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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 27 November, 2014

As it happened: Noonan and Howlin answer questions about Budget 2014

Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin are answering questions on Today with Seán O’Rourke now.

Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin in studio with Seán O'Rourke
Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin in studio with Seán O'Rourke
Image: Brian McEvoy

IT’S THE MORNING after the night before and the reaction to the Budget has been perhaps less harsh than the Government had been anticipating.

Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin are answering questions from the public on Today with Seán O’Rourke on RTE Radio One this morning – the first time that they’ll have dealt with reaction from people who have been affected by yesterday’s announcement – and we’re going to be following what happens.

10.10 – Noonan and Howlin are talking to Seán O’Rourke now about their reasoning behind the decisions made in Budget 2014 before they get into the questions. You can listen to it here on the RTE website. Plus iIf you have any questions – medical cards? prescription charges? maternity benefit changes? – you can text the show on 51551, tweet them using the hashtag #todaysor or email todaysor@rte.ie.

10.13 – Brendan Howlin is very defensive about the suggestion that the Government is deliberately trying to get young people to emigrate, saying it “most certainly is not” a policy the government is pursuing.

Instead, he says, there is a deliberate focus on avoiding the mistakes of the 1980s. He says that young people should be in education and training, not on the dole.

[Aside: you can read this column here by people in their 20s about why they say it's a bad idea to cut the dole to €100 for people aged under 24]

10.22 – Robert, a separated father, is the first caller. He says his tax credits have been reduced by more than €1,600 per year because he is technically the secondary carer for his kids. It will reduce his income by about €60 per month.

Noonan fields this one. “I can see why you’re not too pleased with that,” he says. He says families with separated parents get two tax credits, so the move comfines the tax credit to the principal carer (the person who gets child benefit). He says Robert can make an arrangement with his former partner to divide the tax allowance as appropriate.

Is Robert satisfied? Well, no, he says. He thinks it’s discriminating towards secondary carers and is unfair.

10.27Next up is Stella from Galway who has two boys, both of whom have cerebral palsy and who both require 24 hour care. She’s asking about the review of medical cards, which the Government says could save €113 million but which has raised concerns among carers and ill people.

Brendan Howlin says there is “no policy to cut discretionary cards” and says people should not lose a discretionary card unless they’re well in excess of the financial guidelines for cards.

“What we’re doing is to ensure that medical cards are received by those who really need them, people like yourselves,” says Howlin. He says Ireland has more medical cards than any time in our history – there are currently 1.9 million cards, which covers more than 40 per cent of the population.

Stella says she’s heard that already, but that her sons have been without their medical cards since 16 September. Howlin gently asks if she earns a lot more than the guidelines but Stella says she and her husband don’t.

10.28 – On medical cards, Howlin says the decision to remove medical cards has been a HSE move, not a government policy. He says people like Stella’s sons are likely to need the cards on medical grounds and shouldn’t have them removed.

10.30 – Next up is David, who asks about allowances to TDs which he says haven’t been hit when the rate of interest on DIRT has been increased to 41 per cent. He says the government is hitting savers and pensioners.

10.33 – Michael Noonan says it’s a ‘marginal change’ in DIRT which is encouraging people to spend rather than to save.

Aside: it’s certainly doing that with a rate of 41 per cent…

10.35 – Philip rings up to ask about the prescription charge, which increased from €1.50 per item to €2.50 per item. He says he’s on disability allowance as he has cancer, bipolar disorder and Crohn’s disease, and says it’s increasingly difficult for him to afford his medication.

Brendan Howlin says the Government is bringing in a range of measures to bring down the costs of medicine, which is a huge part of the health bill, such as encouraging the use of generic drugs.

10.37 – Brendan Howlin on the telephone allowance: “We’d love to avoid [scrapping it], we wish we didn’t have to do it”. However, he says, the Government hasn’t touched the package of core payments for pensioners, including free travel and the electricity allowance, which are things that people cherish and want to keep.

10.39 – Looking at the #todaySOR hashtag on  Twitter, there is no one issue dominating what people are talking about in the wake of the Budget, which seems to echo what we’ve seen on the site. There’s concern about the maternity benefit change, the scrappage of the Bereavement Grant, the prescription charge increase, dole for the under-24s, and the telephone allowance abolition, but so far there’s no one issue which is getting all the attention.

10.41 – A publican rings up asking why the Government is penalising pubs when the industry is on its knees.

Michael Noonan says it was a difficult Budget and rather than taxing the necessities, it was reasonable to tax cigarettes and alcohol instead. He says that he did help the hospitality industry by retaining the popular VAT rate at 9 per cent.

10.43 – Ok, this is interesting on alcohol. Michael Noonan tells the publican that he wants to see people drinking in pubs, rather than buying “slabs” of low-cost alcohol and drinking them at home. He says the Government is waiting to see the outcome of a case currently before the European courts about whether Scotland should be allowed to set a minimum price for alcohol.

He says that if the case is won, the Government will bring in minimum pricing orders for alcohol in a bid to combat the “very serious problem” of low-cost alcohol. What do you make of that?

10.49 – Brendan calls up to say  he was made redundant twice in recent years from relatively well-paying jobs and currently works part-time as a lecturer. He asks why young people are being penalised with cuts to Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Brendan Howlin is firm on this: he says the Government wants to “avoid the mistakes of the 1980s where young people left school, went into unemployment and stayed there”.

10.52Howlin says the Government is trying to create thousands of Jobsbridge roles, internships, Tús community work – “as many different schemes as we can [to] incentivise people into education and training”.  He points out that if young people go into education or training, they get €160 per week.

Brendan (the caller, not the Minister) is not impressed with this, pointing out that many of the schemes are unsuitable for the people who do them, and that it’s all about putting bums on chairs.

10.58 – Awkward exchange of the day. Fergal rings up to ask about the cutting of the Bereavement Grant, which angered a lot of people yesterday. However, he doesn’t talk directly about the grant – instead, he asks why the State is burdened with the cost of funerals for politicians.

Brendan Howlin: “Politicians pay for their own funerals…”

Fergal shoots back: What about the last Taoiseach?

There’s an awkward silence while everyone wonders if something has happened to Brian Cowen that no-one knows about. Seán O’Rourke ends the silence by pointing out that Charlie Haughey was probably the last State funeral for a politician but that was in 2006.

“What about Enda Kenny next week or next month?,” asks Fergal, undeterred.

“This is getting a bit morbid,” says Seán O’Rourke, trying frantically to get things back on track.

11.00 – A caller named Brian asks about the bank levy which will see bailed-out banks giving €150 million per year to the Exchequer. “Who’s going to end up paying for this?” he asks. He says banks will just increase their handling charges and general charges so that taxpayers end up footing the bill.

Noonan says it is the Central Bank’s job to enforce regulations to ensure that banks don’t pass this one on to taxpayers.

11.01 – Did the Government finally get the nerve to hit older people after being too worried about taking a political hit in previous years, wonders Seán O’Rourke?

No, says Michael Noonan firmly. “We’re protecting older people”. He says the Government didn’t touch pensions or income tax credits for older people and that the basic package for pensioners was not affected.

Not sure if pensioners would see it like that, judging by some of the calls.

11.03 – I like how happy Seán O’Rourke looks in this photo from the RTÉ studios compared to the serious faces of the Ministers:

(Pic: Brian McEvoy)

11.11 – And that’s it. Seán O’Rourke raises some closing questions of his own with the Ministers about the fairness of the medical card review, which has raised so many hackles, but which the Ministers insist is the fairest way of ensuring that only people who need medical cards get them.

11.17 – And with that, it’s all over. The questions were focused on a broad range of issues arising from the Budget, which seems to have been the Government’s approach – tax and cut a huge range of measures so that no one group or issue becomes the focus point.

Predictably the ministers were defensive – confident, even – about the Budget, saying that they just did what they had to do and the money had to come from somewhere.

What did you make of it all?

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