Fitzgerald favours subsidised childcare over benefit
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has reopened the debate about the future of child benefit payments by expressing support for investing in a high-quality childcare system rather than monthly welfare benefits.
In an interview with The Irish Times, she said the Government was spending €2 billion – 10 per cent of all welfare expenditure – on child benefit.
But she said research had consistently shown that a high-quality or Scandinavian-type approach to childcare, widely regarded as among the best in the world, provided far better outcomes for children and their families.
In most Nordic countries, public childcare services offer heavily subsidised pre-school or after-school places to children up to the age of 12 whose parents work.
“We haven’t had a debate about where we’re putting our money. We’ve put it into individualised payments . . . it was a kind of Celtic Tiger thing, with rates increasing for individual payments,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“From my policy area point of view, and looking at what children need, it’s unequivocal: it’s important you get in early [and provide the right support].”
Research has shown that high-quality early childhood care boosts children’s education levels and improves their social and emotional capabilities.
The quality of childcare in Scandinavian countries has been linked to the fact that their education attainment is among the highest in the world, while child poverty rates are among the lowest, according to research by Barnardos and the early education campaign group Start Strong.
Ms Fitzgerald said: “If we really know that the best outcomes for children – particularly vulnerable children – is to get in early with universal services, there is a real policy question there, especially if we’re spending €2 billion on child benefit.”
However, any move to significantly cut child benefit is likely to prove highly controversial and would deprive parents of the choice they have in how they use the payment.
In addition, expanding childcare at the expense of the monthly payment is likely to meet resistance from stay-at-home parents.
As a first step towards investing in a better childcare system, Ms Fitzgerald said she favoured extending the duration of the free pre-school place from one year to two, which would cost about €175 million. This, she said, was not possible given the economic conditions.
She acknowledged a move to cut child benefits and raise childcare provision could cause financial hardship, but argued that the long-term benefits would be significant.
“I see challenges for families who need money to look after their children. But from where I sit, if we really want to help families, and more vulnerable families, universal services help children do better, stay in school and benefit from schooling,” she said.
“There are real policy questions to be asked about moving towards those services. There are many parents who would welcome universal childcare. But there probably isn’t a country in the world that can do both universal childcare and direct payments.”
Ms Fitzgerald said Ireland may not require as extensive an approach to childcare as in Scandinavia, but it was worth asking parents what they wanted. Childcare costs here – outside of the one-year free pre-school place – are among the highest in Europe, while after-school services are largely unavailable.