Friday 15 December 2017

Hours in and Government is at odds on child benefit

Fine Gael desperately tries to shift blame as row erupts

Taoiseach Enda Kenny congratulates new Communications Minister Denis Naughten after he received his seal of office. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Taoiseach Enda Kenny congratulates new Communications Minister Denis Naughten after he received his seal of office. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

A plan to punish parents whose children have poor school attendance records is set to be the first proposal dropped from the Programme for Government, the Irish Independent has learned.

Fine Gael ministers ran scared from the pledge to cut child benefit in such cases, following a backlash levelled against the Government by child agencies and Fianna Fáil.

Newly appointed Communications Minister Denis Naughten had successfully argued for the inclusion of the measure to link child benefit to school attendance.

According to the 156-page document, the new administration pledged to "reform the monitoring of child benefit payments by amalgamating the two existing school attendance monitoring systems, currently run by the Department of Education and Tusla, to address poor attendance within some families".

Mr Naughten, who previously argued that in "extreme cases" child benefit should be suspended, was forced to perform a U-turn on the commitment just hours after the Programme for Government was published.

Read more: How many more 'bombs' are hiding in this deal?

The move came during a farcical day that raises serious questions about the future of the Fine Gael-Independent partnership.

The proposal was effectively dead after Fianna Fáil's Willie O'Dea warned that his party would vote it down in the Dáil. The Children's Rights Alliance also voiced stern opposition. The criticism then prompted several Fine Gael ministers to distance themselves from the plan - and shift the blame onto Mr Naughten.

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe was among the first to insist there was no plan for families to be punished.

"We will do nothing that creates the impression or the possibility that any family will be punished. Nothing could be further from my mind or those involved in the negotiations," he told RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland'.

Several other ministers privately went further and questioned how it ended up in the Programme for Government.

But, bizarrely, some Fine Gael figures who were involved in the government formation talks admitted that they had overlooked the issue when it was discussed.

Read more: About 100 serious cases of pupil absenteeism every year

"The first I saw of it was when I got calls from backbenchers asking what the hell is this proposal on child benefit," one senior Fine Gael source said.

A separate senior figure admitted: "I can't see this ever being passed, but how we let this through is beyond me."

Mr Naughten did not respond to requests for comment last night.

The measure was widely interpreted as representing a plan to deduct child benefit from parents whose children were failing to attend school.

In previous press releases, Mr Naughten said it was necessary to have a "nudge factor" in place. He said that in "extreme" cases, education welfare officers could seek to have payments suspended.

"I'm not talking about removing the payment, but using it as a 'nudge factor' to ensure that parents actively engage with the education welfare service. In an extreme case, where parents are not willing to engage, and where there are no underlying issues, then the education welfare officer can seek to have the payment suspended," he stated in May last year.

But speaking on the 'News At One', the rural TD performed a U-turn and insisted there were no such plans.

"Absolutely not, this is not about cutting child benefit whatsoever," he said.

"No, what we're saying here is that we want to link up the systems that are there already. And secondly we want to give additional tools to Tusla in relation to money that can be saved from fraud over payments that are issued at the moment through Social Protection. And that everyone who leaves primary school can read and write. That isn't happening at the moment."

Irish Independent

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