Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

815 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if, in the context of the forthcoming budget, he will extend and improve the facilities available under the dental and optical benefit schemes; if any such proposals are likely to emerge in the coming months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20744/00]

The treatment benefit scheme operated by my Department provides a range of benefits in the areas of dental, optical and aural treatment for qualified PRSI contributors and their dependent spouses.

As is the case with all schemes operated by my Department the benefits available and the qualifying conditions for the treatment benefit scheme are kept under constant review. This ensures that the schemes are continuing to effectively meet their original objectives in terms of operational efficiency and customer needs.

While I have no specific proposals for changing the qualifying conditions or entitlements under the dental, optical or other components of the treatment benefit scheme the operation of the scheme will be subject to ongoing monitoring by my Department.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

816 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will introduce any improvements in respect of disability allowance payments in the context of the forthcoming estimates and budget with particular reference to the need to ensure that, under the already established principle in respect of social welfare payments on reaching a prescribed age and having an option of qualification under two or more headings, the applicant has to right to opt for the higher payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20745/00]

In formulating proposals for the forthcoming budget, I will aim to build further on the improvements for people with disabilities which have been introduced since this Government took up office. For instance – all social welfare payments, including the disability allowance, have been substantially increased in real terms; significant improvements in the assessment of capital for disability allowance purposes are being introduced from next week, which will see a fivefold increase from £2,000 to £10,000 in the amount of capital which is disregarded for means test purposes; a range of measures have been introduced to improve access to disability allowance for many people in full-time residential care; various measures have been introduced to facilitate people on disability allowance in accessing employment, training and educational opportunities, including the extension of the back to work and back to education allowance schemes to people on disability allowance and a substantial increase up to £75 a week in the amount of earnings from rehabilitative employment which can be disregarded for means test purposes.

With regard to the Deputy's query in relation to a person on disability allowance who becomes entitled to another social welfare payment, the following is the position. There is a general rule under the social welfare code whereby a person who is concurrently eligible for more than one payment can receive only one payment – generally the payment which is most financially beneficial to him or her. This rule applies in the case of recipients of disability allowance who become eligible for another social welfare payment, a widow-widower's pension.
However, disability allowance is paid only between the ages of 16 and 66 years. Therefore, on reaching 66 years of age a recipient will no longer qualify for disability allowance, but will become eligible for the old age non-contributory pension. Under the old age non-contributory pension scheme, means are generally assessed on a more favourable basis than they are under other social assistance schemes, including disability allowance. Accordingly, a person who had been in receipt of disability allowance would, in the normal course, qualify for the old age non-contributory pension on reaching 66 years, the rate of which would generally be higher than that which they had been receiving while on disability allowance.
There will be some cases where a person would qualify for an old age pension at a lower rate than disability allowance. For instance, a person's income position can change on reaching pension age, for example, they or their spouse may qualify for an occupational pension or a social security pension from another State. Such income would be assessable for old age pension purposes.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

817 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if he will undertake any improvements in the back to work allowance scheme, with particular reference to an increase of the incentives to those likely to qualify; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20746/00]

The back to work allowance was introduced in September 1993 as part of my Department's programme of initiatives designed to assist the long-term unemployed to return to the active labour force.

Since then, almost 72,000 people, who were previously long-term unemployed or lone parents, have availed of the scheme to take up new jobs as either employees or self-employed persons. Of that number, approximately 16,000 people have completed the full cycle of support provided under the scheme. An independent evaluation of the scheme has just been completed and it will be published within the next few months. The conclusions and recommendations in this evaluation will form the basis for future changes in the scheme.

The scheme, in addition to the financial incentives which it provides, also has a number of important and valuable supports, i.e: assistance towards the cost of business plans, marketing, advertising etc. and small capital items; interest free loans to persons starting or expanding their own businesses from the First Step organisation; loans through the credit union movement which are guaranteed by my Department; special grants to existing self-employed customers who take on a long-term unemployed person and guidance and help with all aspects of their businesses from my Department's jobs facilitators.
In order to reach those who have not worked for a long time, I recently introduced a supplementary scheme for the people unemployed for five years or more. In addition to the normal financial benefits of the back to work allowance this scheme includes a training period of up to six weeks for employees before they actually start working. A weekly allowance of £35 per week is paid in addition to the person's unemployment payment to cover the cost of travel and meals to potential employees during this time.
I am satisfied that the present arrangements provide a good level of financial and other supports to unemployed people wishing to get back to work. Nevertheless my Department continues to monitor the scheme on an ongoing basis and any further improvements which are considered necessary will be introduced as part of the annual budgetary process.
Questions Nos. 818 and 819 taken with Question No. 810.