| 18.7°C Dublin

Great chance for Quinn to be top of the class with child-benefit plan

Ruairi Quinn has a great opportunity to be top of the class and confirm his credentials as a reforming minister by taking a bold step that will help bridge the education gap between rich and poor in Ireland.

Yesterday, Mr Quinn engaged in political kite-flying, using the airwaves to float the notion of diverting some of the annual €2bn child-benefit payment budget towards providing a second free pre-school year for the nation's children. Full marks for a sensible idea.

The free pre-school year, known as the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme, was introduced in January 2010, and provides childcare in the year prior to starting primary school. It has been a huge success, benefitting more than 60,000 children annually at a cost to the State of €150m.

Mr Quinn said that a second free pre-school year would have a dramatic effect on the life chances of young people, particularly those coming from disadvantaged areas.

"We need to see what is it we are trying to do with child benefit and what do we want to do for educational services. Ongoing research is showing that unless we get this kind of quality input, our society will remain desperately unequal. And, an unequal society produces deprivation and poverty."

He revealed that his cabinet colleagues, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald, support this view.

International evidence shows that equal societies are more prosperous and competitive. A child coming from a middle-income, middle-class type family where there is normal discourse will have a vocabulary three times the size of a young person coming from a disadvantaged background.

But, as ever, politics is being played with an important social issue. The waters are being tested first before any hard decisions are made.

Instead of floating the idea, all three Labour ministers should go a step further and use their influence at Cabinet to change policy for the betterment of our young people.

If studies show that another free pre-school year would benefit our children, why dither? There is no reason why the measure couldn't be included in Budget 2014 in December.

It would also mean the Government doing what its predecessors have failed to do and, that is, reform the system of child benefit once and for all. Some 600,000 families receive the payment for more than 1.1 million children every year at a cost of nearly €2bn annually. It is one of the most generous child-benefit regimes in Europe.

As we know, the money is paid to parents regardless of their means. Ireland has eight billionaires and more than 20,000 millionaires – yet only three families who had availed of child benefit have notified the State that they have surrendered the payment and no longer claim it.

Ryanair chief executive and father-of-four Michael O'Leary said in an interview with a Dutch newspaper last week that even though he is a multi-millionaire, his wife gets four cheques each month totalling €530 to support their four children. He is right when he said, "this is insane".

When I was drawing child benefit for my two children, I often felt guilty that I was getting the same payment as people with low incomes. I was in the very lucky position that both myself and my husband were in good jobs. The money went into a 'holiday fund' every year.

Mr Quinn and his colleagues should seize the opportunity to radically reform child benefit to make sure that those less well-off have the same start in life as others. Child benefit should be means-tested and the savings used to fund, among other things, the pre-school proposal.

As well as a second pre-school year, the money can be used to improve training and qualifications for "pre-school leaders". Mr Quinn said yesterday for a very small sum of money, approximately €5m, the quality of pre-school leaders and child-minders could be enhanced.

Mr Quinn has started the debate but disappointingly he has said not to expect any changes – if they are agreed – until this time next year.

You are being too cautious Mr Quinn. This could be your legacy. With the support of your fellow ministers convince your other colleagues at Cabinet and take the initiative now.

We have got so much wrong in Ireland in the past. Here is a chance to get something right.

When it comes to our children, we owe them all equal opportunities from an early age.

Irish Independent