The legality of the cut to the jobseeker’s allowance for people aged under 26 has been challenged in the Dáil as the controversial Social Welfare and Pensions Bill passed all stages by 74 to 46 after a walk- through vote yesterday.
In an earlier vote, taken electronically, the Government had a 78 to 46 victory but Sinn Féin social protection spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh demanded TDs walk through the Tá and Nil lobbies because, he said, the Bill ran contrary to the programme for government.
During the debate on one of the Bill's most contentious sections, Independent TD Catherine Murphy asked whether the 30 per cent cut in the under-26 dole payment "is even legal, particularly as it discriminates on age grounds".
Independent TD Stephen Donnelly described the cut as "explicit discrimination". "It crosses a line. The Equal Status Act, 2000, is very clear. It would be illegal for an employer to do what the Minister is about to vote through here," he said.
The change means a cut from €144 to €100 for those aged 21 to 24, while 25 year olds will now have to wait until they are 26 to receive €188 weekly.
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton defended the move, however. "My ambition is to have people working," she said, adding that 14,000 people would be affected by the measure in the next year.
Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan said the measure would drive some young people into homelessness.
Fianna Fáil social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea said the problem was depicted “as a lack of ambition among the young and not a lack of opportunity”. He said there was a shortage of education and training places. He added that there were 32 applicants for every job vacancy, and asked what would happen to the other 31.
No Opposition amendments were accepted to the 22-page Bill, which abolishes the bereavement grant and cuts a number of welfare entitlements, including maternity benefit and invalidity pension.
During discussion on broadening the PRSI base, the Minister said there should be a debate in the future about turning part of the universal social charge (USC) into a social insurance contribution.
Ms Burton said the social insurance fund was in deficit by more than €1 billion.
She expected the deficit would be cut to between €700 million and €800 million next year because of the number of people returning to work.
She believed the USC might in future be a contributor to the fund because the previous government introduced the charge “at a time of absolute crisis and it is simply being levied as a charge”.
The Bill will be debated in the Seanad next month.