TORONTO – Loosening rules to increase the number of young kids allowed in daycares will create more affordable childcare spaces, Ontario’s economic development minister said Friday, dismissing concerns that reforms contained in new legislation could put kids at risk.
Todd Smith said the proposed changes in a bill introduced by the Progressive Conservatives this week will give parents more options and help them get back into the workforce faster.
The bill, if passed, will allow up to three children under the age of two in an in-home daycare. Currently only two young children are allowed in such settings.
The changes would also allow two child-care providers to look after six infants at a time, an increase from four infants currently allowed. They would also mean providers no longer have to count their own children towards the total number of kids in their care after their child turns four.
In 2014, following several daycare deaths, the previous Liberal government introduced changes that capped the number of children in daycare settings. Smith said that hurt access to care.
“I think there was a knee-jerk decision that was made a number of years ago to reduce the number of spaces,” he said. “It wasn’t the right decision for the people of Ontario.”
The new legislation, he said, would be an improvement for all involved.
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“This is something that’s not going to cost government anything but it’s going to create much needed spaces in the child-care sector,” he said. “It’s going to allow young families who are having children the ability to get back to work earlier.”
Critics, however, said they were concerned that changing the daycare ratios would put younger children who need greater levels of supervision at risk.
NDP legislator Catherine Fife said the legislation, known as Bill 66, would lead to less oversight, which would lead to problems.
“What Bill 66 does is put the safety of children at risk,” she said. “It is not in any way shape or form a child-care strategy.”
Fife said the changes will also do little to address the urgent need for more child-care spaces.
“If you can find quality, affordable child care in the province of Ontario you have won the lottery,” she said.
Liberal legislator Mitzie Hunter called the government’s changes “reckless” and said the move has more to do with politics than addressing the desperate need for child-care spaces.
She urged the government to take more time to consult with parents and industry stakeholders.
“It’s really the rush to undo what this government perceives as a Liberal change,” she said. “They want to wipe that away. But that’s affecting the lives of many people.”
During the spring election, the Tories promised they would cover up to $6,750 of child care costs for Ontario families through a tax rebate program but they have yet to make good on that pledge.
The previous Liberal government had pledged a $2.2-billion program that would have provided free care for preschoolers aged two-and-a-half and older, until they reached kindergarten.
Linda White, a child care policy expert and a professor at the University of Toronto, said regulations for unlicensed daycare providers should be strengthened to ensure better quality of care, not watered down just to open up more spaces. She noted that four infants in daycare settings died over seven months in 2014, bringing increased scrutiny to the sector.
The proposed changes to child care are part of an omnibus bill that deals with more than 30 regulations in a variety of sectors including land development, source water protection and telecommunications.
The government tabled the legislation on Thursday just as the legislature rose for its winter break, which means the bill won’t be debated until politicians return in mid-February.