Wednesday 23 January 2019

'It doesn't matter if your child lives on a farm in Donegal or a mansion in Donnybrook - everyone should get child benefit'

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Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

SOME things are, or at least ought to be, sacrosanct.

And one of those is the universal child benefit. It’s €140 a month that says my child is the same as your child and it doesn’t matter whether he lives on a farm in Donegal, in a mansion in Donnybrook or in a flat in Dolphin’s Barn, he deserves it.

Because he’s a kid.

Of course, in an ideal world all of our children would have the same opportunities and advantages growing up. It isn’t but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the occasional national statement of intent: that we believe, at some fundamental level, in equality. And the universal child benefit payment is a rare but happy example of that.

So it’s deeply dispiriting watching it come up for debate yet again following a talk on Friday hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs and the European Commission Representation in Ireland.

Employers’ organisation Ibec is calling for the payment to be means-tested, with the resulting savings to be invested in childcare.

Siptu, bizarrely, is also backing calls for reform.

Regina Doherty, Social Protection Minister, poured fuel on the fire by responding she would be “making a note” to look at households earning over €100,000 who are in receipt of child benefit, in the context of finding money for childcare.

The EU has been pushing us in this direction for a long time, making tut-tutting noises about the high cost of childcare and how it’s keeping women out of the workplace. You could almost hear the raised eyebrows of Joost Kloorte, the EC official at Friday’s conference, as he described our model of supporting parents with a direct cash payment as “very unusual”. The EU, of course, wants us to be ever more European, and one of the most EU of all EU ideals is that absolutely everyone becomes a fully paid-up member of the workforce. That’s what boosts GDP, increases the tax take and makes economies stronger.

I’m sure this all makes for a sound fiscal argument around the conference table in Brussels, but does it translate to real life? Do families sit around and think, hmm, how can we optimise our household’s GDP and ensure we do our bit to make Ireland an economic powerhouse? Not in my experience.

Taking the universal childcare benefit away and shoving it into the childcare budget instead would be telling the nation’s mums and dads that a parent’s place is not in the home, but in the office. It would further cement the notion that parents belong at work, children belong in a crèche, and your family’s financial decisions belong in the hands of EU bureaucrats.

If we followed Ibec’s logic, that €140 a month you can now choose to spend however you see fit – on food or clothes or shoes for your child, saving for a school trip, music classes, or throwing a few quid into the savings bank – would instead be paid directly to a crèche to provide cheaper care for your children. But you can only avail of that care if you’re out at work.

And if you’re out at work and have a child-minder or a family member minding your children, you won’t benefit either, as the system could only support institutional childcare settings. That €140 is now off the table. The decision will have been made for you.

Moreover, means-testing would exacerbate the sense of unfairness that already festers between PAYE workers and those who work for themselves and self-declare their income. While working for yourself brings its own challenges, we all know at least one self-employed fella down the road who’s driving a brand new car and takes two holidays a year while claiming everything from college grants for the kids to tax write-offs for his petrol.

The system makes this possible, but it doesn’t mean it’s fair. The only reason the “squeezed middle” isn’t already in open revolt is because most of us believe that though we pay a lot of tax and get very little in return, we are helping to create a fairer society by paying for essential services for those who really need it. But meanstesting frequently simply rewards those who have found clever ways of navigating the system, or are just plain dishonest.

Growing up on our street, the mums always said that the then 30 pounds they got was the price of a new pair of shoes. Today’s figures are a little more generous but the same principle applies.

The vast majority of families who get this money are not dining out in Guilbauds with the proceeds. This payment has always been about the child – not about the parent – and most adults, no matter at what end of the economic spectrum they reside, understand this and use that money exactly as it is intended to be used: on buying something important for your kids.

The minister herself appears already to have recognised what a political hot potato she was kicking around: as soon as she realised she might have opened a very large can of worms, she moved to snap it back shut again by appearing on the Sean O’Rourke show yesterday to emphasise she was a firm believer in the universal payment system and to rule out means-testing.

The issue is not going away.

Childcare remains a financial and moral quagmire for the Government. It is expensive and there will be ongoing pressure to make it more affordable. But dismantling child benefit is the wrong place to start. It’s one of the few things in Irish life that tells us we’re equal. And as for paying it to the kids of millionaires – well, so what?

We don’t tell rich kids they can’t attend the local national school just because daddy’s got a yacht in the Bahamas. And we don’t tell them that if they turn up in A&E, they should have pitched up at the Blackrock Clinic instead with their private healthcare.

That’s because we don’t discriminate when it comes to the foundations of a decent society: education and healthcare. So we shouldn’t discriminate either between working parents and those who stay at home, between PAYE workers and the self-employed, or between your child and mine.

Because that’s not fair on anyone.

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