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Social Welfare Minister Joan Burton pictured earlier this week. Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Column The social welfare bill - 'I wonder what this button does?'

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly laments “a series of policy mistakes” embedded into our legislation tonight as the Social Welfare Bill is signed into law.

THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION is signing the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill tonight, and with it embeds a series of policy mistakes into our law.

Those mistakes matter – getting welfare wrong can condemn parents to poverty traps, take valuable skills out of the labour market and reinforce intergenerational poverty.

And the way those mistakes were made demonstrated a worrying contempt for democracy.

First, the mistakes. This Bill is part of a policy approach being pursued by the Fine Gael / Labour Government in which those least able to bear the burden of the economic crisis are being asked to bear most, and those most able are being asked to bear almost none of it. This is not rhetoric – a few weeks ago the Central Statistics Office published a report showing that for 2010, the poorest tenth of the population lost 26 per cent of their disposable income, while the richest tenth saw an 8 per cent increase. Ninety per cent of households saw their incomes fall: and the poorer the household, the bigger the fall.

Since then, this Government has brought in a budget that the ESRI described as regressive, in that it took proportionately more off poorer people than wealthier people.

One of the most obvious examples of this regressive approach is the extraordinary attack on lone parents started in the budget, and now continued in this new Bill.

At a community centre in Fassaroe in Bray, I asked what the precise impact of the budgetary package would be on the lone parents they work with. For a single parent with four children, the cuts added up to nearly €4,600.

In contrast, a single high-earner with no children is being hit for precisely €100 – the household charge. So this Government is taking 46 times more from the single parent raising four children than from the high earner raising none. As a percentage of their relative incomes it’s probably closer to 100 times.

This week, it got much, much worse. Under the Bill, lone parents will lose something called the One Parent Family Payment when their child turns 8, rather than 15. At this point, they are expected to use childcare and seek work. There are two problems with this: What childcare? What work?

There are 26 unemployed people for each job vacancy in Ireland, compared to an EU average ratio of seven, according to Eurostat.

We also have some of the most expensive childcare on earth, meaning that for many lone parents, even if they could find a job, their net wage wouldn’t even cover the costs (and childcare is not tax deductible). This is a classic poverty trap, penalising the parent and, of course, the children.

Joan Burton gave a commitment that this measure would not be implemented until she had received “a credible and bankable commitment” that a “Scandinavian” quality childcare system would be set up. The making of such a commitment just illustrates how bankrupt our political system has become.

Many things could happen after this Bill becomes law to prevent such a system being set up, no matter what Joan Burton’s intentions may be. Bringing in law on the basis of a personal commitment not to implement it until certain conditions are met (conditions which are not included in the legislation itself) is just not good enough.

So why are these mistakes being made? Partly because of how this Bill was rushed through the Dáil. Not a single Opposition amendment was accepted. It was guillotined at all stages. (This is when the Government forces the end of debate on legislation, despite there being more TDs who want to speak on it or further amendments to debate.) This is despite the Programme for Government commitment that they “will tackle the huge over-use of guillotines to ram through non-emergency legislation.” This Government has wielded the guillotine faster than the French Revolution, chopping debate on over 2/3rds of all Bills to date. Plus ça change…

The Social Welfare Bill wasn’t ready in time, so the Government published it, and then introduced amendments at committee stage (which comes after the main debate in the Dáil). I asked Joan Burton how she had ensured that the new measures would receive adequate Oireachtas scrutiny. Her answer was that “briefings” had been given to the Opposition. This really goes to the heart of the dysfunction in our politics: this Government appears to believe that the Dáil is merely there to be “briefed”, not to hold them to account (contrary to what it says in our Constitution): ‘We will brief you, but we will not listen to you.’

The only chance the Dáil did get to scrutinise the amendments was at committee stage – during which a guillotine was called. When that happened, all the remaining Government amendments were declared to have been passed, without any debate at all. All remaining Opposition amendments were automatically rejected.

With Dáil oversight neutralised, did the Department officials at least do their homework? There was no regulatory impact analysis on this bill, no gender impact analysis, no poverty impact analysis. In other words, nobody knows how many people are going to be pushed into poverty by these changes; nobody knows how the burden is being distributed between men and women. These are basic policy requirements and safeguards in any modern democracy.

These kinds of analyses are meant to move us beyond the ‘I wonder what this button does’ school of decision making. They should be brought to the Oireachtas so that proposed legislation can be properly scrutinised. The Oireachtas should then be given adequate time to debate the legislation, with the Government open to the outside chance that it may have got a few things wrong.

Failure on all of these counts means that the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill was bad for democracy, as well as being bad for those it targets.

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