Parents are losing out on subsidies as creches fail to sign up

Creches too busy to do all the paperwork required for subsidy schemes

 

Parents are losing out on childcare subsidies if the creche they are using is not among the 86 per cent of providers who have signed up for the More Affordable Childcare Scheme that was introduced last September.

By the middle of May, 36,300 children were registered for the universal subsidy of up to €1,040 a year and lower income parents of a further 39,737 children were receiving larger, means-tested reductions in their childcare costs, according to figures obtained from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

The burden of administering the registration of parents for this interim scheme has fallen on childcare providers, all of whom must be registered with Tusla, because the means for parents to do it themselves will not be ready until at least next year. A new IT system for a “parents’ portal”, linking into Revenue and Social Protection information, has to be developed, with legislative changes also required to enable its operation.

Marie is one parent who feels she and her husband are “caught in limbo, where we would love to avail of the scheme but as our creche is not participating we have no other avenue to access the scheme”. She asks that her real name not be used because she does not want to risk damaging their relationship with the creche, which is one of at least two in the Stillorgan area of south Dublin that decided not to sign up.

“As a young family with a new mortgage, that money would have had an impact on our lives,” she says. “If the Government deemed it necessary for the creches to handle the administration, then they should have consulted with them first or they should have made it mandatory so families couldn’t be excluded.”

In the run-up to last September’s introduction of the scheme, Marie’s sympathy was wholly with the creche which explained to parents that their already overworked, underpaid staff simply didn’t have time for the paperwork involved. But now that she knows the majority of full day-care centres have come on board, she is disappointed that theirs is still refusing.

Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone.
Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone.

However, while paying €20 less a week for childcare would have made things a little easier, “it is not enough to warrant removing our daughter from the creche that she loves”, she explains. “Her happiness is worth more to us than a €20 subsidy, so instead we chose to continue to tighten our belts.”

Marie also points out that some other creches in the area took the same stance, “therefore even if we wanted to move her there were not many options”.

No regrets

Nine months on, two operators in the area that didn’t sign up say they have no regrets and that they haven’t lost any children as a result.

“The information was very masked and I said to myself I really don’t know what I am signing up for,” explains one. “I don’t want to put myself into a contract I can’t keep up with.

“I won’t lie, I had some unhappy parents,” she continues. But they understood her situation. “I had nobody who left me or threatened to leave me.”

The Government is destroying the creche industry’

Another operator says they simply do not have the time to do all the paperwork that comes with the scheme. Staff are there from 7.30am to 6pm five days a week as it is.

While she is willing to look at the Affordable Childcare Scheme when it is ready to be implemented via a parents’ portal, she is still not sure they will sign up for it.

“The Government is destroying the creche industry, putting their rules and regulations on the staffing – the amount and upgrading of qualifications.” Long-serving staff are leaving, she says, because of low pay, long hours and requirements for extra training.

“The Government needs to back off and leave us alone and let us do our thing or recognise what we’re doing and start introducing the pay scale.”

When it’s pointed out that her centre is running the Government-funded ECCE programme, she admits “we are caught between a rock and a hard place” but “that’s tedious enough without adding the whole creche to it”.

Considerable savings

Lakelands Childcare is one of the centres in Stillorgan that has signed up to the More Affordable Childcare Scheme. Co-owner Ceinwen Walsh says the extra work involved has been a burden but it does mean considerable savings for parents if they are on social welfare.

“I was able to knock almost €600 off one of our parent’s [monthy] fees,” she remarks. “It is wonderful for parents and they need it and I champion it but there is no help for us, the providers, to pay for the staff that we need.”

Early Childhood Ireland has been closely monitoring the uptake of the scheme. “It is pretty obvious to us that it has continuously grown over the course of the year,” says chief executive Teresa Heeney.

However, the big issue is not the 14 per cent of centre-based childcare providers who are holding out against it but rather, she argues, how the country’s estimated 35,200 childminders are going to be incorporated into the scheme.

Parents are eligible for subsidies only if they are using childcare providers registered with Tusla, yet unless childminders are looking after four or more children, they are not able to register. Only about 120 are registered.

“We cannot tolerate a situation where they are part of the scheme but are not inspected and registered with Tusla,” says Heeney. “In Scotland they can manage to inspect every childminder; I think we can do the same.”

Nobody is saying that the regulations need to be the same as centre-based regulations, she adds. “They have to be appropriate and inspected. We should at least aspire to that.”

Minimum standards

Last March, a report by the Working Group on Supports and Reforms for the Childminder sector proposed the development of minimum regulatory standards for childminding services.

Childminding Ireland chief executive Bernadette Orbinski Burke, who chaired that working group, says its research indicated that nearly 50 per cent of families using childminders have a net income below €50,000 and so could be eligible for means-tested support from the Affordable Childcare Scheme, above and beyond the universal subsidy.

There is a real fear among childminders of over-regulation and they need support, she says. However, the majority of Childminding Ireland members have indicated that they are open to some form of registration, regardless of how many children are being minded.

The two main issues in wanting regulation for childminders is firstly safeguarding children and having a system of quality assurance for parents. “The other is the economic factor,” Orbinski Burke adds. “It is completely unfair that parents who would be entitled to State funding, there is no system for them to attain it.”

Seas Suas, which advocates on behalf of childcare and early education providers, says it is aware that some have decided it is not feasible to register for the More Affordable Childcare Scheme.

“Providers have told us that administering the MACS and the various other State schemes can take up to several hours a day for one staff member, depending on the number of children eligible at their centre,” says a spokeswoman. “While parents impacted are, naturally, disappointed many also appreciate that providers are stretched by the level of work required to administer this scheme without adequate State supports.”

Missing out

Meanwhile, Marie calculates that because their creche hasn’t signed up for the scheme, she and her husband will have missed out on more than €2,000 in subsidies before their daughter starts the ECCE programme.

“Between paying a mortgage and paying creche fees, which is effectively a second mortgage, the ability to make any kind of savings would have been eagerly welcomed by us.”

While they are missing out on the scheme because their creche refused to take part, some others who did sign up “increased their prices so those parents are also not benefiting from the scheme either”, she says, summing it up as “a well-intended but ill-conceived idea”.

For more information, see affordablechildcare.ie, which includes a list of all childcare services participating in the scheme under the parent FAQ section.

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