TENSIONS in the Cabinet are mounting over the secretive preparation of next week's Budget – with indications unemployment benefits could be drastically cut.
Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has expressed concerns about the details of the Budget needing to be fully discussed by the entire Cabinet.
A four-man, mini-Cabinet had been handling the bulk of the preparations on the Budget so far – and the full Cabinet will only get to discuss the Budget properly for the first time tomorrow.
A key issue on the table for discussion will be unemployment benefit, which the EU, IMF and ECB troika has been pressurising the Government to cut.
A person with enough social insurance contributions is entitled to jobseeker's benefit – currently up to €188 – for up to 12 months. However, it is understood the cabinet will now consider proposals to cut this period back to just nine months.
IMF bosses have indicated to the Government that they believe dole payments here are high by international standards and responsible for "low exit rates" from the Live Register.
There have been private complaints from ministers that the four-man Economic Management Council (EMC) – composed of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin – is excluding the rest of the Cabinet from the Budget discussions.
In an interview with the Irish Independent, Ms Burton said that while she had "no problem" with the EMC, it was Cabinet which was able to look at the whole Budget picture.
"If you're going to have any kind of detailed look at a Budget, even if it's a personal budget for an Irish housewife or a Swabian housewife, you have to not only look at income, you have to look at expenditure. You have to do that in a holistic way and that obviously is what the discussion in Cabinet is for," she said.
The Cabinet is due to have its first meeting on the Budget tomorrow but the EMC has been having weekly discussions on the Budget.
Ms Burton added: "I think the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste find discussions in the EMC of benefit to them and that's understandable because we need a mechanism in a coalition government where the leaders can have very detailed discussions and where there can be a political assessment as well in terms of the Programme for Government," she said.
Ms Burton strongly defended the current level of payments to pensioners – who are getting a state pension of up to €230 per week compared with €188 per week for jobseekers.
"By many European countries' standards, it's relatively generous and strong, but if that's what you're living on alone, that's quite demanding," she said.
Ms Burton warned of the impact on consumer spending that the planned €540m of social welfare cutbacks will have, given that it comes on top of €648m in further savings from social welfare cutbacks last year.
But she said that lone parent cuts would not take full effect until 2015 and that she was determined to get "added provision" for childcare before then.