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Welfare system is unsustainable

The rates of welfare and the numbers who are receiving welfare payments from the State are no longer sustainable. This may appear to be a harsh statement, but if we really want to create a functional state out of the debacle FF and the PDs bequeathed to us, it is time we dealt with such issues truthfully.

The chances of a rational discourse on the role of welfare are alas slim in a country that increasingly resembles one of those surreal polities Gulliver travelled to. Instead, those who even dare to raise the sustainability of our welfare rates will be targeted by the vast taxpayer-funded industry of poverty advocates and told we belong to the "no-such-thing-as-society" Thatcher wing of politics.

The problem, however, is that if Ireland does not resolve its escalating welfare crisis we may soon not have a functioning society at all. The most chilling of the many stark figures surrounding the current welfare bill is the revelation that over the last 15 years we have moved from spending 19 per cent and 22 per cent of the nation's gross expenditure on education and welfare respectively, to a new ratio of 16 per cent on education and 36 per cent on welfare.

Such a pattern of expenditure has grim implications for our future. This may be the age of uncertainty, but in a week when our children, who know so little of failure or fear, returned to school, if this imbalance continues Ireland is in real danger of becoming the equivalent of one of those tragic Indian reservations where welfare is the dominant or sometimes sole industry.

One of the proudest boasts of Brian Cowen was that Fianna Fail had an "unrivalled record in increasing the level of social welfare payments". It was, at least, accurate, for during the initial 12 years in office of the three-term Ahern administration FF increased pensions by 120 per cent, unemployment benefits by almost 130 per cent and child benefit payments by 330 per cent.

It is, one supposes, actually possible they believed transforming social welfare payments "beyond recognition" was some form of good governance. In fact, it was an act of fiscal lunacy and yet another example of the Peron-style politics of the pork barrel, which has gutted this unfortunate State.

If this Government does not take decisive measures to seriously cut welfare it will be as guilty of squandering our children's future on current pleasures as its despised predecessors. It certainly appears to still have good intentions on the reform front. But Richard Bruton's modest proposals to merge five employment quangos into one and Brendan Howlin's ambitions to secure the largest reduction in public service numbers in the history of the State are merely an amuse-bouche when set against the level of carving up that has to be done in a country where bureaucratic Lilliputians are spending taxpayers money to construct bicycle lanes on motorways.

Spending close to two-thirds of our tax take on welfare is one of the many aspects of the governance of the State that is simply not sustainable. It is past time for this Government to lay out a tough strategic vision of how we will emerge from the squalid mess we find ourselves in. Outside of the necessary reform of the welfare system, a good start would consist of Pat Rabbitte, and others, doing to the ESB what Mrs Thatcher did to the coal miners. And after that, on to our banks, for more of the same good medicine.

Sunday Independent