What has 100 days of devolved government delivered for childcare?

As a charity which has spent the past 20 years campaigning for childcare to be recognised as an economic – as well as an educational and societal – issue, it was hugely encouraging that childcare emerged very quickly as a key priority for the new Northern Ireland Executive. On the day new Ministers were appointed, they all stood up in the Assembly highlighting the critical role of childcare in supporting children, families, our childcare sector and its workforce, and our economy and society as a whole.

Now 100 days on since devolved government returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years, what has actually been delivered to improve the childcare situation in Northern Ireland, for parents who are struggling to afford the childcare they need, and for childcare providers struggling to keep their doors open?

Here’s an outline of some of the numbers:

  • Childcare was identified as a Day 1 priority for the new Executive with a number of Ministers highlighting its importance in their opening speeches
  • There has been 1 motion on affordable childcare brought to the Assembly, on the first full sitting day, supported by all parties
  • There have been 119 questions submitted for answer by Ministers on childcare
  • There have been 10 meetings of the Assembly’s Education Committee, including one meeting exclusively focused on childcare, with a briefing from Employers For Childcare
  • Childcare was identified by the Economy Minister as 1 of 4 key priorities for the economy
  • There has been 1 enquiry on childcare announced by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
  • Childcare fees continuing to increase – 73% of providers have either increased their fees since the start of the year or plan to do so before June, by an average of 14%
  • £25 million allocated in the Budget to childcare – just 6% of the £400 million identified by the Education Minister as being needed to fund a new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy.

Long-term strategy and interim support promised

Speaking in the Assembly in February, Education Minister Paul Givan said: “I assure the House that the development of an early learning and childcare strategy is a top priority for me as Education Minister”. He recognised that there was a need for “urgent actions” to support both parents and struggling childcare settings.

Commitments were given that there would be interim support made available to stabilise the childcare sector, and to help parents.

Warm words but no actions

Yet 100 days on, the childcare crisis continues. Our Family Benefits Advice Service hears daily from parents who are clinging on to their jobs, struggling to afford their monthly childcare bills or getting into debt in order to pay them, while they wait for the support that has been promised, but has not yet materialised. We hear too from childcare providers who just cannot understand why their hopes and expectations have been raised, yet nothing has been delivered by way of tangible support to help them stay in business, or to support the parents who use their services.

This is simply not good enough. 100 days on and there is growing concern that the optimism that things would be different under this mandate will be shown to be unfounded. For parents and for childcare providers, the excitement that childcare had finally been recognised as a key issue that underpins everything else the Executive seeks to achieve has faded quickly as immediate concerns about whether they can stay in work, or pay their staff, have taken over.

Again, we are asking Ministers to deliver on two things:

  1. The promised ‘interim support’ to address the current childcare crisis – helping parents to afford the childcare they need, and supporting our childcare providers to deliver high quality childcare sustainably.
  2. A timeline for the delivery of an ambitious Early Learning and Childcare Strategy that includes a bespoke funding model for Northern Ireland, learning from experiences elsewhere.

It is positive that MLAs from across all parties are keeping childcare high on the agenda in the Assembly through written and urgent questions, Assembly Committees and the All Party Group on Early Education and Childcare. And we understand that officials from across Government Departments are working on plans both for in-year actions and on the longer term Early Learning and Childcare Strategy,

But if childcare is really to be the ‘legacy’ of this government, as has been indicated time and again, we need to see action now that goes beyond warm words and promises to deliver meaningful change.