Social Welfare Bill, 1995: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very glad, as Minister for Social Welfare in this multi-party Government, of the opportunity to introduce my first Bill in this House.

As a backbencher, I thought I new a great deal about the social welfare system, how it works and the multiplicity of schemes and services but since taking office, and having dealt with the budget and now the Social Welfare Bill, I readily admit that I have learnt more about social welfare in a short period, and the learning curve is continuing.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to the improvements in social welfare schemes and services announced in last month's budget. These include: the payment six weeks earlier than usual of increases in weekly rates of payment; a 35 per cent increase in child benefit — the biggest ever; significant PRSI reliefs for both employees and employers which will help them to stimulate business, create more jobs and ensure the low paid have more take home pay; the introduction of a new adoptive benefit scheme, and the extension of the carer's allowance to those on occupational pensions. In addition, as is customary, the opportunity is being taken in this Bill to provide for a number of adjustments and amendments to the social welfare code.

The resources provided by the Government this year for social welfare improvements are the largest ever on an annual basis in the history of the State. They amount to £212 million compared to the £157 million provided last year. That is a 35 per cent increase.

That £212 million injection of extra spending breaks another barrier by pushing total social welfare spending for 1995 beyond the £4,000 million barrier for the first time since the foundation of the State. That means we will spend this year over £11 million each day of the year.

This Bill is truly a radical measure. Not only is it the largest ever annual provision for social welfare in the history of the State but, more importantly it is a targeted social welfare budget which focuses specifically on child poverty while avoiding deepening poverty and unemployment traps.

Even within the spectrum of persons in receipt of social welfare supports, there are inequalities of need and disadvantage. Therefore, it is not enough to adopt a piecemeal andad hoc approach towards the different categories of disadvantage.

It is important, first, to raise the floor of benefits and support measures for all social welfare recipients but, in addition, to focus additional supports on the categories at greatest risk of poverty, that is the long term unemployed, women and children. This is the strategy we have set in train.

I referred to the need to target additional resources on women and children as part of an anti-poverty strategy and I will deal with that in more detail later. I want now to put on record that this Government has taken the initiative to resolve the long-standing injustice concerning the non-payment of arrears due to more than 70,000 women under the 1979 Equal Treatment Directive. It is indicative of my strength of commitment and that of the Government that we will deliver substantially, 75 per cent this year and fully by 1997, on the arrears due.

The payment of these arrears will consist of increases for adult and child dependants and unemployment assistance and they will also receive the transitional payments as provide for in the recent High Court decision. In addition, compensation will be payable based on the increase in the consumer price index from the date of entitlement in December 1984 onwards to the date on which payments are made.

The total cost of these arrangements is estimated at some £260 million of which up to £200 million will be paid by the end of 1995. The remaining payments, estimated at £60 million, will be paid from January 1996 onwards over as short a period as possible and will end no later than mid 1997. All of the married women involved will receive payments on account by September next at an overall cost estimated at £110 million. Further payments on account will be made up to the end of December this year at a cost of £90 million.

A special unit is being set up in my Department to process the payments in question. All the women who have previously received payments under the European Communities (Social Welfare) Regulations, 1992 (S.I. No. 152 of 1992) will be notified of the arrangements for the payment of arrears and an extensive advertising campaign will also be undertaken over the coming weeks. In addition, a special telephone inquiry unit will be set up in the Department to deal with inquiries from the married women concerned.

It has been decided that the costs involved in making these long overdue payments should be met through the sale of part of the assets of the Local Loans Fund. The Local Loans Fund is a statutory fund under the control of the Minister for Finance. It was set up to make loans to local authorities. The money available for lending by the fund was borrowed by the Exchequer and advanced to the fund. Prior to 1987, the principal purpose for which the authorities borrowed from the fund was to enable them to provide mortgage finance to house purchasers. With the setting up of the Housing Finance Agency in 1986, the fund ceased to lend money to the authorities for this purpose; the Housing Finance Agency took over that role.

The Local Loans Fund is in effect the mechanism through which local authorities funded mortgages to householders prior to 1987. It is estimated that the fund comprises about £490 million of outstanding debt in respect of mortgages granted prior to that date. The intention is to securitise a portion of the fund by selling on the debt and using the yield to fund the equality payments this year.

I want to make it absolutely clear because a number of politicians have tried, perhaps out of ignorance, to mislead the public on the way this will operate, that the proposed sale of the debt will not affect the mortgage contracts between mortgagees and their local authority. Mortgage payments will continue to be made in the usual way without change to the local authority for the duration of the mortgage.

Before discussing the main provisions, I would like to address the greatest social challenge facing this Government — unemployment, in particular, long term unemployment. This is timely in the context of the publication two weeks ago of the Interim Report of the Task Force on Long-Term Unemployment which was established following the NESF report entitled "Ending Long-Term Unemployment".

I welcome the task force report and its emphasis on the setting up of a new localised employment service to assist the long term unemployed and other target groups to return to the active labour market. We still have a very serious long term unemployment problem with more than 135,000 of our people without a job for over 12 months — a substantial number of them have been out of work for much longer than 12 months. Setting up a localised employment service is one of the Government's responses to this very pressing problem. It is essential that the long term unemployed and other marginalised groups can gain access to sustainable employment on a par with other job seekers and that they are afforded the opportunity to compete on equal terms for job vacancies.

The reality is that many of the long term unemployed are simply not ready to return to work without a series of interventions in areas such as counselling, guidance, training and work experience. They also fail to hear about job vacancies as most have drifted out of the circles where such information is available, as confirmed by the INOU study launched earlier this week by my colleague, Deputy Bernard Durkan, Minister of State.

The new Local Employment Service is designed to address these types of problems. It is based on the fact that each individual on the live register has his or her own specific needs and requirements and his or her own skills and experience to offer an employer. We have to identify the problems and needs and find a way of addressing them so that the individual recovers the enthusiasm and confidence to return to work and at the same time build on a replenish skills and experience that may be dormant so that the person's skills fit the needs of the labour market. This is not an easy task, but the system we are now putting in place will result in more job vacancies being filled by the long term unemployed.

In developing the Local Employment Service, my Department will utilise the experience we have gained since we introduced our Employment Support Service in July 1993. This service grew out of a recognition that passive income maintenance support on its own was simply not enough. It needed to be supported by a strong, flexible, pro-active approach which would increase the number of job outlets and enterprise opportunities available to the unemployed; increase the number of options for training and further education; and facilitate the unemployed to make the most of the new opportunities available to them to regain a foothold in the labour market.

My Department has now in place a range of options and programmes designed to achieve these objectives and at the same time be more flexible and more responsible to the individual's needs and circumstances. Among the options we have to offer are: second chance education schemes for people at second and third level in which more than 6,500 people are participating, flexible arrangements to allow unemployed people to take up voluntary community work or a part-time job, a PRSI exemption scheme for employers who take on new employees from the live register with more than 2,500 people currently receiving exemption, and finally, the back to work allowance. Since it was introduced in September 1993, 5,600 people most of whom were long term unemployed have left the live register and returned to work. The majority of recipients are engaged in self-employment projects in a wide, diverse and innovative range of measures. The success of this programme proves that significant numbers of the long term unemployed still have a strong motivation to return to work given the right type of support and advice.

We are, therefore, building on the Department's strong regional and local structure to deliver the range of services to the unemployed. We have established a special team of officials, called jobs facilitators, for this purpose. These officials have already built up valuable contracts with the unemployed, employers, voluntary and community groups and other statutory agencies at local level as they explore the full range of options available to the unemployed.

My Department will co-operate to the fullest extent with the proposed new Local Employment Service. We are in a unique position to do so for two reasons. First, we have a strong regional and local organisational structure with a network of more than 200 offices nationwide all of which have ongoing and regular contacts with the unemployed, employers, voluntary and community groups. Second, our experience to date of the operation of our Employment Support Service has given us a unique and valuable insight into the problems faced by the unemployed and their families.

The essence of the new service is that it will bring existing services together in an integrated, focused and more effective manner which will greatly benefit the unemployed and others. No longer will it be necessary for an unemployed person to approach a number of different agencies for assistance. With the new service, there will be a single source of information and support in one place where people can get access to the service they need to tackle their problems. My Department will play an active and full part in its implementation.

Sections 1 and 2 of the Bill contain the usual provisions relating to short title, construction and definitions. The general increase, six weeks earlier than usual, in the weekly personal and adult dependant rates of social insurance and social assistance payments from early to mid June 1995 is provided for in sections 3 and 4. Section 3 also provides for a further additional increase of £1.80 in the weekly adult dependant rate payable where the dependant is under age 66 in the case of old age — contributory — pension and retirement pension. In addition, the age at which the higher personal rate of invalidity pension is payable will be reduced from 66 to 65.

The substantial increase in child benefit announced in the budget is given legislative effect in section 5 which provides for an increase of £7 in the monthly rate of child benefit with effect from next September. From that date, the monthly rate of child benefit will be £27 for each of the first two children and £32 for each subsequent child. In addition, child benefit will be extended to 18 year olds who are in full-time education or are physically or mentally disabled and to 18 year olds on FÁS courses who do not receive training allowances.

The opportunity is also being taken in this section to extend existing provisions whereby child benefit is payable to a qualified parent while serving abroad as a member of the Defence Forces or Civil Service to enable payment to be made to a qualified parent outside of the State while his or her spouse or partner is serving abroad as a member of the Defence Forces or the Civil Service.

I have already spoken at length in this House about the philosophy behind this unprecedented increase in child benefit, the cornerstone of the social welfare budget provisions. By focusing on child benefit, we are doing two things. First, child benefit is recognised as one of the most effective ways of targeting proverty because those most at risk tend to be large families. Second, given the nature of child benefit as a universal payment which is not taxed or withdrawn if employment is taken up, it does not act as a poverty trap, an unemployment trap or a disincentive to work. This is why it makes eminent sense to channel as much income support for families as possible through the child benefit system.

I would remind Deputies that this improvement in child benefit is just the first step in the Government's plans for major restructuring of the child income support system for the future. Having got the basic child benefit payment structure right, the foundation is laid for the development of the child benefit supplement which is the essential element in our plans for a basic income for children. The child benefit supplement will be payable in addition to child benefit to all families whose income is below a certain level irrespective of the source of the income for example social welfare, employment or a combination of the two. The new supplement will incorporate both the child dependant allowances paid to people on social welfare and the family income supplement paid to people at work on low pay.

The implications of the new child benefit supplement are under consideration in my Department. At the same time, as announced by the Minister for Finance in his Budget Statement, the Expert Working Group on the Integration of Tax and Social Welfare is also being asked to consider this proposal and to advise on the best overall strategy. It is best placed to do this given the important work it has already done in this area. I look forward to getting its views in due course.

The shift of income and resources towards those most in need is only one of the priorties of this Government. We are also committed to the stimulation of enterprise and job creation and to rewarding work in all its various forms. The social welfare system cannot be seen in isolation from that task. It has an increasingly pro-active role to play in facilitating employment, experiments with employment and enterprise of all kinds. It must have regard to the labour market as it is today and how it will develop in the future.

The overall tax reforms announced in this year's budget are the most significant to have been introduced in many years. The PRSI changes are innovative and will, for the first time in a number of years, ease the burden on low paid workers in particular. The necessary legislative changes affecting PRSI are contained in sections 6 — 10 and will come into effect on 6 April 1995.

Section 6 provides for a number of significant changes to the PRSI system affecting both employees and employers, as follows: the introduction of a new "PRSI free allowance" whereby employees insured at Class A will not be liable for PRSI in respect of the first £50 of weekly earnings; an increase in the ceiling up to which PRSI contributions are payable by employees from £20,900 to £21,500 per annum, and an increase from £173 to £231 in the amount of weekly earnings below which the reduced rate employer's contribution of 9 per cent applies.

Section 7 deals with self-employed people. It provides for an increase in the income ceiling up to which PRSI contributions are payable from £20,900 to £21,500 per annum. It also provides for an exemption from payment of PRSI contributions in respect of the first £520 of self-employed income and for a reduction from £250 to £230 in the minimum social insurance contribution payable by the self-employed.

Section 8 provides for an exemption from payment of optional contributions in respect of the first £520 of annual reckonable income under the scheme of optional social insurance for share fishermen.

Section 9 provides for a reduction from £250 to £230 in the annual rate of voluntary contributions payable by voluntary contributors who were formerly self-employed contributors.

Provision for regulatory powers to cater for an on-going employers' PRSI exemption scheme is contained in section 10. Employers who take on additional employees who constitute a net increase in their workforce above that applying on a specified date will not have to pay the employer element of PRSI contributions in respect of such employees for a full two year period.

As announced in the budget, the regulatory powers contained in section 10 will allow me to extend exemption under the scheme to employers who take on a young person under the age of 23 into a new job where this job is the person's first employment. This will be a real incentive for employers to recruit young people into newly created jobs. It should also benefit our many small to medium size enterprises.

For the first time ever, a new adoptive benefit is being introduced in the social welfare code for people who qualify for adoptive leave under the provisions of the Adoptive Leave Act. The qualifying contribution conditions and the rates of payment will be the same as those currently applying in the case of maternity benefit. From next June, a recipient will get between £75.70 and £162.80 a week depending on earnings. The new adoptive benefit will last for a period of ten weeks in the case of persons who qualify for adoptive leave. Section 11 makes regulatory provision for the introduction of the new adoptive benefit scheme and it was my intention to use those powers as soon as the Adoptive Leave Bill was enacted. However, as that legislation has now passed all Stages in both Houses of the Oireachtas and has only very recently been signed into law by the President, I will take the opportunity by way of an amendment on Committee Stage to provide for the details of the new scheme in this Bill.

I announced at budget time that I was pleased to be able to continue the trend of previous years in progressively improving the carer's allowance. This year's improvements have two distinct elements which are provided for in section 12. First, the scheme is being extended to include carers of incapacitated pensioners over 66 who are not in receipt of a social welfare pension, for example, those getting an occupational pension. It is only fair that those on social welfare pensions and those on occupational pensions should be treated equally as regards access to the carer's allowance. Many of those who will benefit will be public service pensioners on relatively low pensions. Second, the means test for the carer's allowance is being significantly eased through an increase from £100 to £150 a week in the amount to be disregarded in respect of working spouses and the application of the disregard to income from all sources. Regulatory power is being taken in this section to provide for those changes.

Section 13 amends the provisions relating to maternity benefit arising from the changes introduced by way of the Maternity Protection Act, 1994. The net effect is to link entitlement to maternity benefit to entitlement to leave. This section also provides for the payment of a benefit to fathers who are awarded leave following the death of the mother within 14 weeks of the child's birth in accordance with the provisions of the Maternity Protection Act, 1994. This benefit is equivalent to maternity benefit, having the same contribution conditions and weekly rates of payment.

Section 14 provides for an amendment of the definition of qualified child under which increases for dependent children will be payable to recipients of long term social welfare payments up to age 22, as compared with age 21 at present, for those in full-time education.

Deputies will be aware of the rules governing the payment of the adult dependant allowance where the adult dependant has earnings in excess of £60 a week. These rules have been criticised in recent years because the full allowance is lost as soon as weekly earnings exceed the £60 limit. This has given rise to distortions in certain industries where extra working or overtime is not availed of — and in some cases, pay increases are foregone — because of the impact on the spouse's adult dependant allowance. With a view to resolving these difficulties, I propose to bring in new arrangements early next year in which I will provide a rate of adult dependant allowance related to earnings. It may be necessary for administrative reasons to introduce the new arrangements on a phased basis for different schemes.

Section 15 provides for giving regulatory powers to the Minister to enable an adult dependant allowance to be paid in respect of a spouse or partner who has weekly income in excess of a prescribed amount. It is my intention that the adult dependant allowance payable in these circumstances will be tapered by reference to the level of the spouse's or partner's income. In addition, child dependant allowances in respect of qualified children will continue to be payable at half rate.

The details of the new arrangements are being worked out and I propose to make the necessary regulations later this year with a view to implementing them from early next year. My objective is to ensure a higher level of earnings before the full adult dependant allowance is withdrawn from the spouse — a significant contribution to removing one of the poverty traps which currently keep people out of employment or on very low pay.

Section 16 contains a number of provisions on the rates and calculation of means of unemployment assistance. They include an increase from £10 to £25 in the minimum weekly rate of unemployment assistance payable to single people with means assessed solely on the basis of parental income; the payment of unemployment assistance at the long term rate in the case of a claimant who was previously in receipt of lone parent's allowance, and standardising the provisions applied to married and cohabiting couples on the halving of means where the spouse or partner is not an adult dependant.

Sections 17 to 23 inclusive contain a number of miscellaneous amendments to the existing legislation affecting a number of schemes, as follows. Section 17 provides that a person cannot requalify for unemployment benefit on the basis of optional contributions. Under the optional scheme of social insurance for share-fishermen, optional contributions provide entitlement to unemployment benefit for 13 weeks in any one calendar year.

Arising from the integration last year of the former social employment scheme and Teamwork into the new scheme of community employment, it is necessary to replace references in the legislation which are now obsolete. Section 18 is designed to achieve that.

Section 19 provides that the insurance record of a self-employed contributor can only be used for the purposes of qualifying for old age (contributory) pension or survivor's pension where self-employment contributions for which the person was liable have been paid in respect of at least one contribution year before the date of death or reaching age 66.

Section 20 contains a number of amendments in relation to orphans pensions. The definition of orphan is amended to include a child where one of the parents has abandoned or failed or refused to provide for him/her and the other parent is unknown or has effectively abandoned him/her. This section also increases from £2 to £6 the initial means disregard applied in the case of orphan's (non-contributory) pension.

Section 21 provides that supplementary welfare allowance paid to a person while awaiting determination of a claim for a social security payment from another member state may be recovered from the amount payable by the other State.

Section 22 gives the Minister for Social Welfare power to make regulations designed to standardise the provisions governing payment of benefit or assistance to people who are absent from the State or are undergoing penal servitude, imprisonment or detention in legal custody.

Section 23 provides for a number of minor changes to the provisions for means assessment in the case of social assistance payments. They include disregarding, in certain circumstances, the capital value of property where the property is not used for a limited period, for example, through illness; deleting absolete references to weekly redundancy payments and extending to carer's allowance existing provisions whereby an increase in a non-social welfare pension which has already been assessed as means cannot result in a reduction in the social welfare payment which would be greater than the increase in the non-social welfare payment.

Sections 24 and 25 provide for technical amendments to the Health Contributions Act, 1979 and to the Youth Employment Agency Act, 1981 respectively. Those Acts govern the administration of the two levies involved — the health contribution and the employment and training levy.

The effects of the changes provided for in those sections are an increase from £173 to £178 in the weekly earnings threshold below which employees are exempt from payment of the two levies involved; an increase in the corresponding income level for the self-employed from £9,000 to £9,250; payments made to a spouse under maintenance agreements to be exempt from liability for the two levies, and all recipients of survivor's pension and lone parent's allowance to be exempt from liability for the two levies. That is an outline of what the Bill contains.

At the United Nations World Summit on Poverty held in Copenhagen recently, the Irish Government agreed a programme of action which is geared not only to eliminating abject poverty in the developing world but to the substantial reduction of overall poverty and inequalities everywhere.

This new commitment requires us to develop in Ireland a coherent and targeted anti-poverty strategy by placing poverty and inequality issues firmly at the heart of national policy-making with the aim of developing a more inclusive and just society.

This means that, as a Government and society, we must have as objectives four freedoms:— freedom from want based on an adequate income for all our citizens; freedom from unemployment with as a priority the elimination of long term unemployment; freedom from ignorance with emphasis on the ending of educational disadvantage, and freedom from ghettoisation by emphasising the regeneration of disadvantaged communities.

I propose to bring forward proposals, following consultations with my colleagues in Government, to mainstream anti-poverty policy so that all Government Departments and agencies target poverty and social inclusion in their policy-making and include the people affected in that policy-making and its implementation. I am currently in the process of forming a co-ordinating group to do some preliminary planning in this regard. This group will include representatives from the Combat Poverty Agency, officials from my Department and my special adviser.

The various components of this first social welfare budget brought in by the new Government clearly set out to address that commitment through a strategy not only of tackling poverty and employment traps but of treating those individual citizens who may be in receipt of social welfare payments with dignity and respect. Above all, it seeks to empower those individuals and their children who may be on the cutting edge of poverty.

The social welfare budget is firmly focused on developing equity in both senses of that word — giving people equality of treatment and of opportunity but also giving them a stake in our society. It is essential to remember that society is composed of all its citizens, not just those who are well off.

The Social Welfare Bill before the House is set in the overall context of a determined attack on child poverty. It is the first of three Bills which I will bring before the House before the summer recess. The other two Bills will deal with modifications necessary to the social welfare code in advance of the holding of the referendum on divorce and the introduction of a uniform lone parent's allowance scheme which will, primarily, abolish the humiliating obligation of proving desertion by a spouse in order to qualify for State support for the family.

I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate from Members on the measures.

We must debate the Committee Stage of this Bill on Friday yet I only received a copy of it and a brief for the Select Committee on Social Affairs at 3 o'clock this afternoon. I will put a number of amendments to the Bill and hope we will have an opportunity next Tuesday to have a proper debate.

The Bill should have been one we could all welcome. However, the opportunity presented to redress the inadequacies of the provisions for general increases in the budget was not availed of. The 2.5 per cent increase will not keep pace with inflation. It is the lowest increase in 30 years. The poorest of the poor will see a sharp decline in the value of their payments. I am appalled by this since the Government has an opportunity to increase the support systems for the less well off to an adequate level.

After the budget débâcle I would have thought the 2.5 per cent insult delivered to the old and infirm would have been addressed. I can only assume it is a deliberately missed opportunity. The disgrace is that the Bill could have had a relatively unhindered passage through the Dáil. I call on the Minister to address this matter on Committee Stage and will put down a number of amendments to that effect.

What is the nature of the general 2.5 per cent increase? With the international financial markets in turmoil, the Economic and Social Research Institute recently predicting an inflation rate of up to 3 per cent and house prices increasing, this 2.5 per cent increase, which will not even keep pace with the projected rate of inflation, can be viewed only as a studied insult to the poorest in society. What happened to the unprecedented opportunity to address the problems of the marginalised, those living on a shoestring, endeavouring to make ends meet, unable to provide the necessities of life, dependent on moneylenders, on the charity of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, local credit unions and the like who had hoped to be brought along on the tide of the good economic position? It is appalling that they have been not alone left there but have had to take a step backwards.

The Minister informs us that the Bill provides for increases from early to mid-June in the rates of social welfare payments announced in the budget and a number of other improvements to be effected in social welfare schemes, which are to be welcomed. In addition, the Bill provides for the introduction of an adoptive benefit scheme, which is also welcome, as is the extension of the carer's allowance to the carers of incapacitated people aged 66 and over not in receipt of a social welfare payment. That is to be particularly welcomed because many families nationwide keep elderly relatives in their homes at tremendous inconvenience to themselves out of natural love and affection for them. Such people render society a tremendous service, while helping the Exchequer in a major way; we all know the average cost of maintaining a patient in hospital and therefore, I strongly support the improvement in the carer's allowance. Anything that can be done for those in our society who undertake that type of service should be done because they are to be lauded and helped in every way possible.

The Bill provides for changes in the rates of PRSI contributions payable by employers, employees, the self-employed and for certain other miscellaneous amendments. The Bill also provides for amendments to the Health Contributions Act, 1979 and the Youth Employment Agency Act, 1981, which increases the earnings threshold below which employees and the self-employed are exempt from liability for health contributions and the employment and training levy. While all those changes are welcome, the underlying problem is that, in Part II of the Bill, there is provision for an increase of 2.5 per cent in the weekly personal and adult dependant rates of social insurance but social assistance payments remains the same. At a time of major opportunity to provide real increases in the standard of living of those most deprived in our society it is beyond belief that they should be treated in such a cavalier manner.

I have already said I do not know how old age pensioners on the non-contributory pension can survive in any degree of comfort on a weekly income of £61 per week and to be offered an addition of £1.50 per week is really an insult. Has the Government chosen to ignore or forget the improvements in our economy and the dramatic opportunity they presented? I hoped, like many elderly, infirm and marginalised in our society, that this budget would have afforded them some relief, but, when not provided in the budget, the hope was that this Bill would have provided that missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the matter was not tackled and such people must survive on their present payments.

Some Government spokespersons suggested that, while Opposition Members seek increases, they do not specify from where the money will come. In this most recent budget money was provided and concessions given in various other sectors which could easily have been targeted at those marginalised in our society. There appears to be an underlying theme in the budget and this Bill, that the middle class must be kept happy and comfortable at all costs, this new electoral advantage of the middle class who supported some of the parties in this multi-party Government on the last occasion being assumed to continue in the future, too bad for the less well-off in our society.

The expectation of the provisions of this Bill to redress social deprivation and disadvantage was extremely high, higher still because of the composition of the present Government, described as the left wing majority, which test the Government has failed dismally. There had been great expectations of the Minister for Social Welfare. Deputy De Rossa, in the run-up to the last budget, as he had spoken so eloquently about the deprived and the poor, the hope being that, given the opportunity, at least they might have expected to receive something above the going rate; unfortunately, that was not the case. This unfortunate sector must continue the humiliating experience of being unable to provide the necessities of life for themselves, of having to depend on moneylenders, of approaching a community welfare officer when their funds run out, literally begging for sufficient to keep them going for the remainder of the week. It is an extremely upsetting and humiliating experience, having to live on less than an adequate amount which, when something unexpected occurs — even the purchase of a pair of shoes for one of the children — throws their whole domestic budget out of gear, when they must publicly cry for help to a community welfare officer, seeking additional assistance, very frequently being fobbed off, ultimately depending on parasites like moneylenders.

The provisions of any Bill affecting the lives of more than one million Irish people, with over 40 per cent of the community in receipt of a variety of social welfare payments, obviously are important. Therefore, a very high proportion of them will suffer as the Government failed to grasp the opportunity to adequately support them. When one examines what is being offered recipients of specific benefits, one can ascertain just how much they have to live on. The personal rate of disability benefit has been increased by £1.50, there was a similar increase in the carer's allowance and an additional £1 a week for the orphan's non-contributory pension. Let me take the example of a husband and wife with say, five children trying to make ends meet on approximately £160 a week which compares very unfavourably with the earnings of, say, a special adviser or programme manager at £800 per week. I honestly do not know how such couples survive. Is it any wonder so many of them are put to the pin of their collar to survive?

I might say that I am not engaging merely in what a Member in Opposition must do, that is point out the shortcomings and failures of the Government of the day. The Conference of Religious of Ireland studied how different groups have fared under the Bill and found that people on social welfare gained least of all, that employed single people gained dramatically, that those in the income range of £15,000 to £20,000 per year gained substantially over the last year while couples in the income range of £25,000 to £30,000 per year gained most dramatically. It goes on to state that the benefits of the 1995 budget were not concentrated on eliminating poverty. I concur with that view. This budget was about looking after the middle classes.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland went on to highlight the fact that budget calculations omit the benefits which flow from the implementation of commitments for 1995 in theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work. It echoes our views in stating that the Programme for Competitiveness and Work must be taken into consideration to gain an accurate picture of how people will benefit in 1995. For example, the Programme for Competitiveness and Work offers a 2.5 per cent increase in wages, and with unemployed people gaining nothing from the programme the gap between them and everyone else will widen substantially more in the course of 1995. That is the agenda to which this Left-dominated Government is committed.

In order to really appreciate the derisory nature of the 1995 social welfare increases, to put this critical part of the Social Welfare Bill into perspective, it is no harm to remind the House that not alone the middle class but a number of reasonably well off organisations did quite well this year, and that the banks did extremely well. The reduction in corporation profits tax from 40 per cent to 38 per cent will benefit the banking fraternity substantially. Since the budget, one of the groups, Allied Irish Banks, posted a profit of £431 million. We can expect the Bank of Ireland to post a similar net profit.

Will the Deputy be voting against that in the Finance Bill?

There are also the Trustee Savings Bank and the National Irish Bank. In case there might be an occasion when the banks would not enjoy such profits, the budget was used to abolish the bank levy. The Government sent the message to the banks that it did not want them squeezed at any time, that in case they did not make profits at any time to meet the bank levy that levy was being abolished. Whatever about the deprived and those who must go hungry for part of the week the Government is concerned about the banks and will look after them. That makes one think. I noticed that some media comment referred to that aspect. In an article inThe Irish Times Vincent Browne estimated that the benefit of that measure to the banks would amount to £40 million per annum. He suggested that that money could have financed an additional 2.5 per cent increase in all social welfare allowances bringing the overall increase up to a barely respectable 5 per cent.

Mr. Browne went on to say that the disgrace of this budget does not attach only to Ruairí Quinn and the Labour Party, that it also represents a defeat for whatever survives of the just society element of Fine Gael, that represents a humiliation for the Democratic Left and thus a defeat for the marginalised and the impoverised.

It was important that money was found for equality payments. The Government set a ceiling of 6 per cent on expenditure and with the additional £140 million that target cannot be met. While the £140 million is important for the women concerned, I consider it would have been better spent in improving the 2.5 per cent social welfare increases across the board. We must remember that the local loans fund was of benefit to local authority tenants who wished to purchase their houses but that fund has been reduced.

It was not used for that.

I do not know what right the Department of Social Welfare has to public housing funds.

The Deputy is misinformed about that. The local loans fund was never used to enable tenants purchase local authority houses.

The local loans fund was used by the Department of the Environment for the occupants of local authority houses.

What about the small dwellings acquisitions?

The Department of Social Welfare has pilfered that fund. It claims that there is a massive improvement in social welfare expenditure, but moneys are being transferred from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Social Welfare.

I repeat what the former Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Woods, said when he reminded us recently that all the previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments had exceeded, in current terms the priority rates recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare in 1986 and had achieved over 90 per cent of the main rates for all payments. Deputy Woods stated that in this budget the commission's main rates were to be achieved as promised by the previous Fianna Fáil-Labour Government, but that promise was reneged on. Those rates for all benefits could easily have been achieved this year. I remind the House that under the Fianna Fáil-led Governments of the past eight years the social welfare increases were substantial, dramatic in some years amounting to 11 per cent with 3 per cent being the lowest increase. That proves that Fianna Fáil as a political party does more for the poor.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): It kept them poor.

It proves its record in seeking to alleviate the problems of the poor in so far as budgetary and financial conditions allow. There is no doubt that if it were in office this year when the economy and finances are in such a flush state, the poor could have expected to have done substantially better. Why did the poor not do better on this occasion and why was this Bill not availed of to redress some of the greatest difficulties, anomalies and traps? Was no one around the Cabinet table prepared to speak up for them? It is all very well to speak up when one has an audience and a compliant media to carry what must now be seen as insincere drivel in relation to the poor. When it counted behind the Cabinet door when there was not a great audience and something substantial could have been done for those trying to eke out enough to keep them in shoes, clothes and food, the Minister let them down.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland remarked that given the good budgetary situation this year it is regrettable that the poor have been asked to wait. Hopefully, the turmoil in the financial markets will not cause difficulties, but we do not know what the future has in store for this economy. That is why it is galling to ask poor people to wait for an increase because when the opportunity exists they should be the first in the queue to be looked after. The conference reminded us of all the Commission on Social Welfare estimated that a minimally adequate standard of living for a single person is £67 per week, but people could not live very weell on that amount, not could a couple live very well on £107 per week. The conference and we in Fianna Fáil ask why a large number of social welfare dependants is on rates 10 per cent below that target at present? Together with organisations, such as the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed and the Conference of Religious of Ireland, we in Fianna Fáil ask why the Social Welfare Bill, 1995 was not availed of to redress the neglect shown in the 1995 budget. Yet again it is those who can least afford it who end up having their noses rubbed in it.

There are thousands on the edge of survival who depend on social welfare. There is no use in saying, as the Taoiseach said, that people should get out of their beds, push themselves out of their homes and find work. The reality is that many thousands of people in receipt of social welfare either cannot work because they are too old, infirm or disabled or cannot get work. This year more than ever the Government, because of the prudent work of previous Governments, should have made a difference to those people.

The contents of the Bill could have and should have made a difference to those people. It would have been nice for them to see light at the end of the tunnel or some ray of hope on the horizon. There has been no attempt by the Government to make any advance towards adequate levels of social welfare payments. The opportunity presented by this Bill has been missed. It is my intention to oppose it.

I welcome much of what is contained in this Bill, though there are parts with which I am disappointed. There will always be those who will be for or against any such a Bill. At this time of the year, it must occur to the Minister for Social Welfare and the Minister for Enterprise and Employment that it would be a tremendous asset to the country if the number of people in receipt of payments such as dole, unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance was reduced.

During the past ten years 65 per cent of the outdoor staff of each county council have left employment but, due almost entirely to a ban on the recruitment of outdoor staff, have not been replaced. I can see as I am sure does the Minister when he travels through the country — he travels on most of the major roads — that the country roads are in a deplorable state, to such a degree that cars are being destroyed with minor accidents occurring. This is due mainly to the lack of outdoor staff to maintain on county roads. It would be right that a Democratic Left Minister should examine the position with a view to lifting the embargo.

This Bill provides for increases from early to mid-June in the rates of social welfare payments announced in the budget and for a number of other improvements in social welfare schemes. It also provides for the introduction of an adoptive benefit scheme and an extension of the carers allowance scheme, to carers of incapacitated persons age 66 or over who are not in receipt of a social welfare payment. It provides for changes in the rates of PRSI contributions payable by employers, employees and the self-employed and for certain other miscellaneous amendments.

The Bill also provides for amendments to the Health Contributions Act, 1979, and the Youth Employment Agency Act, 1981, which increased the earnings threshold below which employees and the self-employed are exempt from liability for health contributions and the employment and training levy.

This Bill sets out to give legal effect to a whole package of social welfare measures which were announced on budget day. The estimated cost of all the provisions in the Bill is approximately £215 million and will bring spending this year on social welfare to in excess of £4,000 million.

Social welfare is a major achievement of modern societies. In this they are usually strongly supported by public opinion. A recent European study highlighted the almost unanimous support for a high level of social protection.

The Progressive Democrats believes that social welfare recipients should be given the best protection this society can afford. Social welfare is a major component of social cohesion and solidarity. Social welfare and social protection systems are faced with growing pressures owing to a number of factors: the evolution of the labour market and, in particular, rising unemployment; demographic trends and, in particular, the aging population; changes in family structure particularly increases in single parent families; the growing instance of poverty and social exclusion resulting from these trends and a massive increase in demand for a whole range of social services, including a comprehensive welfare service and health care system.

At the same time lower rates of economic activity, budget deficits and compelling claims of public expenditure have raised the question, can we continue to afford to pay the social welfare bill and, if so, for how long more?

Another vital social welfare issue is the payment of the equality money due to thousands of women throughout the country. My party welcomes the payment of this money which is the absolute legal entitlement of those concerned. However, the way in which the Government and the Minister propose to fund up to £200 million of these back payments this year is open to many serious questions. There is undoubtedly an element of funny money about the proposal to provide £150 million of the money by a proposed sale of some of the local loans fund.

Not only is it ironic to have the Leader of Democratic Left signing on for the privatising of a State asset which the local loans fund is, but a number of major questions still have not been answered. Is this sale from the local loans fund going to be made to the banks or to the building societies or is it going to be sold to the National Treasury Management Agency.

This Government move, which was not announced in the budget, raises more questions than it answers. Another worrying feature is that it significantly pushes up the overall Government spending for this year, to nearly 8 per cent, and clearly that will damage the standing of this country in the eyes of our European partners, especially at a time when there is already so much difficulty in the international financial markets. While I welcome the payment of these long overdue moneys to those concerned the way the Government is going about it needs to be properly explained and raises a whole range of questions that have not been addressed to date.

Today 1.3 million of our population are wholly maintained on social welfare payments. This leads to poverty and marginalisation. Many people experience poverty and social exclusion on an ongoing basis. Social exclusion does not only mean insufficient income, it even goes beyond participation in working life. It manifests itself in areas such as housing, education, health and access to other services such as legal aid.

What will this Bill do for the 1.3 million of our population who are totally dependent on social welfare payments? My answer is very little. As a result of this Bill, and the budget, the Government will be known as the Government of the 2.5 per cent. Sections 3 to 5 provide for an increase of 2.5 per cent in the weekly personal adult dependant rate of social insurance and social assistance payments.

An additional increase of 30p per day in the weekly adult dependant rate is payable where the adult dependant is under 66 years in the case of old age contributory pensions and retirement pensions. These are the lowest increases for many years and are most disappointing, in particular, when they are introduced by a Minister who is a member of Democratic Left. I wonder what the Minister would say about the Bill if he was on this side of the House. When he was in Opposition, the Minister was suspended from the House on many occasions because of his opposition to a series of social welfare issues. He had the opportunity to put much of that right today, yet he came into the House with a Bill which in effect is more of the same.

All of its provisions are not to be cast aside. I welcome, in particular, the provisions in section 16 under which social welfare assistance will be payable at the long term rate in the case of a claimant who was previously in receipt of the lone parent's allowance. This section will also increase from £10 to £25 the minimum weekly rate of unemployment assistance payable to single people whose means are assessed solely on the basis of parental income. It will also standardise the provisions which apply to married and co-habitating couples on the halving of means where the spouse or partner is not an adult dependant.

From my experience, one of the reasons young people leave home is that they are unable to obtain unemployment assistance because of the assessment of benefit and privilege against them as a result of their parents' income. This has a very costly effect on social welfare expenditure in that young people subsequently leave home and qualify for full unemployment assistance and possibly a rent allowance under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. It is the subsequent payment of the rent allowance that is the huge disincentive to taking up full-time employment. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is common for a rent allowance of up to £50 per week to be paid to single people in certain large urban areas where accommodation is scarce and, when available, is very expensive. It is not uncommon, therefore, for single people to be in receipt of payments of up to £110 per week in unemployment assistance, supplementary welfare allowance and rent allowance.

Given the PRSI and tax systems, a single person would have to receive a starting pay well in excess of £170 per week if he was to have the same take home pay he receives by way of rent allowance and unemployment assistance. Very few employers are in a position to pay a wage of £170 per week to people starting out in employment. These disincentives to employment have not been addressed. Apart from the debate on the Estimates, this will be the only debate on social welfare. This is simply not good enough given that the Department of Social Welfare spends more than £4,000 million a year.

The aim of our social policy should be to assist individuals to take care of themselves and, as far as possible, to perform a useful role in society. Vulnerable people at risk can only achieve that goal through new and innovative combinations of work and welfare. Nothing in the Bill and none of the utterances by the Minister or his Department give an indication of future social policy. The central implication of the rise in demand for social services and the need to combat the exclusion of weaker groups is that income maintenance can no longer be the only objective of social policy. There is a growing consensus that all citizens should have a guarantee of resources. Social welfare policies now have to take on the more ambitious objectives of helping people to find a place in society. The main, but not the only, way of doing this is through paid work, and that is why employment and social policies should be more closely linked.

Consideration must be given to more generalised mainstream policies aimed at integration and which include (1) better adaptation of social programmes to avoid poverty and unemployment traps; (2) unemployment compensation linked to training, job creation and incentives to work; (3) more equal opportunities and further measures to take account of women's skill and needs in the labour market and society generally; (4) more flexible pension arrangements to enable variable retirement age and a combination of retirement and working income; (5) further measures to integrate disabled people into the mainstream of society. Much more needs to be done at every level, including the provision of better education and training, equal opportunities for men and women and further social protection in our housing and health services.

The greatest challenge facing the welfare state in the short term is the serious financial difficulties brought about by the demographic changes which will occur. It is well known that in the coming decades there will be a considerable shift in the demographic structure of our population and that an increasing number of older people will have to rely on the support of a shrinking number of people in the working age group. By the year 2020 the ratio of people aged 66 or older to those in the working age may increase by approximately 50 per cent. There will be no easy options in the face of this fundamental change and available resources will have to be shared between the active and the inactive, between the old and the young. Governments will have to make difficult choices, some of which will involve conflict in the distributions between the generations and we may have to promote private social security provision. It may even be necessary to extend the length of people's working lives rather than shorten them. However, this in itself will not be sufficient to increase the rate of employment. The Select Committee on Social Affairs should spent more time discussing matters relating to social welfare and the implications of social policy, than has been the case up to now.

Section 5 provides for an increase of £7 in the monthly rate of child benefit. From September next the monthly rate of child benefit will be £27 for each of the first two children and £32 for each subsequent child. In addition, child benefit is being extended to 18 year olds who are in full-time education or physically or mentally disabled. It will also extend the existing provisions whereby child benefit is payable to a qualified parent while serving abroad as a member of the Defence Forces or Civil Service so as to enable payment to be made to a qualified parent outside the State while his or her spouse or partner is serving abroad as a member of the Defence Forces or Civil Service. I welcome the improvements in child benefit and support the view that the system of child dependant allowances in the social welfare system creates inequities between families on social welfare and those supported by low paid employment. The best way to remove those inequities is to promote the development of the child benefit system at the highest possible rates with a view to eliminating child dependant allowances and eventually incorporating a much improved child benefit system within the overall tax system. This would entail the elimination of both child additions to the income tax exemption limits and the family income supplement.

The system of child income support should be integrated in such a way that it reduces the potential for unemployment and poverty traps. This, allied to the maintenance of the real value of social welfare benefits in general, would represent a socially responsible attempt to combine the overriding concern to promote employment growth with an effective strategy to secure the income position of the disadvantaged.

Part III, sections 6 to 10, provides for changes in the payment of social insurance contributions which include an exemption from payment of PRSI contributions in respect of the first £50 of weekly earnings in the case of employees paying the full rate of PRSI and in respect of the first £520 of annual income and the case of the self-employed and other optional contributors under the social insurance scheme. There is provision for an increase in the income threshold below which the reduced rate of employers' PRSI contribution of 9 per cent applies and a further provision for an ongoing employers PRSI exemption scheme.

The Progressive Democrats' priority is to increase sustainable employment and to reduce unemployment. From studying all the key characteristics of the labour market, we believe reducing the cost of employing people would make the most direct contribution to reducing unemployment.

The structure of the PRSI system means it is regressive, increasing the costs of low paid more than high paid labour. This follows from a contribution of a flat rate of PRSI with a ceiling beyond which no reductions are made. The PRSI reduction envisaged will do little to promote employment or eliminate the unemployment traps. Very few workers earn up to £170 or £180 per week, the limit one can earn to benefit from these provisions which will not make the transition from unemployment to low paid work any easier. Unemployed people will still perceive low paid employment as a risk because it involves a reassessment of other means-tested benefits, such as rent allowances and medical cards.

Section 10 provides for regulatory powers for an ongoing employers' PRSI exemption scheme. Employers who take on additional employees who constitute a net increase in their workforce above that applying on a specified date will not have to pay the employer's element of PRSI contributions in respect of such employees for a two year period. This is an acknowledgement that the Minister and his Department believe that the rates of PRSI applicable to employers is a major disincentive to employment and I fail to understand why this unusual tax has not been abolished.

I welcome the provisions of section 10, but it does not go far enough. It could have been used in a more imaginative way to improve greatly the chances of creating more sustainable jobs. The provisions relating to adoptive benefit, carer's allowance and maternity benefit are welcome. There is nothing, however to provide vigorous remedial action to help those who feel socially excluded and marginalised.

As politicians, we have a duty to produce a long term strategy to limit poverty and social exclusion and promote full social integration. This means there must be a major change in social welfare policies, education and training and it is regrettable this Bill does not deal with any of those issues.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Tá áthas orm go bhfuil deis agam labhairt ar an mBille seo agus is é seo an chéad uair dom labhairt ón dtaobh seo den Teach.

Nuair a bhí mé sa bhFreasúra anseo le ceithre bliana nó mar sin bhí plean íontach agam i gcomhnaí chun feabhas a chur ar an scéal. Fós, b'fhéidir go mbeidh plean agam chun feabhas a chur ar an gcáinfháisnéis seo.

Taispeánann sé dom go ndéanann sé dochar ar fad don Rialtas nuair a théann siad trasna mar tá tuairimí íontacha ag Fianna Fáil faoi láthair. Ní thuigim cén fáth a bhfuil aon fhadhb againn sa Dáil seo. Cén fáth a bhfuil gá fiú amháin le cáinfháisnéis nuair a bhí Fianna Fáil ann leis na blianta agus na tuairimí íontacha sin acu nár chuir siad i bhfeidhm. Sin an cheist atá agam. Cén fáth a bhfuil aon eolas acu faoi láthair? Cén fáth a bhfuil Billí ag teacht uathu chomh flúirseach leis an mbáisteach? Ní raibh tada á dhéanamh acu nuair a bhí siad i gcumhacht agus seans acu.

While Deputy Walsh had some wonderful ideas, like his colleagues, he continues to lament the 2.5 per cent increase in social welfare payments. Fianna Fáil never implemented an increase of 10 per cent or 12 per cent for old age pensioners. Is that not what we should talk about? It is pointless talking about a 3 per cent or 4 per cent increase. Fianna Fáil is making a meal out of a mere £60.

There are many worth-while provisions in the budget, but Fianna Fáil has continued to lament that the 2.5 per cent increase should have been 3 per cent, ignoring the fact that payments will be brought forward by six weeks. I hope in two years' time when speaking on the budget I will compliment the Minister on bringing forward the payments to 1 April. Every year people complain that the taxes are introduced from midnight on budget day, but the increases are awarded from July. We have brought forward payments to mid-June and I hope they will be made in May next year. By the time we face the next general election — when Fianna Fáil will have a major problem, on hands — I hope we will be giving payments on 1 April. Fianna Fáil should acknowledge this as a major step forward and stop "olagóning" about the 2.5 per cent increase. If we could have given a 10 per cent increase to social welfare recipients then we would have something worthwhile about which to talk. However, there are constraints on all Minister at budget time.

Fianna Fáil should stop talking about how good it was in the past. If the previous Fianna Fáil-Labour and Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Governments had done half the work it considers this Government should have done in the past two months, the country would be in a much better position. We are even being blamed about the state of the roads. We are in office only two months whereas the previous Government was in office for seven years, and neglected the roads. Governments should adopt certain standards when they take up Opposition and should not talk about a complete breakdown of law and order. The previous Minister had hardly left his seat on this side of the House and taken up his seat on the other side when he discovered a number of shortcomings.

Deputy Walsh referred to media experts. I wonder if those experts have all the answers. We now have experts writing on the difficulties in the financial markets. Why do those people stay in jobs in which they have to churn out words day after day to produce articles when they could become millionaires overnight? They appear to have all the expertise on managing finances and regarding what Ministers should or should not do. Fianna Fáil must live up to its promises or the record will show it did not, but media articles are forgotten very quickly. Nothing is forgotten as quickly as the daily newspaper. It is usually thrown in the bin and more up-to-date news is produced the following day. Perhaps Ministers and others who are interested in certain topics keep files on articles written by journalists. Many journalists perceive themselves as being divinely inspired; one can almost see the Holy Ghost hovering over them as they write their articles but what do they prove at the end of the day? Most people quickly forget about what journalists write. In any case, they will never have to act on their words. Now that Fianna Fáil is in Opposition I appeal to it not to pretend it has all the answers.

It should at least wait a respectable length of time.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): There should be a time of mourning and time allowed to slide out gracefully. In, say, 12 months' time it might be more inspired, but it certainly could not have all the answers yet. So many Bills are being produced that one would feel like taking drastic action to put a stop to it. Fianna Fáil have all the answers. However, this Social Welfare Bill is a reasonable effort at solving the problems. It has introduced changes which I welcome and we should not harp on the aspects of it that are not up to the standard we would like.

This is the first of three budgets. It is unfair to expect the Government to solve every problem in its first budget because it cannot be done. I welcome bringing forward the date of payment and I have no doubt that in the next two budgets they will again be brought forward and increases given in social welfare to help those who are badly off. Widows in particular need a bigger boost than the miserly allowance they get at the moment. Those who depend on a widow's pension certainly live in no great luxury.

The Minister should consider bringing in a uniform rate of pay. Why was it decided that there should be a different rate of pay for the different categories? It causes confusion and, I am sure, much work, assessing what people in the different categories should get. It is time we brought in a standard rate because I can see no point in having a difference of £1 or £2 between categories. This may mean spending extra money because payments would have to be brought up rather than down, but it would save money in the long run.

The Government set out to encourage people to work and employers to give work. Under section 10 of the Bill employers who take on additional employees and create a net increase in employment are exempted from having to pay employers' PRSI for a full two years. This is a major advance and should be emphasised more than the minor and silly criticisms of this Bill. If we can get employers to take on employees we will play a major role in helping the unemployed. There is much sympathy for the unemployed. We had to do something about the problem, and encouraging employers to take on new workers, particularly young people under 23 years of age, is a major step. It breaks the cycle whereby people with no experience cannot get a job.

Adoptive benefit, introduced this year, is welcome because an adoptive parent has the same difficulties as a natural parent. It recognises the role played by adoptive parents, and I compliment the Minister on introducing it.

The carer's allowance has been the bane of everyone's life for many years. We had many tussles with the former Minister, Dr. Woods. I am glad it has been advanced bit by bit and that this year £150 will be disregarded. That is a major advance because people who look after the elderly and the sick do a marvellous job, not just from a humanitarian point of view but from the point of view of saving the country, the Government and particularly the Minister for Health money by taking people out of hospital beds. Previously the eligibility conditions were so strict that nobody could qualify. The conditions are more reasonable now. If £150 is disregarded it gives people on lower incomes a chance to benefit from one of the best schemes ever introduced. I know of a case where a person who, because her husband's salary was taken into account, did not qualify for the carer's allowance even though she was doing a major job in looking after two people who really should have been in an institution. Any advance that can be made in regard to the carer's allowance must be welcomed.

There is a difficulty in regard to those who look after old people but do not live in the same house. I have a constituent, an old woman of 75 years, who is very seriously ill and whose neighbour has been looking after her for years and is with her all the time. Without the care of the neighbour the woman would be in hospital but, because her neighbour does not live in the same house, she cannot get the carer's allowance. This neighbour will probably get an allowance for home care but that is only a pittance for a woman who is giving so much of her time towards looking after a seriously ill person.

I would like to see allowances made in genuine cases such as that. However, care must be taken because otherwise one half of the country would claim to be minding the other half. They might not live within an ass's roar of the people they were supposed to be minding but they would claim to be there all day if it came to getting an allowance. However, genuine cases can be verified by local doctors. Perhaps in next year's budget there might be a change to cater for them.

We should do everything possible to encourage people on social welfare to go back to work. Last week I spoke to a constituent who is wondering why he went back to work only to pay a massive amount of tax because his benefit had accumulated; instead of having a tax free allowance of £61 he was given only £35. The system of counting benefits for tax purposes means that to pay the tax owed people get a much smaller tax allowance and finish up paying more tax just because they went back to work. The constituent I referred to was living at home with his parents which meant that they were deprived of any benefit. When this man went back to work he ended up paying so much tax on what he earned that he was in despair. If a person on lone parent's allowance returns to work in the middle of the tax year she is taxed on the lone parent's allowance and on what she earns even though she receives only one of these payments at any one time and has not exceeded her tax free allowance when receiving either payment.

We must do everything to guarantee that people who return to work will be rewarded. Young people know that if they remain at home their parents will be deprived of allowances and they will lose their medical cards and other benefits they would get if they were unemployed. The budget embraced the concept of encouraging people to return to work. I would like to see the red tape cut and the tax free allowances slashed by Fianna Fáil in the past restored to ensure that if people return to work they will be rewarded and not punished.

I welcome the increase from £10 to £25 in the minimum weekly rate of unemployment assistance payable to single people with means assessed solely on the basis of parental income. It is crazy that a person living at home can be deprived of unemployment assistance in this way. In one case I dealt with, the value put on board and lodgings was £39 with the result that the person concerned was left with nothing. There is an anomaly in that if this person leaves home to live in a flat he will receive the full rate of unemployment assistance plus a rent allowance. This point has been made time and again. I hope the decision to increase the minimum weekly rate from £10 to £25 marks the first of three steps to bring this farce to an end. Why should parents have to see their children leave home in order to abuse the system? If the system is so convoluted it should be changed. It is time we dealt with this matter and perhaps the Minister will do so in the next two budgets.

A person may receive the carer's allowance even if not living with the incapacitated person. This system is open to abuse. As a person will not have to prove desertion I am concerned that under the provisions relating to desertion people will receive payment on making a claim. Deputies regularly deal with women deserted by their parents and who are trying to secure maintenance; this can entail much trauma and making inquiries in England and elsewhere. In overcoming this problem I hope the Minister has not gone too far whereby it will be easy to claim that one has been deserted and receive payment.

When introducing the Bill the Minister said that when he was on the Opposition benches he thought he knew a great deal about the social welfare system but since taking office he has discovered that the matter is much more complex and extensive than he thought and he is continuing to learn. I do not claim to be an expert on social welfare but most of us in this House knew the value of the local loans fund. I welcome that the Minister has dealt in this Chamber with a matter being discussed openly and extensively in the media. Many people do not realise that the value of this fund is of the order of £490 million in respect of outstanding debt in relation to mortgages granted prior to 1987. I accept what Deputy Clohessy said that many questions remain unanswered. Unfortunately, the question of repossession appears all too frequently on the agenda of the local authority of which I am a member. Due to unemployment or emigation many people invariably have to vacate their houses and after a period the local authority has to take steps to protect its security.

It is the Minister's intention to securitise a portion of this fund but he has not told us who the bidders are and what discount he is prepared to offer. Will there be a tendering process? What will this mean for the customers of local authorities which take a sympathetic attitude towards customers who are in default because of hardship or change family circumstances? Now that the task master will change, from the local loans funds as operated by the Department of the Environment to an unnamed institution, be it a financial institution, the Housing Finance Agency or the debt management agency, will it be as sympathetic or place greater demands on local authorities to collect funds at an accelerated rate?

With many others I will look for considerably more detail from the Minister on who will be affected to allow us form a view on this matter. If we feel his efforts are well intentioned and will not exacerbate the position of local authority customers who are not the most sought after clientele by financial institutions, be they banks or building societies which market their mortgage packages aggressively, we will not place any obstructions in his way.

I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare on issuing the information update published by the Department, although some of the photographs are out of focus.

Not for the first time.

He is a modest, dedicated and hard working Minister of State and I have no problem with the public relations exercise being undertaken. It is stated on page 8 that the information section has operated a budget freefone each year since 1991; that in the past the freefone ran for two days at a time but this year it ran for five days and from the outset the phone lines were hopping. I do not know the reason for this. Perhaps people were trying to ascertain the good or bad news.

It was all good news.

In previous years when higher increases were announced in the budget the freefone ran for only two days. There must have been some reason it ran for five days on this occasion.

That was a bigger budget.

The number of social welfare recipients would not have increased so the Government is either ensuring that the availability of this budget freefone is known to the public or, alternatively — and this is what I suspect — that the public was ringing up to express its anger over what took place on this occasion.

No. The carer's allowance is the biggest single item.

It goes on to state:

The Freefone provided a good opportunity for people to find out about the changes in the budget and how they may be affected. Information staff also found it an excellent way of acquainting themselves with the changes in the social welfare system very rapidly! A lot of people who rang in also took the opportunity to comment on these proposed changes.

I do not know, nor does it tell us, what those comments were but I refer to remarks I made during Private Members' time a fortnight ago.

The Deputy was very supportive of the child benefit in particular

The only phone-in to which I was privy was when I was returning to my constituency in Mayo, which the Deputy knows very well. I heard the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, taking some of those calls on the radio and, as I said a fortnight ago, my heart went out to him because I suspect most of the callers to the programme — I am sure they were random calls and were not screened — were from Dublin constituencies——

The Cumann was busy.

——by virtue of their accents. The very first call was from a woman from the Aran Islands — not 100 miles away from me — but the majority of them were Dublin based social welfare recipients. Minister De Rossa did not get their sympathy, indeed the opposite was the case. Much anger was expressed by the callers and while the Minister tried as best he could to explain about the "goodies"— and I accept there were "goodies" in the budget, particularly the child benefit increase — they wanted to make their points to the people listening.

It is interesting that only 6 per cent of those who telephoned in to a 'phone line that operated for five days inquired only about the rate increases.

(Laoighis-Offaly): There is a message in that.

It is very unfair of the Fianna Fáil people to gang up on us like that.

The one aspect of this budget that stands out is the miserable 2.5 per cent increase in social welfare payments and that was highlighted, quite properly, by the media in banner headlines, by public representatives on all sides of this House——

The Deputy's party Leader was only looking for 0.5 per cent more.

——and, not least, by the Conference of Religious of Ireland who, in its response to the budget, stated: "The overall increases in social welfare at 2.5 per cent are derisory." That is strong language to describe the amount and nature of the social welfare increase. It continues:

There are no increases at all in child dependant additions and the strategy of giving above-inflation increases to those on the lower rates of welfare payments has been abandoned.

Individual social welfare rates have been raised by between IR1.50 and IR1.90 while adult dependant rates have been increased by between IR£0.90p and IR£2.90; the lowest social welfare rates for means-tested payments are now IR£60.40 for the claimant and IR£37.50 for the adult dependant addition.

The Deputy will never make it that way.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland, which is a very moderate body, goes on to state: "It is an insult to offer an adult an increase of 90p per week on an already miserly payment of IR£36.60.

Deputy Bertie Ahern had intended to give only 10p more.

The so-called beneficiaries of the budget were not pleased with its provisions. We welcome the widening of the tax bands and the increase in personal allowances. There is not anything new in that but it must be stated that the "giveaways" in the region of £200 million to £240 million in the budget do not mean that the taxpayers will pay £200 million less in income tax this year as against last year. When pay increases, rising employment and higher prices are taken into account, this increases the tax take. Even allowing for increased public expenditure, as indicated — unfortunately all those indications in the budget are now gone because we were told then it was 6 per cent but it has now gone up to 8 per cent, allowing for the increased inflationary effects of the equality payments — more could have been done his year than in previous years. That would have increased public confidence and consumer spending and Exchequer revenue returns would have been enhanced.

Despite income tax concessions the budget has been received by the general public as a damp squib. Following its delivery and the ritual examination of its detail in the media it is forgotten about by the tax paying public. The Minister for Finance stated that the annual budget is about establishing priorities. He said it reflects choices and affirms values. He continued:

The budget is an indication of the type of society that we want for ourselves over the next 12 months and beyond. It will demonstrate a commitment to the social fabric of our community — one of the most valuable assets which we have.

I welcome the emphasis in the budget on rewarding work but I question its intended purpose to strengthen social solidarity. All the economic commentators tell us that this country is enjoying sustained economic growth, falling unemployment and will continue to prosper for the foreseeable future. This was not achieved overnight but by prudent management of the economy over the past number of years.

The fruits of this labour are not being distributed in any equitable way when large financial institutions gain more from measures in this budget than the 14 per cent of our population who are over 65 years of age. Added to that number of elderly are the single unemployed and childless unemployed couples. The 2.5 per cent increase in social welfare payments is described by the Conference of Religious of Ireland as miserly and uncaring. While the spin doctors are trying to equate and justify the level of increase to the rate of inflation, I question that rate and its method of calculation for an old age pensioner living in a rural area whose food is purchased from shops other than national supermarket chains and who invariably must depend on a private hackney service because of the total absence of a public transport system. Unfortunately, many old age pensioners who have free travel passes can never use them.

Because of its social welfare provisions this will be remembered as the anti-senior citizen budget, giving the smallest increase in social welfare for approximately 30 years. Those people who have contributed a lifetime of work and service to this State are the forgotten sector of society. Minister Quinn said that the budget reflects choices and affirms values but in regard to social welfare Fianna Fáil rejects the choices made and does not subscribe to the values as indicated in the social solidarity portion of the budget.

Last year, Fianna Fáil provided £4 million for the housing aid for the elderly scheme which ensured that the huge backlog that had built up in this area was tackled. This sum was the usual provision plus an additional £2 million from the tax amnesty. It would not have been asking a lot if the same had been provided this year. Instead, a 100 per cent reduction in this worthwhile scheme, on top of the derisory level of social welfare increase, should send out a clear signal to people over the age of 65 — representing 14 per cent of our population — that this Government has made choices but the elderly do not feature; to any appreciable extent, in those choices.

The phasing out of the bank levy over three years and the reduction of corporaction profits tax to 38 per cent seems perverse compared to the level of social welfare increase. I heard the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, stating that the removal of the bank levy was Exchequer neutral but it will improve their cash flow thereby leaving money in their hands for longer periods. If the Government is in the business of removing levies, why will it not remove the 2 per cent levy on all insurance products that the elderly must pay as an extra source of taxation, namely, house, car and public liability insurance? This would involve only a small sum of money and it would be an indication to those over 65 that this is a caring Government. It would also ensure that the maximum amount of money is left with those people who have made this country what it is today.

To put matters in perspective, the benefits that will accrue to the banks as a result of the removal of the bank levy and the reduction in corporation profits tax, estimated at £40 million, could have financed a substantial additional increase in social welfare allowances. The choices made, the values affirmed and the priorities established by the Government do not take into account the old, widows and the majority of unemployed without children. Those dependent on social welfare will be left further behind as sophisticated lobby groups seem to make further progress in their demands.

Deputy Clohessy referred to the Carers' Association. In its pre-budget submission that association estimated there are 100,000 carers, of whom 30,000 are full-time. Approximately 4,500 qualify for carer's allowance and only 50 per cent of that number obtain the full allowance. In its pre-budget submission the Carers' Association made certain requests. Carers are deserving of much greater recognition. I realise the number of people eligible for such benefits will only gradually increase, but I ask the Minister to give very careful consideration to this matter as our elderly population increases. He should heed the concerns of the Carers' Association and other groups representing people who work on a 24-hour basis looking after the elderly living at home. Were it not for their work the task of looking after these people would fall to the State. There is great social solidarity, particularly in rural Ireland where there is not a sufficient number of long stay beds, and it is very important everything possible is done to ensure carers who work in the home on a full-time basis are adequately compensated.

Deputy Browne referred to people who may not wish to work in the home on a full-time basis. There is also the question of sons or daughters who are not living at home but live on the same farm in their own house, or in the neighbourhood. At present such people who are looking after elderly relatives are not entitled to a carer's allowance. There are many such people and one cannot deny they give full-time care to their parents or elderly relatives. These people are entitled to recognition for the valuable work they do, thereby ensuring those they care for are not a burden on the State.

One of the requests of the Carers' Association relates to the respite home care project in the Eastern Health Board region, launched in 1994. The association has asked for £35,000 per annum over a three year period to assist more than 150 carers and their families. It also called for an increase in the respite fund to £2 million to help meet the increasing demand nationally for respite care. I fully support the association's request for a home care assistance service and its comments on the preservation of secondary benefits.

The widow's contributory pension, now called survivor's contributory pension, will be increased from £64.50 to £66.10. This is based on a contribution record similar to retirement and old age contributory pension, yet the latter payment amounts to £6.70 more a week. The widow's pension should be adjusted upwards to take account of the record of contribution and ensure equality of treatment. Under the old age pension regime there is a disregard of £6 when assessing means. This disregard has remained unchanged for nearly 20 years. The old age pension was then in the order of £18 to £20 per week and, accordingly, a disregard of other income amounted to nearly 30 per cent. The disregard should be adjusted upwards to at least £20 or to a level equivalent to present day values.

For people on unemployment assistance, particularly long term small holders assistance, a disregard should be introduced to give an incentive to people to improve their small farms. At present the more improvements people make to their small holdings, the more they are penalised. There is no worthwhile reason for many small farmers to improve farm productivity since it jeopardises the guaranteed weekly social welfare payment. A large number of small holders in the 40 to 50 year age group as a result of the present system have no incentive to expand their holdings. This matter should be examined with a view to improving the system for social welfare recipients and also, in the long term, for the State.

I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Finance that the change in covenants for the funding of education fees will not apply to those providing income support to people who need full time care. While not directly related to social welfare, the proposed increase in the deposit interest retention tax, DIRT, from 10 to 15 per cent on special savings accounts should not be applied to senior citizens. Extra income in the hands of this ever increasing group of people would benefit the State because the more income they have the less dependent they become on State services and social welfare entitlements. I had intended to comment on other issues and I hope I will have the opportunity to do so on Committee Stage.

(Laoighis-Offaly): Most contributions in today's debate have been constructive. Given the speed with which Governments have changed in the past two years, the scope is lessened for unthought-out contributions, and people making requests today realise they may have to deliver on them in the future. I listened with interest to the contributions of Deputies Joe Walsh and Hughes. It is clear the people are not being fooled by those who play tricks with mirrors, as some Fianna Fáil Deputies are trying to do. In previous years — virtually every party in the House was in Government during this time — social welfare increases were set at levels of 2.5 per cent, 3 per cent, 4 per cent and 5 per cent, but the payment date was put back from April to May, and June to July. What would be the point in giving a 20 per cent increase and not making it payable for 24 months? It would be better for the Government to give a 2 or 2.5 per cent increase and make it payable immediately than to give an extra 0.5 per cent and not make it payable until the end of the year.

Many people remember the period when Deputy McCreevy was Minister for Social Welfare — that is not easily forgotten in my constituency.

Nor in mine.

(Laoighis-Offaly): Many of the changes made by him were reversed in the past two years, but we are still working hard to remove the last vestiges of his influence on the social welfare system, particularly the attacks on the social insurance system. Deputy Hughes said, maybe unintentionally, he rejects the values of social solidarity displayed in the budget. Those values, which are in marked contrast to those which prevailed only a few short years ago, particularly in the 1989-92 Government period, are to be upheld. All the contibutions on this matter are tempered by the fact that all parties have participated in Government in recent years.

I welcome the fact that this Bill provides for the highest ever level of increase in social welfare spending, an increase of £212 million compared with last year's increase of £157 million. The sense of satisfaction with such an increase is almost a double edged sword as it would be preferable if we did not have to allocate more than £4 billion to social welfare but, unfortunately, a substantial proportion of the population is dependent on social welfare. The Government has tried to target the increase on the areas of greatest need. Whenever we prioritise we can be accused of having less concern for those items that do not receive immediate attention. The Department is to be complimented on prioritising the needs of families with children in this year's budget.

Reports by bodies such as the ESRI, university academics and the Combat Poverty Agency have stressed the needs of families with children and I am delighted that measures have been taken that are child centred and assist families with children. Studies of family income show that greatest demand on family incomes is when there are children at home and the demands lessen as the children grow up and leave home. I am delighted the £7 increase in child benefit will come into effect this year and that the Minister resisted the temptation to grant the third and subsequent children lesser increases. It is appreciated that without distinction to the number in the family the increase in child benefit is £7 per child. This payment is directed at mothers. It has been suggested that this benefit should be taxable but to look at it in those terms is to look at the financial needs of families in a very narrow focus. Studies show that this direct payment to mothers goes to the children for whom it is intended and this should be borne in mind.

The back-to-school clothing allowance and the books allowance are being increased. Members know the burden that back-to-school costs impose on families and this is another example of the pro-child focus in this year's social welfare provisions. The payment of child dependant allowances for those in full time education up to age 22 is a great encouragement to the children of those on social welfare to continue their education. That trend will be reinforced by this year's extended provision. I accept that the provision is constrained by the money available but I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of extending this provision to those on short term benefits. In regard to unemployment assistance the distinction between long term and short term is clear, however, disability benefit, which can continue for a number of years is counted as a short term payment and I ask that this be examined.

The increase to £25 in the minimum payment of unemployment assistance to young people living at home is pro-family. Deputy Browne spoke at length about the pernicious effects of the present system under which young people are driven from the family home and forced to live in subsidised accommodation in order to claim a minimum amount of unemployment assistance. I share his concern that the value of board and lodgings at home can be arbitrarily varied from one family to the next and this needs to be examined.

The provision of adoptive benefit, equivalent to maternity benefit as promised in the Adoptive Leave Act is welcome as is the extension of maternity benefit to the new category of women covered under the maternity leave legislation. The range of options shows that the Bill is focused very much on the needs of children. I make no apologies for complimenting the Minister on prioritising the needs of families with children. All social welfare claimants will benefit from attention in successive years to certain categories of claimants. I accept that the categories who are not prioritised may complain but at the end of a period everybody will be better off. That is better than pretending everybody will benefit from across the board increases which are held back until the end of the year.

The measures to help employment build on those introduced last year and in previous years. I particularly welcome the exemption of PRSI charges on the first £50 weekly earnings of PAYE workers and the first £520 annual earnings of the self-employed. Coupled with measures to give PRSI relief to those on low incomes last year, it represents a significant incentive to employers to employ more people. It can be the deciding factor in helping a person choose the option of work when it presents itself.

I welcome the provision for the introduction of an ongoing PRSI exemption scheme to encourage employers to take young people off the live register. Those regulations should be targeted at encouraging employers to employ the long term unemployed. These measures, coupled with the very successful back to work allowance scheme, will continue to make a difference to those on low incomes this year and encourage employers to take a person off the live register when a vacancy occurs. People have been wondering why the unemployed have not benefited even though the economy is so good. Many employers preferred to give jobs to those who left school recently or were recently unemployed. The measures in the Bill to promote employment will encourage employers to think of employing the long term unemployed. This will be aided by the strategy outlined in the report published recently by the Office of the Tánaiste on tackling long term unemployment. The measures will complement each other.

In common with other Deputies I welcome the improvements in the provisions for the carer's allowance. The increase in the income disregard is significant and I am glad that people caring for pensioners who are not in receipt of social welfare pensions will be able to avail of the scheme this year. In my constituency, many pensioners in receipt of a pension from the ESB were cared for by their wives but they could not apply for this scheme. They appreciate the fact that this year they will be able to do so. The Minister should look at other areas, for example, the extension of secondary benefits such as free travel, free TV licence and rental allowance to pensioners not in receipt of a social welfare pension. It would be appreciated by pensioners who fall into that category. I recently brought the case of a person in receipt of a small public service pension to the attention of the Department. As it is not a social welfare pension the person cannot avail of the secondary benefits. The Minister broke the mould by extending the carer's allowance provision this year and I encourage him to consider extending secondary benefits to all pensioners.

I brought the position in my constituency regarding seasonal workers in Bord na Móna to the attention of the previous Minister. The Department of Social Welfare appreciated that they were in a category of their own and allowed a local arrangement to exist in the midlands as regards the assessment of means for unemployment purposes. That was confirmed to me last February by the previous Minister, Deputy Woods. He stated in writing that the earnings which such workers gain in the short summer period during which they can avail of employment in Bord na Móna will not be held against them in assessing their entitlement to unemployment assistance. As a result of a challenge through the appeals office, which is independent, the local arrangement in the midlands had to be terminated.

I stress that the way the social welfare regulations for the assessment of unemployment assistance applied to Bord na Móna workers is unique and has been demonstrated to be a disincentive to them taking up employment in the following year. I have been hammering at this issue for the past few months and hope that some relief can be given to these workers before the season commences this year. If the weather picks up that is likely to start quite quickly. I know people who are considering whether to take up employment this year because of the heavy handed treatment they received over the past few months. Families with three and four children were told they must survive on £40 or £50 a week over the winter and single people living with elderly parents were told they were not entitled to anything. That is not what the social welfare system was designed to do. I know the Minister had a chance to consider the implications of this problem recently and I hope he will come back to us on it very soon. It is a serious disincentive to work.

In the constituency of Laois-Offaly there is no employment exchange run by the Department of Social Welfare. They are agency offices run by people who do a very fine job but it means that social welfare recipients do not have the same access to the system as those in my neighbouring constituency of Westmeath. An office is run by the Department in Athlone and if social welfare recipients have queries they can be dealt with there and then. I ask the Minister to consider providing an office in Laois-Offaly.

I support the Bill which is pro-child, pro-family, and pro-employment. The level of response in my area shows that the recipients of these increases very much value them and I look forward to the Minister continuing his good work for many years to come.

I have always paid close attention to the area of social welfare because it deals with the most vulnerable sector of the community. Despite the growing influences in modern society and the on going rapid development of technology, unfortunately there is little or no evidence that profound social inequality is being eliminated.

This unfortunate observation is not only applicable to this country, poverty is a daily reality for a high percentage of citizens in countries with the most developed economies in the world. There are many reasons for this serious flaw in the operation of modern industrialised societies. These include inadequate access to education and training opportunities; uneven industrial development in a country and the failure of integrated planning.

Regardless of such factors it remains a fundamental reality of society that the social welfare system provides the core economic support for a large percentage of the population. While those affected by unemployment figure prominently in any consideration of social welfare a number of other groups have an almost total financial dependence on the system. These include old age pensioners, widows, single parents, deserted spouses and those unable to work through physical or mental disability or ill-health.

As successive Governments strive to deal effectively with the grave problem of social deprivation and poverty, our social welfare positions have the crucial role of providing some degree of financial protection for the most vulnerable sectors.

The quality of any Social Welfare Bill must be assessed under two main headings. First, within the overall economic realities of the day, one must ascertain whether its provisions deal with social inequality in the short term. For example, is specific focus placed on those with most urgent needs in order to really improve their standards of living? Second, we must ascertain whether the overall thrust of the Bill indicates that the Government is addressing the equally important need for a longer-term reshaping of the social welfare system, where possible, allowing people to progress from a position of dependency and subsistence to one of independence and financial well-being.

Being as generous as possible, the best that could be said is that the overall quality of this Bill is extremely uneven. It contains some welcome improvements in social welfare provisions, a few substantial both in terms of real improvement and widespread relevance, the £7 increase in the child benefit immediately coming to mind in this regard, and, to a much lesser degree, the mild reform of PRSI regulations being acknowledged as constituting a step in the right direction. It also contains some improvements in the carer's allowance, the adoptive benefit scheme, maternity benefit and a widening of the definition of a qualifying child. However, the improvements generally are quite modest in real terms. While the range of areas addressed appears relatively impressive at first glance, a more detailed assessment results in a much more reserved judgment on the substance of the recommended changes.

The unease is greatly magnified when one comes to the core issue of social insurance and assistance payments, which undoubtedly form the back-bone of our social welfare system. The general restriction of increases over a range of benefits under the general headings of social insurance and social assistance to 2.5 per cent has shocked most impartial observers. While certain commentators have rather cynically questioned the relevance of changes of the order of £1 or less, the stark reality is that every penny, never mind each pound, matters when one lives in poverty, since those most deprived financially are acutely aware of every increase, no matter how small, in the general cost of living. That inflation is predicted to exceed 2.5 per cent over the coming year is of great importance to those without any resources on which to fall back other than their social welfare payments.

I make no apology for reiterating in the strongest possible terms my dismay that the Minister saw fit to increase social welfare insurance and assistance payments by 2.5 per cent only at a time when he and his Government colleagues inherited the healthiest national accounts for a generation. The steady climb of the national finances from the brink of disaster in 1987 to a position of excellence within the European Union in 1994 was by no means easy or painless; it involved a great deal of sacrifice and deprivation on the part of many. While almost all sectors of the community contributed to the economic fight-back, as usual, the most vulnerable sectors felt the effect of cutbacks most acutely despite successive Governments having either matched or exceeded the prevailing rate of inflation when increasing social welfare payments in annual budgets.

There had been a sense of expectation that the social welfare provisions this year would mark a real increase in the standard of living of those most in need. That a long term advocate of social justice and equality was in a position to deliver rendered that expectation even more promising for the most cynical of observers. Therefore, it was simply unbelievable that the Minister for Finance, in presenting his budget, demonstrated clearly that his Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, was quite happy to settle for a 2.5 per cent increase in social insurance and assistance payments. What added insult to injury was the Minister's response to justifiable criticism of his paltry increase. Rather than accepting that a major mistake had been made and that he would attempt to recover the position to some degree, he has not shown the slightest element of remorse for his penny-pinching. He appears to have restorted to what would appear to be the most consistent, remaining policy of his political strategy, to heap blame and insult on the Fianna Fáil Party. While he might be forgiven for having been surprised by the turn of events in Irish political life over the past four or five months, as were all of us, it is about time he realised that he carries responsibility for decisions on social welfare matters. If he does not accept such responsibility, he may no longer be in that position by the time he wakes up to that reality.

While social insurance and assistance payments do not dominate the provisions of this Bill, it is important to consider some longer-term provisions. With the exception of child benefit and changes in PRSI contributions, the Minister's proposals provide little or no insight into his vision of the future of his Department.

Particularly relevant to debates such as this is the lack of comprehensive information on the issues being discussed. This Bill deals with an expenditure of approximately £4 billion over the coming year, that is £4,000 million, or in excess of £10 million each day. Furthermore, social welfare expenditure without doubt is at the top of the league in terms of importance, being the main safety valve in our society for dealing with marked social inequality and profound poverty. Yet, the main documentation supplied consists of a summary memorandum of six pages. Does anybody seriously think that Members of this House, with their almost nonexistent research facilities, can properly assess the likely impact of the Bill without having much comprehensive information? At the very least, I would urge that major financial Bills, such as this should be accompanied by detailed supporting documentation clearly addressing two key information needs: first, the need for a clear description of the Minister's precise objectives and, second, the need for financial costs or anticipated impact of each of its provisions to be clearly stated. Ideally, such documentation should contain an assessment of the effectiveness of the preceding year's provisions in meeting their targets and objectives. The value of such information would be twofold, one would immediately be able to evaluate the objectives and priorities of the Minister and could then assess if the proposed provisions had a realistic chance of dealing properly with those objectives.

I welcome certain aspects of the Bill, but I am disappointed with its core provisions. I appeal to the Minister to acknowledge the error of his ways. His actions have not been consistent with his long held and eloquently proclaimed views on social justice and poverty and he should move rapidly and effectively to make amends for the serious deficiencies in this Bill. Furthermore, it is in everybody's interest that the Minister focuses his energies on becoming more effective in his dealings with his Cabinet colleagues. An ability to occasionally pull something out of the hat at the Cabinet table is not a substitute for extracting fair and just treatment for those most deprived in our society.

There are many other aspects of the Bill to which I could refer and I am sure I will have an opportunity to do so on Committee Stage. However, one aspect of it is appalling, I have had a number of representations from people on reduced disability payments. A man — with a wife and a number of children — who has been in receipt of social welfare benefit will be advised that his payments must be reduced after 18 months because his contributions have run out. As a result he must call to the community welfare officer weekly and collect a sum in excess of £40 or £50 per week up to the shortfall. I appeal to the Minister of State to convey to her colleague that this is an unacceptable position. The function of the community welfare service is to provide supplementary and emergency services, not to pay weekly sums of money to social welfare recipients because of the social welfare system administered at national level.

I refer to this matter because three people have made representations about it to me. The gentlemen in question must call to the community welfare officer weekly and wait for two hours to collect their money. It is a crazy system whereby people's social welfare benefit is reduced and the shortfall must be collected under another scheme. The money is coming out of the same Department and paid by the taxpayer. This matter must be addressed quickly as the present position is unacceptable. It is degrading for a man having worked all his life becomes ill and finds himself out of work through no fault of his own, to have to go through this system.

Deputy Wallace described the changes in social welfare as "quite modest". I do not know what he means as £212 million has been allocated this year compared with £157 million last year, an increase of 35 per cent. The Deputy also used the phrase "core economic support". While I appreciate one point made by the Deputy that we would all have liked a higher increase than 2.5 per cent for old age pensioners, the Minister is determined to introduce three budgets and I would prefer to analyse our performance in 1997 on that basis.

(Wexford): The Deputy may not be in office that long.

I assure the Deputy we will be because we will not fall into the same trap as his party.

The Deputy should remember what he said.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I allowed him the privilege of talking uninterrupted and I ask him to afford me the same courtesy. There are many positive aspects to the Bill and I will refer to some of them. I remember Deputy Allen being thrown out of the House for seeking information from the previous Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Woods, on equal treatment for workers. It is interesting to note that one of the most positive measures taken by the Government as soon as it came to power was that it dealt with a specific issue which had been hovering around for the past few years, that of the 70,000 Irish women deprived of their entitlements. The secretive approach to this matter in the past which obliged people to go to court to get their entitlements must be analysed in conjunction with the upfront approach of this Administration. More than £200 million will be spent this year on equality payments and the balance will be paid in January 1996, 100 per cent of those payments will be made. The Government gave a commitment that it would make those payments and it is proceeding to do that.

The Minister said the main barometer for stimulating the alleviation of poverty in large families is an increase in child benefit. I do not believe that in the history of the State there has been as significant an increase in child benefit as that of £7 per month. It will result in child benefit of £27 per month for the first two children and £32 per month for each subsequent child. That positive measure will result in a significant increase in income for many women. Deputies are inclined to adopt an almosta la carte approach to Bills of this nature. That is an understandable approach by Opposition Deputies who cannot find a great deal wrong with social welfare legislation, but they consider the positive aspects in this Bill.

When I worked with the former notional manpower service, AnCO, I was critical that many people were selected to participate in FAS-type courses simply to reduce the numbers on the live register, I welcome the move to consider them as people with certain skills and knowledge and they should not be paraded to do work they do not wish or have the necessary skills to do. A positive feature in the Bill is that we are prepared to identify the 135,000 people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months, ascertain the skills and knowledge and, if possible, place them on training or other courses.

The Department of Social Welfare has focused on another area recently and Deputies from towns will be familiar with it. In areas such as Newcastle West, Rathkeale and others many socially deprived people have a tendency to fall back on moneylenders who still operate and offer cash to borrowers. People who borrow money from them often run into difficulties later, resulting in them borrowing money from them and paying prohibitive interest rates. In recent times the Department of Social Welfare, in conjunction with the credit unions, have tried to steer borrowers from moneylenders. I wish them well in their efforts and I would like if moneylenders ceased to operate. I am sure many Deputies have had visits from constituents who experience difficulty in paying their ESB and other bills as their social welfare income does not cover their outgoings. Many are caught in an almost permanent poverty trap as a result of borrowing money from moneylenders who approach them with what appears to be soft money. Such people usually borrow money for special occasions, such as confirmations and communions, when they are extra vulnerable.

I would like the Minister to examine the free telephone scheme. Of the various schemes operated by the Department of Social Welfare the regulations governing the free telephone scheme are particularly rigid. I would like a human dimension to be brought to bear in respect of some of the free schemes. For example, I am aware of a woman with multiple sclerosis whose husband is unemployed. They live in a rural area and wish to avail of the free telephone allowance. Unless they satisfy certain criteria with regard to age etc, they are not eligible. I would like if certain cases could be examined on their merits. They did not conform to the rules and regulations for such schemes but they could be considered on their merits.

Debate adjourned.