Yesterday, in the Seanad, I raised the issue of childcare and childcare costs. I called for a full debate with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman in advance of the budget with regard to the cost of childcare and pay and retention of childcare workers.

No more than the Leader herself, I was proud to be a part of Governments that established the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that put a new referendum on the rights of the child to the Irish people that was successfully passed, that provided the second free preschool year and included children with disability under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme through the access inclusion model and that enabled the introduction of the national child care scheme that this year will be funded by a budget of €638 million, which is an increase of 141% on the figure five years previously. However, investment lags behind other EU countries and childcare fees here are the highest in the European Union at €184 per week. During the pandemic we saw how society could not reopen in the absence of childcare being provided. Special attention and negotiation had to be entered into to get childcare reopened and established in order that families could get back to some level of normality and provide the services that we all needed.

As the Leader is no doubt aware, there is a campaign by various national associations to increase funding for the early years sector in next month’s budget. I ask her to arrange a debate on the issue of childcare and childcare costs next week, if possible, but certainly in advance of the budget with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman. I wish to acknowledge the work that both Ministers have done on these matters.

In addition, the wages paid to the people who work in the sector are low. The yearly hourly pay for early years educators is €11.91 and the majority of early years professionals earn less than the living wage. I welcome the agreement and negotiations between the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, in respect of a joint labour committee for the sector, on which work is ongoing.

Recently, I spoke to individuals in Galway who have worked in the sector for ten years but who have never had an increase in pay. I also have spoken to small providers who have seen their insurance costs rise by 20% in a year. It is hard to motivate people to stick with a very important career when there are no progressions, increments and nothing to say that in five years’ time, one will be more valued and consequently will receive higher pay. It is for that reason that people are leaving the sector and there is a high turnover in staff, which is regrettable. As the Leader will know, it is difficult to get staff at the minimum wage. There are up to nine organisations, and rightly so, that keep an eye on the childcare sector. They are the HSE, the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Pobal, fire officers, Tusla, the Department of Education and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. That goes to show the importance that we bestow on the sector. It is, therefore, important that we have a full and proper debate in advance of the budget to support the calls for increased funding in this very important sector.