Thursday 8 December 2016

In firing line for savage cuts -- young, old and vulnerable

OAP free travel, rural school buses, childcare, free education and Irish Film Board targetted

JOHN DRENNAN and DANIEL McCONNELL EXCLUSIVE

Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00

Public Expenditure Minster Brendan Howlin (above) and his department are now considering a host of new cuts to services to the elderly and schoolchildren as well as the sale of State assets.

Savage cuts to a host of previously "untouchable" State services were considered by the Government as a result of the State's dire financial position, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

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Following the Government's controversial clampdown on pensioners last week -- which has deeply angered thousands of retired workers -- Public Expenditure Minster Brendan Howlin and his department are now considering a host of new cuts to services to the elderly and schoolchildren as well as the sale of State assets.

Amid growing fears of a double dip recession in Europe and the inevitable knock-on effect for Ireland's ability to meet its growth targets, drastic cuts are now being considered to "schemes which may not have been subject to sustained critical consideration up to now".

The nature of the cuts, proposed in a new report drawn up by the Central Expenditure and Evaluation Unit (CEEU) in Mr Howlin's department, seen by the Sunday Independent, have been described as "politically toxic".

The paper says that "strong political direction" will be needed to bring urgent completion to the rationalisation and abolition of State agencies.

The proposals were part of the comprehesnive spending review process considered by the cabinet in the run up to the budget.

Virtually no sector escapes untouched from the proposals, but according to senior government sources last night, they are set to be "vigorously opposed" by many within the Cabinet and on the government backbenches.

Given the potential political fallout from the proposed cuts, the controversial paper is also set to re-ignite the ongoing row within the Coalition over the viability of the Croke Park deal, which guarantees no cuts to public sector pay levels before 2014.

Many within Fine Gael want to see the deal torn up, but Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has said in recent days he will seek to honour Croke Park no matter how bad the crisis in Europe gets.

"It's important when the Government concludes an agreement with a sector of society, in this case with the trade unions representing the public sector, that it works to honour that agreement and is seen to honour it," he said.

However, such is the concern within Mr Howlin's department at the state of the public finances, a host of political 'sacred cows', including free travel for pensioners, legacy allowances for gardai, free childcare and the free school bus scheme, are now facing the chop.

The detailed paper also recommends that third-level fees should be reintroduced, Dublin Bus should be partly or totally privatised and the TV licence fee should be incorporated into the household charge.

And finally, after many promises by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Mr Howlin, an "immediate hitlist" of 44 quangos has been drawn up with those listed set to be abolished or merged. A further 50 are on a warning list for further rationalisation.

Some of the specific measures now under consideration by Mr Howlin's department include:

- The overview proposes that the €76m Early Childhood Care/Educational scheme (ECCE) and the National Childcare Investment Programme (NCIP) should both be abolished.

- The current third-level contribution should be scrapped and be replaced by "some form of third-level fee", saving €200m a year.

- On what is seen as an attack on rural Ireland, the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme, which costs €220m a year, should be abolished. "At a time where farm incomes are rising, the current scenario where 72 per cent of the country is classified as disadvantaged is obviously too broad," the report states.

- Farmers could face further pain with the report saying there exists "no economic rationale" for the State to meet the current costs of the meat inspection regime or the European suckler cow welfare scheme (€66m a year).

- The Irish Film Board should be abolished.

- "It would make good administrative sense for the TV licence fee to be incorporated into the household charge."

The paper also proposes the abolition of the post-primary school transport system, introduced by Donagh O'Malley in 1968, which could result in savings of €70m.

Some of the most politically tricky proposals contained in the report relate to Joan Burton's Department of Social Protection.

In a potentially politically explosive proposal regarding free travel for pensioners, the report says "the ongoing priority of the free travel scheme . . . in the wider expenditure context must be questioned".

It also says "the dead weight in the system" should be removed.

Other free schemes, such as the fuel allowance, electricity allowance, free television licence, telephone and gas allowances, should all be consolidated into one single household utilities allowance, the report states.

The report also suggests that a "fresh look" be taken at a range of "legacy allowances" including rent, premium payments and non-public duty allowances for gardai.

The overview drafted within Mr Howlin's department recommends the privatisation of Dublin Bus either in part or in its entirety.

The most controversial proposal in the area of quangos is the axing of Udaras na Gaeltachta, the gaeltacht development agency and an Comisineir Teanga, which supervises the translation into Irish of public documents. The department overview is that this would save €15m a year.

Included on the hitlist of 44 quangos identified for rationalisation, amalgamation or abolition include: an Bord Iascaigh Mhara; The Heritage Council; Culture Ireland; the Digital Hub; 35 city and council enterprise boards; the Companies Registration Office; Forfas; Shannon Development, the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission; the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Health and Safety Authority.

The controversial Dublin Docklands Development Authority should be merged into Dublin City Council while the Dormant Accounts Board should be scrapped.

A spokesperson for Mr Howlin noted that such reports were part of an ongoing process of looking at "all elements of public expenditure''. The spokesperson said such reports will allow the Oireachtas and citizens to see "as part of our commitment to more openness and transparency . . . what options were assessed and the associated savings attached to the various expenditure measures''.

Sunday Independent

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