11 April 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Representatives of the childcare sector in Co Monaghan who intensively lobbied the members of Monaghan Co Council in recent weeks on the issue of rates being imposed on service providers were always going to be pushing an open door – and one, in the times that’s in it, held even more invitingly ajar by the imminence of the local government elections.

The councillors at their meeting on Monday gave emphatic unanimous support to the case made to them – and it is a case with elements that are compelling – that as providers of a service that can be defined as educational in nature, crèches, pre-schools and the like should not have to pay the same onerous annual levy that falls on premises whose function is purely commercial in nature.

Whether childcare facilities in this county are in every instance run for non-profit, altruistic or educational motives is something that can be debated – however, as Colr Ciara McPhillips pointed out during Monday’s Co Council debate, none are generating massive profits or dividends for shareholders, and the rigid stipulations that govern the ratio between providers and children, and the manner in which buildings are equipped and function, would quickly divert those with money-making or mercenary motives to look elsewhere for lucrative self-benefit.

It must also be accepted that childcare has become an essential element of social functioning in the times we live in. Availability and accessibility of this form of care is integral to the operation of working households and supplies the foundation for young mothers in particular to engage in employment, not merely for their own self-enhancement but, increasingly, to enable them to make an essential contribution to family income.

In such circumstances it is important that there is a healthy sufficiency of childcare outlets of all types, that their quality is guaranteed, and that they are reasonably accessible in terms of cost to young families whose household budgets have inevitably grown straitened in these bleak economic days.

The argument that all these desirable features of modern childcare – proliferation, quality and affordability – become threatened if centres are forced to meet what, given the floor space they occupy, could be very burdensome rates demands from the local authority was made with some force and passion by the contributors to Monday’s Co Council discussion.

But the elected members and their well-motivated lobbyists would be more naïve than they deserve to be regarded if they believed that the perceived threat can be dispelled by the “magic wand” of a number of unanimously adopted resolutions.

The situation is somewhat more involved than that. It was evident from information supplied to Monday’s meeting that a number of childcare outlets in the county are already subject to rates demands and have been for some time.

Presumably because of the development of services in this sector that the county has witnessed over recent years, the Co Council executive decided – quite correctly, in terms of equity of treatment – to supply the Valuation Office, the authority that makes determinations on the rating or otherwise of premises, with information on other outlets it had not yet made this determination upon.

Correspondence in this regard sent to the premises in question by the local authority was the evident impetus for the growing tide of concern that washed up on the shores of the Co Council’s public forum on Monday, at which Head of Finance John Murray cited the principle of competitive fairness to explain the authority’s actions.

It seems clear that the fecundity of childcare development which this country has experienced in the past decade or so has outstripped some of the relevant legislative provisions made for it – certainly those that concern the statutory definition of education provision and how this is applicable to pre-school services.

Activities that at the genesis of the childcare concept might have been little more than diversion or amusement have now evolved into sophisticated programmes of pre-formal learning that require exacting standards of qualification and ability from those providing them.

The business of childcare facilities is very clearly educational in essence – and if centres of education provision are deemed exempt from the levying of rates, there is an anomaly here that must be corrected.

This cannot be done at local authority level, although the political and non-party groupings represented there can be persuasive influences on their colleagues in the Dáil and Seanad – as was demonstrated by the recent acknowledgement, reinforced again this week, that the members of Monaghan Co Council by their lobbying played a significant role in the process that led to the approval of a much needed additional post in the county for the farm advisory service Teagasc.

The influence of the parochial political voice notwithstanding, the various childcare organisations in the county who have argued their case so well with the local elected men and women must be equally sedulous in their convincing of the county’s national public representatives if they are to win the day for their argument.

And they will be doing so at an opportune time, with Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, as Fine Gael councillor Owen Bannigan pointed out on Monday, in the process of drafting new legislation for the childcare sector.

Local authorities obviously need some definitive statutory provision to resolve the question of how childcare providers are regarded for rates purposes – at present the approach seems to vary from county to county, with some Co Councils levying rates and some not.

This is a very unsatisfactory situation, but one that the Government, and our diligent Children’s Minister, could very easily resolve with some deft and expedient strokes of the draughtsperson’s pen.

‘Jobbery’ or ‘jobs for the boys’ was once a frequent damnation attached to the way in which certain Government-related or public sector employment posts were secured or filled.

Enhanced standards of probity have exorcised to a great extent the practices that often earned the cynical aside of, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

But the ‘jobs for the boys’ accusation has not entirely gone away – Sinn Féin member of Monaghan Town Council Donal Sherry and his party colleagues on that authority recently revived it pointedly when highlighting the dubious practice of people who have retired from both public and private sector employment with generous ‘handshakes’ and pensions popping up again in new employment positions.

And it’s an accusation that gets anecdotally passed around at times such as the local and European Parliament elections to take place next month, when people are heard to complain why work at polling stations and election count centres does not go to the jobless rather than those in existing local authority or public sector employment.

It was positive therefore to hear Monaghan Co Council Director of Services Paul Clifford assure the Council members on Monday that he would take on board their encouragements to engage more of the unemployed in the work attached to the counting of votes in the local government elections.

Hopefully our Co Registrar Joseph Smyth will respond similarly when the Council’s request in relation to polling stations lands upon his desk – and we will see at both important forms of venue in the electoral process a more generous apportionment of work opportunities to those currently jobless than has been customary in this county on previous occasions of this nature.

However, the need for experienced personnel in positions of responsibility at voting centres in particular is extremely important – and was underscored by some shocking references to possible abuses of the electoral process on the occasion of the last local elections that were made at Monday’s Co Council meeting.

Independent councillor Seamus Treanor, backed up by South Monaghan representatives Aidan Murray and Pádraig McNally, alluded to incidents which behove those administering the May 23 polls to be both closely watchful and extremely firm in the application of the regulations governing proof of identity and the behaviour of candidates and their agents in the vicinity of, and within, voting centres.

If there is any substance to the claims that next month’s elections herald a bright new dawn for local government, it is surely time for the old ghosts of jobbery and voting malpractice to be laid for good and all.

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