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Lifestyle tips from Minister for Waffle fail to convince

LANGUAGE can come back to dog a politician, and never more so than in these politically perilous times when loose lips can scupper ships of state -- or at least blow them off-course, deeper into shark-infested waters.

Election promises can come back to haunt the over-reaching vote-seeker, as Enda Kenny found out the hard way recently when the Roscommon Hospital controversy erupted, or when Eamon Gilmore (rashly as it transpired) declared that "it's Frankfurt's way or Labour's way" when it came to opposing the ECB.

Or sometimes it's just a word or a phrase that can follow a politician around like a bad smell, while handing opponents a big stick with which to beat them with relish. Therefore, "lifestyle choice" wasn't the wisest of phrases for Social Protection Minister Joan Burton to deploy when speaking about the unemployed, when at the weekend she commented: "What we are getting at the moment is people who come into the system straight after school as a lifestyle choice.

"This is not acceptable; everyone should be expected to contribute and work."

With 457,948 souls signing on last month, and unemployment at 14.2pc, this phrase -- more associated with the dilemma of selecting between a latte and a double espresso -- was guaranteed to win her few friends. But still Joan was sticking to her verbal guns yesterday morning when she arrived in North West Business Park - one of the myriad of its kind in her sprawling constituency in Dublin 15. In what may or may not have been a co-incidence, she was in the park to present FETAC certificates for qualifications in wood-work and computer training to a class of students -- an example of keeping young people off the dole and in employment.

But when asked on her way in if her "lifestyle choice" comment was out-of-kilter with the sort of policy expected from Labour (though it hardly doomed her to be a latter-day Margaret Thatcher, as Sinn Fein's Aengus O'Snodaigh excitedly proclaimed), Joan simply side-stepped the charge.

"The Labour Party is the party of working and working people and everybody in this society having an opportunity to work and contribute," she said. "Being unemployed is a misfortune that happens to people when the labour market system doesn't work for them. The job of the Labour Party is to get people back into work and the job of the social welfare system is to, in fact, protect people who can't find work or people who have retired."

Labour's mantra both before and after the election has been the J-word -- jobs.

But hard and fast information and elucidation about how these jobs are going to be created is still hard to extract.

When asked what were the actual steps that would be taken to discourage people from a 'lifestyle choice' of signing on the dole, Joan's reply was vague.

"What we're saying is that if people are offered reasonable chances and reasonable opportunities and options around, say, taking up a good quality training course, going back into education, taking up job training or work experience; if they're made reasonable offers we ask them to engage with the system," she explained.

But one thing she was less vague about was the penalties that await those who are judged to be abusing the system. "Last year in the Social Welfare Act, the then government introduced a provision that if somebody fails to engage over a period of time with the system, they could find their welfare payments cut by up to €44 a week, and that has begun in a small way in relation to a small number of people who have refused to engage with the system," she said.

So while Joan emphasised several times the urgent need to get young people and the long-term unemployed off the dole, there is still precious little detail forthcoming about what their options actually are. The minister talked about the plan in the Programme for Government to tackle this huge problem -- the setting up of a National Employment and Entitlement Service.

"That basically will ensure over a period of time that people who come into social welfare will have a better profiling system to see if they could do with support in relation to education, to go back and to maybe have a fairly specific coaching and interviewing to people who will advise them," she said.

ALL very fine and all a bit waffly. Joan is articulate and well able to talk for Ireland, as anyone who has seen her in full flight in the Dail chamber can attest. But substance over style is required. Otherwise, her "social lifestyle" remark may follow around the Minister for Social Waffle for some time to come.

Irish Independent