Time to take a different view of child benefit problem

In Blog by Denis Naughten

The confirmation that €15m in Child Benefit is being paid out abroad by the Irish State once again highlights the fact that Irish taxpayers are funding welfare payments to nearly 8,000 children living outside of Ireland.

We were told by previous Ministers for Social Welfare that we have to make these payments under “EU rules” and that may very well be the case. But what if the payment was no longer a universal child benefit payment and the “EU rules” no longer applied?

Why not only pay child benefit up to pre-school going age, when the free Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE) kicks in, and from that point on introduce a new universal school attendance payment that is paid up to a child’s 18th birthday? Not only would this immediately close off the window of opportunity to make a claim for a child who does not reside in Ireland, saving the taxpayer up to €15m/year, but it would also have a significant impact on child benefit fraud and over claims, saving the taxpayer up to €38m/year. (As reported by the Comptroller and Auditor General the percentage of expenditure resulting from fraud identified in surveys should a rate of 1.8% for Child Benefit for child benefit)

Child benefit is significantly higher in Ireland than in many other EU countries, but so too is the cost of bringing up children. Many of the childcare and pre-school services available in other countries are not available in Ireland. In fact you can get tax relief in Ireland for bin charges but not for the cost of childcare.

A school attendance payment, while not addressing the problem of childcare costs, would at least mean that parents who are struggling to raise children in this country would actually receive the payment.

There has also been anecdotal evidence that some Irish parents living abroad register the child in Ireland, set up child benefit payments into an Irish bank account and then go back to their country of residence. This could also be identified, and shut down.

But this is not just a fraud prevention measure; it would also help to address the issue of truancy within our school system. The school attendance payment would be an added incentive for some parents to ensure that their child has a full attendance at school. Such a payment would also be the most effective way to arrest the problem of school drop-outs, an issue that cannot be ignored any longer.

It also ties in with the new Programme for Government, which prioritises the issue of literacy. The plan states “this Government believes that no child should leave an Irish school unable to read and write”. And the reporting structure is already in place. Presently, a school is legally obliged to inform the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB), if a child has missed 20 days or more in the school year or if it is concerned that a child is missing too much school. Under the Croke Park agreement, could the NEWB not send an e-mail to Social Welfare also?

There is an additional incentive from a bureaucratic perspective in that it will reduce administration within the Department of Social Welfare, schools and businesses, which have far better things to be doing than filling out forms for child benefit payments.

Presently in the case of non-Irish national recipients who are resident in Ireland, certification from the school or college that their child attends school is required every three months. With regard to EU nationals who are working in Ireland but who have qualified children living in another EU state certification by their employer of continuing employment is required on a three monthly basis.

Surely Social Welfare staff could be redeployed to deal with other aspects of fraud, if this labour intensive system was abolished? We need to start looking at problems from a different perspective, looking outside the box with a little creative thinking. That’s what joined up Government should be about and thereby giving the people of this country confidence with the system.