Cause for caution

Childcare capacity issue surfaces following Budget announcement

 

A good idea, involving the introduction of childcare services for needy families, may run into difficulties because of party politics. Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone favours the introduction of Nordic-style subsidised childcare as a means of reducing child poverty and increasing female participation in the workforce. On entering Government, she proposed to concentrate available resources on helping the least well off parents in an initial phase. Her Fine Gael colleagues did not agree. Neither did members of a semi-detached Fianna Fáil. Following discussions, the number of eligible families was increased significantly but there is no guarantee of available places.

This catch-all form of politics, that invariably favours the better off, is standard fare in this society. On this occasion, however, income thresholds have been set for recipients of the most extensive services while universal eligibility has been restricted to the care of very young children. Already, however, centre-based providers have raised capacity issues and are seeking higher capitation fees for their pre-school services.

Slow, methodical, strategic development is anathema to many politicians. Services must emerge full-blown, as if by magic. Remember the free GP service for the over-70s that cost multiples of what was anticipated? Fianna Fáil has now begun to talk about extending financial benefits to stay-at-home parents, while carers not registered with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, have their own demands.

Convincing reasons exist to concentrate resources on low-income families. But Ms Zappone’s proposed gross family income became net income, before a universal subsidy was tacked on. These changes will apply from next September, so there is time to discuss details with service providers. Cause for caution exists. Three years ago, the last government announced the introduction of a second free pre-school year. The scheme had to be postponed because of capacity and staffing concerns and it finally became operational last month. History should not be repeated.

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