Varadkar’s startling comments map out terrain of moral maze

A nation takes fright as childcare cost remarks threaten women’s careers

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar  said it was “legitimate” for women whose earnings compared unfavourably to their family’s childcare costs to stay in the workforce “to keep their position on the career ladder”.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said it was “legitimate” for women whose earnings compared unfavourably to their family’s childcare costs to stay in the workforce “to keep their position on the career ladder”. Photograph: Eric Luke

Thu, Mar 28, 2013, 06:00

The row over including childcare costs in insolvency arrangements, dismissed as a “phantom debate” by Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday, put the frighteners on working mothers and their partners.

The plain-speaking Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar stumbled into this most sensitive of areas on Tuesday evening when he became the first member of Government to engage with the reality that the incoming personal insolvency regime will examine childminding bills in cases where such costs exceeded income.

He said it was “legitimate” for women whose earnings compared unfavourably to their family’s childcare costs to stay in the workforce “to keep their position on the career ladder”. Indeed, the 34-year-old Minister indicated he knew a few females in that exact position.


Insolvency scheme
Nobody would be asked to give up their job under the new insolvency scheme, he insisted. But should childcare bills be so excessive they were deemed to have prevented mortgage repayments being made, “well then that’s something that needs to be taken into account”.

Varadkar hailed the very big sacrifices being made by some 90 per cent of people who are continuing to service their mortgages, but left a portion of the remaining 10 per cent feeling decidedly ill at ease and unsure what exactly he meant.

The timing was uncomfortable for Varadkar’s party, as voters went to the polls in the Meath East byelection where the late Shane McEntee’s daughter Helen was the only woman contesting an 11-candidate ticket.

Realising his remarks had startled people, Varadkar rushed out a statement yesterday morning: “A lot of people in debt are very stressed and we need to ensure we do not add to that stress,” he said.

David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders’ Organisation concurred and called on Ministers to be aware every word they uttered would be seized on by debtors, for whom the prospect of joining the Live Register and failing to maintain a skillset is terrifying: “It’s like if a patient is sick in hospital, they are hanging on to every word a doctor says.”


Interpretive chaos
Hall complained “chaos” had resulted from the interpretation of just one paragraph in the draft personal insolvency guidelines, which Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Lorcan O’Connor, head of the new insolvency service, will publish after Easter.

The reaction to Varadkar’s comments and Kenny’s attempt to assure the public, “particularly women”, that no guideline would result in enforced departure from the workplace, demonstrates that the entire area is a moral maze.