Oral Answers to Questions — Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 27th April 2015.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 27th April 2015

2. Mr McGlone asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister what more their Department can do to introduce affordable and flexible childcare. (AQO 8005/11-15)

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I would like to begin by giving an overview of what we have already done to introduce affordable and flexible childcare. As you know, the first phase of the Executive's childcare strategy was launched back in September 2013. It included a number of key first actions to address the main childcare needs that had been identified through research and consultation.

School-age childcare was the greatest area of need identified. The school-age childcare grant scheme, which we launched just over a year ago, was developed to create new high-quality school-age childcare places and sustain the places we already have. To date, the grant scheme has allocated £2 million to 50 successful school-age childcare projects. Those projects will sustain or create approximately 1,500 low-cost quality childcare places.

We expect to grant aid further school-age childcare projects before the summer and launch a third call for applications to the grant scheme in the autumn. This will result in further low-cost childcare places being created or sustained. In parallel to that, work to develop the full childcare strategy has been taken forward on a co-design basis, with close engagement between officials, the childcare sector and childcare stakeholders. We aim to put the full strategy and its actions out to public consultation in the coming weeks and launch it in the autumn. Again, we expect that those additional actions will further increase the supply of low-cost childcare services, including flexible childcare services to meet the needs of parents who work unconventional hours.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus mo bhuíochas leis an Aire chomh maith. My thanks to the Minister. Has the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister raised the plan to cut preschool funding with the Minister of Education? That has caused great concerns for parents and employees in the childcare sector, including the Early Years organisation. Would his Department be prepared to support a bid for extra funding for that sector in the June monitoring round?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I share the Member's concerns and have met the stakeholders involved. The Education Minister is also aware of the issue, and we have discussed it at an Executive meeting.

The Finance Minister will undoubtedly take on board any bids that he receives in monitoring rounds, but we need to be careful. I see it in the work, or art if you like, of some Government Ministers to hold back issues from their spending plans that they feel the Executive would not want to see dropped, in the hope that they can pull in additional resources to their budget for that purpose. The Finance Minister will want to be satisfied that the Department cannot fund that priority and will determine what other priorities the Department has that perhaps might be less important than the one he has mentioned.

Photo of Brenda Hale Brenda Hale DUP

I thank the First Minister for his answers so far. First Minister, you talked about how childcare places should be flexible and suit working parents. How many childcare places do you hope to create under the framework?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 2:15 pm, 27th April 2015

In my initial response, I indicated that we had already identified projects for 1,500 places. When the various actions have been completed, we hope to create in the region of 8,000 places in the overall schemes. That would turn out to be a lower number per head of population than in some other parts of the United Kingdom, but research also shows that there is a much higher level of home support, through grandparents and so forth, in Northern Ireland than there is in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

What exactly is the role for private-sector childcare providers, and how do they qualify for funding?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The main objective of the Bright Start key first actions was to support affordable models of childcare. Private childcare providers aim to make a profit, which is either reinvested in the building that they are using or given for staff wage increases or to supplement directors' remuneration. Therefore, they were not viewed as suitable for the first key actions. However, we have committed to looking at ways of supporting small private providers in the substantive childcare strategy, providing they fulfil our aim of affordability for parents.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Why has the First Minister's Department failed to spend £8 million of the £12 million that was allocated for childcare?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Much of the application comes to us, so it is based on the applications that we receive. The deputy First Minister and I were somewhat disappointed that some other Departments had either not made applications at all or did not make sufficient applications to use up that funding. However, the strategy is very clear; we are now basing it on the principle that we want to provide the best and most affordable low-cost childcare to parents. The Member will be aware of other schemes that move away from the voucher scheme to a tax-based support system. That, again, will considerably help parents in Northern Ireland in the uptake of schemes.