Ministers clash over cutbacks for pensioners in budget
TENSIONS BETWEEN Fine Gael and Labour over the approach to December’s budget have flared after two prominent Ministers clashed publicly on whether wealthier pensioners should be subject to cutbacks or new taxes.
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton last night admonished Minister for State at the Department of Finance Brian Hayes for suggesting that she examine the need to target “well-off” pensioners.
There were strong hints last night that Ms Burton will resist any moves to target pensioners. “Ms Burton will make her views known to her colleagues in Cabinet in the lead-in to the budget. She greatly values the services her department provides to pensioners,” said a spokeswoman.
Mr Hayes, in an interview with The Irish Times on Saturday, had said the political system needed to overcome its reluctance to impose any cutbacks on older people. He pointed out that many were comparatively well off and did not have mortgages.
Fine Gael colleagues said privately they were supportive of Mr Hayes’s view, but that it was a difficult proposition to sell politically.
“I’d say a lot of people would agree with him on a factual basis,” said a Fine Gael ministerial colleague. “But I don’t think there is much political appetite to cut pensions or free travel or anything like that.”
Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy said Mr Hayes was making a valid point and said it was a “shame” that Ministers could not express their opinions on the budgetary situation facing the Government.
“In the Fine Gael manifesto we committed to having an open debate about the budget and ending the secrecy surrounding the process.”
Mr Murphy, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, has also written to its chairman John McGuinness asking that the PAC examine all of the 800 allowances being paid in the public sector
Ms Burton directly rebuffed the comments last night by questioning why Mr Hayes had focused on pensioners and not all richer people in society. In what was received as a dressing down for Mr Hayes, Ms Burton said several times that he was expressing a personal view and reiterated her belief that pensioners were an “important resource”.
Speaking on RTE’s The Week in Politics, Ms Burton said: “He was expressing a personal view. Clearly he has a lot of work to do in the Department of Finance. There has been no decision made on any element of the budget. But. . . our older people, our pensioners, are such an important resource and such a social value for this country. I think the Government in their final deliberations will be very aware of that.”
Ms Burton said she expected a contribution from “all richer people” in the budget. “Why Minister Hayes would simply focus on richer pensioners I’m not quite clear. He hasn’t had an opportunity to brief me on his views but they are his personal views,” she said.
Mr Hayes declined to comment on Ms Burton’s intervention when contacted yesterday. However, earlier he had stood over his views and put them into context, following criticism of his comments from advocacy groups such as Age Action.
“Clearly there are pensioners who can pay more because they have substantial means. Equally the great majority of our pensioners are not living on multiple pensions and not living in circumstances where they can afford [it],” Mr Hayes told RTÉ Radio’s This Week programme.
Pointing to a 40 per cent increase in income levels for the over-65 cohort between 2004 and 2010, he said: “It seems to me that if we are going to get the country to a better place . . . all these issues need to be on the table.”
It is the eighth row that has blown up since June. There have been clashes on abortion, on the decision by Minister for Health James Reilly not to tell colleagues the chief executive of the Health Service Executive was stepping down, on farm assets being means tested for student grants, on the Croke Park agreement, on increments for public servants, on means testing child benefit and on the sudden announcement of €160 million cuts in the HSE budget.