Our childcare system needs radical reform right now

Colette Sexton, news correspondent at The Sunday Business Post, on why a token gesture towards childcare costs in Budget 2019 will not be enough.

I am starting to wonder if politicians think that children rear themselves after they reach 12 months? I know politicians are well known for kissing babies, but I am not sure if they know that those babies are not, in fact, able to mind themselves after the sacred act of tasting cake on their first birthday.

Next month’s budget is expected to bring in extra paid leave for mothers and fathers. Budget 2019 will add in two extra weeks paid parental leave for both parents in the first year of their baby’s life, according to several media reports recently.

The four weeks of extra parental leave is expected to equal maternity benefit in monetary value, which is a State payment of €240 a week, and will be non transferable between parents so each parent will have to take their own two weeks or lose the benefit. This will be in addition to the current system of 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, and two weeks of paid parental leave. That’s grand so. From my understanding, and clearly the understanding of many members of Dáil Éireann, kids are pretty self sufficient after 32 weeks, right?

I know we are not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth, and we should graciously accept this generosity, but an additional four weeks in the first year of a child’s life will be easily forgotten when the child turns seven and the childcare fees are still equaling that of a mortgage on a monthly basis.

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What Ireland needs is complete reform of the childcare system. A study from the ERSI and Pobal found that women are being pushed out of the workforce due to high childcare costs. The study, published earlier this month, showed that parents with one child aged three spend about 12 per cent of their disposable income on childcare on average. Mothers with higher childcare costs when their child was aged three tended to work fewer hours when the child was five. The findings showed that 10 per cent higher childcare costs typically meant 30 minutes less paid work by mothers weekly, while 50 per cent higher childcare costs equalled two and a half hours less paid work per week.

We want parents out there working and paying taxes and we are preventing them from doing so because of crippling childcare costs. The problems with our childcare system might seem so vast they are insurmountable but it is possible to fix them.

Look at Sweden. There, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted and for 390 of those days, parents are entitled to nearly 80 per cent of their normal pay. Those who are not in employment are also entitled to paid parental leave. Parental leave can be taken up until a child turns eight and applies to each child. Parents in Sweden also have a legal right to reduce their normal working hours by up to 25 per cent until the child turns eight. School is free from preschool to university, as are school lunches, and after-school care is heavily subsidised. Employees are entitled to 80 per cent of their pay when they have to stay home with sick children or dependents.

Sweden makes it so easy to be a working parent. Why do we make it so difficult in Ireland?

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