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Social Welfare Bill a serious attack on vulnerable groups – Morgan

12 November, 2008


Sinn Féin Social and Family Affairs Spokesperson Arthur Morgan TD has described the Social Welfare Bill 2008 as mean spirited and a serious attack on the income and welfare of some of the most vulnerable groups in society. He said unless it is substantially amended Sinn Féin TDs will be voting against it.

Speaking in the Dáil today Deputy Morgan said, "The Social Welfare Bill amounts to a serious attack on the income and welfare of some of the most vulnerable groups in society and Sinn Féin will be voting against it.

"The Bill highlights the Government's disconnect from the needs of the people and their bankruptcy of ideas in how to deal with the shortfall in public finances and the downturn in the economy.

"The Minister has made a decision, through this Social Welfare Bil, that she is going to target welfare support for vulnerable groups in society regardless of the consequences. This Bill is mean spirited.

"The latest CSO data has shown that we have already reached the quarter of million mark in the numbers of those signing on to the live register. All indications are that the unemployment rate will increase over the next 12 months. As people are losing their jobs they need adequate protection. But rather than protecting vulnerable families, the Government have decided to exclude them.

"The doubling of the required number of PRSI contributions from 52 to 104 for Job seekers allowance is very disappointing. This will prevent a large number of people over the next twelve months from availing of welfare at a time when they need it the most. This targeting of mainly younger people and workers who recently joined the work force is unnecessary and will compound the difficulties these people face when they are let go. The Minister has provided no alternative for these younger people so that they can move into other areas of work. This is simply a knee jerk reaction to the shortfall in public finances - there is no plan here to help young people who have to cope with unemployment. The restriction will simply leave them exposed to utter hardship.

"Another extremely disappointing aspect of the Bill is targeting of child welfare. The Bill gives no increase in the main income supports for families in the child benefit scheme and the early childcare supplement. As inflation is currently at 4.3% this decision devalues child welfare.

"What is even worse is that there are cut backs in both the child benefit and early childcare supplement that will exclude families who are dependent on this welfare. The changes in eligibility which affect five and a half to six year olds in the early childcare supplement will lead to a loss in income for struggling parents of up to €550 per annum." ENDS

Full text of Deputy Morgan's speech follows:

The Social Welfare Bill amounts to a serious attack on the income and welfare of some of the most vulnerable groups in society and Sinn Féin will be voting against it.

The Bill highlights the Government's disconnect from the needs of the people and their bankruptcy of ideas in how to deal with the shortfall in public finances and the downturn in the economy.

The Minister has made a decision, through this Social Welfare Bil, that she is going to target welfare support for vulnerable groups in society regardless of the consequences. This Bill is mean spirited.

The latest CSO data has shown that we have already reached the quarter of million mark in the numbers of those signing on to the live register. All indications are that the unemployment rate will increase over the next 12 months. As people are losing their jobs they need adequate protection. But rather than protecting vulnerable families, the Government have decided to exclude them.

The doubling of the required number of PRSI contributions from 52 to 104 for Job seekers allowance is very disappointing. This will prevent a large number of people over the next twelve months from availing of welfare at a time when they need it the most. This targeting of mainly younger people and workers who recently joined the work force is unnecessary and will compound the difficulties these people face when they are let go. The Minister has provided no alternative for these younger people so that they can move into other areas of work. This is simply a knee jerk reaction to the shortfall in public finances - there is no plan here to help young people who have to cope with unemployment. The restriction will simply leave them exposed to utter hardship.

Another extremely disappointing aspect of the Bill is targeting of child welfare. The Bill gives no increase in the main income supports for families in the child benefit scheme and the early childcare supplement. As inflation is currently at 4.3% this decision devalues child welfare.

What is even worse is that there are cut backs in both the child benefit and early childcare supplement that will exclude families who are dependent on this welfare. The changes in eligibility which affect five and a half to six year olds in the early childcare supplement will lead to a loss in income for struggling parents of up to €550 per annum.

The Bill proposes to shut out parents of 18 year olds from the Childcare Benefit. This is a particularly crude measure in light of financial burden on parents of older children. Raising older children is estimated to cost between 20% and 80% more than raising younger children. At a time when we have rising food and energy costs for families - the Minister proposes to remove up to €1,000 per annum in the income of families with children aged 18 years old. Many of these are teenagers in low income families who are still in second level education at 18 years of age and rely on the childcare benefit while they are doing the Leaving Certificate. Removing the childcare benefit will place these teenagers in an impossible position and will force some children to drop out of school. This is at a time when young people need qualifications such as the Leaving Certificate more than ever. The compensation up to the end of 2010 will be of little comfort to those who will be excluded from the child benefit. It does not go anywhere near meeting the loss of income that families in this position will experience.

Another cutback for low income families with children in education is the removal of funding under the school books scheme for low income children attending non-DEIS schools. This has been estimated to cost between €15 and €55 per child. It beggars belief that a former Minister for Education could preside over a cutback which will effectively make access to education far more difficult for low income families. In total these cutbacks in child welfare will result in the loss of between 20 and 50 per cent in the value of child care supports for welfare-dependent children in these age groups. This in itself shows the insincerity of the Minister when she claims to be protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Another scandalous aspect of the Bill is the restrictions in eligibility for the illness benefit. Again by simply doubling the amount of qualifying contributions the Minister is placing the lives of people with disabilities, injuries or illnesses in jeopardy. These people may have no other alternative source of income and may expose them to poverty.

But not only has the Bill excluded people from welfare protection- it has done nothing to protect those in receipt of welfare. The increases provided in the Bill of €7 per week in pensions and €6.50 per week for people of working age, the disability benefit and the carers allowance are miserly increases and will not offset the soaring costs that people with low incomes are experiencing. In 2008, food and energy costs have more than doubled while overall inflation is currently running at 4.3%. The increases for basic welfare in the Bill are inadequate and should have been raised to €15 per week.

The minute gains for people through the increases in the fuel allowance were lost through the hike in the minimum contribution to the rent and mortgage supplement from €5 to €18. In addition more limitations have been placed on the mortgage interest supplement through caps on the amount which will be imposed by the HSE.

There have also been many areas of welfare that the Bill has ignored. There is nothing in the Bill for the living alone allowance and there are no changes in the back to work allowance to make it more accessible.

We have always supported the work of the Mobey Advice and Budgeting Centre. However, the proposals to amalgamate it with is totally unacceptable. MABS is doing really good and important work and, rather than reduce its standing, we believe it should be placed on a statutory footing.

Sinn Fein has for a number of years called for an overhaul of the social welfare system. We believe that a fairer and simpler system would ensure that people are properly protected from the downturn in the economy and that their applications for welfare could be processed more efficiently. This can be achieved through a longer term benchmarking scheme against which the evolution of social welfare rates can be measured. We have repeatedly asked for the anomalies in social welfare that are preventing people that are returning from welfare to work and even from applying for welfare to be removed.

We all accept that we are facing difficult economic circumstances and that the current public finances require prudent spending. But we do not agree on cutting back on welfare supports that the poorest people in society would have relied upon. These are unjustified and will damage the lives of the people who need support most. There are areas where the Government could have raised revenue- but they chose not to. The Government decided to retain tax breaks for private hospitals and to continue to protect the most wealthy in society. But they went for the soft targets - the elderly, children and the unemployed.

I would lastly like to speak on the issue of the Minister's decision to strip Combat Poverty of its independent statutory status and to integrate Combat Poverty with the Office for Social Inclusion. Minisiter - this is nothing short of censorship. Combat Poverty had for almost 2 decades highlighted the issue of poverty and impact of state policies on people living in poverty. The research and findings that Combat Poverty had brought into the public domain demonstrated the failure of successive Governments to address poverty.

Because of this independent critical voice - and because you want the reality of poverty to be hidden from the Irish public, you have decided that you would silence them.

In the Dáil yesterday during Oral Questions the Minister was not able to state what savings would arise as a result of the merging of Combat Poverty and the Office for Social Inclusion. There does not appear to be any proper plan as to how the two bodies can be integrated. This in itself demonstrates that it is not a cost cutting measure or proper reform but simply a political decision to gag the only independent body who could provide the public with high quality independent research on poverty in Ireland. The decision to revoke a body created in primary legislation through an amendment at the Committee Stage is unprecedented and cynical. The Minister had made a decision some time ago that Combat Poverty would be wound up- and she could have easily expressed her decision in the Bill.

The manner in which Combat Poverty is being dealt with is nothing short of a disgrace. The Bill is dishonest, mean and targets the poor - Sinn Féin will be opposing this Bill.

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