Cash or time off? Ministers clash on childcare crisis
The Labour Party and Fine Gael are deeply split over whether extra childcare cash should be directed to raising child benefit payments or bringing in new parental leave.
The Government is planning to unveil a range of measures in the Budget aimed at helping the hard-pressed parents of young children.
The Coalition will roll out a fortnight of paid paternity leave, but Children's Minister James Reilly is pushing for more than just two weeks in the first year.
However, Government sources have revealed that the money to roll out the scheme will have to come from Tánaiste Joan Burton's Department of Social Protection.
The Tánaiste is adamant that a promised €5-a-month hike in the child benefit payment must be delivered.
Ms Burton has also pledged a doubling of the Christmas bonus and is looking at increases in the dole for under-26s and the respite care grant.
#HaveYourSay: Which would you choose as a new parent - the cash or time off?
"They [Fine Gael] are just trying to make themselves look good. If they're talking about accessing child benefit funding for some new scheme, that won't happen," a senior Labour source said.
"The question is, what more on childcare can be funded in the Budget? If they're talking of accessing child benefit for funding for some new scheme, that won't happen.
"It's not just us saying that - most of the other Fine Gael ministers would be totally opposed to raiding child benefit."
Both coalition parties are desperately seeking to capitalise on the issue ahead of the general election.
Election research showed childcare is the key to unlocking votes when the country goes to the polls.
But government sources are now concerned that the expectation among working parents for a major childcare package can not be met unless spending is reined in across the board.
"There's a lot of tussling going on behind the scenes because this is seen as having major gain electorally," said a Fine Gael source.
"Given that it is seen as Reilly's policy and Burton's money, that's where the problem lies."
Party strategists in both camps have carried out extensive research ahead of polling day which found childcare will be the central issue.
Dr Reilly wants two separate pots of cash to implement some of the recommendations in the cross-departmental childcare review group report, which he oversaw.
The first allocation would see millions provided for children who do not have an allocated social worker, and the second would begin the process of introducing a three-pronged childcare package. This would include the parental leave, a second free pre-school year and after-school childcare services.
Dr Reilly is willing to cough up in the region of €130m to kick-start the childcare package.
Ms Burton is anxious to focus spending on increasing child benefit by €5, which will cost in the region of €70m.
However, any policy decision on parental leave will put constraints on her department's ability to spend elsewhere.
A separate source said a "compromise" must now be reached so the measures can be rolled out over several years.