I believe that this budget marks an important step in the Government's strategy for regenerating the economy. Its consolidates and builds on the Government's achievements in their first year of office and it lays the foundation for further progress in tackling the problems facing the country.
This budget provides for measures which constitute the most significant and far-reaching package of reform in the social welfare area for a very long time. These are: a 3 per cent overall increase in weekly rates of payment; major improvements of over 11 per cent in the personal rates for those getting the lowest payments; the streamlining of the rates of payments in respect of dependent children of social welfare recipients with extra increases for those at the lowest levels; the continuation of the equal treatment alleviating payments until the end of the year; and the inclusion of farmers and self-employed persons in social insurance for old age and widow's pension purposes.
Looking back on the period of less than 12 months since we took office it is evident that the country has seen a major change for the better. Through firm decisions and a strong commitment to the national interest we have stabilised the economy and brought a new sense of confidence to investors. Significant visible and quantifiable improvements have been achieved. The broad thrust of the Government's strategy has been accepted by the people and by the major political parties. OurProgramme for National Recovery reflects the general consensus on the approach that is needed at this critical time. This programme is a blueprint for the regeneration of the economy and for greater social equity in our society over the next three years.
Any programme, however well intended, will only be as good as our subsequent actions make it. While there is still a long way to go, the initial economic indications are good. Inflation continued to fall last year, the average being just over 3 per cent for the year. This was the lowest annual increase since 1967. The inflationary pressures are expected to remain subdued this year with a rate of 2.5 per cent for the year as a whole now being estimated.
Interest rates and mortgage rates have continued to ease — mortgage rates have fallen by some 3 percentage points in the last 12 months. This represents a significant reduction in outgoings for many middle-income households thereby increasing disposable income. Many families have seen a reduction of some £12 per week in their mortgage payments. This continued downward trend in interest rates will also greatly assist investment this year, with consequent spin-off effects for employment.
The targets set in last year's budget have been achieved and the Government's overall policy has wide international support. The Exchequer returns for 1987 confirm completely the success of the Government's management of the public finances. They clearly indicate that our finances have been brought firmly under control and that we can now look forward with confidence to securing a further improvement in 1988. Real economic growth and sustainable employment can only be achieved on the basis of sound public finances.
Present trends are more than encouraging and we must take full advantage of them. I believe that there is enormous potential in the economy and we must ensure that it is being used to the full. We must encourage people with ideas and ambition to put then ideas into action and we must make our economic and social system as flexible as possible so that it stimulates rather than inhibits their efforts. This is brought home to me in my work with people, especially young people, who only require a little encouragement to put their ideas into action. People, in their early twenties today are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic and they have an enormous potential which has yet to be fully harnessed. Government policies will enable this to be achieved. In my own area I will also be providing more flexible opportunities for people on the live register and this is something I will return to later.
On the social welfare front my first priority is to maintain social welfare payments at least in line with inflation. This goes without saying and it represents a very significant financial commitment by the Government. This year the Government have provided an extra £44.8 million for increases in social welfare and health allowance payments from late July next. The overall increases are on the lines proposed in theProgramme for National Recovery with much greater increases being provided for those on lower incomes.
This year's improvements in social welfare rates are in three main areas, namely:
(i) a general increase of 3 per cent in widow's and old age pensions, unemployment and disability benefit and other weekly payments;
(ii) much higher increases for those on unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance as follows:
— 11 per cent increase in the personal rate of unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance, and
— 6 per cent increase in the rates for their dependent children;
(iii) streamlining of rates for child dependants so that in future there will be only two different rates per scheme — in general there are four at present.
I would like to deal with each of these in turn.
TheProgramme for National Recovery spells out clearly that the Government are committed to maintaining the overall value of social welfare benefits, and, within the resources available, will consider special provision for greater increases for those receiving the lowest payments. The 3 per cent general increase in rates of social welfare payments from July will more than protect the real value of social welfare payments given that the rate of inflation this year is expected to be 2.5 per cent. By bringing forward last year's increases from November to July the Government made sure that the income of social welfare recipients were fully protected against inflation up until July this year.
The general increase means that a family with three children in receipt of unemployment benefit will receive an increase of £3.10 per week giving them a new rate of £102.30 per week. A couple on retirement or old age pension will receive an increase of £2.90 per week giving them a new rate of £99.10 per week. A widow with three children in receipt of a contributory pension will get an increase of £2.80 per week giving her a new rate of £93.30 per week. The cost of this 3 per cent across-the-board increase is some £67 million in a full year.
The second element in the improvements provided in the budget is the provision of special additional increases for people on the lowest social welfare payments, namely, unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance. There has been much debate in recent years about the low level of these payments. There was no doubt in my mind that the lower payments should be increased, and the Government have decided to increase the long term personal rate of unemployment assistance in urban areas to £42 per week from July, that is an increase of £4.20 per week or 11 per cent. All other unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare allowance personal rates are also being increased by 11 per cent. Overall this means increases well above the current rate of inflation. It is the first time that the position of people on these low levels of payment has been directly tackled by a Government. This is a concrete example of the Government's concern for the less well off members of the community being translated into action.
As I have said, a single person on long term unemployment assistance gets an increase of over £4 per week. A married couple with three children will get £6.70 extra per week bringing their total to £98.80. These special increases are a major step in the Government's plan to provide additional assistance for those on the lowest social welfare payments.
The third area of improvement is the rates paid for dependent children of social welfare recipients. There are two aspects to this. In the first place, we are streamlining the different rates for children. It has long been accepted that something should be done to reduce the plethora of child dependant rates. There are 36 child rates at present comprising, for most schemes, a different rate for the first, second, third to fifth and sixth and subsequent child. In general, then there are, at present, four different rates for children for each scheme. The Government have decided to reduce these to two. The rate for the first and second child will be the same. This will result in an increase for one child families. The rate for the sixth and subsequent child will be increased to that for the third to fifth child. These changes taken together with the general increase in rates will improve the incomes of large families considerably.
In addition to this increase in child rates, it has been decided to further increase by 3 per cent, the child rates for those on the lowest weekly payments, that is people on unemployment assistance and supplementary welfare assistance giving an overall 6 per cent increase in these rates. This, together with the special increase of 11 per cent in personal rates that I already mentioned, will mean a significant improvement in the position of these families.
For example, a family with two children in receipt of unemployment assistance at the long-term urban rate will receive an increase of £6.20 per week. Their present rate of £84.20 per week will, therefore, rise to £90.40 from July next.
A family with six children in receipt of unemployment assistance at the long-term urban rate will receive an increase of £9.70 per week to a new rate of £124.00. A family with two children in receipt of disability benefit will receive an increase of £2.80 per week giving them a new total of £93.00.
These examples clearly illustrate that the increases in the budget are meaningful in money terms and, therefore, will ease the financial burden on the more hard-pressed sections of our community. Some economists would have us believe that such increases cannot be afforded but this is to ignore the social reality of the present situation as distinct from the purely economic. The Government know that people at the lower end of the income distribution cannot wait for better days, and the measures in this budget show our genuine concern for them.
The overall social welfare package of improvement in payments will cost an estimated £44.8 million including health allowances, this year and some £101 million in a full year.
I would now like to say a few words about the equal treatment alleviating payments. These payments were introduced on a temporary basis in November 1986 to lessen the effect of the implementation of the EC directive on equal treatment for men and women in social security matters. Payments of £20 per week are being made to recipients where, at November 1986, both spouses were in receipt of a social welfare payment. Payments of £10 per week are being made to people whose spouse was earning over £50 per week. Originally there were over 29,000 persons in receipt of these payments. However, there has been a gradual decline in numbers with the result that at present about 19,000 people are in receipt of these payments.
The previous Government had intended that these payments would cease last November but this Government decided to extend them to the end of March. In view of the hardship that would be caused to families by the abrupt ending of these payments, the Government have now decided that they should be continued until the end of this year.
However, as part of the process of phasing out these payments they will be adjusted to take account of the basic increase in rates in July 1988. I will also be reviewing the special additional temporary payments in respect of rent and mortgage which apply to a small number of these people.
I now want to turn to the other major new development in the social welfare system which has been provided for in the budget and which will come into operation this year. This is the extension of social insurance cover to the self employed.
The extension of social insurance to the self-employed is a major milestone in the development of the social welfare system. When the unified system of social insurance was introduced under the Social Welfare Act, 1952 it covered employed people only and this has been the situation since then. The abolition of the income limit for social insurance in 1974 brought all employees, including those with higher earnings who were previously excluded, into the system and gave them the basic cover for benefits and pensions which the system provides. The fact that self-employed persons have never been covered is a major gap in the present system.
We have been exceptional by European standards in having such a large proportion of the workforce outside the social insurance system. It is a generally accepted principle of social policy that social insurance cover should be available on as wide a basis as possible to those who are in a position to contribute to it. This not only ensures that the people concerned have the protection of the system but also that the overall financing of social welfare as a whole is put on a more equitable basis. We have a system under which employees and employers contribute on a substantial basis to the cost of social insurance cover for themselves and their dependents whereas the self-employed are totally excluded from the social insurance system. This means that self-employed people must rely on means-tested social welfare schemes, which, of course, are fully paid for by the Exchequer, or in practice by the general taxpayer. This is an unfair system, both for self-employed persons themselves and for the taxpayer.
When I previously served as Minister for Social Welfare in 1982 I had developed proposals on the extension of social insurance to the self-employed. We left office before these could be implemented. The outline of that scheme was available to the incoming Government. However, in the four years which followed no further progress was made. On becoming Minister again in 1987 I asked the National Pensions Board to prepare a detailed, carefully costed report for me and in July, on the basis of my proposals the Government took the decision in principle to extend social insurance to the self-employed from April 1988. This decision was later reaffirmed in theProgramme for National Recovery. I then had a series of discussions on the issue with delegations from the various organisations representing the self-employed. In these discussions careful note was taken of the views and concerns expressed and these were taken into consideration in drawing up my proposals for Government. On 14 January I received the report from the National Pensions Board and final Gopvernment approval for the introduction of the scheme was given without delay.
Thus a process which began with the publication of a Green Paper on the issue nearly ten years ago has been brought to completion within a matter of a few months. The importance of this achievement must be acknowledged.
The main focus in the debate on this issue to date has been on what the proposed scheme will cost the self-employed and the general taxpayer. I believe, as Minister for Social Welfare, however, that it is far more important to focus on the benefits it will bring. Under the scheme social insurance cover will be extended to the self-employed for old age and widows and orphans pensions. After three years a self-employed man who is married will have provided for his family an entitlement to a State guaranteed non-means tested widow's and orphan's pension in the event of his death. In the course of my political life I have seen far too many cases of widows of self-employed people left left without any independent income as a result of the premature death of their husband and being forced to have recourse to a means tested pension. The experience of these cases over the years was a major influence on me in pushing for the extension of social insurance to the self-employed. Under the proposed scheme these situations will no longer arise as the widows of the self-employed will have the same rights to a basic pension without a means test as widows of employed persons. Thus, the rate of pension payable will not be affected by the value of whatever assets they have on their husband's death and their pension payments will not reduce if they wish to obtain extra income from employment or self-employment.
Under the old age pension scheme self-employed persons will obtain entitlement to a basic pension as of right when they reach age 66. In the case of those who have never been insured before, full entitlement to a pension will be obtained where a minimum period of ten years insurance has been completed before pension age. Those already within ten years of pension age but who have previous insurance as an employed person, may also acquire entitlement to a pension under the proposed scheme as it will be possible to combine all the periods of insurance completed for this purpose.
Under the scheme proposed the self-employed will for the first time be required to make a direct contribution to the cost of social welfare pensions. It is projected that this will significantly reduce the burden on the taxpayer, not just in the early years when income for contributions will greatly exceed the benefits being paid out under the scheme, but also over the long term.
Reference has been made by some commentators to the fact that in introducing this scheme the Government are placing an extra burden on the general taxpayer and that in time the proposed new arrangements will cost the Exchequer more than continuing the existing arrangements. The National Pensions Board in their report estimated that just continuing the existing arrangements for self-employed persons who could qualify for non-contributory pensions in the coming years would cost £45 million after five years, rising to over £200 million after 25 years. The additional cost of the proposed new arrangements, however, will in fact be £6 million after five years and will not exceed £100 million in real terms at any stage within the next 50 years. It has been a major objective of the Government that the income received from the contributions which the self-employed will be required to pay will, over time, exceed the additional cost of the new scheme. The Government are satisfied that the rate of contribution set is in line with this objective.
Since the scheme of social insurance for the self-employed was announced there have been suggestions that the scheme should be an optional one, that is that people who are better off should be allowed to opt out if they chose to do so. I had considered this possibility but I came to the conclusion that such an arrangement would be totally unworkable. The essence of a social insurance scheme is that it is comprehensive and all embracing. All must contribute — the good risks as well as the bad. If the choice of opting out were to be allowed the scheme would not be viable unless levels of contribution were to be raised to a totally unrealistic level for the reduced numbers participating. The only alternative would be a substantially increased net cost to the taxpayer. I am satisfied that a scheme containing a provision for opting out would be unrealistic.
I would now like to turn to the phasing in arrangements for contributions. At a time of severe economic difficulty, the Government felt they could not impose straightaway a high contribution on the self-employed. There are undoubtedly many self-employed persons who could pay the full contribution immediately but there are many more for whom the sudden introduction of the full level of contribution would have created hardship. The Government decided, therefore, that a phasing in arrangement was essential, given the position many self-employed persons find themselves in as a result of the current economic situation. Phasing in is also necessary to enable self-employed persons with private pension cover to adjust their level of cover and the contributions they are paying to take account of the PRSI pension cover they will now be acquiring. The rate of contribution will, as announced by the Minister for Finance, be 3 per cent for the 1988-89 income tax year, 4 per cent for 1989-90 and 5 per cent for 1990-91. The contribution will be levied on income assessable for tax and the percentage rate of contribution will be subject to minimum contribution of £4 per week.
The minimum contribution of £4 per week was recommended by the National Pensions Board. It is necessary in the case of the self-employed mainly because capital allowances are deductible for PRSI purposes and self-employed persons with high capital allowances who would otherwise have a reasonable or even high level of income could end up paying a very small PRSI contribution or none at all.
Furthermore the Government have accepted the view of the National Pensions Board that it is necessary to have a system of flat-rate contributions for those whose incomes are not being regularly assessed for income tax by the Revenue Commissioners. The Government concluded that a flat-rate contribution of £4 per week equivalent to the minimum contribution would not be justified for lower income people and have set the level of flat-rate contribution at £2 per week. Smallholders on unemployment assistance will not be required to contribute to the scheme.
This is the basic outline of the new system as it will apply to self-employed persons from April next. The necessary detailed measures to give effect to the new scheme will be included in legislation which I will be bringing before the Oireachtas in the coming weeks. I look forward to a detailed discussion of the proposals at that stage and I am confident that my proposals will receive support from all sides of the House.
There are a number of other issues in the social welfare area that I would like to mention. The first relates to the family income supplement scheme which is designed to help lower paid workers with families. In line with our commitment in theProgramme for National Recovery, I am having a detailed examination of the family income supplement scheme carried out in order to identify any adjustments to the scheme that may be required. Deputies will recall that we made significant improvements to this scheme last year. The present family income supplement weekly payments are quite significant. For example, a family with five children on an income of less than £192 per week could be entitled to a weekly payment of £44 per week. The effectiveness of the scheme in meeting its objectives is being examined and I expect to receive a report shortly.
Another area of significance for my Department is the national Jobsearch programme. Deputies will recall that it was in last year's budget that the announcement was made to launch the national Jobsearch programme nationwide. Prior to that it had been piloted in three locations and the results of an independent evaluation convinced the Government that it should be extended throughout the whole country. Specific targets were set by the Government in relation to the number to be interviewed and the provision of placements on schemes and courses including the Jobsearch course itself. There was no doubt last April when the new scheme became operational that the task facing the State agencies involved was a massive one. Never before had those agencies been required to organise and co-ordinate their activities to such an extent in the interests of the long term unemployed. I am glad to have the opportunity with the end of year returns to hand to pay tribute to the staff of AnCO, the National Manpower Service and the employment exchanges of my Department for their respective contributions to the success achieved.
The national Jobsearch programme has been an innovative approach to the problem of assisting the long term unemployed. Its benefits, however, go far beyond those who are out of work. It has also had a major impact on those who are in employment in their capacity as taxpayers. There have been considerable savings in expenditure resulting from this programme. The impact of the Jobsearch course on the long term unemployed has also been very encouraging. In a survey carried out last September when the programme was in full swing 76 per cent of those surveyed said they found the Jobsearch course useful, that is three out of every four, while 72 per cent said that the course gave them more confidence in looking for a job. These findings confirm the value of the scheme in terms of overcoming the particular problems of motivation, confidence and isolation experienced by the long term unemployed.
In a number of ways, therefore, the national Jobsearch programme is a major success story for this Government's initiatives for the long term unemployed. It has been of direct assistance to many thousands in their search for work; it has ensured that the manpower resources of the State are deployed in a unified and co-ordinated manner towards the provision of services for the unemployed; and it has resulted in a considerable number of people leaving the live register when offered an interview for a job or place on a manpower scheme.
The success of Jobsearch in 1987 has convinced the Government that it should be continued in 1988 along broadly similar lines. Proposals for 1988 envisage that a further 50,000 people will undergo the Jobsearch interview and that a total of 42,000 places on mainline FÁS courses and schemes will be made available on a priority basis for these and those who did not secure a placement in 1987. In addition, a further 14,000 places will be provided on Jobsearch courses, thus making a total of 56,000 places in all.
I would like now to say a few words about another initiative in relation to the longterm unemployed, namely, the part-time job allowance scheme. This scheme, which up to now has only operated on a very limited basis, is an attempt to move away from some of the more restrictive rules of the unemployment payments system and introduce a degree of flexibility for unemployed persons. It provides those out of work with an opportunity to seek and take up part time employment as a realistic alternative to remaining unemployed. The objective of the scheme is to allow those who can obtain part time work the opportunity to do so while still retaining entitlement to a basic payment of income supplement from my Department. Participants in the scheme may work up to 24 hours a week and earnings are subject to tax and PRSI in the normal way. Details of the new expanded scheme are being finalised and it will be launched nationwide in April. I am arranging to have it promoted in conjunction with the National Jobsearch programme both in the context of it being an additional option for persons to consider at the counselling interview and as an additional feature of the Jobsearch course itself. Provision has already been made in the 1988 Estimates for the proposed extension.
The basic payment from my Department to participants in the scheme up to now was £25 in the case of single persons and £40 in the case of a married person with a dependant. The Government have decided that the basic payment be increased to £45 per week for a married couple, and £27 per week for a single person.
The last number of years has seen a change in the pattern of working in the labour force; one of the most notable features in this regard has been the increase in the extent of part-time working. I believe that we need to be able to respond to such changes and I am convinced that the part time job allowance scheme will go a long way to meeting that need.
Another aspect of the unemployment payment system, where I believe we also need flexibility, is in relation to the elderly unemployed on the live register. It is a fact of life that employment opportunities for the elderly unemployed are slight and on the other side of the coin that most of them are not interested in rejoining the workforce and would already regard themselves as semiretired. In order to receive their weekly unemployment payments, they also are required to sign on once a week at a local office of my Department. This undoubtedly causes expenses, inconvenience and often hardship. I believe that we can and should do better for our elderly unemployed.
I have been considering a scheme which would allow persons aged 60 years or over who have been in receipt of unemployment payments for a certain minimum period to receive a pre-retirement pension equivalent to their unemployment payment which would be paid at local post offices by means of a pension order book. This would give them the option to receive their payments in a different way without the obligations attached to their present payments. I hope to be in a position to announce details of a scheme on these lines in the near future.
Finally, I would like to refer to another initiative in my campaign to crack down on abuse of the social welfare system. Just before Christmas I introduced a range of measures aimed at eliminating abuses of the social welfare system by employers. These include measures which deal with attempts by employers to evade their responsibility to collect and remit PRSI contributions. Most employers are exemplary in these matters and they have nothing to fear from the new measures.
However, a small but increasingly significant number of unscrupulous employers are encouraging their employees to operate in what I would call the "twilight zone". Where an employer does not deduct PRSI it can amount to a passive encouragement or invitation to work and sign. And, of course, the employer then hopes he can avoid paying the proper rate for the job. In effect, he expects taxpayers to subsidise him against the vast body of law-abiding firms and to assist him in undercutting his competitors.
This problem tends to be concentrated in particular sectors of the economy and I am embarking, in co-operation with the Revenue Commissioners on a nationwide clampdown on firms that openly and persistently try to ignore their obligations. Two weeks ago for the first time two employer directors were successfully prosecuted under existing legislation for aiding and abetting their employees in working and claiming unemployment payments.
This investigation was carried out by a new joint investigation unit comprising officers of my Department and the Revenue Commissioners. The provisions introduced before Christmas will strengthen our hand in pursuing abuses of this kind and will provide for penalties of up to three years imprisonment or fines of £10,000 or both. This new unit has already cracked down on many of these "twilight" firms in Dublin. Some of those firms would like to present an image of honesty and integrity. Some are operating as security firms; others seem to believe that they can get public moneys for work, for example, in the forestry sector while they fail to pay proper wages and to insure their workers.
Using the joint forces of the Revenue and Social Welfare inspectorates, these firms are being forced to reveal the details of their activities including the use of subcontractors.
Since the Dublin unit was set up it has detected 155 cases of working and signing. As a result fraudulent claims with a total weekly cost of more than £8,000 were stopped in their tracks. In many cases these were employees of firms that had evaded detection until the joint unit caught up with them. Many of these firms are now registered with the Revenue Commissioners and this will help them stay on the straight and narrow in the future. The unit has unearthed arrears of unpaid tax and PRSI totalling £400,000 and well over half of this has already been collected.
Over the coming weeks, I will be arranging for the reassignment of 15 staff in my Department to work directly with tax inspectors in a nationwide campaign. By this action I hope to demonstrate the serious intent behind the new legislative measures and to remove from the system the abuses in which some unscrupulous employers are engaged. This unit has been particularly successful in its pilot phase and I have no doubt that it will result in the saving of several millions of pounds once it goes nationwide with a very small number of staff.
I have outlined the developments in social welfare which have been provided for in the budget. By any standard the measures being introduced represent a very major achievement. Looking at what has been achieved by reference in particular to the report of the Commission on Social Welfare Deputies will recall the four main areas for priority attention identified by the commission, namely:
—improving the basic payment for those in receipt of the lowest payment levels;
—improving the level of income support for families;
—broadening the social insurance base;
—improving the quality of the service.
Each of these four priority areas is being addressed in a major way by the Government. I have outlined the very significant increases in the lowest rates of payment, which were provided in the budget. The streamlining of child dependant increases together with the additional increases for child dependants in the case of persons on the lowest payments represent a major improvement in income support for families. The introduction of social insurance for the self-employed represents precisely the sort of broadening of the social insurance base which was recommended by the commission.
Indeed, when we look at the money allocated in the budget we find that if we were to give the 3 per cent only to the long term unemployed and those on supplementary welfare, it would have cost in a full year £23 million. Because we have given a greater emphasis to those people on account of their very low income position the cost in a full year would be £53 million. Therefore, in effect we are giving an extra £30 million per annum to those on the lowest payments. I believe this is a highly significant step on the part of the Government and, of course, I welcome it warmly.
Finally, as far as improving the quality of the services is concerned, I have referred on a number of occasions previously to the measures which have been and are being taken to streamline and improve in a major way over the coming years the administration of the social welfare system so as to make it fairer, more efficient and more effective for users. A major element of this is the proposals for a more localised system of delivering services and the greater development of computerisation within the Department.
We are currently engaged in computerising the employment exchanges for unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit. We have already completed unemployment assistance in all the Dublin branches and the unemployment benefit has been computerised in five of the 13 Dublin exchanges at this time. We have also begun this process in Cork and will shortly be going to other centres throughout the country. Once these payments have been computerised it will make the whole system much more flexible, reduce the pressure on the staff in the exchanges and make it possible to cater more effectively and efficiently in a way in which the staff will have more time to spare for the individual clients who come in to discuss their position with them.
Computerisation in that sense can have a major benefit and can be of great assistance. It also means that many of the claims can be sorted out right at the outset by reference to the information system in the computer which can give information on the various other schemes and programmes, for instance, the number of children involved, the status of the spouse in the case of a claim where these are involved, and thus avoid difficulties and problems arising and errors in claims at the outset.
A localised service will mean that over the coming years all social welfare clients will be able to claim or obtain information on their entitlements locally. This new style arrangement will be based on the one-stop shop concept and this will give the public access to a much more comprehensive and co-ordinated service. Closer working relationships will also be established at local level with FÁS, the health boards and other agencies. The process of review of the social welfare system is an ongoing one, and in formulating further proposals for reform and development of the system I will continue to take into account the recommendations of the commission on Social Welfare.
I am interested in particular, as I have already said, in introducing greater flexibility into the system of payments for the unemployed. The developments which I have announced in relation to the part-time job allowance scheme and the introduction of a pre-retirement scheme for older unemployed people are examples of the sort of thing I have in mind. I will also be looking at the further development of the educational opportunities scheme, the voluntary work scheme for the unemployed and other measures in the unemployment payments area in the months ahead.
I believe there is considerable scope in the educational opportunities scheme and I will be discussing some of this scope with my colleagues the Minister for Labour, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Mary O'Rourke. The voluntary works scheme offers many opportunities which so far are not being taken up and I will be consulting with the voluntary groups and bodies in the social services and community area to ensure that they know the value of this scheme and its potential for them. In that way I hope to see an improvement in the take-up of this scheme. I will be devoting a good deal of attention to it in the months ahead.
In conclusion, I am very happy with the major improvements which have been provided in this budget. The implementation of these measures will bring about a social welfare system which is more comprehensive in terms of coverage and payment levels, more responsive to those in greatest need and more flexible in the way it responds to the real requirements of social welfare recipients. Notwithstanding the current economic difficulties, the Government are ensuring that the needs of the less well off in our society are being recognised and catered for in an imaginative and meaningful way.