Frances Fitzgerald links creche failures to children allowance

Minister says Ireland lags behind many developed countries when it came to the early-years sector

The breach of childcare standards was the legacy of providing direct cash payments instead of investing in services, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald told the Seanad in a debate on the fallout from the RTÉ Prime Time programme.

“That is the reality of the legacy,’’ she added. “We need to discuss the implications of that and where we go from here.’’

Ms Fitzgerald said the legacy meant Ireland lagged behind many other developed countries when it came to the early-years sector and had much ground to make up. There was a need to improve quality standards and workforce capacity.

She said that up to the last decade, Ireland’s preschool sector was almost non-existent and, during the late 1990s, Ireland still had one of the lowest female workforce participation rates in the developed world and one of the highest unemployment rates. The Celtic Tiger years saw a scramble to put services in place in response to demand, but a wholly inadequate approach to quality and sustainability.

“On Tuesday night we saw elements of that legacy starkly exposed,’’ she added.

They saw what happened when there was a failure to invest in building an effective system and culture of quality-focused, child-centred service provision and when there was no investment in robust oversight and inspection.

Terry Leyden (FF) said the Minister must feel somewhat embarrassed that she was relying on Prime Time to find out what was happening in creches.

“If I was the Minister, I would be appalled by what was exposed and shocked that lack of action by the Department and the HSE and inspections allowed this to happen,’’ he added.

Mr Leyden said the way to resolve the issue would be to have CCTV systems in every creche.

Imelda Henry (FG) said she was a parent who used creche facilities in the past.

“It is important that the staff employed in creches have the necessary qualifications to work in them, but, most important, parents have an obligation, when they hand over their children, to ask questions and know what is going on,’’ Ms Henry added.

She recalled taking the Minister to a fantastic creche in Sligo last year, but she had been told yesterday that no parent had ever asked for an inspection report. She found that worrying.

Marie Moloney (Lab) said she had heard a radio report suggesting that those operating under the free preschool year scheme did not need a qualification to mind children. That was a matter that needed to be addressed immediately.

She said that she had recently visited a children’s sunshine home where, every 15 minutes, a staff member swiped a card at the head of a child’s bed to show he or she was inspected during the night.

Michael O'Regan

Michael O'Regan

Michael O’Regan is a former parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times