'Cute hoorism' on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill?

The Social Welfare and Pensions Bill passed its first stage yesterday in the Dáil. The Bill, which, amongst other things, restores the minimum wage to €8.65 an hour, also fulfills the commitment in the EU-IMF memorandum to increase the qualifying age for a State pension to 67 years in 2021 and to 68 in 2028. A number of Dáil Deputies accused the government of guillotining the Bill, and of 'political cute hoorism' in including provisions for restoration of the minimum wage in it; saying such provision should properly have been included in an amendment to the Finance Bill. Sinn Féin TD for Kerry North-Limerick West Martin Ferris was one of those who spoke against the Bill, and his contribution to the debate is below.

"As others have pointed out during this debate, inserting the minimum wage into the Bill is a cynical ploy to cover the cuts to the old age pension. What is clearly an attack on people who have worked hard all their lives is disguised or attempted to be softened by including the welcome restoration of the €1 cut to the national minimum wage. When Fianna Fáil cut the national minimum wage it was an absolute disgrace. It should be restored and its restoration should be fully supported because the cut took money out of local economies and contributed to the growing problem of unemployment in this country.

The two matters should have been separated and dealt with in two Bills rather than in this manner. Alternatively, the restoration of the minimum wage could have been dealt with by way of an amendment to the Finance Bill. Let there be no doubting the significance of the change to pension entitlements. In effect, raising the age at which a person qualifies an end to a 16% cut to a lifetime pension entitlement, apart from the other effects the change will have on people reaching the end of their working lives.

The right to a pension is a fundamental worker’s right and must be seen as such. Cuts to pension entitlements and the other cutbacks being implemented should not be introduced to pay for the failures, incompetence and corruption of a small, discredited elite. It is wrong that low income workers, people on the minimum wage and old age pensioners should pay for the developers and bankers who have robbed the country and should be before the courts.

During the election campaign, Fine Gael and the Labour Party spoke about the manner in which those involved in banking and speculation brought about the crisis that resulted in the EU-IMF bailout and its associated austerity programme. The arrival of the IMF was partly the responsibility of the previous Government and the current Government’s sin is one of complicity rather than agency. Fianna Fáil and the Green Party facilitated the disastrous manner in which the so-called elite undermined the economy but failure went well beyond that. While that Government is gone, we are still left with the hangover from the financial collapse and, unfortunately, its successor, the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition, is continuing to implement exactly the same policies as its predecessor.

The Government is clearly following the timeframe laid down by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, hence the guillotine to be applied to the Bill. Can any of the Deputies opposite, specifically those from the Labour Party, honestly state that they would have seriously considered introducing legislation to raise the pension age if they were not obliged to do so by the terms laid out in the memorandum of understanding? This measure completely contradicts everything the labour movement stands for. While Labour Party Deputies may wring their hands and claim they do not have any choice in the matter, rather than pretending they would secure a radically improved deal, they should have been more honest during the election campaign.

In the early days of industrialisation older workers could expect to enter the poorhouse at the end of their working life when their bodies had been broken by years of hard physical labour. After generations of struggle we progressed to a point where most people recognised the value of the system of income protection which the State financed through the collection of taxation revenues. Clearly, we can no longer take this system for granted. By raising the pension qualification age, the Bill cuts pension entitlements by 16% and will force older people to remain at work despite the potential consequences for their health and well-being. This proposal was originally made by the Fianna Fáil Party when it was in government in 2010. At that time, the head of the largest trade union, SIPTU, described the proposal as worse than expected and an attack on State pension provision. I call on the trade union movement to resist the proposed reforms to pension entitlements. The trade union movement in France correctly brought the country to a standstill last year when the French Government proposed raising the minimum age for a state pension from 60 years to 62 years. The Bill raises the age at which people are entitled to a State pension to 68 years. Is anyone in the leadership of the trade union movement prepared to give the leadership required at this juncture to defend low income families and the rights and entitlements for which old age pensioners paid over many decades?

As has been noted, it is a cynical move to include in the Bill the welcome restoration of the national minimum wage alongside a proposal to raise the pension age. I have no doubt that attempts will be made to use the opposition of Sinn Féin and others to the Bill as a means of suggesting we opposed the restoration of the minimum wage. This tactic will be employed to circulate a message that Sinn Féin is against the minimum wage. We were the first party out of the blocks on the need to restore the minimum wage. While that remains our position, we are against linking its restoration with the other measures proposed in the Bill."