The failure of so many childcare providers to sign up for the new scheme underlines how much work remains to be done, writes Elaine Loughlin.
Overhauling one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world was never going to be child’s play.
It comes as no surprise then, that efforts to introduce an affordable childcare scheme have been hampered by setbacks, criticisms, legislative difficulties, and delays which mean that the initial plan announced as part of last October’s budget is now only being partially introduced this year.
On entering office, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone was adamant that the crippling childcare bills, which can often count as a second mortgage for the so-called “squeezed middle”, had to be addressed. There is no doubt that she has been committed to this cause.
But now, with her supports due to be rolled out later this week, it appears that many of the country’s creches and approved childcare providers have failed to sign up to the more affordable childcare scheme.
It has been revealed that just 2,626 of the 4,484 early years services registered with Tusla have signed up to the scheme due to begin on September 1.
But the teething problems of Ms Zappone’s ambitious plan to reduce the financial burden of childcare began long before the roll-out date.
A survey published before last year’s budget revealed that the average cost of childcare here is 35% of household income, compared to 10%-13% in Europe/OECD and the minister was adamant that this be reduced.
In the lead-up to Budget 2017, the affordable childcare proposals became the centre of a squabble between the independent minister and Fine Gael.
While Ms Zappone wanted the means-tested element of the scheme to focus more on the lowest earners, Fine Gael believed struggling middle-income families should also be included.
Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell said workers earning up to €70,000 should be eligible for the subsidy.
As the budget talks intensified, there were daily media updates on the childcare scheme.
In the end the income threshold balancing scales settled on €47,500.
The Affordable Childcare Scheme announced on budget day last October was to provide support for parents towards the cost of childcare and would be payable for children from six months of age.
It would replace the existing targeted childcare subsidisation schemes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme with both a universal element and further targeted income-based subsidies.
Families who came under the net income threshold of €47,500 for one child were told that a new IT system would be set up and allow parents to simply enter their PPS number to find out how much they were entitled to.
However, as Ms Zappone admitted herself “it was never going to be easy” and introducing the new supports to 70,000 children has been problematic.
In April it was revealed that setting up a website was a lot more complicated than first anticipated as were the legislative changes needed to introduce the supports.
There was anger when it was revealed that around 9,000 families would not receive the income-based payment of up to €48 a month, especially when Ms Zappone “couldn’t exactly say” when the website would be up and running, but conceded that it wouldn’t be in place before 2018.
Ms Zappone said: “We are not quite there yet because we weren’t able to complete the building of one of the most complex IT systems going.”
She added that there were “lots of issues” in relation to drafting legislation that would address data protection and the sharing of personal information on the online portal which required a PPS number.
And so a stop-gap solution was found. While the universal element will go ahead as promised, the extra top-ups won’t and previous subsidisation supports for low-income families will be temporarily retained to bridge the gap.
These supports will not, however, extend to all those who would have benefited from the new system.
There were also rumblings that the lack of an online system would lead to more paperwork and administration for the childcare providers.
It had been reported that some parents have been told that fees would be going up to allow for the extra workload while for others this cost has been cited as a reason for not entering the scheme in the first place.
Acknowledging the key role of providers, Ms Zappone said she has made €12m available admin work as well as significant increases in capital investment to €12.4m which is supporting 2,688 projects across the country.
“This is only just the beginning. Our work to achieve that continues,” she said last week.
More childcare providers may indeed sign up to the scheme this week before it kicks off, but with such a short lead-in time there will undoubtedly be further growing pains.
For Ms Zappone, the battle for affordable childcare has only just started, and even if this first phase is successful, she still has a fight on her hands to get the additional funding out of Budget 2018.
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