Taoiseach's nominees oppose welfare cuts

 

Six Taoiseach’s nominees to the Seanad, who had planned to support the Social Welfare Bill at second stage yesterday, changed their minds and voted against when Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton did not agree to their requests for changes.

This was the first time Senator Martin McAleese took part in a vote in the Seanad. The other five were: Fiach Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien, Marie-Louise O’Donnell, Jillian Van Turnhout and Katherine Zappone.

In an opening speech on behalf of this group of Senators, all of whom sit as Independents, Ms Van Turnhout said they had tabled three amendments, due to be taken at committee stage today.

These are:

* To restore the cut in the respite care grant;

* To provide other funding to lower income families affected by the cuts in child benefit;

* To ensure a minimum income threshold where welfare recipients have to recoup an overpayment.

“We do not plan to hinder the passage of the Social Welfare Bill today as it moves from second stage to committee stage. On committee stage tomorrow we will give our individual viewpoints on the amendments we have tabled,” the Senator told the House.

However, when the Minister made no concessions to them at the end of yesterday’s debate, the group held a brief meeting where they decided to vote against the Bill on second stage.

Meanwhile, Labour sources said a meeting with the Minister at her office in Leinster House before the debate was “a good, lively exchange”.

Undertakings given by Ms Burton helped ensure that all 12 Labour Senators voted for the legislation.

In response to a complaint that the reduction in the respite care grant was being compounded by other cutbacks in back-up services, Ms Burton told them she would take action in the matter.

Alleged cuts

She is to contact Minister for Health James Reilly about a review and audit of the position regarding alleged cuts in services whereby religious orders, for example, provided respite care centres to relieve home carers.

Another undertaking she gave was to publish the Mangan report on social welfare early in the new year in order to initiate consultation on such issues as focusing child benefit on the lower-income groups.

This could be done by means-testing, taxation measures and a lower universal payment which would be topped up for lower-income families.

The Labour Senators voted en bloc for the Bill at second stage, along with their Fine Gael colleagues and three Independents: Feargal Quinn, Rónán Mullen and Seán Barrett.

Labour Senators John Whelan and Denis Landy are now seen as firmly behind the legislation but lingering doubts remain as to whether Senator James Heffernan will back the Bill at committee stage today and report stage tomorrow.