Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Frank Feighan: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill displays no imagination regarding how to get people off social welfare and, more important, back to work, particularly through retraining and education. It represents a missed opportunity and social welfare recipients must wait for 12 months before they can retrain or upskill. The new 1% income levy on 2.1 million workers and pensioners demonstrates a lack of support when it is needed most. Many Members have referred to the Bill’s provisions but I would like to refer to a wider issue. I am incensed about the €10 air travel tax on business travellers and tourists using airports on the western seaboard. I use Knock Airport at all times because it is my local airport. A €10 levy is charged currently, which I supportively pay. However, the new €10 tax is anti-western seaboard and anti-rural airports.
The Government has failed to protect the most vulnerable even though 300,000 people live in consistent poverty. Many people are deprived and live in local authority housing which is not properly insulated and which does not have proper heating infrastructure. It is galling sometimes that they must go to the local shop or co-operative to lug briquettes and coal back to the house and pay between €80 and €100 every time just to keep the house warm. They are in a no-win situation. It must be ensured they are not deprived of basic necessities such as heating, food and clothing. More than 700,000 people are at risk of poverty and live on incomes of less than €200 per week.
Aspects of the legislation are good. The Government rolled back on its decision regarding the 1% levy to exempt those earning less than the minimum wage, which is welcome. It is disappointing, however, that the threshold was not increased in order that low earners would be exempt from the tax.
The price of food and non-alcoholic beverages has increased by 6.1% while the price of gas, water, electricity and other fuels has increased by 12%. Health, education and transport costs have also increased by 4%, 6% and 6.5%, respectively, but social welfare payments will increase by the minimum and they will not keep pace with inflation. The State pension will increase by €7 per week, which is welcome, but the programme for Government promised that pensions would be €300 per week by 2012, which is not achievable. If the Minister of State can convince us otherwise, I will be delighted. I refer to energy poverty. In 2005, 6% of the population went without heating at some stage due to lack of money. Fr. Seán Healy identified a strong correlation between energy poverty and the standard of housing and 2,000 winter deaths annually.
Post-primary school transport charges have increased. At the beginning of the year, it cost a family with two children in the junior cycle €198 to send them to school by public transport. Within five months, there were four increases and the cost increased to €600. This is not only anti-family, it is also anti-rural. Good public transport is available in cities and most parents have no option but to use it. The cost has increased by 203% in five months, which is exorbitant. Unfortunately, this is an attack on rural-based families. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science should examine this to ensure no other increases are applied because most people will be unable to avail of public transport if the cost continues to increase.
The 1% levy is expensive. New applicants for jobseeker’s benefit will need 104 rather than 52 paid contributions to be considered eligible. From January the benefit will be limited to 12 months for current claimants with 260 or more social insurance contributions. People must be upskilled in order that they can return to the workplace but the Bill does not address that.
The airport tax is anti-western seaboard. There are airports in Kerry, Shannon, Sligo, Knock and Galway. I flew from Dublin to Manchester last Saturday evening and a €2 levy was applied but when I fly from Knock to Manchester, the levy is €10. That issue needs to be addressed. It is not related to the legislation but it is anti-west of Ireland and it should be addressed immediately.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Oppositions Members were not happy about the time set aside for the debate. However, we spent almost an hour voting on a Private Member’s motion and it was clear following the first division the Government had a majority. This time could have been used more wisely by Opposition Members and they could have had a greater opportunity to contribute to the debate.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: The Bill is necessary to implement the changes announced in budget 2009. Spending on social welfare will increase by almost €2.6 billion to more than €19.5 billion in 2009. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has ensured €515 million worth of improvements in social welfare rates will be introduced in the upcoming year. Ireland is experiencing grave economic times compared to previous budgets. The Government has made difficult and unpopular decisions to secure our economic future but it was necessary to do so to help us out of these difficult times. If we wanted to be popular and populist, we would not have taken the course we did but it is the responsibility of government to govern.
Increases in rates of payment set out in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill are broadly in line with inflation and thus, hopefully, will maintain the real value of social welfare payments. More than 1.7 million men, women and children will be recipients of these welfare payments — 440,000 pensioners, 345,000 ill and disabled persons, over 80,000 carers, 30,000 low-income working families availing of the family income supplement and over 580,000 families who receive child benefit payments. That is a significant number of people who have been taken into consideration by the Government.
The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, stated that this coming year will see an increase of €7 per week for all State pensioners, contributory and non-contributory, along with carers aged 66 and over. Increases for qualified adults ranges from €4.30 to €6.30 per week for those aged over 66. These changes will mean that a pensioner couple will have a weekly increase of €13.30 per week. We, in Government, have always been committed to ensuring that our pensioners are looked after. I welcome the Minister’s announcement last night that she aims to announce a framework for future pensions policy by the end of the year.
Over €260 million extra is targeted to support people of working age who are claiming jobseeker’s benefit or allowance, which increases by €6.50 per week to €204.30 per week from January 2009. Overall, some 733,000 people are in receipt of working age payments — jobseekers, one-parent families, those claiming illness benefit and disability allowance, as well as carers — will all benefit from increases in weekly personal rates in the coming year.
The earning threshold for family income supplement is to increase by €10 per child, which gives an increase of up to €6 per week per child. For those in receipt of social welfare payments with children, the qualified child increase rises from €24 to €26 per week from January. There is also an extension in the numbers eligible to claim the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. That is most welcome as the period before school commences is a financially difficult time for many parents.
The Minister also announced a number of changes in qualifying criteria for jobseekers benefit entitlement, which is being reduced from 15 to 12 months for recipients with 260 or more contributions and duration of less than six months. Where a person has less than 260 paid contributions, the benefit will now only be available for nine months instead of 12 months. A new change coming in January 2009 is the increase in the number of paid contributions required to qualify for jobseekers benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit, from 52 to 104.
A €13 to €18 per week increase is being initiated as the minimum contribution for people on rent supplement or in receipt of mortgage interest supplement. This will bring the personal contribution more into line with the level of rents paid by tenants in local authority accommodation on similar income levels.
In total, the new expenditure control measures contained in the social welfare budget will amount to net savings of €124.9 million when compensatory measures are taken into account, and this is to be welcomed. An issue that a number of my constituents have brought up is the entitlement of foreign nationals to welfare payments. Migrants or young workers who have only worked here for a total of one year are entitled to claim jobseeker payments for 12 months without having to satisfy a means test. However, appropriately, with these changed economic times, this will change from next January, when the number of required paid contributions will be doubled to 104 for new claimants. We cannot discriminate against foreign nationals in our country. They are entitled to claim legitimately in our country as we are in theirs.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: There are further developments coming in the jobseekers benefit. Currently, one must have made 13 paid contributions in the relevant tax year in order to qualify for illness benefit. In contrast, this condition does not exist for jobseeker’s benefit, with the result that people who may not have paid PRSI contributions in the past number of years can qualify. It is considered that this position does not adequately reflect the contribution-based rationale for social insurance and so, from next January, new claimants will be required to satisfy the same conditions as those on illness benefit and must have paid 13 contributions in the relevant tax year.
Another expenditure control measure relates to the rent and mortgage interest supplements. All claimants of these payments will be expected to make a personal contribution towards their accommodation costs from their own resources, and I agree wholeheartedly with this. This rate of €13 per week has not been increased since January 2004, despite the fact that the lowest rate of social welfare payment has risen by almost €70 per week since then. As of 1 January 2009, the minimum personal contribution to rent and mortgage interest supplement is being increased by €5 per week. With approximately 72,000 people in receipt of rent and mortgage interest supplements, this measure is expected to generate €19 million per annum from 2009 onwards.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: There will be changes to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and the Combat Poverty Agency. I want to place on record the high regard in which I hold MABS and its staff. It provides a vital service to people who find themselves in serious debt and who need support and action plans to help them cope with the problems of debt. MABS and Citizens Information Board complement each other well. I welcome the fact that MABS will be a separate and distinct service within the Citizens Information Board and that there will be no change in the status of the 53 independent MABS companies.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: ——despite unprecedented economic obstacles and given the massive spend required to keep pace with all of the schemes administered by the Department, it is clear that the Government has sought to prioritise and protect those who depend on our support. At this time when it is imperative that public expenditure be strictly controlled in the national interest, the Government’s commitment to an increased provision for social welfare is an unequivocal statement of the Government’s intent to protect the less well-off in society.
I am pleased to contribute to this important Bill, which is central to the way we run our business and which allows us to raise crucial issues on the economy. There are many issues which I would have liked to deal with but I will focus on the following.
We live in a time when unemployment is increasing rapidly. Week in, week out across the country jobs are being lost in various industries. With so many unemployed, a matter which has come to my attention, and at which the Government needs to look, is the pressure on older people. While the fair deal Bill has been published and is ready to be debated, we need to address the training of people with skills in keeping older people living in their communities.
I was taken aback recently by the amount of people who have come to me who have difficulties regarding their parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours who wish to live in the community. At a time when there are vast numbers of people unemployed, many women would take up the role of carers to such people. However, we lack such provision. The budget, and this Bill, was an ideal opportunity to do something. Rather than pay people unemployment benefit, we should be doing something to help our older people. From what I read of the new fair deal, it is cumbersome and it will involve a significant cost to the taxpayer. I ask the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to look at that in the near future because it could have a significant impact on many ordinary people. I have also spoken about the fuel allowance which should cover a longer period. We have wetter, colder and longer winters and this year is particularly bad. Although some oil companies have reduced the cost of fuel, we still have the dearest fuel in Europe. The cost of a barrel of oil has dropped substantially but the consumer is still charged a large amount for oil. The fuel allowance does not go far enough to help our older people. I know we are living in harsh economic times but I implore the Minister to examine this matter.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I thank the Ceann Comhairle and my colleague for sharing time. In the time available, one can only deal with small aspects of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. One would prefer to have a longer debate which would befit important legislation such as this.
From time to time, we all need to be reminded that the purpose and duty of social welfare is to alleviate the impact of hardship on those who are vulnerable. While I agree with the need to cull abuses and fraud, it should never be allowed to be a means to deprive people of their rightful entitlements. I do not want to settle old scores but one issue takes me to the fair and this is the habitual residence clause which was introduced originally by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to make it difficult for non-nationals in this country and was taken up by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
The founding father of Fianna Fáil was born outside this country. He was born in Brooklyn as was a former member of my party and Minister, Richard Burke. If they had to seek State services such as social welfare or health services they would not qualify. They would be deprived because they would have to establish residency. People whose parents emigrated from here 25 or 30 years ago and who have returned to their homeland have been refused supplementary welfare, disability allowance and various means tested allowances on the basis of habitual residency. It is appalling.
I wish to discuss another old practice with regard to supplementary welfare for which another Minister has partial responsibility. It is not all the fault of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and this is not a criticism of her. However, she knows this happens. If a couple who separate but have not gone through the legal process of separation have a mortgage, the mortgage must be paid or else they must both leave the house. If the wife remains in the house and applies for supplementary welfare in the form of rent support, she receives 50% of what is due to her because allegedly and theoretically the spouse has a 50% interest in the house. However, this has not been determined and the courts might decide otherwise.
I cannot understand why the Department should punish a person in these circumstances. I know responsibility for this is jointly shared with the Department of Health and Children which carries out the functions. However, there is no basis, legal or otherwise, for depriving the person in the house of full rent support. All that happens is that they lose the house and end up out on the road. They are subjected to hardship while slowly but surely and inexorably the law in implemented. They may have children. Why do we not cater for people in this situation?
We know about the regulations and guidelines. I ask the Minister to take a grip of the situation and deal with these two aspects because great hardship is being caused to a large number of people who ordinarily would have an entitlement but they are deprived by either the habitual residency clause or a stupid interpretation of the regulations by another Department.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin): Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí uilig a labhair ar son agus i gcoinne an Bhille seo. D’fháiltigh iad siúd a labhair i gcoinne na reachtaíochta roimh de sonraí an Bhille. Chuir siad go mór leis an díospóireacht. It is significant that so many people on both sides of the House chose to speak on this Bill, recognising its significance. It is possibly the only and most important Bill any Minister for Social and Family Affairs gets to introduce during the year, particularly because it contains so many positive measures. After all, this is the Bill which gives legislative effect to the changes brought about in the budget.
Never has so much money been spent on social welfare in this country and in recent years we have not had a need for this amount of money. Given the economic context in which we find ourselves, nationally and internationally, it is important not only to make provision but to ensure our expenditure is kept under control as far as possible while ensuring we do not attack in any way the most vulnerable or penalise those who do not deserve to suffer. What we have done in the budget and in this Bill is a fair balance in this regard.
Of total Government expenditure for the year, €19.6 billion is a large amount. Notwithstanding the difficulties, we will have an increase of €2.6 billion next year, which represents a 15.5% increase on the Estimates allocation for 2008. As Deputies pointed out, it includes the money necessary to provide for the increase in the live register. The Government’s priority is to ensure we keep unemployment as low as possible, create employment, get people back to work as quickly as possible and keep them at work.
People who lose their jobs need to turn to social welfare for income support. In anticipating an average of 290,000 people on the live register during next year we had to make provision for it. The increases in this alone account for €1.25 billion of the planned increases in spending next year and this is a large amount of money. Notwithstanding this, and recognising older people and others depending on social welfare also needed increases to help them cope with the changing circumstances, we managed to put together a budget package of €515 million.
Deputies opposite have stated it is not as good as recent years and it is not but neither are the economic circumstances. We had to work within what we had. Pensioners welcome the €7 increase they will receive. The two week extension on the fuel allowance and the additional €2 have also been welcomed. The extension by two weeks is making a difference to people and this is what they have indicated to us. With regard to other payments, we try to do as much as we can for as many as possible but we must also target it. It was more important to target the qualifying child of the unemployed worker or the person benefitting from family income support and put the increase there than it was to put it on child benefit generally which goes to people who do not need it in the same way.
We showed our commitment to families by increasing the number of people who qualify for family income support and the improvement is significant. A total of 18,000 more families will benefit from the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. I had to consider whether we would increase the amount of money or increase the number of families. I chose to increase the number of families and this is an important distinction.
When examining the rate of change and growth in the bill it was important to make cuts in some of the entitlements, keeping in line with what is done in other countries and the relationship between work and welfare. It is wrong that somebody receives more on welfare than for part-time work.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: The annual rate of expenditure on child benefit has escalated in recent years to €2.53 billion, which is a very substantial sum. The provision of this tax-free benefit is indicative of the Government’s commitment in recent years to ensuring that we support families and children. Those who are currently 18 years of age are the ones who have benefited the most from this increase over the years.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: In considering how that budget can be curtailed in some way, the measure that was taken was the one likely to cause the least difficulty because, as I outlined yesterday, 70% of leaving certificate students are under the age of 18 years.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: A substantial number turn 18 within several months of completing the leaving certificate. Students who go on to third level and require support will qualify for a maintenance grant.
The Government recognises that people dependent on social welfare, young people with disabilities and those in receipt of family income support should be protected next year and the year after. That is what we have done.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: We set it out at the time of the budget and we have also set it out in this Bill. The compensatory payment will be made to those concerned on a weekly basis and also through an additional back to school clothing and footwear allowance.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: This is an important provision which will allow those people who have supported their children through second level education to allow them to continue on to third level. There is nothing in these provisions which will in any way deter children from completing their education.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: Other issues were raised by Members, particularly in regard to young people and families. Deputy Shortall asked about the definition applicable to the one-parent family payment. The provision in this Bill seeks to ensure that a category of unmarried persons who are currently excluded from eligibility for this benefit, via an anomaly in the legislation, will be included. Under the current law, an unmarried claimant of one-parent family payment must be the parent of the qualifying child for whom he or she is claiming, whereas this requirement does not apply in the case of a separated or widowed person. For example, if a brother who is unmarried takes over the care of his sibling, he is excluded from the one-parent family payment. The purpose of the provision is to include such persons; it is not designed to exclude anybody.
There has been much talk about lone parents. We all accept that they are a particularly high-risk group, as are their children. Whereas poverty indicators show that rates of poverty have decreased significantly for large groups of people in recent years, this has not happened to the same degree in the case of lone parents and their children.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: Various Deputies have also raised this issue in the House. Non-income recommendations set out in the discussion paper were looked at in Coolock and Kilkenny. These studies were useful because they involved both lone parents and qualified adults. This was done on a voluntary basis and the take-up was very low.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: The fact that the take-up was low and that it was done on a voluntary basis gives us some information as to how we can work with lone parents and other qualified adults. It is not something that can be looked at in my Department alone. There are issues in regard to child care, educational participation and so on.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: That is why the Department has increased the number of facilitators working with those on the live register, persons with disabilities and lone parents, in order to support them in their choices for themselves and their children.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: Another issue that was raised during the debate was the question of rent supplement and employment. Some 70,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement and it is clearly making a significant contribution in enabling them to find suitable accommodation.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: Deputies claimed that recipients of rent supplement could not work at all. The reality is that those on rent supplement who enter full-time work will continue to be eligible if the local authority deems them to be so.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: There is no reason that people should feel they are in a welfare trap. That is not the case. Everything is means tested in this regard. In recent years, the provision of the rent supplement via the local authorities has improved the capacity of people to avail of voluntary or social housing within their local authority areas.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: All the independent data indicate that rents have decreased by 5%. In addition, the number of accommodation units available for rent has doubled in recent months. That will make it easier for many people. As I indicated, it is something we will keep under review.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: One of the provisions in the Bill is to ask recipients of very large sums of money from the State to pay €18 per week towards their accommodation. This has not been changed for several years.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: As I outlined yesterday, at the time the initiative was introduced it was decided that it should be set at some 10% of the social welfare payment. In the intervening years, the social welfare payment has increased by €70 while the rent supplement contribution has remained the same.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: The quality of the accommodation that has become available in recent years, and particularly in recent months, is much higher than what was available in the past. We are working closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities to ensure the accommodation is of a good standard.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: We want to ensure also that landlords are held to account for the standard of accommodation they provide. Taxpayers’ money is going towards supporting 70,000 people in receipt of rent supplement. There is plenty of good accommodation now available. We hope this will be of benefit to people.
Deputy Mary Hanafin: Deputies also asked about the numbers of staff within the Department. I thank those Deputies on the Opposition benches who paid tribute to the departmental staff. Some generous and well deserved comments were made in regard to their dealings with staff in local offices. Following a review of staffing, we have placed additional personnel in the offices that were under particular pressure because of the increase in applications. An additional 115 staff will be allocated shortly to those offices. At all times our main concern is to ensure that those people who need social welfare support can access it efficiently and quickly.
|Ahern, Dermot.||Ahern, Michael.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Andrews, Barry.|
|Andrews, Chris.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Aylward, Bobby.||Behan, Joe.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Áine.|
|Brady, Cyprian.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Browne, John.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Carey, Pat.|
|Collins, Niall.||Conlon, Margaret.|
|Connick, Seán.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Curran, John.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Flynn, Beverley.||Gallagher, Pat The Cope.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Gormley, John.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Healy-Rae, Jackie.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kennedy, Michael.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|Lowry, Michael.||McGrath, Michael.|
|McGuinness, John.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M.J.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Flynn, Noel.||O’Hanlon, Rory.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Keeffe, Edward.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Treacy, Noel.||White, Mary Alexandra.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Barrett, Seán.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Bruton, Richard.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Burton, Joan.||Byrne, Catherine.|
|Carey, Joe.||Clune, Deirdre.|
|Coonan, Noel J.||Costello, Joe.|
|Coveney, Simon.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Creed, Michael.||Deenihan, Jimmy.|
|Doyle, Andrew.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Ferris, Martin.|
|Flanagan, Charles.||Flanagan, Terence.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McEntee, Shane.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McManus, Liz.|
|Mitchell, Olivia.||Morgan, Arthur.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Donnell, Kieran.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Mahony, John.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Perry, John.||Quinn, Ruairí.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Reilly, James.|
|Ring, Michael.||Shatter, Alan.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||Sheehan, P.J.|
|Sherlock, Seán.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
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