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4 November 2004 Edition

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Childcare must be taken off McDowell

BY Mícheál MacDonncha

Michael McDowell, the Progressive Democrats Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who thinks a good dollop of inequality is good for the economy, is the Minister in charge of childcare provision in the 26 Counties. He presides over a sector where children are often deprived of the best care, childcare places are scarce and expensive, the system is unco-ordinated and under funded and low-income families are losing out.

Sinn Féin's TDs this week challenged that system in the Dáil and proposed comprehensive measures to provide childcare and early childhood education on a comprehensive basis. They staged a special Dáil debate this week. "Childcare is a quality of life issue. It is about the quality of life of children who deserve the best care at all times and of parents who should be able to spend as much time as possible with their children. Childcare is clearly not a priority for Minister McDowell and should be taken out of his hands", Sinn Féin Dáil leader and spokesperson on Health and Children Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin stated.

The childcare crisis - Sinn Féin TDs demand action

"In my constituency a number of women were forced to give up places on schemes because their community employment supports had been withdrawn and they were unable to afford alternative child care." - Martin Ferris TD

"Unco-ordinated, variable in quality and in short supply" is how the National Childcare Strategy described childcare in the 26 Counties in 1999. Five years later the situation is, if anything, worse and "hugely expensive" has been added to that list of adjectives.

The two-tier healthcare system is notorious. But we are well on our way to creating a two-tier childcare system, with scarce and expensive crèche places being availed of by wealthy parents while the lower paid and social welfare recipients are excluded altogether or are burdened with massive weekly bills. Even for people on good incomes, the cost of childcare is a huge burden and has been compared by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to a second mortgage.

Action on all of this is being demanded from the Fianna Fáil/PD Government this week, as the Dáil debates a motion from the Sinn Féin TDs calling on the Government to put in place comprehensive childcare services and to extend paid maternity and paternity leave for working parents. The motion, which Sinn Féin is using its twice-yearly 'Private Members Time' to debate, also highlights the long delays being experienced by community crèches in receiving capital grants.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the childcare issue is how it has been hived off into a sub-section of Michael McDowell's Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. "Childcare is clearly not a priority for Minister McDowell and should be take out of his hands," says Sinn Féin Dáil leader and spokesperson on Health and Children, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

"The Government's failure to put in place comprehensive childcare services is a cause of hardship for children and parents and a real obstacle to the development of the economy. Women are being prevented from entering the workforce, education and training and as a result our society and our economy are losing out. In fact, the whole economy and its potential for further development is being undermined by the lack of childcare.

"Childcare places are in short supply and are unaffordable for many parents. The services are not properly co-ordinated and the quality of childcare varies widely. People in disadvantaged communities are especially badly affected."

Motion

The Sinn Féin motion is calling for an immediate reversal of the Government's cutting of the Creche Supplement and VTOS childcare supports, payments mainly availed of by women on low income and social welfare to allow them to enter education, training and the labour market. These cuts, imposed last year, 'saved' a measly couple of million euro but have caused real hardship.

Crucially, the motion calls for extended maternity and paternity leave. This would allow parents to care full-time for their children in the vital first year. The failure to develop a proper childcare infrastructure creates a false economy. It means that many women who are willing and able to work are kept out of the labour market and their tax contributions are lost to the State. The development of quality childcare would be self-financing through increased tax returns from women's work and less dependency on social welfare. Opening the Dáil debate, Ó Caoláin said:

"This is a quality of life issue. It is firstly about the quality of life of children who deserve the best care at all times. It is about the quality of life of parents who should be able to spend as much time as possible with their children, especially during their first three years. And it is about whether we as a society value quality of life above the current drive for material gain and the greed of the Celtic Tiger.

"There are many families who would choose to rear their children on the income from one working parent, with the other parent caring full-time in the home. But that option is now closed off for many families, primarily because of the outrageous cost of housing, with massive mortgages being serviced by two working incomes thanks to the disastrous housing policies of this Government."

Left to paddle our own canoe

"We've a one and a half- to two-year waiting list for the crèche. We have places booked for six babies that are not yet born. We have to operate out of three different buildings. We are dependent on CE scheme workers to function and keep going. We basically have to paddle our own canoe."

This is how Deirdre Donnelly of Farney Community Crèche in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, described the situation they faced in providing for childcare needs in the town. Deirdre Donnelly was speaking after attending the first part of the two-day Private Members debate on childcare initiated by Sinn Féin in the Dáil on Tuesday night last. She explained that her community crèche has been in operation for six years "without moving forward", despite repeated promises of support from various Government Ministers.

"A new building was promised 17 months ago," she said. This was to incorporate all three current components of the crèche facility under one roof and increase its capacity. "Instead, we are left paying rent and insurance on three different buildings," Deirde's colleague, Ann Crawley, said after also attending the debate. As well as the obvious disjoint involved when staff are operating out of different locations, Ann Crawley said it also caused major problems for parents with more than one child in the crèche trying to juggle the demands of work with "running from one place to another to collect children".

"While the staffing grant we receive is welcome and we can't knock it, we are not moving forward," said Deirdre Donnelly. They couldn't expand and cater for the growing childcare needs of the community without extra support and as a result she said they were being put in a situation of "having to refuse families places" and "preventing parents from entering the workplace or returning to education".

The problems of Farney Community Creche are far from unique. Neither is the Government's response. In 2002, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O'Donoghue, visited the crèche and wrote a complimentary letter afterwards promising to help with their development plans. But as the Dáil debate began on Tuesday, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin received a reply from the present Minister, Michael McDowell. Ó Caoláin had asked if there would be a positive response to the Farney grant application submitted in May 2003. In November 2004 the Minister still cannot give a definitive answer.

Meanwhile, as Seán Crowe TD points out, in Jobstown in Tallaght there is a childcare facility that expects to receive €1.7 million capital funding and a staffing grant but even at that they estimate they will have to charge €130-€140 per child per week, which is way beyond the reach of many parents. "I know of another child care scheme in the Tallaght West area that charges €30 per week for shorter hours but is having extreme difficulties in finding clients to use the service. We are moving towards having facilities suitable for child care while pricing out the very people the schemes are designed to help," says Seán Crowe.

Main points of Sinn Féin motion

• Establish universal state provision of pre-school for all children from the age of three to five years

• Establish universal provision of early childhood care and education based on the Swedish system

• Harmonise maternity leave on an all-Ireland basis by increasing maternity leave to 26 weeks paid and 26 weeks unpaid and harmonise paternity leave on an all-Ireland basis by introducing paid paternity entitlements of two weeks per child.

• Assist parents with the cost of childcare by increasing Child Benefit to €150 per month for the first and second child and to €185.50 for third and subsequent children and by increasing Child Dependent Allowance to a single weekly figure of €26 for all recipients. Introduce a Childcare Supplement to be paid as a top-up for Child Benefit for under fives.

• Increase revenue for the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (the main Government childcare provision in the 26 Counties) including capital, staffing and operational funding and immediately speed up all outstanding applications which have been delayed due to the review of the Programme.

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