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Oireachtas Brief §26, December 2011 (2)

Oireachtas Brief §26     December 2011 (2)


Welcome to Oireachtas Brief, the information service for social justice NGOs and voluntary sector activists interested in issues of poverty and social exclusion in the Oireachtas.  Oireachtas Brief is provided by The Wheel and the European Anti Poverty Network (EAPN) Ireland, supported by the Atlantic Philanthropies and edited by Brian Harvey.   The service is sent from www.oireachtasbrief.ie, where you may search old bulletins by date of issue, topic and speaker.   This site has just been redesigned and you are welcome to visit and explore the new format.


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Oireachtas Brief 26 (OB26) covers the debate on the 2012 budget and the subsequent Social welfare Bill.  The next bulletin, OB27, will be published in February and cover the period from the resumption of the Dail and the Seanad (11th January) to end January.



11,000 food parcels: deputies, senators highlight poverty impact 

The 2012 budget was presented to and approved by the Dail on 6th December (Dail Eireann, Debates, 6th December 2011, 854-957; 7th December, 19-110; 8th December, 250-323; 9th December 2011, 393-460).  Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) told the Dail that she had approached the budget with an open mind and many of its principles were those with which she could agree, but it was a different story when we got to the small print.  It was hard to match its principles with the obligation to pay the bondholders while cuts were imposed that hurt the poor and vulnerable. The Capuchin day centre used to give out 400 food parcels a morning two or three years ago: now it was 11,000.  The day before, she had been to a lunch for senior citizens: they were prepared to take their cut, but the fuel allowance was a serious matter, they feared they would not have enough and this was causing many problems for them.  She would have voted for more taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, especially to address the problems of cheap alcohol.


John Halligan (ind, Waterford) believed that the budget would be remembered as an attack on little people, such as low and middle income families, lone parents, the disabled, the elderly and small business owners and would leave a legacy of fuel poverty.  The vulnerable were taking the pain for the greed of the ruling classes.  He asked the government not to blame it on the EU or the IMF, for they did not to tell the government to cut child benefit or reduce fuel allowances.  Reducing by 2% the funding for higher education was even contrary to IMF policy which stated that investment there helped recovery.  He noted that Social Justice Ireland, a respected and highly regarded organization, had not even been given the courtesy of a response by the minister: no wonder, considering the statistics on poverty it presented.  Ireland was the 7th wealthiest country in the EU, with the second highest proportion of millionaires, its 300 richest people with €50bn.  The government had waged war on the most vulnerable, who could not fight back.  He had addressed many meetings in his constituency and the tolerance level of people was wearing thin.  The man working all week did not even have €10 left over at the end of the week, while the Waterford Glass worker had to wait six months for social welfare and a year for redundancy and suffered a pension cut.  The trade unions would not march for these people – or anybody- and the church was promoting a mythical shangri-la of the next life.  The day would come when people unjustly treated would not need the trade union movement or the churches or the political parties and would rise up to vent their anger.  A country is not judged on its wealth, historic sites or beautiful scenic places, but its quality of life and Ireland was not now a good country in which to live.



Fuel cut ‘crude and cruel’

Barry Cowen (FF, Laois – Offaly) described the cut in the fuel allowance as ‘crude and cruel’.  Although the government had promised to publish a strategy on fuel poverty, all we had was a reduction in the weeks of the fuel allowance from 32 to 26.  Although the minister had claimed that the weather had improved since the government came to power, he was not enough of an expert on climate change to advise that the weather would improve sufficiently to enable a six week cut in the fuel allowance.  


Child poverty statistics had been increasing in parallel with  and as a consequence of the cuts in child benefit, said Aengus O’Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC).  The vital role of child benefit could not be overstated in terms of reducing child poverty and as a vital local economic stimulus.  The minister could have reduced consultants pay to €150,000 for €100m, saving the cuts to child benefit.  Changes to the earning disregard would force lone parents and their children into long-term welfare dependency.  It had been introduced to tackle an identified unemployment trap and the minister was defying orthodoxy and reinstating a poverty trap.  His constituency had 38% of families as single parents, double the national average.  


Joan Collins (PBP, Dublin SC) spoke of the Book of grievances and hope campaign run by community development projects.  The idea went back to the French revolution, when people put their grievances into a book to show how the wealthy were beating them down.  She quoted children who had written into the book of Kilbarrack CDP:


Please, Santa, can you afford me this year?

My mam and dad cannot afford to buy me new winter clothes

My mam lost her job as a special needs assistant

You do not know how many lives you are ruining

Please do not shut our club

Dad has no money.


Joan Collins said she wanted to read them into the record because it was important that children were feeling the brunt of the cuts made in the house.


Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin SC) drew attention to the reports of TASC that stressed the cumulative effect on low income groups of not just this but of previous budgets, for this was not the first such budget.  She quoted Siegfried Sassoon, who spoke of the guzzling generals of the first word war, but we had their equivalent – the very wealthy, high earners and directors – who were not hurt by the budget and would not be struggling and who could go on their with guzzling. Some sectors of society had been hurt very badly and the pain it caused was disproportionate.  The community sector was being further eroded and The Wheel had highlighted how cuts would have a cumulative effect while the VAT increase would reduce the incomes of charitable bodies that could not reclaim VAT.



Community Employment projects a lifeline

Community Employment (CE) schemes, she continued, faced a 66% cut in operating budgets.  Those participating in CE were early school leavers, persons caught up in addiction or the homeless, who had an opportunity to learn and develop new skills, a first step on the ladder to further education.  These schemes in the north inner city had been very positive and made a real difference in people’s lives.  She would hate to see projects closing because of these regressive measures.  They worked with extremely vulnerable individuals, providing a lifeline and coping skills.  Youth and drugs projects had coped with cuts to date and while some might manage with this cut, others would close.  An increase in alcohol duty could have raised €186m and we all know what we could have done with that.  Budgets are about choices: there is a great deal of anger, frustration and hurt out there.


Eric Byrne (Lab, Dublin SC) said he was speaking on a social welfare Bill for the first time in 14 years and it was a horrendous experience to see how far the country had descended.  He spoke of three community bodies where he was a director: Treasure Tots nursery, Dolphin House Community Development Association and Crumlin Child Care Consortium.  Treasure Tots had 18 workers on CE, provided high quality training to FETAC §5 and the CE workers went on to nurseries in Cherry Orchard.  The consortium recruited people upskilled through CE.  If the allowance were lost, the shortfall would be €18,000 and it would be difficult to provide the service.  Those providing a service in the community must have a voice when decisions are taken and it should not be a case of being told all of a sudden to cut the programme by 5% or 10%.    Likewise, Mary Lou McDonald (SF, Dublin C) spoke of Glasnevin meals-on-wheels, whose training and materials budget will be slashed from €24,000 to €11,500.  ‘They cannot function on that basis’.  In some cases, the money left will not even cover insurance.  The decision would cause mayhem to communities across the state.


Paschal Donohoe (FG, Dublin C) spoke of how at the start of the week, a homeless person was found dead on a street in his constituency.   There was a large number of community enterprise projects in his constituency and he very much understood the work that they do.  It was counterproductive to put in place measures that undermined the viability of projects.  Finian McGrath (ind, Dublin NC) appealed to the government to look at the facts: he quoted the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) analysis that the better off took the smallest hit.  The greatest reduction in income was 2% to 2.5% for those in the poorest 40% of households, but 1% for the next 40% and 0.8% for the top 20%.  Even those who speak objectively say that the government has cut the weakest sections of society the most.



Equal societies did better

Thomas Pringle (ind, Donegal SW) drew attention to the way in which the minister had tried to ‘shorten winter’ by cutting six weeks for the fuel allowance.  Each year, almost 2,000 older people died from winter-related illness and 70% came from the lower socio-economic groups.  He had received calls from older people who had told him that they would be turning off their heating because they could not afford it.  Internationally, the more equal societies were weathering the crisis better than the more unequal.  Ireland was one of the most unequal and the budget would increase that inequality further.  


Clare Daly (SP, Dublin N) spoke of the letters she had received from Barnardos, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Social Justice Ireland and others, ‘hardly the most racial campaigners or mad lunatics’ begging and pleading for the government to call a halt to this butchery.  The government had used the phrase ‘protecting the most vulnerable’, but it was code for kicking the living daylights out of those at the bottom of society.  It would be hard-pressed to find a single vulnerable person or group the government had not targeted.  It was lunacy to say that welfare rates in Ireland were too high, for we spent only 18% of GDP on social welfare, compared to 27% in the rest of Europe.  The Central Statistics Office had told us that 14% of people in local authority houses could not heat their homes: ‘What is the solution?  It is to cut their fuel allowances even further’. To save €51m, a decision was taken that will cause extreme hardship and cost lives.



VAT increase regressive

The budget was also discussed in the Seanad (Seanad Eireann, Debates,  6th December 2011, 44-73; 13th December, 328 – 365; 15th December 2011, 441-498).  Katharine Zappone (ind, Taoiseach nominee), questioned the balance between tax increases and spending cuts and whether it would lead to a more inclusive society.  Those with wealth and economic security should share more of their resources with those experiencing poverty and social exclusion, she argued, which was not only more equal and fair, but was a more solid formula for economic prosperity, as countries like Norway and Finland demonstrated.  She commended a number of aspects of the budget, such as maintaining social welfare rates and reducing the social charge for the lower paid, but challenged the decision to increase VAT to 23%, for there was solid evidence that the current VAT rate was highly regressive.  Even at 21%, there was evidence that lower household incomes paid a higher proportion on VAT. Marie Moloney (Lab, labour) spoke of her grave reservations about the effect of budgetary changes on people with profound or severe disabilities and the role of the domiciliary care allowance, saying that we had had several years to deal with the issue before.


On the Social welfare Bill, 2011, David Norris (ind, Dublin University), objected to the Bill being called a social ‘welfare’ Bill, arguing that the term ‘social devastation’ was more appropriate.  It reminded him of the ‘safe zones’ during the Balkan war, because that was there lives were destroyed.  He quoted Barnardos’ claim that the budget would push many more children into poverty.  ‘We cannot slash, tax and cut our way out’, he argued and the present approach would have an appalling impact, compounded by the fact that one of the people most involved in this was being appointed to a position in Europe with a 50% increase and he wanted to commend the courageous Nessa Children for pointing this out.  


Demand for the services of Focus Ireland was up 18% and the Society of St Vincent de Paul reported something similar.  What does this tell the minister?  The most commonly presenting issues were help with food, fuel, education and housing costs.  These were basic requirements.  ‘Forget about cherishing all the children of the nation equally: allow them to survive’, he pleaded.  He had heard of many bogus excuses being given to deny people social welfare.  He criticized the government for its comments on Sinn Fein’s analysis: I do not like political point-scoring when people were being driven to the edge of poverty and their comments had been mild, well-manned, well targeted and presented respectfully, he stated.


Ivanna Bacik (ind, Dublin University), commended the minister for preserving the basic rates of welfare during an economic crisis.  Fianna Fail would have made a €665m adjustment, not €475m.  She welcomed the move from a dependency culture to one of enablement and empowerment.  She had received letters from organizations such as OPEN and the Irish Feminist Network, the aims of which she fully supported.  Over the years that it had been in operation, the one-parent family payment had not had the desired effect of tackling poverty and social exclusion for single-parent families and it was time this payment was examined and efforts made to reform it.  The reduction in payment age was based on the notions of supporting the route out of poverty through paid employment, reducing the stereotyping of one-parent families and the way in which fathers had been kept away from children, but we must ensure that supports were available in child care provision, where this country had always been poor.



A critical reform – Joan Burton

Responding to the debate, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, spoke of how Frank Cluskey had introduced the unmarried mothers allowance in the 1970s, which enabled the closure of the institutions on which they had, in the absence of an income, been dependent.  Society had changed, but the Economic and Social Research Institute stated that the one-parent family payment may still have a disincentive effect on partnership and there should be a more couple-friendly system of family income support.  We had to ask ourselves why outcomes were so very bad for some lone parent families.  The one indicator we had was that a lone parent might stop education at a very early age or was restricted in building up educational qualifications and this was a predictor, going back to education, of a poor child growing up to be a poor adult.  This was a critical reform (interruption of ‘hear! hear!’).  Organizations were correctly concerned about the poverty experienced by lone parents and their children.  She accepted the comments made about profound disability and apologized to families upset by the proposals.  She wanted to encourage children to stay in school or training and there had been discussions about a partial capacity payment.  She hoped by the end of January to advance some of the proposals made.  Job activation measures would also be announced then.


Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agricultural) quoted Frances Byrne of OPEN who described the budgetary changes for single parents as disastrous.  The cut in the lone parent allowance might be justifiable as a stand alone cut, but not in the context of the many other cuts which those families faced.  Lone parent families were four times more likely to live in poverty and they had lost 5% of their annual resources in the previous budget.  Lone parents and their children were poor during the celtic tiger and still were.   David Norris (ind, Dublin University) criticized the way in which part-time work earnings were taken into account in lone parent payments,: ‘it is unfair on somebody who has the initiative to go out and and work.  It is an indication of how low the levels are already if part-time work earnings can be taken into account’. 


David Cullinane (SF, labour), quoted Fergus Finlay of Barnardos who had said that we were fast approaching the situation where children would go hungry because their parents could not afford sufficient food.  This went to the heart of the reason why his party was opposing the cut in child benefit.   If this proposal had been poverty-proofed, it would not have passed the test.  Singling out larger families was particularly bad.  Although the minister might believe that the cut was quite small, that was in the context of other charges.  The government could have listened to the proposals of organizations like One Family, Barnardos, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and others.  He was concerned that more families and more children would live in poverty.  Likewise, Jillian Van Turnout (ind, Taoiseach nominee) singled out the cuts in child benefit and lone parent allowance, because they would increase the exposure of larger families to poverty, especially in conjunction with the cumulative effects of other cuts, such as school transport.