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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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Deputy Seamus Kirk: Information on Seamus Kirk Zoom on Seamus Kirk Fianna Fáil is opposed to the Bill and the provisions it contains. Budget 2013 places a deeply unfair financial burden on countless families throughout the country. It will whittle away the social safety net until only a bare thread remains. Mothers in particular are being unfairly targeted by the cuts, one of which will result in child benefit being hammered, workers are being hit by the regressive PRSI tax hike, and front-line carers are being undermined by a callous cut to the respite grant. Mothers have been hit hard. The cuts to child benefit and the back-to-school allowance and the failure to live up to the promise made by the Minister, Deputy Burton, to introduce a Scandinavian-style child care system will have a severe impact on them. The cut to child benefit is a direct break with Labour's pre-election pledge to maintain the payment. The Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, highlighted this pledge as a precondition of going into government with Fine Gael. The cynical betrayal of its promise to the electorate exposes the vacuum that is the Labour Party in government and leaves ordinary mothers to pay the price.

Core social welfare payments are being cut through the back door. The reduction in the eligibility period for jobseeker's benefit is simply a 25% cut in jobseeker's benefit for those who claim it during that period. The reduction in the respite care grant is a callous blow to carers working on the front line with people who require constant help. These individuals perform a vital social duty and save the State money. However, they will be penalised as a result of this severe cut.

The budget is unfair, anti-women and counterproductive. Gone are the election promises made by both Fine Gael and the Labour Party. This budget is one of the most harsh I have seen during my time as a Member of the House. I am disappointed with its lack of fairness. I do not doubt that Labour Party and Fine Gael Deputies will talk to members of the press about internal pressures. The bottom line is, however, that real people are affected. It should be easy to make the decision to vote against the Bill. Those in government were elected by the people to represent their best interests. There is no evidence of that here. This is the Government's second budget, but it seems that the economy is actually regressing and that all election promises have been truly and utterly broken.

Deputy Dara Murphy: Information on Dara Murphy Zoom on Dara Murphy Is Deputy Kirk the only person who has not witnessed the growth that is taking place?

Deputy Seamus Kirk: Information on Seamus Kirk Zoom on Seamus Kirk Carers play a vital role in supporting those who need constant help. The contribution of carers to the economy has almost doubled since the level of that contribution was estimated at €2.5 billion in 2006. Carers engage in some 900,000 hours of caring every day. In financial terms, this amounts to €77 million per week. The overall amount involved in this regard is equivalent to one third of the total annual cost of the HSE, namely, €13.3 billion. The Government has slashed a vital support payment to carers which covered discretionary expenditure. A respite care grant of €1,700 is paid every year, usually on the first Thursday in June, for each person in care. This is not taxable. The grant will now be cut by €325 - a 20% reduction - to €1,375 per annum in order to save €26 million. Some 1,438 carers and their families in County Louth will be directly affected and left hurting by this cut.

  In the past, Fine Gael and the Labour Party both issued statements in respect of the cutting of carer's allowance. In the context of budget 2011, the former stated:

Fine Gael believes we should support carers. It makes sense that carers are supported in the work they do because they save the taxpayer money in the long run. If carers are not supported they will experience physical, financial and emotional hardship and eventual burnout.

In the context of the same budget, the Labour Party stated: "The Government clearly places no value on the contribution carers make to this country". It seems that the stance of Fine Gael and the Labour Party on the importance of carers to society has changed. Fianna Fáil will fight to protect these carers and we demand that the cut to the respite care grant be reversed.

  On the cut to child benefit, the great philosopher Plato once said: "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." In my view, this quote describes the actions of the Government. The right decision would be to reverse the cut to child benefit, but the Government has decided that children will be the victims. I understand that cuts must be made but there must be a better way to proceed in order that children, our future leaders, will not be affected. Reports indicate that the Government will break its pre-election promises and bluster around in respect of children's rights - only weeks after a referendum on that same issue - by unfairly targeting families with a cut of €10 per month in the standard rate of child benefit. The programme for Government states "We will maintain social welfare rates," and the Minister, Deputy Burton, recently reiterated her commitment to protect core rates. The definition of the word "core" obviously has no real meaning for the Government, however, particularly if it is determined to hit child benefit, which is an essential payment for hundreds of thousands of families.

  Fianna Fáil supported families and mothers when in government and increased child benefit from €53.96 for the first child and €71.11 for third and subsequent children to €166 and €203, respectively, in the period from 2000 to 2010. The majority of these gains were maintained when the State's finances came under greater budgetary pressure. Our child benefit schemes are in place to encourage and support families in having children. Child benefit is a special recognition of the costs of rearing children and the universality of the payment has helped to ensure that children have been lifted out of poverty. The children's charity Barnardos has described the measures in the budget as "regressive, unfair and unsustainable" and stated that, despite the rhetoric on fairness from the Government, they disproportionately target low-income families. In the context of child benefit, the Labour Party document Labour's Manifesto for Children states:

- Despite our current economic problems, Ireland remains a very expensive place to raise a child, and child benefit is the only recognition by the State of this high cost.

- Cutting child benefit will create poverty traps, work disincentives, and will substantially increase the already high number of children in poverty.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy Prior to the general election, many of the leading members of the parties now in government competed with each other in their negative descriptions of the economy. They knew full well the impact the global economic crisis was having on our island. Even with that knowledge, they proceeded to make election promises. It was on the basis of those promises and various other commitments that they received the mandate to which they refer so regularly. We know from what the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, stated in last Sunday night's edition of "The Week in Politics" that this is what parties do at election time. No wonder the public have such a cynical view of all of us in here.

I could produce for the House a copy of an e-mail sent out by the then Fine Gael spokesperson on finance and current Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in respect of the cuts contained in the budget introduced in December 2010. I could also show Members a copy of an advertisement taken out by the Labour Party prior to the general election. However, I do not wish to waste time discussing the manifestos produced by all political parties at previous elections. Unfortunately, most of the parties - including that which I represent - promised to cut too many taxes and spend less. The best way to reduce the social welfare budget is by creating opportunities for employment.

Deputy Jerry Buttimer: Information on Jerry Buttimer Zoom on Jerry Buttimer That is what we are doing.

Deputy Robert Troy: Information on Robert Troy Zoom on Robert Troy My colleague referred to the lack of reform and he is correct in that regard. The changes to PRSI for people who earn just over €18,500 will not do much to encourage those at the lower end of the spectrum to return to employment. The jobs strategy introduced by the Government just after it entered office proved to be a disaster. More people are unemployed now than in 2011. What has the Government done about the two highest overheads with which small businesses must contend, namely, rent and rates? The answer is nothing. This is another broken promise.

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