New National Childcare Scheme: Nine essential points for parents

Scheme starts in October and puts greater administration burden on parents. Be prepared

Some 2,879 Tusla-registered childcare providers had signed an NCS contract up to August 9th

Some 2,879 Tusla-registered childcare providers had signed an NCS contract up to August 9th

 

The big change for parents when the National Childcare Scheme is due to start operating on Tuesday, October 29th, is that they, not their childcare providers, will be the ones who must apply for childcare fee subsidies.

Only families where at least one parent already has a Public Services Card (PSC) will be able to proceed with the online application at that stage. A PSC is not required for paper-based applications by post, but at the time of writing these will not be accepted until after January 1st, 2020.

Postal applications will take longer to process, and may affect the start date of the subsidy.

It has been confirmed to The Irish Times that there will be no backdating. However, it remains to be seen if there will be any change of plans in the wake of the recent Data Protection Commission’s report on the PSC. 

It was always envisaged that parents would be in charge of applications when the Single Affordable Childcare Scheme, as it was called then, was announced in October 2016, as part of Budget 2017. But it has taken three years to develop the technological systems to enable that to happen.

The money will still go to the provider, who will discount parents’ fees according to the hourly subsidy granted. For the last two years it was the providers who had to enter all the parents’ details to get them the subsidy; now they will just have to enter the unique code generated for each family when parents have had their applications approved.

Aspects of the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) – which is available for children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years – have already been phased in under the Affordable Childcare Scheme. The latter went through a phase of being called the More Affordable Childcare Scheme in acknowledgment of “affordable” being a matter of some debate in the context of the high cost of childcare in Ireland.

The universal subsidies of up to €20 a week – depending on hours used but regardless of income – for all families with children under three were introduced in September 2017. Larger targeted subsidies for low-income families already receiving a means-tested social welfare payment also started then.

Families who have been missing out so far on more help with their childcare payments are those whose earnings are too high to qualify for social welfare support but whose “reckonable” income (see below) is less than €60,000 a year. Those eligible for income-assessed subsidies will also be able to use them for after-school care costs after a registration system was introduced earlier this year for providers of school-age care.

Childminders

A childcare provider must be registered with the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, if a parent is to benefit from the NCS, which rules out financial relief for parents using most childminders, nannies, relatives or, indeed, staying at home to look after their children themselves. The provider must also have signed an NCS contract.

The new scheme is intended to replace all the other existing childcare schemes except for the two free years of pre-school which will continue to run separately under the Early Childhood Care and Education programme (ECCE).

However, there is grave concern, among community creches in particular, that some low-income, vulnerable families will actually be worse off under the new scheme.

This has been acknowledged by the Department of Children and Minister Katherine Zappone, and the existing programmes will continue to run in parallel with the NCS – “until at least the end of August 2020”, according to the department. However, t that will only apply to those who are already on them before the start of the NCS as they won’t be open to new children after that.

“Anomalies may exist whereby a very small cohort may not be better off under the National Childcare Scheme than they currently are,” according to a statement from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) in response to queries from The Irish Times. 

“The NCS is fairer and more far-reaching than many of the current schemes,” it continues, in indicating how, in a number of scenarios, parents in the current system would benefit by switching.

The one exception in the supplied figures is where a maximum Community Childcare Subvention Plus (CSSP) payment for a school-age child is €80 a week part-time, whereas the maximum subsidy for that child under the NCS is €63.75 a week.

Vulnerable families

Childcare providers working with vulnerable families are also very concerned about how the NCS will allow a maximum of only 15 subsidised hours a week if there is one parent who is not working, studying or training because, during term-time, those hours will be accounted for by attendance at pre-school or school.

And during holiday time childcare centres may not have the spare capacity to offer them those 15 hours as their places will be filled by children attending the rest of the year.

The NCS will turn targeted, child-centred schemes into a work-activation programme, argues Mick Kenny, manager of Urlingford Community Childcare Centre in Co Kilkenny. Unemployed parents will not be able to afford to pay for extra hours so children will lose out on the hot meals and homework support that they currently benefit from in community centres. He believes the vast majority of children attending his centre will be better off on the existing schemes for the transition year, and he hopes that changes will have been made before that finishes.

The department says it is looking at any “enhancements” to the NCS which might be required “to address unusual or anomalous cases, where this is the right thing to do to protect and benefit lower-income parents”.  

It also points out that there are specific arrangements for vulnerable children and families to be sponsored by certain statutory bodies in order to avail of free or additional childcare. Those bodies are Tusla, the HSE, the Departments of Education and of Justice and local authorities.

Although the NCS is designed to simplify financial support for parents, they do need to inform themselves if they are to be ready.

Subsidies will start to flow in November, and while there will be no backdating those currently receiving a childcare support payment will continue to receive that until their NCS application is completed and approved.

Here is a guide to nine essential points for parents

1. Your childcare provider must be registered with Tusla and also have signed a National Childcare Scheme contract.

Some 2,879 Tusla-registered childcare providers had signed an NCS contract up to August 9th, according to figures supplied by the DCYA. It equates that to 88 per cent of estimated relevant providers, and says that from September parents will be able to access a full list of Tusla-registered childcare providers who have signed a NCS contract. Your local City or County Childcare Committee should also have that information.

While providers are not obliged to sign an NCS contract, if they don’t they are likely to come under pressure to do so by parents who would not be able to avail of the subsidies. The DCYA has also confirmed that without a contract providers will not be eligible for funding associated with the scheme.

Integration of childminders into the registration system is still a work in progress, and very few of the country’s estimated 35,000-plus childminders are registered with Tusla, as they are only obliged, and indeed able, to do so if minding four or more children.

2. You must have a Public Services Card to be able to apply in October

A verified myGov.ie account is needed to make an online NCS application and you can’t have a verified account until you have a Public Services Card (PSC). According to the Office of Government Information Office, 80 per cent of the adult population have a card.

As stated above you don’t need a PSC to apply through the post for childcare subsidies, but paper-based applications are not due to be handled until after January 1st next.

3. Various factors, including child’s age, family income and educational stage will determine the level of subsidy.

A subsidy calculator will be available for parents making an online application to work out what their entitlement might be when the scheme launches in October. Those already on a support programme can then decide whether to stick with that for the time being or apply for a NCS subsidy.

The universal subsidy, regardless of parents’ income, for all children under three, or not yet qualified for ECCE, will continue to reduce creche fees by just 50 cent an hour up to a maximum of 40 hours per week. Once your family’s “reckonable” income is under €60,000 all sorts of other permutations and sliding scales come into play for an income-assessed subsidy, which is available for children aged between 24 weeks and 15 years.

Here are two examples of hourly subsidy rates, ie the amount your provider will deduct from what they charge per hour.

Firstly, the maximum rates payable, which are available for all families whose reckonable income is under €26,000: if your child is aged 0-1, it’s €5.10; age 1-3, €4.35; over 3 and not yet in school €3.95. and for school-age care it’s €3.75.

Secondly, for a family where the reckonable income is €47,500,if your child is aged 0-1 it’s €2.19; age 1-3 €1.92; over 3 and not yet in school €1.45, and for school-age care it’s €1.38.

4. Your “reckonable” income may be lower than you think.

You start with your household net income and can then make further deductions including a multiple child discount, which is €4,300 for families with two children under 15 or €8,600 for families with three or more children under 15. Other deductions include pension contributions, maintenance payments for another child or former spouse, and various social protection payments.

5. The hours of childcare you’re entitled to include time the child spends at pre-school or school, which is where “wrap around” comes in.

For example, take the parents of a child in junior infants who are both working and are entitled to 40 hours’ subsidised childcare a week. During term time, ie 36 weeks of the year, they will be left with up to 17 subsidised hours a week they can use for after-school care, whereas during school holidays their 40 subsidised hours can all be used at a childcare centre. 

6. Online and telephone support is available now to answer your questions on eligibility, level of subsidies etc.

See the website ncs.gov.ie for a guide and extensive list of Parents’ FAQs. You can also phone the Parent Support Centre on 01 906 8530, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, for further information. This helpline, operated by Pobal, has been running since June 24th, and had received almost 600 calls by August 9th, according to a spokeswoman. The majority were in relation to how and when to apply for the NCS. The opening hours for the support centre will be extended in October to deal with the expected increase in inquiries.

Local and County Childcare Committees are also all available to provide support and advice. See myccc.ie

7. Your provider has to register your approved application.

When parents complete their NCS application they will be given a unique CHICK code to give to their provider, who will enter it, along with the child’s name and date of birth, to register you under the scheme. The number of hours subsidised will be determined by what you need but also what your childcare centre can provide you.

After your provider has registered the hours you will receive a notification asking you to confirm the details are correct. Once that is done the subsidy will go to the provider on your behalf.

8. There is no guarantee your subsidy won’t be at least partly absorbed by a fee rise.

The DCYA acknowledges that childcare services “operate within a market model” and that charges are set individually. However, the department does track prices and reports that data indicates “fees have risen by approximately 8 per cent over a six-year period”.

It will also be appointing an expert group to lead the development of a new childcare funding model. “A key priority for the expert group will be to make recommendations for a mechanism to control fee rates for different types of provision for Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare,” it says, although adding that this is expected to take a number of years to complete.

If providers are going to put up their fees, September, being the start of the academic year, is the time they are likely to do it, says Frances Byrne, director of advocacy and policy with Early Childhood Ireland. It advises creche owners to be transparent with parents by giving plenty of notice about any fee rise and to explain why it is necessary. And parents should not be afraid to ask providers about it.

9. Investment in childcare is still way behind recommended levels

Although some working parents should get increased subsidies from November, the NCS “can’t be seen as the be all and end all” to investment in childcare, as Byrne puts it. Essentially, the State is still only investing about 0.2 per cent of GDP into the area, when Unicef recommends 1 per cent. The historic lack of investment has resulted not only in high costs to parents but also low pay for staff.

While Zappone describes the NCS as “the first ever statutory entitlement to financial support for childcare”, critics would argue that the giving of something to everyone (for a particular kind of childcare) leaves less for those who need it most. But at least there is now a more solid structure through which to channel increased State funding – if the political will is there. 

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