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Friday 23 August 2019

Childcare crisis: €50m black hole in State scheme

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Frank McGrath
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Doyle and Melanie Finn

An extra €50m will have to be found next year to plug a black hole in the Government's new childcare scheme, Children's Minister Katherine Zappone has warned.

The minister has acknowledged crèches are turning away babies and toddlers because they see pre-schoolers as more lucrative, as reported in yesterday's Irish Independent.

However, she insisted her department's "warning system" has identified the issue and officials are already working on a series of measures that will require substantial financial backing from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

The National Childcare Scheme comes in this November with subsidies of up to €5.10 per hour for babies placed in registered childcare facilities. But writing in today's Irish Independent, Ms Zappone, an Independent TD, says: "To cut to the chase, an additional €50m will be needed to deliver the first full year of our new scheme in 2020.

"This is just the bottom line, I will be seeking investment in other initiatives in the early learning and care and school-age childcare space to further address access, affordability and quality."

Her comments mark an unprecedented early ultimatum for Mr Donohoe ahead of next October's Budget negotiations.

Purse strings: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Purse strings: Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

And in what could be interpreted as a swipe at her coalition partners in Fine Gael, Ms Zappone said she was trying to correct "decades of neglect and under-investment by successive governments".

The Dublin South-West TD makes no secret of the fact she will be "fighting" for the extra funding because "standing still is not an option for me". The Irish Independent highlighted yesterday how the success of the Government-funded Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme has squeezed younger children out of crèches.

The scheme now provides free pre-school programmes for 120,000 three to five year olds every year. This figure has more than doubled in the past decade. But many childcare providers are now overwhelming the ECCE scheme because of the higher costs associated with staffing 'baby rooms'. It has created a major issue for many mothers who want to return to work when their baby is nine to 12 months old.

Ms Zappone says €4.3m in capital grants has already been assigned to create extra spaces for children aged under three. This should provide an extra 1,300 places by the end of the year.

The National Childcare Scheme will also see the highest subsidies paid to childcare providers for children in this age category. It will provide grants for families with children aged from 24 weeks upwards who are attending a Tusla-registered childcare service, including childminders.

Applications for the new scheme are due to open in October, with the first payments flowing the following month. The minister admits the Government has to "respond even faster" to issues such as the move away from baby places.

"The shortage of spaces for babies happened despite the fact that the number we are subsiding in this youngest age bracket has more than doubled," Ms Zappone said.

And in a clear message to the Department of Finance, she added: "Investing in childcare ticks all the boxes. It is good for children in terms of their development. It is good for parents who want access to education, training and work. It is good for the economy."

Irish Independent

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