Social Welfare Bill Speech- 8th December

What is remarkable about this budget and the social welfare dimension of it is what have been achieved in the context in which the budget has been prepared. In considering that context, there is no avoiding the fact that there has been a €16 billion shortfall in the public finances already this year. Neither can the fact be avoided that we are subject to the IMF-EU deal, that we need funding under that programme to maintain the country on an on going basis and that we must honour the terms of it. Furthermore, we must put our national finances into the kind of shape that will get us back into the bond markets, restore confidence in the country internationally and, ultimately, create the kind of consumer demand, consumer spend and investment in the domestic economy by people who have savings required to kickstart the economy. Against that backdrop and having regard to that economic reality, the achievements in the budget are enormous.

It merits mention again that the Department of Social Protection will spend €21 billion this year, which represents 40% of all Government expenditure. Only 2%, or €75 million, will be taken out of the Department’s spending this year, compared to €810 million last year. Therefore, that is a huge achievement. Given Deputy Kelleher’s selective memory and selective isolation of facts, he needs reminding that in contrast to last year, this year a huge achievement has been made in that only 2% of spending will be taken out social welfare expenditure.

Significantly, the existing rates of the primary payments of jobseeker’s benefit and allowance, illness benefit, invalidity pension, disability allowance, widow’s pension, the carer’s allowance etc. are being maintained. That provision will be matched by a further provision next January in that recipients who are little more fortunate and in employment at present will have no alteration in take-home pay.

Child benefit for the first and second child is being maintained at the existing rate and there is only an adjustment for further children of the special top-up allowance that existed previously. That is an enormous achievement. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Burton, on what she has achieved in this budget in that she has maintained primary payments and child benefit. I believe in a universal payment for children based on fact that, irrespective of social class and wealth levels, there are tragic situations where children’s allowance is the relevant payment and the mother or whoever is the primary carer needs it – there is no option on that one. Universality in the payment of children’s allowance is valuable.

It is a great achievement that the carer’s allowance and the half carer’s allowance, which is paid where a person cares for an extra person, is being maintained. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Burton, on that. There has been a distraction with one issue in the budget but that has been manfully corrected and strongly addressed by Cabinet, the relevant Ministers and the Taoiseach. Deputy Kelleher was also very selective in his isolation of facts on that issue. We do not want to get distracted from the fact that the achievements of this budget in maintaining the existing rates of all primary payments are enormous.
Turning to the carer’s allowance, the potential of that allowance has not been fully exploited. I raised this issue in my parliamentary party on a number of occasions and I want to raise with the Minister in the Chamber. I commend the Minister to carefully examine that payment, carry out research and consider establishing a pilot scheme with some extra attractions linked to that payment or to advertise it more to heighten people’s awareness of it. I know anecdotally from my work within the constituency and from people I meet that many people, particularly people in less well paid jobs, could be attracted back to caring for people in their own homes and would enjoy caring for relatives, friends or immediate neighbours but particularly extended family. There is huge potential in respect of that allowance. We have not exploited fully the carer’s allowance as an instrument for job creation and providing care for people where they most want it in their own home. I also put forward the suggestion of boarding out – which does not totally come under the brief of the Minister, Deputy Burton’s – as an option for older persons that has not been fully examined as a way of preventing some of the enormous costs that surround care of the elderly.

I agree with Deputy Kirk that we need to address the job creation question but he is not correct to say that we have not made major efforts in this budget and previously to do that. A total of €977 million will be spent on employment supports next year in contrast to €882 in 2011. Some €20 million will be spent on a new labour market activation fund and there will be €514 million capital spending for science, technology and innovation funding. There will be a prioritisation of education and training places for people on unemployment for more than 12 months and more use of the Springboard initiative. There new micro-finance fund for small business and the State guarantee system to get credit flowing into the economy will be announced in January. These are the only initiatives that could be taken at present within the context of the national finances. The unemployment question is the core issue and that question should be attacked by the various initiatives in place and by more if they could be afforded because there are more capital projects if, ideally, they could be afforded. It also should be attacked by correcting the overall finances and that has been achieved. The proper economic and fiscal environment must be created for job creation.
It is critical that we look at jobseeker’s allowance as an entitlement and a right and people who get it rightfully deserve it, and they should get it and get more if we could afford it, but it should be seen as a bridge or cushion that assists people on transition from a workplace moving back to work. That is implicit in this budget, in the Minister’s contributions on it and in the budget speech. There should much more engagement with unemployed people in terms of assessment for and provision of courses and involvement with training schemes. The Minister’s strategy should be predicated around the transfer of people from unemployment jobseeker’s allowance back into the workplace. That is implicit in a number of the provisions I have listed, but it a kernel and critical factor.
This budget is an enormous achievement in the context of the times we living in.

If we were down to the 3% budget deficit, had discretion over our national finances, had our economic sovereignty and lending capacity back and if things were better in an overall global context of course it would not be satisfactory, and we would be introducing very different measures. However, in the context of the parameters that existed, the overall fiscal situation and the choices available to the Minister, the budget is an extraordinary achievement. It is creative, fair, compassionate and sensitive. The essential achievement was to maintain core incomes and give predictability and certainty to people. We should be applauding that this was done in the present time. The public is much more discerning and discriminating than some of us might patronisingly think. They will know the difference. They know this is a huge achievement and that what was not apt in it has been corrected very courageously and publicly.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website