A number of advocacy groups for lone parents have expressed concerns that the National Childcare Scheme will adversely affect some families and will force parents out of work and/or education.  SPARK has been highlighting this issue and calling for the CCS and CETS Schemes to be continued.  The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and An Cosán agreed that there are concerns that childcare will become unaffordable for some of the lowest income and most vulnerable families when they presented in Leinster House recently.  With the National Childcare Scheme due to be rolled out from October 2019 Deputy Broughan has been raising Parliamentary Questions with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone.

A reply this week from Minister Zappone states that she has “formally appointed Pobal as Scheme Administrator under section 3 of the Act.  This has enabled Pobal to open a Parent Phoneline.  The phoneline is now available to assist parents or guardians with any queries on the new National Childcare Scheme”.  The reply states that more than 2,300 providers have signed-up to the new scheme.  There is to be training for providers and an information campaign in September and October but Minister Zappone admits in the reply that “the development of the Scheme is highly complex and has thrown up challenges.  This would be expected with a scheme of this size which will benefit so many families across Ireland.”

The reply states “We are designing a highly innovative supporting IT system for the Scheme so that we have the option of a user-friendly, paperless, automated assessment process for parents.  While the main IT system to deal with online applications is largely built, work is continuing on the supporting structures to deal with postal applications. With this in mind the experts overseeing development of the Scheme have recommended a phased launch approach. In accordance with the expert advice, we are working towards delivery online, on time, in October.  The paper based system will be available in January for those who do not wish to apply online. I believe that this is the best way to proceed, so that the maximum number of parents can benefit from the new scheme at the earliest possible date.”

The reply further states:

“The National Childcare Scheme will greatly increase the number of families who can access financial support. The Scheme removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements of the existing support programmes, whereby a parent must be in receipt of certain Social Protection payments or a Medical Card in order to receive targeted supports. In this way, it aims to combat the poverty traps which may exist within the existing schemes, and to incentivise work and training or education for those parents who can engage in same.

Many parents will see an increase to the level of subsidy they currently receive. For example, a family with a child aged two in full-time care (40 hours) and currently benefiting from the maximum subsidy of €145 per week under CCS Band A, would see their subsidy increase to €174 per week, an additional subsidisation of €1,500 per annum.

I have also worked to poverty-proof the Scheme by ensuring that families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy rates under the Scheme. Indeed, international reports have stated that the Scheme will significantly address affordability for lower income families, with analysis showing that Ireland will, for example, change from being the most expensive country in the OECD for childcare for lone parents, to 11th position.

Finally, arrangements are also in place to ensure that no one loses out in the initial transition to the new Scheme.  Once the National Childcare Scheme launches, families can choose to switch over to the new Scheme or can continue to access their current targeted supports (i.e. effectively remain on their current payment) until the end of August 2020. My Department has committed to a review of the scheme one year after its commencement, and again at three years, but we will be closely monitoring the scheme and its impact on families from day one”.

Deputy Broughan says “When former Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, brought in the draconian changes to the One Parent Family Payment in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012, which were fully implemented by July 2015, it was SPARK who were the loudest opponents, knowing that these changes would most adversely affect working lone parents. An ESRI Report last year, Lone-Parent Incomes and Work Incentives in July 2018, confirmed what SPARK had been saying for years.  Now SPARK are telling us that lone parents could lose around €385 per month and be forced out of work.  Representatives from An Cosán, the organisation set up by Minister Zappone and her late wife, have also expressed strong concerns that community childcare creches and workers will be most impacted by these changes.  We need watertight assurances that lone parents and families with very low incomes will not be forced out of work or education when these changes are brought in.”