As there are no amendments before us on Report Stage, and in accordance with the Order of the House today, we now proceed to Fifth Stage.
Social Welfare Bill, 1994: Report and Final Stages.
The Bill, which we have been discussing over a period, is one of the most important items of legislation on the Dáil calendar each year. The general increases in the payments affect 800,000 social welfare recipients and more than 625,000 dependants. Consequently, over 40 per cent of the population is directly or indirectly affected by its provisions.
As Minister for Social Welfare I have always ensured that the annual social welfare Bill develops and improves our social welfare services. There is no shortage of ideas as to how this can be done and Members contribute significantly to this process in the course of these debates. In debates on the Bills, Deputies put forward a variety of suggestions for improvements in the code based on their practical experience of dealing with inquiries and problems raised by constituents at their weekly clinics. There is a limit to the improvements which can be made in any year because of the costs involved but it is possible to make significant improvements over time by adopting a progressive and incremental approach in developing the code.
This year the increases in payments affect over 1.4 million beneficiaries and provide a substantial boost in support for families. We have brought the remaining rates of payment up to the priority rate recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare by providing additional increases over and above the general increase of 3 per cent applied to the bulk of the people involved with an increase for 185,000 people above that rate. All rates of payment are now 90 per cent of the Commission's main rate, and that is £65.40.
Too often the annual improvements tend to be viewed in isolation and not enough attention is paid to their combined effect. In the period from July 1987 to date the personal rate of short term unemployment assistance has been increased by more than 73 per cent. This represents an increase of over 42 per cent in real terms. During the same period the personal rate of long term unemployment assistance has been increased by 61 per cent and this represents an increase of almost 33 per cent in real terms. The personal rate of unemployment benefit and disability benefit has been increased by over 44 per cent, an increase in real terms of almost 19 per cent. The improvements made over those years, therefore, have been real and quite substantial.
Families who rely on social welfare are particularly supported in this Bill. Taking account of the various increases provided for in the Bill, a family on the long term rate of unemployment assistance with three children receives £153.45 per week inclusive of child benefit. A family with five children receives £192.35 a week and a family with seven children receives £231.25 per week.
We have also introduced significant improvements for families on low pay through the family income supplement scheme. A family with three children can now earn up to £225 a week and qualify for family income supplement. A family with five children can earn up to £270 per week and still qualify for support. A family with three children, for example, earning £200 per week is entitled to a family income supplement payment of £15 per week. A family with five children with the same earnings is entitled to £42 per week in family income supplements.
I am also providing for a significant relaxation in the provisions for the assessment of means for lone parent's allowance. A number of commentators raised the issue of family payments recently and I want to make it clear that there is a substantial improvement in payments for families in this Bill. Over a period we have been building up the support in financial terms for families and that is illustrated by the figures I have quoted. These improvements are not only for families dependent on social welfare but also for families at work on low pay.
The existing child related means disregard of £6 per week is being replaced by a flat rate disregard to be set at £30 per week and the allowance payable in the case of lone parents with earnings above this amount will be reduced by £1 for each £2 of earnings instead of £1 for £1 as heretofore.
These changes will substantially improve the position of lone parents at work. A lone parent with one child, for example, earning £80 per week will receive an additional £18.90 per week. Furthermore, the new tapered assessment of earning in excess of the initial means disregard removes the existing disincentive for lone parents to pursue higher paid employment. That is another major improvement in this Bill and is one of the additions above the basic financial provisions. It will have considerable impact over the coming months. While its impact has not been recognised sufficiently during the passage of the Bill through the House — perhaps because many issues are being discussed at this time of the year — the reality is that this measure will help lone parents who want to return to the workforce over the coming months. We will do everything we can to ensure that lone parents are fully aware of this new opportunity.
The introduction of the new survivor's pension, which provides for a contributory pension for widowers subject to the same conditions as the existing widow's pension, is a practical recognition of our changing family structure and is a support for families. I have had numerous communications from women, in particular, indicating how pleased they are that widowers with children will have an important financial support following the passage of this Bill. This represents a historic breakthrough, even in European terms. It will clearly be seen that we have gone the whole way so that widowers will receive benefits similar to those already paid to widows and on the same conditions. Those conditions will apply to both widows and widowers' stamps, one affecting the other in the same way as heretofore.
Very often there is talk of Irish solutions to Irish problems. Certainly this is an Irish solution to family problems which is well ahead of the rest of Europe. It is not something we are being forced to do by Europe. It is something we wanted to do ourselves and it will be implemented from October next after the passage of this Bill. The Bill will go to the Seanad for discussion over the next two days. Its provisions will then be implemented. It represents an historic development. I have played my part in Government in putting forward the views of Members of the House and of those outside it regarding the reality of the position people face. We should be celebrating this as a most important development which will affect countless numbers of people into the future and, of course, will also benefit present widowers.
We have also effected some further improvements in the carer's allowance. I am pleased to announce the relation of provisions for the assessment of means for a carer's allowance in the case of a carer whose spouse is in employment or is self-employed. This was an issue raised by many Members on this Bill in preceding years. This allowance constitutes an important development in that it helps people without income or on very low incomes, guaranteeing them the same income as a long term unemployed person while engaged in full-time caring. We are now taking that further step which will ensure that, under the new arrangements, where a spouse is working, the first £100 of earnings will be disregarded in the assessment of means. This measure, which will be of particular benefit where a carer's spouse is in low-paid employment, will broaden the scope of this scheme. It has been welcomed in the House and will have a significant impact in the future.
Those and other improvements provided for in this Bill, in a full year will cost £168 million, very significant resources by any standard but necessary if we are to continue to develop our social welfare services in a caring and imaginative manner. Members have pointed out the importance of bringing forward the dates of introduction of such schemes. I should stress that the most important factor is that we strike proper rates because, once struck, they remain thereafter. For the measures I have mentioned we have received an allocation of £168 million per annum.
I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage to provide a legal basis for my Department entering into contracts and joint ventures with various bodies for the provision of skills, including technical skills and services, overseas. That provision is contained in section 33, as amended by the Select Committee. The various skills developed within my Department have resulted in numerous approaches from public and private organisations overseas seeking support on a consultancy basis. In recent years many groups worldwide have visited Ireland to study how my Department operates. In the past month alone delegations from Poland, Russia and Slovakia have come here and a group from the Republic of Albania is scheduled to arrive within the next few weeks.
In what I hope will set a new trend for Government Departments, my Department is to use its social welfare business expertise on a commercial basis, a new and exciting departure in public administration generally. Many opportunities are being presented with the opening up of Eastern European countries. My Department is well positioned to maximise these opportunities in the development of new markets, an essential component of the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. This new role reflects the Government's determination to develop joint ventures between the public and private sectors, to create commercial units within Government Departments which will develop and market the considerable expertise within the Civil Service. For example, my Department is working with the Digital Equipment Corporation, our main computer supplier, to identify opportunities for marketing specialist products and services from Ireland to social welfare authorities in other countries. We have already had a number of approaches from interested parties in this respect.
We are also discussing with European Union officials who have responsibility for the very successful PHARE and TACIS assistance programmes the possibility of providing social welfare expertise for the emerging states. There is a great deal happening in these areas. These programmes aim to promote socio-economic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, thereby contributing to the economic transformation process in those countries, ranging from Albania to the Slovak Republic. Many opportunities exist to market this expertise. The Bill provides the necessary legislative base to enable my Department pursue such opportunities, adding a new dimension to the activities of my Department which has built up an international reputation for developing quality systems to meet the demands of a modern social security system. Following our various discussions at European Union level, officials of my Department have been encouraged to pursue such opportunities.
We will be devising a strategy which will twin the expertise already available within my Department with private and public sector involvement, as appropriate, in order to secure contracts in developing states. We are working on a number of potential contracts and expect to see developments in the near future.
I thank Deputies for their support in our very detailed discussions on Second Stage and within the Select Committee. Contrary to frequent comments in reports and studies, I believe the House has been very attentive to the needs of those who depend on us and is building within the provisions of this Bill a considerably improved social welfare support system.
Finally I mention educational opportunties. A recent report identified the need for education if we are to tackle poverty. We must provide a good education for those who, for one reason or another, fell out of the system. In this Bill we have improved on initiatives taken in previous years in relation to second-chance educational schemes. It is my personal belief that one of the most valuable tasks we could undertake would be to provide second-chance education for people who missed out at an earlier stage. A simple analysis undertaken some years ago by my Department's planning and research section demonstrated that some 20 per cent of those unemployed for more than three years had attained leaving certificate standard whereas 57 per cent of those unemployed for the same length of time had finished formal education at primary level. This demonstrates that of the long term unemployed almost 80 per cent had not attained leaving certificate standard and 57 per cent has finished formal education at primary level.
On that basis we went ahead with the second chance education schemes in which there are now 4,500 people involved. In addition, there are 9,000 people studying full time at third level under the scheme for the long term unemployed. The number of places available for second chance education will be increased by a further 2,500 this year. We have reports suggesting the real solution. In providing maintenance payments and economic and financial support we have gone down the road and we are advancing as rapidly as possible. We have provided an option not only for the long term unemployed but also for other groups such as lone parents.
I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their participation in this important debate. I am pleased we have been able to make these advances this year.
There may be amendments to this Bill later this year. The Minister talks about major advances, but I would not regard them as such. I have no doubt he means well and in any of my dealings with him in relation to social welfare I have found him to be helpful. However, we cannot say there are major advances in the Social Welfare Bill, 1994, or even in the budget. The vast sums of money being referred to are not surprising considering that there are officially 300,000 people unemployed. That is not the real figure.
As a public representative, much of my time is taken up dealing with social welfare problems. There is nothing straightforward about social welfare administration and ordinary people have great difficulty in finding out their entitlements. The information provided by officials is designed to confuse them. I do not know whether the Minister or his officials are aware that people are in desperation. It is my contention that 80 per cent of the people out of work would be very happy to be employed but there is no incentive to employers to take on extra employees. Immediately somebody makes an effort to obtain part-time or full-time employment their social welfare benefit is reduced. This does not suit the employer. There ought to be an understanding between the Department of Social Welfare and an employer regarding a trial period whereby a small sum of money would be given by the employer in recognition of what the temporary employee is doing. It may be that the person is not suitable but there is a reluctance to take that risk because the employee will lose his or her social welfare benefits immediately. Also, the employer is afraid to take them on because an official will call to see whether the person is registered for PRSI and if not he is in trouble. If we are serious about giving people an opportunity to get started, there must be flexibility. I do not want to highlight any particular industry where employers would be prepared to take on workers part time, with the possibility of full time employment.
It has come to my notice that people over 50 years of age are being transferred to disability or invalidity pension and for that reason they are not available for work. They are also taken off the unemployment register. The figure on the unemployment register does not bear any relation to the true number of unemployed people. I do not know how widespread this practice has become. In recent weeks a number of people have informed me that they have been transferred from unemployment benefit to disability or invalidity pension with the result that they are unavailable for work. A number of those people have said they are available for and anxious to work. Having met them, I could easily see that if a suitable job arose they would be capable of working.
I welcome the survivor's pension and I would be the first to compliment the Minister on it. It is long overdue and will be of benefit to many families. In the event of the death of the mother or the father the other spouse will have a pension available to them.
I note that the carer's allowance is being increased from 1 April. Where a person is cared for at home instead of in an institution, the State is saved a huge sum of money. By and large, most families would like to care for an invalided or elderly member of the family. I have said for a number of years that the income of the household should not be a consideration where somebody is prepared to make a sacrifice. Time and again I come across sons or daughters who gave the best years of their life to caring for an elderly parent and found when the parent died the time had passed for them to meet a partner.
The social welfare benefits for lone parents are anti-family. In order to obtain the maximum benefit a person must leave their parents' home. This matter arose earlier today in a question to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment with responsibility for housing. An enormous burden is put on the Department of the Environment to provide housing for these unfortunate people. The Department of Social Welfare insists that if a person is living at home his or her allowance is reduced. They are forced to move out from the family home and into a flat which is probably unsuitable for the child of the lone parent. The same allowance should apply whether the applicant is living at home or in a flat.
I turn now to the hardy annual, the one I am most familiar with — small farmer's assistance or small business assistance. I referred to this issue on Second Stage and commented on a pilot farm being offered to some of the Minister's officials to produce farm incomes. During the past weekend farm incomes were detailed by social welfare officers on small holdings of 25 to 30 acres in County Cavan which could not be achieved in a 50 acre farm in County Meath. The hidden costs are not being recognised. A small family farm cannot be as productive as major developments. When the Minister refers to a 25 acre holding with seven or eight cows and arrives at an income of £6,000 or £7,000 per year he is talking nonsense and is not living in the real world.
I have also come across small businesses, particularly in the Border region, which are finding it extremely difficult to survive. I know such people make five-yearly returns to the Department of Finance and I cannot understand why the Department of Social Welfare does not accept those figures. I will send details of the incomes to the Minister and perhaps he will advise his officials that they are not living in the real world and that such incomes are not generated from agriculture.
Despite the fact that this is not a radical Bill there are some elements in it which we all welcome. It behoves every Member to impress upon the Minister the urgency of completing the task of integrating the social welfare and tax systems.
I was very disappointed on Committee Stage when my amendment which would have added the word "cohabitee" to the definition of "survivor" was not accepted. It is ironic that in calculating the social welfare allowances payable to any person the following applies: in cases where a husband and wife or man and woman who are not married to each other but are cohabitating and are members of the same household, their means and needs shall be aggregated and shall be regarded as the means and needs of the claimant. It is wrong to bring in discriminatory legislation.
In his speech on Second Stage the Minister said he was introducing, for the first time in the history of the State, contributory pensions which would put widows and widowers on equal terms in relation to survivor pension provisions. He said the new pension was a huge breakthrough in the development of our social welfare system and that we are leading Europe in regard to equal treatment for men and women who are widowed. Unfortunately some people have been left out of the net. Many people live together in stable relationships and share a common household, financial support and the rearing of their children. When they claim social welfare payments they are recognised by the State as being legitimate couples. Their means are aggregated in calculating certain allowances. When one of the couple is widowed he or she will not be entitled under the provisions of the Bill which the Minister boasted about this evening. If the Bill does not recognise that there is a substantial number of people in such relationships an opportunity to develop the social welfare system will be lost. A cohabiting couple should have the full benefit of the survivor's pension made available to them.
There was a discussion on Committee Stage regarding casual employment. Does the Minister intend to define casual employment by reference to the number of hours people work? Is he prepared to state the number of hours he has in mind? As I understand it, people in casual employment claim the dole when they are not employed and I am at a loss to understand why they would be singled out for special treatment. I can only assume that the regulations would make it more difficult for them to claim.
In his remarks this evening and at the end of Committee Stage the Minister made great play about the new role of the Department of Social Welfare in joint ventures — having a commercial unit within his Department and marketing the undoubted expertise which has been developed. What are the implications of this for the recipients of social welfare? The Minister spoke about second chance education and emphasised how important it was for those who were unemployed or in receipt of social welfare benefits who did not attain leaving certificate standard. The marketing of these services will generate moneys. Where will they be spent? Can the Minister guarantee they will be earmarked for social welfare recipients? Rather than have these moneys go to the enormous pot in the Department of Finance would it not be beneficial to the Department to have these moneys paid directly to it in order to fund specific areas? We will market these services on a commercial basis and there will be a return on them. I want to know where it will be spent.
While I thank the Minister for his courtesy, particularly during the Committee Stage debate, to those of us who are new to this area we will insist on direct answers to direct questions.
There is no doubt that the package in this Bill is by far the best I have seen in over 30 years. It is the best since the late Frank Cluskey was in charge of social welfare.
People do not fully appreciate the contents of the Bill. There was so much controversy generated by the property tax and other negative aspects of the budget that the provisions of the Bill were not taken up by the media or the public.
A person who has seven children will receive £230 nett per week. There are many people working in industry and services who do not receive that amount and great credit is due to the Minister that we have reached that stage. I know seven children constitute a larger family but the same person working in industry would be paid the going rate and would not receive more because he had seven children. In many cases he would not receive £230 per week. For example a local authority worker may not have more than £150 nett a week. Many of those who work in the health boards and the public service would not earn that much. It may not be enough for a family of seven but it is a major step forward. Recently I had occasion to talk to people employed by the National Health and Social Security and when we spoke about social welfare and related matters they said the Irish social welfare system was the best in Europe. No one needed to tell me that as I knew that we had long since surpassed the British, but I do not think the general public is aware that the British social security system is only trotting behind our system in every respect. The British are seeking our advice on the technology in the Department. That is a change.
We discussed the Committee Stage of the Bill at the Select Committee on Social Affairs and I gave a very strong welcome to the Minister's amendment to section 33 which effectively will allow the Department to offer its services not only throughout Europe but the developing world. It is a major tribute to the Department of Social Welfare that people are seeking to learn from us about social welfare.
It is not so very long ago that I was in receipt of social welfare as a footwear worker. I am sure the Cheann Comhairle will remember that time too as he comes from that background. The conditions in the local employment exchange were very bad with broken down buildings and so on and this contrasts greatly with present day conditions. We have made substantial progress in my lifetime.
The family income supplement is an innovative measure. A number of people who call to my constituency offices are in receipt of family income supplement of £51 or more each week. I estimate that a worker in receipt of £51 family income supplement earns approximately £127 net. Twenty years ago we went on strike to achieve a wage level of £127 a week. What concerns me is that the Department of Social Welfare effectively will have to subsidise employers who are exploiting workers and using the family income supplement scheme to pay part of the wages of the people they employ. I have sounded a warning about this before and I ask the Minister to ensure that the situation is monitored. Employers should not be allowed to continue to pay wages at the same level year in year out. Many jobs in rural and urban areas are non-unionised and there is no trade union supervision. The levels of pay are scandalously low, particularly because of the intense competition for jobs.
Social welfare recipients can start a business and retain their social welfare benefit for a period while they are trying to get the business under way. I am very pleased that this scheme has been introduced as I identified the need for such a scheme 12 years ago. I have spoken to senior officials at regional level who have advised me that the scheme has taken off and is developing rapidly. Many people may be unaware of this scheme and it would encourage others to start their own business if they had an opportunity to draw social welfare for a period. I have no doubt that this will make a major contribution to reducing the level of unemployment. The money will be channelled into productive use. Rather than paying people to do nothing it is encouraging them to do something and that is the way taxpayers' money should be used.
I am pleased that the student employment scheme is to be revived. I understand that the Minister will introduce important changes in the scheme and I ask him to indicate this in his reply. A great many mistakes were made last year and the scheme was heavily criticised. Students should be helped during the summer period when they have no income. It is better to pay people to do something rather than to pay them to do nothing. It gives people a sense of self-respect and students would much prefer to make a contribution to their community and be paid for doing so rather than having to face the hassle of a means test for unemployment assistance.
I agree with Deputy Boylan that the system is forcing young people to leave home and live in flats. It has gone beyond that and groups of three or four young people are renting a house without going to live in it. They are paying the absentee landlord his rent of £50 per week which works out at £12.50 each and using it as an accommodation address. Others have to live in terrible conditions and become involved in drugs when they are no longer under parental control. It was a bad day's work when the Department introduced that means test, particularly for students who have finished their education but are unemployed. This is putting money into the pockets of landlords who are exploiting these people as well as contributing to crime. I know the Department of the Environment has endeavoured to rectify this by introducing strict regulations for flats but it cannot introduce regulations to supervise young people. I see young people roaming around at night. They have wine parties in their flats and they start mixing with "winos" and get involved in all sorts of activities which they would not have got involved in if they were under parental control. Couples with young children who wish to rent a house have to compete with young people who can pay high rents. The Department of Social Welfare will have to pay very serious attention to this matter. Owners of flats and vacant houses do not want to offer accommodation to married couples with children as they can get more money from young people who do not need to apply to the local authorities for housing, with the result that they will not have to deal with the local health officer and housing officer. It is much more convenient and profitable for owners to offer accommodation to young people.
I ask the Minister to consider a suggestion which would not require legislation; it could be done by way of regulation. In a means test if 75 per cent of the benefit was offered where one parent is working or 50 per cent where both parents are working they would have an incentive to stay at home but by offering nothing because one or both parents are working we are forcing them to break the law. This matter has to be addressed immediately.
The question of the means test and casual, part-time and short-time work causes a major difficulty for those involved in public life. It creates havoc. If a person loses his job after a period of one year he will have to undergo a means test for unemployment assistance as he will not be entitled to unemployment benefit. He will be asked to present his P45 to show what his earnings were in the previous year. The social welfare officer will then calculate his means based on this figure.
Last night I met a man who obtained employment for a period of two months in order to return to the work force having been out of work for a long period. After losing his job he was informed by an official of the Department of Social Welfare that his means would be calculated based on his earnings in the previous year which were good. He was also informed that he should have retained sufficient money out of his earnings for the previous year to provide for himself. He was deemed ineligible. I fail to understand how one can assess a person's means based on his earnings in the previous year.
The question of casual, short time and part time work has to be addressed. If they are to be dealt with in regulations they should be dealt with separately, they cannot be dealt with in the same way. For example, employment in the clothing sector is of a seasonal nature; people are employed for three weeks at a time. Following the High Court case to which I have referred the Department panicked and introduced global regulations which covered all categories. It is not possible to cover in one set of regulations dockers, those who work part time in banks or short time in clothing and shoe factories, part time firemen and so on. It would be much more effective to deal with them category by category. Those who administer the system would then be in a better position to explain the scheme.
I congratulate the Minister and the Minister of State as this is by far the best social welfare package introduced in the history of this State.
I take up Deputy Bell's assertion that this is the best Social Welfare Bill ever introduced. The figures for scoial welfare in 1994 are the highest ever. If one wished to use that yardstick one would have to congratulate the Minister. Every penny is needed as social welfare recipients do not live in the lap of luxury; most of them receive a meagre amount each week. I made the point on both Second Stage and Committee Stage that we have to ask ourselves how the sum of £4 billion can be spent in a more constructive fashion. It is the duty of each Department, including the Department of Social Welfare to examine ways in which a proportion of its budget can be used to keep people at work or help them to return to the work force. While the back to work scheme has had modest success — I hope it will be more successful both this year and in 1995 — one has to ask how the figure of £4 billion is being used to create employment.
In relation to PRSI we are hindering rather than helping the process of job creation. As Deputy Boylan said, because of the regulations and the high level of taxes employers cannot consider the possibility of employing extra workers. If the Department of Social Welfare, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, adopted a more radical approach we could make progress. Any employer who is considering the possibility of employing extra workers should have his or her head examined. In many cases it would not pay the employee to take up the job offer as they would enter the tax net at a low level and would be worse off financially.
I concur with Deputy Keogh that there is an urgent need to integrate the tax and social welfare systems. The Minister of State is considering proposals in this regard and they should be brought before the Oireachtas in the immediate future. It is vital that the two systems are integrated to encourage job creation. There are too many blockages and disincentives from the point of view of both the employer and the employee. The Department of Social Welfare can make improvements by bringing forward constructive proposals to integrate the two systems.
I concur with what Deputy Bell said about means testing and I again ask the Minister to reconsider the method of assessing the income from savings and investments of applicants for social welfare benefits whereby 10 per cent of such savings is taken as being the income from them. Bank rates have never been lower, and if an old age pensioner or an applicant for social welfare is fortunate enough to have a couple of thousand pounds in a bank, building society or credit union, there is no way that money will generate the return reckoned by the Department of Social Welfare. It is blatantly unfair to take a notional assessment of 10 per cent of savings and investments when the true return is probably nearer to 3 or 4 per cent and many with modest savings are losing £5 or £6 a week. To an old age pensioner or a person on unemployment assistance that could be the difference between having or not having a bag of coal at the end of the week. Perhaps the Minister will look sympathetically at this during the next few months.
I also concur with Deputy Boylan and others on the need for a change in the regulations applicable to young applicants for social welfare and other entitlements. It is quite ridiculous that a young person is forced to leave the family home to qualify for such entitlements. The State loses rather than gains because health boards must pay supplementary welfare allowances towards the cost of rented accommodation. It would be widely welcomed if the Minister would do something about this in 1994, the year of the family.
When it was introduced in 1993, the summer employment scheme for students was the subject of much debate. It was introduced too late in the year and there were administrative difficulties. I note the scheme is due to be improved for 1994. Many young people worked on those schemes during 1993. They were glad of the opportunity to work, which proves the point made by Deputy Boylan that the majority of unemployed people are more than anxious to work if they can get work and can afford to take up the opportunity.
I am assured by the Minister that the student scheme is not a "work for dole" scheme, but I wonder when we will see Government proposals in that regard. I disagree with the concept of work for dole but would like to see an effort to utilise some of the Department of Social Welfare's budget for job creation. Many local authorities, including my own local authority, Cork County Council, have appealed to the Minister for a facility whereby some of the moneys being spent by the Department of Social Welfare would be transferred to the local authorities for job creation. Cork County Council has for ten years been seeking liaison between the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of the Environment to introduce a scheme whereby instead of paying people to remain on the dole we would pay those people about the same amount of money and have them employed by the local authorities. I appeal to the Minister to set up some pilot projects in local authorities, including Cork County Council, and see what progress can be made.
It is the height of economic and social lunacy to have 300,000 people unemployed when there was never more work to be done. That is obvious to anyone who drives potholed roads where the briars almost meet across them. If some moneys from the Department of Social Welfare could be transferred to the Department of the Environment for job creation purposes we could, at little if any extra cost to the State, employ people rather than leaving them idle. I hope the Minister will consider implementing such a pilot project in 1994.
Much of what I wished to say has already been said, so I will be brief. The Minister is known throughout the country as a caring Minister, and I hope he will live up to that reputation by addressing anomalies in the means testing of applicants for unemployment assistance, particularly those applying for small farmer's assistance, in whose case potential sales are taken into account by the investigation officers in assessing their means. Potential sales should not be taken into consideration. There is no point in looking at bread in another person's window, and potential sales may never transpire. The cattle could die before being sold, there could be a major drop in prices, any calamity could happen. All that should be taken into account in assessing incomes of applicants for small farmers' assistance is the sales that took place in the period the means test covered. To do otherwise is to include two years' income in one year's assessment. Surely that is not right. I urge the Minister to issue a directive to the social welfare officers to ignore potential sales when assessing the incomes of the people concerned.
There are potential votes for Deputy Sheehan there.
And for Deputy Bradford. I also urge the Minister to modify the method of assessing the means of carers to take into account the amount of care and attention given by the carer. Often a carer must care for two old people in the one house and in such cases no extra allowance is given. To keep such people in a hospital is very costly and that cost must be paid by the State one way or another. It would go a long way towards saving the State money if the Minister were to issue a directive to social welfare officers to be more liberal in assessing means in this area.
Farmers and self-employed people who were brought into the PRSI scheme under the 1986 legislation and who have not made the requisite number of contributions before their 65th birthday should, like their counterparts in Great Britain, be allowed to pay what would be required in order to qualify for a contributory pension. The Minister should introduce legislation to allow farmers, who is some cases have paid nine years' contributions to the Department of Social Welfare, to make the necessary contributions to bring them up to the ten year period requirement. That would not cost the Department a great deal of money but it would right a wrong which has existed for some time under the scheme.
Far too many conditions apply to back-to-work and start-your-own-business schemes, similar regulations should apply to both. To qualify for one of those schemes a person must be on unemployment assistance for a 12 month period but that is not the case in the other. If similar regulations applied to both schemes it would be easier for people to come off the live register and start their own businesses. We should encourage people to be less reliant on hand-outs from the State. The Minister is doing his best, he has been allocated more money than any other Minister and while he has the caring tag he should accede to my requests.
The Minister should wear a caring collar.
I will limit my contribution to share fishermen's social insurance which we debated last autumn. I understand this matter has not been dealt with during the debate on the Bill and I would like the Minister to give an update on the matters he indicated he would return to under this Bill.
First, I should like the Minister to indicate if he is prepared to modify the provisions he introduced last autumn relating to a £45 per week earnings limit by a spouse before it affects the weekly social welfare payment of the other spouse? I read recently that he was reconsidering the change from a £45 per week earnings limit to a £7.50 per day limit which impacts unfairly on short term and part-time workers and is contrary to the Minister's ethos of encouraging people to improve their positions by getting back into the workplace. Will the Minister indicate if he has made that change and, if not, if he intends doing so? Many people depending on social welfare and making an effort to help themselves by doing part-time work are hampered because of that subtle but important change introduced last autumn.
We had a long and worthwhile debate before Christmas on the position of share fishermen because of their lack of social insurance. I will not repeat the arguments made then because I am sure the Minister is familiar with them. Since the judgments in the McLoughlin and Griffith cases in 1992 share fishermen are outside the system and the only way they can get back is by accepting that the courts have decided they are self-employed and pay their arrears in social insurance and taxes. The Social Welfare Bill introduced last autumn provided for an optional contribution in addition to a contribution paid by all self-employed people, of an additional 5 per cent, which allowed share fishermen to pay 10 per cent and to qualify for benefit following 13 weeks' unemployment in any one year or 12 months' disability benefit plus treatment benefit for their spouses. That was an excellent move in theory, but since we last debated the matter weather conditions for fishermen have been extremely adverse. Boats have been unable to go to sea for two consecutive weeks in the past few months. I am more familiar with the problems of fishermen in Kilmore Quay and Duncannon, but fishermen all round our coast are facing a crisis and those are the peripheral communities we are supposed to be looking after post Maastricht.
Those fishermen do not have social insurance, they are not entitled to unemployment benefit and cannot establish their entitlement to unemployment assistance because they cannot prove their earnings during the past two years. They are not entitled to medical cards and cannot get mortgages because they cannot prove their earnings. They are literally at the mercy of voluntary groups and I do not believe the Minister considers that acceptable in what should be a flagship industry on an island nation such as this. Fishing should be one of our growth industries. Since the 1992 judgments that very skilled labour has been casualised and as a result more and more skilled fishermen are leaving the fishing industry and finding more permanent insurable employment elsewhere. Those judgments have dealt a serious blow to one of our most important industries which is in its infancy because of the way it has been developed.
A fact sheet on optional social insurance, published by the Minister's Department in 1994, was not available in Killybegs until three weeks ago.
The Minister went there with a bundle of them in his brief case and the Killybegs Fishermens's Organisation stood him up. It was a lost opportunity as the Minister had travelled there to resolve some of their difficulties. Until then these fact sheets had not been disseminated by his Department. That is not good enough considering we spent weeks here and in the other House trying to resolve a social welfare crisis for a sector of our community. This fact sheet indicates that to avail of the optional social insurance scheme share fishermen must return their application forms by 5 April and that contributions for the 1993-94 tax year must be fully paid up by 30 June. Since we last spoke about this problem very few fishermen have been to sea, they have not received any cash and are several years behind in their contributions. With the best will in the world those who want to buy into the scheme now and benefit from next January do not have the cash to do so. We cannot let another winter pass without share fishermen and their families receiving full cover for treatment and disability benefits. Will the Minister indicate his views on this crisis? I acknowledge his goodwill in the Social Welfare Bill last autumn, but those fishermen do not have money to buy into the scheme which would give them insurance cover from next January and fishermen all around our coastline are severely affected.
I urge the share fishermen to set up their own organisation and committee. Their social insurance problems would never have arisen if their interests had been represented in the Griffith and McLoughlin judgments. The IFO provides a good service for skippers and boat owners but it cannot serve two masters. It is the considered view of people who know a great deal more about this problem than I that the IFO represented the skippers' interests extremely well and as a result the share fishermen's problems were not fully aired or taken on board in the various judgments. It is the responsibility of the share fishermen to organise themselves because they have suffered during many winters due to lack of insurance cover. Unless they form a representative organisation or set up a sub-committee to represent their interests through the IFO the matter will arise during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill every year and little progress will be made, despite the goodwill of the Minister.
The difficulties experienced by sole traders, limited companies and those people paying class A1 contributions, notwithstanding the Griffith judgment, were debated. The Griffith judgment determined that class S or self-employed contributions should be paid by share fishermen. Some boat owners and skippers have continued to pay class A1 contributions for their deckhands or share fishermen. Will those employees still be entitled to full class A1 benefits if they need to draw unemployment benefit, disability benefit or occupational injuries benefit provided for under class A1 contributions as opposed to under class S contributions? An anomaly has arisen whereby one law for social insurance applies for sole traders and private companies and another for the share fishermen who have no contract of service with a skipper or boat owner and must pay their contribution and make ends meet when they are not at sea. That anomaly must be resolved.
The Minister should ensure that the provisions of last year's Social Welfare Bill dealing with the problem of share fishermen are implemented uniformly by social welfare officers. There has been a discrepancy in the interpretation of that Bill. There are different interpretations in Killybegs, Wexford and West Cork, particularly in respect of how class A and class S contributions should be dealt with and whether boat owners and sole traders can pay class A.1 contributions for their employees to ensure that they do not casualise their labour and lose skilled fishermen. This matter must be dealt with immediately as the application date is 5 April. Can that date be extended? Can provision be made for share fishermen who cannot buy contributions for previous years' service to ensure they are covered under class S will be entitled to benefit from January next?
There was much debate last week about the enlargement of the European Union to include Austria, Norway and other countries. The social insurance treatment of fishermen should be harmonised throughout the Community. A country whose social welfare regulations impact more adversely on share fishermen than another is at an unfair disadvantage. Has the Minister studied the Norwegian system? Its economy is heavily dependent on the fishing industry. It has a satisfactory social insurance system for its fishermen. Could European regulations for the social insurance treatment of fishermen be harmonised with the Nowegian system? In the UK share fishermen buy a £7.50 weekly stamp which provides full cover. There is a larger insurance pool there. A certain amount of money must be invested and actuarial figures calculated to provide cover. Because of the small number of contributors here relative to the level of pay-outs our scheme does not operate as an insurance fund. The taxpayer makes up any losses in terms of the insurance fund. Under the UK system share fishermen know their contributions and the benefits to which they are entitled. Share fishermen here are not aware of their benefits because they are self-employed. They are self-assessed and from year to year the ground rules will change depending on whether they have a good year and earn money or a bad year and have little or no earnings. The Minister should outline his views on the harmonisation of social welfare payments in the European Union.
Another problem is that of the 13 weeks unemployment benefit. The Minister said, albeit under pressure, that he would reconsider this area. Since the last debate the boats have been tied up for more than 13 weeks. Adverse weather conditions have prevailed since last October almost without respite. The fishermen have gone to sea very infrequently. If those fishermen were insured this year, which they are not, they would have long since exhausted their 13 weeks unemployment benefit provided for in the Bill introduced last autumn. At that time the point was made that a three year rolling of the 13 weeks unemployment benefit was needed. In a good winter boats may be tied up for two to three weeks, but this winter they were tied up for 25 weeks. If fishermen do not claim their 13 weeks unemployment benefit in any one year it should roll on in a two or three year cycle to ensure maximum cover is provided particularly in adverse weather conditions, or when there is engine failure. The share fishermen have to cope with those problems and they do not receive pay when the boat is in dock.
A section of the Bill deals with work in the harbour, such as mending nets and carrying out repairs etc. Share fishermen receive no pay if boats are tied up for mechanical or structural repairs, mending nets or adverse weather conditions. If unemployed share fishermen are entitled to draw full social welfare benefit for 13 weeks the Minister should ensure they are entitled to unemployment benefit when the boat is tied up and they are mending nets.
I know of a case involving the Redmond family in Wexford. The social welfare inspector was probably technically correct in interpreting the law as meaning that because they work a few hours a day mending nets and repairing the boat when adverse weather conditions prevent them going to sea, they are not entitled to cover. If the share fishermen occupy themselves painting, varnishing and repairing machinery they will lose unemployment benefit. The fishermen in this case have been covered under A.1 contributions. A realistic interpretation of being available for work when share fishermen cannot go to sea due to adverse weather conditions, engine failure or other reasons is needed. At present those who are covered are being denied their entitlements if they carry out work on the boat or approach the port or harbour where it is docked. I am not sure if the Minister envisaged that provision would be interpreted in such a manner. When a boat is tied up due to weather conditions it is reasonable for fishermen who are regular employees on it to do useful work until they can go out to sea. The Department will pay them if they sit looking at the boat while it is tied up, but if they make themselves useful by doing constructive work on the boat their unemployment benefit is stopped. That attitude is not acceptable. The Minister should ensure that a uniform system operates in all our ports and harbours.
Where share fishermen are employed by a limited company is a written contract of service required to entitle them to continue class A1 benefits, or can the skipper opt to continue paying class A1 benefit? Will the employee get full class A.1 benefits? I raise these issues because the Minister indicated we would come back to them on this Bill. Will the Minister indicate how the matter has developed — I know he has had discussions on it? An appeal is to come before the courts on the sole trade issue. I would like to know the Minister's views on that matter and whether it can be resolved. What is the status of the Statutory Instrument pre the 1993 Bill? There is still confusion as to the legal status in this regard.
This is a specialist area and I do not apologise for restricting my contribution to this issue — colleagues in all Opposition parties adequately dealt with other problems. As this is a matter that receives no airing I would like to know where we are going and, given the 5 April deadline for applications, how the Minister intends to bring all share fishermen who are not insured at present under the new system which was put in place last autumn. How can they buy benefits for the years lost when they will have no money next January as they will not have been working during the winter? We must deal with this critical issue for fishermen and women and their families. What is happening is totally at variance with the spirit of post-Maastricht European Union, where peripheral communities in isolated areas are supposed to be looked after under Cohesion and Structural Funds. The Government, who witnessed the spectacle whereby this winter our fishing families went hungry because they had no cover, failed these isolated and peripheral communities along our coast. These communities could contribute much to the economy if they were properly looked after.
There has been a wide-ranging debate on the Bill and I will briefly comment on the points made. Deputy Boylan talked about a complete mismatch, said that people do not know their entitlements and that the system is very complex. The reason it is complex and complicated is that people do things in different ways. Many groups are provided for and the system will never be entirely simplified. It has been tremendously improved and we will continue to simplify it, but people must be clear as to their entitlements. Very often commentators, particularly economists and other wise men and women, say that the system is too complex, that it should be simplified. However, in trying to do that we have to deal with different circumstances. For example, Deputy Bell suggested that instead of having one regulation there should be three regulations, thereby including everybody. Perhaps two regulations would suffice. Deputies identify the differences and the real needs involved and they say that particular groups are not being well served by an overall arrangement. Variations will always exist in a good, supportive system. We will do what we can to simplify the system, and I know Deputies will continually press for that.
Deputy Boylan and others mentioned the back to work allowance scheme and the importance of providing incentives. I have been interested in such an arrangement for some years and introduced this scheme towards the end of last year. Many Deputies criticised me for doing so and asked was I trying to take over from FÁS. Perhaps they were confused with what was happening. When job facilitators were appointed Deputies again asked whether I was trying to take over the work of FÁS, but that is not so. I am trying to provide support for the large number of unemployed people and to make the best possible use of the money that is available.
Many applications have been received for the back to work allowance and 1,554 people have been approved for jobs. At present 1,026 people are being paid and the remainder will be paid in the next couple of weeks when the practical details are sorted out. This allowance, which will be very beneficial, will be monitored to see if it can be further improved. It was a big breakthrough to be able to provide 75 per cent of unemployment payments plus the extra benefits for the first year and 50 per cent for the second year. This scheme is operating in conjunction with FÁS schemes so that people will get the maximum benefits.
Deputy Boylan asked about transferring people over 50 years onto disability benefit or invalidity pension. That could only be done on the basis of sickness. A person transferred to assistance may be disadvantaged because there is no disability assistance. There is a dependent person's maintenance allowance but there are different criteria for that. A person moving into disability benefit or invalidity pension would get the extra benefits such as free travel and so on, and I cannot see why they would object to that. The scheme was introduced to cater for people who are ill and not able to work, and they are much better off on invalidity pension.
Deputy Boylan raised the question of young people having to leave home. This matter is raised frequently and was recently dealt with by way of a parliamentary question. The overall cost of extending rent supplement would be £60 million. We will consider that issue to see what can be done. This year I increased the £5 minimum payment to £10. Some research has been carried out on the assessment of cases of free board and lodging. A recent Department of Social Welfare commissioned ESRI report, compiled from previously collected data from the household survey, failed to uncover any link between young people leaving the family home and the current assessment of benefit and privilege. There may be a link in certain cases but there is no general link. An internal departmental study was carried out on random samples of people in the Dublin area. This study supports the conclusion of the ESRI that most applicants leave the family home for reasons unconnected with the social welfare system. It shows that 32 per cent of the people who left the family home originated from rural areas and are likely to have moved to Dublin to seek employment; 19 per cent were cohabiting and 5 per cent moved due to family disputes. Of the remaining 44 per cent, one third were over 30 years of age and a significant proportion of the balance had previously been independent of the family home, for example, they had been at college or lived abroad: wherever they came from, they did not leave the family home to claim the rent supplement. While the system does not generally work in the way suggested it requires further consideration.
Deputy Boylan referred to assistance for small farmers and the possibility of using the Revenue Commissioner system of assessment. I do not have all the relevant information with me but the main reason this system is not used is that an allowance which does not apply to social welfare payments is given for investment, capital depreciation, etc. Obviously, many more people would claim assistance if the allowance applied to such payments. This is another issue I will examine further.
This Bill provides for a number of major improvements in means testing as it applies to lone parents and carers. Section 18 deals with means testing for social assistance schemes, including disregarding the maintenance element of higher education grants for the purposes of the third level allowance scheme, disregarding mobility allowances or rehabilitation training allowances for all social assistance payments, exempting child benefits payments received from another member state of the European Union, extending the home help incomes exemption so as to include employment by an agency approved by a health board and taking regulatory powers to exempt income derived from certain activities, which have yet to be prescribed. In the past I have exempted produce for use on the farm. This Bill will enable me to exempt similar activities. One activity I have in mind is traditional activity such as seaweed collection along the western seaboard. The exemption of this activity will be a substantial boost to collectors, the existing factory and the further factory which I hope will be established there.
I have been told that there are no radical or imaginative provisions in the Bill. However, the imaginative provisions in this area will be very helpful and will enable me to consider exempting certain activities and to obtain approval for similar steps.
I appreciate that the Minister means well, but I am talking about basic farm income. I would not harp on this issue if it was not a problem. I will leave it at that, as I know the Minister will address it.
I appreciate the general point made by the Deputy but I have taken some further steps in this area.
Reference was made to anticipated income being taken into account. If such income is not realised then an allowance is made for it, for example, an allowance is made for cattle which die. One could say that people get payments from then on, but people who have taken out a bank loan may need payments backdated, which is another aspect. All changes in circumstances are taken into account from the time they occur. Self-employment which entails levels of production and so on is a difficult area with which to deal and I accept it needs to be looked at further and, if possible, simplified.
Deputy Keogh referred to the integration of tax and social welfare payments and said that I was not being very radical. If she looks at the measures taken in recent years she will see that some very radical changes have been made at considerable cost without upsetting the apple cart.
What about the "dirty dozen"?
Some measures are more radical than others.
Some economic commentators say that we should have an across the board arrangement, that measures should be implemented immediately. They do not understand the complexity of the system and that many heads could be cut off, so to speak, in the process. It is much better in all the circumstances to take monitored steps. Some radical measures have been introduced already, for example, the taxation of disability and unemployment payments. There have been fairly radical changes in pay-related benefit and as Deputies know, we managed to return the pay related benefit to the system while this was happening. There are also similar changes in PRSI which have been introduced at a substantial financial cost. This entire area is being studied — there was an interim report and a more comprehensive report is expected at the end of the year. Consideration will be given to the feasible recommendations in that report and a desision made on the action to be taken.
Deputy Keogh referred to the position of survivors. They are treated on an equal treatment basis — the position for widows and widowers is the same. The Deputy referred to the desirability of extending the scheme to cohabitees. That would be a new development which would have to be considered in the context of any future changes.
The tax system can find them and tax them.
If they are included in one way they should be excluded in another.
Provision is made for them in the schemes; the Department is very much ahead in that regard. We are talking here about extending the widows' pension scheme and, consequently, the widowers' pension scheme to cohabitees. That matter can be considered in the context of any future changes.
Reference was made to casual employment and the way in which it will be assessed. Regulations will have to be drawn up but basically we are considering the nature of the work rather than other aspects. The Deputy asked about the yardstick to be used in assessing casual work. It has been very difficult to assess this complex area up to now but under the Bill I will be able to deal with some of the sectors involved. She also referred to the implications for social welfare recipients of the provisions on consultancy. My aim is to ensure that jobs are created in Ireland. We have the necessary expertise and it should not be wasted. This expertise should be used to create jobs in the private sector or in joint ventures with private sector companies.
I have always had a broad view of public service, too many people have a narrow view of it. Public service is not just civil service — civil service has a responsibility to the rest of the public and private sectors. This Bill allows the Civil Service and the civil servants in my Department, to make a contribution to the wider public service. The idea is that revenue from patents, royalties and so on would go back to the State. Obviously, I would be delighted if some of that revenue is put into social welfare but the first objective is to ensure that it goes back to the State in any event. In so far as I hope that we would stimulate the private sector, it will feed back into jobs here. There are many avenues in that direction that can come from what Lemass always had in mind, namely, that Departments should be development corporations. There was a great drive towards this at the time but it has been lost over the years and we should get back to it. In the Taoiseach's recent move regarding the strategic plans for Departments he was also going very much in that direction. The purpose of all our activity is to make any contribution we can to the needs of the people.
In relation to second chance education for instance, I would be happy to see money allocated to that area. If the second chance education area proves itself, we will not have much difficulty in getting the additional resources, as we have done recently.
I noted Deputy Bell's points, and I thank him for his comments about the Bill. He compared the Irish system with the British system and others. Deputy Bell was concerned particularly that under the family income supplement employers would keep wages low to make use of the family income supplement scheme. There is no evidence of this happening generally but the matter can be monitored and we note his comments. The largest number of people availing of that scheme would be those categorised as unskilled workers and general labourers.
Deputy Bell welcomed the back-to-work scheme for the self-employed and felt that it should be more widely advertised. As I mentioned previously, there were some difficulties in getting this scheme off the ground but we had to be patient in the early stages. It has now been advertised and we intend to advertise it extensively.
Deputy Bell also mentioned the students' scheme and asked me to confirm the improvements. Last year's figure of £40 has now increased to £45 for the 16 hour week and this will enable students to earn a total of £540 as distinct from £400 over the period of the scheme. This represents an additional £140. The duration of the scheme has been extended from ten to 12 weeks and it can operate in any 12 weeks from the beginning of June. These are substantial improvements.
Deputy Bell also referred to some of the delays last year but it was a question of whether to go ahead with the scheme at short notice. As far as I was concerned it made sense to go ahead at the time. No other Department would take on such a scheme and introduce it right across the country in such a short time-scale. The scheme has now established its position and has led to the improvements this year.
Deputy Bell raised the question of the three sets of regulations for casual, part-time and short-time workers. Deputy Bradford asked how we can spend more of the £3.8 billion for job creation. That money, of course, is not all spent on unemployment payments. The pensioners remain the biggest group on which funds are allocated. There is a £89 million boost in the Bill for employment which is provided through the PRSI alleviation and other measures such as employers having to pay for medical cards, etc. The Minister of State is working on the integration of the tax and social welfare systems and we will hear more about that in due course. Deputy Bradford asked me particularly to consider pilot projects with the county councils in regard to releasing people from the Department. The back-to-work allowance will be available and if the county councils are interested they should come forward with particular schemes which fit within there general criteria and we will be happy to talk to them. The job facilitators in the different regions are available also for discussions in relation to this area and their work will free the system much more.
Deputy Sheehan was particularly concerned about the means test for farmers and the fact that sales would be taken into account. Deputy Boylan raised the question of payment for cattle who died. This is a difficult area but one which we will examine further. The question was raised also about pensions for the self-employed in so far as they affect farmers. I sympathise with Deputy Sheehan but if my memory serves me correctly the costing for that scheme was £754 million over the period. Securing a deal up to age 55 was a major achievement because we really should start much earlier to make the scheme solvent. I will keep this matter under review and I appreciate the point the Deputy makes. The main problem is the cost of providing for the pensions.
The Deputy welcomed the back-to-work scheme and wants it to be as flexible as possible. That matter will be monitored on an ongoing basis.
Deputy Doyle raised in some detail the question of share fishermen.
She is a keen angler.
There is no mention of this in the Bill. Some of the people wanted the full A rate. She covered an interesting point indirectly when she spoke about what is now happening, that some people are leaving to work elsewhere. I remember saying, when we were introducing the other Bill, that if employers want to have good workers, train people and so on, they really should bring them within the A 1 rate. Otherwise people will not have cover. Employers and economists who talk about PRSI should realise that if employees do not have cover, ultimately employers will not have workers. Workers will not revert to the bad old days early this century when they did not have cover for illness, pension, unemployment or whatever. We have a modern society and are not going backwards. We have taken over from employers many of these payments they formerly had to make in that they have been incorporated into the PRSI system. Employers tend to forget that we are undertaking this for them as a very efficient service.
Deputy Avril Doyle went into much detail about share fishermen. We sought to do what was best through the regulations without getting into greater difficulty with the courts, that was to allow people continue with the class A.1 PRSI rate.
But they are in order in continuing to pay class A.1?
I would say yes, and we are endeavouring to expand that further. We will follow up individual cases if the Deputy will let me have a note of them afterwards.
All of this is in the course of being established. That is what is happening at present. It is the same in relation to the new legislative provision for optional contributions in that, under the regulations accompanying the legislation, one is supposed to have indicated by the beginning of April——
The fifth of April.
——that one is interested and the payments must be made by the end of June.
There has been very little interest in it because there is no money.
No, but they should apply. They would be foolish not to apply especially if their annual incomes will be lower when, obviously, the payment level will be very low. It is a very good package from that point of view. I have noted particularly what the Deputy said about fact sheets. The Deputy was correct in saying that I brought them with me to Donegal because I felt they should be available there immediately.
That was only a couple of weeks ago.
No, it was earlier, very soon after the Bill went through.
They had been seeking them.
I brought them myself. I placed them in Donegal town but Killybegs is only a short distance away. I put them in the office and gave them to any of the people who were there. In addition, they were publicised in the papers and elsewhere. We shall follow up the points Deputy Doyle raised in that respect. Certainly I would be flexible in relation to the dates. It is important that people apply if they are interested and we will investigate the position in relation to payments thereafter.
Deputy Doyle also asked about the working spouse allowance of £45 per week. The purpose of the disregard of earnings was to cover expenses associated with being in employment, such as the cost of lunches and so on. A person who works for less than a full week would not incur the same level of daily expenses as another working full-time but nevertheless would require a minimum amount of disregard in order to meet such expenses. In order to improve the position of those who work just a few days a week I propose to introduce a minimum amount of £30 disregard of earnings for a spouse working for three days, or fewer, each week instead of the present £7.50 daily disregard. A spouse working four or more days per week would receive the full £45 a week disregard of earnings. I could have said more about it but I do not have time.
Will the Minister notify me of that change?
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