Breen urges changes to the Early Childhood Supplement Scheme

June 22nd, 2009 - Pat Breen

   Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to speak during this important debate.  I commend Deputy Enright for bringing this motion to the House.  The Minister of State will be aware that the recent supplementary budget piled much more financial pressure on families throughout the country.  Many families are struggling to pay household bills.  The reality is that the last two budgets have taken a sizeable chunk out of many household budgets.  Families are now very cautious when spending their money.  Many retailers are only just about surviving.  The Commission on the Family has recognised the need to prioritise investment in child care.  Like other speakers, I welcome the decision to provide for a year of free preschool education.  As Deputy Enright said last night, such a system should have been developed during the Celtic tiger era, rather than having to be developed now, at a time of recession.  Deputy Blaney said earlier this evening that the Government is very forward-thinking, even though it has taken the Government three years to think about what it should do in this area.  Deputy Kelly suggested that this proposal makes history.  I remind him that when the early childhood supplement scheme was introduced three years ago, Fine Gael tried to no avail to put pressure on the Government to provide for a year of free preschool education.  The Government has eventually woken up to the need for such an approach.

  As I have said, the abolition of the early childhood supplement payment will have a severe impact on many middle and low-income families.  They already have less income than they had this time last year.  They are faced with the doubling of the income and health levies.  At the same time, they have witnessed mortgage interest relief being whittled away.  The early childhood supplement was of great importance for many families as they planned their annual budgets.  Such families have been left with an unfair burden on their shoulders.  The provision of affordable and accessible child care is a huge issue on the doorsteps.  Those of us who have been canvassing with local election candidates over recent weeks have encountered this issue frequently.  We are no wiser about the operation of this latest scheme now than we were when the Government introduced it two months ago.  I believe that the Government has not put any thought into the practical operation and application of the scheme.  Under the current proposals, the scheme will be subject to eight guidelines.  If a child is to be allowed to avail of the scheme, he or she must be between three years and three months and four years and six months on 1 September of the relevant year.  The Minister has failed to take the enrolment policies of many primary schools into account.  Many primary schools throughout the country do not accept children until they are five years of age.

  This scheme does not seem to take account of children with developmental problems.  I recently spoke to one of the parents of a young boy who needs speech therapy.  He is in a child care facility at present, but he will not be able to go to school until he is five years of age.  His mother is finding it difficult to pay the bills.  She is already worried about how she will cope from January of next year.  I am delighted to see that the Minister of State with responsibility for children is present in the House.  I suggest that he should intervene in cases of this nature to make exceptions to the scheme’s strict guidelines.  The implementation of such guidelines will put children with developmental problems at a disadvantage.  This issue must be addressed. Serious questions also arise about whether thousands of parents will be able to avail of the scheme.  There was no discussion with the providers before the Government announced this scheme under which the Government will have to pay the schools a maximum of €64.50 to cover three hours of pre-school education for five days a week.  Many providers have pointed out that the capitalisation, which covers 38 weeks, will not cover the day-to-day running costs, whether wages, water charges, waste disposal charges or equipment.  There are many areas where rent is high.  Many of the providers will find it difficult to sustain their businesses yet we can ill afford to lose more jobs at this difficult time.

  The Minister of State must address the concerns of the providers otherwise many families will find that they have no places to send their children for pre-school education.  I commend the many community groups around the country that have provided fantastic facilities in their parishes.  Their commitment to child care is second to none.  In my parish in Lissycasey a crèche and after school learning centre are being built and will be open next September.  The Minister of State was in Clare recently where he visited some of the facilities.  My neighbouring parish of Kildysart has spent €1.5 million in developing a centre.  That will open on 25 June and will provide excellent child care facilities from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  There are other centres throughout the county in Ruan, Ennistymon, Flagmount and Miltown Malbay providing these services.  They must fundraise.  I commend the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for providing grants for these centres.  I could spend more time on this subject.  Fine Gael brought this motion forward because of the public uncertainty and the Government must clarify the situation.