Friday 30 September 2016

Worrying signs of an early loss of backbone

Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30

ONE of the tests of integrity is the ability to stand by an idea. The Government is scarcely a week old and already there are concerns about its resolve, which in turn raises doubts about its viability. For instance, there is mention in the Programme for Government of looking at child benefit as a means to get parents to focus on making sure that their children attend school. Communications Minister Denis Naughten put the idea into the public domain, clearly not to harm families, but ultimately to help them, by guaranteeing that children are given a chance to get through the one gateway society offers to a level playing field - education.

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Mr Naughten's view is entirely reasonable. Linking the Department of Social Protection to school absentee databases would clearly concentrate hearts and minds by making sure that children are in the classroom during school hours. It is not about public shaming of parents, it is about ensuring the child has a chance of a future and is not locked out of a career path.

As Mr Naughten pointed out, in 2012 1,500 children did not move on from primary school to secondary school. How is the State to know whether payments are still being made to them? Meanwhile, Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe was practically doing somersaults to distance himself from anything that might be vaguely criticised or stir controversy. Nothing will be done in any way that creates the possibility of anyone feeling as though they are being punished, he insisted.

Predictably, and depressingly, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil were tripping over each other to hop on the bandwagon of easy outrage at the proposals.

But every so often a statistic comes along against which you will stub your toe and find yourself staggering. The notion that the State spends some €75m on children who do not exist in the school system is one such. "Welfare's purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence," said Ronald Reagan. And education is the best means of breaking the cycle of dependence. The State has made huge strides in keeping children in schools. Innovations such as breakfast clubs have helped disadvantaged children across the country.

It doesn't bode well if a Government baulks at the first shadow of opposition - given the number of hurdles that it must jump.

Irish Independent

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