Coalition moves to placate alienated women voters

Budget 2022: Spend in excess of €31m announced for health package with more to come

Jack Horgan Jones of The Irish Times speaks to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe TD and Michael McGrath TD, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, following their presentation of Budget 2022 to Dáil Éireann. Video: Bryan O’Brien

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The Government has made a concerted effort in Budget 2022 to woo women voters, after a year in which it was accused of placing women’s healthcare bottom of its list of priorities.

Revealing a dedicated €31.5 million women’s health package, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said further spending will happen in coming years.

Women aged between 17 and 25 will be able to access free contraception from next August in a move welcomed by Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), who said it signalled “a step change”, especially when combined with the commitment to tackle “period poverty”.

Extra spending will come to deal with measures identified in the women’s health taskforce including additional funding for sexual assault treatment units as well as implementation of the national maternity strategy.

A 2019 working group report into contraception access stated that free contraception for all women would cost the State €80 million-€100 million per year, adding that young women should be the first to benefit.

The group made several suggestions and said the most cost-effective option would come in at €18 million-€22 million per year and would be a State-funded scheme focused initially on younger women aged 17-24, based on evidence that younger groups are more at risk of crisis pregnancy and more likely to be unable to afford contraception.

Green Party health spokeswoman Neasa Hourigan TD campaigned on this issue and welcomed the announcement.

“This is a budget that protects young people and access to free contraception will give young women control over their own bodies and lives, regardless of their financial means. A key inclusion on this scheme is long-acting reversible contraception such as IUDs and implants which are safe, long lasting and quickly reversible. This is an important measure that we negotiated to include in the programme for government and I’m proud that we have delivered on that commitment today.”

The NWCI also described as “positive” the plans in relation to childcare and parental leave.

Childcare subsidy

The Government has pledged to invest €716 million in childcare next year.

The universal childcare subsidy will be expanded to children under 15 from September of next year in a move which will benefit up to 40,000 children at a cost of €5 million.

The practice of deducting hours spent in pre-school or school from the entitlement to State subsidised hours will cease, which will benefit an estimated 5,000 children.

In welfare, the qualified children rate will rise by €2 for those under the age of 12 and by €3 for those above that age.

Parental benefit will rise by two weeks to seven from July of next year. And from June of 2022 the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance will increase by €10.

The NWCI expressed disappointment, however, that there were no dedicated measures to address structural inequalities in the pension system.

“Older women were expected by Irish society to take on the full weight of caring responsibilities but their contributions are still not fully recognised by our pension system.”

Separately, chairwoman of the women’s caucus Fiona O’Loughlin welcomed the commitment for increased investment in menopause care.

“The national maternity strategy will also receive increased resources for consultants in obstetrics and neonatology to further support in the implementation of the National Maternity strategy, a pillar of women’s healthcare in this country.”

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