Leo Varadkar allowance increase not in official notes

Leo Varadkar’s decision to increase back-to-school payments was made just days before he left the Department of Social Protection to become Taoiseach.

The first payments, from the increased, €47.4m budget, are being made to 108,000 families this week. They will include 25% increases in the amounts, up from €100 last year to €125 for primary-school aged children, and from €200 to €250 for older children.

The rises were only announced by Mr Varadkar on June 13, the day before his election as Taoiseach by the Dáil. The statement had been issued to the press the day before, 11 days after he was chosen as Fine Gael leader, on June 2.

But a briefing document prepared for his successor as social protection minister, Regina Doherty, indicates no changes being made.

Being dated June, 2017, the material prepared by senior Department of Social Protection officials was finalised after Mr Varadkar’s election as Fine Gael leader.

It makes no references to the changes he announced before becoming Taoiseach, referring, instead, to a €37.4m allocation for the scheme in 2017, the amount provided for in last October’s budget.

It advises the incoming minister that the allowance is paid at a rate of €100 and €200, depending on a child’s age, rather than the increased amounts.

The extra €10m being provided for the scheme was explained by Mr Varadkar’s statement a month ago as being possible due to an underspend in the department. This was because of “rapidly falling unemployment levels”.

Figures for the end of May show that €7.974bn was spent by the Department of Social Protection in the first five months of the year. That was €56m less than budgeted for, and €2m less than it paid out in the corresponding first five months of 2016.

The department is issuing automatic back-to-school payments to 108,000 customers this week, in respect of 194,000 school children. These are paid to recipients of certain welfare payments who have children of qualifying ages.

The application process — for those who have not been notified of an automatic payment — has been open since mid-June and remains open until the end of September. In 2016, 46,000 families applied successfully for payments, accounting for one-third of the €40m paid out under the scheme.

Although the increases have been welcomed, the allowance is still short of the figures of €200 and €305 that were paid up to 2011.

Although it is not intended to meet the full back-to-school costs of families, the allowance is extremely short of what parents must pay out for uniforms, sports gear, and books, ahead of the return of children to classes each autumn.

Children’s charity, Barnardos, is asking parents to take part in its annual, online school costs survey, which remains open until Sunday night, July 23.

Its survey last year placed the costs of uniforms, books, other school materials, and contributions to schools at similar levels to 2015: €340 to €395 for primary pupils, and €800 for a student beginning second-level.

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