'Not enough places' for free childcare scheme
Major Budget pledge is already cast in doubt
Budget promises on free childcare are already in doubt, with major concerns about the sector's capacity to cope with the sheer numbers involved.
The Government has pledged to provide additional months of free care for children from the age of three until they start school.
But childcare providers warned that they will be unable to meet the Government's ambitious proposals.
Professional bodies representing thousands of crèches last night said the extension of the programme could end up being a "disaster".
Children's Minister James Reilly's spokesman acknowledged the warning - but insisted the scheme was extended with the sector's concerns in mind.
The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme currently provides 15 hours of free care for 38 weeks of the year. It effectively offers the parents of three-year-old children one free year of pre-school.
The new measure, which the Government claimed will be worth an average of €1,500 for the parents of young children, is an extension of the scheme.
The injection of €85m into the sector means the model will be extended to children who are five-and-a-half years old.
The new scheme will also allow for children to start pre-school in September, January or April. They are currently restricted to just September.
But while the scheme was welcomed as offering relief for working families in principle, childcare providers have already raised serious concerns.
The Association of Childcare Professionals (ACP) said it would be a "disaster" for certain providers, as some are currently using money from "fee-paying children to subsidise the cost" of the ECCE scheme.
"It does not cover their operating costs," ACP chairperson Marian Quinn said.
There are up to 68,000 children now enrolled in the scheme, which is about 95pc of all eligible children, according to the ACP.
"There is a concern that there won't be enough additional places to meet the requirements of the expanded ECCE scheme," Ms Quinn said.
"In areas that have full or almost full capacity they won't be able to accommodate the children. It will be particularly true in densely populated urban areas and very rural areas."
She said the main concern amongst providers was that they would be unable to meet the increase in the minimum wage.
Teresa Heeney from Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), which represents 3,500 childcare workers, said they recently commissioned research on vacancies - which concluded that there "is definitely not enough places in the sector to deal with this at the moment".
Ms Heeney said they had a discussion with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs yesterday morning where they outlined that "getting clarity on the numbers that are involved" was one of their main priorities.
"What we are saying is that they are going to have to recruit new staff to work in services in order to deal with an increased availability. Making the investment is only one step but delivering on the investment is something different," Ms Heeney added.
She said the minister agreed that the scheme would be delivered with a commitment to work with the sector.
But Fianna Fáil children's spokesman Robert Troy said the public had been "hoodwinked" by the childcare package.
He said the estimated cost of an expansion of the free-preschool year was €182m but only €40m was allocated in the Budget.
"Fine Gael and Labour have led parents of young children to believe that they will receive a second free year of pre-school as a result of Budget 2016, however this is far from the truth." Mr Troy told the Irish Independent.
Mr Troy said the scheme was developed on "electioneering grounds" rather than "rational policy". He said the enrolment restrictions meant the amount of pre-school care available to families would depend on when a child was born.
The Longford Westmeath TD also questioned how Mr Reilly planned to introduce an "effective second year of pre-school" when his budget for the scheme was only increased by 24pc.
"It's a scam - Minister Reilly expects far fewer children to actually undertake the additional pre-school year than are officially eligible," Mr Troy said.