6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the steps she will take to ensure that children in receipt of child benefit meet the statutory requirement of attending school up to 16 years of age; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17237/15]
Deputy Denis Naughten: Every year the Department of Social Protection issues more than 600,000 letter to parents asking them to verify whether their children are in this country. One of the conditions of the child benefit scheme is that children up to the age of 16 must receive an appropriate education. However, there is no link-up in this regard between the Department of Social Protection and the education welfare officers who are in charge of school attendance. Can we break down the silo thinking and instead have joined-up thinking across the two Departments so that where children are missing from school this is linked with child benefit payments?
Deputy Joan Burton: Child benefit is the main policy instrument for assisting families in Ireland with the cost of raising children. It is a universal payment paid in respect of all qualified children up to the age of 16 years, or to the age of 18 if the child is in full-time education or has a disability. It is paid to more than 615,000 families in respect of almost 1.2 million children, at a cost of €1.9 billion. It is one of the biggest payments in our social welfare system.
School attendance up to the age of 16 years is a statutory requirement under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. Consequently, all recipients of child benefit are legally required to attend school up to this age. There is a national monitoring system for statutory school attendance via the National Educational Welfare Board, which is now part of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Policy responsibility for school attendance rests with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
For children over 16 years and less than 18 years, continued payment of child benefit is dependent on the children attending school for these two years. Parents with children aged 16 and 17 years must, in respect of these two years, return to the Department of Social Protection on an annual basis a form confirming school attendance, signed by the principal of the school. If the Deputy has specific concerns about school absenteeism, the competent authorities to address these are the National Educational Welfare Board and Child and Family Agency.
I am satisfied with the existing steps that require children in receipt of child benefit to attend school up to 16 or 18 years of age, under both education and social protection policies. As I said, parents of children aged 16 and 17 years must provide confirmation from their school principal that the children are in attendance at school.
Deputy Denis Naughten: One in ten primary school children and one in six secondary school children miss more than 20 days per year in school, which equates to one eighth of the secondary school year. Almost 1,500 children left primary school last year and never turned up in secondary school. We are storing up a very serious social problem for the future. The Department of Social Protection will have to foot the bill for these people when they come out of the education system. Today I am asking the Tánaiste, as I have done on numerous other occasions, if, rather than stating that this is not her problem but is a matter for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, she will ensure that the IT system of the Department of Social Protection is linked with that of the National Education Welfare Board.
As I said earlier, it is a condition of the child benefit scheme that children receive an appropriate education up to the age of 16 years. The Department of Social Protection issues more than 600,000 letters annually asking parents to verify that children are in the country. All I am asking is that the two systems be linked so that where children are not attending school parents are issued with a notification indicating that if their children do not continue to attend school their child benefit payment will be under threat.
Deputy Joan Burton: The Deputy is rightly concerned about the welfare of children attending school. The point I am making is that school attendance is not the province of the Department of Social Protection.
I politely suggest to the Deputy that this question would probably be more appropriately taken up with the Minister for Education and Skills.
As Deputy Naughten pointed out, the Minister for Education and Skills and that Department have a series of policies designed to monitor, report and assess attendance at school and a series of programmes to improve school completion rates in both primary and secondary schools. The Deputy will know that the country has progressed enormously in that respect. I share his concern that every child should attend school, but I am not clear as to why he would suggest that it become the responsibility of the Department of Social Protection rather than the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills. The welfare element is dealt with in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In many cases where children do not attend school there may be welfare issues or family issues, but that is not within the remit of my Department.
Deputy Denis Naughten: We have heard from Ministers of this Government on numerous occasions that an issue is not the responsibility of one Department but rather that of another Department. The Tánaiste is the deputy leader of this Government and she is washing her hands of this issue. All I ask is that she link up the two IT systems so that where a child has, without good reason, missed school for 20 days, she can enforce the law under the child benefit scheme, under which a child must receive an appropriate education, by issuing a notification to the parent that if the child does not attend school his or her child benefit will be jeopardised. It would make far more sense to send such letters than to send out 650,000 letters a year asking parents to verify that their children are in the country. That is enough to wallpaper the pitch at Croke Park two and a half times.
The reason I bring this issue to the Minister’s attention is that teachers the length and breadth of the country have told me that some parents lack the motivation to ensure that their children attend school. I have given the Minister examples of instances in which a threat to the payment of child benefit has motivated parents to ensure that their children attend school. Even if it gives one child a chance, is it not worth doing?
Deputy Joan Burton: The Deputy and I share a common ground with regard to children or their parents who have problems with attending school, which is that those children and their parents should be encouraged in so far as possible to enable the child to attend school fully. However, the Deputy is in effect suggesting that a family which may already be on a low income or experiencing unemployment should have its child benefit removed—–
Deputy Denis Naughten: I am talking about threatening to remove it.
Deputy Joan Burton: I ask the Deputy to bear with me. We had a discussion earlier about the necessity of children’s attendance at school. I refer to the small number of children who for some reason may not have had a proper breakfast before leaving home. Several agencies and the Department of Education and Skills are dealing with those issues. The Deputy is correct in his concern for the children, but I am not sure that his solution, which is baldly to eliminate part of the family’s income, is the appropriate solution—–
Deputy Denis Naughten: It has to be part of the toolkit.
Deputy Joan Burton: —–because, in my view, the appropriate solution is for the teachers to work with those families and with the parents and, if appropriate, to involve the education and welfare service and Tusla. It is important that every child goes to school, but I would not suggest that the arbitrary cutting off of child benefit is necessarily the solution to the problem the Deputy has identified.
Deputy Denis Naughten: It is a threat.