SOCIAL Protection Minister Joan Burton has ruled out cuts to the free travel scheme in the Budget.
Ms Burton also gave Labour TDs reassurances that there would be no cuts in child benefit or to the old age pension in the Budget, as revealed in the Irish Independent yesterday.
The €77m free travel scheme provides free passes to over 700,000 people to use Bus Eireann, Irish Rail, the Luas and many private transport services.
At a private pre-Budget briefing to Labour TDs, Ms Burton gave a commitment that the scheme would remain untouched.
Various options of reducing the cost of it were being examined by a review group, but it has not finished its work. It is understood that Transport Minister Leo Varadkar is strongly in favour of not cutting the scheme – because it would hit the income of the cash-strapped public transport companies.
However, the battle to reduce the €440m target for social welfare cuts is ongoing, with Fine Gael pushing to use any spare funds for job creation and capital building projects instead.
Ms Burton mentioned the €150m savings expected next year in her department's €20bn Budget due to the fall in unemployment. She said that this made a strong case for reducing the scale of social welfare cuts.
If the saving from the Live Register was deducted from the €440m cuts target, it would bring the figure down below €300m.
Although Ms Burton is still at loggerheads with Fine Gael, she got some public praise yesterday from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who said it was very heartening that there had been a 15-month decline in the Live Register figures under her watch.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn also briefed Labour TDs. Although he gave no assurances about the pupil-teacher ratio, TDs still expect that it will be left untouched.
They also believe that one of the key Labour Budget demands – free GP care for children under five – will be delivered.
At the weekly Labour meeting, Labour Longford-Westmeath TD Willie Penrose was given a round of applause after he formally rejoined the parliamentary party.
He had quit as a junior minister two years ago in protest at the decision to close Mullingar barracks.