She said that the figures were “staggering” and “pretty incredible” – as she defended her plans to get employers to contribute more to the sick pay bill.
Ms Burton said that there were now 300,000 people in total receiving either illness benefit or disability allowance – which represents 16 per cent of the working age population. And she said that this number had increased by 100,000 people over the past decade when the country was at the most prosperous point in its history.
“How did Fianna Fail manage to put an extra 100,000 people on some sort of illness or disability payment? Because these are staggering figures,” she said.
She was speaking in the Dail as Fianna Fail brought a motion calling on her to halt her “job-destroying statutory sick pay scheme”. Currently, the state pays the cost of sick leave for workers who are absent for more than three days. But Ms Burton is now planning to get employers to cover the cost of up to month’s sick leave taken by their workers to save up to €89m from the annual €847m illness bill. She told the Dail that Ireland required employers to contribute far less to sick pay than in other European countries.
Fianna Fail enterprise spokesman Dara Calleary said his party was going to warn businesses about this new “Burton Burden”.
“This new cost burden will be seen as a tax on jobs and will have most effect on smaller, more vulnerable employers, operating in low-margin businesses,” he said.
Mr Calleary said that even a member of Ms Burton’s own party, Labour Senator John Whelan, had warned that her changes could push many small and medium enterprises “over the edge”.
Ms Burton had to withdraw her plan to change the sick pay system before last year’s Budget after strong opposition from Jobs Minister Richard Bruton. Several Fine Gael TDs have again warned that it will lead to increased costs for businesses and job losses.
The Coalition was forced into a U-turn after last December’s budget when its plan to stop the practice of paying disability allowance directly to 16- and 17-year-olds met strong opposition from the parents of severely disabled children and Opposition parties.
The contentious proposal to increase the minimum qualifying age for the allowance from 16 to 18, while providing a compensatory payment for the teenager’s parent or guardian, is back on the agenda as Budget 2013 approaches.
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has said the EU–European Central Bank–International Monetary Fund troika has raised concerns about social welfare payments going straight to under-18s and said she was worried about young people losing the incentive to stay in education.
Ms Burton charged the expert advisory group on tax and social welfare with resolving such anomalies in the social welfare code. The group submitted its report on family income supports, including child benefit, to Ms Burton earlier this year. The Minister will receive the group’s work on State payments to the disabled shortly. The group will propose withholding disability allowance from 16 year olds who are new claimants while extending the domiciliary care allowance to the children’s carers. Currently, a domiciliary care allowance is paid to the parents of a child with a disability until the child is 16, after which the teenager goes on disability allowance in his or her own right.
The weekly maximum rate of disability allowance is €188. The domiciliary care allowance rate is €309.50 per month, although those in receipt of the payment may also qualify for carer’s benefit or carer’s allowance. A respite care grant of €1,700 a year can also be claimed and child benefit is not affected.