Sunday 15 September 2019

Five extra hours of childcare but system bursting at seams

Zappone pushes for greater Budget funds to increase working families’ pre-school benefits

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone (Niall Carson/PA)
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone (Niall Carson/PA)
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Hard-pressed middle-income families would benefit from extra hours of subsidised childcare under Budget demands being developed by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone.

Proposals being explored by the Independent minister would see families with gross incomes of up to €100,000 qualify for an additional five hours a week.

The measure is aimed at giving parents more “flexibility” to manage collection times for children from crèches and schools.

The new National Childcare Scheme (NCS) sees parents who are working or in education eligible for targeted subsidised childcare. The sums vary depending on income level and the child’s age, but parents can apply for as much as 40 hours of childcare per week.

It is understood Ms Zappone’s Budget proposals include:

:: Extending the number of hours available to up to 45 hours from September 2020;

:: Increasing after-school childcare hours from 17 to 22 hours per week;

:: Adding five hours to the 15 currently on offer to parents who are seeking employment.

It comes amid an ongoing crisis in childcare and a severe shortage of crèche places for babies and toddlers and pressure on the after-school care system for older children.

The Irish Independent has established details of the proposals to extend the hours for subsidised childcare as the Government prepares to ramp up preparations for the Budget, which will be affected by the prospect of a crash-out Brexit on October 31.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will face a raft of competing demands from Fianna Fáil - which props up the minority Government - as well as Fine Gael and Independent ministers.

Ms Zappone succeeded in getting the threshold for eligibility for the targeted childcare subsidies raised to a net family income of €60,000 as part of last year's Budget, pulling many more middle-income families into the scheme.

The threshold covers families with a gross income of €100,000 before deductions like tax, PSRI and USC.

Now Ms Zappone wants to extend the hours that will be available to allow greater "flexibility" for parents under pressure due to work or education commitments.

A source said: "The reality is that some parents need additional hours to cover full-time working and commuting."

Many were finding it difficult to "juggle work start and end times in order to drop off and collect children".

Ms Zappone is also said to be conscious of the importance of parents spending time with their children. The proposed changes are aimed at giving parents the option of extra hours if they are needed, rather than encouraging them to take them up.

Ireland's childcare services have been in crisis in recent months, with a shortage of spaces for babies and toddlers.

This has been blamed on the success of a State-funded scheme that provides a free pre-school programme for three- to five-year-olds, as many childcare providers focus on this age group at the expense of younger children.

There has also been pressure on the system for after-school care amid new regulations requiring one staff member for every 12 children.

The income-assessed subsidies set to be the subject of Budget talks apply to families whose children are aged between 24 weeks and 15 years and they are means-tested.

The subsidy rate for qualifying families is calculated on a sliding scale depending on the family's level of income, the child's age and their stage in education.

To give an example, the rates of subsidy available for children under one year old range from €33.60 a week to €204 if the full 40 hours is being availed of.

The NCS that kicks in at the end of October sees a parent qualify for up to 40 hours a week in subsidies if they and their partner are working, studying or transitioning between work and study.

If adopted, Ms Zappone's proposals would increase this to up to 45 hours from September 2020.

The definition of work includes apprenticeships, part-time and people on zero-hours contracts.

Study includes any education or training programme on the National Framework of Qualifications.

The subsidy can be used for the hours of childcare spent outside of school - so-called "wrap-around" hours.

Under the National Childcare Scheme, parents can claim up to 17 hours of after-school childcare per week from October. This would increase to up to 22 hours from September next year if the proposals are implemented.

Parents who are out of work and are seeking a job or training can qualify for 15 hours of subsidised childcare but this would rise to 20 hours under the proposals.

This would have the benefit of the child - who may be from a disadvantaged background - being in the crèche long enough to get two meals and allows more time for them to get early learning education.

Irish Independent

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