Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Michael Ring

Question:

303 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if a person (details supplied) in County Galway will be approved the back to education allowance. [26941/00]

The back to education allowance is a second chance educational opportunities programme designed to encourage and facilitate certain groups, including people who have been unemployed for a certain minimum period, to improve their skills and qualifications and, therefore, their prospects of returning to the active work force.

To qualify for participation an applicant must,inter alia, be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment for at least six months, 156 days, immediately prior to commencing an approved course of study.
There is no trace, in the Department, of an application from the person concerned for the back to education allowance. He has, however, applied for unemployment assistance and his application is currently under examination.

Noel Ahern

Question:

304 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs if, having regard to the huge increase in fuel and energy costs particularly for pensioners, he will extend the free schemes and allow 300 units of electricity on a full year basis, as currently many pensioners use more electricity in the summer time due to the cost of heating water with immersion heaters; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27008/00]

The free electricity allowance is available to people, usually aged 66 or over, who are either in receipt of a welfare type payment or who satisfy a means test and who are either living alone or who otherwise satisfy this condition. It is also available to people with disabilities under the age of 66 who are in receipt of certain welfare type pensions. In addition, widows/widowers between the ages of 60 and 65, whose late spouses were in receipt of the allowance, retain that entitlement.

The free electricity allowance is worth 1,500 units of electricity each year, 200 units per billing period in the summer and 300 units per billing period in the winter, in addition to the normal standing charges. The value of the allowance to the individual, if fully taken up, is £154.09 per annum.

In the review of the free schemes, published last April by the Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin, the issue of increasing the number of electricity units was examined. The review noted that the objective of the allowance is to provide for a basic standard of usage and considered that the major advantage of the allowance is that it is based on a unit allowance and, therefore, keeps pace with electricity price increases. However, the review noted that this basic standard has increased over the years due to the growth in electrical appliance use. Therefore, despite the inflation-proof nature of the allowance, it is not now as valuable as it was in the past. Accordingly, the review proposes that the allowance be increased to maintain its overall value to the recipient.

The review examines a large number of issues and the recommendations made will be examined in the context of future budgets and available resources.

Noel Ahern

Question:

305 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on the situation of a working widow who is paying PRSI but who will not be able to benefit from old age pension since she is already in receipt of a widow's pension; if she can opt out by paying PRSI; if any test court case was ever taken on this issue; if he will give an option to such people to pay or not; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27009/00]

Social insurance contributions are made by employees and the self-employed, subject to social welfare legislation. Widows and widowers make contributions in the same manner as other employees and self-employed persons and there are no provisions within the social insurance system for exemptions, voluntary or otherwise, based on marital or other status.

The majority of widows and widowers are in receipt of a widow/er's contributory pension based on social insurance contributions paid by either themselves or their late spouses. Continuing entitlement to this pension is not affected by earnings from employment or self-employment. The contributions paid by recipients of a widow/er's contributory pension can be used in due course to build up an individual entitlement to an old age contributory or retirement pension which may be payable at a higher rate than their existing pension. In addition, recipients of widow/er's contributory pension can also qualify for a half rate payment of unemployment and disability benefits if the relevant contingencies arise.

Other widows and widowers who are not in receipt of a contributory pension and who are working also pay social insurance contributions in the normal way and are covered for all benefits and pensions. The social insurance liabilities of widows and widowers has never been the subject of a legal challenge.

The payment of social insurance contributions is based on two complementary elements, namely the contributory principle allied with a social solidarity mechanism. The contributory principle means that the contributor will build up individual entitlement over time to various benefits and pensions which will be payable when particular contingencies, such as old age or illness, arise. Payment of social insurance contributions is also the main social solidarity mechanism in place within the social welfare system. This means that the contributions of workers are pooled for the benefit of all contributors if and when various contingencies arise. There is no direct proportional link between the amount of contributions paid by individual insured contributors and the potential vulnerability of contributors to individual risks such as occupational accidents, illness or longevity. Contributors generally, in a practical expression of social solidarity, support those who are more vulnerable or insecure to the advantage of society as a whole.

Accordingly, I do not consider it appropriate to exempt, on a voluntary basis or otherwise, any group of persons, who are currently covered by the system and who are liable to make social insurance contributions. Such a move would be a retrograde step as it would serve to weaken the social insurance system as a whole.
It should be noted that widows and widowers who are in receipt of earnings from employment of less than £226 per week are exempt, in the same manner as other workers, from payment of an employee social insurance contribution. They remain covered for social insurance benefits, as appropriate, based on the payment of a contribution by their employer. Self-employed persons, including widows and widowers, who have an income of less than £2,500 per annum from employment and self-employment, are not obliged to make self-employment contributions. Finally, all persons aged 66 and over are not liable to make an employee or self-employed contribution.

Noel Ahern

Question:

306 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs his views on the fact that child dependant allowances to widows, and other social welfare recipients have not been increased for some years; the reason in this regard; the expert group which recommended same; the logic of its argument; if the children of widows were treated differently; if it was recommended that they be treated differently; if there were any widows or women on the expert group; the number of years the policy is to stand; if he will give an increase to widows for their children in the coming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27010/00]

The policy direction followed by successive Governments since 1994 has been to concentrate resources for child income support on child benefit, rather than increasing child dependant allowances, thus ensuring that the supports provided by the State are more neutral vis-a-vis the employment status of the parent(s). A selective approach, whereby the child dependant allowances payable with widow's pensions would be increased while those payable to other recipients remain fixed, would be difficult to sustain on equity grounds.

The employment disincentive problems associated with child dependant allowances were highlighted particularly in the report of the expert group on the integration of tax and social welfare.

The expert group found that, unlike child dependant allowances, child benefit does not contribute to poverty traps or work disincentives, as it is a universal payment which is not subject to a means test.

The options for the development of child income support were evaluated in terms of their effectiveness as a mechanism to address unemployment and poverty traps. The status of the social welfare payment of the recipient was not a factor in this analysis.

The group consulted with representatives of unemployed people, some employers and members of the national anti-poverty networks, in order to obtain the views of some of the people most directly affected by the poverty traps and disincentives in the tax and social welfare systems.
Regarding the composition of the group, it had 16 members, of whom nine were men and seven were women.
Since 1994, the combined child benefit-child dependant allowance payment has increased by more than double the rate of inflation. In terms of tackling work disincentives, the shift towards child benefit has been significant. For instance, in 1994, child benefit represented 29% of the total child benefit-child dependant allowance payment for a four child family, now it represents 47%.
The value of the child benefit scheme as an effective mechanism for the provision of child income support is reflected in the substantial investment which the Government makes in the scheme.
The 1999 budget provided for a full-year investment of over £40 million in the scheme, while the 2000 budget provided for a full-year investment of almost £106 million, bringing the total investment in the scheme up to some £575 million.
The policy of concentrating substantial additional resources on child benefit rather than increasing child dependant allowances is, of course, reflected in the Government's commitment on child benefit under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. This places particular emphasis on making progress towards a rate of £100 per month for the third and subsequent children over the lifetime of the programme. The Government is determined to fulfil this commitment.

Noel Ahern

Question:

307 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the child benefit payments and allowances currently given to parents of children; the improvements granted since he came to office; if he will summarise the claims being sought by parents' twins groups; if he will improve the payments to twins in the coming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27011/00]

Child benefit is a universal payment which is payable in respect of all children up to the age of 16 years. Child benefit continues to be paid up to age 19 in the case of children who are still in full-time education and children with disabilities. In addition, child dependant allowances are payable to social welfare recipients in respect of each qualified child up to the age of 18 years; however, where a claimant is in receipt of a long-term social welfare payment (such as pensions) child dependant allowances are payable where children are in full-time education up to the age of 22 years, or up to the end of the academic year after the 22nd birthday.

Since this Government came into office, the child benefit entitlements of parents of multiple births have improved significantly. Prior to the introduction of the Social Welfare Act, 1998, child benefit was payable at double the normal rate for each child where three or more children were born together.

In the case of twins, child benefit was paid at the normal rate but a grant of £500 was payable at the birth of twins and further grants of £500 were payable when the twins reached the ages of four and 12.

In the Social Welfare Act, 1998, I introduced two key additional measures designed to improve the overall package of benefits available to parents of multiple births. First, the rate of child benefit payable in respect of twins was increased to 150% of the normal child benefit rate. Secondly, the £500 grants, which previously were confined to families with twins, were extended to include families with multiple births of three or more children. Both these measures took effect in September 1998 at a full year cost of some £4.8 million and fully fulfilled our commitments made on the issue prior to the election.

Apart from these measures, I have provided for very substantial improvements in the child benefit scheme. The 1999 budget provided for a full-year investment of over £40 million, while the most recent budget provided for a full-year investment of almost £106 million, bringing total investment in the scheme up to some £575 million annually.

I understand that a group representing the interests of parents with twins in Ireland has been in contact with my Department seeking to have the rate of child benefit payable in respect of twins, that is, 150% of the normal rate, increased to that payable where three or more children are born together, that is, double the normal rate. The cost of providing for the double child benefit payments for twins is estimated at some £6.5 million in a full year.

The policy direction over the past number of years has been to concentrate resources on improving child benefit for all families. Since I came into office I have increased the lower rate of CB from £30 to £42.50 per month, and the higher rate from £39 to £56 per month. It is my intention to continue these substantial improvements in child benefit rates, with a priority focus towards £100 per month for third and subsequent children over the period of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, in fulfilment of the Government's commitment.

These improvements will benefit all families with children, including, of course, families with twins and represent, in my view, the most effective use of the available resources.

Noel Ahern

Question:

308 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs when the means test requirement became operative in order for widows to get the fuel allowance; the estimated numbers of widows who have lost out from this benefit since; the estimated cost of giving a free fuel allowance to all widows; if he will introduce the measures above in part or in total in the coming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27013/00]

Since its inception in 1988, the current national fuel scheme has been a means tested payment for all recipients, including widows. Widows who have a non-contributory pension qualify automatically. Widows who have a contributory pension may have household income of £30 per week or savings or investments of £30,000 in addition to the maximum rate of the widow's contributory pension and still qualify for the fuel allowance.

A separate fuel scheme, known as the urban fuel scheme, was operated by local authorities up to 1988. Under that scheme, widows with a contributory pension qualified without having to undergo a means test, subject to a "one per household" rule and provided they resided in the functional area of the local authority or in a house provided by the local authority.

Persons who had been in receipt of a fuel allowance under the urban fuel scheme prior to 1988 but who failed to meet the qualifying conditions under the national fuel scheme, were allowed to retain their entitlement provided they continued to receive widows pension and satisfied the other conditions for the urban fuel scheme. These were known as "saver cases". Details of the number of widows who qualified for the fuel allowance under the saver clause are not available.

It had been the case that widows with this preserved entitlement had to satisfy the standard means test for fuel allowance if they transferred to old age contributory pension or to retirement pension on reaching pension age. However, with effect from the current 2000-01 fuel season, widows in these circumstances are no longer required to undergo the standard means test in order to retain the fuel allowance.

There are approximately 50,200 widows and widowers currently in receipt of fuel allowance. The estimated additional cost of paying the fuel allowance to all widows and widowers is £11.27 million per annum. The Deputy will understand that I cannot give specific details of the measures that will be contained in this year's budget but improving the overall position of widows and other social welfare recipients will receive a very high priority in that budget.

The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are on long-term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to provide for their own heating needs. A payment of £5 per week, £8 per week in smokeless zones, is paid to eligible households for 26 weeks from mid-October to mid-April.

I would also point out that fuel allowances are not the sole mechanism through which assistance is provided to people with heating needs. There is a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating needs. An application for a heating supplement may be made by contacting the community welfare officer at the local health centre.
Where a person would not normally qualify for a heating supplement there is provision under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to pay an exceptional needs payment. Exceptional needs payments are payable at the discretion of the health board taking into account the requirements of the legislation and all the relevant circumstances of the case.