Social protection should be linked to the cost of living – Jnr Social Protection Minister

A Green Party minister has suggested that social benefits be linked to the cost of living in Ireland, ahead of next month’s budget.

Minister Joe O’Brien believes a fairer system could see welfare and pension rates benchmarked against the average industrial wage or cost of living.

The deputy welfare minister suggested it might be a better system than asking governments to sporadically raise rates when the money is available.

Budget negotiation

It comes as a bidding war has erupted over how much pension rates are set to rise in next month’s budget.

While some Fine Gael TDs said their parliamentary party pensions should be increased by €10 a week, last night Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness went further.

He told Dáil pensioners that the weekly payment should be increased by €20 this year – and they were promised the same increase in the 2023 budget and the 2024 budget.

The backbench MP said it would be necessary for older people to cope with inflation and the impact of climate measures on the cost of heating a home.

Finance Ministry briefing papers say giving all pensioners a €5-a-week increase in state payment would cost €175 million over a full year.

However, Minister Joe O’Brien takes a longer-term view.

He thinks that at the end of the day, political trading every year might not be the best way to do business.

At the same time, the minister says welfare rates are currently too low – suggesting the jobseeker rate and other payments should be cut from €203 a week to €245.

The minister accepts that this will not happen in the 2022 budget, but he is focusing on a longer term plan which he admits would cost billions to implement.

“We’re not going to get there in one or two steps or maybe even three steps,” he said.

“But I think that’s how we need to think – especially if we want to reduce poverty.”

Social well-being

While the Greens minister may have been expecting a tussle with his senior colleague at the Department of Social Care Heather Humphreys, Fine Gael appear to be warming to some of his ideas.

Both Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe have backed an increase in pension and welfare rates in 2022.

While Mr Varadkar has also backed a shift to a living wage in the coming years.

Poverty

But separating political promises from real and lasting system change is the challenge facing Minister O’Brien.

Figures from 2019 – the latest available – showed that 5% of Irish people live in consistent poverty, with this figure being much higher in certain groups such as children and people with disabilities.

Mr. O’Brien wants to reduce this to 2% by the end of this government term. A commendable but difficult task in the face of short-term political promises, which are coming at the time of the budget.

While some in government are clamoring to go the extra mile to throw freebies to the electorate, it’s refreshing to know that some ministers are thinking about long-term measures that could have much more impact.

Whether he is listened to is a whole other question.

Joel C. Hicks