AN estimated 5,000 childminding places have been lost since health boards began inspecting creches and other childcare premises last year.
Although the official figures only account for the loss of 1,800 places, childcare groups believe the true figure is almost treble that, because of closures of non-registered providers, cutbacks on childcare funding and workers leaving the sector for better-paid jobs.
Only a small fraction of childcare providers have notified the Department of their existence. Although 3,000 childcare providers (representing 44,000 childcare places) have notified the Department of Health, very few of the 30,000 childminders working in the black economy have done so.
Since new regulations were introduced last year, more than 1,700 premises have been inspected. The resultant closures equate to the loss of about 1,800 childcare places.
Kate Hartigan, Director of Childcare and Family Support Services with the Eastern Health Board, said space and staff-to-child ratios are the main issues facing childcare providers. ``Quite a number of places in pre-school nurseries have been lost,'' she said. ``Some nurseries say they can't afford to take on children under a year old because of the new staff-to-child ratios.''
Childcare 2000 Campaign, a group composed of the associations which represent the major childcare providers, says a crisis is looming in September.
Anne O'Donnell, the campaign co-ordinator, said the group has decided to lobby the Department of Finance for grant aid for providers who need to invest money to meet the new standards. ``We've no way of knowing how many childminders are leaving the industry,'' she said. ``The major trouble is going to start in September as a lot of parents find other ways of coping over the summer.''
Parents in Dublin, Galway and other urban centres throughout the country are now resorting to distributing leaflets in housing estates in search of childcare, a practice criticised by organisations representing childcare providers. Hilary Kenny, director of the Irish Pre-School Playgroups Association (IPPA), said it increases the potential for unsuitable and undesirable people to be left in charge of children.
A consultants' report for the Expert Working Group on Childcare estimated that 40,000 childcare places will be needed in the next decade because of increased female participation in the labour force. The report cited low profitability as a major problem for supply of childcare services.