Victoria White: Government must hold up its hands and admit childcare system broken

On November 29, Gillian Powell, of The Haven Montessori, Bandon,Co Cork, went on RTÉ’s Liveline radio show and told the nation we needed to get back to the drawing board with our childcare system.

On November 29, Gillian Powell, of The Haven Montessori, Bandon,Co Cork, went on RTÉ’s Liveline radio show and told the nation we needed to get back to the drawing board with our childcare system.

Ms Powell called the situation — which seemed to follow the revelations in RTÉ’s undercover investigation into Dublin’s Hyde & Seek creche chain, Tusla’s urgent demand for creches to reregister, and spiralling insurance costs — “a good crisis point to say, ‘OK, I’m going to take a step back here and ask, What are we doing with the children of this country’?”

She called on Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone to “stop right now and, particularly for children under two years of age, she should give subsidies to parents, so they have a choice”. A choice to stay home with their children, presumably, she meant.

For children of two years and more, Powell wanted a radical plan for investment in childcare.

“It’s a basket case,” said Powell. “It’s like a crocked old Volkswagen going down the road now and it doesn’t even have wheels. Minister Zappone needs to put money into the system and properly fund it.”

There was silence in the studio. No one wanted to ask, “What are we doing with the children of this country?”

The show wasn’t about rethinking the childcare system. It was about the massive difficulties for creche owners, who are facing Tusla’s mounting demands and massive insurance hikes.

Regulations in place since 2016 require a range of different compliances by creches, including fire safety certificates (which can only be furnished by professionals, such as architects or chartered engineers, at a cost of up to €3,000).

Emails alerting creche owners of the need to reregister and fully comply were, apparently, only sent out last August.

While compliance was required by the end of the year, it later transpired that December 12 was the cut-off point to allow Tusla to process the creches before it closed for Christmas on December 23.

Panicked creche owners contacted Liveline and, lo and behold, an extension until June 30 emerged from Tusla, which had, it said, been planned “in the past month”, but not communicated to anyone until the Liveline debate.

Was this about child safety or about box-ticking, if a “hard-and-fast” regulation could so suddenly be relaxed?

Box-ticking, shouted the response. And, one after another, childcare providers voiced the view that Tusla’s sudden flurry of emails, in August, requiring compliance by the end of the year, came on foot of RTÉ’s investigation into the Hyde & Seek creche chain, which aired on July 24.

The chain is currently appealing Tusla’s bid to deregister four of its creches; the case will be heard in February.

And as we know now, another spectre has come to haunt the industry.

Ironshore stopped insuring Irish creches in July, leaving only one insurer — Allianz — in the market.

One creche owner spoke of annual fees tripling from €530 to €1,600. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar briefly hung tough, saying it would be “totally reckless” for the Government to interfere in the insurance market.

Days later, Zappone had in her fist €7m in extra funding for childcare providers. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted this was not to bridge the insurance gap at all but to provide for the welfare of children.

“This is about children and it’s about the childcare sector,” he announced on Newstalk, complaining that this “change”, which Zappone had suddenly made, was being unfairly portrayed as a subsidy for insurance.

That’s exactly what it was.

At roughly €1,500 per childcare provider, it won’t bridge the insurance gap for many, but it is intended to keep providers sweet enough that they will open this week and next.

Most have. But Gillian Powell’s words should be ringing louder in our ears than those new year bells. The childcare system we have is indeed “a basket case”.

Zappone seems utterly sincere in her desire to provide for the childcare needs of working families.

She has, however, gone entirely the wrong way about it, by continuing in the direction signalled by governments since the Department of Justice ran its first Equal Opportunities Childcare Scheme (2000-2006), which was aimed at getting women back to work.

She is attempting to deliver a public service through private providers and it can’t be done.

Ever-increasing requirements are being placed on private businesses, which have been stretched to breaking point and then, suddenly, bailed out, because the State can’t do without them.

Officially, the State only takes responsibility for paying a capitation fee for each child.

This means the Government pays creche workers nothing through their holidays, nor does it make up weekend days, which childcare staff are meant to spend retraining to comply with Government regulations.

MEANWHILE, the Tusla inspectors concentrate on increasingly idiotic issues, such as requiring air conditioning in babies’ sleep rooms and special nappy bins, as one caller to Liveline complained.

They ignore the fact that the three-to-one ratio of babies to adults, though impossible to provide and still make a profit, is inadequate for babies, who need one-to-one attention for their proper development.

There is no requirement in Tusla regulations for each baby or young child to have an appointed ‘key worker’ and a back-up ‘key worker’, though a lack of relationship with their carers is by far the biggest danger to the health of young children in any childcare setting.

Zappone’s National Childcare Scheme is keeping the lights on in the House that Jack Built, the Jack in question being the Equal Opportunities Childcare Scheme and the National Childcare Investment Scheme (2000-2013), which totalled €1bn in funding between them.

The stated aim was the boom-time incentivisation of mothers back into the workplace; unstated aim was supporting the construction industry.

Surprise, surprise, the House that Jack Built has, in some places, poor fire-regulation compliance, but that’s the least of it, really.

The House that Jack Built is quite simply not a suitable environment for babies and toddlers under the age of two — and for many under three.

Yet, although the Government’s own research says under-3s should not be in centre-based childcare for more than 32 hours a week, or they risk “poorer outcomes in language and cognitive development”, our Government will, from September, pay childcare centres to take babies from 24 weeks old for 45 hours a week.

I still can’t get over the fact that the State is doing this to children, though its own research says it’s bad for them.

With the sheet of 2020 almost blank before us, isn’t this the time to ask, along with Gillian Powell of Bandon, “What arewe doing with the children of this country?”

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