Give Me a Crash Course In: affordable childcare

Parents of the estimated 30 per cent of children who are cared for by childminders will be very annoyed to lose out

Will the new "affordable childcare" package announced in this week's budget do what it promises?

Well that’s debatable because currently parents pay more for childcare here than almost anywhere else in the world. For many, it will make just a small dent in the bill. But this Budget 2017 initiative from the Minister for Children, Katharine Zappone, is certainly a start.

How much will I get towards paying my childminder?

Actually the State is going to pay the childcare provider, not the parent. But the bad news is that unless your childminder is registered with Tusla – currently just 1 per cent are – this scheme won’t apply. Only registered providers, primarily childcare centres, which have to be approved by Tusla, are covered.

My neighbours put their kids in a creche, what are they going to get?

It all depends on income, ages of the children and number of hours used. There will be targeted subsidies for households with a net income below €47,500 and with one child aged between six months and 15 years who is in childcare or after-school care. (That threshold rises to €51,300 for two children and €55,100 for three.) The subsidies paid will increase on a sliding scale as income decreases. The maximum amount, approximately €8,000 a year if using 40 hours’ childcare a week, will be paid for families with a net income of less than €22,700 a year.

Didn’t I hear talk of a “universal” subsidy?

Yes that will be for all households earning more than the thresholds mentioned above. But only for children aged six months to three years, after which they can take up a free pre-school place. As with the targeted scheme, these subsidies will be pro-rata, based on a maximum of €80 a month if using 40 hours a week.

If more parents start using creches, will there be enough places?

That’s an issue of contention. Early Childhood Ireland, which has 3,500 members providing centre-based care, has said it is difficult to see how the sector would cope with extra demand. The Department has predicted that 79,000 children will benefit when the scheme starts next September, rising to 90,000 by 2018.

But the legacy of the State’s reluctance to invest sufficiently in early childhood care and education is an area of employment with low pay and poor working conditions that struggles to attract staff.

Aren’t they going to want to raise their prices then?

Indeed, it is feared that providers will start budgeting the subsidy into their fees. Although the Government will be channelling €466 million into early years/childcare next year, a 35 per cent increase on 2016, it has no plan to control prices, saying such a move “would be a major intrusion in the market”.

I bet stay-at-home parents aren’t happy with this

Most probably aren’t pleased; they are already one income down, out of choice or circumstance. Although it may well bring relief to some who could not afford to work outside the home due to childcare costs.

Parents of the estimated 30 per cent of children who are cared for by childminders will be very annoyed to lose out – unless a mass signing-up to Tusla takes place. Those who have relatives, such as grandparents, minding their children are likely to be peeved too.

Isn’t it the whole package discriminatory?

Yes it is – but that could be viewed as good or bad. For instance, few would argue against the way it is weighted towards low-income families.

Undoubtedly the State has an interest in enabling more women to remain in work. It also wants to tie payments in to providers who have to account for their standards – hence the Tusla requirement.

But it can also be argued that other families, with different preferences and circumstances, also need more support.

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