I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The main purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the increases in the rates of social welfare payments announced in the budget and other changes in social welfare schemes. The detailed provisions of the Bill are explained in some detail in the explanatory memorandum which has been circulated to Deputies with the text of the Bill but I would like to comment on them briefly here.
The Government are committed to maintaining the value of social welfare payments by increasing them regularly and bringing about, whenever possible, real improvements in the living standards of social welfare recipients. This is evident in the level of increases in rates of payment provided in the Bill.
This year sees a departure from the pattern of a uniform percentage increase in all weekly rates of benefits. People on long-term payments, such as retirement pensioners and old age pensioners, are generally regarded as requiring special attention in the social welfare context and the desirability of higher increases in their case will be readily conceded. For that reason long-term payments are being increased by 16 per cent and short-term payments by 12 per cent.
When related to the projected increase in the cost of living this year, the increases provided stand up fairly well. The increase in the consumer price index is probably running at present at around 8 to 9 per cent but it is projected in the budget statement to fall to 5 per cent towards the end of the year. If this target is realised, the 12 per cent increase in short-term payments will provide a substantial real increase in the living standards of social welfare recipients while the 16 per cent increase in long-term payments will give a very worthwhile increase to the categories involved.
Turning to the increases provided in individual payments, the maximum weekly personal rate of non-contributory old age pension is being raised to £15.80 for persons aged under 80 years. It will go up to £17 for persons aged 80 years or over. The reduced rates of pension payable where weekly means exceed £6 are also being increased. On this occasion, steps are being taken to ease an anomaly which is due to the application in recent years of uniform percentage increases to all reduced rates of pension. This has resulted in a scale of pensions under which weekly pensions are reduced by £1.40 for every increase of £1 in means. The Bill provides that, as a step towards achieving a scale where pensions will not be reduced by more than £1 a week for each £1 increase in means, the stages between rates will be reduced to £1.30 as from April. As a result there will be two additional rates of pension in the table of rates, so that reduced rates of pension will be payable up to a means limit of £17. For a pensioner with qualified children, of course, the means limit will be greater than £17.
The maximum rate of payment in respect of an adult dependant under pensionable age is being increased to £7.85. Therefore, the overall maximum payment for a pensioner with a dependent spouse will be increased to £23.65 and where the pensioner is 80 years of age or over, to £24.85. The allowance payable in respect of a prescribed relative giving full-time care and attention to an incapacitated pensioner is being increased to £8.80 and the addition to pension for a pensioner living alone will be raised to £1.30.
The additions to pension payable to pensioners with qualified children are being raised to £4.25 a week for each of the first two children and to £3.20 a week for each other child.
The new scale of weekly means and rates of pension is set out in Table A in section 2 of the Bill.
Section 3 of the Bill provides for the increases in the rates of unemployment assistance. The increase in the personal weekly rate of assistance will bring the maximum to £13.15 in urban areas and to £12.70 in rural areas. The rates for adult dependants are being increased to £9.60 and £9.35 respectively and the rates for dependent children to £4.10 for each of the first two and £3.10 for others. Thus, the rate of assistance for a married couple with two children is being increased to £30.95 in an urban area and to £30.25 in a rural area.
Means for unemployment assistance purposes are, in the case of smallholders in certain areas, assessed notionally by reference to rateable land valuation. Where the valuation is £10 or less, the new rates of assistance will be as I have just outlined. Those smallholders with valuations between £10 and £15 are currently in receipt of assistance at lower rates which are also being increased by 12 per cent. Smallholders on the notional system of assessment whose valuations are between £15 and £20 did not benefit from budget increases in recent years and are currently in receipt of assistance at rates established in 1976. These rates, however, are also being increased by 12 per cent on this occasion and this involves the creation of an additional schedule of rates in section 3. Smallholders with valuations over £20 are, since 1977, not eligible to have their means assessed on the notional basis.
Section 4 of the Bill provides for a revision of the notional method of calculating farm means for unemployment assistance purposes in the case of smallholders resident in certain specified areas. The White Paper "Programme for National Development 1978-1981" indicated the Government's intention to introduce revisions of the scheme this year to take account of the increase in agricultural incomes since the scheme was last revised. I believe that the changes provided in the Bill are reasonable in present circumstances, particularly as the increase of 12 per cent in unemployment assistance rates will, as I have said, affect all smallholder applicants for assistance. At present, the national multipliers used to assess the annual income of smallholders covered by the scheme are £20 per £ land valuation where the valuation is £15 or less, and £30 per £1 valuation where the valuation is over £15 and up to £20. The £20 multiplier has not been changed since its introduction in 1966 and the £30 multiplier is unchanged since 1976. Section 4 provides for the following increases in the multipliers from the beginning of April next. For those with valuations of £10 or under, who number almost 13,000 of the 20,000 smallholders on notional assessment, the multiplier will be increased from £20 to £30. For those with valuations over £10 and up to £15, of whom there are almost 5,000, the multiplier will be increased to £50 and for those with valuations over £15 the multiplier will be increased to £60 per £1 land valuation.
Any smallholder covered by these provisions, who feels it would be to his advantage, may have his means assessed on the factual basis which applies to smallholders with valuations over £20 and to applicants generally. In that case he would be eligible to receive the current rate of payment appropriate to his means as factually assessed. The provisions of section 5 of the Bill will give the option of factual assessment in these cases.
Increases in all rates of non-contributory widows' and orphans' pensions are provided in sections 6 and 9 of the Bill, the maximum weekly personal rate of widows' non-contributory pension being increased to £15.80 and the amount for each qualified child to £5.20. As in the case of non-contributory old age pension, provision is being made for uniform reductions of £1.30 in pension for each £1 increase in means which will mean that reduced rates of pension will be payable where weekly means do not exceed £17. Where the widow has qualified children higher means limits apply. The changes in widows' pensions automatically apply to the social assistance allowances for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and prisoners' wives.
The allowances for single women aged between 58 and 66 are being increased by 16 per cent in section 10 of the Bill, bringing the maximum to £13.65.
Under section 11 the rates of supplementary welfare allowances are being increased to maintain the parity between the rates of supplementary welfare allowance and the rural rate of unemployment assistance.
Substantial increases in children's allowances are provided in section 19 of the Bill. The monthly allowance for the first child is increased by 52 per cent to £3.50, for the second child by 34 per cent to £5.50, and for the third and each subsequent child by 13.4 per cent to £5.50. For a two child family the overall increase will thus be 41 per cent, a four child family will gain 24 per cent and a six child family 20 per cent.
When the Government decided to reduce the food subsidies, they recognised that this step would seriously affect the household budgets of social welfare recipients and lower paid workers. We were anxious that the effect on this section of the community should be cushioned to the greatest extent possible. As an interim measure, compensation was given to persons in receipt of assistance payments by an adjustment in the value of the EEC butter scheme vouchers. Children's allowances, however, offer the best mechanism to offset the effects of the reduction in subsidies for the majority of families with lower incomes. These allowances have not been increased for some time and were in need of adjustment anyway. The increases now provided should help to ease the burden of increasing costs for social welfare recipients and lower income families.
Because the reduction in food subsidies took effect from 1 January, the Government were anxious to bring these increases in children's allowances into operation from the earliest possible date. The increases will, therefore, take effect from 1 April, not 1 July as has been the practice on previous occasions.
I now come to the increases in the rates of contributory benefits and pensions under the social insurance system which are set out in section 20 of the Bill. The increase in disability and unemployment benefit is to £16.05 in the personal rate and to £10.45 in the rate for an adult dependant. Allowances for children with these benefits are being increased to £4.65 for each of the first two children and to £3.80 for each other child. Maternity allowance is also being increased to £16.05.
The personal rate of invalidity pension, which is a long-term payment, is being increased to £16.65 with an addition of £10.85 for an adult dependant.
The personal rates of contributory old age and retirement pensions for persons under age 80 go up to £18.60 and, for those over 80, to £20.00. The addition to pension for an adult dependant is being raised to £11.90 where the adult dependant is under pensionable age and to £14.05 where the adult dependant is aged 66 or over. Therefore, a married couple both over pensionable age will get £32.65 as compared with £28.15 at present and, if the pensioner is aged 80 or over, £34.05 as compared with £29.15 at present.
In the case of widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit, the new personal rate will be £17.00 for those under age 80. This amount is raised to £18.25 for those aged 80 or over.
The additions to widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit for qualified children are being raised to £5.70 for each child. A widow or deserted wife with four qualified children will now get £39.80 as compared with £34.20 at present. In the case of other social insurance pensions, the new additions for child dependants will be £4.80 for each of the first two children and £3.95 for each other child.
In line with the improvements in the general social insurance system the Bill provides in section 25 and 26 for corresponding increases in the rates of benefit payable under the occupational injuries scheme.
Again this year the Government are availing of this legislation to effect a number of improvements generally in the standard of the social welfare services. Improvements of this nature, while they do not attract the same degree of attention as the general increase in rates of payments, are, nevertheless, well worth while because of the benefit or alleviation they bring to individuals or small groups of persons. The most significant of these, in terms of the cost involved, is the provision in section 22 extending to 312 days the maximum period of payment of unemployment benefit to married women who are now limited to 156 days. In 1978, provision was made for the removal of the special conditions for receipt of unemployment assistance by single women and widows. The present provision represents a considerable further step towards the elimination of discrimination against women and the progressive achievement of equality of treatment between men and women in the social security field to which the Government are committed.
In keeping the system under continual review, the need for improvements comes to light from time to time. Two further improvements in social insurance schemes which appear to me desirable and which were announced in the budget are included in this Bill. The first of these involves an improvement in the maternity allowance scheme and is provided for in section 23. Maternity Allowance is payable at present to a women for six weeks prior to the expected date of confinement and for six weeks thereafter. Where the birth of a child occurs prematurely, the mother loses the unexpired portion of the six weeks' payment prior to the expected date of confinement. Section 23 provides that the allowance will in future be paid in all cases for a minimum period of 12 weeks.
The second improvement concerns the position of a deserted wife who becomes widowed while in receipt of deserted wife's benefit. While the contribution conditions for widow's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit are the same, the dates on which these conditions must be satisfied are different—the date of desertion in one case and the date of the husband's death in the other. It is possible, therefore, that a deserted wife, though in receipt of deserted wife's benefit, would fail to qualify for widow's contributory pension on her husband's death, if his insurance diminished after he deserted her. Section 24 of the Bill provides that such a woman will automatically be entitled to widow's (contributory) pension, whether or not the contribution conditions are satisfied in her case.
On the social assistance side the Bill provides for a considerable number of improvements in addition to the increases in rates. The need for many of these changes has been shown by the examination carried out into the possibility of removing anomalies and inequities in the means test and by analysis of complaints received during the year. I have already referred to the steps being taken to remove the anomaly whereby social assistance payments are reduced by more than £1 for every £1 increase in means over a certain limit.
Another change is in section 7 of the Bill. This deals with the unsatisfactory situation which exists at present in that widows with non-contributory pensions may have their pensions reduced when they reach old age pension age. This is due to the fact that there is more favourable treatment of income from capital in the case of a widow's pension than for old age pension and a widow with savings may thus suffer a reduction when she transfers to the old age pension. This is an obvious source of hardship to any widow so affected. The position is now being rectified by allowing a widow to continue to retain her widow's non-contributory pension after she reaches 66 years of age.
Other changes are in sections 13 and 14. These provide for an increase to £200 in the amount to be disregarded in assessing income from capital for means test purposes. The present amounts which may be disregarded are £25 in the case of old age pensions and £100 in the case of widows' pensions and equivalent allowances.
Again, section 15 will ensure that any unearned income of a child, such as income from a trust, a portion of which is at present assessed in determining a widow's means, will no longer be so assessed.
Under section 16 the amount of a person's earnings which is disregarded as means where there are qualified children will be increased to a uniform £104 for each child from £39 in the case of an old age pensioner and £78 in the case of a widow. The section also provides for the adoption of a uniform definition of earnings for this purpose.
There is a provision, at present, whereby old age and widow pensioners do not suffer an overall reduction of income when other statutory pensions to which they are entitled are increased. This provision, which applies only to pensions payable under statute or by another Government, is being extended by section 17 of the Bill to embrace any occupational pension to which the pensioner is entitled.
In assessing means in future, dwelling houses and farm buildings, which are at present assessable, will be disregarded, by virtue of section 18 of the Bill.
Apart from these improvements related to means tests, there are also certain other provisions relating to the social assistance schemes in the Bill. The main one of these relates to the scheme of prisoner's wife's allowance. Under present legislation the allowance ceases to be payable immediately the husband is released from prison. Released prisoners often find it difficult enough to adjust to freedom and normal living without having the added problem of an immediate financial crisis in the home. I think it desirable to help the prisoner to rehabilitate himself in a stable home environment by easing this immediate problem. I am providing in section 8 of this Bill, therefore, that prisoner's wife's allowance will continue to be paid for four weeks after the prisoner's release.
Finally, section 27 of the Bill is designed to alleviate the effects of an existing provision which can be a source of considerable hardship to old age pensioners in certain instances. This is the provision affecting old age pensioners only which requires a pensioner to repay any pension overpaid as a result of a failure on his part to notify in due time an increase in his means. Such failure may be due to oversight or lack of knowledge on the part of the pensioner and the requirement to repay, which is mandatory, can cause hardship. Section 27 will enable the Minister for Social Welfare to exercise discretion in dealing with the question of overpayment of pension in such cases.
The overall cost in 1979 of the rates increases and other improvements being provided for following the budget is £65.7 million. Of this, social assistance accounts for £33.7 million, all of which is borne by the Exchequer. The total cost on the social insurance side is £32 million and this must be met out of the Social Insurance Fund which is financed by contributions from employers and employees with an annual subvention from the Exchequer. The Exchequer will meet an estimated £6.4 million of this extra cost leaving £25.6 million to be borne by contributions. A new system of fully pay-related contributions will, under the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act, 1978, commence in April next and the cost to contributors of the social insurance improvements in this Bill will be met from these contributions.
I have now outlined the areas of improvements provided for in this Bill. I am satisfied that the provisions of the Bill represent an improvement in the position of social welfare recipients and a further advance in the development of the social welfare services. I, therefore, commend the Bill to Dáil Éireann for speedy and favourable consideration.