Saturday 22 October 2016

No government has solved childcare and housing questions. Why should this one be any different?

Published 14/10/2016 | 02:30

'Even opponents of Housing Minister Simon Coveney acknowledge his commitment'
'Even opponents of Housing Minister Simon Coveney acknowledge his commitment'

Childcare has been called the "second mortgage" for the past 20 years. There's a housing crisis every 20 years. Governments come and go and they sometimes ignore as much as they can get away with. Other times they "speak to the problems" as best they can.

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Given the competitive multi-seat constituencies returning deputies for a maximum of five years, it might be a stretch to expect more long-term remedies for the issues which confront citizens. The answer is that politics is pointless unless we can strike an optimistic note.

So, can this odd hybrid minority coalition, which could collapse in any given week, achieve things which previous governments, armed with thumping great majorities, could not do?

Staying with optimism, the answer is that they could surprise us - especially in regard to childcare where the germ of something different appears to be emerging. On housing, the jury will remain out for some time.

Even opponents of Housing Minister Simon Coveney (below) acknowledge his commitment. But remedies need time he may not have. The childcare packages unveiled by Children's Minister Katherine Zappone have not been universally welcomed. She has acknowledged that they may require some fine-tuning, especially the details of stipulations on registered childcarers.

But many people who have lobbied for more realistic and systematic childcare systems in Ireland, beyond lashing out more cash in child benefit, appear ready to give Ms Zappone's plans a fair wind.

Big picture, the two schemes outlined - the one which targets people on low income and the more universal scheme - have been generally welcomed.

The targeted scheme could help children from disadvantaged homes. In an ideal world it could allow mothers a chance to get out and earn some extra income.

The more universal scheme offers 50c per hour subsidy for children under three and will benefit lots of parents. The amount is rather miserly - but it is a start and symbolic of a first real and belated recognition of childcare as a key political issue.

Katherine Zappone, as the Minister in the gap, finds that much is expected and it's a case of so far, so good for her. But some credit must go to the last government's interdepartmental committee, which did good preparatory work on the issue and informed much of this week's announcements.

It is vastly too early to deploy the "l-word." She will recall Labour's Alan Kelly "o'erleaping himself" in that regard in November 2014, and drawing a whole heap of trouble down on his head with talk of "legacy" in handling the Irish Water fiasco.

Yet even with that caveat in mind, this one has potential. There is considerable "new money" being deployed here, with €35.5m in total.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. There are still alarming gaps in Irish childcare provision.

A report by Early Childhood Ireland entitled "Doing the Sums," which was published a fortnight ago, shows that community and private childcare operations at best just manage to break even.

Those working in the sector have low incomes, there is high staff turnover and a lack of continuity.

Dónall Geoghegan, communications director of Early Childhood Ireland, said Minister Zappone has recognised this difficulty.

He points to a provision for creches to be paid for non-contact or administration time spent speaking with parents and other such tasks.

It is part of the reason his group, and others active in the sector, are anxious to give these Budget packages on childcare a fair hearing. Given the precarious position of this Government it is to be hoped that all politicians take a similar stance and allow a deal of urgency to be inserted into proceedings.

Back with the housing issue, Fianna Fáil are keen to turn the screw on Simon Coveney. On this one we may need to take optimism to new levels.

Irish Independent

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