#RealityCheck: Are the parties' promises on childcare realistic?

Odran Flynn and Sue Murphy take an in-depth look at the proposals

#RealityCheck: Are the parties' promises on childcare realistic?

Picture by: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

And the promises keep on rolling in.

One of those promises comes in the form of childcare proposals that are being promised by the various parties.

In terms of childcare proposals in general, this is one of the areas where the government has developed a lot of spin both before the last election and this election. There is entirely a possibility that once the parties who get elected enters government, they could announce the fiscal space has shrunk and there isn't any money for their policies.

So what are the proposals?

The Labour party have proposed to move immediately to cap the cost for parents of childcare for all children under 12 to €4.25 per hour for up to 40 hours of childcare a week. By 2021, they say they will reduce this cost for parents to €2 per hour, or a maximum cost of €80 per week. The State will fund the balance.

A price cap of €4.25 per hour will be maintained in both 2017 and 2018 to allow providers to prepare for increased subsidies. The price cap will then be reduced by €0.75 per hour each year in 2019, 2020 and 2021, to reduce costs for parents to €2 per hour by the end of the lifetime of the next Government.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil childcare proposals are somewhat vague as they don’t indicate the age range or the numbers of children to benefit from the proposed tax credit. They do have a cost of €235 Million annually attached to them but I fail to see how it addresses anything other than a minority of the numbers who need to avail of it. When the Labour Party launched their childcare proposals three weeks ago, the Reality Check by Newstalk revealed that the €500 million that they were proposing would only meet the needs of some 50,000 children.

It cannot be a coincidence that Labour has returned to the “promise table” with a new bid of some €800 million which is still, I believe, several hundred million short but significantly is almost four times the amount of the costs provided for in the Fianna Fail manifesto. Now while Fianna Fail are not going as far down the road as Labour in the extent of childcare support that they claim to offer, their proposals would appear to fall well short of the expectations and needs of families.

Sinn Féin on the other hand are offering €850 million on childcare, costs capped at €180 per week with a view to a further reduction to €150. They also have proposed longer maternity leave and parental leave for 52 weeks.

Fine Gael also announced the highlights of the Early Years Plan which include:
  • An additional 8 weeks paid leave by 2021, to be taken in the child’s first year by either parent
  • A €2,000 annual subsidy for children aged 9 months to 3 years in childcare facilities

RENUA on the other hand have proposed to use a social cohesion fund, funded by local property tax, to deliver a network of community creches across the country. They estimate that an initial investment of €200 million Euros per annum is required.

Could they work?

There are obvious difficulties such as the need for more and larger premises for childcare providers, the requirement to recruit suitably qualified staff and be able to pay them adequately.

The Labour Party proposals claim that they can phase in this proposal over a five-year period at a cost to the exchequer of €500M per annum (which has now been increased to €800m). How feasible is this or is it just another empty proposal that sounds attractive to hard-pressed parents who are struggling to keep a job while forking out the equivalent of a mortgage repayment each month?

Early Childhood Ireland spokesperson Teresa Heeney, speaking on NT Breakfast, found the proposals to be “astonishing” and that they would make a major difference to those hard pressed parents if they were implemented. However she did not believe that it was possible to deliver this promise at the costs stated.

There are 356,000 children aged between 0 and 4 in the country plus another 504,000 aged between 5 and 12 giving a total figure of 860,000. This averages out at €581 per child per year in subsidies to the childcare industry. I realise that all children would not require the same number of hours in childcare but even taking a conservative average of 20 hours per week per child the figures just do not add up.

Even at 40 weeks per year that amounts to 800 hours per child and the initially proposed €500M subsidy would result in a measly €0.72 per hour per child.

Another way of looking at it is that €500m would support just 52,000 children per year for 40 weeks at 40 hours per week. This represents just 6% of the total children in the State in the relieved age groups. 

The above figures are mainly in relation to the Labour promise, due to the fact that other parties don't provide the ages that their childcare policies apply to, it is a little more difficult to cost these.

In relation to Fine Gael, although they say their policy includes a subsidy, this is for children attending childcare and it is unclear whether this is a tax credit or subsidy, ie cash that will be given to the parents.

Are these realistic proposals?

Effectively, the Labour proposal is not workable and is insulting the intelligence of those desperately seeking a solution to a long-standing problem that is inhibiting the ability of people, especially women, to remain in the workforce.

Dr. Sheila Garrity from the UNESCO Child & Family Research Centre at NUIG spoke to Newstalk Lunchtime during the week about the plans and stated: "We are clearly seeing common themes arising and promises being made, similar promises we've heard before.

"All parties are talking about increased parental leave and some contingencies for fathers to be involved in the first year of a child's life.

"Most parties are offering a second universal pre-school year and all of them have some nod to quality.

"If we talk about Labour's current offer around the capping of childcare costs, so that's really just holding it at the cost it is now, €170 a week. 

"Over a number of years, they plan to reduce it down to about €2 an hour and we know that costs are just crippling parents.

"It's particularly impacting on women's ability to engage in the workforce."

"They're talking about providing paid planning time for early years practitioners. They've been in Government for five years and they're now only talking about that. That's really such a minimal expectation."

On Sinn Féin, she stated: "Sinn Féin is talking about increasing the universal year to 48 weeks, currently it's only 32 weeks a year so it really doesn't support parents working full time.

"The Social Democrats are the only party who I feel are articulating a long term vision, so they're talking about a multi-year programme of investment. What's particularly interesting is that they're proposing a full economic review of the childcare sector, looking at the cost of childcare, looking at the quality."

However, Fianna Fail and Renua, she stated, are going back to regressive measures around tax relief, both are talking about tax credits.

"The other parites are talking about investing in the system, in the sector to reduce the cost at the door where parents arrive rather than putting money in the hands of parents."

 Odran Flynn and Sue Murphy

Live from @ElectionNT