Tuesday 22 January 2019

20,000 toddlers to get almost four months extra in free preschool

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Frank McGrath
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone Photo: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Around 20,000 toddlers are to get almost four extra months in free preschool as a result of today’s Budget.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has secured funding to close a series of anomalies in the Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE), increasing the average entitlement from 61 weeks to 76.

From next September all children aged between three and four will be entitled to two full years of free preschool.

In his first speech as Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe will emphasise the Government wants to help working families.  He will today unveil cuts to the universal social charge, a widening of the tax band and an increase in tax credit for the self-employed.

The Irish Independent understands he will cut the 2.5pc rate of USC by 0.5pc and the middle 5pc rate by 0.25pc. This, when combined with a rise of about €750 to the point at which workers enter the higher income tax bracket, means a worker on €50,000 stands to be €250 better off over the course of a year.

The measures will put around €20 back in the average worker’s pocket every month, but sources say Mr Donohoe promises more to come in the years ahead if the economy stays on track.

It will be the first time in a decade that the country’s books will be balanced as a result of a series of revenue-raising measures including a major hike to stamp duty on commercial property sales, the introduction of a sugar tax and increases to employers’ PRSI.

Mr Donohoe will also announce a €400m increase in spending on social housing and a new scheme targeted at people who don’t qualify for a local authority house but can’t afford a mortgage.

The Irish Independent understands a special fund will also be established to help small-time developers who are struggling to get finance from the main banks. The minimum wage will also increase by 30 cents to €9.55 per hour.

While there will be no increase in the childcare subsidies which kicked in last month, money has been set aside to encourage more providers to sign up to the Affordable Childcare Scheme.

Crèches and other childcare providers will receive €18m to help offset administration costs associated with the scheme. The allocation for ‘Early Years/Childcare’ will be €490m, an increase of €34m from this year.

“Last year the plan was to get the Affordable Childcare Scheme up and running, now the attention is being turned to improving quality in the sector,” said a source.

As part of this shift in emphasis the child and family agency Tusla will see its funding increased by €37m to €750m.

This will primarily be used for an increase in the number of frontline staff but is also likely to see investment in IT.

The changes to ECCE should end a “glaring anomaly” under which entitlements vary significantly depending on the month of a child’s birth. Currently a child born in September 2015 is entitled to 61 weeks of free pre-school but a child born a month earlier is entitled to 76 weeks. Similarly anomalies exist in the system throughout the school year.

Irish Independent

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