15th December 2011
I thank Senator Mooney. I am of the view that the Minister’s presence in the Chamber may be influencing the true gentleman’s approach.
This is one of the two sections to which Senator Zappone and I are opposed. As an Independent Senator, it is difficult to deal with the Social Welfare Bill because one’s heart must be ruled by one’s head. I want to oppose all cuts but I feel I must highlight those relating to child benefit and the lone-parent allowance above the others that are being made. I welcome the Government’s decision not to reduce the basic rate of child benefit of €140 for first and second children. I am, however, greatly concerned regarding the decision to cut the rates for third and subsequent children. I am also concerned about the decision to discontinue the once-off grants relating to multiple births.
My objections in respect of this matter are twofold. First, I am concerned that what is proposed will increase the exposure of larger families to poverty. The loss of €19 per month for a third child and €17 per month for the fourth and subsequent children equates to a total loss of €432 per year for a family with four children. On the face of it, this figure might not appear overly disturbing. However, it represents a loss of financial support for larger families. The effect the cut in child benefit will have on the 23% of families in Ireland with three or more children cannot be viewed in isolation. It must, therefore, be considered in conjunction with the cumulative impact of the raft of other cuts made across budget 2012 that have specifically affected families and, more particularly, already vulnerable families on low incomes that are reliant on social welfare. In this regard I refer to the cut to the one-parent family payment and the fuel allowance and the increase in health and education costs.
Recent CSO statistics indicate that among those whose consistent poverty rate rose from 6.3% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2010 were families with three or more children. These statistics also attest to a widening gap between the haves and the have nots in Irish society. I wish to provide some examples in this regard. In addition to the €432 families comprising two parents and four children will incur as a result of the cut to child benefit, those eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will lose a further €310. This will lead to a total loss of €472 per year. If these families live in rural areas, they will lose €1,612 per year as a result of the cuts to which I refer and the increases in respect of school transport. A family consisting of a lone parent and two children will lose €537 per year as a result of cuts to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, the fuel allowance and the increase in the minimum contribution towards rent supplement. As already stated, the cut to child benefit cannot be viewed in isolation.
The State is constitutionally obliged to protect the unit of society that is the family. However, there is genuine and growing concern among the organisations which deal with struggling families that these new cuts will push many over the edge into deprivation, poverty and despair and will further compound the misery for those who have already crossed that threshold. Children are the most vulnerable members of any family unit and any hardship visited upon that unit is most acutely felt by them.
On Second Stage the Minister compared the rate of child benefit in this country to that which is paid in Northern Ireland. I remind her that while the rate of payment in the latter jurisdiction is lower, in order to compensate for this the system which obtains there provides a raft of other child-related benefits for those who qualify. I refer to free school meals and transport, a preferential maternity allowance, a national health services allowance, access to the start strong health scheme and the sure start maternity grant. I could also provide examples from France and Sweden — I do not want to take up the House’s time in doing so — in order to show how other jurisdictions offer additional child-related benefits which compensate for lower baseline rates of payment. When making comparisons, we must ensure that we take all aspects into consideration.
The second matter to which I wish to refer is the importance of supporting and encouraging a high birth rate in Ireland. The decision in respect of the once-off payments for multiple births displays a lack of strategic thinking. This is the very time when we need to think outside the box. We need to encourage and support a healthy birth rate in Ireland because this will, in turn, support and sustain economic growth. Ireland is in the enviable position of having the highest birth rate in Europe. In July of this year, it stood at 16.5%. The next highest ranking country is the UK, with a rate of 13%. However, Europe as a whole has an increasingly ageing population. The Oxford Institute for Ageing estimates that within 20 years, Europe’s largest population cohort will comprise those over 65 and that the average age will be 50. An ageing population has significant implications for the labour force, the health service, the education and welfare systems and also in the context of technology and development.
I am of the view that child benefit payments reflect the values of our society. It universally demonstrates that children are cherished and that the Irish public wants to support their well-being. I am not stating that we should provide support through benefit payments. I would be happy if we were to support families through the provision of services. At present, however, we do not provide support in this way. As a result, removing the payment is not acceptable.
There is a collective responsibility in respect of this matter. In an economic context, children are what might be termed “merit good”. In other words, they have value to others beyond their families. As future taxpayers and workers, their contributions will assist in the payment of State pensions. Mr. Frank Field, a British MP, is credited with saying “I may not have children but I need someone to have them if my pension is going to be paid”. The State must send out a signal to the effect that it supports and encourages childbirth. The children of today are essential to our future economic recovery. I, therefore, urge my colleagues to oppose section 8. Cutting child benefit and discontinuing once-off grants in the case of infrequent multiple births is not the way forward.