The Government is desperate to reduce child benefit costs, but they face a fight from angry parents who say it's the State's responsibility to protect the vulnerable, writes Charlie Weston
IN the past week, staff at the offices of Taoiseach Brian Cowen have been opening thousands of envelopes containing unused nappies.
Enraged parents have been posting the nappies and are sending protest letters to voice their anger at the Government's proposal to either means-test, tax or cut child benefit.
A group of parents called the Protest Against Child Unfriendly Budget has asked people who are angry about the threat to child benefit to post a letter or an unused nappy to Mr Cowen.
More than 1,800 families have signed a petition on www.childbenefit.info. The protest group was set up by Dublin-based parents Treasa Dovander and Carol Haslam.
Child benefit is worth €166 a month per child (for the first two children). On an annual basis, the total for one child works out at €1,992.
The parents are also annoyed at the decision in April's emergency Budget to half the early childcare supplement payment this year, and scrap it entirely next year. Up to May, the early childcare supplement worked out at about €82 a month, or €984 a year. It applies to children under the age of five.
Ms Dovander said: "This Government has a duty to protect the vulnerable. We are calling on the Taoiseach to leave our children's benefits alone."
The mother of one, who is pregnant with her second child, argues that a higher rate taxpayer family would need to earn €5,221 a year to replace the child benefit and the early childcare supplement for one child.
This is based on the fact that the €166 a month in child benefit amounts to €1,992 a year, while €82 a month that had been paid in the early childcare supplement up to May works out at €984 a year.
That is a total of €2,976 in a year for one child. But a family on less than €75,000 a year, taxed at 41pc, would need to earn €5,221 to make up for the loss of this. Anyone earning more than €75,000 would need to earn €5,410 to make up for the loss of €2,974 in child benefit and the full amount of the early childcare supplement, according to Ms Dovander.
She says this figure relates to the additional income needed, before taxes and levies are deducted from salaries.
If child benefit is to go, along with the scrapping of the early childcare supplement, it would leave a family on €60,000 with one child under five and one under 10 needing to find an additional €8,715 a year.
For many parents these additional cutbacks, as well as the increased taxes and levies, combined with the rising cost of childcare make returning to work impossible, said Ms Dovander, an unemployed communications executive.
Child benefit payments are made to 600,000 families and cost the State almost €2.5bn a year. The sheer scale of the cost of child benefit means the cash-strapped Government is desperate to cut this bill.
The Government was forced to deny recently it was planning a 10pc flat cut in the child benefit rate, which would mean a drop from €166 to €150 a month for each of the first two children.
Divisions have also emerged within the Government over whether to tax or means-test child benefit payments, in order to save €400m to €500m a year.
The Department of Finance is understood to favour means-testing, which would be more effective in cutting the overall welfare bill. However, it would result in some families not receiving any form of child benefit payment.
Means-testing, however, could create a major administrative burden by requiring each family to submit data at regular intervals to determine their eligibility for the payment
It has also understood that major legal obstacles have arisen over proposals to tax the benefits. All this means the Government feels it has little option but to bring in a flat-rate reduction. But this too is understood to have hit snags. One problem is that the Constitution guarantees that the State will support families, which is taken to mean all families alike.
A statement from the Department of Social and Family Affairs said: "The Government has always said that there are practical issues to be addressed in bringing forward these measures. Therefore, the Commission on Taxation is examining this issue, as are the Departments of Finance, Social and Family Affairs and the Revenue Commissioners."
Ms Dovander said this uncertainty, and the difficulties faced by the Government in trying to reduce child benefit payments, meant it was imperative that parents make their views known on the issue to politicians ahead of the local by-elections and European elections.
The group is urging parents to sign an online petition on the social networking site Facebook and to download and send a protest letter from their website, www.childbenefit.info, to the relevant ministers and their local TDs.