Childcare: High-quality and Affordable Provision

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 12 February 2024.

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Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin 2:15, 12 February 2024

I beg to move:

That this Assembly recognises that the costs of childcare are unaffordable for many and that hard-working families are struggling every month to meet these costs; further recognises that the childcare sector is in need of urgent and significant investment in order to put the sector on a sustainable footing, to improve terms and conditions for workers and to deliver the high-quality and accessible provision that families and children deserve; notes that without affordable childcare provision many people, particularly women, are unable to take up or return to employment; agrees that affordable childcare would have a hugely positive impact on our local economy; acknowledges that high-quality childcare and early years education can help to give children the best start in life, support children with special educational needs (SEN) to help address educational disadvantage and promote emotional health and well-being amongst children; and calls on the Executive to work collectively to deliver a strategy that makes high-quality childcare, affordable for all families, a priority.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to wind up. As an amendment was selected and has been published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I am really pleased to be here this afternoon to move the motion on behalf of Sinn Féin. I am delighted that one of the first motions to be debated in this new Assembly is on the need to prioritise high-quality, affordable childcare.

For almost two years, in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive, the Assembly's all-party group on early education and childcare has worked tirelessly to address the serious issues and concerns that the childcare sector faces. It is testament to the childcare providers, users and organisations involved in the all-party group that we are debating childcare at the earliest opportunity. As chairperson of the all-party group, I thank all those involved in the group for their invaluable input to the meetings. Members are honest about their personal challenges and the struggles within the sector, and parents and users are so forthcoming about the serious problems that they face in trying to pay for childcare.

I give a special thank-you to Aoife Hamilton and Employers for Childcare for the work that they do as secretariat of the all-party group. Aoife, Employers for Childcare and the all-party group members have been a driving force in ensuring that the early years and childcare strategy is not only progressed but is ambitious and meets the needs of children, families and providers across the North, and that the expertise, knowledge and views of those in the sector are taken into consideration throughout the development of the strategy. Whilst the work of the all-party group has been of great value, further progress was stalled in the absence of an Executive. The motion:

"calls on the Executive to work collectively to deliver a strategy that makes high-quality childcare, affordable for all families, a priority."

It is clear to see that childcare is a massive issue for people right across the North right now. Very often we hear about the rising cost of childcare and the impact that that has on parents and families who are already struggling with the cost of living. We talk about the very real and concerning pressures that our childcare providers face right now in trying to keep their doors open, with increased operating costs and difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. We saw just last week that a day nursery in Lisburn will have to close its doors this month because of increasing costs and staffing pressures. That is not only putting untold pressures on families to find new childcare arrangements in just a matter of weeks, it is putting hard-working staff out of work. We really need to do better for everyone involved.

We also understand how poor childcare provision is a massive barrier to women who are trying to join the labour market or to get back into work after having a family, and the detrimental effect that that has on the local economy. In rural areas, such as my constituency of West Tyrone, it is particularly difficult for parents to find adequate childcare provision, with many relying heavily on the support of grandparents and their extended family. We must do more to improve the access to suitable childcare right across the North. That includes adequate childcare for families with children with special educational needs. Children with additional needs and their families have been overlooked and neglected for far too long. We must ensure that a new early years and childcare strategy focuses on meeting their needs as well as the needs of others. It is also crucial that we recognise the role of early education and childcare in helping to lift families out of poverty. High-quality, affordable childcare plays an essential role in tackling disadvantage by enabling parents to work and helping to give children and young people the best start in life.

There is no doubt that the cost of childcare is having a crippling effect on families in the North right now. According to Employers for Childcare's most recent survey in 2023, the current average cost for a full-time childcare place is £10,036 per year. That is an increase of 14% since 2021. For 41% of families, childcare is the largest monthly outgoing ahead of mortgage or rental costs, and 56% of families have to use means other than their income to pay for childcare, including savings, credit cards and loans. The costs are simply unaffordable for families. They place an unfair burden on families who are already struggling, and it is unacceptable that they are being put in that position. We really need to see urgent and significant investment in the childcare sector.

As chair of the all-party group, together with my fellow members, I listened to many people sharing their experiences and concerns about delivering and availing themselves of childcare. We have also looked at the delivery of childcare in different jurisdictions and countries. It has become abundantly clear that delivering childcare in a fair and sustainable way is difficult. Producing a properly funded childcare strategy that delivers quality care for children, affordability for parents and sustainability for providers will not be easy, but it is crucial that we get it right. It is important that we create our own childcare model and strategy that works for the people of the North.

We expect a strategy that puts the interests of the child at its core, supports early development, addresses disadvantage, meets special educational needs and supports the childcare workforce. We want childcare to be affordable and to support parents to return to work or take up new employment opportunities. As part of the all-party group's work, we examined England's scheme, which claims to offer 30 hours of free childcare. Although that sounds good, in practice, it is not meeting the needs of parents, providers or children. We need our own model that ensures the sustainability of the sector by protecting workers' conditions and pay and that reduces fees for parents to drive down the costs for families. That approach would improve the sector's financial sustainability, thereby attracting new childcare providers. It would make childcare more affordable for parents, and it would make it easier to attract and retain childcare staff. It would create a relationship between government and the sector, which could be harnessed to maintain the high standards in the sector and to ensure a focus on childcare's educational benefits.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair)

We expect childcare providers to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but providers can only support us if we support them. The sector employs around 10,000 people, the vast majority of whom are women. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, businesses in the childcare sector are most likely to be headed up by women. Providers also include charities, local voluntary groups, not-for-profits, social enterprises and self-employed childminders. In a recent survey, more than 40% of childcare providers described their financial situation as "struggling", and over 80% said that they were making a loss or just breaking even. Without direct support, more than three quarters anticipated increasing their fees, and the current mechanisms of support — for example, tax-free childcare — do not meet the needs of many families here.

We really have an exciting opportunity right now to deliver a top-class early years and childcare strategy, but, as I say, we must get it right. I urge the Minister of Education to work with us; to engage extensively with the experts in the field who have the experience and understanding of what is needed to protect the sector and help it flourish for the benefit of us all; and to co-design the strategy with childcare providers, parents, businesses right across the economy and those involved in inspection and regulation of services. As we are waiting for the strategy to be implemented, it is also important for the Minister to consider re-establishing a childcare reference group to deal with live issues that the sector faces. I also urge the Minister to clearly set out a timeline for the publication of the early years and childcare strategy to ensure that there are no more delays to its development.

Sinn Féin wants to see urgent and significant investment delivered to the childcare sector so that we can support the development of children, including children with special educational needs, reduce the cost of childcare for parents, ensure that the childcare sector is sustainable and supported and recognise the invaluable work of childcare staff and improve their pay and conditions. I hope that you will all work with us and support the motion.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after the last "help" and insert: "prevent educational disadvantage and promote emotional health and well-being amongst children; calls on the Minister of Education to listen to the views of parents and businesses by way of a deliberate consultation; and further calls on the Executive to work collectively to deliver a strategy that makes high-quality childcare, affordable for all families, a priority."

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Robbie, you have 10 minutes to propose the amendment, and, Mike, you will have five minutes to make a winding-up speech. Please open the debate on the amendment.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. Some of you will be glad to hear that there was a printer malfunction in my office up the stairs, so I do not have a well-crafted written speech like the Member from across the Chamber who proposed the motion. I will be kind of winging it, but the good thing about winging it on this topic is that we have been talking about it for around two years, particularly on the all-party group, which the Member who proposed the motion chairs brilliantly. It has been quite a journey on that all-party group, and I mirror the chair's comments about the secretariat support that we get from Employers For Childcare and, in particular, from Aoife Hamilton.

I know that this is a very important subject for all the parties, because a number of amendments were tabled in the Business Office. Thankfully, ours was accepted. If the Members opposite and those around the Chamber will indulge me, I will say that the amendment is quite moderate but very important. It changes only a couple of words in the motion, and I will outline, at the very start, the first word that I am proposing to change and why. Without reading it verbatim, the amendment, at the very start, replaces the word "address" with "prevent". As legislators, we need to be a lot more deliberate about the language that we choose when we are proposing ambitious strategies, policies or plans to help change the lives of the people whom we purport to support. I will expand a little bit on why I think that is important, but, during questions earlier to the Education Minister following his statement, it was brilliant to see the number of Members who spoke about special educational needs, children with disabilities and those who need additional support.

As has already been asked — we will probably repeat this many times — why do we need to do this? There are a number of reasons.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. You mentioned those with special educational needs, and I would like the Minister to consider that issue specifically. I have been contacted by a number of families who have children with special needs and are having real difficulty accessing any type of childcare. There is a reluctance and a fear among childcare providers because they are not getting the support that they need in order to give those children the attention and support that they need.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. I will jump on that point now. It is better to do that than to try to jump about in the mess that I have written down here. I was going to raise that point, because a constituent of mine, who is also a constituent of the Minister, contacted me this very week. One of the issues for the sector is that there are not enough spaces for parents who are applying, but that is further compounded for families with a child who perhaps has some other difficulties and needs additional support. The businesses and the sector do not have the capacity to support such families, and, unfortunately, children are facing discrimination at the very earliest age.

It is unintended discrimination, but, because they cannot access the childcare services that other children can, they are, unfortunately, being disadvantaged at the earliest point in their life.

The Minister will know, as will all Members in the Chamber — our inboxes are becoming inundated — about the difficulties that many parents in Northern Ireland face. The difficulties are twofold: one is the high cost of childcare, making it unaffordable, while the other is its lack of availability and accessibility. The business sector is now gearing up to get involved in the conversation. That is reflected in the second part of my amendment, because what I want to see happen is that, when the Minister embarks on policy planning, it will be not just parents' voices that are included in the co-design and co-production but the voices of those who represent the business sector. The FSB, the CBI and Women in Business are now contacting us to reiterate the absolute need to have their voices heard in order to ensure that what is crafted and created speaks to them and meets need.

In the first instance, you would be surprised if I did not speak up for children, Minister, because childcare should be centred on the child. It really needs to be built around the child. I would like you to reflect on the recommendations that we have already heard about in 'A Fair Start' and, indeed, in the most recent independent review of education, because they all point the same way. I hope that your Department will be one of the more ambitious ones in deploying what are termed children's rights impact assessments (CRIAs). I would like to see this being one of the first policies that has them embedded throughout, because, if we are serious about tackling disadvantage, educational underachievement and barriers to a full life experience for all children, we need to ensure that key policies, which, by the way, are a piece of infrastructure for everyone, address the needs of the child.

Why are we doing this? The Member who moved the motion referred to the fact that a full-time childcare place costs over £10,000 on average. When that is broken down, I think that 25% of parents are paying over £1,000 a month. When faced with such a bill, in addition to the cost-of-living crisis that we are in, crippling mortgage rates, fuel prices and food inflation, parents and families have to make decisions.

I have two grown-up kids, as you know, and I now have three little kids. With the first two, I did not need childcare. I worked shifts in the Fire Service, so it was OK. Now my wife has had to make a decision. She is a nurse and has had to reduce her hours to 30 hours a week to overcome the difficulties not only in accessing childcare but in doing so mechanically. Perhaps the Minister needs to pick up on that when he responds. As has already been picked up on, there is gender disparity, and I am displaying it in my own blinking house. I try to be as flexible as I can to respond to need, but, unfortunately, owing to the way in which we are set up at the moment, although, again, they should not be, an unintended consequence is that women are discriminated against. It is not just when it comes to accessing work. We know that those who work full-time get access to higher levels of training and more opportunities for promotion and career enhancement. That should not be the case in 2024.

I want to talk about the availability of childcare places. The Minister will be well aware of the difficulties in our constituency of Lagan Valley. Sadly, this week, one of our longest-established and best childcare facilities, Birdies, announced its intention to close its doors. I do not know all the details behind that decision, but I suspect that part of the issue is staff availability and fair pay for staff. We want to pay those people a good wage, and we should. We should have professional training for them. How do we do that, however? Centres are faced with crippling costs, whether for fuel, rent, rates or whatever. They are also trying to pay their staff, and the staff just are not there any more. It is one of those fields in which it is so hard to recruit. Again, I hope that a full-circle strategy will speak to that.

On Ms Dillon's point, I recently had a parent contact me about the barriers that her child now faces. That centres on the fact that the child has additional needs. That is why I am happy with the amendment that we have offered to this excellent motion. We absolutely support the motion and hope that you support our amendment. There should be co-design/co-production of any strategy or plan that comes through that involves families whose kids face the most challenging start to life, perhaps in accessing waiting lists in the health service or professional help from paediatricians or with speech and language. It must not be done in isolation. It must not be a stand-alone policy. It must be one that will speak to many policies, such as those on anti-poverty, gender imbalance in the workplace or addressing educational underachievement. This policy must have the capacity to speak across all those sectors.

There is a wealth of evidence at hand, from the English, Welsh and Scottish models and that in the Republic of Ireland, and wide recognition that many of the issues that we will discuss are well-versed but need to be faced into. I challenge the Minister that we need to see a costed options paper as soon as possible, so that the Assembly and the relevant Committees can get their teeth into it. The strategy needs to be co-designed, forward-facing, ambitious and child-centred and to underpin an achievement that Northern Ireland can be proud of and lead the way in on these islands.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 2:30, 12 February 2024

I should have said, and it was remiss of me not to have done, that all other Members who wish to speak after Mr Butler will have five minutes.

As this is Cheryl Brownlee's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden or first speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Cheryl Brownlee Cheryl Brownlee DUP

I count it as a privilege to represent my home constituency of East Antrim. It is a day of mixed emotions for me. While I am filled with an overwhelming sense of pride, I pause to remember and pay tribute to my late friend and colleague David Hilditch, who served the people of East Antrim as an MLA from 1998 until his untimely passing last year. It is an honour for me, having worked with Davy in his constituency office for over 10 years, to have been entrusted by my party to take his place and carry on his legacy. I cannot thank them enough for entrusting me with that responsibility. I also thank my family and send them all my love for all their support and particularly their patience in the past few months.

Like Davy, I commit to serve all the people of East Antrim. With the return of the institutions, we are faced with a fresh opportunity to deliver on the issues that really matter. I commend the motion and am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today's discussion. I am extremely passionate about the provision of high-quality, affordable childcare. As a 19-year-old lone parent, I lived through the struggles of trying to access childcare that was affordable for a low-income household but still offered the high levels of care that we expect for our little ones.

I often hear people refer to childcare as a barrier, but I do not think that it is. A barrier can be knocked down or navigated around. For some, childcare is a complete and utter brick wall. In my constituency, we have some incredible, established childcare providers who undoubtedly offer an extremely high-quality service. However, the stark reality is that people like me, when I was that 19-year-old lone parent working multiple jobs and struggling to make ends meet, are priced out of that service.

I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that I am committed to striving for high-quality, accessible and affordable childcare for everyone in Northern Ireland. One of the critical pillars to that service are our childminders. I had the privilege of having both my children cared for lovingly and receiving an incredibly high standard of care from our childminders, Jenny and Paula. For people like them, and many others in this sector, increased regulations, demands and scrutiny have left them feeling pushed out. I believe and hope that the Executive will offer more assistance in reducing the burden on our childminders.

I was also particularly pleased to see the motion's inclusion of children with additional educational needs. My son, Lyle, has been referred to and is currently on the under-4's pathway for children with additional needs. He also has type 1 diabetes. The infrastructure to support children like Lyle is not in place, meaning that children are not receiving the critical intervention, support and resources that they so require. I know all too well the extra pressures and stress that that puts on parents, with the intensity of the process, the complexity of appointments and the constant psychological battle that comes with worrying whether you are doing the right thing. I am proud of my party's track record in supporting childcare. When the sector was on the brink of collapse during the pandemic, it was a DUP Minister who stepped up to support it. We do not want to stop there, however. Our party has consistently campaigned to help working families by introducing 30 hours of free childcare, and we will continue in that pursuit. A recent DUP survey found that of 1,000 parents, a staggering 85% had their return to work impacted by childcare costs, with a quarter of parents also saying that childcare subsumed nearly a full wage in their household. That has to be tackled.

As I draw to a close, I reiterate my support for the motion, and I join others in calling on the Executive to work collaboratively to deliver a strategy that makes high-quality childcare affordable for all families as a priority. I believe that the lack of affordable and high-quality childcare will serve only to cripple families, stunt economic growth and curb our children's future opportunities. We must do more.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance

Principal Deputy Speaker, I congratulate you on your elevation to the role, and I wish you all the best in it.

This is my maiden speech, so I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Clare Bailey, who was a fierce champion for the environment, women's reproductive rights, social justice issues and marginalised voices. Those are areas in which I will not fall short.

I arrived in Belfast from Zimbabwe when I was 14 years old. I have always been grateful to this city and its people for welcoming me and for becoming my home when I no longer had one. So much of what I do and what I did as a councillor is done out of a sense of duty and indebtedness, but also with a strong sense of having arrived as a child, feeling like an outsider and wanting to make sure that no other children felt that way. That is why I have done so much work with asylum seekers and refugees.

When I was elected to the Assembly, I had stood for election for children, but this time it was because of my own. My husband, Fergal Sherry — he is watching at the moment and was one of the other brilliant things to come out of moving to Belfast — and I are very proud to live in South Belfast and to be raising our children there. Whilst I was canvassing during the Assembly election campaign, heavily pregnant, every day, multiple times, people raised the issue of childcare. I was experiencing the issue in my house, and colleagues were experiencing it in their houses. Constituents were suffering from the sheer lack of affordable childcare in Northern Ireland, and I realised that something needed to be done. I made a promise that I would do everything in my power to address it if I got to the Assembly, so here I am.

Shortly after I was elected, Naomi Long appointed a childcare working group in the Alliance Party: a number of MLAs and researchers. For the past two years, we have been put to work looking at childcare policy and how we can address the issues in it. We met Employers for Childcare, whose Aoife Hamilton has done amazing work on the all-party group along with Nicola Brogan. It is a wonderful all-party group to be in, and it has raised so many important issues that, perhaps, have not previously been brought to the fore. Including the Federation of Small Businesses, the Northern Ireland Childminding Association, the Northern Ireland Chamber, Melted Parents —some of whom are here today — Early Years and the Stranmillis College early years academics, the list of stakeholders who have done such amazing work in the sector goes on and on. While all brought different perspectives to the childcare crisis, there was one resounding message, which is that there is a childcare crisis, and the crisis is now.

We developed our policies, and we listened to stakeholders and heard what they had to say. We saw what was happening across the water and how the free hours model is not working and not serving families. It works very well for a very small number, but, for the majority, it does not. It is actually widening inequalities, and we need to address that. We have proposed an affordable, bespoke childcare scheme that is child-centred and puts quality, flexibility, affordability, training and experience at the heart of our policy.

We want to see supply-side funding with the requirement that providers ensure that those mechanisms are all put in place.

There is a lot of work for the Minister in his in tray, and I know from the several occasions that I have bumped into him in the corridor that childcare will be a priority of his. That is welcome, and it is welcome that all the parties are united in prioritising it. We have to get it right, because childcare is not just babysitting. It is child development, early education and early intervention. It is a means by which to improve economic activity levels. It is about gender equality in the labour market. It is essential social and economic infrastructure, and it has to be invested in accordingly. It will be expensive — we know that — but it is far more expensive not to invest in it.

I am delighted to be on the Education Committee, and I am delighted to work with all parties on this important issue. I look forward to our delivering a scheme that will really suit parents and children, because, at the end of the day, that is what it is really about. It is about our children, and there is no better investment that a Government can make than in the next generation.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 2:45, 12 February 2024

Thank you, Kate. Thankfully, your first speech was made without interruptions. I should have asked Members for that at the start.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I take the opportunity to congratulate you on taking your position.

I will start by acknowledging the common feeling across the Chamber that the need for a childcare strategy is universally accepted. While I welcome the debate, the issue is not the lack of consensus on the question but the lack of delivery on the commitment. That commitment was first made in 2011's Programme for Government. Thirteen years later, we are still only at the debating stage, and our childcare sector is now on the brink of collapse.

We can all clearly see the societal impact of our failure to see childcare as a sustainable part of our infrastructure that helps to keep the wheels turning in our workplaces, homes and schools. We all have constituents who have told us of the pressure that they are under from eye-watering costs. They are absolutely horrific costs to the home. Indeed, I have no doubt that we are being watched right now by many parents, some of whom are here in the Gallery, who have sat around kitchen tables and had that conversation about whether it is even worth it to stay working at all. We all know parents who could not make the sums add up and have reluctantly left their jobs. Moreover, we know that it is predominantly women who are locked out of the workforce as a result. Our childcare providers also cannot make those sums add up. They struggle every day to keep the lights on. Faced with those truths, everyone should recognise that the status quo of economic self-sabotage is totally untenable.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank my colleague for giving way. As a father of four, three of whom are young children, I am well aware of the cost of childcare, but I am also acutely aware of the value of good childcare. Over the years, we have been blessed with the best. Does the Member agree that the support that is needed in the short term and in the strategy must also work for our priceless registered childminders, who are often unacceptably forgotten?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely. Childminders are fundamental to the childcare infrastructure. We have over 2,000 registered childminders watching in excess of 12,000 of our children, and they are key to delivering quality, accessible and flexible childcare.

It is really time to deliver. Yes, let us agree a strategy without delay, but the truth is that a strategy will take time, and that is time that we simply do not have. Let us recognise the immediacy of the crisis and act now. Every day we hear news of more providers shutting their doors and employers struggling to retain and recruit their staff. We all said that this was a day-1 priority, so let us keep to our word. More than a year ago, the SDLP published proposals to invest in the sector and bring down costs to families. One year on, parents and providers need that support from the Executive more than ever. That should include investing in the sector to freeze costs, ensuring that all parents are aware of the support that is available and making a collective approach to the British Government to expand access to tax-free childcare. We also need urgent progress on the review of the minimum standards for registered childminders. There is no time to waste, and those solutions are on the table. Today, the Minister of Education should walk out of here and pull the right stakeholders together in an advisory group, with the voices of parents front and centre, and get about the business of delivering support. If we truly prioritise the issue, it will be action, not words, that parents are looking for.

There is enormous potential. We know what works and what does not. We can look at the failure of the free hours model in England and at the promise of models in countries like Norway and Sweden that invest from a child's first days to transform outcomes and cap costs. Let us stretch our ambition and acknowledge that this is an investment rather than a cost. More importantly, once and for all, let us get this done.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

As this is Danny Baker's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is a convention that a Member's first speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat

[Translation: Thank you]

Principal Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your new role.

I am delighted to finally stand in the Chamber to fully represent the people of West Belfast and Colin. Throughout the years, I have been lucky to have had many role models representing the area, like Michael Ferguson, Sue Ramsey and Jennifer McCann, who all originated from the Colin and served the community with distinction. As one of four Sinn Féin MLAs in West Belfast, I am privileged to have the support and guidance of Órlaithí, Aisling, Pat and our MP, Paul Maskey.

I am proud to be from the Colin area, and to be its representative is a great honour. I will work tirelessly to be its voice in the Assembly. I grew up in Twinbrook and attended St Colm's High School, a school that built my confidence and inspired me to believe that I could achieve anything if I worked hard. I have to give great credit to the teachers and staff of that amazing school. As one of many who failed their 11-plus, I can say that that school instilled a sense of leadership that gave me the opportunity to stand here today. St Colm's needs a new, state-of-the-art school that will serve the needs of the young people of the Colin. They deserve a new and modern school, and I will continue to raise that with the Minister of Education.

I have been a community and political activist for as long as I can remember. I first became a political representative in Belfast in 2017. It was the desire to represent and be the voice of young people in my community that made me want to be an elected representative. Over the past two years, I have been working closely with families who have children with special educational needs, and I listen to the struggles they face every day. I have to pay tribute to the Colin autism group, SEN Space, Kids Together and SHINE, which do great work in west Belfast and Lisburn. I will take seriously my role in addressing the systematic failures that those families and children face. It must be a priority that we all work together, across all Departments, in addressing the needs of children with special educational needs, giving the long-term solutions that are so desperately required and ensuring that financial resources are given for early intervention.

Our youth providers and our community and voluntary sector have been hit hard over the past number of years and face significant cuts. They go above and beyond to support our young people and communities in good times and difficult times. They need our continuous support. If it were not for their commitment to our communities and to the most vulnerable in society, we would be in a far worse situation today. One in five children in the North lives in poverty. It is vital that we deliver an anti-poverty strategy to prevent that staggering figure continuing and to address the needs in our communities. During this term, we have an opportunity to make the changes needed to support our special educational needs children and families, our community and voluntary sector and the most vulnerable in society.

Sinn Féin wants a childcare strategy that gives children the best start in life while delivering affordability to their parents. We want to build on the work already taking place to tackle educational underachievement, as well as improving support for children with special educational needs. Often, children with special educational needs and their parents are not prioritised. That needs to change. Early intervention is key. Investing in childcare is about investing in people, our economy and the future. Unlike the Tories, we want to drive economic growth not with poverty, insecurity and fear but with support, opportunity and progress. Key to delivering the childcare strategy is supporting the sustainability of our providers, whether voluntary, community, private or public sector. Not only does the provision of childcare underpin women's access to employment and support their professional advancement throughout motherhood, but the sector itself is the largest employer of women here. We also want a strategy that supports recruitment and retention by improving the terms and conditions of childcare workers, including self-employed childminders, whose role is often overlooked, especially in meeting needs in rural areas.

The motion sets the tone for a new Assembly, and the tone is ambitious. I doubt that there is anyone in the Chamber who does not support those goals, but the key to progress is working together. We started that process last week, not just by reinstating power-sharing but by the unanimous cross-party agreement to call on the British Government to deliver proper funding. Proper funding will play a key role in delivering quality, affordable, accessible and sustainable childcare. I call for all-party support for the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I begin by congratulating my friend, Cheryl Brownlee, on an amazing maiden speech. I know, looking back, that our late colleague David Hilditch would be so proud of the contribution that Cheryl has made not only in her role in the House, in the seat that he occupied, but for the fantastic service that she is providing for the constituents of East Antrim, and I wish her every success as she continues to do that.

Family life is the heartbeat of Northern Ireland's communities, regardless of background. We have always been a region that placed great emphasis and pride on the development and care of our young people. I am sure that, if we all look back, we can think of family or community support structures that supported us all during our upbringing. We have to admit that societal fluctuations, financial pressures and familiar support structures have not only changed but, in many cases, completely eroded away. Working families have faced the blunt end of those changes, which is having a profound impact on their family life. It is an issue that strikes at the heart of our communities, impacting on the lives of working parents, hindering economic growth and perpetuating inequalities. Childcare costs have reached staggering new heights, leaving many families grappling with an impossible choice: to work and struggle to afford childcare or stay at home and sacrifice their careers.

The reality is stark. For far too many parents, the cost of childcare outweighs the benefits of returning to work. That is not just a financial burden; it is a barrier to economic participation and advancement. Young families in Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge have reached out to me on this very issue. For some, 40% of all household income can go out on childcare — 40%. Wholly unsustainable. They are concerned that they are being left behind, and it is only fair that we right that wrong. The impact of the crisis extends far beyond individual families. It reverberates throughout —.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for raising that percentage and making us all aware of it. Does he realise that it is not only the direct cost of childcare but taxation on the family home that causes hardships too?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member will have an extra minute.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for the intervention. He is absolutely right: it transpires across so many aspects of family life.

The impact of the crisis extends far beyond individual families. It reverberates throughout our community and our economy, stifling productivity and hindering growth. When parents are forced to choose between their jobs and caring for their children, our workforce is deprived of valuable talent and expertise, businesses lose out on skilled workers and our economy suffers as a result. For many young professional women in Northern Ireland, we proudly trumpeted the smashing of barriers to career opportunities and advancements and rightly so, only to cruelly pull the rug from under them as they are forced out of employment by crippling childcare costs.

It does not have to be this way. We have the power to enact change and build a future in which every child has access to quality, affordable childcare and every parent has the opportunity to pursue their career without sacrificing their family's well-being. That is why I call for free, funded childcare provision in Northern Ireland. It is time for us to invest in our families, prioritise the well-being of our children and support working parents in their pursuit of economic security. By providing affordable childcare, we can alleviate the financial strain on families, empowering parents to re-enter the workforce or advance in their careers, and stimulate economic growth through increased productivity and participation.

Beyond those economic benefits, to invest in childcare is to invest in our future. It is an investment in the next generation, ensuring that every child has the opportunity not only to thrive and learn but to reach their full potential. I know that the Minister gets this issue. I know that he cares and that he is focused on delivery, but he simply cannot do this on his own. The issue falls across so many Departments. Yes, the Minister can lead on a childcare strategy, and I know that he will, but I will watch with interest to see how that cross-departmental involvement comes in once the hard financial realities hit.

Let us stand together and demand free, funded childcare provision in Northern Ireland. Let us build a future where no family is burdened by the exorbitant costs of childcare and every child has the right to flourish.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 3:00, 12 February 2024

Nick Mathison is next to speak. Since this is Nick's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that the convention is that a Member's first speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

It is an honour and a privilege to give my maiden speech today as one of the two Alliance Members for Strangford. I want to say, from the outset, that I am committed to representing everyone in the constituency where I grew up and where I am bringing up my family; it truly is a great privilege. I also want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor in that seat, Lord Weir. Lord Weir served the constituencies of North Down and Strangford with distinction from 1998, as well as holding the office of Education Minister on two separate occasions.

I am aware, as the new Chair of the Education Committee, that the issue of childcare will be high on the Committee's agenda, but, as the Committee is yet to meet, I think that I should limit my comments as Chair to say no more than that I hope and trust that all the members of that Committee will work together to support the delivery of the much-needed childcare strategy.

I speak in support of the motion and the amendment. The amendment adds some considerations about the need for wider consultation, and I am happy to support that.

Childcare is, indeed, in a state of crisis. That has been set out clearly by every Member who has spoken. Tackling the affordability element of that is vital. Northern Ireland needs a bespoke scheme that invests in the childcare sector, making it sustainable, and requires that, in return for that investment, costs come down.

I want to be clear in my contribution. The issue of cost will be covered in some detail, which is quite right, but I want to be clear that, for me and my party, childcare is very much part of a wider early education system. Quality, affordable childcare can have a significant positive impact on our children; it goes far beyond the issue of improving access to work for parents, important as that is. Members will be aware of the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child's life. So many of the factors that influence a child's health, development, well-being and life chances are best impacted through policy intervention at that stage. By ensuring that we have a child-centred, affordable and high-quality early years and childcare system, we can positively shape the future life chances of children and young people.

I am pleased that the motion makes clear reference to special educational needs and ensuring that support for children with additional needs is well provided for in any childcare strategy. We know that parents and guardians of children with additional needs are much less likely to use childcare and that they report significant and substantial struggles in accessing childcare that is appropriate for their children's needs. The recent RSM report detailed that 46% of parents of children with complex needs faced clear challenges in getting access to those places.

Our future childcare strategy must be based on an understanding of the factors that are specific to children with additional needs, including the need to ensure that settings are qualified and confident to meet those children's needs effectively. It is also vital to acknowledge that childcare has a key role in tackling poverty. We must invest in settings that wrap support around families to safeguard children and address the needs of the most vulnerable families in society. I pay tribute to the work of the Community Daycare Network and thank it for its extensive engagement with the all-party group and with my party. I have learned so much from the network about the important role that childcare settings, particularly those at the heart of some of our most disadvantaged communities, will play in the lives not just of the children in their care but of their wider families. We must ensure that such settings are supported in any childcare strategy that is brought forward and that the development of our early learning and childcare strategy is viewed through a clear anti-poverty lens.

Although we lag far behind our counterparts across the UK, Ireland and Europe on the issue, we have a chance to get childcare provision right. We know that the 30 free hours model is not working, and I urge the Minister to look at options as widely as he can across the board. Without the required workforce strategy and investment, simply creating demand without addressing supply will not deliver. In Northern Ireland, we need provision that is inclusive and accessible to all children. Alliance has been raising the need to address childcare provision for many years, and I pay tribute to former Member Chris Lyttle, who has been doing so since as far back as 2010. He really blazed a trail in that regard. Regrettably, Ministers directly responsible for delivering on a strategy have failed to do so, so now must be the time to deliver. Parents and children in Northern Ireland expect and deserve nothing less from the Assembly.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I could call you something else that you were promoted to last week, but I will not. I congratulate you on your post. I also congratulate all Members who have made their maiden speech today. It is not easy, and it has been on a big subject, so congratulations to them all, not least to my colleague from East Antrim and to Nick Mathison, who mentioned Lord Weir and his contribution to this place. We are very appreciative of that, so I thank him for doing so.

The family is the brick of society. If there is one thing that the Assembly and the Executive, which is a different place, can do, it is support and build on those bricks. Raising children is the greatest privilege of all, but it is not easy, so the Government must do everything that they can to make sure that families get as much support as they can give, away from the family setting. If there is a message that can go out of this place today to send a clear signal to those hard-pressed mums and dads, it is, first, that we listen and, secondly, that we are driven to action. We have always said that we have been listening, but we have never acted. Let us hope that things will change in this place.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I am enjoying his passion and the direction in which he is taking the debate. He started really strongly on the family, but families are now slightly different in their make-up. We have a growing number of single-parent families, and single parents find it even more difficult, when there is only one income coming in, so I hope that the development of this policy is an opportunity. Does the Member agree that there needs to be the ambition to factor it in that it is not just about the nuclear two-plus-one family but about single parents in particular, perhaps, to offer them hope of a route back into work and earning?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you. I thank the Member for his contribution. He is right to mention single parents. However, it is not about being a single person, because they will have a family. I fear for those single parents, as their families come under massive pressure. It is not just the single parent who struggles with childcare but the whole family. The Member is right that those things should be tailored to suit the most vulnerable in our society. I absolutely agree with him.

We have made strides in this regard. In September 2022, my colleague and the then Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, announced the first steps towards that commitment, having instructed her officials to develop a timetable and a costed delivery plan to provide a minimum of 22 and a half hours. We know that that is not enough, but that was embedded in the psyche of the Department so that we would not go in reverse. It is critically important that we advance those arguments and policies.

I am so glad that this is the first day of real debate, and it is the first day that parties, namely Sinn Féin today, can choose a debate, and I am so glad that it has chosen this subject, so credit where credit is due. I am so glad that we have been able to debate the issues, but it is vital that the Executive work together to deliver this, because out of the policy will so much more flow that will help other sectors and Departments. The Department for the Economy, the Department for Infrastructure and all the places that are workforce-intensive will benefit if we get this right. It is not just about supporting the family but about supporting the infrastructure around the support for government that we need.

If we go about producing a Programme for Government, which we have not really talked about yet, we should see this embedded right through it so that every Department can carry the burden. As a Member of the Assembly, that is what I would like to see. I would like to see the Executive pick this up and support families in the way that they should. This Executive should not hurt families in the way they have over the past two years or over the two years before. Let us try to get policies that support families instead of hurting them. I look forward to that day.

That will all come at a cost, so it is vital that the Executive know the full cost. When the Minister responds to the debate, perhaps he can say how much it will cost so that we can get it programmed into the Executive's psyche before anything else. There are other burdens and pressures, but this is one of the greatest burdens that our people face nowadays. It is not only about childcare. People with young families are trying to keep down a home and hold on to not one job but two jobs in many cases.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

It is vital that we listen and we act.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

This is Sorcha Eastwood's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, so I remind the House that it is the convention that a Member's first speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Sorcha Eastwood Sorcha Eastwood Alliance

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I acknowledge that this is my maiden speech, and I am humbled and privileged to take my place in the Chamber to serve the people of Lagan Valley. I also acknowledge my former colleague Trevor Lunn, who previously held this seat and served his constituents with distinction, and I pay my thanks to him. I also thank the Lagan Valley Alliance Association, without whom none of this would be possible, my family and, lastly, my husband, Dale.

Lagan Valley is my home, where my family has had its roots for hundreds of years and still lives on our small farm in Blaris, County Down, where my mum, Brigid, was born. It is a place that I love and will always love. Lisburn or Lios na gCearrbhachs means "Fort of the Gamblers", but gambling is what we have done too much of lately. We have been gambling with people's lives in high-stakes games of politics. We need to reform the institutions so that no one party can again hold us to ransom.

I was 12 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and my generation was promised the best. We were promised more than just the absence of violence: we were promised the economic and social benefits of peace. Peace comes dropping slow, as they say, but the economic and social policies that we need to allow this generation and the one behind to achieve their full potential are severely lacking.

However, I promise that my generation will not leave the hard work behind for the ones coming after. This generation will finish it and make good on what we were all promised.

If a peace process takes 50 years, we are about halfway, and that is more than past time to move beyond what sometimes passes for politics here. Indeed, we can be quite good at it when this place and its people are not being used as leverage. The people cannot wait any more. We must stop exporting our best assets — our people — from these shores. Addressing the issue of childcare would be key to meeting that aim.

I believe that our best days are yet to come, and together we can create them. We are no longer painting in just monochrome but have a wide, varied and beautiful palette of colour. We must have that vision and belief to give people hope and a future, to convince them that we can make their lives better — not by just words but with deeds — and to rebuild trust and faith in these institutions.

Within a mile of my home in Lagan Valley, there are Egyptian societies, women's resource centres, Gaelic pitches, chess clubs, Orange halls, young farmers' clubs and an LGBT safe space club. That is the new Northern Ireland, the North, our home, your home. This land, this island, the home of saints and scholars, of Harry Ferguson and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, has punched well above its weight on the world stage. Despite all our challenges, we still have incredible inventors and makers. There are many more like them waiting to be discovered, but they either do not have adequate childcare or are bankrupting themselves to pay for it.

Our challenge is to create together the ecosystem, the society to allow those makers to flourish, not despite of us but because of us. Indeed, if the signature of this mandate can be anything, let it be empowering people, not simply holding them back. However, childcare is one issue holding many people back, particularly women. It takes a village, but the situation for many parents now is at breaking point. Even as I speak, families in Lagan Valley are reeling from the closure of a local childcare provider. Things are not tenable as they are, and we cannot let them slip further on our watch.

A progressive childcare policy is a key economic driver. We know that Northern Ireland has a low productivity rate and yet high economic inactivity. We know that many parents are being forced from working due to exorbitant childcare costs, and that is having a hugely adverse impact on our workforce. While we talk about empowering parents to fulfil their ambitions, let us also talk about the childcare workforce. Childcare is a highly skilled profession and one that demands a lot more of society's respect. The childcare profession is full of people who want to develop, and we need to support them to do that. That is why Alliance believes that a key element of childcare policy should be the introduction of a clear skills and qualification framework.

This policy will require a significant investment, and we should not shy away from that. Quality care should require significant investment. Our children deserve that investment. While that will be costly, it will cost us more to do nothing. I support the motion and look forward to working with the whole House on these issues in the years to come.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 3:15, 12 February 2024

Thank you to all who have made a maiden speech today. It is not an easy thing to do in this House. This is one of the most worthwhile areas on which those maiden speeches could have been made.

I want to acknowledge, as vice chair of the all-party group on early education and childcare, the work that has gone into the debate and the many organisations that we have met. It is a testament to that that, on the first full day of Assembly business, we are debating this issue. I pay tribute to many from those organisations who are in the Public Gallery.

I think that we all agree in the House that there is a need for a long-term strategy for childcare in Northern Ireland. There have been many fine words in the Chamber today, and that is all to the good, but the harsh reality is that we will need a fully costed strategy for childcare. That will require mature cooperation across the Executive. It will require the Minister of Health, with regard to minimum standards. It will require the cooperation of the Minister of Finance to provide the means for it, and it will, of course, require the work and dedication of the Minister of Education to bring forward the strategy for the Executive. There is a huge challenge in that today.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I hope that this is a useful intervention. One or perhaps two other Ministers could be included. We are talking about expanding employability opportunities, so the Minister for the Economy has a role to play, and, for those who are economically inactive, so does the Minister for Communities. I accept that it will be a costly solution in the longer term. In the short term, we can definitely do something about care for three-to-four-year-olds and, possibly, for two- to three-year-olds, but, for the longer-term ambition, if we have full Executive proportionality, perhaps that is where we leverage the finances from.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I absolutely agree with the Member. In citing Ministers, I do not mean to be exclusive but to demonstrate to the House that it is a matter for the whole Executive and not just for the Minister of Education. He will need the support of the whole Executive in bringing forward a strategy that is reasonable, feasible, fully costed and affordable.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

If you allow me to progress just for a minute, I certainly will.

I will look at this in a couple of ways, the first of which concerns the intervention and sustainability that are required for the childcare sector. We have heard about childcare businesses that have had to close. We need a sector that is not always on the edge and teetering on the brink, as it has been in the past number of years. That will require not just sustainability but training and proper pay for staff. That is massively important as we go forward. It also requires us as a society to recognise that childcare, as the Member for South Belfast said, is not about babysitting. Childcare is about the development of our children. It is about looking after them in a setting where their potential can be reached. It is about support for families and the economy. Those are all really important issues, and, again, I am delighted that, in the House today, we have acknowledged the need for childcare provision for parents who have children with special educational needs.

My colleague from North Antrim referred to the fact that the previous Minister of Education looked at the DUP policy of trying to provide 30 hours of childcare for children aged three to four. We know that that is not enough and that we need to do more, but a strategy takes many years to put in place, and there are some quick wins that we can have within that strategy in the here and now. One of those is to try to get to a position in which 22·5 hours of education for three- to four-year-olds in Northern Ireland is guaranteed and we make up the 30 hours by some kind of voucher scheme for parents, who could perhaps use or save that as they wish. I am keen to hear the Minister's view on that.

We can also do much more in our schools. Wrap-around care in schools tends to be extremely variable across Northern Ireland, with places where there are schools that have five days a week of wrap-around care where children can go from eight o'clock in the morning until later on in the afternoon and places where there is zero provision. By investing in our schools, we can provide part of the solution to the problem.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I realise that I have outrun my time, but this is a matter of huge importance, and I would like to hear some of the things that we can do that are quick wins in order to bring about solutions to the problem.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I congratulate you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, on your recent appointment. I also congratulate colleagues across the House on making their maiden speech. It is a nerve-racking and exciting time, I imagine, so congratulations to you all.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute today through the first speech that I have made in two years, and what better issue to begin with than affordable and accessible childcare and the need for a childcare strategy. It is a matter of immense importance to families and to the future prosperity of the place that we call home.

The current lack of affordable childcare has significant negative effects on families in my constituency. I express gratitude to those parents from across my constituency and to Melted Parents NI, who have shared their experiences by highlighting the mental and financial stress that is truly caused by the lack of an effective childcare strategy here. Without a comprehensive strategy, the cost to Northern Ireland is staggering, and we know that the average cost of full-time childcare for two children reaches nearly £25,000 per year. That is just undoable, and it forces so many into the space in which they are having the conversation about affording childcare or having a career, and no one — no woman — should be forced into that because of a lack of a strategy.

That dilemma remains a day and daily reality for parents in 2024, placing immense pressure on finances and families. In my constituency, I have witnessed at first hand the burden that it causes parents and childcare providers. I have seen how rising costs and overheads have compelled providers, particularly those in rural areas, to increase fees. That puts providers in a difficult and, frankly, an unfair position. It also impacts their ability to recruit and retain staff. So many staff members really genuinely love working in the sector, and I echo the sentiments and statements from previous contributors about how childcare is so much more than babysitting. It is about the development of our young people, and, therefore, it is necessary that the strategy be put in place.

Of course, I cannot talk about the issue without referring to special educational needs. I know that the Minister will share my concerns regarding challenges in that area. In the past two years, I have spoken with so many parents with children who have special educational needs, and those parents have touched on the impact of a lack of support services. In my constituency, there is the Harpurs Hill Children and Family Centre. I spoke to parents and staff there about their role in those early years and about how they make the first intervention or, sometimes, how they are the first people who recognise that someone may have a special educational need and can advise parents about where they can find support and how to go about getting an assessment. It is about those young kids and those crucial skills; that is why those childcare providers are just so important. The children of today and tomorrow should not pay the price of the chronic underfunding that we have seen in our childcare facilities.

In previous years, we had the pandemic and the energy crisis, and we all know that those have only intensified challenges in this area. We know that unaffordable childcare impacts on parents, but, specifically, it has an impact on women, and that cannot be overstated. Thousands are forced to stay at home due to the rising childcare costs here, and that hinders their professional growth and limits their contributions to society. The economic setback for women goes far beyond finances, as it is a huge barrier to their potential.

I welcome the shared agreement today across the House. Although I am not a parent, I recognise wholeheartedly the impact that those costs have. As Mr Butler touched on, those rising costs and the pressure to put petrol in your car and pay your electricity bill really do all add up.

The SDLP tabled an amendment to the motion, which we hoped would result in us getting a report back from the Minister in the first 100 days, but, sadly, that amendment was not accepted. As we push forward, however, we want to see a childcare strategy that is shaped for and by parents here in the North. The time for solutions is now, and we cannot let the lack of affordable childcare hinder the potential of our families and our economy any longer.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

I will focus on a number of issues that some Members across the Chamber have raised, but I am very conscious that, as I do, I am reminded of when I started working at the Assembly in 2011. One of the first things that I heard in the Chamber was Chris Lyttle, who was an MLA at that time, ask the Minister of Education a question for oral answer on the childcare strategy.

It is really frustrating to think that, here we are, 13 years later, and we are no further on.

I want to focus on issues around childcare, which starts at birth. The reason I say that it starts at birth is that we need to think about maternity, paternity and adoption leave provision. Many parents, after three months, move onto quite low incomes because they are on maternity, paternity or adoption leave, and then, when they go back into work, they are immediately thrust into high-priced childcare. It just does not stack up. Before you have even given birth or adopted, you are already thinking, "What am I going to do? Do I return to work or not?".

Let us face it: we are where we are because of the patriarchy. For hundreds of years, society has been designed for men going to work and women staying at home, but it is not like that any more. We know that families have changed, that more women are in the workplace and that families may consist of one mum and one dad, two dads or two mums. Families are all different, and that is why we need to implement a childcare strategy that suits the needs of every family and every child.

I want to speak a little about school-age children. When we speak about childcare, we often focus on the nought-to-four age group, but, actually, it is the school-age children who can sometimes be forgotten. I am conscious that, just before the debate, I was trying to sort out childcare for my two children. Day care closes at 6.00 pm, but the Assembly will potentially not rise until after 6.00 pm. Many parents across Northern Ireland, whether they are working in hospitals or schools, just do not have that flexibility of childcare. Then the grandparents come in. We all rely on our parents — our children's grandparents — to pick that up, but not everybody has that flexibility and that support, and that is why it falls on us in the Assembly and the Minister to help those families.

Wrap-around care is key. There is a lot of talk, particularly from the DUP Benches, about focusing on that standardisation for three- to four-year-olds, but I want to be clear, as the sector has been clear: preschool provision is not childcare. We absolutely should standardise preschool hours, but we cannot expect parents to top up with vouchers for the extra to make it to 30 hours. What childcare setting will take a child for an extra hour one day and two hours another day? It simply does not work. We need that bespoke reality for Northern Ireland. I implore the Minister: while that might be a quick win, it will not work for the majority of parents. We need to standardise the preschool day, and we need to have childcare on top of that. We need to ensure that, no matter what we do going forward, it is fixed permanently. We may have delay in implementing this, but we want to get it right and make sure that whatever we do for parents means that more parents, especially women, can go back into the workforce and that, when their child turns four and is in school, they still have that childcare to rely on and do not have to think, "What do I do now?", and pay for after-school clubs, send them to swimming or football and rack up the costs there because it cannot be done anywhere else.

We need to think about it from birth up until the point where your child is allowed to and is able to stay at home alone, and we all know that it is different for every child. I implore the Minister to ensure that, when we implement the childcare strategy — I hope that we see it soon — we think about it in a holistic way.

Photo of Kate Nicholl Kate Nicholl Alliance 3:30, 12 February 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. I agree with her points about taking a long-term view. Do you agree that the crisis is now and so, while we need a long-term strategy, we also need immediate interventions such as pushing for an increase in tax-free child credit, convening a task force and potentially creating a COVID-style payment that could support providers and offset the costs for parents?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

Absolutely, I agree, and I thank my colleague for raising the issue. It would go a long way if the Assembly, behind the Minister of Education, called for a raise in the tax-free allowance. It goes some way in helping, but it is simply not enough.

I have said everything that, I think, needs to be said, particularly about ensuring that we have that proper bespoke childcare strategy here. Let us not dupe parents. Let us fix the system and ensure that we get it right from day 1.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

There is one more Member to speak. I am trying to get to everybody on the list who has requested to speak. It is time for you, Gerry. I just want to remind you that, if you take any interventions, you will not have extra time.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Thanks for that, Principal Deputy Speaker.

I thank the parents, guardians, childcare workers and campaigners — some of them are here today — who have forced the issue of unaffordable childcare onto Stormont's agenda after years of government inaction. It cannot be emphasised enough that childcare costs are too high. They were too high before Stormont's collapse and too high before the cost-of-living crisis. It is high time that politicians and the Executive did something about it. In socially deprived communities like mine that have suffered years of attacks from Stormont and Westminster, we have stagnant wages, welfare reform and service cuts, to name but a few. Childcare costs are pushing people to breaking point and to the brink.

There is no worse indictment of the current economic system than the fact that many working people are forced to pay for childcare. A commodity has been made of the nurture, care and development of future generations. The way that families pay out a huge bulk of their wages in childcare costs is shameful. Some providers can make a fortune doing something that should be a basic, publicly funded social necessity.

I agree with a lot that is in the motion and will support it. We need to tackle unaffordable childcare costs. Some of its content should cause further debate and teasing out. It is worth noting that some of the motion is written with economic growth and the market in mind, rather than having families front and centre. We need to move away from being fixated on seeing the issue of childcare as being solely or primarily about driving the local economy, rather than improving families' lives and improving overall living standards for everybody. Sometimes, the focus is overtly on getting people back to work, whether they want to go back to work or not. While it is true that many people want to return to work and should be afforded the opportunity to do so, many more are, in fact, forced to return to work just to pay bills.

The motion obviously does not acknowledge that the childcare provided by parents and guardians at home is, in fact, labour. It is, in fact, work, as some have referred to in their speeches. Raising children is an unpaid job, and it overwhelmingly falls on women to do it. Those who choose to do that job at home should be paid to do it. It is a difficult job, as people have mentioned.

That said, whilst we may differ in our reasoning in teasing out the issues, we believe that affordable childcare is a worthwhile and important aspiration and will support the motion, but we think that we can go further. We think that childcare, like healthcare or any other form of care, should be free at the point of service. There is enough wealth in society to provide universal free childcare that is paid for through progressive taxation. The conversation about childcare has to put our children's development, workers' welfare and families at its core and must remove the profit motive from its provision. The state must step in to support community-run, not-for-profit facilities in the crucial work that they do. The state must also plan for the provision of publicly owned childcare facilities where workers are given decent pay and terms to match the invaluable nature of their role. It is shocking that there is still no childcare or crèche facility in this Building, not just for MLAs but for all the staff who work in and around the Building who have children. It is absolutely shocking and beggars belief.

In a nutshell, we must take childcare provision out of the hands of wealthy private entities and ensure that we all, as a society, provide childcare for people, not profit.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Minister, you have 15 minutes to respond to the debate.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I wish you well in your new duties.

I thank Assembly colleagues for tabling the motion for discussion. I also thank Members who contributed to the important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond. I pay tribute to the Members — I think there were five, if not six — who gave their maiden speeches. I have to say that you will very much add to the abilities in the Chamber. The content and the ability to articulate that message were mightily impressive. Forgive me for singling out my colleague Cheryl Brownlee for her contribution. I am delighted that she was able to come into the Assembly to represent East Antrim. She is a worthy successor to our late good friend David Hilditch, to whom she rightly paid tribute. I associate myself with her remarks.

I assure the House that the development of an early learning and childcare strategy is a top priority for me as Education Minister. There is no time to waste. I will bring an initial paper on the issue to my Executive colleagues later this week. It is clear that we have much work to do, and I am determined to press ahead at pace. I turn to the current position and stress that this is about both early learning and childcare. The strategy will have dual aims: supporting child development and enabling parental employment. It is about giving children the best start in life and supporting working families. It is important that the work we do and the model we put in place is capable of achieving both.

I am aware that the cost of childcare puts immense strain on family finances and, in some cases, prevents parents, particularly women, from entering and remaining in the workforce and progressing in their careers after they have children. Rather than being a barrier, childcare should be a key enabler for parents to progress in the workplace and access training and development opportunities. While making childcare more affordable for working families is a core objective for me and the Executive, it will be the willingness of the Executive to fund it that will be the real test of commitment.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

I thank the Minister of Education for giving way, and thank everybody for bringing and speaking on the motion. Will he agree that the Executive have been engaged in this for some time? Right Start was a strategic direction back in 2013 with 15 key actions. However, the big challenge that was faced was a collective pulling together to prioritise the resources and funds required. We know that this will require significant investment, but what I hear is that everyone recognises that, without investment by the Executive, this simply will not work; it will not be funded.

In addition to a well-funded, well-designed strategy, which is much needed, we need urgent actions. I am glad that this was on the Executive agenda for the first meeting last week. The Minister has indicated that we will have discussion with a paper this week. Will he confirm that urgent actions will also be required, and that he will bring some of those immediate actions to support parents in crisis at the minute and the childcare settings that are really struggling?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Minister does not have extra time.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I concur with the deputy First Minister's remarks, and I am pleased that she and the First Minister outlined this as a priority. It was one of the five issues that were on the agenda for our first Executive meeting. I will bring a paper for discussion to Executive colleagues this Thursday. That will also touch on some of the issues that Members raised about departmental buy-in to the process. A number of Departments have been named in that. It is critical that that cross-departmental approach is taken forward in collaboration. I will lead on it, but it will need the buy-in of other Departments, and it will need the Executive as a whole to make it a key priority.

As well as considering affordability measures for working parents, I want to ensure that we support well-established and highly effective early years programmes such as Sure Start. Those interventions support children facing disadvantage, who are at the greatest risk of poor educational outcomes.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Forgive me. I have a lot to get through. I will make some progress, and, if I have time, I will give way.

We will need a package of targeted measures aimed at addressing the various outcomes that we want to achieve and which Members have all raised. I am well aware of the challenges that many parts of the early learning and childcare sector face in terms of their sustainability and difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff. I look forward to meeting parents, early learning and childcare providers, with other stakeholders, over the coming weeks to hear at first hand what, they feel, needs to be done. Some Members mentioned an advisory group. A stakeholder engagement forum already exists, and that is something that I can look to in terms of expanding and repurposing as we move forward in delivering the childcare strategy.

Our first priority will be to stabilise and further develop the services as we seek to address issues of underinvestment. The work to date has involved extensive stakeholder engagement through the establishment of the stakeholder engagement forum and in individual stakeholder meetings. My officials have also had engagement with government officials across the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland to learn about their early learning and childcare schemes, what their objectives are, how they were developed and implemented and what outcomes they are delivering. While we can and should learn from others, it is important that we consider what would be best for Northern Ireland and deliver the outcomes that we want to achieve here. I am aware of the reported implementation issues in rolling out the 30-hour offer in England, and we want to learn from that.

However, at this stage, I do not want to rule out any options until I have had the opportunity to consider them in more detail and see whether there are elements of them that might translate into the Northern Ireland context.

I want to deliver a bespoke and affordable scheme for Northern Ireland that addresses the challenges that we face and delivers the outcomes that we want to achieve. However, it must also align with the financial support that is already provided by the Government to assist with childcare costs, principally through universal credit and the tax-free childcare scheme. It is important not to displace those inadvertently.

I am aware that there have been calls to ask the Government to increase their contribution to the tax-free childcare scheme upwards of the current 20% contribution, and Miss McAllister and Ms Nicholl referred to that particular issue. I share the desire to see that contribution increased. Indeed, my party colleague and predecessor in post, Michelle McIlveen, wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in September 2022, requesting an uplift in that contribution from 20% to 30% and the removal of the cap on the total amount that can be claimed by parents in any one year. Members of Parliament from Great Britain have made similar calls. So far, His Majesty's Treasury has not agreed to any increase. However, I intend to continue to pursue the matter as it would, undoubtedly, provide additional support for working families relatively quickly.

In advance of expansion, I fully recognise the need to stabilise existing core services and programmes in order to create a firm foundation for growth. There are already some well-established and high-quality government-funded early learning and childcare services to build on. Those include my Department's preschool education programme, Sure Start, the pathway fund and the Toybox project. I pay tribute to programmes such as Sure Start and the pathway fund and those who deliver them. Studies consistently show that such early interventions improve children's cognitive abilities and social and emotional skills, leading to greater academic achievement. Those benefits have been shown to extend to wider society through improved health, lower crime rates and increased productivity. The staff who work in those programmes have a passion for what they do, and they make a real and lasting difference in the lives of many children and families. I pay tribute to them.

While funded preschool is universally available in Northern Ireland, the preschool offer varies between 12 and a half hours and 22 and a half hours per week for a 38-week slot in the year. Therefore, while the offer is universal, the session lengths are not. Approximately, just 40% of children currently receive 22 and a half hours, while 60% are receiving a minimum of 12 and a half hours. We need to address that inequity as a priority and begin to move to a position where all children receive twenty-two and a half hours per week. That would contribute to our child development and childcare objectives. It would also result in Northern Ireland having a higher level of universal provision for three- to four-year-olds than England, which we are often compared to. In England, three- to four-year-old children whose parents are not in employment only get 15 hours. Even so, 22 and a half hours is not the height of our ambition for working families with children of that age. We have a manifesto commitment to provide 30 hours, and that remains my objective.

Following significant engagement with the sector and findings from independent commission reviews, it is clear that there is a real and urgent need to protect our current provision and reinvest in areas that have been squeezed by rising costs and constrained funding. I want to do that as a matter of urgency. There are other issues to be addressed too, not least making sure that appropriate childcare is available and accessible for children with disabilities and special educational needs. It is also important that I consider the recommendations made by the expert panel in the 'A Fair Start' report and, more recently, the independent review of education on that issue.

We all agree that the current level of early learning and childcare support that is available to children and parents in Northern Ireland is inadequate and that there is a need for the Executive to address that. Implementing an ambitious programme of reform will take time, which is why I also want to consider what short-term measures might be possible in order to ease current pressures. The budget that is needed for all of this will be significant and will require an ongoing commitment. If real and meaningful change is to happen, Executive colleagues must be willing to invest properly in early learning and childcare. Members have asked for associated costings. When fully implemented, however, the annual and recurring costs will potentially be up to £400 million. The ultimate scale of the budget required will be dependent on the scope of the strategy and the level of support agreed by the Executive across the range of areas proposed. Make no mistake, however, about my ambition for this strategy and my commitment to making the case for the funding required to deliver progress as a matter of urgency.

Member may ask, as I did, how the £400 million figure was arrived at. I am told that it is a relatively conservative estimate. Members, to standardise our preschool education placements so that all children get 22 and a half hours would cost £35 million. Actions to support Sure Start, the pathway fund and Toybox towards full expansion would cost £40 million. Actions to support sector sustainability, workforce development and children with additional needs would cost £50 million. Miss McAllister talked about a funding model to support affordability of childcare to go beyond three to four years of age. If that were applied from nine months old to age four, the estimated cost, based on 30 hours of funded childcare, would be £270 million. That gives us the total of £400 million. The figure has been arrived at through engaging with stakeholders, but it is also the Strategic Investment Board's assessment. Members, that figure is hugely significant, so I welcome the commitment from the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and all the political parties that this is a top priority for us to deliver. I will drive forward the childcare strategy, but, Members, be under no illusion as to the scale of the funding that will be needed to make it a reality. Of course, it will take time to have the childcare strategy fully developed and rolling out, but that is the quantum of resources that could be needed to deliver a fully costed childcare strategy.

I invite the House to support me with this, and I thank Members for their contribution to the discussion. I welcome further engagement with all concerned so that the benefits of a new early learning and childcare strategy are fully realised. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 3:45, 12 February 2024

Thank you, Minister. This is my first opportunity to put on the record my condolences on the loss of David Hilditch. B’fhear deas é. He was a lovely man. I sat on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure with him.

I call Mike Nesbitt to wind on the amendment. Mike, you have five minutes.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, thank you very much. I congratulate you and wish you well. I hope that you enjoy the view. I also congratulate all those who made their maiden speech: Cheryl Brownlee, Kate Nicholl, Danny Baker, Nick Mathison and Sorcha Eastwood. Thanks also to my colleague Mr Butler for tabling the amendment and to Mrs Mason, Miss Brogan, Mr Baker and Ms Kimmins for tabling the motion.

At this point, I am getting sick of being nice to people and am going to pick a fight. The fight that I choose to pick is with Mr Butler, who opened his remarks by bemoaning the fact that he and others have been at this for two years. I feel that I have been at this for over 12 years. I remind the House that, until May 2016, the issue fell within the remit of the then Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I chaired several meetings of the scrutiny Committee, and we tried to understand where the blockage was with bringing forward a strategy, not least because it had a budget line. From memory, there was £12 million for childcare that, for a long time, sat unspent. This is an opportunity to get it right this time, and I do believe that is not just about affordable childcare but about affordable and accessible childcare.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I want to highlight the point again that an Executive strategic direction called Bright Start was agreed by the Executive. Fifteen key actions were allocated against it. People seem to have forgotten that, but it was there. It is, I think, to the regret of everybody that that was not advanced to a full strategy, despite significant consultation, but there is an opportunity now to do that. I just wanted to clarify that point.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Mike, I am sorry, but you do not have an extra minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Regrets, I have had a few.

[Laughter.]

It has to be affordable, not £10,000-plus for each child, as Miss Brogan and others pointed out, but it also has to be accessible. There was another scheme that was about giving four hours a day to preschool children. The report claimed that it had been extremely successful, with a success rate of well over 90%, in offering families places. However, that included, for example, a family who came to see me in my office in Newtownards and had been offered a place in Suffolk in West Belfast. By the time they got there and back, they had about an hour and a half before it was time to go and collect the child. That was not a success in my view. I hope that, this time, we will go forward in the spirit of an outcome-based accountability Programme for Government. That is a results-based programme.

I am not sure whether any Member remembers Mark Friedman coming to this Building some years ago to talk about this results-based accountability scheme, which he is basically the father of. He wrote the book 'Trying Hard is Not Good Enough'. That is pertinent to what we do as a devolved Administration. We tend to say that we are working night and day on this problem, as if that is going to fix it. Working night and day does not guarantee success. We have to stop focusing on just the inputs and outputs of government. We have to focus on the outcomes. We are very good at the inputs: we are spending a lot of money and doing this and that. The outputs now are, for example, "1,000 people have attended awareness programmes. 10,000 people have responded to our consultation. We have set up a unit in the Department or an advisory group". None of that guarantees the sort of outcomes that we are looking for.

I commend the outcomes in the motion and the amendment: to prevent educational disadvantage; to support children with special educational needs; to promote emotional health and well-being amongst children; to improve terms and conditions for workers; to deliver accessible and affordable childcare. Those are the measures that this strategy, whenever it comes, should be measured against.

As the economy spokesperson, I say that one of the outcomes is about not just child development; it is about our shocking levels of economic inactivity. The motion talks about the positive impact on the economy of this strategy. A lot of people who are economically inactive want to be active, and one of the big barriers is the lack of affordable and accessible childcare. It is not just a matter for the Minister of Education. As Mrs Dodds conceded, encouraged by Mr Butler, it is potentially for the whole Executive. I can see a role for the Economy, Communities, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and Justice Ministers.

I commend the motion and the proposed amendment from Mr Butler.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I call Liz Kimmins to conclude and make a winding-up speech. You have 10 minutes.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I congratulate you on your new role. You have handled it very well today. I want to thank all the Members who have spoken today. It has been a really positive debate.

My party tabled the motion as childcare is a significant priority for us, but it is also safe to say, given the unanimous support across the Chamber, that it is a priority for all parties. The point has been well made on just how important early education and childcare are. There is strong evidence to show how crucial that window in a child's life is to their development. It is also a crucial opportunity to identify issues or difficulties that a child might have and is key to getting the right support in place at the earliest possible stage.

As a working parent, like many others have described, I am acutely aware of the huge challenges in accessing childcare, due to the lack of capacity, and the challenges that providers and those working across the sector face because those challenges continue to grow. That includes the rise in energy costs for self-employed childminders operating from their own homes and those in childcare facilities trying to pay their staff fairly in the context of competing pay, which is forcing them, as we have seen in the last week alone, to close their doors.

Highly qualified, experienced workers are being lost to other jobs with better pay and conditions, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and maintain staff, as we have heard on countless occasions and even in this debate. We need to ensure that staff working across the sector are properly valued and respected for the excellent work that they do, which has an increasingly wide and complex range of responsibilities. It is no wonder that many of them are walking away from a job that they love, a job that is, it is fair to say, a vocation for many, to jobs that offer better pay and conditions but maybe do not give them the same satisfaction and value.

As we have heard from many Members today, we cannot continue to push the rising costs on to already hard-pressed parents and families, and we need to put in place the right support to stop that cycle. Investment in a childcare strategy that is co-designed with families, providers, trade unions and workers to fully address the challenges that they face will have far-reaching benefits across society. The huge cost of childcare for families is untenable for the vast majority of parents, and we need to work together to deliver on this critical issue. The provision of affordable childcare that is accessible to all — not just for those who can afford it and, as others mentioned, not just for those who have children of a certain age — will have a huge impact in boosting economic activity, particularly for women, which is important not only for our economy but for the well-being of parents who can get back into the workplace and an adult environment. I know from when my children were maybe nine months to a year that you cannot wait to get back into the workplace and have that balance in your life.

The strategy will also help, as we have discussed, the vast workforce challenges that we see across our key public services. In health, education and infrastructure, positions can be fulfilled predominantly by women, yet, largely, those are the people facing the barriers that we have talked about today. Many have talked about the significant cost, and the Minister referred to the cost of investment in childcare to date, but it is important to understand that, if we get this right, we have a real opportunity to transform society for the better. Whilst there will be initial costs, and those must not be understated, there will be benefits across every sector.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 4:00, 12 February 2024

I thank the Member for giving way, and I know that she will not have time added on.

I am glad that the Member raised that point, because I did not get a chance to address the Minister on it. I thank the Department for the work that it has done on the costings, but what has been missing all along is the fact that savings could well be made not just fiscally but in the improvement to children's lives. If we get the early identification of needs and early support in, guess what? Our ambition should be to reduce the burden on the special education budget, which is costing £0·5 billion at this point. I offer a challenge to the Minister to ensure that not just the cost but the savings are factored into those fiscal arrangements.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Sorry. The Member does not have extra time, and interventions are meant to be brief.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for raising an important point, and we can look at that in every area of our work. If we can get it right at the earliest possible stage, we will see the benefits elsewhere. It is not all about cost; it will have far-reaching benefits and efficiencies that we will see further down the line.

I agree with Members who talked about childcare as a cross-cutting issue. From our perspective, we have heard how Ministers around the Executive table are all up for this, and it will require cross-departmental working. However, it is important to recognise and acknowledge that, as was unanimously agreed in the Chamber last Tuesday, we are chronically underfunded and the British Government have a role to play in ensuring that we have the proper funding to deliver what is needed. We need proper funding that will enable us to do what we have committed to do to deliver on the issue of childcare and early education. We need to continue to speak with one voice when lobbying the British Treasury on this, because, if we want to do this, we want to get it right and ensure that we are properly resourced to do so. Once we have the proper resources, we can do so much more, and we will be able to deliver properly for the people whom we serve.

I thank everyone who has spoken in support of the motion today. The motion has set an ambitious tone for the new Assembly, and key to that, as I said, is working together to deliver quality, affordable, accessible and sustainable childcare. I ask all parties to support the motion.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly recognises that the costs of childcare are unaffordable for many and that hard-working families are struggling every month to meet these costs; further recognises that the childcare sector is in need of urgent and significant investment in order to put the sector on a sustainable footing, to improve terms and conditions for workers and to deliver the high-quality and accessible provision that families and children deserve; notes that without affordable childcare provision many people, particularly women, are unable to take up or return to employment; agrees that affordable childcare would have a hugely positive impact on our local economy; acknowledges that high-quality childcare and early years education can help to give children the best start in life, support children with special educational needs (SEN) to help prevent educational disadvantage and promote emotional health and well-being amongst children; calls on the Minister of Education to listen to the views of parents and businesses by way of a deliberate consultation; and further calls on the Executive to work collectively to deliver a strategy that makes high-quality childcare, affordable for all families, a priority.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I ask the House to take its ease so that we can make changes at the top Table.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)