WORKING families face the prospect of another cut to child benefit in the coming years to help fund an extra pre-school year, according to Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
The Fine Gael TD said another across-the-board cut to the €130 monthly payment was off the table, as it would be "too hard on families".
But she is in favour of a two-tier child benefit system, similar to that suggested in the Mangan Report, which was delivered to her cabinet colleague Joan Burton. And she said that it could be used to pay for some of the €200m cost of providing an extra free pre-school year – with the rest coming from "general savings".
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Ms Fitzgerald ruled out another flat-rate cut to child benefit – like the €10 reduction imposed in last year's Budget.
"It has to be targeted in the best possible way, in the way that everyone in the country understands and supports," Ms Fitzgerald said.
The two-tiered system favoured by Ms Fitzgerald and Ms Burton would lead to further cuts in child benefit for middle- class families. The report by a senior civil servant revealed that a family earning €35,000 with one child would lose €336 per year. A family with four children on €60,000 per year would lose €2,755.
However, Labour has little appetite for more child benefit cuts – and there is currently no prospect of the new system being ready for this year's Budget in October.
Child benefit rates were already cut in the last Budget from €140 to €130 per month for the first and second child, and more for subsequent children.
As the country's first-ever Children's Minister in the Cabinet, Ms Fitzgerald is pushing to get the successful early pre-school year scheme extended to two years.
However, she said it would not be until 2015 at the earliest before the second childhood year could be introduced, due to the need to train enough childminding staff.