Coalition struggling to reach consensus on family benefits bill

Signe Riisalo (Reform), Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) and Riina Sikkut (SDE).
Signe Riisalo (Reform), Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa) and Riina Sikkut (SDE). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The new draft Family Benefits Act drawn up by the Ministry of Social Affairs left out the provision included in the coalition agreement at Isamaa's request that, going forward, large family benefits would continue to be paid out to families until the oldest child turns 24, after which the benefit amount would be reduced in stages.

The entire Estonian government is in agreement that child benefits need to increase and that, going forward, they will be indexed in accordance with the rising cost of living. As expected, what became the bone of contention was a provision added to the Reform-Isamaa-SDE coalition agreement at Isamaa's request that large family benefits would continue to be paid out until the oldest child in the family turned 24, following which the support amount would be reduced by one third.

According to Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform), drawing up the necessary amendments quickly enough isn't possible. Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa), however, finds that behind her colleague's justifications is just stalling.

"The exit in stages is a fairly complex design," Riisalo said. "The Family Benefits Act itself is a fairly complex law, and the slightest slip of a finger could mean unwanted consequences. In this process, we have to resolve situations where the oldest child in a large family becomes a parent themselves, becomes a subject of the Family Benefits Act of their own and is thereby no longer in the status of child of their birth family."

She added that there are more such issues requiring legal analysis, and that a new IT solution costing an estimated €1 million is needed for the amendment as well.

The Ministry of Social Affairs is currently working under the understanding that the solution for large family support must be ready by 2025. Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg (Isamaa), who championed the change, believes that what's going on feels like stalling.

"Indexation will be implemented starting in 2024, but no special agreements were made during coalition talks regarding the smooth exit [from large family benefits], and we'd expect to see it enter into force on January 1," Danilson-Järg said. "Surely there are certain technical complexities involved, as the info systems are quite old, patching them isn't easy and there are few people who know how to do it. I believe that the state should still find the money and invest in renewing this system here."

The justice minister acknowledged that not all large families need support, but noted that one of the advantages of Isamaa's proposed system is that, as a universal benefit, management thereof should be easy and inexpensive.

"If we were to start picking out who needs to be paid child benefits and who doesn't, that would get very costly, we wouldn't actually win financially and then children would lose out on this money as well," she said. "Universal benefits work best, as the number of families who don't need this support is fairly limited."

According to Social Democratic Party chair Lauri Läänemets, they have to stick to the coalition agreement, however there is one "but."

"Should it seriously not be possible due to IT systems or other problems, then a solution must be figured out for the problem itself," Läänemets said. "We can talk about delaying it once we've increased university students' education allowances."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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