THE Government faces a barrage of criticism today as it tries to extend the Dáil’s Christmas holidays by a week.
This is against the background of public sector pay and social welfare cuts and figures which show unemployment reaching a 15-year high.
If the motion is passed – as is likely – TDs will return to the chamber on Tuesday, January 19.
Confirmation of the plans came as figures from the Central Statistics Office showed unemployment had reached 12.7% – its highest level in 15 years. Those figures indicate one-in-eight of those eligible to work is without a job. Unemployment has tripled from just two years ago.
The opposition is expected to use the figures to back their calls for a shortened holiday break so that parliament can devote more time to unemployment and other crucial issues.
Fine Gael said the jobless figures were proof that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan had “lost touch with reality”, while Labour said they gave the lie to his claim that the economy had “turned the corner”.
Government chief whip Pat Carey denied the extended break would impact on Dáil business and its ability to debate urgent issues like unemployment.
He said when the diary for the current Dáil year had been drawn up, it was envisaged parliament would not sit for the two weeks surrounding the Lisbon Treaty referendum.
In fact, only one week was lost to the referendum, meaning the Dáil year is not being shortened, despite the extended Christmas break.
“We will still be sitting 35 weeks... this... year, which is longer than most Dáil years,” Mr Carey said.
In practical terms, the extended holiday should not cause a major interruption to political business, as ministers will still be at their desks and TDs will be in their constituencies.
But the optics of the Government forcing through an extra week’s holiday may prove damaging, coming less than a fortnight after it rejected a proposal by the trade unions to achieve public sector pay bill reductions through unpaid leave.
Instead, the Government chose to cut public sector wages directly, with reductions of 5% for the lowest-paid public servants.
The legislation to implement those cuts was passed in the Dáil last night and they are due to take effect from January 1.
The legislation to implement the social welfare cuts was passed last week, but continues to be the subject of heated debate.
Fine Gael expressed astonishment at the proposal and said it wanted the date of January 13 to be stuck to – as outlined on the Dáil calendar. FG leader Enda Kenny also called on Taoiseach Brian Cowen to reverse the cuts for the blind, the disabled and carers. “He could protect the blind, the disabled and the carers at this time of the year, a time when we are celebrating the Christian ethos we are supposed to have,” he added.
But Mr Cowen said the Government had no option but to reduce all social and economic expenditure. He acknowledged welfare rates were “not easy” to live on, but said the social welfare budget had been unsustainable and cuts had been necessary.
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