I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 before the House. This is the second of two Bills to implement the €530 million social welfare package of budget 2003, which for the first time brings the projected level of social welfare expenditure in 2003 to over €10 billion. Deputies will recall that a separate Bill was enacted in December last to give effect to the increases in weekly social welfare payments from the beginning of January. This Bill implements a number of key improvements in social welfare schemes such as increases in child benefit, improvements in the carer's respite care grant, and the extension of the payment of increases in respect of qualified children as announced in the budget, in addition to a range of other measures.
I am proud to say that this Government continues its commitment to building an inclusive society as reiterated in the programme for Government in June 2002. Tangible evidence of delivering on this commitment includes: a massive increase in spending on social welfare from the equivalent of €5.7 billion in 1997 to over €10 billion this year; significant increases in child benefit rates resulting in the rates of payment being more than three times that payable in 1997 and real increases in social welfare pensions with old age contributory pensioners now receiving €157.30 per week compared to the equivalent of €99 in 1997.
Child benefit is a universal payment made directly to families and as such it is the most efficient and effective way in which the Government can channel support to children. The rate for the first two children is being increased by €8.00 per month and for the third and subsequent children by €10.00 per month. These increases, provided under section 3 of the Bill, will bring the monthly rates to €125.60 and €157.30 respectively. From April next, a family with three children will receive €408.50 compared to €382.50 at present – an increase of €26 per month. These increases will mean that, since the year 2000, child benefit rates will have risen by €71.64 per month for each of the first two children and by €86.20 per month for the third and subsequent children. These measures will mark the beginning of the final phase of the child benefit investment package initiated in budget 2001, which on completion, will see Government investment in the scheme rise by an additional €1.27 billion. An estimated 530,000 families with over one million children will benefit from these increases in 2003.
Furthermore, in supporting the ongoing programme of modernisation in the General Registrar Office and to improve service delivery to customers, section 11 of this Bill allows for certain awards of child benefit to be made in defined circumstances without recourse to a deciding officer. This provision will facilitate the automation of payments of child benefit for second and subsequent children where a claim is already in payment.
This Government, over successive budgets, has introduced measures to develop the types of services and supports which provide practical assistance to this country's carers. In section 4 of this Bill, we are continuing to honour our commitment to supporting the valuable work undertaken by carers by increasing the respite care grant by €100 from €635 to €735, with carers looking after more than one person receiving a grant of €1,470 – an increase of €200. These increases take effect from June next. This measure, which is highly valued by carers, will benefit 24,700 carers and will cost an additional €2.5 million per annum.
I am also introducing changes in the arrangements for entitlement to increases in respect of qualified children. Section 5 of the Bill provides that from September next, entitlement to an increase for a qualified child between the ages of 18 and 22 years and in full-time education is extended to recipients of certain short-term benefits. Specifically, these are disability benefit, injury benefit, health and safety benefit, unemployment benefit and assistance and supplementary welfare allowance, where the claimant has been in receipt of the relevant payment for more than 26 weeks. This measure, contained in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, implements the commitment to increasing the qualifying age limit to 22 years in line with the current arrangements for long-term payments. This provision will benefit 1,100 recipients of qualified child increases at an estimated cost of €600,000 in a full year.
The Bill, at section 6, provides for the extension of the island allowance, currently €12.70 per week, to pensioners over 66 years of age and in receipt of invalidity pension, disability allowance and unemployability supplement from April next.
The six weeks after death payment arrangements are designed to provide transitional financial support immediately following the death of a pensioner. There are a number of anomalies within this scheme and section 7 of the Bill aims to address these.
From June, where a person in receipt of disability benefit, unemployment benefit, invalidity pension, unemployment assistance, unemployability supplement, supplementary welfare allowance, pre-retirement allowance, disability allowance or farm assist dies, and his or her spouse is in receipt of certain benefits in his or her own right, the payment of the deceased person's benefit shall continue to be made for a period of six weeks after death.
Section 8 provides for a number of changes in the means test for social assistance schemes. I am particularly pleased to be in a position to tackle one of the remaining outstanding recommendations of the report by the Commission on Social Welfare. I am referring to the inclusion of benefit and privilege in the assessment of means for unemployment assistance and pre-retirement allowance for claimants residing in the parental home. The commission recommended its abolition for persons aged over 25 and I have taken an initial step to achieving this by providing for the removal of this assessment for persons aged 29 and over. It is estimated that 1,300 persons will benefit from this provision at a cost of €750,000.
The section further provides for standardising the assessment of maintenance payments on the lines currently in place for one-parent family payment to other social assistance payments such as disability allowance, old age and widow's or widower's non-contributory pensions, unemployment assistance and farm assist. This section also provides for the assessment of certain non-cash benefits to be prescribed by regulations, in the case of persons claiming unemployment assistance, disability allowance, pre-retirement allowance, supplementary welfare allowance and farm assist.
At present, orphans payments in respect of children in foster care are made by my Department directly to the relevant health board. The heath board then combines the orphans payment with the foster care allowance to make a total payment to the foster carer of €281.50 in respect of a child under 12 years and €308.50 in respect of a child aged 12 or over. A working group, which included officials from my Department and the Department of Health and Children, was established to examine payments to orphans and the foster care allowance. In line with the group's recommendations, section 9 of this Bill, in effect, ensures that while foster carers will continue to receive the same level of payment, this payment will be made by one agency only, the relevant health board. Health boards will now have full financial responsibility for supporting children in foster care and orphan's contributory allowance and orphan's non-contributory pension shall no longer be payable to children in respect of whom foster care allowance is being paid. However, orphans payments will continue to be made by my Department where entitlement to such payments is established and where a foster care allowance is not in payment.
In An Agreed Programme for Government we promised to modernise public services to make them more relevant to the citizen. We committed to improving access to public services by providing them electronically. Progressing the use of the personal public service, PPS, number as a public service identifier is a key element of e-government. Section 10 provides for five new agencies to be added to the list of specified bodies that are authorised by legislation to use the PPS number. The section further allows for including in this listing bodies established by the Minister for Education and Science under section 54 of the Education Act 1998, and provides for the sharing of information with an t-Údarás um Árd-Oideachas, the Higher Education Authority. I believe this measure will lead to improved administrative efficiency and effectiveness across public service agencies. It will help reduce bureaucracy and continue the process of eliminating red tape.
Sections 13 to 15 of the Bill provide for amending the rules governing entitlement to supplementary welfare allowance basic payments and rent supplements. Section 13 provides that where new claims for rent supplement are submitted after the proposal comes into force, a supplement will only be payable where the claimant is lawfully in the State. This measure is being introduced for consistency. It removes the anomaly whereby a person could be in breach of his or her obligations to the State's immigration service while at the same time having his or her housing costs subsidised by the community welfare service. This provision also provides that following its enactment, where new claims for rent supplement are submitted by asylum seekers, a supplement will only be payable if the claimant is granted either refugee status or leave to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This measure is being implemented following discussions with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Office of the Attorney General.
The Government is committed to ensuring that the needs of asylum seekers are fully addressed in an appropriate manner and has therefore decided that the accommodation needs of asylum seekers will, in future, be met exclusively through the system of direct provision operated by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The direct provision system has been in place for three years and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, operating through its Reception and Integration Agency, has built up considerable experience and expertise over that period. In addition, the backlog of claims for asylum that had built up over the years has now been reduced to much more manageable levels. Consequently, a person arriving in Ireland to claim asylum can now expect to have his or her case decided in a matter of a few months. Given that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform now has a full range of suitable accommodation available to it to meet the needs of asylum seekers and that individuals are now spending much less time in the asylum process before their claim for asylum is finalised, it is no longer necessary for asylum seekers to have access to rent supplement.
Section 14 amends the conditions for receipt of supplementary welfare allowance in certain cases to align them with the entitlement conditions that apply to unemployment assistance. Under current legislation, a health board may require an applicant for supplementary welfare allowance to register for employment by signing on for unemployment assistance. The purpose of this provision is to require a person in those circumstances to actually seek work while receiving supplementary welfare allowance pending finalisation of his or her claim for unemployment assistance.
The proposal gives health boards the power to require a person to comply with the same conditions of being capable of work, available for employment and genuinely seeking employment that apply to persons in receipt of unemployment assistance. These are discretionary conditions which will be applied on a selective basis where a health board considers that the circumstances of a particular case so warrant. The only people who will be affected by this provision are those for whom either unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit is the appropriate social welfare payment but who may have intended to claim supplementary welfare allowance indefinitely as an alternative to complying with the terms for receipt of unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit.
Legislation currently provides that three categories of people are excluded from entitlement to supplementary welfare allowance, namely, those in full-time employment or in full-time education, or engaged in an industrial dispute. However, health boards always had discretion to pay supplementary welfare allowance in urgent cases even though the applicant may be in one of these excluded categories. It is very rare for payments to be made in these circumstances but nevertheless, it is important that health boards are in a position to deal appropriately with such eventualities.
Section 15 of the Bill provides health boards with the same discretion to pay in urgent cases in relation to claims for rent supplement from asylum seekers and from people who are not lawfully in the State. This is being done to ensure consistency with the existing provisions in relation to other excluded categories, thus ensuring that, should circumstances arise which in the opinion of the health board are so urgent in nature that rent supplement should be paid, a health board is not prevented from paying rent supplement by virtue of the restrictions imposed by section 13 of the Bill.
I emphasise that this section does not provide for exceptions that could result in payments being made in any individual case on an ongoing basis. It merely provides discretion to respond in an urgent case that will not remain urgent over time. As with the existing provisions, I expect that very few, if any, payments will be made under this provision.
The operation of the Social Insurance Fund is an important expression of social solidarity within our society. The fund represents the collective contributions of employers, employees and the self-employed to provide for pensions, in addition to short-term income support needs when contingencies such as unemployment and illness arise.
Budget 2003 proposed that PRSI should be applied to benefits-in-kind granted to employees with effect from 1 January 2004. This provision is important in enhancing the overall equity as well as improving the coherence between the PAYE and the PRSI systems. Sections 16 to 20 are designed to facilitate the assessment of such non-cash remuneration in relation to PRSI and the health and training levies.
Section 23 provides for changes to the Pensions Act 1990. These are designed to make some technical amendments consequential on the implementation of the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002, and to replace the broad powers vested in the Pensions Board under the existing Pensions Act, with more specific powers. These will establish clear policies and principles which the board will use to respond to the current pension funding challenges facing defined benefit occupational pension schemes in the current investment climate of declining asset values, and to give flexibility to pension scheme trustees in relation to submission dates for actuarial funding certificates.
Following discussions involving the Pensions Board and the social partners, and consideration within my Department, the consensus reached is that the current decline in the equities market warrants a somewhat flexible approach to the funding requirements of the Pensions Act. The precise details of this approach are a matter for the Pensions Board, which is the statutory regulator.
I understand that, on a case-by-case basis and in certain circumstances, the funding requirement will be set at 85% compared to 100% at present, and the funding proposal can refer to a period of up to ten years rather than 3.5 years at present. The board must consider that these modifications are necessary, are related to the performance of investment markets and are not contrary to members' interests. The adoption of such an approach is intended to give trustees of pension schemes and sponsoring employers financial breathing space in relation to the funding of defined benefit occupational pension schemes. The long-term position on funding is currently being examined by the Pensions Board and I look forward to receiving its report in this regard shortly.
In relation to the submission dates for actuarial funding certificates, on occasion, the trustees of the scheme may not be in a position to meet the statutory deadline. This can occur where the actuary to the scheme is ill, has been replaced or other administrative difficulties have arisen outside the control of the trustees. In such circumstances, and where it would not be contrary to members' interests, it is considered reasonable to allow some flexibility where the Pensions Board is satisfied of the bona fides of the situation and section 23 allows for this.
I take this opportunity to signal to the House that I may bring forward an amendment to this Bill, either on Committee Stage or on Report Stage, to facilitate anti-churning provisions in relation to personal retirement savings accounts. While the precise details of the requirements are still being discussed at official level, these would be to the benefit of consumers and to protect people from being enticed out of one perfectly good pension product into another. The proposal would facilitate taking powers to make relevant regulations and I will inform the House of my specific intention in this regard on Committee Stage.
As the Taoiseach indicated to the House earlier, the Irish Dental Association has accepted an agreement that will protect PRSI patients resulting in the return to a full choice of participating dentists. The settlement terms mean that the integrity of the dental treatment scheme has been fully protected for PRSI patients. I have rejected efforts that would have undermined the dental treatment scheme and led to the introduction of unrestricted fees for the full range of treatment.
My Department will pay a 10% increase in its fees to dentists and dental treatment fees, where relevant, will increase by 10% for PRSI patients. This takes effect from the date of this agreement and includes the increases due for last year and for this year. This arrangement applies to all existing procedures except fillings. The prices of a filling to the PRSI patient will be the dentist's normal private fee less a 15% discount negotiated by me and an increased contribution from my Department of €29.20.
In particular, I welcome the agreement of the association to display a price list of dental treatments, setting out the private patient fee and the PRSI patient fee, thus allowing for greater transparency. An extraction will now cost the patient a standard fee of €11.75, up from €10.67. Basic services which were provided free, including oral examination, scale and polish continue to remain free under this agreement.
An early review of the dental scheme will be undertaken with an independent chairperson. Should the review result in recommendations with financial implications such recommendations will not take effect until July 2004.
This Social Welfare Bill builds on the progress made in the social inclusion area by this Government. It is based on objectives contained in the programme for government and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and reflects the principles of the revised national anti-poverty strategy. Molaim an Bille don Teach.