Wednesday, 1 May 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
10. Mr. Stagg asked the Minister for Social Welfare if, in view of (1) the increasing concern over the Government's decision to reduce the level of social welfare payments for cohabiting couples to that of married couples, (2) the fact that this will reduce the income of many people living on or below the poverty line and (3) the fact that this will force many people to misrepresent their domestic circumstances in order to protect their standard of living, he will reconsider his decision to cut such social welfare payments; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: The Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1985, provided for the changes necessary to introduce equality of treatment between men and women in matters of social security in accordance with EC Directive 79/7.
One of the basic principles of the 1985 Act was that unemployment assistance payments should continue to be provided on the basis of the needs of the household. Consequently, the 1985 Act provided that where both of a married couple were entitled to unemployment assistance or where one of the couple was entitled to assistance and the other was entitled to a social insurance payment or old age pension, the overall amount payable would be limited to that which  they would receive if only one of the couple claimed and received an increase in respect of his or her spouse as an adult dependant.
Following a Supreme Court decision in 1989, the Government introduced the Social Welfare (No. 2) Act, 1989, to ensure that married couples were not treated less favourably than cohabiting couples. The effect of this legislation was to extend the rules which applied to married couples to cohabiting couples.
Certain other provisions within the existing code which were identified as involving less favourable treatment of married than of cohabiting couples were amended in the Social Welfare Act, 1991, so as to provide for a non-discriminatory method of dealing with the payments in question. One of the effects of these changes was to confer entitlement to cohabiting couples under the family income supplement scheme from which, in certain, circumstances they were previously excluded.
The Supreme Court decision which found provisions of the equal treatment legislation to be in conflict with the Constitution raises the whole question of the treatment of different household situations within the social welfare code. In view of the complexity of the issues involved, the Government established an independent review group to examine the social welfare code as it affects households with particular regard to the equal treatment provisions and the requirements in relation to the treatment of married couples arising from the Constitution.
The group have now completed their review of the present arrangements and I expect to receive their report shortly. In keeping with the commitment in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, the report will be discussed with appropriate interests.
11. Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will consider the inclusion of peat briquettes as a suitable energy source for the free electricity allowance scheme for old age pensioners; if he has satisfied himself that peat briquettes would be a real alternative to electricity or natural gas on grounds of being environmentally friendly and economically viable; and his views on whether many old age pensioners would prefer smokeless solid fuel for winter heating purposes.
28. Mr. Garland asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will extend the free scheme for the elderly to include smokeless solid fuel; his views on whether this would make economic sense; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that, for example, if a direct substitution of the equivalent value of 1500 kilowatt hours of electricity is made by peat briquettes, the peat briquettes will weigh over a tonne and contain 6000 kilowatt hours of potential heat; his views on whether this would be beneficial to the elderly to have this type of choice; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
The free electricity and free natural gas allowance schemes, which are primarily designed to assist elderly persons, living alone, with their heating, cooking and lighting needs, operate on the basis of metered usage for the benefit of persons connected to those services.
The national fuel scheme provides assistance to those who are dependent on long term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to pay for their own heating needs. A weekly payment of £5 is made for a 26 week period from mid-October to mid-April each year. In addition, I introduced at the start of the 1990-91 heating season a smokeless fuel allowance of £3 per week. This additional allowance is designed to help low-income households meet the extra costs of using smokeless or low-smoke fuel in those areas of Dublin where bituminous coal has been banned. Some 74,000 households received the smokeless fuel allowance at a cost of £5.8 million in 1991. This is in addition to the provision of £29.1 million for the national fuel scheme.
 The free electricity allowance assists pensioners with the costs of heating, lighting and cooking. Because of the flexibility of electric heating and the variety of appliances available, it is a particularly suitable form of heating for elderly people. There has not been a demand for the substitution of solid fuel for electricity or natural gas and I have no plans to remove or reduce the level of free electricity allowance, albeit with the substitution of a solid fuel alternative. The question of increasing the free fuel allowance itself would be a matter for consideration in a budgetary context.
Mr. Connaughton: Many elderly people like the idea of an open fire; indeed, they cherish it. Having regard to the fact that peat briquettes are considered to be a clean fuel and environmentally friendly, many elderly people have pointed out to me that they cannot understand the reason they are not allowed to use this fuel under the scheme. Given that it is a native fuel and employment is provided in bogs, we would do a great deal of good if we allowed people to use it under the scheme. I ask the Minister to give us his views on this matter.
Dr. Woods: One can purchase any fuel one likes under the free fuel scheme as a free fuel allowance is given. People may spend that allowance however they wish. The free electricity allowance is operated on the basis of metered usage and there would be no guarantee, if a cash payment was made, that the money would be spent on fuel. Therefore, an arrangement has been made with the ESB to supply electricity which the Department pay for. Natural gas is also a metered heating facility.
12. Mr. Byrne asked the Minister for Social Welfare if his attention has been drawn to the findings of a survey undertaken by the British Family Policies Studies Centre, which found that child benefit in this country was among the lowest in the EC; if, in the light of these figures, he will increase the level of child benefit; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: The survey to which the Deputy refers was published recently by the British Family Policy Studies Centre. It compares the basic family allowances paid in the 12 EC member states. This survey indicated that, of the member states who have a benefit scheme, Ireland ranked seventh out of 11 in terms of the level of payment provided for a one-child family. The survey also reveals that Ireland is among the seven EC countries which recognise the special needs of larger families.
The author acknowledges that simple comparisons of the level of basic family allowances in different countries do not give a comprehensive picture of support for children because of the considerable differences in social welfare systems in the member states. She then goes on to point out that several countries, as is the case in Ireland, provide extra child-related payments such as a lone parent's allowance and special grants relating to back-to-school costs. Families on low income in Ireland are further supported through the family income supplement and by the child related tax exemption which is now £300 for the first and second children in a family and £500 for third and subsequent children.
Moreover, the survey fails to take account of the considerable support to families which is afforded by adult and child dependant allowances which are payable in Ireland through social insurance and social assistance schemes generally. The rates of payment for these allowances have been improved and streamlined in recent years. For example,  over the period 1987 to 1991, the minimum child dependant allowance has been doubled from £6 per week to £12 per week.
These extra allowances mean that the actual level of child income support in this country is considerably higher than our basic rate of child benefit suggests, particularly for those families on low incomes.
The Government are very conscious of the special financial pressures faced by families, particularly those on low incomes, and are committed to improving the levels of child income support as resources permit. The Government intend to build on the progress to date and, under the Programme for Econommic and Social Progress, will provide the level of resources necessary to implement the additional child income support measures recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. This will entail additional expenditure on child income support of some £69 million in 1990 terms over the ten year period of the programme.
Mr. Byrne: Will the Minister agree that the statistics are quite shocking particularly for a country like Ireland which places so much emphasis on the family? Mothers in Belgium, for example, get £112 a month more than their Irish mother counterparts with two children. The report highlights this huge disparity that exists in the treatment of children. Why did the Minister this year refuse to increase child benefit schemes while last year he made only such a nominal contribution it would not even pay for the purchase of an apple a week for the mothers of children?
Dr. Woods: The Deputy is surely aware of the report of the Commission on Social Welfare. He cites often enough to me in this House the fact that the commission stressed that additional resources should be provided for those on lower income particularly and for large families on social welfare. The findings of that research are very clear on where the additonal resources should be targeted. This  House, over the last three years particularly has been targeting very substantial extra resources to those on the lower incomes so that all those who are dependent on social welfare got substantial increases. Child benefit was increased of course, at the same time with a particular emphasis on larger families. The question that one has to face, and which will have to be faced in future in relation to the additional £69 million, is where best at this stage to spend that extra money which is committed in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress. In that, the question of child benefit will be fully considered, with the emphasis both on the FIS and child related tax exemption which were very substantial this year. Between the child related tax exemptions and child benefit the increase was over £16 million directed to the children of families at work on lower incomes as distinct from those on social welfare.
An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair is conforming to Standing Orders as he is obliged to do. If the Chair were listened  to when it comes to dealing with priority questions we could deal with these questions.
14. Mr. Carey asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason, in the budgetary increases in social welfare recently announced, restrictions have been placed on the increase in invalidity pensions for persons over 66; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: I have been trying, in recent years, to streamline the various rates of social welfare payments by reducing the number of different rates of payment which currently exist. This policy is in line with the recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare. Further progress was made in this regard in this year's budget. There are currently two different basic rates of invalidity pension — £54.10 for people under 66 and £55.10 for people over 66. From next July, these will be replaced with a single rate of £56.40.
The new rate of £56.40 is above the priority rate recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. It is not means-tested, so there is no reduction in the rate if the claimant has other income. In addition, invalidity pensioners are entitled to a range of valuable fringe benefits, such as free fuel, free electricity allowances and free travel.
15. Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social Welfare if his attention has been drawn to the continuing protests over the operation of the carer's allowance scheme, and the fact that only a small proportion of carers in the community are benefiting from the scheme; if, in view of the inadequacy of the scheme, he will consider removing the means testing element of the scheme and target the carer's allowance payments by subjecting them to taxation; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
32. Mr. Pattison asked the Minister for Social Welfare the number of people who have qualified for receipt of a carer's allowance since its introduction in October 1990; the number who have qualified for payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
34. Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Social Welfare the cost of the carer's allowance to date; the estimated cost for the allowance to the end of the year; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
38. Tomás Mac Giolla asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will amend the social welfare legislation to allow for the payment of the carer's allowance, where care is provided other than on a full-time residential basis.
The carer's allowance, which I introduced last year, provides a direct payment to people on low incomes who provide full-time care and attention for incapacitated social welfare pensioners. The allowance is payable to people who are providing full-time care and attention to social welfare pensioners aged 66 years or over or to recipients of invalidity pension or blind pension regardless of their age. I am happy to say that I will be extending the scheme in July next to cover carers of recipients of disabled person's maintenance allowance and of persons getting a pension from another member state of the EC or from a country with whom Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement. In addition to the extension, the maximum weekly personal rate is being increased from £45 to £50.
Since the scheme was launched my Department have received 5,094 applications for the allowance. The total number of persons currently in receipt of the allowance is 3,206. The estimated cost of the allowance to the end of March is £1.3 million. The estimate for this year as a whole is £7.8 million. Current claim  trends indicate that almost 30 per cent of applicants who have not been awarded a carer's allowance are in receipt of another social welfare payment at a higher rate.
The carer's allowance is the first step in recognising the situation of carers on low incomes and providing them with income maintenance arrangements. I am aware that some carers with comparatively modest incomes do not qualify for the allowance or receive a partial payment owing to the application of the means test. I am reviewing the means test arrangements at present to see, within the resources available to me, what improvements can be made in this regard.
The scheme is specifically designed for carers on low incomes who are providing full-time care and attention and who are residing with the pensioner. Any extension of the scheme to include carers who are providing occasional or partial care would have substantial cost implications. The question of removing the means test would also have financial implications and could only be considered in a budgetary context.
Mr. Stagg: Would the Minister not agree that the fact that only 3,206 persons have qualified for any payment, and many of them would not be on full payment under this scheme, indicates that the scheme is a farce and inoperable? The means testing level of £2 per week is the most severe in any social welfare scheme. Will the Minister agree that while this is a first step in the right direction the hype about the scheme has led to many false hopes and expectations? Would he not agree that the best thing for the patient, for the State and for the family, is the removal of means testing and the application of taxation to the payment to redirect it to areas where it is most needed?
Dr. Woods: It was made very clear at the outset that this was a means tested scheme intended for people on low incomes. That was stated in the advertisements and was part of every statement  we made about the scheme. The rate of takeup is increasing all the time. It is a totally new scheme and we will shortly have a fair indication of how it is going generally. I am reviewing the scheme and the means testing arrangements. The question of revising social welfare means test generally is being examined. Regarding taxation, allowances are paid under the taxation system. Perhaps the Deputy should look at those from a tax point of view rather than this scheme, which is a social welfare carer's payment.
Mr. M. Higgins: Is it not true that the Minister has been contacted by groups of carers and by an association of carers who are offering evidence that worthy applicants are being excluded from the scheme by demands placed on them, particularly in relation to means testing?
Dr. Woods: I dealt with that in my original reply. I am aware that there are people who are worthy in the sense that they are giving great care and who are in receipt of incomes which are not very high. That raises the question of how much further one can extend the scheme by raising the means test level. From the beginning of July we are introducing the disabled person's maintenance allowance.
Most of the representations which have been made to me have been concerned with this category, that is, people with no income or very little income who are looking after people in receipt of DPMA. In objective terms they are the next category to be looked after. Subsequently we can consider going further. In the meantime I am looking at the means tests to see if any marginal changes would bring a reasonable number of people within the scheme.
Dr. Woods: It is similar to the pensioner's allowance and was chosen so that it would be helpful. In practice I accept  that it needs to be reviewed and this is being done. It must be remembered that the scheme was introduced only last November.
Mr. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): Would the Minister agree that the method of assessment is gravely offensive for many women looking after elderly relatives at home who find themselves assessed as having half their husband's income? This is a way out of giving people an allowance to which they should be entitled. The DPMA allowance will be useless to a woman I know looking after two disabled persons whose husband has an income of £80. She will be assessed as having an income of £40 per week and the State will cash in on her generosity in looking after the elderly while they could be in hospital.
Dr. Woods: I am glad the Deputy has made that point and has got a chorus of approval. The health boards have arrangements for dealing with people going into hospital. We are discussing the responsibilities of the Minister for Social Welfare.
Dr. Woods: My first priority is to look after people on the lowest incomes. We have had a debate on the Estimates for the year and a budget debate. I am distributing £7.8 million in accordance with my ministerial responsibility. To consider  the people who might benefit from an allowance if such were available is a much wider question. It was always desirable but nothing was done. This is a first and very valuable step in this area. Anyone in Opposition who has been on the Government benches in the past will realise that the sum of £7.8 million represents a substantial commitment. The experience gained in this area will provide evidence in relation to the wider question. There are other approaches that could be taken by health boards in relation to specified people who might be provided for without going into hospital. It is done in certain ways by the health boards at present. Deputies are suggesting that it should be done in other ways. The Minister for Finance also makes provision for such care. We intend to develop this scheme to include carers of recipients of DPMA. We will see how much further we can go with regard to means tests, within the resources available. The much wider questions which have been raised are budgetary matters.
Mr. Byrne: Would the Minister not agree that he and his Department are treating people in a very cruel manner? When introducing the carer's allowance the Minister said in the House he believed there would be 8,000 recipients. The projected figures today are worse than those given last year. We are told 2,500 people are in receipt of the allowance and a grand total of 12,000 carers who applied have been rejected.
I contend that the person involved should not have to be solely resident with the person requiring the care and that the term “pensioner” should be excluded. That would vastly improve conditions as was clearly the original intention. Removing the residential obligation on the carer in addition to removing the term “pensioner”, would render everybody requiring this type of attention entitled to receive a relatively small amount of money.
Dr. Woods: Every suggestion advanced here would entail a widening of the allowance. As Members know, there was a prescribed relative's allowance which I managed to have converted into a carer's allowance for social welfare purposes. I must stress that the estimate is for the year as a whole. We shall have to ascertain the relevant numbers and how the spending goes over the year.
Deputy Byrne raised another question, that of bringing people who are not resident in the home into eligibility. If one goes beyond the immediate, say, granny flat arrangement, or some such arrangement, one is going very much beyond the provisions of the scheme and those for whom it was designed to cater; it would entail a big extension of its provisions. The question of people within close proximity, of the household whom the Deputy or I might regard as being there but who might not technically be regarded as being in the household, is something I shall have examined within the review. The Deputy must bear in mind that I do not want to create wild expectations because, going further out into the community, would entail a very substantial extension of the provisions of the scheme. That is a budgetary matter to be decided by Government at a later stage when we have had experience of the operations of the scheme and when the Department of Health will have decided what they want to do.
Mr. Connaughton: The Minister is very uncomfortable with the carer's allowance as he has shown in the House today. Is he aware that many people in receipt of social welfare benefit who care for the  elderly, are at present terror-stricken because, not alone do they discover they are not entitled to the carer's allowance, but there is an actual reduction effected, on assessment of their means with regard to such benefits as unemployment assistance and so on? They lose several pounds rather than gain. Obviously, this has an effect on the numbers claiming.
Dr. Woods: We discover with any scheme we introduce that its provisions can result in the revision of the means of an individual — if they are means-tested — which can give rise to means being disclosed which had not been heretofore. Indirectly that can have an effect and will apply in some limited cases. That is not a function of the operations of the new scheme and is a reflection of the fact that means had not been disclosed though they had increased in the meantime. There is an obligation to disclose such means. Of course, I accept that that can happen.
Dr. Woods: I was the first Minister in the history of this State to introduce a carer's allowance in November last. We are continuing to build on it so that it will provide more assistance to those eligible.
Dr. Woods: As a member of the Government I am limited to the resources available within the budget in any given year. Indeed, the representatives of the disabled, those people with disabilities, have expressed themselves very happy to be included in the scheme. They have written to me — I can show Members their letters — stating  that they are happy that they will be included in the provisions of the scheme from 1 July next.
Mr. J. Higgins: Is the Minister aware of his blithe ignorance of the reality of the position on the ground, as we know it to be on this side of the House and as Government backbenchers know it to be, that seldom has a scheme generated more disappointment and seething bitterness than this? When the Minister signed the requisite regulations for this scheme he announced that £10 million would be made available whereas £7 million only has been made available. In addition, he announced that 10,000 people would qualify whereas 3,000 only have done so. The Minister has qualified everything he has said by the overriding consideration encapsulated in the phrase “within the resources available”. As far as the elderly are concerned their humane needs are far more important than available resources. There should be no means test to qualify under this scheme.
Dr. Woods: I am glad the Deputy, and his colleagues on that side of the House, realise how important is this scheme for the elderly, for people in need of care and attention, because they sat over here for four and a half years and never suggested introducing a carer's allowance. They did not give even as much as a pennyworth to the people about whom they are now speaking.
16. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Minister for Social Welfare the reason the report of the review group on payments to households has not yet been published; when the report was received by him; if he will outline its main findings; when it is intended to publish the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: The report of the Review Group on the Treatment of Households under the social welfare code has not yet been submitted to me. However, I understand, that the group's deliberations have been completed and that the report will be submitted shortly.
Mr. Byrne: The Minister's reply mystifies me because the Government were able to negotiate the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, under which they committed themselves to a review of the treatment fof households. Would the Minister not confirm that he has seen the report, that he does not like the favourable sentiments embodied therein and that he is sitting on it, which is the only reason nobody else has seen it? The report has been printed. Yet, as he said in the course of the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, 1991, the Minister insists on claiming that the review has been completed but that the report of the group has not yet been completed. What does that mean? The Minister went on to say——
An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy will realise that quotations at Question Time are not in order. The Deputy appears to be imparting much information rather than seeking it. I must remind him that this is Question Time.
Dr. Woods: I have given my answer. I have not received the report as yet. Neither have I seen it. I told the Deputy the position — I understand the review group have now completed their review and their report will be submitted very shortly. That is my understanding of the position at present.
17. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social Welfare when it is expected that the final report of the National Pensions Board will be published; if he will outline his attitude to the establishment of a national income related pension scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: Under their terms of reference the National Pensions Board are required to submit proposals to the Minister for Social Welfare on all aspects of a national pensions system. The introduction of a national income-related pensions scheme will be one of the issues to be considered by the board in their report. It is expected that the board's report will be presented by mid-summer.
Dr. Woods: We set up the board to advise the Minister. It would be very foolish for the Minister to start saying what his position is at this stage without having the report of the pensions board. That is the reason we asked the pensions board to answer that question.
Dr. Woods: The main purpose of the lone parents allowance scheme is to provide an income to parents who have to look after their children on their own and who as a result are unavailable for employment. Before the introduction of this scheme the needs of lone parents were catered for by six different schemes under social assistance which differentiated between such parents on the basis of the cause of the lone parenthood and on whether the parent was male or female. The new scheme streamlined all existing social assistance payments for lone parents and extended provision for lone parents under social assistance to separated spouses, unmarried fathers and prisoners' husbands. It represents a significant milestone in the development of non-discriminatory social welfare provision for lone parents who are unable to provide for themselves.
The suggestion by the Deputy that the means test in respect of male applicants only for lone parents allowance be removed would reintroduce discrimination in this area, in this instance against women. It would also result in many men qualifying for an allowance who have sufficient income from employment or other sources to maintain their families without any assistance from social assistance schemes which are financed directly by taxpayers. It would  also represent a major departure from the principle of social insurance whereby entitlement to non-means tested social welfare benefits is conditional on the payment of PRSI contributions. For these reasons I am opposed to the Deputy's suggestion.
I do acknowledge, however, that there is unequal treatment of men and women under social insurance in the event of widowhood or desertion. This issue is being examined by the National Pensions Board with a view to bringing forward proposals for the application of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in this whole area. The board's final report is due to be completed shortly and I will be giving priority to the board's recommendation on this matter.
Mr. Durkan: I think the Minister may have misunderstood the question. Can he confirm if, under present legislation, a deserted wife can claim deserted wife's benefit, which is insurance related, and whether the same applies to a deserted husband?
Dr. Woods: The Deputy asked if I would remove the means test in respect of male applicants for lone parents' allowance. We have brought in a scheme right across the board, for men — widowers, deserted husbands and separated husbands. They are now eligible for that allowance scheme. That was a major change and development in our system on the means test allowance side. The issue of the insurance is separate and is a major question financially that will have to be considered in the near future, first, in the context of the report of the National Pensions Board — we are well up to date in getting our homework done  in that area — and, secondly, in relation to developments within the EC.
Mr. Connaughton: Why does it take so long for an assessment to be made on a lone parent's application for benefit as opposed to all the other schemes, vis-à-vis deserted wives, etc. From people who contact me my understanding is that it takes a considerable period from the time the application is made until the benefit is actually received. I understood, that, because it is a lone parent's allowance, it would be much easier for the Minister's staff to decide on an application.
Dr. Woods: The Deputy has a question down elsewhere on that issue. I could get the reference material from that question if the Deputy wishes. The position is that since November we have improved the whole system. The introduction of the lone parent's allowance scheme does away with the question of having to prove desertion which resulted in the big delay, but a social welfare officer still has to establish means. The allowance is being received much faster than previously because of the change. We have made some administrative changes also which result in earlier decisions to get the payment made earlier.
Mr. Durkan: Would the Minister not agree that it would be desirable to introduce a change which would bring about equality in that a payment similar to that paid to deserted wives should be available to deserted husbands, because both are equal in the sense that if they have to go to work they may require somebody to look after their children?
Dr. Woods: This relates to equal treatment in these areas as directed by the EC. The Deputy will be aware of what  happened previously when the equal treatment provisions were implemented, as the Opposition were in Government at that time. There were enormous difficulties, and there are still difficulties, in the courts in relation to that whole area. One of the major problems is cost. There has been a great deal of delay in implementing the EC Directive because it has not been decided in this country or in the other member states how it will be done.
We have taken legislative action in relation to occupational pensions. Again, the area of equal treatment is being improved. However that is the one area that will have to be addressed, but how it can be addressed is a major problem. The report of the pensions board which will be available by the time Deputies come back after the summer recess — it should be available sometime in mid-summer — hopefully, will throw much light on that issue and indicate where we will go from there.
19. Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will consider allowing a basic exempted minimum non-means tested entitlement to UK pensioners living here applying for an old age non-contributory pension; the amount paid by the DHSS in the UK to pensioners living here; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
67. Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he will consider exempting for means purposes, a certain percentage of overseas pensions for those living here in receipt of such pensions who have applied for old age non-contributory pensions from his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
A person resident in Ireland and in receipt of an overseas pension could qualify for non-contributory old age pension subject to satisfying the means test. Where the overseas pension is from another EC member state or from a country with which Ireland has a reciprocal  agreement on social security, the person would now be entitled in any event to the free electricity and other allowances which apply to Irish pensioners.
Under the means test arrangements a single person can have means of up to £6 a week and qualify for the maximum rate of non-contributory pension, with the rate being reduced proportionately where means exceed £6. The basic rate of UK retirement pension is £52 sterling per week or £57.14 in Irish punts. The basic rate of non-contributory old age pension here is £53 at present increasing to £55 from July.
To exempt for means purposes any part of a pension payable by the UK or any other country in the case of claims for the old age non-contributory pension, as suggested by the Deputy, would give the people concerned an advantage over other claimants for this pension, who had a weekly cash income, unless similar exemption was extended to all forms of such income. Any such exemption would also have implications for people in receipt of contributory pensions under the social insurance system.
Mr. J. Higgins: I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge that ancillary benefits such as free electricity are valuable components to making the lives of the elderly more tolerable. Is the Minister aware that thousands of returned emigrants, who have worked hard all their lives in other countries, who will spend their final years here and bring valuable foreign currency — in this case sterling — to this country, are penalised on every penny they earn over and above the basic exemption of £6 per week? In most cases they would have a small nest egg. These people are due special consideration.
Dr. Woods: I take it the Deputy realises that if we were to do that other people would also have to be catered for. In relation to emigrants, we have extended the benefits to EC pensioners generally. That is something the Deputy was concerned about earlier.
 We have also extended those benefits to pensioners from other countries who will enter into a bilateral agreement with us. Of course, that means that the bilateral agreement has to be completed before it comes into operation. We have signed agreements with Austria, Canada and recently with Australia. Before the end of this year I hope we will sign an agreement with the United States of America as a result of which many people would be entitled to extra benefits. However, the means exemption limits would have to apply to the whole population.
Mr. J. Higgins: I acknowledge the Minister has problems in relation to equity, however does the Minister not acknowledge that every 1,000 pensioners who return from the UK are worth £2.5 million in net terms to the Irish economy and that attracting the emigrants home is a good economic and social exercise? One of our problems is that we do not have population growth and, therefore, we do not have an increasing number of consumers.
Dr. Woods: I appreciate the problem but there are the difficulties I have already mentioned. In many ways, I am paving the way for people who wish to come back. One of the things I discovered when I was in Australia was that some of the people who went out in the fifties are not quite as well off as one might have expected while others, of course, have done very well. Some are anxious to come home and are very anxious to avail of the arrangements we are making currently. That is happening in a number of other countries as well.
On the whole, we provide reasonably well for elderly people in Ireland in spite of what had been said earlier on other matters. The fact that the extra benefits are provided for people returning not only from the European Community but from outside it is a very big improvement.
20. Mr. McCartan asked the Minister for Social Welfare if his attention has been drawn to the recent ESRI report, Unemployment, Poverty and Psychological Distress which showed that unemployed people are five times more likely to suffer high levels of psychological distress than those at work; if, in view of the findings of the report that among the most effective ways to increase individuals' self esteem and feelings of personal control and improve mental health is to remove people from poverty, he intends to take any steps to raise the incomes of unemployed; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Dr. Woods: The report gave recognition to the range of measures introduced by this Government in response to the situation of the unemployed. These include the scheme to provide educational opportunities for the unemployed and the part-time job incentive scheme. The report also recognised the role of social support in buffering people from the full effects of stress. Here, too, the Government have been active through their aid for the activities of voluntary and community groups. This year I am providing £2.34 million in grants to voluntary and community groups.
We have taken unprecendented steps to raise the incomes of the unemployed. During the Programme for National Recovery the personal rate of unemployment assistance was increased by some 11 per cent in each of three successive years. As a result the rate for a husband with a wife and three dependent children will be £124 per week from the end of July this year. In the recent budget we announced that the short term unemployment assistance rate is to rise by 11 per cent from July, while the long term rate was increased by almost 6 per cent, both well above the rate of inflation, 2.6 per cent.
The Government are committed in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress to continue to protect social welfare rates against inflation and to move by 1993 to the priority level of social welfare rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare. Thereafter, the Government are committed to increase social welfare rates further and  progressively, in accordance with the recommendations of the commission, as the resources of the economy grow.
Mr. Byrne: The Minister will probably agree that the survey he mentioned makes extremely sad reading particularly in the light of the unemployment figures over the last three consecutive months. The grinding consequence of poverty facing so many of our citizens is creating a far sicker society than we should tolerate. Given that the Minister is not directly responsible for job creation, although he is a member of the Cabinet which has direct responsibility for it, will the Minister implement a recommendation in the report to guarantee substantial social welfare increase in line with that recommended by the Commission for Social Welfare and increase the miserable supplementary welfare allowance of £50 per week to at least £63 which would help keep these people out of psychiatric hospitals and from the type of destructive activities which we see in our cities every day of the week?
Dr. Woods: As the Deputy will know we have been making progress in that area continuously and we plan to continue with that process. In fact, the Programme for Economic and Social Progress outlines the targets to be achieved in that respect. On the question of stress and psychological problems associated with unemployment, the best solution, of course, is to get a job or a position of some sort. The number of people at work is still increasing but as Deputies will know quite a few people are coming home from abroad which affects the number on the live register.
We are involved in a number of initiatives around the country to involve people in activities at community level. In fact, we have a strategy for providing employment on a local basis. I will do anything I can to provide the environment to create both work and involvement in community developments.
Mr. Connaughton: When all is said and done a great many people would not have  been surprised by the findings of the ESRI report that it is very distressing psychologically to be without a job for a long period. Why have the Government given a very low priority to the social employment scheme throughout the country? In fact, the moneys made available have been reduced. Would the Minister not agree that this would be an ideal opportunity to help local communities to do things which they could never afford otherwise, while at the same time providing people with an outlet for their energies by working? Is it not better to pay them to work rather than to pay them social welfare?
Dr. Woods: Naturally, I am very keen on social employment schemes being made available. Through the Jobsearch programme a number of places on schemes were made available specifically to the long term unemployed, which was part of our strategy. My recollection, although I am not the Minister concerned, is that the total amount of money made available for social employment schemes in the Estimate was increased this year but we increased the rate of payment to individuals and of course the cost of materials has increased.
Mr. Stagg: Given that the Minister has been washing his hands of responsibility since the start of Question Time, can he tell us what progress he has made in the specific area of decreasing the number of families who live in poverty? According to the reports which are current and up-to-date, up to one million people, for whom the Minister is responsible, still live in poverty. Will he clarify the progress he has referred to? The largest number of people we have ever had now live in poverty——
Mr. Byrne: I sincerely ask the Minister to join with me in expressing extreme concern about the underlying effects of long term unemployment, particularly as it affects our inner city. Is the Minister not conscious of the daily muggings and the crime rate in our inner cities due to alienation? There are massive complexes with 70 to 80 per cent of people on unemployment assistance and low incomes. The targeting he is talking about has not happened. There are flat complexes with as many as 300 families who have not got the most simple community facilities available to them. Will the Minister share my concern that there is a degree of alienation existing in our society that is having an ongoing and extremely damaging effect, particularly in Dublin city?
Dr. Woods: I want to be very clear that I would not like people to think there is any association between the muggings and the people on unemployment assistance. There is no direct relationship whatsoever, and I want to be clear about that.
Dr. Woods: The Deputy would want to be very careful in what he is saying. I do not accept that. I accept there are areas where there are very special problems and the Government are tackling these problems, particularly with the area-based strategy for the long term unemployed. That is a very specific strategy agreed among the national partners and is being put into operation early in May, specifically in the areas where the greatest difficulties arise. Of the groups  which we had already established for community development a large proportion of these——
Dr. Woods: No, there are the ones who are assisted under the voluntary grant scheme and the other schemes as well as the ones directly established. Last year we established 15 groups around the country and another five or six will be set up in the near future.
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