[Sinn Fein]

11th December 2002

Statement of Seán Crowe, Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Social and Family Affairs on Social Welfare Bill

Speaking in Leinster House Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Social and Family Affairs attacked the government for the paltry increases in social welfare payments saying ``This Minister for Finance was clearly not prepared to move away from rewarding the rich to supporting less well off in society.

Last week Fianna Fáil backbenchers, among them many of the so-called rebels, lined up to congratulate the Minister for the social welfare increases saying their constituents would welcome the rise in their payments.

I must confess that I didn t find anyone in my constituency over the last couple of days that agreed with this particular point of view. It's truly beyond my comprehension that you could expect anyone to be grateful for these measures

I spoke on Saturday to an unemployed couple with one child who said they were getting an increase, in real terms, of 25 cent a week. 25 Cent. Not an awful lot is it? What item of food can you buy for 25 cents? Can you buy a litre of milk, a loaf of bread, a pair of socks? You can t even get a cup of tea for it.

You would probably get the teabag but you would have to supply your own hot water.

Maybe someone, or those same backbenchers who were praising this Budget, can tell me what they would buy for 25 cents?

The couple I was talking have more we are told , even if it is 25 cent a week more.

A single unemployed person with one child is actually going to be worse off in 2003 by 9 cent a week.

I am sure the Minister for Social and Family Affairs fought her corner in run up to this budget, unfortunately no one seems to be listening, not only to her, but to any of the groups dealing with tackling poverty, social inclusion or disadvantage

The answer is plain to see in the Budget delivered here last week. Paltry increases in social welfare payments, which are wiped out when inflation is taken into account against a backdrop of savage cuts in Community Employment schemes, increases in VAT, stealth taxes on ATM cards, cutbacks in public services and the failure again of the government to take the low-paid out of the tax net.

And today it is revealed that the Back to Work Allowance is to be ``refocused as the Department puts it. I suppose we are grateful, like we should be for the social welfare increases, supposed to be grateful that it was not completely eliminated as the so-called Three Wise men suggested.

Perhaps the most shocking broken promise is the decision, in this budget, not to pay the Child Benefit increase despite the fact that a quarter of Irish children are living in poverty. We were told that government committed itself to a three year implementation plan for Child Benefit increases and this was to be the third and final instalment of increases.

Faced with a choice and rather than deliver on this promise, the government chose to deliver on an other part of his programme, its pledge to big business to cut Corporation Tax - saving big business a few hundred million more.

The real increase in the monthly payment for children is ¤2.35 a month, less than 8 cents a day. The Combat Poverty Agency has repeatedly made the point that child benefit is the fairest system for supporting disadvantaged families with children

The scandal is that many of these children are going to have to go to school hungry, without decent clothes, often to schools that are rundown, have inadequate heating or buildings that are in danger of collapse and the waiting list for repairs has grown no shorter. This budget suggests that this government believes that it should be normal for children to go to schools in such obviously dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy environments

The Child Dependent Allowance has been effectively frozen since 1994. Considering the increases in the cost of living since then. The allowances currently available are completely inadequate and, despite a recommendation from the Commission on Social Welfare that is now eight years old, there are still three distinct rates.

Perhaps the Minister could tell the House when we can expect these recommendations to be implemented and when we can expect increases in the Child Dependent Allowance

We also find another betrayal in the form of the increase in the Carers Allowance. There was unanimity across the political divide in the run up to the last election that carers have been undervalued by successive governments and a determination that something should be done about it. Many of us called for the means test for Carers Allowance to be abolished, but all this government saw fit to do was slightly increase the allowance.

The key thing to bear in mind in this debate is the utter untruth that the money was not available. The money was available to cut Corporation Tax to the lowest rate in Europe at a cost of ¤305 million. This State has one of the highest per capita income levels in the EU and one of the worst levels of infrastructure and service provision. Sinn Fein proposed in our pre-budget submission a new tax rate of 50% for very high earners. We proposed bringing Capital Gains Tax back to 40%. We proposed freezing Corporation Tax, allowing people to back out of the SSIA schemes without penalty. We pledged to do away with the tax breaks and loopholes, not to talk about it and promise to do it next year.

The money was there, if this government wanted to tackle poverty, wanted to invest in education and in finally addressing the greatest issue in Irish politics today, the rampant inequality in society, it could have done so.

But the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage was not there. It would have mean taking on their financial backers, forcing corporate Ireland to pay its fair share. This Minister for Finance was clearly not prepared to move away from rewarding the rich to supporting less well off in society.

Since 1997 couples who are long-term unemployed are 72 Euros better off but a couple on ¤50,000 are ¤271 a week better off. They are also more likely to have the special savings scheme this government set up and benefiting even further. These are the facts of the last six budgets.

Again this year we have another chapter in the ongoing failure of this government to take every worker on the minimum wage out of the tax net. The Minister claims his Budget takes those on 90% of the minimum wage out of the tax net. Last year, the Minister told this House that the tax changes he introduced on that day meant that those on 90% of the minimum wage were out of the tax net. Last week he told us the same thing he announced on the 5th of December last year.

Is this Political Groundhog Day?

Can we expect in the coming years that Minister McCreevy learning nothing from his previous years, will be standing before us looking again and again for plaudits for this big break through for those on minimum wage?

It is many of these people, the low paid and the unpaid, that I represent and over the weekend I heard their anger and hurt at the Budget and many of these sad and pathetic social welfare increases.

Many of the cutbacks outlined in the budget will result in a reduced level of healthcare, education and public services which will affect most of those who are already poor or experiencing social exclusion.

This Budget expects poor people to bear the burden of Government's mismanagement of unprecedented resources, which were available during boom years.

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