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Childcare Strategy

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:30 pm on 20th April 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 1:30 pm, 20th April 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its concern at the lack of availability of affordable, quality childcare; and calls on the Executive to implement a coherent and properly resourced childcare strategy.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to move the motion. Sinn Féin will support the amendment, because its insertion will not change the thrust of the motion.

Childcare is an important issue for everyone in society, particularly for families. Ireland still trails other EU countries in the accessibility and affordability of childcare. There is a lack of flexible and age-appropriate childcare provision here. Despite the fact that the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people prioritised childcare, the numbers of day-care nursery places and places with registered childminders have fallen since 2002.

Although some Departments have funded childcare provision, a major deficit remains. Currently, there is only one place per 6·4 children under the age of four, and there are fewer than 40,000 registered childcare places for the 310,000 children under 12 years of age. Therefore, spaces for older children — particularly those over 10 years of age — and children with disabilities are still limited.

The provision of flexible, quality and affordable childcare that meets the needs of all children and parents is the responsibility of a number of Departments, which is why we tabled the motion. A cross-departmental approach to the issue, through the Executive, is essential to ensure that a properly resourced childcare strategy is developed and implemented. Such a strategy would have a crucial role to play in ensuring that flexible, high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare provision exists for all families who wish, or need, to avail themselves of it.

Childcare is a critical issue for women’s equality, and the lack of adequate childcare places in the North of Ireland is a major barrier for women who wish to return to education or employment. Women are still viewed as the main carers in society, and that remains the case with caring for children. Better childcare provision will enable more women to access education, training and paid employment, which would help the economy and provide women with better choices in all aspects of their life.

That choice is also important for women who choose to stay at home with their children, because they must also have access to home-based and group support services. The role and contribution of the people who offer those services needs to be recognised, as does the role of parents who choose to stay at home with their children.

Better childcare provision clearly has a central role to play in helping to reduce child poverty, given that a lack of access to affordable childcare is one of the most significant barriers to securing employment for people from low-income families or families who are living in poverty. Improving childcare provision would also enable parents who rely on benefits, for instance, to progress to better employment and, therefore, get out of the poverty trap.

Recent legislation on welfare reform will see the benefit that is provided to parents — including lone parents — change to jobseeker’s allowance when their child turns 12 years old. However, the absence of a statutory duty on local authorities here to service the demand for childcare facilities means that it will be difficult for parents to have access to childcare facilities while they are at work, and that is a particular problem for women.

Childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe, and parents here receive the lowest subsidies towards meeting those costs. Some European countries subsidise childcare costs by up to 75%, whereas, in the North of Ireland, the figure is still only 25%.

The tax credit system that allows relatives to become childminders is also important. In 2002, a significant shortfall in childcare places in the North of Ireland was reported, and almost two thirds of unemployed mothers said that a lack of adequate childcare deterred them from seeking work or constrained them in their choice of job.

The lack of local community-based childcare places has had an impact on families living in rural communities and low-income families in particular, because public transport might not be available to bring children to and from crèches and childminders. Therefore, some such families will be unable to access those facilities.

A recent review by a rural childcare group recommended a number of specific targets aimed at improving childcare provision in rural areas. It is important that those targets are included in any strategy. It is also important that parents can choose between different types of childcare provision, because some people prefer crèche facilities or after-school groups while others prefer childminders.

It was reported that a 20% increase in the number of childminders would be needed if the current demand were to be met — that was reported in 2002. Unfortunately, there has actually been a decrease in the number of childminders rather than an increase, which has resulted in many parents having to employ relatives to care for their children. Unfortunately, as I pointed out earlier, relatives who act as childminders do not have access to the childcare element of the tax credit system. That is a further financial burden for people who need childcare facilities, because they have to pay for it out of their own pockets instead of being able to claim for it through the tax credit system.

A change to that system would result in more people seeing childcare as a clearly defined career that could be developed and coming forward to become registered childminders. It would ensure also that quality services are provided for children — a suitably qualified workforce is always essential for that.

In England, a transformation fund is available that provides people working in childcare with opportunities, so that a more professional early-years workforce can be established. I hope that implementing such a fund here is something that will be considered.

Differing needs exist, but they are all central to any strategy on childcare provision. As I said, children with disabilities have particular needs, as do lone parents or groups of people who are socially excluded. Childcare provision needs to be flexible and reflect the differing needs of parents, including those who do shift work or work at weekends.

There is a lack of information on what kinds of childcare facilities are available. Some women’s organisations believe that it would be extremely helpful for some sort of directory to be developed providing details on the types of facilities available and the localities in which they are based.

As I said in my opening remarks, although some Departments fund childcare spaces, more needs to be done. I hope that the Assembly will support the motion, which calls on the Executive to implement a coherent and properly resourced childcare strategy. Such a strategy will ensure the availability of affordable, quality and flexible childcare provision for children and parents who need it. Go raibh maith agat

I

"Women are still viewed as the main carers in society"

An archaic view, many men are Carers, a term usually reserved for those who care for the sick and disabled.

A proper definition of "Carers" is needed.

Submitted by Ian Sandeman

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP 1:45 pm, 20th April 2009

I beg to move the following amendment: After the first “childcare” insert

“and the lack of provision for people who require flexible arrangements to allow them to avail of working opportunities in the evenings, overnight and at weekends, particularly in the current economic climate”

I thank Ms McCann for clarifying that the amendment is an insertion to the motion and that none of the original motion will be deleted should the amendment be made. I thank also those who tabled the motion — it is an excellent motion as it relates to an important topic and is very timely.

From the outset of the debate, we need to be honest about the state of childcare services in Northern Ireland. The problems that we face are fundamental. Not only is our childcare provision “woefully inadequate”, according to a report on an inquiry into child poverty that was published by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but, as Ms McCann outlined, the number of childcare places is actually falling.

Additionally, we appear to have no leadership on the issue. There is some dispute as to who has responsibility for this complex but critical area, and neither decision nor strategy is coming forward. That is the situation, despite the stated commitment to an anti-poverty agenda. We need a cross-departmental strategy.

In the meantime, we are struggling with outdated views on who needs childcare, why they need it, and what types of services are needed. My amendment addresses directly one area of our childcare provision that needs immediate attention: flexibility. The childcare services that are on offer here are designed largely to accommodate a nine-to-five working day. However, the traditional Monday-to-Friday eight-hour day is long gone, and for many families it never really existed. Parents are working evenings and weekends and often through the night. Many parents have to respond quickly to unforeseen developments at work or to unscheduled shift changes, and they need to make last-minute arrangements to care for their children. Even those who work regular hours often struggle to find adequate care for children during the school holidays. The lack of flexible childcare and the expense of childcare to cover unsocial hours — for those who can find it — are serious problems for parents who are struggling to respond to the demands of the current work environment and to the needs of their families.

In addition to flexibility, there are other serious gaps in our childcare services. If we were looking for a road map on this issue, we would find that the Shankill Women’s Centre delivered one. Three years ago, the centre gathered together local women for a series of workshops to discuss education, employment, health and childcare. Even though childcare was a separate topic in those discussions, it dominated every other issue. The women of the Shankill area felt that there was no point in talking about opportunities in employment, training, education or health if childcare were not addressed first.

I have no doubt that the situation is the same in other areas such as the Falls, Whiterock and Ballymacarrett that are struggling with high levels of deprivation. The women of the Shankill called for five standards in childcare to be met. Childcare had to be affordable, of a high quality, flexible, accessible, and appropriate to need and age.

In 1999, the Department of Health determined that a family with two children that is on an average income could pay out as much as one third of that income on childcare when the children were under five years of age. Even with the Labour Government’s new financial support for those families, childcare takes a significant bite out of the monthly budget.

The absence of affordable childcare is one of the most significant barriers to employment, education and training for households that are struggling financially. Many parents who would be inclined to move into paid work are not doing so because the combination of lower wages and higher childcare costs in Northern Ireland means that it does not make financial sense. It also means that, too often, families have to select childcare based on what they can afford, rather than on the environment in which they know that their child would thrive.

Research has shown that the quality of childcare services can vary significantly and that cost is not always connected directly to quality. People do not always get a better service for a higher price. Even though minding children — especially small children — is undoubtedly the hardest and most important work that there is, the wages in that field tend to be low, and the job, as a profession, is undervalued.

We need national standards for childcare and a transformation fund that will allow childcare workers to enhance and increase their professional skills and move along a clearly defined and well-rewarded career path. Such a fund could also allow childcare providers to upgrade their physical environment, programmes and services.

As has been noted, any need for childcare facilities outside the hours of 7.30 am to 6.00 pm is considered irregular. It is difficult to find adequate childcare outside those hours, and, if people can find it, they will pay a premium for it. We need to increase financial support for parents who work outside those hours. That would allow them to afford that care, and it would create incentives for nurseries and childminders to be available during what are seen as unsocial hours.

There have been proposals to amend the tax credits system to allow parents to claim childcare credits for a family member, particularly grandparents, to mind their children. That would provide immediate flexibility for a number of families, provide a small income for grandparents living on increasingly inadequate pensions, and ideally, offer a caring and familiar environment for children. However, we need to see that proposal materialise.

Childcare services need to be local, and parents need to be able to get to them easily. I challenge any Member who has not already done so to take on the Olympic sport of trying to get on and off a bus in the rain with a toddler, an infant, a pram, and the shopping. If parents cannot get to services easily and if it takes too long to get there, the value of the services quickly diminishes.

A number of women’s centres and community centres offer excellent childcare services for their surrounding areas, despite struggling with uncertainties with funding. We need to offer those programmes assured long-term funding and introduce capital grants for the development of childcare facilities in areas where there is a demonstrated need.

There is very little childcare provision in Northern Ireland for disabled children. In addition, older children are being left out: there are few age-appropriate services for children between eight and 14. That may reach crisis point in a few years if it is not addressed, when welfare reforms move lone parents from income support to jobseeker’s allowance. The stated goal of those reforms is to move more lone parents into paid employment and move children out of poverty. However, if childcare is not dealt with, instead of helping those parents to move on and up, we will simply pull away a safety net, and there is a real risk that we will make their situation worse rather than better. The Childcare Act 2006 requires local authorities in England and Wales to meet the new demands for childcare that will be created by welfare reforms, and the Executive need to take immediate action to ensure that the same happens in Northern Ireland.

The gaps in childcare provision that the women of the Shankill identified are real barriers to parents, especially to women, re-entering the workforce. It is not only employment that is hampered by insufficient childcare services. All the programmes that Ministers have proudly outlined in the Chamber over the past few weeks to improve education, skills training, health and well-being and community services will be undersubscribed by parents of young children — by women in particular — if the need for affordable childcare is not addressed.

We have marginalised childcare because we have failed to appreciate its full impact on our society and our economy. We have approached it as an optional policy issue, mistakenly assuming that it is about accommodating the wishes of women who choose to be in paid employment rather than stay at home with their children. However, for the majority of families in need of childcare it is not a matter of choice. Those parents need quality, accessible, affordable childcare, not because they would like to work but because they have to work. For many households with two wage earners, the second income makes all the difference. At best, it generates some flexibility in their finances, but for many families the second wage quite simply keeps them out of financial dire straits or even poverty.

For lone parents, the lack of affordable childcare is the primary barrier to employment. There are nearly 92,000 lone parents in Northern Ireland, caring for 150,000 children. Eighty-seven per cent of those families are headed by a mother, and 60% of lone parents are in debt. We need to stop treating childcare and the quality and accessibility of childcare services as though they were luxuries to accommodate a lifestyle option. They are matters of necessity and, in many cases, survival.

Let us also continue to dismantle the myths that childcare is a women’s issue or that every family has a granny who is ready and able to step in and mind children while their parents are at work. Those are outdated and misguided perspectives that create hurdles to delivering quality childcare.

The dearth of appropriate childcare seriously inhibits skills development, further education, innovation and entrepreneurship by and for women. We are in a recession in which people are carrying vast amounts of personal debt, and impeding the ability of parents, particularly women, to maximise their earnings will only slow our recovery. Insufficient childcare support is inhibiting business growth and innovation, and we are fighting for economic recovery with one hand tied behind our back.

My amendment is meant to help to expand the picture of childcare —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

— and I hope that my colleagues in the Chamber can support it and that we can work with the Executive to deliver the proposals.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party; my colleagues and I are happy to support both the motion and the amendment. Childcare is a matter that every parent has to deal with at some stage. Yet, no matter how desperate their need for childcare, they will always be most concerned that the childcare is good and that they are leaving their children with people who are properly trained and in an environment that is safe and secure.

It is vital that in seeking to improve its affordability and accessibility, we do not lose sight of the need for childcare to be exemplary. I am glad that the motion makes that point.

The quality of childcare increased in the first six years after the publication in 1999 of ‘Children First — A Policy Statement’, but we must ensure that standards do not slip. The motion’s call for the Executive to provide a childcare strategy is depressingly familiar. The motion’s origins lie in last summer’s OFMDFM report on child poverty. That report followed the 2005 review of ‘Children First’, which claimed to represent the beginnings of a strategy when it was first published in 1999. Unfortunately, such a strategy has still not been published.

In the report, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister called on the Department to increase the level of good-quality, affordable childcare; to improve the level of appropriate, affordable childcare for children who are less able; to improve access to affordable childcare in rural areas; to reduce the length of time that it takes to become registered as a childminder; to reverse the decline in registered childminders that some parts of Northern Ireland are experiencing; and to enhance the training and development of staff who work in early-years settings. All those areas are definite priorities as we look at childcare, and if implemented, they will go a long way to solving many of our society’s varied problems.

Childcare can play a large role in early-years development. Adequate early-years provision improves the academic attainment of children in schooling. Affordable childcare, therefore, plays a vital role in allowing parents — particularly single parents — to get back into work if they wish to do so. It also helps by reducing spend on benefits and by adding to the economy’s productivity. Adequate childcare provision is a necessity for a society that wishes to be as productive and as driven by equality of opportunity as it possibly can be.

As we have done with so many other issues, we have consulted and reported on the issue of childcare almost to death over the past 10 years. The motion and the amendment are reasonable, and what is called for is badly needed. However, it is not a new call for action, because we have known for the past decade that action is needed. The issue highlights that devolution is best for Northern Ireland and can work for the people of Northern Ireland. It puts local Ministers, who have the necessary time and resources, in charge of the matter.

The Committee’s view, and my own, is that the time for studies, reports and consultations is over. That has been done, and endless pages of analysis and policy already exist. It is now well beyond the time for the Executive not to be doing what they were elected to do, and what they promised to do. They must make a difference for the people of Northern Ireland by providing adequate and proper childcare.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 2:00 pm, 20th April 2009

I support the motion and thank the Members who brought it to the Chamber. I shall focus on the introduction to the Northern Ireland Childminding Association’s (NICMA) briefing paper, ‘Childminder Start-Up Package’, which states:

“The right for families to have access to affordable, quality childcare is fundamental to Northern Ireland’s future economic prosperity, to tackling child poverty, and to achieving the best possible outcomes for all children.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, as I am sure do many other Members.

Long gone are the days when the majority of families could get by on one wage, with many mums staying at home to look after the children. Most working mothers in the Province do so out of necessity rather than desire. In most families, both partners must work in order to pay the mortgage. Maternity leave entitles mothers to a few months’ pay, but what happens after that? The bills do not take a break simply because a mother has had a child. Indeed, as the proud grandfather of a beautiful baby girl, I know that the bills increase, and I am not just referring to the Northern Ireland football kit that we bought for her when she was born.

Whor daes this lae maist mithers? Haein tae gaun bak tae wark is tha ansur. Whau dae ye lae yeer wane wi? Thee ser sum femelies, whuch er extended, an fowk caun rely oan freens tae mien the wane. This is a guid blessin; hooaniver, a’ muckle nummer o’ haems daenae hae this oapshin, an tha next best thing is tae pae fer a regestered chileminder tae tak caer o’ yer wane fer ye.

Whuther this is in tha foarm o’ haem caer er state-provided nursery schuills an play centers, ye need tae mak shair that yer wane is safe en that ye er abel tae lae it wi’ peese o’ mien. Tha proablim is that ther is a’ shoartage o’ regestered chileminders an this lack is gittin wor.

Where does that leave most mothers? They have to go back to work, but with whom do they leave their children? Some families are extended, and mothers can rely on relations to mind their children. That is a real blessing; however, a large number of families do not have that option.

The next best option is to pay for a registered childminder to take care of children for you. Whether by using home care, state-provided nursery schools or play centres, one must make sure that one’s child is safe. Parents must have peace of mind when they leave their children. The problem is the shortage of registered childminders in Northern Ireland, and that shortage is getting worse.

Registered childminding is by far the most popular and affordable form of full-time childcare in Northern Ireland; it accounts for some 76% of the full-time places and 44% of all childcare places. There was a 90% drop in the supply of places with registered childminders in the three years to March 2006.

NICMA has told me of its proposals for helping to solve the problem of day care for children. They are constructive, and entail the Executive funding an innovative childminder start-up package. That is a positive way to address these issues. The package includes childminder start-up grants to encourage more individuals to choose childminding and to go through the registration process. The grants will help with the cost of setting up and registering as a childminding business. They will be of particular benefit in areas of social deprivation in which childminding provision is low. Individuals in such areas find the start-up costs associated with becoming a childminder — such as buying equipment and insurance — particularly difficult to meet. Another constructive suggestion is for the provision of one-to-one mentoring support for individuals as they go through the registration process. NICMA has also suggested the provision of a personal adviser to support new recruits. Those are good and important suggestions.

In the survey of parents and childcare in Northern Ireland, it was shown that there was a clear shortfall in the provision of childcare places, particularly in rural areas and in eastern parts of the Province — and, indeed, in the area that I represent; it would be wrong of me not to mention that in the Chamber today. A 20% expansion in the number of childminders is needed to meet the demand. There has been a significant increase in the use of unregistered childminders, which increases the potential risk to children. The proposal requires only £300,000 annually for an initial period of three years. It would enable the roll-out of the childminders’ start-up package across Northern Ireland, with priority given to the areas most in need of childminding provision.

Something must be done. I ask the Minister to consider seriously and as a matter of urgency the implementation here of schemes that have been implemented on the mainland. They have done it there, and it has been successful. Let us see whether we can do the same here.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

If we are to reach our full economic potential, we must ensure that all those able to work are doing so, and childminding is important in that.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and the amendment.

Childcare is important from the perspective of child, parent and service provider. It is a tool essential to bringing us all out of this economic downturn. We are experiencing a great shift in attitudes: there is now an acceptance that equality plays a part in all aspects of life, including childcare. Any provision must be child-centred and suitable for the needs of the workforce during this difficult economic period. A flexible and equality-driven service must be the core of any strategy, and such strategies must be open, transparent and contributed to by all Ministers. In the delivery of such a service, there must be a strong interdepartmental element.

The cost of childcare is too great for many families. We need affordable provision that encourages parents to get back to work and dispels the belief that it is not worth working because one will only work to pay for one’s childcare. If we get more people back to work, we stand a better chance of stimulating the economy by increasing the disposable income of working parents, rather than increasing the number of those dependent on benefits.

The fiasco of the working tax credit, and all the controversy that goes with that, is really off-putting for many people who are considering going back to work, together with the fact that the childcare element of it is not available if the carer is a relative. That is the case for many people in Northern Ireland, where, for example, many grandparents provide childcare. The lack of places is high on the complaints list, as is the need for a more flexible service to fit the needs of the flexi-worker.

It is essential that the Assembly take on board the need for investment in childcare provision if we are to see a return on the economy and the rebirth of a more flexible and more accessible childcare system that is open and available to all. We must speculate to accumulate in this particular instance. It is only through utilising that attitude that there will be any valuable change for our constituents and their families. The lack of funding in early-years and special-needs childcare is a real problem, and one that will continue to rear its head until properly dealt with. I hope that the Minister of Education will take that problem on board and consider it accordingly.

The choice element is vital if parents are to have peace of mind when they place their child in a crèche or childcare environment. The upshot is that we should reap the benefits in the long term and get the chance to provide care for primary-school children who, according to many studies, are not really receiving age-appropriate childcare at the minute. If we can provide age-appropriate after-school care, we may — and I stress “may” — see a shift in the attitudes of our pre-teenagers and, in the long run, may even see a more respectful generation.

I think that it is obvious from today’s debate and the various contributions that childcare requires a properly considered strategy with interdepartmental contributions. Such a strategy should develop a healthier economy and a more stable and happier family environment and have the interests of the child at its heart. Childcare must be local, quality, flexible and accessible. That is what we need to provide, and it is up to the Executive to provide it. Constituents who are the parents of disabled children or children with special needs are blindsided when it comes to childcare and, often, can only access some respite care but not permanent childcare.

I request that all Ministers take heed of what has been said today and act accordingly. The scoping exercise being carried out by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister needs to be delivered and needs to be delivered soon. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Members who tabled the debate for bringing the issue before the House. The issue of accessible and affordable childcare is something that we need to concentrate on. I support the motion, which calls for a coherent and, perhaps most importantly, properly resourced strategy. I also support the amendment, which highlights the need for such a strategy to take into account irregular and flexible working hours. People do not always work nine-to-five or family friendly hours, and that has to be taken into account when we try to provide a strategy. If people do indeed want to be able to work, they have to have the flexibility to take the employment that is on offer.

During the OFMDFM Committee’s study of child poverty, it was stated time and time again by contributors and witnesses, and highlighted in the research, that the best way to alleviate poverty and to break cycles of deprivation is to increase access to employment. Although the benefits system has been, and continues to be, amended to try to mitigate poverty and alleviate its worst effects, if significant step changes are to be achieved in people’s living experience, increasing stable employment is the only option. Certainly, it is key to improving outcomes. However, it was just as frequently recognised that the lack of affordable and flexible childcare was a major limiting factor affecting access to training in preparation for work, access to employment, and people’s flexibility within employment.

Research carried out by the Equality Commission — I think in 2003 — was brought before the Committee. It suggested that 67% of women stated the lack of affordable childcare as a factor in preventing them from taking up paid employment. Not only that, it showed that over 25% of mothers were constrained in the hours that they could work due to childcare, and a further 20% were limited in the jobs that they could take. It is not just about getting a job; it is about getting equal access to well-paid, stable employment, and to promotion opportunities once in employment.

That has an impact on the family and on the individuals whose personal aspirations can be frustrated and thwarted. It also has implications for the wider economy, because people have skills and talents that cannot be fully harnessed by the economy due to that constraining factor.

Indeed, we were told that the current provision was woefully inadequate, and that where it existed, it was sparse and often expensive. The Committee took that point on board in its discussions. However, that was not the only problem. There has been a lack of strategic direction coming from the Executive in what is a key aspect of the Programme for Government’s pledge to support the economy.

In 1999, the ‘Children First’ childcare strategy first emerged. It was reviewed in 2005 and a final report was published. We are now in another review situation, but an active strategy encompassing the preschool and school-age aspects of childcare is not in place.

In 2007, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) considered rural issues specifically. Undoubtedly, there are rural aspects to childcare, but it is not purely a rural issue. The problem of being able to gain access to childcare can be exacerbated by geographical factors, but the issue is much wider. Also, it is unclear as to how those recommendations are feeding into the process of producing a strategic overview for the entire Executive.

People in multiple deprivations and with other family factors are further disadvantaged when accessing childcare, and that was shown in much of the research. Also, people from a low-income background, those who work part time, those who work outside traditional work patterns, and families in which one or more family member has a disability, find access to childcare incredibly difficult. If the family member with a disability happens to be a child, it can be more difficult still. Legally, they have the right to access, but often a parent is required to be present in the childcare facility. That, in itself, prevents that parent from seeking employment.

Clear lines of responsibility are lacking, and that must be addressed. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) were involved originally; DARD and OFMDFM also have some input. However, there is no clarity regarding the lines of responsibility for school-age childcare, and that was highlighted repeatedly during the study undertaken by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Both Departments came to the Committee a week apart and said that it was not their problem. The matter must be clarified and pressed home with those Departments.

I suspect that the debate will raise little that is not already known and acknowledged. However, a measure of its usefulness will be in the appropriateness of the Executive’s response.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP 2:15 pm, 20th April 2009

We debate this important matter in the context of falling levels of childcare provision in Northern Ireland. Between 2002 and 2007, the overall number of day-care places fell by 1%, and places with registered childminders are down by 17% since 2002. That is deeply worrying and it is, without doubt, an important matter that must be addressed in the Province.

Quality affordable childcare is essential in allowing the development of a modern workforce. Women, including mothers, are a key element of the workforce, and as a Province, we must utilise all our resources, including human resources, to reinvigorate the economy. However, there is currently a huge barrier preventing that from happening. Sixty-seven per cent of women refer to the lack of affordable quality childcare as the main barrier to entering employment. That is no fault of theirs: it is the failure of the system. That must be addressed, and barriers to employment must be removed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member accept that since the decision was taken to end the Executive programme fund for children, a gap has materialised that no Department, or Departments collectively, co-ordinated by OFMDFM, have filled? The extended schools programme is only partially funded, and that other stream of funding has ended. Will the Member accept that a considerable period has elapsed since that decision was taken and that, as yet, the gap has not been addressed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member will have a minute added to his time.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

It is a cross-departmental issue. Some Departments have washed their hands of it, and I will touch upon a particular example of that, which has occurred in my own constituency.

The Members who tabled the motion are seeking to tackle the problem through an Executive-led strategy. By doing so, they are seeking, what I believe to be, the responsibility of their party colleague, the Minister of Education. Although there is no doubt that if the necessary investment were made in that key provision, children’s learning skills would improve, unsurprisingly, all that has come from the responsible Minister has been another failure to act in children’s best interests.

Let me provide a brief example of such a failure. Let me take Members to the Sandy Row area of my constituency, where the Kids Into Training and Education project — the KITE project, as it is known — has suffered at the hands of the Minister of Education. That fantastic project, which, every week, serves hundreds of kids in one of the most deprived areas of Belfast, has been refused funding by the Department of Education. I must say that I concur with the sentiments of local pastor Paul Burns who said that the Minister, like Pontius Pilate, has washed her hands of the whole affair. Not only has the Minister refused to help those kids, but, in doing so, she is barring local mothers who depend on KITE childcare from going out to work. Despite that, the Minister claims that the issue is nothing to do with her Department.

Thanks to money from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which was allocated through the Department of Health, the project is now being funded for a period of time through PlayBoard. Fortunately, those bodies recognise the importance of such a project in my constituency. It is time that the Department of Education and, indeed, all Departments consider the importance of projects and the vital work that they do in those communities, particularly in areas such as Sandy Row.

Present in the Chamber today are mothers who, without childcare, could not do the work of an Assembly Member and public representative. More must be done to give women such as those mothers in Sandy Row freedom to enter the workforce and realise their potential. As individuals, they will benefit, their family units will welcome the extra income, and everyone will benefit from the contribution that women make to Northern Ireland’s growing economy.

My party and I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt ar son an rúin agus an leasaithe.

The motion concerns economics: it is about the economics of our society. I will quote from the statement provided earlier by the First Minister on behalf of himself and the deputy First Minister:

“This statement is but a further demonstration of our determination to take whatever actions are open to us to combat the economic difficulties…by harnessing the wisdom and knowledge of those most affected by the current economic situation, we can navigate our way through the present difficulties.”

If the Executive are able to manage a properly funded and resourced childcare facility in the North, it will go a great way towards helping us to navigate our way out of our current economic difficulties, because the people most affected by the downturn — those who live in socially deprived areas — are those who find it most difficult to find childcare facilities. As the statistics and reports that have already been mentioned, and which I will not repeat, demonstrate, there is a requirement for greater investment in childcare facilities.

Indeed, in the statement that she made prior to the debate, the Minister for Social Development outlined her proposals for the reconfiguration of social security offices. One of the deepest concerns among the agency’s workers, particularly those who are female, is that if they are forced to travel long distances to work, or their rotas are changed and they are unable to access childcare facilities, they may have to leave their jobs. Therefore, the issue affects a wide range of people in both our workforce and our potential workforce.

There is a deficit in rural childcare facilities, and that has a wide effect. I know many parents in rural areas who drive past their local rural primary school into the town and then go to work. They send their children to urban primary schools because they have more chance of accessing childcare facilities after school hours there than they do in the rural community. That means that rural schools are affected, and that has a knock-on effect across society.

Workers in childcare professions must be both looked after and paid adequately. As Dawn Purvis said, there must be a professional element to their training and to the achievement of professional qualifications to ensure that the profession, which provides a vital service to society, is cherished.

At this stage of the debate, many points have been rehearsed, and I do not intend to repeat them. I support the motion and the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until that time. The debate will continue after Question Time, when Mr Moutray will be the next Member to speak.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)