Child benefit changes urged for foreign nationals

 

CHILD BENEFIT payments to foreign nationals whose children live outside the State should be reduced significantly, according to a report on social welfare fraud by an Oireachtas committee.

About 7,000 EU nationals resident in Ireland are claiming child benefit for 11,000 children living outside the State. This is projected to cost the exchequer about €20 million this year.

The report says it is “not appropriate” to pay the Irish rate of child benefit for children in other countries where the cost of living is significantly lower.

It is one of 14 cost-saving recommendations in a report by the Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs. Overall, the report says more money could be saved through tougher welfare checks and more intensive monitoring of fraud or overpayments. Its proposal include:

  • A crackdown on separated fathers who do not pay child maintenance for their children. This would include ensuring a father’s name is registered on a child’s birth certificate – which is not mandatory at present – to help recovery of maintenance payments.
  • A mandatory national ID card with biometric information for all citizens – similar to those other EU states – to help tackle identity fraud.
  • Implementing long-standing plans to reform the lone parents allowance which would axe the “cohabitation rule” that recipients must not be living with a partner.
  • More frequent monitoring of welfare schemes that are most susceptible to fraud, including the jobseekers’ allowance and lone-parent payments.
  • More unannounced home visits to social welfare claimants to help tackle fraud.

The report’s author, Labour TD Róisín Shortall, said the recommendations were urgently needed given the large increases in unemployment and pressure on the public finances.

“At a time when more and more people need to avail of social welfare, we must ensure that any money lost through fraud and scams is kept to the absolute minimum, so those who really need the help can avail of it,” she said.

On the issue of reducing child benefit for children resident abroad, Ms Shortall said it was not right the payment was paid at the Irish level given the lower cost of living in many other EU countries.

“There is a huge difference in the cost of living between Ireland and other EU countries. We’re questioning the appropriateness of this. The Irish level of child benefit should be paid for children who are resident in Ireland . . . ”

Under regulations dating back to 1971, migrant employees from any member state can claim child benefit from the EU country in which they work, even if their children are living in their home country. Ms Shortall accepted that the proposal may be just “aspirational” given that the current payment arrangement is provided for under EU law.

Last year, a total of €476 million was saved through anti-fraud measures, almost €60 million behind the target of €535 million.

This year, the Department of Social and Family Affairs estimates it will save some €600 million. However, initial figures show it is already behind target.

Fianna Fáil TD Charlie O’Connor, vice-chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs, said the recommendations had been made on a consensus basis between all parties.“We believe these actions will ultimately benefit the country economically and make it a better society for all those who live in it.”