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Friday 22 August 2014

Pension cut anger sparks FG fury at Burton

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

Published 12/08/2013 | 05:00

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Joan Burton, accused of being a scare-monger
Simon Coveney denied a cut was being talked about

DESPERATE attempts were under way last night to calm fears among the elderly of an old-age pension cut coming in October's Budget.

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And tensions within the Coalition heightened as the Government was warned to "prepare for war" if it even tries to cut the old-age pension.

Fine Gael ministers are furious with Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, blaming her for scaremongering over a cut to the benefit.

Ms Burton is resisting pressure to find €400m worth of cuts in her Department for Budget 2014. The Coalition was challenged to clarify its position following reports in the 'Sunday Independent' of a planned €10 cut to the old-age pension.

The move revived memories of the so-called 'grey vote rebellion' in 2008 when the government cut back on the automatic entitlement to a medical card for the over-70s. In a bid to head off a backlash from older voters, the Coalition scrambled to reassure pensioners they would not be hit by a cut.

Ministers from Fine Gael and the Labour Party were in contact with officials through the day as they scrambled to defuse the political timebomb. The Government was forced to deny there was a plan to cut the pension.

"The Programme for Government gives a clear commitment there will be no reduction in the old-age pension. The matter isn't even on the table," a spokesman for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Government said.

"It is not being contemplated by the Government and isn't going to be and won't be," a spokesman for the Labour Party in Government said.

But the Coalition's message was incoherent as the Department of Social Protection failed to rule anything out.

"No decisions have been made. The Government is considering all options. The announcements will be made on Budget day," a spokesperson said.

Age Action head of advocacy Eamon Timmins said the speculation caused huge anxiety to old people who wonder how they will pay the bills in the winter.

He warned of the political consequences for the Government if it proceeded.

"Older people are really struggling on the back of the cumulative effects of austerity Budgets since 2008 and the range of cuts, taxes and charges. In political terms, there would be huge opposition," he said.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney dismissed suggestions of a cut to the old-age pension.

"Certainly there's been no discussion in Cabinet on this issue and people are reading all sorts of things into the Budget that aren't going to happen at all," he said at the Tullamore Show.

FRIGHTENED

Fianna Fail social welfare spokesman Willie O'Dea said such speculation frightened the elderly and called on the Government to rule the cut out.

"If Joan Burton is ready to acquiesce with another attack on the most vulnerable, she'd better be prepared for war," he said.

"This is scare-mongering because Joan Burton wants to maintain her status as the leader of the Labour left, which is as mythical as the Loch Ness monster."

Ms Burton's spokesman rejected claims she was responsible for suggestions.

"I would absolutely deny it," the spokesman said.

But Fine Gael ministers say the scare-mongering is typical of Ms Burton's approach in Budget negotiations of flagging cuts that won't happen to distract from a lack of reform.

"She should stop frightening the elderly before any negotiations even happened. She should concentrate on reforms in her department.

"Most of the items she has put up won't even be discussed. Sometimes when these things appear, elderly people think this is going to happen or has happened," a minister told the Irish Independent.

"It drives Noonan (Finance Minister Michael Noonan) and Howlin (Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin) mad and then that knocks on to the Taoiseach and Tanaiste. She is slowly annoying everybody."

Government sources said the suggestion of a pension cut was a piece of "unnecessary kite-flying".

"It's Joan trying to scare the horses," a source said.

Even Ms Burton's colleagues in Labour seemed to believe the claim possibly emanated from the Department of Social Protection.

"It was something dreamt up by some over-eager official. It has no substance to it.

"The political lesson of the last couple of years is flying kites is counterproductive," a party source said.

Irish Independent

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