| 15.4°C Dublin

Public sector wages safe but free travel in firing line

Close

Leigh Gath from Limerick outside the Dail reading the guarantee letter from the HSE that personal assistants hours will not be cut.

Leigh Gath from Limerick outside the Dail reading the guarantee letter from the HSE that personal assistants hours will not be cut.

Leigh Gath from Limerick outside the Dail reading the guarantee letter from the HSE that personal assistants hours will not be cut.

PAY cuts for the public sector are definitely off the table for the forthcoming Budget, but cuts to the free travel scheme for 1 million people are being looked at.

The Cabinet decided to stick with the Croke Park agreement for the last year of its term with the option open to go for a more ambitious plan next time around.

The agreement protects public sector pay and prevents any further cuts.

At their first meeting back after the summer break, ministers debated the difficulties of putting the Budget together, especially when pay can't be touched.

Health Minister James Reilly explained to colleagues that the cuts to come in health next year would be terrible and will hit frontline services.

Views

But Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin insisted the existing deal couldn't be altered.

Although ministers expressed differing views on the agreement, there was no change of policy.

Following the meeting, Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe said on Newstalk FM that the Coalition was "absolutely committed" to the Croke Park agreement.

However, the free travel scheme is being looked at ahead of the Budget.

The €75m scheme is available to more than 1.1 million people, pensioners, people with disabilities, carers and their companions.

But the Government is stressing it is only a review and "no decision has been made".

There are 720,000 elderly and disabled people eligible for free travel, and when passes for spouses and companions are added in, there are over 1.1 million people eligible.

A review group is currently working on the scheme, comprising officials from the Departments of Social Protection, Transport, Public Expenditure and Reform and the National Transport Authority.

The cost of the scheme has risen over the past decade from €46m in 2001 to €75m in 2011. But the sums paid to transport companies have been frozen for the past two years.

The review is to examine and report on the current operation and future development of the Free Travel scheme.

"The review is in the early stages. The Department appreciates the important role that free travel plays in promoting social inclusion and preventing the isolation of elderly people," the department said.

The Government is still licking its wounds over the health cuts debacle.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney admitted the Government had made a "mistake".

"I will leave the commentary to the Minister for Health," he said at the launch of the National Ploughing Championships in New Ross, Co Wexford.

"However, it is important that if the Government makes a mistake, that it is rectified quickly," he added.

Meanwhile, Junior Minister Roisin Shortall continued her spat with Dr Reilly saying there was "poor communication" between herself and the Health Minister over the planned cuts to the Health Service.

The Junior Minister said she was only told about the planned €130m in health cuts an hour before it was announced last week.

Irish Independent