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John Drennan: 'Deadbeat dads' under fire in new proposals

THE dependency culture of "deadbeat dads" who father children and then expect the social welfare system to support them has been attacked by Fine Gael backbenchers as frustrated elements of the party move sharply to the right.

New Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin, who stressed she was speaking in a personal capacity, wants to introduce national military service for all young men.

She warned against the unrealistic "culture of entitlement'' where people believe "if you are not working you are entitled to the same lifestyle as those who are employed".

Ms Mulherin is not the only Fine Gael backbencher openly challenging social welfare policy as tensions escalate between the Coalition parties over the painfully slow pace of reform.

A new, tough approach to social welfare entitlements is gaining ground within Fine Gael with many backbenchers saying action is required now -- and not just in the area of stamping out fraud, which has been the main policy of the Minister for Social Protection so far.

It comes as new figures show the taxpayer is now paying out nearly €1bn a year in illness benefit -- twice as much as during the Celtic Tiger years.

In 2005, when the economy was booming, sickness payouts amounted to €540m. Last year illness benefits cost the taxpayer €943m.

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A recent Fine Gael party meeting heard a number of radical proposals to fundamentally change the social welfare system.

The proposals included a call from one Dublin TD for "a cap on the amount of social welfare funding any one house or family can receive''.

A number of TDs also expressed their concern about the rise of "serial dads" who father large numbers of children and then, as one backbencher put it, "abandon them to a social welfare system that is far too quick to jump in and allow individuals to abdicate their personal responsibilities''.

One proposed solution to this issue, which was warmly received, was to limit payments to single mothers to two children and that any further children would not be the State's responsibility.

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A number of TDs complained about a new "culture of entitlement'' among claimants. One TD noted that "in the past constituents would have asked: 'What are my entitlements?' Now they march into the office with a list of them and tell me to get them sorted".

Afterwards one senior party figure expressed reservations about the strident right-wing tone of the meeting.

He said: "It was astonishing stuff in there, the mood would not have been out of place at a convention of the Tea Party movement in America. There's a lot of young and not-so-young Turks in here. Poor Frances Fitzgerald (the liberal Minister for Children and Youth Affairs) was nearly crying and the jaws of a few more dropped too.

"These fellows won't be dictated to by Labour."

One of the strongest speeches was made by Ms Mulherin, who warned against a "culture of entitlement'' where people believe "if you are not working you are entitled to the same lifestyle as those who are employed".

Ms Mulherin slammed Fianna Fail for its policy on long-term unemployment where "the State threw a few crumbs at people in order to keep them quiet and at arm's length''.

Ms Mulherin also claimed that the newly unemployed were "finding themselves being lost and abused" when they enter the social welfare system. She also said that "fathers on social welfare who have children should be made to face up to their responsibilities by making a contribution to the maintenance of the child".

Ms Mulherin also said that to create a new ethos of citizenship "all young men and not just the unemployed should have a year of military service''.

It is believed an increasingly "agitated" top table attempted to calm the situation by suggesting that the current Social Protection Minister Joan Burton be brought along to address the party.

This, however, received a cool response from TDs.

A senior Dublin TD told the Sunday Independent that many of the young backbenchers forcefully "made it clear that Fine Gael was entitled to hold its own opinions and policies on social welfare reform''. Labour backbenchers were reluctant to comment on the apparent shift to the right on social welfare policy by a number of Fine Gael TDs.

That reticence may have been influenced by a leadership crackdown on perceived indiscipline in Labour's ranks. Concern was in particular expressed by the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who sardonically thanked the party's TDs for their speed in ensuring the minutes of its meetings were available in the printed media so swiftly.

It was, however, also made clear to the erring representatives that the leadership would have difficulties "saying anything at party meetings" if a verbatim transcript of sensitive issues continue to appear in the newspapers the following day.