Wednesday, 24 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I am interested in having child benefit substantially increased but I cannot table an amendment to that effect. If I did, the Minister would not have the money to pay for it. The way in which this amendment is framed encapsulates what I want to achieve. I want a report laid before the Dáil on the implications of paying child benefit for all children up to the age of five at the rate of £20 per week. This can be done and there are sufficient funds available in the Exchequer to do it, but I know the Minister does not have them within his Department.
We are focusing on child benefit because the Combat Poverty Agency estimate that a substantial number of children live in poverty. There is some dispute as to the exact figure, but both the Minister and I agree it is probably around 25 per cent, that one in four children is living in poverty.
It is agreed that the way to deal with that is by increasing child benefit. All the experts tell us that is the most appropriate and efficient way of dealing with child poverty. Neither does it act as a disincentive to enterprise or to people taking up work.
The only matter on which we do not agree is the amount by which child benefit should be increased. Where there is a budget surplus of thousands of millions of pounds, I cannot accept that increasing child benefit by £12 this year is an adequate response to the problem I am highlighting. We should try to make a real difference. It would be very expensive to increase child benefit substantially for all children. The cost of increasing child benefit to £20 for every child up to the age of five is reasonably expensive, approximately £150 million per year. This is where we should start. The money is available so why not do it. The Minister must, at least, have a report done on the implications of such an increase.
I know the Minister would like to accept this proposal if his Cabinet colleagues would give him  the money to do so. When he rejects the amendment, I expect the Minister will say, quite rightly, that reducing child benefit when children reach the age of five would present a problem. I accept that this would be so but the problem could be overcome by reducing benefit in stages after the age of five so that families do not experience a great disruption to their finances.
While I present this proposal in the interests of creating a fairer society, it is also economically wise. We need more support for child care so that mothers can participate in the workforce. This measure would help those at the weaker end of the socio-economic spectrum who wish to take up paid employment. Everything supports my proposal. It will not place an immediate charge on the Exchequer and I urge the Minister to accept the proposal in the spirit in which it is offered.
Mr. McGrath: I support the proposal of my colleague Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. It has been well established by various reports on payment of social welfare benefit to families that the best way of getting money to children is through child benefit. Increases in child benefit are reflected directly in increased spending on children. It is also well known that a sizeable proportion of children live below the poverty line. When one considers that the best way of getting money to those children is through child benefit it makes great sense to concentrate resources on increasing child benefit.
It is regrettable that this Government has not increased child benefit substantially. The previous Government granted a substantial increase and the Minister, Deputy Ahern, now has a golden opportunity to put right the neglect of the past few years. It is remarkable that almost 60 per cent of the recipients of child benefit, generally mothers, have no other personal income. This fact bears out the findings that money given in child benefit goes directly to the substantive carers of children in the home.
We have spent much time recently discussing tax relief for child care. This proposal would go some of the way towards easing the difficulties in relation to child care. This proposed increase in child benefit from approximately £8 per week to £20 per week for children aged five and under would cost £150 million per year. There are approximately 50,000 children in each year group so there are 250,000 children under five. An increase of £12 per week or £600 per year for each child amounts to £150 million. The budget surplus this year will be in excess of £2 billion. When discussing earlier amendments the Minister said he could not find the additional money required. The Minister must accept that some of the budget surplus must go to children. What bet ter way to do this than by increasing child benefit?
I am old enough to remember the time when child benefit was referred to as the half crowns. My mother used place great store on being able to draw the half crowns because she was a housewife and she regarded that money as her own few pounds. I was one of ten children and the half crowns were quite substantial. My mother regarded that money as income which she could use as she wished. Knowing that so much child benefit goes directly to children, I ask the Minister to give this amendment his special consideration.
Mr. Broughan: I wish to be associated with this amendment. You will remember, Sir, that a Labour Party requirement in the negotiations to establish the partnership Government in 1992 was the achievement, during the life of the Government, of a basic income of £20 per week for all children. It is heartening to see another party coming to believe in the same approach.
The question of increasing child benefit to children under five years was discussed on Committee Stage. Many parents will know that the needs of children in the age group six to 12 when they are developing new interests can also be very expensive. Teenagers also have very expensive needs. It could be argued that there should not be a cut-off point at the age of five.
The recent Partnership 2000 child care report was a stimulating document. The Government, as usual, kicked the matter to touch and avoided taking action by appointing yet another interdepartmental group. I noted during today's debate the number of times the Minister referred to interdepartmental groups on one topic or another. All aspects of the child care report – child care providers, tax relief for child care, child benefit and registration of crèches – have been discussed in my part of country. Under the Northside Partnership we have launched a major child care project headed by the Chairwoman of the National Women's Council of Ireland, Noreen Byrne, who is a strong local leader. In all discussions I have had, both in the Northside Partnership area and nationally, I have found general agreement with the substance of this amendment, a basic income for children and a support for mothers and families. I fully endorse the sentiments of my colleagues in Fine Gael.
Mr. D. Ahern: Deputy Broughan said the Labour Party was the first to address this issue. It was part of a Government which put together a programme for Government. If I remember correctly, the Labour Party went into Government on the condition that it would bring forward a child benefit supplement, but nothing was done on that in the two and a half years it was in Government.
Mr. D. Ahern: The expert working group on child care examined this issue and most people in the House would accept that the group's main focus was access of women to the workplace. One of the main issues not wholly addressed in the report was that of women who choose to stay in the home. I do not agree with Deputy Broughan's remarks about working groups; more working groups were set up in the tenure of my predecessor. I probably would not have set up as many working groups as others but I do not—
Mr. D. Ahern: I did not play rugby. I played soccer, the working man's game. I did not set up as many working groups as my predecessor, Deputy De Rossa, but his setting up of the Commission on the Family was an excellent idea even though it overshadowed the good work of the committee of this House which was examining the issue of the family. Nevertheless, the Commission on the Family produced an excellent report and the proposal which Deputy Bruton  made with great fanfare at his Ard-Fheis, as if it were something no one else had thought of, was one of the main issues the commission put forward for discussion. The commission accepted that this issue is complicated and expensive from an Exchequer point of view.
We wanted to establish an interdepartmental working group that would report back quickly so that the Government could take action in this whole area, not only on the basis of its report but also on the commitments we gave in An Action Programme for the Millennium, the report of the Commission on the Family and the report of the Forum on Early Childhood Education.
The child benefit route is probably the best although it may be the most expensive. We all accept that. Looking at the issue of children in the age group up to five, the report of the Commission on the Family, launched by Deputy Bruton at the Ard-Fheis, stated that the main area which did not need a major degree of State assistance was the up to three and the three to five age groups and suggested that certain payments would be made. That makes sense but, unfortunately, when the child reached the age of five, the family would be bereft of a payment on which it relied over those years. As Deputy Broughan rightly pointed out, when a child starts school the family does not have a financial burden lifted off it. Additional financial burdens are often placed on families when children start school because they have to buy uniforms and books, despite all the assistance available to them.
The Government is acutely aware of the need to examine the issue of child benefit in the context of the whole child care issue. Certain proposals will be brought forward by the Government before the year is out which will build upon the deliberations of the interdepartmental working group set up recently and which we expect will report to the Government in the near future.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The past is the past. There was an increase of 60 per cent in child benefit under the short-lived rainbow Government. In the current year, for 1.2 million children, this Government has allowed an increase of £13 million—
Mr. D. Ahern: On a point of order, the proportions in relation to 25 per cent in a full year under the rainbow coalition Government's package for child care, and £40 million by this Government, would be the same in terms of the budget year cost. Deputy O'Keeffe said in our case it is £13 million this year but it would be in the region of £6 million or £7 million for the corresponding period of 1997 because in that year the increases in child benefit provided for by the then Government came into effect in September. It would be a proportion of the 25 per cent. If the Deputy divides the figure by four he will get it.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I am not codding anybody. I am stating the fact that for the 60 per cent increase provided by the rainbow Government, the increase this year, for 1.2 million children, is £13 million. It averages out at approximately £12 a year each, £1 a month and 28p per week. That is the increase they will get against a backdrop of the huge surplus of moneys in the Exchequer.
I know the Minister does not have any additional moneys from his ministerial colleague but I want to put down a marker in terms of the importance I attach to child benefit. I also put down a marker in the context of the debate on child care either by the lady working in the home or by somebody who goes out to work. That is why I stipulated up to the age of five. After that, children will be at school and the child care burden will be somewhat less for obvious reasons.
In the context of a new approach which I hope to see adopted by all parties towards the achievement of a fairer society, I want to ensure that child benefit is an area which will get decent provision in the future. I do not want any references to the historical past when money was not available because they are about as irrelevant as the situation mentioned by my colleague, Deputy McGrath, when he referred to the children's allowance which was a half a crown in my young days. I feel strongly about this issue but to avoid delaying proceedings I will not call a vote but will put the amendment to a voice vote.
“6.–Not later than 6 months from the passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the need to amend and extend the social welfare free schemes as they apply to widows and widowers.”.
Amendment No. 12 is very similar to amendment No. 15 and draws attention to the situation of widows and widowers. We have received many submissions on this issue in recent years, particularly in relation to younger widows and widowers who have been left to support very young families. On Committee Stage I drew attention to the fact that in recent weeks, the young family of  the late Deputy Upton has been left to be looked after and supported by a young widow. This issue affects all sections of society.
The substance of our amendment, which is fleshed out further in the Fine Gael one, calls on the Minister to report on the possibility of extending the free schemes to widows, particularly those with many dependent children. Last Saturday morning in Donaghmede, a young widow came to see me and was in tears recounting the difficulties she faced in supporting a number of teenage children, a couple of whom were starting college. Her chief complaint concerned the situation of people on disability benefit. She had been on disability benefit when her husband was alive and was urged by the Department to switch to the widow's pension and succeeded in getting half of the disability benefit for the following 15 months. She was just about surviving under those circumstances but in recent months, she has been cruelly cut off as a result of the Department's rules and is now struggling hard to make ends meet.
This is perhaps one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society. It is an area in which the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Woods, took much interest. Perhaps it is an area at which this Minister needs to look, particularly in relation to free schemes. I urge him to consider widows like the woman I mentioned who has a good PRSI record and who feel very hard done by in that she is not entitled to continue to draw half the disability benefit for the next few years.
Mr. McGrath: Amendment No. 15 is an alternative to that in the names of Deputy Broughan and Deputy Shortall. Widows and widowers are the great forgotten people of Ireland. They suffer the loss of their spouses and the State does very little to come to their rescue. If a woman loses her husband, she suddenly finds herself on the widow's pension which the Minister admitted earlier would not do much. If she has dependent children, she will be worse off. She may have had a little more previously and had somebody to share the burdens of bringing up a family, but suddenly all of that is gone. Not only has she lost a companion, a friend, a spouse and possibly the breadwinner, she now must shoulder all the family difficulties on her own. Coupled with that, come the financial difficulties. Widows, in particular, get a raw deal in this State.
I also mention widowers. Recently, I came across a case of a widower with three dependent children. He was earning somewhere in the region of £24,000 or £25,000 per year. His wife had been a housewife who looked after the home. The resultant benefit from the State was that he would have to pay an additional £50 per week in income tax. Instead of coming under the double band in the tax code, he is now under the single band. Widowers and widows hit the top rate of tax at about £17,000 this year, whereas a married couple do not hit it until about £28,000. This  means he hits the higher tax band much earlier on and his tax bill increases.
A bereavement allowance is in place for the first five years which is scaled back from £5,000 to £1,000. That is a help on the tax side. I know we are dealing with the Social Welfare Bill and not the Finance Bill but both should be looked at together. Perhaps the Minister will speak with his colleague, the Minister for Finance? Widows and widowers should come under the double tax band, certainly for as long as they have dependent children. It is only fair that should happen.
Small benefits, including free travel, television licence and telephone rental, should be given to widows and widowers, if only by way of recognition of their special status and difficulties. I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who, like me, comes from a rural constituency, has often met women who feel cut off and isolated when they become widows. These small benefits would be a help to them.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy McGrath, you are moving away from the amendment. I remind the House there are 28 amendments remaining and we have about 40 minutes in which to deal with them. Perhaps we could confine ourselves to the amendments before us.
Mr. McGrath: I am trying to indicate to the Minister what he should include in that report and the major benefits it would bring to widows and widowers. We all know of people in those circumstances, so we would appreciate the help and, more so, the recognition these benefits would bring. I ask the Minister to bring forward this report. More importantly, when he has looked at the report and seen the benefits which would accrue from it, I hope he as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs will be able to deliver in the next budget the goodies we have set out so clearly this year and about which he has suggested he will do something if the Minister for Finance helps him out. Perhaps we should send the Minister for Finance to Cheltenham and if he comes back with a few pounds, the Minister could deliver all these things next year.
Mr. D. Ahern: I thank the last Deputy, in particular, for hoping that I will be Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs at the next budget. All speakers, including myself, would  love to do all the things on which we have touched to date. Amendments suggested in respect of many other issues are well deserving and we would all like those amendments to be made. Deputy O'Keeffe referred to this year's net Exchequer surplus, which is in the region of £900 million. If we were to accede to all the requests in the area of social welfare, we would have spent all that money.
Mr. D. Ahern: It is accepted on this side of the House that more needs to be done for widows. That was one of the reasons the Minister for Finance made substantial taxation changes in respect of widows in his first budget. He continued that trend in this year's budget, although the changes were not as significant as those made in his first budget. Those changes were made in special recognition of the position of young widows.
I examined the free schemes. An expenditure review of the free schemes is being undertaken in my Department in co-operation with the Policy Institute of Trinity College, Dublin. One of the issues under review is the extension of the free schemes to widows, widowers and other deserving cases. The estimated cost of extending the free schemes to widows and widowers is approximately £25 million. This year I extended the free schemes to mainly carers. The free telephone rental scheme was extended to all qualifying carers. The free fuel scheme was amended. Other changes were made in extending free travel to carers, to people in constant attendance and to those in receipt of the prescribed relative allowance. All these issues were examined and only so much can be done each year. I acknowledge the issue of young widows requires attention and I give an undertaking it will be examined in the next budget, given the expenditure report on the free schemes, which, I hope, will be available by then.
“6.–Not later than 6 months from the passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the classes of cases of social insurance benefit the payment of which includes an investigation of the means of the recipient.”.
“7.–The Minister shall, within 3 months of the passing of this Act, lay before Dáil Éireann a detailed report on the implications of the extension of the family income supplement to the families of persons who are self-employed.”.
I am in campaign mode arguing for the acceptance of this amendment. It is a fundamental injustice that the family income supplement is not available to the self-employed. The family income supplement has been beneficial to those in low paid employment. It has also provided an incentive for low paid workers with families to take up or remain in full-time employment. Approximately 14,000 people gain from that scheme. It has improved gradually over the years, but the last remaining major reform of the structure required is to provide for the self-employed.
Many people perceive the self-employed to be well off, but I refer to the self-employed who are living on the margins. There are quite a number in that category. They may run a small corner shop, a service business, such as plumbing, a bicycle shop, a post office or they may be small farmers. People in urban and rural areas would gain from the extension of the family income supplement to the self-employed. Apart from the social injustice aspect of this, does it not make economic sense and for a fairer society to provide that element of support to the self-employed who are on low incomes? Does it not also make economic sense to encourage people with families, whether they live in urban or rural areas, to continue to make their own living, even if they do not get a major return from it? This extension of the scheme to the self-employed makes economic sense and is socially just. For that reason the case for its extension is unanswerable.
I examined the position elsewhere and was impressed that there is a similar system in Northern Ireland and in the UK. The Minister will probably reply that the system of family credit in Northern Ireland is not exactly the same as our family income supplement, but it is analogous to it. The system of family credit in Northern Ireland extends to the self-employed. They have overcome practical difficulties in relation to income tax and tax returns. There are also practical difficulties in relation to small farmers, but they have also overcome those. Under their system, a special form must be completed before a small farmer with a family can apply for a family credit. Proposals are to be introduced next October in Northern Ireland whereby the family credit system will be replaced by the working family's tax credit system.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy has wandered from the amendment. I do not mind him making a passing reference to an issue that would impose a charge on the Exchequer, but he is straying from the amendment by discussing at length an issue that would impose a charge on the Exchequer.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The family credit system in the UK or in Northern Ireland does not impose any charge on our Exchequer. The peace process has not advanced sufficiently to envisage such a possibility, but I take the Chair's point. The other part of this island and our neighbouring jurisdiction have been able to introduce a system, which includes the self-employed. I do not expect the Minister to say immediately that he will extend the system. I do not expect him to put a charge on the Exchequer immediately, but I urge him to ensure that policy in this area is generally directed towards the objective I outlined. That is the basis on which I seek a report on the implications of this proposal. The case for extending the scheme to the self-employed is unanswerable. I believe it will be extended to them and I intend to push to ensure that happens. That is why I feel so strongly about this amendment.
Mr. McGrath: I support this amendment. The case for the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs extending the scheme to the self-employed is unanswerable. If the Department of Finance, through the Revenue Commissioners, was to highlight that a person has an annual income of £8,000 and a family of three children, the case for the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs not paying that family income supplement is unanswerable. If such a case were brought to court, I am sure it would be won.
Responsibility for the family income supplement should be moved from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to the Department of Finance. It should be an automatic payment from the Department of Finance when people are making their financial returns for the year. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs might be happy to lose that payment or it might feel it was being downgraded. However, it would make much more sense to base it entirely on income. The Minister should consider that when he is making his report on family income supplement.
The committee which I chair, and to which the Minister referred, recently debated family income supplement. The Minister will be glad to know that some of his colleagues who sit behind him were very adamant that family income supplement should be introduced for the self-employed. At some stage we will be calling on them to vote accordingly.
Mr. Broughan: I mentioned to the Minister on Committee Stage and at a recent Question Time an issue concerning unemployed people who  have become self-employed. An issue that arose frequently during our recent research on the matter was that a form of income support was necessary for those on the back-to-work and area based schemes after the three or four years was over. People who set up small businesses, such as a person who came to my advice centre recently and who had set up a small painting and decorating business, but who need support for another six months or a year are let down by the system. It is a daunting prospect for the successful graduates of those schemes to be on their own after three or four years.
This amendment would be very valuable in terms of making FIS available to people coming off those schemes who have managed, through enormous efforts, to set up their own businesses. It is a heroic achievement to go from being unemployed to being self-employed. The least we could do is consider the possibility of going down this road. Deputy O'Keeffe told us yesterday at the Committee on Family, Community and Social Affairs about the British system, which merits some study.
Mr. D. Ahern: The issue of family income supplement was looked at in the context of Partnership 2000 but was not regarded as a priority by any of the participants, neither the Government nor the social partners. Only one farming organisation pushed the issue of FIS for farmers at that time, although some of them became great converts to it subsequently. It is not very long since Partnership 2000 was put in place and it was not an issue. I hazard a guess that if the case is unanswerable now, it was unanswerable then.
The cost of extending it is estimated – although it is more of a guesstimate – to be in the region of £70 million to £80 million. The extra £15 million put into the farm assist scheme, which is the alternative agreed by this Government with the farming organisations and others for low income farmers, would have to be subtracted from that. However, it would still be a very substantial amount of between £55 million and £65 million. This returns to the spending of the surplus we are talking about. If I had £55 million or £65 million today I might have higher priorities to spend it on, such as people with disabilities, carers, child benefit and widows and widowers. However, that is not to say there is no need to assist some self-employed people.
Deputy Broughan raises a very valid point about the back-to-work allowance scheme, which is an extremely good scheme. I have given the Labour Party an opportunity to correct the record. I was astounded by its post budget broadcast, in which it gave incorrect information. It stated there was a cut in the back-to-work allowance scheme, which was not the case. I subsequently wrote to Deputy McDowell and asked him to correct the record. I am still awaiting a response. I would have thought that on Question Time, at the social affairs committee or in the House the Labour Party would have corrected  that misinformation but it has chosen not to so do.
Mr. D. Ahern: The issue of people on the back-to-work scheme becoming self-employed has been looked at in the report. By and large, the scheme is working well for self-employed people. There is some suspicion that employers might not match the money or might reduce it over the years. However, by and large, those schemes have worked well.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I take the point made by the Minister about Partnership 2000. However, I am talking about small self-employed people such as a bicycle repair shop owner or a corner shopkeeper, who are not really represented in Partnership 2000.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I am representing them, which is why I am making such a stand on this issue. Changes were pushed through in Partnership 2000 in relation to assessments based on net means as opposed to gross income. There was nobody there to push the issue of the self-employed, and I am pushing it for them. I do not accept the figures mentioned by the Minister because he does not really know them himself. Different figures have been quoted from time to time, including £30 million at one stage. The uptake of family income supplement generally does not exceed one-third, which would considerably reduce the cost. I wish to indicate my continuing support for this campaign by pressing the amendment.
10.–The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the treatment of carers' in the social insurance system and in particular the options in relation to introducing a carer's benefit.”.
Part III of the Bill deals with carers. I commend the Minister on his move to deal to some extent with the massive problem that exists for this neglected group. Carers often spend 168 hours a week caring for disabled relatives. A small start was made but these amendments propose a number of further important improvements. All Members received a check list of 21 items from the Carer's Association on which it lobbied the Minister before Christmas. Carers felt that he should have gone much further in a number of areas. He extended the number of carers by 3,300 but it is estimated that there are 48,000 carers. He was asked to abolish the means test but did not introduce any change.
He was also asked to consider a carer's benefit, which is the substance of amendment No. 17, particularly for those with a good PRSI record. They should be able to give up work and receive support at a reasonable rate to look after invalids in their homes. The Minister has absolutely refused to act on this.
The Carer's Association requested an increase of £200 in the weekly income disregard and nothing emerged in that regard. He was asked to give medical cards to all full-time carers, but did not. The Minister stated that he would not take carers for granted, but despite modest improvements, he is still taking these heroic men and women for granted. He was asked to consider the abolition of VAT on incontinence pads and other basic care items and, again, he did nothing. It was called “a cost of caring” allowance but the Minister was not prepared to consider it.
An extra £45 per week for all carers was proposed to help meet additional costs, such as heating in summer for older people, etc., and the Minister did nothing. He was asked to do something major on the respite care allowance given  that people work night and day. They receive £200 but it is a minimalist start in terms of what is required. The sum of £1,000 which is mentioned in the amendments is more appropriate. As a former teacher if I were giving the Minister marks, I would give him four or five out of 21, which is a very modest mark indeed.
Mr. Broughan: I commend the Minister for the modest start he has made but he should try to keep in his thoughts the carers, the forgotten people to whom he has referred, and consider a decent package for the coming year. I am well aware of the amount he is spending.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Prior to the Social Welfare Bill, 1988, the payment was known as the prescribed relative's allowance. I tabled an amendment to have it changed so that the payment would be made direct to the carer. It was accepted by the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Woods.
Carers are fed up with being called the unsung heroes of society. They would prefer if people sang more about them in terms of reality. There are approximately 50,000 carers, three quarters of whom are not recognised by the State. I care for all of them and the system must be developed. It has grown bit by bit since it was introduced but at a slow pace. We must first give the allowance to more carers and that can be done by increasing the income disregard to £100 for a single person  and £200 for a couple. There must be a fairer system for the assessment of income on savings. In addition, there is a problem with the relaxation of the residency rules bearing in mind that 44 per cent of carers do not live under the same roof as those for whom they care.
I compliment the Minister because last year I pushed strongly for a respite care allowance of £1,000 and I am glad the principle has been established. I have problems with it not just because it is only £200 but because it only applies to people in receipt of an allowance. Three quarters of carers continue to get nothing. There is a need for a recognition payment that could be covered under the respite allowance for those who do not qualify for the weekly allowance. Consideration must be given in the development of this scheme, and in the report to be prepared by the Minister, to extend the respite care allowance to those who do not receive the weekly allowance. In addition, home-based respite and residential care facilities and services must be developed.
I wish to see another anomaly examined in the report. The income earner in a household in many instances qualifies for a partial allowance except when the income derives from a social welfare payment. For example, a widow caring for a number of elderly relatives is precluded from receiving a carer's allowance because she is in receipt of a widow's pension. That is an unfair anomaly which should be addressed in the report which I hope the Minister will prepare.
There are other areas which go beyond the Minister's brief but if he is going to take responsibility for this issue he should also look at them. One such issue is carers whose mission of care has been completed, often because the person being cared for died. Under the social economy programme there should be a special allocation of 1,000 places for carers. We should also bear in mind home helps and the miserable, minimal amount paid to them. They should be paid at least the proposed minimum hourly wage. There are two problems in the tax area, the aggregation of the carer's allowance with other income and VAT on basic care items. These issues need to be teased out, costed and debated, possibly before the Committee on Family and Social Affairs, so that when we are presented with next year's budget we can make a qualitative improvement in the conditions of the 50,000 carers who do such a marvellous job. Hopefully we will not just be saying they do a marvellous job but will be doing something concrete.
Mr. Callely: I am inclined to support the need to prepare a report. However, I cannot agree with the argument put forward by Deputy O'Keeffe. I hope the Minister and his officials will hear the call I am making in relation to the carer's scheme. My understanding is that the carer's scheme currently in place is a social welfare payment scheme. Deputy O'Keeffe referred to carers and what happens when they finish caring for a relative and then he spoke about home helps. That  could be expanded further by dealing with nursing home subventions, senior citizens—
Mr. Callely: I am not sure if it is the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs that should be carrying out the report. I have already said in the House that this should be a cross portfolio issue which should be dealt with at a round table forum by people who have their fingers on the pulse of the practical measures that need to be put in place.
Mr. Callely: In fairness, I want to record that this Minister, on the last occasion he had an opportunity to do so, presented ten changes to the carer's allowance scheme which were hugely beneficial. They amounted to a 40 per cent increase approximately in the allocation of moneys, from £45 million to £63 million. He is to be complimented on that. We are talking about a £6 increase for carers aged 66 and over, £3 increase for carers under age 66, once a year payment of £200 towards the cost of respite care, carers of 60 to 65 year olds will no longer be disqualified for carer's allowance where the person being cared for is not in receipt of a social welfare payment—
Mr. Callely: They may not want to hear the good news but there are ten relevant points and perhaps the Minister might have an opportunity to weave them into the record. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that there has been a 40 per cent increase in the allocation, to £63 million, which is welcome.
Mr. D. Ahern: Deputy O'Keeffe referred earlier to the need for a philosophical debate on poverty. My answer to that is one of the best ways of solving the problem is through action. The action taken by the Government in the past 20 months has been to reduce the live register figure by 50,000 and to create in the region of 96,000 jobs.
Mr. D. Ahern: He nearly swallowed his tongue on an RTE programme when Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, at my insistence, announced to the nation that we were making changes in that regard, to such an extent that he found it necessary to phone my Department and see where the press release was issued by the Minister.
Mr. D. Ahern: Perhaps Deputy O'Keeffe and the Fine Gael Members were not pushing the Deputy hard enough. This is a Government of action. On the issue of carers, we published the review of the carer's allowance and we have delivered on ten key issues in that review, to which Deputy Callely referred. They are important. I posed the question to Deputy  Broughan, who sought the normal refuge of someone in difficulty, a glass of water, if he could remember one amendment of any significance that was made when his Government was in office. He was not able to do so.
Mr. D. Ahern: Since the budget we have brought forward another amendment to the carer's allowance. I do not think Deputy O'Keeffe is aware we made the change to enable people formerly in receipt of carer's allowance to go on the back-to-work allowance scheme.
Mr. D. Ahern: Deputy O'Keeffe is aware of it and I would like to think he would accept and welcome a change like that where people who, through no fault of their own, are not entitled to carer's allowance will be able to go on the back-to-work allowance scheme. As a result of the changes, as Deputy Callely said, an extra £80 million on top of the £45 million has been provided.
Deputy Broughan referred to doing away with the means test. Not all the lobby groups involved in this area believe that would be the right way to deal with the matter. I gave a figure of £140 million in relation to the abolition of the means test. The figure would be greater now because we would have to take into account the substantial amendments that were made to the carer's allowance scheme in this year's budget. It would cost in the  region of £200 million in a full year to abolish the means test. By doing so, we would be making the carer's allowance the only allowance other than child benefit which was non-means tested and giving money to people who would not need carer's allowance. I accept that anyone who is caring for someone is in need of special assistance.
Mr. D. Ahern: As Minister, apart from the rate changes which were significant, particularly for those over 65 years, I made three or four amendments in relation to carers. I made significant rate changes, especially for people over 65 years of age, and three or four amendments in regard to carers. I had to await the outcome of the review and was happy to deliver on 11 of the issues raised in that review. I am delighted to recommend the excellent additions to the carer's allowance to the House.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As it is now ten o'clock, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the day: “That the amendments set down by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill, that Fourth Stage is hereby completed and that the Social Welfare Bill, 1999 is hereby passed”.
Browne, John (Wexford).
Ó Cuív, Éamon.
O'Keeffe, Batt. O'Keeffe, Ned.
| Treacy, Noel.
Wright, G. V.
Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
De Rossa, Proinsias.
Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies S. Brennan and Power; Níl, Deputies Barrett and Stagg.
Question declared carried.
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