With just three weeks to go until the Government unveils its first Budget, Fine Gael and Labour appear to be in an escalating state of confusion over their plans for the social welfare budget next year.
Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Social Protection Barry Cowen has expressed concern that a number of Ministers have been giving the impression that savings achieved through the regular annual crackdown on social welfare fraud will be deducted from the overall €700 million worth of savings that the Government has indicated it wants to save next year.
Deputy Cowen said: “Government Ministers have been giving the impression that through tackling fraud they can achieve the bulk of the target they have set for savings at the Department of Social Protection next year. As recently as last night on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd said: “We’ve made it very clear that primary social welfare benefits will not be cut. We are dealing very specifically with fraud, and we reckon that we will save something like €625 million on fraud. And we are also looking at issues around rent allowance and so on.”
“The targeted savings from a crackdown on fraud this year are €540 million and Minister Burton has set a target of €625 million next year. Even if the Minister manages to reach both of these targets, this will amount to a maximum increased saving to the exchequer next year of €85 million.
“The Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton needs to clarify this immediately. From the very moment that they took up office, Fine Gael and Labour Ministers have been contradicting each other over their plans for social welfare. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore have repeatedly promised to protect rates, while Ministers Joan Burton and Brendan Howlin have been much less clear on these promises.
“Now we have a situation where certain Ministers are engaging in a new routine, refusing to acknowledge broken promises and instead giving the impression that another initiative to tackle fraud will represent the bulk of their adjustment in Social Protection. If this is true, we welcome it. However, the mixed messages are only adding to the distress of people who are dependent on social welfare and are worried about how they will cope next year. The Minister must move quickly to clarify the situation.”