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Child benefit must remain a universal payment

Social Justice Ireland welcomes Minister Regina Doherty’s comments this week, saying she believes in the universality of child benefit payments.

The Minister commented that she strongly believes “in the principle that we should treat all the children in the country equally and that’s why I believe in the universal payment of child benefit”.

There had been speculation that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was considering reducing or abolishing child benefit for households earning above a certain threshold to raise money to invest in Ireland’s childcare infrastructure.

Social Justice Ireland believes that child benefit is an important acknowledgement of the fact that raising children is an economically and socially necessary job. It is also an expensive one, and child benefit payments help to mitigate this expense in a relatively efficient way, compared with other options.

Means-testing the benefit, aside from being cumbersome, would be a step in the wrong direction.

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty, pictured cherishing all children equally.

However, the speculation did serve to remind us once again that childcare in Ireland is the most expensive in the European Union.

Our childcare infrastructure is underdeveloped, and government subsidies are low. Indeed, Ireland’s spending on our children, as a proportion of national income, is extremely low across the board. Ireland spends just 0.1 per cent of GDP (or 0.14 per cent of GNI*) on pre-primary education, compared to an OECD average which has increased in recent years from 0.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent of GDP.

In our recent Budget Choices publication, Social Justice Ireland proposed an investment of €113 million to bring spending on this area to 0.2 per cent of GNI* and build on this investment each year to meet the European Commission’s recommendation of investing 1 per cent of GDP per annum. We also recommend increasing the Community Childcare Subvention (Universal) Scheme for under 3s by €1 per hour, at a cost of around €34m.

The suggestion that a reduction in child benefit is required to fund any of this investment is misplaced. It is estimated that Government will have around €3 billion in fiscal space available in Budget 2019 before it implements any additional revenue-raising measures. There are significant resources already available with which Government can begin to tackle Ireland’s many infrastructure deficits, including childcare. It is not necessary to reduce any other payments to pay for it, and Minister Doherty’s comments reaffirming the universal nature of child benefit payments are very welcome.