8,000 to have their dole slashed for failing to look for work

8,000 to have their dole slashed for failing to look for work

Almost 8,000 young people have seen their social welfare payments slashed because of their failure to seek job or education opportunities, new figures reveal.

The Department of Social Protection has applied penalties to 7,873 jobseekers aged between 18 and 25 over the past two and a half years.

And the figures show that 2016 is on course to see record figures of welfare payments being cut.

Between January and the end of June,there were a total of 2,253 cases whereby penalties were applied.

This compares to 2,409 cases in 2014 and 3,211 cases in 2015.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar said there are various reasons why penalties are applied, including when jobseekers fail to comply with their responsibilities "without good reason".

"Legislation provides that sanctions in the form of reduced payments may be imposed where recipients of jobseeker payments fail, without good cause, to comply with activation measures," Mr Varadkar said.

"Activation measures include the requirement to attend group or individual meetings, and/or avail of suitable education, training or development opportunities, or specified employment programmes, which are considered appropriate to a person's circumstances," he said.

Around 13,750 people aged 25 or under were affected by the cuts in their jobseekers' payments as part of Budget 2014.

People aged from 22 to 24 had their dole cut from €144 a week to €100, while those who reached 25 received €144 instead of the maximum payment of €188.

There were a number of exceptions for those who took part in a Back to Education programme or the JobBridge internship scheme.

However, modest year-on-year increases in dole payments and the State pension are on the cards after Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar announced plans to link welfare rates to inflation.

The move, which took some of Mr Varadkar's Cabinet colleagues by surprise, is set to cost in the region of €250m per year.

Under Mr Varadkar's plan, a legal mechanism would be put in place whereby welfare rates increase in line with inflation or average earnings.

In practical terms, it would result in an increase of around €3 per week for the average person on the dole.

But Mr Varadkar told the MacGill Summer School that he was not inclined to increase child benefit by €5 - and instead would prefer that €60m be used to lift the burden of back-to-school costs.

The Dublin West TD also wants the index-linked mechanism to apply to other payments such as the carer's benefit and disability allowance.

"It is obviously not something that is going to be in the Budget in a few weeks' time, but it is something that I would like to legislate for next year and I'll be seeking cross-party support," Mr Varadkar told reporters.

"Like all these things, it can go up or down, though it rarely happens, every once in a generation where you have deflation and average incomes go down.

"But I think it's reasonable to conclude that [the] economy is recovering and over the next few years we will have a return to pay increases and inflation and I don't want pensioners, carers or people with disabilities to fall behind."

Mr Varadkar said it was not an issue that the measure was not contained in the Programme for Government.

And he dismissed suggestions that the move was to do with his leadership ambitions. "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. No doubt anything I do or say is linked to leadership. If we make this change, it will be there for decades, I hope. It will be a big change for the better."

Fine Gael sources yesterday said they were surprised by the move, given the measure was not discussed in the Programme for Government negotiations. But Mr Varadkar was handed a boost last night after both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin welcomed the proposals. "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," said Fianna Fáil's social protection spokesman Willie O'Dea.

"However, we should not forget that many people are still suffering the effects of the previous five regressive budgets.

"These people have felt no benefit from the economic recovery. The upcoming Budget offers an opportunity to address this."

Sinn Féin's social protection spokesman John Brady added: "Every person in receipt of social welfare should receive a payment that provides them with a basic standard of living. The minister's proposals are just one step in the right direction."

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar has said he believes a Border poll would be "divisive" and "unsuccessful".

Mr Varadkar said such a referendum could "undermine relations" with unionist parties in particular. But he says he does believe he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime.

"I would like to see a united Ireland and I do believe there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime, although I don't know at what point in my lifetime," Mr Varadkar said.

"However, I don't feel a Border poll would be a good idea at this time. I think it would be unsuccessful and divisive and could undermine relations between the two communities there. We need to achieve a unity of purpose before that time."

Niall O'Connor