PARENTS were left in fear of more cuts to child benefit after Education Minister Ruairi Quinn indicated he would spend the money elsewhere.
The minister sparked anger in the Coalition by raising the prospect of further cuts, and his comments caused worry amongst Irish families.
Mr Quinn said he wanted to start a debate about providing a second year of free pre-school care by using some of the €2bn spent on child benefit every year.
His comments prompted disbelief in government circles, because it has heightened fears of a child benefit cut by putting the issue on the agenda.
Government figures were taken aback by Mr Quinn's behaviour, some saying they had "no idea" what Mr Quinn was talking about and why he decided to raise the issue.
Parents accused Mr Quinn of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" if child benefit payments were cut and the cash then used to fund pre-school care.
And a government source said: "There is no problem having a philosophical conversation (but) there is no cost structure. How do you pay for it?
"Cost the debate, and start from there. The notion is fine, but quite premature. He's about 10 steps ahead."
Labour TDs are not keen on further cuts, having already come under fire for breaking their election promise to protect child benefit in the last Budget.
And Mr Quinn's department also had to admit that he got his figures wrong on the current cost of child benefit during a radio interview. He put it at €20bn, but that is the entire social welfare budget, with the cost of child benefit being around €2bn.
There was an immediate backlash to Mr Quinn's remarks from campaign groups and women's representatives.
Parents Against Cuts to Child Benefit spokeswoman Niamh Ui Cheallaigh said: "He's robbing Peter to pay Paul. It won't be very welcome to hear this for a lot of families, they will be horrified, to say the least."
And the National Women's Council of Ireland director Orla O'Connor said child benefit had already been cut enough.
There is no appetite in the Government to implement a further child benefit cut in the forthcoming Budget in October.
Labour TDs face a dilemma as they favour providing the extra pre-school year, but are not keen on funding it with further cuts to child benefit.
Labour Louth TD Ged Nash said the issue of providing a second pre-school year by cutting child benefit would be a "medium to long-term decision".
Another senior Labour TD said he did not think that going after child benefit again would be a "runner".
"It would be very hard to tell a mother to take a cut in child benefit if she wasn't going to get the second pre-school year for her child," he said.
However, despite all the caution from within the party, Mr Quinn said he had already raised the issue of using part of the child benefit budget to pay for an extra pre-school year with Social Protection Minister Joan Burton and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
He said: "Could we spend it in a more effective way so that the benefits of early education and pre-schooling for young people stay with them for the rest of their lives and long after they have been entitled to receive child benefit? That's a debate I think that we need to have."
He was speaking at a children's education conference in Dublin, where Oxford University educational researcher, Professor Pamela Sammons, told delegates that research had shown that a "quality" pre-school education is worth more to a child than a family income boost of €12,000.
And despite the concern in Government circles, Ms Burton and Ms Fitzgerald supported Mr Quinn's intervention in the child benefit debate.
However, Fianna Fail children's spokesman Charlie McConalogue criticised Mr Quinn for "kite flying".
"It cannot be at the expense of supports for older children from lower-income families who will miss out on this direct investment," Mr McConalogue said.