Start date for €5 welfare increases sparks row in Dáil
The Budget has been presented - but mystery still surrounds the starting date for €5 weekly pension and other welfare increases.
Former Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin, who helped present the previous five budgets, wanted to know when in March 2017 the €5 increases begin.
"Has an agreement been reached in government on the date on which all increases in social welfare payments will come into effect next year? Or, do Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil intend to split the difference and have some sort of St Patrick's Day gift?" the Labour leader asked.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the issue would be dealt with by the social welfare legislation, which would be published in the next two weeks by Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar. But the Labour leader said this was not good enough.
"The Taoiseach and I worked together for five years and even in the worst of times, we did not publish a budget document without knowing the precise figures," Mr Howlin said.
The Labour leader said "March" was the stated time in the Budget for the increases to begin. But the spokesman for Mr Varadkar had conceded the parties negotiating the Budget could not agree exactly when in March that would happen.
The Labour leader said if the increase was put off until March 31, it would average out at €3.75 per week.
Labour officials said introducing the entire package of welfare increases on March 1 would cost taxpayers €353m, while a delay until March 31 would be €88m less than this.
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar said the issue was being discussed between his department and the Public Expenditure Department.
"Any increase in the rates depends on the social welfare bill passing through the Dáil and Seanad and the Government does not have a majority in either house," the spokesman told the Irish Independent.
Fianna Fáil welfare spokesman, Willie O'Dea, who had pushed the issue since August, said the party had only compromised on a start date of January 1 for pensioners in efforts to ensure other welfare recipients would also get the rise.
"It is our focus now to ensure it will happen in the first week in March," Mr O'Dea said.
In the Dáil, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he passed nobody any apology for his party fighting the case of pensioners and other welfare recipients. He said his party had successfully fought to secure the lion's share of spare money which went on spending increases.
The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil dispute on the issue, which ended in a tussle over the starting date, clearly left a strain. But Fine Gael sources dismissed speculation that Mr Varadkar was "holding out" on announcing the start date in efforts to retain a semblance of control.
One well-placed source said all sides now just wanted the issue settled quietly. "The objective was always to get payments for everyone, pensioners and welfare recipients, as early in the year as possible. That has been achieved. There were lengthy discussions and the final details are now being concluded," the source said.