EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has again risked the anger of working families by claiming some view their child benefit as a "holiday fund".
Mr Quinn already alarmed parents this week by raising the prospect of cutting child benefit to fund an extra pre-school year for three- to five-year-olds, a move that was ruled out – at least in the short term – by cabinet colleague Joan Burton.
Parents' groups said that families had already taken enough cuts to the monthly payment.
Mr Quinn yesterday acknowledged that many people depend on child benefit to pay for necessities. "But what is also coming through the system in terms of personal comment from some people . . . is that the money went into the 'holiday fund' as it was called in some cases," he said.
The comments angered parents' groups, who said child benefit was vital to household incomes.
Mr Quinn's suggestion that some of Ireland's €2bn child benefit budget might be used to pay for the €200m cost of an additional free pre-school year sparked outrage among parents' groups, with claims that it was little more than a "stealth cut".
But Mr Quinn said it would be nonsensical for him to propose a second year of free pre-school without raising ideas about how to pay for it.
But the Parents Against Child Benefit Cuts group criticised Mr Quinn's claim about some parents calling child benefit the "holiday fund". Its spokeswoman Niamh Ui Cheallaigh said she had never come across a parent who used it to pay for a holiday.
"It's a vital part of their income. It's adding into the family budget to pay for food, bills, mortgages, education and childcare," she said.
Meanwhile, Ms Burton signalled that further cuts to child benefit for 600,000 families were off the table, at least in the forthcoming Budget. She said she supported Mr Quinn's call for an extra pre-school year but warned of the importance of child benefit to struggling families.
"We're very conscious of the fact, and I want to stress this, that child benefit is really important for families with children," she said.
And she indicated that no changes would be made to child benefit in the Budget in October due to the work required to bring in the new payment system recommended by her department's Mangan report.
"If, for instance, the Mangan report approach were to be adopted on the implementation examinations that had been done by my department, it would take a minimum of 18 months, ie, over two budget cycles, to be able to implement it," she said.
The two-tier system recommended in the Mangan report would involve a cut to the basic €130-a-month payment, with top-up payments for low-income families.
Ms Burton was speaking before her participation in the annual conference of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Association in Dublin.
She told the accountants she was worried about the prospects for the children in the 22pc of Irish households that had no person working.
"I don't have to tell you that they are the children who are going to be most at risk of becoming unemployed and poorer adults," she said.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dail yesterday there were a range of issues that needed to be addressed before a free second pre-school year could be addressed, including the requirement to train extra child-care workers.