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Fitzgerald and Co must flex muscles and earn their keep

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Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald

OUT of the frying pan, into the fire. The Coalition has endured a tough fortnight courtesy of Alan Shatter's poor judgment.

But it's nothing compared to the public response to Tuesday night's 'Prime Time' special investigation into creche care.

People are justifiably outraged at the treatment of children exposed by the programme. And at least some of the blame is being directed at the Government.

Yet again, this State has shown itself to be inept at regulation. We've seen it with the banks, with nursing homes, with hospitals and with industrial schools. Now it's been exposed in childcare.

As usual in Ireland, we've swung from one extreme to the other. Up until relatively recently, everything was geared around the mother staying at home to mind children. Then it changed almost overnight.

It was perhaps inevitable, when the childcare sector was formed so rapidly from virtually nothing, that standards would suffer. The picture that emerged from the 'Prime Time' investigation was of creches with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, but staff that were simply not good enough or not trained or supervised well enough.

Nobody is naive enough to believe that the bad childcare exposed is isolated in just a few creches (while we must acknowledge there are many fine ones, too). And it's clear the system of inspection in place is woefully inadequate and was simply waiting to be exposed.

It's the Coalition's political misfortune that it has happened on its watch. Fine Gael and Labour have talked the talk about prioritising children but have they walked the walk? They created a stand-alone Department of Children. And got the Children's Referendum passed.

But, half-way through its term of office, the Government clearly hasn't done enough in the area of childcare.

Enda Kenny and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald made all the right noises yesterday, expressing their "deep distress".

No doubt those sentiments are genuine. But talk is cheap. Childcare, or at least good childcare, is not. And Mr Kenny and Ms Fitzgerald are going to need to put their money where their mouths are.

Fergus Finlay of Barnardos is particularly incisive about what needs to happen. He proposes responsibility for inspecting creches be moved from the HSE to HIQA. He also wants inspection reports to be available online.

It's not like the Government doesn't have muscle to flex. Almost all creches are in receipt of state funds.

Mr Finlay argues that, in order to keep those funds, they must ensure inspection reports are easily available to parents and that proper staffing ratios are maintained. They seem like sensible proposals.

In the longer term, issues such as pay, training and career paths need to be addressed. That's going to be a lot trickier.

It's neither practical nor desirable that the State take on a bigger role in directly providing childcare. But nor is it realistic to expect parents to pay higher fees than they're already paying. So some form of additional government support is going to be required to ensure a more professional system of staff training.

Mr Finlay suggests this could cost around €50m a year. Even allowing for additional money to ramp up the inspection system, that's surely not beyond the exchequer. It's a small price to pay for our children's welfare and happiness.

It also would be nice to think that, for once, a government could be proactive about regulation, instead of waiting for a scandal to break to respond.

In this regard, the Government should look at the parallel system of care provided by individual childminders. Most of these childminders do a wonderful job. But the system is unlicensed, unregulated and much of it in the black economy. In France, nannies have to be licenced and have 40 hours' training to get that licence.

It's clear our systems lag behind the rest of Europe. We can't continue to hide behind the excuse that we've come later to childcare outside the home. It's time for Ms Fitzgerald and the Department of Children to earn their keep.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent