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Shortly after I took office, I initiated the rural childcare stakeholder group and was pleased to present its report ‘Rural Childcare: Investing in the Future’ to the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people in March 2008. The report contains several cross-cutting recommendations and recommends that DARD develop a rural childcare programme. My officials are working with other Departments on the cross-cutting recommendations for rural childcare as part of the development of the rural champion concept and the rural White Paper.
I am delighted that the rural childcare programme has recently opened for applications and will be funded by the Department’s rural anti-poverty and social inclusion framework budget. I formally launched the programme on Tuesday 9 June during a visit to the childcare centre in Eskragh, County Tyrone, which is an excellent example of a rural community working together for the good of the entire community.
The programme is worth £1·5 million, and its overall objective is to improve childcare provision in rural areas by providing solutions that address the distinct challenges faced by rural communities in relation to the delivery of and access to childcare services. Through that programme, we will provide funding to support the development and evaluation of a series of pilot or demonstration projects. The evidence that is collected will form a basis for the development of future policy and priorities for rural childcare provision. By improving information about rural childcare provision, the programme has the potential to help bring about great improvements in the lives of women and children who live in rural areas, to support families and to contribute to the economic and social development of rural areas in the North.
I am, therefore, confident that that new and innovative programme will make a significant contribution to a better future for rural communities. It will lead to increased opportunities and choices for rural parents in taking up employment or training and will assist rural development. The rural childcare programme and the rural childcare stakeholder report complement other Executive initiatives such as the lifetime opportunities strategy and the work being carried out by the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. It will also inform the development of the early years strategy for nought-to-six-year-olds.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answer. [Interruption.] If the children in the corner settle down, they will get to hear my supplementary question. Basil is the leader of those children.
It is important to recognise, as I did during questions to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development’s response and approach to the issue of rural childcare. That is one of the benefits of devolution. Will the Minister outline the timetable for the rolling-out of the rural childcare programme?
The rural childcare programme is now open to applications. The closing date for receipt of applications is 30 June. Following eligibility checks, appraisals and project site visits, it is anticipated that assessment panels will sit in September and that letters of offer will be issued in October and November. All successful projects must be completed by 31 March 2011. I am pleased to say that we have had more than 130 applications to date. There is a lot of interest in the programme and a lot of need. I do not know whether it will cover the weans in the corner, but you never know.
I am aware that, in the past, some rural playgroups were almost forced to close because numbers temporarily dropped, but within two years they were operating at capacity again. Will the Minister ensure that the funding mechanism will not be a case of “all or nothing” and that it will be responsive? Furthermore, will she tell the House what sort of money will be available to individual groups that apply to the rural childcare programme?
The programme is an ongoing venture. Mr Beggs is asking about something that comes under the remit of another Department. However, the money that is available now is for pilot and demonstration projects. The commitment to those projects is not necessarily ongoing, but it will help them to get off the ground. The rural childcare programme’s overall budget is £1·5 million, and there may be flexibility in it. I do not have detailed information on any cap on those projects, but I will be happy to provide that to the Member in writing. It is important that we help those groups to get off the ground. Families from rural communities will benefit from the programme.
The West Tyrone MLAs who are here will know that the Eskragh childcare centre is a fantastic example of such programmes. I was invited there by Barry McElduff. There is not even a housing estate in Eskragh, yet 120 children attend the childcare centre every day of the week. That is an enormous achievement for a rural community. The parents in that community have far greater choice than is available to parents in many other areas that do not have similar programmes.
Unfortunately, I cannot give the Member that assurance. I am doing my bit to help strengthen choices for parents who live in rural areas. I am one of the Ministers who sit on the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people, and I always make the case for rural communities. The responsibility for childcare is shared by a number of Departments, such as the Department for Social Development; therefore, the responsibility is not mine alone.