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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Continued)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea] This has nothing to do with anomalies or uniformity in the tax system. This is a direct increase in taxation to prise an extra €40 million out of women from the allowance they receive before and after they give birth to a child.

  The Minister will be aware of the public's view on the cut to the respite care grant. It is cruel, callous and beyond the bounds of decency. The Government has spun that there is no reduction in the basic carer's allowance but there is because everybody in receipt of carer's allowance is automatically entitled to the respite care grant. The carer's allowance is €204 and the respite care grant works out at €32.50 per week, giving a carer's payment of €236.50 per week. That has been reduced by €6.50 per week. There are also approximately 5,000 people in the country who are in receipt of the respite care grant and who, for one reason or another, do not qualify for the carer's allowance at all. Those people are suffering a cut of up to 20%. I believe that for the sake of €26 million, this is unconscionable, frankly.

  The Taoiseach told us on the Order of Business this morning that the Government spent €770 million on carers this year. Even if it did, the contribution of carers, which has been independently costed, is reckoned to be worth about €5 billion to this country. Carers should be cherished. We are told that the budget cannot be unravelled and that for the sake of €26 million in a financial adjustment of €3,500 million, the whole budget will come crashing down. Who seriously believes that? It is doubly ironic that this change has been announced in a week in which the HSE advertised for 35 leadership coaches, if you please, to help managers with the personal transition that might happen if they are promoted. The HSE wants 35 leadership coaches to help the people promoted to cope with promotion. It is a classic case of insiders looking after insiders and to hell with the needy. I could quote many things from many newspaper articles about this particular change but will just quote the editorial from the Irish Examiner of Monday last which says:

All of us are prepared to make sacrifices to rebuild our economy but that does not mean supporting cruelty. There were very many difficult measures in Wednesday's budget but cutting the carer's allowance is too cruel and unfair. Do the right thing, Taoiseach, and drop this proposal; find the money elsewhere. You know where to look.

And so say all of us. Of course, that respite care grant cut would not have been necessary if the Government had been prepared to increase slightly the USC on the better off.

  When we look at the change to jobseeker's benefit, we really get into the Alice in Wonderland world of language, where a word "means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less". Fine Gael is committed to not increasing tax, while the Labour Party is committed to not reducing social welfare benefits. An increase in the USC is an increase in tax, but an increase in PRSI is not an increase in tax at all, particularly if one does it by way of withdrawing an allowance. As far as social welfare is concerned, the Government is not reducing jobseeker's benefit but is cutting the time for which such benefit is paid. Therefore, a cut in the period during which something is paid is not equivalent to a reduction but I beg to differ. It is outrageous that somebody who has put up five years of stamps, which is 260 contributions, will be taken off jobseeker's benefit after nine months. I am informed by many social welfare officers throughout the country that many of the wives and spouses of those people have low-paid, menial and sometimes part-time jobs and of course, the jobseekers will be assessed on that income and that is the purpose of this. This is allied to what was done to 130,000 casual workers last year when they were moved, in the blink of an eye, from a six day week to a five day week - a surreptitious cut.

  Last year children aged two to four no longer qualified for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. It was cancelled for those children. When this Government came into office, the allowance for children aged between four and 11 was €200. Now it is €100, which is a reduction of 50%. The allowance for a child over 12 years was €305. Now it is €200, which is a reduction of more than 33%. This is an allowance that only the poorest get and therefore, only the poorest are hurt by this cut. I note that the Minister said there is a lot of good value in the shops and that people can shop around. The last time I heard of any politician uttering such sentiments was when Margaret Thatcher was in power in Britain and approximately 4 million people were unemployed. The high priest of the Tory right, Norman Tebbit, who was the Employment Secretary, suggested that the unemployed were lazy, shiftless people who should get on their bikes and get a job. This is the Irish version of get on your bike. I would expect it from the Tory right in the United Kingdom but to hear it coming from a Minister who describes herself as a socialist is a surprise indeed. The Children's Rights Alliance asked a very simple question: how is this change in the best interests of children. It is a simple question and the silence is deafening. This cut could also have been avoided by a slight increase in tax on the rich.

  The back to education allowance has been cut even though the programme for Government states that the coalition would "expand eligibility for the back to education allowance". In substitution for weekly social welfare payments, there was a books and materials allowance of €500. Last year, that was reduced to €300 but this year it has been reduced to zero. I repeat, the programme for Government contained a commitment to expand eligibility for the back to education allowance. I consulted a dictionary at the weekend in search of a definition of the word "expand" and found amplify, augment, broaden, increase, grow, magnify and multiply. The dictionary also gave opposites for "expand" which included abbreviate, condense, decrease, reduce, shorten and shrink. Therefore, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Government has done precisely the reverse of what it said it would do. Does the Minister really want to encourage young people into the system or not? This represents a barrier to young people, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, who want to take the initiative and return to education and learn new skills. In addition, of course, there is a sneaky cut to €160 per week for anyone under 21 who goes into the back to education system. The Minister need not think that cut slipped by us either.

  The household benefits package has been savaged to the extent of about 30%. The old, infirm and vulnerable will now have to get on their bikes and shop around in the same way. We proposed that the Department of Social Protection would do the negotiating with the various utility providers. As I understand it now, it will be up to people to negotiate themselves. The possibility of some of the elderly I know, who are living alone and who have a very scant knowledge of computers, going online to shop around is very limited indeed.

  The budget also includes a €6 million cut to the exceptional needs payments fund. Within the last ten days we learned through the media that community welfare officers who distribute exceptional needs payments have been writing to charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to ask them to help out some of their clients because they have not enough money in the exceptional needs fund to pay them. I know of charities in my own city that are much smaller and much less well known than the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, to whom people have been sent by community welfare officers working for this State. The people involved are very deserving cases but the welfare officers have no money left to help them. They are asking charities to give hampers to people for Christmas and so forth. What is the Government's reaction? To cut the exceptional needs fund by a further €6 million.

  We are all familiar with Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. What we have reached now, unfortunately, at this point in our history, is a tale of two countries, or maybe even a tale of three countries. On one side we have the wealthy and the protected elite, whose privileges are protected and left intact. On the other side, we have over 700,000 people, or one in six - it may even be one in five now given the age of the data - who are living below the internationally defined poverty line and the internationally defined standard of dignity and decency. At least 250,000 of these are children. That poverty line, below which they are living, has actually come down by 10% since 2009.

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