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Minister O’Gorman publishes detailed annual progress report for First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families

The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’ Gorman, T.D., has today published the Government’s First 5 Annual Implementation Report 2019.
First 5, the ten-year Whole-of-Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families (2019-2028) was published in November 2018 followed by an initial three-year implementation plan for the Strategy in May 2019.
First 5 focuses on the period of early childhood, from the antenatal period to age five, and takes a joined-up, cross-government approach to supporting babies, young children and their families during these critical early years.
The First 5 Annual Implementation Report 2019 summarises the progress in implementing the strategy, with over 90% of all 2019 commitments met at this point. The Report also outlines key achievements from 2019, including:
-the introduction of a new entitlement to paid parents leave and extended entitlements to unpaid parent leave;
-foundational work to streamline and improve parenting supports across Government;
-a range of new measures to promote healthier childhoods;
-progress on key reforms to the early learning and care system; and
-the introduction of new measures to tackle early childhood poverty.

Speaking about today’s publication, Minister O’ Gorman said:

As Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I am delighted to publish the First 5 Annual Implementation Report 2019 and share an update on the very considerable progress that has been made to deliver on the 2019 commitments.
This Report illustrates the positive work that is taking place right across Government and society to ensure children get the best possible start in life

The Minister welcomed the collaborative efforts and shared ambition to deliver on the vision of First 5 across Government Departments, State Agencies and the Community and Voluntary sector and reiterated Government’s continued commitment to First 5.
Minister O’ Gorman said:

The Programme for Government reaffirmed a commitment to full implementation of First 5 and places children and families at the heart of our work. We are continuing to make good progress.
Through this Strategy and the Programme for Government, we will transform services and supports for children and their families to help make Ireland a great place for every child to grow up.
I look forward to continued positive collaboration with colleagues across Government Departments, State Agencies, Community and Voluntary sector and wider partners in the pursuit of better outcomes for babies, young children and their families.

A high level summary of progress on 2019 milestones across the First 5 Big Steps are set out below.


i. A broader range of options for parents to balance working and caring

Extended entitlements to paid and unpaid leave for both fathers and mothers were introduced in 2019 (with further extensions announced as part of Budget 2021). The Parent’s Leave and Benefit Act 2019 gives parents a new statutory entitlement to parent’s leave, that is, two weeks paid leave per parent for the parents of a child born or adopted on or after 1 November 2019. This is available to employed and self-employed parents and can be taken during the first year of a child’s life. Parents who qualify for this leave and with the required number of social insurance contributions receive Parent’s Benefit of €245 per week. It is estimated that 60,000 parents will receive the benefit each year, at a projected cost of €32 million.

The phased introduction of an additional eight weeks unpaid parental leave was announced in 2019 and rose from 18 to 22 working weeks in September 2019 (and from 22-26 weeks from September 2020). This is provided for in the Parental Leave (Amendment) Act 2019, which also changes the maximum age of the child whose parent is entitled to unpaid parental leave from eight to 12 years.

The Department of Justice reviewed the relevant provisions of the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004 in 2019 with a view to extending the current entitlement to paid breastfeeding/lactation breaks or paid reduction in working hours for breastfeeding mothers in the workforce from 26 to 104 weeks (2 years) after the baby’s birth. The Heads of provisions extending the period in which employees would be entitled to the breastfeeding breaks or paid reduction in working hours were approved by Government in 2019 and work has begun on drafting of these provisions for inclusion within an early appropriate Bill.

Efforts to enable greater access to family-friendly flexible working were also advanced. The Flexible Working Consultation was launched on 11 December 2019 by the Department of Justice to seek views from employers, employees, trades unions and the wider public on the types of flexible working arrangements currently in place and the changes that they wish to see. As the results of the survey have been overtaken by the rise in homeworking due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, consideration is being given to undertaking a follow-up survey. The results of the survey will contribute to the development of guidelines on flexible working.

ii. A new model of parenting support.
A Parenting Support Policy Unit has been in place in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability and Youth since the end of 2018 to co-ordinate policy direction and activity relating to parenting support. In 2019, this Unit initiated collaboration and engagement with a wide range of Departments, Agencies and organisations, raising awareness of the role of the Unit and gaining an understanding of development, funding and provision of parenting support services.

Work undertaken in 2019 to advance the First 5 parenting support commitments included securing agreement on the approach to developing a national model of parenting support services, and the development and commencement of an implementation plan for each action. Rapid reviews of effective mechanisms of information delivery to parents and international approaches to parenting support policy were commissioned to inform the development of an information platform for parents and the development of a national model of parenting support services.

iii. New developments in child health
A Steering Group was established by the Department of Health in 2019 to commence work on a dedicated child health workforce - one of the major commitments of First 5. The dedicated workforce will focus initially in areas of high population density and disadvantage.

A range of measures to promote positive health behaviours and the physical and mental health of babies, young children and their families were also introduced alongside further development on the National Healthy Childhood Programme. Key progress included:
 Ongoing development and roll out of and mainstreaming of initiatives commenced under the Nurture Programme – Infant Health and Wellbeing.
 Development of a range of breastfeeding supports, including training programmes, the ‘Breastfeeding Good Start in Life’ parent booklet, a National Infant Feeding Policy and appointment of lactation consultants.
 Development and consultation on draft HSE Baby-Friendly Standards.
 Publication of National Standards for Antenatal Education and development of training programme for antenatal educators.
 Development of a range of supports to increase uptake of vaccinations in early childhood and during pregnancy.
 Publication of Healthy Eating Guidelines for 1-5 year olds, with progress underway to develop Nutrition Standards for Early Learning and Care Settings.
 Publication and initial implementation of the National Skin Cancer Prevention Plan, which identified babies and young children identified as a priority group.
 Publication of national guidelines on ‘Nutrition during Pregnancy’ which included guidelines on folic acid supplementation.
 Continuation of the START campaign, with a particular focus on treat foods and physical activity for young children.
 Publication of Smile agus Sláinte, the National Oral Health Policy, under which a universal dental health package for children under six is being introduced.
 Development of the Healthy Ireland Smart Start Programme for children under 3.
 Pilot of the school milk school scheme in early learning and care settings.
 Review and updating of the Healthy Food Made Easy Programme.

iv. Reform of the Early Learning and Care (ELC) system
Building on the very significant developments in early learning and care and school-age childcare over recent years, further progress was made to improve affordability, accessibility and quality.

Major First 5 milestones met in 2019 include:

 The Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) (Registration of School-Age Services) Regulations 2018, which came into force in February 2019, allowing school-age childcare services to register with Tusla and thereafter take part in the National Childcare Scheme. A public consultation on draft quality guidelines and comprehensive regulations was also completed.
 Publication of new criteria and guidelines for level 7 and 8 courses in early learning and care and publication of Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care Settings.
 A Steering Group to develop the workforce plan for early learning and care and school-age childcare was convened in May 2019. To ensure a strong consultation process, a Stakeholder Group comprising representatives from across the sector was formed to work in conjunction with the Steering Group. Both groups met a number of times in 2019.
 An Expert Group to develop a new funding model for early learning and care and school-age childcare was established in September 2019. A Research Partner, Frontier Economics, was also appointed to support the work of the Expert Group. The Expert Group’s inaugural meeting took place in October 2019.
 A draft Childminding Action Plan which set out short, medium, and long-term measures for the regulation and support of childminders on a phased basis over the next decade, was published in August 2019 for the purposes of public consultation. An extensive consultation took place in quarter 4 of 2019. A report was commissioned to consider the findings of the consultation process. This report was completed in December 2019. A National Childminding Co-ordinator and a team of regional Childminding Development Officers were appointed to support the implementation of the Action Plan.
 The National Childcare Scheme opened for online applications in November 2019. Under the National Childcare Scheme, families will be supported to meet the cost of quality early learning and care and school age childcare through a system of universal and income-related subsides.
 In Budget 2019, an additional €89m was allocated to early learning and care and school-age childcare. Further progress was made in Budget 2020 (i.e. an additional allocation of €64m) – this represents a cumulative 31% of First 5 investment target, which pledges to at least double investment in early learning and care and school-age childcare by 2028 (from baseline in 2018).

v. A package of measures to tackle early childhood poverty and disadvantage

Progress was also made on a number of measures to address poverty and disadvantage in early childhood. In addition to the introduction of the National Childcare Scheme in November 2019, funding secured in Budget 2020 provided for a range of measure that will have a direct and positive impact on child poverty (i.e. increase in Working Family Payment thresholds, increase in earnings disregard for working lone parents receiving One-Parent Family Payment or Jobseeker’s Transition Payment, pilot hot meals programme in school, pilot meal programme in early learning and care settings). Work also commenced on the development of a DEIS-type model for early learning and care settings, which will create further opportunities to narrow the gap for disadvantaged children.