The Government has been forced to defend proposals linking child benefit to school attendance after charities and politicians reacted angrily to the plans.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten yesterday appeared to backtrack on previous statements in which he said the payment should be stopped from parents who fail to send their children to school after being put under pressure not to go ahead with the proposals.
The proposal sparked anger among opposition TDs, children’s organisations, and charities, who believe the measure would only hurt the poorest in society. Mr Naughten and Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe moved to clarify the situation after the proposals were described as “unfair” and “ridiculous”.
Mr Donohoe said the Government would “do nothing that creates the impression or the possibility that any family will be punished”.
“What we are aware of is that we have a few cases of children who are in primary school and then they don’t go either into secondary school or complete their full secondary school attendance,” he said. “We have an awareness of an issue regarding what happens to child benefit in that period.”
Mr Naughten, who in a Dáil debate with then Tánaiste Joan Burton last year suggested her department “threaten to remove” the payment, yesterday appeared to soften this line after criticisms from the Children’s Rights Alliance, Parent Line, Barnardos, and opposition TDs. He said the plans would link the Tusla database — which records children who are out of school for more than 20 days — with the social welfare database.
On RTÉ’s News at One he said he was “disappointed” by comments made by the Children’s Rights Alliance and others who attacked the plans claiming they were “daft”.
However, he added: “At the moment, the law is that a child is not entitled to child benefit unless they are receiving an appropriate education. That is strictly enforced from the age of 16 on, but it is not being linked up under the age of 16.”
Reacting to the proposals on child benefit which are contained in the programme for government, Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said: “This is a daft proposal that would seriously undermine the rights of children.
“It should in no way be used as a tool to punish parents and families. In practice, it would indirectly lead to school principals actually making decisions on who gets child benefit.
“We are bewildered as to why this proposal has been included in the Programme for Government. What is the rationale for it?”
This position was echoed by June Tinsley, head of advocacy at Barnardos .
“It will, ultimately, penalise the poorest and push families into further poverty,” said Ms Tinsley.
Rita O’Reilly of Parent Line said the measure would be regressive.
Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan said the proposal should be “nipped in the bud”.
“Under this plan, children who miss school, usually as a result of complex domestic and family issues, would be put to a huge disadvantage and their parents would be put under even greater financial pressure,” she said.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on Social Protection Willie O’Dea said the proposal should be reconsidered.
“Child benefit is a universal payment which is in place to help families with the cost of raising children. It’s particularly crucial for low-income families,” he said.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “Child benefit is one of the few universal welfare payments which benefits every child in the State and provides families with the basic means to pay for bare necessities, such as food and clothing.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved