Monday 21 October 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Pensioners are not a section of the electorate to be messed with'


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Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Hearing Paschal Donohoe use the word "bonkers" on live radio is a rare event. In fact, it has probably only happened once.

The Finance Minister is a man of many words, but they tend to be carefully measured.

But after what was supposed to be a largely positive Budget in October 2017, he found himself embroiled in the most unexpected of controversies. It was a budget of two halves. Families got an €8-a-week tax cut, he announced the introduction of a sugar tax and there was a big hike to land sales tax.

And predictably in this era of confidence and supply, there was an extra fiver for the pensioners.

But there was big problem which the Government hadn't accounted for: not everybody was entitled to that €5.

On the morning after the Budget, Mr Donohoe went on 'Today With Sean O'Rourke' as normal to discuss the fallout with members of the public.

A man called Eamon Tynan rang in to discuss his wife's situation. She was losing out on €35 a week from her State pension because she had a summer job when she was a secondary school student in the 1960s.

It turned out she was not alone. Tens of thousands of people, primarily women, were in a similar situation. Some of them were losing out because the State forced them to give up work after having children.

Rightly, Mr Donohoe acknowledged the anomaly as "bonkers and unbelievable".

It came about because of a change made in 2012 to how the State calculates the 'contributory' pension.

The Department of Social Protection began adding up the total number of PRSI contributions a person made during their working life and then dividing it by the number of years worked. However, the 'averaging' system didn't make any allowances for people who had summer jobs as a teenager or took time out to care for a family member.

It was especially hard on the thousands of women who left the workforce before 1994 to care for children.

"It just seems incredible now that we did live in a country that required women to leave their jobs if they got married and equally what we are living with is the consequences of that now," the minister said.

He promised to set about rectifying the situation but warned it would take some time as it wouldn't be cheap. Around 90,000 pensioners had the potential to be affected.

To be fair, the Department of Social Protection assigned 115 staff to reviewing individual cases and so far they have gotten through 42,775. But half of those who engaged with the process are realising that they aren't entitled to a top-up.

It brings the potential for another PR nightmare for the Government.

Pensioners are not a section of the electorate that politicians like to mess with.

There is no doubt that many of those contacted by the department in recent months had expected to see their pension rise as a result.

Irish Independent

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