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Burton vows to end 'dole lifestyle choice'

Social welfare has become a "lifestyle choice" for many leaving school, a situation which is totally unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has said.

"What we are getting at the moment is people who come into the system straight after school as a lifestyle choice. This is not acceptable, everyone should be expected to contribute and work," Ms Burton said.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Ms Burton said those who failed to cooperate with her department by not taking job or training opportunities would lose up to €44 a week.

Her comments come as savage cuts to services to the poor, schoolchildren, the sick and elderly are among proposals being considered by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin from his cabinet colleagues.

In what is the first stage of achieving budget cuts of at least €3.6bn, proposals from every cabinet minister presented to Mr Howlin's department in recent days reveal unprecedented cuts to many essential services in health, education and social welfare, which are set to impact most on lower- and medium-income families.

Such hard choices have led to a heightening of tensions around the cabinet table, because of the extraordinary decision by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore to promise that there will be no cuts to social welfare rates or any income tax increases in the budget.

"Given the level of reduction needed, many of us are wondering with the promises the Taoiseach has made, how exactly will we square this circle," one junior minister said.

The most controversial revelation is that class sizes in Irish schools are set to rise dramatically as Ruairi Quinn's Department of Education budget is to be cut "substantially" despite soaring enrolment numbers.

"Some 80 per cent of the education budget goes on pay and pensions. We can't unilaterally cut pay so the only option is to dramatically increase class sizes. There is no other choice," one senior government source said.

Also included in the proposals are:

•Drastic cuts to a host of welfare benefits including rent supplements.

•Primary welfare rates and benefits under threat despite election promises not to cut them.

•Further widespread closures of hospital wards, significant reduction in medical services; cuts to after-care services and agency staff, and a reduction in pay to hospital consultants in order to control costs.

•An aggressive tackling of transport costs with major reduction in budget allocations to state companies, including CIE.

•Increased rail, bus and air fares for passengers cannot be ruled out.

"There is no fat left, the reductions now being considered will hurt considerably, but there is no other option," a senior minister said yesterday.

There is widespread concern within Fine Gael and Labour at the public reaction to the Roscommon hospital crisis, leading many to fear what awaits them when they return in the autumn.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan yesterday moved to dampen down speculation that assurances by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that there would be no cuts in public pay or social welfare benefits have led to a rift.

"There is categorically no tension between myself and the Taoiseach, we are at one at what has to be done," Mr Noonan told the Sunday Independent.

In a recent letter from Mr Howlin's secretary general Robert Watt, department heads were ordered to come up with solutions, including those which previously would have been outside consideration. In terms of the cuts, the three big spending departments -- Health, Education and Social Protection -- are again being called upon to offer up the largest cuts.

Last week, Ms Burton, was "grilled" at a Labour Party meeting over €65m of cutbacks to the free provision of fuel schemes, television gas and electricity.

Ms Burton admitted the reductions "did not sit easily with her'' but where the "door was being beaten down by Finance" these were the best options available.

She is concerned by the exponential increase in the numbers availing of welfare benefit schemes and said when it came "to fuel and electricity the numbers who qualify have increased from 265,000 in 2005 to 390,000 by 2011".

Sunday Independent