Adjournment Debate - Social Welfare Benefits.

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 586 No. 5

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Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  While I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue, it gives me no pleasure to do so. It is an instance of the abuse of the social welfare system to implement a contorted view of an immigration policy. I have supplied the details of the family in question to the Department. The circumstances are as follows. They are a Romanian family with two teenage children, aged 16 and 14. The mother was heavily pregnant when she first came to me and she had a difficult obstetric history. The family was in direct provision accommodation in Galway city. They had supplied information to the Department, the Western Health Board and other bodies. For example, on 16 January 2004, their doctor provided details of a miscarriage the woman had suffered on 8 February 2002 which suggested she had been exposed to chickenpox. This information was submitted to the relevant authorities.

The family left direct provision and went into private accommodation. Since then, they have not received assistance by way of rent allowance, food allowance or otherwise. They sell flowers to live, making approximately €120 per week. They are allocated a €25 food voucher from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, have borrowed €6,000 from friends and have sold personal items, [1230]including jewellery. When they came to me, they were worried about the 16 year old girl in particular. A social worker who was familiar with the case had drawn my attention to the fact that she was interested in discontinuing school to be of assistance to the family, as was her younger brother of 14.

The family recently received a letter which suggested that in accordance with supplementary welfare allowance procedures, verified evidence of unemployment, such as a P45 or a letter from an employer, and verified evidence of means in the period prior to their claim would be required to make a determination on the claim. The letter suggested that if they were dissatisfied with the decision, they should appeal. I understand that their appeal has been turned down. Further correspondence to the family suggested that they apply to the refugee integration agency for direct provision accommodation despite the mother having a proven obstetric history of three miscarriages — despite this history, I am happy to record that her baby Patrick was born safely on 17 March last.

As I wish to be fair and I note that the Western Health Board is the only health board acting in this manner. I exhausted all the board’s procedures by way of advice to the family in regard to appeals. The family have been awaiting a decision since 27 March 2002 on humanitarian grounds. While I accept that many cases must be processed, it is extraordinary that they are not entitled to the normal benefits during this period. I am shocked that the practice of assistance through a health board or the Department of Social and Family Affairs would be used as an instrument to force people into direct provision accommodation. It is particularly shocking in this case as the family left direct provision accommodation because the woman had a miscarriage in 2002 and had been exposed to chickenpox, as attested by the notes of doctors O’Beirne and Whyte dated 14 January 2004.What would any of us do in such circumstances?

In the most recent correspondence I have read, it is suggested that if the family survived for so long without visible means, they must have had means from somewhere. When I last spoke to a family spokesperson, it was suggested that they are perfectly willing to supply the names of the relatives and members of the community from whom they have borrowed money — I have permission to state the amount, which is €6,000. It is extraordinary that this can go on. They have received nothing from the State by way of sustenance since last November. From my checks at the regional hospital and the testimony of the woman, I found that she is a diabetic who administers insulin to herself four times a day.

It has been suggested that the family go back into direct provision accommodation or get nothing, a suggestion made by the health board and the social welfare system, which should have no role in implementing this kind of treatment for a family who are at considerable risk.

[1231]Mr. B. Lenihan: Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  I reply on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of the Department by the health boards, provides assistance to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their basic needs. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is subject to a means test and, accordingly, where a person has access to resources in kind or in cash, the relevant legislation requires that these be taken into account in determining the amount of assistance payable.

The Western Health Board was contacted regarding the family in question and has advised that they arrived in Ireland in August 2000 and submitted an application for asylum. The Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform caters for the needs of asylum seekers through its system of direct provision. Under the direct provision system, asylum seekers are provided with full board accommodation and other services such as laundry and leisure facilities. In addition, they receive a weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.

The agency initially referred the family to one of its direct provision accommodation centres in the Southern Health Board area. The family later transferred to direct provision accommodation in the Mid-Western Health Board area and in July 2001 transferred to direct provision accommodation in Galway. The family applied for rent supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme in August 2001 on the basis that they had to move to private rented accommodation on medical grounds. Details of the medical evidence provided was forwarded by the health board to the Reception and Integration Agency which, having examined the circumstances of the case, advised the health board that the family’s existing direct provision accommodation was suitable for their needs. In the circumstances, the application for rent supplement was refused. The family appealed this decision but their appeal was not upheld.

In May 2002, the family’s application for asylum was refused. They applied for permission to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds and continued to reside in direct provision [1232]accommodation. A further application for rent supplement was made in 2003. The application was again refused on the ground that their existing direct provision accommodation was suitable for their needs. No appeal was made on this occasion.

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In April 2003 payment of the weekly allowance was terminated as the family had vacated their direct provision accommodation and had failed to make contact with the health board. The board had no further dealings with the family until early 2004 when they applied for assistance under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme claiming that they had no means with to which to provide for their basic needs or rent costs. They were asked to provide details regarding their financial circumstances. In particular they were asked how they have been able to provide for their needs since they vacated their direct provision accommodation nine months previously. Despite being offered several opportunities to provide the necessary information, the family have failed to satisfy the board regarding their past and present financial circumstances.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  I can give the Minister of State the details now if he will just re-examine the case.

Mr. B. Lenihan: Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  I am not sure that I have a function in that because there are appeals procedures in place and if they furnish those materials by way of a fresh application, that may resolve the matter. Accordingly, the family have not established as of the time of the preparation of this reply that they have an entitlement to assistance under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

The issue of medical benefits referred to by the Deputy relates to an application for a medical card. The health board has advised that it is awaiting the return of a completed application before a decision can be made in that regard.

Mr. M. Higgins: Information on Michael D. Higgins  Zoom on Michael D. Higgins  Is it not disgraceful, starving them out of the country and putting a child at risk?

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