TANAISTE Eamon Gilmore has shot down Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's proposal to cut child benefit to fund an extra pre-school year for children.
He has said that child benefit cuts were "never on the agenda" – with Labour sources indicating that he is determined there will be no such cuts during the Government's remaining term in office.
It came after Mr Quinn had alarmed parents with his comments about looking at child benefit cuts to provide the €200m needed to pay for an extra pre-school year for children aged three to five.
Mr Gilmore moved to put an end to the debate by ruling out any such cut. "The issue of cutting child benefit has never been on the agenda," he said.
Labour Party sources said that there was no intention of allowing any further cuts to child benefit during the lifetime of the Government. One said that Labour TDs did not want to cut the payment by €10 in the last budget – let alone do it again in another budget.
Mr Gilmore has given assurances to party figures that child benefit will not be cut. But he is not doing so in public because all cuts are supposed to be up for discussion ahead of the Budget.
He tried to soften the blow for Mr Quinn, who was also present at Labour's annual commemoration of James Connolly in Arbour Hill Cemetery yesterday, by praising him for raising the issue of pre-school education.
"I think it's timely that we have that discussion as we all know the cost of childcare is very high for families. And we all know there are educational benefits to pre-school education. What Ruairi Quinn was talking about was having a discussion," he said.
Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has already made it as clear as possible that child benefit cuts are also not on her agenda. She told the Irish Independent last week that it would take at least "two budget cycles" before a two-tier child benefit system recommended by an expert report could be in place.
And on RTE's 'Week in Politics', Ms Burton said she did not envisage significant further changes to child benefit at this point in time. She again pointed out the importance of child benefit payments for heavily indebted families who bought houses at the height of the boom.
However, she said she could not rule out any child benefit cuts during the Government's lifetime.
"I can't say that because the Government as a whole has to decide on the shape of the budget," she said.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald said she welcomed the fact that there would be no cuts to child benefit.
"Child benefit is an extraordinarily important part of family's incomes at present, and we know the pressures that families are under. Obviously we need to continue to have a debate about investment in the early years and increasing investment.
"In the last budget, we took a number of decisions about more after-school places and area-based initiatives around the country." She said the Government had to continue to work towards a second free pre-school year.