THE Government does not have “a magic money tree” from which to pluck financial reliefs for citizens when times are hard, a Cabinet minister has said.
Heather Humphreys claimed that “a huge amount” had already been done for those caught in the cost-of-living squeeze.
She was asked about fuel prices for the vast number of workers who must commute to the office as she launched a scheme of three free vouchers for those availing of remote working hubs,
The Social Protection Minister was told that the price of a litre of petrol had now reached €2.14, with a price of €2.02 at the pumps for a litre of diesel.
“I’m obviously very conscious of the impact of cost-of-living increases happening across the country,” she said, noting that her own welfare budget last year was the biggest in 14 years.
She added: “The Government has already provided a support package of €2.5 billion. We have done a lot – and I think for people to say that we've done nothing is wrong.”
Minister Humphreys insisted: “We have done a huge amount. We have cut the excise on diesel and on petrol. We have cut the VAT on the gas and electricity. We have reduced public transport fares by 20pc.
“So we have done an awful lot already. But there are limits as to what Government can do. We do not have a magic money tree.”
Ms Humphreys said there was a fund in her own department “to support all people who find themselves in hardship”, which is available through community welfare officers.
“There's a major campaign underway at the minute across the media to tell people that if you are in difficulty, contact your community welfare officers,” she said.
“Social protection is there to help – we want to make people aware of this fund to help those who find themselves in hardship.
“And the other thing is if people can work remotely, they will find a hub very close to them. Because there are so many hubs across the country now.
“So rather than traveling to Dublin, you'll be able to stay and work at a hotdesk.”
The Government keeps its eye on the situation, she said. “There is a limit to what the Government can do.”
But she added: “I do understand that some people can find themselves in difficulties, but I'm saying my Department of Social Protection is here to help and to make sure that they get support.”
Launching her new voucher scheme of 10,000 free days – three per person at a remote working hub – the minister admitted she had no idea how many were currently working from hubs or from their homes.
But she said the Government had a target of 400 remote working hubs by 2025, and was likely to have 300 by the end of this year.
“We already have 240 on the Connected Hubs platform. We're well set to meet and, I hope, exceed our targets. When you visit a hub, you meet people who are no longer in the position where they have to choose between their career or living in their community.
“You meet parents who get to spend more time with their families instead of facing a long commute, sitting in traffic. You meet people who have upped sticks altogether and left the city and made the move back to their home town or parish.
"They're back involved in the local GAA club and they're surrounded by the family and friends that they grew up with.”
The National Remote Workplace Survey, published last week, showed that 95pc of workers believe that remote working has made life easier for them.
“Remote working improves people's quality of life,” Ms Humhreys said.
“I suppose it comes back to that old adage – work to live, don't live to work. I think the pandemic brought that home for a lot of people and made them reassess what’s truly important.”
The same survey by NUIG showed that over a third of workers would consider moving jobs to avail of remote working.
Ms Humphreys announced three new elements to support and enable remote working in communities across the country, with over €5 million in funding to support further hub development.
Second is the incentive of 10,000 free hot desk days for remote workers via a voucher system. And third – €50,000 will be made available to every local authority “so they can showcase and highlight what their county has to offer” to convince workers to move to their locality.