Regina Doherty has ruled out means-tested child benefit and says instead that more supports are needed to help parents with the cost of childcare.
The social protection minister says she is strongly against changing the universal payment to a means-tested subsidy, claiming it would create a “cumbersome” system.
Separately, Ms Doherty has announced the introduction of the Telephone Support Allowance, which will come into force this week. The support is aimed at people who live alone and receive certain other payments from the department — they will get €2.50 per week, or €130 a year.
“We know how important it is to stay connected to family, friends, and neighbours, especially as we get older,” she said. “With this new Telephone Support Allowance, I hope that we can help prevent social isolation among more vulnerable members of society.”
It had been reported that Ms Doherty was considering reducing child benefit for families earning more than €100,000 and funds could then be redirected towards childcare provision.
While the minister says she would be open to looking at a report by the Advisory Group on Tax and Social Welfare which examined child benefit, she also moved to reiterate her support for the universality of the children’s allowance payment.
The 2013 report recommended that the universal child benefit payment would be kept. However, this would be given in a two-tier system with a top-up payment for those who need it most.
The group claimed that 61% of families would qualify for this second-tier payment, which would be made on a sliding scale.
Ms Doherty said the Mangan Report does not recommend means testing, adding that it would be “cumbersome” to implement.
Child benefit is paid to more than 600,000 families each month and costs the State €2bn per year. The Government increased the monthly child benefit to €140 as part of Budget 2016. Free childcare for two-and-a-half years was also extended from age three to five-and-a-half, up to primary school age.
Ms Doherty said more funding needs to be pumped into early years supports which Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone has been working on.
“I strongly believe in the principle that we should treat all of the children in the country equally and that’s why I believe in the universal payment of child benefit,” she told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.
Ms Doherty said the “vast majority” of parents now spend as much on childcare each month as they are on their mortgage.
“They are the people who pay for everything and receive nothing from the State; that is why quality childcare subsidised by the State is so important,” she said. “We have to catch up with our European counterparts.”
Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte accused Ms Doherty of creating worry for parents with “spin” around possible child benefit cuts for higher earners. She said middle- income families should not be penalised further.
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