Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Before I go into its details, let us remind ourselves that those on welfare did not cause the economic crisis and should never have to suffer its consequences. It is a red line issue and I urge all Deputies to put their concerns at the top of the political agenda. People with a disability, pensioners, the unemployed and the sick have to be protected. My job is to do that and I will fight to the end to defend and protect the weaker sections of society.
I agree with some aspects of the Bill, in particular the restoration of the minimum wage and some of the proposals on job creation. These are positive elements. The core issue in this debate is job creation and let us be straight with our people. Economic growth with social inclusion is the way forward and should be part of the broader debate on this Bill. Is the Minister aware that a senior United Nations expert has criticised the Government policy of making deep cuts to public expenditure while maintaining low taxes and stated it would hit the poorest hardest in the recession?
The expert, who was appointed by the United Nations human rights council, has also called on European Union member states to reduce the interest rate charged on Ireland's EU-IMF loan, warning that failure to do so may leave them in breach of their international legal obligations. Dr. Madalena Carmona is the United Nations independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty. She conducted a visit to Ireland and in a report to the United Nations she concluded that the economic and financial crises have wrought havoc on the country with grave implications for the Irish people.
The report states that unemployment is rising and increasing numbers of people are living in poverty and social exclusion and that the impact of the crisis has been severe, particularly for the most vulnerable sections of society. It is also very critical of Governments for seeking to reduce the budget deficit by imposing a deep cuts in public spending while maintaining a low tax regime. It is likely to have a major impact on the most vulnerable in society.
Reductions in public expenditure affected the poorest and most vulnerable with the most severity, whereas some increase in taxation rates could place the burden on those who are better equipped to cope, the report states. It notes that Ireland has one of the lowest levels of taxation in the European Union. I note in the debate on this Bill that taxation is always a bad word.
The report is also very critical of the universal social charge and points out that human rights are not an optional policy to be dispensed with during times of economic hardship. It is therefore vital that Ireland immediately undertakes a human rights review of all budgetary and recovery policies and ensures that they comply with human rights principles. This should be part of the debate on this Bill.
In regard to the details of the Bill, its purpose is to give legislative effect to the restoration of the national minimum wage to its previous level, something which I welcome and strongly support. I voted against the previous Government on that issue. Section 2 contains changes to the social welfare code arising from the jobs initiative announced on 10 May 2011. Economic growth, combined with social inclusion and jobs, has to be part of the strategy to get us out of this mess.
There are also changes to social welfare arising from the EU-IMF programme of financial support for Ireland, which I mentioned. There are provisions to strengthen certain control measures and to facilitate the transfer of the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme from the HSE to the Department of Social Protection.
We did not seem to have a detailed debate on the section dealing with pensions. People should have the right to retire from their jobs, particularly if they work in a very difficult job, but I am not of the view that people should stop working at 65 years of age. Many senior citizens make a massive positive contribution to this country.
I am very concerned about taking discretion away from community welfare officers. It is a dangerous situation because it will remove the safety net from the poorer sections of society. It is very important that this issue is highlighted and protected. As I said at the start of my contribution, those on welfare and pensioners did not cause this crisis and should not be penalised in any way.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. I want to record my opposition to its guillotining today at 7 p.m. We have been told this is because of the diktat from the EU and the IMF but it is much more in line with the current Government's takeover, hook, line and sinker, of the policies and methods of operation of the previous Government. I remind the Government and Minister that in the course of the general election campaign and since we have been told time and again that the guillotine would not be used and that there would be Dáil reform.
However, when it comes to a Bill such as this, which is very important and contains intricate sections, we find that totally inadequate time has been given to it. There should be an open ended discussion on it and I am sorry to see that it is being rammed through with very short notice and without adequate discussion. In a Bill such as this introduced by a Labour Parity Minister I would have expected to see reversals in social welfare cuts.
In the recent general election, Labour Party candidates up and down the country were telling the electorate that if it was in Government, it would reverse the cuts. Its candidates were on every local radio station saying the same thing. They indicated in particular that cuts to the carer's allowance would be reversed, which of course has not happened. The same happened in regard to the universal social charge. Both cuts have impacted significantly on the lower paid, carers and middle-income families.
I hope, even at this late stage, that the Government and Minister would reverse the cuts, in particular, the universal social charge and the cuts to the carer's allowance.