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Minister Burton spoke again today about protecting ‘core welfare benefits but is she ‘thinking the unthinkable’ about challenging our multi-benefit culture which deters people from working? Last month, I wrote this about some depressing statements Burton had made in the areas of welfare and job creation :

Joan Burton should help people get back to work and not penalise small businesses who are doing the same

A Fine Gael TD once tweeted that Joan Burton seemed to have a ‘death wish’ against the Government, such were her incautious public remarks. But one wonders if she has a death wish against our business community and job creators.

This week the loose-lipped Minister called for the minimum wage level to be increased despite the fact that we have one of the highest such rates in Europe and one which is, according to employers, deterring employers from actually taking on people. Thanks to Minister Burton’s generous welfare rates. The Minister’s proposal, the logic of which is hard to understand (that the State is ‘subsidising’ low wage employers) was rightly slammed by ISME whose director Mark Fielding who said that Jobs Minister Richard Bruton should put Burton ‘back in her box.’ But there’s no hope of that. Bruton didn’t intervene the last time Burton created worry for the small business community which was her proposal to change the sick-pay laws so that the employers had to pay more of the portion that the State was paying. All last summer, businesses were crying out for clarification on this, new extra charge against job creation, but there was nothing but silence from our Jobs Minister – until the proposal was quietly dropped.

Of course, Minister Burton is under pressure here to trim her huge welfare budget. Her big idea is to cut spending on the Family Income Supplement which costs her €230m per annum, but she wants our employers, already struggling, to make up the shortfall. But why doesn’t she just bite the bullet here, and cut some of these welfare rates anyway, with proper means-testing. After all, in fairness to Joan Burton, she has already rooted out overspending and fraud in welfare and is one of the few Labour Ministers who doesn’t treat welfare as a sacred cow.

Or is she? For Burton’s other daft notion, from last week, was that unemployment benefit should be tied to what an applicant was previously earning. This means that a person on a large salary could be getting a very large dole payment – all paid for by the rest of us, who are still working. But sure, this would bankrupt us. Is this Labour’s way of making us solvent again and getting people back to work?!

Obviously not, for all the while Burton is coming up with these ideas, the European Commission is blasting her for not doing enough to get people back to work. In a leaked report on the Troika programme the EC slams the Governments’ lack of provision of proper ‘job seeker’ experts to help get people off the dole and back into the jobs market. No disrespect, but, one would imagine, that this is because the State here – unlike the EC- really doesn’t expect a lot of welfare recipients to be genuinely looking for work, or hoping for it, and has resigned itself for continuing large scale and long term unemployment. Which, as the EC report says, is not the way to be looking at things at all. Only 300 case workers are dealing with over 400,000 people on the live register, with an expected rise to 600 by the end of 2013 and perhaps 800 in 2014.

But this increase will be reached through the redeployment of existing staff, many of whom do not have required qualifications and would need significant training. “Rapid decisions and actions on the possible outsourcing of some services are therefore needed,” according to the EC report. And despite the promise to open 43 ‘one-stop-shops’ for the unemployed by the end of the year, the Government is going to fall well short of the target, the report says.

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So these are the priorities Minister Burton should be addressing, not seeking ways to penalise the business community and the very people who are providing employment and trying to get the economy moving again. And not floating wonderful dream scenarios were people can get dole payments, linked to their former incomes, like some generous public sector pension. It’s time to get real.

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