Affordable Child Care Scheme: Discussion

We are now in public session. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and her officials to the meeting, the purpose of which is to discuss the affordable child care scheme. I thank them for coming.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure, I am required to draw the witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones and ensure they are no where near the microphones when they are switched on as this disrupts the broadcasting of the committee's proceedings.

If the Minister would be so kind as to bear with me, in advance of inviting her to make her contribution, I want to make some opening remarks, having been recently selected and appointed by the Dáil to chair this committee. I am very grateful for the opportunity to chair such a significant committee in terms of the work programme and the operation of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I am aware of the very significant contribution the Department and this committee makes in Irish life on the basis that primarily I hail from Fingal, which has the youngest population in the State, and, therefore, I fully understand the pressure that child care costs cause for families and the needs of child care providers in terms of resources and support. Child welfare, fostering and adoption are some of the most important matters facing our country. There can be no more important matter than to ensure adequate protections are in place to protect every child and young person.

The issues debated by this committee are above party politics. The former Chairman, now Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, was very quick to point out that this has been the manner in which this committee has operated during the past 12 months. As Chairman, I very much hope to continue in that vein. I am committed to prioritising the needs of our children and our young people, and their welfare. I know members are as committed and as passionate about these matters as I.

The committee is particularly centred on workings of the Oireachtas, our democracy and our State given that fact that it is wholly focused on the protection and welfare of our future generations, ensuring that they are in a position to make the most of every opportunity which life affords them. I am of the view that by working together we can make a real impact upon the lives of children and young people right across this State. I am grateful to have the opportunity to chair this committee and to work with all members on matters which come before us. I embrace the challenge of chairing this committee in the best interests of every person with and for whom we work and for the betterment of our society in general. I thank the members for bearing with me.

I wish to advise that any submissions or opening statements from the Minister and the witnesses will be published in the committee's website after this hearing. I understand that the Minister may wish to make a short presentation. Her opening statement has been circulated in advance. Prior to asking the Minister to speak, a matter arose during our private session initiated by Senator Joan Freeman. Unfortunately, the Senator was not able to stay with us due to other commitments but she recommended, in the context of section 13, that Dr. Geoffrey Shannon conduct the investigation into the relevant matters. That is her recommendation, as agreed by the committee. Her request is that the Minister would consider that matter in her deliberations on section 13. I ask the Minister to commence her opening statement.

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.

I thank the Minister for her opening statement. She is most welcome to the committee and I also welcome her officials, Dr. Anne-Marie Brook, Mr. Fergal Lynch and Ms Marion Martin. The are welcome to assist the Minister in any responses to members' questions.

I congratulate the Chairman on his promotion to the chair and wish him well in his new position. I look forward to working with him. I welcome the Minister and her officials, and thank her for her presentation. These are the first steps in moving towards a new child care programme. We are looking at €466 million in spending in the child care which is represents an increase of approximately 80% on the 2015 spending. That is some achievement in only 24 months. There is more to be done but I want to recognise that. We are looking at a significant implementation project. We are looking at universal benefit for children under three years, and also a second support based on income.

On ICT and procurement and tendering, in a previous life I worked in IT. The Minister said that the gap analysis has been done and she is working on the functional requirements with a view to tendering in the third quarter of this year. When it comes to tendering in the third quarter, the Department will have made significant progress on the functional analysis. Can the Minister estimate how long the implementation phase will take? How long will the tendering process take? I assume that the portal will be a web portal that will be open for the public to make their applications on the IT system.

There is one thing I ask the Department to consider when it is undertaking its functional analysis. There is a problem I have seen many times in the public service. The language used in the applications process on the website and the calls for action must be as simplified as possible. Even a younger person whose linguistic skills are not fully developed should be able to understand it. It needs to be made as simple as possible for the public to understand it. Please be careful. We often use quite legalistic language in the Oireachtas and are used to it but the public is not. It is a failure in both the private and public sectors that the standard of language on web portals can be pitched too high for the consumers. The process and the calls to action should be simplified as much as is possible.

Sometimes genuine people apply for programmes and drop out halfway through if they find the application process too strenuous. It is a matter of being mindful of this. I seek an answer as to how long the implementation and tendering phases will take.

The tendering process was-----

I refer to the IT system itself. There will be a tendering process-----

Is the Deputy asking when it will be ready to be implemented?

Yes. The tendering process will take some time and then the implementation phase will take some time before it goes live.

I will begin with those last two more technical questions. I appreciate the Deputy's positive comments. It is a huge step forward and, therefore, again, it is important to get it right and be as careful as we can. In this regard, the committee will be aware that we are in a peer review process with the OGCIO. The Deputy asked questions about the simplification of language. It is important we take this on board and it will be fed into the process. As we move through the peer review process, each of these issues, particularly those the Deputy raises, will be considered carefully. I will turn to my officials to answer the question about the implementation phase, as well as the question as to how long the tendering will take.

Ms Marion Martin

It is estimated the tendering process will take eight to ten weeks. As we will work through a mini-competition under an ICT framework, it will be a shortened tendering process from that perspective. Once we get the go-ahead from the OGCIO, the tendering process will carry through.

Regarding the development timeframe, from our analysis of all the requirements, it is estimated the development will probably take approximately five months. This is dependent on the vendors that tender for the development and the number of developers they can provide for the project. There will be parallel development going on and then an integration process within that. We anticipate that we would probably need six to eight weeks of testing and bug-fixing once the full integration has happened. Then, as the Minister has already mentioned, approximately 12 to 16 weeks are envisaged for the launch implementation in which applications are made.

Regarding the public online portal, we are working with a consultation group with stakeholders on business and systems and are working through the requirements and the system functionalities with that stakeholder group to get its views and its processes from parents through to service providers who will use each part of the system. We are taking that into account. In addition, as part of the final technical designs, a user experience expert will make the public-facing element as easy and applicable as possible.

I have a supplementary question. Ms Martin mentioned the number of developers and vendors. Obviously, the functional requirements will come from the functional documents anyway, so we will understand how many developers are required for the system once those functional documents are completed.

Ms Marion Martin

Yes. While we have an estimation at present, our initial analysis is the optimum number of developers to use on this is probably about eight. One could use more, but there are more risks associated with that. Then it is a matter of whether the tenderers themselves would be able to provide that optimum number.

I do not want to hog the time. Ms Martin spoke about a stakeholder group in the context of the online portal. I advise getting people from the ground, the normal person, to use the system and see what it is like and they will flag where it will fall down. This is what is done in the private sector. That is pretty much it. Ms Martin probably had that in tow anyway.

Ms Marion Martin

Yes, it is intended to use that stakeholder group. We will train them up into testing and they will become part of the testing group when the development is in place.

I would just bring random people in to test it.

I wish the Chairman well in public, as I did in private, and welcome the Minister and her officials. I wish to ask a question about the ICT system and then go back to this year's system, following on from Deputy Neville's questions. I am a little concerned about the timescale that has just been delineated. It sounds to me that it is approximately 12 months if one adds the eight to ten weeks for the tendering, the five months of development, the six to eight weeks for testing and the 12 to 14 weeks for the launch. Will it be ready for September 2018? That is my main question and the most pertinent one because there is certainly an expectation that it will be rolled out by then. Originally, the intention was to roll it out this year.

My second question concerns this year's plans. The Minister has said that up to 70,000 children will get support and that there is online information, an information campaign etc. That is all very welcome but there is still confusion. The providers are concerned that there is a short timeframe, that they must do much of this themselves manually and that parents are asking questions to which they do not necessarily know the answers. Will the Minister therefore monitor constantly the actual availability for children who qualify around the country? Some providers would say to us that they might not partake in the scheme at all because it is too cumbersome or will take too much time. My second question therefore concerns monitoring the current system. When will we know if family income supplement, FIS, is deductible? That is a consideration as to whether people will qualify and it seems to me that FIS should be deductible because it is a support system for low-income families and there is no point in giving it to them on the one hand and taking it away from them on the other.

It is really too early to give a definitive answer to Deputy O'Sullivan's first question about the timeline. I am trying to outline the various numerous steps, much of which are technical and are in the context of the peer review process. We have no control over the steps we must go through. To be a part of this process is to ensure that mistakes of the past such as PPARS are not repeated. As members may be aware, a peer review is an independent structured review of a programme or project which is carried out at key decision points in the project. It must approve each phase of the development before it will grant approval to move on. There are seven stages to this. I have also indicated that we must do quite a bit of robust testing and piloting of the systems because we are expecting more than 100,000 applications. I do not have any intention of repeating PPARS. Having said all that, it is not possible to say now exactly when it will be delivered. We are delineating the pieces of the process to ensure its delivery as soon as possible. What I can say, though, is that I am absolutely committed to driving this as quickly as I can. As the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer comes under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I will be in conversation with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, about ensuring to the best of our ability that this can go ahead as quickly as possible while making sure everything is done right. It will be later that we will have a deeper sense of when we can say it will be delivered.

Regarding Deputy O'Sullivan's second set of questions about what we are doing this September, I will deliver in September. We have put in place a number of pieces to ensure that a very high percentage of families we intended to benefit in September 2017 will benefit. I emphasise that it is very important that, as members go back to their constituencies, the message that goes out is that the support for families is available and we have estimated, as I have indicated, that up to 70,000 children will benefit. However, this is an estimate, and some families may not be captured in what we had originally intended.

That may be the case but we are not absolutely sure.

In response to the Deputy's questions on the providers and the families being concerned I am aware of that and it is very important to emphasise it. The officials are also aware of it and we will increase our communication capacity over the next couple of weeks and into August when they begin to sign up. I have indicated we have been around the country engaging with the providers. They come back to us with questions. We have established a very strong infrastructure within the systems and the officials are working to answer those questions in many different ways. The Deputy's question on monitoring is a good one. I understand that there are systems in place for monitoring to see how it is as we move closer to September. If the officials want to add more technical details I am happy that they do so.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks

In answer to the question about the providers having challenges around the September measures, the majority of new children who will benefit from this September, the 33,000 under the universal subsidy, will do so through a mechanism similar to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. Providers will be very familiar with registering children under the ECCE scheme and will follow a similar process for the universal subsidy. For other children we have not made changes to the schemes per se but have increased the subvention rates. Many of the providers are very familiar with the way the schemes operate.

In respect of the new information and communications technology, ICT, scheme of course nobody wants to see another personnel, payroll and related systems, PPARS, and we all know the Department has to go through correct procedure and the committee supports that but it is important that people recognise this may well not be ready for the following September. If that is the case, will the one that is being rolled out this September continue? This is the first time I have been made aware it will take so long before it will be implemented. It is also important for people to know what the contingency plans are if it is not ready for 2019.

I agree with the Deputy. I am not saying now because I do not know for sure. We are, however, being as clear as we can be about what is involved. When we know for sure I will tell the committee. The Deputy is right we have to be honest and upfront.

The measures we are putting in place for this September, which we are communicating to providers and which we will continue to support, will be in place until we move to the new system. We are taking the first major step towards that full affordable child care scheme and there will be difficulties we will have to sort out with providers or families. We are talking about the ICT system to make it easier for families to understand their subsidies and for providers to administer the new system, which is not available yet. However, what will be available in September, and will continue to be available until that ICT system is fully fleshed out, is a way and set of systems for families to benefit from what we promised. I anticipate that whatever the difficulties, they will have been sorted and we will not have to go through that again.

Some families who we intended should benefit may not benefit with this full system because when we do have the ICT system there is a way to determine the income, deductions, subsidies that is clear to the families meets the thresholds we had identified. We have put out possibly up to 9,000 children not all aged less than three. Everybody can benefit from the universal subsidy. That does not depend on the ICT system. The estimated difference is partly accounted for by children aged three and older whose family incomes are above the threshold for a general practitioner, GP, visit card but below the threshold for the affordable child care scheme. It is also partly accounted for by children aged three or older whose parents may be eligible for a GP visit card or meet other eligibility criteria but who have not taken it up. The information campaign has begun. There may be some families who are eligible for a GP visit card who could take it up and become more available for what we are putting out in September.

We recognise that the affordable child care scheme was a very significant investment in the last budget. It came, however, from a very low level of investment in child care, still one of the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD. While it is welcome that we are taking steps in the right direction we have a long road to travel. The Minister asked recently for our support in the Dáil to expand that in the budget. She certainly has my support and that of my party in that investment. I hope she has the support of her colleagues in Government and of Fine Gael when it comes to the budget.

How confident are the Minister and Department that in September there will not be substantial numbers of children and families, particularly in urban areas, who will not be able to locate a place and that certain child care providers will not find themselves swamped? I am slightly concerned that the contracting for registrations goes live from 21 August. That seems a very tight timescale for providers to deal with the documentation involved in contracting for September. We all hope that everything goes according to plan and that providers are able to provide as intended but the concern is that there might be chaos in September, when children and families look for this new subsidy and their needs may not be met. I share the concern of other Deputies that the Minister is not in a position to guarantee the time line for the full delivery of the affordable child care scheme for the following September as envisioned in the last budget. It is vitally important that it is possible to deliver the full scheme in September. I note that the Minister has taken account of our last discussion here in respect of family income supplement and rent supplement.

Let me re-emphasise that a great deal of discussion in support of the affordable child care scheme is related to its ability to assist with labour activation. If that is to be the case, FIS in particular and also rent supplement should be deductible and non-reckonable. It would go against the grain of what it is intended to achieve if it was to be reckonable.

I have made a point on sustainability previously but I might make it from a slightly different perspective in respect of the ongoing need for capital investment to ensure that capacity continues to exist. I have raised my serious concerns about sustainability in the community sector. The only way that these providers can make their offering "more sustainable" is either through reducing services or increasing fees for other schemes. These services are primarily provided in disadvantaged area. I have raised issues about the delay in the provision from the sustainability fund. The fund needs to be substantially enhanced. A scheme similar to DEIS has been explored, and it should be explored further. In the interim, sustainability needs to be built into the service. In my view, the Department needs to be outlining its vision for the journey to a publicly provided system. I do not think we should be repeating the mistakes of the past in terms of primary and secondary education. The State needs to be a substantial player in the offering for child care. We need to begin to outline how we get to that destination. Community providers will be a big part of the offering. In the short term, we need to make the service sustainable but in the longer run I believe we need to expand them. The Department need to look at this.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for the positive comments he made at the beginning of his contribution, and I agree with him.

In terms of capacity, the Deputy raised concerns about whether we will have enough providers and sufficient spaces for the children, and the date of 21 August for registering children for places. Of the 41% of child care services that have completed the recontracting process, two in every three of the child care services that have signed up so far have opted to deliver the subsidies to make the child care more affordable for families in September. The contracting process has already started with the child care providers. As I understand it, it is on target and it is at the same place that it is normally is in terms of contracting. Registration for children starts in August.

As the Deputy can appreciate, we are monitoring and paying attention to ensuring that we will have the capacity in September and one of my officials will deal with the provision of the scheme in rural areas. One of the key ways to ensure consistently that we will have capacity is through the information campaign that we have already initiated. I have indicated that we will move towards a more intense level information campaign relatively soon so that people understand and have the information. For example, one aspect of the scheme is the extra moneys for non-contact time for providers who are willing to sign up to the new measures in September.

I take on board Deputy Ó Laoghaire's point on family income supplement, FIS. We are continuing to explore that and I am happy to consider the Deputy's additional concerns about it.

On the Deputy's final point on sustainability, we have these exchanges regularly on sustainability and Deputy Ó Laoghaire understands my commitment to it. I am continuing to ask the Department to examine any additional measures to support sustainability in terms of where we are now. I understand the Deputy has identified the need to outline a vision for a publicly provided service and system. Effectively, as the Deputy will be aware, one of the major breakthroughs in the past number of years, which happened before I took office, was the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme, the free preschool places. This effectively is a vision of the provision of a service by different providers, private as well as not for profit, paid from the public purse. It took public investment to do that. As we move forward, in terms of targeted subsidies and also universal provision, there is public investment in order to develop the infrastructure of child care. That is what I continue to be committed to and in the different ways we deliver it.

My official Ms Brooks will address the capacity issue.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks

The majority of children who are expected to benefit from the measures in September are already in receipt of child care support. Some 33,000 children who will receive the universal subsidies are currently availing of child care, as are 30,000 children who are currently in receipt of the targeted programmes. We estimate an additional 7,000 children will avail of targeted supports, some of whom are already availing of child care. We do not expect there to be a capacity issue.

We are aware also from Pobal annual early years sector profile questionnaire that there are a number of vacancies across services. We will monitor uptake and demand for spaces but at present we do not envisage there will be any difficulty with that.

I thank Dr. Brooks.

I have a brief supplementary point, but I do not require a response. Let me emphasise that public funding is not the same as public provision.

I understand that.

I know the Minister understands, but that is the direction in which we should be moving. I accept the State is funding the service, but direct public provision would allow us to deal with issues of wages and strategic planning for new child care providers in areas where they are required. It can help us in terms of quality, and it is a much better model. We should be moving strongly towards it. Public funding is welcome and an improvement on the situation that went before but I think we need towards public provision.

I thank the Minster for her presentation. It is important to start with the positives and to welcome what happened in last year's budget. It was a welcome announcement and it was step in the right direction. The recent announcement of €3.5 million support for the child care providers was another welcome provision.

I will not rehash the questions that have been asked because I am blue in the face asking questions about the ICT platform for the ACS. My only question in respect of ICT is whether the Minister has secured enough funding from the Department, because what we are about to set into seems to be a mammoth task. Does the Minister have the budget to see it through all the way?

In her opening statement, the Minister stated that the Department is re-examining how the ACS budget cap can be implemented and is in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and that this follows legal advice on the issue. Could she explain exactly what that statement means?

In relation to other preparatory paperwork or work that needs to be done on the scheme, is the Department of Children and Youth Affairs also looking at the legislation for the sharing of information between Departments? I understand legislation will be needed to share information with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection. Do we need to amend the legislation to include that area?

The Minister said the affordable child care scheme is aimed primarily at parents and guardians in a way to lift families out of poverty. Does the Minister think the affordable child care scheme goes far enough to ease the financial burden of middle income families or is there a progression in the next budget as one of the Deputies already mentioned?

As an aside to the departmental officials, we talked about FIS earlier. Let us look at SUSI. The wheels for the affordable child care scheme have already been developed in the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI model, as FIS is excluded in the measure of income under that scheme.

We talked earlier about family income supplement. The wheels for the affordable child care scheme have already been developed in the SUSI model which excludes family income supplement. SUSI is working well for the cohort of people who engage with it in the terms of reference as to who is in, who is out, what qualifies and what does not. A great deal of the groundwork and heavy lifting has already been done with the implementation of SUSI. Could we short circuit some of the questions and issues by looking at the existing SUSI model?

On the budget, we have to see through the development of ICT, I will say "Yes". I presume that is right. If more detail is required, my officials can provide it. It is costly but that is built in. We sought legal advice on the permissibility of the budget cap as proposed in the heads of the Bill. We received advice that a budget cap which involved closing the scheme to applicants for a period of time would be open to legal challenge. We are looking at that and examining its meaning as we move forward. I was asked about the sharing of information with different Departments. My understanding is that it would be incorporated within the Bill.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks

We have already engaged with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection to agree the heads for the sharing of information.

Is that within the one piece of legislation?

Dr. Anne-Marie Brooks

Yes, that will do it all.

That is in the Bill itself, which we are working on. I was asked about the significant investment set out in my opening remarks to support families to lift their children out of poverty. That relates specifically to the targeted measures, although in terms of the thresholds for those measures, it depends ultimately on how one defines a middle income. I know there are variations in how we define that. Even now, however, my view about the thresholds is that they should reach some of those middle income earners in terms of the ways income is calculated. Obviously, the universal measures are there for everyone, including the middle tier and those lower income earners.

Has the Department looked at the SUSI model?

Ms Marion Martin

We have the person from the Department of Education and Skills who heads up SUSI on the project board. We are taking on a lot of the learnings from SUSI. In relation to the income assessment, the Deputy was referring moreso to means assessments. We have worked through the means assessment model for the affordable child care scheme and engaged in a peer-review process with SUSI, the Department of Social Protection and the HSE's medical card unit to get their experiences and learnings on the assessment models they use and the difficulties they encounter in making the process as efficient as possible.

I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her role. I start by agreeing with Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Rabbitte. In fairness, the Minister has done a great deal of work in the area and she is very genuine and sincere about what she wants to achieve. It is not an easy task. On the issue around the danger of 21 August, it is somewhat ironic that it is the date chosen given that so many child care workers are still signing on for social welfare payments at that time. Are they expected to return to work without being paid? What way will that date work? Will it be up to each provider? Obviously, somebody will have to be there to do the administration work.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is meeting with Childminding Ireland. A number of years ago, there was a child minding advisory service provided through county and city child care committees. It had a relatively small budget but provided a great deal of information and, probably, encouraged child minders to register. The fear for a lot of child minders now is that if they come forward, the reality that most are being paid in cash may have a tax implication. While I do not stand over that, if we want to encourage child minders to register and upskill, given the number of people who cannot use crèches and must rely on them, we should reintroduce the advisory service. It would be a way to encourage people to come forward, engage more with the system and earn further qualifications. That would be a positive step. While there may be an information campaign to encourage people to register with Tusla, if it were done through the county and city child care committees, which are more local and approachable, it would be a more personal and better approach. It might be a good way to encourage child minders to register.

On her first question, Deputy Funchion will be aware of my concern about the issue of pay and conditions for child care providers. The point she raises about the deadline of 21 August is a good one. What about people who are on the dole and need to come back? Perhaps my officials can answer that more specifically.

In general, I note that my awareness of the issue is one of the reasons I have sought additional funding to provide some money to support the administration of the child care scheme which is coming in September. It will be up to providers to determine how to use the extra money. As such, it may be possible to bring people forward sooner. Deputy Funchion put down a great motion in the Dáil last week to look at this issue. She offered some solutions and I suggested it might be helpful to move down the road of sectoral employment orders to which employers and child care providers might sign up in the context of negotiation with their unions. That might be a systematic way to get clarity about what would constitute adequate wages and conditions for child care providers. My Department would co-operate with that.

On the Deputy's suggestion around child minders, I agree about how they could be registered. Certainly, city and county child care committees continue that involvement. It is at a more regional and local level which is perhaps more helpful. As Minister, however, I note that we need child minders to be registered. I hope we can move to that place as soon as possible. It is in the context of the heads of the Bill that I have the powers to identify groups of people like child minders who could come within the scheme as we begin to role it out with the caveat that alternative standards of quality have been developed. I await the report from the working group to see what suggestions come forward on standards with which we could be satisfied to ensure children receive the quality care which can attract a public subsidy. Let it be clear that we need child minders to register and I hope the process is completed as quickly as possible.

Ms Marion Martin

The date of 21 August is the opening date of the programme year. As such, it is not a deadline. It will be up to providers to register the children when they wish to do so. The PIP system allows children to be registered seven days in advance of actually attending a service. It is about their enrolment once the programme year opens up, which is in line with the reopening of the ECCE programme year.

On behalf of the joint committee, I thank the witnesses for their presentation and responses to the questions posed by members. Unless there are further brief questions, we will move on to the next topic of discussion, namely, foster care services in Ireland. We will take a moment to allow additional officials to take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 11 a.m. and resumed at 11.02 a.m.