THE SEANAD could put a 90-day block on the government’s Budget plans to introduce welfare cuts and PRSI increases from January, when it votes on proposals this week.
The 60-member chamber is set to debate the Social Welfare Bill on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week – and could come close to mustering enough numbers to defeat the legislation put before it.
The government’s majority in the Seanad is quite small, and is usually padded out only by the assistance of independent senators who occasionally side with the government on miscellaneous proposals.
The contentious Social Welfare Bill – which contains cuts to child benefit and respite care grants, as well as increases in employee PRSI contributions – could see solid rejection from opposition members, meaning the government’s majority (assuming everyone votes on party lines) is 31-28.
At least one Labour senator, however, has said he has “certain concerns” and is yet to be convinced to vote in favour of the Bill this week.
Limerick-based Senator James Heffernan told RTÉ’s This Week he had “certain concerns” about what he described as a ”blanket cut” to child benefit, which he saw as being in direct breach of his party’s pre-election promises.
“I’m not going to be strong-armed or bullied into voting one way or the other,” he said. “I’m not going to make an ill-informed decisions… ultimately I’m going to make up my own mind.
Heffernan and several other Labour senators – some of which have already voted against the government in the lifetime of this Seanad – are to meet with senior Labour ministers this week to discuss their grievances before deciding on how they might vote.
“When next week comes, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Heffernan said of his vote. “Let’s just say I’m unconvinced at the moment.”
Other senators who are critical of some of the Bill’s contents are Denis Landy, John Kelly and John Whelan.
How can the Seanad hold up the Budget?
Under the terms of the Constitution, the Social Welfare Bill cannot be designated as a ‘money bill’, because it contains provisions other than those dealing with the levying of taxes.
While the Dáil can ignore the Seanad’s dissent and push through a Bill unilaterally, it can only do so after a 90-day waiting period – enough to push the Bill back to the end of June and completely torpedo the rest of the Budget process.
The only way this could be avoided is if the Seanad did not block the legislation entirely, and make only amendments to it – which the Dáil could then vote to agree with and ensure the Bill is passed before January 1.
Speaking in response to Heffernan’s comments, Eamon Gilmore said he believed “everybody has concerns over different aspects of the Budget”, which was likely to be the most difficult of the current government’s tenure, but that the measures were necessary to rescue the public finances.
“Unless we solve the economic crisis, unless we get the country out of the economic mess that we’re in… then issues like the payment of welfare… will be put at risk,” the Labour leader said.