Pensioners back in cross-hairs after four years
AFTER four years of being politically untouchable, pensioners are back on the agenda for the Budget.
The backlash against the removal of the automatic entitlement to a medical card for the over-70s meant budget cuts affecting the elderly were avoided at all costs.
Mary Harney's blunder in December 2008, by failing to adequately explain the high thresholds for the means-testing of the medical cards from the start, actually ended up being to the benefit of pensioners in the long-run.
It meant ministers were afraid of prompting a repeat of the scenes outside Leinster House, when thousands of angry pensioners vented their fury.
The grey vote has always had a cherished status in politics, which was nakedly pursued at times, especially in the run-up to general elections. Witness the roll out of the over-70s medical card, thrown together by Charlie McCreevy in the space of 48 hours before the 2004 local elections, or the increase in the old-age pension, above what was actually promised before the 2007 General Election.
Fine Gael and Labour won't want to go near a sector of society which votes in huge numbers and is loyal to those who they trust. Beyond the Celtic Tiger era, ministers have not had the resources to display such largesse, but have still had to tread softly.
Health Minister James Reilly was guilty of scaremongering the elderly last year.
The health leaks in advance of the Budget wrongly claimed there would be a €50 medical-card charge, a hike in prescription charges and widespread nursing home closures.
Ministers who wanted to avoid having to make harsh decisions simply had to float the most horrible cuts to ensure they would be shot down by lobbying.
However, this year will be quite a different scenario, as it is generally agreed all the low-hanging fruit is gone.
Hence, the free travel scheme and the package of electricity, gas, telephone and TV licence allowances are in the melting pot.
Last year, cutting benefits to OAPs was an option on the menu. It was listed in the Department of Social Protection's submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review but was never perused seriously.
The €450m spent, in total, on all these schemes is simply too big for Social Protection Minister Joan Burton to ignore.
The options include a straight cut, a greater degree of means testing or making a contribution.
Provided it's handled sensitively and isn't viewed as being too harsh, ministers reckon pensioners won't overly object to making a contribution.
Past experience has shown any cuts to vulnerable people have to be explained simply and carefully. Certainly, after four years, the payments to the elderly are touchable again.