Childcare key as opposition to be 'flushed out' on policies
THE crippling burden of childcare costs on working families is set to become a key battleground ahead of the next general election.
Families forking out up to €2,000-a-month on crèches are being targeted by all parties as a group of voters whose voting intentions can be swayed by policies aimed at reducing the rising costs of childcare.
But the Coalition plans to "flush out" the opposition parties on the precise costs of their policies in the run-up to the general election.
The Government is scrambling to draw up a clear strategy to tackle childcare, while the issue will also be a key strategy of Fianna Fáil's election campaign to shore up support among families struggling to meet these costs.
Fianna Fáil recently launched a childcare policy, which is still being costed by the Department of Finance, and the party is also holding a series of town hall meetings on the topic.
Micheál Martin's party is pledging to introduce tax breaks for working families and provide a second full free pre-school year for working families.
A senior Government source admitted a "light has been shone" on the Coalition over childcare costs and it was forced to establish a cross-departmental working group to address the problem.
However, the source rubbished Fianna Fáil's policy document, saying it had no "basis in reality".
"We have to do something but we can't just magic an extra €1bn, as Fianna Fáil is proposing, out of nowhere and if we did, we have to have plans in place for what to do with the money," the source said.
Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Independents are frequently accused of producing uncosted proposals and failing to set out where funding for policies will come from.
As a result, the Government is fast-tracking the setting-up of an independent budgeting office in the Oireachtas, which will cost opposition proposals.
The Coalition will publish its broad economic projections for the next five years in the coming weeks, which will force the opposition parties to outline their own views.
The Oireachtas budgeting office, mooted by Finance Minister Michael Noonan last month, will confidentially establish the cost of policy proposals.
The publication of the Spring Economic Statement will set out the forecasted direction of the economy for the next five years.
The statement will focus on the overall economic forecast up to 2018, the plan for eliminating the budget deficit in that period and how full employment can be achieved by the end of the decade.
"That flushes out the Opposition. Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Independents and the rest will be forced to come out and say if these are decisions they will take. That will hopefully improve the quality of the debate," a senior source said.
The Government is currently reviewing its childcare policy and hopes to roll out a raft of new measures which will appeal to families in middle Ireland struggling to balance household budgets.
A working group, due to meet this week, is exploring a range of options, but tax breaks are not seen as a viable way to ease the burden on families as it may increase costs overall.
Speaking at a Labour Party meeting last night, Tánaiste Joan Burton said she wanted to "copper-fasten the recovery" and "create the resources for renewed investment in health, education and childcare".
A senior Labour source said there was a "desire" in the party to get a second year of pre-school education for families but it was unlikely to happen before the next election.
Fianna Fáil director of elections Michael Moynihan said people were "crying out for policy" on childcare and it will be a central plank of the party's general election strategy.