The Opposition has reacted strongly to the Budget, saying the Minister for Finance had missed an opportunity on job growth while targeting the most vulnerable in society.

Fine Gael Finance Spokesman Richard Bruton criticised what he called a ‘jobless and joyless’ Budget.

Speaking after Brian Lenihan delivered his Budget speech, Mr Bruton said what was needed was a convincing job strategy which had not been delivered.

He described the Budget as draconian, and said it was happening because Fianna Fáil had driven the economy onto the rocks.

Fine Gael's deputy leader claimed that people were angry at the warnings that were not heeded, and that no-one has been held to account for the ‘catastrophic failures that have brought us to this pass’.

Mr Bruton said people will be left dismally disappointed at the Budget.

He accused the Government of being short-sighted and lacking in vision.

He said while he welcomed the 26,000 job placements, he asked where the plan was to drive economic growth.

Deputy Bruton said Mr Lenihan saying the 'worst is over' is like George Bush announcing 'mission accomplished' in Iraq.

However, the Tánaiste said the Budget significantly supported the enterprise sector.

Mary Coughlan said it presents a clear strategy for the
economy that will restore confidence by tackling the deficit in the public finances head-on and by providing for significant investment to underpin economic recovery.

The Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the Government made sure the reduction iin social welfare payments was less than the decrease in the cost of living this year.

Speaking on RTE's 9 O'Clock News, he said this was the best that could be done, emphasising that the status-quo was not sustainable.

He said 'we can't sustain a position where we're spending €22bn more than we're taking in" and in the interests of the country we have got 'to stabilise the deficit, safeguard people who are most vulnerable, and stimulate a recovery'.

Mr Cowen said the Government had to make changes and said they have done that in a way that 'protects pensioners, protects children of the most vulnerable families, and those on social welfare rates'.

When questioned about the prospect of industrial chaos in light of the public sector pay cuts, Mr Cowen said all of us in this society have to reflect and recognise that we have to make a contribution.

He said we have got to make sure we get recovery back here and everyone knows 'this is the right thing to do'.

Mr Cowen said since he came into office, he has taken a 30% pay cut and that was the way it should be. He said the public service pay and pensions bill needed to be cut.

He said although the Government did not get a successful or agreed outcome from last week's pay talks, there was an acknowledgement that a cut of this order was necessary and 'from a Government's point of view it has to be permanent'.

When asked what the Government was doing to generate employment, the Taoiseach referred to the employment subsidy scheme and also said in the coming year it will spend €6.5bn on improving roads, public transport, hospitals and schools, which will maintain 60,000 jobs.

He said the plan was also to increase numbers for training and activation places by 28,000.

Mr Cowen said the most important thing to get jobs back in this economy is confidence, 'confidence in our commitment and ability to manage our own affairs and show people at home and abroad that we will do whatever necessary to get this country going again.'

Meanwhile, Fine Gael's Alan Shatter said the Budget was straight out of the ‘Marie Antoinette school of politics’.

He said with regard to children the Government’s message was ‘forget the food and milk - let them drink beer’.

Deputy Shatter said the reduction in excise duty on alcohol was given headline importance as the Government’s new jobs idea in its Budget summary, and said it seems as if the idea is to 'encourage the unemployed to get drunk'.

He called on the Minister for Finance to reveal ‘which comedian was employed to author this bizarre document’.

The party’s spokesperson on Agriculture said hopes that the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS) could be retained, evaporated with the announcement that €50m has been allocated for the new agri-environment scheme for an estimated 10,000 applicants.

Michael Creed said this represented a significant drop for REPS farmers.

He said the decline in farm incomes will continue with this announcement and that in turn the social welfare bill for farm assist will increase.

Opposition parties have also criticised the announcement of ministerial pay cuts, pointing out that the 15% reduction in Ministerial salaries and the 20% in that of the Taoiseach, did not take account the 10% reduction they had already taken last year.

Both Fine Gael and Labour pointed out that this meant the reductions were only 10% for the Taoiseach and 5% for Ministers.

However, Government sources pointed out that the 10% ‘voluntary reduction’ did not affect pensionable salary, which the new salary cut does.

The Minister for Finance has described as 'terrible stuff' opposition claims that ministerial pay cuts were a sham.

Mr Lenihan confirmed that the cut had been recommended by a Review body on Higher Pay and had been based on salary levels before the voluntary reduction but pointed out it was permanent and affected ministerial pensions.

'The Minister blew it'

Labour’s Finance Spokesperson Joan Burton said the Budget could have been a consensus one, a classic case of ‘we all jump together’, but said 'the Minister blew it'.

Deputy Burton said the cleaner working in the public service with two children will be paying the bulk in the terms of public service cuts announced in the Budget.

She said the Minister had obviously decided to make women and children the centre of his cuts plan as seen in the cuts to child benefit.

Ms Burton said it was a sort of ‘Top Gear’ lads Budget with the cost of drink and cars being cut, while the burden of pain falls on families with children and people on social welfare under 66.

She accused Minister Lenihan of looking for soft options and that it cannot be good for our economy that purchasing power had been cut.

Ms Burton asked why the economy was still lagging behind while other European economies were showing signs of recovery.

Budget written by 'economically illiterate'

Sinn Féin’s Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the Budget had been written by people who were 'economically illiterate'.

He described it as an abysmal failure and said the Government should hang its head in shame.

Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan said the only people for whom the worst was over following this Budget was the corrupt banker.

He said the worst was not over for the half a million people on the live register and described the Budget as grossly unfair and anti-young people.

He accused the Minister of presiding over the haemorrhaging of jobs from the State in order to save the banks.

Anger over reduction on excise duty for alcohol

Opposition TDs have voiced their anger at the reduction of excise duty on alcohol while child benefit was also cut.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore has said he is to oppose the financial motion to reduce excise duty on alcohol products, while the party's deputy leader Pat Rabbitte, said that the move contradicted the Government's health policy.

Mr Gilmore said he could not see how child benefit can be reduced while on the other hand drink is being put on the table for adults, with the reduction of excise duty.

He warned that this measure might have the same impact as the tax on children's shoes that brought down the Government in 1982.

Labour TD Jan O'Sullivan asked what kind of message it would send out that Ireland - known across Europe for binge drinking - has reduced excise duty on alcohol, as one of the few stimulus measures in the budget.

Emmet Stagg said children would go hungry in this Budget 'while we reduce the price of drink'.

Fine Gael’s Ciarán O'Donnell also said that his party could not support the measure to reduce excise duty on alcohol while child benefit was being reduced.

He said that the travel tax had a more negative impact on tourism than the price of alcohol.

The Dáil has approved the immediate financial changes arising from the Budget, including a reduction in the price of alchohol and in VAT, and increases in the price of petrol and diesel.

It will begin debating the changes in social welfare rates announced in the Budget tomorrow.