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Seanad Debates my Motion on Childcare

Posted on: November 7th, 2005

As Budget 2005 approaches, I am calling for greater resources for childcare, to give parents real choices about whether to rejoin the workforce or to care for their children themselves. I secured a Seanad debate on childcare on Wedndesday 26 October. The debate was responded to by Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice.

While the Seanad has already debated problems with creche facilities and the cost of childcare, I wanted also to emphasise the value of parents who give up work or work part-time in order to take care of their children. It’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to childcare.

This was my motion:

That Seanad Éireann, mindful of Ireland’s unprecedented national wealth and the difficulties encountered by parents ofchildren attending crèches or primary or secondary schools;

    – urges the Government to give far greater resources in the next budget to child care;
    – insists that the Government matches any benefits given to parents in the workforce with tangible recognition of the work of stay at home parents;
    – urges the Government to set up structures unlocking parents from the difficulties encountered by huge bills for crèches if they decide to work outside the home, aimed at giving them real choices about whether to rejoin the workforce or to care for their children themselves;
    – urges the Government to begin the process of implementing the recommendations of a number of recent reports on child care by providing additional child care funds in the forthcoming budget in order to;

    (1) make free child care places available to all;

    (2) establish an overall accreditation body to ensure that all of the various suppliers of early childhood care and education are recognized and qualified and;

    (3) appoint one Minister and one Department to be fully responsible for the area of early childhood care and education.

    Here are some excerpts from my debate:

    Mr Ross: The issue of child care seems to have suddenly bitten us in the face in the past seven or eight years. It is an obvious product of the economic prosperity we have enjoyed. I welcome the advent and growth of multinationals in Ireland. I welcome full employment, for which I give the Government and many other economic forces credit. I also welcome the fact that we have a well educated workforce. The coincidence of these three ingredients, while giving us unparalleled prosperity, has also given us problems which we have been slow to recognise. They are obvious ones that have emerged as a result of the frantic pace of life that has followed the Celtic tiger and economic prosperity. We encounter them in our daily lives in the traffic problems and other activities unknown in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Child care presents one of the biggest challenges of the day. Possibly the biggest downside of our prosperity is the problems which parents engulfed in the Celtic tiger face because of the fact that they have so little time. A lifestyle problem has resulted from this prosperity. On the one hand, busy people have made the decision to throw themselves into the economic cauldron and become part of it. On the other, equally worthy individuals have decided they will not get involved but stay at home and look after their children. Major tensions have arisen from the different agendas of the groups concerned. It is difficult to move in favour of one without offending or discriminating against the other. The Government will face this problem in the budget which will be discussed here in early December. There is a conflict between those who have taken the decision to take time out with their children and those who have decided not to do so but to make money in order for their families to prosper.

    Both categories are of equal value and should be applauded, but there is a conflict between having time with one’s children and earning money. This cannot necessarily be resolved by legislation. The problem of choice can be tackled in the budget, and measures can be implemented to give people some more time if they are suffering from the time deficit, or perhaps some more money if they are at a loss in that respect.

    I have read some interesting relevant figures in a document entitled School Age Childcare in Ireland. The document does not concern crèches but rather the problems facing parents who are interested in the area of after-school care. The statistics in the document indicated that the problem was not just related to parents or their children in Ireland, but to the extended family also. The statistics pointed out that of 67,500 people involved in the survey, 46% used unpaid relatives to care for their children after coming home from school; 14% used paid relatives; 32% used paid carers; 6% used crèches; and 3% used other means. This indicates that the problem is not just a parental or business problem, but one which takes in extended families and the whole of Irish society. The Government will ignore this issue at its peril.

    Grandparents are involved in this process to a particular degree. These people are no longer able to do the things that they wish because they are involved in caring for their relatives, namely their grandchildren. Voluntary or other work which they might do otherwise in the community will suffer as a result. This shows that the problem has tremendous knock-on effects throughout Ireland and its society. We should examine the pressures on the parents and consider what can be done to help them. Those parents who go to work often feel considerable guilt about ignoring their family. Nevertheless, they may naturally feel compelled to work because of financial pressures and a desire to be a part of the extraordinary economic race being enjoyed by Ireland at the moment. Those who stay at home may feel forced out of work because they cannot afford the child care costs imposed by crèches.

    I hope the budget will above all consider the primacy of the child. We often hear about what the economy can afford, as though we are not talking about real people. We hear much about the employer and what he or she can afford. We also hear much about what the parents can afford. I contend that this particular burden of the good of the child can be shared far more equitably than it is at the moment. Such action would give parents a greater choice, giving an opportunity for part-time work, for staying at home if desired or for staying in the workforce but getting more leave to spend more time with one’s children.

    I wish to address the issue in connection with big business. It is perfectly reasonable for the State to require those businesses that can afford it to provide, at the very least, crèches for children belonging to their staff. Very few do so. Some semi-State companies, such as Aer Rianta, the ESB and RTE, do so at very subsidised rates. The Bank of Ireland also provides a crèche for its employees. In contrast, some rich companies, such as CRH, do not provide such facilities. Most large businesses do not provide crèches, although such facilities are not particularly large expenses. Although they may cost a few million euro per year, the companies could well afford them. Such provisions would meet some demands of the workforce. It is extraordinary that AIB does not provide these services, but not many multinational companies do so either. This is regrettable. I suggest that Intel and others might take the lead on this issue, and the Government might pressure the companies to do so.

    If we ask big business to play its part, the problem arises of what to do with smaller businesses. Large businesses can afford and should provide crèches or other services to employees to make their life more palatable if they have children. Small businesses may state that such an act would be impossible for them and that giving parental leave is difficult. They may also argue that special arrangements are troublesome because the companies depend on their employees, and that the provision of crèches is out of the question. It would not be unreasonable in that case for the Government to provide some form of tax breaks for small businesses. We do not have to treat all businesses in the same way on this issue. Various thresholds can be put in place, for example, with big business having to provide a certain level of facilities and small businesses receiving tax allowances. The problem could be assuaged in this manner.

    I was shocked by some relevant statistics that I read from various sources. Many people pay far less in their mortgages than they do for crèche facilities. Some may pay more than €30,000 for the crèche services. As this is a net figure, people may have to earn up to €50,000 in order to pay for having their children in crèches. It is an extraordinary figure and a large disincentive for people going to work.

    I will finish on this point. This country spends little compared with other European countries on child care, and this is a signal that we should give people more choice. We should require that parents, business and the Government play their respective parts in paying for and providing child care. There should be a division of the difficulty to give parents more choice and allow people to do part-time work. We should also consider a great inconsistency——

    Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis): Did I hear the Senator correctly when he stated that he was about to finish?

    Mr. Ross: I am beginning to finish. We should consider the inconsistency in our attitude to education. For good or for ill, we have for the most part abolished third level fees, and we have free secondary and primary schooling. We should examine the possibility of having at least one year of free pre-schoolling also. According to leaked reports the Government is considering this option, and the cost will only be approximately €140 million.

    Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. M. McDowell)
    : I thank the House for the opportunity to speak here this evening and thank Senator Cox for the full and generous way in which she proposed the Government amendment. It strikes me that I should say a few words on this occasion in response to the debate we heard so far. As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, my personal responsibility as a Cabinet member is on that aspect of child care which falls within the equality section of my Department. For the first time, €500,000 million will be spent over a period of seven years on a programme on child care provision in this State. I wish to put on the record the contrast between that and the fact that less than €2 million per annum was spent by the Department in the last year of the erstwhile rainbow coalition.

    I wish to contrast what this Government does, compared with the previous coalition Government, which fancied itself as having something of the left about it. Let us examine it closely. Since 1997 every household, including those at the bottom of the economic scale, has received a four-fold increase in child benefit support.

    Since 1997, the equal opportunities child care programme has been an outstanding success. In partnership with European funds, it has attracted a vast flow of money into this State for the first time. That money is directed towards equality of opportunity based child care. That is socially progressive child care. None of those expenditure programmes existed when the parties of the left were in office in this country. Let us remember that nothing of that kind was attempted. Approximately 40,000 child care places will be created and sustained by the equal opportunities child care programme. Much of this will be directed to the have-nots in our community rather than the haves.

    Ireland is changing demographically. This evening’s newspaper reported that we have one of the highest birth rates in the European Union. Unlike most EU members we are now sustaining ourselves through our reproductive patterns and that is a good thing. As Senator Ross wisely pointed out in proposing this motion, the participation rate of women in our economy has been dramatically transformed from over 400,000 women in the workplace in 1995 to well over 800,000. This has been a dramatic change in Irish society and carries an important agenda for political action to bring about child care facilities that match the needs of that changing society.

    As Senator Ross said, choice is the crucial element. I accept what Senators Terry and Ross said about the need to respect the rights and values of parents who make a financial sacrifice to provide parenting in their own homes. If we talk about choice we must focus on the supply of child care places. Senator Minihan proposed that we examine the possibility of increasing the number of child care places in the community through an income tax and social welfare disregard for the suppliers of small scale services. That should be examined as a real way of increasing the number of places. Some people are lucky enough to have relatives who provide support during their child rearing years. However, many do not have relatives or live so far away from them that it is not an option. Yet many people in the community provide child care in an informal way and would be willing to provide it to a higher standard and within the regular economy if the State offered assistance. We have an income tax and social welfare disregard for certain house sharing arrangements and could use a similar approach to the supply of child care places.

    There are tax implications in our present system for many couples. As Senator Ross correctly pointed out, some large firms are now providing crèche facilities and child minding services for their employees. These are not regarded as a taxable benefit-in-kind. However, if one does not work for one of those companies and if one’s employer provides off-campus assistance with child care, it is regarded as a benefit-in-kind. That is wrong. It is also wrong that in the case of small scale enterprises, which could not possibly ever organise child care facilities of that kind, it will be a discrimination against their employees in that they are perforce excluded from that type of approach.

    Senator Cox suggested there should be tax relief for those who retain the service of an in-house dedicated child minder in their home. I listened to the Senator with interest. I do not like to discuss my domestic arrangements but I am aware of how significant the cost is if one plays by the rules and pays PAYE and PRSI for such a service. However, those who are in a position to do that at present are generally among the better off in society. They have two incomes. Paying a full-time child minder at home is expensive and while consideration can be given to this, we should look to the coping families who are not, and could not be, in that position. They need some assistance. The Government will have to take a more broad-based approach.

    I wish to refer to the suggestion that I should thump the Cabinet table for resources for child care. The party I represent in Government has played a very constructive role and I praise Senator Minihan for his part in leading the debate on a new departure in State policy on child care. It is open to Senator Cox and her colleagues to thump the parliamentary party table, when they meet their Ministers, to seek similar success and progress in developing the debate.

    With regard to women in the home – and it is usually women in the home although some men provide parenting in the home in an enlightened, new age way – I believe they are entitled to full recognition in the Constitution. The terms of the Constitution recognise, even in 1930s language, that the parenting role of women in the home is a huge support for the solidarity and quality of life in our country. They should not be discriminated against or feel excluded.

    [T]here is a real possibility of polarising parents, particularly mothers, into two categories – those who are in the home and those who are not – who will feel they are being set against each other over a limited pot of resources. Whatever is done, fairness must be shown to those who take their parenting obligations to the point of exiting the labour market or not going into the labour market to deliver to their children. What is written in the Constitution about women not being forced to work outside the home to the neglect of what was somewhat archly referred to as “their duties within the home” should be given some tangible social and economic reality rather than simply remaining a piece of rhetoric.

    A reference was made here as well to the time-starved parents of today. It is certainly true that long commuting, long hours of work, traffic jams, etc., make it difficult for many families to cope and survive in modern circumstances and that this is an added pressure on parenting and raising a family. The Government, in the terms of the amendment proposed by Senator Cox, will address over the next weeks and months all of the ideas which are now bubbling forth in a ferment of political innovation on child care, but none of the proposals I have seen can provide a single solution to the problem. There must be a multiplicity of approaches to get the best possible outcome.

    This is an edited version. You can read the full debate on the Oireachtas website