Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 17 February 2005

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 598 No. 1

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Curran: Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  When the debate adjourned yesterday I had begun to examine some of the specific provisions of the Bill and I had made reference in particular to child benefit. I mentioned the fact that while specific increases were made this year, they followed on significant increases made in previous years. That recognised the fact that a family with three children now gets almost €450 a month or an annual payment in child benefit of just under €5,500. The issue has frequently been raised that child benefit should be means tested or capped, and I refer specifically to the Minister’s statement, with which I agree, that this is one of the few payments that is not taxable, assessed as means or as secondary benefit and is usually paid to the mother. We hear of people having a particular salary but it is not good enough to measure salary in those terms. It is the disposable income available to them. People may [13]have a large income but if they have a large mortgage to pay, their disposable income may not be significant. In that case this money is of major importance and benefit. I suggest a word of caution is appropriate in that regard.

I want to refer to the area of carers’ benefit and the respite grant scheme. The package in this Bill commits an additional spending of €35 million for carers and also allows more carers to qualify for entitlements. The respite care grant is being increased from €835 per annum to €1,000, and a total of almost 33,000 full-time carers are expected to receive the grant this year. I share the view of previous speakers who indicated that this figure might be underestimated. When the new conditions are put in place, that figure could be exceeded.

  11 o’clock

The respite care grant is being extended to include all carers who provide full-time care, subject to their not being employed for more than ten hours per week, in receipt of an unemployment payment or signing for unemployment credits. It is estimated that this will increase the number of full-time carers by 9,000. There are some who believe this could be further enlarged.

I welcome the fact that income limits relating to carer’s allowance have also been changed. The Bill expands the income limits for carer’s allowance by increasing the weekly means test income disregard by €20 to €270 for a single person and by €40 to €500 for a couple. This means a couple with two children can earn up to just over €30,000 and receive the maximum rate of carer’s allowance. The same couple could earn €49,000 and receive the minimum rate of carer’s allowance, while being able to access other items such as free travel, the household benefits package of free schemes and the respite care grant.

I do not wish merely to discuss the various improvements being introduced. This debate gives us the opportunity to consider the operation of some of the schemes. I will comment briefly on something that came to my attention in recent weeks in respect of carer’s benefit. One of my children has been in Our Lady’s Hospital since before Christmas and I have visited the hospital on a daily basis. I met parents from all parts of the country at the hospital who are in a situation similar to mine and who have been obliged to spend considerable periods there.

I would like the Minister to examine a particular difficulty in respect of the carer’s benefit. If a parent has a child who is at home and ill for an extended period, he or she can apply for carer’s leave and carer’s benefit. If that child is subsequently hospitalised for a period of up to 13 weeks, the parent can retain the benefit. It appears, however, that if the child’s illness commences with a hospital stay, the parents do not qualify for carer’s benefit until she returns home. If the hospital stay is short, this does not present a major difficulty. However, I met a number of people from areas throughout the country whose children have been in Our Lady’s Hospital for [14]extended periods. An extended period is anything from four, five or six weeks. The hospital stays of the children of some of the parents to whom I refer had reached double figures in terms of weeks.

Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin could not survive or continue to operate without the active involvement of parents. Considerable difficulties are imposed on parents from rural areas who are obliged to accompany their children to the hospital and remain there with them. I accept that great improvements have been made in facilities at the hospital but parents from rural areas are obliged to give up work, leave their families and reside in or around Our Lady’s Hospital. These people either sleep on mats on the floor beside their children’s beds or they sleep in the new wing, the “Ronald McDonald House” as it is called.

There appears to be an anomaly in that the parents of children whose illness commences with a hospital stay do not qualify immediately for carer’s benefit. If the illness begins at home, they qualify for the benefit and if a subsequent hospital stay lasts up to 13 weeks, they retain it. I ask the Minister to consider the position in respect of parents whose children are kept in hospital for extended periods. The hospital could not survive were it not for the work done by these parents. Young children cannot be left on their own and there are not sufficient staff numbers at the hospital to provide one to one care there. I ask the Minister to examine the position.

I wish now to deal with the capital disregards for means tests. There has been a great deal of debate in recent times about those who invested income in SSIAs. As the Minister recognises — we have discussed this matter previously — people who invested modest amounts of money in SSIAs were concerned they would lose some of their benefits by the time their accounts matured. Increasing the disregard from €12,500 to €20,000 will improve the position dramatically. The enhanced disregard applies to all capital, regardless of whether it is held in SSIAs or other accounts. Members of the public should be aware that the disregard does not apply solely to SSIAs. If they have other capital tied up elsewhere, it will be added to what is contained in their SSIAs. Most of those who are on social welfare payments and who have invested only in SSIAs will not lose any of their entitlements. This represents a significant improvement and shows the Minister listened to those who had concerns. People were not too worried when the SSIA scheme first came into place but they have become concerned as the maturation date draws near.

I compliment the Minister and the Minister for Finance as regards this year’s social welfare budget which has increased by 9%, a figure far in excess of the rate of inflation.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  What about the 16 cutbacks that were not reversed?

[15]Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  I propose to share time with Deputy Perry.

I congratulate the Minister on the improvements in the social welfare budget. It would be foolish to state that we do not welcome the increases being put in place. If one compares the position now to that which obtained a few years ago, one can see there has been a major improvement. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the cost of living has increased dramatically. I represent a rural constituency and I know the cost of transport, etc., has risen significantly. For example, health boards no longer supply taxi services for people obliged to attend hospitals or whatever and these people must pay for their transport out of their old age pensions. When one takes this into account, one can see that the sum of money available to pensioners is not all that fantastic. The position is even worse for someone who is obliged to pay money out of a disability pension. When one considers the situation of someone who must attend regularly at a psychiatric hospital to avail of support services, one realises that these increases are necessary in order to cover increases in the cost of living.

I will comment on two specific issues. The first of these is the carer’s allowance. For two years I served as a member of an all-party study group appointed by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and I am extremely annoyed that more action was not taken in respect of the unanimous proposals put forward by that group in respect of carers. I welcome the fact that the respite grant will be made available to all carers. At least that is what the Minister stated. However, he also referred to a specific number, namely, 9,300. I cannot honestly understand how this low figure for the additional number of carers was arrived at. Even when it is added to the existing figure for carers, the final figure will fall a long way short of what any of the carers’ organisations have suggested as being the real number of carers.

What criteria will apply to those who will be given the €1,000 respite grant? Will the grant be dealt with in the same way as carer’s allowance? For example, a small farmer living in a rural area who cares for his aged father or mother or perhaps a disabled brother or sister and who is obliged to spend more than ten hours looking after his cattle is not entitled to carer’s allowance. If he gave up the farm and worked for ten hours at a job in Dublin, the time spent travelling back and forward between Monaghan and Dublin would not be taken into account. However, when he travels from one out-farm to another, the time is taken into account. I am familiar with such a case due to come before an appeals officer in the coming weeks.

Those who give care to the elderly and who are told they are entitled to a respite grant should get it without too much questioning or red tape. Without them there would be a much greater problem than the one discussed last night in the House for a number of hours, namely, those at [16]home. I want the Minister to take a serious look at the whole issue of those, in rural Ireland especially, who care for the elderly. When the means disregard was first introduced some degree of comment was made by the social welfare inspectors. If it was clear a person was giving full-time care, along with looking after a few cattle, then it was given. Suddenly new criteria were introduced under which the number of minutes and hours spent dealing with each animal had to be accounted for. As a result, people were prevented from getting the carer’s allowance. This is serious and puts enormous pressure on people living in isolated areas.

I was given an assurance by the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, that this would be reviewed. However it is clear from this Bill, the announcements on social welfare in the budget and anything I have seen so far that nothing has been reviewed in this regard.

The other area relevant to carers, discussed ad nauseam, was the issue of widows and widowers. If they are working outside the home and get ill they are entitled to half rate disability. However, if they are looking after loved ones in the home and getting a widow’s or widower’s contributory pension, as most are nowadays, they are not entitled to any carer’s allowance. The Joint Committee of Social and Family Affairs put forward the suggestion that at least the work such people do should be recognised by giving them a half rate pension. I urge the Minister to review that. There was total and absolute unanimity among committee members that this issue should be dealt with, but nothing happened.

Farm assist is another issue I want to mention in passing. When the means test was introduced a number of years ago, it was supposed to provide for about 25,000 cases immediately. The actual figure was between 8,000 and 8,500 and there will be less from now on because of the movement in the direction of the rural employment scheme. Again, there are major question marks as people are literally afraid to go to social welfare inspectors because of the way the means test is carried out. Their books are ignored. The mythical idea exists that because someone has so many animals or whatever, the costs are the same as everyone else’s, so therefore the person is earning x amount. Every farm is different and should be treated individually. I welcome the changes in the money a person is allowed to have in his or her bank, home or whatever. That is something the former Fine Gael spokesman on social welfare, Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, and I fought through this House, against the arrogance of the former Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. I was pleased it was clear that at least the civil servants who sit behind the barrier in the House, were listening to us at that period and eventually introduced a realistic level of moneys that could be kept in a bank by someone on non-contributory social welfare. It means people are not hiding money under the mattress or leaving it somewhere where it is vulnerable to [17]robbery. I realise this measure relates to investment bonds more than anything else, but it is an improvement that I welcome. I also welcome the measures as regards cross-Border activity, and that people may derive some benefits for working or living in a different state.

One cannot take the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill on its own, however. In my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 medical cards have been removed from people in the last seven years. We were promised that 30,000 extra cards would be given nationally. However, the removal of medical cards has significant cost implications for the low paid and those in poor circumstances. We do not just want 200,000 medical cards replaced, as promised. We want those which have already been withdrawn to be replaced as well by changing the means test to a realistic and reasonable level, taking into account cancer sufferers and people with long-term illnesses who are not currently entitled to medical cards as of right.

Mr. Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  I thank Deputy Crawford for sharing time. This is an important Bill. Deputy Crawford spoke about carers. The increase in respite grants is welcome, as is the removal of the anomaly whereby a person caring for more than two people did not receive the grant in respect of each care recipient. It was about time that anomaly was removed and it is significant that it has been done.

The means disregard for carer’s allowance will result in an additional 1,000 new carers qualifying for payments. The number of carers in receipt of carer’s allowance will increase from 23,500 in 2004 to 24,500 in 2005. However, it is believed that there are 50,000 full-time carers, which means that some 25,000 of them will get nothing. Given the major issue that is currently being debated and the cost of yesterday’s Supreme Court judgment as regards nursing home inmates, and the cost to the State as regards retrospective payments, the invaluable work done by carers who look after the elderly in their own homes for so little is put in context.

I hope the Minister will look carefully at the recommendations on giving people assistance to care for their parents and grandparents in their homes by ensuring proper facilities and grants are put in place. It would be a good investment. Regrettably, elderly people were in receipt of very little in the way of grants for essential modifications to their homes. When one sees so many people in long-term care, it is regrettable that the State has been so mean-spirited about helping them as regards essential ground floor modifications, bathroom facilities etc. I know from my experience as a former member of a local authority, that the difficulty presented by the matching funds stipulation prevented councils from implementing such initiatives. Given the Supreme Court judgment, however, I have no doubt that care of the aged is now very much part of the political landscape. As regards subvention, the [18]issue yesterday was contract beds. The issue from now on will demand close scrutiny of the rights to pensions, subventions and maintenance in tandem with payments by family members.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste said that given the demographics, care of the aged will be an increasing priority for the foreseeable future, with some 12,000 additional people in this category within the next two years. I appeal to Government to look imaginatively at its care for the aged programme with particular emphasis on people’s own homes where much of the work can effectively be done.

The issue of medical cards is also significant. The number of people with medical cards continues to drop, despite promises to have the number extended to an extra 200,000 people. The Taoiseach said yesterday that doctor-only medical cards would not be available until April 2005 and that 30,000 people who were supposed to receive the traditional medical card would also have to wait. That is not good enough. There is a great number of people who need medical attention and who just cannot go to the doctor. At least the GP card system is a start and will alleviate the cost of the GP, but we should take prescription costs for the pharmacy into account. Regrettably, there are many people with young children who are caught in the income trap. We are in a two tier economy, where people are working very hard, paying for the education of their families and still just cannot get any assistance from the State. It is quite extraordinary that it is taking so long to issue the 30,000 medical cards.

From my experience as a Deputy for Sligo-Leitrim, I know the level of applications that are being sent in and thrown out. There is an audit for medical cards every 18 months and there is an increasing number of people being taken off the list. That is wrong. There is no sense of concern for the position in which some people find themselves. The audit is based on gross income, but there is a huge difference between a gross and a net salary. Regrettably, many of the thresholds for medical entitlements are based on gross income. People who are paying for the education of their family and need two incomes to do so, still do not qualify for real benefits based on their gross salary. There is pressure on many people who genuinely feel the medical card system needs to be examined. Up to 1,000 people in Sligo should have qualified for the traditional medical card, yet those cards have not been issued. If we include the doctor-only medical card, that would mean up to 5,000 cards should be issued in Sligo. I call on the Minister to issue those cards as quickly as possible as there is pressure on people who genuinely need to go to the doctor and who cannot afford to do so.

The poverty statistics are quite startling. A recent EU report revealed that Irish women are at greater risk of poverty than their counterparts in any other EU member state. A total of 23% of Irish women are at risk of poverty. The CSO [19]recently published a report which estimated that approximately 120,000 children and over 23,000 lone parent households are living in consistent poverty. To put this into context, these are children who may not have a winter coat and who cannot afford to have a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day. Ireland is among those member states with a greater gap between the rich and poor. This country is undoubtedly a two-tier economy, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Over 50,000 households are on waiting lists for social housing according to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In the city of Sligo, there are over 500 people on a waiting list for local authority housing. The number is similar for those waiting for housing from the county council. The estimated number of homeless households remains high at 3,773 in 2002, in comparison to 3,743 in 1999. When we had the money during the boom, the homeless were effectively ignored and the position worsened.

Another recent study found that the number of children living in housing that is overcrowded, damp, in disrepair and in poor neighbourhoods has more than doubled between 1991 and 2002. As many as 243,000 children in 94,000 households are at risk of experiencing such detrimental living conditions. Children of lone parents are far more likely to experience nearly all of the housing problems cited. One third of lone parent families live in local authority housing compared with just 7% of couples with children. The impact of these issues on child welfare is manifest in their increased risk of psychological and general health and behavioural problems, all of which impact on their education, health and sense of well-being.

I am delighted to speak on this very important Bill. The Minister is well aware of the issues and I acknowledge that he has worked on the savage 16 cuts. I am quite happy that he is getting into his brief and I hope he will work on some of the major difficulties facing the welfare society in the country at this time.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I am delighted to speak on this Bill. While the Opposition has a role to play regarding issues that are still not addressed, I must take the opportunity to welcome the fact that this Bill is here for the purpose of implementing the €874 million social welfare package that was announced in the last budget. When the current Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, came in with a package of €630 million, people were bowled over by the size of the increase at that time. We now have got a 40% increase of €244 million which brings the total spend up to €12.25 billion. When we speak of numbers in this fashion, it becomes a kind of tragedy as we cannot take on-board such an amount of money. If we spoke about thousands or ten of thousands of euro, then it might mean more. However, €12.25 billion is a huge amount of money to spend. The fact that it is being spent on social welfare means the priority of the [20]Government is to try to get the money to those who need it most. Of all Departments, the Department of Social and Family Affairs deals specifically with those who are in difficulty, be it the unemployed, the elderly, the very young or the disabled.

I would love to have a position where most social welfare payments for the unemployed were not needed in my constituency. I would particularly like to have a situation where we did not need unemployment assistance. I always speak of the concept of joined-up government and I want to take the opportunity of congratulating FÁS and the different schemes that are running to deal with the unemployment issue in the textile industry. I want to encourage the Minister to talk to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment about Donegal and its needs so that the spending level on employment assistance can be reduced and people can be assisted instead in finding new employment. I recognise that a task force met with more than half the Cabinet last week. I trust it will move on to something that will be seen to be useful for the constituency I represent.

The doubling of spending since 1997 speaks for itself. It is important to recognise the very positive actions being taken when we consider the sums being spent. In this context, I acknowledge the work of the CWO which, especially in my local area, reacts to the individual rather than to a rule in a book. This is in keeping with the policy the Minister outlined in his speech and it is something which must continue. There is no issue in Donegal. If a person approaches the CWO with a genuine concern, he or she receives a fair hearing.

The issue of the exchange rate between the euro, sterling and dollar is difficult to explain to people who do not come from areas in which one frequently uses more than one currency. Exchange rate fluctuations make it appear on paper that people are gaining and losing in terms of the cash they have. However, if a person in a Border area receives a cheque in sterling, he or she may spend it in a shop in the North. To him or her, spending £20 in a shop in the North is the same as spending €20 in a shop in Donegal. Therefore, while the Department considers sterling to be more valuable, the individual does not because if he or she does not exchange it for euro, he or she will not see the cash difference. The exchange rate is one of the most significant issues raised with me. Much the same is true of education grants. If a person receives a grant in Belfast, how well he or she does depends on the exchange rate on the day.

I welcome the increases in child benefit as the payment accounts for 66% of child income support provision. In 1994, it constituted less than 30%. Child care is even more topical following the recent controversial article by Kevin Myers in The Irish Times. The Minister alluded to lone parents who support children while trying to get back to education. While it is important to help people to move into the workforce, there is [21]another side to the equation involving the people already in employment who spend significant sums on child care. I am not sure child benefit payment is used to pay for child care in crèches. There should be a tax relief for child care, which is a matter for the Minister for Finance.

I would like to think in the context of debate over the last week that people in employment will be considered as well as those trying to access employment. We want to move away from a system which makes it disadvantageous to work. People in employment are still considering that if they did not work they would obtain medical cards and a range of supports. No matter how often we explain that certain supports are not that exciting, the problem is that the Government has made some of them very worthwhile. We are almost the victims of our own success in this area.

I will not detail the level of children’s allowance payment, but it is significantly greater than the 25p per week rate in the days I first came to the House.

A provision of €35 million has been made to enhance supports for carers. The introduction by a previous Minister in the Department, Deputy Dermot Ahern, of the respite grant was significant and its extension is very important. There are many other elements in the legislation which I do not think I will have time to address. Changes in the bereavement grant are important as is the decision to make orphan’s payment directly to persons over 18 who do not reside with guardians. It is also important to encourage people to think about their pensions. While none of us thinks he or she will get old, it is necessary to point out that only 43% of women in the State have pensions. People in their 20s are failing to make any pension provision.

There is a social dimension to the current state of the contract the Department of Social and Family Affairs has with post offices. I raised the issue a number of years ago when it came up, but the matter seemed to settle. There is a current threat that the contract will be revoked despite the fact the EU decision will have no real influence on whether social welfare payments can be made through the local post office network. The local post office in Carrowmena has been in the hands of the same family for 100 years. They are very proud of it and it is very much part of the fabric of the tiny village of Cloghan. We cannot sit and do nothing for five years while people die off according to the age profile involved. If they die off, it will be in the context of haphazard post office provision.

The Minister must talk to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to ensure we have a vibrant post office service into the future. As people are paid by transaction, if there are few transactions, they will not receive adequate incomes. Many seem to live on practically nothing. It is important to guarantee a minimum wage to the operators of post offices which do not seem to be viable. We must decide whether a social service is involved and maximise [22]the number of jobs that can be done through a post office. The Government did that in the past and was been able to direct payments to be made.

It has been contended that 20 cent or 30 cent is saved per transaction by putting payments through banks, but the recipient pays 30 cent at an automated teller machine to take money out. It is a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I make a plea to reverse the decision.

The Minister should also talk to the Minister for Transport about the rural transport scheme and continue to consider all-Ireland transport networks.

As Deputy Perry said, gross and net salaries are very different and impact on how far one’s payments go and on the numbers eligible for medical cards.

Dr. Devins: Information on Jimmy Devins  Zoom on Jimmy Devins  I thank Deputy Keaveney for sharing time. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the very important Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005.

The legislation is necessary to implement the measures announced in this year’s budget. As every Member will recall, the Minister for Finance signalled in his Budget Statement dramatic changes and increases in social welfare payments. As I have said before, many people have benefited from the extraordinary growth which has occurred over the past five years. Increased prosperity is evident across Ireland in the number of new houses and the record level of commercial activity. More people than ever are working and the economic statistics indicate that ours is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. It is true, however, that not all citizens have benefited to the same extent from economic growth. It is a fundamental aspect of democracy that a state must look after the less well-off. The social welfare system is one of the methods which allows those in need of help for whatever reason to avail of it.

The changes the Bill introduces are most welcome and will be of great benefit to those availing of various social welfare benefits. I echo Deputy Haughey’s plea last night and ask the Minister to consider ways to simplify the social welfare system. There are many different benefit titles including “disability payment” and “invalidity pension”. It is rather confusing and perhaps there might be some method by which it could be simplified in the future.

The €10 increase in child benefit for first and second children and the increase of €12 for third and subsequent children means child benefit is now €141.40 per month for each first and second child and €177.30 for each third and subsequent child. Child benefit is generally recognised as one of the best, if not the best, method of helping families. It shows this Government is indeed family friendly.

The modern family exists in many different units. The traditional model of two parents married to each other is still enormously prevalent. However, it is important to recognise there are [23]other family manifestations, such as lone parents or couples cohabiting, in which there are children. The State has a duty to cherish all children equally. By paying child benefit, the money can be used by the parent or parents, as the case may be, to ensure the children get all they need.

I note, with some interest, the statements by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, with regard to his policy to help reform the lone parent payment. He has obviously brought his reforming zeal with him to this most important Ministry. Many lone parents are caught in the poverty trap and must forgo educational or work opportunities. Rearing a child when two parents are involved can be difficult at the best of times; doing so on one’s own is many times more difficult. All parents are aware of how stressful it can be when one’s child is sick, for example. How much more difficult must it be when a parent, for whatever reason, is on their own? It is much more difficult not to have a spouse or partner with whom one can discuss issues regarding one’s child or to have no one to turn to for help when one’s child is ill. Many lone parents make great sacrifices in terms of continuing their education or getting involved in the workplace. With the growth in the economy, many mothers have returned to work. However, in the case of lone parents this is not easily done. As a result, many lone parents are forced to abandon education or the workplace in order to look after their child.

For these reasons, I welcome the commitment given by the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to examine the issue. A group which is currently examining these issues will make its report early in the second half of this year. The group includes representatives of six different Departments and the Minister has indicated he will give top priority to its findings. I look forward to the debate and the resulting actions which will follow publication of the findings.

Lone parents do not choose to be in their situation. It is important to allow all lone parents the opportunity to progress in education or the workplace if they so choose. They must not be forced back into work or education, but given the choice. In that regard, it is quite startling to discover that more than 50% of lone parents have not progressed beyond primary level education. However, that is a debate to which we will return later.

I welcome the increase in the respite care grant, which will come into effect from next June. The grant will increase from €835 to €1,000 per annum, and will be payable in respect of each care recipient. In the past, carers have had little or no recognition for their superb work. It is difficult and places enormous demands both on the carer and immediate family. In many instances, by opting to provide care for their family member, a carer is helping keep somebody out of long-term institutional care which can be of great [24]cost to the State. Following yesterday’s Supreme Court judgment, it will probably cost a lot more.

The Carers’ Association argues the financial saving to the State is considerable, and I agree with this. The argument deals only with the financial side and does not take account of the great benefit to the person who is being cared for in terms of the love, respect and happiness that ensues from being in one’s own home. Most, if not all, people wish to be at home, but can only remain there because of the commitment of the carer. As a result of the improvement in respite care grant qualifications, approximately 33,000 people will receive the grant this year.

I welcome the Minister’s undertaking that he will examine section 6 in more detail on Committee Stage. The linking up of access to the carer’s benefit with previous employment is complex, and I look forward to his proposals.

The proposal to increase the amount of capital disregard for the purposes of means tested social welfare schemes from €12,600 to €20,000 is most welcome. It will have many positive benefits, not least in regard to the issue of SSIAs, which will start to mature in the near future. The Bill gives effect to the changes not already covered by the Social Welfare Bill of a couple of months ago. It maintains the progressive thrust of this Government and especially the forward thinking of the Minister, Deputy Brennan. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005. I stated on a previous occasion that I welcomed the €14 per week increase for recipients of the long-term rates of welfare payments and the €12 increase for pensions. However, this is the very minimum that people could expect to receive, given the finances available to the Minister of Finance at the end of 2004. For example, tax receipts for last year were €1.7 billion above expectations. Many of the increases did not meet the expectations of the various groups working on the ground on a daily basis with vulnerable people.

The media would indicate there was a €12 to €14 increase in pensions. I received a telephone call yesterday afternoon from a constituent who receives a pre-retirement allowance and whose wife is on an invalidity pension. He was informed that his increase for the coming year would be 30 cent per week. The Minister should look at that situation, because these people must live in the same environment as the rest of us.

We are one of the richest countries in Europe. However, are we an inclusive country? The test of this is how we encompass the most vulnerable in our society. It is a cause of great concern that significant minorities still do not have the basic necessities to live on a daily basis, such as food or clothing. The increase in relative poverty and the widening gap between those on welfare and low incomes and the remainder of our society reflects badly on many of the policies and legis[25]lation enacted by this Government in recent years. Almost 800,000 of the population are below 60% of the median income and are experiencing basic deprivation. The increase of €14 is unlikely to drastically change the lifestyle of a person living on €148.80 per week who has no immediate prospect of securing a job or a local authority house. Having listened to the contributions by Government speakers, it seems they are not living in the real world. I am confident that they will get a rude awakening when they knock on doors during the two by-election campaigns in Meath and Kildare North over the coming weeks.

The increases provided for in this Bill amount to approximately €2 per day, a sum one might often throw into a collection box as a contribution. Since 1 January 2005, increased rents for local authority houses have impacted on those fortunate enough to be accommodated in this manner. The increases will amount, at least, to €1.60 per week, on top of which people will have to endure an ever-increasing range of stealth taxes, including price rises for fuel, food and ESB charges to name but a few. We have a relatively low-tax economy but our stealth charges are among the highest.

This year, for the first time, many older people, welfare recipients and low-income earners have been hit by an additional charge in the form of waste charges imposed by local authority county managers. This charge is unfair and represents a hardship for people in these categories. I have no difficulty with waste charges in context but it is unfair to impose them on people who are unable to pay. The Labour Party believes that a national waiver scheme should be introduced. It is most unfair that people whose waste is collected by a private operator have no waiver facility, while local authorities which retain waste collection in public ownership provide a waiver scheme on grounds of hardship. Such local authority waiver schemes may vary but at least they are available.

My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, introduced the Labour Party’s Private Members’ motion on the national waiver scheme on Tuesday. The motion, however, was voted down by the Government parties last night, which was a disgrace. Deputy Gilmore outlined how such a scheme could be administered through the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

In its pre-budget submission, the Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament stated:

The Senior Citizens’ Parliament is calling on the Government to introduce a national waiver system similar to the one which used to operate [26]in Dublin City Council. It operates in my area of Fingal County Council where people who are not liable for income tax receive a waiver. The Minister and his Department should examine such a mechanism. It would be realistic to introduce a scheme to cover the groups of people to which I referred earlier. Alternatively, tax credits could be made available for those working on low incomes. A range of issues could be used to deal with this matter, so I implore the Minister to examine the options. Before the year is out, he should try to introduce a scheme to bring fairness to people in need, particularly the elderly and those on low incomes who have not been able to avail of a waiver for waste collection charges in certain areas.

In November 2003, the then Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, introduced the so-called “savage 16” cuts. These individual cuts caused, and continue to cause, widespread consequences for welfare recipients and people at work. One of the cuts discontinued the half-rate unemployment benefit for those in receipt of a widow’s or widower’s pension, or one-family payments. However, it was fully rescinded by the Minister shortly afterwards following unrelenting opposition pressure in the House and in the media by widows’ and lone parents’ groups. I must acknowledge that some Fianna Fáil backbenchers also supported us on that point and the Minister then relented.

When Deputy Brennan became Minister for Social and Family Affairs, I got the impression, having read the newspapers, that he intended to rescind the remaining 15 cuts. It is worth putting on record the situation following the Minister’s review. As regards unemployment benefit, the underlying number of paid contributions from insurable employment increased from 39 to 52. That also applies to disability benefit and health and safety benefit, so there was no change.

Unemployment benefit payment was reduced from 390 to 312 days where a person has paid less than 260 PRSI contributions since first entering employment. There was no change in that case either.

The weekly earnings threshold to qualify for unemployment benefit was raised from €88.88 to €150. This also applied to disability benefit. To the best of my knowledge, this represented no change.

There has been an increase in the period where claims are linked with a previous claim for unemployment benefit. This is important for people who fall ill while working. Previously the period was 13 weeks but it has been increased to 26 weeks. It also applies to disability benefit, so there has been no change.

There has been a small change in the next category: the payment of a half-rate, child dependant allowance was discontinued where a claimant’s spouse or partner’s gross weekly income is over €300. This also applies to disability benefit and health and safety benefit. In this case, the weekly income limit was increased by €50 to €350.

[27]There has been no change in the social welfare allowance rent or mortgage supplement. Personal contributions were increased by €1.30 per week. As regards the mortgage supplement, where one partner is in full-time employment, both are excluded from claiming. There is no change in this case but it has been referred to the social partners’ working group. It is easy for the Minister to do that but as I have stated on numerous occasions, both to the current Minister and his predecessor, this matter must be re-examined. Given the lack of local authority housing and the fact that the number of applicants for such accommodation has tripled since the Government took office, these difficulties must be tackled. People on low incomes who wish to live together and continue working, may be in private rented accommodation. However, if one of them is working and, even if he or she is only earning the minimum wage, rent supplement will not be provided. This needs to be addressed. I acknowledge the little movement on the other cutbacks. The Minister should conduct a further review of these cutbacks to improve the lot of those affected, particularly those in low paid employment.

  12 o’clock

I refer to the role of carers in society and the manner in which the State has responded. I compliment the Minister on the improvements he has provided for in the legislation, in particular, the increase in the annual respite grant to €1,000 and the amendment to the assessment of capital means for certain assistance payments. I would have substantially increased the number of carers qualifying under the carer’s allowance and benefit schemes.

Up to relatively recently, the carer’s role has been largely defined by tradition, culture and religious factors incorporating concepts of self-sacrifice, duty and acceptance. Thankfully, this attitude has changed and carers are emerging as people who wish to care for their loved ones but who are increasingly angry about the lack of recognition, service and support for their role. Given the number of carers providing such support and the resultant saving to the State, they are still angry that more of them are not being recognised.

The entitlement to the respite care grant will be extended to persons providing full-time care. Thousands of carers provide care 24 hours a day and they are not eligible for this grant for a number of reasons. They might have an income or they might be in receipt of a second welfare payment or their spouses might have a pension from a previous employer. However, these carers provide a 24 hour service on a daily basis. Will they be entitled to the respite care grant following the changes to the scheme? If so, how does the Minister propose to advertise this and bring it to their attention that they may fall into this category?

[28]The recent article in The Irish Times by Kevin Myers labelling children of lone parents as bastards was utterly offensive, regrettable and inaccurate and it was an attack on children. I totally accept the apology subsequently given by Mr. Myers on this matter, but the presentation and tone of the article took from an issue that must be addressed. I welcome the Minister’s initiative to address this issue, although he has not given many details regarding how he intends to do so. Lone parents must be provided with an opportunity to return to the workforce and improve their educational qualifications. Many of them only have basic first level education. Generally they have one or two children and the issue of providing them with opportunities to better themselves in terms of education and returning to the workforce must be examined. The Minister will have my support and that of my party in analysing this issue. We might not reach a consensus but the issue must be addressed.

I have difficulties with the legislation. Considering the budget available, the commitments entered into by the Government prior to the 2002 general election on pensions and child benefit still have not been met. The Minister could have done more on these and other issues. We still have difficulties with the legislation and we will oppose it.

Mr. Kelleher: Information on Billy Kelleher  Zoom on Billy Kelleher  I wish to share time with Deputy Dan Wallace.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss social welfare issues, which impact on many people’s lives, including lone parents and pensioners. Kevin Myers’s article in The Irish Times did significant damage and it hurt many people, particularly lone parents and their children. Such articles do nobody a service, as they inflame emotions and stigmatise large sectors of our society. However, I acknowledge his apology a number of days later.

I welcome the Minister’s proposed review of the lone parents issue. Steps have been taken in recent years regarding the retention of the lone parent book and providing lone parents with the opportunity to enter the workplace. However, a fundamental poverty trap remains and this must be analysed in detail. Conclusions must be reached regarding how best to address it. A lone parent is often isolated in private rented accommodation or local authority housing without the support structure normally provided by a family and this has a negative effect on the ability of people to raise families.

Local authorities must recognise this and, when housing is allocated, decisions must be reached which do not result in a load of lone parents being placed in one section of an estate with two parent families placed in another section. Nobody benefits from this. Local authorities should ensure housing is allocated to a cross-section of people. They should design mixed schemes so lone parents are allocated housing beside two parent families and elderly people. For example, elderly people could assist them in child minding and provide them with [29]advice and expertise. If the current policy is pursued, many people will not have an opportunity. The Minister has acknowledged this and will address it in the review.

Whatever the review throws up, the housing policies of local authorities do not take account of varying demographics. The educational qualifications of many lone parents do not meet the modern day requirement to enter the workplace. This issue must be addressed quickly because not only will the lone parent be consigned to poverty if his or her educational standard is not enhanced, his or her children will also be consigned to poverty.

That is evident in our communities at present. I suggest that whatever schemes are put in place, incentives are provided to encourage lone parents to return to education or get involved in training schemes. When people with a low level of education become lone parents, the State should afford them an opportunity to return to education. If incentives are required they should be put in place to ensure that when children are older their parents get an opportunity to return to the workplace. People who have access to education are more likely to be in a position to find work. To date that is an area in which we have failed. Various schemes are in place to get people back to education but we have to take a more positive and proactive approach to the issue.

Child care is another matter of concern. I am amazed at how local authorities continually refuse planning permission for small child care facilities in housing estates. I am at a loss as to why they do not grant planning permission to people who want to convert their living rooms or garages to establish child care facilities for four, five or six children. The argument against giving planning permission is that the proposed developments are not in keeping with a residential environment, that they should be elsewhere. I contend that child care facilities should be available in the estates in which people live so that they have easy access to them. People without cars or a great deal of money cannot access child care because child care facilities are not permitted to be built in the areas in which they are most needed. Planning regulations are at fault in the majority of cases.

I congratulate the Minister for addressing concerns regarding SSIAs. It is a positive step that has alleviated many concerns of people on social welfare payments who have SSIAs. I welcome the increase in the disregard to €20,000.

The Minister is bringing forward a recovery of overpayments provision. Section 21 provides that the approach to recovery, from current or future social welfare payments, of overpaid amounts will be prescribed in regulations. Nobody condones people who abuse or rip-off the social welfare system but where people have received overpayment for one reason or another, there must to be some form of flexibility to take into account the means people have at their disposal. I have seen many cases where the fault for overpayment [30]lay with the Department. The recipients were unaware of what was taking place and assumed they were entitled to the money. When such mistakes are discovered the overpayment is claimed back which has led to significant anxiety and financial hardship on the recipient. I urge the Minister to introduce a flexible system that would take into account people’s concerns about their ability to pay.

The Supreme Court decision regarding reimbursements for nursing home payments may have significant implications for the public finances. I support any position the Government may take to try and secure moneys from elsewhere, other than the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We have made commitments and we should aim to distribute the fruits of the economy to those who most need it. We should closely examine accessing funding from the national pensions reserve fund on a once-off basis. The fund currently contains €11.5 billion. An extraordinary amount of money may have to be reimbursed to the families of people who were in State nursing homes. It has been acknowledged that a group of people was hard-done-by in the past and wrongfully treated. However, other groups should not be made to suffer as a result.

We should try to come up with an arrangement whereby public finance commitments would be honoured, targets for social welfare payments would be met, taxes would be kept low, while at the same time we should try and ensure we meet our commitments in terms of the Supreme Court decision. I raised this point to stimulate discussion on how we can raise the money rather than simply by increasing income tax or cutting back on spending, which would be difficult in view of the commitments, demands and needs that exist in society, especially in regard to social welfare, health and education.

I congratulate the Minister on his progress in the Department to date. He has grasped a few nettles and encouraged people into thought-provoking debate. I welcome the review of lone parent supports. While we are making some efforts to address the matter we must ensure we have a cohesive system in place that does not militate against lone parents seeking education, child care or access to the workplace when they so desire.

Mr. D. Wallace: Information on Dan Wallace  Zoom on Dan Wallace  I too pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Brennan, on the initiatives he has taken and the foresight he has shown in terms of the social welfare code. I am pleased to have an opportunity to make a brief contribution on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill.

Most financial commentators, when addressing the annual budget, focus primarily on the impact on the economy of the various decisions announced by the Minister. We hear a great deal about the impact of taxation measures on take-home pay, and the effect of changes in reliefs and taxation policies on employers and large organisations. It is important to acknowledge that the decisions taken in recent years in various budgets [31]have allowed our economy develop into one that is the envy of our European neighbours. It is equally important to acknowledge that we are in our current position because of sensible and prudent management of our finances. Those who are less well-off in society are equally affected by the decisions taken on budget day but the same level of focus and attention is not given to the impact of increases and changes in benefits to the lives of those who depend on social welfare. This Bill will give effect to many of these changes.

It has been previously acknowledged that our ability to look after the less well-off in society is directly related to the level of growth in the economy. Because of the growth levels achieved in the economy generally, and other Government initiatives, additional funds are now available to cater for this sector of the community. We have a duty to deliver on the expectations that have been created. Real and telling increases in social welfare rates should be provided to help people who are dependant on the State for income.

The budget for social welfare at €12 billion is the largest of any Department and it is vital that it is distributed in a manner that creates maximum impact for those in receipt of payments. Many organisations work to alleviate hardship among the less well-off in society and these organisations constantly articulate the needs of their clients and seek ongoing improvements in the rates of payment to ensure that we continue our aim to work towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor in society. The increase in benefits outlined in this Bill, are an acknowledgement of the role played by these organisations.

One aspect of the Bill that is especially pleasing is the significant increase in child benefit payments. This benefit is vital because it is a real support for parents and is payable regardless of the status of the parent. It allows many parents to pay the necessary child care costs associated with remaining in the workforce, while for others it ensures they have the additional resources necessary to improve their quality of life. We must continue to improve this benefit in future years. l am glad the Minister shares my view in this regard, as he has indicated to the House.

I welcome the fact that, in this his first social welfare Bill, the Minister has affirmed his commitment to carers, a sector of our community that continuously does Trojan work in homes across the country. In homes all over Ireland people are caring for family members, the elderly and people with disabilities in a compassionate way. They are doing so in a way that the State could never hope to match. They need our support for the difficult but worthwhile work which benefits the whole of society. The various provisions in the Bill will provide real assistance to carers through improvements in a variety of different measures. The Minister has also moved to allay the concerns of people with SSIA accounts that their savings might adversely affect their benefits. Under no circumstances should we place any disincentive in [32]the way of people who have shown the foresight to avail of the scheme and build up a nest egg for eventualities. The increase in the means test disregard is a significant measure because it means people can now continue to save and avail of the full maturity value of their SSIA without having any concerns about the impact on their benefits. This measure will provide important peace of mind to such people.

The second part of the Bill relates to pensions and the provision of adequate income into retirement for our current workforce. We hear a great deal about the pensions time-bomb and the fact that because of the current demographic profile of our population, we are likely to face a serious strain on our resources in future, with people living longer and the prospect of a smaller workforce having to support a larger retired population. The implications are obvious and I am pleased that the Minister identified this area as a priority in his speech. We need people to save more from an earlier age so that they will be independently wealthy in retirement. The incentives to individuals to save are quite significant with full tax relief available on contributions into the fund. We need an ongoing information campaign to encourage people to avail of these reliefs and build their own funds.

The lone parents’ allowance has been referred to and I am glad the Minister is examining this whole area. The best thing we can do is give examples to the Minister of how best he can make changes. As I have said so often at meetings of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, it is only when the anomalies in the system are brought to the notice of the Minister and his officials that they change. For example, a lady who is a lone parent with one child contacted me this week informing me that she had been advised by the Department that because she had increased her income from working, her lone parents allowance was being disallowed. She was further advised that if she worked two hours less per week she would retain that benefit. If a person is over the limit, will the Minister consider reducing the amounts by the corresponding increase? For example, if a person earns €20 or €30 more per week, his or her payment should only be reduced by that amount. The cut-off point is a disincentive. The lady to whom I refer is making great strides to provide for her child and yet the system mitigates against her.

I have also referred to family income supplement during meetings of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, as Deputy Stanton will recall. The committee was unanimous in its view of the need for the Department to carry out an intensive awareness campaign on the family income supplement. It is an excellent payment for people with low incomes who are working and yet the numbers availing of it are quite small. I appeal to the Minister to give some attention to this matter and intensify the awareness campaign to let people know of their entitlements.

[33]This Bill should be acknowledged as one which has as its primary focus the requirement to cater for the needs of those most in need in society. The various measures contained in this Bill will help to alleviate hardship, offer hope and improve quality of life for many people from many different backgrounds. It will do so through the provision of better services and a fairer sharing of the available resources. There is no doubt that these measures will make a significant impact on poverty and will directly benefit the lives of many people. I support the Bill.

Mr. Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  I wish to share time with Deputies Connolly and Eamon Ryan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris  Zoom on Martin Ferris  The details of the financial changes made across a range of social welfare payments have been well covered by this debate. I note the recognition from all sides that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has taken heed of the dissatisfaction which clearly existed among the electorate and within his party and has attempted to return Fianna Fáil, whatever about its Government partner, to a more socially responsive and caring image. At the very least, this has meant there has been no attempt to repeat some of the more blatant cutbacks witnessed in previous budgets.

A number of Deputies referred to the difficulties of navigating through the regulations governing social welfare, and I concur with Deputy Haughey who admitted that it is only when confronted with a particular case that one realises just how complex they can be and how confusing it must be for those whose entitlements depend upon understanding and satisfying various provisions.

I have dealt with a number of constituents who have lost out on their entitlements through a failure to understand or because the information was not readily at hand. Last year, I dealt with an elderly woman who had worked all her life abroad and had returned to this country. She was living on a totally inadequate income because she had not accessed the benefits to which she was entitled. In fairness to Department employees, they were extremely helpful and resolved the situation within a matter of hours. However, that situation and many others could be avoided if the system were simplified.

The Minister referred to the proportion of Government spending which is devoted to social welfare spending and to the number of people who benefit from the various schemes. However, as my colleague, Deputy Crowe, pointed out, this has not led to any reduction in the gap between rich and poor, which continues to grow. There is a message in this for us to explore adequately the reasons for it.

One of the reasons, apart from the level of direct payments, has been the failure to assist [34]people who are dependent on social welfare to escape from poverty. We witnessed a series of cutbacks in the back to work, community and education support schemes, as well as changes that affected access to child care for social welfare dependants participating in such schemes. Those cuts continue to have an effect on people who were forced to give up schemes that held out some promise of their being able to enter full-time work or education.

I recognise that the Minister has attempted to undo some of the damage done by introducing changes to the back to education scheme and I urge him to reduce further the required qualifying period. The assumption must be removed that people attempting to enter education are motivated by a desire to avoid work. Surely their acquiring new educational and work skills will be cost effective in the long run in providing them with the requirements to attain work and cease being dependent on social welfare.

The same thinking should also be applied to support payments for those re-entering employment. The Minister has introduced changes to the one-parent family support and I urge him to extend it. Again, as with the educational grants, this should be examined not as a means whereby people might get something to which they are not entitled, but as a support mechanism to assist them in their transition to full-time work.

Much of the difficulty with such supports is that they often apply to people in part-time or low-paying jobs and thus, whatever social welfare benefits are available, they become an essential part of providing people with an adequate income. That reflects not on the State but on employers who pay inadequate wages. Nonetheless, the State can play its part by increasing the minimum wage to the level proposed by the trade union movement. Sinn Féin concurs with that.

There is a range of other issues which the social welfare system can help to address, many of which were highlighted in the recent report of the Tallaght west childhood development initiative which showed that high levels of social welfare dependence and all the income factors that involves are coupled with poor inadequate housing and educational deficiencies leading to anti-social behaviour and crime.

Right-wing commentators who rail against creating a dependency culture have a point in that no one should have to spend his or her entire life existing on what is barely a subsistence, which is what social welfare is. The way in which to break that dependency is not for the State to drastically cut such provisions, which I accept is far from the Minister’s objective, but for the State to target schemes in a way that will allow people to use State benefits as a stepping stone to work, education and community improvement, which will pay dividends in the long term.

This is not the sole province of the social welfare system. It will require input from those responsible for housing, policing, education, job creation and so on. It will also require a real com[35]mitment on the part of the State, not merely to maintain people on a low level of subsistence, but to pro-actively set about creating a society in which, apart from those who are obviously unable to support themselves without State support, most people are given the opportunity to fulfil themselves through work.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  I agree with Deputy Kelleher that the whole issue of where and how child care can be provided has been over-regulated. It will put out of business the motherly neighbour who provides care for one or two families and who is not providing the service from a cash driven point of view. There is an emphasis on making the child care issue a commercial and clinical entity. I am not sure it is heading in the right direction.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which provides for a number of outstanding measures introduced in the 2005 budget, the consequent changes in the social welfare code, which will come into effect in 2005, and the changes to the Pensions Act 1990. The child benefit increases announced in the budget are provided for in the Bill. These were relatively generous increases of between €10 and €12, which must be acknowledged. However, there is a degree of catching up to be done in regard to child benefit if we are to get back into synch with the lofty aims of An Agreed Programme for Government 2002. This programme undertook to complete the Government’s programme of multi-annual child benefit increases, which had already fallen into arrears by the 2002 general election. The manifesto also undertook to ensure there would be no returning to the days of minor and occasional increases. However, with increases of €8 and €6 in respect of the 2003 and 2004 budgets, the arrears have continued to mount. This year’s increase should have been doubled if we were to get back on track. Child benefit is vital in assisting parents, particularly mothers, with their household budgeting. It is sad to see the slow rate of progress in regard to something as important as child benefit.

Improvements in disability benefit is one aspect of the recent budget which could be termed the most disability orientated budget ever in its provision of multi-annual envelopes of additional expenditure. However, the disability movement is underwhelmed by the improvements in the budget. It is virtually unanimous in its view that it is all too little too late. The disability provisions, which confer conditional rights in regard to services, has only served to compound the position. The State can opt out of providing services if it has not got the finance to do so. When money is tight the weakest suffer. Child care and respite hours will be cut back, which is one of the serious drawbacks when money is tight. It is undoubtedly true that the disabled received a raw deal from successive Governments. They have been patronised and discriminated against, and generally thrown a few [36]crumbs. Nowadays the disability movement is much more militant and organised. There is an open revolt because of what it sees as an utterly inadequate and insulting disability Bill. Any Government that fails to defer to the aims and objectives of the disabled will do so at its peril at the polls.

I accept the Minister is well disposed to improving the lot of disabled people. I welcome the proposal in section 8 of the Bill to introduce a means-tested payment of up to €35 per week for persons resident in institutions. Prior to this, most residents in institutions were precluded from receiving the disability allowance, and the Minister’s recognition of this is to be commended. It will give them a sense of independence. It will also give them a sense of dignity and power to be able to purchase items they might require, which is welcome. There is no doubt that during the peak years of the Celtic tiger economy only a tiny proportion of benefits percolated down to the weakest and most vulnerable people in society. The emphasis on disability in budget 2005 represents the first effort to set this right and to treat disabled persons with equanimity.

Improvements in the respite grants scheme are heralded in section 7 of the Bill. The respite care grant is being increased from €845 to €1,000 in respect of each care recipient. Respite care offers the families of children or adults temporary relief, enabling them to recharge their batteries. Respite care gives families a welcome break from the constant physical and mental strain of caring at home on a full-time basis for children or adults with physical or intellectual disability. These people provide an invaluable service to the State and the service should never be threatened. A grave funding crux has arisen in the north east region of the newly established Health Service Executive, which threatens the future of respite care at St. John of God Services, Drumcar, County Louth.

In February 2003, after several years of under-funding, there was a tripartite agreement between the Department of Health and Children, the North Eastern Health Board and St. John of God Services. It was agreed that an additional 94 full-time nursing staff would be required to maintain services, including respite services, at the current basic level. Funding for more than 30 nursing staff was provided with no sign of funding for the additional 64 staff who were regarded under the tripartite agreement as being absolutely necessary to maintain the basic level of services. Respite services at St. John of God’s, Drumcar, face imminent closure in the next few days unless the Government rescues the services immediately. The closure of this service would be an absolute tragedy. The St. John of God Order has performed heroically. It has dipped into its own budget to the tune of €1.2 million to try to save the respite services. I have no doubt the Minister will agree that this position is unsustainable for the order, which has reached the end of its tether. The problem is that the weakest will suffer. It is the easiest group to target when resources are [37]scarce. The Government’s response to this crisis will be a measure of its commitment to the maintenance of respite services.

I call for the immediate implementation of the remainder of the 2003 tripartite agreement to maintain the essential services for disabled persons and their carers.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I welcome the Minister, my constituency colleague, to the House. I have not had a chance to speak to him in the Chamber since he took up his new office. It might be his last office for a while because the intention on this side of the House is to give the Minister, who has held various ministerial offices in recent years, a well earned rest following the next election. We intend to have a real change of Government which will be helpful and necessary for our democracy.

Mr. O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Deputy can dream on. Fine Gael does not want him.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I would encourage him in his last two years in office to be radical, given that he will have a chance to take a break after the next election. In his new brief he should seize the opportunity to make a real difference. Some people welcomed the moderate increases in social welfare contributions, which was a pleasant change to the tenor of previous budgets. Given the state of our economy, he now has an opportunity to be radical and to use his Ministry for a process of real social change rather than just a continuation of the current system which, as Deputy Ferris said, provides a mere subsistence. It does not encourage, help or support people to grow and develop. I suggest that he should consider introducing the basic income theory, about which the Green Party has been talking for 20 or 25 years. There are various ways in which it could be introduced. The concept is that such an income strategy would free people from social dependency. It would allow people to work part-time rather than policing them to ensure they are not doing certain things. It would liberate people to express themselves through work in a full employment economy. Also, the concept of basic income contains a fundamental truth in that caring work in our society, which is not paid and does not have a monetary income from the marketplace, is valuable and important and should be recognised and valued.

The modest increase in the numbers who might apply for carer’s allowance — perhaps 2,000 to 2,500 people — is welcome. However, we must consider a broader perspective as to what caring is and where such allowances might apply. An area the Minister could aim to include is that of parenting. A two year old child is helpless and needs care. While Romulus and Remus may have survived with wolves as parents, a young child cannot. The caring work of parents is important and needs to be supported with various types of supports. For example, a young parent on his or [38]her own or a parent with a child with a disability would need particular support, and a parent taking a break from a career structure and perhaps working part-time would also need support. It must be recognised that such roles are caring roles which benefit society and have a value. As we have individualised the tax system, which works and is just and correct, we must also consider the other side of the coin and individualise the social welfare system. We must recognise that those engaged in such caring are doing important work which is valued.

This is the Minister’s job and his radical task. The Green Party will set out its proposals in the next year or two, certainly before the general election, to highlight a principle it has set out for the 22 years since the foundation of the party, namely, that of a completely different and radical social welfare system. The Green Party will carry out its task. Will the Minister to do the same and bring the necessary measures into effect? Otherwise, we will have to do so when we are in office, hopefully in two and a half years.

With regard to the principles governing how that is pursued, we must give parents the choice as to what is right for their children. Different circumstances arise. For example, some will need to return to the education system, some will decide to stay at home as their role and contribution to society, and community care systems will need to be set up for those for whom it is right to work full-time. They should be supported and helped by the State because this type of contribution has built our economy and society, and helped it to develop in the way it has.

If we do not recognise this, in a relatively short period of 20 years when another generation comes through, we will pay the cost. While some will tell the Minister we cannot afford to widen the concept of the carer’s allowance, I contend that to be radical we must take the long-term view, which is that we cannot afford not to do it. Otherwise, we will end up with a society in which the social capital is spent.

We have a well educated, flexible, competent, English-speaking workforce, as well as other attributes such as low tax. Every employer coming to Ireland, such as Yahoo last week, asks why this is so. Part of the reason is our caring society. However, if we follow only the interests and etiquette of the market, we are in danger of losing that asset and its value. The Minister’s job is to set up the radical structures that recognise the various caring roles that exist and provide real support for them.

Mr. O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  I wish to share time with Deputies Callanan and Fitzpatrick, by agreement.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Kirk): Information on Seamus Kirk  Zoom on Seamus Kirk  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  I am happy to share my time with my colleagues, one from the north side of Dublin city and the other from Galway. I will [39]bring a view from Tallaght, if I can. I could not hope to be as entertaining as Deputy Eamon Ryan. I note his panic in regard to the next general election. The election is approximately 800 days away and his prospective coalition partners will not even talk to him about it. I do not know why he should panic at this stage but perhaps that is the nature of politics.

I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Brennan. Whatever other colleagues may say, he has always done a tremendous job in Government. Moreover, in his role at the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the past 141 days, he has shown a desire to work with and listen to colleagues. His pronouncements in recent days show that the Minister has an open mind and open heart in regard to the issues of concern. His response and reactions are indicative of his attitude. I do not say this only because we share a constituency boundary but because I am a long-time supporter of the Minister and what he is trying to achieve.

I am never afraid to refer to my constituency, Dublin South-West-——

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  We noticed.

Mr. O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  ——-which embraces Tallaght, Firhouse, Greenhills, Templeogue and Brittas. Tallaght is fortunate to have tremendous social welfare services and probably the finest social welfare office in the country. If anyone wishes to challenge this, I am prepared to visit offices in his or her area. A tremendous job is being done in Tallaght and its services are first class. I am always happy to record my appreciation of the Department’s efforts and staff in that regard. As a Fianna Fáil backbencher, I am happy to acknowledge that the pressure on social welfare services has decreased in recent years because of the great progress made in Tallaght in regard to employment. However, we must continue to press for improvement.

I would not state that every measure in the Bill is correct, although I am glad it deals in a positive way with the issues of child benefit, carer’s benefit, the respite care grant scheme and the disability allowance. As a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and secretary of the Fianna Fáil policy group on social and family affairs, I was never afraid to say to the Minister and previous Ministers that we must continue to consider these schemes in a caring way, as we do.

I support the points of other speakers in regard to care schemes. When my elderly father was ill for some time, my sister carried on that role and I saw what she did. In my constituency work, I meet many people who make a similar case to me. I am glad the Minister has an open mind on helping carers, which I know he will continue to have.

There is great pressure on the Minister in regard to social welfare benefits and services, as [40]will always be the case. Whether the economy is good or bad, we must always look after those in need. I am glad the Minister is considering this area. I am not afraid to say to the Minister that there is much talk in the community in regard to child care issues. The Minister, in his remit as Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his wider remit as a member of the Cabinet, will be aware of the need for us to respond in that regard. I hope he will continue to give this issue the attention it requires.

Other issues are related to his Department, including travel passes, an issue I have raised during Dáil and committee business. The Minister knows I have an interest in this area. While my constituency has a very young population, it has an ageing population. Many elderly residents tell me of their need for all-Ireland travel passes, which is an issue close to the Minister’s heart. An issue also arises when elderly people travel to other jurisdictions, particularly the UK. They look with envy on the system there. Consideration should be given in this regard.

While I do not want to confuse the agenda by raising too many issues with the Minister, as I go about my business in my constituency I hear discussion of free benefits for the elderly, including free television licences. This is welcome but some ask whether they can be helped with the exorbitant costs charged by television provision companies. I do not want to give NTL any more grief than I need to, although I am never afraid to do so. I do not want to go home tonight and find that Sky Television is knocked off. However, the Minister should understand that an issue is involved and that people talk about it.

I will talk about the issues raised in recent days regarding lone parents and single parent families. The Minister is on the right track in his approach. People come to my weekly advice clinics with all sorts of problems, principally regarding housing and social welfare. In my 15 years as a public representative and particularly since I became a Dáil Deputy, I have received many social welfare queries. Many young single parents plead with me with regard to how their benefits are dealt with, and the restrictions on them, when they wish to return to work or education. That is an issue in my constituency and probably in all others. There are people in this situation who want to better themselves, get back to work or consider further education. They find that the system is restrictive. If they try to move on and better themselves they are faced with changes in their benefits. This is a particular difficulty for people who have moved out of the family home and are in rented accommodation, drawing rent subsidies and so on.

It is not easy to deal with this issue and in fairness to the Minister, he has been quite brave in his recent statements. I applaud his efforts to understand and appreciate the issue, which I know he does. He told us in the Dáil debate, to which I listened carefully, that he has visited other jurisdictions, talked to other Ministers and looked at these issues. They will not be easy to [41]deal with but solutions must be found. We should help people to move on, to better themselves and create a better family atmosphere for themselves. The Minister is on the right track and he will get great support in communities across the country if he pursues these issues and bravely grasps the nettles. In recent days, people have told me they are impressed with how the Minister is making his announcements. They have asked that those families who have already made decisions on handing back their benefits and moving into relationships should not be forgotten or set adrift.

Nobody suggests what the Minister is trying to achieve is easy, but he will have strong support in communities across the country if he turns out to be the Minister who finally tackles the problem. I listened to the Minister on the radio recently making the point that he is not merely trying to save resources, which is always a good idea, but he is sincere in attempting to deal with this problem. I wish him well in that regard. I applaud the Minister’s efforts regarding this Bill and I support it.

Mr. Callanan: Information on Joe Callanan  Zoom on Joe Callanan  I congratulate the Minister on a very good social welfare Bill. It is what we would expect from a caring Galway man.

The social welfare budget this year is more than €12 billion, the largest spending allocation of any Department. It means that for every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2005, €1 will go to social welfare entitlements, benefits and supports. Almost 1.5 million people, including dependants, will benefit from these payments. Two out of every five people in the State receive vital welfare supports in one way or another.

I welcome the increase in old age pensions and in all social welfare payments, which have increased considerably. The increase in child benefit from 1 April of €10 per month for the first and second child and an increase of €12 per month for three or more children is very welcome. An estimated 520,000 families with more than a million children will benefit from these increases. In the area of carers, which I feel very strongly about, everyone would like to see the means test abolished. This may be possible in the future. The Minister has done a great deal for carers, especially by increasing the income disregard to €270 for a single person and €540 for a couple. A few years ago, due to a very small income disregard, very few carers qualified. That has now changed. A couple with two children on an income of €30,700 can now qualify for the maximum carer’s allowance. Accordingly, many carers can now qualify.

I welcome the increase to €1,000 in the respite care grant. This payment will be extended to all carers who provide full-time care and who are not employed for more than ten hours per week or receiving other social welfare benefits. It is estimated that an additional 9,200 full-time carers will receive this respite grant, giving carers some acknowledgment of the great work they are doing. The Oireachtas committee on social and [42]family affairs recommended that widows and widowers who are carers should get half-rate carer’s allowance payments on top of their widow’s or widower’s pension. It felt that widows and widowers who are also carers are getting a bad deal as they do not qualify for carer’s allowance because they are not allowed two social welfare payments. I ask the Minister to consider this situation and see what he can do for these carers. It seems unfair, if one has one carer with two children and an income of €30,700 qualifying while next door one could have a widow with two children caring on a widow’s pension alone because of not qualifying for the carer’s grant.

There should be more funding to allow people to be kept in their own homes for as long as possible. Home-based subvention should be paid. This would give people the choice of remaining in their own homes for as long as possible. Currently, subvention is paid only if one enters a nursing home. I have nothing against nursing homes but people should have the choice.

I also welcome the capital disregard for the means test. This disregard will be increased from €12,694 to €20,000, an increase of €7,300. This will mean that an old age pensioner with no other income can have capital of €28,000 and qualify for full pension. These figures are doubled in the case of a pensioner couple. This will also mean that pensioners who have SSIA accounts will not be affected either. The whole capital disregard for means test allowance allows people to put aside a sizeable amount of money for their future without affecting their pensions.

Though it is not in the Minister’s brief, I also welcome the rural social scheme implemented by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. That is a very good scheme that helps farmers on low incomes.

Regarding the lone parent allowance, some such parents who go into employment and rise above a certain rate of pay have their allowance cut off completely. This should be done on a sliding scale as it is unfair to cut people off completely when they have just over the income limit allowed.

I welcome this social welfare Bill. I always believed a government that looks after its elderly and its less well off people on social welfare is doing a very good job, which would be acknowledged at any election time. I thank the Minister for a job well done.

Dr. Fitzpatrick: Information on Dermot Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Dermot Fitzpatrick  I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to the House and I congratulate him on his Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005. It is a clear demonstration of his commitment to addressing the needs of people with disabilities, their carers, children, the elderly, widowed people, the unemployed, lone parents and many others who are disadvantaged, vulnerable or on the margins of society.

The Bill continues the Government’s substantial year on year increases on social welfare [43]spending, representing an increase of almost 60% in four years and a doubling of the 1997 spend. At more than €12 billion, the budget for the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is the largest spending allocation of any Department. It means that for every €3 spent by the Government in 2005, almost €1 will go on social welfare entitlements, benefits and supports. An estimated 970,000 people on average are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments this year. Overall, almost 1.5 million people, including dependants, will benefit. That means that two out of every five people in the State are in one way or another receiving vital welfare supports.

  1 o’clock

Overall, since this Government took office, Ireland has changed dramatically, and the facts speak for themselves. The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.9 million. The rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically, from 10% to 4.3%, the lowest rate in the EU and among the lowest in the world. The number of low paid removed from the tax net has increased, and this year all those on the minimum wage have been taken out. Spending on social welfare has more than doubled, from €5.74 billion in 1997 to an expected €12.25 billion in 2005. Over the past decade, while gross average industrial earnings have increased by 71%, social welfare payments have improved by between 87% and 95% and by even more for larger families. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits such as farm assist, carer’s benefit, widowed parent grant and respite care grant have been introduced and enhanced. The social welfare increases of the 2005 budget range from more than 7% to over 10%, while inflation this year is expected to come in at 2.5%.

I support the policy of concentrating resources on enhancing the child benefit scheme. Child benefit now accounts for over 66% of child income support, while in 1994 it constituted less than 30%. There are sound reasons for that policy. Child benefit is neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents and does not contribute to poverty traps. As a near universal payment, child benefit is not taxable, not assessed as means for other secondary benefits and is payable to the primary carer, usually the mother. When account is taken of those aspects of payment, it will be seen that child benefit is a most effective child income support mechanism.

I very much welcome the support given to carers who provide a valued and worthwhile service. Everyone in this House and in society generally knows the commitment and sacrifice involved. With more people living longer, carers play a vital role in providing qualify-of-life supports. Another fact also sometimes overlooked is that many of the carers are now becoming old age pensioners themselves. They are caring for very elderly [44]parents; it is not unusual now for people to live into their 90s. They require — and, if in reasonable health, should be entitled to — care at home. I welcome the Government’s support in that matter.

Regarding old age contributory pensions, I raise the matter of women who had to leave paid insured employment on their marriage. Many of those women now find themselves short of the necessary average yearly contributions to qualify for an old age pension in their own right. Will the Minister examine the situation in which those people find themselves with a view to giving them a pro rata pension commensurate with the stamps that they paid or the social welfare payments that they made when in insured employment?

It would be remiss of me not to thank the staff of the Department, who carry out their duties diligently and with great good humour and courtesy, something that I have found throughout my political career.

Dr. Cowley: Information on Jerry Cowley  Zoom on Jerry Cowley  I am glad to speak on this Bill, which is a little like a curate’s egg, having both good and bad parts. There are many good things in it. The changes to the carer’s allowance and carer’s benefit are very welcome. The removal of the situation where a person is caring for two people but cannot receive the grant in respect of both care recipients is also extremely welcome.

There are many good things in this regard but the difficulty is that the benefit is still means-tested. Often carers are older people looking after another older person, for example, their life partner. There can be situations where carers look after people in great need of care and the carers themselves are often those who seem to lose out compared with where they would be if they were not doing that job, which the State could in no way take over. It is a mark of the strong campaign by the groups Caring for Carers and the Carers Association that there have been such changes, and I welcome what the Minister has done in that regard. I hope that it will continue.

If the means test situation had been removed, a person caring for someone could be assured of the allowance. The other anomaly, which we see every day, is that people who get one social welfare allowance cannot receive another. That is a major problem that I see all the time. People care for older people at home where, without their help, the people in question would certainly be in institutions.

Sometimes we must ask ourselves the stage that we have reached as a society. It seems to me that we are sometimes so bogged down in systems that we may forget what they are really about. Someone involved with people, as anyone in a caring profession would be, must see at first hand the real problems that exist. It is something I believe everyone strives for, namely, to have a system that best suits the needs of the people. Otherwise, what is the point of it? Often the system just seems to take over and decides what [45]allowances or resources will be given to a person, whereas a more needs and rights-based assessment system is what everyone aspires to move towards. As a society, we have neglected people who may not have had the power base or voice they should have had. I refer in particular to those with disabilities or special needs as well as to the older population.

Everyone knows that our population is getting older, something that has happened elsewhere in Europe. I suppose that we exported many of our older people who are now in England and elsewhere. They are not drawing down the pensions they would have had they remained in this country. We have got away on the cheap. It is obvious that our pension payout is low by European standards. We should be aware that a debt is owed to our older people at home and abroad. Perhaps that should make us realise that, particularly given the Supreme Court decision yesterday, older people have been treated very badly. We owe them a debt that must be paid.

It is time for the Government to take a fresh look on a cross-departmental basis at how we support older people. Much lip-service has been paid to supporting them in the community to stay in their own home, but the translation of resources has meant that people have been unable to do that. As a general practitioner, I am only too well aware of the sad, silent migration of older people to institutions. Anything that we can do to reverse the situation must certainly be done, but that will require changes and a commitment to resources.

The sum that will be paid out owing to the Supreme Court decision is between €500 million and €2 billion. That is a great deal of money. If even a fraction had been provided for older people’s services, circumstances would be different. The same effort put by the Government parties into ensuring that there is no opportunity for older people to get their just rewards and claim back the money stolen from them should be put into legislation to ensure that they might remain in their own communities. After all, we are all getting older and we will prefer not to leave our areas and, instead, remain in our communities. If we could ensure that the same effort shown by the Government in introducing the Health (Amendment) Bill 2004 were put into rights-based legislation for older people, imagine what a wonderful society we would have. Those are not impossible tasks.

On the question of home helps, in the past people had great difficulty getting a sufficient number of home help hours. It would have been a cost effective measure to ensure people had a sufficient number of hours because it would have allowed elderly relatives to remain in their own homes and in the community. There has been a difficulty in that regard, however, and whether that difficulty lies with the health boards or the Department is a moot point. The bottom line is that resources have not been available from Government. Trying to secure an adequate [46]number of home help hours is something I and other public representatives have been engaged in on an ongoing basis, and also the provision of aids and appliances. That is an area on which we have been very remiss in terms of supporting older people in their own communities.

A sea change is required in this area and one sure way of achieving that is to ensure we put in place some type of rights based legislation. I call on the Government to address the situation with the same vigour it addressed the problem of trying to prevent the pay-back of the money owed to our older people.

People in the community have the facilities and the potential to do much important work but our system appears to favour people who want to make money out of the system. They are profit driven and non-community people. Why do our laws appear to favour those who build profit driven, non-community nursing homes rather than allow communities do that? There is great potential in communities, and awareness of the needs of older people, to engage in such projects on a non-profit making basis. The odds are stacked against communities engaging in projects to support older people in their own communities, and that should change.

The same applies to people looking for housing. I meet many people in my clinic who are looking for basic accommodation which is not available to them. If there is even a whisper of houses being allocated in, say, some new development, one spends days meeting people and making representations on behalf of one’s constituents. They all have basic but important needs and it is difficult to meet those people and know that no matter what happens, they will not be looked after. Some of them have been on waiting lists for a long time. It is time we examined that problem as a society.

There is a difficulty in acquiring land yet land is acquired for various private enterprises and so on. There are many voluntary housing associations available to build houses but there is a difficulty in getting the land. Funds are available under the capital assistance scheme where housing associations can get money but there is much bureaucracy involved in that. Also, the money being allocated is not sufficient to allow the targeted numbers to be reached. There is a major problem in that regard.

There are many measures the Government could take. This Bill is a step forward but it is insufficient. Our carers need to be supported. It is a question of being penny wise and pound foolish. The State could not possibly do the job being done by carers. The Minister has gone a long way in the Bill but he could go much further.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan): Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I thank all the Deputies who spoke on the Bill. I listened to every contribution and took careful note of the themes, ideas and concerns put forward by Deputies. It was a very constructive debate and I thank each and every Deputy [47]who took the trouble to contribute to it. It was the type of debate I hope we can have on many occasions so that we can steer the policy forward.

For the first time this Bill is called the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I did that deliberately to highlight the fact that as much as one third of the Bill deals with pensions. It is important that we put the issue of pensions to the fore in so far as we can, and this Bill does that by putting in place the IORPs directive and various regulations in that regard. I thank everyone who worked on the Bill, including my own officials who are here, the Department, the parliamentary counsel and everybody else involved. It takes an army of people to produce legislation as complex and as targeted as this Bill. Our thanks are due to all of them.

A number of themes came up over the past two days in our discussions on the Bill. It is important to remind ourselves as a nation — many Deputies used this figure in the past two days — that one third of all Government expenditure now goes on the area of social welfare. That is a substantial commitment by the taxpayer to meet our social obligations, be it to the young, the elderly or those at working age. That comes to €12.2 billion this year and is double the amount available to the State in 1997. This year, €1 billion extra over 2004 will be spent on the area of social welfare. That includes the budget figure and the natural increase in the Estimates figure. We are talking about an extra €1 billion in 2005 over 2004.

Deputies should remember also that the €14 weekly increase in the lower rate of welfare this year is the highest increase ever provided and it brings the lowest rate up to €148.80, which is an increase of more than 10%. That represents a very substantial step towards the Government’s target of bringing these payments to €150 per week in 2002 terms by 2007. We are determined to meet those targets.

Everybody points out that the best road out of poverty is employment and that Ireland has achieved the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, which is a major factor in increasing incomes and removing people from the risk of poverty and social exclusion, and strong economic growth is the best policy instrument to tackle poverty. Having said that, I am a firm believer in targeting the resources we have and targeting the action at those people who are most vulnerable and on the margins. That is what the taxpayer would expect us to do with the funds made available, which are now very substantial and amount to one third of all Government spending.

The causes of poverty are many and complex. Deputies will be well aware of the complexity of this area and tackling it is part of a national action plan against poverty, which includes a range of actions on employment, social welfare, education, health, housing, disability, equality and many other areas, including taxation in terms of the so-called working poor. I said many times and I say [48]again that tackling poverty must be done in a co-ordinated way with perhaps up to half a dozen Departments being directly involved. It is incumbent on those Departments, therefore, to work together and to have a joined up strategy under the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion so that we can eradicate poverty from our midst.

Child poverty was raised in the debate also. I pointed out that child benefit is the main instrument we use in this regard. It is also worth pointing out that between 2001 and 2005 total increases in child benefit were in the order of 65%, which is significant. Successive Governments have favoured child benefit over child dependant allowance because that form of support for children is neutral as between families in receipt of social welfare payments and those where the parents are in employment. There is no disincentive to employment built into child benefit because it is paid irrespective of whether one is employed or unemployed.

In 1994 child benefit represented 29% of the total child income support payments for a four child family receiving a social welfare payment. It now represents 66% of such support payment. It will reach 70% when the final phase of the current child benefit strategy is completed. A person would, therefore, only lose 30% of his or her child income support when he or she moves from a welfare payment to employment or in the case of single parents, when he or she moves into a long-term relationship or a better job. Successive Governments have been of the opinion that it is better to pay child benefit than child dependant allowance.

In line with the commitments in Sustaining Progress under the heading child poverty initiative, Deputies will be aware that a study is being carried out by NESC on amalgamating child dependant allowances with the family income supplement. The idea is that FIS and, in certain respects, child benefit would be pulled together to provide a unified supplementary child benefit focused on low income families. This would again be a neutral payment as between families where the parents are in employment and those where they are in receipt of social welfare.

The figure of 66,000 has been referred to on numerous occasions during the debate in respect of child poverty. I am working on trying to put in place a unified supplementary scheme which would specifically target those 66,000 or so children — there is some debate about the actual number. One of the ways to do this would almost certainly be to run with the NESC’s proposals in this regard in respect of a second tier. I look forward to obtaining the result of the study as soon as possible. If we proceed as outlined, we would be able to channel extra resources to low income families without creating a disincentive to employment. It is not fair to the people involved to have payments which act as a disincentive to employment. Everyone in this House agrees that employment, if available and chosen by a person, [49]offers the best way out of deprivation. It is incumbent, therefore, on the House and the Government not to perpetuate structures that act as a disincentive to employment or to returning to education.

I make a commitment to the House — the Minister for Finance has confirmed this — that the child benefit package will be completed in next year’s budgetary process. A number of Members pointed out that we have reached 96% of our commitment in this regard. This will be brought up to 100% in the next budget.

Much has been said about lone parents. I do not wish to revisit all the points made but it is generally accepted that one of the most effective routes out of poverty for vulnerable people in this category is through paid employment and education. It is incumbent on us to design systems that encourage them to take up employment or enter education. I spoke about that matter in public recently. It is worth reminding lone parents who exceed the upper income limit when applying for one-parent family payment that they may qualify for family income supplement. The latter scheme is designed to provide income support for employees on low earnings who have children. It helps make work pay for such employees.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  What about the level of disregards?

Mr. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I am aware the Deputy wishes to ask a range of questions in respect of such disregards and I will deal with them on Committee Stage.

It may be of assistance to the Deputy to know that one-parent family payment recipients may also benefit from the budget improvement in the assessment of capital for means purposes. This significantly increases the capital disregard from €12,700 to €20,000. In respect of the disregard of €146 per week, earnings above this limit are assessed at 50% up to a maximum of €293 per week. This depends on whether one is in receipt of the minimum or maximum level of lone parent’s allowance. Deputy Penrose is strongly of the view that increasing substantially that disregard is the best way to encourage lone parents to return to employment. We will certainly examine that matter. One must try to strike a balance in order that the Department’s funds are targeted. However, Deputy Penrose made an interesting point and I will consider it.

A number of other points were made in respect of lone parents and I have taken these on board. I am heartened by the response of the Dáil to the comments I made recently in this regard. A sane, sensible, calm and rational debate is required in respect of this matter. Nobody is threatening the income of lone parents. However, I am seeking to ensure that they have a better quality of life, better choices and more options. We can ill afford to have 60,000 of 80,000 lone parents who might be available for work not availing of the choice to do so, particularly at a time when we are seeking [50]workers to come here from other parts of the world. It is too big a resource to leave untapped, particularly if these people wish to be part of the workforce. It must be a matter of choice but we must remove the obstacles to their entering the workforce.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  When will the Minister make an announcement on this matter?

Mr. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  As the Deputy knows, it is not that easy. This is a complicated issue.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  The Minister stated that he is now playing on the left wing. He is practising with the left foot.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  It is much easier to play there.

Mr. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  It depends where the ball is.

Mr. S. Ryan: Information on Seán Ryan  Zoom on Seán Ryan  There is no point in playing on one’s own.

Mr. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  One also has to watch out for the odd own goal.

The study to which I refer is being undertaken by a total of six Departments, including the Taoiseach’s. It will be available in the middle of this year and we will then see how we can use it to move matters forward. I am interested in progressing matters as fast as possible.

A number of Deputies referred to the back to education allowance. I changed the qualifying criteria from 15 months to 12 months. I have been asked to decrease it further to nine months and, as previously stated, we will continue to examine that matter. I selected the period of 12 months because it coincides with the definition of long-term unemployment commencing at 12 months. There have been some improvements in this area.

Deputy Seán Ryan took me to task over not reversing all the so-called 16 cutbacks. We reversed five or six of them, we amended four or five to a substantial degree and I am continuing to examine the remainder to see what action might be taken. I will complete that process as soon as possible. We made substantial changes in the areas of rent supplement, crèche supplement and diet supplement schemes. For example, an additional €2 million was invested in the diet supplement scheme in the recent budget. However, I have asked the various institutes that are expert in this area to carry out a study on what constitutes a proper or normal healthy diet. It is incumbent on us to try to keep pace with best practice in this area.

I signed regulations at the end of January which comprehensively deal with a range of issues relating to the supplementary welfare allowance rent scheme. I have discontinued the six-month rule. I have also set out the circumstances in which rent supplements will be payable to those in rented accommodation who can no longer afford to meet their rents. The six months qualifying period has been removed. It remains [51]incumbent on people, however, to demonstrate that they are in need of rent supplement. A demonstration of the need for housing will be supported.

These regulations provide the Health Service Executive with the flexibility to provide rent supplements in cases of exceptional need or circumstance. The provision covers instances such as, for [52]example, domestic violence which Deputies raised with me in an earlier debate. I also remind Members of the respite care grant.

I again thank everyone who contributed to the debate. I and my officials have taken careful note of all of the points made and we will do our best to respond to them, in due course.

Question put.

[51]The Dáil divided: Tá, 67; Níl, 42.

Information on Michael Ahern  Zoom on Michael Ahern  Ahern, Michael. Information on Noel Ahern  Zoom on Noel Ahern  Ahern, Noel.
Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  Andrews, Barry. Information on Seán Ardagh  Zoom on Seán Ardagh  Ardagh, Seán.
Information on Martin Brady  Zoom on Martin Brady  Brady, Martin. Information on James Breen  Zoom on James Breen  Breen, James.
Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  Brennan, Seamus. Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  Browne, John.
Information on Joe Callanan  Zoom on Joe Callanan  Callanan, Joe. Information on Pat Carey  Zoom on Pat Carey  Carey, Pat.
Information on John Carty  Zoom on John Carty  Carty, John. Information on Donie Cassidy  Zoom on Donie Cassidy  Cassidy, Donie.
Information on Michael Collins  Zoom on Michael Collins  Collins, Michael. Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  Coughlan, Mary.
Information on Jerry Cowley  Zoom on Jerry Cowley  Cowley, Jerry. Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  Cregan, John.
Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  Cullen, Martin. Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  Curran, John.
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[51]Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Kehoe and Broughan.

[53]Question declared carried.

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