Wednesday 13 December 2017

Varadkar on councillors' benefits and being a 'statistics nerd'

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Collins
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Collins

Social Protection minister Leo Varadkar says he won't give councillors “special treatment” as he considers extending access to benefits to them and also admitted he's become a "statistics nerd" in his new portfolio.

Mr Varadkar made the remarks while taking questions on his brief in the Seanad.

Last month he revealed he may allow access to benefits to councillors with the remarks leading to speculation that it was a tentative move on the Fine Gael leadership given that the party's councillors make up part of the electorate for the role.

While questions over the Taoiseach continued leadership of the party arose last week, Mr Varadkar - one of the main contenders to succeed him - insisted there’s no vacancy and that Enda Kenny has his support.

This evening he further elaborated on the proposal to extend benefits to councillors.

Councillors currently pay a 4pc PRSI rate known as Class K but aren't entitled to benefits like jobseeker's allowance.

Mr Varadkar said that any measures to change this situation would be included in the Social Welfare Bill that would come before the House by the end of the year.

He said that the Local Authorities Members Association and Association of Irish Local Government are conducting a survey where councillors are being presented with two options.

Mr Varadkar explained councillors could: “Either to go Class S which is similar to self-employed where they would continue to pay 4pc and would get some benefits but not all benefits… or just not pay it at all.”

He added: “What I can’t allow is councillors to pick or choose their class.

“We’d all love to be able to pick or choose what taxes we pay and pick or choose what class of PRSI we pay. I can’t do that.

“What I will do for councillors is fair treatment. I can’t do special treatment and I don’t think anyone in the house would want me to do that.”

The remarks came during Statements on Social Protection where Mr Varadkar was also asked about his plans for supporting pensioners by Fianna Fáil Senator Gerry Horkan.

“Senator Horkan encouraged a strong focus on pensioners and certainly I’ll do my best in that regard in the forthcoming Budget. But others mentioned carers and people with disabilities as well.

“Actually when you look at the statistics - I’m starting to become a bit of a statistics nerd in this Department - interestingly enough if you take the poorest 10pc in Irish society - the lowest decile – virtually none of those are pensioners.

“They’re almost all people with disabilities, carers and those on lower incomes than pensioners.

“That’s not to say we should do nothing for pensioners but it’s something that I think does need to be borne in mind,” Mr Varadkar said.

On other matters he told Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins that his department should take a central role in gender and equality-proofing Budgets – a procedure that has been promised in the Programme for Government.

He was also asked about lower rates of job-seeker’s allowance for the under-25s and said that “most countries” have this policy for “lots of good reasons”.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to give an 18-year-old €188-a-week,” he added.

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