By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Social Welfare Minister Dermot Ahern has been branded a "mean-spirited" Scrooge for failing to make a full double payment this week when the annual Christmas bonus is handed out to 705,000 people relying on long-term social welfare.
Pensioners, widows, the blind, single mothers, the disabled and carers will be among those getting extra cash to help out with paying for the festivities.
However, they will only get a bonus of 70 percent of their normal weekly allowance — subject to a minimum of £20 — under the program that was first introduced in 1984 to give a seasonal boost to the needy.
But Labor Social Welfare spokesman Tommy Brougham said that with the booming tax take swelling government coffers and the upcoming millennium putting an extra strain on household budgets, the minister should be more generous.
He also called for the bonus to be extended to those on short-term social welfare payments such as people on unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance.
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"It is costing £42 million to make the 70 percent payment, but it would only cost another £18 million to give people double what they get instead of 70 percent," Brougham said.
"The minister is being mean-spirited with so much money being taken in by the government and should make the gesture. The fall in unemployment this year has already saved him about £120 million in dole payments."
Brougham said that in the context of the overall social welfare budget the extra expenditure was tiny.
"The Minister told me that to pay a double bonus and to include the short social welfare recipients would cost about £75 million," Brougham said.
"At the moment, its like Santa Claus only going down some chimneys and leaving others with their stockings less than three-quarters full."
He said that when the bonus had first been introduced it had been a double payment and at that time the government finances were in a much worse position.
It had later been cut back to 65 percent of the normal payment before being raised to 70 percent where it had remained ever since.
"With the year that’s in it the minister should make his mark and not be so hard-faced. With so much money available he has a golden chance to reach out to some of the most disadvantaged in the country."
Brougham expressed particular concern about carers who weren’t even in the social welfare net to be means-tested for the £76.50 a week payment.
"There are estimates there may be up to 100,000 carers but even with the increases which the minister brought in we are still only reaching about 13,000," he said.
A Department of Social Welfare spokesman said that to extend the payment to short-term payments could mean that people who had only signed on as little as week before would get the bonus cash.