Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has revealed radical plans to overhaul the social welfare system, in what is seen as the start of his bid to become the leader of Fine Gael.
Social welfare payments would be linked to the cost of living or to average earnings under the proposals which would be likely to see annual increases in payments as the rate of inflation rises.
Many will see Mr Vardakar’s sweeping proposals — which were not contained in the Programme for Government — as an effective launch of his leadership bid to take over from Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
“No doubt anything I do or say is linked to leadership,” Mr Varadkar said.
“Just because something isn’t in the Programme for Government doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It is not that it is rejected in the talks.”
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny held a face to face meeting with Transport Minister Shane Ross in a bid to improve the poor relations between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance.
Relations between the two groups have been severely strained since before the Government was formed, but it was agreed that new channels of communications will be established to improve the dynamics within Government.
Mr Ross said he did not expect there would be a repeat of the row that saw him and his Independent colleagues backing a bill the Attorney General had deemed unconstitutional.
He said channels have now been set up to prevent it happening again.
Mr Ross accepted there had been a clash, with both sides coming to the issue from different angles, but insisted it had since been sorted out.
Mr Ross accepted that the Dáil term had seen too little legislative activity.
He said that stemmed in part from the lengthy negotiations for Government, a period which had seen no legislation being prepared for the new Dáil.
Mr Varadkar announced his intentions to link average wages or the consumer price index to weekly benefits at the MacGill Summer School yesterday.
The extent of increases will however depend on which barometer social welfare payments are linked to.
Mr Varadkar said: “I am open to having the conversation on whether it is linked to average earnings, inflation, and what type of inflation. But my proposal is that it should be indexed, it shouldn’t be at the whim and gift of politicians on budget day.”
Social Justice Ireland welcomed the plans but said the current rate of €188 would have to be increased by €6.50 a week just to regain the value it has lost to inflation since 2011.
Social Justice director Dr Sean Healy estimated that this would cost an additional €274m annually.
Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t think we could achieve an increase of that scale, I don’t think that’s doable.”
Welcoming the plans, Fianna Fáil’s Social Protection spokesman Willie O’Dea said: “Fianna Fáil has long called for new mechanisms to be put in place to safeguard people’s living standards into the future. The Government now appears to be examining such proposals.”
Mr Varadkar added that he does not want to increase child benefit payments as a €5 per week rise across the board would cost €60m a year.
“The same amount of money invested in reducing the cost of school, childcare or healthcare, would in my view go a lot further,” Mr Varadkar said.
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