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

Wednesday, 2 March 2005

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 179 No. 12

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

Ms Cox: Information on Margaret Cox  Zoom on Margaret Cox  I welcome the Minister to the House. We are becoming familiar with him from earlier [1039]debates on transport and more recent debates on pensions and social welfare provision.

It is a great occasion to be able to welcome legislation in this House that provides for the largest ever social welfare expenditure of €12 billion. It is indicative of the attitude of the Government and its focus and desire to ensure that the people in need of our support, at a time when there are less people than ever in that position, are looked after within the social welfare system. That is the type of country we are.

The Minister spoke about the different increases and it is worthwhile listing them: a €14 per week special increase for lower payments with new rates of €148 and €168 per week; a €12 weekly increase for pensioners, giving new rates of €166 to €179; €10 and €12 increases in child benefit; a €39 increase per week in family income support thresholds; the €1,000 respite care grant, an increase of €165; the respite care grant extended beyond carers allowance and carers benefit; the capital assessment ease, with the first €20,000 of capital disregarded; an increase in maternity benefits from 70% to 75% of reckonable earnings; and a €35 weekly payment to residents in institutions not on disability allowances. Those are the highlights.

The differences those changes make to people on a daily basis are amazing. The State pension is paid to older people who feel that they have contributed to the economy we all enjoy today. It is this economy that allows us to put €12 billion per annum into provisions for those less well off than ourselves.

I have, however, some concerns. An advantage of being in Government and in charge of Ireland Inc. is that it gives us a chance to reflect. We are not firefighting on a daily basis, scrimping and saving every penny, and we can look to the future to see our priorities and the gaps on which we should concentrate.

The Minister has heard this before but child benefit is the single most effective family income payment. It is not means tested or taxed and is paid to the mother of the family. It is a significant amount of money per month. For four children, it comes to a total of €637.80, a huge amount of money to receive every month and it is welcomed by all families. It is not a payment, however, that deals with child care costs. It deals with child poverty and is a universal family support mechanism that does not focus on working or non-working parents or two or one parent families.

It is time it was recognised at Government level that child benefit does not address child care costs for families where both parents must work to pay for a home and not be reliant on the State for housing or health care.

Senator Terry said we had failed to address some of the commitments made in the area of child benefit. It is time for a review of child benefit to see whether it is achieving what was [1040]intended. Is it effective given that there are more women at work than ever before, that women wish to work family-friendly hours, flexible hours, part time and so on? Is this the appropriate mechanism to address the issue of child care? My view is that it is not. We need to look at the whole issue of recognising the cost of child care and deal with it within the Revenue as well as by continued improvements in child benefit.

I welcome the changes made in the carer’s benefit and allowance and the respite grant scheme. The increase to €1,000 in the respite grant is a significant improvement for a number of reasons. One can do something significant with €1,000. If one is looking after three or more people one may have €3,000 or €4,000. That it is issued automatically gives great joy to many. I am aware of this from my mother because I have a sister at home with Down’s syndrome who has been on DPMA. In the summer of each year the respite grant cheque arrives automatically. It did not matter whether it was for a weekend away for the two of them or a weekend away for my mother on her own, it was the fact that the State had recognised the work and the effort she was putting in to look after a family member. The recognition was worth more than anything else. It is an important grant and it is universal to all carers in receipt of carer’s benefit or those looking after people with disabilities.

The Minister referred to the means test income disregard which has been increased to €270 for a single person and to €540 for a couple. This means that a couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer’s allowance. If a person in receipt of a widow’s or widower’s allowance receives child dependent allowance, because he or she has young children, and is looking after a relative such as a mother, father or a father-in-law, he or she cannot receive an additional payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs in terms of the carer’s allowance. That is not fair and we need to find a way of addressing the issue. While I understand the principle of dual payments from the social welfare system, it does not make sense that if one’s spouse was alive one could have a income disregard of €540 but because one’s spouse is not alive, and one is in receipt of a widow’s or widower’s pension, one cannot receive a carer’s allowance. That issue will have to be addressed.

I welcome the removal of those on the minimum wage from the tax net. We have worked hard to achieve this and it needs to be recognised. It is a first for Ireland and a first for us within the system. When we talked about the introduction of the minimum wage we never believed that within a few short years those on the minimum wage would be out of the tax net.

The Minister dealt at length with the issue of pensions and cited the statistic for the number of women who do not have a pension provision. As [1041]one who is lucky to be a Member of this House, I recognise the Minister’s commitment to that area but something must be done for those who stay at home for a number of years to raise their families and do not get back into the active workforce. Some way will have to be found to ensure there are flexible pension arrangements to deal with short-time, part-time or whatever hours they work while also reflecting the years they spend at home — when they do not cost the State anything — and make a net contribution through their efforts as a homemaker, a child carer or their involvement in various societies such as meals-on-wheels. That group deserves our attention and it is incumbent on us to ensure they get their due as they move towards retirement. I ask the Minister to keep that issue at the top of his agenda.

I turn to the increase in maternity benefit from 70% to 75% of reckonable earnings. I plead with the Minister, as I did on the last occasion when the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, dealt with the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004, that if parental leave is to be effective, in respect of looking after one’s children and taking time out of the workplace, it is incumbent on us to find the money to pay parental leave benefit. We allow carer’s leave and protect rights. We have provided for parental leave but we do not pay a parental benefit. To allow people take their full amount of parental leave, many smaller organisations may have to introduce a policy which forces them to take it in bulk in order to manage a business behind the scenes when a person takes time off. They operate a policy that provides that under legislation one is entitled to parental leave but one has to take the 14 weeks together, rather than a day or two at a time, or whatever. That legislation has changed and the minimum amount of time one can be forced to take is six weeks. However, to take six weeks off, when one forfeits six individual wage packets, is not a feasible option for many and is of no benefit if people cannot receive some funding.

Like the respite grant, it is not always about the amount of money but the recognition. I appeal to the Minister as he continues to build on a social welfare system that is inclusive and provides for our society and our economy, to look at parental leave and ensure something positive is done. It may be only a small payment in the beginning.

I compliment the Minister’s Department on its communications system. It is absolutely superb in regard to how it keeps people informed of benefits and it should be complimented. If it can continue to improve in that area it will certainly be worthwhile.

I refer to an issue in regard to child care and I do not know if it will have a bearing on social welfare. Senator Henry mentioned a system in France on which I do not have much detail where one can buy tax free cheques and pay for child care or for looking after the elderly. No tax is paid by the recipients of those cheques. This is a [1042]way of ensuring equity within the tax system for payments that are important to the social welfare system, be it child care, caring for the elderly or whatever.

On the occasion of the debate on the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 with the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, we raised the issue of force majeure leave where people can take three days in any one year and five days in any three years, in every employment. There is no central register for employers to check whether the person has taken this leave in a previous employment. In regard to the expansion of the PPNS number, it might be possible to create a central register whereby if companies pay force majeure leave to employees it is registered with the Department of Social and Family Affairs and employers can check whether the person has used up his or her entitlements in the previous three or five years. This may be an additional headache for the Department but it will help the operation of force majeure and, hopefully, parental leave in the future.

  3 o’clock

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to its completion. The comments made by Senator Terry about pensions are very valuable and important. I ask that this Bill should not be obstructed because it will be of overall benefit to all other payments.

Mr. Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  I welcome the Minister and his officials back to the House. I am pleased to second this Bill. It provides for the introduction of a series of social welfare improvements announced in the budget in December 2004. It also provides for a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990.

The Minister has done a marvellous job in securing the largest ever budget for his Department in the history of the State. He has secured an additional €1 billion this year, which is an increase of almost 9% on last year, bringing the total budget to €12.25 billion for 2005. The Minister stated in his contribution that for every €3 of Government expenditure, €1 is expended on social welfare payments. This is an astounding figure and the Minister and the Government are to be congratulated in this regard.

The total expenditure on social welfare this year will be €12.25 billion. Payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. A total of 1.5 million people will benefit from weekly social welfare payments. There has been a four-fold increase in child benefit since 1997. The increase of €10 for each of the first two children and an increase of €12 for the third and subsequent children is welcomed by the mothers and fathers of this country. As my colleague, Senator Cox, stated, this is a very welcome payment every month.

I welcome the Family Support Agency increase of €2 million for family resource centres which [1043]are spread throughout the country and do excellent work. I can testify to the excellent facilities in Cavan and the good work being done by the family resource centre there. I welcome the sum of €900,000 for the expansion of the family mediation service which provides much needed facilities throughout the country. I welcome €600,000 additional funding for marriage and family counselling and the €70,000 for the development of information dissemination to the general public. I also welcome the €60,000 provided for the second phase of the family research programmes and the increase in the budget for the money advice and budgeting service. The service has centres throughout the country which help people who are in financial difficulties through no fault of their own. They may not be good at managing their own affairs. This organisation does excellent work with people who need help to get out of the circle of debt when they cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. The service deals with the creditors when the clients are unable to do so.

I welcome the changes in the carer’s benefit. A person is no longer required to be in full-time employment for three months before applying for the carer’s benefit. I was delighted to hear the Minister state in his contribution that carers are wonderful people and the State recognises their hard work. The Bill deals with pension provisions and rights. Despite what Senator Terry said, the ordinary man and woman in the street will benefit from the pension provisions.

I welcome the changes that have taken place in the past few years. The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.9 million. The rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically from 10% to 4.3% which is the lowest in the EU and among the lowest in the world. The number of low-paid workers removed from the tax net has increased. This year all those on the minimum wage will be taken out of the income tax net entirely.

Spending on social welfare has more than doubled from €5.74 billion in 1997 to an expected €12.25 billion in 2005. Over the past decade while gross average industrial earnings have increased by 71%, social welfare payments have improved by between 87% and 95% and by even more for larger families. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits such as farm assist, carer’s benefit, widowed parent grants and respite care grants have been introduced and enhanced. The social welfare increases announced in budget 2005 range from more than 7% to over 10% while inflation this year is expected to be at just 2.5%. The increase in the budget achieved by the Minister is almost 9%, which is more than three times the expected rate of inflation.

[1044]In her contribution Senator Terry stated that the Minister comes to this House but does not listen, and that if he does listen, he has not learned. I wish to put it on the record of the House that this Minister listens, the Government listens and the Government delivers. It has delivered the best social welfare package in the history of the State——

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  I was speaking about the pensions aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  Senator Terry should listen for a moment.

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  The Senator is misquoting me.

Mr. Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  In 1995 the Senator’s party, along with the Labour Party and the then Democratic Left, had the opportunity to put its rhetoric into practice.

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  I was speaking about the pensions debate which was held in this House last November.

Mr. Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  They failed to do so and they not only failed but failed miserably. I remind the Senator, while she is in listening mode, that £1.80 was the sum received by pensioners from her Government in 1995. In the three budgets for which that Government was responsible, pensioners were given the enormous amount of £3.80. The Senator should not come into this House on behalf of her party and try to lecture the Minister who has achieved the highest budget in the history of the State. The three parties had the opportunity and they failed miserably. The people of this country appreciate the work being done by the entire Government. The 1.5 million people of this State who rely on weekly social welfare payments appreciate the work of this Minister and of this Government. I welcome the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2005. I look forward to the Bill proceeding through all Stages in the House. Perhaps Senator Terry will consider allowing it to pass unanimously because one cannot vote against such a package.

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  I note Senator Wilson had nothing to say about the pensions aspect of the legislation.

Mr. Wilson: Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  The Senator obviously did not listen.

Dr. Mansergh: Information on Dr Martin Mansergh  Zoom on Dr Martin Mansergh  I welcome the Minister and his officials. In defence of Senator Terry, she was present for and contributed to the debate. I expected to hear a voice from the Labour Party before making my contribution but perhaps its absence is an eloquent statement on the quality of the Bill. I congratulate the Minister on the size of the social welfare package, the largest in the [1045]history of the State, for which I am sure he had to fight hard.

This is the first social welfare package to be unreservedly welcomed by CORI. Some years ago, around the time of the rainbow coalition’s final budget, Fr. Seán Healy denounced the package produced by the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Quinn, to the extent that I felt a little sorry for the Minister. I happened to meet Fr. Healy and asked him whether he had approved of any budget during the previous ten years, to which he replied he would need notice of the question. At last we have legislation which satisfies him.

We read reports and see statistics about the level of inequality in our society, most of which is relative because we have made significant progress in reducing absolute inequality. Debate on this issue takes place in every country in western Europe. The left wing of the Labour Party in Britain denounces the Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair for widening the poverty gap. In Germany, despite the fact that the Social Democrats and Greens govern together, opponents of what are probably necessary reforms of the country’s social welfare system make the same point. Ireland is not alone in having this type of argument.

Under the Bill, increases in social welfare benefits will range from 7% to 10% in nominal terms, well ahead of an expected inflation rate of 2% to 2.5%. While such increases have been a feature of budgets for several years, from the early 1990s through to 1997 social welfare increases, with the exception of unemployment assistance, closely tracked the rate of inflation and during much of the 1980s they trailed it. I recall the then Minister for Finance, Mr. Alan Dukes, for whom I have the highest respect, stating that people should not expect social welfare increases every year. We have moved far beyond that position, partly due to the quality of economic management. An unemployment rate of only 4% to 5% gives us the opportunity to do more for those who need the welfare net or have reached an age at which they require a pension.

The Government is a model in western Europe in the area of pensions to the extent that it concentrates on making provision for future pensions by allocating 1% of annual GNP to the national pensions reserve fund and encourages people to improve their position through private effort. None of us is under any illusion that the State pension can provide anything other than a modest standard of living. Although it has been much improved, those in employment who want to live in a degree of comfort have a duty to make some pension provision for themselves.

As an energetic and reforming member of Cabinet, I ask the Minister to examine the individualisation of social welfare payments. This issue has different connotations from individualisation in the taxation system and has few down[1046]sides from any ideological viewpoint. We are entering an era in which both spouses in a relationship will probably have worked when they reach retirement age and will, therefore, expect to be treated in their own right rather than as a spouse dependent. For this reason, individualisation would be a desirable reform.

In the area of private pensions evidence has emerged of defined benefit schemes running into difficulties. I have personal experience of this from work I do with institutions on a charitable basis. The problem is evident in the private and semi-State sectors and causes a great deal of unhappiness.

The Minister placed considerable emphasis on further increases in child benefit and the advantages and efficiencies of the payment. A Government decision was taken four or five years ago that child benefit would be the main vehicle for addressing the cost of child care. I am sure the Minister will closely study my view, which is shared by other Senators on this side, that we need to reconsider whether that strategic decision is sufficient. A child tax allowance was administered here until its abolition 20 years ago by the then Minister for Finance, Mr. Alan Dukes. Its value was gradually eroded until it was worth only €100 per annum or thereabouts and it was then abolished in exchange for a marginal increase in child benefit. I am not sure this was the correct decision. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Gordon Brown, is very proud of a child tax credit scheme applied across the water — I do not hold it out as the model — under which those earning below a certain threshold of approximately £56,000 receive tax credits. It ceases to apply to those with earnings above the threshold. One of the messages coming though on the doorsteps in counties Kildare and Meath is that child benefit on its own is not a satisfactory final solution.

I will briefly address the issue of social welfare for immigrants. As part of the enlargement package, Ireland, to an even greater degree than Britain, adopted the most liberal, open employment regime of the existing 15 member states for immigrants from the new accession states. On the whole, the system appears to be working well. However, I heard a report on radio this morning concerning a group of about ten Poles who travelled to County Sligo for employment only to discover that the work they were offered was not available. Fortunately, word travelled quickly, alternative offers were made and the matter is apparently being sorted out. In another recent case an immigrant woman living on the streets had her legs amputated. Some kind of safety net, not necessarily the conventional social welfare model, must be in place so that people are not utterly without cover. I have listened to the Minister’s reflections on single parents. There are cases, when a child is beyond a certain age, where the mother is encouraged through the provision [1047]of child care facilities to go back to work. However, single mothers should not be compelled to go back to work with the threat of losing their social welfare benefits. We would not compel anyone else in society in such a way.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  It is nice to hear sympathetic words from the Government side regarding single mothers. They received very poor press recently thanks to some electrical engineer who could do with a lesson in sociology before making pronouncements.

I am glad the Minister has rowed back on some of the restrictions introduced in the last budget, particularly those regarding lone parents. Previously, if they earned over €293 per week, many of their benefits were removed and they only received transitional benefits for a short period. Now I am glad to see they are allowed a six-month transition period. I am also glad that the back to education allowance has been examined more favourably. Lone parents who have poor education are much more likely to stay on the lone parent’s allowance than those with a better education who are in a better position to get jobs. I pay tribute to the Eastern Health Board, now the Eastern Regional Health Authority, which was always sympathetic in funding Cherish, now One Family. The organisation is dedicated to getting girls back into education, running computer courses and so on. It is a pity that the back to education allowance is not given until the person has been out of the school or college system for a year. Previously, it was two years which was worse. However, an academic year is a long time in the life of a teenager or a person in his or her early 20s. Efforts must be made to change this arrangement.

During the ill informed and violent debate on the issue of single parents, conducted by some people who should have known better, a woman told me it was all very well for these teenage girls to get a lone parent’s allowance, but they should also be made to go back to school. They will go back to school if schools take them in and child care is provided. As the Minister is aware, some girls’ families give great support which allows them to get back into education in a short time. Unfortunately, others may be years out of education and can never get back in. Far from planning a life of idleness thanks to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, these people have no plans. It is important that we help them with their planning, particularly by getting them back to school as quickly as possible. I applaud the group of women in Waterford who, on a voluntary basis, look after the children of some schoolgirls, allowing them to return to school. It is a great initiative and good to see people being so public-spirited. From a practical point of view, it is important the Minister addresses the back to education allowance. Poverty is associated with [1048]lack of education and these factors lead people into the worst of lifestyles. The allowance gives an opportunity to get these girls back into either school or college.

Another myth is that there are vast numbers of teenage mothers. In 1980, the number of 16 year olds who gave birth was 206. In 2000, this number stood at 196. It is not as if we are trying to cope with vast numbers of young girls with babies. While it is a small number, it is important for these women’s and their children’s future that everything is done to ensure they get back into education in order that they can gain employment. Our society is now described as knowledge-based. If people are left on the sideline now, they will be there forever. I wish I could see these mythical people who have four or five children at the expense of the State and live in such great luxury that to emulate it one would have to earn €40,000 a year. I am sure the Minister would be delighted to see them too. Helping this group to continue in education is one side of dealing with the matter. While it can be difficult for schools, they have improved at ensuring people come back into the system.

Considerable amounts of discretion now seem to be used in the administration of doctor-only medical cards. I would hate us to return to a system where what matters is who one knows, not what one’s needs are. I am sure the Minister is influential at Cabinet discussions. When the Minister is having thoughtful discussions with the Minister for Health and Children on this issue, will he inform her that it is important to spread the safety net as broadly as possible? The doctor-only card has been described as the half medical card, but it is a useful half. The back to education allowance is the most important benefit from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is absolutely vital for those people to get back into education again.

Mr. U. Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, to the House. Of all departmental staff, the majority of those in the Department of Social and Family Affairs are helpful, courteous and responsive to representations from public representatives and the public. However, there have been instances, particularly in the appeals process, where some individuals have set themselves up as judge and jury. They can be abrasive to the applicants, causing them great distress.

Several years ago two social welfare offices were located in Gort, County Galway. Appeals were held in a hotel rather than in the privacy of the offices. Applicants waited in the reception area to be called publicly for their appeal hearing. This unfortunate event, embarrassing for the people concerned, should not have happened in this day and age.

The Minister inherited the savage 16 cuts from his predecessor. We were told the Government [1049]had changed its ways post-Inchydoney but the reality is only a few of these savage 16 cuts have been reversed. Most have only been partially reversed. Senator Henry mentioned one such cut, the back to education allowance, which has certainly not been reversed. As Senator Henry outlined, it was a benefit of which so many people wanted to avail. Many social welfare recipients realised they could benefit enormously from the back to education allowance. They could see in it the chance to win back an opportunity for gainful employment. It was unbelievable that a Minister saw fit to extend the waiting period to 15 months. None of us fully understands the experience of becoming unemployed or of being long-term unemployed. People genuinely wanted to get out of the vicious circle in which they found themselves but they could not do so. While the Minister has, to a degree, responded, it is important he looks at this allowance again and fully reverses his predecessor’s decision.

If we consider all social welfare recipients, we will find people in the social welfare net most commonly associated with poverty. When we talk about poverty, particularly child poverty, we analyse the recent budget and ask what could have, to a great extent, eliminated child poverty. We see clearly that commitments by the Government to eliminate child poverty over a period of three or four years have not been met. The promises made have been broken, although the commitment was met in one year, namely, election year 2002. The commitments, however, were reneged on in the following two budgets. This year we were told an €18 increase was required to keep pace with inflation but there was only an increase of €10. Senator Wilson went back to 1995 and said the Opposition parties did not do this, that and the other but there is an absolute lack of awareness of the resources available at the time and of incomes relative to those of today.

In the past fortnight, most people will have received an ESB bill, including the elderly who receive a supplement of 150 units to offset their energy requirements. We are in the depths of winter and are experiencing a cold snap yet many elderly people will have received a crippling bill not long after Christmas and the introduction of the budget. Any increase they have received as a result of the increases in some pensions or otherwise has been totally eaten up by the increase in ESB charges. That is something with which perhaps Senator Wilson is not familiar. That is what it means to be in the poverty trap. While the Minister might say these people have received tremendous increases in their payments, those increases are worth very little when one takes into account all the stealth taxes.

Will the Minister introduce a national waiver for refuse charges? Elderly people in receipt of social welfare payments or on pensions who are in the poverty trap are forced to pay those charges as they have no choice. If for any reason [1050]they store refuse, they will be fined. They are in a vicious circle and it is of the utmost importance that the Minister introduce a national waiver policy. The Minister should not say, as many local authorities have, that because many of these services have been privatised, he cannot introduce such a waiver. Local authorities are using that as an excuse. If the goodwill existed in the Department to provide the resources to introduce such a waiver for elderly people, it could be done. Will the Minister introduce a waiver scheme for the elderly, particularly pensioners, the unemployed and social welfare recipients as a matter of urgency?

We are aware of the recent controversy about lone parents. Lone parents with one or two children or otherwise are most likely to be in the poverty trap. People have failed to realise that and have made negative comments. It is incumbent on the Minister to address the needs of single parents. The response of Government to date has been very poor. It is a scandal that we cannot respond in a positive way and take those people out of the poverty trap. Children, in particular, are most vulnerable. Once those children fall into the poverty trap they face other social difficulties from which they will never extricate themselves unless they are particularly lucky. Those who say single parents get themselves into that situation in order to receive social welfare benefits are far removed from reality and do not understand what life is like for single parents. We should ignore their comments and the publicity given to them by the media. We should react in a positive way. It is in the media’s hands.

There seems to be an overlap between the operations of the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Health and Children. When something is everybody’s responsibility, it is nobody’s responsibility. Certain supplementary welfare allowances which were administered by the health boards are now dealt with at local level by the Health Service Executive. We need to streamline the various allowances. The Government took a retrogressive step by returning responsibility for the rent allowance scheme to the local authorities. It is an example of another agency being given responsibility for a social welfare benefit. It could be referred to as decentralisation, which I do not oppose. The Combat Poverty Agency has raised some concerns about the proposed decentralisation of the agency to Monaghan. It believes that if it is based some distance outside the greater Dublin area, it will face difficulties in driving the anti-poverty agenda and eliminating poverty from society.

I hope the Minister will examine some of the savage 16 cutbacks in an attempt to make a great difference to many people. I ask him to respond in a meaningful way to his predecessor’s errors, including the introduction of the cutbacks. It is a pity that his response, which has resulted from adverse publicity, has been partial.

[1051]Mr. Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  It is tempting at this stage of a debate to proceed to beat the Government over the head and I am as good as anybody in that regard. It is good fun, but I would like to be somewhat more reflective on this occasion.

I wonder about the universality of the welfare system. It is no longer universal because those without Irish connections who have lived here for less than three years are not entitled to any social welfare assistance. We are starting to hear anecdotes telling of victims of poor Irish employment or bad luck. Such people are often penniless, homeless and, in many cases, frightened. We panicked in the early part of last year when it was anticipated in some quarters that a flood of people would arrive here. Such people are sometimes described as “welfare tourists”, but such a species of people has not been found to exist in any country in which the matter has been investigated. The suggestion that we would be flooded with “welfare tourists” was great for newspaper headlines, to which the Government responded. It is astonishing that the system we have constructed offers a person who has come here lawfully to work and happens to fall on bad times two choices — to starve or to go home. That is not worthy of us.

I attended a committee meeting this morning at which the US ambassador was present. The meeting, which was held in private session, unfortunately, considered the plight of Irish illegals in the United States. Senator Mooney gave the members of the committee copies of an eloquent document that was prepared by a major group in the US that lobbies on behalf of such people. The document stated that Irish illegals are not entitled to any welfare in the United States because they are not there legally. I have every sympathy for the illegal Irish in the US, but I could not resist reminding the US ambassador not only that Ireland does not look after illegals but also that we do not give any social welfare assistance to legal immigrants who have been here for less than three years. We should work out a joined-up position. If we decide that immigrants who are here legally under EU treaties should not be entitled to any support from the State, regardless of the misfortune they may encounter, it is somewhat rich for us to say to a big country that is 3,000 miles away and getting closer all the time that we think our illegals there are being treated badly. I will not say any more about the issue.

We need to understand what welfare is for and what it does. I have always held the view that State income support has a number of purposes, the first of which is to protect people against poverty. In many ways, we are not doing too badly in that regard. We have used a significant proportion of the resources available to us to protect older people, in particular, from serious poverty. I hope we will take similar action in respect of child poverty, about which we should be embarrassed.

[1052]The welfare system has a role to play in the labour market. It should help people in a way that smooths over the ups and downs of the marketplace. It is a great pity that we abolished pay-related benefits, which allowed people to have flexibility in work and meant that the loss of a job did not mean a quick descent into basic living. My party was involved in the decision to abolish pay-related benefits, but the abolition was mostly achieved by the Fianna Fáil minority Government that served between 1987 and 1989. It was one of the major cutbacks in the welfare system that was introduced at that time.

Other countries which have successful economies and are as rich as Ireland can operate systems which ensure that those who are victims of the variations of the labour market do not suffer enormous hardship if they lose a job temporarily and have to find another job. Such systems involve a number of other things. Our welfare system is totally inadequate in that respect. If a person who is paid €300 or €500 loses his or her job and slips back to the basic rate of social welfare, he or she will encounter a huge change in his or her life. The State has a duty to look after such people, who are not responsible for the difficulties they encounter.

Evidence from countries like Sweden suggests that the presence of a good system facilitates major structural changes when an industry is no longer viable. I refer, for example, to the Swedish ship-building industry which had to be dispensed with because it was no longer competitive. The workers involved in that industry were able to find new employment because the presence of an intelligently honed welfare system meant they did not carry the burden of the fear of not being able to support themselves and their children.

I remind the House that social welfare is an insurance system for many people. Governments rob the social insurance coffers from time to time to pay for other things. The previous Minister for Finance did that on at least one occasion. Workers are paying into an insurance fund that is in good shape at present, unlike many of the State’s pension funds, because it seems to be able to manage itself quite well.

We need to examine the issue of social welfare in that context. One cannot buy a single dinner in a restaurant near this building for the amount of money that is regarded as the basic rate of social welfare payment. That is an indication of the gap that exists in Irish society. It is inevitable that some gaps will exist, but as a society we need to decide whether we are willing to tolerate the existence of a gap of that nature. In particular, the Government has to make a choice in that regard. We need to consider whether the levels of social welfare payment achieve what we want them to achieve. They do not achieve the desired goal in that they do not eliminate poverty or protect people from a sense of insecurity. Above all, they do not do much to eliminate child poverty. [1053]There is no doubt that child poverty will be the cause of so many of our future social problems. Diversionary tactics such as talking about a reduction in persistent poverty, which have been used intermittently by members of the Government, do not add to this debate. We should be embarrassed if anybody in this State is living in circumstances in which he or she cannot afford to have decent clothes or footwear. That is the definition of persistent poverty. The Government, in its talk about reducing the incidence of persistent poverty, assumes that poverty is somehow inevitable. Gospel quotations notwithstanding, I do not accept the statement, “The poor you have always with you.” It is a rationalisation and justification for policy inertia.

If we are to do something about poverty, we must remember that whenever there are debates on social welfare, there are always targets and scapegoats. These are essentially used as the example by which the system is undermined. In the 1980s, it was unbelievable how many economists stated we had high unemployment because the unemployed would not work. That was gospel. All sorts of issues, including the wedge effect, were raised by such economists. I heard an OECD economist talk about the increased utility of leisure of the unemployed. This was in the 1980s, during which 250,000 people left the country to find work, yet senior influential international economists were suggesting people were unemployed because they had a few bob and considerable leisure time. People believed that nonsense. Once we started creating jobs, all the allegedly disincentivised unemployed people queued up for them. This was before the tax cuts that reduced the famous wedge. Unemployed people, to the certain knowledge of every Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas, wanted desperately to work. I know a person who hitched approximately 30 miles between Limerick to Mitchelstown every morning and evening simply to participate on a community welfare scheme. He wanted to do something.

We now have new scapegoats, our immigrants, who are perceived to be arriving here to live off our generous welfare system. If I were a Lithuanian, Latvian or Pole, I could think of better countries than Ireland in which to milk the welfare system, if that were my intention. We have a great obligation to avoid creating a new set of scapegoats. Moreover, what was said in defence of single parents in recent weeks needs to be said. Whatever about the tiny minority of teenage girls who become pregnant, single parenthood covers a whole range of tragedies in many cases. We need to assert this fact.

Let me return to the issue of bin charges and waivers, as raised by Senator Ulick Burke. Unlike some on the political left, I believe people have a universal right to education, shelter and good health care. I do not believe anybody has an unqualified right to generate as much waste as he [1054]or she wishes and expect the taxpayer to pay for its disposal. Anybody on the left who suggests one has such a right is guilty of absolute nonsense. People have a right to expect that they will not have to bear a financial burden for the disposal of refuse that is out of proportion with their ability to pay. People must have choices, but that is a matter for another day.

On 17 December, a letter was sent to me by Cork City Council about the new waste disposal system in Cork. It stated specifically that everybody would have to pay the tax although the service in question was publicly provided and that there would be a waiver applying to the fixed charge but not to the tags, which would have to be paid for by everybody. There was uproar over this and in late January the council put advertisements in the newspapers, which I suspect cost as much as a children’s playground, stating people on social welfare would have a 100% waiver.

However, these advertisements were placed three weeks after the introduction of the system. Before their placement, old age pensioners living on their own had been trying to figure out where they would get the money to pay for a service for which they had not had to pay heretofore. For these pensioners, the charge would have been the equivalent of between one and two weeks’ income. They depend on waste disposal services to take away their waste. They cannot bring it anywhere themselves and must take what they get. If we are to institute a proper waste service to deal with our waste problems, it must incorporate a universal national waiver system that does not impose financial burdens on individuals out of proportion with their capacity to pay.

I have stated before to the Minister and must reiterate that I do not have any great ideological hang-up over how pensions are paid. There is much scope for the imaginative use of public resources to mesh together private and public pension provisions. However, I cannot accept that people who have worked all their lives can be left in a position in which they are victimised by the vagaries of the stock or property markets. It is our job as a society to try to use the market as effectively as possible to fund our pension provision to the maximum extent. However, we must give the elderly a guarantee that their income will not be dependent on whether the price of Elan’s shares, or those of any other company, increase or decrease.

Simply saying people have to fund their pensions privately is ducking the issue. We must ask how we can fund pensions, privately or publicly, in a way that gives pensioners a secure, decent income related to the income they had when they were at work. This would lead to a good, imaginative pension scheme and link private and public provisions. It would guarantee that those who paid into a fund would not be dependent on the vagaries of the market but that they would have security in their older years.

[1055]Mr. Finucane: Information on Michael Finucane  Zoom on Michael Finucane  I am pleased the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is in the House because I believe he is fair-minded. I want him to convey a message to his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children. There has been much discussion recently on nursing home charges. Today I telephoned the helpline of the Health Service Executive, Midland Area, on behalf of an elderly person to find out basic details on the charges. Given the pent-up emotion associated with this subject, it is obvious that once such a helpline is advertised everybody will want to use it to make inquiries about how the charges will apply to him or her. When I telephoned I waited for 28 minutes for a response. I must admit that the girl to whom I spoke was very helpful. She stated the staff were up to their tonsils with inquiries and trying to deal with specific queries, some of which were taking a long time to answer. To what degree has the Minister for Health and Children staffed this resource to provide information? The information the helpline staff provide relates only to public hospitals. They are just taking details at present.

Although I had the patience to wait at the end of the line out of curiosity to see how long it would take before I received a response — I did not get much satisfaction when I had finished — I can imagine the frustration of many people who are trying to obtain information. Perhaps the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will raise this with the Minister for Health and Children, who circulated a document to us all during the week making reference to the need to provide a fair and efficient type of service. The word “efficient” is incorrect considering that it takes so long to have a basic inquiry dealt with.

  4 o’clock

I am tired of listening to Ministers who attend the House for statements make comparisons with 1995 and 1997. I ask people to be realistic about those years. We did not have the much-vaunted Celtic tiger in those times, nor did we have the economic buoyancy of recent times. Therefore, in respect of changes and improvements, whether in social welfare or otherwise, if the finances are available a great deal more can be done.

One of my colleagues referred to stealth charges. While the increases may appear substantial, stealth taxes erode them rapidly. The ESB is one example. Over the past four years there has been a 30% increase in electricity charges. Whenever the ESB approaches the energy regulator for consent he grants it automatically, whether for increased oil or gas charges, etc.

The electricity market is liberalised but that will not make a whit of difference to the domestic consumer because the other providers are not chasing the domestic consumer. The Minister should pick up the bill his wife received in January to see the significant increase in charges over recent years. This is not in the Minister’s remit but the pensioners about whom he speaks receive ESB bills and in many cases, although [1056]they receive some units free of charge, the value of their money is eroded by the increased charges on the balance of the bill.

I support the points made about refuse charges. Most local authorities have privatised the refuse service and are glad to get out of it as fast as they can. However, the waiver system that some operated, although it may have been restricted to certain deserving social categories, does not exist in the privatised service. The private contractor will not be flexible or give any concession to those who were on the waiver scheme. They will pay the same amount as those whose tax code includes a concession to claim back a certain amount of the overall refuse charges.

This issue was brought to my attention last week by a pensioner who said refuse charges cost €400 per year, paid in two six-month instalments. It is rather unfair that those who can afford to pay and who pay tax will receive a concession whereas the pensioner must pay the full amount. When Charles J. Haughey was Minister for Health and Social Welfare, as the office was then known, he was praised for introducing the free schemes. It is time to look at the impact the removal of the waiver system has on the cohort of people whom this Minister is trying to help through the social welfare system. It is time for innovation.

While this may not be the Minister’s brief I compliment the health service officials in my area who manage special aid for the elderly which is usually granted to pensioners. The recent controversy about nursing home subvention charges should have exposed the need to create incentives to keep elderly people at home.

The homemaker’s allowance operating in a pilot scheme in Dublin should be extended nationally. It works out at approximately €190 per week. In many cases those who decide to stay at home to maintain their previous quality of life are assisted by a few hours’ home help. The number of hours the home-help organisers can give is often constrained by their budgets. That group should be considered to see to what degree it is possible to keep them out of nursing homes for the elderly, administered within the public system. This is often also true of the private sector because many of these people would like to live in the home environment.

The Minister should consider the possibility of putting in place a system for refuse collection. He cannot change the ESB price increases which are remarkable. By contrast, An Post, which is probably reeling from its recent problems, encounters long delays and rigidity from its regulator, ComReg. Good work in the form of social welfare increases can often be rapidly eroded by stealth charges which creep up on people and must be considered to ensure that social welfare increases yield real value.

[1057]Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I welcome the Minister to the House to debate this Bill. I welcome too his recent statement that he would reconsider the lone parent payment to see whether it can be reformed and modernised to meet the needs of lone parents. I look forward to hearing his views on the matter when the review is completed.

The Minister may need to consider my point at interdepartmental level because social welfare affects many other Departments. Much of the work of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is administrative, paying out the schemes established through various consolidated Social Welfare Acts. I encountered a case in my area which exemplifies how unfair the system is to lone parents. A woman with a small child, and who had been out of education for eight years but wanted to return to third level education, sought a maintenance grant from the local authority. She was prevented from getting it because under the rules of the maintenance scheme, applied by the local authority, the total income in her house was taken into account. She lives with her parents.

This is an example of a young mother who did not go onto the council housing list but stayed at home with her family who received a grant from the local authority to extend the house for her and her child where they could have her parents’ support. The State, however, came down hard on her because her parents’ income was added to hers in assessing her eligibility for the maintenance grant. The lone parent payment is her sole income. This demonstrates how unfair the system is to lone parents. When they try to better themselves and improve their education they are prevented from doing so.

The Tánaiste was quite honest when she said a few years ago that for young mothers in particular it would make sense if they could stay at home with their families. This is particularly true for teenage mothers. A major problem in Dublin is that when young women are housed in housing estates they are picked on and their property is vandalised. A sub-culture exists around this problem.

In the example I have cited, the State supported this family to help the young mother yet when she tried some years later to get a grant to improve herself, the State refused it because the total income in the household was assessed.

While this is not an issue for the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Minister needs to tackle it because his Department’s decisions have implications for the Department of Education and Science and others. It requires several Ministers to work on such an initiative. Perhaps the Minister will take this up with the Minister for Education and Science because this is discrimination against lone parents who do their best and work hard to find new economic opportunities for their children.

[1058]Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. S. Brennan): Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I thank Senators for a very good debate. There has been more than two hours and ten minutes discussion and I listened carefully to what was said. Almost every issue raised could be the subject of a debate in this House. We could have a debate for a whole day on issues such as child poverty, child benefit, pensions, child care and carers, so I will not try to get through all of them.

Senator Terry and others expressed concern about child poverty and the child benefit promise. Child benefit has increased substantially in the past couple of years. Since 1997, it has increased by €38 for the first and second child and €49 for the third and subsequent children, up to €141 and €177, which is a substantial investment. I want to put on the record of the House a commitment the Minister for Finance and I gave in the Lower House, namely, that the child benefit package, which was announced some years ago, will be completed next year. We will complete the package we laid out, which will fully meet the commitment given on child benefit.

The Senator also took me to task on the pensions issue. I will not give into the pensions industry at the expense of ordinary people. There has been much debate in the media about the borrowing provision. I have received a significant amount of correspondence on that matter. I said that what was prudent for schemes of over 100 people was equally prudent for smaller schemes. One could ask what is the difference between 101 and 95 members. However, one cannot look at the borrowing issue in isolation from the other investment rules which may impact indirectly on any facility to borrow. I am also of the view that complex issues arise in regard to prudential concerns and taxation issues. For that reason, I have established a working group comprising my Department, the Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners, the Pensions Board and IFSRA. We will move forward in that regard.

The Senator is correct that the Minister for Finance exempted small schemes last year. He said it is fine for one person to borrow to buy a property or make an investment because this is someone providing for their own pension purposes. Tax breaks are a different issue. It is a matter for the Minister for Finance in the context of tax breaks generally. It is a much bigger subject than just pensions. However, I acknowledge that tax breaks for pension purposes amount to more than €2.5 billion a year, which is substantial. We give more tax breaks for pensions than we pay out on contributory and non-contributory pensions. In any discussion on pensions, one must take the €2.5 billion on tax breaks for pensions and the €2 billion paid out on contributory and non-contributory pensions together.

The Minister for Finance exempted these schemes and the EU directive allowed me to continue that exemption. Between now and [1059]September, when the IORPs directive kicks in, I will examine how best to continue the exemption. Having examined it carefully, there does not appear to be an argument on prudential protection grounds to, on the one hand, encourage people to take out pensions and, on the other, to say that if one takes out a pension, one will be stopped from borrowing to protect one from oneself. These pension schemes mainly include one to four people; they do not include up to 100 people. They include a small number of people, the majority of whom may be single individuals. I can only do so much to protect them from themselves.

The query that arrived on my desk was whether I should stop them borrowing. If one is employed in a small business or whatever and wants to buy a property to be used as one’s pension fund for the future, and if the former Minister for Finance said it is fine for them to borrow money to buy that property so that they will have a pension for the future, I cannot say to them that they cannot borrow because I must protect them from themselves, I do not trust their judgment on the borrowing issue or they will have to buy a cheaper property and have a smaller pension. I did not buy that argument. I bought the argument that it is better to encourage people to have pensions, and let them borrow for it, if they are the only pensioner. If there are hundreds or thousands of pensioners, borrowing should be out of the question.

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  If it is good for one person, why should it not be good for 1,000 people?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  The Minister without interruption, please.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I have a duty to protect pension funds that might include 100 or 1,000 recipients. Any Member of this House, or any other individual, might buy a property as their pension for the future. Someone who owns a shop and has no pension might decide that instead of giving their money to Irish Life or a pension fund to invest in equities and so on they would buy an apartment or a shop. However, in order to do so, these people must borrow money. Should I say to these people that while I am aware they need a pension, I must protect them against themselves? I did not cave into the pensions lobby. I have stood up to many lobbies in my political life and it does not cost me a thought. I would tell the pensions industry to get lost like a shot if I thought it was the correct thing to do. My focus is on protecting the pensioner, but we can discuss that issue again.

The Senator also raised the issue of the funding standard and took me to task about giving them ten years instead of three. This is an attempt to protect individuals. In the UK recently they tried to make the funding standard so strong that com[1060]panies had to pay up immediately. Many companies that were forced to pay into the pension fund immediately went broke and closed down and the pensioners got nothing.

The Pensions Board is made up of professional staff who keep an eye on the pension funding standards on a daily basis. Over a period, they will be able to monitor that the funding standard is being reached. If we force them into a three year jacket, many companies could not afford it. They would probably not remain in business and the situation would be worse. I provided for an extra seven years in order to make it possible for these companies to remain in business and make the contribution to the pension fund.

Ms Terry: Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  There is no guarantee that it will be any better.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  There is no guarantee because these are private pension schemes. I know of no party that has recommended nationalising these schemes. We have a choice to make. Should we press the company so hard that it says, “To Hell with this, we are out of here”, or should we take companies under the wing of the Pensions Board and, over a longer period, nurse them to a situation where they can get their pension funds up to the required standard and thereby have a better chance of protecting the pension funds of the individuals involved?

We could spend the whole day debating this issue. I want to convince the Senator that I took these two decisions in order to protect pension funds, not to give into some bunch from the pensions industry. That is not my brief. My brief is to protect pensioners and ensure more people take out pensions. This is where I am coming from in this debate. I know the Senator is taking a special interest in this matter and I listened carefully to what she said. However, I have given my response to the issue.

Senator Cox has been consistent for many years on the issue of child care. It requires a joined-up Government approach. It is becoming a major issue. Anyone campaigning in the by-election will know that commuting to and from Dublin and the requirement for young families to have child care is being brought up on every doorstep. It is a major issue which will require a combination of a number of Departments to pull it together. The Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social and Family Affairs and Finance have a big role to play in this regard. While there are taxation and safety implications involved, there is a need to develop a strong child care policy. I note the example of France, which I will take on board.

The Senator also raised the issue of carer’s allowances and widows. The Oireachtas committee recommended that we should pay half rate to widows who go into caring. We could not do that this year, but provided the €1,000 respite grant [1061]instead. My Department will continue to examine whether it is possible to include widows in the carer’s allowance in the future. I note the Senator’s points on parental leave benefit which is also a major issue.

Senator Wilson paid tribute to the money advice and budgeting service and I wish to join the Senator in praising the agency which helps people out of debt and to manage money. While there is much talk about social inclusion, MABS is concerned with financial inclusion, a very important step on the road to full social inclusion. If one can teach people to use bank accounts, pay their bills and manage their money, they are much more likely to be socially included.

Senator Mansergh raised the issue of individualisation. I think there is scope to do more in this area. The rather Dickensian concept of a dependant, particularly one who is a fine healthy adult, does not have much place in a 21st century social security code. While that is easy to say, moving from the present state to our desired destination will be another day’s work. I am taken with the argument that the concept of dependancy is one that should not be in our system, unless a genuine dependancy exists. It makes more sense to deal with people as individuals, and we will examine what is possible in this area.

Senator Mansergh also suggested a basic review of whether child benefit is reaching its targets. A number of Senators discussed child poverty. The National Economic and Social Council is examining a possible amalgamation of the family income supplement and the child dependant allowance into a new, second-tier children’s allowance, to be aimed at low-income families. The NESC has almost completed its work and as soon as it is available, we will take some decisions.

I accept the argument that the universal nature of child benefit is important in getting funds to families on behalf of children. We need to examine a more focused approach to child poverty. One way to do so is through the introduction of a special type of child benefit which would be like FIS and child dependant allowance. I hope we can make some rapid progress on that issue. While it is important to cherish all of the children of the nation equally, it is more important to cherish the targeted few that are on the poverty line. I do not think that takes from the constitutional principle.

I thank Senator Henry for her comments. In particular, she spoke about the back to education allowance. Originally, the limit was six months but my predecessor raised it to 15 months. I brought it back to 12 months and I told the Dáil that between now and September, I will review the position to see if it is possible to bring it back to nine months. September is an appropriate time, as it is when most people return to the education system and sign on. We have eased the restriction, but have not yet gone further than that.

[1062]Senator Ulick Burke complimented the staff of my Department, with which I agree. They are a fine body of professional people. He also spoke about the importance of confidentiality in appeals. We can track the specific case he raised to ensure that if it occurred in the manner described, it will not recur.

He also mentioned waiver charges, as did a number of other Senators. In the main, the issue arises from the privatisation of the refuse collection system and the non-requirement of the private sector to introduce waivers. Successive Governments have taken the view that is a local issue concerning local authorities, which should be the bodies to organise waivers, even with the private sector. However, a pensioner who did not have a bill for €300 last year but now suddenly does, will not care which local authority he or she lives in. The bill must be paid, which may be a problem. This means that my Department and I must give the issue some consideration. The Combat Poverty Agency recommended that it be done with a locally-operated waiver system. From the Government’s perspective, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and myself continue our discussions as to how we can help with some kind of waiver regime that might be targeted. It would have to operate through the local authorities. In the short term, there is no scope for a major national scheme along the lines suggested by the Opposition Members. I thank Senator Ulick Burke for raising the issue.

Senator Ryan spoke about habitual residence. He mentioned a requirement of three years, whereas it is actually two years. I see the Senator is not with us. I do not wish to dwell on this in detail except to state that there is no discrimination in the social welfare system against those from the accession states. There are five tests which they must meet as must everyone in Ireland. One of the tests is a two-year residency requirement. The habitual residence issue is under review and we are examining all the requirements to ensure fairness for people from the accession states in the future.

Senator Finucane raised the issue of a helpline and the waiting period. I will pass that to my colleague the Minister for Health and Children. He also raised the issue of waivers. Senator Brian Hayes raised the issue of lone parents, particularly the maintenance scheme issue. The Senator has a case, which I will examine.

I wish to make some points about lone parents. There are some myths extant about lone parents, essentially pub talk, and we should put some facts on the record. In reality, less than 3%, 2.8% to be exact, of lone parents are teenagers. The notion that there is an army of teenagers is not accurate. In fact, 75% of all lone parents are over 25 and the average age is approximately 27 or 28. One third of lone parents are in their 30s. People have a false impression that one is dealing with a mass of teenagers. The other myth is that lone parents have a multiplicity of children because [1063]there is great money to be had from the system. This is also inaccurate as 60% have one child and 25% have two. In other words, 85% of lone parents have two children or fewer. Lone parents tend to be older than pub talk suggests and tend to have one child. This gives the lie to the myth that somehow there is a racket going on as the figures show clearly this is not the case.

Lone parents have genuine pressures and our job is to meet those pressures. The best way to do so and I note what has been said about the back to education allowance, is to encourage people back into education and back to work. Joined-up Government is required in this area as it affects a range of Departments, and an interdepartmental group is examining how the system can be changed to encourage lone parents back into education and work.

I am interested in revisiting the issue of the cohabitation rule. We are working on it but do not have an easy answer. I do not like a social policy where in the 21st century, the Republic sends inspectors to the homes of 50,000 to 60,000 lone parents to ensure that the child’s father is not in the house. This cannot be good social policy. Joint parenting is clearly better and if the parties involved agree, cohabitation is also probably better for the child. A State system that polices lone parents to ensure that does not happen cannot be right. However, as I noted in the Dáil yesterday, the situation is similar to the leaving [1064]certificate points system. It is not perfect, but until a better method is found, one should not mess with it. I must confer with my officials and garner advice from wherever we find it, as to how we can improve social policy in that area.

I am convinced that funding and income support are the main responsibilities of my Department. We also have a responsibility to use that income support to help solve the social problems behind the payments being made. It is not sufficient to salve our collective conscience by having schemes for such things as child poverty, lone parents or pensions on the basis that if we pay the bill and sign the cheque, the problem will go away. If the problem does not go away, we must deal with the social issue behind the payment. All of us have this responsibility.

Perhaps sometime in the future, we might find out that there is no longer a need for a particular payment because the social problem behind it has been solved. It is not sufficient to institutionalise the problem, lock people into poverty traps, pay the bill, brag about the amount of money provided as part of social welfare and then assume that it constitutes social policy. Social policy goes much deeper than that and we have a responsibility to go much deeper into many of these issues. I have only skimmed the surface of this and I look forward to many more debates with Senators on the detail of all these issues in the future.

Question put.

[1063]The Seanad divided by electronic means.

[1063][1064][1063][1063]An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  As the teller sheets will not print, a manual vote will be taken.

[1064]Question again put.

[1063]The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 14.

Information on Cyprian Brady  Zoom on Cyprian Brady  Brady, Cyprian. Information on Michael Brennan  Zoom on Michael Brennan  Brennan, Michael.
Information on Peter Callanan  Zoom on Peter Callanan  Callanan, Peter. Information on Margaret Cox  Zoom on Margaret Cox  Cox, Margaret.
Information on John Dardis  Zoom on John Dardis  Dardis, John. Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  Dooley, Timmy.
Information on Geraldine Feeney  Zoom on Geraldine Feeney  Feeney, Geraldine. Information on Liam Fitzgerald  Zoom on Liam Fitzgerald  Fitzgerald, Liam.
Information on Camillus Glynn  Zoom on Camillus Glynn  Glynn, Camillus. Information on John Gerard Hanafin  Zoom on John Gerard Hanafin  Hanafin, John.
Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  Kenneally, Brendan. Information on Tony Kett  Zoom on Tony Kett  Kett, Tony.
Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  Leyden, Terry. Information on Don Lydon  Zoom on Don Lydon  Lydon, Donal J.
Information on Dr Martin Mansergh  Zoom on Dr Martin Mansergh  Mansergh, Martin. Information on John Minihan  Zoom on John Minihan  Minihan, John.
Information on Paschal Canice Mooney  Zoom on Paschal Canice Mooney  Mooney, Paschal C. Information on Tom Morrissey  Zoom on Tom Morrissey  Morrissey, Tom.
Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  Moylan, Pat. Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Information on Francis O'Brien  Zoom on Francis O'Brien  O’Brien, Francis. Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  O’Rourke, Mary.
Information on Ann Ormonde  Zoom on Ann Ormonde  Ormonde, Ann. Information on Shane Peter Nathaniel Ross  Zoom on Shane Peter Nathaniel Ross  Ross, Shane.
Information on Eamon Scanlon  Zoom on Eamon Scanlon  Scanlon, Eamon. Information on Mary M. White  Zoom on Mary M. White  White, Mary M.
Information on Diarmuid Wilson  Zoom on Diarmuid Wilson  Wilson, Diarmuid.  


[1063]Níl
Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James. Information on Paul Bradford  Zoom on Paul Bradford  Bradford, Paul.
Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Burke, Ulick. Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  Coonan, Noel.
Information on Maurice Cummins  Zoom on Maurice Cummins  Cummins, Maurice. Information on Frank Feighan  Zoom on Frank Feighan  Feighan, Frank.
Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hayes, Brian. Information on Mary E.F. Henry  Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry  Henry, Mary.
Information on Derek McDowell  Zoom on Derek McDowell  McDowell, Derek. Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  McHugh, Joe.
Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  Norris, David. Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  Phelan, John.
Information on Brendan Ryan  Zoom on Brendan Ryan  Ryan, Brendan. Information on Sheila Terry  Zoom on Sheila Terry  Terry, Sheila.

[1063]Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Cummins and Terry.

[1065]Question declared carried.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Ms O’Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  On Tuesday, 8 March 2005. Members will know that the famous voting system went down again.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  We know that.

Ms O’Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I do not see the gentleman who is usually in charge of it here. There is something intrinsically wrong with the voting system and we must get a new one.

Mr. B. Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The old one was fine.

Ms O’Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  It does not go wrong in the Dáil. I do not understand it.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  If there is a vote this evening, we will take it using the old system.

Ms O’Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Where is the gentleman who is in charge of the system?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Rory Kiely  Zoom on Rory Kiely  I do not know, I am not responsible for him.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 8 March 2005.

Sitting suspended at 4.55 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.


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