Fianna Fail under pressure: Anger over cuts to welfare
Backlash overshadows key Cowen speech on economy
MINISTERS were last night struggling to quell a growing backlash against cuts to welfare benefits for lone parents and the unemployed.
Senior figures in Government were also livid after the minister in charge botched the handling of the announcement.
Instead of putting the focus on the Government's plans for job creation, Taoiseach Brian Cowen was left to deal with a wave of outrage over the welfare reforms.
A major economic speech by Mr Cowen was overshadowed by the controversy caused by Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv's bungled effort to outline the changes.
Under the plans, payments for single parents will be cut off when their youngest child reaches the age of 13, but this change to the allowance will be phased in over six years.
Unemployed people will lose their dole payments if they turn down a reasonable offer of a job and their benefits will be reduced if they turn down a training place.
Mr O Cuiv was unable to say yesterday how much would be saved by the changes as he did not have the figures available.
The fallout from the changes is expected to spill over into the Dail tomorrow and at the weekly meeting of Fianna Fail TDs with ministers.
Representative groups for single parents said they had been inundated with queries from concerned members, even though the changes will not affect most of those already in receipt of the payment.
The benefit cut was announced by the minister's department after 5pm on Friday. Defending his handling of the situation, Mr O Cuiv admitted his press release did not go into the detail of the change. "There was no effort on our part not to give the information," he said.
The minister said the change was aimed at encouraging lone parents to return to the workforce and would not take effect for a number of years.
Government sources said the proposed changes had been in the pipeline for the past four years and had been teed up by each of the three previous ministers in the department.
But there was anger and disappointment in Fianna Fail with the way in which Mr O Cuiv handled the announcement.
After Mr O Cuiv's PR failure, Mr Cowen ended up having to clarify the proposals at a Fianna Fail conference where he was hoping to concentrate on the economic recovery.
The Taoiseach delivered a lengthy speech, arguing the economy had reached a turning point, and outlined 10 areas for job creation, but the talk got little attention.
"It got swamped by the social welfare issue. It wasn't explained properly. When you're explaining, you're losing. Certainly he (Mr Cowen) shouldn't have had to be doing as much work as he had to do," a senior party source said.
The proposed changes were attacked by union leaders and opposition parties.
Describing the proposals as "heartless and reprehensible beyond belief", SIPTU President Jack O'Connor said by cutting the jobseekers allowance the Government was "throwing vulnerable people to the wolves".
He warned unscrupulous employers would offer low-paid jobs to workers on the dole. He said it was a "populist measure designed to focus in on the most vulnerable people in the country".
Fine Gael social welfare spokeswoman Olwyn Enright said the minister's new law imposed "penalties without prospects".
"Lone parents are also being singled out as the easy option. Minister O Cuiv provides no rational explanation for this measure, apart from saving money. Yet he fails to offer any real way to help lone parents to get training or education in return for the loss of several years of one parent family payments," she said.
Some Fianna Fail TDs admitted the issue had been raised with them over the weekend, with mixed views being expressed by the public.
Fianna Fail TD Cyprian Brady said there needed to be more clarification on exactly what was proposed.
His party colleague, Noel O'Flynn, said many people would prefer to be back to work or in training than on social welfare. Mr Cowen said the changes were about trying to reduce dependency and providing opportunities.
The Green Party is also supportive of the changes, which it said were undertaken after a long period of consultation and consideration.
"It brings Ireland in line with the practice around the world," a spokesman said.
But a support group for lone parents, Open, said it was "frustrated and annoyed" by the minister's announcement.
While the changes to the lone parent benefit were expected, Open chief executive Frances Byrne said there had been no effort to explain that it would not happen immediately. Ms Byrne said people with no cause for concern were now worried about being affected.
She also said they had no inkling of the changes to unemployment payments.