independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: The devil's in the detail as Howlin chickens out

'WHO are the losers? A family with three children will lose €40 a month, which is in addition to the previous cuts in child benefit last year, where they lost a significant amount."

-- Labour Party finance spokesperson Joan Burton on Budget 2011.

ALMOST a year to the day, Ms Burton, now the Social Protection Minister, left the same family with three children short another €19 a month in 2012, with a further €8 cut to come in 2013.

The family with four children will be down €36 a month next year and faces another €28 worth of a cut the year after.

Ms Burton went on to point out last year how "child benefit is paid almost universally to women".

"I suppose that is a comment on how few women are Members of this House and what little political power women exercise compared to bankers," she said at the time.

But a year later, that sense of sisterly solidarity went out the window when it came to child benefit payments.

The late former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's cut to the payment for the third child drew derision from the very parties which have just carried on his initiative.

Pat Rabbitte asked if it was a "new China policy" and Michael Noonan queried: "Did some third child beat up the minister coming home from school when he was a young fellow?"

Gone past the lazy analysis of opposition, Fine Gael and the Labour Party found there are no easy options and a cut to child benefit was put into Budget 2012.

The cut to the rates for the third and subsequent child was chosen by the Government, as opposed to an across the board cut in child benefit of €10.

At least Mr Lenihan had the common courtesy to directly inform parents of the €10 cut in his live televised speech.

Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin repeatedly bottled this responsibility to communicate in easily understandable terms.

"Over two years, we will standardise the rates of payments of child benefit for all children. This will save €43m next year," he announced.

What does that mean to the ordinary mother at home wondering how the Budget will impact upon her family finances?

Nothing.

Throughout his speech yesterday, Mr Howlin opted to state the overall saving to the Exchequer from the measures he was introducing, rather than set out the impact on people.

The child benefit cut was symbolic of the approach to yesterday's Budget.

The fine print revealed the true extent of the Budget measures.

The devil truly was in the detail.

The Government chose to avoid measures affecting large proportions of the electorate and instead narrowed the focus to a large number of small cuts that make it difficult to garner opposition.

Political expediency dictated the coalition didn't want to have to engage in full on fire-fighting.

After 14 years in the wilderness of opposition, and amid a promise of reform, Fine Gael and the Labour Party fell back on the tried and trusted policy of scaremongering and then making people feel it wasn't as bad as was feared.

Tinkering with welfare payments is no substitute for overhauling the system and the same old tired excuses about not being able to make changes to the universal nature of payments were again trotted out.

Most disappointing of all was Mr Howlin's cowardly approach to his first Budget.

The late, great Garret FitzGerald used to say his passion for statistics was driven by his desire to learn more about people.

Mr Howlin did the opposite.

He used the statistics to hide behind the impact of his cuts on people.

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