July 7, 2014
The European Commission recently published recommendations for the Irish Government on economic growth and jobs. The so-called "Country Specific Recommendations" include a recommendation that the Irish Government should improve access to more affordable "childcare".
Having left the Troika's economic programme, Ireland has now returned to the economic cooperation procedures required for other EU countries. These include publication by the European Commission each year of recommendations for every Member State of the EU on what the country should be doing to meet EU-wide economic objectives (the "Europe 2020" targets).
Among the economic concerns highlighted in the report, the Commission notes that Ireland has the highest proportion of jobless households in the EU. The Commission notes that a significant proportion are lone-parent households.
To address the issue, the Commission calls for both reform of welfare payments and for actions to reduce the cost of childcare, which it states is "a significant barrier to parents finding employment and avoiding the risk of poverty".
In a background paper, the Commission notes that "The limited availability of childcare benefits [in Ireland] means that parents bear almost the entire cost directly, unlike most other EU countries, where childcare benefits are significant."
The Commission recommends the Irish Government to: "Tackle low work intensity of households and address the poverty risk of children through tapered withdrawal of benefits and supplementary payments upon return to employment. Facilitate female labour market participation by improving access to more affordable and full-time childcare, particularly for low income families."
It is disappointing that this recommendation considers childcare only as a labour market issue, and makes no reference to the quality of provision. Indeed, the background paper prepared by Commission staff describes the purpose of the Free Pre-School Year as being to address the affordability of childcare - whereas its purpose is actually to support children's development and educational attainment.
European Quality Framework
This narrow labour market focus is surprising given that only last month in Athens the European Commission presented a Proposal for a European Quality Framework for early care and education.
The Proposal for a European Quality Framework has been developed by an inter-governmental working group (including representatives from the Irish Government) over a period of years. It grew out of the excellent Communication on Early Childhood Education and Care, which the Commission published in 2011.
Significantly, the Country Specific Recommendations and the European Quality Framework were developed by different departments within the European Commission, which seem to have different views about the purpose of "childcare".
Whereas the Country Specific Recommendations reflects the EU's economic agenda, the European Quality Framework was prepared by the Education and Culture directorate. Eurochild, responding to the publication of the Proposal for a European Quality Framework, has called for more "coherence across sectors" in public policies that impact on the lives of young children and their families.
In a future e-newsletter, we will present a more detailed analysis of the Proposal for a European Quality Framework.
Read the Country Specific Recommendations here.
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