The increase in spending in this year's social welfare budget is less than 50% of the annual rise in spending in each of the last two budgets, according to the Minster for Employment and Social Protection Regina Doherty.

Speaking at a post-Budget news conference, she said that each of the last two budgets increased her department’s annual spend by €1.1 billion. 

Asked what the equivalent increase triggered by today's measures is, Ms Doherty said it was a €690 million

She said spending on new initiatives last year amounted to €360m but that it had fallen this year to €170m.

"New initiatives" are defined as spending commitments over and above the spending that is required to pay recipients of existing welfare schemes, including the net additions to the number of payees caused by projected demographic changes next year.  

The across-the-board €5 a week increase in mainstream payments - like the State pension for people aged 66 and older - was abandoned in this Budget. Ms Doherty conceded that it had been a feature of the last two budgets.

She said the Government had delivered a prudent budget in the shadow of Brexit and that she had chosen to ensure that it got maximum impact for families - particularly vulnerable children and older people.

Highlighting that she had innovated despite this year's constraints, she said she was particularly pleased to progress the free hot school meals scheme and to drive change in how the Government assisted those who are particularly challenged in their search for a job.

She said €2.5 million was being provided to target specific job activation and training supports for groups who are most distant from the labour market or have challenges entering the workplace.

In particular, Minister Doherty said she wishes to develop "returnships" for women who have been out of the workplace for a prolonged period of time, usually to raise a family or care for a relative, and help them to participate once more in the workforce.

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Under 26 cut addressed

The controversial 2014 cut in jobseekers' payments to younger adults has been partially restored. Jobseekers aged 25, who are currently entitled to €112.70 are to receive the full adult allowance of €203.

The restoration will also apply to those under the age of 25 who are living independently with State support. Those in the age bracket who are not living independently will remain at the reduced rate of €112.70.

Commenting on the decision, Ms Doherty said the lower payments for under 25s who are living independently can increase the risk of homelessness.

But she said she had no evidence to support that statement. "They find it very difficult to live on (about) €100," Ms Doherty said.

Three years after the 2014 cuts, the National Youth Council of Ireland, calling for an end to discrimination against unemployed under 26-year-olds, argued that it was contrary to the provisions of Article 40.1 of the Irish Constitution, "which dictates that all citizens should be treated equally".

The NYCI said a poll it conducted in 2017 had revealed that 40% of young people on Jobseekers’ Allowance were struggling to make ends meet because they had to pay the same price for food, accommodation, transport, etc., as those over 26. It said the cut had made those under the age of 26 more susceptible to poverty and economic hardship.

Commenting on the Budget’s social welfare package of €21.2 billion for next year, Ms Doherty said it included €171.2m in additional social welfare expenditure that specifically targets those most in need. 

"Over 200,000 older people and people with a disability living alone will receive increased payments."

"There will also be additional support for children at risk of poverty including provision for 35,000 more children to avail of free hot school meals.

Minister Doherty added that people with disabilities and pensioners living alone would receive an increase of €5 per week on their Living Alone Allowance payment. 

The increase will take effect from the week beginning 6 January 2020, instead of the traditional March date, benefiting over 160,000 pensioners and 40,000 people with disabilities who are living alone.

Asked about the cabinet’s motivation for the rescheduling of the increase, Minister Doherty would not be drawn on the possibility of a General Election before March.