Budget 2017: Zappone defends new early childcare scheme

New affordable childcare plan will be provided from September, 2017

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has defended the introduction of a new affordable childcare scheme for children between six months and 15 years, amidst criticism it discriminates against stay-at-home parents.

The measure, arguably the centrepiece of the Budget 2017, will see all existing subsidised schemes – excluding the free pre-school years – replaced with a single system of targeted and universal payments to help with the cost of childcare.

The first, targeted subsidy will be means-tested and paid in respect of children aged between six months and 15 years. The highest amounts – about €8,000 a year – will available to parents on the lowest incomes whose child is in up to 40 hours of childcare per week. It will be paid directly to the childcare provider which must be registered with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

The cut-off point for eligibility will be a net household income of €47,500, said the Minister, though she said she hoped to increase this in coming budgets.

Under the scheme, the parents’ marital status will have no effect on how net household income is calculated.

From September 2017, there will also be a universal subsidy payable to parents of children aged six months to three years, of up to €80 per month – depending on how many hours the child is in childcare.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland hailed the measures as a “breakthrough” and a “significant change of direction” with the “potential to have a huge positive impact on women’s equality”.

‘Discriminatory’

However, the Stay-At-Home Parents Association branded the moves “discriminatory” against people who want to mind their own children at home. “Stay-at-home parents are going to become an endangered species,” it said.

Asked at a press briefing on Tuesday night if she was concerned about possible adverse reaction to the measures, the Minister said: “No, I am not nervous about that.”

She insisted the State supported parents who chose to stay at home, including through the home-care tax credit which has been increased to €1,100 a year. She said the earnings threshold to qualify for this tax credit may be increased in future budgets.

“There are many parents who are staying at home because the costs of childcare are prohibitive.

“If the State weren’t supporting stay-at-home parents in any way I would be concerned . . . but the investment we are working on is being encouraged by Europe,” said Ms Zappone.

“We have received country-specific recommendations for a number of years that our childcare costs are too high. We need to reduce them in order to reduce child poverty and increase female participation in the labour force. Those are the policies we are pursuing.”

She said there would be an expected increase of 23,000 children entering the childcare system under the targeted supports and some 25,000 extra when the universal support is introduced next September. Her department was making preparations to ensure there was capacity in the system for them, she added.

Early Childhood Ireland, while welcoming some aspects of the package, said it was “of significant disappointment”that the capitation levels for the free preschool scheme have still not increased. It said this was impacting on the sector’s ability to attract and retain quality staff.

The group had sought a €10 increase in the capitation rate.

Ms Zappone said she was “extremely concerned” about low wages in the sector.