Shortly after I took office, I established the rural childcare stakeholder group, and I was pleased to present its report ‘Rural Childcare: Investing in the Future’ to the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people last year. The report contains a number of recommendations for my Department, as well as some cross-cutting recommendations.
As a working mother and a rural dweller, I know at first hand how important it is to have access to affordable, accessible, good childcare. I am keen to play my part so that more rural families have support to allow them to consider taking up work or training opportunities. My officials are finalising the details of a rural childcare programme, which is anticipated to open for applications early this summer. That programme will be funded from my Department’s rural anti-poverty and social inclusion framework, which will spend £10 million addressing poverty and exclusion in rural areas.
My officials are working with other Departments on the other recommendations for rural childcare as part of the development of the rural champion concept and the rural White Paper. Work is ongoing to ensure that the rural aspects of childcare are taken into account by, for example, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in its work on examining childcare across the North, and the Department of Education in its early-years strategy.
I will continue to advocate the needs of rural children, in particular, through my membership of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. I asked the question in the context of matters arising from child poverty. Is the Minister considering issues such as transport, which is one important factor that has been raised? Moreover, has the issue of school-age childcare been resolved, and are any discussions ongoing on that matter?
There are five priority areas in our rural anti-poverty and social inclusion framework, one of which is rural transport. Access to good, affordable childcare in rural areas that helps people to take up employment or training is a route out of poverty, and, as such, it is very important that we provide childcare that reflects the specific needs of rural dwellers. For example, people may have long distances to travel, so childcare providers must open early and be flexible for parents who do shift work, and so on. We need to ensure that rural dwellers have as equitable access to services and opportunities as urban dwellers.
One reason that I initiated the rural childcare stakeholder group is that it is clear that there is no parity of provision for rural children. We must recognise that for a private childcare provider, one important element in determining whether a business will be successful is the critical mass that it has to draw upon. Therefore, what is suitable in Camlough will not necessarily be suitable in Tullyreagh. We need to ensure that the Government help, where possible. That is why we are rolling out a number of pilot projects to try to address the need in rural areas that might not otherwise work. We recognise the difficulty that exists and the geographical area that a rural childcare provider must cover when trying to make a business work.
I said at my first meeting with the childcare group that we should not try to reinvent the wheel, but should look at other childcare reports that had previously been commissioned, draw on those experiences and try to keep our project time limited.
It was very clear that although there may be some difficulty in accessing childcare in some urban areas, no specific study of rural provision had been carried out. I felt that I, as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, should use the opportunity to ensure that children and parents in rural areas can access childcare and that they are not disadvantaged in relation to their urban counterparts.
That was one of my first areas of work when I became Minister, and it was an opportunity that I did not want to waste.