Linking child benefit payment with school attendance could save €75m – Naughten

In Child Benefit Reform by Denis Naughten

Proposal would cut fraud & encourage parents to send children to school

Changes to the way child benefit is paid could save in excess of €75m every year, claims Denis Naughten TD.

“By linking child benefit for school age children with school attendance savings of between €75m and €90m could be achieved.

Annually, the control section of the Department of Social Protection brings in savings of €70-85m under the child benefit scheme. On top of this between €4-5m pa is sought in overpayments.

But more important than just the cost savings, enforcing the current law on the payment of child benefit has huge long term savings potential by ensuring that children from vulnerable homes get every chance within the education system by tying the payment directly to school attendance.

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.  

Enforcing the current law on the payment of child benefit can have an impact on the issue of truancy within our school system and cut down on bureaucracy.

Linking child benefit directly to school attendance would be an added incentive for some parents to ensure that their child has a full attendance at school.

This would be a useful additional tool to assist education welfare officers in working with parents to ensure that children who are out of school for more than 20 days, and would be far more effective than dragging parents through the Courts.

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.

Directly linking Child Benefit to school attendance would be an effective additional tool to address the problem of school drop-outs, without incurring a vast administration cost as the reporting structure is already in place.

I’m not talking about removing the payment, but using it as a “nudge factor” to ensure that parents actively engage with the education welfare service. In an extreme case, where parents are not willing to engage, and where there are no underlying issues, then the education welfare officer can seek to have the payment suspended.

Presently, a school is legally obliged to inform the National Educational Welfare Service 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 legitimate reason such as illness.

All I’m looking for is that this reporting system is directly linked to Social Welfare informing them of a child’s continued absence, thus reducing the administration costs within the Department of Social Protection, schools and businesses, which have far better things to be doing than filling out forms for child benefit payments.”

 Furthermore, due to the large numbers in receipt of child benefit there is a considerable administrative burden placed on the control section of the Department of Social Protection, (over 600,000 letters every year are issued) and not only would a movement away from the current payment method lead to significant administrative savings, but savings could be reallocated to support the School Completion Programme which has been hugely successful in addressing school dropout rates.

From an economic perspective, it is estimated that early school leavers cost the State €29,300 (male) and €33,300 in welfare supports and lost taxes.

Over half the prison population has left school early and a prison place costs on average €97,700pa

So, is it not about time that we started to do things differently in Ireland and act in the interests of our people by joining up Government?

We cannot continue to do things the way we did in the past especially when it is taking a future away from children, who are already battling disadvantage.

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.