Childcare Costs: Upfront Assistance

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 30 November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 2:15, 30 November 2021

4. Mr McGuigan asked the Minister for Communities to outline how providing assistance with childcare costs upfront will assist parents on low incomes. (AQO 2825/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Many people do not have the resources to pay the upfront childcare costs that most childcare providers require. For women, lone parents and those from disadvantaged backgrounds especially, that can act as a barrier to employment. Since 25 October, I have made help available through a non-repayable grant from the adviser discretion fund of up to £1,500 for those for whom upfront childcare costs act as a barrier to employment. The grant will be paid by my Department directly to the registered childcare provider.

With the agreement of Executive colleagues, earlier this year the Universal Credit Regulations 2016 were amended to ensure that my Department's payment of upfront childcare costs through a non-repayable adviser discretion fund grant can be treated as having been made by the person whom it is intended to support. That will ensure that the recipient can receive a childcare element in their universal credit, enabling them to pay ongoing upfront childcare costs. The payment of the universal credit childcare element following the payment of any grant will ensure that recipients have sufficient resources to pay for the second and subsequent months of childcare in advance and then claim it in arrears from universal credit.

I am delighted that, within a few weeks of the scheme being announced, we have helped 50 parents with average upfront childcare costs of £600 a month. Support for upfront childcare costs will help parents to enter employment, which will reduce benefit dependency, support progression out of poverty and, ultimately, support economic recovery.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Childcare costs are obviously a significant barrier to employment for many families, particularly those on low incomes, so the Minister's initiative is positive and welcome. Does she agree, however, that a dedicated and cross-cutting childcare strategy is required if we are to address the systemic issues that make childcare a difficulty for so many families?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We all saw in the media last week the issues that are having an impact on the sector and on families. When that comes on top of a fuel crisis and a cost-of-living crisis, the problem becomes critical. On social security, I have done what I can with upfront childcare costs, and we already see the benefits of that. Since it was introduced a number of weeks ago, 50 people have come forward and received money to cover those upfront costs. Of course we need to bring forward a childcare strategy, and that needs to be done without delay.

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

I agree on the need for a more overarching childcare strategy. For working people and people in low-income areas, however, the women's centre childcare fund (WCCF) has provided critical funding to organisations such as the Windsor Women's Centre in the Village in my constituency, which provides critical childcare to working people in that area. By the way, it has also provided critical childcare to healthcare professionals working in Belfast City Hospital during the pandemic.

Minister, earlier this year, I wrote to you asking that, when you received a multi-year budget, as you are now planning, you would mainstream the WCCF for organisations like the Windsor Women's Centre —.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

A question, Member.

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

Will the Minister confirm that that fund will be mainstreamed so that it will have regularity and consistency of funding?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Moving to three-year Budget cycles is obviously a good thing across the Departments for all the funding that we provide. The women's sector plays a key role, as do our neighbourhood renewal partnerships, which also have an element of childcare support. I am aware of the work that the Windsor Women's Centre does, as well as that of all the other women's centres and childcare providers.

The Budget discussions are ongoing, so I cannot give any certainty around any part of the Budget until those discussions are finalised. However, ultimately, it will go out for public consultation and then come back to all the Ministers to make decisions going forward.

In all those areas, my priority will be protecting the most vulnerable in our community and ensuring that we look at access for disadvantaged communities, women, young people and those with disabilities.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 2:30, 30 November 2021

That ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 4 and 6 have been withdrawn.