Earlier this week I was criticised on social media for tabling a parliamentary question on social welfare policy and spending. I was slightly puzzled as I found it difficult to understand why people felt it was inappropriate that I would table a question on how €20 billion, or 40%, of our State spending is allocated. I firmly believe that a Deputy who is disinterested in the way State money is being spent is failing in his or her duty to his or her constituents and also to taxpayers.
In any debate on social protection it is important to ask the purpose of it and what we are trying to achieve. Social protection represents a helping hand. It is a support for a person in need experiencing a difficult time. It is a positive influence in our society and is the very definition of solidarity – a promise that the State will intervene in cases where people must overcome challenges and traumatic events. Those are not ideals shared in all countries throughout the world but they should be in any democracy.
Social welfare, however, is not something that should support the minority of capable citizens who choose not to work. That is particularly true at a time of great stress and constraints on our State finances, when every euro counts more than ever before and there is an added obligation to ensure those most in need are supported. We must always be mindful of those who are unable to work due to illness or disability.
Despite significant economic pressures the Government has been able to protect core social welfare rates in budget 2014 including the State pension, the invalidity pension, illness benefit and the disability allowance, the survivor’s pension and carer’s benefit and allowances. That is in addition to protecting pupil-teacher class ratios, student grant levels, the €1.3 billion budget for special needs and learning resource education, the weekly fuel allowance, and announcing the provision of free general practitioner, GP, care for every child under the age of six. Free travel has been protected as well. These are real and concrete measures that reflect the Government’s commitment to tackling poverty and protecting the most vulnerable in our society, as agreed by the two parties in the programme for Government.
The Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, is Minister for Social Protection at the most challenging time in the history of the State. No other Minister has faced such immense challenges, problems and issues. The Minister must be commended on effectively managing the Department and overseeing the continued payment and support of well over 1 million of our citizens. That is happening only a few short years after a time when it was not certain the State would have the finance and wherewithal to provide weekly payments.
This is also the Minister who introduced the one-stop-shop for jobseekers, known as the Intreo service, something that was talked about for decades but which the Minister and this Government have been able to do. That allows one-to-one tailored assistance which will better meet the needs of the young and the not so young.
The flip side of social welfare is getting people back to work. Increasing the number of jobs means a decrease in the number of people requiring social assistance. Job creation is the number one priority of Government. We have experienced 15 consecutive months of increased employment with an extra 34,000 jobs being created in the past 12 months, 4,200 of those in the west. The success of existing measures can be seen in the 7.5% fall in unemployment figures for Galway last month. Nationally, the live register has fallen below 400,000 for the first time since May 2009. There is quite a distance to go but budget 2014 builds on this success with a range of measures that are pro-jobs and pro-local business.
I was particularly pleased, and it relates to this area although not confined to this Bill, about the decision on maintaining the 9% VAT rate for the tourism sector, which was particularly important, the abolition of the air travel tax, the welcome announcement in Shannon this morning of the additional flights, and the €8 million to be invested in the Wild Atlantic Way. These are all measures that will get people back to work. We must continue to work hard to ensure our efforts at assisting social welfare claimants as well as the efforts at reform are focused on assisting genuine, honest citizens. A job is central to a person’s self-development and self-worth. It is vital we create the best conditions possible to ensure as many people as possible can find employment, and the social welfare system plays a huge part in that.
Before the budget I met a number of groups, including, in my area, the Knocknacarra Community Active Retirement Group and the Moycullen Active Retirement Association in my village. At that pre-budget meeting in Moycullen, they raised four main issues about which they were concerned. One was that the State pension would be protected and maintained, another was the free travel scheme, the third was the household benefits package, and the fourth was medical cards. I was confident enough at that meeting to be clear in my view that the State pension and the free travel would be protected. I was not as clear, and that has come to be true, about the household benefits package. It is regrettable that cuts have had to be imposed but, as I explained, the choices are quite limited.
On the medical cards, it is not an issue for this Bill but we must have much clearer communication from the Health Service Executive, particularly to the elderly, on what is allowed and the changes that have taken place to ensure they are not scared by letters that are somewhat threatening or difficult to follow. The language should be couched in a more caring way. I commend the Minister and support the Bill.