Bacik calls for an inclusive, feminist model of care

Ivana Bacik TD
09 June 2022

Speaking today at the National Women’s Council AGM on the care economy, Labour leader Ivana Bacik TD spoke about her work as chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality – the committee established late last year to consider how best to implement the 45 recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality.

Deputy Bacik said:

“The Citizens’ Assembly recommendations amount to a blueprint for gender equality in Ireland, and focus considerable attention on the need for reform of childcare and care policies generally – they provide a radical vision for a new care system that if implemented would lead to a really inclusive feminist model of care for Ireland.

“I and my colleagues on the Committee have been working closely over recent months with government departments, NGOs and stakeholders to see how we can make that vision of care a reality. The recommendations of the Assembly on care, recommendations 4 to 12, recognise the deeply gendered dimension to our voluntarist model of care structures in Ireland. They call for radical change in childcare with a move over the next decade to a ‘publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality, affordable early years and out of hours childcare’ along with paid leave for parents to cover the first year of a child’s life.

“On care more generally, they also call for improvement in the terms and conditions of those in paid employment as carers; the reform of carers’ allowance; an individualised pension solution for carers; improvement of respite provision; better supports for those who wish to be cared for at home and to continue to live independently with disabilities and into older age.

“In short, the Assembly wanted what we all want; a care revolution. We in Labour have been campaigning for this transformative and inclusive change to take place in our systems of childcare, early years education and care; and care for older persons and those with disabilities. The time for change is now.”

ENDS

A full transcript of Deputy Bacik’s speech as follows:

I am delighted to speak today both as Labour leader, and as chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality – the committee established late last year to consider how best to implement the 45 recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality – recommendations that amount to a blueprint for gender equality in Ireland, and which focus considerable attention on the need for reform of childcare and care policies generally – a revolutionary and radical vision for a new care system that if implemented would lead to a really inclusive feminist model of care for Ireland.

I and my colleagues on the Committee have been working closely over recent months with government departments, NGOs and stakeholders to see how we can make that vision of care a reality. The recommendations of the Assembly on care, recommendations 4 to 12, recognise the deeply gendered dimension to our voluntarist model of care structures in Ireland.

They call for radical change in childcare with a move over the next decade to a ‘publicly funded, accessible and regulated model of quality, affordable early years and out of hours childcare’ along with paid leave for parents to cover the first year of a child’s life.

On care more generally, they also call for improvement in the terms and conditions of those in paid employment as carers; the reform of carers’ allowance; an individualised pension solution for carers; improvement of respite provision; better supports for those who wish to be cared for at home and to continue to live independently into older age.

In short, the Assembly wanted what we all want; a care revolution.

Now is the critical time to do this.

During the Covid-19 years, the failings of our national care systems were made glaringly clear. During lockdown, people across Ireland demonstrated exceptional ability to provide voluntary care to vulnerable community members. A proliferation of neighbourhood-based groups sprang up in urban and rural areas alike. But as we move beyond pandemic times, we need to apply the lesson from Covid to revolutionise our care systems on an ongoing and sustainable basis. Our society is only ever as strong as its weakest link; so now is the time to fix our care failures and move beyond traditional voluntary models.

Over decades, the failure of successive governments to take responsibility for a national childcare policy has resulted in the emergence of a piecemeal, laissez-faire system with the highest proportion of private providers in the OECD.

Childcare and early years education costs have risen despite early-childhood care and education scheme subsidies, meaning that parents in Dublin can be paying as much as €1,000 per month per child. High fees and below-average levels of State investment are accompanied by chronically low wages for those working in the sector.

We know from work done by SIPTU’s Big Start campaign that many childcare workers are earning below the living wage of €12.90 per hour. A SIPTU survey in 2021 revealed that, since returning to work post-lockdown, 29 per cent of childcare staff were earning less than before the pandemic. Alarmingly, 32 per cent indicated that they intend to leave the sector within a year.

Despite government allocation last year of an additional €300 million to support facilities in reopening, reports persist of multiple centres closing, leaving parents desperate to secure alternative places – or relying on the kindness of grandparents.

Despite great efforts by all concerned, hands-off childcare policies are failing parents, staff, providers – and ultimately children. Low levels of pay, lack of consistency and inadequate State support do not enable provision of the high-quality early-years education so vital for children’s development.

‘Childcare’ should be seen as an integral part of a State-funded education service; not just a private optional add-on for a minority of parents.

Indeed, I have called for a Donagh O’Malley moment in early years education and care- just as 50 years ago, a visionary Minister for Education moved to guarantee every child a secondary school place, so too should we now guarantee every child an early years place. Let’s move from the hands-off laissez-faire private provider system to a genuinely ‘Equal Early Years’ approach to give every child a fair start in life.

Unfortunately, the same hands-off approach is evident in care provision for older people. Like childcare, the elder care sector is organised on a piecemeal basis, through a patchwork of local authorities, voluntary organisations and State agencies. This is not a system that can guarantee the highest standards of care – as became evident with the many Covid outbreaks in nursing homes. Disjointedness has rendered the system dysfunctional.

Currently, 80 per cent of the 31,000 nursing home beds in Ireland are private, with the sector heavily subsidised through programmes such as Fair Deal. But nursing homes, particularly smaller facilities, continue to cite inadequate supports. Reports of low pay and poor conditions for staff working within the sector are also widespread. Closures are par for the course, leaving families and older people scrambling to arrange necessary care, often without any reasonable notice.

Indeed, despite years of State funding for Sisters of Charity-run care facilities in Dublin, reports emerged in 2021 that the religious order and related companies were closing the St Mary’s, Caritas and St Monica’s centres, leaving vulnerable residents without homes; and staff denied decent treatment. Just one example of a group of older citizens left without the care they so badly need.

In short, a radical overhaul is necessary to address systemic failings in our national care systems. In pre-Covid times, the Labour Party general election manifesto in 2020 called for a universal public childcare system and a robust, State-led approach to elder care. We proposed a pilot childcare scheme as a first step; catering to about 6,000 children (2 per cent of under-fours), using community-led, not-for-profit models. Fees would be pegged at the European Union average, a third of what parents currently pay.

Funded through existing tax revenue, such a programme would cost €60 million and could be scaled up nationwide. To address failings in elder care, we proposed extending home care services and personalised budgeting to provide greater autonomy for older people; extension of State cover to reduce insurance premiums for providers; and increased inspections for facilities.

Although the economic climate changed significantly since the election as we have moved through two years of Covid and now the Ukraine war, the need for change is greater than ever.

In the long term, we need a universal care system providing community-based supports from cradle to grave for all, regardless of economic means or socioeconomic status.

This is an ambitious plan for unprecedented times – but it can be done. More than 70 years ago, out of the ruins of the second World War, the National Health Service (NHS) was launched in Britain by Attlee’s Labour government – providing universal healthcare, paid for through taxation, free at the point of access.

Out of the devastation caused by Covid-19, we have the chance to build such a legacy here. Perhaps Ireland’s “NHS moment” has arrived at last, and with it the chance to build a truly inclusive, feminist model of care for all – from cradle to grave.

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