Budget trading set to go down to the wire

Budget negotiations are set to go down to the wire on Tuesday night as ministers dig their heels in, with major concerns over Health Minister James Reilly’s ability to deliver on €900m of cuts.

It comes as the latest figures reveal that the ministerial advisers helping to shape Wednesday’s €3.5bn austerity package are themselves costing over €2.8m a year.

The Cabinet will meet again today at 4pm as efforts continue to hammer out an agreed combination of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Last night, sources said there were particular problems in nailing down the €900m of cuts which Dr Reilly is expected to make.

While some options have been agreed — such as doubling the 50c charge that medical card holders pay for their prescriptions — other crucial decisions have yet to be taken.

Dr Reilly is under particular pressure because many savings he identified in last year’s budget were not delivered in full this year.

Cabinet colleagues have questioned whether he can drive through the scale of cuts expected from his department for 2013.

Similarly, in social protection, while sources have confirmed a €10 cut to child benefit, battles are understood to be ongoing over the circa €545m in savings Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is expected to make.

One minister last night predicted the negotiations on the entirety of the budget package would continue until Tuesday night. This will mean less time to “proof” the budget against potential political landmines.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan is due to announce the tax side of the budget at 2.30pm on Wednesday, immediately followed by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, who will detail the spending cuts.

Meanwhile, figures released to Independent TD Finian McGrath show 30 advisers are earning an average of almost €100,000 per year.

Advisers to the Tánaiste and his junior minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs are costing the State almost €550,000. Eamon Gilmore has two special advisers to help him in the department. On top of that he has a “chief adviser” and an “economic adviser” to “support me in the exercise of my whole-of-government responsibilities”.

The department provides a special adviser to Junior Minister Lucinda Creighton for her work in European Affairs.

In the Department of the Environment, there are two advisers to Phil Hogan and one to “super-junior” minister Jan O’Sullivan. They cost the State a combined €373,571 per annum.

Mr Hogan indicated to Mr McGrath that he is making arrangements for a second adviser to be appointed to Ms O’Sullivan.

Almost all of the other departments have two advisers each.

The Government has repeatedly defended the cost of the advisers on the basis that the outlay is significantly less than that incurred by previous administrations.

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