Reform of child benefit can deliver for future generations

In Blog by Denis Naughten

kids painting (1)In the Dail yesterday I raised the urgent need to reform the way we pay child benefit in this Country.

Since children returned to school in September the Department of Social Protection has recommenced its policy of issuing 600,000 letters to parents to see if their child is in school or in the country; replicating a process that is already carried out by the National Education Welfare Board on behalf of the Department of Children & Youth Affairs. Not only does this place a significant, unnecessary administrative burden on both the Department and schools but the amount of paper involved could cover the pitch in Croke Park 2.5 times

A school is already 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 without a legitimate reason such as illness. By law a child is not supposed to receive child benefit unless that child is in the education system, yet significant numbers of children – up to one in six – of school-going age are missing from school more than 20 days.

If the Government amalgamated the two school attendance monitoring systems, i.e. those run by the Department of Social Protection and the NEWB, not only could significant savings of could be achieved but it would be an added tool in addressing poor school attendance in some families.

Annually, the control section of the Department of Social Protection brings in savings of €75-85m under the child benefit scheme, on foot of issuing the 600,000 letters annually. On top of this between €4-5m each year has to be recovered in child benefit overpayments and of course there is the administrative cost of issuing all the letters and processing the replies.

But more important than just the cost savings, there are potentially huge long term savings by ensuring that children from vulnerable homes get every chance within the education system by tying the payment directly to school attendance. How so? Well just look at the case of Jenny, who is six years of age. In December, her school principal contacted the National Education Welfare Board to say she had been absent for 65 days. The education welfare officer contacted the family, called to them, wrote to them and issued legal threats, and eventually the family ended up in court. The mother was fined €200 and the father €300. Since they went to court Jenny has attended school.

But was it a good use of limited social work resources, the State’s legal resources and the courts time and associated costs along with the loss of a valuable year in school for Jenny before action was taken to bring that about? In this instance Jenny would have been far better served by the threat of her parents losing their child benefit at the beginning of October. Such an initiative can work; it can ensure that young people attend school, gain a real opportunity to progress through our education system, as well as saving the taxpayer money.

We need to rethink the way we do things, to get the basic things right and start using the limited resources of the State in a smarter manner to deliver for today but also for the future.