I am very pleased to be here this morning to update the members of this committee on the progress made in the development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme and, importantly, on the success of the measures implemented by my department since September to improve access to affordable, quality childcare.

Making Childcare More Affordable

The last time we met I outlined a series of measures that had been put in place in time for September 2017.  These measures aimed to reduce the cost of childcare for families and improve access to quality childcare for those families who need it most.  They included, for the first time, a non-means tested universal subsidy of up to €1,040 per year for children under 3 years of age. They also included significantly increased targeted supports for families to assist with childcare costs, to facilitate return to education, return to employment and where needed, intervention for children and families that need such support.

The timeframe for the implementation of these measures was tight and relied in no small part on the cooperation and engagement of childcare services throughout the country.

I am delighted to report that the measures have been a great success. To their great credit, 88% of applicable childcare services signed up to deliver these affordability measures. I recognised this effort and the administrative contribution made by childcare services in delivering these changes by sanctioning an additional €3.5m in non-contact time payments to childcare services. This brings the total amount paid to Early Years Care and Education services in recognition of non-contact or administrative input to €18m in 2017.  I have secured this €18m in my base again for 2018 and onwards.

The information campaign to raise awareness of the new measures among parents has achieved its aims. Across the full suite of measures, as of 12th January, over 66,000 of our estimated 70,000 children, or 95%, are now registered for supports.  This number will continue to grow throughout the year as the door remains open for both parents and providers to sign up.

On the universal subsidy, of the 33,000 children estimated to be eligible, almost 31,000 (94%) have registered to date. This means that the families of almost 31,000 children are now gaining a financial benefit on par with what they will receive when the full Affordable Childcare Scheme launches.

On the targeted measures, just over 35,000 children are benefiting across a range of schemes, receiving as much as €145 per child per week, a substantial increase on before.

Last April I promised to ensure that the funds that had been secured to provide these benefits would be delivered to families in 2017 and I am delighted that, through the hard work of childcare providers, along with officials from my department and Pobal, we have been able to fulfil that promise. I continue to encourage the small number of outstanding additional providers to sign up.  I would also encourage parents with children under 3 in registered childcare to apply for the universal subsidy, which can amount to the equivalent of six weeks free childcare based on the average figures nationally.  Parents can log onto our dedicated website, affordablechildcare.ie, or contact their local CCC for further information.

Making Childcare More Accessible

Alongside improvements to affordability, I am committed to ensuring that quality childcare is also inclusive and accessible to all families in Ireland. I believe we’ve made really good progress so far.

Over the past three budgets we have secured an increase in the budget for early years by an unprecedented 80%. I have also commissioned an Independent Review of the Cost of Delivering Quality Childcare by the firm Crowe Howarth. This report will be available by the end of the summer and will inform my proposals for further investment in the sector in Budget 2019.

We’ve taken tangible steps to make our childcare services more inclusive. Since its introduction in 2016, our Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) has provided targeted supports to almost 5,000 children. Its universal measures have benefited thousands more and will continue to do so. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training is currently being rolled out across the country and has now reached 2,750 Early Years staff.  847 Inclusion Coordinators have received specialist qualifications under the Leadership for Inclusion (LINC) Programme and a further 857 have enrolled for the programme this year. A pack of special sensory toys are about to be delivered to over 6,000 preschool rooms across the country and training in practical skills, such as sign language, sensory integration and other specialised training, is being offered free of charge to services.

We have also ended decades of uncertainty by commencing mandatory reporting as part of the full roll out of the Children First Act 2015.  These changes are child centred, tangible and will leave a legacy for our children and our society for years to come.

Update on the development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme

While advancing these initiatives, we have also worked intensively on preparing the various components- technical, administrative and legislative- for the introduction of the full Affordable Childcare Scheme.

I am happy to report that significant progress is being made on the scheme’s development.

Legislative Progress

On the legislative components, the Childcare Support Bill was published on 12th December 2017, alongside a Regulatory Impact Analysis of the scheme. The Bill is an essential element in the development of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, ensuring that the scheme operates on a robust, rigorous and transparent statutory footing from the outset.  It also enables data sharing with the applicant’s consent which, in turn, facilitates a fast, user-friendly and innovative approach to automated assessment and approval of applications.

A key priority for me during the coming weeks and months will be to support the passage of the Childcare Support Bill through the Houses of the Oireachtas in a timely manner.  The early passage of the legislation is important so as to limit potential risks to the ICT development timelines and cost for the scheme.  This is because any potential changes that may arise during the legislative process could affect the requirements already set out for ICT development.  The earlier the legislation is passed, the more security can be given regarding ICT development timelines.

ICT Development

Since announcing the creation of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, I have been constant in my belief that the development of this system must meet the highest standards of scrutiny and testing so that it can form the basis for generations of investment in childcare in Ireland.  To this end, we submitted our plans for the development of the main IT system for the ACS to scrutiny by a Peer Review Group (PRG) at the OGCIO (Office of the Government Chief Information Officer). This is to ensure that we are meeting the best standards across a range of measures and that mistakes of previous national IT projects are not repeated.

We passed the first stage of the peer review group process in September of last year. I am delighted to announce today that the OGCIO has now approved the Request For Tender (RFT) stage. The RFT stage is a critical one and has required intensive input from all parties to get it right.

Although it is great news that the RFT has now been approved, we experienced some delays during this stage.  Originally, we had proposed to procure the IT system via a Framework Agreement.  However, after detailed legal scrutiny of this Agreement by the Chief State Solicitors Office, we concluded that it was not suitable for this particular development and, accordingly, an alternative approach is now being progressed.  This approach entails a full open tender procurement process which is, by its nature, lengthier and more complex than procuring services under a Framework Agreement.  The Chief State Solicitors Office gave us priority and has worked intensively with us to ensure that a rigorous, quality procurement process is conducted in the shortest possible timeframe. My Department, in turn, is working closely with Pobal regarding the subsequent awarding and management of the contract.

Before I discuss the timeframe for the ACS, I would like to add a further point regarding the management of ACS project.  It may be worth noting that the PRG has provided positive feedback on the quality of documentation provided and the project management and governance structures. The PRG also confirmed its positive views on data protection measures planned for the ACS.

Administrative and other components

Finally, other aspects of the scheme’s general development, such as governance frameworks, data protection policies and procedures, communications strategies and administrative arrangements are also progressing as planned.

Timeline for ACS

While much has been achieved, it is not possible to set out a definitive timeline for the scheme’s launch at this time. As I discussed with you before, this is because the timeframe is dependent upon ICT development. We will publish the RFT immediately and once we have completed this stage of the IT element of the project and have the successful developer in place, we will be able to confirm and communicate a timeline for the full introduction of the scheme. I am committed to updating colleagues on this as soon as I can. However, given the pre-determined timelines involved in an open tender process, I can confirm that the present suite of supports for families will continue in September 2018.

The introduction of the full Affordable Childcare Scheme marks a radical redesign of the legal and technical infrastructure underpinning the government’s subvention of childcare in this country.  The scheme will provide a flexible, sustainable and high quality platform for future investment. It is therefore a system that deserves to be robustly designed and developed, and rigorously tested, to ensure we get it right first time and that it serves us well over the long-term. Families in Ireland and providers of early years care and education deserve no less.

While we continue this critical work, I want to remind the Committee that the vast majority of those eligible for support via the ACS are already receiving comparable supports through the interim measures put in place by my department. In other words, I have sought to fast-track many of the benefits of the ACS without compromising on the rigour and time needed to develop and launch this landmark new scheme. Budget 2018 also enabled a focus on quality measures, as outlined previously, and including, for example, an increase to ECCE capitation from September of this year to further support Early Years providers.

I will be very happy to answer questions, and I welcome colleagues from my Department who will join me in responding to specific queries.

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