Monday 22 January 2018

Minister hopes childcare package will help women return to work

Sacrifices made by her mother informed Katherine Zappone when it came to enabling choice for parents, writes Philip Ryan

Long-term plans: Minister Katherine Zappone hopes to receive an additional €120m funding next year to focus an upskilling childcare workers and allow more families access to subsidies Photo: Steve Humphreys
Long-term plans: Minister Katherine Zappone hopes to receive an additional €120m funding next year to focus an upskilling childcare workers and allow more families access to subsidies Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Katherine Zappone's mother always wanted to be a journalist. It was her life's ambition.

She took up a job as personal assistant with one of the top advertising agencies in New York as a young woman and pictured a life writing stories for the country's top newspapers. She hoped it would lead to her seeing the world or being thrown into the middle of the many elaborate political scandals which made the US such a rich feeding ground for ambitious journalists.

But it wasn't to be.

While working in the advertising agency, Ms Zappone's mother Kathie met the love of her life, Bob, and got married.

Instead of spending her life crouched over a typewriter filing copy, Kathie took the decision to move west with her husband and become the homemaker for their five children.

Sitting in her office in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Ms Zappone says not returning to work was one of her mother's greatest regrets.

"There were five of us born quite closely in a row," the minister fondly remembers.

"I adored her, we all adored her. She was a wonderful homemaker, she made that choice, she took on those responsibilities, that's what you did then - but she always wished she could have continued in journalism," she adds.

What she describes as her mother's sacrifice was clearly to the fore of the minister's mind as she prepared to unveil the Government's landmark €120m childcare package last week. She hopes state-subsidised childcare, free pre-school places and better-trained childcare workers will lead to more women returning to work after pregnancy.

"It is about trying to respond to how families are living their lives now and also to enable choice for women," she says.

"I don't think it is largely the fathers who are staying at home. It is the mothers who are staying at home and I think it is the most wonderful choice in the world if a woman does choose to stay at home for a period of time and mind her children. I have no difficulty with it, I think that's marvellous but I do know that many women wish to pursue their own careers," she adds.

The scheme has been broadly welcomed by parent groups and Opposition politicians also found it hard to pick holes in the new policy. However, there was some disquiet over the access to the subsidies due to the tight income bands. And the Government hopes to make state- supported childcare available in future budgets.

However, she has got flak from the thousands of stay-at-home parents, mostly mothers, who feel they have been left behind by the State's radical overhaul of childcare policy. Ms Zappone is adamant that there will be no additional allowances paid to stay-at-home parents.

"Are we going to give them cash? No, we are not going to give them cash. Every family gets child benefit, there's quite a bit of support there," she insists. The minister also points out that 96pc of families currently avail of state-supported pre-school education places and there is also a carers' tax credit.

She also notes that some parents, again mostly working women, are "double jobbing", meaning they are also tending to household duties when they come home after a day's work.

"This is my opinion but I think most people would probably agree that the reality is women who are out working ... are probably more likely to be the ones who are fixing the meals or doing some of the domestic chores," she says.

"I know there are a lot of men who share those responsibilities now and I celebrate that and that is the new family way and it's absolutely wonderful," she adds. Ms Zappone is also not in favour of giving cash payments to relatives - such as grandparents who care for their grandchildren.

Transport Minister Shane Ross pushed for a so-called 'granny grant' to be included in the Budget but the idea was shot down by Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe. The children's minister says some grandparents are actually insulted by the suggestion of a grant.

"Some organisations have been in touch with us to say they have got a lot of calls, especially from grandparents, who are actually upset to hear the suggestion they should be paid," she says.

"What they are doing is making a choice to support their daughters or their sons and want to make that contribution to family life and it's not a job and they don't want it to be perceived as a job," she adds. Ms Zappone says there will be less need for parents to rely on grandparents when her childcare packages are rolled out next September.

She says there is also a responsibility on the State to ensure children can avail of quality childcare.

"As an educator and the research demonstrates this - it's good for kids to be with kids," she adds. Next year, she hopes to receive an additional €120m and she will focus this funding on upskilling childcare workers and allowing more families access subsidies. There are concerns however, this new childcare funding will drive up prices in the sector.

However, Ms Zappone says she is prepared to introduce price caps on creche cost if prices start to rise.

"We are going to be considering the possibility of the plus and minus of capping fees. At the moment, I suppose, we perceive that as a market intervention. Is it necessary? Maybe," she says.

The minister also wants to see shared parental leave increased from two weeks to three months by 2019.

"The research demonstrates that it is really good for babies and I would love to be able to see that. Three months, is it possible? Certainly my voice will be added to that," she says.

She is critical of the Government's decision to introduce a first-time buyer's grant but says she was willing to compromise to ensure she had influence in other areas.

She also would have liked the Budget to have been split on 4:1 ratio of spending over tax cuts.

Ms Zappone hopes too for a Dail debate on right to die legislation and even says if a bill was brought before the lower chamber she would think about supporting it.

"I know my colleague John Halligan had a bill he wanted to bring in. Should he wish to bring it forward, I would be supportive of that."

Sunday Independent

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