Northern Ireland

Delay in £12m childcare strategy criticised

child's drawing
Image caption Early Years says it is worried about some businesses having to close

A leading childcare organisation has criticised the delay in getting a £12m childcare strategy under way.

The Childcare Strategy was unveiled by the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) in March 2011.

However, it was announced recently that money set aside for it has not been used and would go to other projects.

Childcare organisation Early Years says some businesses are worried about having to close.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, said she believed OFMDFM was committed to the strategy, but "the lack of action on implementation is really the problem".

"I had a meeting with a range of providers last week and they're really fearful that in the lack of any strategic direction, that services will close," she said.

"They will close because of the lack of start up grants that are available in the rest of the UK"

First stage

OFMDFM says the full £12m will be used for childcare.

In 2011 the department said in the following four years they would publish and implement a strategy to provide "integrated and affordable childcare", providing £3m for each year between 2011-15.

In the budget statement in the same month, finance minister Sammy Wilson said there were several "key immediate actions" that could be funded with this money, including financial packages to help businesses get off the ground.

However the process is still at the first stage of drawing up a consultation document.

OFMDFM say it's nearing completion but, even when it is done, the process still has a number of stages.

The document has to be signed off by the Executive, then put out to a 12 week public consultation, rewritten and revised on the basis of the feedback and, finally, signed off again by the Executive.

Only then can OFMDFM start to hand out the money to various schemes.

Complained

The Executive says childcare is a priority and OFMDFM want to develop a strategy focussing on its quality and accessibility and making it affordable.

Bridget Nodder of the Northern Ireland Childminding Association said: "Childminders in England and Wales have to have training as a requirement before they can be registered, and they have to keep that going through the life of their career.

"That has not happened in Northern Ireland, although there's been some movement recently and we have had a small amount of money on a short term basis to deliver some training but that's not long term and that's really why we need a childcare strategy."

Politicians have also complained about the time taken to draw up the strategy.

Danny Kinahan, the Ulster Unionists MLA who until recently sat on the scrutiny committee of OFMDFM, told a department official, at a hearing, "I want to pull my hair out" when he heard the consultation document was still on the drawing board.

The official from the department who was being questioned maintained that the approach taken so far by OFMDFM was the right one.