Senator Fidelma Healy Eames of the Reform Alliance of Fine Gael

The Reform Alliance (RA) of Fine Gael rebels have proved that they are not just about a grievance with the leadership of the FG party and its whip system. They have set out their stall on the issue of political reform, but perhaps more crucially, they have also set out their policies on the ‘bread and butter’ economic and social issues that affect ordinary Irish people. Recently, we have had interesting proposals on changes in children’s allowances from the Reform Alliance’s Denis Naughten TD – which were rather hastily and shabbily shot down by the Department of Social Protection on bureaucratic grounds. We also had Deputy Naughten speaking up for the small business community in rural Ireland on RTE’s Prime Time. And this week Naughten’s proposal on a child sex offenders register was very positively received.

And now we have a very interesting perspective, below, from the RA’s Senator Fidelma Healy Eames on how notorious ‘welfare traps’ are hurting job creation and holding back people from re-entering the employment market, as well as draining the public exchequer. This is a view shared by many employer groups and economic groups and has been criticised by Fianna Fail. Finally, Minister Joan Burton is doing something about it . But curiously Fine Gael has been deafeningly quiet about ‘welfare traps’, the very party that one would have thought would be most critical about such a phenomenon. Could it be that the Reform Alliance will be the wing of Fine Gael which speaks up most vocally for the core values of the party and for the real issues that affect the squeezed middle in Irish society?


No Irish did apply – how ‘welfare traps’ are making work unattractive: Healy Eames on what

Minister Joan Burton needs to sort out fast

Reform Alliance Senator Fidelma Healy Eames has said there is something wrong with our welfare system when a Galway-based light engineering company advertises for welders on the FAS website and no Irish apply. She investigated further, and writes about her experience as follows:

I was amazed to find out that this same employer has to offer at least one and a half times the minimum wage (ie. more than 12 euro an hour) to tempt some people off welfare. The feedback he has been receiving from interviewees is that unless the basic rate of pay is more than 12 euro per hour that its not worth their while to come off welfare, largely because of the benefits that accrue with same eg., medical card, rent allowance. He just can’t compete.

On checking this with welfare I learnt that there is a breakdown in communication. It is not necessarily true that all benefits are lost. A transitionary period is allowed for in the welfare system whereby a person may still hold onto their benefits for a reasonable period after taking up work. For example, a medical card continues up to the renewal date at the very least and longer in some cases. They can still qualify for rent support through the very attractive rental accommodation scheme (RA’S) but most importantly, if the work income is too low to support their family, they will qualify for family income supplement (FIS).

This means there is an in-built poverty proofing mechanism to ensure work is more valuable than welfare. In my book this is the right approach.

What are the bigger implications of refusing work over welfare? Very worrying stats show that one in every four of our children are currently growing up in Irish households where no family member is working. This is stark. It is not good role modelling for children. It is validating a culture of dependency and joblessness as normal. All the wrong messages for children who attend (but who may not necessarily perform well in) an education system that requires them to work to ultimately get work. This is a world of contradictions. As a society we have a duty to ensure that at least one adult member of the household is engaged in work, in some shape or form. 

But the examples I’ve shared show there is a problem. One is a basic communication problem in that employers need to have a ready reckoner at hand to be able to work out if an interviewee is genuinely better off on welfare or at work. I understand that the Dept. of Social Protection is working on a programme called ‘Better off at Work’ whereby all of these facts can be easily validated on-line. The quicker this online system is rolled out the better. It will empower employers and prospective employees regarding the facts of the matter.

The bigger question of course is people’s motivation – are there people who genuinely don’t want to work but deliberately work the welfare system as a lifestyle choice or is it a case of being blinded by welfare traps? The employer who said he’s asked to sign forms to prove they applied for work although they didn’t want the job suggests that there are. These cases must be sorted fast. Welfare is a contract between the individual and the state. It is a promise of support on a temporary basis until you find work but if there is proof that you are not looking for work or rejecting work offers then that contracts breaks down. With this social contract comes responsibilities. But in a state with so much long-term unemployment, where so much dependency on welfare has become the norm the entitlements may be understood but I fear the responsibilities may be forgotten.

When we have one in four of our children growing up in jobless households this has to be a concern for the whole of Irish society.

I have brought these matters to the attention of Minister Joan Burton and to the Department of Social Protection. I have asked that they become more progressive and aggressive at job and training/education activation to get the live register figures down, particularly in the jobless households. They have assured me that they are fast tracking the ‘Better off at Work’ on-line programme.

We cannot rest ’til we know we have welfare reform and until we have  a joined-up system that ensures that work is always more valuable than welfare.

Ends/ 087-6776937 Fidelma Healy Eames