Burton elusive on where cuts to come in social welfare budget

Minister says considerable easing on her budget due to efforts to reduce Live Register

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton at the Belvedere College Mace debating competition earlier this month. On the issue of social welfare reform, the Minister  today said recipients were contracted to do their best to find work, and that taxpayers “want to know their money is well spent and want it to be for a period of time, not forever”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton at the Belvedere College Mace debating competition earlier this month. On the issue of social welfare reform, the Minister today said recipients were contracted to do their best to find work, and that taxpayers “want to know their money is well spent and want it to be for a period of time, not forever”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Social Welfare Joan Burton was elusive this morning in refusing to define exactly where she would find €390 million in savings in her departmental budget next week.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio, she said there was a considerable easing on her budget due to ongoing efforts to getting the Live Register reduced, that she was seeking continued support for family members working part-time whose jobs could lead to full time work in the future, and that she wished to protect €200 million extra set aside for supporting pensioners.

The latter, she said, was critical because of the amount these people spend into the economy.

She deflected questions from The Business presenter George Lee about her thinking on where cuts might be found, citing instances such as her work to support lone parents to become financially independent.

On social welfare reform, she said recipients were contracted to do their best to find work, and that taxpayers “want to know their money is well spent and want it to be for a period of time, not forever”.

She added: “If you don’t engage, we will, and we have in the case of a couple of thousand people, actually reduce their payments. This is real business.”

Asked was she not merely punishing the unemployed with such measures at a time when there were not many jobs available, she said most people want help with finding a job, and if they cannot, they could “participate in our society” in other ways.

She wanted to stop the practice, which she said particularly built up in the boom years, of young people aged 18 going to sign on. She wanted to see people “in the prime of their youth” going back to school, getting work experience or getting some kind of qualifications. There was a shortage of suitable candidates in such sectors as care and IT, she pointed out.

She defended departmental support for part time jobs with profitable retailers Tesco and Dunnes, saying many individuals were long-term unemployed and it was “worth investing” to ensure they were back in the jobs market. “I don’t think we will be able to afford the slimmed down social welfare system that some people envisage if we have to pay that money to actually support employers whom as you say are very profitable.” She did not envisage changes to such schemes immediately.

She said the department was giving €300 a month cashback to employers who gave a job to a person unemployed for one year, and €400 for those unemployed for two years. Launched in July, this initiative replaced schemes she inherited that were “very clunky”. “Already, since we launched it, we’ve had three times the take-up.”

She said the Government had developed a one-year Community Employment scheme specifically for people who are “kind of hard to help because they’ve been unemployed since the great crash of four or five years ago”.

She said “at any one time now” there were 7,000 people on a programme called Tús who had helped a lot with events during The Gathering, working 19 hours a week and getting their social welfare payments.

Asked whether her approach to social welfare reform was not slow and passive, she countered that the Live Register was about to fall to below 400,000 unemployed persons for the first time since May 2009. She attributed this success to staff at social welfare offices throughout the country “who had worked their backs off to help people to get back to work”.

She said her department had “led an all-out onslaught” on fraud, stopping people at airports if they seemed to be coming in and out for payments, knocking on people’s doors and calling to industrial estates.

Asked about the troika having been critical of the pace of social welfare reform, she said next year the departmental spend would fall significantly below €20 billion, which she termed “an unbelievable achievement” in light of having lost a quarter of a million jobs due to the crash.