Wednesday, 7 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
6. Mr. McDowell asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the steps which have been taken by his Department to assist social welfare recipients, particularly pensioners and people with literacy and numeracy difficulties, to deal with the changeover to the euro; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26837/01]
9. Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the arrangements for payment of social welfare benefits in euros from 1 January 2002; and if he has reconsidered any measures by which recipients would be paid in full from that date. [26816/01]
34. Mr. Callely asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the mechanisms which will be in place to assist social welfare recipients in a smooth transition with the introduction of the euro and social welfare increases in January 2002; if he will establish a free phone service to assist in a user friendly way; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26550/01]
Work is well in hand in my Department to effect a smooth changeover to the euro on 1 January 2002. All the Department's customers will be paid in euro from their first pay day in 2002. Payments up to 31 December 2001 will continue in punts and customers who are paid by cheque, by direct credit or using their social services card at the post office will be paid in euro on their first pay day in 2002. Customers who are paid by payment order book already have books which include orders in euro for periods after 1 January 2002. Information on the euro has been included in the books.
My Department is also undertaking a major information campaign to inform people about the euro. This campaign involves television, radio, newspaper and bus and rail advertising, press releases and information leaflets, direct customer mailshots, public events including open days, posters widely distributed and information provided on the Department's website. In addition, the Department will establish a freephone euro helpline to handle customer queries from mid-December this year and into the dual circulation period next year. The Department is also co-operating with the Euro Changeover Board in the implementation of its public relations and information campaign.
In the context of its information campaign, the  Department is paying particular attention to the needs of pensioners and people with literacy and numeracy difficulties. In this connection, the Department has met with a number of organisations representing special needs groups and further meetings with these organisations are planned in the near future.
The question of payment of increases in social welfare benefits from 1 January 2002 is separate from the euro. The Government has decided to bring forward from April to January the date for payment of budget increases in social welfare rates. This is being done in the context of the change in the tax year to align it with the calendar year from 1 January 2002—
Mr. D. Ahern: There are a number of practical difficulties in relation to the payment of the increases in all cases on time on 1 January, as I outlined earlier. Deputies will recall that, in the current year, the effective payment date for the budget increases was brought forward to April. This meant that for the first time social welfare increases came into effect at the same time as the changes in the income tax provisions announced in the annual budget. The position in 2002 will be even more significantly improved with the increases effective from January, which is a full three months earlier than this year.
Mr. Broughan: Will the Minister not accept that many seniors and others on social welfare income are hopelessly confused by the run in period to the euro? People have made bitter com plaints about massive rip offs in increased prices for food such as meat, cheese, salads, fruit and vegetables which are now being imposed by traders. The Minister and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, have not responded to this attempt to get the retaliation in first on the part of people in the business sector, which is impacting seriously on people on low income. Is the euro not the last refuge of the scoundrel in this regard? Is the Minister not hoping that people on low social welfare income will not notice the miserable increase he will give them in early December because it will be in euros? He will be talking about a basic euro rate of 112, 115 or whatever—
Mr. D. Ahern: Old age pensioners know who gave the best increases. In this Government's time in office, an increase of £28 has been given to old age pensioners. Deputy Browne's party gave £7 when it was in power, so he should not come here to lecture me.
Mr. Broughan: I will be brief as I know colleagues wish to contribute. Is it not an outrage that 500,000 people will not receive their due increases in euro on 1 January? This House would not dare do this to any group of citizens other than those on social welfare incomes. The journalist Vincent Browne said eloquently a few months ago that nobody would dare do this to any other large body of citizens.
Mr. Broughan: The Minister said there will be a cheque in February, when there will have been six weeks' arrears. Why can this not be advanced between 5 December and 1 January so that everybody will receive a due increase on the due date? It is a disgrace.
Mr. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): I ask the Minister not to help the illiterate and those with difficulties, as it confuses Deputies into thinking we are literate. I ask the Minister to ensure that those being helped are not given euro prices. Twice in the last week, I have been given euro prices with no equivalent amount in punts to balance.
Mr. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs will be giving advice to his officials about dealing with people who need help. There is no need to educate people about theoretically dealing in euro when they have not yet seen the coins.
Mr. D. Ahern: In all seriousness, my Department is conscious of the need for a smooth euro changeover and has put in place a major public awareness campaign. Quite apart from the efforts  of the Euro Changeover Board of Ireland under the stewardship of the Minister for Finance, I have insisted that the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs deliver a campaign targeted at social welfare recipients. Although it may be repetitive, I have suggested that a euro conversion wheel be delivered to every social welfare recipient.
Mr. D. Ahern: It will not be specifically designed with social welfare amounts in mind, but it will help people who receive social welfare. There will be many other publicity campaigns. Pricing is an issue for the Director of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
Mr. McGrath: Can the Minister tell us what the surpluses in the social welfare fund were in each of the years about which he boasts of social welfare increases? Does he agree that he used a small proportion of the surplus in the social welfare fund when increasing social welfare payments and that he failed miserably to get Cabinet approval for additional social welfare payments?
Mr. D. Ahern: It is a fact that I am the first Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to be able to say that in four consecutive budgets I have given the largest increases in the history of the State.
Mr. D. Ahern: No. Whatever comes from the social insurance fund comes as a proportion of what is added to it from the Exchequer, so the Deputy has no argument. The amount of money expended by the Exchequer is at an all time high.
Mr. B. Hayes: I am glad the Minister is organising a public awareness campaign and is to send conversion wheels to everyone, no doubt with the Minister's face on them. Can the Minister inform the House if he will check the telephone numbers on his information as incorrect numbers were given during the last campaign? I understand the telephone number of a lady in his constituency was given, which is another example of incompetence.
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