Kevin Doyle: 'Funding for childcare must put families first - not facilitate further price hikes'
With Brexit taking all the fun out of Budget 2020, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe is desperate for cheap and easy wins.
The economy is booming but we know from harsh experience that the benefits of such good times are only temporary. The downsides, though, can last much longer.
The childcare sector has been in crisis for years. It was poorly regulated, underfunded and all but ignored in political circles.
It's astonishing when you think about it. TDs talked so much about future-proofing the country and yet gave little thought to 'the future', their children.
Perhaps the fact it didn't feature highly on the agenda is a side-effect of how few women were in the Dáil up until recent years. Or maybe, it just wasn't seen as a voter getter.
That was changed dramatically in the past decade with the establishment of a dedicated Department of Children, new regulations, a watchdog and annual pre-budget battle for funding. Yet the figures released today show that even though funding for childcare has more than doubled in four years, from €260m in 2015 to €574m, parents are still getting fleeced.
It must be hard enough to leave your child with a stranger for nine hours a day without paying a massive chunk of your salary for the pleasure. A middle-income family with a mortgage and one child can now expect to pay in the region of €24,000 a year for those two luxuries. That's madness.
For some families, it will inevitably make more sense for one parent to opt out of the workforce.
At the end of October, the much promoted National Childcare Scheme (NCS) will finally come into operation.
It involves two types of subsidies for families. A universal element is available to all families with children under three. They are also available to families with children over three who have not yet qualified for the free pre-school programme (ECCE). This subsidy amounts to 50c per hour towards the cost of a registered childcare place for up to a maximum of 40 hours per week.
A separate income-assessed subsidy is on offer for families with children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years. It will be calculated based on your individual circumstances. The rate will vary depending on your level of family income, your child's age and educational stage, and the number of children.
There is no doubt the money will be welcomed by thousands of middle-income families. However, if crèche prices keep rising at 3.6pc per year then parents simply won't be able to keep up, no matter what handouts the State can afford.
The strong economy means a lot more men and women are working, which is good news. That's the upside of the boom.
But the evidence suggests the price of commodities often rises when there is money in people's pockets. Childcare now seems to be treated like a commodity.
The huge prices are made all the more curious given the meagre salaries paid to workers in the industry. Somebody is making money and that needs to be properly investigated.
But back to Paschal Donohoe who will spend the next 10 days fighting with ministerial colleagues and his calculator. He will face many demands ahead of October and has only €700m for new spending and tax cuts.
The Taoiseach said yesterday that'll he use it to put money back in people's pockets.
Funding proper childcare is an obvious win - but whatever money is spent must benefit the parents and children rather than facilitate more price hikes next year.