate of the current and likely future needs of children and child care, but the report is not yet to hand. I am awaiting the expert group's report, as this is clearly not an area where one devises something overnight. While I recognise the need for an integrated strategy, Deputies will appreciate that I must wait for the report.

Implementation of the Child Care Act is a matter for the Minister for Health and Children. I am involved with the equality agenda, and I will answer for my own Department in that matter. However, there is no point in setting up an expert group to look into a given area and then not await the group's report. I could be very political——

Dr. Upton: Oh no.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): That would not be the Minister's form.

Mr. O'Donoghue: — and say that Deputy Higgins was in Government for long enough and he did not set up an expert group or child care initiative, but I will not go into that.

[803] Mr. Higgins (Mayo): It is all expert groups now.