Monday 18 March 2019

80pc of welfare is provided to carers, disabled or pensioners

Hundreds of thousands of us are not using benefits to buy yachts or take a second holiday, but need it just to survive, says Willie O'Dea

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Willie O'Dea

Three weeks ago, I told how the mental image the Taoiseach wants to evoke every time the issue of welfare is raised is that of a slovenly, workshy individual sitting on the couch, watching a big-screen TV and milking the system for all its worth.

Like most of the spin this image-obsessed government peddles, the picture is not merely misleading, it is plain wrong. But that does not stop the Taoiseach or his Minister for Finance from doing it.

Lo and behold, no sooner do I raise the issue of welfare increases but a Department of Finance document, which concludes we rely too much on "monetary social transfers" to address social inequalities, mysteriously finds its way to the front page of a national newspaper.

The attack on welfare recipients not only continues, it is accelerating. I am not surprised. It is only two years since the then Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, was launching his Welfare Cheats campaign.

It is also only two years since Minister Paschal Donohoe was charging about warning that a €5 increase in the old-age pension could send us hurtling back to the economic crash, saying it would "create the kind of politics that has created the cost and difficulty that we want to put behind us as a country and we are not going to go down that path".

So, if granting increases to widows, widowers, carers, the disabled, lone parents and the sick is going to undermine our economic prosperity, then why did Fine Gael promise a €25-a-week pension increase by 2021 at the 2016 election? According to my calculations, €25 over five years equals €5 per year.

The question is rhetorical. We know the answer. Enda Kenny's Fine Gael of 2016 saw how unpopular it was with those on welfare and knew that it needed to reach out to them. Varadkar's party of 2018 does not share that view. These are not his voters.

Contrary to their spin, I am not foisting my spending plans on Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Neither am I, despite the lurid headlines, defying Micheal Martin or anyone in Fianna Fail.

The same charge was levelled at me in 2016 and 2017 and both times I had Micheal's 100pc support.

What I was doing, unapologetically, is holding Fine Gael to the election promise it made and responding to Minister Regina Doherty's warning to the poorest that they must be "pragmatic" when it comes to the next budget.

What Minister Doherty was doing was laying the groundwork for a regressive budget. It is why Varadkar and Donohue want you to ignore the fact that over 80pc of those receiving welfare are pensioners, carers, the disabled.

Let's look at this last group. In Ireland, there are more than 640,000 people living with a disability.

Four out of five acquired their disability during their working lives. Another 56,000 will be diagnosed with a disability this year.

These hundreds of thousands of people are not using welfare to buy yachts or take a second or third holiday, they are using it just to cope.

This Budget will be the first one since we ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but very many people with disabilities are still experiencing the impact of the recession. The statistics tell their own story.

Some 26pc of adults with a disability live in consistent poverty, compared to 22pc in 2015, and 11pc in 2011. This one figure alone shows how baseless this week's finance document is.

It is simply wrong that people with disabilities capable of living independent lives are trapped in their homes, residential homes or nursing homes due to a lack of Personal Assistant and Home Support hours.

Indeed, according to the Disability Federation, there could be up to 15,300 people needing but not receiving the Mobility Allowance.

These figures are terrifying but recall that it was the regressive budgetary policies pursued by Fine Gael and Labour between 2011 to 2016 that led to many of those who were already behind falling even further behind.

Fianna Fail influence has led to the last two budgets going some way to reversing that situation. This was not done willingly by Varadkar and Donohue.

It may be worse this year as Fine Gael increasingly lurches to the right. We therefore have to use all our influence to protect many hundreds of thousands of people across this country from the impacts of this government's increasingly ideological stance.

For all their sakes, we must succeed.

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail spokesman for social protection and the TD for Limerick City.

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