Labour promises childcare for €2 an hour
Childcare costs would be cut to €2 an hour under a new scheme being promised by Labour if the party is returned to Government.
Parents would be able to access a State-subsidised service for children aged from nine months to 12 years, for 40 hours a week.
It would mean a dramatic reduction in the national average of €4.25 an hour that working parents are currently paying crèches.
In Dublin, costs rise to more than €5 an hour and parents are shelling out at least €1,000 a month, on average, for one child in full-time care.
Under the Labour proposals the cost would work out at €80 a week or about €320 a month for one child.
With young families and working parents key constituencies in the forthcoming General Election, the national childcare scheme will be one of the main planks of the Labour manifesto.
The growing attention paid to this group was obvious in the last Budget, which introduced two weeks' paid paternity leave for the first time.
Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan told the Irish Independent that "for too long, we have given parents little support and given children mixed quality care".
"The State has never invested in childcare and, as the economy recovers, it is time to change that for once and for all".
The minister said that for a parent with two children in full-time childcare, it would provide "incredible savings".
Labour's deal would be offered on top of the free pre-school scheme, currently available for three hours a day for a 38-week year for three-year-olds.
This is being extended into a second free year from September and Labour's proposal would see a dramatic improvement in State-subsidised provision over and above that.
The proposed new scheme would be phased in up to 2021, and Labour has estimated that the cost to the Exchequer when fully implemented would be €500m a year.
The party says it would start with more affordable childcare from next January, with a cap of €4.25 on the hourly rate - the current national average - that parents would pay to a State-registered childcare provider. The Government would pay the provider a further 50c an hour per child.
Between 60,000 and 70,000 three-year-olds currently benefit from the free pre-school scheme, and that is expected to almost double when the extra year comes on stream in September.
Labour expects that, by 2021, its proposed scheme would bring a further 50,000 children into the State-registered childcare net. Children of school going-age could avail of it after school.
Ms O'Sullivan said as well as making childcare more affordable, they wanted to make sure "we never see another programme like 'Breach of Trust'", the RTÉ documentary that exposed some low standards in the childcare sector.
The Labour plan also involves improving quality generally in the sector, by bringing more providers, whether crèches or childminders in their own home, under the umbrella of regulation.
The minister, herself a former Montessori teacher, said quality was linked to having well-trained and well-paid staff, and she said a sectoral agreement on wages was necessary. She said there would be increased funding for all providers who had staff qualified to degree level, and she would expect that to translate into higher wages for those with higher qualifications.
She said the Government would fund the up-skilling of those working in childcare centres or as childminders.
All the main political parties are targeting working families in the campaign.
Fine Gael has proposed a Working Family Payment which would see parents with young children earn at least €11.75 an hour regardless of their job.