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Social Welfare Bill punishing the unemployed – Ó Caoláin

12 November, 2008 - by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD


Sinn Féin Dáil leader and Health & Children spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD has described the Social Welfare Bill 2008 as the cutting edge of the knife wielded by the Fianna Fáil/Green Government in Budget 2009. He went on to accuse the Government of creating unemployment and then punishing the unemployed.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said, "This Social Welfare Bill is the cutting edge of the knife wielded by the Fianna Fáil/Green Government in Budget 2009. It is an attack on the most vulnerable in Irish society. Those who can least afford it are being made to pay for the failed economic policies of successive Fianna Fáil-led governments for over a decade.

"Make no mistake about it, the hardship now faced by the unemployed, by those dependent on social welfare, by older people and by children has come about not as a result of a world slump but because of a home grown recession.

"Introducing the Bill, Minister Hanafin said the Government "has had to make some difficult decisions in order to secure our economic future". The right decisions to secure our economic future should have been made a long time ago. The Government of which Minister Hanafin has been a member for eight years made the wrong decisions. You have squandered the boom and now you are making the poor pay for your folly.

"This Bill is especially mean-spirited in its attack on the benefits available for the masses of people becoming unemployed. The October 2008 Live Register and the seasonally adjusted figure for people signing on was up by a massive 57% or 94,800 compared to October 2007. Redundancy figures were up 50% on October last year to an all time high of 32,076 or 729 per week. A quarter of a million people are now unemployed.

"Against this background, incredibly, the Government is actually cutting benefits for the unemployed. People will now need to have been employed for two years to qualify for Job Seekers Benefit. The payment period has been shortened to 12 months for Job Seekers Benefit from 15 months, after which, the unemployed person has to drop to the means-tested Job Seekers Allowance. This Government's policy has created unemployment and now it is penalising the unemployed. Shame on you!

"The minimum adult social welfare increase of €6.50 to €204.30 is wiped out by inflation and is in effect a cut. The same goes for the paltry €7 per week increase in pensions, while the Living Alone Allowance has not been increased at all. The €2 increase in fuel allowance is an insult. So much for this Government's claimed special concern for older people. We saw the hypocrisy of that claim in the over 70s medical card cut. This Social Welfare Bill is totally unacceptable and Sinn Féin rejects it." ENDS

Full text of Deputy Ó Caoláin's speech follows:

This Social Welfare Bill is the cutting edge of the knife wielded by the Fianna Fáil/Green Government in Budget 2009. It is an attack on the most vulnerable in Irish society. Those who can least afford it are being made to pay for the failed economic policies of successive Fianna Fáil-led governments for over a decade.

Make no mistake about it, the hardship now faced by the unemployed, by those dependent on social welfare, by older people and by children has come about not as a result of a world slump but because of a home grown recession.

A thriving economy was built by Irish workers beginning in the mid-1990s. The basis for sustainable growth was laid. Fianna Fáil-led governments from 1997 had it in their power to invest in sound infrastructure, to develop public services that were both equitable and efficient, to foster industry that provided employment and raised revenue through exports, to create an enhanced society as well as a prosperous economy. What did they do instead? They saw a growing economy and they decided with their friends the developers and the speculators and the bankers to reap the rewards through ruthlessly exploiting the increased demand for housing and commercial property. They created a massive property bubble and a perilous over-dependence on construction for employment.

The result is all too plain to see. The bubble has burst. Construction employment has collapsed. Government revenue has gone through the floor. Families are mortgaged to the hilt and many are losing their homes. Negative equity is rife and the full consequences for individuals, families, companies and financial institutions have yet to be seen. All of this was predictable. Sinn Féin and others on the left, as well as independent economists and social commentators, were constantly highlighting the folly and the injustice of Government economic policy.

Introducing the Bill, Minister Hanafin said the Government "has had to make some difficult decisions in order to secure our economic future". The right decisions to secure our economic future should have been made a long time ago. The Government of which Minister Hanafin has been a member for eight years made the wrong decisions. You have squandered the boom and now you are making the poor pay for your folly.

In August an all-Ireland study on health inequality was published by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland and the Combat Poverty Agency - which this Government is silencing. The report shows that in the 26 Counties 38% of those at risk of poverty (i.e. living on an income of less than €202.50 per week) reported suffering from a chronic illness compared to 23% of the general population. In the Six Counties 47% of unskilled workers suffer from long-standing illness compared to 30% of professionals and managers.

Budget 2009 and this Social Welfare Bill will result in even deeper health inequalities in this State. The incomes of low paid workers, the unemployed and a whole range of people dependent on social welfare will suffer.

This Bill is especially mean-spirited in its attack on the benefits available for the masses of people becoming unemployed. The October 2008 Live Register and the seasonally adjusted figure for people signing on was up by a massive 57% or 94,800 compared to October 2007. Redundancy figures were up 50% on October last year to an all time high of 32,076 or 729 per week. A quarter of a million people are now unemployed.

Against this background, incredibly, the Government is actually cutting benefits for the unemployed. People will now need to have been employed for two years to qualify for Job Seekers Benefit. The payment period has been shortened to 12 months for Job Seekers Benefit from 15 months, after which, the unemployed person has to drop to the means-tested Job Seekers Allowance.

Can the Minister or any of her backbenchers put themselves in the position of a young construction worker, unemployed for the first time, with a young family and a mortgage? That worker now faces the shock of the dole queue, reduced social welfare benefits, price inflation, higher costs for healthcare and few prospects for employment in the short or medium term.

This Government's policy has created unemployment and now it is penalising the unemployed. Shame on you.

The minimum adult social welfare increase of €6.50 to € 204.30 is wiped out by inflation and is in effect a cut. The same goes for the paltry €7 per week increase in pensions, while the Living Alone Allowance has not been increased at all. The €2 increase in fuel allowance is an insult. So much for this Government's claimed special concern for older people. We saw the hypocrisy of that claim in the over 70s medical card cut.

Another especially mean-spirited cut is the ending of Child Benefit for 18 year olds. This will hit low income families worst and will have the effect of driving many young people out of education. That Child Benefit for an 18 year old can be the difference between continuing in education, albeit with a real struggle, or simply making it unaffordable for the family to support the young person through that vital year. I have no doubt that it will result in reduced numbers completing the Leaving Certificate. Young people from low income families will be going into a depressed employment market without basic qualifications. It is another extremely damaging and short-sighted measure.

Low income families, especially those just above the poverty line and those who do not qualify for medical cards, will be especially badly hit by the 1% income levy. The VAT increase will also have a disproportionate adverse effect on these families.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul reports that 800 people attended a crisis meeting of the organisation in Dublin last weekend to discuss how to cope with "soaring demand" for its services. Calls for help have increased by almost 40% since last year. That Society is an independent charity so at least it is insulated from the approach of Government in effectively abolishing the Combat Poverty Agency which has done so much to highlight inequality and to advocate sounder policies.

This Social Welfate Bill is totally unacceptable and Sinn Féin rejects it.

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