Averil discussing funding for Jigsaw Darndale

Senator Averil Power: There is probably much correspondence already on the Minister’s desk on child care issues from all over the country on local and national issues but the matter I wish to raise is one of particular urgency and particular seriousness, namely, that the largest child care centre in the country, Jigsaw Darndale, is facing immediate closure due to lack of funding.

Jigsaw Darndale, formally known as the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Child Care Centre, provides an excellent service to 250 children and their parents. If the Minister is familiar with Darndale, Belcamp and the broader areas, he will be aware this area suffers from significant levels of socio-economic disadvantage. It is the type of place where children desperately need to get the best possible start and need to have access to State-funded child care services in order that they get the same level of child care and opportunities as children in other areas and are not falling behind before starting school. Of the 250 children served by Jigsaw Darndale, 40 are referred by the social services from families at risk. A letter from a member of staff mentioned the type of backgrounds from which the children come and expressed the view that for many of them, the centre is their only safe space as staff look out for them and check that everything is okay for them and ensure they have three hot meals per day. These are children who desperately need that level of care and attention. Obviously, not every child who uses the centre has those needs but all of them need access to a child care service. It is also essential for their parents so that they can avail of training, education and employment opportunities to improve their life chances and those of their children. I cannot speak highly enough of the service with which I am familiar.

We should bear in mind that Departments have endorsed the service. It has been awarded the Síolta framework in 2013, ahead of many private services which charge high fees but have not reached that quality mark. Everybody recognises the service is doing a good job and is of the highest quality and should be retained yet, as we speak, it is facing the risk of closure this week. It has flagged various issues with the Department in recent years. It has had a succession of funding cuts in the past five years. It flagged to the Department in recent months that it had serious and immediate issues and was given short-term funding while discussions took place. So far nothing has come out of those discussions and it is still faced with a €200,000 gap in funding. It costs €2 million to run the service and it has only €180,000. It has already reduced staff wages to deal with the cuts of recent years. It has done massive fundraising, it charges the parents fees ranging from €25 to €200, depending on the family income.

The centre has gone out of its way to raise the money in order not to have to go back to the Department but it has no choice. There is nothing else it can cut. I sat down with the manager of the service yesterday who told me they have looked at everything from pens to toilet rolls and there is nothing else they can cut. At this stage it is looking at a situation where it will have to let its staff go immediately. Unless it gets a guarantee from the Government it will not be able to pay wages in a few weeks.

I have tabled this Adjournment debate to bring the matter to the Minister’s attention and ask him to prioritise it among the various issues that have been put in front of him to ensure a solution to the issue. It may be that it will take a few weeks to figure out the best course in terms of finding a sustainable arrangement. While that is being worked out, I stress the need for an immediate cash injection to deal with the cashflow problems in order that the service does not go to the wall while arrangements are being made. I ask the Minister to prioritise the issue and look forward to his response.

Minister Flanagan: I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issue raised by the Senator. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the importance of the services delivered by Damdale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service Limited to some 260 children across the areas of Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview. The centre was established in January 2001 and has evolved into the largest crèche nationally.

In 2013 the Darndale Belcamp Integrated Childcare Service incurred expenditure of €2.022 million and received funding amounting to €1.96 million. This resulted in a deficit of €62,000. I am aware that the centre has been experiencing cash flow difficulties recently and that this has given rise to concerns regarding its future operation. In order to assist the centre, the Child and Family Agency recently prepaid funding due in May and June and I want to acknowledge the support of the agency in this regard. I would expect that the agency will be open to providing some further pre-payments to the centre if this is of assistance in seeking to resolve underlying issues.

The Child and Family Agency is one of a number of State agencies which provides funding to support the provision of services at the centre. The level of support provided is very significant and is being provided at a time when all service providers are faced with particular challenges arising from the need to restore order to the public finances. The Child and Family Agency provided funding of almost €360,000 last year.

My Department is responsible for funding three child care schemes including the community child care subvention programme, the child care education and training support programme, both of which are administered by Pobal, and the early childhood care and education programme which is administered directly by my Department. Funding to the centre under these schemes amounted to over €550,000 in 2013. This represents total funding in excess of €900,000 from my Department’s Vote. Funding is paid to the service in respect of actual attendance of children under the various programmes and funding is paid according to national capitation rates paid to all preschool services. The Department does not provide a grant to the service directly for salaries or administration in any way.

I have asked my officials to meet urgently – I acknowledge the use of the word “urgently” by Senator Power – with the Child and Family Agency and with Pobal, which administers a number of child care schemes on behalf of my Department, to explore all possible solutions to the current difficulties. My predecessor recently advised the centre that, in her view, the overall provision of early years services in the area might usefully be considered in seeking solutions to the current difficulties.

I agree with this view because we need to ensure that all available resources to support these key services are maximised. All services in receipt of State funding have had to generate efficiency savings. While I appreciate the challenges involved, it is important that all such avenues are fully explored.

I remarked that the centre incurred a deficit of €62,000. This would have been far more substantial but for successful fund-raising by and on behalf of the centre. I understand that fund-raising projections for this year are not as strong and there is a risk of a projected deficit of up to €200,000. I acknowledge the need to avoid such a deficit, but the centre’s income projections show that income of €1.8 million continues to be available. With such a level of financial support available, it should be possible to work constructively to continue services and to avoid the closure scenario outlined by Senator Power. The funders will be available to support this process.

I am acutely aware that access to affordable high-quality child care can be a significant barrier preventing many low-income and disadvantaged families from availing of work opportunities. I acknowledge what Senator Power has said about the high level of disadvantage in the immediate area.

Significant investment totalling more than €260 million is being provided this year by my Department to support child care programmes. These include the free preschool year, from which approximately 68,000 children benefit on an annual basis. The Government is attaching significant priority to children and family services, including the provision of early years services. This is being done against the backdrop of significant and necessary constraints in overall public expenditure.

I hope the current difficulties at the Darndale Belcamp centre can be satisfactorily resolved. There is a requirement for all of the parties mentioned to work to resolve the current difficulties in a constructive and proportionate manner. As a first step, I have arranged for a meeting tomorrow of funding agencies, following which I expect there to be an early meeting with the centre to constructively explore all options for achieving a sustainable approach to the centre’s operations. I call on all parties to work with this process and, as suggested by my predecessor, to use whatever space can be provided to identify constructive solutions which will continue to deliver a service to young children and their parents in the area.

Senator Averil Power: I welcome the Minister’s indication that there will be a meeting of the funders tomorrow. The issue is urgent, and it is significant that a meeting is taking place tomorrow. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the effect that after the meeting an early meeting will be held with the Jigsaw Childcare Service. I emphasise to the Minister the urgency of the provision of short-term funding for the centre. Those responsible in the centre should be given an indication that there will be breathing space of one month or whatever while the talks are taking place. The representatives of the centre have explained to me that as a company under law – the Minister is familiar with company law – once those responsible are aware that the centre is incurring debts, such as staff costs and other costs, that it will be unable to pay, there is a risk that they will be found to be trading recklessly.

The directors of the centre have been advised that unless they are given a clear indication that they will have short-term funding to pay wages in one, two or three weeks’ time they will have to give people statutory notice and the various entitlements that employees have under law. That is why I emphasise the need for an indication as soon as the meetings take place with the funders. I appreciate that it could take some weeks to reach a longer-term agreement about how the service will be funded in future. Anyway, there is a need for those responsible in the centre to be informed straight away that at the least they can keep the doors open for the coming month and that there is some breathing space while all of this is worked out.

The Minister referred to the fact that the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, had advised that perhaps there could be some solution in examining the overall position of early years services in the area. However, the representatives from the Jigsaw centre have informed me that it is the only service for those under three in the area. There are other services that cater for children of immediate preschool age, but this is an area with significant socioeconomic disadvantage and, therefore, the earlier children from those homes can get access to high-quality childhood education and care, the better. That should be considered as well.

I appreciate the Minister’s attendance this evening. I realise it has been one of his first duties in the post. Furthermore, I appreciate that the Minister has called the groups together in order that we can get all the different agencies around the table and work out a solution. It would be a disgrace if a service such as this were allowed to close. I assure the Minister that those involved in the centre are prepared to do everything they can to work with the funders and provide a solution.

Minister Flanagan: I accept the urgency of the issue. Again, I thank Senator Power for bringing the matter to my attention in the Seanad this evening. She referred specifically to the matter of direct funding. The company has been in discussion with the Child and Family Agency, which is one of several State agencies that provides funding to the centre. The agency has already provided a level of short-term relief by way of a prepayment of cash for June. It has not been possible for the agency to provide direct funding. I have no wish to pre-empt what might happen at the meetings. There is a meeting tomorrow. I hope a resolution can be found by having all the stakeholders and parties involved. I undertake to liaise with Senator Power in the hope that we can find a satisfactory solution to this urgent and important issue.






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