Gilmore rebuffs Cabinet colleagues on cutting child benefit

Child benefit cut to pay for an extra free pre-school year is ruled out

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore  attended the annual wreath laying ceremony for James Connolly at Arbour Hill Military Cemetery, in Dublin today. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore attended the annual wreath laying ceremony for James Connolly at Arbour Hill Military Cemetery, in Dublin today. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Sun, May 12, 2013, 19:19

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has firmly ruled out suggestions by Cabinet colleagues that some of the money currently spent on child benefit could be used to fund an extra free pre-school year.

Questioned by journalists about the issue today Mr Gilmore said the issue of cutting child benefit was never on the Government’s agenda.

He added that Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn had never said child benefit would be cut to pay for an extra free pre-school year.

“The proposal made by Ruairí Quinn was a proposal that we’d need to have a discussion about having a second year of free pre-school education. And I think it’s timely that we have that discussion,” said Mr Gilmore.
Childcare costs
“As we all know, the cost of childcare is very high for families and we also know that there are educational benefits to pre-school education and what Ruairí Quinn was talking about was having a discussion,” he said.

“The question of cutting child benefit was never on the agenda,” added Mr Gilmore.

Last week Mr Quinn was widely quoted as saying that he gave his “full support” to the idea of using part of the €2 billion child benefit budget to fund a second year of State-sponsored pre-school.
Education conference
Speaking at an Economic and Social Research Institute conference on education, Mr Quinn said Government colleagues Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald had “rightly argued” in favour of the move to a “more effective” use of the child benefit budget.

“They have both together cogently argued that we need to explore expanding this provision to two years of free pre-school education for all our children,” he said.

Research revealed at the conference indicated that high quality pre-school education shows “lasting benefits” for better academic attainment and socio-behavioural outcomes.

The Government spent €175 million last year on the free pre-school programme, which is currently supporting in the region of 68,000 pupils.

Mr Quinn suggested the cost of doubling this provision would be in the region of €150-€175 million.

“I fully support seeking to do this within the lifetime of this Government,” he added.

“Child benefit is about what is the best benefit you can give a child. That – particularly in relation to a child coming from a disadvantaged background – means levelling the playing field in the world of education,” he said.
Second year
“If we could get two years as distinct from one it would really have the potential to transform the learning outcomes and the educational outcomes of a whole cohort of young people.”

In the meantime, he said, Ireland could move “with limited further funding and in a short time” to enhance an effective quality assurance and inspection system focusing on educational outcomes across the pre-school sector.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald also appeared to back a move to divert some of the €2 billion child-benefit budget towards funding a second year of free pre-school.

However, internal Government estimates suggest the move would be expensive and would likely cost between €175 million and €200 million per year.

Plans to introduce a much more ambitious Scandinavian-style childcare service for under-12s would cost about €2 billion, according to estimates provided to the Government.

Proposals to either tax or means-test child benefit which have been mooted at regular intervals over the past two decades, would deliver enough money to pay for the move.