Wednesday, 21 February 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Penrose: Carers deeply resent the means test which excludes thousands of people from the carer's allowance. The Labour Party supports a fundamental reform of the carer's allowance. It should be a continual care payment that is paid not on the basis of the financial means of relatives, but the needs of those who are receiving care.
It is time we got rid of the means test which I find abhorrent. I urge the Minister to examine that in the context of the next budget. Every one of us has been cared for, or will be carers, at some time in our lives and we know it is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week job. Carers do tremendous work.
Despite the fact that the income disregard for carers has increased to £150 for a single income and £250 for a joint income, creating 5,000 additional carers, nevertheless too many people are still excluded. Some 20,000 carers out of an estimated 100,000 is still not adequate, although the Minister says there are only 50,000 according to the Department's figures. It is time qualitative data were available and that a proper analysis of the number of carers was carried out.
A Western Area Health Board survey showed there were approximately 20,000 carers in that area alone and there was an almost hysterical reaction from the Government. If that is the number of carers in the west, by extrapolation, there are five times as many throughout the country giving us a figure of at least 100,000. Despite what the Department says, my knowledge, though empirical and anecdotal, suggests we are totally underestimating the number of carers. They do a great job and it is time we recognised that and put it on a legislative basis. I would prefer to see such recognition on a constitutional basis or as a social contract with those people.
Fuel poverty is a constant harsh reality for tens of thousands of people. I welcome the three week extension of the heating season, though I heard one of the Minister's colleagues saying two weeks. I admit that we failed to do anything about it when in Government but with fuel price increases almost yearly, the £5 rate which has remained unchanged for over a decade is too low. It will cost about £37 million to double the fuel allowance but perhaps the Minister could see his way to do this as so many people depend on it. Because of the rate of inflation, it is not as valuable as it was a couple of years ago. I urge the Minister to examine that. I welcome the extension to 29 weeks, though an extension to 32 weeks would be better. Doubling the rate of allowance would be important for those people.
Ms O'Sullivan: The Minister has received a certain amount of praise for this Bill and, while I praise elements of it, the thrust of it and of the budget generally has managed to increase inequality and relative poverty instead of improving the position. This is one of the worst countries in the EU in terms of the inequalities in society. I had hoped that, in this time of plenty, of budget surplus never before experienced and of huge increases in tax intake, we would be able to address this relative social inequality in the budget.
People on basic social welfare incomes, such as widow's pension and disability allowance, got an increase of £8 – from £77.50 per week to the princely sum of £85.50. I challenge anyone in this House to try to live on that. Those people have benefited by only £416 per annum in the budget, whereas a person earning £15,000 a year has benefited by £576 per annum and a person earning £100,000 a year has benefited by £2,532 per annum. Those figures clearly illustrate that, while there are improvements for some people, the main improvements in the budget generally, and subsequently in the Bill, are for people on higher incomes.
I do not think there is anything for which the Minister should be congratulated in that regard. Expecting people to live on such basic rates is not on. We should examine seriously the basic rates on which people still live in a country where there is so much wealth and these people must deal with inflation just as the person on £100,000 must do.
It has been shown that a large percentage of people with disabilities, in particular, live in poverty. I had hoped that the area of disability allow ance would be addressed, not just in the £8 per week increase but that the issue of the cost of disability would be addressed in the budget. I ask that the Minister address it in his future considerations. The Disability Federation of Ireland made a good case for a costing of disability payments and I acknowledge that it would not be an easy scheme to administer. Nevertheless, this must be addressed if we are serious about giving people with disabilities real opportunities to have the same living standards as others. A certain percentage of people with disabilities can go out and get a job and in some cases they are supported. There are, however, others who have to live on these basic incomes. They should be given the dignity of having a decent basic income.
I cannot find mention in either the Social Welfare Bill or in the Finance Bill – though it was announced by the Minister for Finance and I have a reply to a parliamentary question where he says he will not change his mind – of his intention to abolish the right to mobility allowance for those who benefit from the disabled drivers and passengers tax relief as and from 1 April 2001. This is a mean little proposal. I do not know whether it comes under any social welfare heading but I cannot find it in the Finance Bill either. I ask that the Government reconsider this as they are taking the mobility allowance from people who clearly have mobility problems. It is a relatively small sum of money and I am sure the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, who is present in the House, would be sympathetic to the point I make. I ask that that issue be reconsidered. It is one that has not received much attention but it is a particularly mean change that should be addressed. I am not sure I am addressing the right Minister but I wanted to raise this issue.
I support Deputy Penrose's comments in relation to carers. Quite a sizeable percentage of carers do not qualify for carer's allowance because of the means test. I acknowledge that there have been improvements in this Bill but we need again to examine the entire system rather than merely making small improvements. We need to consider a carer's payment which would not be means tested but would acknowledge that people who care on a full-time basis are doing a job and saving the State a great deal of money. They should be rewarded. This allowance should not be means tested.
Many people lose out because of the means test while others lose out because they are in receipt of another social welfare payment and would lose money were they to be in receipt of the carer's allowance. Another aspect to which I draw the Minister's attention is that if one is not in receipt of carer's allowance or another allowance of which a small number of people are in receipt – the name of which I cannot remember – one does not qualify for respite grant. That should also be examined as full-time carers who would qualify if they chose to go on carer's allowance  do not get the respite grant. That has been increased in this Bill. I ask that we also examine that unfair situation.
I know a woman who cares full-time for her daughter who is in a wheelchair but she cannot get a respite grant as she chooses to stay on her contributory pension which is worth a few more pounds a week to her. People like that should be included in the respite grant.
I welcome the extension of the living alone allowance to recipients of disability allowance, invalidity pension, unemployability supplement and blind pension. That is a good move and I congratulate the Minister.
I also welcome the improvements as they relate to qualified adults. Again, this is something we need to fundamentally consider – that adults are described as dependants of other adults. People should have payments in their own right. They should not have to be dependants; they are adults entitled to the dignity of being described as other than dependants. We need to move further in that area.
Another point made by various Deputies is that people who got increases, and who will get increases, under this and other social welfare Bills have their rents increased by local authorities. Someone came to me recently who had her diet supplement cut, which was means tested, because she had received an increase in her social welfare payments. Because of her particular physical condition she needed special foods yet her diet supplement was cut. That is yet another anomaly. This was done through the Department of Health and Children, via the health board, rather than through the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. Nevertheless, there is a principle, and other Members have referred to this, where other agencies make cuts when people get social welfare increases. Something should be done across the board with local authorities, health boards, etc.
In the time remaining, I want to address the question of child care. I welcome the increase provided for in the budget and the Social Welfare Bill. However, there is an attempt to use child benefit as a means of dealing with the cost of child care. It is a pity the Government did not introduce a parental child care payment in addition to the increase in child benefit. The real cost to parents, whether they go out to work and pay for child care or do without a second salary, or even a first salary in the case of a single parent, by staying at home with the children, means that they are losing out substantially. While I welcome the increase in child benefit, it does not address the real costs of child care. If the Government genuinely wants to support families, it should have sought to introduce the kind of payment to which I refer which was recommended by a number of organisations.
I welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, the Government is committed to looking after our children, older people and carers and all who are dependent on the social welfare system. The Bill is proof of this and I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for bringing it into the House.
The issue of carers has been mentioned by a number of speakers. The carers allowance has improved since 1990, when it was first introduced. I, like other Members, look forward to the day when the carer's allowance will not involve a means test. However, we have come a long way since 1990, introducing respite care, for example, which has increased from £100 to £400, and free travel for carers and also relaxing the residency conditions.
One important improvement is that carers have been allowed to take up employment for ten hours a week and to get involved in the back to education initiatives. I also welcome the introduction by the Government of the Carer's Leave Bill and the extension of the free electricity scheme and other schemes to carers.
We discussed the Ombudsman's report on nursing home subvention. There would be fewer people in nursing homes if the carer's allowance was improved and if a better housing aid for the elderly scheme was provided by the health boards and the local authorities. Even though one might prefer if the carer's allowance was provided by the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has done much work to ensure that the scheme would be improved.
Other schemes for the elderly in which the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is involved include the provision of alarms and security pendants through the community alert scheme. The Deputy has done a great deal of good work and great credit is due to the Minister for what he has done.
In the child care area, the Bill provides for increases in child benefit of £25 for the first and second child and of £30 for the third and subsequent children from June, which involves paying these increases a month earlier than in previous years. I welcome the earlier payment of the increases because it is an issue we all hear about on the doorsteps and in our clinics.
I raised the question of pro rata pensions with the Minister on a number of occasions. For a number of years we have known that farmers and the self-employed have had difficulties in achieving ten years' contributions and they have fallen behind other sectors which are entitled to contributory pensions. The Minister introduced the pro rata pension where the contributions before 1953 were included, but unfortunately there are still people who are losing out. Only last week I came across the case of a person who was eight contributions short. There should be some way in which such a person could purchase those contri butions or be entitled to some form of pension. There is no such provision made in this legislation and I hope that issue can be addressed soon in another Bill because it is unfortunate that such people are losing out in that way.
I welcome the introduction by the Minister of the extension of living alone allowances to people with disabilities under 66 years of age. To date, this applied only to old age pensioners over 66 years. I also welcome the fact that where a person must go into a nursing home and must sell his or her house, the ceiling of the exemption from the means test of £75,000 is being increased to £150,000.
I noticed that the Minister introduced a provision to help people living on the islands. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Ó Cuív, was very involved in this when he was Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. I wish him well in his new position and I also wish Deputy Coughlan well in her new role.
There are many people returning to live on the islands and they incur great expense when it comes to housing, whether in new or refurbished houses. Some people, for example, must generate their own electricity and that is just one challenge.
The Minister is giving an extra £10 to pensioners living on the islands. This was recommended by the interdepartmental committee on the islands in the Gaeltacht. It was also included in the Fianna Fáil manifesto before the last election and I know it has been welcomed by the people on the islands.
One issue relevant to social welfare recipients which arises time and again is the question of participation on community employment schemes or FÁS schemes. Naturally when the economy is going well there will be a shortage of workers but people on social welfare should be allowed return to those schemes as quickly as possible. Currently one must be unemployed for a year to qualify for a scheme and that is not good enough. Even people who have been laid off are told that they must wait a year and if they have spent three years in social employment, they may not return to the scheme. It is difficult, in particular, for small farmers with small holdings who would like to get employment near their homes. At a time when we are telling farmers that they should look for part-time employment if their farms do not provide enough income, it would make good sense for them to be employed as close to their homes as possible. The Government could improve the situation by allowing people on social welfare to return to those schemes quickly.
I was interested in what the Minister said about the family income supplement, which is a great way of helping low income families. There is an increase of £25 at each point in the FIS scale. This increase of £25 and the weekly income thresholds will give nearly all existing FIS recipients an additional £15. It will help 17,500 families at a  cost of £30 million in a full year. I welcome the fact that these improvements will come into effect from 5 April because the date of payment in this case has been brought forward also.
The Department provides grants to voluntary and community organisations. I welcome the provision of such grants to people in rural areas. People on social welfare have derived great benefit from these grants. Recently I visited an enterprise centre which the Minister opened in Lawrencetown near Ballinasloe which has greatly benefited the community. We were honoured to have the Minister open that centre. I hope this scheme to which I refer will continue for all the community groups looking for assistance because they cannot get assistance from sources other than the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.
I welcome the extension of the free schemes to people aged 70 or over and the fact that now medical cards will be available to this age category. Many organisations throughout the country sought this extension of these schemes and also improvements in the fuel scheme. The fuel scheme will be extended by three weeks. That is welcome. I hope the amount for the fuel scheme will be considered because there has been an increase in fuel costs.
I welcome the Bill. It shows the Government is committed to caring for the less well-off in society. There is a total package of £850 million in a full year and the Minister should insist it is directed to those most in need. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill.
Mr. McGuinness: I welcome the Bill and the efforts by the Government in the budget to ensure a huge investment is made in this area to improve the schemes available to those within the social welfare system and to relax some of the criteria laid down for them. It is a good Bill, involving a sum of £850 million which will give great benefit across the board. I am glad to see the increases were in money terms rather than in percentages. For too long we have given increases on a percentage basis. The budget and this Bill change that for the better.
The Minister has overseen radical change in the delivery of the social welfare services, and I compliment him and his staff on that. I compliment not only the staff at national level but those involved at every level on a daily basis. The approach of the Department has changed, it has become much more user-friendly. I remember when politicians in this House could make a name for themselves by ensuring benefits were paid or were paid on time. Now one has only to ring the Department or call into a local office and problems that were once insurmountable are easily overcome. That did not happen overnight and the Minister has put his shoulder to the wheel to ensure the type of change which needed to happen within the Department to deliver the range of services available. He has done a wonderful  job in co-operation with his staff. It has also involved information technology which I notice is used throughout the Department.
The Department is an example to others when it comes to the parliamentary questions system. Not only does one receive a reply to a parliamentary question within a day, one sometimes receives one within a number of hours. The replies are accurate and offer help and assistance to the people who raised the matters concerned with Members. That underlines the radical changes which have taken place and which have improved the levels of service immensely. That message should be carried to staff to encourage them and to ensure further efforts are made to continue to overhaul and change the Department.
The main provision in the Bill is the care being extended to pensioners. I have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that previous generations made a huge contribution to the country and did not receive the proper level of pension. In a time of plenty the budget has recognised the efforts of those men and women who, in the difficult times when they did not have plenty, worked to enable us to be in a position to reap the rewards. It is time for us to increase pensions substantially. The old age pension was £78 in 1997 and is now £106. Fianna Fáil said in its manifesto that it had a target of £100 by 2002. Having reached this target and having underlined our commitment to the elderly, it is time to review that target upwards. It is realistic to reach £150 in the short term. It is the least that can be expected when it is forecast that the economy will continue to grow.
Alongside that, I would like the Government, through the Minister's Department, to ensure the benefits of and increases in the budget are not taken from the elderly population by local government. That can be done by increases in local charges, such as refuse collection charges, rental increases and library fees. These are things which mean little to us but are a serious financial burden on the elderly. I would like to see a mechanism established whereby the increases will not affect the range of services of which the elderly avail within local authorities. Those I mentioned are obvious but I am sure there are many more with which we could deal. Were that to be done, it would make the increases more meaningful to the elderly.
The senior citizens' parliament is established throughout the country. It is quite active in Dublin. A branch of the parliament was recently established in Kilkenny city. I found that the members attending the parliament, as they call it, had a substantial amount of information and experience to offer which would influence our line of thought on our treatment of the elderly. It would be no harm to include that parliament in the budget consultation process. Those people have something important and constructive to contribute. They are the generations which should benefit from budgets. Rather than writing it down, we should be more imaginative and ask these customers their opinion of the service we  offer, the increases and where they should apply. It would be a worthwhile exercise.
I have constantly made the point that, although we are a well-off economy, there are still people on the margins not doing so well. Those who seem to be overlooked live in rural Ireland. A number of people are still trying to remain active in farming when they are old age pensioners. They try to eke out a living on their own or as a couple whose family have gone away. I have encountered poverty at that level I did not believe existed. Having canvassed a section of north Kilkenny, because we are informed by parish pump politics, I was amazed at the number of older people living alone, sometimes in fear because there is little security in rural areas. They live alone with little means or ways of making money. Some try to keep a small holding together. A study should be conducted of the numbers of people who are affected by the fact that they own some land and yet have little means by which to live. They are a generation of people who are proud of what they did over the years and are not anxious to push themselves forward to gain from the State. They are a quiet minority, yet they exist. As a society, we will be judged by how we care for the weaker and poorer sections in the community. We are never rich while our brother is poor.
Carers are another group in which I have an interest and I am glad the numbers of carers qualifying have increased from 9,000 to 17,000. Those are the numbers caring for the elderly, sick or the retired in the community. While the numbers are huge, I appreciate what the Minister has done in the budget with income disregards and increasing the allowance means test threshold from £75 to £125 for a single person and from £150 to £250 for a couple. The rate of pay has also been increased.
Other measures also support carers, though more can be done. In my constituency there is a carers' office. This means that the Carers Association has a presence on the high street. That body does a lot of voluntary work, engages in fund-raising and tries to link carers by way of proper communication, giving them information they require. It is helped by various health boards in carrying out its work and interacting with carers funded by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, but more can be done. Eddie Collins-Hughes is an active representative for that organisation, but it tends to come to Leinster House at the last minute before a budget. It should come earlier to establish exactly what it wants and its agenda. We could then fund the work it prioritises as a result of working with carers daily.
Previous speakers have mentioned the budget. They started off by praising the Minister before going on to tell him about the faults in the budget. Members mentioned the fuel allowance, which is  the greatest joke of all time. People received the allowance for an extra three weeks this year under that scheme, but the cold weather in Ireland means one needs a fire for 51 weeks of the year. We are lucky to get three or four fine days, but those on the scheme received the allowance for a further three weeks. Do departmental officials realise the price of gas or a bag of fuel? Every Fianna Fáil speaker says how wonderful the Minister is, but they must be living in their flats in Spain, as they are, certainly, not living in Geesala in Mayo or Kilkenny city, where it rains for 51 weeks out of 52. One needs a fire, but the best they can do is give the elderly £5 per week and extend the scheme by three weeks. We have a fanfare from the Minister and press releases from the spin doctors, but I do not agree with this. It is a disgrace and a kick in the face for the elderly.
Last week we discussed nursing home subventions, when people were mugged by the Government and State employees. If that happened on the streets of Dublin, it would be headline news. Because it was done by the State it is as if it were half all right, but it is not. We have short memories if we attack the elderly because we will be old someday. Then we will be judged by what this and other Governments do for the elderly. The best we can do is give them £5 and extend the fuel scheme by three weeks, when a bag of coal costs £8 or £8.50 in Mayo – I do not know what it costs in Dublin – but that bag of coal does not last too long when one needs to have a fire on 51 weeks out of 52, if we are lucky. It is a disgrace.
There was a big furore about the free schemes, but what good is a bus or rail pass for a person in a rural area? It is wonderful if one is in Dublin as one can hop on the DART or Dublin Bus, but there is no DART in rural Ireland and in some cases there are no buses because Bus Éireann has let us down; there is no public transport. The next budget is in October and I ask the departmental officials to consider those facts.
It is time the Department used some imagination and gave old people a voucher or pass they can use with a taxi if there are no buses or trains. Give them some money to hire a taxi for whatever day they go to town to collect their pension. We have heard about the increased payments to the elderly, but Deputy McGuinness is right about elderly people. They like their security and if they are going to town, they like to know they have a lift or taxi in and out. If they live five miles from town, the taxi will cost them £1.50 or £2 per mile. It, therefore, costs £10 to get in and out; that is their increase gone immediately. Inflation was running at approximately 10% last month. The Government and its spin doctors were saying 8%, but one could add 2% to that.
The Department could not even give free fuel to those over 70 years of age. There are means tests. It reminds me of the situation in north Mayo, an area which lost over 300 jobs last year, where a social welfare inspector said people had to go and find work as there was work available. That inspector received travel expenses going down and coming back. He had to go down a second time because I tabled a parliamentary question on the matter, as a result of which he received more travel expenses. He received more in expenses going up and down to north Mayo than those on social welfare received.
I was disappointed with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's office when I tabled that question. It was a simple question: all I asked was whether those in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs could identify where the jobs were in north Mayo. The spin doctors in that Department spun it out again.
Why will the Department not extend the free fuel scheme to those over 70 years of age without having to undergo a means test? I ask the Mini ster of State to look at that matter. If the member of a married couple in receipt of a free scheme dies and the surviving partner is just under the age limit, why is the person immediately taken off the scheme? Why is the scheme not extended to the person for six to eight months? A person who loses a partner also loses the benefit of the scheme. It is time that was examined, as the person should get the benefit of the scheme for another six to eight months to break the loss. It is bad enough losing a partner.
I heard all speakers talk about the poor carers. If the carers are depending on the Government regarding the means test for carers, then God help the elderly. Why will the Government not introduce a system where the first £50 will not be means tested, as a way of recognising the wonderful work these people do? What would any of us do if we were had to care for an old person for two months, two years or ten years?
I do not know what action should be taken in respect of our many carers but it is obvious that the Government is doing nothing for them. If a carer's husband or partner is working, the carer will be means tested on that basis and he or she will not receive any financial reward for looking after the person needing care. That is wrong and there is a need to consider this matter.
Mr. Ring: What is the Government doing? It is giving more money to the rich. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, looked after the rich in the past four budgets. The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer and the weak are getting weaker because the Government does not care about them. The Government is only concerned about catering for the needs of the rich and the people who will subscribe to its election campaign. That is not good enough.
My final point relates to alarms. Next year the Department, as a favour to me, should pay the £52 monitoring charge for elderly people. Perhaps next year I will say nice things about the officials of the Department because we might be on the opposite side of the House and the spin doctors will be working for us.
Mr. Neville: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will deal with the area to which Deputy Ring referred, namely, the issue of carers who are the forgotten people. They make an enormous contribution to society and make tremendous sacrifices to care for their loved ones. Many individuals gave up their opportunities in life to care for a parent, a brother or sister. When  the person for whom they were caring eventually died, life has almost passed them by. These people do not have the opportunity to socialise in the same way as those who are not obliged or decide not to care for someone.
Carers do an enormous service for the State and for their loved ones. In that context, I will deal with the means test and the approach taken by the State and the Government. The Government should not ask what carers have, it should ask what they need. I support the Carers' Association in its call for the Government to completely overhaul the current support system for carers, including scrapping the carer's allowance, which is failing Ireland's 120,000 family carers, and replace it with a non-means tested carer's payment. According to Government figures there are approximately 22,000 people obtaining carer's allowance. However, the Carers' Association estimates that there are 120,000 carers. On that basis, the work of almost 100,000 carers is not being recognised by the State. It is time the contribution made by these people was recognised and I call on the Government to do so.
Carer's allowance will be paid to only one in six carers if the meagre changes in the Social Welfare Bill become law. Carers should not have to wait any longer for proper recognition from the State. The carer's allowance scheme must be replaced as a matter of urgency. The work of every carer should be recognised. The argument will be put forward that the very rich will also then be entitled to payment. However, the very rich can afford to pay for nurses and services for a person requiring care. Many carers give up opportunities in life, job or career in order to care for a loved one.
The Government sees very little scope for developing the carer's allowance. At the current rate of change to the means test, it would take almost 20 years to bring all carers into the scheme. Carers need urgent support, they simply cannot wait. These people are doing their best to maintain the independence and dignity of their frail and incapacitated relatives in their homes. This should be recognised in Government policy. For every pound the Government spends in supporting carers in the home, carers save the State £12 on the cost of alternative residential care. That fact is not recognised by the State.
The Government should reinforce its policy by providing support and recognition for carers. The best approach would be to scrap the carer's allowance and introduce a carer's payment which would avoid the need for means test and target support to carers based on their needs and those of the people for whom they care. This would demonstrate a serious commitment on the part of the Government to encouraging care in the community.
There is a need for urgent consideration of the difficulties experienced by carers and particular attention should be paid to the area of respite. Certain people provide care on a 24 hour basis, which is the nature of the job. These individuals  are available, even late at night or in the early hours of the morning, to provide assistance if a loved one becomes ill or requires something. They are available and on call at all times. A structured system of respite care should be put in place. Carers should be released from their duties for at least 20 hours per week in order that they can enjoy some relief from the stress and pressures they experience.
We must also consider providing other types of assistance to carers, particularly in terms of the way they manage the stress and psychological pressures involved in caring and the way they deal with difficulties which might arise. I am familiar with a number of families whose members cared for loved ones from the moment they contracted Alzheimer's disease until their eventual death. These people were obliged to deal with many traumas and difficulties when they undertook this enormous task, but they did so out of love for their relatives. Special assistance should be provided to people who care for loved ones with specific needs.
Another area we must examine is that of dealing with people, particularly parents, who care for handicapped children or adults. These people, frequently mothers, are often forgotten and who, since they married, did not ever work outside the home and are not considered to be carers. Many mothers can return to work when their children reach 16, 17, 18 or 19 years of age. However, those mothers who care for handicapped relatives – I accept that fathers do so, in some instances – do not have an opportunity to do so. We must recognise the needs of parents of mentally and physically handicapped children and young people because they do an enormous service, which they see as part of their duty, for the State and their loved ones.
Another area to which I refer is that of parents who are obliged to deal with children with attention deficit disorders. One cannot imagine the difficulties, stress and pressure endured by a parent who must deal on an ongoing basis with a child suffering from such a disorder. Because she has taken an interest in that area as Minister with responsibility for children, the Minister of State is aware of the stress parents experience in trying to get a school for their child, of the stress they experience because of the child's difficulties in school, and afterwards when the child becomes an adolescent and comes up against the problem of drugs and, often, crime. Many experience difficulties because their child is in prison. I know such people. I know one person experiencing difficulty and stress as a result of an only child with attention deficit disorder dying by suicide due to the stress the child was experiencing because of the disorder. I ask the Minister to recognise the work of carers and introduce a carer's payment. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute.
 One would think, listening to Deputy Ring, that everything in the budget and in the Social Welfare Bill before us was wrong. One would not think that since Fianna Fáil came into Government it increased spending on social welfare from £4.5 billion in 1997 to just over £6 billion in 2000, an increase of more than one third in just four years. I understand the role of the Opposition is to oppose. However, it should do so constructively. The £850 million package provided by the Government for social welfare improvements is more than twice that in last year's social welfare package, and four times that provided in the budget of the rainbow coalition in 1997. The Social Welfare Bill should be supported by all Members of the House. It is a very progressive Bill designed to introduce key changes in our social welfare code as announced in the budget before Christmas.
We should recall at this juncture that this Government, in assuming office in July 1997, made it a priority to help the less well off in our society. No Government in a civil or dignified society is worth a pinch of salt unless it brings forward legislative proposals and initiatives which help those who cannot help themselves while providing opportunities for those in need of them. Our social welfare code protects pensioners and those who are disabled. It helps to protect children in our society.
This Government is committed to introducing progressive and innovative changes to our social welfare code, and I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on bringing about so much change to our existing social welfare code. The so-called Celtic tiger has brought about increased economic growth, but this is a question of macro-economics. The benefits of the so-called Celtic tiger have not seeped down to all sectors of our society. That is why we must ensure that we protect the poor, the elderly, the sick and those who are disadvantaged. That is why we should support the provisions of this Social Welfare Bill. I am confident that when the Government introduces another budget later this year, it will continue with its programme of social welfare reform.
The changes announced by the Government in the field of taxation have benefited the poorest in our society. As a result of the tax changes announced in the budget, a further 176,000 people will not have to pay income tax. While all employees will be better off as a result of the recently announced tax changes, the primary beneficiaries will be lower income families. No  worker will pay tax on the first £144 earned per week. A single taxpayer earning £12,500 per year will gain up to £42 per month in take-home pay. The changes in the income tax code will ensure that the gap between rich and poor does not widen. It will also ensure that the real benefits of income tax changes seep down to people who are in most need of them. Other tax changes which will help the poorest in society include the abolition of probate tax, a tax which discriminated against the poorest in our society in practical terms.
In the field of education, the back to education allowances will be extended to people aged between 18 and 20 who have been in receipt of unemployment or lone parent's payment for at least six months and who have been out of the education system for a period of two years. There will also be increased access to the back to education allowance for all people with a disability.
On the specific changes to the social welfare schemes announced in the budget, the largest increases in social welfare benefits in the history of the State were announced by this Government. This Government is committed to improving the quality of living for the elderly. Pensioners aged 66 or over will receive an increase of £10 a week in the value of their pension entitlements. The free schemes, which include electricity and gas allowances, a free television licence and free telephone, will be extended to all people over the age of 70 regardless of their income or of who lives with them. This last initiative is particularly important. The free schemes programme will ensure that the elderly will not have to pay for such important necessities out of their annual entitlements. This is a particularly enlightening initiative and one which can be expanded upon in the years ahead. The Government has also granted entitlement to a medical card to all people over 70 years of age. This is a serious sign of serious political intent to guarantee that the quality of living for the elderly in our society is improved at every opportunity. From the perspective of my constituency, I welcome the Government's allocation this week of £1.15 million for special aids for the elderly living in the mid-western region. This will also go some way to improving the quality of living for the elderly.
A separate but equally important matter is how best we can address the issue of carers in society. This is an issue which the Minister has sought to champion at every opportunity. He is achieving good, solid, political progress in improving the rights and financial support which carers receive from the Government. In the budget in December last, it was announced that there would be a change in the means test for the carer's allowance which will ensure that an extra 5,000 extra carers will benefit. The annual respite care grant will be increased by £100 to £400. Carers who look after more than one person will  receive a respite care grant of £800. The fact that tax relief will be available to an individual in respect of medical expenses incurred on behalf of a dependent relative will help reduce financial outlays committed by carers on a weekly basis. These changes in the financial levels of the carer's allowance coincide with the enactment of the Government's new Carer's Leave Bill. The main purpose of this Bill is to provide for a new entitlement for employees to avail of temporary unpaid leave to enable them to care for a person who requires full-time care and attention.
The Government fully recognises the need to financially help parents to raise their children. That is why I particularly welcome the increases in the level of financial support for child care, announced in last year's budget. The new monthly child benefit rate is £67.50 for each of the first two children and £86 per months for the third and subsequent children. To put these increases in the context of all the increases provided over the past six budgets, increases of £25 and £30 compare starkly with the £1 and £5 increases given by Deputy Quinn when he was Minister for Finance in the last rainbow coalition Government.
Cecilia Keaveney: Although I am on this side of the House, I often criticise what has not been done. However, when things are being done, it is only fair that credit be given where it is due. I wish to correct a statement by Deputy Ring that I and other Members are working from scripts that are prepared for us by spin doctors. The only reason I answer that criticism is that it reached the newspapers on one occasion. I have a certain level of intelligence and can put together a few words. I never rely on spin doctors or anybody else to form my opinions, as anybody who listens to me will confirm.
Last year I thought I was commending an excellent Social Welfare Bill. It was an excellent Bill and provided for £403 million worth of improvements that would benefit all sectors of society. I must have been wrong, however, because this year there is an increase of £850 million. Any member of the Opposition who cannot acknowledge that must be extremely petty. There are always issues to be dealt with. We would not be in this job and there would be no Ministers if there were no issues to be tackled. To claim, however, that nothing is happening, that everybody is losing out and that the world is in a desperate situation is contrary to what Europe and the people on the ground are telling us. If that amount of money is being spent, it must be benefiting people.
I take this opportunity to outline my concerns and to voice my appreciation of the work the Minister, Deputy Ahern, and the Government are doing. When I was elected to the Dáil a brief five years ago the increase in children's allowance  was the princely sum of 25p per week or £1 per month. Deputy Broughan referred to them today as historical days, but I am talking about the years 1996 and 1997. Now the Government is introducing a £25 per month increase in children's allowance. It is a significant increase that will have real repercussions for all people, regardless of whether they are on low incomes or working couples who must pay for child care. No matter what situation a person is in, a £25 per month increase for the first and second children and a £30 increase for the third and subsequent children are serious increases which must be welcomed.
The fact that these increases will be paid earlier than in other years has been missed by many speakers. Increases were often announced previously, but it was many months before they were paid. In this case, the Minister has made great strides in bringing forward the date of payment. I welcome this.
We can gripe that we would like the £10 per week increase for pensioners to be £100 or £1,000, but it is a significant and well deserved increase. It fulfils a commitment in the programme for Government and proves that we are delivering on what we promised at the last general election. One matter that is only now coming to people's attention is the extension of the free schemes to all people over 70 years of age. I am nearly sure that people will have to apply for the free schemes and the medical card, but perhaps the Minister will clarify if this could happen automatically. Do people have to apply? What type of advertising will there be ensure everybody who is entitled to these benefits will receive them? Many people who attend my clinics have only lately realised that life will get much easier for them as a result of these changes. It is not just a benefit for the well-off; it is a benefit for everybody and it is most welcome.
The £10 per week increase in the old age pension is important as is the £25 per month increase in child benefit, but the increase in the FIS threshold of £25 per week is equally important. One of the most innovative changes is the new approach to maternity and adoptive benefits. This has had a major and positive effect on the lives of many young couples. The fact that the Minister, Deputy Ahern, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, worked together to implement it from March is welcome. Maternity and adoptive benefits have been extended by four weeks to 18 weeks in the case of maternity benefit and 14 weeks for adoptive benefit. This will have a significant impact.
There is an additional allowance of £10 per week for pensioners living on offshore islands. This gives me the opportunity to welcome the appointment of Deputy Coughlan as Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands with responsibility for the islands. It was a correct and good decision and it  will be lauded not only in Donegal, but throughout the country.
Carers have been the subject of much discussion in this Chamber. We regularly talk about what has not happened for them. That was particularly the case in the context of the Carer's Leave Bill. While I accept that more can be done, it is time to acknowledge what is being done. The £10 and £8 increases in the allowances from April will provide significant assistance for carers. The change in the means test allows 5,000 extra carers to qualify. The increases of £50 per week for single persons and £100 per week for couples in the income disregards, bringing them to £125 and £250 per week respectively, come into effect from April and are extremely important.
The annual respite care grant was not even mentioned by Deputy Ring. When it was introduced it amounted to £200; it is now £400. Carers who look after more than one person will receive a grant of £800 for respite care from June 2001. This cannot be belittled. It is an important, deserved, necessary and most welcome innovation by the Minister for whom carers have been a key focus. He has done a great deal for them and will do more in the future.
There has been much talk about the fuel allowance. For many years I supported an increase in the fuel allowance until I discussed it at length with the Minister. I understand his view, although I will always support increases across the board. However, where somebody is receiving £5 per week for a certain length of time and it is increased to £10 per week for the same length of time, but is then removed when that time is elapsed, it can be a serious blow. It means the person's income is reduced and they have £10 less to spend. It is important that the £10 increase is given for the 52 weeks of the year to the pensioner. One can opt for increasing the fuel allowance, with which I agree, but if a larger increase can be secured over 52 weeks of the year, it will not leave anybody feeling they have been deprived of a certain amount of money to which they became accustomed over X number of weeks.
There is significant support in the budget for foster care. I congratulate the Minister on recognising this very important issue and bringing it to the fore. For too long, it has been quietly avoided. I know the agencies dealing with foster care appreciate what is being done. They have questions which they want clarified, which I will bring to the Minister's attention. I appreciate this brief opportunity to speak on this very positive Bill. I look forward to the increases, which are worth some £850 million, coming into effect.
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