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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin] The test of our respective performances will come at the next general elections in each of these parts of Ireland. I warrant that Sinn Féin will hold and likely build on its latest vote share. I wonder whether Deputy Twomey and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, can look forward to the same prospect, but I doubt it.

Who were the winners in budget 2013? The Government pretends there were no winners but the reality is that the most highly paid, the wealthy elite, escaped yet again and those struggling on the edge of poverty suffered most. "The more you have, the least you lose" and "Winner takes all" are the mottos of Fine Gael, the big political winners in this budget. It has beaten the Labour Party hands down in all the discussions that allegedly took place in advance of the presentation of the budget last week.

The Labour Party boasts that it has protected the core social welfare payments. This is a false claim. It claims to have fought the good fight in Cabinet and pushed for a 3% increase in the universal social charge for those earning over €100,000. It lost and that is the bottom line. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, rejected the Labour Party and instead took his lead from the bosses of multinational corporations. The House need not take my word for it. What did the Minister, Deputy Noonan, say himself? He said: "The people who were advising us not to do it were the multinational sector in the country...". He said it was down to the pay packets of multinational chief executives. That sums it up. This is the Government that cherishes all the chief executives equally while the children are left out in the cold.

I deplore the cuts to child benefit in the budget. They are possibly the most far-reaching of all the cuts. Let us make no mistake: child benefit is a core payment and it has been slashed, contrary to Labour Party claims and pre-election commitments. The incomes of households with children were already falling further and faster before the budget. The Central Statistics Office survey on income and living conditions demonstrates that the incomes of households with children fell five times more than the incomes of childless households between 2009 and 2010, the latest years for which figures are available. Households with children are three times more likely to be in debt arising from ordinary living expenses than households without children.

The value-for-money review of child benefit published in 2010 by the Department of Social Protection demonstrates the dependence of middle income families on the payment. Its analysis found that households in the fourth and fifth of ten income brackets fall below or onto the poverty line after paying their taxes and the child benefit payment then lifts them onto and over the line respectively. These are the families that pay for everything but are entitled to nothing.

The child benefit cuts come on top of other penalties and obstacles encountered by struggling families. In November the Minister informed us that working families who are in poverty and who applied for family income supplement in June of this year may be waiting as long as April next year before a decision is made on their claims. Child care and after-school care are remarkably expensive. Working families with young children spend up to 41% of their income on child care. According to the Commission for Energy Regulation families with children have the most problems with many falling into arrears on their energy bills. Despite programme for Government commitments, basic health care for children is decidedly expensive. According to a report by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies published at the end of November this year, this is the only state which does not offer universal coverage of primary care. The average cost of a general practitioner visit here is €51 compared to €22 in France. We are one of only three states to charge individuals for essential prescription drugs. Common medicines are many multiples more expensive to purchase in Ireland than elsewhere. We are one of only six countries to charge for attending hospital emergency departments. The hospital charge is considerably higher here than elsewhere at €100 compared to between €2 and €30 in each of the other countries that charge. Now, families who face child benefit cuts must also face higher charges for medicines through the trebling of prescription charges for medical card patients and the increase of the drugs payment scheme monthly ceiling to €144. The reduction of the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is another heavy blow to those least able to sustain the hit.

I have no doubt that the Social Welfare Bill, in combination with the health cuts, will damage the health of children. It would be fairer, simpler and economically sounder to introduce a third rate of income tax on all high earners. However, Fine Gael and Labour Party Ministers have set their faces against fairness. Will all members of their parliamentary parties follow them? I regret that this is what they all will most likely do.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley Last week we saw a budget introduced here that was unjust and regressive. Unfortunately it has further deepened the divide in society between those who are well off and those at the bottom. For the second year in a row the Government has broken promises made to the electorate. The lies the Labour Party peddled during the election campaign have been exposed in this budget. Despite this, according to the comments of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, over the weekend, that is okay because they were only promises made during election time. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Social Welfare Bill, which could be more appropriately named the anti-social welfare Bill.

In the Bill the Government targets children, low earners, pensioners, small farmers, carers and the disabled. The Bill punishes those dependent on welfare for the sins of those who are well off. While the current economic crisis was caused by bankers, developers and, as earlier speakers noted, by the previous Fianna Fáil Government and its legacy of so-called light touch regulation or no regulation, those paying for it are those who can least afford it and certainly they did not cause the crisis.

We do not have a cohesive jobs plan and the Government is forcing more and more households into the arms of social welfare dependency and moneylenders as a result. Yesterday a report published by the ESRI confirms that 22% of families live in jobless households, twice the EU average. We do not have a jobs plan that is working. The study also shows that household joblessness should be recognised as a risk factor for poverty. It found that welfare payments were the most effective way of reducing poverty. However, rather than tackling the crisis in unemployment the Government and, worse, a Labour Party Minister, are attacking the unemployed and those who are dependent on welfare assistance to survive.

The best way to reduce the social welfare bill is to get people back to work. The abolition of the weekly PRSI threshold for all workers, including those earning only €352 per week, will impact hardest on those workers who are on lowest incomes. The pain is felt greatest by those earning the least. A single worker earning under €20,000 will experience a cut five times greater than those earning €100,000 and ten times greater than those earning €200,000. Not happy with punishing low income households, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, will punish children in those households even more.

The proposed child benefit cut is punitive and cowardly. It will be the political legacy of this Government. A family with four children will be down a further €58 a month. The total cut to child benefit for a family of four since 2008 amounts to €208 per month. In her heart of hearts the Minister for Social Protection must know that this is wrong. This cut will add to child poverty, which currently stands at 19.5%. The current position is that one in five children are facing poverty over the Christmas period but the Minister's response is to cut child benefit.

There are cuts that are not apparent in the Bill, hidden cuts that impose reductions for the second year in a row. The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is cut by €50. This allowance is not a luxury, it is necessary. It is a necessity for many of the 700,000 people living in poverty when they are preparing children to return to school in September, an expensive period for parents. Following the Minister's cuts to the winter fuel allowance last year for pensioners and the disabled she has now cut the electricity allowance. This is an important point because many pensioners who live in old houses that do not have central heating use this allowance for the extra heating needed during the winter months to keep a bedroom warm at night.

The Social Welfare Bill is a litany of cuts and spineless decisions. Jobseeker's benefit was cut by three months following the earlier three month cut by Fianna Fáil. Only a short time ago it was for 15 months but now it is down to nine months. The respite care grant was cut by a sizable €325 down to €1,375.

The Bill will impact negatively on small farmers.

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