My Speech on Social Welfare Bill

This Bill has, for once, focused much attention on the Seanad: attention on how Senators will vote, what Senators are saying and what Ministers are saying in response. I’m not sure the nature of this discourse entirely helpful. The reality is: we have power to delay this for 90 days and no more and, if it were to be delayed for 90 days, it would only serve to have punitive effects in a number of areas while not really altering the Budget at all. This is part of the Budget, and the Budget ultimately will be passed. While I agree with constructive criticism, I don’t agree with political grandstanding and I have a hard time seeing how delaying these provisions for 90 days – given this would create a need for further cuts in 90 days time – could be considered helpful.

If we look beyond the headline figures, there is a message to be communicated that isn’t being communicated effectively in my opinion. There is a narrative that says that, in fact, core social welfare rates have been maintained – jobseekers benefit, jobseekers allowance and the state pension are all the same. In fact, the expenditure ceilings for Social Welfare and Health have, counter to what many politicians would have us believe, actually been increased by €150 million in each category. The Social Welfare expenditure ceiling has been increased – and will be paid for by increased taxation measures.

The reality, counter to what opposition have us believe, is that there have been measures to gather over €500m from high earners in this Budget – a significant percentage of the increases. Yet, again, perhaps our greatest failure has been in communication here: a 3% USC increase on people who earn over €60,000 yet incidentally hold a medical card or are over 70, 3% increase in gains on Capital Gains Tax and Capital Acquisitions Tax to 33%, a decrease by 10% in the threshold to which Capital Acquisitions applies – and I could go on.

That’s €500m in measures that will raise capital from mostly high earners. The Budget hasn’t “avoided the rich” or “only punished the poor”, and to believe that is to buy into a false narrative.

We have increased Government income gained from the rich, we have raised expenditure in Social Welfare and – yes – there have also been cuts, but we have tried to be as fair as possible in doing such. Indeed, political expenditure has once again been cut, including travel allowances for TDs and Senators in Dublin, which is something that I welcome.

Within this Bill, there are a number of provisions relating to Social Welfare, yet almost the entire focus and emphasis is going to be placed on a handful of cuts – and on one cut in particular – and while I empathize and believe that there are a number of imaginative ways to get around this cut, one of which was proposed by Senator Mary-Ann O’Brien earlier today (cutting Foreign Aid), the reality is that delaying this Bill by 90 days will result in €124m in extra cuts, as illustrated by Minister Burton yesterday. Under legislation already passed, some 1,000 people could lose their entitlement to the One-Parent Family Payment on January 1st unless this Bill is passed.

As has been said, we are 85% through the process of fiscal conciliation now and, the higher up the mountain you climb, the steeper it gets. We can see, though, that our measures are having a seriously positive impact on the economy: to quote NCBs chief economist’s report from this afternoon: “the recovery in the Irish economy is continuing. On an annual basis, GDP has expanded in 5 of the last 6 quarters, while on the same basis GNP has grown in each of the last 3 quarters”. Indeed, we have seen that consumption, investment, GDP, GNP, exports, imports and our trade surplus have all grown in the last quarter.

These are difficult measures for some, but once we get through this process of fiscal difficulty, there will be a significant payoff for all and, personally, I hope to see us regain control of our own finances and – in the near future – increase some of the allowances that have been reduced here.

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