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Food queues lengthen against background of European austerity

ESRI report on work and welfare

Stephen Donnelly (ind, Wicklow) drew attention to the lengthening queues for food parcels in the course of a debate on the European Council meeting (Dail Eireann, Debates, 6th June 2012, 34). That morning he had gone to the Capuchin day centre at 8am and seen a queue of people for food.  He had spoken to the manager who told him that whereas in 2008 some 50 people used to come on a Wednesday morning, now 1,400 people were coming, 30 times more.  Children were being brought there by their parents in their school uniforms.  They were joined by the new poor, drawn from the self-employed and the construction industry, who had now become homeless.  They were struggling to pay mortgages and had so little money that they could not feed themselves or their children.  This was not an economic concept: it was hungry men,women and children.


The food queues were also raised by Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agriculural) (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 7th June 2012, 798).  People were taken aback by the scale of poverty, he said.  In April, Social Justice Ireland had published Shaping Ireland’s future, which indicated that 700,000 people were living in poverty, a sixth of the country.  He wondered: was this discussed in last Friday’s telephone call to Chancellor Merkel?  A debate on poverty would give us a very good idea of the type of country in which we were now living (cries of ‘Hear! Hear!’ from other senators).   During a debate on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), Joan Collins (PBP, Dublin SC) spoke of the ‘dreadful scenes’ of people queueing for food in Dublin (Dail Eireann, Debates 7th June 2012, 613-615, 632).  Unemployment was now 309,000 or 14.8%.  Employment fell 1% in the past year.  The economy was not growing and we had a massive debt crisis with 78,000 mortgage holders more than 90 days of arrears.  Throughout Europe, revolt was spreading, in Greece, Spain, France, Holland and Germany.  We must decide on what kind of Europe we wanted. Leon Trotsky had proposed that its wealth be used  for the benefit of all, not just the financial élite which was bleeding us dry.


According to Joe Higgins (SP, Dublin W), the ESM was no solidarity fund but one to underwrite casino capitalism.  Ireland and Europe needed a solidarity fund to benefit ordinary people.  In Europe, 25m people were unemployed.  Youth unemployment in countries like Spain was at a crisis level of more than 50%.  Austerity was killing the domestic economies of Europe.  His views were echoed by John Lyons (Labour, Dublin NW) who spoke of the proportion of young people Not in Education Employment or Training (also formally called NEET – ed), which ranged from 5% and 6% in countries such as Sweden or Austria to 16% to 17% in Ireland and Italy.  This emerging divide in Europe should not be allowed to continue.


The same week, the report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on the relationship between work and welfare raised numerous comments (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 12th June, 851-3; 13th June 2012, 901-8).  David Cullinane (SF, labour) expressed his concern at its inference that 440,000 people out of work were better off than those in employment.  He raised the question as to whether the report was part of a broader agenda of public representatives, media, academics and others who were undermining the social welfare system to promote the impression that people on social welfare were better off than those working, although there certainly were important issues about the plight of the working poor, means-testing and low income families not qualifying for certain benefits.


David Cullinane called for a debate on poverty, one to mark the third anniversary of the extinction of the Combat Poverty Agency, which had done a great service to those suffering in poverty.  Some reports had been published recently, such as one by Focus Ireland which found that 5,000 people were homeless, 100,000 households were on housing waiting lists and one in seven using homeless services were children.  The ESRI’s Understanding childhood deprivation in Ireland found that 30% of children were in households that experienced some form of deprivation and one in five children went to bed hungry. He agreed with the ESRI finding that people were being driven into the hands of moneylenders.  Many low-income families were experiencing difficulties because their pay was so low.


Martin Conway (FG, administrative) encouraged people not to take any notice of the ESRI report. The reality was that, even if you could argue the toss with a calculator, people were  better off working emotionally, psychologically and culturally.  Even if it cost money to work, people were still better off working.  The vast majority subscribed to a culture of work. Aideen Hayden (Lab, Taoiseach nominee) argued that if the members of the ESRI had to live on social welfare, they might take a different view.  


Fidelma Healy Eames (FG, labour) asked about the circumstances which led to the report subsequently being pulled.  The ESRI had a good reputation and we needed to know what had gone on in this highly credible institute which should not fall into disrepute because of an internal issue.  As for the report, she was not sure if those in the ESRI understood what it took to find a job.  If we looked at a low-paid job in a freeze-frame moment, it might pay someone to stay at home, but this was not just about monetary value, but the future potential of work and its psychological and social value.   


According to Maurice Cummins (FG, labour), 67% of those on the live register had an income of €188 a week or less, which meant that they had a significant financial incentive to work.  In certain situations, where families with two or more children with rent allowance or mortgage interest supplement might require a greater financial incentive to work, these comprised only 3% of those on the live register.  The Minister for Social Protection had been reforming the social welfare system to ensure that work paid for welfare recipients.  The minister had absolutely no role in the withdrawal of the report.

> Government policy on child poverty: Dail Eireann, Debates, 7th June 2012, 744-5.