Labour TDs run for cover over plans to cut benefits
Published 23/11/2011 | 05:00
LABOUR TDs last night ran for cover behind a wall of silence after failing to answer key questions about child benefit and other Budget cuts put to them by the Irish Independent.
The junior Coalition party decided to adopt a "no comment" policy on a range of mooted cutbacks which leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore had previously and strenuously promised to oppose.
All the backbench TDs got an email from the party press office containing Labour chairman Jack Wall's draft statement which gave a clear signal that they should not respond individually to the survey.
The party's 27 backbenchers used the vow of silence to avoid clearly stating their position on cutting the monthly €140 child benefit payment.
Their silence came despite a clear pledge by Mr Gilmore to oppose the cut during the run-up to the general election.
The Labour TDs also dodged questions about alternative ways of saving the estimated €110m that a €10 monthly cut to child benefit would raise. And the backbenchers said nothing on a range of other controversial Budget options including hiking income tax and cutting the state pension.
Instead, a blanket statement was last night issued by Mr Wall about a desire for a Budget that was "as fair as possible".
But it failed to answer the key questions -- and ensured that the positions of individual TDs were kept hidden, protecting them from any constituency backlash.
Mr Wall denied that he had tried to gag TDs, saying that any of them were free to respond to questions if they wanted to.
"They are grown adults. I had absolutely no intentions of being someone who is going to deprive the media from contacting anybody," he said.
But Labour Clare TD Michael McNamara was the only one to respond individually -- and even then, he said he would prefer not to discuss the proposed cuts "through the media".
Meanwhile, Labour ministers were locked in another round of Cabinet talks as they grappled with their Fine Gael counterparts over the measures needed to reach €3.8bn in cuts and savings in two weeks' time.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has ruled out income tax increases in the Budget, gave no such reassurances in the Dail yesterday about child benefit cuts.
He did agree that child benefit was important for the most vulnerable in society.
"The Government will make definitive decisions on all these issues in the coming days. I am aware of the difficulties for all ministers in cutting back; these things are never easy," he said.
But Mr Kenny said that the reduced VAT rate of 9pc for hotels, restaurants, cinema tickets and hairdressers would be retained.
And Finance Minister Michael Noonan said there were "no plans" to change the zero VAT rate which applies to "children's clothes and footwear" as well as to most food. Both he and Mr Kenny were members of the 1982 Fine Gael-Labour coalition government which collapsed when then Finance Minister John Bruton tried to introduce VAT on children's shoes.
But it is the likely cut in child benefit that will prove a major political hurdle for the new Coalition, especially because of Labour's strong pre-election pledges.
Labour ran advertisements promising to stop Fine Gael from imposing a "€252" child benefit cut on a family with two children. If the proposed child benefit cut of €10 per child goes ahead, it would cost a family with two children €240 a year.
Labour also promised to stop a 2pc hike in the higher VAT rate -- which Mr Noonan is planning to include in his Budget. And other Labour pledges -- to stop a €50 hike in motor tax and the introduction of water charges -- are also likely to be broken.
A spokeswoman for Mr Gilmore denied that the Labour Party was embarrassed by the fact that so many of Labour's pre-election promises were now being called into question.
"Discussions are ongoing and no decisions have been made," she said.
Mr Wall last night admitted that party TDs had expressed "some concerns" about proposed Budget cutbacks. He said they would be discussing such matters with ministers.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is due to meet the party today.