I congratulate the Chairman on his appointment. I look forward to working with him again following our previous work together on the justice committee. I welcome his opening remarks, particularly his emphasis on that what we do being is above party politics. That has been my experience when I have appeared before the committee. I hope some of the demonstration of that will be seen in my opening remarks in responding to the various issues that he raised concerning the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and our efforts to consider those very seriously, as well as coming back to make some decisions in that regard ultimately. I thank the Chairman and it is great to be working with him.
I want to be clear in opening my remarks that despite what the members may have read in some media publications this morning, up to 70,000 children will get extra child care benefits this September, as announced in budget 2017. There is no delay, no jeopardy or need for parents to be shocked. People should go to the website, affordablechildcare.ie, to find out details of the big changes that will start in eight weeks time.
I am very pleased to be here again. In particular, as I indicated, I would like to update members on some of the issues that were raised at the committee in terms of pre-legislative scrutiny. They are aware that on 11 April I announced a range of measures that will make child care more affordable for families from September. Members will be aware that these measures include: universal subsidies of up to €1,040 per annum per child, which will be available for all children aged between six and 36 months; and targeted subsidies of up to €7,500 per annum per child, which will be delivered to those families and children who need it most. It is these targeted subsidies that will open up jobs, training and education for parents who want to lift their families out of poverty. As a result of these measures, up to 70,000 children will benefit from extra child care support this September – this will be an important moment. By addressing the affordability issue, we will ease the burden on many parents for whom child care costs have become a second rent or mortgage. It is the first big step to changing Irish child care for ever and it is just eight weeks away.
To ensure uptake by families and child care providers, a public information campaign has been under way since mid-May. Information packs were sent to all 4,400 registered child care providers. Information events that were attended by more than 1,000 child care providers were held at eight locations throughout the country. A dedicated website was launched receiving over 170,000 page views to date. A digital campaign on social media and on websites popular with parents - many of the members will know what those are - has been shared tens of thousands of times. Also, a national and local radio advertising campaign took place in June.
I also secured a budget of €3.5 million to support child care providers who sign up to the scheme and, in particular, to recognise their non-contact time responsibilities. The value of this payment will be equivalent to seven days of the total value of registrations under community child care subvention, CCS, and training and employment child care, TEC, schemes. This is in addition to the €14.5 million non-contact payment secured in budget 2017. I have been listening to the child care providers and, in terms of their concerns, I wish to advise that contracting with child care providers is now under way and that registration of children for these subsidies will go live from 21 August.
I want to update the committee on the affordable child care scheme to update the committee. Significant progress continues to be made on its development. A project board, chaired by my Department, meets every three weeks to oversee this development.. As already stated, issues raised by the committee during pre-legislative scrutiny are receiving further consideration. For example, we are re-examining how the affordable child care scheme budget cap can be implemented and, following legal advice, we are in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the matter.
We are also engaging with Tusla to reach agreement on the threshold that will be applied to Tusla referrals to the affordable child care scheme.
We have given much consideration to the range of issues raised by the committee on the income assessment model, such as the treatment of family income supplement, FIS, rental income and housing costs. We have also sought the views of officials with significant experience of means-testing from Departments of Education and Skills and Social Protection and the Health Services Executive who have reviewed the income assessment model.
I can assure the committee that I will continue to give these matters careful consideration and I will revert to the committee with our conclusions. At the request of my Department, the Department of Social Protection is carrying out analysis of potential disincentive effects created by the interaction of the affordable child care scheme and the family income supplement, and will make recommendations to my Department shortly on whether FIS should be made deductible from the child care scheme’s income assessment. We will await the advice of the Department of Social Protection before making any decision on the issue.
Just as with centre-based care, quality assurance of child minders must be an absolute prerequisite for participation in the scheme. The committee will be aware that my Department has commenced talks with Childminding Ireland in recent months to explore a number of options around how quality can be assured within the child minding sector. If sufficient alternative standards are not in place, it will remain the case that only Tusla-registered child minders will be able to participate in the affordable child care scheme. It is anticipated that a draft Bill will be brought to Government by the end of the third quarter, with a view to enactment in the autumn.
The architectural design for the ICT platform to support the affordable child care scheme has been completed. A request to commence development of this infrastructure to support the child care scheme was recently approved by the office of the Government chief information office, OGCIO. This represents a first milestone in the technical development of the ICT system. The development of this infrastructure will commence in early August.
The main development of the affordable child care scheme project is subject to the OGCIO peer review process. The peer review group, which was established in early May 2017, is currently reviewing the business case for the scheme. The next stage of this process is the presentation of the request for tender, RFT, for the procurement of the ICT development. To inform the request for tender, the business requirements for the scheme have already been agreed as has the procurement approach.
Work is now underway to finalise the functional requirements specification. It is anticipated to the request for tender will be presented to the peer review group by end of the third quarter. These are the steps being undertaken for the tender for the information technology platform itself.
Other preparatory work underway includes the development of a communications strategy; the development of a governance and compliance framework; the development of standard operating procedures; and the development of a data protection strategy. A recently completed privacy impact assessment on the scheme will be a key input to this strategy. My officials have also held a constructive meeting with the deputy data protection commissioner to advance this work.
Data sharing arrangements with the office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection have also been finalised and plans for data hosting are being agreed with the Department of Social Protection. We are already considering the launch. Major consideration is also being given for the phase when the scheme is developed and tested and ready for launch. It is important to note that the operational launch of the scheme will require a time period for applications to be submitted, and processed, before opening up to registrations with child care providers and parents receiving their subsidies. This is due to the fact that the launch is expected to bring in over 100,000 applications, some of which may be ineligible for an affordable child care scheme subsidy, that require to be processed equitably before parents can begin to register their children with child care providers. While it is hoped a large proportion of applications will go through the automated system, some will require some level of case management due to family circumstances, and quality assurance. Planning for the launch is underway and initial indications suggest that a period of 12 to 16 weeks will be required for the application period before registrations can begin, and subsidies provided. Once the initial launch period is completed, applications will be processed on a rolling basis.
With these factors in mind, the project board has advised me that it is not in a position, at this point, to guarantee a timeline for delivery of the affordable child care scheme. The request for tender stage of the peer review process represents, to some extent, the biggest milestone with the ICT development, and as such drives the beginning of the timeline for the full project delivery. The project board will continue to meet every three weeks to progress the affordable child care scheme development as efficiently and effectively as possible. I will be very happy to answer questions. I am happy to be joined by my Department officials who will join me in outlining more of the detail about the preparation for the launch of the affordable child care scheme. The committee will understand the complexities and the detail and how, although significant time is required to get this right, as a Minister, I am committed to two things, first, that it is better to get it right and second, that I will do everything in my power to drive the process as quickly as possible.