independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

We need a welfare system that changes according to reality

FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan had some good news for us this weekend as we nervously await his Budget package to be unveiled tomorrow afternoon. The good news is that he appears to have the resources to leave the winter fuel allowance intact.

There is no questioning the principle behind the scheme, which gives €20 per week from October to April to those on low welfare rates, at an estimated cost of €211m per year to the taxpayer.

But the way the scheme is handled represents another example of how we are wasting this economic crisis. The plain reality is that a more tailored scheme could better help those in need, when they need it most, and also give taxpayers better value.

A modern welfare system can give people more money during a particularly cold winter, or when fuel prices are high, to keep them comfortable. The collollary is obvious, people could be given a less generous fuel allowance if the winter is mild or fuel prices are lower.

Since the allowance is paid weekly, it would be hardly any problem for the Department of Social Protection to change the allowance as the weather changes.

The same could be said of many other benefits. Rent allowance was allowed to remain static for years, despite a fall in rents. It has remained at the same level for some time now, despite rising rents in the capital.

We need a welfare system that is pragmatic, compassionate and responsive to changing needs. To pay more than is needed is wasteful. To pay less is miserly. Right now we must manage to strike a balance between both.

The authorities could follow Irish taxpayers' example over the past five years and do more with less through better targeted spending.

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