Burton focuses on low pay and social housing

New Tánaiste calls for a low-pay commission to look at minimum wage

 New Labour leader Joan Burton and new deputy leader Alan Kelly at the Mansion House, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Collins

New Labour leader Joan Burton and new deputy leader Alan Kelly at the Mansion House, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Collins

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

Newly elected Labour leader Joan Burton took office as Tánaiste last night with an immediate call for a low-pay commission to examine the minimum wage and a demand for a big social housing programme.

Ms Burton spoke to Taoiseach Enda Kenny by phone from the parlour of the Mansion House in Dublin after she was declared the winner of the Labour leadership contest with 77 per cent of the vote in a ballot of party members. Minister of State for Transport Alan Kelly was elected deputy leader.

Cabinet reshuffle

The Taoiseach immediately appointed Ms Burton Tánaiste and they arranged to meet early on Monday to discuss the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle and the work of the Government for the rest of its mandate.

At a press conference later in the Royal College of Physicians, Ms Burton gave no indication as to who she would appoint to Cabinet.

She also argued that her predecessor, Eamon Gilmore, was “eminently well qualified” to become Ireland’s next EU Commissioner, a post Fine Gael wants to give to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan.

Ms Burton said Labour had focused relentlessly on economic repair since taking office with Fine Gael and “governed perhaps too much with the head and not enough with the heart”.

Her task was to put that right by governing with “head and heart in balance” with equal emphasis on social as well as economic repair.

“When I begin talks with the Taoiseach about a renewed set of policy priorities for the Government, I will strongly make the case for a low-pay commission – an independent body to advise on the appropriate level of the minimum wage and related matters,” she said. “By taking the politics out of low pay, we will ensure that there will be no more attacks on low-paid workers to suit the demands of the comfortable.”

Income tax reform

Saying she also wished to broaden the tax base to put it on a sustainable foundation, Ms Burton said such work would gradually allow a reform of income tax for low- and middle-income workers.

She also said an ambitious programme of social and affordable housing was a critical reform.

“Ten years ago or more, local authorities largely got out of building social and affordable houses and instead the policy of the previous government was to rely on the rented private sector,” she said.

“I believe that it’s necessary to have a social housing programme that will allow families, particularly families with children, to have a secure long-term, life-long tenancy where they’ll be paying rent according to their means.”

Asked if she would open the door for former Labour TDs, such as Róisín Shortall, and former councillors to return, Ms Burton said defectors could apply to rejoin Labour but they must clearly support the party’s work.

Ms Burton is a long-time critic of the Economic Management Council (EMC) at which Mr Kenny sets the thrust of fiscal policy with Mr Gilmore, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.

Asked if she would scrap the EMC, Ms Burton said she had not made any decisions as yet but said the council should have greater input and perspective from big spending departments such as social protection, health and education.

Ms Burton secured 2,094 of the 2,701 valid votes cast by Labour activists, while Mr White got 607 votes.

Deputy leader

Mr Kelly was deemed elected as deputy leader after he won 51.5 per cent of the first preference vote.

He expects to be appointed to the Cabinet but said that was a matter for Ms Burton.

“I think every brief is up for discussion. I think there will changes in portfolios across parties. I believe that’s a distinct possibility,” Mr Kelly told reporters.

Among the other candidates for the deputy leadership, Seán Sherlock secured 17.1 per cent of the vote, Michael McCarthy won 16 per cent and Ciara Conway took 15.4 per cent.