Wednesday 13 December 2017

Joan reveals what she really thinks of the IMF and Reilly

Burton, known for speaking her mind, has harsh words for agency's latest report, says Daniel McConnell

At two minutes to four o'clock on Friday afternoon, we arrive at Joan Burton's Department of Social Protection, right beside the busy Busaras in the heart of Dublin's north inner city.

As we wait for the minister to arrive, and as the clock passes four, it is striking to see the immediate mass exodus of staff from the department leaving for the weekend.

"Ah, it's the end of term," one staffer says to another, smiling as they go their separate ways.

Chatting with Joan is never boring, as she is always likely to speak her mind. Such openness has won her many admirers but it is a trait that often infuriates her ministerial and party colleagues.

When she arrives and we are ushered upstairs to her office, with the sight of what I saw moments before, I ask her about the retention of the controversial Croke Park deal, which many in Fine Gael are desperate to tear up.

"I think everything has to be looked at. The civil servants have to, and most of them are co-operating with a reform flexibility. If they do that and that produces savings, well then that's fine, but we have to keep Croke Park under analysis that it does produce the savings.

"I expect the maximum from the staff, but in fairness they have given a great deal of positive co-operation."

But what about the core issue of fairness? As taxpayers we are subsidising a deal many feel is inequitable and the reforms are minuscule compared to the size of the deficit, I say to her.

Her response is that Croke Park is a price worth paying for industrial peace. "I would say the alternative of having absolutely no social partnership would be to run very significant risks around a lot of industrial strikes and disharmony."

She also puts herself at odds with her colleague Brendan Howlin by saying that halting incremental or long-service pay increases for public servants must be examined, as called for by this newspaper and Fergus Finlay, among others.

Previously she said to me: "I read what Fergus Finlay had to say and I thought there was a lot of merit in what he was calling for. We need to think about that. But if the financial position remains as difficult as it is, we'll examine all areas.

"There can't be any area closed to discussion. It is one of the areas that will be examined."

This weekend, she restates her view that everything is on the table.

"Everything has to be looked at. There has been a lot of discussion [around increments]."


Last week, one of Ireland's troika overseers, the International Monetary Fund, published its latest report on Ireland. In it, the agency called for the Government to slash our dole rates, which act as a barrier to employment, cut medical cards and also child benefit.

So, in light of this, given that their comments primarily relate to her department, I ask Burton about the IMF's report. She is scathing in her response.

"I am intrigued and a little disappointed, given all the sophisticated analysis and expertise that resides with the IMF, that the comments were quite so simplistic and don't bear any relationship to what kind of detailed analysis the IMF has done," she says.

She dismisses the report by the IMF as being "off the cuff" as it didn't "reflect the kind of analysis the IMF team has done in relation to her department".

She brands the report as unconsidered and surprising, given many of the reforms introduced by her came "directly" from the IMF.

"We have done an enormous amount of reform in a year-and-a-quarter and because a number of them came directly from the IMF -- how will I put it -- I would have expected a more considered analysis of the changes in social welfare," she says, putting the boot in.


One of the areas the IMF mentioned was removing the universal entitlement to benefits like chid benefit.

Burton hits back, saying that means testing as suggested is not really viable as it is "highly expensive" and bureaucratically intensive.

She says: "Why, I am not sure, this was a considered view [from the IMF], because a vast number of examinations of the social welfare system have shown means testing is expensive and it is very time consuming."

She says means testing also immediately impacts on the incentive to go to work.

She says there are "enormous benefits" to Irish society in keeping the universal child benefit but, controversially, Burton has raised the spectre of child benefit being taxed for wealthier people.

"We have to bear this in mind and they know this, that probably the best way to do this would be to take people on very high incomes -- say on €100,000 plus -- and to have a system where the child benefit is taxed."

While insisting no decisions have been taken or no cabinet discussions have indeed even taken place with regard to the Budget, Burton has a clear preference for taxing the child benefit.

"If we could, over a period of time, improve our tax system to integrate tax and social welfare systems, the ideal would be to have a refundable child tax credit.

"One of the difficulties up to now is that the Revenue and the Department of Finance have always been adverse to doing that, saying it is too difficult, but it certainly would be, for a lot of people, probably the best way," she adds.


On the wider budgetary process, and the likelihood of further cuts, she says she cannot make any promises to any group and that everything remains on the table.

"I can't give any undertakings in relation to the area of social welfare. No decision is made and until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed," she says.

She also highlights that the range of benefits currently available to people are huge disincentives to work and again has raised the spectre of people facing cuts to additional welfare benefits.

"In the Irish system, there is double payments and treble payments, which in my view can be disincentivising, but they can also be very costly. I don't think, given the tightness of the Budget, we can afford the doubling and tripling up of payments," she says.

"We must maintain core payments but where we make reductions we could make them in addition to payments," she says she has told her cabinet colleagues.


I ask Burton, who has been a vocal defender of Health Minister James Reilly in the past, about her views on the failure of Mr Reilly to inform Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore or any Labour minister of the departure of HSE boss, Cathal Magee.

Again, she does not hold back.

Last week, your party was treated appallingly by Fine Gael over the departure of Cathal Magee, I put to her.

"First of all, I think that Eamon Gilmore said that the communications issue has been addressed and that this won't happen again. I think good communications is essential to maintain trust," she says.

I ask: "There wasn't good communication there this week?"

"Well, I think it's very clear that it would have been expected that the Tanaiste would have been advised about a really significant change," she replies.

"Remember the HSE, no more than the Department of Social Protection, no more than Education, to use the British terms those departments are the 'big beasts' in terms of spending money so how they spend their money and how they change is important to everybody."

"How did you hear about it?"

"I read it in the paper."

"That's hardly good enough, is it?"

"Well, I read it in the paper but you know there are regular contacts between the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste, and the Tanaiste, I think, expressed his surprise."

"Should it have gone to Cabinet?"

"Well, we certainly heard, for instance, directly at Cabinet from Richard Bruton about the proposal of Paul Appleby [Director of the Office of Corporate Enforcement] to retire.

"I don't think I've heard all senior changes at cabinet level but it is a courtesy to colleagues."

I ask her does she share the fury expressed by Labour junior health minister Roisin Shortall in the wake of the Magee fiasco.

Burton says that she hopes the major breakdown in communication between Reilly and his two Labour junior ministers doesn't happen again.

"I'm just anxious, like everyone else in the country, to see a very ambitious programme of health reform being done.

"Roisin Shortall and Kathleen Lynch are two very valued colleagues, they're two redoubtable woman and I'm quite sure that from now on there will be hopefully very much better communication between them and Dr Reilly," she says.


Having expressed her disappointment at the Taoiseach's closeness with Denis O'Brien -- saying those who have had adverse findings made against them must face consequences -- I ask Burton again if democracy is threatened by Denis O'Brien's dominance across the Irish media.

"I take the view that it's important to have diverse media and to have diverse media ownership. Having an independent, strong media and strong editorial is really important.

"I lived in Africa for three years; you know, the corner stone of any democracy is having a functional democratic electoral structure, having an absolutely incorruptible judiciary and having a free media, and that's what I've always believed in and I won't change my views."

She also put herself at odds with Taoiseach Enda Kenny who refused to state in the Dail last week that he accepted the findings of the Moriarty Tribunal. Burton says she fully accepts the findings.

"All of the tribunals and the costs have been a learning curve for the country," she says.

"Over and over again, people have said to me they wanted to see people who had brought the economy down or people who had been involved in wrong-doing brought to account."

Sunday Independent

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