People on 'verge of despair'


People managing to eke out a living on social welfare payments are "heroic" and should not bear the brunt of cutbacks in the budget, a leading charity has said.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul said yesterday people were already "on the verge of despair" and asked the Government to balance social and economic needs in the budget to ensure those who can afford more, contribute more.

It said it has experienced a 35 per cent increase in the number of calls for help in 2010, compared to the previous year. Half of these calls concern requests for basic essentials such as food and fuel.

Last year the Society spent €66 million helping individuals and families in need. It estimates this figure will increase in 2010.

John Monaghan, national vice-president of the Society, warned that any further cuts to the social welfare budget would make the charity an even bigger arm of the State's social welfare system.

In a pre-budget submission the Society called for the ending of all tax reliefs that benefit the wealthy and the application of PRSI and levies to all income. This would save €900 million, he said.

"Options for the Government to make savings, in order to protect the vulnerable, would be to reduce the tax relief on pension contributions to 30 per cent, support a drive to eliminate welfare fraud and reduce the cost of Government and state related services like energy and waste," he said.

Mr Monaghan said the Government's decision to remove the Christmas bonus for welfare recipients was an "act of vandalism" that pushed people into debt and into the hands of moneylenders.

He said this bonus should be reinstated and welfare rates should be maintained. He also called on the Government to maintain the real value of the "qualified child increase" to ensure families with children dependent on social welfare are protected. This payment was increased in the last budget to compensate for a 10 per cent cut in child benefit payments.

Some 15 to 22 per cent of calls for help are from foreign nationals, which represents a big increase from the 8 per cent recorded in 2008. Mr Monaghan said undocumented migrants and asylum seekers were suffering severe financial hardship. In one incident this year a mother handed over a three week old baby to a volunteer saying she couldn't afford to feed the baby, he said.

The Society has asked the Government to increase the current "scandalous" direct provision payment to asylum seekers to €60 per week, up from €19.10. Payments for a child should increase to €35, up from €9.60.

To compensate for rising energy costs due to the imposition of the carbon tax, Mr Monaghan said a compensatory payment of €3 per week should be paid to energy poor households.

He also called for the protection of spending in the education field, particularly in the primary school sector.

Meanwhile, 17 organisations representing the community and voluntary sector, met Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan yesterday to press for vulnerable groups to be protected in the budget and to challenge the view that several sectors were immune to cuts.

They targeted four statements from Government, which they say show how some sectors are being protected in the budget talks to the detriment of the poor:

- Senior bond-holders cannot be asked to bear any part of the adjustment;

- The corporation tax rate cannot be increased;

- The Croke Park agreement must be honoured in full;

- A greater part of the adjustments will come through expenditure cuts rather than through tax increases.

"Either everything is on the table or it is not. By taking so many things off the table, Government has created a situation where most of the adjustments will be made at the expense of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable," said the organisations.