Posted on March 16, 2016 at 03:45 PM

Dr Peter Rigney
Dr Peter Rigney

Dr. Peter Rigney looks at the problems that bedevil childcare in Ireland and outlines how we can move to a high-quality, acessible and affordable model

‘Policy failure’ is a polite term used to describe the inability or unwillingness of governments and assorted lawmakers to deliver solutions to pressing problems, or to anticipate and avert disaster.

The banking crisis and our resulting economic collapse was a policy failure of epic proportions, even if a succession of inquiries and reports has, as yet, failed to apportion blame and suitable punishment.

The homeless crisis is another, more recent example of a systemic political inability to act decisively when there is pressing and obvious social need.

And to that list can be added the less obvious failure of successive administrations to deliver a solution to Ireland’s childcare problem.

Their failure has left us with the worst of both worlds: the highest cost childcare in the EU, staffed by some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

No matter what way you do the numbers, it simply does not add up.

Families are now penalised for having children and wanting to go to work.

The sector is characterised by fees of up to 1500 per month for parents and minimum wage jobs without career progression for childcare workers.

Congress has just published a new study of the problem and, more importantly, how it might be addressed.

Who Cares? Report on Childcare Costs & Practices in Ireland has three core components.

Publication cover - Report on Childcare Costs & Practices (Congress 2016)

Firstly, it surveys over 3700 members in affiliate trade unions to see how working families are coping with this failure to do as many other EU states have already done and build an accessible, affordable system of childcare provision.

And ‘coping’ is the operative word. The survey found that even in this day and age some 30% of families are still forced to rely on extended family – grandparents, relatives - for childcare provision, while many households on lower do not avail of private crèches due to the prohibitive cost.

The survey also revealed that a significant portion of working families pay monthly fees ranging from €1000-€1500.

Secondly, the report highlights the low level of public investment in childcare provision in Ireland, by comparison with our European neighbours.

In doing so, it goes to the core of the problem in Ireland. Many years ago, the majority of EU member states made a policy choice to treat childcare as what is described as a ‘public good’, in the same manner that we treat education, for example.

This is based on the fact that good quality childcare delivers economic and social benefits to wider society and, as such, should be publicly-supported.

Thus, in one case with which we are familiar, an individual in Stockholm will pay approximately €80 per month for good quality care, for one child. As it happens, the same individual also lived in Dublin for a short period and experienced our version at first hand.

His bill was €800 per month, ten times what he now pays in Sweden.

For reasons best known to those we repeatedly elect, that deficiency is tolerated in Ireland.

Yet there is no parent who would accept having to pay such exorbitant monthly sums every month to have their child attend primary school. Nor would they tolerate having to rely on grandparents and other relatives to school their children.

Thus, the reason costs are lower in other EU member states is that public funding has followed on that critical political decision to classify childcare as a ‘public good’.

As our report reveals, we spend 0.2% of GDP on childcare provision, while UNICEF recommends a benchmark figure of 1% of GDP. France spends 1.2%; Denmark 2%; Sweden 1.6% and Spain just 0.6% - but that is still three times the Irish level.

Finally, no accessible and affordable system of childcare provision will be possible if it is built on the basis of insecure jobs and badly-paid workers. In fact, establishing decent work as the norm in childcare is critical to this development, in tandem with proper training and good career progression.

The first step would be to set the Living Wage - €11.50 per hour – as the entry level rate for all childcare workers.

That at least would send a strong signal that this is a profession which we value and a sector that is deserving of wider social support and investment.

It would mark a small, but significant start.

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