Minister accused of ‘sleeveenism’ over abolition of diet scheme

Scheme provided allowance for special foods such as those for coeliacs

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has been accused of behaving in a ‘sleeveen’ manner over the abolition of the diet supplement scheme.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has been accused of behaving in a ‘sleeveen’ manner over the abolition of the diet supplement scheme.

Wed, Mar 5, 2014, 16:17

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has been accused of behaving in a ‘sleeveen’ manner over the abolition of the diet supplement scheme.

The scheme provides an allowance for specialised diets such as those for coeliacs and liquidised diets for sufferers of motor neurone disease and victims of strokes. It cost €3.5 million last year for 5,900 recipients, down from 12,000 in 2006.

Sinn Féin social protection spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh made the claim during Dáil question time.

He told the Minister she had brought the change about “in a quiet and I believe sleeveen manner” on February 1st. “You discontinued the scheme aimed at people with a condition such as coeliac (disease), those suffering from a stroke or motor-neuron disease,” he said.

However, Ms Burton said recipients of the supplement would continue to receive the payment for as long as they were entitled or until their circumstances changed.

This would allow “existing customers to adjust to the new arrangements and anticipate how they will be affected by any future change in their circumstances. It also ensures that nobody is immediately worse off by the closure of the scheme”.

She said if there were hardship cases recipients could apply for special payment under the supplementary welfare allowance (SWA) and she believed this was the best way to address the issue.

Ms Burton said the department commissioned the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute to update their research on the cost of healthy eating and specialised diets. Costs at all stores and shops from supermarket to corner shop were included and lowest costs were found at the large discount stores.

She said 75 per cent of the scheme’s recipients also received pension or disability payments and the average cost of specialised foods across all the retail outlets “can be met from within one third of the minimum personal rate of social welfare payment” of € 186 a week, she insisted.

She said foods were often sold in chemists then at “extraordinarily high prices”.

But now most stores have a significant section devoted to diet food, she added. “The cost has come down hugely and they are now significantly cheaper. So it is well within the income range,” she said.

Mr Ó Snodaigh said the Government’s own report showed there was an additional financial burden on those on the scheme. The cost has increased from 35 per cent of social welfare income to 40 per cent and “Minister not every town and village in the country has one of those multiple stores”.

He said gluten-free pasta costs five times as much as regular pasta in Tesco, gluten-free bread was three times the price of the regular product and gluten-free cornflakes were twice the price of the normal cereal.

“You are penalising the poorest in our society,” he told the Minister. “This is means-tested scheme it is aimed at the poorest. You are punishing who doubly are poor but are also suffering from a condition.”

Ms Burton said the costs of specialised diets in the study ranged from €35.66 to€73.97. “That’s a range of 19 to 40 per cent of the lowest rate of social welfare payment of € 186 a week.” She added recipients of the scheme were on much higher social welfare payment rates.

Fianna Fáil social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea said people used to be entitled to avail of the scheme and now it would be at the total discretion of a social welfare official.

Those with coeliac disease used to be entitled to gluten-free food on the medical card and that concession had been withdrawn and now the special diet supplement was being withdrawn, he said. The second category was people on liquidised diets who had difficulty swallowing because they might be suffering from throat cancer or be the victim of a stroke.

He asked how much the Government would save by the change.

Ms Burton said 75 per cent of recipients were on some of the highest level of social welfare payments. The supplementary welfare allowance was €186 but someone on a retirement or disability pension is likely to be receiving “significantly in excess of that in relation to personal rates”.

“Nobody currently on the scheme is losing out,” she said. “I don’t anticipate any significant savings, but a better way of dealing with this through a special payment through the SWA system”.