Monday 24 October 2016

Labour's Burton will find it difficult to win back childcare votes

Published 08/10/2015 | 02:30

Arthur Spring
Arthur Spring

Anyone who has read a child's bedtime story will know the tale of "town mouse versus country mouse".

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The ancient fable, which lives in children's story books, tells how each visits the other and alternately finds the rustic and the urban way of life not at all to their taste. The conclusion is a clear: "To each, his or her own".

But balancing help for town, where childcare costs are higher, versus country, where childcare costs are lower, is one of the many issues confronting the Government face as it tries to address the issue in next week's Budget ahead of the General Election.

How would you modulate such a system? And how could you justify it?

This issue of childcare falls heavily into Labour territory. Labour took the grief for cutting €10 from child benefit back in the bad old days, contrary to its election promises. It still struggles to win kudos for restoring the cut in full for next year, with another €5 monthly increase to follow the extra €5 that was paid back last year.

Yesterday, the Labour Party outlined more of its thoughts on the issue. Nobody can doubt the sincerity of the younger Labour TDs who spoke about the issues involved as young parents themselves. But it was a little tentative as Kerry TD Arthur Spring said he believed the latest proposals were "a valuable contribution to the debate". He extolled the benefits of an extra free pre-school year. Mr Spring said the first year free of pre-school, introduced in 2010, was a success and by this year almost 96pc of eligible children had taken their places.

"It provides children with a good start in education and for parents it ensures that, irrespective of their financial situation, their child can enjoy the benefits of early learning," the Kerry Labour TD argued.

"I believe that we need to build upon the success of this year and introduce a second year, which would enable children to enrol as soon as they turn three."

Whether they are pounding the election beat before or after Christmas, childcare costs - that second mortgage - will be a huge issue confronting all candidates. Government hopefuls, from both Fine Gael and Labour, will be reproached about the €10 child benefit cut - but ironically they won't be holding their breath about credit for its restoration in full with the expected extra €5 next week.

The reason is pithily summed up by Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland, the umbrella organisation representing up to 75pc of professional child care providers.

"A poor family needs far more than €5 extra per month. Many better-off families will not notice that extra €5 any way you go to work," Ms Heeney argued.

The childcare providers raise yet another uncomfortable truth about the sector, which is still struggling to get recognition for its professionalism.

And we are talking about a system forming future generations, who will, hopefully, fund pensions for people of my age.

"The current situation is unsustainable - parents pay large amounts of money and childcare workers are still on low pay in precarious and seasonal employment," Ms Heeney added.

Thus far, politicians of all parties have ignored the simple reality that in childcare, as in other sectors, you get what you pay for.

Irish Independent

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