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Friday 30 September 2016

This is a good idea and the Government must hold its nerve to do what is right

Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30

Education is a pathway to progress and fulfilment. Picture posed
Education is a pathway to progress and fulfilment. Picture posed

Someone has a good idea, any good idea, but once the words 'social welfare' are mentioned, almost immediately the 'entitlement' lobby are out criticising it and suddenly the Government is back-pedalling.

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Denis Naughten, the new Minister for Communications, wants to penalise parents who don't send their children to secondary school by taking money from their social welfare payments. Good idea. We all believe that education, like employment, is ultimately the only way out of the poverty trap that so many families have been in for generations.

Almost immediately, Mr Naughten had to 'clarify' his remarks by saying that this was not about penalising parents, but about ending social welfare fraud.

The Department of Social Protection is apparently paying out €75m for children that don't exist in the school system.

That in itself is a disgrace and it brings the social welfare system into disrepute with hard-working taxpayers, who don't mind bearing the legitimate burden of social welfare but surely resent their money being squandered in such a haphazard fashion.

But the idea of linking school attendance with child benefit is a perfectly good one. A special needs assistant who I know agrees wholeheartedly with the idea and believes that if parents don't send their children to primary or secondary school, their children's allowances should be cut.

The fact is that some parents are just too lazy to get up in the morning to get their children out to school, yet they expect the State to foot the bill for their lifestyle and the lifestyle to which their children are being condemned.

You could argue that this is an oblique form of child abuse. Those children who miss vast amounts of their education are being condemned to a lifestyle not of their choosing, a lifestyle without aspiration and without the tools to progress.

Social welfare is a transfer of money from one section of the population to another. That is fair enough; most of us have availed of social welfare in one form or another. But a universal benefit such as children's allowance should not be unconditional.

The Government has every right to impose conditions and one which should most certainly be imposed is that parents send their children to school.

Faced with the stark choice of getting their children out in the morning or having their children's allowances cut would concentrate some people's minds wonderfully.

The 'carrot and stick' approach would work wonders and ensure that a majority of children go to school and are given a chance in their future life to avail of the opportunities that are out there for everyone. The old system of prosecuting parents whose children do not go to school for long periods is cumbersome and obviously ineffective.

Cutting their entitlements would be a far easier and more effective way of dealing with this issue and it would reap immediate benefits - not to mention saving the taxpayer €75m, which could be well spent in the child-protection area, where it is much needed.

But before a proper discussion could even get under way, the airwaves were humming with those finding fault, saying it was penalising the marginalised and the less fortunate.

Worse still, combining two databases which track school attendance seemed to meet with opposition from teachers' unions. Why there are two databases to track such things and not one is as big a mystery as the social welfare system itself.

THE wider issue that arises is one of concern for the present Government. It's just a few days in office and yet it does not seem able to hold the line on what is clearly a good idea.

I didn't hold with the naysayers who gave this Government no chance. I believed that it was one which was open to new ideas. But if it collapses at the first hint of opposition from the usual lobby groups, then not only will it not last, but there will be no reasons why it should last.

The so-called 'new politics' should be about new ideas, it should be about challenging the perceived wisdom and innovation. It seems to me that linking child benefit to a child's education is not only a good idea, but a brilliant way of ensuring that children who are now 'disadvantaged' and 'marginalised' get the same chance in life as those who value education as a way to progress.

Education is not everything, there are many other qualities which go to ensuring that people live fulfilling lives.

But almost everyone recognises that it all starts with an early and basic education - and if tearing up the social welfare rulebook ensures that children get that, then it should be done immediately.

As for the Government, it needs to stop looking over its shoulder and show a bit of backbone when it comes to doing the right thing.

Irish Independent

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