Burton’s defends her €20bn budget and stresses employment must stay key goal
Minister for Social Protection says Coalition priority should be returning people to work
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton: “We should be setting a key economic target of near full employment over five years.” Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland
It was the 19th century British prime minister Lord Melbourne who first emphasised the need for his government to be “on message”, although it took a century or more to find an actual term for it – and of course that came courtesy of Tony Blair’s control-obsessed New Labour.
It would be churlish to suggest that Irish governments encourage diverse view, but it would be true to say that diversity is tolerated more here than it is across the water. This Coalition is no exception with a number of the Cabinet – Leo Varadkar, Alan Shatter and Pat Rabbitte among them – differing from colleagues on a range of issues over the past 2½ years.
But in terms of expressing strong personal views, few equal Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. Her outspokenness has, on occasion, annoyed senior colleagues (some of whom have muttered in private that she is following a personal agenda) but at the same time won backing from backbench colleagues and grassroots members for adhering to core Labour policies.
This interview is no exception. Burton, though not spelling it out explicitly, has sent out the strong message that she will agree to some cuts in her departmental budget, but will oppose the €440 million being suggested by the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure.
She has also indicated that she is not minded to cut child benefit. Moreover, a year after criticising the Economic Management Council, she returns to the theme but expands and deepens her criticism of this cabinet within the Cabinet.
Burton’s basic argument in defending her departmental budget is that at a time when projected growth has not materialised – and unemployment remains high – the €20 billion social protection budget remains the biggest single economic stimulus in society, with virtually all the spend recycled into the economy. She is arguing that at this stage of the political cycle stimulus should trump austerity.
In terms of Government priorities, the Minister employs a phrase that sounds a little like a slogan: “A dash for employment”.
In particular she emphasises the need for stimulus in the construction sector, which suffered most in the wake of the property crash.
She also defends her record in the context of austerity.
“I am absolutely confident that . . . we have to be absolutely on top of controlling expenditure and I have been doing that in the department in ways that no other Minister has been doing.”
She says that to take a large chunk from her budget at a time there was no expansion in spending that would lead to growth was counterproductive in terms of the economy and could also be hugely deflationary.
“Over €3.5 billion has been taken out of social protection. A lot of those reductions were posited out of much higher rate of economic recovery than has emerged.”
A little later she says: “It does not matter to deficit hawks [but] politicians have to live in a real society.”
For Burton the priority should be unrelenting in its focus on jobs. “We should be setting a key economic target of near full employment over five years,” she says. “With the focus on banks and financial crisis, unemployment as a key economic target had been dropped [until now]. I am delighted to hear Eamonn Gilmore say that the Labour Party would adopt a target of getting unemployment down to 5 per cent by 2020.”
She points to the manner in which her department has been regeared towards becoming an employment service through the introduction of the Intreo one-stop shops and also refers to the impact of JobBridge and the Jobs Plus programmes.
She expresses the problem in these terms: “You cannot have generations of people who are locked out from employment. [Jobs give] financial independence to people who are raising families and helps them participate in the community. Employment is the route to financial independence and providing for families.”