Childcare Sector: Support

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 30th June 2020

13. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Education what support he plans to provide to the childcare sector to enable parents to go back to work. (AQO 505/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for his question. My Department has worked closely with the Department of Health to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, to provide the childcare sector with a support scheme to address concerns surrounding the viability of childcare providers for the period April to June. In addition, we are considering further funding, which has been sought from the Department of Finance, to continue support for the childcare sector in July and August. The details of this follow-on scheme are being developed and will be finalised based on the amount of funding provided by the Executive. The primary objective will be to support the reopening of childcare provision while they adhere to the Department of Health's COVID-19 guidelines. For some, this may necessitate operating at reduced capacity for a period of time, hence the need for ongoing support.

In broader terms, the childcare recovery plan is designed to enable the childcare sector to keep pace with the gradual reopening of the economy. We need to see some alignment between the two, and the plan ensures that all parents are now eligible to access childcare in order to return to work. As schools begin to open, it will be important to ensure alignment between school restart plans and childcare provision so that the impact on working parents is kept to a minimum. If a child is not at school, the availability of childcare may become essential. However, the strategic objective is to have children back in school on a full-time basis as soon as possible. As we move towards what is sometimes referred to as the new normal, the importance of quality childcare provision for our children, our parents and our economy has been recognised.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. I appreciate that he said that there has been an intention to support the childcare sector, but, unfortunately, many parents and, indeed, parts of the childcare sector do not feel that that support has come through. Indeed, we know that there has been a challenge for many in the sector accessing that money.

I do not want to preempt the June monitoring round, but can he assure me that if money is announced for additional support for the childcare sector, it will get properly to the childcare sector, the sector will have the information that it needs to access it and parents will have a clear road map to how they can go back to work and how, if other kids in the family are going to school, that can work clearly and in a joined-up and coherent way? Unfortunately, there is a huge amount of confusion out there at the minute, Minister.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I understand that. It is clear that, if there is further funding, it has to be with an adjustment to the system. Some of those adjustments have taken place. For example, one of the problems was that, initially, there was a very narrow definition of key workers by the Department of Health. To be fair, the Department of Health has accepted that and has aligned its key worker situation with the rest of the Executive's position. From yesterday, we have moved to a position beyond key workers; everybody is in a position to apply to access childcare in those settings.

There have also been issues around the progression of the roll-out of money. Part of the problem is around the uptake and applications. With the range of other schemes available and alternative options, a lot of childcare settings were seeking another route. It is critical that we have that alignment, particularly with regard to the reopening of schools. The pressure on the childcare sector, if we do not get a full reopening of schools, will exasperate the present situation.

Additionally, the road map that the Executive have adopted around childcare recovery acknowledges changes within the family setting that will allow informal childcare to take place. That is not only important in providing alternatives but means that there will not be the same pressure or temptation for people to use unregistered childcare, which, in itself, has safeguarding issues.

It is a combination of all those things. We need to make sure that everything is aligned and, without sounding too much like an economist, that the supply and demand march hand in hand as we move forward, over the next few months.