Few would deny that money devoted to early childcare and parental support is well spent. Studies by the OECD have found that Irish child-minding costs inhibit participation by mothers in the workforce and contribute to relative child poverty and disadvantage. But successive governments have been reluctant to provide the necessary financial resources to tackle that situation or disturb the view that a mother’s primary place is in the home. Now, as an election approaches, long and short-term political aspirations are being unveiled.
Tanaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton got in first by promising two weeks of paid paternity leave for fathers in the coming Budget. That has been trumped by the recommendations of an expert group established by Minister for Children James Reilly. It has proposed the introduction of a full year's paid leave, shared between both parents. Not only that, an additional free, pre-school year is also under consideration, along with improvement of after-school care services.
This year-long parental leave scheme and an additional pre-school year are just twinkles in the Minister’s eye. They stand no chance of being funded this year. Instead, they are likely to appear in a general election manifesto. Two years ago, the Government decided in principle to fund an additional pre-school year but balked over its cost and the uncertain quality of the care being provided. The notion of couples sharing twelve months of social welfare funded parental leave has not been discussed by Cabinet and could take at least five years to implement. A doubling of existing costs was mentioned. But what the hell, the changes would appeal to some young families.
After years of complaint, the cost of childcare in Ireland remains the highest in the EU. In terms of family disposable income, it is double that of the UK and three times that of France. The Government actually reduced funding for this sector four years ago. Unemployment has since fallen from 15 to 10 per cent and jobs are being created at an impressive rate. If women are to share fully in the economic recovery; long term unemployment tackled and children given a good start in life, the Government will have to shift its focus from short-term tax cuts and public pay restoration to long-term social planning.
Now is the time to provide adequate funding for after-school care services and for a second, free pre-school year. The cost of providing childcare and the need for rigorous oversight is so great that progress is likely to be slow. That should not inhibit the Government from taking action. As for parents caring equally for children in the home: it is a positive, forward-looking idea. But it fails to recognise the tyranny of day-to-day financial demands. Pie-in-the-sky should remain there.