As unemployment remains gravely high and household incomes continue to fall the Irish welfare state is under dire pressure. Our social welfare system has reached a critical juncture. The government can now choose to cut it or reinvent it.
Cutting it means untold misery. As we have seen from the draconian cuts made by the Labour/Fine Gael government to lone parents on CE, to the pensioners’ household benefits package and to poor families’ fuel allowances. Even the most vulnerable in our society, those with severe disabilities, were threatened by this government in the Budget.
Carers are now on the Cabinet’s chopping block with cuts to the half rate carers allowance and respite care grant already being quietly signalled by government sources.
Cutting social welfare also further deflates demand in the domestic economy thereby deepening the recession.
Conversely bolstering the social welfare system puts food on the table, keeps roofs over heads and pays for fuel to keep the harsh effects of our unseasonably cold weather at bay. Social welfare spending also acts as a stimulus for the real economy which means it creates jobs.
And if you create jobs you reduce spending on social welfare. So it’s win-win. Social Welfare spending is an investment in families’ survival and an investment in our economy’s recovery.
Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil are all about ‘targeting’ social welfare payments. It’s a great phrase to bandy about. It sounds good. But its code for tighter means-testing and for further restricting eligibility for income supports at a time when growing numbers need this support.
The government’s obsession with ‘targeting’ ignores the evidence. They ignore the social and economic advantages of universalism. International evidence proves that countries that base their social protection systems on universal payments and provision are faring best in this time of financial crisis.
Universal social welfare payments act as an automatic stabiliser during a financial crash. Universal payments buffer demand in the local economy thereby protecting jobs which in turn protects state revenues. Universal payments also enable a workforce to be ‘flexible’ which is a key requirement of competitiveness.
Now in Sinn Féin we are realistic. We fully accept that we can’t switch to a strong universal-type or Nordic -style social welfare system overnight. But we can start taking steps to bring us there. In the year to come Sinn Féin will be developing alternative policy options for our social protection system including realistic pathways to an ideal system.
These new policies will build on those developed already by the party. Earlier this year our Spokesperson on Social Protection Aengus Ó Snodaigh (who is currently half way up Kilimanjaro which he’s climbing for Crumlin Children’s Hospital) was appointed rapporteur by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection.
After meeting 15 organisations including representatives of people with disabilities, carers, lone parents, the unemployed and employer bodies. Aengus succeeded in convincing all political parties on the Committee to back his report and recommendations.
We hope that this will add a weight of influence to our efforts to persuade the Minister not to introduce a single working age payment, or any reforms resulting in income losses for social welfare recipients, until the necessary supports, services and quality jobs are in place to move onto.
Our work is cut out for us. This government seem to think there are votes in bashing social welfare recipients. They must think there are votes in bashing lone parents especially. Fine Gael are doing what everyone expected them to do. But the Labour Party have betrayed the electorate.
During the General Election Campaign the current Tánaiste and Labour Party leader promised categorically that he would not countenance any cut to child benefit. “Enough is enough”, he said “Families can take no more”. Fast forward a couple of months and what does the Labour Party Minister do? She cuts child benefit.
Speaking from the ranks of the opposition as Labour Party spokesperson on social protection Roíson Shorthall, now herself a Minister, vociferously objected to Fianna Fáil lowering the age cap on one-parent family payments to 14 years.
Objecting at the time she said the Fianna Fáil proposal “reveals the crude recklessness and devil-may-care attitude of the Government regarding the poor in our society. It is designed to appeal to the prejudices of those sections of the public who believe all lone parents and all jobseekers are sponging off the State.” Fast forward a few months and what does the Labour Party Minister for Social Protection do? She lowers the cut-off age further again to just 7 years old.
Objecting to the austerity approach as an opposition spokesperson on Finance In December 2010, Joan Burton herself said that further austerity “risks putting Ireland into the dreaded deflation spiral, the terror of the Hoover years of the Great Depression in the United States”. What did she advocate instead? Investment. She said “It must be remembered that after the war the United Kingdom built the British national health service. What did the Finns do during their period of banking collapse? They built a universal preschool education system to put people back to work.”
Fast forward a few months and what has she done? She’s bought into the doomed austerity approach hook, line and sinker. She is crippling the local economy by slashing the spending power of those dependent on social welfare and she is actively dismantling a community infrastructure that has been built up over many years. Far from putting people back to work, she is displacing real opportunities with JobBridge.
All of a sudden Labour party representatives have developed a novel interest in affairs in the 6 counties. I fear it is less out of any concern for their fellow citizens but rather a disingenuous trick to distract from their own indefensible actions. Let me say this, there is a very, very big difference between Sinn Féin in government in the North and the Labour Party in government in Dublin. The Labour Party have fiscal powers.
This gives them options that we do not have. They can choose to balance the books by targeting high earners and the wealthy. They can choose to balance the books without cutting social welfare. They choose not to.
Sinn Féin continue to work to bring about the devolution of fiscal powers. Perhaps given their newfound interest, the Labour Party might get off their arses and help us!