What's happened to Joan Burton?

Thus far, Joan Burton has been a major let-down as minister for social protection. By Vincent Browne.

Joan Burton was disappointed not to have been given a senior finance position in the Fine Gael-Labour government last March, according to media reports at the time, which she did not deny subsequently.

If she was disappointed, it was understandable, for she had achieved an expertise in the financial and economic crisis that no one else in the government parties had achieved, with the possible exception of Richard Bruton. Certainly, she had much more expertise than either of the two people appointed to finance posts, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.

In my opinion, she would also have been more capable in dealing with the EU and ECB on the debt colossus than Noonan has been, with less cuteness and more strategy.

Her personality might have grated a bit with government colleagues when dealing with budgetary matters, but so what? I suspect the budget of last December would have been fairer and more progressive had she been one of the ministers with direct responsibility for it.

I believe that Burton would have insisted on closing off more of the tax loopholes that favour the rich, and that the budget would have been less cruel to people in lower income brackets, especially to poorer women and children.

As a human being, she is also impressive, with a genuine commitment to a socially just society. The suspicion remains that the decision to overlook her for the two senior finance posts was influenced by sexism. She was the best person for both of the finance jobs, and she was overlooked in favour of less-qualified males.

Maybe it is a collapse of her confidence because of the disappointment of a year ago that has caused her to be a let-down as minister for social protection.

Maybe she is bad at micro-management, while good at the macro stuff. Maybe I am wrong about her capacities, but I don't think so.

Just take her performance last Thursday. She took part in a charade that must have done further damage to social cohesion here and to the self-esteem of hundreds of thousands of our most hard-pressed citizens. This was the annual caper of ministers for social protection where they make a big deal over social welfare fraud.

The point of this lark might be to weaken opposition to social welfare payments among those who remain wilfully ignorant of how slight the issue of social welfare fraud is. It might also be to frighten the few people who are engaged in social welfare fraud, thereby lessening that fraud. But the effect of it has been to perpetuate the idea that social welfare fraud is rampant and, most shamefully, to stigmatise social welfare dependants by the implication that many of the recipients are criminals and/or malingerers.

The headline on the press release that Burton authorised last Thursday was: "Over €645 million saved through social welfare control measures in 2011". The two-page release used the word "fraud" or "fraudulent" 16 times, but nowhere did it acknowledge that the vast proportion of the €645 million social welfare "savings" came, not from fraud prevention, but from the elimination of mistakes in the system.

A report - Tackling Welfare Fraud, published by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service last October - concluded that only 21.1% of over-payments in the social welfare system were due to fraud.

Indeed, the press release itself (unwittingly, one suspects) gave the lie to the general message of the release. It stated that more than 30,000 fraud investigations or enquiries had been completed in 2011 by the Special Investigations Unit in the Department, resulting in just 174 cases being referred to An Garda Siochána for prosecution ,–or 0.6%.

Last Wednesday, someone in Burton's department - almost certainly with her authorisation - disclosed to the Irish Times that there had been 16,920 anonymous reports of suspected abuse of the social welfare system last year, three times the number in 2009, as though this was evidence of widespread fraud.

This was another shameful calumny, further stigmatising social welfare recipients.

It is not enough, apparently, to ravage the limited income or wealth transfer mechanism that seeks to undo the grotesque distribution of income and wealth via markets. The impoverished "beneficiaries" of this pathetic transfer mechanism have to be humiliated and shamed as well.

Although sidelined to the Department of Social Protection, away from the brief she had mastered over several years, Burton still had the opportunity to make a major impact on budgetary strategy, especially in the arena of social welfare. Yet the budget for 2012 was one of the most regressive in the state's history.

The increase in the Vat rate affects the poorest most. The fuel allowance was reduced by 18%. Child benefit for families with more than two children was cut.

The back-to-school allowance for clothing and footwear was cut. The allowance for one-parent families (the very poorest of the poor) was cut, with the earnings disregard for the payment also reduced. Rent supplement was cut, and much more.

That was the injury. What happened last Thursday was the insult, perpetrated by a person much admired for her progressive politics. What has happened?

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