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Andrew Lynch: Burton's warning to benefit frauds is brave but she risks political explosion

Work or starve. Joan Burton's warning to welfare cheats may not be quite as stark as that, but this is the way her opponents will spin it in what's set to become a bitter political battle over the next few months.

Behind all the emotional rhetoric, the minister has a point -- but she must learn to make it in a more sensitive way if she's to achieve the reforms that would sort out this problem once and for all.

Burton's claim that some people see the dole as "a lifestyle choice" certainly sounds odd coming from a Labour politician.

If Mary Harney or Michael McDowell had said something similar, they would certainly have been lambasted as right-wing fascists with no understanding of what living on the breadline is really like.

Tarring Burton with that brush will be much more difficult, since she has worked in Africa and knows the true meaning of the word 'poverty'.

Even so, Burton's outburst is a clear sign of just how desperately the Government needs to raise money in next December's Budget.

Of the €33bn that the State collects in taxes every year, almost two thirds of it goes straight back out again through the social welfare budget.

Since these payments are often twice as high as what people in other EU countries get, it is hardly surprising that the IMF has made dole reform a key condition of its Irish rescue package.

Only the very naive believe that every single person receiving jobseekers' allowance is busting their gut to find paid employment.

Even during the Celtic Tiger, unemployment never dipped below 4pc -- partly because some people are physically incapable of working, partly because others are chronically workshy.

The sharp increase in immigration during those years was precisely because foreign nationals were happy to take jobs that the Irish considered to be somehow beneath them.

Now the system is so dysfunctional that for many people the difference between taking a minimum-wage job and surviving on State benefits is practically zero.

That situation is likely to be made even worse when the Government pushes through its JLC reforms, which are likely to cut the salaries of those who work overtime or on Sundays.

We have all heard the anecdotal evidence of unemployed people in their 30s or 40s with several kids on their hands, who enjoy reasonably comfortable lifestyles and have no intention of ever getting their hands dirty again.

So, Burton is right to say there is a problem.

The question is, how does she intend to target the spongers without hurting the genuinely vulnerable?

From a political point of view, she might have been better off publishing concrete proposals instead of lashing out with a soundbite that allowed her enemies to gleefully label her the new Margaret Thatcher.

Of course, the system already allows welfare officers to reduce payments for those who refuse to accept a reasonable job offer or training place. In the three months that this rule has been enforced, however, just 55 people have suffered this fate.

Clearly something a lot more rigorous is required -- because since the Government has promised not to cut social welfare rates this year, cracking down on fraud is the only way to make serious savings.

As Burton keeps pointing out, most of the 457,948 people signing on are desperately looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Some have been paying taxes for the past 40 years and are fully entitled to State support now that they have fallen on hard times.

If the Government is serious about giving the terminally lazy a kick up the backside, it should also provide more opportunities for the people who genuinely want to start contributing to the economy again.

Burton has set herself a worthy goal, but she is now walking in a political minefield.

She must choose her words very carefully from now on if she wants to avoid being blown up.