Childcare on their minds

When it comes to childcare, Ireland is a half-century behind other developed countries, and the issue is set to be a major one at the next General Election. The political parties are now vying with each other to rectify the State's huge neglect in this area

Ireland is almost 55 years behind other countries in developing a childcare programme. Ten Government reports in 10 years have been sidelined and still parents are offered no assistance with their childcare costs. Compared to other countries such as Sweden and Denmark, where parents pay a maximum of 20 per cent and 33 per cent of childcare costs respectively, Ireland offers no such provisions. Instead, parents pay double the EU average for childcare, with child minding and crèche fees costing up to €250 per week.

According to the Orla O'Connor of the National Women's Council, a consequence of the absence of childcare supports is that a higher than average proportion of Irish children are living in poverty. Lone parents are consistently at high risk of poverty and Ireland continues to have the second lowest rate of enrolment of three- to six-year-olds in early childhood services.

The Council's Budget submission, which advocates universal early childhood care and education (ECCE) for all three- and four-year-olds and subsidised full day care for one- and two-year-olds, has won widespread support.

The introduction of tax incentives, as previously suggested by the Government, is outwardly rejected by most childcare groups because the measure is perceived as inequitable.

"Only those who pay taxes would benefit," says Orla O'Connor. "The average woman is on the minimum wage, which is supposed to exempt them from paying tax in the first instance. A large cohort of women wouldn't benefit and these are the ones that need it most."

The Women's Council also point to a worrying trend which shows that the percentage of women in employment falls from 65.8 per cent for women with no children to 40.8 per cent for women with two or more children. This represents the lowest level of employment for women with two or more children of the 23 countries included in the OECD Employment Outlook Study.

Also supportive of an integrated and subsidised childcare approach is the National Children's Nurseries Association, which represents an estimated 30,000 children in childcare. Their spokesperson Martina Murphy is angered by what she terms "Tánaiste Mary Harney's economic myth", which, she says, assumes that by increasing the number of childcare places, childcare costs will subsequently decrease.

The One Parent Exchange Network (OPEN) has also lent its support to the National Women's Council and stresses that it is not seeking special childcare provision for single parents but a childcare strategy which provides for low income families. Director of OPEN, Francis Byrne, contends that simply introducing tax relief would not bene fit low-income families who are not already in the labour market and that realistic and practical childcare support should be offered to enable them to return to work.

Aside from the demands for support from parents who are in the workplace and those seeking to join the labour force, the Government will also have to address the needs of "stay-at-home parents". Women on Wealth (WOW) state that it is an "anachronistic scandal" that the childcare provided by a home-based parent is still unpaid. Founder of WOW, Anna Ross, contends that the Government must provide payment to any parent who stays at home to take care of their own child.

Bernie Purcell, author of For Our Own Good: Childcare Issues in Ireland, says "I think both parents need and deserve to work outside the home. If there are two parents, it is better for the child to have access to both. The two parents should cut down on their hours to around 30 hours per week, as opposed to one parent working 50 hours to compensate for the other parent who is at home," says Purcell.

At a time when the number of women in the labour force exceeds the number not in the labour force for the first time, it would be a "regressive step" to have one parent withdrawing from work due to the financial strain of childcare. Since the dawn of psychotherapy, research has repeatedly shown that children who are "neglected" in childhood face greater emotional issues in adulthood, according to Purcell, who is opposed to putting children in crèches from an early age. She says that many children are separated from their parents too early, that they need constant one-to-one attention, which cannot be provided in a crèche situation – the crèche environment socialises children too early.

However, organisations such as Childminding Ireland argue that only 20 per cent of Irish children in childcare actually attend crèches, with the remainder supervised by childminders. In its pre-budget submission, the childminders' representative body is seeking a tax credit of €10,000 per year for each childminder and an income disregard for childminders who are social welfare recipients, such as grandparents in receipt of non-contributory pensions and lone parents.

The National Economic and Social Forum has proposed, in its early childhood care and education report, a universal, free pre-school service for all three-year-olds by 2010. Chairperson of the forum, Maureen Gaffney says that by 2015 the system would be extended to operate for the two years before the child starts primary school. She maintains that the country as a whole will benefit from investments in early education programme and points to international research which testifies that for every dollar spent on early education, seven are saved on later expenditure.