For the first time, parents in the “squeezed middle” can look forward to getting a little help from the State to pay for centre-based childcare this autumn. And some low-income families who are already receiving a subsidy will see it increased by up to 50 per cent.
Overall for parents, however, there is bad news as well as good news about the €19 million in extra childcare supports coming down the track. Here are 10 things you need to know:
1. The More Affordable Childcare scheme starts on September 1st
Note that the name has been changed from the Single Affordable Childcare Scheme that was announced for Budget 2017 last November by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone. That is because not all of it can be implemented yet. So within the childcare sector this phase is simply being referred to as "the September measures".
By last February, Zappone’s department was acknowledging that there wasn’t a hope of getting the new IT system necessary for the whole scheme up and running by September. There are also data protection issues to be legislated for around the sharing of information if parents are going to be, as promised, able to enter their PPS numbers into a “parents’ portal” to find out what their entitlements to subsidies are.
2. Any parent with a child aged from six months to three years old in a childcare setting that is registered with Tusla will get some amount of subsidy, regardless of income
An estimated 33,000 families will benefit from the new universal subsidy for children from six months up to the age that they can start the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme, so it could be until they are a little older than three.
There are now three yearly intakes for ECCE – September 1st, January 1st and April 1st. So a child turning three in, say, October, would continue to receive the subsidy until January 1st.
The maximum universal pay-out is €20 a week, or € 1,040 a year, for full-time childcare (over five hours a day). It reduces pro rata for less time.
For example, for a child attending childcare three days a week, for more than five hours each time, the subsidy will be €12 (€4 a day). For a child in “sessional” care (defined as 2.16 to 3.30 hours), it will be €7 a week or €1.40 a day.
This will be paid to the provider, who should then discount the parents’ bill by the corresponding amount.
3. The condition that the provider is “registered with Tusla” will prevent many parents qualifying for a subsidy, even though they are paying for childcare
Some 4,200 childcare providers are entitled to sign up parents for this scheme. These are all early childhood centres and a small number of childminders – only those looking after four or more children are required to register with Tusla.
Still, it is not as if any of the other up to 20,000 childminders could have voluntarily signed up with Tusla after the scheme was announced. The regulations and standards required were drawn up with centre-based childcare in mind and are not applicable to somebody who minds two or three children in their own home – no matter how excellent their care is.
The chief executive of Childminding Ireland, Bernadette Orbinski Burke, is chairing a working group, which will make recommendations to the department on integrating childminders into the registered system.
That will probably mean devising a new set of standards tailored to childminders, which, realistically, means it could be two years or so before parents can hope to be in a position to avail of these subsidies.
4. Childcare providers will be signing up parents for the subsidies, both the universal and others targeted at low-income parents
This is not what was envisaged when the scheme was first announced. The failure to have a parents’ portal developed in time means providers will be using the computer system currently used for ECCE, known as PIP (Programme Implementation Programme), in filing parental details for applications for the new subsidies.
Recognising this administration, in June the Minister announced an extra €3.5 million for “non-contact time” for providers. This is in addition to the €14.5 million for non-contact time introduced in Budget 2017.
Processing the universal payments is relatively straightforward as the question of income does not come into it. Only the name, PPS numbers and dates of birth of parent and child have to be supplied. But it is trickier when it comes to who is entitled to what for the targeted payments.
5. Only parents already on some sort of means-tested State support payment can apply for the increased childcare subsidies that are targeted at low-income families, as opposed to the universal ones
Parents receiving a social welfare support, such as a medial card, one-parent family payment, family income supplement, education allowance or domiciliary care allowance, to name just a few, should check the criteria for varying rates of subsidy on the affordablechildcare.ie website.
There are four “bands” (A, AJ, B and D), with different levels of subsidies applying to each. The maximum subvention, for those in band A using at least five hours’ childcare a day, five days a week, is €145 a week.
There are an estimated 9,000 families whose earnings are too high to qualify for a social welfare support but who were supposed to be covered by the Single Affordable Childcare Scheme on grounds of income.
It was designed to include households with a net income of up to €47,500 (about €60,000 gross). However, without the new IT system there is currently no way of verifying applications from such families. So they will have to go without until that is sorted.
According to a Department source: “The reason we can’t give that higher level of support across the board is because we don’t have the ability to assess somebody’s income currently. If they have got, say, a medical card, effectively somebody else has done that assessment for us.”
6. Parents who believe they are entitled to targeted support have to provide proof of their welfare payments to providers for the application
This is where it gets more complicated and potentially more uncomfortable for childcare providers.
They need to be well-enough informed on all the new permutations to answer parents’ questions and to process the applications.
By applying for the subsidies on parents’ behalf, providers will effectively be privy to the income levels in the households of children in their care.
7. Parents should inform themselves
Although they will be relying on childcare providers to process the applications, parents should research their entitlements.
There is the aforementioned website affordablechildcare.ie, where parents who need further clarification are advised to check with their local county childcare committee.
Fingal County Childcare Committee, one of 33, confirms it has been busy fielding calls, particularly about the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) scheme, which is for parents receiving some sort of benefit.
The maximum subsidy is currently €95 a week, which will increase to €145 from September 1st.
Up to now, a big issue in the Fingal area is the lack of centres in the CCS scheme – it is only since Budget 2017 that private providers have been able to operate it.
So here, and elsewhere in the country, parents who believe they are covered by this, or entitled to the universal subsidy, need to check that the centre they send their child to is signing up for the CCS Plus contract from September.
8. There is nothing to stop providers raising fees to absorb some or all of the parents’ subsidy entitlements
Both the department and Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), which represents 3,500 early childhood settings, concede that this is a matter of wait and see.
"We have this dreadful situation in Ireland where parents are tied to the pin of their collar, and we have one of the most underpaid [early years] workforces," says Frances Byrne, ECI's director of policy and advocacy.
“It is a real dilemma, and public investment is really important.”
State investment in childcare has been the “missing piece,” Byrne adds. At 0.3 per cent of GDP, Irish investment in childcare falls well short of the 0.8 per cent average investment across the OECD countries .
“So we have a long way to go.”
Some providers who did not put up fees during the recession are struggling to break even and probably feel they are entitled to review prices this September. But neither the Government nor parents want to see the subsidy effectively taken away from them by the provider.
9. Parents are best placed to police childcare prices
Early years centres are required to be transparent about what they charge and provide public notice of their fees. So parents need to ensure their subsidies are applied for and then deducted from those fees.
The official line from the department is that it will “monitor the situation,” but it hopes parents will exercise their power as consumers to get the discounts. However, it has to be acknowledged that the standard advice of “shop around” is easier said than done with childcare, which depends so much on location, relationships and desired continuity of care.
10. Expect application angst in September
With a relatively short lead-in time to the implementation of the More Affordable Childcare scheme, coinciding with the summer lull, some confusion and teething problems are to be expected.
The department has asked Pobal, which processes the applications for the State, to “scale up” its workforce in this area for September. Turnaround on approval for universal subsidies is expected to be very quick; it is understood the aim is to have applications for targeted subventions approved within providers’ five-week payment period.
PANEL: Some may lose out on more affordable childcare ‘due to pride’
Creative Kids & Co is doing its best to ensure that parents there know what their entitlements to childcare subsidies will be come September. Located in the Assumption Primary School in Dublin's Walkinstown, the centre is close to two hospitals and has a diverse clientele, both socially and culturally – 31 nationalities are represented among the some 170 children enrolled there.
“We have children of doctors, of architects, Traveller children – we tick every box on the diversity scale,” says manager Valerie Gaynor. “We have homeless families, a high level of one-parent families, and a lot of families where English is not the first language.”
So spreading the word about the More Affordable Childcare scheme and getting the information Gaynor will need to process their applications will not be straightforward, particularly for the targeted subsidies.
“We are delighted with the scheme and that parents are getting more money – it’s just hard for us. The problem with it is that it is very administration-heavy. Parents don’t know about this scheme, and the onus will be on me to say, ‘Well, have you any social welfare payment?’, which is a bit embarrassing.”
Gaynor fears that some parents may lose out due to pride, because they are going to have to list their welfare payments for her: “Straight away I am going to know the income of that family.”
But a lot of people won’t care about that, she says, and will just come in and say they are entitled to this.
The new rates of targeted subvention are very good, Gaynor adds, for those in what’s called Band A of criteria. So she hopes this will encourage parents to come forward.
For example, in the case of a child who comes in to the centre at 9am every day for ECCE, the free preschool scheme, which runs until noon, and then stays on until 2pm, the parent currently has to pay €55 a week for those extra hours. Now parents on certain welfare supports will be entitled to a reduction of €22.50 and will only pay €32.50 a week to have their child there from 9am to 2pm every day.
“Up to now it was only ECCE or subvention – you couldn’t do both,” she says. “That’s a big change. It is much better for parents.”
Gaynor is photocopying the relevant page about eligibility criteria from the booklet published by the department for providers, handing it to parents and asking if it applies to them. They have not received anything specific to give parents, which would be useful, she suggests.
Evidence that a parent is receiving a benefit is required for scanning into the payment system. That’s simple enough for holders of medical cards. But in some cases a letter from social welfare, dated within a week or two of the child starting, will be needed.
Bronagh Mooney, who owns Creative Kids & Co, has three other childcare facilities. While Gaynor is based in Walkinstown, she supports the other services, where the administration workload will be significantly increased.
For instance, their creche in Crumlin only takes children up to ECCE age, so it is not on that payment system and doesn’t even have a computer. But from September 1st all of its children will be entitled to at least the universal subsidy.
Gaynor also foresees issues over the length of time it might take for applications to be approved. For subsidies up to now, providers were always told to charge the full rate until approval came through and then apply the lower rates retrospectively. But she believes there will be “uproar” if parents don’t get the discounts they are entitled to from September 1st.
She recalls a six-month delay over one subvention application last year because the paperwork wasn’t right. “We just submit what the parents give us. We are not experts on social welfare, we’re childcare experts.”
Meanwhile, she can’t wait for the parents’ portal to be up and running. “We have been told they will go online, print a voucher with a unique reference number and bring it to us. All we will have to do is input that into the system, print a form and get a parent to sign it. Perfect.”
Just how long before that happens remains to be seen, but September 2018 must be the ultimate deadline now.