All eyes on Labour backbenchers ahead of Social Welfare Bill vote

Thu, Dec 13, 2012, 00:00

All eyes will be on Labour Party backbenchers in the Dáil today during critical votes on the controversial Social Welfare Bill, which is expected to complete all stages by 2pm.

The second or introductory stage was won by the Government late last night with a comfortable margin of 87 to 52 votes.

Just three hours remain today to debate a wide range of amendments on the committee stage of the controversial Bill, which gives effect to the most commented-on cut of €352 in the carer’s respite grant. It also gives effect to the cut in child benefit and the abolition of the PRSI allowance.

The Opposition has said it will force TDs to vote separately on each individual measure in the Bill, and while no Fine Gael backbenchers are expected to break ranks, there is still speculation about defections in Labour because of its pre-election pledges on social welfare.

Last night three votes were called at the end of the second stage, each of which the Government won, before the committee stage debate of the Bill commenced.

Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh noted the Minister for Social Protection’s intention to include an amendment that would mean Sunday, the traditional “day of rest”, would be included for assessment for jobseeker’s allowance.

The Opposition also questioned elements of the Bill including a provision whereby the department can increase up to €28 a week the amount of money it takes back weekly from people guilty of fraud or who have received overpayments.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said the department was owed up to €300 million from recipients. She said even if half of it was paid back over a three to five-year period it would mean the pressure in relation to other areas of the social welfare would be eased. Ms Burton said she wanted to send out a message that if people owed money to the social welfare system, whether through overpayment or fraud, “they do have to pay it”.

She highlighted provisions in the Bill including opportunities for 20,000 unemployed people and 6,000 additional afterschool childcare places.

However, United Left Alliance TD Joan Collins highlighted the Minister’s pledge after controversy in last year’s budget not to implement the reduced age limit for the lone-parent payment until Ireland had a Scandinavian-style childcare system in place.

Ms Collins said last night while the delay in implementation of the staged age cut from 12 to seven was welcome, she said 6,000 childcare places for after-school care in the primary system “is not a Scandinavian-style childcare system”.

Earlier in the debate, Independent Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly sharply criticised the time allowed to debate the legislation. “This Bill will push many people into poverty, yet the Government will not even allow our national Parliament sufficient time to debate it. What is the Government afraid of?” he asked. “Is it afraid its backbenchers may get time to the Government afraid the people will see understand the impact this Bill will have?”

He said the Bill “will push men, women and children in this country into poverty. We do not know how many it will push into poverty, because the Government has not even had the decency to conduct a proper poverty impact assessment.”

Fine Gael backbencher Derek Keating called for an end to payments to women who had a number of children with “multiple fathers”. Mr Keating claimed he had come across “multiple cases” of women caring “not for one child or two, but for three and four children by multiple fathers who are uncaring and failing in their duties of care and support, with the consequences picked up by the taxpayer”.

He said it was “morally and socially wrong” for the State to be funding services for these women “because of the failings of the fathers of these children”. The State “cannot continue to pick up this expense for these new arrangements where men, irresponsible fathers who do not accept their responsibilities, are simply coming and going in a blended family type relationship”.

In the debate, Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher hit out at Ms Burton, claiming she had been “acting as the Florence Nightingale of the Social Welfare Bill, as if she is not responsible for the cuts to respite care grants, to child benefit, to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, to farm assist, to jobseeker's benefit, to the redundancy payments scheme, to the supplementary welfare allowance, to the back-to-education allowance... and to household benefit, telephone benefit and other packages for existing recipients”. He said she was “as culpable as the four horsemen of austerity” - the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure.

Fine Gael TD Liam Twomey said some Fianna Fáil TDs needed a “psychological evaluation because of the way they can come into the House and speak as if they personally had nothing to do with the ruination of our economy in recent years”. He said it was extraordinary, “but what is more extraordinary is the way we have managed to present a budget that does not cut social welfare rates or increase income tax”.

Labour TD Michael McCarthy said the budget was not about the next general election but the next generation. “Frankly, if that means I will be evicted from Dáil Éireann by the people of Cork South West, so be it, because bringing the country back to where it was will require difficult and unpopular decisions.”

He would prefer not to have to introduce the measures but “the clean-up operation in this country, in economic terms, is akin to dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist aeroplane hitting the Sellafield plant. The clean-up operation is toxic, ugly, unpleasant and painful, but it is absolutely essential.”

Government backbencher Michael McNamara said the cut to the respite care grant could be avoided by imposing a 3 per cent surcharge on the universal social charge for pensions of more than €60,000. Only retired bankers, senior civil servants and the former Fianna Fáil ministers “who ran for the hills 18 months ago receive pensions of more than €60,000”.

But the Clare Labour TD said “much as I dislike the worst aspects of the budget, such as the manner of social welfare cuts and PRSI increases, as one Deputy out of 166, I have a choice to make. I do not intend to throw my hands up and walk away from the challenge of supporting a Government which has to take deeply unpopular choices.”

Independent Waterford TD John Halligan warned Labour TDs that when they voted in favour of the Bill “all they will have done is create enormous hardship that will live long in the memories of the 700,000 people and the 200,000 children who will be three years older at the next general election and will remember what has been done to them”.

Fine Gael TD Anthony Lawlor commended the Minister “on the hard decisions that she took”. He said the media had reported plans to cut €540 million from the social protection budget but “we are fortunate that the reduction will only be €390 million, although that in itself will be difficult to achieve”.

He said that in 2007 then minister for finance Brian Cowen “gave away everything”. He increased all core payments by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent. But by 2009 the budget deficit had grown to €25 billion and all core payments were cut. “It is difficult to take Fianna Fáil members seriously when they supported a series of savage cuts in 2009,” Mr Lawlor said.

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