SVP national president Geoff Meagher speaking in Dublin this week Fennell Photography
St Vincent de Paul

Interview: Stories like the 'corn flakes family' are true - SVP president

The national president of Ireland’s largest voluntary, charitable organisation tells about the increase in demand for services and the rebirth of Ireland’s community spirit. Listen to the full interview…

WITH JUST OVER a month to go until the government delivers another austerity budget the various and many interest groups in Irish society are making clear that the people they work for and represent cannot take any more hits.

But the reality is that with a €3.5 billion budget adjustment committed to and the government intent on cutting €2.25 billion in expenditure, vulnerable areas in society are more than likely going to be affected.

For the Society of St Vincent de Paul – the largest voluntary, charitable organisation in the country – that means doubling its efforts to put its case forward that austerity has done enough harm to those who use their services or those who might need them in the coming months.

This week SVP’s national president, Geoff Meagher, launched its pre-budget submission in which it called for the government to protect the most vulnerable in society and “redistribute in a way that is fairer”.

Measures such as protecting current child benefit arrangements and scrapping the 50 cent prescription charge for medical card holders are being called for. But SVP will not offer specifics when it comes to what it thinks the government should do instead in order to raise money.

‘Substantial hits’

However, in a wide-ranging interview with, Meagher is clear about what the Society does not want to see.

“What we’re saying is that the people we help and support have taken a substantial amount in terms of hits in various shapes and forms… they’re not in a position to take more hits because effectively a lot of them are under water at the moment and this will drive them further down,” he says.

There is no doubt that the government clearly have challenges, they have problems in terms of what they’re doing. We would put the argument from a Society of St Vincent de Paul point of view that the people we represent and support didn’t cause the problem, they didn’t cause the banking debt, they didn’t cause the issues that have arisen over the last number of years.

“They have taken substantial hits already over the last two years in particular of both increased costs and tax changes. So we’re saying is look that whatever way you do it you’ve got to redistribute this in a way that is fairer. Either people in jobs that are low-paid or people on social welfare - you’ve got to protect them in whatever way you do the cuts.”

On a third rate of tax or other measures that could be introduced as alternatives for raising money Meagher, who was elected the organisation’s president six months ago, would not be drawn other than to say that “the burden should be shared more broadly and with people who can afford to pay it”.

The burden of the economic downturn is having an increasing demand on the Society’s services, Meagher says. Typically, as well as running hostels and social housing services for which it receives some State funding, SVP will also carry out visitations to families in need of their help and operate resource centres for the young and old.

Unlike other charities it has not suffered a funding shortfall with Meagher saying that donations from the public “have remained quite steadfast”.

“I think we’re having problems of a slightly different case,” he says. “Our problem is basically our problems associated with increased demand, we can remain static in terms of our income.”

Listen to the full interview with Geoff Meagher:

He puts this down to the SVP’s presence in Ireland with 10,500 vounteers across the county helping as many as 8,000 families a week.

‘Corn flakes family’

The circumstances of  each family differ but there are some who have cases similar to the one outlined in the Irish Times recently, that of a garda sergeant whose wife claimed she could not feed her family on his €75,000 a year wage. The anonymous woman said that some nights they have to resort to eating corn flakes for dinner.

The ‘corn flakes family’ story drew some considerable reaction and scepticism from other media outlets with the Irish Independent, Sunday Times and Sunday Independent all moving to debunk it. But Meagher is in no doubt that stories like that one are true.

“One of the things that people do forget is that people may have started out in a situation going back maybe six, seven years ago [where they] may in good faith have bought their house, quite a high mortgage, [and] at this stage one of the people is out of work,” he says.

So effectively what was a very balanced situation maybe going back five, six years ago can now become very unbalanced in terms of income versus expenditure particularly for people who have a lot of negative equity.

Now negative equity itself is not a problem, it’s the ability to actually pay the mortgage and pay everything that goes with it. So I think you can’t just make a general comment and say is every case right, is every case wrong.

Articles debunking the idea that a garda sergeant earning €75,000 a year cannot afford to feed his family properly are not helpful in Meagher’s view because they could discourage people from seeking help from organisations like SVP.

“I think that articles which effectively say ‘Well fine if you’re on X then you should be able to manage and get on with it’, I think that is too general a statement.

“I think where it can be unhelpful is that it discourages people who are effectively, you could say, comfortable middle-class people but because of their family circumstances and because of no fault of their own they are struggling.

“I think it would be a shame if those people feel inhibited because they feel that they’re going to, if you like, either get no help or, worse still, almost be ridiculed for even asking.”

‘No vision’

For Kilkenny man Meagher, a former Glanbia executive, helping struggling families is just one of the many challenges his organisation faces in addition to engaging with energy companies on the rising cost of fuel and electricity and banks in situations where their input is requested.

I think there is a lack of recognition by the banks of the issues that are out there,” he says. “I suppose ultimately, as I see it, it’s a question for the banks of facing up to potentially [having]more [mortgage] write-downs then they would like to admit to. I think the sooner that they face up to some of that the better.

He says it is significant that the International Monetary Fund recently admitted it was surprised at the impact of austerity on employment:  ”I found it amazing that they were surprised,” he says.

Meagher also says he can see the beginnings of the rebirth of Ireland’s community spirit post Celtic Tiger years when “a lot of things were lost to consumerism and the idea of people spending and spending more”.

But he says that the government needs to do more in order to demonstrate that there is a “roadmap” for the country for when it emerges from the bailout programme: “There is not a really a view in terms of what type of society we want to have.

“How are we going to deal with the 14 per cent unemployment? What about the younger people coming out of college at the moment in terms of getting jobs? There is no real vision for how that is going to work its way through,” he adds.

Read: People in Need Telethon ‘has run its course’, admits head

Read: Child benefit payments only cover 11 per cent of costs in some cases

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