Wednesday 26 June 2019

Always best to know your audience before you open the debate

Regina Doherty Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Regina Doherty Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It seems clear now Regina Doherty has ripped up the notes she took at a conference last Friday.

In front of business leaders and academics, the Social Protection Minister suggested she was open to the idea of means-testing child benefit.

A figure of €100,000 was cited, alongside a musing that the need to "invest heavily in childcare" has to be weighed against a universal payment system that costs €2bn a year.

But by the time her statement reached 'Middle Ireland' through the pages of the Irish Independent, Ms Doherty was rowing back quicker than the O'Donovan brothers.

She took to radio to clarify that she merely committed to reading the 2012 Mangan Report, which laid out options for reforming the system.

It suggested child benefit should remain a universal payment - but on a sliding scale that ensured low-income families get the most.

The report's chief author, Ita Mangan, said some poorer families would gain under a means-tested system, while there would be "major losses" for some better off people.

The report was largely ignored by then minister Joan Burton and her successor Leo Varadkar, and forgotten about until last week's discussion at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

Tony Donohoe, the head of education and social policy at Ibec, called on the minister to means-test the payment and transfer savings to childcare services.

And those at the event interpreted Ms Doherty's response to mean she would examine the idea.

But by yesterday morning, other ministers were being advised to steer clear of the means-testing debate and on radio, Ms Doherty claimed that wasn't what she meant.

"What I suggested was that I was very open to looking at the report which I have never read. To be fair, I've no problem looking at anything," she said.

Presenter Richard Curran correctly asked what was the point in reading the report if she'd already decided there is no merit in means-testing?

Ms Doherty said the report doesn't actually recommend means-testing - although it's worth recalling that she hasn't actually read it.

She added: "Where we really need to go is the childcare subsidy scheme which is currently being worked upon. And by providing free childcare, pre-education, free-healthcare and from my own department free parental leave to allow parents to be able to stay with their children for those formative months and years. And that's where we need to go."

But naturally that costs money, which is a whole other question at a time when Fine Gael is attacking Fianna Fáil for "roulette wheel economics".

Ms Doherty went on to say there has been "an awful lot" of talk about millionaires - but they don't have to take the child benefit if they don't want to. Yet it seems unlikely our rich cousins got that way by turning down free money.

Fianna Fáil's Anne Rabbitte said yesterday there was a need for ministers to "stop acting like commentators and realise that they are in charge".

That's a fair comment - but a more valuable bit of advice is to know your audience may not necessarily always be the people sitting in front of you.

There are very good reasons why child benefit should be means-tested and perhaps equally good ones for why it shouldn't be.

But don't open up the debate unless you're willing to have it.

Irish Independent

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