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Social Welfare Bill 2012: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 3

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  1 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea] When one considers what Ireland's position might be like a year from now, the focus must be on the factors, including external factors, on which that position is dependent. These include the extent to which we can activate the domestic economy, the situation in the eurozone, whether a debt resolution agreement is reached with our European partners and so on. Whether or not this particular cut is imposed today will not make the slightest difference to where Ireland stands economically in 12 months. This decision is very bad politically for the Minister's party. I accept that she does not need political advice from me, but the reality is that it will leave an indelible stain on the record of this Government and particularly on that of the Labour Party. There is no need for that to happen. Financially, it will make not an ounce of difference but will impose disproportionate hardship on the people who least deserve it. I urge the Minister - I am doing so in a non-partisan way - to reconsider this decision. From her own point of view, it is not worth the candle.

Deputy Patrick Nulty: Information on Patrick Nulty Zoom on Patrick Nulty I am disappointed that the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, is not accompanied by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, today. After all, this is a Fine Gael budget. I have no doubt that if the Labour Party had framed it, the measures that we are discussing would not have been included. It is the Fine Gael Party that is driving economic policy and putting us in a situation where these measures have to be brought forward. I have no interest in what Fianna Fáil has to say. I am not a part of that political tradition, nor am I part of the political tradition of Sinn Féin. I am part of the tradition of the labour movement. I joined a trade union when I was old enough to work and the Labour Party when I was old enough to vote. In fact, I voted for the Minister, Deputy Burton. I was a socialist as soon as I was old enough to reflect on the inequalities that exist in our society.

We have been told that there are no alternatives to the measures set out in this Bill. If I could accept that as truth, I would vote for the legislation. The reality, however, is that there are plenty of alternatives. As Susan George, the great American writer, observed, the world is full of alternatives. Proposals in this regard have been made by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Claiming Our Future and TASC. My colleagues, Deputy Thomas Broughan and Ms Nessa Childers, MEP, and I have presented options. Alternatives have been offered by virtually every progressive voice in Irish society, pleading with the Government to reverse the cut in the respite care grant and child benefit and instead to impose higher taxes on people earning more than €100,000 per year. In response to a recent parliamentary question by Deputy Michael Conaghan, it was revealed that a tax rate of 48% on incomes above that threshold would bring in €365 million per annum. That cannot be done, however, because Fine Gael will not allow it. The Labour Party has a choice, therefore, either to agree to a compromise which is not sufficient or to stand up to its partner in government.

Last year the Minister, Deputy Burton, and others disagreed with my decision to vote against an austerity budget. I respect their position. However, I do not accept that a single voter sent me into this House to cut the respite grant for carers and take €10 from the allowance paid to every mother in this country. These decisions are shameful. It is even more shameful that outstanding members of my party will be forced to vote for this measure out of some blind faith and loyalty to an archaic 19th century Whip system which demands adherence to the party line irrespective of personal convictions. It is my conviction that these cuts are wrong and alternatives could have been chosen. For God's sake, let us stand together to effect their reversal, no matter what the consequences. I urge the Minister to accept the amendments to this end.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy Even people who are not affected by the reduction in the respite care grant are deeply concerned by it. In fact, it has become a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction with Government policy. If the Minister listens to the people in her own party and in Fine Gael, she will discover that they all have their antennae up and have realised that this measure is unacceptable. It is purely a case of stubbornness and the desire to save face that is behind the claim of there being no alternatives. As others have stated, there certainly are alternatives to what is proposed in this measure.

The Minister argued that the respite care grant has increased substantially in recent years. The reality, however, is that the demands on that payment have also increased. For example, the cost of home heating fuels has increased significantly. People engaged in caring work face a disproportionate cost in this area because they are predominantly doing so in their own home. The cost of health care has increased. Moreover, the reduction in front-line services means that the respite care grant is very often used to plug gaps such as the lack of speech and language or occupational therapy. The notion that it is used in some type of frivolous way, that it is there for the little treats or extras, is completely to misunderstand the purposes for which it is used by the vast majority of recipients. In most cases it is not about paying for a week's holiday. Even if it were used for that purpose, to afford some rest and respite for carers, it would probably make a great deal of sense from a health care perspective. One third of all carers become ill themselves as a result of the stresses and strains of looking after another person 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I will conclude shortly because I know that colleagues are anxious to speak. I referred in this Chamber earlier in the week to a woman - a constituent of the Tánaiste - to whom I had spoken outside Leinster House. She told me that her house is locked down at all times because she is caring for her young adult child who has autism and cannot access adult services. The young person is essentially a flight risk. This woman and others like her have taken grave offence to this cut because they feel they have been singled out. Everybody in society is offended that this vulnerable group is being targeted once again. I appeal to the Minister to show a little bit of sense and reason on this particular measure. Even if it is the only change she agrees to, it would at least demonstrate a degree of humanity. If she does not want to hear what we on the Opposition benches are saying, I urge her to heed what Government backbenchers have said. This decision is simply wrong.

Deputy Brendan Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan Zoom on Brendan Ryan Section 5 is the first of a number of sections which give effect to income reductions for certain categories of people who are in receipt of social welfare. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, announced on budget day that subsidies for pension funds which deliver an income of more than €60,000 per year will be capped. This cap, which is projected to bring in €250 million in a year, is not due to come into effect until 1 January 2014. If this measure were brought in sooner, on 1 July, for example - which independent experts have indicated is entirely possible if the political will is there - it would bring in €125 million next year. I realise there would be an off-set for the levy that is currently there, but that could be adhered to for the remaining months of the year. Even if the introduction of the cap were delayed to 1 September 2013, it would potentially bring in €80 million.

In the context of the number of cuts that are being proposed in the legislation today, has the possibility of bringing forward the pension subsidy cap been considered seriously at Cabinet and, if not, why not? It is a budget adjustment that has been agreed with our partners in government, so it simply seems to be a question of timing. Given that the respite care grant is not payable until June, there is time to consider whether an earlier implementation of the subsidy cap might obviate the need for a reduction in it and other income supports.

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