Noonan, Howlin defend budget cuts

Cuts to child benefit and heating allowances and a salary increase for a Government adviser were defended this morning by the…

Cuts to child benefit and heating allowances and a salary increase for a Government adviser were defended this morning by the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin.

During a post-Budget phone-in on RTÉ Radio, Mr Noonan indicated that cuts to supports for young people with disabilities would be revisited. He said the changes were "sanctioned" by Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton "with the absolute best of intentions".

"Joan Burton when she sanctioned this did it with the absolute best of intentions but...we will revisit it," Mr Noonan said.

The budgetary measures outlined on Monday involved new claimants of disability allowance aged under 25 having their payments reduced from €188 per week to €100 for those aged 18 to 21 and to €144 for those aged 22 to 24.

Mr Howlin, who also took part in the programme, said it "genuinely wasn't as a cost-saving measure". It was a reform measure, he insisted. The Government had not intended that the people affected would lose money, he added.

Mr Howlin conceded the reduction in the fuel season was "a hit on people". An 84-year-old man who phoned into the programme asked: "Why did they have to be so mean to cut down the heating allowance?" The man said if the Ministers had "any decency" they would reverse the decision.

Mr Howlin said reducing the fuel season from 32 to 26 weeks was not something the Government had wanted to do. "It increased in the boom times as an additional supplement to welfare recipients but the cost of it is enormous (€250 million)," he said.

Mr Noonan said the €100 household charge to be introduced from January 1st 2012 would enable local authorities to provide services locally.

Mr Howlin said the Government wanted to move towards a universal health care system, "where everybody is in one system". The current system was confused, he said. Mr Noonan claimed the VHI had a history of threatening large hikes which did not turn out to be quite so big.

One caller described Mr Howlin as the "Minister for cuts". Mr Howlin said cutting child benefit for third, fourth and subsequent children and moving towards standardising rates over the next few years was the "fairest way to do it".

One woman caller told the Ministers: "I've no more to give you. You have pushed me now into fuel poverty and arrears on my mortgage".

Mr Noonan said the Government wanted to realise a pre-election promise to scrap upwards only rent reviews but that legislation drawn up by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was found to be unconstitutional by the Attorney General Maire Whelan.

He said that had the legislation been pushed through the taxpayer would have been left liable to pay compensation to landlords affected and that he did want this situation to arise.

Mr Noonan denied that the shelving of the measure was because the Government was attempting to protect the value of properties in the Nama portfolio. He said Nama would attempt help its tenants who felt their rents were too high.

Asked about public anger over the Taoiseach's sanctioning of a €127,000 salary for a special adviser, Mr Howlin said he understood that people were concerned. Virtually everybody the Government had recruited in an advisory capacity had "come in at a personal loss" from the private sector.

Mr Noonan, referring to the vacant position of Secretary General of his Department, said a number of applications had been received, including three from the private sector, while four people had been "head hunted".

The 2 per cent rise in the top VAT rate was also defended during the interview on Today with Pat Kenny, with Mr Noonan saying the risk had been taken into account and that the Revenue Commissioners stood over the figures.