Thursday, 21 November 1985
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. G. Mitchell: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he considers that unemployment assistance of £34.95 per week without any other income is sufficient to meet all the normal outgoings of a household; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): Undoubtedly there are many in the community including the unemployed who find it difficult to make ends meet at the present time. There are limits to what can be done to assist them as there are many other competing demands  on the Government's resources. We have however honoured our commitment to keep long term social welfare payments at least in line with inflation and to keep short term unemployment and disability benefits in line with take home pay. The rates for unemployment assistance for long term recipients were increased by 6½ per cent in July last, the same percentage as for other long term social welfare rates.
Dr. McCarthy: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he has any plans to increase the value of fuel vouchers as many old people used their reserves of fuel during the summer and are now in dire need of extra fuel; the amount this scheme costs; if he has any plans to provide a single uniform free fuel scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): It is proposed to take Question Nos. 31 and 67 together. The national fuel scheme, which was introduced in 1980, was designed to provide on a uniform basis for all persons throughout the State who are unable to supply their heating needs from their own resources. The urban fuel schemes, which were introduced in 1942 and operated in seventeen cities and towns, did not, however, cease on the establishment of the national fuel scheme.
The schemes will continue in their present form for the 1985-86 season and proposals are being considered in the meantime for rationalisation with a view to having only one scheme for the whole country. The weekly value of the fuel allowance was increased from £4 to £5 with effect from the beginning of the current heating season in accordance with the provisions of this year's Budget. The estimated cost of allowances under both schemes at present is £25.8 million yearly.
Mr. E. O'Keeffe: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will review the means test for the purpose of qualifying for unemployment assistance; in view of the hardship being caused to many families.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): The means test for unemployment assistance is designed to ensure that all applicants for unemployment assistance are treated in an equitable manner having regard to the resources available to them. Payment of unemployment assistance is made to those who are in genuine need and is directly related to financial circumstances in each individual case. I am satisfied that the means test as at present operated is a fair and reasonable method of determining entitlement and allocating scarce resources to those in need and changes in the method of assessment are not at present contemplated. However, the general question of means assessment for the various social welfare schemes, including the unemployment assistance scheme, is one of the areas which is being addressed by the Commission on Social Welfare.
Mr. Keating: asked the Minister for Social Welfare whether he will introduce regulations to give unemployed people entitlement to travel free at off-peak times on transport in order to facilitate them in pursuing employment.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): The free travel scheme applies to all persons aged 66 or over, to blind persons aged 18 and over and to persons receiving social welfare type payments as permanently incapacitated persons. Extension of the scheme to include the unemployed would have very significant cost implications for this and other schemes administered by the Department. The cost of extending the scheme to the long term unemployed alone would be about £21 million. There are no plans for such an extension.
Mr. Coughlan: asked the Minister  for Social Welfare if he hopes to rationalise the different rates of payment for different categories of social welfare recipients so that they are intelligible to the normal person.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): The Commission on Social Welfare was established in August 1983 to review and report on the social welfare system and related social services and to make recommendations for their development having regard to the needs of modern Irish society. The commission in their deliberations will take account of all aspects of the social welfare system including the coverage of the various schemes and the rates of the payments. It is not, however, an easy matter to devise a social welfare system which at one and the same time is simple and can still cater for widely varying individual needs. The commission expect to have their examination completed by March next and their findings will be taken into account in the planning and future development of the social welfare services.
Mr. P. Brennan: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will amend the social welfare legislation pertaining to the prescribed relative's allowance and allow married people to qualify for the prescribed relative's allowance to an old age pensioner or otherwise; and if he will make a statement on this situation.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): The prescribed relative allowance is an increase in pension payable to old age and invalidity pensioners under certain very specific conditions. To qualify for the allowance the pensioner must be so incapacitated as to require full time care and attention and he must have living with him a prescribed relative who is providing that care and attention. Apart from the prescribed relative, the pensioner must be living alone or only with a child or an incapacitated person. In keeping with the objective of providing a measure of income maintenance where  it is needed in those circumstances the conditions limit payment of the allowance to cases where the relative providing the care effectively has no independent means of support. The allowance is not payable if the relative is a married person who is maintained by his or her spouse. There are no plans at present to change the conditions of entitlement to prescribed relative allowance.
Mr. P. Brennan: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will remove the clause whereby application for the family income supplement means that a person must work 30 hours or more per week; the reasons for inserting this clause in the qualification; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): Family income supplement was introduced to provide support for families whose income from employment was no higher or only marginally higher than what they would receive in social welfare benefit if the wage-earners were unemployed and a primary objective of the scheme was the maintenance of the incentive to work. It is an essential feature of the scheme that one parent be in full time employment, which is defined as employment of not less than 30 hours per week. It is not, therefore, proposed to alter this condition. A person employed for less than 30 hours a week is not regarded as in full time employment and may therefore be eligible for supplementary welfare allowance.
Mr. D. Gallagher: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if in view of the serious plight of small farmers because of the bad summer he will take immediate steps to ensure that their social welfare payments are restored to a level which will enable them to provide a decent living standard for their families.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): It would appear that the Deputy is referring to smallholder unemployment assistance applicants whose  means were formerly assessed on a notional basis and who lost their entitlements to unemployment assistance, or had their payments reduced, following the abolition of the notional assessment system. The position now is that the means of smallholder applicants for unemployment assistance must, in accordance with the Social Welfare Acts, be determined on a factual basis in the same manner as other applicants for unemployment assistance. Applicants who are dissatisfied with their assessments may, of course, appeal. Special arrangements were made in June last for reinvestigation of the entitlements of smallholders on factual assessment who apply for a review and for the hearing of any appeals arising under the revised arrangements.
Dr. O'Hanlon: asked the Minister for Social Welfare the social welfare services it is intended to devolve to local authorities as outlined in chapter 5 of paragraph 4 of the “Reform of Local Government” policy statement of 30 May 1985.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): As mentioned in chapter 5.9 of the document Reform of Local Government, the evaluation of services is an integral part of the Government's plans for reform in the public service which have since been published in the White Paper Serving the Country Better. The White Paper envisaged that in Departments which have a large volume of purely executive work, this work would be transferred to separate executive offices which would have full responsibility for discharging it effectively.
A start has already been made, as announced recently, by a major reorganisation of the Department of Social Welfare into two separate areas. One area will deal with policy matters. The other area will deal with the administration of schemes and services and will be known as the social welfare services office. This office is in the process of being set up and new structures in the Department will be  developed progressively in the coming months.
An additional factor is that the Commission on Social Welfare are at present drawing up their report and it is expected to be available by the end of March next. The report will be making recommendations in relation to the content, structure and administration of the Department's services and until these have been considered and evaluated any further change in the administration of services is not contemplated.
Dr. McCarthy: asked the Minister for Social Welfare if any arrangements are being made to alter the contribution levels of PRSI payments; and if he has any intention of altering these payments and the associated levels.
Minister for Social Welfare (Mr. B. Desmond): As announced by the Taoiseach in his statement on employment and tax reform to the House on 23 October last, a scheme of exemption from PRSI contributions by employers will apply to additional new full time employees taken on by any private employer between now and 31 March 1986, who have been on the live register for at least six months. Employers will be exempt from paying their portion of the PRSI contribution for such employees for each week in the income tax year 1986-1987 in which the increase in the employer's workforce is maintained. The employee's portion of the PRSI contribution for 1986-87 will continue to be payable in the normal way.
It was also indicated in the Taoiseach's statement that the Government are giving detailed consideration to the scope for and feasibility of a restructuring of the employer's PRSI system in order to favour labour-intensive industries. The Government have asked the National Economic and Social Council for their views on the desirability of such changes and are now awaiting those views.
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