Universal childcare would mean axeing benefit, says minister
DIRECT child benefit payments would have to be sacrificed if high quality universal childcare is introduced, Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald has indicated.
The Fine Gael TD made the comment in an interview in which she signalled her support for reforming the child benefit system.
Ms Fitzgerald has expressed backing for the idea of providing better quality childcare instead of paying money directly to parents every month.
It would see the €2bn a year paid to families being diverted into establishing a Scandinavian-style model of subsidised universal childcare.
Ms Fitzgerald said the country has yet to have a "debate about where we're putting our money", adding that the system of individualised payments "was a kind of Celtic Tiger thing".
However, the evidence is "unequivocal" that children gain from early intervention by support services, she pointed out.
"But there probably isn't a country in the world that can do both universal childcare and direct payments," the minister 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 €2bn on child benefit," she added in the interview with the Irish Times.
In this month's Budget, child benefit was cut by between €10 and €20 per child, depending on how many are in the family.
For the first two children, the rate was cut from €140 to €130 each a month, from €148 to €130 for the third child and from €160 to €140 for the fourth and each subsequent child.
A move away from direct payments would prove highly contentious, particularly within the Labour party.
As a first step, Ms Fitzgerald is in favour of extending the free pre-school programme at a cost of €175m, but she said it is not possible in current economic circumstances.
She admitted any move away from direct payments in favour of better pre-school and after-school care could be difficult.
"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.
The minister also plans to reform the child protection system by increasing accountability and providing early services.
The Child and Family Support Agency to be established early next year will take over responsibility for child protection and early intervention services from the HSE.