Budget 2011 has resulted in lesser social protection for marginalised groups within society. Below, I highlight some of the key cuts within the protection/rights sectors and give some initial assessment as to what this means for human rights in Ireland.
The social protection measures for Budget 2011 has once again seen a cut in a number of key payments: child benefit, jobseeker supports along with illness, caring and disability benefits. There has been no reduction in old age pension supports and/or ancillary old age benefits. Calls from a variety of groups for the current level of social protection payments to be maintained were not heeded. There has been no reversal (or reduction) in the monetary value of jobseekers allowance for those under 21, which as Deirdre has previously noted, impacts significantly on the socio-economic rights of young men. Groups working with the vulnerable have overwhelmingly condemned the social protection cuts (see here, here, here, here and here). (HRiI’s Mary Keogh has noted in particular the vulnerable nature of those with disabilities are to cuts in basic allowances and service provision). Those on low incomes will be severely hit by these economic adjustments. The welfare cuts come at a time when Ireland’s minimum wage is being reduced by €1 an hour. There continues to be a fall in the numbers of those claiming refugee status in Ireland, with the figures from 1 January 2010 to 31 October 2010 show 1,660 persons claiming asylum. However, there continues to be over 6,000 people in direct provision accommodation and the Budget allocation on asylum seeker accommodation has been reduced by 13%. This may be due to ‘efficiency savings‘ brought about from moving asylum seekers to alternative accommodation centres.
The Legal Aid Board has maintained its budget for 2011. However, the budget for criminal legal aid has been cut yet again. While some of this cut undoubtedly is due to savings in professional fees, we must wait to see how it impacts on individuals accused of crimes.
Human Rights Infrastructure
Unlike last year, human rights and equality bodies have seen some cuts to their operating budgets. The Irish Human Rights Commission and Equality Authority has seen cuts of 5% and 4% respectively. For the first time since the start of the economic crisis in 2008, the Ombudsman for Children has seen a cut in its operating budget of 5%. TheNational Disability Authority has had its budget cut by 8% in 2011, while the Office of the Ombudsman has received a 1.6% increase in its 2011 allocation.
It is clear that Ireland is facing enormous economic challenges over the next decade. Rather than a fundamental discussion on a re-orientation to an economy which emphasises the dignity and value of persons as individuals, rather than economic units of production, there is widespread agreement on the need to make severe fiscal adjustments. While there has been some further cuts within human rights and equality agencies, the key issue in this budget has been the race to curb welfare and punish those in low-wage employment. The socialisation of loss within this economic crisis can be compared to the individualisation of profit during the Celtic Tiger era. While certainly all sectors of society benefited from the economic boom (and some much more than others), it now seems that discourse on solutions to Ireland’s economic difficulties have as one of the main targets the Irish welfare state. Social Justice Ireland has stated that Budget 2011 robbed the poor, protected gamblers and damaged the economy. Punishing those who are at the margins of society, who have been greatly affected by the economic downturn, may satisfy the desires of Ireland’s international paymasters, but leads to more divisive and less inclusive society. However, the needs of the young, the disabled, the poor and the weak are not viewed as a political priority. Only with organisation and agitation will these groups be able to prevent further descent into penury.