Social Welfare Bill, 2002: Report and Final Stages.

Tuesday, 17 December 2002

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 559 No. 5

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Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:

2.–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 implications of increasing child benefit, pensions and other social welfare payments in line with previously stated [1092] Government policy commitments, including the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and the Programme for Government.

We indicated on Second and Committee Stages our unhappiness about some of the increases in social welfare benefits. People claim the Minister looked after the pensioners with a €10 increase but she must realise that a significant amount of this will be eaten away by inflation.

The Minister explained that the 4.8% was predicated on a levelling of inflation over a period of a year but already the indications from some of the leading financial houses in town, whose business is to get predictions on inflation right, are that the January rate of inflation could be 6% or more. There is, therefore, a significant erosion of the income of our most vulnerable people. They also have greater dependence on heating and other basic services and do not have the same options as people who are more mobile and so forth. This is particularly so in rural areas, where the free travel pass is not much use because people do not have access to transport. Immobility in rural areas is a huge problem. In many cases the €10 could be eaten up by the price of a taxi to bring the person into town to collect their pension.

The Minister indicated that a €1 increase would cost a significant amount of money. I have forgotten the figure – the Minister will probably mention it again – but I was taken aback by the amount. However, we contended that there are ancillary elements in the free schemes which would be of benefit to these people. In particular, we advocated a voucher system that would allow people in rural areas to avail of a taxi and other transport services in those areas. The Government has allocated €500,000 to the rural transport initiative, which I applaud. It should be the first of many steps to try to help people in these areas. For many elderly people in rural areas receipt of the free travel pass might be the first contact they have with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. However, for many it also gathers dust as it lies behind a photograph on the mantelpiece or in a drawer. It is of no use where there is no public transport available, be it buses or trains. We are seeking a report in this area to examine if there is a possibility of widening some of these schemes so they can be made more useful to people in these circumstances.

Over the coming months the Combat Poverty Agency's recent publication, “Against all odds, Family Life on a Low Income in Ireland”, will be studied by everybody. The social and family affairs committee will look at it and, no doubt, many Members will wish to contribute to that debate. I am sure the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will also look at it. The report deals with the lives of people living on social welfare payments. Often people who are on the left of the political spectrum, and I see many such colleagues in the Chamber tonight, are described as being part of the poverty lobby, pinkos, left pinkos or other [1093] such names. Some people would call them derogatory terms but to me they are terms of endearment because we look after a group of people who need a voice to articulate their views. We are not afraid to do that.

The Combat Poverty Agency shows that a significant number of people have not benefited or made gains from the wealth created during the past six or seven years. The Minister has provided €6 to bring the lowest social welfare payment to €124.80 but that falls short of the PPF commitment to bring the payment to €127 during that period. The Minister has argued that the increase is more than inflation but that does not take account of the fact that people on lower incomes face higher than average costs due to their lower purchasing power and lack of private transport. These factors must be taken into account.

The Minister also made changes to the rent supplements and the discretion of the health boards, superintendent community welfare officers and community welfare officers to deal with rent supplements. She used secondary legislation, that is, statutory instrument, to do this. I believe there is a flaw in the secondary legislation and that it should be examined in the context of the primary legislation, section 266 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993, to ensure it is not ultra vires. In any event, about €4.80 of that €6 will be clawed back immediately because of the increase in the basic rate of contribution. In fairness, the Minister said the reason for that is that it is 10% of the basic rate of social welfare that is now applicable. However, it will reduce people on that rate to €120. When one adds the 1% increase in VAT, it is a wipe out. Many of the Minister's colleagues dismissed us during the debate on the budget and said we were using crazy economics. However, that is where Fr. Seán Healy and CORI got their figure of 25 cent per week. One does not need to be a rocket scientist or a great economist to arrive at that figure, particularly if people are in rented accommodation.

The greatest fear about that provision is that it will hit single people hardest and increase the level of homelessness, which is running at about 6,000 throughout the country. It exists in rural areas as well as urban areas. These changes must be combined with a 30% increase in electricity charges. Many pensioners and people in social welfare schemes will have free electricity units but that only applies to a certain level. Any usage above that attracts the increase which will eat into one's income.

A significant number of the changes and increases made by the Minister will be clawed back. People will be left in either a static situation or poorer. With regard to child benefit, the Minister said it is a start. Child benefit is advocated by all agencies as the means of ensuring the mother receives the money and uses it. That is one of the reasons the Minister said it would not be means tested. I can understand the Minister's attitude in that regard. Nevertheless, a commitment was [1094] given and many people felt disappointed and short changed when it was not delivered. I agree with the Minister that it is an effective way of supporting children and does not contribute to disincentives or poverty traps. It is targeted and focused. Barnardos, the Children's Alliance and the community platform have advocated it as an important means of supporting children, especially in a context where the child dependant allowance has remained static for the past ten years.

Widows and widowers under 66 feel hard done by and have complained bitterly that there is no increase in this area as many of them have a young person going to college.

I am surprised by the volume of correspondence I have already received in the short time since I became Labour Party spokesperson on social and family affairs. People are much aggrieved at the post-budget situation which has had a big impact in real terms. We have to focus on this area in future. Unfortunately, we are precluded from making any proposals that would cost the Minister money.

The NAPS report and the Goodbody review exist, as do many others, but they need to be acted on. The income adequacy group proposed that formal links be established between the adult welfare rates and average earnings. If this had been accepted it would have protected the income of social welfare recipients. I am aware that there are two views on the NAPS report. If one wishes to build an inclusive society, as the Government claims it does, then such a step must be taken. Smoke and mirrors were evident in the poverty-proofing test applied to the budget by the Department of Finance.

The budget was characterised by highly regressive indirect tax increases such as VAT and excise duties. These have the greatest impact on the poor. When all the budgetary implications are calculated the poor will not be smiling in 2003.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I support the amendment on the basis that the Government's budgetary calculation was made on the assumption of an inflationary rate of 4.8%. Last week the Minister for Finance forecasted that before the end of the year inflation will be at 6%. Before the budget increases are paid out in January they will have been wiped out by the increase in inflation.

I wish to point out to the Minister in regard to the €6—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  I remind the Deputy that this is not Second Stage. He must speak on amendment No. 1.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  The Deputy is here a long time.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I know that. I am here for some time now and I know what this is all about. I know that I can speak in regard to child benefit, unemployment and everything else.

[1095]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Once the Deputy relates his remarks to amendment No. 1.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Of course. That is what I am doing. Did the Leas-Cheann Comhairle read the amendment?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  I have read it.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Leas-Cheann Comhairle read it and I read it. It refers to other social welfare payments, all types of payments.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  It covers everything.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  The Deputy was proceeding to talk on the budget.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I was speaking about inflation.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  We are not discussing the budget.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Inflation has a lot to do with it. I know that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, like many others, might not wish to know that inflation is running at 6%. The poor people on social welfare know it is running at 6%.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  The Deputy must relate what he is saying to the amendment.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I will do that. I wish to speak in regard to the €6 increase in unemployment benefit. Since the budget was announced, we appear to have a budget almost every day. A social welfare recipient contacted my office today in a state of great distress. The constituent was inquiring when the local authorities would pay out third level grants because the money was required to pay in advance for the constituent's child's student accommodation. I have not seen that happen for many years. It is a sign of the current tough times.

People tell me they cannot manage on social welfare payments. Grocery items seem to increase on a daily basis and that will be further exacerbated in the new year when the budget increases in respect of VAT kick in. There was an €8 per month increase in child benefit. That is €2 per week or €1.75 in a five week month. With inflation running at 6% and foodstuff increasing on a daily basis that increase has been wiped out. The Minister and her Department must commission a report on the effects of these increases on social welfare recipients.

Does the Minister know how many people on social welfare read The Sunday Business Post? The Minister looked well in it last Sunday as she did in the Irish Independent on Saturday. There are other publications over the weekend that many people on social welfare could not afford to buy. The media was quiet on this occasion, which is not often the case. Why is that? The media is the real winner, as €320,000 was paid in the last campaign in regard to PPS. I will table a question to see what it cost to tell people about [1096] the mighty increases they got in social welfare. It cost a lot more to advertise the increases in the paper than the actual value of the increases over a year. I look forward to getting that information.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  Shame on the Minister.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Minister needs to address an anomaly in the system in regard to the free schemes. Deputy Penrose also referred to this. I raised it on Committee Stage. The free transport scheme is no good to people in rural areas because we do not have public services. The Department will have to look at a pass system for people to get a taxi to collect their pension or whatever other payment it may be.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Hear, hear.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  That must happen quickly. People make the same claim in regard to Dublin's public transport. Every morning people complain about how long it takes to get to work. I heard such a discussion on the radio today.

In regard to the heating allowance, the health board insists on putting in storage heaters for elderly people. Why will the ESB not give them the units on a monthly basis rather than making them calculate it at the end of the year? That is an anomaly in the system. Elderly people come to their public representatives in despair when they get a large ESB bill. We contact the ESB who reply that the individuals can apply to have it calculated and the calculation arrives after two months. If I am not making the point clearly, I will put it in writing to the Department. I have tabled a question on this matter today. The system is causing great confusion and upset to elderly people because when they get their bills they think they owe a great sum of money. They have to go back to the ESB to have it recalculated before they can get their allowance. The ESB credits them after two months or so. This matter must be addressed.

The Minister and the Department should have another look at the back to work scheme, one of the few schemes that actually worked.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  That is why they are getting rid of it.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  That is true. The back to work scheme is a great initiative for somebody who has not worked for five years and who wants to get back into the workplace or somebody who wants to start up their own business. They can continue to get 75% of their social welfare payment, then 50% and eventually 25% for the specified period. That scheme gives them the courage and confidence to get back into the workplace, particularly those who have worked in a company for 13 or 16 years. They find themselves unemployed and they want to do something different. They are prepared to take a chance but they cannot because they are afraid they will not have a salary at the end of the week, although at least they will have the back-up of the 75% social welfare pay[1097] ment. The Minister should re-examine that scheme.

I could save €19 million for the Minister. That is in relation to 30 consultant reports in two years. That is €19 million—

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Obviously the Deputy did not listen to what I had to say last week.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Is the Minister telling me she will do that?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  That was in the Estimates.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Consultancy is the fastest growing industry in the country. Consultants made big money but all we got was the same reports reissued, with nothing being implemented as a result of them. Even €4 million is too much. We do not need any more reports. What we want now is real money for people on social welfare. There is great anger among the public because people are feeling the pinch in a big way.

I want to refer to my favourite topic, the home help service, which also comes under the next amendment. I ask the Minister and the Department officials to sit down with the health boards so that people can get the support they need at this stage rather than have them cost the State more money at a later stage in terms of subvention. The Minister should try to keep these people comfortable in their homes. They could be given a small amount of support at a very reasonable price. I know the Minister will examine that question.

The carer's allowance is the issue that angers many people. There are 100,000 carers of which only 22,000 or 23,000 are drawing down assistance from the State. We have to look at the means test in relation to that scheme because we have to reward the people who are prepared to care for their relatives at home. We have to tell them they do a good job and I ask the Minister to do that.

There was no increase in the child dependant allowance. This is an area the Minister will have to examine. She will have to bring in a supplementary budget before this year ends because what people are getting on social welfare is being wiped away as a result of daily price increases and inflation. The child dependant allowance will have to be increased. Everybody expected it to be increased to €25 this year but that did not happen, which is wrong.

On the fuel scheme, this country does not get a summer. We get a week or two of fine weather but for the remaining 50 weeks of the year people need to light a fire in their homes. I ask the Minister to look at that scheme again in next year's budget with a view to making it an all year round allowance rather than just the current number of weeks.

People are now beginning to realise a major change is taking place in relation to rent subsidy [1098] in that the 10% will be taken out of their social welfare payment. That will have a knock-on effect and I agree with Deputy Penrose that serious legal problems may arise in that regard.

The people I feel badly about are those who receive the Christmas bonus. They should be looked after, even at this late stage. We have the money in the social welfare fund. Last year the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, took €650 million out of the fund. A total of 190,000 people were affected by that. These are the people who are paying into the fund, those on short-term unemployment benefit, carer's benefit and other allowances. These people have the same problems and expenses at Christmas as everybody else. If the Minister has to take the money out of the social welfare fund, so be it. If the Minister could take €650 million out of the fund last year, why not give it to the people who need it most?

This morning I heard from very annoyed constituents of mine who spent most of their lives living outside this State. A total of 90% of their pension came from contributions paid while living in Britain with the remaining 10% from a non-contributory pension from here. This morning they got the calculation from the Department and the rate is 10%. Does the Minister know of any institution which is prepared to give anyone in this House a rate of 10%? If that were the case many people would be prepared to invest. The way these pensions are being calculated is wrong. These are the people who sent money back to this country in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when there was no euro and no money coming in from the European Union. That money kept this economy and the country alive. They sent money home to their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters yet when they come home to retire, bringing 90% of their income into the State, we penalise them because of the high price of sterling. No Government did anything about this problem in the past. When sterling was weak nothing was done about it but when sterling got stronger, we took the pound off them. These people are upset by that because they were the people who were educated, or not educated, to leave this State but they did not forget about this State. They sent a lot of money home and it is wrong to attack them now.

We want this report before the House quickly because there is no doubt that the increases in the budget, some of which will come into effect from 1 January, will have no effect with inflation running now at almost 6% and prices increasing on a daily basis. For the first time in many years, people on social welfare are now feeling the pinch and that is wrong. At a time when the economy is facing a downturn the first people we attack are those on social welfare, which is not right.

CORI described the budget as unfair, unjust and unacceptable. It described it as a Government insult against the weakest in society, and I agree with that statement.

[1099]Mr. F. McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  I strongly support this amendment to the Social Welfare Bill, 2002 because it adds some teeth to it. It is essential that legislation is given the clout to do something practical in people's lives and, above all, to assist the poorer sections of society.

It is now generally accepted that a just and fair society is one which protects its most vulnerable members. That is what this Bill should be about and it is what the amendment is about. We need to assess the progress we make in our attacks on poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. Many of us are often dismissed as idealists when it comes to tackling the nightmare of poverty. We all know the problem cannot be sorted out overnight but we can make major dents in it.

For example, 8% of children live in dire poverty. We can tackle that figure head on through education, prioritising funding and assistance for the most needy. I am talking about the most disadvantaged schools like those in the Breaking the Cycle project. We need to tackle the whole housing question and we need immediate economic investment in key areas. We must work from the bottom up and then spread the resources through the broader society.

This amendment deals with the core issues such as child benefit, pensions and other social welfare payments. These are key elements in any anti-poverty strategy. There is little use in spending thousands of euro on glossy advertisements which refer to social inclusion and create the illusion among our wealthy elite that we are doing something for the less well off in our society when in reality we are bringing in legislation and budgets that kick them in the teeth. An increase of 25 cent a week in 2003 for an unemployed couple with one child is an insult and an attack on their dignity. Someone on €50,000 a year has a €25 a week gap with a single unemployed person. That is not acceptable. That is not tackling poverty and it is not doing anything about social inclusion.

We cannot have great debates in the Dáil about amendments to the Social Welfare Bill while at the same time cutting the provision in the Estimates for 2003 for social housing by 5%. What about the reality of having 48,000 people on our housing waiting lists, and the sad case of 6,000 homeless people in our State? If we fail to deal with these issues, politics will have failed our people once again.

Of course, we all accept that welfare payments are not the real solution to the long-term interests of our people. However, they act as a fire brigade service to our poor and should never be removed or decreased. I know members of the Cabinet do not agree with me and seem to delight in cutting back on services. Macho right-wing economics seems to be the order of the day but this is against the nature of the people.

This amendment also deals with the programme for Government. The sad reality is that it is walking away from its own policies and promises. With inflation and cuts in services we are [1100] stepping backwards. This amendment puts down a marker and demands a report on the implications. It may not be good enough for many of us but we have no real option but to support it. I urge all Deputies to support this amendment.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  A very strong case for this amendment has already been put forward. The best mechanism for dealing with poverty is the Social Welfare Bill. I do not see why the Government should reject this amendment. We are trying to make the best of dealing with the choices that have to be made this year and in the future. The best way to do this is to look at the commitments entered into in the programme for Government and the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and by making the information available. The data should be collected and costings should be put on the programmes. This will be very important in the context of the discussions that are to take place in the coming days and I hope agreement can be reached in them.

How can we expect ordinary people to trust the promises made by any Government? As we debate this Bill, there are thousands of people who do not own homes. Up to 200,000 people – 6% of the population – live in constant poverty and this is after the most economically successful years in the history of this State. Irrespective of the hype in the weekend newspapers, the standard of living for those dependent on social welfare has not improved and it has got worse for some. I acknowledge that some progress has been made in the circumstances of old age pensioners.

The Minister said she had to make choices. There are people who meet with the Minister for Finance every year and make a pre-budget submission, which the Minister for Finance throws into the wastepaper basket. We must look at the commitments made, they must be costed and a plan for implementing them put in place. I accept the Minister's commitment to the people for whom she is responsible but I know there are other members of the Government who do not share her commitment.

This amendment will not put any additional burden on the Exchequer. It seeks to move matters forward in a concerted manner so that real choices can be made in how we are to advance the area of welfare in order to eliminate poverty in the next couple of years. Given the promises it has made, and broken, it is the least the Government can do.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I strongly support this amendment. The €10 increase in the old age pension and the €7 increase in social welfare are not real increases. All of the increase is taken from the recipient because of the policies and announcements of the Government. The benefit of the slight increase has gone because of the increase in VAT. Old age pensioners living in local authority housing will find their rent increased relative to the increase of their income at the next review.

[1101]I saw the full-page advertisements carried in the newspapers. The Department has spent a large amount of money publicising the changes made in the budget. There is no need for the daily and Sunday papers to carry full-page colour advertisements. There is a nice photograph of the Minister and a family in one of the advertisements. I do not know if it is her family or someone else's. Social welfare recipients are paying for those advertisements as they are funded from the Department's budget. The morality of placing such advertisements is questionable. Those advertisements are worth hundreds of thousands of euro to the newspapers. It could be seen as a form of inducement not to criticise the budget. I do not know whether that is the case but the public might wonder how the newspapers could give a critical analysis of the budget given that the Department is placing so many advertisements. It is like a political party placing an advertisement at the time of a general election; they place them to ensure the local paper will write a good piece in other respects. No votes will be won by advertisements. I am sure there is no value to social welfare recipients in placing such advertisements, whatever their value to the Government. It is a policy that should be examined.

I am very concerned about the back to work scheme and the requirement for five years unemployment beforehand. Previous to this, people on social welfare had an incentive to look for work and would retain 75% of their benefit in the first year, 50% in the second year and 25% in the third year, and their secondary benefits. It was also important for people in receipt of disability allowance or benefit who were rehabilitating themselves and who were nervous about returning to work, to have this incentive to encourage them to return to work. Returning to work can give a purpose in life to a person suffering from depression as a result of an accident or for some other reason. I do not know whether a person must be in receipt of disability benefit for three or five years before he or she can qualify to participate in a back to work scheme.

Prior to this, a person only had to be in receipt of a benefit or a social welfare allowance for 15 months to quality for participation. Now a person in receipt of an ordinary social welfare benefit rate must wait five years before he or she can qualify. It is difficult for anyone who is out of the workforce, even out of the Dáil, for five years to return to it. I have not had that experience yet and maybe I will survive without it.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  We will all be looking for a back to work scheme.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Will the Minister introduce such a back to work scheme?

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  It is difficult for that person to secure employment, to get into the routine of getting up at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. to go to work and to put in the hours on a job. It was a retrograde [1102] step to increase the length of time that a person must be in receipt of social welfare benefit to qualify to participate in a back to work scheme. I feel strongly about this issue and about the provision in respect of the carer's allowance. The work of carers is not fully appreciated. There are 100,000 carers, some 50,000 or 60,000 of whom are full-time carers.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  It would be more appropriate to raise the question of the carer's allowance under amendment No. 2 in the name of the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Ring.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I might not get the opportunity to speak on it.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  Deputy Ring will allow the Deputy to speak on it.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I will probably have an opportunity to speak on it later.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  We will ensure that the Deputy gets to speak on it.

Mr. McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  I reminded the Minister on Second Stage to examine the anomaly in the system in respect of a carer who becomes a widow. I do not know if she has had time to examine that. Every year I asked the previous Minister to examine the position of a carer who becomes a widow thereby losing her carer's allowance even though she continues to be a full-time carer. I will speak further on the carer's allowance if I have an opportunity to speak on amendment No. 2.

Mr. Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle  Zoom on Dan Boyle  The Minister will be aware that the greatest disappointment with this Bill has been expressed by NGOs and charities working for children and children's welfare. If anything should be taken as a damning criticism, that should be. In replies to parliamentary questions since the Dáil was convened, the Minister talked about the inability to address issues such as child dependant allowances, perhaps putting the allowances into one standardised payment or reassessing them in terms of age ranges. We were promised that the third instalment of the child benefit increase would be looked after, but following the budget we know it has not been. That constitutes a grave breach of promise by the Minister and the Government. I cannot understand why the advice by the Department of Finance on the special savings investment scheme is that no changes can be made because they would be seen to undermine investor confidence when promises made to people who depend on social welfare payments can be abolished at a moment's notice.

We have a major problem in terms of child poverty. We perform poorly on many international listings. It had been hoped that the budget and this Bill would be a way of responding to this problem, but unfortunately we have gone backwards.

[1103]Other speakers mentioned that the inflationary aspect of what is happening in the economy and what will result from the budget means that the increases given are worthless. We have an inflation rate of 4.8%. The Minister for Finance, in his budget speech, said that the effect of the measures he was proposing would be the best part of an additional 1%, 0.856%, on top of the consumer price index. The inflation rate will be 5.6% or 5.7%, which does not take account of the underlying factors that will come into play as a result of the budget. The social welfare increases that have been proposed are negative in terms of every person who is dependent on social welfare benefit. Those in difficult family situations, particularly children, will be worse off as a result of the budget.

The Minister's Department supplied us today with a handsome publication entitled “Contemporary Family Policy”. It appears to have been prepared at the behest and with the approval of the Department. It states that matters have improved greatly in the Department over the year in terms of addressing family policy in welfare payments. Ireland contrasts poorly with the other countries that were part of that study. They included, France, Sweden, Italy and the UK. The publication states that while Ireland had improved it was still behind. I presume it was completed before the budget was delivered. If those authors were to revisit the study, we would be seen to be going backwards yet again.

Unlike other speakers, I have no difficulty with public advertising of the effects of the budgetary changes. There is an important role in making people aware of the changes that come about as a result of the budget. There was almost a clawback in the Department of Social Welfare under previous Governments as a result of people being uninformed.

(Interruptions).

Mr. Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle  Zoom on Dan Boyle  If people did not apply for social welfare benefit, it resulted in a saving to the Exchequer. I am glad there is no longer that mentality. My concern is that the thin line between public information and political advertising was well and truly breached in that series of advertisements. I appreciate it is the Minister's first attempt at this type of public information.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  She is learning well. She has learned from her predecessor.

Mr. Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle  Zoom on Dan Boyle  It is a type of political advertising we have seen practised by many members of the Government, particularly during the previous Administration. There was a degree of editorialising about what a wonderful Government this is and what wonderful policies it is practising, but we know the reality is different. The Minister's key line in the editorialising of those advertisements was that this was a Government that was [1104] pursuing policies that were working towards an inclusive society. We know that is not the case. In every area of Government policy, health, education, housing and transport, this is a Government whose policies have helped to bring about a less inclusive Ireland. To make such a claim as part of a public information advertisement is fundamentally dishonest. There should be regulations in place on how information should be presented and which would restrict the type of information that can be provided to the public by Government agencies. Information such as that which has been presented dangerously misleads the public.

In relation to the national anti-poverty strategy and the Government's commitment to where child poverty and poverty generally should be tackled, we wonder where the commitment to bring payments in line with 30% of the average industrial earning lies. Following the budget, it is in tatters. That benchmark is moving further and further away. It is most peculiar but not surprising that what is seen to be incentives for the “haves” in our society are suddenly turned into disincentives for people who depend on social welfare payments.

A benchmark is something to which people working in the public sector should aspire and it should be honoured. Achieving a benchmark for those who depend on social welfare will depend on resources. If we had an innovative budget, we would have had a Minister for Social and Family Affairs who would have introduced the concept of index linking social welfare payments. We would have had a Minister who would not have tolerated the idea of anyone on the minimum wage being part of the PAYE system. We would have had a Minister who would have brought forward ideas such as refundable tax credits where those on low pay, to avoid them sliding back into a welfare trap, would be paid the difference of their unused tax portions.

The Bill not only does not stand up in terms of welfare entitlements and tackling the problem of poverty but also sends a clear signal to such people in society that they will be left further behind and that the Government is prepared to think less of them.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I support this amendment tabled by my colleagues, Deputy Penrose and Deputy Seán Ryan. As indicated by our spokesperson on social welfare, we will support it.

On child benefit, it is unjust and unfair that the first and second child receives a certain rate of payment and third and subsequent children receive a different rate. Why should there be different rates for members of the same family? It is not right, it is unjust and should be changed. It does not comply with our Constitution which states that we should treat all the children of the nation equally.

I wish to quote from the Budget Statement of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, on 5 [1105] December 2001. Under the heading, child benefit, he said:

Last year I announced the Government's intention to invest around £1 billion in increased child benefit over a three year period. As I said at the time our central objective is to support parents in whatever choices they make in looking after their children. Child benefit also offers a most effective means of channelling income support to low-income families in order to tackle child poverty.

We would agree with that. It certainly reaches poorer families and it is of tremendous assistance to them to have that money spent on their children. Successive reports have shown that the money is spent on children. Perhaps the Minister will tell us at the end of the debate how many people in receipt of child benefit have it as their only source of income in their own name. The rate was 59% to 60% but I imagine it has decreased since. Women mainly draw child benefit and many recipients have it as their only income in their own name.

The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, went on to say:

In line with the record increases which I provided last year, I am now announcing the second step in this three year programme. This will see child benefit rates increased by a further £25 per month for the first and second children . . . and by £30 per month for third and subsequent children. . .

The Minister said in his Budget Statement last year and the year before that he was setting out a three year programme. He announced year one and year two but there was no year three. There was a severe change from what was promised. Is that misleading or giving false information to the House? The Minister said he was doing it, but when it came to the crunch he withdrew from it.

There has been no word from that famous man who gave us history lessons, the former Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. He ran away from the Department this year because he knew there would not be good news. He is not a man to give bad news because he does not like it. He liked to give us history lessons. He announced the first and second year of this plan for child benefit and said the third would follow. Will he say that he misled us and apologise to the women of Ireland for that? I would not hold my breath because it may not happen.

The family income supplement was one of the innovative moves proposed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs during the time of the real coalition Government to assist families on low income and encourage the parents to stay at work. It has grown gradually over the years and is very successful. It forms an important part of the income of many families. Statistics show that the numbers availing of it have fallen short of expectations. There should be a link with the [1106] Revenue Commissioners to see which people earn an income lower than the threshold and to ensure they receive the payment. That might help raise the numbers availing of it.

A person in receipt of FIS has a book of payable orders which lasts for 12 months. The advantage is, if the person receives a pay rise, it does not affect the FIS payment. That is a generous gesture on the part of the Minister and her predecessor. However, there is an especially mean downside to it which I hope the Minister will address. If that person's income is reduced to the extent that he or she is entitled to an increased FIS payment, the Department will not change it until the payable orders book is renewed.

I am aware of two cases of this in my home town and I am sure Deputy Penrose is also familiar with them. In one case, a man was in receipt of disability benefit and his wife worked part-time in a major grocery outlet. They were in receipt of FIS, had two dependent children and lived in a council house. Unfortunately, the family split up when the husband left the family home. The wife had her part-time earnings and FIS payment while still having to pay rent and most of the same expenses prior to her husband's departure. She wondered what she should do and contacted me. I suggested we contact the Department because she was on FIS and it was logical that her entitlement should increase to a much higher payment. However, the Department would not examine her case until it came up for review.

That is not fair. While it is generous to leave FIS as it is where a person in receipt of it has an increase in his or her wages, it is downright mean not to increase it for someone who has suffered a decrease in income.

The second case concerns a couple where the man receives a very low income. It has been rare recently to come across a person on the minimum wage, and this man is married with three children. The family is trying to buy their own house. They are proud and decent people who keep to themselves when going about their business. The wife was in receipt of disability allowance or benefit. When her case came up for review in April of last year, she was disqualified. This was upheld on appeal the following October. She investigated what she could receive under FIS and was told that it would not come up for review until the following February.

Can the Minister imagine what it is like for those three children at Christmas time? They did not get the Christmas bonus and they are trying to survive on awfully low income. I could use other words to describe it but it would not be parliamentary language. They meet the criteria to qualify for FIS, but because of what I consider extreme meanness they will not get the review. Is that fair? It is not and something should be done about it.

The Minister announced she is capping the rent subsidy. Will the Minister say if all the health boards are enforcing that? As I understand it they are not and the legal regulations required may [1107] not have been put in place to make this work. If that is the case, what went wrong and who slipped up? Is it the same as the drugs refund scheme where we are trying to enforce something without the legal right?

As I was driving up here today I listened to Pat Kenny on the radio discussing social welfare payments. There was a telephone call from the Department of Social and Family Affairs saying that all payments would kick in from 1 January 2003, including FIS. I understand that people with FIS books of payment will not get increases until the review takes place. I hope I am wrong and that the increases take effect on 1 January. I would like that clarified. Do people get a new FIS book of payment or how does it happen? I might be wrong.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  The Deputy is seldom wrong.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I thank the Deputy for his vote of confidence, it is so good for the ego. The Minister is in effect wiping out the back to work allowance. That allowance, in my experience, has made the difference in getting some people back to work. Deputy Ring outlined how that worked by giving a fallback position.

I had a very funny response to a parliamentary question today. I asked if somebody on long-term social welfare who was elected to the Seanad or Dáil would qualify for the back to work allowance scheme. It was a rather interesting question, to which I thought I knew the answer. I tabled the question last week and I received the usual telephone call from the Department asking if I wanted to withdraw the question and I could receive the answer over the telephone. I asked for the answer and was told that a person is entitled to claim the back to work allowance scheme, but nobody has claimed it yet.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I must apply for it.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I also asked for the written answer, which I got today. This said that a Member of either House did not qualify for the back to work scheme. Following further inquiries, I discovered that although they might qualify for medical cards, Members of these Houses would not qualify because it is not seen as a job that is likely to last for 12 months.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  How right they are.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  After the budget it might be six months.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  To qualify for the back to work scheme there has to be a guarantee the job is likely to last for 12 months and that could not be given in relation to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  That is if we are into rotation.

[1108]Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  It points to the ingenuity of the Minister and her officials who can manufacture different situations to suit the need. That sums up what we have been discussing here. We have pointed to anomalies and unfairness where people are not being treated equally and are not getting their just deserts. This is more of it where the rules are somewhat elastic and can be changed. There is no onus to be inclusive. It is all about how costs can be kept down and how people can be cut out. Is that not sad?

Mr. Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe  Zoom on Sean Crowe  I support amendment No. 1. Prior to the budget, the Government made two promises, one to large financiers to cut corporation tax to 12%, the other to ordinary men and women to increase child benefit in line with the Government's landmark three year programme to increase child benefit. Deputies spoke earlier about choices. When faced with a choice the Government honoured the first promise to big business and the second tells us much about the priorities of the Government. Up to now the Government has claimed the money is not there. The money is there, but the Minister for Finance took a decision not to tax those with money. That is where the choice is. We can argue that the Minister did the wrong thing.

I represent a constituency with considerable poverty, which is one of the RAPID programme areas. It is frequently in the news for some of the difficulties it has. However, it is also an area with some significant wealth. People with such wealth agree with the concept of a more equal society. There is nobody in this House, including the Taoiseach and his colleagues on the Government benches, who do not want to see a more equal society. This amendment highlights the choice that we are either for people with money or we support people without money. It is clear the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is being asked to carry the can for this.

Cutting the corporation tax to 12% cost the State about €305 million. The Minister and her Department could do a considerable amount with €305 million and that is just one area of tax. In his wisdom, the Minister for Finance decided to cut it and it is now the lowest in Europe. We have some of the highest per capita income levels in Europe. Of course we have one of the worst levels of infrastructure and some Deputies spoke about how that affects people living in the poverty trap. Deputies also spoke of fuel poverty and the fact that in many houses people do not have heating in their homes.

There were other cuts that also affect the poor. Most people have access to ATM machines and the tax on ATM cards was increased. The increase in value added tax also attacked the poor.

The Minister told us we will have to wait on the third phase of the child benefit increases to come through. It is clear from the budget and the proposals before us that the poor will have to wait again. The pertinent question is why this is [1109] so. The sad fact is they do not have to wait because the money is available. The claim that it is not is a blatant lie. The Minister, in his wisdom, decided to give it to his friends, among them the bloodstock merchants in Kildare. Certain wealthy elements of society were not taxed when they could have been and the terrible aspect of this is that these revenues could have contributed towards greater equality in society.

I support the amendment, although I accept it will be lost. However, it is important that this side of the House shows it has a vision of a different Ireland. I believe the majority of citizens share this vision. They want services and expect people to be able to live in dignity. The so-called increases in social welfare payments will result in a loss of dignity and spending power. Inflation will kick in in the new year and people will find it increasingly difficult to manage. Some members of Fianna Fáil have told me the Progressive Democrats's tail is wagging the Fianna Fáil dog.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Is the tail wagging the dog?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The Deputy should come over here and see how easy it is.

Mr. Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe  Zoom on Sean Crowe  While I do not know if this is true, it is clear a Government decision has been taken which will hurt the weakest sections of society.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  I am greatly concerned about the effects these minimal increases in social welfare will have on social welfare recipients. The reverberations of the budget will be felt for many months and years to come. This discredited Government has inflicted on the people a great raft of stealth taxes which reach into practically every sphere of society. It was so brazen and shameless it reached into every child's Christmas stocking and slapped an extra 1% VAT on Bob the Builder, Harry Potter and Spiderman Christmas boxes.

The Minister has assumed the role of Ireland's serial mugger as he has viciously mugged virtually every sitting duck in sight in the budget, including social welfare recipients who will be severely hit. He also manages the impossible in the tradition of the two headed Janis of Greek mythological fame who could look forward and backward at the same time. While he is certain he is going forward on various fronts, he perpetrates the most aggressive form of taxation on the unfortunate public. The swathe of indirect taxes, fees and charges will apply to both rich and poor across the board.

The Minister cheerfully piles inequality upon inequality while giving the wealthy bloodstock owners an exceptionally generous free ride by way of a tax loophole. This is the first time I have heard of a gambling man looking a gift horse in the mouth. Reports in the newspapers suggested the guilty consciences of the stallion owners had led them to indicate they were prepared to pay upwards of €100 million in taxes. This should [1110] have been taken up, yet it was not. A sum of €100 million would do a great deal for the Border area of County Monaghan, giving us a hospital, a swimming pool and a canal stretching from Cavan, through Monaghan to Lough Neagh. This is a major omission and I hope the next time around—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  While I am reluctant to intervene, we have strayed a long way from the Social Welfare Bill.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  There are many social welfare recipients in County Monaghan who would be very happy to use the canal in their free time.

The Minister has many victims. First-time house buyer's, for example, are still reeling from the withdrawal of the first-time buyer's grant. They will be hit by the VAT increase which will increase the average price of a house by €2,000. Added to the loss of the first-time buyer's grant, this amounts to €5,800. The value of the additional mortgage interest relief of €350 is thus made virtually worthless.

The Minister continues his pummelling of the unfortunate motorist, revising vehicle registration tax bands of various vehicles of 1901cc to the top rate of 30%. This measure adds 7% to their cost and shows his contempt for the express wishes of the European Commission to end this tax. Social welfare recipients also drive cars. Tractors and the growing number of diesel cars are hit by an additional 3 cent per litre. Before the ink was dry on the Budget Statement an extra 10% to 12% was imposed on motor tax, an increase the Minister had failed to include in the budget as is customary. The decision not to deliver the increase on budget day was cowardly and serves to increase people's general scepticism about Government.

This back door tax was the final straw for the plundered motorist who will feel the effects of higher VAT charges in service and repair bills. Two cars are necessary in many households. The measures in the budget will cause many such households to give serious thought to getting rid of one of them. For most people in rural areas, a car is a necessity in the absence of decent public transport infrastructure and increased insurance costs, parking charges, fuel tax, repairs and so forth will have the effect of driving—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Again, I request that the Deputy return to the Bill. As he will appreciate, there is limited time for this debate which must conclude at 10.30 p.m. There are two more amendments which we may not reach. We are dealing with amendment No. 1 which specifically deals with the laying of a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas specifically related to social welfare. While a passing reference to other matters is acceptable, a detailed debate at this stage is not.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  I was discussing the wider implications of the budget for social welfare recipients [1111] and trying to make the point that the small increases in social welfare payments will do very little for them.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I am frozen sitting here. It must be the cutbacks in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  We would be happy to exchange places.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The heat of the debate has kept me alive. If I spoke to the amendment, I would not have much to say.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  Is the Minister accepting it?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I hope I will be permitted to elongate my answers to the Deputies' questions.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Always.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I do not see a reason for preparing yet another report as requested in the amendment. If I provided another report, the first people to jump up and down would be the Opposition.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Department should do it on her behalf.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  That being said, it is important to set out a few facts. Opposition Members may not like to hear that the budget allocated to my Department twice the amount of money for increases in social welfare payments that was allocated by the Opposition when in power.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is back. They must have the same scriptwriter.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  Inflation was 2.5% then.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  How much did a loaf of bread cost in 1997?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I have had to listen to the Opposition pontificate on this matter. The cost of a €1 increase in all the weekly payments under my Department is €52.6 million.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  The Minister took it off betting tax last year.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Unlike the Opposition, I have to work with what I have. The Deputies can continue to harbour illusions about what they might have available to them in the future.

Mention was made of the pre-budget forum, which was a very worthwhile exercise, at which I listened to the proposals of the non-governmental organisations. Perhaps Members would like to hear that the cost of all these demands would amount to €3.5 billion. I, no more than any other [1112] Member of this House, would like to address all the concerns raised by the NGOs which were mentioned. I appreciate NGOs lobby Members no more than they meet me to discuss issues. However, I have always believed in the tenacity of Members elected to the House to listen to the people they represent.

I am sure Members opposite will go beyond the information they get from NGOs and speak from the heart in regard to what they see as their priorities. They must make a political decision on their priorities and I must make a political decision on the Government's priorities, which I have indicated to the House on a number of occasions. If additional resources were available, I, no more than any other Minister, would be more than forthcoming in trying to target resources at those most in need.

It was mentioned that a lot of money was wasted by my Department on consultancies. Most of the consultants' fees paid by the Department in the past two years have not been on reports but on work done on computer systems for the Department to enable it to provide a better service. Some €1.3 million was spent on reports while €17.9 million was spent on capital work. In the context of available resources this year, I have had to cut most of that expenditure. We are now down to €4 million.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Minister took my advice.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I did not need the Deputy's advice; I knew exactly what to do.

I wish to refer to NAPS which was raised on a number of occasions. NAPS was reviewed in February and this is the programme which we will move towards. I have done a lot of work in moving towards income adequacy. I agree that in the context of some of the PPF promises, we have not got there yet. However, I intend over a five year period, to move towards the criteria in NAPS, most of which are reflected in the programme for Government. In regard to income adequacy, the Government will continue to pursue a strategy of increasing social welfare payments as resources permit so that people will have an income level to sustain an acceptable standard of living.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  The outline.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  It is, therefore, incorrect for Members opposite to say there were untruths. Words which are not acceptable in the House were used.

Mr. P. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  What about the Minister for Finance's budget speech?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  This states where “resources permit” as does the programme for Government and that cannot be changed.

There are a number of misnomers in regard to other issues. The Minister for Finance said that in the early part of the year inflation will go [1113] upwards to 5%, possibly as high as 6%, but that he expects the average to come down to 4.8%.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  Did the Minister do her shopping last weekend?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I did not have time to shop.

On that basis, 4.8% is the target to which I must address myself and, in that context, we are working on averages. Let us look at what are part of inflationary measures. Some 0.6% are alcohol and cigarettes, neither of which are a necessary commodity.

Mr. Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle  Zoom on Dan Boyle  Social welfare recipients are the biggest consumers of alcohol and cigarettes.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  If the Minister for Health and Children, no more than Deputy Boyle, a member of the Green Party which is anti-pollution, etc., was standing to my left, he would support me in saying that neither commodity is a necessity to survive.

I appreciate a €6 increase may be difficult for those on some of the long-term payments. There is a base line on which we have increased in recent years. Reviews take place on an ongoing basis and they are done in the context of debate in the House, parliamentary questions and the research and support mechanisms, NGOs, CPA, NESC and the NESF. All review income adequacy and how we progress towards the standards set in PPF and post-PPF. There will be ongoing reviews and we may have to re-target but we will have to work in the context of the €530 million or the €10 billion budget at my disposal this year.

The issue of child benefit was raised. I agree the Minister for Finance said in last year's budget that this was the second of three tranches. He did so in good faith but given the resources available there were two choices. Does one provide over €414 million to provide the third tranche of child benefit which leaves only €100 million or so to provide basic social welfare, or does one take €104 million and provide the increase over the next three years? I made that choice. I would like to have had €400 million plus €600 or €700 million but—

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Government promised it and it should apologise.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The Government may have promised it, and the Minister stood here in good faith, but in the context of the resources available, we have said that we will deliver over the next three years. We have delivered heretofore and it has been an excellent way to reduce child poverty and support children.

Family income supplement has been raised on a number of occasions and it is one at which I will look in the context of ongoing reviews in the Department. I am sure Deputy McGrath will be delighted to hear that all FIS customers, new and existing, will receive their increases from the beginning of January 2003. All books will be renewed at the beginning of January and will, [1114] therefore, be able to incorporate the increases in the income thresholds announced in the budget effective from 1 January 2003, so we are not as bad as those opposite think.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  The Minister is not all bad.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I have a lot of other issues at which to look but I will look at FIS to see what can be done.

Members will have read the report of the three wise men.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  They are not elected.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I know they are not elected and that is why I made a political decision. The report recommended the abolition of the back-to-work scheme but I did not do that. I decided to target the scheme.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  The Minister might as well have.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  The Minister should bring in three wise women.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Maybe that would not be a bad idea.

It was decided to target the scheme at the long-term unemployed. The Deputy mentioned someone suffering from depression or someone who was ill. Those in receipt of DA, DB and the invalidity and disabled person's pensions are included in the scheme. Ex-prisoners, carers and those in receipt of the one parent family payment, blind person's pension, PRETA and unemployability supplement for one year or more are eligible for the back-to-work scheme. Those in receipt of DB for three years are eligible for the back-to-work scheme while those in receipt of UA for five years are eligible. I had to target those who are less well off and I targeted the most vulnerable groups, those who find it more than difficult to move on and progress from benefits, particularly disabled people who find the back-to-work scheme an excellent resource and the reason many people are employed.

I wish to address the issue of rent supplement raised in a heated debate last week. It was brought to my attention by Members opposite, so I took the opportunity to review and discuss it. Following that, I have no plans to annul or modify S.I. No. 527 which I introduced last month.

The two measures contained in the instrument have been introduced in consolidated legislation. I reiterate the current limits set by health boards were put into regulation and will apply until 31 December 2003. Each health board has different maximum levels. The measures did not introduce capping or new limits. The limits are those determined by the health boards themselves.

The validity of the current limits was extended to 31 December 2003 because data compiled by the CSO showed that rent levels are stable. They have been falling since last April and are now lower than they were one year ago. However, [1115] given this background, there is no justification for landlords increasing the rent they charge. Accordingly, there is no need for health boards to set higher levels of maximum rents for the purpose of SWA rent supplement schemes.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  They are not doing that.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I will also address that matter. The second measure contained in SI 527 provides that it is explicitly stated in legislation that rent supplement is not payable in cases where the rent is above the relevant limit set by the health board. This is not a new concept, as was stated in the House last week. It is set out in the national administrative procedure manual, compiled by the health boards in 1997. All that is new is it is set out in legislation for the first time.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  There will be no more discretion, which was the case previously.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I am aware of allegations that these measures may lead to homelessness. These fears are groundless, as they will not reduce the number of properties available for rent. Landlords will still be able to charge the full market rent and tenants will still be able to claim rent supplement in respect of properties where the rent charged is reasonable.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Landlords will not rent to these people. On a point of order-—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  There cannot be a point of order.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Health boards will maintain the discretion to pay rent supplements in cases where the circumstances so warrant, even if the rent is above the relevant limit. The CWO will still have flexibility.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Tenants are being tossed out.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  Order, please.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  A new circular will be forwarded to the health boards to address Members' concerns.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  Will the Minister forward us a copy?

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Will her picture be on it?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I can do that. With regard to the extraordinary amount that is being invested in the SWA scheme, I have decided to meet all [1116] the chief executives of the health boards to address these issues.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Did the Department of the Environment and Local Government ascertain whether it will be able to build houses?

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  I will work with the Minister who has responsibility for housing to address those concerns.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  That is welcome news.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The Minister for the Environment and Local Government replied to the Deputy's parliamentary question and he will address his query accordingly.

The Government has made commitments on social welfare payments and it is my intention to work towards them and to address the issues that have been raised by all Members. We are all in the House to ensure there is social inclusion. It is easy to take a narrow and focused view on one issue but we cannot survive that way. My job, no more than anyone else's, is to ensure we target the most vulnerable in society with the resources available and provide the necessary social supports. As a consequence, I cannot accept the amendment because, in the context of the recommendations by NGOs and many other groups and ongoing departmental reviews, another report on issues that have only been raised in the past few weeks would be futile.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose  Zoom on Willie Penrose  I thank the Minister for her reply but I will press the amendment because it will not cost the Government a penny. We are asking the Department to prepare reports based on the targets set out in the NAPS and the programme for Government. We want the reports in March or April when the full impact of the inflationary measures introduced in the budget have filtered through the system, not tomorrow or the next day.

I have grave doubts about the rate of inflation. As Deputy Boyle stated, this year's inflation rate was targeted at 3.5% and it is significantly higher than that. We are not as sharp as stockbrokers and it is their business to know what is the rate of inflation. Their forecasts are particularly ominous.

The measures dealing with rents provide a charter for landlords to evict people. The Minister has the best of motives but all a landlord has to do is increase the rent above the maximum limit and say to a tenant that he or she is out unless he or she pays the increased rent. The health board will say it is constrained by the maximum limit and that is as much as it can provide. Therefore, the tenant is out. The Government should tackle the private rented sector in the appropriate way, which is through legislation. This method controls private rents through the SWA scheme and it will not work.

Amendment put.

Allen, Bernard.
Boyle, Dan.
Breen, James.
Breen, Pat.
Broughan, Thomas P.
Burton, Joan.
Connaughton, Paul.
Connolly, Paudge.
Costello, Joe.
Cowley, Jerry.
Crawford, Seymour.
Crowe, Seán.
Deasy, John.
Deenihan, Jimmy.
Durkan, Bernard J.
English, Damien.
Gilmore, Eamon.
Gormley, John.
Harkin, Marian.
Higgins, Joe.
Higgins, Michael D.
Hogan, Phil.
Howlin, Brendan.
Kehoe, Paul.
Lynch, Kathleen.
McCormack, Padraic.
[1118]McGinley, Dinny.
McGrath, Finian.
McGrath, Paul.
McHugh, Paddy.
Mitchell, Olivia.
Morgan, Arthur.
Murphy, Gerard.
Naughten, Denis.
Neville, Dan.
Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
O'Keeffe, Jim.
O'Shea, Brian.
O'Sullivan, Jan.
Pattison, Seamus.
Penrose, Willie.
Perry, John.
Rabbitte, Pat.
Ring, Michael.
Ryan, Seán.
Sargent, Trevor.
Shortall, Róisín.
Stagg, Emmet.
Stanton, David.
Upton, Mary.
Wall, Jack.

Ahern, Michael.
Ahern, Noel.
Andrews, Barry.
Ardagh, Seán.
Aylward, Liam.
Brady, Johnny.
Brady, Martin.
Browne, John.
Callanan, Joe.
Callely, Ivor.
Carey, Pat.
Carty, John.
Collins, Michael.
Coughlan, Mary.
Cregan, John.
Cullen, Martin.
Curran, John.
de Valera, Síle.
Dempsey, Noel.
Dempsey, Tony.
Dennehy, John.
Devins, Jimmy.
Ellis, John.
Fahey, Frank.
Finneran, Michael.
Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
Fleming, Seán.
Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
Glennon, Jim.
Grealish, Noel.
Hanafin, Mary.
Harney, Mary.
Haughey, Seán.
Hoctor, Máire.
Jacob, Joe.
Keaveney, Cecilia.
Kelleher, Billy.
Kelly, Peter.
Killeen, Tony.
Kirk, Seamus.
Kitt, Tom.
Lenihan, Brian.
Lenihan, Conor.
McEllistrim, Thomas.
McGuinness, John.
Martin, Micheál.
Moloney, John.
Moynihan, Donal.
Moynihan, Michael.
Mulcahy, Michael.
Nolan, M.J..
Ó Cuív, Éamon.
Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
O'Connor, Charlie.
O'Connell, Liz.
O'Donoghue, John.
O'Donovan, Denis.
O'Keeffe, Batt.
O'Malley, Fiona.
O'Malley, Tim.
Power, Peter.
Power, Seán.
Roche, Dick.
Ryan, Eoin.
Sexton, Mae.
Smith, Brendan.
Smith, Michael.
Treacy, Noel.
Wallace, Dan.
Wilkinson, Ollie.
Wright, G.V.

Amendment declared lost.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:

2.–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 implications of abolishing the means test for carer's allowance and introd[1119] ucing a top-up carer's payment for those in receipt of another social welfare payment.

This amendment refers to the carer's allowance. The implementation of this amendment would not incur any additional cost to the Exchequer. It would help give carers a place in society. For too long they have been the forgotten group in the Irish health system, often providing constant care 24 hours a day for seven days a week and often at the expense of their own health. Carers have been taken for granted by the State and society and they often carry a huge burden while at the same time relieving the State of the obligation of caring. The cost of paying for a member of the family to stay in a long-term nursing home is very high compared with the cost of a carer in the home.

The Labour Party recommends the abolition of the means test for carer's allowance. All Members on both sides of the House are in favour of improving the quality of life of carers and giving them opportunities outside the caring environment. We wish to improve the level of support for community care. Even though commitments have been made on all sides of the House they have not been carried through. We want to plan for the future and examine the cost of providing for carers. Do we know how many carers there are and how many people are being cared for? One group says that there are 100,000 carers and another says there are 150,000 or 200,000. A national carers' register should be established so that carers' needs can be met.

We do not have enough time now to examine this issue in a meaningful way. All of us should pay more than lip service and put in place a mechanism which would show the implications of the abolition of the carer's means test and the introduction of a top-up carer's payment for [1120] those in receipt of other social welfare payments. The Minister has expressed her support for carers and I want to see that concern put to the test in her support of this amendment.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  There are 120,000 carers in the country. A person looking after a sick person in the home works 168 hours a week. If they get paid from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it will be 75 cent an hour. Is that fair? A child going to the shop would throw that back at you. This is a great national scandal. We are all in public life. Carers come to my clinic and I see in their faces and hands the effort they are making and the money they are saving this State. The time has come for them to be given proper recognition. Some 100,000 carers are getting nothing from the State. It is a terrible situation where a person wishing to care at home for a husband or wife cannot be given a carer's allowance if they are over the means because they have a modest job. It is wrong and it is time we did something for them. The State must recognise their valuable work. It costs €1,200 per week to keep someone in a public nursing home. It would be lovely to give the carer at home €50, €60 or €70 a week as recognition for the work they do. That is not too much to ask and it is time it was done. These people save the State a fortune.

As regards the subvention, the time has come to consider not taking a person's home into account. That is the greatest national scandal and it is wrong. When an old person leaves home, his or her greatest wish is to come back again.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  As it is now 10.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: “That Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed.”

Question put.

Ahern, Michael.
Ahern, Noel.
Andrews, Barry.
Ardagh, Seán.
Aylward, Liam.
Brady, Johnny.
Brady, Martin.
Browne, John.
Callanan, Joe.
Callely, Ivor.
Carey, Pat.
Carty, John.
Collins, Michael.
Coughlan, Mary.
Cregan, John.
Cullen, Martin.
Curran, John.
de Valera, Síle.
Dempsey, Noel.
Dempsey, Tony.
Dennehy, John.
Devins, Jimmy.
Ellis, John.
Fahey, Frank.
Finneran, Michael.
Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
Fleming, Seán.
Gallagher, Pat The Cope.
Glennon, Jim.
Grealish, Noel.
Hanafin, Mary.
Harney, Mary.
Haughey, Seán.
Hoctor, Máire.
Jacob, Joe.
Keaveney, Cecilia.
Kelleher, Billy.
Kelly, Peter.
Killeen, Tony.
Kirk, Seamus.
Kitt, Tom.
Lenihan, Brian.
Lenihan, Conor.
McEllistrim, Thomas.
McGuinness, John.
Martin, Micheál.
Moloney, John. Moynihan, Donal.[1121]

Moynihan, Michael.
Mulcahy, Michael.
Nolan, M. J.
Ó Cuív, Éamon.
Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
O'Connor, Charlie.
O'Donnell, Liz.
O'Donoghue, John.
O'Donovan, Denis.
O'Keeffe, Batt.
O'Malley, Fiona.
O'Malley, Tim.
[1122]Power, Peter.
Power, Seán.
Roche, Dick.
Ryan, Eoin.
Sexton, Mae.
Smith, Brendan.
Treacy, Noel.
Wallace, Dan.
Walsh, Joe.
Wilkinson, Ollie.
Wright, G. V.

Allen, Bernard.
Boyle, Dan.
Breen, James.
Breen, Pat.
Broughan, Thomas P.
Burton, Joan.
Connaughton, Paul.
Connolly, Paudge.
Costello, Joe.
Cowley, Jerry.
Crawford, Seymour.
Crowe, Seán.
Cuffe, Ciarán.
Deasy, John.
Deenihan, Jimmy.
Durkan, Bernard J.
English, Damien.
Gilmore, Eamon.
Gormley, John.
Harkin, Marian.
Higgins, Joe.
Higgins, Michael D.
Hogan, Phil.
Howlin, Brendan.
Kehoe, Paul.
Lynch, Kathleen.
McCormack, Padraic.
McGinley, Dinny.
McGrath, Finian.
McGrath, Paul.
McHugh, Paddy.
Mitchell, Olivia.
Morgan, Arthur.
Murphy, Gerard.
Naughten, Denis.
Neville, Dan.
Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
O'Keeffe, Jim.
O'Shea, Brian.
O'Sullivan, Jan.
Pattison, Seamus.
Penrose, Willie.
Perry, John.
Rabbitte, Pat.
Ring, Michael.
Ryan, Seán.
Sargent, Trevor.
Shortall, Róisín.
Stagg, Emmet.
Stanton, David.
Upton, Mary.
Wall, Jack.

Question declared carried.


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