CHILD benefit is safe from further cuts or means-testing in the lifetime of the Government, Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin has signalled.
But there are still tensions over social welfare reform in the Coalition. Fine Gael has yet to commit to leave the structure of the family support payments untouched. The party wants to see dramatic changes to social welfare to eliminate poverty traps that prevent people from taking up jobs.
Following the €10 cut to child benefit in last year's Budget, Mr Howlin says he can't see any more alterations to the payment being implemented, despite the ability to means-test finally being available to the Department of Social Protection.
"I suppose, in general terms, I would have preferred a system, personally, where there was a core payment and a greater payment for people of more limited means.
"But I think the general principle is now we have done what we are going to do on child benefit. But we'll see what is proposed into the future," he said.
But Fine Gael is awaiting a report on reforms to social welfare in the coming months. The party wanted to see radical changes to ensure the welfare system is not an impediment to unemployed workers taking up a job.
PUBLIC SPENDING MINISTER BRENDAN HOWLIN: 'FAMILIES ARE DEPENDENT ON THE PAYMENT'
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pointed last week to a report by the advisory group on tax and social welfare coming out in April.
"That's likely to focus on family income supplement, on child-income supports and rent supplements, and on barriers faced by part-time workers moving into full-time employment," the Taoiseach said last week.
Despite the Labour Party promise to protect child benefit, the payment was reduced by €10 across the board -- from €140 a month per child to €130 -- in Budget 2013.
Mr Howlin said the child benefit system was not ideal and if it was being designed from scratch, it would be a two-tier payment of a basic sum, plus a top-up.
But he told the Irish Independent that families were now dependent on the payment.
"It's like everything else, people have built it into their budget line now and virtually everybody has taken significant pay and income reductions and there is a threshold below which you are really hurting families.
"I think society generally should signal that the support of children is important," he said. After the bailout programme, Mr Howlin indicated a move away from cutting back on universally available services and benefits.
"When resources are under pressure, obviously we resort more to means-testing, but some things are universally applied," he said.
The Labour Party minister pointed to the decision in Budget 2014 to provide free GP care to all children under six. "Some would argue in times of scarce resources, should we means test everybody?
"But I think there are some things that we need to give a clear indication on -- we want to shift away from acute hospitals into primary care centres, so that for the vast bulk of ailments and medical conditions people go to a primary care centre," he said.
Mr Howlin said the Government had discussed what to do with child benefit.
"We've had long debates about that, whether we should tax it, whether we should rebalance it, either you give a core payment and then a top-up payment to people below a threshold.
"One of the points always given is you spend a lot of money on the processing, which is money that should be going to families and children.
"I suppose, in general terms, I would have preferred a system where there was a core payment and a greater payment for people of more limited means.
"But I think the general principle is now we have done what we are going to do on child benefit.
"But we'll see what is proposed into the future."
Fionnan Sheahan Group Political Editor