Monday 14 October 2019

Minister makes U-turn after hint of means-testing child benefit

Anne Rabbitte Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Anne Rabbitte Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Kevin Doyle and Anne Marie Walsh

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty has made a series of expensive promises to parents - without saying where the funding is coming from.

The minister's stance undermines Fine Gael's attempt to attack Fianna Fáil spending demands.

Ms Doherty performed a spectacular U-turn yesterday as she ruled out means-testing child benefit as part of the effort to reduce childcare costs.

Just days earlier, she indicated she was prepared to examine cutting child benefit for higher earners to pay for childcare.

Yet, the minister listed a string of promises including providing "free childcare, pre-education, free healthcare and free parental leave".

However, it is now unclear how she will pay for any of them having now ruled out means-testing child benefit.

No further information was forthcoming from the Department of Social Protection last night on how much the minister envisages being spent to provide these free measures in the short term or how that investment will be paid for.

Ms Doherty opened up the child benefit means-testing debate while attending a conference last Friday. But her commitment to reassess an expert report on the issue from 2012 was badly received by Government colleagues.

The Mangan Report suggested a two-tier system, whereby all families would receive a universal payment but low-income parents would get a significant top-up.

At the event organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Ms Doherty took note of a suggestion from a business representative who suggested childcare costs needed to be the Government's focus.

The minister said she would look at households who "earn over €100,000 and are paid the children's allowance".

However, last night Ms Doherty's office told the Irish Independent means-testing "is not being considered by Government and is not in the Programme for Government".

"Minister Doherty supports the universality of the child benefit payment, and the principle that all families with children should receive this income support."

A spokesperson added the Government's policy is "to provide additional supports for parents and their children through increased services rather than increased cash transfers".

The Department does not hold information on parents' income.

"While it would be possible to means-test any benefit or assistance, the administrative work involved and the supporting systems required to facilitate the work may render it unfeasible," they added.

Fianna Fáil children's spokesperson Anne Rabbitte accused the minister of causing "major concern and frustration for parents".

"Once again we see this Government's obsession with spin come to the fore. On the one hand we have a proposal being floated and only hours later we have the minister dampening down those same proposals," she said.

"This is leading to confusion, frustration and anger amongst parents, particularly those middle income earners who would be earmarked for means-testing if this proposal were to come to fruition."

"Childcare costs have fallen down this Government's agenda and parents are being let down by the lack of action on this issue.

"We need to see a concrete plan brought forward that lowers childcare costs and eases the pressure on already overburdened families."

Labour Party senator Ged Nash described the minister's contribution to the IIEA as "alarming".

"In the worst of times, Labour successfully fought the Troika to defend the principle of child benefit as a universal payment," he said.

Meanwhile, relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are continuing to plummet after it emerged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been keeping tabs on demands coming from the Opposition benches.

The Irish Independent revealed yesterday a working group has put a "conservative" price of €1.5bn on spending demands made by Fianna Fáil representatives so far this year.

Fine Gael plans to portray Fianna Fáil as a "populist" party with "roulette wheel economics".

But Fianna Fáil welfare spokesman Willie O'Dea rejected the charge, claiming Mr Varadkar is running "a right-wing agenda".

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section