Friday 17 January 2020

Fine Gael's €5 a week pension hike election pledge as Doherty says jobseeker benefits won't increase

Pledge: Social protection minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Frank McGrath
Pledge: Social protection minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Frank McGrath
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Fine Gael will vow to increase the state pension by €5 per week every year it is in government if the party is returned to power after the election.

In an exclusive interview with Independent.ie, social protection minister Regina Doherty said Fine Gael will commit to giving an extra €1,250 to every pensioner over the next five years.

"It will be in the programme for government - €5 per week, per year for the lifetime of the next government and that's a cast-iron guarantee," Ms Doherty said.

The minister said she would not be making a similar commitment on jobseeker benefits as her focus would be on encouraging people to get back to work.

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Ms Doherty said between 140,000 and 150,000 people are in receipt of the payment and half of those are transient workers who are in-between jobs. She said the other half are long-term unemployed.

"If I'm to be really honest with you, I know some of those 70,000 people are actually working. I think we need to step up our game to do more inspections so that if they are working that they're not getting money from the State too," she added.

She also said she was awaiting the result of an independent review before making a decision on disability payments.

The pension spending pledge of almost €900m comes against a backdrop of Fine Gael repeatedly targeting Fianna Fail for making reckless expenditure promises.

The Fine Gael election manifesto promise is also a significant policy shift from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's commitment to index-link pension payments to the cost of living or national incomes.

However, Ms Doherty said the Taoiseach promised to index-link weekly pension rates to ensure pensioners have a legal right to yearly increases, no matter who is in government. She said Fine Gael's election promise was to increase pensions by €5 per week but if the index-linked rate was higher, then it would be increased by that amount.

Ms Doherty said she will "sing it from the rooftops" that Fine Gael will increase the pension in the next programme for government because she wants "none of this business of Willie O'Dea popping up in June or July", calling for the payment to be hiked.

"It's Willie's only trick card because he has no other trick in his back pocket which is a bit of a pity, to be honest with you, given that he was my Opposition spokesperson for the last three and a half years," she added.

Yesterday, Mr O'Dea said Fine Gael had "no credibility" on state pensions because they promised to increase it by €25 in the last programme for government and never fulfilled this pledge.

"They take people for fools because they broke their promises on pensions last time, so why should anyone believe they will stick to their word this time?" he added.

Mr O'Dea also noted that Fine Gael says it is "reckless when Fianna Fail promises to help the poor" but it's "something different" when Mr Varadkar's party makes spending commitments.

On jobseekers benefits, she said the number of people who contacted her department with tip-offs about people allegedly claiming welfare payments fraudulently had increased in recent years.

"You know what Irish people are like, we don't like snitching on each other, for want of a better word, and that's not what I'm asking people to do," she said. "I'm asking us to reach out, we know who the 70,000 people are, it's not new to us, they've been on our live register a long, long time."

She had heard about a man living in Clondalkin in Dublin who was unemployed for 23 years and when an inspection team contacted him, he "miraculously" got a job.

Ms Doherty said she would like the Department of Social Protection staff to not only hand out payments to people but also offer them other supports and give them more encouragement to get back to work.

"I want our team to get involved in people's lives, to find out what are the real reasons that they can't get a job and if there are social issues in their families or with themselves, to find services to help them. If there are not and they just need retraining and re-skilling, let's help them," she said.

Ms Doherty said she "won't play fast and loose" with disability payments because she had ordered research into the financial needs of those who are living with disabilities.

"I want to form a new policy that actually takes into account the real cost of living for all people with disabilities and that will feed into what I do and I have to tell you that it will probably be a lot more than a fiver week," she added.

The minister also hit out at those who accuse Fine Gael of being an elitist party who only look after the upper echelons of society.

"I'm the least posh person you've ever met in your life," she said, adding: "We have such a variety of people in Fine Gael."

Ms Doherty, who grew up in Ballymun in Dublin, also criticised Opposition parties who are calling on the Government to fast-track social housing construction to help alleviate the housing crisis.

"We get given out to a lot for not building 1,000 social houses in one field, in one part of the country, like we did in the 1970s and the 1980s," she said. "I grew up in that four square kilometres of 1,000 houses with not very many facilities and not much other than a great community spirit and I saw the deprivation.

"I don't want that for this generation and I certainly don't want it for our next generation and that's why we have the policy of having the 10pc and increasing it to 20pc and 30pc in the future of social and affordable houses in every housing estate that's built in every county in the country and I believe it is far more inclusive and that's what we have to be about," she added.

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