Thursday, 5 February 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
139. Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the proposals she has to achieve the key target of the anti-poverty strategy to achieve a rate of €150 per week in 2002 terms for the lowest rates of social welfare to be met by 2007. [3471/04]
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): The 2004 budget provided for a €10 per week increase in the rate of the lowest social welfare payments and these new rates came into effect at the beginning of January. This represents an increase of 8%, which is well ahead of projected inflation of 2.5%.
This level of increase ensures that the standard of living of all those in receipt of the lowest rate of payment was, once again, significantly enhanced and was a significant step towards the achievement, by 2007, of the commitment contained in the national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, in regard to the lowest rates of payment.
Over the period since 1997, the value of all social welfare rates has increased in real terms. In this regard, the rate payable to persons in receipt of supplementary welfare allowance and short-term unemployment assistance, the lowest rates in 1997, have increased by nearly €51 per week, an increase of more than 62% compared with inflation of 26.9%.
Overall, social welfare expenditure has increased from €5.774 billion in 1997 to a projected €11.262 billion in 2004, an increase of €5,488 million or 95%. Looking ahead, my priorities include making further progress towards implementing the NAPS commitment in relation to the lowest rates of payment along with the other commitments in regard to social welfare contained in the NAPS, Sustaining Progress and the programme for Government. The progression of all of the commitments will be a matter to be decided having regard to available resources.
140. Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if a supplementary welfare grant will be awarded to a person (details supplied) in Dublin 12; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3436/04]
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): The supplementary welfare allowance scheme which is administered by the health boards provides for a single payment to help meet essential, once-off, exceptional expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her weekly income. These payments, which are known as exceptional needs payments, are made at the discretion of the health boards and neither I nor my Department has any function in deciding individual cases. The principal consideration in making such a payment is that the need must be of an exceptional nature.
The South Western Area Health Board was contacted on behalf of the person in question and has advised that his application for an exceptional needs payment was refused by the community welfare officer on the grounds that on this occasion the need was not considered to be of an exceptional nature. If he is not satisfied with the decision it is open to him to appeal against the decision to the health board appeals officer.
141. Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has carried out an assessment of the introduction of a non-means tested payment to carers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3462/04]
143. Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if a person in receipt of a carer's allowance can also apply for an old age pension; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3467/04]
The carer's allowance is a social assistance payment which provides income support to people who are providing certain elderly or incapacitated persons with full time care and attention and whose incomes fall below a certain limit.
As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test in which the income of both the applicant and his or her partner is assessable is applied to the carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.
Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the income disregards under the scheme. From April 2004, the weekly income disregards will increase to €250 for a single carer and to €500 for a couple. It is estimated that abolition of the means test for carer's allowance could cost in the region of €180 million per annum.
In relation to paying carer's allowance concurrently with another social welfare payment, such as an old age pension, the primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support and, as a general rule, only one social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled.
The review of the carer's allowance, which was published in October 1998, considered the introduction of a non-means tested continual care payment to be given, following a needs assessment, to carers caring for those who are in the highest category of dependency.
More recently in 2003, I launched a study on the future financing of long-term care. The study considers a range of benefit delivery mechanisms, including the continual care payment, as well as the issue of a needs assessment. It suggests that consideration be given to a flexible system whereby, following needs assessment, the person in need of care and their carer would select in-kind services or a cash payment or a mix of both. As there are significant issues discussed in the study, including those in relation to benefit design, cost and financing of long-term care, my officials are currently preparing a consultation document to accompany the study. This document will focus all interested parties on the specific issues we need to address. I expect that this document will be ready for circulation by the end of this month.
On completion of this consultation process, a working group, which will include all relevant parties, will examine the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. The issue of a continual care payment will be considered, as will other proposals, in the course of the consultation process.
144. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her proposals to increase financial supports provided to lone parents to bring them more in line with support provided to other carers of children; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3493/04]
The one-parent family payment, OFP, was introduced in 1997 when it replaced a number of schemes for different categories of lone parent. These schemes included lone parent's allowance, deserted wife's benefit and allowance and the non-contributory widow and widower's pension for those with dependent children.
The scheme is based on the contingency of lone parenthood and the need for social welfare support for parents with children where a person has not secured adequate, or any maintenance from the spouse or the other parent. The scheme also supports and encourages lone parents to consider employment as an alternative to long-term welfare dependency while at the same time supporting them to remain in the home if that is their wish. It is generally accepted that the most effective route out of poverty for lone parents is through paid employment. Accordingly, policy under the scheme is to encourage and facilitate lone parents in moving into the paid labour force so that they may avoid long-term welfare dependency. The main element of this policy is an earnings disregard of €146.50 per week.
Foster care, on the other hand, is part of the child protection and welfare service and is the responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children. The foster care allowance is paid in respect of children who have been taken into the care of the health board under the provisions of the Child Care Act, 1991, for their care and protection, and placed in foster care or relative care. Foster care is the main form of alternative care for those children who cannot be looked after in their own home. Under the regulations, a health board must assess the needs of a child placed in care, the suitability of the prospective foster or relative carers and draw up a child care plan. The implementation of the child care plan places significant responsibilities and duties on foster carers, whether relatives or non-relatives. The foster care allowance is paid in recognition of these additional responsibilities and the additional costs of looking after foster children. The current rates of payment are €289.50 per week per child under the age of 12, and €316.50 per week per child aged 12 and over.
I am satisfied that the social welfare arrangements in place for lone parents are appropriate and support general policy in this area which is to provide income support for lone parents while at the same time encouraging them to consider employment as a realistic alternative to long-term welfare dependency.
145. Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding the new regulations governing rent subsidies for homeless people seeking to access accommodation; if the regulations will apply to local authority tenants who have been evicted for rent arrears and who would previously have been able to obtain a rent subsidy from the health board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3496/04]
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): The recent changes made to the supplementary welfare allowance rent supplement scheme will not affect the ability of homeless people to access accommodation. Specific provision has been made for vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the elderly and those with disabilities.
In the normal course, rent supplement is not paid to an individual who vacates local authority accommodation. Local authority tenants who have been evicted for rent arrears are not ordinarily able to obtain a rent subsidy from the health board. This situation applied prior to the introduction of the latest regulations.
The new measures do not restrict the discretion available to health boards to deal with exceptional cases. In this regard a health board may provide assistance where, in the opinion of the board, the circumstances of the particular case so warrant.
Where a local authority tenant is evicted for rent arrears the health board would normally liaise with the local authority to examine the most suitable solution to address the person's accommodation needs. It would also consider the circumstances which gave rise to the arrears and may refer the person to the money advice and budgeting service for advice and support in addressing the problem.
146. Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason the supplementary rent allowance has been reduced from €898.00 per month to €536.20 per month in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; if this reduction is the result of recently announced budgetary cuts; if her attention has been drawn to the impossibility of obtaining accommodation at the lower rate and the likely hardship caused to this person as a result; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3539/04]
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards, provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly supplement in respect of rent to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation needs.
Rent supplements, which are subject to a means test, are normally calculated to ensure that a person, after the payment of rent, has an income equal to the rate of supplementary welfare allowance appropriate to his or her family circumstances, less a minimum contribution of €13. In addition to the minimum contribution each applicant is required to contribute towards his or her rent any additional assessable means that he or she may have over and above the appropriate rate of basic supplementary welfare allowance.
The South Western Area Health Board was contacted on behalf of the person in question and has advised that she had been in receipt of a reduced rate of basic supplementary welfare allowance pending the outcome of her application for one-parent family payment. The rate of supplementary welfare allowance was reduced by the value of her maintenance payments. On the basis of her income at that time she was required to pay towards her rent only the standard minimum contribution of €12, increased to €13 from 5 January 2004. Her net income after paying her rent and receiving rent supplement was €129.60 per week.
She was subsequently awarded full rate one-parent family payment and, accordingly, the amount of rent supplement payable fell to be revised to take account of the change in her financial circumstances. As rent supplements are subject to a means test, the reduction in the amount of rent supplement in this case is a direct result of the increase in the individual's income and is not related to any recent changes to the scheme. Following the revision, her net income after paying her rent and receiving rent supplement is now €138.60 per week. The board has confirmed that the person in question is currently in receipt of the maximum amount of rent supplement appropriate to her family circumstances.
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