Tuesday, 13 December 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Stanton: I agree with the assertion by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs that we have a booming economy. He argued it is only just that the people who helped lay the foundations of our current prosperity are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the advances the country has made in the last ten years or so. I have pointed out areas that still remain to be addressed.
The National Disability Authority, NDA, appeared today before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and laid out a number of issues which worried committee members from both sides of the House. The NDA informed the committee that more than twice as many people with disabilities are in the income bracket termed ‘at risk of poverty’ by the EU. One in seven people with disabilities experiences basic deprivation and goes without basics such as heat or proper meals or gets into debt with regard to daily costs. The NDA argued that this was double the rate found among other adults and that the extra costs of living associated with having a disability were likely to be a factor. The authority also argued that people with disabilities were twice as likely to be consistently poor, that is, to experience a low income and basic deprivation. It argued that consistent poverty among people with disabilities remained virtually unchanged throughout the years of the Celtic tiger, although it halved for other adults between 1995 and 2001.
Many people with disabilities have talents and abilities and we should focus on these and see what supports we can put in place to encourage and help these people to gain employment. Many people with disabilities want to work. The NDA maintains that in seeking to reduce poverty among people with disabilities, the main issues for the social welfare system are promoting employment and financial independence for people with disabilities who can work, maintaining adequate levels of income for people with disabilities who depend on social welfare and assisting with the extra costs associated with having a disability.
The NDA spoke about a cost of disability payment, which the Minister for Social and Family Affairs might consider. A review of illness and disability payments schemes carried out in 2003 by a working group in his Department concluded that the costs of having a disability should be met separately, rather than through higher basic income maintenance payments, which would not be targeted at those individuals whose needs are greatest. The working group stressed the importance of meeting the costs of disability in a way that is less dependent on labour force status if people with disabilities are to be given the opportunity to participate in the workforce. The Bill and the budget have not adequately addressed this area. We should now do so because the reports, research and political will on both sides of the House and across the political divide are there. The challenge is for the Minister, whose term will probably last for at least another year, to take this on board. I know the Minister listens to arguments put to him and I appreciate the fact that he takes part in debates in this House and in committees.
I understand that the living alone allowance has been left untouched by the budget. Perhaps the Minister will explain the reason. It has been brought to my attention that many widows and widowers in their late 40s or early 50s face terrible financial pressure. The problem mainly affects widows because there appear to be more of them and it can be particularly marked for widows who did not work outside the home. Secondary benefits would be of great assistance to these people, yet widows and widowers must be over 66 years of age to access these benefits. The issue of secondary benefits for widows and widowers under 66 is not covered in this Bill but could possibly be examined by the Minister in the future. These people have lost their spouse and the accompanying financial support and could have small children to raise.
Women whose maternity leave begins in January 2006 or slightly later will not benefit from the additional four weeks. Could the Minister examine whether such women could receive this extra leave? They feel short-changed and have lobbied Deputies on the matter.
The increase in child benefit is less than the actual increase last year so we seem to be going backwards. The question arises as to whether this is related to the extra €1,000 payment for children under six years of age. The Exchequer has only a certain amount of money, which it must allocate to different areas. It is not clear whether the Department of Social and Family Affairs or another Department will administer this payment. Involving another Department will add another layer of bureaucracy. Could the Minister tell us which Department will administer the payment? He appears to have taken some credit for it in his speech, which I welcome, because children under six years are expensive. The Minister and I both know, as fathers, that in some cases children get more expensive as they grow older and expectations increase. Perhaps the Minister had a certain amount of money and decided to increase child benefit by €8.40 for the first two children instead of last year’s increases of €10 for the first two children and €12 for the third and subsequent child. He could possibly revisit this area.
Travel passes for people in rural areas are not addressed in this Bill but should be considered. These people face major problems in accessing free travel because there is no public transport available. People who live in towns or villages are within easy reach of shops but those in remote rural areas with no public transport and who do not drive face problems in reaching towns to shop. These people can avail of free travel if they can reach a bus stop or train station but the problem lies in getting there. Many people with free travel passes frequently use public transport but many others cannot. It might balance matters if people in rural areas at a considerable distance from a bus route received vouchers which they could use once or twice a month to access local hackney services.
The Minister is probably aware that private refuse collection service charges often eat away at the increases he awards. Perhaps he could discuss with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the introduction of a waiver scheme for people using private refuse collection services.
When people living in local authority houses receive social welfare increases, the local authorities sometimes increase the rent, negating the benefit of the increase. A directive from the Department stipulates that it should not happen, but we know it is happening and that local authorities are strapped for cash. The Minister is giving this money for people to live, yet the rent goes up automatically as a result of getting it. He should find out what is going on. He could write to the local authorities or contact the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It seems that various local authorities have different ways of doing this.
On 27 March 2005, the Minister indicated in one newspaper that he would like to move to a system that would replace the lone parent allowance with the more family friendly child benefit. In April, he stated in another newspaper that officials were still examining plans to replace the lone parent allowance with a more family friendly child benefit scheme, which would ease the transition from welfare to work to education. He stated that a range of options was being studied by a high level group of officials from a number of Departments who would report to him in a number of months. He also stated that the system would end where extra benefits are paid on the basis that a parent is living alone at all times. A number of similar statements were made to the newspapers.
The number of one parent family recipients being paid by the Department at 30 September 2005 was 79,937. The Department records indicated that approximately 9,600 one parent family payment recipients are in receipt of maintenance from their spouses and so on. Spouses, usually women, are being told by officials that they must take their former partners to court to get maintenance. It is very stressful to do that, especially if the relationship has broken down and they do not want any contact with each other. I ask the Minister to look into that practice. Does he agree with it or does he think it should be disallowed? Let us suppose that someone reneges on a payment. It is left to the spouse, usually a women with children who is under much stress, to try to get the money back and deal with it. There is an inconsistency with the way things are working in that area. I do not know how it can be tackled, but it needs to be done because it is causing stress for people. The Minister spoke about moving to a different system. In his speech, he mentioned that something will happen, but when will it happen? He has been talking about this for quite a while. Since he came into office, we have been raising the issue. Now is the time for action on it.
We have had no increase in the child dependant allowance and the special payment mentioned by the Minister has not come about. People on social welfare payments who are really struggling would have benefited from an increase in the CDA. There has been no move since 1992, but we have many children living in poverty.
I noted from the budget speech that the €1,000 per year payment for child care is not in anyway linked to quality. The local child care committee must be notified that someone is minding children and that is it. The function of the local child care committee is not to act as an inspectorate of any sort, just to act as an support co-ordinating group. The committee does not have the resources or the function to act otherwise. I am concerned that, at some stage, a scandal will occur where a child is minded by someone who is not capable, not qualified and should not be in charge of children. It is an issue we must take on board. In other countries, child minders are vetted for their qualifications. A scandal is waiting to happen and we will be asked why we did not put in place some form of screening for child minders. There are many people in the grey economy minding children.
The Minister for Finance also announced an income disregard of €10,000 per annum for a child minder caring for up to three children in her own home. However, if she earns one cent more than that, she is taxed on the lot. If we do the maths, we will find that she will probably mind only one child. The costs are almost €200 per week. The grey economy will continue or people will declare the €10,000 and leave the rest in the grey economy. I would have preferred to see a €10,000 income disregard, with anything over that being taxed. We should leave the €10,000 untaxed to act as an incentive.
There is an extraordinary problem with child care, which is costing a fortune. It comes back to this Bill. People on low incomes are paying the same amount of money as those on higher incomes when there are no community crèches. That causes a huge strain on parents. It acts as a disincentive to going out to work as they cannot get quality child care. A cost of over €150 per week is a massive amount of money for people. The current proposals by the Minister for Finance in this area are a huge disincentive. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs is an accountant and he knows what is involved.
No part of the child care package is linked to quality. There was no thinking about setting up a preschool system, even though it is badly needed. Most progressive European countries have a universal preschool system. The lack of such a system impacts enormously on the Department of Social and Family Affairs because people on low incomes are hit harder than anybody else in trying to cope and pay for child care. Fine Gael brought forward a document which would provide a voucher system that people could use to access registered quality child minders. The whole emphasis was to encourage people to register, to raise the standards and to move people out of the grey economy. When full-time child minders reach retirement age, how are they fixed for pensions? They do not have any. What happens if they get sick? What happens if they have children? We need to raise the quality. This Mickey Mouse measure was an easy thing to do, but it did not tackle the issue. In my view, it was a missed opportunity.
I welcome the increases provided for under the Social Welfare Bill. They are badly needed. We know the pressures that people are under and we know the costs that they have to endure, especially those with small children. At the same time, we need a strategy.
I welcome the increases for carers, but we need a family carers’ strategy. Carers, I am told, save the Exchequer about €2 billion a year. If the Exchequer were to pay for the work some 150,000 carers do, it would cost that much. Very often it is 24 hours work, seven days a week. The social welfare measures in the budget have gone some way, but we need to go beyond that. We need to start putting structures together to eliminate poverty altogether, as I said at the start. Measures need to be targeted specifically at families with small children who are suffering in silence and who are poor. Such children are dropping out of school and this is adding to the cycle. They drop out and then they are gone. They cannot ultimately get high paid employment. We know the economy is moving more towards high skill employment and people with low skills are being left behind. That will continue as the years go on. Even people with high skills will be under pressure. In India and China, for instance, today the trend is towards high skill, low pay and that is a major challenge for Ireland. We must stay awake and make sure we are not left behind in that area.
As regards the second tier child benefit, the Minister said last June he hoped some of the new measures would be contained in the budget and would go further towards addressing the blemish of child poverty. I do not believe they have gone far enough. Money for child care is for child care and money for child benefit is for child benefit and they are two separate issues. They can be blended together and it may be argued that it is a large amount of money. However, child care should be ringfenced for this purpose. People should realise that so much is for child benefit and so much is for child care. Child benefit is for food, clothes, shoes, toys and all the rest. In this day and age people’s expectations are high. A woman told me this evening about her eight year old child who has many friends in school, and they have birthday parties. Every time the woman hears of a birthday party she knows that another €20 is gone towards the child who is having the birthday. Then that child must be invited back and there is a widening circle of people involved. However, these are the times we live in and children cannot be deprived of that type of experience, though it is expensive.
I welcome most of what is in the Bill. It would be foolish not to, because the increases are good. More needs to be done, however, as regards structures. I mentioned a number of issues that the Minister should address in the time he has left. We are moving closer to an election. Perhaps in the summer or in the next Social Welfare Bill he might deal with some of those issues.
Mr. Penrose: I am glad of the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage of the Social Welfare Bill. I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for again getting his officials to brief us on the Bill. This is innovative, a novel concept and extremely useful. We appreciate the Department’s officials. They are top class and diligent as regards their presentation and very open to answering questions in that regard.
I also thank the Minister. It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge some of the increases he has given. They are along the right lines and I do not intend to be obstructive. The Minister has indicated he wants a constructive debate and I will certainly give him that. At all times the Labour Party tries to be constructive because it is closely associated with the social welfare area. I was surprised and heartened to see the Minister had taken cognisance of some of the points I made here on behalf of the Labour Party. I knew he listened, but sometimes Ministers listen but do not act. I must give the Minister some plaudits for what he has done.
One of the initiatives was very simple. Many people do not understand it, but the Minister and his learned officials certainly grasped the issue very quickly as regards the one-parent family calculation for people who take on occasional or holiday work. This used to be calculated on a weekly basis and the income disregard meant people would lose their benefits if they did occasional work of this nature. I gave the example last year of a lone parent who was getting holiday work locally with An Post, at four week intervals. Each time she had to break her claim with the Department, even though over the years the income would not have approximated to the disregard. However, it did on a per week basis and she had to break her claim. Quite fairly, the Department’s officials conceded it was not cost effective since each time such a person re-entered a claim it gave rise to an administrative cost. However, the Minister has dealt with this in the course of the Bill, and I acknowledge that and applaud him for it. It shows that sometimes matters emanating from the Opposition benches are not as woolly or as far-fetched as they might seem, even when uttered from mouths such as mine. They might sound long-winded, but they have a purpose.
Likewise as regards the carers’ report, I note he has extended the duration of the carer’s benefits by nine months, as recommended, which is useful. I know employers will not be excited about it and he probably met some resistance from that quarter. They are having their own problems, however, so they should be happy the Minister is only extending it by nine months. He has also dealt with the number of hours a recipient of carer’s benefit may work before qualifying for the respite care grant. That was particularly important. It might not sound much, but ten to 15 hours is particularly useful as the basis for a respite care grant, particularly in the farming community. The Minister is probably reaching the stretch-off point at this stage. Nonetheless, it is important to deal with the issue now, and I acknowledge and applaud that change. As the author of that report, I acknowledge he has taken cognisance of some of the points we made.
I have to speak on behalf of the Labour Party and its role in advocating various matters. The Labour Party’s objective is very clear as regards any anti-poverty and equality agenda, which is, basically to ensure the benefits of rapid economic growth, high employment levels and buoyant tax revenues are used to create a fairer society. In our view, the poor and disadvantaged should benefit as much if not more than the rich from the favourable economic conditions of recent years. Unfortunately, on the basis of the previous McCreevy budgets, the Government worsened the situation for the poor while giving tax breaks and many other benefits to the rich, resulting in a very unequal society.
Despite the Minister’s achievements, which we acknowledge, we still are very low down the scale as regards the proportion of national income that is devoted to social protection. During this Government’s two terms in office the proportion of national income devoted to social protection has fallen. Ireland’s social welfare expenditure is proportionally at the lower end of national income by comparison with other member states. The norm is for wealthy countries to spend proportionally more on social protection than the poorer ones. However, EUROSTAT 2004 data show the EU average is about 25%, with Sweden at the top, spending 31.3% of GDP. Ireland is at the bottom, spending about 15%, about 18% of GNP. With low social spending the poverty trends are not a wonder. They are highlighted in various independent reports, such as that of the CSO published yesterday and the Combat Poverty Agency, and not the Labour Party. Such reports indicate Ireland has one of the highest levels of poverty among member states.
In 2003, 22% of Irish people lived in relative poverty, compared to the EU average of about 15%. Over 900,000 adults and 240,000 children were living in poverty. Lack of investment in social protection means we have not ensured a decent standard of life for people with disabilities and carers. Women are made dependent, resulting in a high risk of poverty in old age. Lone parents are trapped in long-term poverty. This means many people are unable to reach their full potential and that is very important. The Labour Party has a vision for a fairer society. We want the social security system to be more than just a way of making weekly payments. We want to use it creatively to encourage and enable full social and economic participation. The fair society is about the expansion of real freedoms that people have a right to enjoy. It is based on the premise that every one of us is born with immense talents, gifts and possibilities, and a successful country is one that allows people to unlock that potential and make the most of that which is within them to achieve. Achievement can come in every shape and form and in every field of human endeavour and it should know no boundary of birth or background.
The Labour Party social welfare policy is guided by the challenge of reducing poverty, increasing labour market participation for all who can potentially engage in paid work, enabling maximum personal choice and freedom and encouraging and enabling self-reliance. In promoting a high level of labour market participation, the Labour Party is highly conscious of the need to balance gender equality and the objective of increasing women’s labour market participation with the need to manage the impact on the traditional patterns of care for children, older people, people with disabilities and those who are ill. Particular attention must be paid to the ways in which social security impacts on women and family choices and an effort must be made to recognise and facilitate the reality of care and family lives and the real choices that families make over their lifetime. We want to ensure that social security enables people to make positive life choices, particularly that it supports family formation while recognising the diversity in family life in 21st century Ireland.
One good example of the changes needed to implement our vision can be found in the way in which women are treated by the current inequitable social welfare system. Gender equality requires that women should have equal access to income and employment to men. The facilitation of women’s participation in employment is also a key policy to alleviate child poverty. This is particularly acute when applied to lone parents who have one of the highest poverty risks of any household type in the country — this was confirmed in yesterday’s report and was alluded to by the Minister. Their experience of poverty is related not only to the low rate of one-parent family income payments, which is now €185.10, below the 40% poverty line, but also to the relatively low rate of employment for lone parents.
One of the problems I see in the social welfare code — I have spoken out about it, for which some people have criticised me — is that it is based on the model of the male breadwinner, and that is a concern. The man generally claims social welfare for the family, including a payment for an adult dependant equivalent to 70% of the full adult rate. A total of 98% of such qualified adults are women, which translates to approximately 130,000 women. These women are not only denied independent access to their social welfare entitlements but they are also invisible in the labour market. I think the Minister will be sympathetic to my argument. In the case of lone parents, the male breadwinner model can mean losing their independent income if they form a stable relationship or if they cohabit with a partner of their choice.
The limitation rule prohibits a family from claiming two unemployment assistance payments even where they both satisfy the criteria for the payment. This means it is not worthwhile for women to sign on and register as unemployed. It leaves them poorer because up to 1 January they lose approximately €50 a week. It also means that the qualified adult is not directly eligible for many labour market, FÁS or education programmes. A couple can swap their eligibility but this still means that only one adult can access programmes to help them into work. It is a bizarre restriction in an era of labour market shortages, it is back to the old times. This rule should be shaken up at this stage. For women who secure employment, the assessment of earnings that applies for qualified adults is extremely complex and the current income thresholds have the effect of trapping women in low paid work.
Many lone parents report that the regulations stopping them cohabiting are a lifestyle restriction. They value the independent income which their social welfare payment provides and are reluctant to become dependent on a partner for economic activity. The limitation rule not only denies women an individual social welfare payment and independent income, it militates against women finding labour market support and help for getting back to work. It prevents many of the 80,000 lone parents reliant on social welfare from making positive choices to cohabit or marry a partner of their choice.
The Minister’s proposed changes are probably straightforward to right the current unfair situation and would probably be easy to implement. The Minister’s former colleague, former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, rushed on with individualisation. I thought this was a mad idea but he got his way. There is no rush for individualisation in social welfare. If the Government wishes to be consistent, there must be administrative individualisation of the social welfare system to allow women direct access to their social welfare entitlements and to an independent income. The limitation rule must be abolished for reasons of financial equity and to eliminate the relationship trap for many lone parents.
What I have said may well be of help to the Minister with a problem he will encounter next year. I acknowledge he took my advice on the one-parent family regarding the seasonal nature of the employment which some lone parents might secure. I ask him not to disregard my advice because I have given it some thought. I am aware of the legal ramifications and that we do not wish to disadvantage the formal family situation vis-à-vis the lone parent or one-parent family. My suggestion does not leave anybody at a disadvantage nor does it leave anybody open to legal challenge, which is what the Minister must take into account. I acknowledge and salute the Minister for paying attention. I ask him to take note of my argument and I do not mean to sound big-headed when I say that my advice might be of some help to him.
Child poverty is a big issue and was a central point in the Combat Poverty Agency report and representation. The Minister has increased child benefit and achieved the target so I will not be churlish. I acknowledge the Minister has a mind to merge the FIS and child dependant allowance payments but the child dependant allowance is the only payment that is targeted for children. Nothing has been done with it since 1994 but it is a crucial element of tackling poverty. The Minister should address this issue because it goes across the whole panoply of social welfare and assistance payments. Ordinary people as well as politicians and organisations are speaking about this issue. My colleague in Mullingar, Michael Dollard, is fairly expert in social welfare matters and he reports that this issue is a recurring theme among the public who feel let down at a time when the country has the resources. This is often the one definitive way of ensuring that moneys are addressed to children and I think it was missed out on.
I acknowledge our efforts to reinstate the communal fuel allowance which has been addressed by the Minister. It will return in January 2006 and I thank the Minister for listening to our questions posed at Question Time. If I want to be bleating, the €5 a week is welcome but there have been 25% increases in fuel charges such as ESB and gas. I refer to the old bags of coal which we used to throw on our backs, not those little bags which we called the poreen bags that can be carried with two fingers. If a person came out of our bog years ago with one of them, they would be hunted back into it; a person would need to come out with a 16 stone sack. I refer to a proper bag of coal weighing eight stone, worth €16 or €17.
The Minister could have doubled the payment to €18. This may sound like a churlish response, but we want those on social welfare to be compensated for the huge increases in fuel costs over the past year. The fuel allowance will still not buy a bag of coal or even the great Bord na Móna peat briquettes that we used to have.
I am inclined to laugh at the media and I do not pass too many remarks about them but I have read that thousands are better off staying on the dole after a giveaway budget. This reminds me of the case of widows. I identified the savage 16 cuts and it was only when someone spoke on the Joe Duffy programme in February that I realised I had identified that cut a long way back, in the preceding November. I had identified one of the Minister’s problems in the budget. I am sure the Minister has people monitoring what the like of us say, but I will speak out inside the House or wherever else I can. They all say that thousands are worse off.
One of the objectives of any budget must be to eliminate poverty traps, but the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has created a monster. Both Richard Curran and David Quinn, correspondents on economic and social affairs recognise this. However, I do not know how Father Seán Healy missed it. He must have been so blinded by the light of Inchydoney that he can see nothing now and everything is sweetness and light.
I am just an ordinary Joe with no great experience in these matters, but I saw the poverty trap looming. I am deeply disappointed that nothing has been done to address the anomaly whereby people who take up work often lose their rent allowance. This means people must be able to command a wage significantly greater than the minimum wage to replace the loss of the rent allowance when they take up work. The Government failed to address this employment poverty trap. The budget was on 7 December, but the newspapers only ran this story five days later. I do not have a research team but rely on what I can dig up myself and I am proud to say that I was five days ahead of the newspapers. I know there is trouble on the way in this regard.
I have spoken to many people on this issue and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, is not an answer. The Minister must ensure that people who take up work are not disadvantaged to a point where they end up losing money, up to €7,000 a year. It is time to call the RAS a household subsidy. Housing benefit may have a bad name in Britain because of certain connotations, but we should provide a housing benefit or household subsidy payment to which we should attach two conditions. We should have the type of housing subsidy required for a two or three-bedroomed house, depending on the size of the family, and this subsidy should be determined by income, irrespective of whether the income comes through employment or the social welfare system. This is important. With such a system we would get over the anomaly that has been created.
Our social policy document sets this out and I am giving the Minister a preview. It is very important that we do not allow this provision to create poverty. The former Minister, Deputy Coughlan, missed out some areas in her budget when she made the savage 16 cuts, some of which were extremely savage. This provision could be the one to implode the Minister’s budget. He may say that will not happen, but just watch this space. It is frightening for people to think they will lose all their benefits. This area has widespread ramifications and the Minister should pay it particular attention.
Another area of concern is that people in receipt of rent allowance who take up a return to education or FÁS community employment scheme lose their rent allowance if their income, up to now, is above the cap of €317.40 or the general cap for rent allowance, including the €60 disregard. A woman who came to me was in receipt of lone parent’s allowance. She missed out on school when she was young and took up the community employment scheme which offered her a return to education to develop her literacy skills for the first time in her life. However, as a result of taking up that scheme, her rent allowance was cut off. She finds this disgraceful. Other people who have seen the results of this scheme agree with me. The rules applied mean that she must lose her home or lose the opportunity to become literate. This is not a nice choice. It is an issue we must address.
We have pointed out that schemes such as back to education and back to work allowances are not discarded. It is important that all these secondary benefits are not washed out in the flood, especially the rent allowance. That allowance has already been cut. The caps on supplementary welfare allowance make it practically impossible for homeless people to access quality accommodation in the private sector. The cap is between €70 and €98 for single people as set in June 2005 and applicable to December 2006. Local authority officials, community welfare officials and charities believe people cannot rent adequate housing within these caps. I want the Minister to address these issues.
Deputy Stanton referred to the issue of widows and widowers, an issue I have been addressing since I entered the House in 1992. The secondary benefit is very important to this sector at the emotional and traumatic time when they lose their partners. These benefits are critical at this time and we must seek some mechanism to ensure they retain them. Another area of concern is that of a working spouse who is entitled to a widow’s or widower’s pension and who should be entitled to two pensions when he or she reaches 66. Such a person wonders what happens to his or her own contributions or those of his or her deceased spouse and wonders whether they have just gone into the bin. Both widows and widowers are aggrieved about this. This is another time bomb as there are 112,000 such people. The Minister may say that he cannot breach principles and make two payments. However, if people pay into a scheme, they are surely entitled to a return. Otherwise, we are taking money under false pretences. We should hand it back. Something must be done in this regard as this is an important issue.
With regard to the provision of an additional four weeks’ maternity leave, it would be better if the Minister brought the effective date back to 1 January instead of 31 March. Otherwise people will lose out. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. The Minister should try to deal with this before it becomes a major issue.
The issue of the disregard of income from the family income supplement when applying the spouse means test for the household benefit package is another area of concern. Let us take, for example, Jack and Jill — former Minister, Mr. McCreevy’s friends who had been dumped — who are married with two children. Jack receives an invalidity pension while his wife works three days a week, more than 19 hours, to supplement the family income. On the other days she cares for her husband. On the basis of his invalidity pension, he qualifies for the household benefit package. However, once her earnings exceed a certain level, formerly €220 a week but this may have changed, an anomaly arises. While her earnings were below €220 a week she qualified for family income supplement, a payment designed to make work pay. However, her income from FIS is counted in the means test for the household benefit package.
In the case that came to my attention, the couple were denied the household benefit package because of the FIS payment. They had to make a choice between the two. Income from FIS denies their entitlement to the household benefit package. This is an oversight which undermines the purpose of FIS. This may be an unintended consequence of policy, but it should be reviewed. The obvious solution is to disregard the income from FIS in the means test for the household benefits package.
I have found another area of concern. Being a lawyer, one finds everything. Many parents never claim their child benefit in respect of the last month of their youngest child. This affects parents who are on book payments. The child benefit book covers from June to May. Children over 16 attending secondary school are normally certified by their school attendance, but many people forget to collect the payment for their youngest child for the month of June in the year the child leaves school. When the child leaves school they do not realise this payment is due. An information campaign would be useful in this regard or the Minister could align the child benefit year with the calendar year, as parents would notice the missing payment then.
It would be remiss of me not to raise the issue of carers. The greatest lacuna in this budget occurred with regard to carers. I know the Minister has said that anybody over 80 years gets €200 and that others get €180 plus. In terms of payment, this is only a few euro an hour. We would all end up in jail if there were enough inspectors to uncover how we are treating our carers. We all stand indicted in this regard.
The Carers’ Association was seeking a national carers’ strategy. I take the Minister’s point that there are about 50,000 full-time family carers but the only way forward is to abolish the means test. Tinkering around at the edges is insufficient. Abolishing the means test will cost €220 million or €250 million but one should bear in mind that we have lost some amount of money through various schemes that ensured people would become extremely wealthy. We do not even know how much some of these schemes cost or how much the beneficiaries were making because some beneficiaries never had to return a penny of their income in tax. Contrast their circumstances with those of carers, who are working for 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 52 weeks per year, apart from the time during which they benefit from some respite care. We are not prepared to take the final step.
If the Labour Party is ever in Government, a fundamental policy of mine will be to abolish the means test. We have caring on the cheap and this must not continue. People who are caring are becoming more ill and infirm than those they are caring for because they are working to their wits’ end. I accept the Minister has made some improvements in respect of the disregards and increased the respite care grant by €200. Approximately 500 additional people will gain from his measures but we still have not reached 25,000, which is half the number of full-time carers. This is a major lacuna and it is very sad we have not addressed it. We must find the €250 million to do so. Given the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, is from Tullamore, that the head office of the Carers’ Association is in Tullamore and that the chief executive lives there, I would not be surprised if Deputy Cowen love-bombed the Minister for Social and Family Affairs with money for carers. He should keep the pressure on the Minister for Finance because everybody knows all politics is local, as Tipp O’Neill stated.
The Minister for Finance will have to provide the money and the means test will have to be abolished. It is costing more to administer than it is worth. Carers deserve its abolition. We need specific targets in the strategy to be implemented in a clearly defined period. Why not make this part of the new social partnership agreement, if it is ever agreed? Carers are part of the community and voluntary pillar but the social partners in the broader sense should be taking this on board.
Consider the area of disability. Deputy Stanton made a very elucidating presentation in respect of the disability payment. Much work needs to be done in this area, including in respect of the mobility allowance and disabled drivers’ and passengers’ tax concessions.
The Minister has included some very positive measures in the budget, which the Opposition sought. We are possibly on our way to unmasking the only socialist in Fianna Fáil. The Taoiseach certainly is not one but we may have found a socialist streak in the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. We in the Labour Party would have done some of the things he has done but there are areas in which we would have done much more. We would have made the rich pay more to ensure those who are more in need would benefit.
Mr. Boyle: As a member of a party with six Members in this House, I have the invidious role of responding to both the budget speech of the Minister for Finance and to the Social Welfare Bill. It is often thought the budget day speech is the hardest to make given it is a more theatrical event, but it is probably harder for a member of the Opposition to address the Social Welfare Bill as it involves criticising what invariably turn out to be the giveaway provisions of the budget. There are probably two approaches that can be adopted in this regard: one can be peevish and say the increases are not enough, or one can be more considered and say policy opportunities have been missed. My natural inclination is to adopt the latter approach but, given our position in the electoral cycle, I will try to adopt a mixture of both. I will give qualified credit to the Government where I feel it is necessary but I will also point out remaining gaps in social welfare provision in the Bill and in the Government’s social welfare policy in general.
The Government has, for a change, honoured a number of commitments from social partnership agreements in terms of arriving at where we are expected to be at this time. The €17 increase in the lowest rates of social welfare has set the scene nicely for a similar increase in what we expect will be the last budget of this Dáil. It could be said the very modest target of 30% of average household income will have been reached by the Government. Likewise, the commitment to have a maternity benefit of 80% of reckonable earnings is already a Government guarantee under the most recent social partnership agreements. However, credit must be given in respect of meeting either or both of these targets because the Government has missed certain deadlines in the past.
The most obvious of these missed deadlines concerns child benefit. The Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Finance would claim their commitment in this regard has finally been honoured but it has not as the rate has fallen marginally short. If one considers the increase committed to in 2001, which was to be achieved by 2003, index-links the relevant payment and determines what the figure should be for 2005-06, one will note the two rates of payment are approximately €5 per month short of what they should be. I do not know whether this was a mistake with the calculator or whether a conscious decision was made to go this far but no further. The Government is still marginally short of its key commitment regarding child benefit payments. Perhaps the final budget of next year will afford an opportunity to bridge that gap.
The missed opportunities in this Bill and those that remain for the Government concern important questions of social welfare policy. Previous speakers have alluded to these. I will also contribute in this regard for the benefit of the record. The central question we as political representatives need to address is not so much that of social welfare rates, important as they are in a very costly society, but that of equity in the social welfare system. We should, in the shortest time span possible, have collective agreement on addressing this question and the continued existence of dependant allowances into the 21st century.
The Government continues to boast about its policy of individualisation regarding taxation. This has had a negative social consequence in that it has forced people to work outside the home. Individualisation in taxation is meaningless in itself if it is not accompanied by individualisation in respect of social welfare. Until the two codes are aligned and every person is treated equally in respect of entitlements and rights in both areas, the poverty gaps and traps in both areas will continue to exist.
I give credit to the Minister on his commitment to overcome these poverty traps but in this regard his Cabinet colleagues need to be convinced. I refer not so much to his colleague in the Department of Finance but his other political bedfellows. That is the cross he and the country must bear. It is also fair to record that, according to the analysis produced by the ESRI, of the nine budgets this Government has produced since 1997 the first five were grossly disproportionate with regard to the less well-off, the sixth was neutral and the seventh was marginally in favour of the better-off. It is to the credit of the Government that the budgets of this year and last year were the only two in the series of nine where the gap, which was widening, began to be redressed. It is a poor Government record that in a nine-year period only two and a half of the budgets it produced were in any way aimed towards the less well-off in our society.
Deputy Penrose referred to tabloid press stories with regard to how it is better to live on the dole than to work. We should encourage some of those who work in such media to do just that. All of us, particularly those of my generation who grew up in the 1980s, knew that experience and it is not one we would wish on this generation or those who went before us, whose experience was a lot worse. The reality is that social welfare is or should be a safety net. It only covers the bare minimum, if that, in terms of people’s expectations and living needs. To insinuate that the social welfare system is a pot of gold that can be dipped into and that a segment of society is living at the expense of the better-off is a myth we need to put to bed once and for all. If that was the case, there would not be homelessness, high levels of child poverty or the poverty and welfare traps to which Deputy Penrose referred.
However much the Bill is welcomed, it is salutary that yesterday saw the release of the Central Statistics Office’s statistics on disadvantage in Ireland, which were compared with other sets of statistics in the European Union, the EU SILC survey. With regard to relative poverty, which relates to those living at 60% of average income and below, there was marginal or no movement between 2003 and 2004. Some 20% of the population are living in or at risk of poverty, and while I suspect some improvement from the 2004 statistics will arise as a result of budget 2005 and 2006, the movement prior to 2004 was painfully slow. Moreover, if one considers a deeper breakdown of the statistics, those referring to one-parent families show that 48% of people in that category live at the level of 60% of average income or below. That was a damning and shaming indictment of the nature of Irish society in 2004 and I am not confident the situation has changed significantly since then.
The Minister has a major task to convince his Cabinet colleagues that we need to move towards establishing a fairer, more equal society. It is welcome that most social welfare payments will be paid as of 1 January given that the old system meant they were paid in April, June or even October. However, a degree of slippage remains, with some payments being made in April and June. If possible, the Social Welfare Bill next year should ensure that all payments are made as of 1 January each year.
I am disappointed with the increase in the fuel allowance, although I realise the Minister must have debated the issue in Cabinet. A €5 increase, while significant in its own right with regard to the initial figure, which itself was frozen from 2002 on, does not represent the cost of fuel increases for those on social welfare. The only way in which the gap could have been bridged, as it should have been, was through a doubling of the allowance. Far from it being a non-statutory measure, as the allowance is now at the behest of the Minister and within his budgetary control, I would like to have it included as an index linked measure that would be measured in terms of the future problems of fuel poverty and fuel need that will be encountered due to problems such as global warming. If this is an initiative the Minister is prepared to include in next year’s budget, regardless of the election and whatever criticism I, as a spokesperson, will give the Government, I would be prepared to welcome it.
Mr. Ferris: The Government has again missed an opportunity to tackle disadvantage and poverty, the root and branch problems in our communities and society. While I welcome many of the increases referred to by other Deputies, when one analyses in depth the problems and poverty in our communities, these increases are superficial.
There is no strategy for dealing with structural inequalities in this budget. What we have seen are increases in social welfare but these have been offset by the absence of an integrated approach to giving people a pathway out of their situation. I refer particularly to those on the non-contributory old age pension who live in local authority housing. The increase they received in the budget has been welcomed by all but, inevitably, in the coming weeks and months their rents will be increased by local authorities due to their increased means and everything they gained in this budget will be taken back before next June. In addition, the issues of reskilling for those living in the poverty trap in working class communities and the provision of the child care necessary to allow people to avail of work have not been tackled. Despite the modest increases in third level allowances, this does not offset the problems that exist in this regard.
The budget is a typical pre-election budget. It is big on presentation and very well crafted but lacking in substance. The Government has craftily attempted to create a perception that it has spread the resources available to those most in need. However, they are spread very thinly. If one spreads butter thinly on bread, a pound will go a long way. Those in the poverty trap will remain there as the budget has not dealt with the root causes of the problem.
With regard to housing, the focus is now almost exclusively on affordable housing and shared ownership schemes. These schemes, while welcome even if under-resourced, do nothing to address the housing needs of those not working or on low pay. There is no provision for the type of building programme required to address this issue through adequate provision of social housing. The continued use of rent allowance as a substitute for social housing is a national disgrace. The only people who benefit from this are private landlords and those who have accumulated a number of houses and have their mortgages paid by the State. The onus should be on providing housing for people in need. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul recently called for the supply of a minimum of 12,000 social housing units a year, a call the Government should have listened to and tried to deal with.
The budget has been a major disappointment for people with disabilities. For years the disability sector has called for a new disability payment which recognises the additional costs and burdens borne by people with disabilities. The rate of unemployment among disabled people is disgracefully high. Many of these people are fully capable and willing to work but are kept out of employment, not by the disability itself but because they may lose State benefits when they work. This may put them in a much less well-off financial condition.
A cost of disability payment is therefore essential. I deplore that the Government has failed to address this issue and deliver on it. Will the Minister look at this as a mechanism and a means to helping people labelled as disabled, who are wonderful people and whom I view as having extraordinary abilities. They are able to continue, work and do the best they can in their communities and fight for their rights. Recognition should come from the Government in this regard.
A significant increase was required in the carer’s allowance along with the abolition of the means test. Other Deputies referred to this and I fully concur and support everybody who made such a statement. There is no recognition in the budget of the large savings for the State because of people caring for their relatives at home. Throughout the country, people provide a significant service in their homes and, in doing so, reduce a burden on the taxpayer and the State. The State has not reciprocated this or responded to these people who provide a fantastic service.
An integrated strategic approach is required. If we are to combat poverty we must link this to the educational programme. I welcome the €1.2 billion investment in third level education. However, is this not putting the cart before the horse? A recent survey in this city by the vocational education committee revealed a large disparity in those progressing to third level education directly related to social and economic backgrounds. This may suggest that this money could be used more productively in the pre-third level sector.
In every constituency with working class areas, many young people drop out of the educational programme at 14, 15 and 16 years of age. There is high unemployment in these areas as well as a high incidence of single parents. One would assume that if a strategic approach is to come about, this problem in the communities should be dealt with. Young people should be kept in school and parents who wish to resume their education should be provided for and aided to develop their abilities.
The failure to provide adequate funding for a drugs task force is another area where there is a lack of real interest. The failure to make up the shortfall in the emerging needs funds makes up only a small part of the picture. Even more significant is the failure to make funding available to the 14 task forces to implement new plans. The last plans were drawn up five years ago, and in the time since patterns of drug abuse and associated issues have changed dramatically.
There has been much comment on the commitment shown to child care in this budget. The sum of €29 per week for the average family is simply too little, too late, and this is not to mention that childhood apparently now ends at the age of six. A national payscale for early childhood care and education workers is required. We also need to establish a single accredited body to inspect, evaluate and register all early childhood care and education providers and to ensure that the highest standards are achieved and maintained. As it stands, the most common child care providers are still dependent on community employment workers, and there has been a failure to provide appropriate training. None of these issues has been addressed.
I welcome several aspects of the budget where there has been an attempt to provide extra funding to people in need. Unfortunately this is spread so thinly that there will be no discernible effect on the major problem in our communities, the poverty trap. I cannot see people finding their way out of this with this budget.
Dr. Cowley: I am pleased to speak on this matter. The Minister for Finance has carried out many good actions in the budget. Unfortunately, free travel for emigrants on their holidays has not yet been delivered by this Government. From feedback I have received, I believe it to be very important. The task force report on our emigrants highlighted this issue as something near and dear to the hearts of our emigrants. When these people return here on holidays, they feel they would belong more if they had free travel. The Minister should examine this issue again, although I know he previously precluded the possibility on the grounds of EU law because he cannot discriminate against other citizens. The point is there is a common travel area which is recognised. I hope the Minister will continue to work at this matter, as it is extremely important.
I acknowledge the contribution made by the Government towards the Safe Home programme, which is the national repatriation organisation in Ireland. The Department of Social and Family Affairs, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs, must be recognised as having given good Government support. Several hundred emigrants, who would not otherwise have been able to return, have been brought back to secure accommodation throughout Ireland.
A disappointment in the budget concerned the defined revenue funding scheme. This was for people in social housing and was an issue that was being examined by the Government on a cross-departmental level. I met the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, together with Donal McManus of the Irish Council for Social Housing, and it was disappointing that only €500,000 was allocated for 2006, with an equal amount for 2007. That money is for approved sheltered housing schemes. The amount granted for last year was €428,000. It had been calculated that €2.5 million would be needed this year, and €500,000 is far short of this.
This gives the wrong message to communities. Although I recognise the existence of home care packages etc., the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has given the wrong message in that she has put €28 million more in funding into supporting profit-driven and non-community nursing homes. That total is more than €140 million now. The Government should be doing more for not-for-profit and community focused sheltered housing initiatives which keep people in the community. There are 7,000 sheltered housing and group home units, and the funding would amount to €1.40 per week, which is very little when one considers the wonderful work being done in supporting people in their own community. It would be best to be in one’s own home but sheltered housing helps when this is not possible.
The wrong message has been given out to the voluntary housing associations which do good work. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs may wish to support the development of sheltered housing but the opposite message is being given out. The Minister should have a word with his colleague in the Department of Finance, and the issue of the defined revenue funding scheme might be addressed in the Supplementary Estimates. People should be allowed to stay at home; otherwise frail and elderly people are being driven into profit-driven non-community nursing homes. People would much prefer to be in their community with their friends and families. I welcome the home care packages, which are a positive development and are a step in the right direction. However, the Minister for Health and Children has missed a golden opportunity to recognise the good work done by voluntary housing associations.
The capital funding limits for social housing have not been raised. There has been no increase in the amount allowable per unit since 2002. This is a mistake which has stunted the growth of sheltered and voluntary housing. There is an immediate need to increase the capital funding limits for social housing. This would be a clear statement to people involved that the work being done is valuable. It would also signal that the Government agrees with what these people are doing and wishes to see more of it. There is a great opportunity to be taken in future and I hope the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Health and Children and in the Department of the Environment and Local Government about the issue. Elderly people throughout Ireland do not have the benefit of social housing. This is a missed opportunity. Other opportunities have been missed too, for example, a helicopter emergency medical service, which has been discussed for a long time.
Mr. McHugh: I will deal with the budget details regarding social welfare. On balance, the social welfare elements of the budget are welcome and will go some distance to addressing the many issues which daily impact on the public. The cost of child care has been regularly ventilated for a long time. This budget attempts to address this issue under various guises.
The payment of an annual child care supplement of €1,000 for each child under six years of age is welcome. This payment is an addition to the existing child benefit which has been increased by €8.40 a month for each of the first two children and a further €7.70 a month for the third child and subsequent children. While the increases in child benefit are small they are nonetheless welcome. A family with two children under six years of age will receive a total package of direct child-related payments from the State worth €5,600 per annum or approximately €170 per week, which is a substantial sum.
Some people say, as if it were a surprise, that this budget has one eye on the next election, but it is framed by a politician. As long as it addresses issues of concern to the public, that is fair enough. This budget has begun to address the child care issue, albeit not quickly or well enough for some people.
I have a problem, however, with the new payment of €1,000 per annum and child benefit being payable to parents, irrespective of income. There should be a means test for payment of this benefit because it is obscene that parents on high incomes receive this payment, which they do not need, while those on low incomes could benefit from higher payments. The resources of the State should be aimed at the needy, not the greedy.
The figures suggest that total social welfare spending will rise by over €1.1 billion next year and pensioners will be among the major beneficiaries, receiving on average, increases of 10%. This is welcome because today’s pensioners were the workers of yesteryear who helped put the country where it is today. Their contribution cannot be forgotten and needs to be appreciated. It is welcome, therefore, that next year the non-contributory pension will be €182 and the contributory pension €193.30 per week.
Another group which makes a major contribution to society in a concerned way are carers who perform a valuable role, taking care of the most needy. The increases for them are generous at 17.2% and 17.8%, depending on age. This budget, and its social welfare provisions, go some way to acknowledging the members of our society who need to be looked after. I presume that the message delivered to the Government at the last local government elections is ringing in its ears and it will not forget that in a hurry.
When Deputy Brennan was appointed Minister for Social and Family Affairs it was said he was a right wing Minister in a caring Department, which would not bode well for the less well-off in our society. He has, however, proved his detractors wrong, not alone through the social welfare elements of this budget, but with the improvements he also delivered in social welfare in the last budget. This proves one does not have to wear certain badges or espouse certain philosophies. Actions speak louder than words or slogans, and the Minister’s actions since coming to this job show his concern and compassion for the less well-off.
Once again, I pay tribute to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, on the Social Welfare Bill 2006. In that tribute I include the Taoiseach for his commitment to social inclusion and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, because if he did not provide the resources the Minister for Social and Family Affairs could not distribute the generous benefits under discussion.
Every year in the wake of the budget the Minister’s speech is dissected in the media by economists and politicians, financial commentators and representatives of major accountancy firms. The commentary focuses on the impact on the economy of the various measures announced. We are told how changes in taxation will impact on take-home pay and the exclusion or inclusion of reliefs will affect employers and large organisations.
It is important, however, that the budget is likely to impact in an equally significant way on the lives of people who depend on the State for income, although this does not receive the same prominence as taxation measures. This year the level of increases is significant and will improve the quality of life for people at all levels regardless of the social welfare benefit they receive.
The Government is meeting the commitments made since 1997 and reaffirmed in the programme for Government in 2002. These commitments created expectations that real and significant increases in social welfare rates would be provided to help people who depend on the State for income. I am proud to be a member of a party in Government that not alone promised to redistribute the gains made by the State to ensure that all sectors of the community benefit from our growing prosperity, but also honoured those commitments and took decisions to put these promises into effect.
Our ability to look after the less well-off in society is directly related to the level of growth in the economy and the strong performance of the economy generally gives us scope to offer meaningful and telling increases in rates of payment. We must acknowledge the role of the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, and the present Minister, Deputy Cowen, in implementing prudent and sensible financial measures which have helped maintain the positive growth rates to which we have become accustomed.
Every year we receive submissions in advance of the budget from organisations working to alleviate hardship among the less well-off in society, which articulate the needs of their clients and seek ongoing improvement in the rates of payment to ensure that we continue to bridge the gap between rich and poor. I was particularly heartened in the immediate aftermath of this budget to hear representatives of so many such groups welcome this budget and acknowledge the Minister’s contribution to improving income levels for welfare recipients.
Aside from the general improvement in rates, many aspects of this budget will have a direct and telling effect on people’s lives. I am particularly pleased with the measures the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has introduced in the areas of education, child care and support for carers. One of the key drivers of our economy over the past 15 years was the wide availability of an educated workforce. Potential investors in Ireland often say that one of the key considerations when seeking a location for a new facility is the quality and availability of the potential workforce. Our investment in education has proved crucial in enabling us to attract industry, create jobs and provide sustainable employment and income opportunities for a wide range of people. It is therefore opportune that to move into a new phase of economic development as a strong economy in an expanded Europe, our commitment to education must be re-affirmed at the highest level. We must ensure the necessary resources are provided to allow our graduates train to PhD level. One guard against poverty is a job. Producing and educating a workforce and providing educational opportunities for people at all levels will eliminate the likelihood of people requiring social welfare benefits.
The commitment to children is also welcome with the significant increase in child benefit payments, along with the new payment for children under six years. These vital benefits provide real support for parents and are payable regardless of the parent’s status. Deputy McHugh referred to having a means test for this payment. A previous examination of this showed it would be more costly. For that reason, it is better to leave the system as it is. For many parents, it will allow them to remain in the workforce, using funds to cover child care costs. For many others, it will allow them to remain in the home looking after their children.
Regardless of personal choices made by individuals, it is important for the Government to support them. For this reason, the increases in these benefits are to be welcomed. Another aspect of the Bill which will receive widespread approval is the proposal to increase maternity benefit by four additional weeks this year and by a further four weeks next year. This additional eight weeks will ensure a mother will have the benefit of time at home with her children at the most important stage for both the mother and the child in the early months of the child’s life.
In addition to retaining the capital allowances for the development of crèches, which will encourage the development of additional approved child care places, childminding relief is another significant measure that will go some way in tackling the much publicised child care crisis. An individual may mind up to three children in his or her home and avail of tax free income of up to €10,000 per year. This will help formalise the situation that has developed where people mind children in their home but were heretofore not registered. It will also encourage other people to consider looking after children in their home, thus creating additional spaces.
We have often acknowledged the role of carers in society and highlighted their Trojan work in homes throughout the country. People working in their own community are looking after disabled and elderly relatives and neighbours in a caring and compassionate way which the State could never hope to match. This work is extremely worthwhile but all too often is not properly acknowledged by the State. I am glad the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has continued his trend set in last year’s Social Welfare Act by affording special recognition to carers and their valuable role in society. This is being achieved by increasing the carer’s allowance by up to €30 per week, representing a 17% increase. It is also noteworthy that the respite care grant has been increased by €200. These initiatives will be further enhanced by the new home care package, costing €150 million, announced recently by the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney.
These benefits are a clear recognition of the importance of carers to society and the Government’s stated commitment to ensure people, where possible, are looked after in their homes. It also ensures financial consideration will not be a barrier to ensuring people who wish to be cared for at home can be. I pay tribute to the many organisations that came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs to articulate the needs of the people they represent. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has responded positively.
A key aspect of the budget is the support that has once again been provided for the elderly sector of our community. In 2002 a commitment was made that the rate of the old age pension would be increased to €200 per week by 2007. With the recent increases in benefits, bringing the level of payment to €193 per week, it will exceed this level after next year’s budget. This is a significant statement of the Government’s respect for the contribution elderly people have made to the development of the economy over many years. The Government acknowledges that the good times we now enjoy are directly related to the efforts of our retired population who toiled in more difficult times. I am glad the rewards we now enjoy are being used to provide a meaningful pension for older citizens.
It is also worth noting we need to plan for the future so that today’s workers will also benefit from a reasonable pension when they retire. The ongoing contribution to the National Pensions Reserve Fund to provide for future liabilities is an important initiative. It was an inspired idea when first introduced several years ago. As we have an ageing population, we need to continue to build on this reserve fund. We also need to encourage people to begin to fund their retirement and not leave it to the State to carry the full burden of providing for their future security.
I welcome the Minister’s decision to place a cap on the level of fund a high earner can build up for retirement reasons, because I believe some individuals were using this facility to transfer huge sums of money from their companies tax free. However, in tandem with this measure, incentives to encourage other workers must be examined, especially those on the lower tax rate, to prioritise pension contributions and the provision of their retirement fund. Convincing people of the merits of this course of action will ensure the financial future well-being of society will be protected.
I welcome the increase in the threshold for family income supplement. Again, I ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to make every effort to ensure people are aware of their entitlements under the scheme. It is an excellent scheme but many families do not avail of it simply because they are unaware of it. While that is not the direct responsibility of the Minister or his officials, it could be better advertised through local community groups. More families would benefit if they availed of it.
This is a good Social Welfare Bill because it continues the trend of providing real and meaningful benefit increases to people dependent on the State for their income. There will always be competing demands for resources and different sectors of the community will have different priorities and ideas on how available resources should be distributed. The Government has, however, prioritised the claims for support of those most vulnerable in our society and responded to their needs by providing real and telling increases. These measures will make a significant impact on poverty by directly benefiting the lives of many people. I am pleased to support them.
Mr. Carty: I congratulate the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on introducing the most comprehensive social welfare package in the State’s history. These social welfare improvements will benefit the most vulnerable groups in our society. More than 1.5 million men, women and children will benefit as overall spending increases by more than 10% to €13.5 billion, double the spend in 2000. The increases in rates for allowances and supports include a €17 per week rise for those in receipt of lower welfare rates, a special €16 a week increase for non-contributory pensioners and a €14 rise in the weekly income for other pensioners. This is a positive move in looking after the elderly in society.
More than €100 million has been allocated in increases to raise child benefit payment rates to €150 at the low level and €185 at the top level. This entitlement is paid to in excess of 540,000 families in respect of more than 1 million children. Together with the new €1,000 child care initiative, the Government has now fully honoured its commitment on child benefit. These increases represent a significant contribution towards alleviating child poverty and providing extra support for children.
In response to increasing fuel costs and their impact on the ability of welfare recipients in meeting their heating bills, the fuel allowance will be increased by €5 per week to €14 with effect from the beginning of January. This increase will directly benefit 274,000 households and is badly needed, especially by older people living alone during the winter weather. I ask the Minister for Finance to consider extending in future budgets the period during which the allowance is paid.
A new social reform agenda with funding of more than €300 million is being made available to underpin and give tangible effect to some important and necessary social reforms. One of the main objectives of the reforms is to create the changes and opportunities which will bring people from welfare dependency to financial independence, thereby providing a better standard of living and income. Changes in the means disregard and the increase to €100 per week in the earnings disregard will raise 35,000 pensioners on part payment to the full amount and encourage older people to take up employment without fear of losing the pension.
Carers and their valuable contribution to society are recognised by an increase of €30 per week in the carer’s allowance, bringing the top rate to €200 and making it one of the largest single welfare payments in the State. In addition, the respite care grant, which is available to all those providing full-time care irrespective of means, has been increased by €200 to €1,200.
A €150 million package has been provided to tackle child poverty. The threshold for family income supplement, which provides cash support for workers with families on low earnings, has been significantly increased by amounts ranging from €19 to €282 per week and is specifically targeted at larger families where poverty is more likely to be concentrated. Back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which benefits approximately 160,000 children, has been increased, while the school meals scheme also benefited from the budget.
The upper earnings income for one parent family payment has been substantially increased by €82 per week to a new limit of €375. Of the 80,000 lone parents in receipt of the payment, it is estimated that 60% are currently in full or part-time employment. The increased income limit will allow several thousand lone parents become eligible for a payment and all those recipients who are working will be in a position to increase their earnings further.
Almost €28 million extra is being invested in a range of new and enhanced support schemes which will provide opportunities and choices to welfare recipients, especially the unemployed. The qualifying period for access to the back to work allowance for employees has been reduced from five years on the live register to two years and, in the case of the self-employed, from three years to two years.
I congratulate the Minister and staff in his Department for all their work in formulating a package of measures which confirms our commitment to social inclusion by helping in a real way those who are less well off, while at the same time maintaining a strong economy. This social welfare package has all the hallmarks of a caring Government concerned with the needs of the most vulnerable in society and one which is honouring its commitments to the people.
Mr. McCormack: I wish to share time with Deputy Ring. While it has been described in many quarters as a giveaway budget, I prefer to describe it as a “give back” budget. With revenue receipts this year running at €1.8 billion above the estimated figure, the Minister for Finance has opted to give back taxes taken by stealth in recent years. People deserve to have this money returned to them and I thank the Minister for doing so.
I wish to be positive about the budget. The Fine Gael Party welcomes the increase of €14 per week for those aged 66 years or over and in receipt of old age contributory pension, widow’s or widower’s contributory pension and deserted wife’s benefit. We also welcome the €16 per week increase in the weekly personal rate for the old age non-contributory pension, blind pension, widow’s and widower’s non-contributory pension and one parent family payment, where the recipient is aged over 66 years.
What more could the Minister for Finance have done in his budget? He could have done substantially more with the €1.8 billion in unanticipated revenue. How much could have been achieved if so much money had not been wasted in recent years? For example, €50 million was wasted on electronic voting and the figure increases every year as the costs of storage rise, while €130 million was wasted on the PPARS project in the Department of Health and Children, a figure which increased to €180 million last year. The consultants involved were protected from liability, which rested with the then health boards, and paid €30 million. The Dublin Port tunnel is running €300 million over budget and we also had Abbotstown, the “Bertie bowl” and many other examples of waste.
Despite these examples, we still managed to collect an extra €1.8 billion in revenue this year. Were it not for the reckless waste of Government money on the projects outlined, Ireland could be a great country. The way in which a Government deals with good fortune is just as important as the way it acts in bad times. The voters will judge it on this at the next election.
The increase in support for the carer’s allowance amounts to €27 million, the same figure as was conceded in the reduction in betting tax. Where are the values in that decision? While the Fine Gael Party welcomes the increase in the respite grant, for many carers, particularly in Dublin and the east coast, the rise will only cover the cost of about one week in respite care. Since the Government took office in 1997, the number of respite care beds has declined from 785 to 689 in 2004, according to the Department of Health and Children’s long-stay activity statistics 2004.
The Minister also stated that most older people and their families want to live and be cared for at home for as long as possible. He is correct that most elderly people would like to end their days in their own homes in their communities. If people were able to keep their loved ones at home, it would deliver benefits to families, communities and society which would far outweigh the expenditure invested in trying to achieve this outcome. In previous generations grandparents stayed at home and educated and exerted a positive influence on their grandchildren, while also benefiting their communities. What people learned from their experience of life is being lost in many cases, as older people are compelled to enter institutional care or a nursing home for family reasons. Policies which encourage more people to stay in their communities should be supported at every level. Unfortunately, however, such policies run contrary to the current trend.
The Minister and his officials will be sick of hearing me citing the following example of the heartlessness of the Department of Social and Family Affairs in penalising some carers. I have raised this case with the Minister and his predecessors, including Deputies Woods, Coughlan and Dermot Ahern. It relates to a carer, generally a woman, who provides full-time care and attention at home to a relative of her husband, for example, his father. If her husband were to die suddenly and the carer became a widow, she would qualify for a widow’s pension but lose her carer’s allowance. What could be more cruel than that and what message does it convey to carers in the home? I have asked various Ministers to address that matter, given that there is provision in the Social Welfare Acts to deal with it in special circumstances.
I will cite another example of where the reality differs from what the Minister for Finance said in his Budget Statement and what the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is saying now. The day following the budget I had a call from a constituent, a farmer who was looking after his aged mother at home. She was getting eight hours of home help per week in September, but that has been cut to four hours. I rang the community care services and informed them that there was a lady in the area who was willing to take on the four hours of work, yet they told me that they could not employ anyone extra due to a Government embargo. With €150 million included in the budget for care of the elderly at home, I ask the Minister to lift the embargo on the recruitment of home helps. I am only talking about my own health service executive area, although I am sure the situation is the same in various parts of the country where the home help service is being cut back. That is the help that families need to keep elderly people in their own homes for as long as possible, while getting the services they require.
Will the Minister consider abolishing the means test for the carer’s allowance? It would cost approximately €200 million or €300 million to abolish it, but it would be money well spent because it would make many more people eligible for the allowance. It would assist in what the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Finance, are trying to achieve. It would pay for itself in the long run because apart from their great work, carers are saving the State billions of euro annually in caring for loved ones at home. That is to the benefit of the families concerned and society as a whole.
The Minister said he is increasing the number of hours a person can work and receive the carer’s allowance from ten to 15 hours per week. That will apply to very few people because most full-time carers in the home have neither the opportunity nor the energy to work even one hour per week outside the home. Caring for someone at home who needs attention due to physical or mental handicap, or old age, is a full-time job. Such carers are exhausted at the end of the week through undertaking such full-time endeavours and, needless to say, they are unable to work outside the home.
In his speech the Minister stated: “This is a most significant budget for carers, not only in terms of expenditure on income supports from my Department but also in the realisation of this Government’s commitment to the proper recognition of carers and the delivering of the necessary structures and supports for carers and the people for whom they care.” I ask the Minister to consider the points I have raised, including abolishing entirely the means test for carer’s allowance. If he does so, he will go down in history as being the Minister for Social and Family Affairs with the greatest approach to caring.
Mr. Ring: I am glad of the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Since the Minister’s appointment to his current portfolio, he has listened to what is being said. He is not as arrogant as some of his Front Bench colleagues who have lost touch with the people as well as losing touch with their ministerial responsibilities.
I praise the Minister’s staff and compliment them on having saved taxpayers and the State a fortune in detecting social welfare fraud. The Minister and his officials issue annual reports which in recent years have shown that much money has been recovered through the detection of fraud in the social welfare system. I compliment those who work in that unit on saving the State and the taxpayers money. Social welfare fraudsters are taking money from those who need it most. While we do not like saying this to our constituents, taking welfare money under false pretences amounts to robbing taxpayers.
I also compliment departmental officials on responding well when parliamentary questions are tabled in the Dáil. One might have difficulties in getting through to some offices at times, but the officials generally do a good job in preparing replies to questions. I compliment them on performing well in this regard. We can be critical of officials sometimes because people may have to wait a long time for social welfare payments to which they are entitled. They should receive such payments as soon as possible. Most of the sections in the Minister’s Department work well, however, in trying to get payments out as quickly as possible. They also deal with queries as swiftly as possible.
I would like the Minister and his officials to examine the issue of people who are refused unemployment assistance because it is assumed they are not searching for work, even though they provide evidence to the contrary. One person intends to take an action against the Department to Social and Family Affairs in this regard and I will support him. If he wants a financial subscription I will give it to him. Some such people are seeking their stamp money, but an official at the social welfare office may tell them they are not actively seeking work, even though they might produce five or six letters from potential employers. In Ballina during the week I came across somebody who found it degrading to visit the social welfare office. They sought unemployment assistance and brought in proof that they were seeking work, but an official behind the desk said he was not satisfied that the person was actively looking for work.
I am delighted that somebody is taking a case against the Department and I hope the judges will take a sympathetic approach to that person. The person felt they had been degraded, even though they had produced the necessary proof of seeking work. They felt so strongly about how they were treated that they are now planning to take a case to court. I wish them well and hope the Judiciary will not take the Government’s side. It should take the side of the person who produces evidence of seeking work, even though someone behind a counter may say they were not doing so. I ask the Minister to examine this situation immediately. This is happening in County Mayo, although I do not know if it is due to a directive from the Minister or his Department. The taxpayer will have to pick up the tab in the end when this case comes to court. I compliment that person on taking the case. I am glad they have done so because it is wrong for someone behind a counter to act in that way just because they may not like the look of a person. There has been very little employment for a long time in the area to which I am referring, but any time employment came up that person accepted it.
I will give the Minister another example, although when I wrote to him about it he did not do much about it. This concerned someone in my constituency who accepted a temporary job every time one came up. He is a temporary postman and hopes he will get that job on a full-time basis. He was not seeking unemployment assistance, but unemployment benefit, that is the money he paid into. He went to the social welfare office but was refused unemployment benefit and he is now going to appeal. I will accompany him to the appeal because I think any appeals officer will agree when he sees the record concerned — I sent the Minister his record. That person worked at every single opportunity a job came up. For the first time this year, however, his request for unemployment benefit was disallowed because it was deemed that he was not actively seeking work. His record proves, however, that he accepted job vacancies every time they arose.
I wish to ask the Minister a straight question. Has a new directive been issued from the Department whereby whether people have proof of seeking work, they are told they are not actively seeking work? If so, the Minister is only codding the system because people are going to the Health Service Executive where they are paid by the community welfare officer. Nine times out of ten, this money will have to be paid back so it amounts to one arm of the State paying another.
People are upset and hurt, however, because they are being made to look foolish. I hope that if such a directive has been issued, the Minister will respond immediately by issuing another directive asking his officials to be fair to people who have tried to work when work was available. If somebody produces evidence of seeking work, such as a letter, social welfare officials should not say they are not satisfied. Who are they to say that from behind a counter?
If I tabled a question to the Minister asking him to get a job for a particular person in Ballina, Westport or Castlebar, the reply would be that it is not the responsibility of the social welfare officer. Neither is it the responsibility of the social welfare officer, however, to make a judgment when somebody produces a letter stating that they have sought work. I know that the court case will be won, but I ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to deal with that quickly to prevent taxpayers from having to pay out to fight the case. It is not right. If someone enters the country with letters and shows that he or she is seeking work, that person should be paid immediately, unless it can be proven otherwise. I have no problem with action being taken in the case of a person working and drawing the benefit, but I am talking here about someone seeking work.
Last week the Minister granted generous increases. I listened to Deputies Penrose and McCormack, with whom I agree. We cannot be negative, and the budget contained some very positive things. The increases were generous and I would love to see more. I hope that the increases will be protected. I urge that local authorities should be allowed to take only a percentage of the increases that have been granted to people on social welfare. There is no point in their receiving €14, €16 or €17 if local authorities take €7, €8 or €9 from them in extra rent.
Last week the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, in his budget speech, reduced taxes on home heating oil. I will tell the Minister of two events that are not his responsibility but that of the Government. On Wednesday, when the Minister announced in the Dáil that the Government was reducing the taxes on home heating oil, the oil companies increased the price. If that is not rip-off Ireland, I do not know what is. I know it is not the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, but I ask the Government to investigate that immediately.
Yesterday I received several telephone calls from constituents in my clinic who had contacted the oil companies and been told that they were not passing on any reductions that the Government had granted in taxation because of the rise in the price of oil. That is rip-off Ireland and there should be an immediate investigation. If the Government makes an effort to reduce taxes on home heating oil, that should be passed on. If last Wednesday the Government had raised taxes, on Thursday morning all the oil companies would have erected new signs showing increases in their prices. Shame on the millionaires. The Minister and Government must act to protect the weaker of society and investigate the oil companies.
I want to ask the Minister a direct question and I hope that he can answer me in his reply or that his officials will write to me directly. I had a constituent whose mother was very sick and who came home from America. The person is Irish, having been born and reared in Ireland and never cost the taxpayers of this country anything. The person returned to care for that sick mother.
Mr. Ring: I do not believe the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is right. Last week he passed me. He must not like me, although he is a lovely man of whom I am very fond. Last week he skipped past me, and tonight I thought I had ten minutes. I may have been talking for a while, but not for ten minutes. I would like that to be clarified. How long do I have?
Mr. Ring: That clock must be like the clock in a boxing ring. It is not working, just as the Government is not working. I ask that the clock be examined, since I suspect that it stopped a long time ago. I certainly did not speak for ten minutes.
What is the situation regarding that Irish citizen, who was born in the State and went to America but returned to look after a sick mother? The person has property in America and has returned to care for that loved one until the mother either recovers or passes on. Is that person entitled to a carer’s allowance? I thought when the regulation entered force that if one was an Irish citizen, it did not matter where one came from, since one was protected. I thought that the regulation was introduced regarding non-Irish citizens because people were entering the State. I would like the Minister to respond to that.
Cecilia Keaveney: It is a great pleasure to address the budget’s social welfare aspect. A few years ago when the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, was in the post, we came to the House to welcome an increase of approximately €750 million and a massive budget. Last year, the figure was €874 million, and this year we have topped it again. I congratulate the Minister for obviously fighting his corner with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, and selling the message that while others might say there was a great deal of money to start with, the important thing is how it is disbursed. It can be dissipated very quickly or spent well.
It has been a pleasure to be in my constituency this week listening to older people and to the mothers and fathers of young children. A week before the budget, the message was that they would not be forgotten. The same was true of carers of people in the home. Perhaps every sector of society had something good to say about the budget, and many are embraced by the various schemes under the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
Like other speakers, I start by congratulating not only the Minister but his tremendous departmental staff. As a Member of the House, one is constantly trying to field constituents’ questions. The response, support, professionalism, speed, efficiency and courtesy afforded by every member of the Minister’s staff with whom I have come into contact have been second to none. We would love to see that repeated everywhere. I do not mean to say there is no efficiency or courtesy in other Departments, but sometimes the speed is lacking. Perhaps the Minister should share his secret with them so that everyone might learn from the great facility that he has.
The speed at which increases have been implemented has been improving for some years. I have been around the House long enough to remember when the increase in the price of petrol was increased at 4 p.m. and was on the pumps by 4.30 p.m. However, the increase in welfare payments was announced at 4 p.m. but not implemented until somewhere between June and September or October of the following year. It was difficult to sell the message that people would get an increase but not just yet. The concept that most increases take effect in January is an extremely important aspect of the announcement.
The Bill will create some new and very welcome anomalies, for example, that of the pensioner who wishes to retain his or her old-age non-contributory pension and still work or potter about, depending how one sees it, for perhaps €100. Such people will have to work out how to get their full pension, perhaps asking accountants to help them prove that their work is at a certain level. Perhaps before they were entitled only to a part pension and will now suffer the trauma of trying to get that information together to earn a full pension. However, I suspect that it is a trauma that most will be quite happy to encounter. It was a very interesting initiative to take on, since one meets many people who hit a certain age and for some reason are supposed to put their feet up. Life was supposed to stop for them. For many, whether they are involved in an interest or a small degree of serious work, that concept of allowing a person to earn is important. It is a great contribution to their mental health and important for their ability to maintain social interaction. It also provides opportunities in communities to allow people who are still very much emotionally capable of doing something constructive to do so legitimately. If there was one thing in the budget with which I was very pleased, it was that new initiative.
Another matter on which I had not really picked up until I started studying it is that the age limit for unemployment assistance and the supplementary welfare allowance has been brought down this year to 25. People living with their parents are not evaluated on their family income; they become an entity in their own right at that point. That narks many adults. Until recently people up to 30 years of age were still under the wing of their parents in that their parents’ income had a serious impact on them. I welcome the concept of reducing the age; 25 is the age recommended in the report that raised this issue but there is an argument that if it is reduced too low it will encourage people to take up unemployment assistance immediately when we should be encouraging them into employment. I welcome that measure.
I want to raise a number of issues of concern. I welcome the significant increase in the fuel allowance. That record is played here in every budget debate because every euro of an increase had a serious implication on a national level. The fuel allowance is the only allowance that is not one of the free schemes and therefore there is no mechanism for appeal. I became aware of a person recently who was €3 over the threshold and did not qualify for the allowance. She had no means of appeal because the allowance is not one of the free schemes and it was not an automatic entitlement. As this is a fuel allowance for people who are elderly, should there not be some mechanism whereby people can appeal on medical grounds? Perhaps a sliding scale could be introduced. The income limits have changed and that will cover the type of person I am talking about but it is like the two or three mile rule for school transport — there is always someone who is just that little too far away. I ask the Minister to examine that.
I must raise an issue that is not strictly to do with the Bill. Cross-Border issues remain to be addressed. I am aware of two people who, unfortunately, were let go from the textile industry after 25 years and who have gone to the North to work. These two are in the same difficulty in that both of them, for various reasons and in different ways, became ill and find themselves out of the system again. They applied for unemployment benefit here but because their last income was earned in Northern Ireland, they were told they had to claim in Northern Ireland. When they tried to claim in Northern Ireland, however, they were told that because of a residency clause there they could not claim there. That anomaly exists although I am aware that much good work is going on to try to address it. I bring that to the Minister’s attention because it remains a problem.
Child benefit and tax credit issues have arisen also for people who are employed. In that regard, I live in an area where people do not see the Border. They go where there is work and if there are impediments to facilitating that, it is worth examining them to see if they can be overcome.
On the back to education allowance, the focus is to provide an incentive to return to education, particularly to lone parents, because we all know education is the key to a better life. Is the Minister in a position to talk to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, regarding the recognition of NVQ courses, particularly in the North? That is another of my North-South issues. Many people go to the North to do NVQ courses but because they are not HNDs, they are not recognised for educational grant aid purposes. They are not eligible for any of the back to education grants, although I may be wrong about that. I am aware they are unable to get grant aid for the NVQs because it is not recognised as a high enough achievement but it is important that people who left school early and want to get back into education are given every opportunity to do that. If people want to get off the dole and back to education, we should try to do something to help them help themselves.
I was surprised to hear Deputy McCormack strongly raise the issue of the home help service because the day after the budget the Tánaiste announced a significant improvement in that regard. Trying to help the elderly, which the Minister has done in the social welfare aspect of the budget, embraces all those issues including the need to keep people at home and allow their carers to be in a position where they can afford to look after them.
Community employment schemes are doing tremendous work in many areas but in that regard it is a case of congratulating the Minister for reducing the number of people who are on the double, so to speak. Some CE schemes are finding it difficult to get enough people to take up the schemes to keep them in operation. There should be a stronger link between the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and FÁS because word has got out that if one does not turn up, nothing will happen. Some of those running the schemes say they do not want people to be forced to take up community employment because they will just work against the system but in my first years as a Member of the Dáil I spent most of my time trying to find ways of helping people get out of taking up a scheme because they had a bad back, arm or whatever. Some of those cases worked and others did not but it was uncanny that within a short period, the number of people who were fighting to stay on the scheme had increased. The letters written to try to get people off schemes became letters asking that they be kept on for a few more years. There is still an issue. If the unemployment level in a particular area is high and a CE scheme is in jeopardy, why are more questions not asked about it?
The Minister has made changes to the back to work allowance but I want to voice one concern in that regard. I am aware of many people who worked in the electrical or plumbing trades — it is generally the trades — for the past 15, 20 or 25 years who used to employ people but the back to work allowance has encouraged some people to set up business on their own. Because they are getting a back to work payment they are able to undercut the person who has been in employment for a considerable length of time. Some people call that competition but others call it something else. I am not against it but a balance needs to be struck. We do not want any displacement or unfair competition whereby a person getting an allowance can undercut another person by €50 or €100 in a contract. Those are the types of issues arising. It is difficult to pick holes in this particular issue and that is the reason I am going slightly outside it.
A total of 1.5 million people will benefit from the improvements in the Bill and while many of the improvements are for the elderly and the very young, the ones for the unemployed are welcome. Constituencies like mine that have taken a severe hit from the textile industry would rather not have to consider the vista of checking to see how much the social welfare allowances have increased. The fact they have been increased by four times the rate of inflation is welcome. I encourage the Minister to help the interdepartmental working group which is examining the issue of the response to the job losses in Donegal. This would mean I could look for tax cuts in the next budget rather than increases in unemployment assistance. The people of Donegal are quite proud. Factories which are closing have received Labour Court recommendations and we hope they will be able to make redundancy payments above the statutory minimum.
We are fed up talking about issues relating to statutory redundancy payments and want to discuss employment issues instead. I welcome the increases in payments for people who cannot get jobs and the incentives to boost people’s participation in the workforce. I like to think that the Minister supports the work of the interdepartmental working group dealing with Donegal.
There has been an increase of more than €26 in the carer’s allowance, which brings it to €200 per week. Some commentators have argued that the fact that carers are allowed to work for 15 hours per week instead of ten and still qualify for carer’s allowance and benefit or the respite care grant is not a cause for great excitement. However, not all carers can be grouped in the same category and if a person needs and has the ability to work for ten or 15 hours per week, he or she should be allowed to do so. My own experience is that a change is as good as a rest. An ability and a wish to do something different should be commended. I understand that this is the highest payment yet and it has been recognised that carers are the first group to receive it. This is a very important signal from the Minister.
The former Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, introduced the respite care grant payment, which was one of the most significant measures in the 1999 budget. I know the difficulty experienced by elderly carers who look after middle-aged relatives. The respite care grant gives a break to people who do not want to unburden themselves of their caring responsibilities and it has significantly helped this group.
The major changes relating to families are very important. There appears to be a rush of births and one would think people inside the Dáil had insider information. Deputy Kelleher and my constituency colleague have had good news in this regard. I do not know if Deputy Naughten has made an announcement but he showed an interest on the Order of Business in the length of maternity leave. However, I am not insinuating anything. There has been justified focus on looking after young children.
I am glad the Minister for Education and Science is present because I have a request to make of her and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I am sure Deputy Stanton is fed up listening to me argue that young children develop more quickly when they are exposed to the arts.
Cecilia Keaveney: It would be wonderful if these two Ministers could devise a scheme as clever as many of those in this Bill, direct it towards young families and expose children to the arts, particularly music, at the youngest possible age. Such a scheme could be run in conjunction with Lifestart. They would capitalise on something that is worthwhile and would give children the best opportunity to develop their language skills, co-ordination and socialisation — matters which are crucial to their later development. We spend a considerable amount of money later in life trying to rectify matters that should have been tackled when children were under six.
This Bill provides a considerable degree of support for many people. I would like to see the continuation of the support for the very young and artistic interventions in my constituency. I hope there will be less dependence on unemployment assistance in constituencies such as mine and that they will seek tax cuts rather than social welfare payments so that people will have more money in their pockets. I commend this Bill and the work of the Minister and his Department.
Mr. Crawford: I wish to share time with Deputy Perry. I welcome the increases in this Bill and the contribution by Deputy Keaveney because some of the Government backbenchers did nothing but speak about the wonderful measures in this budget. Deputy Keaveney is correct in highlighting the problems that exist and the rest of the House should follow her lead. We should give credit where it is due and raise issues that must be dealt with because no matter what advances we make, problems still arise that bedevil Border constituencies which have suffered over recent years.
I spoke to an individual who deals with FÁS schemes who raised the fact that a person receiving unemployment benefit will not receive the benefits of this budget before Christmas while a person on unemployment assistance will receive the benefits. I accept that unemployment benefit is a short-term payment but people receiving it have paid their PRSI contributions and feel very aggrieved that they do not get the same benefits as someone on unemployment assistance.
Fuel costs are another major issue. Elderly people and people with disabilities spend a considerable amount of time at home and need heating on a year-round basis. I welcome the increase in the fuel allowance in the budget but it is despicable that the oil companies stated the next day that there would be no decrease in fuel bills because of an increase in costs. This practice is a rip-off and must be addressed. With regard to the poverty trap, it does not make sense for people receiving rent supplement to get jobs unless they are very well paid.
The increases in pensions are very important. However, a section of the population lives in rented accommodation and it is important we ensure that county councils and town councils do not devour these increases by increasing their rents in February. This despicable practice took place last year. In these circumstances, people are left worse off then ever.
Free travel is a great benefit but the Minister should remember that there are no trains and a very limited bus service in constituencies such as mine, Cavan-Monaghan. It would help if the Minister produced a voucher scheme that would allow people who need to travel to a doctor or hospital to do so because Health Service Executive areas do not have the money to pay for such a scheme. People in these areas hold free travel passes but are forced to use their pensions to pay travel costs. A case from last year involved a woman from Rockcorry in County Monaghan who was forced to use a considerable portion of her pension to travel to Cavan every fortnight.
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