Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Eamon Gilmore


150 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if, in light of the extension of free schemes to old age pensioners, he will have considerations given to the extension of the fuel allowance to old age pensioners in the forthcoming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20490/00]

Free schemes are available to people aged 66 or over, people with disabilities and carers who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments and who are either living alone, or who otherwise satisfy the living alone condition. In addition, widows and widowers between the age of 60 and 65 whose late spouses had entitlement to the free schemes retain that entitlement notwithstanding their age.

Low-income pensioners who are not in receipt of a social welfare type payment also qualify. The weekly income limit fixed for this purpose is the maximum personal rate of old age (contributory) pension – currently £96 per week – plus any increases for dependants, plus £30.

As the Deputy is aware, I have introduced a series of improvements in supports for pensioners over the last three years. In budget 2000 the free schemes were extended with effect from October 2000 to all people aged 75 years or over regardless of income and household composition and to carers in receipt of carer's allowance.

The fuel schemes are historically different in nature to the free schemes and, therefore, qualification conditions differ significantly. The fuel scheme is a means-tested payment which is not age-related. The free schemes, on the other hand, are mainly payable to certain categories of recipients, such as pensioners, carers and people with disabilities to support care in the community.

I recognise the importance of fuel allowance to pensioners and I am also conscious of the need to simplify the social welfare system, whenever possible. However, the question of aligning the qualifying conditions for fuel allowance and free schemes has to be considered in the context of the budget and in the light of alternative proposals for delivering improvements in social welfare supports to pensioners and others.

Any changes to extend entitlement to the fuel allowance to all older pensioners in the forthcoming budget would have cost implications that would have to be weighed against other competing expenditure priorities in this area.
Question No. 151 taken with Question No. 143.

Ruairí Quinn


152 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the further progress his Department has made over recent months towards the individualisation of social welfare payments. [20451/00]

Individualisation exists to a certain extent within the social welfare system. In the social insurance system, those who meet the contribution conditions receive a payment in their own right; and also in the old age non-contributory pension arrangements whereby in the case of a couple, each over age 66, there is a joint means test and payment is then on an individual basis.

The report of the working group examining the treatment of married, cohabiting and one-parent families under the tax and social welfare codes, published in August 1999, considered that individualisation of the system could best be achieved through the expansion of social insurance to enable individuals to establish their own direct rights and social welfare entitlements.

Much has already been achieved in this area over the last 12 years with coverage being extended to the self-employed in 1988, part-time workers in 1991, and new civil-public servants in 1995. In addition, measures were introduced in 1994 to protect the insurance records of those who take time out from the paid workforce for caring duties.

One of the objectives of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness is to develop proposals to progress the individualisation of social welfare payments in the context of the continuation of joint assessment of means.

In this regard, a working group on the implementation of administrative individualisation within the social welfare system has recently been established and its first meeting is due to take place on 19 October. The social partners and the Departments of Finance and Social, Community and Family Affairs are represented on the working group. It will be chaired by an official of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

Progress on administrative individualisation will be pursued in the light of the working group's proposals, which I look forward to receiving in due course.

Question No. 153 taken with Question No. 109.

Jack Wall


154 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will report on the lack of liaison between his Department, the Revenue Commissioners and some local authorities regarding the impact of the differen tial rent scheme on the back to work enterprise scheme where local authorities will not accept Revenue figures on earnings by back to work start-up entrepreneurs. [20499/00]

The back to work allowance, introduced in 1993, is designed to encourage the long-term unemployed to return to the active labour force. The scheme has proved to be a significant success with over 39,000 people currently participating in the back to work allowance and the back to work enterprise allowance.

An important feature of both schemes is that participants are allowed to retain certain secondary benefits for the duration of the schemes, provided that the gross household income, less the amount received by way of back to work allowance, is less than £250 per week. The majority of participants retain entitlement to these benefits for the duration of the Schemes.

The issue of what earnings are taken into account by local authorities in connection with continuing entitlement to differential rents is primarily a matter for individual local authorities. I am not aware of particular difficulties in this regard, but I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. If the Deputy is aware of particular cases where difficulties have arisen I would be glad to have the necessary details so that I can have the matter examined.

Question No. 155 taken with Question No. 109.

Michael D. Higgins


156 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the number of applicants to date for carer's benefit; the number of citizens who are expected to avail of the new benefit by April 2001; and when the first payments will be made. [20457/00]

Bernard Allen


737 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs when the provisions announced in the last budget in relation to carer's benefit will be implemented. [19485/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 156 and 737 together.

In budget 2000 I announced the introduction of the new carer's benefit scheme. This benefit, which will be of 15 months duration, is specifically intended to support people who must leave the workforce to care for someone who is in need of full-time care and attention. It involves two central elements. The first is a weekly income support payment to be operated and paid by my Department. This will be a non-means tested payment based on PRSI contributions paid by the carer. The second is the protection of the carer's employment rights for the duration of the caring period.

My colleague, Deputy Tom Kitt, Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for labour affairs, is currently drawing up carer's leave legislation to protect the employment rights of the carer.
The carer's benefit scheme will come into effect from 26 October this year. As the scheme is not yet in operation, no applications have been received to date. However, a number of inquiries have been received and application forms will be sent out shortly. It is not possible to indicate the number of persons who may avail of this scheme before April 2001.
Question No. 157 taken with Question No. 116.