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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA

Taoiseach aims to reduce wait for child healthcare and assessments by 2025

(Government Information Service/PA)

Leo Varadkar has said he finds it “impossible to explain” why children have to wait so long to be assessed for special needs, but added that solving the issue will be difficult.

The Taoiseach also said he wants to see paediatric waiting lists reduced over the next two years, while acknowledging it will be one of the biggest challenges facing his new children’s unit.

As Mr Varadkar took over as Irish premier from coalition colleague Micheal Martin, he announced that a unit would be set up in his department to focus on reducing child poverty and improving wellbeing.

Childcare is only the very small aspect of what we want to do and the policy of reducing childcare costs, I think, is shared by all three partiesLeo Varadkar

“Our vision is to make Ireland the best country in Europe to be a child,” he told the Dail after the historic swap of the premiership between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Asked if this was part of an election strategy to take credit from their Green Party colleagues for childcare reform, Mr Varadkar said childcare was just one aspect of the unit.

“The reason why we’re establishing a unit on child poverty and welfare in the Taoiseach’s office is precisely because it is a cross-government area,” he said.

He acknowledged that Minister for Children and Green Party TD Roderic O’Gorman has responsibility for childcare, as well as child protection and youth affairs.

Mr Varadkar said that children also come under the remit of the Department of Education because of schools, and also the Department of Health through paediatric healthcare.

Roderic O’Gorman (Niall Carson/PA)

He continued: “The payments that go to children – child benefit, for example, family payments – are done through the Department of Social Protection.

“The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has a huge role in making sure that families have work.

“We know that work is the best way to get people out of poverty, particularly work with good terms and conditions. So the reason why I think this is very suitable for a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach is precisely because it is a cross-government issue.

“But the fundamental role of the Department of the Taoiseach is to pull things together and to co-ordinate Government action so that is targeted.

“So it’s not just about childcare – childcare is only the very small aspect of what we want to do and the policy of reducing childcare costs, I think, is shared by all three parties.”

Many childcare providers have reported difficulties in retaining staff, and parents have raised the struggle of high childcare fees, often compared to a second mortgage.

These are actually very big challenges and reducing the cost of childcare, or increasing payments to lone parents or child dependent payments or social protection, that's the easy partLeo Varadkar

In September, Mr O’Gorman increased childcare providers’ and educators’ wages in a move that was broadly welcomed, although some small independent operators said further support was needed.

A 25% reduction in weekly childcare fees, at a cost of 121 million euro, was also announced as part of Budget 2023.

“If the public finances allow, Minister O’Gorman and I would like to do that again” next year, Mr Varadkar added.

“For 2024 we’d like to get help childcare costs down to roughly half what they were before, if we can achieve that, if the public finances allow.

“And that’s for very good reasons, not least helping families with the cost of living, but also make it easier for parents to go back to the workforce. And we need people in the workforce, particularly in our public services. So that’s the reason why we’re doing it.”

He said reducing the cost of childcare was “the easy part” and reducing paediatric waiting lists and waiting times for assessments of special needs would be harder.

“Somebody was suggesting a little bit cynically that this was about grabbing good news,” he said.

Leo Varadkar at a Christmas lunch for Ukrainian women and children in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I don’t see it that way at all.

“These are actually very big challenges, and reducing the cost of childcare, or increasing payments to lone parents or child dependent payments or social protection, that’s the easy part. There’s some really hard parts in this too.

“And one of the hardest parts is going to be reducing paediatric waiting lists. And that’s something that I want to see happen over the next two years.

“And another very hard part, as well, is going to be reducing waiting times for assessment of needs and therapies.

“And as a practicing politician or as somebody who knocks on doors and talks to parents, I find it impossible to explain to them why they have to wait so long for assessments of needs, why they have to wait so long for therapies and why they feel they have to fight the state to get it half the time.

“And I could easily just say, ‘That’s not my problem, that’s a matter for Minister (of State for special education Josepha) Madigan or Minister (for Education Norma) Foley, or somebody else’, but I’m not saying that.

“I’m saying that this has to be a cross-government effort, and we have to try and make this better.

“We might not be able to make it perfect. But we have to be able to try and make it better over the course of the next two years.

“It’s not going to be all good news stories, I can guarantee you that, because this is going to be hard.”

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