Thursday, 8 March 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): This Bill gives effect to the biggest ever increases in social welfare rates of payment and to a wide range of other improvements announced in budget 2001. It addresses commitments set out in the Government's action programme aimed at building an inclusive society and fulfils the commitments set out under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
The Government has been able to deliver on its social commitments because of the strength of Irish economic performance. That performance has been exceptional both by international standards and in terms of our historical experience. Our economy has grown by a remarkable annual average of almost 8% between 1993 and 2000. This compares with the rest of Europe where growth rates of 2% per annum were recorded during the 1990s. Unemployment has fallen to below 4%, from 12% in 1996.
This year's budget is framed against the prospect of strong, but moderating economic growth. There will be continued increases in the numbers in employment. It is worth noting that GNP growth is now projected at almost 8% this year moderating to 5% by 2003; employment is projected to rise by an average of 2.5% over the same period resulting in 130,000 extra jobs over the three year period; and inflation is forecast to fall to 4.5% this year and 2.5% by 2003.
Our economy is the envy of many European countries and we are now contributing to social policy development at EU level. The Treaty of Nice, agreed last December, provided for changes to the institutions and decision-making procedures of the Union. In response to an Irish initiative, an EU treaty for the first time explicitly endorses a role for the Union in the field of social protection. The European Council at Lisbon decided that the achievement of social cohesion should be one of the main goals of the European Union, with economic development and high levels of employment.
A social protection committee has been established to assist member states' co-operation in social policy development. Two major projects are under way. One, on safe and sustainable pensions, on which Ireland has submitted a report, is due to be debated at forthcoming European  Councils. The development of national action plans on social inclusion is a major feature of the second project on combating social exclusion. The plans are to be submitted by 1 June next.
Ireland very much welcomes this intensified process of co-operation among member states. We have much to learn from it, but also much to contribute, not least on our experiences of developing a national anti-poverty strategy and consensus on pensions policy and the partnership process which underpins these achievements.
I will now outline the Bill's provisions. As Senators will have considered the Bill in detail, I will focus on a number of key provisions. On pensioners, the Government's commitment to addressing the needs of the elderly both now and in the longer term is beyond question. We recognise the tremendous contribution pensioners have made to the development of the State. They have had to endure great hardships and make great sacrifices and we owe them a great deal of gratitude. The increases provided for in sections 4 and 5 of the Bill more than deliver on our commitments. During our period in office, we have given pensioners increases of £5, £6, £7 and £10 per week in successive budgets.
In addition, the Bill provides for a special increase in the rate of widow's-widower's contributory pension for those aged over 66 years. This increase of £12.90 per week will bring the new rate to £102 per week and is a first step in bringing the rate into line with the old age contributory pension. The Bill also introduces a special allowance of £10 per week for pensioners who reside on islands off the coast of Ireland.
The Government is also committed to substantial increases in other social welfare payments. The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness provides that “substantial progress will be made over the period of this programme towards a target of £100 per week for the lowest rates of social welfare”. The personal rates of social welfare payments, other than those for older people, are being increased by £8 per week. This represents an increase of almost 10% and means that we are in line, not only to make substantial progress, but to fully reach the £100 target. We are fully meeting our commitments under the PPF. Increases in the weekly payments will be paid from the first week in April and coincide with the implementation of the income tax changes.
In recent years we have introduced a range of measures to make it easier for people, particularly women, who have taken time out for family reasons to qualify for an old age pension. Work is continuing towards introducing a greater degree of flexibility in the qualifying conditions to improve the position of women.
I am also introducing special improvements in this budget to assist women already at pension age and who may not benefit from these improvements. The Government has decided that the allowance for qualified adults over the age of 66 years should be increased in this and future budgets to the full old age non-contributory pension  rate. As a first step towards this goal, I am providing in the Bill for special increases of £15 per week in the allowances payable to qualified adults over the age of 66 years whose spouses-partners are receiving a contributory pension with proportionate increases for those on reduced rates. In other words, a couple, each of whom is over 66 years of age in receipt of an old age contributory pension and a qualified adult allowance, will receive an extra £25 per week from April. This contrasts with the announcement made in the United Kingdom yesterday to the effect that couples in a similar position to that outlined above will receive the princely sum of £8 per week. The increases here will range from £20 to £25.
Increases ranging between £7 and £9 per week are also being provided for in the rate of qualified adult allowance payable to those under the age of 66 years as a further step in increasing these allowances to 70% of the main rate, honouring a further commitment in the PPF. The increase in the qualified adult allowance payable with old age non-contributory pension is £9 per week with proportionate increases for those on reduced rates.
Child benefit is a universal payment made directly to families. As such, it is the most efficient and effective way in which the Government can channel help to children. Before the Government took office, expenditure on child benefit was under £400 million annually. The increases announced in the recent budget, provided for in section 6, will bring investment in 2001 to £761 million – almost double the 1997 figure. The monthly rate for the first two children is being increased by £25 per month and the monthly rate for the third and subsequent child is being increased by £30 per month. To put these increases in context, they are greater overall than all the combined increases provided for in the past six budgets. Moreover, this is only the first of three annual increases which will see investment in this payment rise by £1 billion by 2003, almost a threefold increase. By the end of this period, a family with four children will be receiving £527 per month in child benefit or the equivalent of £120 per week. As a first step this year, the same family will receive £307 per month or £70 per week.
These major increases will be payable to all families; to those who choose to go out to work and who use paid child care to those with informal child care arrangements; and to those who choose to work in the home and care for children in that way. The increases will be payable from June 2001 – a full three months earlier than normal to more than half a million families with over one million children. We will work towards bringing the increases back even earlier in future years. This measure represents a substantial step on the way to meeting the child benefit commitment set out in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
 Section 7 increases the weekly income thresholds for family income supplement from May next which will lead to a net gain of £15 per week in the average FIS payment for some 13,500 families. Section 12 provides for the payment of four additional weeks of maternity and adoptive benefits. The extended period of maternity and adoptive leave and benefit apply to those commencing such leave with effect from today, 8 March – International Women's Day.
Mr. D. Ahern: Sections 8 and 9 provide for the implementation of a package of PRSI measures as announced in the Budget Statement. These include: a reduction of 0.5% to 4% in the main employee rate; an increase in the earnings ceiling for employees' PRSI contributions; the abolition of the employer ceiling; a reduction of 2% to 3% in the rate of social insurance applicable to the self-employed, and the abolition of the annual earnings ceiling for the self-employed. Section 10 provides for an increase in the earnings ceiling for payment of optional contributions and section 11 provides for reductions in the rates of voluntary contributions.
The abolition of the employers' ceiling has given rise to some debate in recent weeks. The Minister for Finance made it clear in his Budget Statement that the initiative regarding the ceiling must be seen in the context of other measures which have provided and will continue to provide for substantial reductions in business taxation. It should also be seen in the context of reductions in the levels of PRSI payable by employers in recent years. For example, changes in corporation tax in the recent budget will benefit employers by £214 million in a full year, substantially more that the projected yield of £159 million from the employer PRSI change.
Irish social insurance levels are low when compared with our European partners. This will continue to be the case following the recently announced changes. For example, the combined employer and employee contribution payable in Ireland is lower at all income levels above £136 per week than its UK equivalent when compared on a pound for pound basis. It should be noted that there has been no employer ceiling in the United Kingdom for many years and all benefits in kind are liable for an employer contribution.
The valuable role of carers in society is irreplaceable. No other Government has been as committed to supporting carers as this one. We have delivered on a wide range of measures both in terms of income support and services provided, but we accept that more needs to be done. In addition to substantial rate increases, the budget provided for a number of measures to support carers. In particular, it made provision for a substantial increase from April 2001 in the income disregards in the carer's allowance means test from £75 to £ 125 for a single person and from £150 to £250 for a couple.
 This will enable more than 5,000 new carers to qualify for carer's allowance, bringing the overall number on the allowance to more than 22,000 by the end of year. Almost 3,000 existing carers will receive an increased payment. This measure will be implemented by way of regulation. The effect of this increase will be that a couple with two children earning a joint income in the region of £15,100 will qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, while a couple in receipt of £25,100 will qualify for the minimum carer's allowance plus the free schemes and the respite care grant.
The income disregards I have introduced exceed the income limits for the minimum wage rate for joint income households and ensure that carers receive a maximum allowance. I envisage moving towards what I see as the optimum situation, whereby all carers whose joint family income is at the rate of average industrial earnings will qualify for the carer's allowance at the maximum rate, and we are not very far from that at present.
One of the many measures I introduced in 1999 was an annual respite care grant. The budget provided for a further enhancement of this payment by an increase in the amount of the grant from £300 to £400. In addition, carers who care for more than one care recipient will be entitled to a double respite care grant of £800. These increases will become effective in June 2001 when the grant is next due.
Section 16 provides for the removal of the limitation on income support payable to a couple on disability allowance. At present, the overall amount paid where a couple claims certain payments may not exceed the personal rate plus the increase for the qualified adult. This measure will abolish the limitation of disability allowance with any other social welfare income support scheme. Some 1,000 persons will benefit from this measure by between £17.30 and £31.50 per week.
Section 17 provides for the extension of the £6 living alone allowance to recipients of disability allowance, invalidity pension, unemployability supplement and blind person's pension, irrespective of age, with effect from April 2001. I am sure Senators will welcome this initiative. It is estimated that 10,000 recipients will qualify for the additional supplement. The overall increase for this group, when account is taken of the general increase of £8 per week, will be £14 per week.
Section 13 introduces a number of improvements in the means test for social assistance payments, including the extension of the sale of residence arrangements to recipients of disability allowance and blind person's pension.
Section 20 provides for changes to the existing contribution conditions for certain short-term social insurance benefits. The change involves an alternative contribution condition for these benefits. This will make access to these benefits more flexible for part-time and casual workers. The proposed new arrangements will benefit about 21,000 employees, in particular those job sharing  and work sharing. It will allow people who do not meet the current contribution conditions to claim short-term benefits if they have 26 contributions paid in the relevant year and 26 contributions paid in the previous year. This measure represents another significant development of the social insurance system. Access to short-term benefits will now be more flexible. This flexibility will reflect developments in the changing working environment and will be of particular value to those who have to combine work with family responsibilities.
Section 21 provides for a change in the assessment of maintenance payments under the one parent family payment scheme. A disregard of up to £75 per week in respect of housing costs is applied to maintenance payments received by the lone parent and the balance is assessed as means. This section improves the position by providing that the balance of any maintenance payments over and above that allowed for housing costs will be assessed at 50%. This proposal has many advantages. It means that lone parents will make clear gains from any maintenance they receive. I hope this change will also act as an incentive for the other parents to pay maintenance as their children will benefit directly from any support offered.
Last year the Government decided the time was opportune to align the income tax year with the calendar year with effect from 1 January 2002. This will pay dividends in future in a more rational system which is in line with the tax systems in most EU and OECD countries. I am pleased the Government agreed that the weekly social welfare rates will be increased in 2002 with effect from the first week in January. This gain to all social welfare recipients is being made at a substantial cost to the Exchequer of £85 million.
To facilitate the introduction of the calendar basis tax year the next tax year will be a short one, running from 6 April to 31 December 2001. I provide in Part 5 for transitional measures to ensure that PRSI-based social insurance entitlements earned during the short tax year are fully protected. This will mean, in effect, that every person who has paid PRSI contributions in this period will have 14 additional paid contributions added to their PRSI record. This will ensure that no one will be disadvantaged as a consequence of the once-off transitional year. Equally, no one will pay more PRSI than they normally do in a calendar year.
Part 6 deals with the implementation of the Government's plans for the changeover to the euro within the social welfare code. Senators will be familiar with the background to these measures. The Government is committed to ensuring that the changeover to the euro is carried out fairly and with no advantage being sought from the changeover. Accordingly, in changing the rates of social welfare payments to convenient euro amounts, they will in all cases be rounded up to the nearest ten cents. In effect, people on social welfare will gain. Equally, PRSI  rates have been rounded to the nearest euro in such a way as to favour the citizen. I assure Senators that my Department will undertake an extensive information campaign aimed at ensuring that all social welfare recipients are fully aware of the general effects of the changeover to the euro and also the effects for their own payments.
Mr. D. Ahern: We have gone from a nation with high tax, high unemployment and low growth to one with low taxes, sustained economic growth and, effectively, full employment. I remind Senator Connor that we stand on our record. In four short years we have turned around our social welfare system from one that simply compensated people for economic failure to one which helps people to help themselves, which helps people who can work to get work and which supports older people, children, carers and people with disabilities.
The Bill is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to looking after the needs of children, older people, carers and others dependent on the social welfare system. It will ensure that the resources of this unprecedented social welfare package of £850 million in a full year, an increase on that announced in the budget and more than double what it was last year, will be directed at those most in need. I commend the Bill to the Seanad.
Ms Keogh: Debate on the Bill in the other House finished late last night and it is a pity there was not an opportunity to examine in depth the debate on Report Stage. That said, I am glad we are debating the Bill.
The Minister began his contribution by placing the Bill in the context of the economy. He spoke eloquently of our economic performance. We are all aware of the enormous economic strides we have made. Unfortunately, one of the enduring characteristics of the economy is that huge areas of disadvantage still exist. Certain issues are not being addressed. Money is sometimes thrown at problems, for example, in the health services, without any improvement and sometimes a disimprovement in services. That must be addressed. Despite a number of good measures in the Bill, it misses the target and is, therefore, ineffective in a number of areas.
Rather than talk about economic developments etc., I would have preferred if the Minister had spoken about his vision of the social welfare system and how it can work in a cohesive way. Is there a cohesive plan given that the system is being altered? More money will be provided in certain areas, but there is no vision in relation to equality and disadvantage in society. There  should be more measures to lift families out of poverty traps and alleviate the scandal that many children live in poverty. It has been suggested that 25% of children live in poverty. This is incredible, but also extremely sad and disturbing given the level of economic development.
Inflation has risen steadily over the past year, but, undoubtedly, the recipients of social welfare payments are worst hit. Therefore, it is essential that their incomes are improved in real terms. As the Minister said, there is a huge budget surplus. The country has a real chance to eradicate inequalities in society. We should focus on the fundamental causes of poverty and ensure there is not a two tier system in the health services or under the social welfare system. This view is shared by many people and one of those who indicted the Government in this regard was CORI. Its justice commission spoke about the last budget in the following terms:
With sufficient resources available to enable it to eliminate income poverty, the Government instead chose to give resources to those who are already better off. As a result, the legacy of four budgets is to have substantially widened the gap between rich and poor.
This was not the objective, but that is the view of people who are fundamentally dedicated to the elimination of disadvantage, poverty and inequality in society. We must listen to them. They demand political leadership to ensure the country's prosperity benefits all areas of society and that everybody is treated fairly. However, according to the justice commission, the Government refused to hear the cry of the poor.
There has been a decline in expenditure on social welfare as a percentage of GNP over the past three years. In addition, the benefit of increases were, unfortunately, eroded by inflation. We do not want people further marginalised in society. There is supposed to be an anti-poverty strategy and I want to know more about what the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs thinks about the bold initiatives that will ensure equality for everybody in society. There should be more recognition of those who have done so much to underpin the economy's success over recent years. Sadly, more than 20% of the population live below the 50% poverty line outlined in the national anti-poverty strategy.
It would be a sad legacy if one of the Government's main achievements was the widening of the gap between the rich and poor in society. The Minister must listen to the people who are in the front line and who deal, on a daily basis, with the effects of poverty in society. As the Minister is aware, these organisations, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the INOU and others, sought much larger social welfare increases than were obtained. We all agree that the true measure of a Government is the way it looks after those who are least well off in society. Irish people have an innate sense of fairness. Nobody wants people liv ing in poverty or people sleeping on the streets, which is so evident in society now. They want homeless and hopeless people, the drop-outs in society, looked after. They do not want their sons or daughters to be unable to buy their own homes and they do not want thousands of people on local authority housing lists who are unable to even aspire to owning their own homes. They do not want people, particularly the elderly, to live in poverty and they want those who look after the deprived, the disabled and the ill in society to be properly considered.
The Minister pointed out the increases the Government paid, for example, the welcome increase for pensioners. It is right that those who contributed so much to society should not find themselves in poverty in their old age. However, the non-contributory pension is still only £95.50. There are anomalies and I wish to highlight some of the areas where the Government has an opportunity to make a real difference to people's lives and in terms of equity in society. It could make a real difference to the quality of the lives of people who are dependent on social welfare payments. One issue which is a hobby horse of mine – I do not make any apologies for that – is the provision for carers.
According to the Department, there are approximately 52,000 carers in Ireland, 20,000 of whom are eligible for the carer's allowance. It could be said that, at last, the Government has given some recognition to the role of carers in society. However, it is not enough. I would have preferred a broad package of measures aimed at bringing about a significant improvement in support for carers. Despite the improvements, the Government was tardy in initiating the carer's benefit. This meant that up to December 2000, only 11 people had been approved for carer's benefit. Up to the introduction of the Carer's Leave Bill, only 200 applications had been made. At the end of his contribution, the Minister mentioned information. Was that due to a lack of information or a lack of will?
A cost of care payment should be introduced to offset the additional costs involved in caring for someone in one's home. These costs could be medical, heating, special transport etc. and the payment should not be means tested, but based on medical criteria. Any means test should be relaxed to ensure that at least another 23,000 people could claim the allowance. The Fine Gael Party wants the respite grant doubled and extended to all carers. We want to ensure that carers receive full PRSI credits. We also want the medical fee scheme extended to cover the cost of medical reports of those who have been refused a carer's allowance on medical grounds. The people who receive a carer's allowance should be allowed to keep any other allowance to which they are entitled.
I speak about this area with the benefit of a great deal of personal knowledge. I looked after my elderly and disabled parents in my home for seven years. I was fortunate to be able to do this  and I understand the extent of the costs that can arise not only in monetary terms, but the personal cost to the people who give care 24 hours a day. I was fortunate to be able to rely on others during the day, but some people do not have that benefit. Support for carers must include ensuring that they have sufficient resources. However, we must also recognise that their quality of life must be enhanced and respite care is utterly essential in that regard.
It is unacceptable that so many carers are excluded from the allowance. It is essential that the payments are on the basis of the care needs of those being looked after and not the financial means of their relatives. We are faced with the prospect that it could take approximately 20 years to bring all carers into the carer's allowance scheme. We should not have a miserly attitude towards carers. The Government should provide support at every level for those who save the State money by looking after the infirm and the elderly in their own homes. As politicians, we are all aware from our advice clinics, visiting people in their homes and the many calls we receive from people under extreme duress of the necessity to provide support and respite care so carers get a break and do not fall into ill health themselves, which often happens. How many times have we listened to the tale of the elderly man or woman looking after their spouse and, as is said colloquially, the carer goes first? On numerous occasions, because of the stress and strain people are under in providing full-time care, the carer is the one whose health breaks down first.
We must think of people with disabilities who are often looked after by elderly parents. This is International Women's Day, as referred to on the Order of Business, but very often it is women and mothers who do this work, even though it requires family effort and support to care for a disabled person. Given that the mother is often the homemaker, she is the one who must give up her life to care for a disabled person. People do not do this job for reward. They see it as their duty and do it out of love for their children. These people should be valued in society. We should not put more stress and strain on these people or make their lives more difficult because of a lack of respite care and funding.
I will give credit where credit is due to the Minister for extending the living alone allowance to recipients of disability allowance, invalidity pension, unemployability supplement and blind pension. The sad fact is, however, that he did not do what many hoped. He did not use his position to ensure a fundamental sea change in the social welfare system which would underpin a fair, equal and just society. I mentioned the reaction to the budget of many organisations involved in the social partnership. The voluntary community sector threatened to withdraw from the partnership because they felt the budget is a betrayal. We now realise that the social welfare system does not redress the balance as it should.
 I acknowledge the good aspects in this Bill, including the increases. I welcome any measures to alleviate hardship for people. However, I would like some vision in this regard. There is nothing in the Bill to ensure the policies on equality, the economy or health and social welfare will in a strategic way bring about equality in society. The Minister has either not thought about a number of issues or he does not believe they are sufficiently important to address at this stage. I am talking about equality issues and the need for a strategy in relation to equality under the social welfare code. It is not a great surprise that I should be concerned about the issue of equality for women. The notion of adult dependency for women still exists. The qualified adult allowance, despite its gender neutral title, has the effect of keeping women dependent. This means that some women who do not work outside the home can only work for a restricted number of hours. This age old discrimination has not been dealt with. Older women were discriminated against in the past. The Minister was asked would he consider extending the home care credit system to those who were carers before 1994. That would allow some older women to qualify for pensions as of right. It would also recognise the contribution they have made in the past by giving them credit for the work which is not recognised as far as pensions are concerned.
I welcome the extension of the duration of payments for maternity and adoptive benefit. I must, however, admit to a degree of disappointment. I would like maternity leave to be extended to at least 20 weeks. There is no mention of introducing payment for parental leave. The sad fact is that we may pay all the lip service we wish in this regard but, until parental leave is paid, people will not avail of it because they cannot afford to do so. When one takes into account the cost of child care and so on, it is totally unrealistic to assume that parental leave will be taken up without some reimbursement.
I agree that child benefit is the best means of providing a basic income for children. However, it is not a means for providing for child care. It is a contribution to the costs of rearing children. Child care is a separate issue and should be dealt with separately. It is a great cost and any of us on local authorities will be aware of the difficulties on the supply side in relation to obtaining planning permission to provide the necessary spaces and the difficulty in relation to the size of premises and so on. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council had to change its development plan in this regard. The most difficult issue for young couples, particularly for those lucky enough to have a house and who must pay large mortgages, is the cost of child care. This issue should be addressed in the context of a child care policy. There seems to be a belief that the cost of child care should cover every aspect. We must look at child care costs in the context of the social welfare  and tax system. This issue has not been dealt with.
Given the structure of the social welfare system, it is a disincentive to young couples to live in stable households and raise their children in that context. A recent report on one parent families identified the need for a phased programme of change in the arrangements for cohabiting and married couples so that there is not a substantial financial penalty on them for raising their children together. Couples who would prefer to live together cannot do so because of the payments system. These people are being discriminated against.
I welcome the increases in the social welfare payments. These are not being mirrored in other areas of the social services. The medical card income guidelines should be examined. This is a particular difficulty for people under 70 whose only source of income is a social welfare pension. The Minister listed in reasonable detail the various aspects of the Bill. I do not think there is any prospect of my amendments being accepted because the Minister did not have a very open mind in the other House, which I regret. When we talk about the social welfare system, we should all be on the same side. We are all trying to ensure there is a fairer society. Even though I am critical of the Minister for his lack of vision in this area, I am not saying he is doing no good. I would like him to have a more open mind in relation to my amendments.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. I am sorry that a real opportunity has been lost in the context of the Bill. It is workmanlike legislation and provides increases which are welcome. However, it has missed many opportunities. Much more could have been done for those who fall between the cracks all the time. It is the duty of Government to take the lead in providing a fair society. On International Women's Day, it is a pity that the significance of this was lost on the Minister who did not do more to encourage and support women.
Ms Leonard: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, to the House. I also welcome the Social Welfare Bill. I agree with Senator Keogh that a Government will be judged on the way it treats the less well off in society. History will judge the Minister and the Government kindly for their efforts to address the needs of the less well off.
Senator Keogh said that CORI criticised the budget for looking after the better off. She failed to recognise that all measures agreed with the social partners, including CORI, in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness were included. It would, therefore, be incorrect to say CORI criticised the budget when it had agreed to many of its measures.
Ms Leonard: It is very easy to say things in Opposition. It will be a long time before the Senator's party will be in Government. While the Opposition is about aspirations, it is a pity it missed the opportunity to welcome the Bill, especially in view of the improvements that have been introduced.
Senator Keogh said the Bill was a lost opportunity, despite the fact that it provides for increases amounting to £850 million. Total expenditure on social welfare this year will be over £6 billion, an increase of £1.5 billion from the time the Government took office. Senator Keogh says the Minister has no vision, yet his speech indicates otherwise. He said that in the four years since the Government took up office it has turned the social welfare system from one that compensates people for economic failure to one that helps them to help themselves. Helping people to help themselves means putting money in the pocket of the least well off.
Since 1997, the contributory old age pension has increased from £78 per week to £106 per week. On taking up office the Government made a commitment to increase the pension to £100. That has been surpassed and a further budget is due. The non-contributory old age pension has been increased to £95.50 with a promise that it will be increased to over £100. I have no doubt the Government will exceed that. The extension of the free schemes to all people over 70 years of age is hugely important, although it has not received much publicity.
The Bill has been criticised for its failure to tackle poverty. In fairness to the Government, the Bill is family oriented, especially towards removing children from poverty. The Minister is responsible for child benefit, but the Government is addressing the overall issue of child care on a comprehensive basis. This includes changes introduced by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, capital provision for the development of child care facilities and the funding allocated to the ongoing cost of child care and to community child care centres. Since 1997 child benefits have increased significantly for the first two children from £30 per month each to £67.50. They have increased to £86 for the third and subsequent children.
Last year in the House I said that the provision of child benefit was the most equitable way to tackle the child care issue, regardless of whether the parents work or remain in the home. Since taking office the Government has increased expenditure on child benefit from £397 million to £761 million this year. The Minister indicated that expenditure will reach £1 billion over the coming years.
Another aspect of this family oriented Bill that I welcome is the increase in maternity leave, by four weeks of paid and four weeks of unpaid leave. The time a mother spends with her family following the birth of a baby is most important for any family in terms of adjustment, not only for the mother but for the entire family. The  extended leave gives women who wish to return to the workforce extra quality time with their children.
The maternity benefit should not stipulate that mothers should take four weeks leave prior to the date of delivery. I understand the Attorney General has advised this cannot be changed because of an EU directive. However, a mother and her obstetrician are in the best position to know the state of her health and whether she should take leave prior to or after delivery. I will continue to seek change in this area.
Senator Keogh referred to women in the home who are not entitled to pension benefits. The Minister initiated a review of pensions, one of the aims of which was to consider the position of women who take time off work to be with their family in the home. The review is considering the extension of full pension rights to women in the home. The Minister is to be complimented on that.
Senator Keogh referred to the difficulties encountered by social welfare recipients in receiving medical cards. My understanding is that all such recipients are entitled to them. There is a need to be correct in what is said here.
The issue of carers is raised on an annual basis in the Social Welfare Bill. The carer's allowance is an income support; it is not a payment for caring. When the Government took up office in 1997, 9,000 people were entitled to the carer's allowance. That has been increased to over 17,000. The changes in the income disregard for this year mean that an extra 5,000 carers will be entitled to the allowance, while a further 3,000 will be entitled to an increase in their allowance.
A review of the carer's allowance, which took place in 1998, recommended the income disregard should be left at £75 for a single carer and £125 for a married couple caring. I particularly welcome the increase in the income disregard introduced in the budget of £125 for a single carer and £250 for a married couple caring.
Senator Keogh mentioned that the means test for the carer's allowance should be abolished, but that would be ludicrous. The abolition of the means test would cost the Exchequer £129 million. It would mean the money allocated to that scheme would be split across the board, with the result that those whom we are trying to support would lose out. We are all aware carers work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are people who are not in need of that income support. We should target those who really need the money available for carers.
The issue of carers was discussed at a recent cross-Border North-South conference. It is important to note the Minister was commended and congratulated on his efforts to improve the life of carers as opposed to our counterparts in Northern Ireland and in the UK. The UK was criticised regarding its welfare to work scheme. It was carers rather than professionals who spoke  about this issue and the Minister was congratulated by carers on the work he has done for them.
Senator Keogh spoke about a lack of vision on the part of the Minister and said she was disappointed there was not a change in the social welfare system. One must take account of the changes that have been made. The Opposition says we have lost out on opportunities. We were told a few weeks ago the Government was over-spending. It was popular to say that at the time and that is the job of Opposition. In reality the changes and policies put in place by the Government have meant not only that we have such a healthy economy but we are bringing the standard of living of the people up to the level we targeted and promised.
A complaint was made over many years that it did not pay people to come off social welfare benefit to return to work. The sum of £1 in every £4 of social welfare expenditure was spend on supports for those employed and unemployed when my party took office, compared to £1 in every £7 of such expenditure today. More than 30% of that expenditure is allocated to the back to work and back to education and training schemes.
It is important to break the vicious cycle of unemployment. The policies adopted by the Government to lower taxes, introduce a minimum wage and the introduction of attractive incentives to encourage persons who are unemployed to return to work, including the retention of their benefits for a period of time, have been extremely important in breaking that cycle and in bringing people back into the workforce. The way out of poverty is to give people a job and to help people to care for their children by allocating money to child care. It is wrong to criticise the Government since it has initiated these measures.
Many old age pensioners who retire from work at the age of 66 are relatively young, healthy and well fit to contribute to society and want to return to the workplace. We must ensure they do not lose out on any of their benefits, including their pension entitlements, as they have worked and earned their pensions and must be allowed back into the workforce, if they so wish.
Some community employment schemes are finding it difficult to get people to participate. While this matter is not directly the responsibility of the Minister, those people are in receipt of social welfare assistance. Many people in the 50 to 65 age bracket participating in those schemes provide an essential service in their local communities, but the rules governing the schemes stipulate they can no longer participate after a certain period. That is unfortunate, as many of those people will be at a complete loss. Many of them have been unemployed for many years, as they are not at a stage where they can be retained or re-educated. Their participation in these schemes represents a major input they have made in their communities. Many of these people who are over the age of 50 should be allowed to con tinue to participate in these schemes where there is a difficulty in getting people to take up these positions.
The Government's aim has been to bring people's standard of living up to an acceptable level. We promised in 1997 that we would look after the elderly and we have done that by way of various increases in old age pensions and improvements in all the free schemes. We have also made increases in child benefit and promised we will increase it up to £100 per child in the coming years, which was agreed by in the PPF and by the voluntary sector. We have also improved the position of carers. While one can never do enough, particularly for carers, we have gone a long way towards achieving our objective in the number of years we have been in office,
With regard to the Government's vision, one need only consider the unemployment figures, the number of people who have returned to education, approximately 5,000 and the number of people who have returned to work, approximately 34,000. If Members want to talk about vision, that has been our vision. On coming into Government we said that we would reduce taxes and the number unemployed and even Senator Keogh would have to acknowledge the improvements we have made on those fronts.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and sincerely hope the Opposition, which has been short-sighted in its comments, will recognise the major improvements provided for. I am disappointed my great socialist colleagues from the left, or so-called left, politically speaking, are not here to emphasise the improvements the Minister has made. They are exceptionally good for all aspects of society, the young, the old, the carers and the sick.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moffatt, to the House. I welcome the Bill, which has been well covered by Senators Keogh and Leonard. Of course there are areas where we can never do enough. Sometimes it is very depressing to hear Ministers saying that the country is awash with money and yet we can obviously see people who are desperately in need of more money just to run their daily lives. This is an anachronism which the Government should address. If we are awash with money, why cannot those who are in real need get some more?
I certainly would support Senator Keogh's comments regarding carers. The debacle regarding the retention of money from elderly people in nursing homes shows how badly we are catering for them. Rather than congratulating ourselves too much in this time of great plenty, we should really try to see what more we can do for elderly people and for those who care for them.
The extension of the provision of medical cards to all those over 70 is a great boon to many of them because some people on private pensions live on little more than those on the poverty threshold. It is unfortunate that my medical colleagues were not consulted about this before it was introduced because naturally it caused some acrimony. I would have thought that there are only a few of those over 70 who are really very rich. A large number of those over 70 are trying to exist on relatively modest pensions.
I congratulate those who work in the Department on the much improved attitude towards those on social welfare. Years ago I remember that, as a doctor, one constantly came across people experiencing difficulty in availing of disability and long-term sickness benefits. There seems to be a much better attitude within the Department nowadays. I know there are people found to be making fraudulent claims but when we now look at what has been going on in the body politic and in business regarding fraudulent attitudes to the tax system, one can hardly blame those on meagre amounts of money for trying to get as much as they could out of it. It was a good idea to equalise many of the payments because it is not advantageous for people to say that they have a long-term illness when in fact they are really long-term unemployable because of their  illness. It is better to move such people from one category to the other.
I also congratulate the Department's staff on their enthusiasm in trying to get some of those on social welfare into either education or back into employment. We want to try to keep the view that there is a large number of people on social welfare who in fact could be helped into employment and we must make sure we do our best in that regard.
There is only one area where I would have some complaints, which, unfortunately, is an area which was also addressed on the Order of Business today, that is, the problem regarding women who are forced to work in prostitution. This is the one area where I have not had replies to my letters because of course women involved in prostitution do not pay social welfare credits. I have found that when they are trying to get out of it, they have great difficulty in getting into the social welfare system, which might be the first step in getting into employment. I greatly applaud the work of those in Ruhama who are trying to help women who wish to get out of prostitution, be they Irish women or women who have been imported from abroad. The position of such women from abroad is truly dreadful because of course they do not know how our system works. I would suggest that this is a small area in which the Department might co-ordinate efforts with Ruhama and encourage these women to leave prostitution.
Carers and single mothers are two categories on which I have spoken a great deal in the past. It is good to see the position improved for carers but there is a serious situation where so many people are now obliged, due to the lack of day facilities in particular, and the shortage of public health nurses, to give up their jobs to care for a relative. Such people spend years out of the workforce and, in fact, nearly end up in need of care themselves. They must spend so much time away from their jobs that eventually somebody must be put into these positions and there is no job for them when they want to return to work. I do not underestimate nor do I want to understate the anger of those who feel their contribution to society is not acknowledged, and this is another area we need to address.
The situation of single mothers has improved greatly. We in Cherish try to do our best to encourage young women who have children to take up all the educational opportunities available to them. Unfortunately we constantly encounter a problem regarding child care. This is really serious because you find that good courses are set up at adult education level but sometimes they are in the evening and there is no child care available for those young women who might want to take them up. We must address this problem because no one wants to see any young woman confined to a life on social welfare.
 It is unfortunate that we in this country are always inclined to look only at the British social welfare model. I have been very impressed by the social welfare system in France. The first area I looked at was that of single mothers. In France, there are massive supports given to the maman solo. There is an enthusiastic support system to try to ensure if they are at school level they continue at school, if they are at college level they continue at college, and if they are at work they are given support to get back to work as soon as possible. These supports are so effective that by the time the child is five, 90% of single French mothers are actually no longer on social security. This is really what the Department should aim to achieve.
I saw a comparison done between France and Scotland, and I am inclined to think that the position in Ireland would be much the same as that in Scotland. In the case of Scotland, I do not think that even 30% of single women were back at work. Some 80% were still on social welfare by the time the child was five, which is a total reverse of the position in France. I would suggest that we need to look at this more closely.
I am also very enthusiastic about trying to combine getting people into employment and moving them out of the social welfare system if they are able. I was also impressed by a new system introduced in France a few years ago, that is, the cheque emploi service. This was introduced by the employment service. I will go briefly through the criteria of the system. This is a method of employment which permits remuneration of somebody who works in a person's principal or secondary residence. It must be someone who works in a person's home. They say that it greatly simplifies the administration and the social security system. Every person is entitled to employ a person in his or her home. Indeed, they can employ more than one person, but they can only pay up to 45,000 francs a year for such employment. The benefit for the employees is that all their social security contributions are paid for them by the employer. In addition, it benefits the employers because they get back, by way of a tax rebate, 50% of the cost of employing such people. It seemed to me to be an extraordinarily good system, especially if one wants to move people out of the black economy.
There are other advantages. Even though parents cannot be beneficiaries, it applies to all people employed on domestic tasks. It applies to tutors, child minders, cleaners, gardeners and people looking after the ill, the elderly and the handicapped. This would be a great help as a method of providing tax relief to child minders and carers.
The system requires that employers buy the cheque emploi service from a financial institution. They buy 20 cheques from their bank, the money is taken out of their account and each week the  employees are given a cheque which they take to the social security or employment office. The tax credit goes back to the employer and the social security is paid for the employee. There are various stipulations to prevent abuse. It does not cover employees related to one's professional life. It could not be used to pay one's secretary, nor does it cover people whom one employs outside the house – for example, one could not use it to employ a person to work in someone else's garden. It also does not apply to societies, associations and so on. It is a domestic arrangement that would suit us very well as it has advantages for both the employer and the employee.
The system requires ensuring that the employee is a national or a legal immigrant. It is specifically stated that foreigners must have all the required work permits. Perhaps people in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs could be asked to have a look at this idea. They have had to bear with my terrible translation, but I am quite sure there is someone in the Department with better French than me who could manage to go through it.
There is a huge area here which the French have addressed and I cannot see why we could not do the same. The whole philosophy behind it is very good. It would mean that people, who at the moment have no tax relief, would be made proper employees. It would get us out of the unfortunate situation where we have irregular employment arrangements. I am fed up with this because it is women who are at the greatest disadvantage. They are not in the social welfare system and they may realise at a later stage that they would have been better off in the occupational pension system. I would be grateful if the Department would look at this issue and if we could bring in our own cheque emploi service.
Miss Quill: This is a very fine Bill and the Government can be proud of the result of its deliberation and action. As a member of a party in government, I give it my total support. However, I find it immensely disappointing that the Minister presents this Bill as Fianna Fáil thinking. He said in his conclusion that in just over a decade Fianna Fáil has turned around the economy. This is a two-party Government and it was extremely churlish of the Minister not to acknowledge that in his speech. I ask the Minister to ensure that that is remedied when he replies to this debate later in the day.
I heard someone in the other House accused recently of having a hard neck. I would not be quick to use the phrase, but it takes a really hard neck for the major party in the coalition not to acknowledge the input of the other party. I will say no more about it because I know the Minister will address it later in the day. All I am asking for is the courtesy of acknowledging the truth.
If there has been one change in the past four years it is that a large number of people have  moved out of social welfare and into employment. That has been the great success story of this Government. To seek to deny the input of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, in making that happen is a gross denial of the truth. Her energy in increasing job creation, generating foreign investment and selling Ireland abroad ought to be acknowledged. The introduction of the minimum wage, making it attractive for people to leave social welfare, was initiated by her and her Department before being taken on board by the Government. She has policed taxation, in conjunction with our Government partners, to make it attractive for investment to come here. These are the factors that have given us our working economy. This is the product of partnership and working to a common agenda.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. He impresses me in the quiet, efficient manner in which he has delivered over recent years. The manner in which he has streamlined the delivery of services has been impressive. The measures announced in this Bill are due entirely to initiatives taken by him. He has fought around the Cabinet table and has been a success in his portfolio. The Progressive Democrats have always argued that the greatest weapon against poverty is a job. We have pursued that belief consistently in government and we have proven its merits. The level of poverty that remains has been well outlined by speakers here. The weapon with which we must tackle poverty is education. We must look to education to lift people from the poverty trap. Unless we can get people to engage with education, acquire, update and upgrade their skills and make themselves employable, we stand to perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next.
All the initiatives announced in the Bill are very welcome because the size of the family budget is a major determinant in whether people live below the poverty line. Simply put, real poverty is where on Thursday night the cash has run out and there is no money to put bread on the table on Friday morning. Teachers in primary schools will say that there are children who go to school without breakfast. That is a matter we all have to seek to address. What hope do these children have? How can they compete equally in our system of education with children who go to school physically, emotionally and psychologically well nourished? These poor little waifs who go to school without breakfast are condemned to being at the bottom of the pile for the remainder of their days unless something extraordinary happens within. Only those with extraordinary grit and determination can rise above this initial handicap. There are people living poverty and there are places where poverty is endemic. We should seek to build anti-poverty strategies around education.
 This morning I mentioned that poverty besets single parents, particularly young single parents. In many cases they are caught in a poverty trap and their only leverage is education. Senator Henry spoke about a system that works in France. It only works because young people have certain skills enabling them to bid for employment. If we are to seriously tackle the poverty that surrounds single parenthood, we will have to adopt a multifaceted approach. We must use education, in particular, to encourage the people concerned to upgrade and update their skills to enable them to compete for the job vacancies going a-begging in every town and city. They will only be able do this if they have the necessary skills to enable them to bid successfully for the jobs in question. Our efforts to tackle poverty, which I have identified as a feature of a number of young single mothers, will have to be centred on the provision of education.
There are a number of steps that can be taken by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. Although a number of the measures and key initiatives taken to make it more financially attractive for people in such a position to take up jobs are beginning to work, there are other issues and blockages which make it more financially attractive for young single people not to seek to take up employment, but to stay as they are. These have been well enumerated during the debate. This is an area to which I ask the Minister to apply himself with a view to unleashing the potential of the young people concerned and placing them in employment. Not only would it help their future, invariably, it would help the future of their children.
If small children grow up in an environment in which they never see people get up in the morning, go to work and bring home the bread in the traditional way of doing things, it will colour their thinking. If they grow up in an environment in which people go out to work, earn a wage or salary, bring it home and work within whatever is earned, it will be a most healthy environment. The benefits of seeking to tackle the level of poverty among single mothers in the manner in which I have described would be truly worth the effort. I appeal to the Minister to apply himself to this matter.
If we exclude pensioners and those who will never again work for obvious reasons, the number dependent on social welfare is shrinking, thank God. Because the number is shrinking, we are better positioned to fine-tune our system and to seek to reach out to those still caught in the poverty trap and lift them from it, but it takes more than a benefit from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to do it. An integrated approach spanning education, health provision, housing, which is very important, and social welfare has to be adopted. That type of package needs to be put in place.
 I am particularly pleased with the provision made for pensioners. My party has argued for years for decent provision for pensioners because it is the just and proper thing to do and in acknowledgement that the current level of prosperity we now enjoy has been built on their sweat and backs. The very least we should do is what we have done. Rather than being niggardly or mean-mouthed about it, let us acknowledge that it has been done and compliment the Minister on steering it through and making it happen. We talked about a payment rate of £100, but the Minister has gone beyond it. That was the decent thing to do and I compliment him on it. I ask him to keep an eye on inflation to make sure the benefit is real and will not be eroded by inflation. The indications are that inflation as an issue is not as serious now as it was two or three months ago and stands to be less so. It is important, however, that the benefits given, particularly to older people, are not eaten away by inflation.
I was very pleased to hear that all benefits will be paid as and from the beginning of the calendar year. More than anything else this will make a huge difference as people often became sour. They would read the budget and discover that they were due to receive a couple of pounds more per week or month. On budget night they would puff out their chests and be delighted with themselves, but three or four days later, when the small print of the budget emerged, they would discover they would have to wait until April or June. That soured them. This is the first Government to acknowledge that the system did not work and was a source of dissatisfaction. It tackled the matter and put up the money to enable all payments to be paid from the start of the calendar year. This is of huge psychological as well as financial benefit on which I commend the Minister.
I welcome the extended maternity leave provisions. It is a nice touch that they become active as of today. When International Women's Day comes around, it is like Christmas and St. Patrick's Day. We nod in its direction, but very often forget about it for the remainder of the year. On International Women's Day, we say lovely things about women and there is a bit of plámás, but we do not do anything tangible. It is a very nice touch that the improvements in maternity leave will become effective as and from today. Let that be a precedent for the future.
We talked about poverty earlier. There are a number of single, middle to upper aged women, particularly in rural areas, living in extreme poverty. I do not have the expertise to identify them and design a package to reach them.
I and most speakers talked earlier about single parents. There are unmarried women living alone in farms, small villages or provincial towns in very straitened circumstances and poor conditions. I  recommend that the Minister seek to do more for them.
Children have done well under this Bill. It was correct to make across the board payments to parents and not to seek to create divisions between parents, particularly mothers, who go out to work and those who want to stay at home. Working hours should be made more amenable and flexible to women who want to work and also raise their children. There have been improvements in recent times. In my own profession, for example, there are three and five year career breaks. There is part time work and job sharing. These will all feature strongly in the future. In these circumstances, it is correct to give equal child benefit to parents because parents are parents whether they go out or stay home. That was a well thought out measure on the part of the Government.
During the changeover to euros, instead of levelling down, the Government has decided to level up payments. That is a nice idea. It is a small thing but one that makes a very big difference. I praise the Minister for that.
I support this Bill. This is the fourth such Bill from this Government and there has been a structured improvement both in the amount of the benefits and in streamlining the system and opening it up to transparency. Six or ten years ago social welfare was a labyrinth and it was impossible to find a way around it. A query from a constituent could take half a day to trace through warrens, burrows, holes and hellholes. It was tortuous to do that. It is good that the system has been streamlined.
Mr. O'Dowd: This Bill contains many important, useful, worthwhile and innovative ideas and is putting the money there to pay for them. There is a consensus on poverty between all the agencies and all the political parties.
The response of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to me, through the Minister's office or directly through the Department, either through the hot lines which we have as Members of the Oireachtas or directly dealing with the sections, has been first class. With their computer system, they are extremely efficient and helpful and are focused on the needs of the person on whose behalf I am ringing. If other Departments were even half as good as the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs we would solve many more problems. That is uniform across all sections of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.
I agree with Senator Quill and others about poverty and particularly that faced by single parents. I ask the Minister to clarify whether a single mother, under the age of 23, returning to work is eligible get the benefits of the return to work scheme. I have come across many single mothers going back into the workforce, mostly to part- time work, and they are losing their rent allowance and their medical cards because they are not designated as eligible under that scheme.
A further problem arises with mothers returning to work whereby the community welfare officers are not allowed to take into consideration any child care payments by the mother. If a mother returns to work, while she has an increased income from a single parent's allowance and the money she is getting from the job, child care costs are so high that many of them tell me they will have to give up the job. The loss of rent allowance and medical cards creates a crisis for them, which can only be dealt with by getting out of the workforce, which nobody wants. If it is simple to change the regulations, then that ought be done.
At our clinics, we often see people looking for housing. The rent they are paying is continually increasing. There seems to be an unequal battle between the greedy landlord and the tenant over the rent increases, which occur annually or even more frequently. The community welfare officer generally cannot go above a maximum rent allowance and the people are on edge. The landlords push for more money for in many cases very poor accommodation. There is some legislation in this area but I would like to see more control of rent increases. I acknowledge that the community welfare officers are doing their best.
Some of these flats and apartments have utterly disgraceful facilities. Many of them are totally unfit for human habitation. Some places are rodent infested. Some do not meet the most basic fire requirements of a local authority. I have written about this to the Minister and the Department. The Department should insist on a basic standard of accommodation for anybody getting rent allowance. The premises, for which the Department is paying millions of pounds in rent allowances, should meet very basic minimum standards of heating, lighting, fire safety and facilities. If the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs were to insist on this, the accommodation would significantly improve.
Much of the ill health that children suffer is due to the very damp accommodation in which they live. The incidence of asthma in the north east is increasing at an alarming rate. Something like one in five of children in that area has asthma, a significant amount of which is due to their living conditions. How many parents are coming into the Minister's clinics with children who have very bad respiratory problems? A very significant number are coming to me. We must tackle this through improving the level of accommodation and the rent allowance should be paid only if the accomodation meets basic requirements. I do not deny the power of the local authority in this area, but this nettle must be grasped immediately.
I commend the Minister and the Department on the effort to ensure adequate nourishment for school children. In Drogheda recently, as a result  of community action and interaction between all the statutory agencies and schools, breakfast clubs were set up in St. John's and St. Paul's schools. Now children get a meal in the morning, a snack mid-morning and a lunch. The people involved in providing these meals are the parents, many of them single, and there is a constructive and positive effect on the health and well-being of all. This breakfast club idea, which has been supported by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, should be extended and supported by other State agencies throughout the country.
A major problem with regard to senior citizens in Ireland is that more of them than ought to are dying during winter. A recent survey in the Lancet showed that across Europe a significantly higher proportion of Irish senior citizens died. They identified heating in the home as the reason for this. Many elderly people live in houses without central heating. They should have a better fuel allowance. We need to give a lot more money to senior citizens, especially those living alone. The fuel allowance is just one way of doing this and it ought to be increased. There is a disabled person's grant of up to £16,000 for improvements to homes but the people who approach me, ill or crippled with arthritis and unable to carry buckets of coal, only want proper and adequate heating. There is need to revise the arrangements for funding for central heating, especially for senior citizens. I acknowledge the excellent work done under housing aid to the elderly – over £1 million has been spent in the north-east this year – but aid is not an entitlement. Every senior citizen should be able to prolong his or her health and life by having adequate and proper heating, and more improvements are required.
Another concern is elderly people at risk through illness or lack of interaction with the community. We should have a charter of entitlements for senior citizens. Society is distancing itself from those living alone and the extended family is dying out. In New Jersey there is an ombudsman for senior citizens and people are employed to visit senior citizens in nursing homes and to interact with them and discover their needs. With the breakdown in communication in our society we should consider a similar system. The Department would find many people willing to do this work. Elderly people who are isolated need companionship, their grass cut and other small tasks done for them. This type of initiative would benefit society.
I received a complaint about a widow on a contributory pension who cannot get the allowance for her children if she is on a FÁS scheme, while people on other social welfare benefits can. I will provide details of one or two other examples later. This is a small but important issue. There is no room for complacency in society. Our coffers may be full but there is still a lot of poverty which we must continue to tackle.
 I understand a major social welfare problem has arisen as a result of foot and mouth regulations. People being laid off work because of the regulations are not given entitlements by the Department because technically they are not looking for work. The intervention of the Minister and his Department is required so that payments can be made immediately.
Mr. Glynn: I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this Bill. The Minister has improved the lot of many who are not in a position to help themselves and as a result Ireland is one of the leading lights in the EU in that area. It is difficult for the Opposition to find flaws and faults in a Bill such as this which brings forward the concept of looking after the disadvantaged in society. It is important to note a number of changes made by the Bill.
I note that we are speaking on this Bill on International Women's Day. I extend my appreciation to the women of Ireland for the role they have played in building society and the State. They have made a marvellous contribution, especially in the area of the family. It is regrettable that in almost 22 years of public life the number of males, who with their girlfriends or wives have turned up at my office looking for a house, could be counted on one hand. It is always the woman who seeks to provide a home for her children and I commend them for it.
The Minister has made marvellous improvements, especially for women seeking maintenance. He must ensure that those who have children, either within marriage or otherwise, honour their responsibilities. It is not good enough to be a super stud. There is attendant responsibility to being a parent. Those men who abdicate their responsibilities and pass them on to the taxpayer should be called to task. They must be made honour their commitments not alone to their children but also to their partner.
The Minister has made great strides in this Bill for the care of the elderly. I record my appreciation to Deputy Bobby Molloy in his capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for housing. His housing aid for the elderly scheme is administered by the health boards. This scheme is aimed at those elderly who need bathrooms or roof repairs, for instance. There is again this year a substantial increase in the first tranche of the Minister's allocation to my own health board and I am sure that is replicated around the country. The Minister, Deputy Molloy, and the Progressive Democrats are complementing what the Minister, Deputy Ahern, and other Ministers are doing to improve the lot of those who are unable to look after themselves.
It is true that old bones are cold bones. The extension of the free fuel scheme period is of great benefit to old people and the Minister is planning to expand this scheme in coming years.  We must recognise those who built this State and who struggled through bad times to rear their families, run their farms or hold down jobs. They discharged their responsibilities to society and it has helped us become one of the premier states in the EU today. I am very proud to be a citizen of that State.
When we set out in government to take on a major deficit in the whole area of social welfare, I did not think we would achieve what has been achieved, and I am delighted I was wrong. We have surpassed ourselves. Spending has increased from £4.5 billion in 1997 to over £6 billion in 2001, an increase of just over one third in four short years. The £850 million package provided by the Government in budget 2001 for social welfare improvements is over twice the size of last year's social welfare package and four times that of the rainbow coalition in 1997. This is some achievement.
This means that people dependent on social welfare will benefit this year from increases of between 10% and 18%. These are significant increases. An increase of £10 in the old age pension follows on previous increases of £5, £6 and £7. Compare this to the meagre increases offered by the previous Administration. We all remember the old age pensioner who went to the post office and handed back the meagre increase.
This Bill will bring the pension up to £106. The Government had promised to bring the old age pension up to £100 during its term. There is one more budget to go and the target has already been exceeded by £6. Social welfare payments have been increased by £8. The Minister has given an increase above inflation. In tandem with his colleagues in Government, the Minister is doing his best to reduce the rate of inflation. To look after the disadvantaged, the elderly and social welfare recipients, he has given increases above the rate of inflation.
Efforts to bring people into the workforce have seen spending on social welfare change from the situation where in 1997 £1 in every £4 of total social welfare expenditure was spent on employment and unemployment supports to the position today where £1 in every £7 is spent in that area, while over 30% of employment and unemployment spending goes to help people get back to work and education.
We are not throwing money at the problem. We are taking positive, proactive measures to get people back into the workforce. The numbers on the live register have been reduced during the term of this Government and under this Minister.
Prior to this Government taking office, spending on child benefit stood at £397 million annually. Increases provided for in this Bill will bring spending to £761 million, almost double the 1997 figure. The monthly rate for the first two children is being increased by £25 and the monthly rate for the third and subsequent children is being increased by £30. This is greater than the increase  provided in the past six budgets. The increases of £25 and £30 are in contrast to the measly £1 and £5 provided by the current leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Quinn, in his last two budgets when he was Minister for Finance.
The change in the income cut-off point in the carer's allowance means test from £75 to £125 for a single person will enable more than 5,000 new carers to qualify and almost 3,000 existing carers to receive an increased payment. That is very good news for those providing ongoing care.
Like my colleague, Senator Leonard, I have spent many years in a caring profession. It can often be a very lonely existence because far too often people in society are too eager and too willing to abdicate their responsibilities towards their elderly relatives. They send them to live in an institution and then forget about them.
The extension of the £6 living alone allowance to recipients of disability allowance, invalidity pension, unemployability supplement and blind person's pension is irrespective of age and will come into effect in April 2001. This will be of great benefit to 10,000 recipients. The Minister has looked after a very important section of the disadvantaged in our society.
A disregard of up to £75 per week in respect of housing costs is currently applied to maintenance payments received by lone parents and the balance is assessed by means. This Bill would improve the position by providing that the balance of any maintenance payable over and above that allowed for housing costs would be assessed at 50%. This proposal will mean that lone parents will make clear gains from any maintenance they receive. Every effort should be made to ensure those who should pay maintenance to spouses or partners, where they are estranged, honour their responsibilities.
It is of importance that voluntary and community support services are to receive an extra £1 million for family support services, including marriage schemes and child and bereavement services. Members are aware of the high incidence of suicide, especially among young males. I have been approached on several occasions recently by people seeking to avail of bereavement counselling. I am delighted that there is an excellent bereavement service at Bethany House in Mullingar. Such a service is necessary given that suicide represents one of our greatest problems. Few families have not felt its cold fingers in recent years.
It is important that fair-minded Members on all sides appreciate what the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has done in four short years. He has advanced the concept of social welfare by light years.
Mr. Ryan: It is difficult to object to this budget as it contains much that will, at least marginally, improve the lives of many. The issues must be judged, however, in the context of what is possible and needed, not percentages, however important they may be to some. The Minister claims to be meeting his commitments under the PPF. Perhaps, technically, he is. I will not bother the House by rereading what the Conference of Religious in Ireland had to say in a recent statement on social policy. CORI was part of the social partnership which agreed the PPF. It had a view on what was possible and could be done. Its disillusionment was expressed clearly in the recent statement in which it was stated that when political leadership was required in order that everyone would benefit fairly from our prosperity the Government chose not to hear the cry of the poor. Perhaps the Minister will explain to CORI whether if it is wrong and to all those involved in the voluntary sector, whose views are well reflected in the CORI statement, the reason their passion in campaigning has been frustrated at a time when there are enormous resources available.
I was not a Member of the House nor a member of the Labour Party when it was in government. Yet, it is perfectly clear that the economic context in which budgets were framed up to 1996 was entirely different from the current context. We all make exaggerated claims in politics, but the most exaggerated claim of all is that the Government which took office in 1997 is responsible for the economic good times now being experienced by many in society. There is no dispute that the good times have continued, but many dispute the degree to which the Government's policies have added to or stabilised them.
Each of the infrastructural and housing problems facing the economy was clearly foreseeable four years ago, but they were ignored and allowed to get worse. I do not dispute for one second that the country has been irreversibly transformed. We should get away, however, from silly comparisons about what certain politicians did five or six years ago and look instead at what  we could do. That is the context in which the social welfare system should be judged.
The fundamental judgment on the social welfare system is that we are spending less now than we did four years ago. In 1997 spending accounted for 9.9% of gross national product; it accounts, perhaps, for 7.5% today. There is a gap of almost 2.5%, money which could have been spent in dealing with problems and spreading in a small way our enormous riches. A political decision was made to spend it elsewhere. This change in policy has taken money from the poorest sections of the community by reducing their share of national income and given it in ridiculously generous tax breaks to the very rich in society.
Hiding behind the rhetoric about middle income earners is the reality that a single person on £21,000 per annum will pay the same rate of tax on the final £1,000 of their income under the new tax bands as a person on £101,000. A political philosophy which believes that this is fair cannot be reconciled with a philosophy which believes it is fair to transfer resources to those at the bottom of the pile.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, said on television last week that the Government can do nothing to reduce inequality in society, that “it just happens”. I love his use of those words which suggest that it is akin to winning a bet at the Curragh. Politics should have a bigger role than that. Political commitment and conviction have important roles to play in creating an equal society. We cannot wait for change to “just happen”.
There are many measures in the Bill which should be welcomed, not least of which is the dramatic increase in child benefit which will be of great assistance to those on low incomes. On a personal note – I hope this point will not be used against my party – I have reservations about those earning high incomes receiving child benefit. I am not sure that this is an effective targeting of resources. It is my view that—
Mr. Ryan: We hold the view that debate is healthy. I do not know what decisions the Labour Party may make in the future. We will wait to see what happens when child benefit is trebled. I have no problem with the principle of taxing child benefit when it reaches that level of generosity as long as the payment is left in the mother's hands. A family's income should be taxed but the cash benefit should go to the mother – that is the basic principle to which I have always subscribed. I will hardly change my mind just because I joined the Labour Party. I have not changed my mind about anything just because I joined the party.
The Labour Party is in a position to lecture Fianna Fáil on how to address poverty in a strategic and structured manner. That is why we promised to raise the old age pension to £120 per week retrospectively to 1 January. We believe that when resources are available, it is necessary to do more than just tinker with the system. The Government must be prepared to radically address the issue of redistribution, and the elderly comprise one of the groups most in need of assistance – the Government has stated as much.
Many aspects of the Bill cannot be argued with. However, two tests must be applied to social welfare in an affluent society. The first is to measure the level of need and the second is to ascertain how much we can afford to eliminate the needs which exist. Most social welfare payments for single people are still less that £100 per week – the best is about £105 per week – and all adult dependant payments are less than £100 per week. This is the income level society deems acceptable for people to live on.
Mr. Ryan: Fianna Fáil defines “minor expenditure” as £100 in the Electoral Bill. It views payments of £100 here and there as minor expenditure by a Fianna Fáil candidate in a general election campaign. How can we sing the praises in one Bill of £100 as a generous amount on which a  person is expected to live while it is deemed so small as to be insignificant in another?
Mr. Ryan: Fianna Fáil's problem is that it believes that people should be kept silent and under control. The trade union and left wing movement, of which I have been a member all my life in one form or other, has never believed that people should be controlled, silenced and suppressed. I have criticised the PPF and many other programmes over the years. Many of the trade union movement's aspirations are, in my view, quite limited, narrow and underwhelming in terms of what it is possible to achieve in an affluent society. The Minister can cite whomsoever he wishes but the real issue in Irish society is not what somebody says – I remind him again of CORI's view of the recent budget—
Mr. Ryan: No, it was “major” to which Mr. Haughey took exception. I remember Charles Haughey much better than members of Fianna Fáil who are trying to forget him. The Minister is attempting, as is Fianna Fáil's practice, to airbrush Charlie Haughey out. He and his colleagues are even redefining his quotes to keep him at a safe distance. Of course, religious communities own a great deal of land. When they gave land away cheaply to local authorities in the past, some local authorities promptly rezoned the land, sold it on and made a fortune, of which the religious saw nothing. Members of ageing religious communities are obliged to live on hopelessly inadequate incomes and a consider able element of the money derived from land sales go to boost those incomes.
Fianna Fáil appears to have an inside track on my personal income because whenever I speak about redistribution, my position is questioned. Senator Mooney decided last week that he knew more about my income than I know myself. I did not need a cut in the top rate of income tax, I did not ask for such a cut and I do not work any harder because it has been provided. Nor do I know anyone else in my income bracket who works any harder. I would quite happily pay taxes at the higher rate. Many decent people in this society would much prefer to pay more tax if the Government would address all the issues which need to be addressed. However, that option is not available. This Government is awash with money which it is not prepared to spend. Actions could be taken now which would not upset the public finances or require increased taxation. The only reason those actions are not being taken is that the Government is not prepared to take them. That is the issue we must address, not what Deputy Quinn did when he was Minister for Finance. That is history.
Mr. Ryan: Fianna Fáil should examine the conditions which pertained when that Government, of which Fianna Fáil was a member until it was forced out through a display of political incompetence which still defies description, was in office. How Fianna Fáil got out of government in 1994 is one of the great mysteries.
Mr. Ryan: As Deputy Ned O'Keeffe discovered two weeks ago, the Taoiseach is the best head-hunter of all because he does it without ever touching the person involved. He uses his officials to do the work for him. We could learn all there is to know about head-hunting from the Taoiseach.
Mr. Ryan: This debate is about the Government's view of the world. One particular aspect of the budget which really rankled me was the trumpeted doubling of the mobility allowance for handicapped people and the secretive decision to change the conditions under which disabled driv ers would receive tax benefits. That is incredibly mean-minded and hurts people very much. I know a man who gave up work to care for his wife who has lupus of the spine and is now in a wheelchair. He cashed in his pension fund to buy a car, which was a foolish decision. The next time he will not be able to buy a car for fear of losing the £90 a month mobility allowance. That is the choice he faces. That is incredibly mean-minded.
Mr. Connor: I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, 2001, which for me is an annual event. I have spoken on every Social Welfare Bill during my 20 year career in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I welcome the measures that increase the rates payable to old age pensioners, those in receipt of disability allowance and others. While there has been much boasting on the Government benches about the size of the increases, another side needs to be expressed.
Senator Ryan put it succinctly when he said that in 1996 the economy devoted 9.5% of its income to social welfare. In the current year, the amount is just over 7%. Despite all the growth in the intervening period, a 2% share of the national income has been taken from the most needy in society. The least those who are forced to live on social welfare might have expected from all the economic growth in Ireland was to keep pace with everybody else in society. Extra resources have been used, however, to provide tax breaks  for those whose incomes already afford them more than a comfortable living. The Government has been amenable to pressure and it is considered a greater priority to look after those who are better off than the many who find themselves at the bottom of the pile and have nothing, but social welfare incomes on which to live.
A social welfare income for single persons and couples is one that keeps them on the poverty line. The sum of approximately £100 a week is regarded as what one needs as an adult or adult equivalent to keep body and soul together. This is all that has been achieved despite the level of growth and the additional prosperity. Ireland is now among the 12 wealthiest nations, but the income of those who depend on social assistance is still on the poverty line. This needs to be addressed because people rightly feel resentful that, despite all that has been done in turning the economy around in recent years, they are not getting their share. Old age pensioners rightly feel aggrieved that, despite their years of service and hard work which helped the country to reach a point where it can pay more realistic rates, they are being left out.
Many now aged between 60 years and 70 years worked at a time when the majority of workers were self-employed farmers, small business people, etc, and the law prohibited them from making any contribution towards their pensions. They are now in their twilight years and find that they must live on pensions that just about keep them on the poverty line. Many with non-contributory old age pensions worked all their lives, but they were prohibited by law from making any contributions unless they purchased a private pension. There was little of that culture in society between the 1940s and 1960s.
An income disregard of £7 a week was introduced in 1970. In a means test for a non-contributory old age pension, the first £7 of income is disregarded, but this sum has not been increased in the intervening years. Many non-contributory old age pensioners are small farmers and small business people. For example, a person might keep a small newspaper shop and continue working until he is 70 years of age for social contact reasons. It is something for him or her to do and it keeps him or her alive and active. The fact that he or she earns a few additional pounds from the shop is used, however, to penalise him or her and reduce the maximum rate of pension. This should not happen. Although it affects a diminishing number, this aspect should have been considered in the review of old age pensions. Thousands of people in rural Ireland, in particular, find that their non-contributory old age pensions are reduced because of the level of income disregard.
I recognise that all Governments have done much regarding the savings held by means-tested non-contributory old age pensioners in terms of what they can keep without the interest on it being taken into account in reducing their overall  pension. The level of disregard has, however, been overlooked and needs to be tackled. This needs to be addressed in the context of next year's budget, consideration of which will begin in June or July because, as the Minister said, all the benefits will be introduced on 1 January 2002.
Before I leave the matter of old age pensions, I wish to raise the issue of the ombudsman's report on pensioners who did not claim their old age contributory pension when they reached the age of 65, including the social welfare contributory pension which kicks in at 66 and which should be brought down to 65. Referring to old age pensions smacks of ageism. Perhaps we should come up with a new title. All these pensions should come into effect at the age of 65 rather than 66. In the mid-1970s, the target age was 70 years but, progressively over a number of years in the 1970s, that was reduced to 66, with the aim of reducing the age to 65 in all cases. This has not been achieved in the case of non-contributory pensions or contributory social welfare pensions. Retirement pensions, which are somewhat different, trigger in at the age of 65 but the others trigger in at 66. This aspect needs to be considered. I appeal to the Minister, in the context of what will happen next year, to devote some resources in this direction.
I have often referred to assistance for low income people such as small farmers. A scheme is currently in operation which has had moderate success. This succeeds small farmer's dole or unemployment assistance for small farmers. A farm assist scheme was introduced a couple of years ago in response to a farm income crisis – God knows, there are plenty of those, including that currently being experienced. The farm assist scheme includes a number of measures which I have often highlighted. The same applied to the small farmer's dole. Depreciation for capital assets is not allowed for in determining the income of small farmers who are eligible or entitled to the farm assist scheme. If these farmers were being assessed for income tax, this aspect would be taken into consideration.
Small farmers nowadays are bound by cross-compliance with EU regulations if they qualify for REPS or any of the farm schemes operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. It is mandatory on every farmer nowadays to ensure he or she controls waste, effluent and so on. This requirement costs a lot of money in this era of silage rather than dried out grass, called hay, or the winter housing of cattle which was not a feature of farming 30 or 40 years ago. All these aspects create huge capital costs for farmers who continue to farm at a very marginal level and who, because of the level of income generated, are entitled to farm assist. These people find themselves at a disadvantage in that their capital assets are not allowable. If a farmer's income is being calculated for income tax purposes, he or she will be allowed a capital  write-off for capital investment in the farm over five or ten years, depending on what the farmer requires.
Income tax by implication very often is about income but, in this instance, we are talking about social assistance from Government to assist people on low incomes, which includes this gross example of unfairness. I have appealed to the Minister in this matter on five or six occasions but, alas, like St. John, I am crying in the wilderness. Given the injustice involved, I again make an appeal in this regard. Depreciation of capital expenditure should be permitted as a cost item for the purposes of the farm assist income assessment, particularly where it involves investment in environmental control measures. Every farmer nowadays, big or small, marginal or commercial, must have in place environmental control measures.
In relation to farmers who engage in forestry, I agree with the Government that the national forestry estate should be increased to up to 17% of all land in the country by 2030. Currently the figure achieved has been approximately 7% or 8%. We have the lowest level of afforestation in the whole of Europe. However, there are in place generous incentives by which forestry development can be undertaken. It could be almost a commercial undertaking by farmers whose land is more suitable to afforestation than to any other pursuit.
To qualify for the farm assist scheme, one can write off the first £3,000 of income paid to a farmer under the rural environment protection scheme. That is, as it were, a disregard of income for REPS. This measure was introduced by the former Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa. Many farmers now find themselves involved in forestry. Given the different species available, this pursuit is environmentally friendly as well as economically beneficial. There is a greater level of compensation if one is engaged in this type of afforestation.
My plea to the Minister is that the first £3,000 of forestry premium paid to farmers should be disregarded where the farmer is making an application for the farm assist scheme. If this applies for REPS, it should also apply for forestry. There are two good reasons for this argument. Given our current progress, we will not achieve anything like the national aim of increasing the forest estate to 17% of all the land in the country by 2030. There is the environmental argument in favour of afforestation. It is also a more appropriate use of tens of thousands of acres of land being farmed in a way which is totally inappropriate to the nature of the soil.
I will table amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage and I ask the Minister of State to take note of what I have said. I hope my arguments will receive some consideration in the Department. As often happens, I hope my amendments will not be rejected following a cursory glance.
Mr. Chambers: I welcome the Bill and support its content. It is important to consider the whole thrust of the Bill and the Government's approach to sustaining this economy in a changing society where not many years ago 235,000 people were on the live register. Senator Connor criticised the amount of investment in the Social Welfare Bill in relation to GDP. We must take into consideration the changes in the economy, the number of people at work and the decrease from 12% to 4% in the numbers out of work. Great strides have been made in this area and the Government must be complimented on its work in leading the country into this economic environment.
Bearing that aspect in mind, the Social Welfare Bill is well targeted and well programmed. It analyses the specific needs of a changing society in relation to changing needs, a changing approach, a changing ethos and different responsibilities. The Bill deals with this aspect in a targeted, balanced and fair way. Unlike previous budgets, it is part of a three or four year programme. The measures taken are progressive and responsive to the needs of people. They set the parameters for this and future social welfare legislation. The attainment of a £100 per week benefit for those most in need is to be applauded.
The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness sets out stringent criteria. Last year the pay element was reviewed to address the inflation problem. The Government renegotiated this aspect in good faith with the social partners. Annual targets are being met and please God this will continue. It is the first time the country has been in a position to do this. While money is to some extent the root of all evil, it is also the cure for many evils. They cannot be tackled if the necessary resources are not available. At present we have the resources and we are tackling problems. It is something to be proud of.
Some of my colleagues have pointed out how Departments have changed to meet consumer needs. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has undergone huge change. It is far more customer friendly. It has been reorganised along sectional lines to better address the changes in families and in society generally. The Department responds readily to the needs of the public. While there may be delays in certain areas, such as appeals, it has improved enormously and now provides an excellent public service.
The Bill should have contained more positive measures for one parent families. However, I welcome the increased maintenance threshold which obliges the community welfare officer, with the agreement of the Department, to pay 50% of maintenance payments, irrespective of the cost. This should help single parents find suitable accommodation, especially in expensive residential areas.
In conjunction with the Department, local authorities must play a greater role in dealing  with the needs of single parents. They are now devising strategies in terms of future needs for urban and rural housing, but they need to change their thinking, especially in view of the changes to supports introduced by the Department and the guidelines laid down by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. There is a greater need for more focused resourcing by both Departments. Some of the financial support for this area provided by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs should be channelled into the provision of local authority housing. This would generate a better value for money return.
The improvement in the carer's allowance is long awaited and very welcome. I salute those who have supported the elderly in the absence of income support or subsistence. They felt obliged to act from a sense of responsibility. It meant a huge undertaking for many. They gave up much of their life to care for their parents. Any supports provided in this area should be flexible. From my personal experience I do not agree with the view that the State should carry the full burden. There is a responsibility on people to care and a balance must be found between the two. It is a question of what can be provided by the State acting in a co-ordinated way with the private sector. In this way a proper, caring and workable system will emerge responsive to need and focused on specific cases in a flexible manner. If we continue with this approach much progress can be achieved, especially in terms of allowing people to continue to live in their homes.
This approach should be co-ordinated with the work of the Department of Health and Children and the health boards, who have devised strategies for providing facilities to care for the elderly. The age profile of the population is getting older and increasing numbers of the elderly are becoming concerned about their future security even when their children are among the young entrepreneurs in the Celtic tiger economy. There appears to be a move away from family support for elderly parents with the result that many of the elderly are taking up residence in homes and community homes. By giving a genuine opportunity to carers to look after those in need there is an opportunity to redress the balance and enhance the future for many.
It is important we do not take an institutionalised approach to the assessment of needs within the health service. Much work has been done by the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, and especially by the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, who has achieved much in terms of developing local resources to enable communities look after local need. The targeting of small amounts of money in conjunction with the provision of other State services, such as FÁS schemes, many of which are geared at maintaining the upkeep of people under care, could  make a positive contribution to the elderly and those in care.
The increases provided in the Bill are positive and substantial. While some have argued for the abolition of means testing, there is a need to continue to target resources. A simplistic approach cannot be taken as there is not enough money to address everything. I do not agree with that attitude. Improvements have been made. Eligibility for a medical card and entitlement to the free schemes has been extended to those aged 70 in recognition of their contribution to society. That is a positive measure. Further improvements can be gradually made, although such improvements cannot be made unless the necessary resources are provided. The increases that will be provided and improvements that will be introduced in co-operation with State agencies, the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the health boards will be helpful to the sections of society who genuinely need support. It is important properly to provide for them.
While a major change has occurred in numbers of people working, parts of the country have not benefited from that change. There is a serious level of unemployment in parts of my county and the problem is increasing. Major job losses have occurred in County Mayo following the closure of two factories in the north of the county and it is also proposed to close the Bord na Móna power plant. Those job losses have caused major social problems for the people in the areas affected.
The change taking place in growing sectors of the economy in other parts of the country, which I welcome, is reflected in the thrust and provisions of the Bill compared to previous Social Welfare Bills. Many people in our cities still rely heavily on social welfare benefits and the provisions in the Bill are needed.
The farm assist scheme agreed with the social partners, particularly the farmers, is helpful in those areas where there are no alternative enterprises. There is a need for an expanded role for the rural development programmes in relation to the thrust of Government policy, national spatial planning and economic development. With our growing economy, and I accept it will grow, although perhaps not at the current growth rate, if we responsibly target some of the needs in various areas by way of cautious investment, we can continue to reduce the level of unemployment and ensure more people participate in the creation of wealth.
We have a well trained and well educated workforce who can play a strong role in our economy, if given that choice. We can continue a programme of ensuring greater participation in the economy. That will be to the benefit and welfare of everyone. When they make their contribution, they will also contribute to others who will be able to move away from the difficulties they face.  In that way we can work towards having a better social welfare system.
Mr. Costello: I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on this Bill. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Minister in his contribution was generous in giving credit to Fianna Fáil for creating prosperity. He said that in just over a decade Fianna Fáil in Government has turned around this country's economy.
Mr. Costello: The Labour Party and Fine Gael were in power in 1993 and the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil were in power for part of that period. To take credit for the handling of the economy for a decade at an annual average growth rate of 8% is a little rich. The Minister went on to say we have gone from a high tax, high unemployment, low growth economy to one with low taxes, sustained economic growth and, effectively, full employment. The Government has not yet been in office for four and a half years.
Mr. Costello: The Labour Party was in office in the period prior to the Government taking office. I like to see the Minister taking credit for economic growth in the past ten years – fair play to him if he can get away with it, but it is not accurate.
The Minister goes on to say that in only four short years – that is since 1997, things get better as we approach the millennium – we have turned around our social welfare system from one that simply compensated people for economic failure to one which helps people to help themselves, which helps people who can work to get work and which supports older people, children, carers and people with disabilities. He states this Bill is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to looking after the needs of children, older people, carers and others dependent on the social welfare system.
CORI's assessment of the budget is very different from what the Minister said. CORI states that the poorest people in Irish society have been betrayed by budget 2001. CORI is an independent organisation. It is not a political body but a religious one. I always thought Fianna Fáil was in with the religious in terms of their pronouncements, and the Taoiseach was in Rome recently. CORI represents the old major religious superiors, although it is now a more Sean and  Sheila citizen type body. Nevertheless, it has done tremendous work and is regarded as the body that speaks most clearly on the budget in respect of community and social welfare matters.
CORI states that with sufficient resources available to enable it to eliminate income poverty among adults and children, the Government chose instead to give those resources in super abundance to those who were already well off. We said that too. CORI also states that the Government's legacy after four budgets is to have substantially widened the rich-poor gap, which was already the worst in the European Union. It further states that when political leadership was required so that everyone could benefit from the country's new found prosperity and be treated with fairness, the Government chose instead to refuse to hear the cry of the poor. That is not Labour Party propaganda by any means. That is the analysis and the reasoned statement of CORI's assessment of the budget. The Minster should address that devastating analysis of what has been presented. The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed responded to the budgetary provisions in similar terms.
Since the Government came to power, statistics reveal that the spending on social welfare has declined by 2.5% of gross national product, from 9.9% in 1997 to 7.5% last year. That is an indication of the absence of real investment in the arena of social welfare needs. When the coffers are bulging with money, the country is awash with it, the Celtic tiger is racing from one corner of the island to the next and the Taoiseach is able to invest £1 billion in his own superbowl in the north side of Dublin, we cannot find enough money for social welfare payments. That is reflected in the figures.
Recipients of unemployment assistance, pre-retirement allowance, disability allowance, farm assist, blind pension, widow's and widower's non-contributory pensions, one parent family payment, get a weekly payment of £85.50. That is not an enormous sum of money. It is 25% of the average industrial wage. After all these great increases which have been trumpeted by the Minister, 25% of the average industrial wage is all that he can provide. I am not sure that he should be going abroad and telling the world what a great Minister he is and how generous he is to the most vulnerable in society.
The carer's allowance is £88.50 and it involves a severe means test. That must be addressed. Why must there be a severe means test for carers? If somebody is prepared to do the job, surely he or she should be encouraged to do it.
Only last week we discussed the scandal surrounding nursing home subventions, where the State acted illegally by insisting that family members, relatives and friends should make a contribution to the cost of keeping elderly people in State hospitals and health board nursing  homes. The Ombudsman's report underlined the lack of resources provided in the area. Those institutions were illegally taking money from families and depriving people in nursing homes of their pocket money.
There should be a decent carer's allowance scheme and the Minister should abolish the means test. Why is there a need for a means test? If there must be a means test, it should be set at least at a level comparable with the average industrial wage. I would abolish the means test and encourage people to take up an open-ended carer's scheme. It would do wonders for vulnerable people in need of care, particularly when one considers that there are not enough places to cater for the elderly and the disabled who are in need of care, and that so many could be catered for in their homes rather than in institutions if proper resources and assistance were provided. If the Minister were to address no other issue, he should address this one. He acknowledged in his speech that more needs to be done for carers, but this is an opportunity to do a great deal. Such a provision would not only benefit the carer on the princely allowance of £88.50 but would improve enormously the quality of life of those who are most disadvantaged such as the physically and mentally handicapped and the elderly in particular.
The debate on the Social Welfare Bill gives us an opportunity to do more than just go through the detail of the Bill. I could raise many issues here. For example, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed wanted a general increase of £14 for those on the basic levels of welfare, and they were given £8. The Minister said that the increase is wonderful, but it is little more than 50% of the sum sought, which, if given, would have increased it to a decent level. Of course there is a need to benchmark and index payments and the sooner that is done the better.
We must look at the general state of the country in terms of the Social Welfare Bill. The premise on which the Government has been operating, which has been dictated by the Minister for Finance, involves an uneven distribution of the extra wealth which is being created. This is reflected in the manner in which the new tax bands have been introduced, individualisation of the tax system and the percentage gains received by those who are better off. Obviously those on higher incomes gain more from a reduction in the rate of tax than if the same increase was given across the board. The end result is that while the country is becoming richer all the time, the gap between rich and poor is increasing.
Members may have been listening to this morning's radio programme about a school in south Kerry. Despite the best efforts of all the local politicians, including the local Independent Deputy who supports the Government, there are rats in the school, the prefabs are in poor con dition and the school is unable to get money to make it fit for children. It has been condemned by the health authority.
Similar criticisms were made in an analysis of the second level population in my area of north inner city Dublin. The study revealed that only 10% of students completed the leaving certificate. Therefore, 90% had not attained a level which would allow them progress to third level. Only 50% of the children completed the junior certificate. The analysis showed that 40% were on illegal drugs, 80% drank alcohol and 70% of those under 16 were sexually active. That is a serious matter and investment is needed in that area. An analysis of the school-going population in Limerick registered a high drop-out level. These disadvantaged areas, whether in south Kerry, Dublin's north-east inner city or Southill in Limerick, are where resources need to be targeted.
Last night I raised the issue of community employment schemes on the Adjournment. There are 33,000 people participating in such schemes, most of whom are women from disadvantaged areas. Deputy Quinn introduced the community employment programme in 1985 to provide services in urban and rural communities. It was introduced to help people who found it difficult to get full-time employment in the labour market at that time. It was also geared to the needs of lone parents and 10% of the vacancies were made available to lone parents to encourage women to return to the workforce. The scheme operated on a part-time basis, involving 20 hours work per week. The scheme is now being restructured and nobody seems to know what will happen to the 33,000 people currently participating in it or to the scheme's supervisors. There are 5,000 participants in the scheme working in the school network. What will happen to them?
Recently we received a reply from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government stating that he could not afford to spend £14 million on providing central heating in 4,000 local authority houses in Dublin Corporation. These houses do not contain smoke alarms, yet people needed to light the fire in the near arctic conditions of the past few weeks. Recent figures released by the European Union reveal that Ireland has the lowest standard of insulation in Europe. These are areas which should be a priority. There are areas where money is being made available and others where it is not. The Minister has not made any advances in dealing with the areas of disadvantage in society.
I have not touched on the question of child care and child benefit, which were not addressed adequately in the budget, even though the Minister seems to be taking great credit for the increase in child benefit. There is an enormous distance to go in this regard. This Social Welfare Bill leaves a lot to be desired. If the Minister  thinks that the job is even half done, he needs to think again.
Mr. Kett: I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his outstanding progress in the area of social reform. He has proved himself to be a reforming and caring Minister well capable of recognising and responding to the needs of people within the social welfare sector.
The Bill provides for welcome increases in social insurance, social assistance, child benefit, the family income supplement and many other areas. During his watch the Minister has presided over an unprecedented fall in unemployment. The lowest in the European Union, it is at an all time low with 110,000 or so removed from the live register. That is particularly welcomed by people like Senator Costello and I who represent areas of disadvantage which could have boasted 70% or 80% unemployment five or six years ago. Emigration is probably on a voluntary basis now. People are returning home with a view to settling here to develop their careers and raise their families whereas in the past they may have considered doing that abroad.
We are once again becoming a proud nation, proud of our economy, proud of our treatment of the retired and proud of the way we are recognising and meeting the needs of disabled people. The Minister has contributed in no small way to all that. In the short term of this Government we have turned the economy around. We had high taxes, high unemployment and low growth where we now have sustained growth, low taxes and almost full employment. This Bill is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to looking after the needs of all who look to the social welfare system. There continues to be a hard core of unemployed people. That is something we are all well aware of. They need special attention and intervention and the Minister has shown in previous dispatches that he most certainly has his finger on this pulse.
I am delighted in that respect to reflect on the launch by the Taoiseach and the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy Eoin Ryan, of the RAPID programme which is targeting 25 areas for special intervention and special investment. We are told that this initiative will benefit around 165,000 people. The investment being offered is significant and it will be particularly welcome in areas of disadvantage that have been neglected for decades but whose communities are now developing themselves. They are developing a voice and saying that they will no longer be ignored. They are standing up to be counted and they know that in this Minister they have someone who is listening, who is reforming and who cares. These communities will see infrastructural changes and benefits and their standard of living will improve. Younger children will seek and find the benefits of second and third level education and, as  Senator Costello expressed, this will be a feature of disadvantaged schools from here on. As younger children see their older brothers and sisters getting to school and getting to third level it will be the springboard for them to better themselves. Things are not as black and white as a two tier society but I do believe that we will see a coming together of society as a result of these initiatives.
If I do have one small reservation about the Bill it is in relation to the mobility allowance, which has been doubled from £45 to £90. It is there to benefit people who are unable to access public transport. However, we are informed that, from April, those receiving tax concessions towards the purchase of adapted private vehicles will not be entitled to mobility allowance. That is a pity and a bit like giving it with one hand and taking with the other.
Mr. Kett: The Minister has said he will look at that. I appreciate the difficulty that it might represent but there are only about 2,500 people involved in the scheme and it would be appreciated if it could be examined. Quite a number of people in the area with which I am most familiar have asked me to mention it.
The Government has increased social welfare spending from £4.5 billion to £6 billion in 2001. That in itself explains a lot. In 1997 the old age contributory pension was £78 per week, this Government promised £100 and this Bill today is bringing in a payment of £106,000. In any man's language that speaks volumes. I am delighted that the Minister has had the opportunity to bring forward his fourth Bill and I look forward, as do many others whom his measures have benefited, to his fifth.
Mr. Bonner: I welcome the Minister to the House and wish to make a short comment on some of Senator Costello's remarks. We all accept that the Government has made tremendous strides economically and socially.
Mr. Bonner: There was a short gap, as the Senator said himself, in which social inclusion only received £500 million over a period similar to that in which this Government has given over £1 billion. We all accept that more needs to be done and I have every confidence that next year the Minister will deliver further. Hopefully he will be in the same portfolio in the next Government.
Mr. Bonner: I forgot to mention that I intend to share time with my colleague Senator Ormonde. I heard Senator Quill state earlier that she felt our partners in Government did not receive the proper credit. What is coming through now is based on the programme for Government, particularly its financial aspects, and I will not be shy about giving credit to the Progressive Democrats. Prior to getting into Government we promised old age pensioners £100 when that sounded like an awful lot of money, and we have delivered with a year to go. The Minister will do his best to ensure that all classes of social welfare recipients will receive £100, hopefully before the next general election.
There has been a huge drop in the number of social welfare payments because we have reduced the number on the live register by 110,000. This budget has provided for £850 million worth of social welfare payments, more than double that provided for last year and four times that provided for by the Minister from the Senator's party in 1997. We had difficulties last year with inflation which, I hope, is now under control. In his final budget in September, I hope the Minister will reach the £100 level for all recipients and take inflation into account.
Let me mention the ceiling on PRSI payments. I listened to the debate in the Dáil last night. As an accountant, I never witnessed this issue coming into play as a holiday. The Minister explained clearly last night that when one reaches or goes above the ceiling, half way or three quarters the way through or at the end of the tax year, one will no longer pay PRSI. The same will apply in the current year. The allowances for the nine month period to which the Bill will apply will be reduced to 74%. I accept that people believe that their full income, if they earn less than £28,000, will be caught for PRSI payments.
There has been a reduction of 0.5% in the employee rate. There has also been a 2% reduction in contributions paid, particularly by the self-employed. While the threshold has been eliminated for the self-employed and the employer's contribution, it is something those on high incomes will gladly accept. Many have accused the Minister and the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, of making the wealthy wealthier, but this is one way of clawing back some of the increases and differentiating between those on reasonable and low incomes.
Prior to the general election I asked someone on social welfare in Glencolumbkille with what he would be happy. He said that he would like to see an increase of £10 in the ordinary social welfare payment for a single person. At the time I thought that this would be almost impossible, but said that it might be achieved within the lifetime of the Government. The Minister has reached a  figure of £8. I hope in the next budget he will exceed the figure of £10 for which the man in question was looking.
I have been approached on numerous occasions in regard to the payment date for increases. The Minister has delivered by ensuring the payment date for child benefit will be brought forward by three months to 1 June and for social welfare payments to 1 April. From next year they will be paid from 1 January in line with the beginning of the tax year.
I refer to the £10 additional allowance the Minister has given to pensioners who reside on islands on the advice of his colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, when Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. This is a welcome increase given the difficulties faced by islanders in their daily lives. I hope the Minister will extend the allowance to all social welfare recipients living on islands who have many overheads which those living on the mainland do not have.
The issues of work and social welfare and whether it is more beneficial to be on social welfare or to work are raised on many occasions. Many changes have been made, which include the introduction of the minimum wage. The Minister for Finance introduced a special tax free allowance for those who return to work. I do not know what the statistics are, but very few are availing of it. If more were aware of it, possibly, more would return to work. There is now greater emphasis on seeking employment.
In my county which still has an unemployment rate of 17% it is sometimes difficult to get people to join community employment schemes. Places which have a high level of unemployment should receive special treatment and be offered additional employment schemes rather than see them cut back. We find that participants in such schemes come a long way. They are very dedicated and hard workers. Not only do community employment schemes keep people away from unemployment benefit, they help the communities in which they live.
Other speakers gave the Minister credit for all the great increases. I am suggesting other items which could be placed on the agenda next year. I would like to see the living alone allowance extended to pensioners and widows in receipt of small pensions from Scotland, of whom many live in my county because of its close connections with Scotland and England. Unfortunately, they are not entitled to the allowance.
The free fuel scheme presents another problem. While it was extended by the Minister by two weeks, the allowance has not been increased for 12 years. It would cost another £40 million to increase it to £10 per week. I compliment the Minister on what he has achieved. He will make many more changes to give a better quality of life to those who are socially excluded and marginalised in society, something the great socialist,  Deputy De Rossa, failed to do when Minister for Social Welfare.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister and thank him for keeping my colleagues and me up to date through dispatches. It is clear that he has a great grasp of this detailed and complex area. As someone who only used to get a flavour of these issues, I am beginning to get a clearer picture of the variety of payments to which the public is entitled. The Bill looks after pensioners, the elderly and those with a disability, which is welcome. The Government has gone full circle in the last four years in improving the quality of life of all categories.
Unemployment has been reduced to approximately 4%, or 138,000. Contrast this with the figure five or six years ago when I worked in a disadvantaged area as a career guidance counsellor. I had to deal with many young students from areas where there was total unemployment and poverty was endemic. When I went to look for jobs for them, there was none available. I would like to return to that situation because my role as a career guidance counsellor in facilitating the transition from school to work would be very easy. This is a great achievement by the Minister and Fianna Fáil in the last four years.
I welcome the measures to combat fraud and abuse. The Minister stated that he had clawed back £214 million. This is some achievement. I congratulate him on the measures introduced to detect fraud and abuse which have proved very successful.
Let me refer to welfare to work policies. Are they successful? While I congratulate the Minister on providing grants for counselling and so on, this has nothing to do with money, rather it has to do with the empathy shown by those involved in these units and how they deal with hard cases, the long-term unemployed. Perhaps there is a barrier which is preventing them from reaching out and making the breakthrough. The people we deal with there should have the empathy and know-how to get them over the threshold.
The Minister referred to a more integrated approach and I know that is in vogue. People are not getting the message across. Many of these long-term unemployed people with low self-esteem and little confidence feel more secure staying on social welfare rather than getting a low skilled job. This is the only area in which I can play devil's advocate. I am concerned about the cross-departmental approach to the welfare to work policy and whether the people have the empathy skills required. This is the only possible weak spot. All other aspects of this have worked well and I congratulate the Minister.
The Government has understood what is needed to break the cycle and put initiatives in place to improve life for us all. I acknowledge its commitment to building an inclusive society and bringing unemployment down. The number of  people dependent on social welfare has been drastically reduced. This is shows the Government's commitment to improve the quality of life.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ahern. The Social Welfare Bill is always major legislation and impacts on a significant portion of the community. Anything that it can do to improve the lot of people who are disadvantaged or marginalised is most welcome. Given the Celtic tiger economy, the Minister is in a position to be more financially generous than in times of fiscal rectitude. The financial benefits that have accrued from successful fraud detection have also enabled the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs to improve the lot of the deprived.
The Social Welfare Bill should give priority to old age pensioners and disabled people. The Minister has striven to improve the lot of the old age pensioners. I welcome the increases but feel that they could have been more substantial. Every increase is welcome. There is a huge discrepancy between people of wealth and affluence and those dependent on social welfare payments and the margin is growing. I appreciate that the Department has attempted to address this. The tiger economy is driving ahead in some sectors and some people are benefiting dramatically. However, it has also created a “them and us” situation.
Women in the past, who had to give up work to look after a family, found that this stood against them when they applied for pensions because they had not completed the necessary number of weeks at work. I am delighted that the Minister has stated that work is continuing towards introducing a greater degree of flexibility in the qualifying conditions to improve the position of women in the future. I look forward to the outcome. Will Minister tell us what work is being done on that and when will it be completed?
Given that today is international women's day, it is particularly welcome that the Bill has increased parental, maternity and adoptive leave by four weeks. More women will avail of that facility than men. In the part of the Minister's speech covering section 12 he has “international women's day” in brackets. There is an implication there that the Department expects more females than males to avail of this. Maybe the Minister could undertake a PR campaign to encourage the males to take on their parental responsibilities more earnestly and seriously in future. Are there any plans in the Department to promote that?
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Maybe he should also consider parental leave and a course in parenting for males might be useful. He is in a position to influence massive reform in this area. The smiles of the males in the room are indicative of the attitude of males in general. Maybe the Minister could do something to rectify that.
Other speakers referred to pensions and housing for the elderly. Pensioners are often in very poor housing conditions. They do not have enough money to do up their houses. The health boards have a minimal housing aid scheme for the elderly. The Minister should liaise with the Department of Health and Children to examine the scheme, particularly in rural areas where there are many old age pensioners who are bachelors living in very poor conditions with no running water and no toilet facilities. I came across a man who got a housing grant but he found it difficult to apply for planning permission. The Department of Health and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs need to co-ordinate on this. The problem is significant enough to merit the Minister's consideration.
Senator Bonner mentioned the issue of living alone. Regardless of the number of people in a house, the cost of running it is the same bearing in mind heating etc. These costs are quite considerable for a pensioner living alone. To meet these overheads, the living alone allowance should be increased substantially. I urge the Minister to consider this, particularly for people in rural areas.
I welcome the extension by three weeks of the period during which the fuel allowance may be paid but the amount of £5, introduced 12 or 13 years ago, is miserable. Bearing in mind inflation, that should be increased to at least £15 or £20 per week. I urge the Minister to do that because the people affected are old age pensioners. Senator O'Dowd stated that one of the greatest causes of hardship and death among the elderly is poor living conditions and particularly the standard of heating in their homes. Many houses of the elderly are like iceboxes. People are trying to save  by not lighting a fire or turning on the heat if they have it. This needs to be addressed urgently.
The Minister should set up a committee in his Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, to review the situation. It could almost be termed a rural scenario, but towns too have cases of isolation, remoteness and lack of contact with neighbours. There is need for an examination of this area. Now that more people are in employment and there are fewer people depending on the social welfare system, the Department personnel could be usefully employed in doing this work.
Rent allowance was addressed earlier. Many young single parents rent accommodation before they can secure a local authority house. The rent constantly seems to exceed the rent allowance. I am not sure whether rent control is an issue for the Minister for Finance or the Minister for the Environment and Local Government but there is a need for legislation to bring order to the cost and quality control of rental accommodation. If this was done the discrepancies between the cost of renting and the rent allowance could be addressed. The situation is most unsatisfactory at the moment.
I was amazed to learn that so few people were availing of the family income supplement. It has been available for a decade or more, yet a large number of eligible families do not avail of it. The Minister needs to inform and advise people that it is available for lower income families.
The value of the role of carers was addressed by the Minister and he outlined the increases in their allowances. I welcome that but carers' organisations are anxious to introduce a system that does not involve a means test. I do not know how feasible that is but the Minister should examine the proposal closely. The fact that multi-millionaires and people on very high incomes get free education is not to the benefit of the poor in our community and, as with free education, I do not believe everyone is entitled to a carer's allowance. In principle, I agree with it for the majority of carers. Some people with assets, however, transfer or dispose of them to avail of the system. There is a need to look at the carers issue. We must appreciate that carers save the State enormous amounts of money by providing care in the home. Given the demography of our country and the increasing aged population, it is something that needs to be addressed.
There are increasing numbers of people looking for beds in nursing homes while the number of nursing homes is constantly fluctuating. There is a huge demand for these facilities and there will be even greater demand in the future. The Minister's Department and the Department of Health and Children should co-operate on this issue. They need to formulate a fundamental policy to address it. There is not sufficient contact between the two Departments at the moment.  Health board policies vary from board to board and there is much room for development.
Any increase in social welfare is more than welcome. Given the availability of money, there should be greater benefit for the marginalised in society. The Minister has done a lot of positive work and I hope he will come out of his garrison mentality and listen to the views from this side of the House. I appeal to him to open his mind to the fact that we have some sensible points to make which may be to our mutual benefit.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The order of the House was that we were to take statements on Iraq at 4 p.m., but with the agreement of the House we will allow the Minister some leeway to conclude and I hope he will not abuse it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern): I thank all the Senators for their contributions and I had hoped to reply to as many as possible. That so many wanted to speak indicates the importance of the subject. Some speakers seemed to be offended by the fact that I referred to my party's record in Government. I make no apology for that. We have been in office over the past 14 years, sometimes with other parties, and I give them due credit.
I had to listen to the Labour Party and it is a pity those Members are not here to hear the reply. Senator Ryan said we should not be giving a history lesson in regard to what is possible today. Just before Christmas we signed up to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in which we agreed to dedicate a sum of £1.3 billion over three budgets to social welfare. A short time afterwards the budget brought an increase of £850 million. That is what is possible and is what this Government has delivered. One Senator referred to the previous partnership which agreed to provide £500 million. We doubled that amount and included a sum of £1 billion.
Senator Henry made some very good comments. She claimed the Government was saying that the country was awash with money. The  Government is not saying that. I heard Senator Costello state that the country was awash with money. The Government is saying that while times are relatively good, we must plan for the rainy day. That is what it is doing. It is important that everything is considered in context.
Senator Henry also said that members of her profession were annoyed that the proposal to provide medical cards for those over the age of 70 years was foisted upon them. They were annoyed because there was no consultation and the proposal would add to their work burden. I read a letter from a doctor to a newspaper which stated that if the Government was to give medical cards to those over the age of 70 years, irrespective of income, it would mean that the extremely well-off individuals would receive them. The extremely well-off would not be bothered with medical cards, they would prefer to avail of private medical care. I would not like to think that the real reason doctors are up in arms about the proposal is that those over the age of 70 years may no longer be available as a source of income.
My party took office on its own in 1987 when there were 300,000 unemployed, the GDP debt ratio was 133% and the country was about to be reported to the International Monetary Fund. It was my party which decided to change the way things were done and which initiated social partnership. Some parties in this and the other House were not great fans of social partnership.
Mr. D. Ahern: It is now 14 years since we were in office on our own and initiated social partnership. We have the lowest unemployment rate in Europe and the highest growth rate. Our debt GDP ratio was 133%; it is now nearer 33%, the second lowest in Europe.
Mr. D. Ahern: I am coming to what Senator Ryan had to say about what is possible. In the past year we have been able to put £5 billion aside in a pension fund. I was horrified, as was my party, to learn that the Labour Party, in a much heralded financial statement, had stated that it would raid that fund.
We were able to give tax back to the people. In its policy document the Labour Party used the nice phrase, “tax stabilisation”, which in my language means that tax will not be reduced any further. We have been able to provide for record increases. I am fortunate to be able to say in each of the last four years I have provided for the largest social welfare package in the history of the State.
The House does not have to take my word alone for the achievements of the Government. Michael O'Halloran, who is well known to Senators Ryan and Costello, is the excellent chairperson of the Senior Citizens Parliament and a great lobbyist on behalf of senior citizens. He was quoted recently as saying that the Government had given old age pensioners one pound more than what had been demanded in its pre-budget submission. It had asked for £9 and we gave them £10.
We have given more in child benefit than any of the Opposition parties ever dreamed of. In 1997 the outgoing Government provided for a measly increase of £1 for the first two children. We are giving £25. An increase of £5 was provided for the third and subsequent child. That was easy because the number of families with three or more children is decreasing. We are giving £30 and have promised to do the same in the forthcoming budget. When returned to office after the next general election we will do likewise—
A number of Senators referred to inflation. We have provided for increases in benefits of between 10% and 18%. The expected rate of inflation is 4.5%. The cumulative increase in the lowest rates of payment in the last two budgets is 16.6%, well above the projected level of inflation for the same two year period. Families on the lowest incomes will receive much more because of the unprecedented increases in child benefit.
Senator O'Dowd raised the issue of widows in receipt of contributory pension. He seemed to  suggest that those participating in FÁS courses were losing child dependant allowances unlike other social welfare recipients. As I am not aware of that problem, perhaps the Senator will provide details. Widow's contributory pension is paid as of right, irrespective of whether the person concerned is employed, participating in a training scheme or at home. Widows who participate in a community employment scheme retain their increases for child dependants.
The Senator also referred to the excellent school meals project in Drogheda funded by my Department. The pilot scheme is being reviewed and I hope to receive a report from my officials in the summer. I have included £300,000 in the Estimates for my Department for this year to assist a number of such projects.
A number of speakers raised the issue of workers being laid off as a result of the foot and mouth alert. Unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit claims from these workers are decided in exactly the same way as other applications. Entitlement is dependent on the conditions for receipt of unemployment assistance being satisfied. Cases are decided individually, although a full-time worker laid off due to the cessation of a business would normally satisfy the conditions of being available for and genuinely seeking work. Consequently, he or she would qualify for payment subject to satisfying the contribution conditions for unemployment benefit or a means test for unemployment assistance. Each case is decided on its merits. There is nothing to prevent workers laid off as a result of the foot and mouth restrictions from receiving unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit provided they meet the normal criteria.
A number of speakers made great play of the poverty issue. Anything this Government has done in relation to the national anti-poverty strategy has been extremely progressive. We are trying to come up with revised targets for children, women's poverty, health, older people and housing accommodation. Senator Keogh referred to the issue of homemakers and Senator Leonard answered her to a large extent on this matter. I have said in both Houses that this Government is committed to extending the existing homemakers' disregard scheme which has operated since 1994 and needs to be backdated.
The Government has made significant changes to help women who have taken time out of work to mind children in the home. This year's special increase of £15 in the qualified adult allowance is designed to ensure that the rate for those women is brought up to the old age pension rate.
Many Senators raised the issue of carers. An objective look at the long list of changes in the carer's allowance, since its inception in 1990 by my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Woods, will show that all the major changes have taken place when my party was in Government, either on its own or with other parties. More needs to be done in relation to carers, although the raising  of the disregards has allowed many more people to come into the scheme.
A couple on £25,000 per annum would qualify for a minimum carer's allowance plus the free schemes and the respite grant, while a couple with two children on £15,100 per annum would qualify for the maximum carer's allowance. I believe we should go further and I am committed to raising the disregards so that a couple on the average industrial wage of about £19,000 would qualify for a maximum carer's allowance. This is a huge achievement and many carers' lobby groups welcome the move.
A lot of play has been made on what CORI said after the budget on commitments made in the PPF. I assure Senators that the Government has more than fulfilled in the budget the commitments made in the PPF on income adequacy. Any reading of the PPF will show that we guarantee that the real value of social welfare payments are maintained and, where possible, enhanced to ensure that everybody shares the fruits of economic growth. The PPF gives a specific commitment that substantial progress will be made over the period of the programme towards a target of £100 per week for the lowest social welfare rates. The money given in this Bill puts us well on the road to that goal.
The PPF committed the Government to setting up a working group to look at the issue of income adequacy and the benchmarking and indexation committee is due to produce an interim report next month, I hope before the next budget. The Government said that it would increase child benefit to £100 per month over the period of the PPF but it is going much further than that in this budget. Social welfare was to increase in real terms over the lifetime of this programme, and this has been done, as is shown by the increase from 10% to 18%, an increase well above inflation.
I apologise to thin skinned Senators who feel that because they are members of Fianna Fáil they cannot claim credit for being part of a move toward a simplified and enhanced social welfare system. I thank Senators for their kind words to my officials and me on the administration of my Department. I am very lucky to be in this Department given the good service I have received from my staff.
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