Thursday 22 March 2018

Taoiseach insists elderly ‘protected and supported’ despite medical card cuts

Fionnan Sheahan Group Political Editor

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has defended the Budget amid accusations from the opposition that it targeted the elderly and young people.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said the cutting of the telephone allowance and over 70s medical cards was “savage” and said there was a "wider witchhunt" of over 100,000 medical cards.

"You add it all up and adds up to savage attack and targeting of older people," he said.

"What did the older people of Ireland ever do to you to deserve this savage treatment," he added.

Mr Kenny said the Budget maintained the principle of "protecting and supporting the elderly" in a number of ways.

He said the old age pension, fuel allowance and tax treatment of the elderly remained the same.

On the medical cards, he said a review of the system was designed to take out cards where some people have died, some circumstances have changed, migrant workers had gone home and some people were no longer eligible.

He said there were 1.8 million medical cards in the system and 97pc of people over 70 will have access to medical cards or free GP cards.

But Mr Martin said "older people will find your response incredible" and there was a “big lie” being made by the Government.

"You are taking money from older people via the back door," he said.

Sinn Fein’s Mary-Lou McDonald honed in on the cut to the dole for young people.

"Spare me your waffle and you balony about your concern for young people,” he said.

But Mr Kenny said “not one constructive proposal” had come from Sinn Fein.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly claimed cut to the dole for young people “discriminates” against a group in society.

He said the dole cut was a human rights issue and "women, non-whites, Muslims" would not be targeted in this way.

Mr Kenny cited a specific case of a man on the dole, whose benefits meant he could not take up a job.

"Where's the incentive to work?" he said.

“I believe the changes made here are really in the interests of young people,” he added.

In a speech to the Dail, the Taoiseach claimed that people under 26 who participate in a back to education course would actually have their jobseeker's allowance increased to 160 euro per week.

"That means that in addition to the enhanced career and job prospects from improving skills and education levels, there is a huge financial incentive for young people to participate in education, employment or training," he said.

"These actions are part of a much bigger strategy to address the problem and should not be viewed in isolation."

Elsewhere, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin were forced to defend the measures unveiled in yesterday's budget.

They insisted that despite a series of cutbacks targeting the elderly, they strived to protect them.

Even with the tightening up of the eligibility for over-70s medical cards, the removal of the telephone allowance of 9.50 euro per month and the scrapping of the so-called bereavement grant, Mr Howlin said there was still "a very robust package" for pensioners.

Mr Noonan added: "We are protecting the older generation, because we appreciate the contribution they have made to the country. We didn't touch pensions, either contributory or non-contributory pensions.

"But more importantly, we didn't touch income tax credits for the elderly, which are very enhanced. If you take for example a couple of pensioners living together - man and wife, husband and wife - they pay no tax until their income passes 36,000 euro.

"And we have single people going into the 41% rate of tax, just above that level. So the benefits in the tax law for elderly couples are totally preserved."

The finance minister was also criticised for hiking the cost of beer, cider and a measure of spirits by 10 cent, and a bottle of wine by 50 cent.

But he insisted that while he increased excise duty on alcohol, budgetary measures to stimulate the economy will eventually result in people having more money to spend in pubs.

"Alcohol is a discretionary item and rather than tax the necessities of life, I think it is reasonable to put an imposition on excise by way of alcohol and tobacco," Mr Noonan told RTE radio.

He said he maintained the special rate of VAT on tourism and leisure-related services at 9%, left income tax rates and the Universal Social Charge untouched, and put a lot of money into getting people back to work.

"As we grow the economy, stimulate the economy, get more people working, you will see the benefit coming into you if you run a good business," he told a hard-pressed publican.

The ministers were challenged on plans for a major review of medical cards, in which they hope to save 113 million euro.

Health Minister James Reilly was unable yesterday to give even an estimate of how many people will lose a card as a result of increased scrutiny of eligibility.

He did confirm that up to 35,000 elderly people - over the age of 70 - will lose their full medical cards, which will be replaced with a free GP card.

Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin also faced criticism for cutting dole payments to young people and their decision to increase prescription charges to 2.50 euro (£2.11) - up one euro, with a cap of 25 euro (£19) a month.

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