I start with a declaration of interest. I am chair of Early Childhood Ireland, but it is a governance role. The Minister is very welcome to the House to discuss this issue. I applaud him for the work he is doing in setting up an interdepartmental group on future investment in child care. It is very encouraging to see the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking ownership of and showing leadership in the area.
I was surprised recently when I saw a map of the State, Department and agencies involvement developed by Mr. Thomas Walsh of NUI Maynooth. The list was large and I wonder about resources and costs, purely on the State side. That issue needs to be re-examined to ensure the system is streamlined. The map is an exemplar of the role of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, for which I applaud it. The role of the Minister is to co-ordinate and bring people together and to fulfil the missions of the strategy of the Government in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures.
I hope the template will give us all an agreed map in order that we can declare where we need to go to. Difficult choices will have to be made, but at least we can agree at last what needs to happen. Parallel to this, as the Minister will be aware, the Joint Committee on Health and Children is having hearings on this issue. Deputy Sandra McLellan is our rapporteur, under the excellent chairmanship of Deputy Jerry Buttimer. The hearings have started and last week Early Childhood Ireland, Start Strong, the NWCI and the Children’s Rights Alliance came before the committee to set the scene for the issue. We have already had a good debate.
I want to discuss special needs and additional needs, which came up at the hearings last week. I mentioned the fact that the Department of Education and Skills provides more than 6,500 SNAs in primary schools, yet, apart from some local resources, none is allocated to children in early years education. I know that very often the focus is, correctly, on a child with needs, but we all know, and it was stated in the hearings last week, that the importance of inclusion and mainstreaming for all children in a setting cannot be overestimated. What came out of it was that perhaps the special needs assistant model is not the right model, so I hope the Minister is examining other models. It was about how they could access resources to support children in order that they were included in the settings and about adequately resourcing the preschool setting to include and mainstream the child rather than having a shadow with the child, . I advise the Minister to examine some of the answers we received from the organisations at that hearing.
What also came out very strongly from each of the organisations that presented was the importance of the first year of the child’s life, and that we must do everything we can to ensure this first year is at home. This came from all the organisations and it is something I ask the Minister to bring into his consideration. Perhaps over time, as we are trying to be ambitious, the Minister could look at how we ensure we have maternity and paternity leave. In Sweden either parent must take three months of the leave and it is up to them to work out how it is done. We need to look more inventively at this.
I strongly urge the Minister to ensure any money allowed goes into investment and not into cash transfers. We do not have to look too far back in history in this regard. The early child care supplement was withdrawn by the former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, and the free preschool year was started at the beginning of the recession. I am hugely surprised to see that Fianna Fáil has gone back to tax credits in its plans. For me it is about investment. I urge the Minister to examine this.