For example, between 1986 and the present time the personal rate of long term unemployment assistance has been increased by over 40 per cent. Increases of 30 per cent are being given to married persons with three children on long term unemployment assistance. This represents an increase of almost £27 per week. Old age pensioners and widows have obtained increases of between 15 and 18 per cent. Deputies should be aware that the interpretation put on the ESRI report by pressure groups is totally misleading, was never true and is becoming increasingly irrelevant due to the substantial economic and social progress this Government have made.
Despite the very large increases in social welfare rates which I am putting in place this year, some pressure groups have alleged that social welfare has not been given the priority in the budget that it deserves. They base this assertion once again on a very misleading use of statistics. The level of expenditure on social welfare in total or the proportion financed by the Government is not a useful indicator of the priority put on this area by Government. Because of the reduction in unemployment, which this Government's economic policies have achieved, expenditure on unemployment payments has declined, allowing me to devote the resources saved to increasing the level of payments to those who continue to need support. I have also, through improved control measures and administrative efficiencies, realised savings — these were referred to by some of the Deputies — which could be used to benefit social welfare recipients without imposing additional burdens on the hard-pressed taxpayer. Deputies come into the House and say the taxpayer has to pay too much but here we have managed, through these savings and through an improved position all round, to get more money and to plough it back into the system. People are misrepresenting the reality.
Over the last three years I have put in place improved social welfare rates, with full year costs in excess of £400 million. A major reason I have been able to achieve this without putting a corresponding burden on the Exchequer is through a broadening of the social insurance base in line with the recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare. I extended social insurance to the self-employed in April 1988 and income from this measure will be £62 million this year, or 30 per cent ahead of target.
Another criticism which has been mistakenly levied is that this Government have no commitment to implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Social Welfare. I would advise everybody to go back and look at what has been done since then and to stop talking nonsense because the recommendations are being implemented. The four basic recommendations were: improvement in basic payments; improved child income support; a broadening of the social insurance base and improvement in the delivery of service. Without exception, substantial progress has been made on each of these issues. The level of expenditure devoted to improvements in the past three years and the rates of increases granted represents substantial progress towards the commission's recommendations regarding basic payments and the people who know the position have acknowledged that publicly.
Child dependant rates have been reduced from £36 to £6 and a minimum child payment of £11 has been introduced. The social insurance base has been extended to include the self-employed. Major and ongoing improvements continue to be made in the quality and delivery of the social welfare services as witnessed by the programme of expenditure on improvement of employment exchanges and by increased computerisation of services. In addition, in this budget I have introduced two measures which are specifically in line with the commission's recommendations. First, as recommended, the prescribed relative allowance is to be abolished and replaced by a social assistance payment for carers. Secondly, the new appeals office will go a long way towards implementing the commission's recommendations in this regard through the establishment of a separate office with its own staff, self-contained accommodation and the transfer to the chief appeals officer of certain functions which currently reside with the Minister.
A number of Deputies have raised the question of the insurability of part-time employment. Over the past two decades there has been a substantial increase in OECD countries in the proportion of the workforce which is part-time employed and Ireland is no exception in this regard, although part-time employment is still less prevalent here than in most other countries. However, it may be anticipated that with the growth in service industries in particular, part-time working will become more widespread. This development creates problems for the social insurance system which was designed largely with the full-time worker in mind. I have been concerned for some time with the exclusion of some part-time workers from social insurance and with the anomalies which can arise in regard to their treatment. I have requested my Department to undertake a thorough review of the question of extending social insurance to part-time workers, especially with a view to eliminating the anomalous situations which have arisen. I expect to have the results of this review, which has been ongoing for some time, by mid-summer. I have also requested the National Pensions Board to examine the question of the pension entitlements of part-time workers and I intend to draw on both reports for policy changes in this area.
The question of extending insurability to part-time workers is a very complex one. There is a need to ensure that workers make at least a minimal contribution towards benefits. That entitlement to benefits does not create a disincentive to work and the system of social insurance contributions is an equitable and administratively simple one. For these reasons I have arranged that the most thorough analysis be undertaken prior to final decisions in this matter. It is also likely that any changes in insurability of part-time workers will have implications for employers as well as employees and I intend that the social partners will be fully consulted.
Deputies Dennehy, Wyse and Wallace raised the question of the £50 limit on the amount of earnings which spouses may have and still be regarded as dependants for the purposes of social welfare payments to their wife or husband. As Deputies will know, this limit was introduced in 1986 as part of the equal treatment arrangements. The basic provision in the equal treatment legislation was that a person could not be regarded as a dependant if they were themselves either in receipt of a social welfare payment or were at work. The total exclusion of persons at work was subsequently relaxed by allowing persons with earnings up to £50 a week to qualify as adult dependants.
I recognise that wherever the limit is set there will be difficulties for spouses of social welfare recipients whose spouses have earnings just below the threshold because an increase in earnings which brings them over the threshold will result in the loss of the adult dependent allowance. This is one of the matters which is being addressed by the working group which I established last year to look at the treatment of households under the social welfare system, with particular reference to the equal treatment arrangements. Following the report of the working group there will be an opportunity to examine again the equal treatment arrangements and see whether a different approach would be more appropriate and possible. In the meantime however I am happy to say that the Government have approved an increase from £50 to £55 in the limit and this will come into effect in July when the increase in social welfare payments comes into effect. I know that this increase will be welcomed by persons in this situation and by the trade union movement which has made representations to me in this regard.
I would also like to refer to the transitional alleviating payments of £20 and £10 which were introduced in 1986 to cushion people who lost the adult dependant increase as a result of the equal treatment arrangements. As Deputies will know these payments, when introduced, were to last for a maximum of one year. We, however, have kept these payments with small reductions each year ensuring that when account is taken of social welfare increases, nobody suffered a reduction in their payments. This year the same arrangements will apply. The alleviating payments which currently stand at £16 and £8 will again be reduced by £2 and £1 with effect from July. Where account is taken of the increases in payments generally and particularly of the higher increases for persons on the lowest payments the people concerned will still enjoy substantial increases in the payments being made to them.
A number of issues were raised in relation to the new carer's allowance. Generally speaking Deputies expressed a welcome for this new scheme. This welcome has been echoed by the response which I have had from all round the country to the scheme. From my own experience working in my own community I have always been very conscious of the work of carers and I am very proud as Minister for Social Welfare to be in a position to introduce this new scheme which is practical recognition of the work they do.
A number of Deputies expressed concern about the numbers who will qualify for the new allowance. Let me say that I am very conscious of the good work done by all carers, no matter what their income situation is. My purpose in this new scheme, however, is to direct the available resources at this stage to those who need them most and I believe that the new scheme achieves this. Obviously it would be nice to have a scheme without a means test, but would it be the best use of resources and how much would it cost? The scheme I am proposing in this Bill will target the available resources in an effective way. I am widening the scope of the present arrangements very considerably. For the first time married people living with a spouse will be able to qualify. For the first time persons other than relatives will qualify. Those are major achievements.
Deputies have expressed concern that the new carer's allowance was not being applied, under the terms of the Bill, to carers looking after people receiving disabled persons' maintenance allowances from the health boards. The existing prescribed relative's allowance, which the new carer's allowance will effectively replace, does not apply to this category of disabled person. I am, however, conscious of the needs of this category of beneficiary and it was my intention to respond to these needs in the context of the transfer of responsibility for the DPMA scheme to my Department. An interdepartmental committee has been set up to look at that transfer.
I am happy to say, however, that the Government have accepted my proposal to broaden the scope of the carer's provision to cater for persons caring for recipients of DPMA in certain circumstances. I will be putting down an amendment on Committee Stage to give me the necessary power to do this by regulation in due course. In other words, instead of waiting until Committee Stage to do the work, we will have the enabling legislation to take action as soon as we are ready. I want to emphasise that my proposal deals with incapacitated people who need full-time care and attention. I do not want people saying — and that is the very thing we have to be careful about — that it applies to all DPMA cases. I am examining the provisions with a view to specifying people with specific handicaps in an area that is not under my control at this time. I appreciate the concerns about that area.
The Fine Gael Party have tabled an amendment that the Bill should not be read a Second Time. I am sorry that the proceedings are not televised at this stage because I would love to have the television to show the people standing up in this House and voting against a provision of £216 million for the people who depend on social welfare.