Issue 15 - March 2011

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Social welfare issues: restoring the cuts?

Social welfare issues: restoring the cuts?

The government’s intentions on social welfare and poverty came under early focus in the new Dail.  First, Padraig McLochlann (SF, Donegal NE) asked the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, about the poverty analysis of the budget (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 934).  She told him that she had arranged for her department to analyze, with the help of the social inclusion division of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, the poverty impact of not only the 2011 budget but the previous ones over 2009-2010 and this had just been published.  She told him that she intended to carry out a poverty impact analysis of any welfare changes in budget 2012 in advance.

The new minister was asked several times about her proposals for income support in the light of cuts imposed by the outgoing government.  On the adjournment debate, Billy Kelleher (FF, Cork NC) asked about child support (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 833-4).  The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told him that decisions on child benefit rate would be decided in a budgetary context.  Her department had published a value-for-money review of child income support policies and programmes last November and was undertaking follow-up work, including a consultation seminar held the previous day with stakeholders as to the future of policy on child income support.  The government would seek to benefit from the expertise of a commission on tax and social welfare and an announcement would be made on this as soon as possible.

Billy Kelleher asked her about the role and timetable for the commission.  She told him that she hoped that the issue of child and family supports, as well as the self-employed, would be the first issues to be considered.  The Programme for Government gave a commitment to maintain social welfare rates but she could not give a specific commitment on child benefit rates.  The government considered that a more fundamental examination of income support was required, which is why it would ask a commission on taxation and social welfare to examine and make recommendations on payments, emphasizing the cycle of child poverty.

Asked by Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) would she reverse the 4% cut in social welfare in the 2011 budget, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told him that the government had taken office during a profound crisis caused by reckless mismanagement of the economy.  Many people were now facing hardship.  The state must now pursue a a determined deficit reduction strategy and we had to stick to the adjustment set out in the national recovery plan.  Levels of social welfare would be considered in the context of the 2012 budget.  The government had given a commitment to maintain welfare rates and was committed to tackling the crisis in a way that was fair, balanced and recognized the need for social solidarity (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 839-840; 930).    The government would introduce measures to reduce unemployment which would be developed over the next few weeks.  Aengus O Snodaigh reminded her of the criticisms of her Labour colleagues when the previous government was in office and asked her would she now reverse the cuts, restore them to 2010 levels and then increase them in line with inflation.  She reminded him of the government commitment to fairness, equal citizenship and social inclusion.  As the economy begins to grow and we sort out the banking crisis, she concluded, we would continue to find ways to protect the most vulnerable and needy.

The minister, Joan Burton, told Michael Colreavy (SF, Sligo – N Leitrim) that specific changes were being introduced to facilitate customers of working age schemes to engage with the labour market (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 933). A partial capacity scheme was proposed to address the gap in the variation of the capacity of recipients on a range of social insurance based illness, disability and invalidity payments Legislative changes had already been introduced for one parent families and from April 2011 the one parent family payment would only be paid until the child reached 14. She added that the department was well aware of issues in the current contingency based system and had published a feasibility study on introducing a single social assistance payment for all people of working age. This would be a fundamental overhaul of the current system, refocus it on participation and better outcomes, reduce dependency and direct people to the support and services that they need to enter employment or training or educational opportunities. These developments would be monitored and the outcome inform any extension of conditionality.

The Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, gave details of the work of her department in combatting fraud, especially about the follow-up to reports sent in of alleged fraud (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th March 2011, 953-4). She told David Stanton (FG, Cork E) that 12,648 reports were received in 2010, of which 4,253 were telephoned in, 7,384 sent by e-mail and 1,011 by letter. Of these, 9,758 were sent to the Central Control Section for investigation, while a significant number of others could not be pursued due to lack of sufficient information or the person concerned was not in receipt of payment. The level of anonymous complaints had risen from 621 in 2005 to 6,429 in 2009 and to 12,648, with 2,131 so far in 2011.