Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s reference to the British television programme Benefits Street during a discussion on disability payments reforms was “not appropriate”, Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan has said.
Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Mr O’Callaghan said the programme demonised welfare recipients and wasn’t suitable for anyone in Government, including the Taoiseach, to refer to during such a discussion.
The Dublin Bay North TD was referencing remarks made by Mr Varadkar in the chamber on Wednesday following a question from People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy.
Mr Murphy asked the Taoiseach had he seen the film I, Daniel Blake, which is about people with disabilities who are forced to go through medical assessments under the work capability assessment introduced by Britain’s Tory government, with their disabilities and inability to work not being recognised.
Mr Murphy said it seemed the Government was out to “make this film happen in real life in Ireland” under new proposals in relation to the disability and domiciliary care allowance, which involves introducing a medical assessment to assess capability of work and then putting people into three different tiered categories.
In response, Mr Varadkar said he had seen the film, describing it as “very good” but “one-sided”.
“All of the characters in the film, or at least all of the people in receipt of benefits in the film, are very genuine and honest people who need help and have done as much as they can for themselves,” the Fine Gael leader said.
“There are other programmes, like Benefits Street and so on which show you a very different picture. Of course, as is always the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
“That is the real world we live in. In terms of reforming our disability payments, we are not going to follow the UK model; the UK model is all about knocking people off benefits. Our model, which is still under development, is about recognising that all disabilities are not the same and that some people need more support than others.”
Mr O’Callaghan said the Government’s proposal was “a carbon copy” of the system introduced in the UK under austerity in 2008.
“It is a discredited policy that led to a disabled man, Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather, starving to death after his out-of-work and housing benefits were stopped,” he said.
“His emaciated body, of just 4.5 stones, was discovered by the bailiffs sent in to evict him. Is this really the model that this country wants to emulate? Yesterday, the Taoiseach seemed to indicate that it was. He cited Benefits Street, a UK TV show, that vilified working-class people as a relevant reference point on this.”
Mr O’Callaghan added that the Taoiseach’s reference to the programme was “not appropriate”.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin said there was “no agenda on this side of the House” to demonise any person with special needs or a disability, and he wanted to make that “clear”.
Mr Martin said the State had progressed in many areas over the last 30 years in terms of disability services but had “an awful lot more to do”.
The Fianna Fáil leader said a cost of disability report was published in 2021 and it established that the additional costs of disability run across several policy areas, including housing, equipment, aids and appliances and care and assistance.
“We are reflecting on that issue in terms of how we can now mainstream this in terms of payments and so on. There is a Green Paper on disability reform, it’s a Green Paper, no decisions have been made in respect of that and consultation is ongoing with the stakeholders,” he said.