Child benefits for all?

Vladimir Spidla, photo CTK

Social Democrat and Communist MPs in the lower house of parliament succeeded on Wednesday in passing a bill under which child benefits are to be paid to all families, poor and rich alike. Alena Skodova has the details:

Vladimir Spidla,  photo: CTK
The bill was successfully passed mainly due to the fact, that most of the opposition MPs who strongly disagree with child benefits for children from rich families were absent during the vote. The Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Vladimir Spidla had voiced his support for child benefits for some time before becoming a minister. But his ideas were usually thwarted by the opposition and for a long time his plan seemed to have little chance of finding acceptance. Until now, only a family whose income was not higher than three times the subsistence level was eligible for child benefits. Minister Spidla defended the new bill resolutely:

"It will mostly benefit middle class families, because young families' incomes are often uneven and unstable. The main goal of the new bill is not to make children a social risk."

Minister Spidla also said that only 2 or 3 percent of Czech families were really rich. The opposition is strongly against child benefits being paid to the rich. The speaker of the Lower House and the leader of the opposition Civic democrats, Vaclav Klaus was very outspoken about the issue:

"I consider the fact that Mr. Spidla succeeded in pressing through child benefits for the richest families in the country as an absurd and anti-social policy. I don't know how it's possible and I'm angry with all the absent MPs who enabled the law to be passed. They belong to various political parties but I will certainly give those from my party a piece of my mind."

The right-of-center parties say that child benefits for all will cost the state a lot of money. At present, the state spends 13 billion crowns - that's around 350 million US dollars - a year on child benefits. Approximately 90 percent of Czech families are eligible but some 5 percent of those families have never applied.

Commentators wonder who Minister Spidla's plan is aimed at: 500 to 700 crowns a month will be like a drop in the ocean for families who earn tens or even hundreds of thousands of crowns, while people with lower incomes will most probably be asking why benefits go to those who don't need them. Minister Spidla claims, though, that the benefit is the state's contribution to the child, not to his or her family - so it is irrelevant whether the child's family is wealthy or not.

So the child benefit bill has been passed in the lower house. It still has to be debated by the Senate however, where it could face a lot of opposition - the upper house is dominated by the right-of-center parties.