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Cianan Brennan: What's the point of cutting childcare costs if providers can't afford to stay open?

Those are just two of Green TD Roderic O’Gorman’s five portfolios, and they generate enough work to keep an entire Government busy.

Since he took over responsibility for asylum seeker accommodation and direct provision from the Department of Justice in October 2020, Mr O’Gorman’s lot has been a difficult one, compounded by the breaking out of hostilities in eastern Europe which have seen an unprecedented number of displaced people arriving on Irish shores.

It is his job to find somewhere for them all to stay, and on any average Tuesday, the minister’s announcement this week of an additional €1bn in funding to that end would have been his chief headline maker.

However, Mr O’Gorman is also responsible for childcare, a sector which has been neglected by successive governments for decades, say advocates.

It is his misfortune that he has done more to alleviate the financial pressures on parents with children in childcare than any of his immediate predecessors, and still he is deeply unpopular.

As a parent of three children, my family felt the immediate benefit of the introduction of the Government’s core funding policy in September 2022, with childcare fees overnight dropping from among the worst in Europe to somewhere around mid-table.

While those fees still amount to the cost of a second mortgage, they are at least more manageable than they were.

The problem is, as was evidenced beyond any reasonable doubt by the childcare protests at Dáil Éireann on Tuesday, the injection of nearly €300m in funding per annum has helped parents alright, but it has not done much for the services themselves.

There is not much point in having affordable childcare if there are no services left to provide it, or if those providers are receiving such a small return that they would be better off shutting their doors and finding another way to make a living.

In a way, the financial issues with childcare in Ireland are reminiscent of those seen in similar caring-style professions, notably teaching and nursing. We all agree they provide an absolutely essential service, yet major issues in funding have been evident for years.

In the case of childcare, I can only surmise this is because not all voters are parents, and many of those who are parents either are not dependent on paid-for childcare or no longer have children of an age that require it.

Because it is surely bonkers beyond comprehension that we would be willing to entrust the most precious gifts we will ever have, our children, to other people and expect in tandem that they be paid a pittance for it.

To be fair, it is to the Government’s credit that it finally elected to do something tangible about childcare in Ireland with the introduction of core funding.

But how much credit can you really apportion when the custodians of the State are doing what frankly is the bare minimum to support parents, who are after all raising the generations of the future?

It would be more appropriate surely to condemn what went before, when the entire system was left at the mercy of the free market and private enterprise — something that transpired frankly because Ireland did not manage to leave behind the trappings of the past when mothers were, shamefully, expected to stay at home and that was that.

Why do we expect those who perform services such as childcare to get by for less because they do a job that amounts to a vocation? It is the million dollar question.

Regardless, on Tuesday, about 2,000 childcare professionals descended on Leinster House at the same time that Mr O’Gorman was making his asylum seeker funding announcement on the far side of Government Buildings, the optics and timing of which were far from ideal.

To a man and woman, those present at the protest were frustrated and irritated in equal measure, most notably with Mr O’Gorman. The feeling is that core funding has been given a chance, and one year on it has done little or nothing to alleviate the cost pressures on services. If the funding is there, businesses are not seeing it, was the broad take — more funding required, more transparency required.

Childcare businesses were mandated to freeze their fees when core funding came in in order to avail of it, at a time of an inflationary crisis not seen for 30 years.

As a result, pay increases for workers have been minimal (the minimum rate per hour for early years workers is €13 under a new employment regulation order, which remains below the living wage), and businesses claim that they either are having to borrow to stay afloat or are barely keeping their heads above water while saddled with the additional administrative burden which comes with core funding, an acknowledged paperwork-fest.

As anyone who remembers the water charges protests will attest, a movement is a difficult thing to come by. It is not easy getting disparate amounts of people in separate locations with different news radars and interests to come together in unison.

Federation of Early Childhood Providers chairwoman Elaine Dunne during a protest over Government funding at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Federation of Early Childhood Providers chairwoman Elaine Dunne during a protest over Government funding at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

On Tuesday, the Federation of Early Childhood Providers (FECP) and its chairwoman Elaine Dunne managed that. If they did it once, they can do it again. Together with the frustration evident on Tuesday was a sense of camaraderie and relief that something was happening.

One Dublin creche leader of my acquaintance, not prone to flights of fancy, told me afterwards that she had felt overcome with emotion at the experience, “at seeing so many others who are burnt out from going through the same experience that I am, completely overworked, underpaid, and no one applying for the jobs you have”.

The tactics deployed by the FECP have come in for criticism by the Government and ministers, who claimed the protest was unwarranted.

The department is likewise incredulous that the vast coffers of core funding are not enough to combat the current rate of inflation.

None of that matters, however. Ms Dunne has pulled the childcare sector together into a unit. If that continues, it would be disastrous for the Government to ignore them.

The creche leader I mentioned above, who is utterly convinced that it is current department policy that small childcare businesses be forced to close, is of the opinion that the minister “just doesn’t get it”.

Mr O’Gorman said at his own press conference that the removal of the fee freeze is not going to happen. At the same time, however, he refused repeatedly to reiterate his own prior commitment to reducing childcare fees by a further 25% in the coming budget, a statement flatly contradicted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil 10 minutes later.

If the minister truly does not ‘get it’, he may have to do some urgent cramming.

As things stand, the childcare profession sees him as public enemy number one, and as the Taoiseach showed with his Dáil statement, Mr O’Gorman can no longer rely on help from his own Cabinet comrades.