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FG's proposals for savings lack the Ring of truth

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Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan arrives for a briefing by Department of Finance officials yesterday

Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan arrives for a briefing by Department of Finance officials yesterday

Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan arrives for a briefing by Department of Finance officials yesterday

IT WAS bad enough when Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party were at it: talking out of both sides of their mouths, telling people tough decisions had to be made but not specifying what had to be done or what they would do.

However, when Fine Gael start at it, it's more disappointing as the party is supposed to take its responsibilities a bit more seriously.

The main opposition party's spokesman on social welfare wants the Government to announce now -- six weeks out from budget day -- what benefits will be cut.

His party finance spokesman, Michael Noonan, won't rule out proposing cuts in the old age pension, child benefit or any other social welfare payment for that matter, but social welfare spokesman Michael Ring wants the Coalition to say what it would do now.

He complains that people are frightened by the speculation circulating about the cuts to come on December 7.

Yet Fine Gael's alternative minister for social welfare fails to spell out how his party would cut the social welfare bill.

"What's the point in doing that and we're not in Government?" he told the Irish Independent.

"I want the Government to stop the speculation and frightening people. Fine Gael will have its own overall budget plan."

The Mayo TD said Fine Gael did not have the same resources as the Government, which has the Department of Finance at its disposal.

"We are not going to be targeting the most vulnerable," he said. "In last year's Budget, we were quite clear that we would not target pensions and child benefit. But we haven't yet said specifically what we are doing."

On a daily basis, Fine Gael figures call for a general election to be held to give a new government a mandate to make the necessary budgetary changes.

"When the election is called, we will tell the people what we are going to do," Mr Ring said.

Curiously, Fine Gael would be able to produce a complete policy and budgetary platform in the morning if the Fianna Fail and Green Party Government collapsed and a general election was called -- but for some reason, it just can't do it right now.

Any party opting to rule out spending cuts in one area is surely obliged to specify where else it would make the savings.

Mr Ring said the Government could make savings from "taxis for the HSE costing €121m", "government reports costing €100m" and a range of areas where there is waste.

No doubt there is a significant sum to be reaped from genuinely targeting the waste of taxpayers' money.

He continued: "The drug scheme -- if we could buy cheaper drugs, we could save €2bn."

A €2bn saving from using generic drugs. Really? That's quite the jackpot. Implementing such a policy would meet almost half of the adjustment to be implemented next year.

If the Fine Gael leadership has such an ingenious plan, then why doesn't it share it with a grateful public? In one fell swoop, it would ensure no cutbacks in health would be needed for the next two years.

Funnily enough, according to the party's deputy leader and health spokesman, Dr James Reilly, the maximum saving is far lower.

"Fine Gael has estimated that the greater use of generic drugs and addressing their cost here could yield €300m," he said.

Mr Reilly and Mr Ring are colleagues on the Fine Gael frontbench, so perhaps they should share notes.

Maybe Enda Kenny should set up a frontbench sub-committee on savings to be made from generic drugs.

When Fine Gael reaches the €2bn, it can report back.

Just don't hold your breath.

The elderly, those dependent on social welfare and struggling families are unquestionably frightened by what is to come in the Budget.

Unfortunately, they're right to be afraid.

The parties in both Government and opposition are honour-bound as public representatives to ensure that the vulnerable are protected in their budgetary proposals.

But what's even worse than frightening people is giving them the false hope that there is an easy way to find no less than €15bn in spending cuts and tax hikes that won't affect everybody.

Because the reality is that there isn't.

fsheahan@independent.ie

Irish Independent