Good morning ladies, gentlemen and distinguished guests. I am delighted to be here and open today’s conference.

Parents in Northern Ireland are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable child care, especially in isolated rural areas. We have one of the lowest provisions of childcare not only within the UK but Europe as a whole.

This means many parents rely on grandparents and family members to provide child care and support.

As a parent I know the importance of child care. When my children were younger I too had to balance the responsibilities of making sure my children were in the right type of care at the right time.

Role of Commissioner

So what do I do for children and young people? What role do I carry out for you, your children and all children and young people in Northern Ireland?

My job is described simply as:

Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people.

I do this in three ways:

  • By acting as an Ombudsman for children and young people, through our legal and complaints work;
  • Carrying out research and reviews into services to ensure the rights of children are met, and,
  • Communicating widely with children and young people and with the general public about the work of the office and about the rights children in Northern Ireland are entitled to

Most importantly I want to give children and young people a voice to encourage them to challenge and change the world they live in. Especially those children who are growing up in marginalised communities or vulnerable family homes. 

I want all children in Northern Ireland to have the best possible start in life to achieve their full potential.

Child Care

Child minders have a vital role in identifying the developmental needs of children and providing appropriate support and care for them. Those working in early years face to face with children are often at the front line when it comes to identifying a child’s development and individual needs.

It is essential that they are given adequate support to help meet the needs of all children in their care.

And it is not as if Government doesn’t know this – there have been numerous reports, numerous examples, all presented to politicians and civil servants. And in some cases the findings of these pieces of work are so blindingly obvious to you who work at the coalface – and most other people – that you have to wonder why more hasn’t been done.

A 2002 report said some working families use grandparents for childcare because it is cheaper than childminding. It said that is mothers earn more they’re more likely to use formal childcare. It said that if parents work unusual hours they find it difficult to find childcare.

And they say that Northern Ireland needs more childcare places, more nursery schools and more after school provision….as I said, blindingly obvious to everyone in this room!

But it did also make some suggestions as to what Government should do. It said Government should:

  • Help parents find out about and make use of new statutory rights to parental leave;
  • Encourage parents to claim any Childcare Tax Credit to which they are entitled;
  • Encourage the registering of informal carers and child minders;
  • Help child minders and day nurseries with start-up funding and other support;
  • Coordination of pre-school provision and other services;
  • Help parents in rural areas with special problems such as transport issues., Use of, and Demand for Childcare

On the issue of Rural Child Care a Task Force was set-up earlier this year.

The group will find out the main factors in rural areas that affect access to childcare and consider ways to improve this. It will also produce a report detailing current difficulties in childcare provision in rural areas and make recommendations on how current and future provision can be improved.

This will affect many Government departments, but I know that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are making a start in leading action.

Conclusion

We know that there needs to be more childcare places – and that means more childminders. We know that there must be a co-ordinated approach.

What we also know is that Government has just published its draft Programme for Government and budget for the next three years.

I urge you both as an association and as individuals to make your views known. Tell Government if you think there hasn’t been enough thought towards childcare in this document.

The Programme for Government says the economy will be its priority. Perhaps you need to ask Government who is going to care for all the children of all parents who will be out working in the new successful economy they envisage?

Thank you, once again, for inviting me to open the conference, and thank you for listening.