THE Government has axed grants to help needy families with the costs of First Communion.
The Department of Social Protection has confirmed that exceptional needs payments (ENPs) will not be made in 2013 for religious ceremonies.
It said this followed a review that recommended ENPs be paid in response to financial need rather than for occasions.
"For 2013 it is recommended that payment of the allowance specifically in respect of religious ceremonies will cease," it said. More than €3.4m was paid in communion and confirmation grants in 2011 to over 14,000 families but the average payout was slashed last year, with 12,500 families receiving €1.5m before being axed altogether this year.
The department said that although clothing costs should be met by normal social welfare payments, it still provided funding for children's and adults' clothing in "exceptional circumstances".
So far in 2013 it had paid out €56,000 for child clothing to 570 applicants.
The department said that under its supplementary welfare allowance scheme, payments were made "to help meet essential, once-off and unforeseen expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of their weekly income".
The principal qualification was that the need to be met must be "exceptional" and unforeseen.
The payments system had been reviewed to ensure that the scheme was responding to financial need and not occasions.
Leah Speight, of Single Parents Acting for Rights of Our Kids, said families already reeling from cuts in child benefits and other payments would be hit hardest.
"I'm not religious myself but many families are and they face a lot of pressure to give their children a special day when they're already watching every penny, it's not about going overboard and being outrageous," she added.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul said some of its regions had seen an increase in calls relating to difficulties paying for First Communions this year.
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service said it was too early to say whether more people would get into financial difficulties as a result of grants being unavailable, but First Communions did often put huge pressure on families.
"People will borrow from Peter to pay Paul, so we usually see them after they've paid for the First Communion, but then they turn up a month to six weeks later because they've nothing left to pay their energy bills," said spokesman Michael Culloty.
"Families who say no to everything all year will say yes to First Communions – it's not just about kitting the child out, often the whole family will get kitted out with new outfits because it's a family celebration, a cultural thing," he said.
A recent survey by EBS showed that parents expect to spend €573 on average on First Communions this year.