EVEN though they have shipped quite a bit of criticism, the new childcare measures being championed by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, and announced last week as part of Budget 2017, are a start at least that can provide a platform for future requirements, which need to be broadened in scope to also benefit those who prefer to mind their children at home or to send them to childcare providers not formally recognised by the State at this stage.
Though radical in intent, the affordable childcare scheme – whether unintentionally or otherwise – relegates the role of stay-at-home parents to a lesser status than crèches, which makes absolutely no sense at all, as most families would probably take the former option if they could manage on one salary. Calling the subsidy that the scheme will provide, with effect from September of next year, ‘universal’ is a misnomer as it will only apply in respect of children being minded in Tusla-registered facilities.
There is no doubt that childcare needs to be made more affordable, as the cost of it is like having a second mortgage for some families who simply need to have both parents working in order to maintain even a most basic lifestyle. If one of the parents decides to forgo their job while the children are young in order to provide them with a stable upbringing in the home environment, instead of them being shunted to and from crèches or other childminders at unearthly hours by often stressed parents, their choice should be recognised by subsidies – in the form of extra tax relief perhaps – which match those now proposed for those who will benefit under the new childcare scheme from sending their children to registered childcare providers.
The Stay-At-Home Parents Association has criticised what it regards as discrimination against its members who want to mind their children at home, opining that they are going to become ‘an endangered species.’ They, rightly, complain that the €100 increase of the home carers’ tax credit is paltry and goes nowhere near addressing the inequality that the new childcare scheme is about to create.
There is an absolute necessity to make affordable childcare options available to people on low incomes to give them a chance to get some work to help ease their financial circumstances. The new childcare scheme is a start in this regard and something that can be built on in the future, but it is all predicated on the use of registered childcare facilities.
Some 47 percent of parents who need to work rely on relatives to mind their children and they are excluded from benefitting under the new scheme as things stand. Then there are the people who mind other people’s children in their own homes and who are not formally registered as childminders.
While there is potential to include these in the proposed scheme if they are prepared to get proper insurance, Garda vetting, etc, this would have a knock-on effect on their charges. However, it will probably suit most parents who have their children minded this way to stay with their existing arrangements as it would still work out cheaper than the State-subsidised childcare.
Indeed, as with all subsidies – be they for renting or buying houses or whatever else – there seems to be nothing to stop private childcare facilities generally pushing up their prices to take advantage of the scheme for themselves. There has also been criticism of the various income thresholds proposed for eligibility for the childcare subsidy because they are not deemed income-progressive.
The affordable childcare scheme is intended to streamline all existing grants and subsidies into one single scheme – and this is a good thing as it should, in theory, simplify matters by cutting down on a lot of the paperwork currently required and be more user-friendly. However, Minister Zappone needs to fine tune her proposals better in advance of their being enshrined in legislation, otherwise they will serve to widen the gap between working parents and those who choose to stay at home to mind their children, which it is their right to do and which should not be treated as a luxury or an indulgence.