Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Feb 2003

Vol. 562 No. 1

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003: Second Stage.

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.

Will the Minister make available the text of her remarks about the agreement with the Irish Dental Association, which was not circulated to Members?

Of course.

I am appalled to learn that the Minister has sold out the PRSI workers. A 10% increase for dentists means they are the real winners in this dispute. I am disappointed that the Government has done nothing for those people who have paid their PRSI contribution and have brought vouched receipts to the Minister and to her Department for work done by dentists in the last year. The Minister has done nothing to deal with this problem.

From a number of letters I have received from people in Cork, Dublin and elsewhere I am aware that a group of people are planning to challenge the Government's action in the courts on the basis that they have made their PRSI contributions while the State has not honoured its commitment to them. If these people or their employers failed to make PRSI contributions they would be prosecuted, yet the State has not honoured its side of the contract.

I am appalled by this deal. This has been a bad day for PRSI workers, for the Government and for the country. The only people who are smiling this evening – and it is appropriate that they deal with teeth – are the dentists. They are the real winners.

I have tabled a parliamentary question on this matter for tomorrow. I do not have the details of the agreement. It seems to have been a secret deal. I listened to the Minister and to representatives of the dentists in the media in recent days but all the spin doctors in the Minister's Department did not seem to want to spin this story out. For the first time in my experience the media did not get hold of the details of the deal done between the Minister and the Irish Dental Association. We now know that the people have been sold out.

When the House debated the Social Welfare Bill 2002, the Minister described it as a reflection of the Government's priority to protect the living standards of those in receipt of social welfare pay ments at a time when difficult decisions had to be made with regard to the public finances.

The Conference of Religious in Ireland has already stated that the budget was unfair, unjust and unacceptable. The budget increases of between €6 and €11 for social welfare recipients have proved to be totally inadequate, in view of the rising cost of living. Inflation has wiped out the increases. ESB charges are up by 10%, on average. The costs of making a cup of tea for a child leaving for school in the morning, of heating a hot water bottle for an old age pensioner and of providing a hot meal are up. Value added tax increases mean that every service and service call will cost more but those on fixed incomes will not have the facility to pay extra and will have to do with less. How have living standards been protected when the VAT increases have wiped away any benefit that could have been had from the social welfare increases, even before they are paid? Increases have also occurred in motor tax and the television licence fee. Council rents and refuse charges will increase.

A lady came to see me the other day who had received an increase of €8. The council took €6. Now the council has increased refuse charges by 41%. How are these people to live? From 1 April the cost of gas will rise by 9.1% and this will affect more than 400,000 people. Even people who do not have access to the natural gas grid will not escape the price rises. Due to the continuing uncertainty in the world markets the cost of home heating oil and petrol is likely to rise again soon and in some cases the cost of diesel and petrol has increased in the past week.

This year's budget increases in weekly social welfare payments fail to meet the levels required for the Government to properly honour its commitments. The increases in weekly payments to pensioners and those receiving the lowest social welfare payment rates are way below the level needed to make progress towards the targets set out in the national anti-poverty strategy and in the Government's programme. For the commitments to be implemented the rate of old age pension should have increased by €13.20 per week whereas the budget fell short by €3.20 per week. The average weekly increase in the lowest rate of welfare payments should have been between €10 and €15.40, depending on the criteria used. If the Government was serious about meeting its targets and commitments the increase was barely in line with inflation. This is proof positive that the Government has no intention of meeting its targets, living up to its promises or protecting the living standards of those on social welfare.

The measly increase in the carer's allowance and the marginal easing of the income disregard for carers shows that the Government takes them for granted. Despite the lofty Government claims of increased budgets for carer's allowance and home help support it is clear when the downturn starts to bite, those least equipped to cope are the first to feel the pain. There are 20,500 people in receipt of carer's allowance but it is estimated that 131,000 people provide some level of unpaid care every day. That means that the Government's policy excludes over 100,000 people from any financial recognition of its assistance to those who need full-time care. It is the elderly, the sick and children who suffer. Without support there will eventually be fewer carers, not because they no longer wish to care but because they will be unable to do so. Ultimately the burden of care will fall on the already over-stretched health services.

There is no recognition of the additional cost of care and disability. The annual respite care grant is inadequate and respite service availability is patchy to say the least. The Government needs to look again at the practice of denying carers any carer's allowance just because they are in receipt of another social welfare payment. It is unjust and unfair. When a widow is providing full-time care to a person with special needs, the least she should get in recognition of this care is the respite care grant. That does not happen and it is wrong. I have a case where a widow is looking after somebody on a full-time basis. Due to the fact that she is in receipt of one social welfare payment she does not get the respite grant. That issue should be dealt with on Committee Stage. There should be a nominal payment of €50 to €60 per week for the care such people provide and as a recognition of the service provided to the State. These people will have to be looked after.

People with disabilities still have not achieved anything like an adequate home income, despite the fact that according to the Combat Poverty Agency, seven out of ten people with a disability are unemployed. It is unacceptable in this day and age for the ESRI to find that 72% of households headed by a person with a disability live below the poverty line. I do not like what that says about our country, our priorities and about the kind of Ireland we have become.

A major survey by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul announced at the weekend showed clearly that the Government has fallen far short of its targets to end child poverty. According to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, thousands of children are going to school hungry, many families are suffering hardship in trying to buy uniforms, shoes and schoolbooks. An obvious way to prevent child poverty and raise the standard of living for all children would be to increase child benefit to the level promised by this Government in its fantasy document – the Fianna Fáil and PD manifesto – which helped to buy the election.

The Government broke its pre-election promises to children by giving them only a quarter of what was promised during the pre-election days when everything was up for grabs and all was right with the world. We know now how worthless those promises were and how little they actually meant to anyone.

The Deputy has no figures.

There is an anomaly in child benefit, whereby twins get 150% of the normal rate, yet all other multiple births get paid 200% of the normal rate. This is something that the association, Parents of Twins Ireland, has sought to have changed for many years.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul estimates that the average cost of sending a child to school can be up to €1,000. For people on fixed or low incomes, who do not have €1 to spare, the task is impossible.

The following are the facts: child poverty in Ireland ranks sixth highest on a list of 23 OECD countries – as cited by the Bernardos report Parents Under Pressure, 2002; the report also highlighted the fact that 29% of lone parents and 19% of two-parent households are living in poverty, yet the estimated no-frills cost of raising a child to the age of five at about €35,000; the Children's Rights Alliance described budget 2003 as, "a series of broken promises to children, particularly those children living in poverty"; the increase in child benefit in 2003 of a derisory €8 – if divided over five weeks it is barely €1.50 per week –€10 for the third and subsequent child. This is not right and the Minister as a parent knows that. That was another broken promise by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government.

The biggest disgrace in the budget this year was that there was no increase in the child dependent allowance. Groups who work with lower income families had sought a minimum rate of €25 per child per week but there was no increase. If one wants to target child poverty the money should be given to mothers. All reports have proven that when mothers get the money for children they spend it on children and look after them and it helps to deal with child poverty.

I wish to compliment the Minister in regard to the increases for children in full-time education up to 22 years of age. I am delighted the Minister took my suggestion on board, having lobbied for it for many years. I am pleased the Minister and her officials took it on board and I compliment her on it. I welcome it. It is something I wanted and supported and for which I worked in recent years.

The other issue on which I compliment the Minister, even though it was mean and measly, is the allowance for islanders. The Minister is right in saying there should be a special allowance for islanders. It should be for all islanders and not only those over 66 years of age. I welcome it, small and measly as it is. I had the experience of working with islanders many years ago. They pay more for bread and butter than those on the mainland, simply because they have to pay to get out to the mainland, and have to pay to get their goods into the islands. I support that allowance and would support more for the islanders because they are finding it difficult enough to live and should be helped and supported to stay on the islands.

I shall deal with the Bill, section by section, on Committee Stage and will table amendments on a number of issues. I wish to signal one section of the Bill where I have a major difficulty. Sections 16, 17 and 18 give effect to the proposal in budget 2003 for the application of PRSI to all benefits-in-kind granted to employees. This means that all benefits-in-kind are now subject to tax, PRSI, training and health levies and employers PRSI. What happens when the benefit-in-kind is desirable, such as the payment of health insurance premiums by an employer? Surely this is a desirable benefit – at least we pay tax relief to people who pay their own health insurance premiums. Making employers pay PRSI on the cost of health insurance to their employees is an additional cost to industry. It will mean that employers will be less likely to assist their employees with health insurance. It is also another loss of competitiveness and another hidden tax. The Minister needs to look at this again. This is a matter on which I will be tabling an amendment on Committee Stage.

Only about 35% of those who are entitled to family income supplement actually claim it. Many on low incomes clearly do not wish to claim FIS because they see it as a social assistance and not an entitlement. The Government's policy of leaving family income supplement as a responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is depriving low income families of a much-needed boost to their budget.

Fine Gael renews its call that family income supplement should be paid for through the tax system. This small but important change would mean that everyone entitled to FIS would get the money automatically and would not have to apply for it. It is dreadful that up to 65% of those who would qualify are excluded at present. This simple change would do much to ease the difficulties of people on modest incomes.

There is one other administrative change to FIS which could be made. If a person on FIS has a salary increase during the year in which they claim, his or her FIS is not reduced. If a person suffers a decrease in salary he or she cannot apply for FIS. These are people who are not well off and are on low incomes. If something goes wrong during the year they cannot apply to the Minister's Department for it. That is an anomaly that should be looked at and dealt with on Committee Stage. It is unfair that people on already low incomes are further penalised by being deprived of support in times of crisis.

The Government is famous for talking out of both sides of its mouth. One arm does not seem to know nor care what the other arm is doing. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, is hitting the headlines every day in regard to the roads, rail, Luas, motorways, metro, taxis and buses. If we were to believe all the publicity – by God is he good at the publicity – about the choices in the west of Ireland and other regions throughout the country, there would be so much competition in the transport sector that it would be difficult to stay at home. That is all very well, but what happens if one is entitled to free travel but there is no CIE service in the area? This is something the Minister must consider. Something must be done to allow people use taxis, particularly in rural areas. There is no Luas and little public transport in rural Ireland. People depend on taxis and it is time the Department entered the new millennium and considered this aspect. Many people have free travel but it is of no benefit because they cannot use it.

On the national fuel scheme, I cannot understand why it is not in place 52 weeks a year. Fuel prices are increasing daily and people find it difficult to keep themselves warm. All the reports indicate that elderly people like to keep warm in their homes. This provision would not cost a fortune. I will be calling on Committee Stage for the provision to be extended. People are lucky in this country if they do not have to light a fire on five or six days a year. I ask the Minister to consider this aspect.

The rent subsidy will cause all public representatives a problem, and there are already serious problems in this regard. Letters and appeals are arriving every day because people are beginning to feel the pinch of the Minister's regulations. She must consider this aspect because it will cause much hardship. People will feel the squeeze. Social welfare officers are a bit concerned because they are having great difficulty administering the scheme proposed by the Minister and her Department. I ask her to reconsider the regulation and it is something Deputy Penrose and I, and other Members, will be raising in the coming weeks. It is causing a major problem. The Minister may have the best of intentions in regard to not allowing asylum seekers collect rent subsidies and to go to one of the approved detention centres. However, we must wait to see how the provision works. I am totally opposed to rent subsidies.

The Department of the Environment and Local Government should put in place adequate social housing. However, the Minister and her Department must recognise that there is a major housing crisis and problems in regard to prices in different areas throughout the country, including the Minister's home county, Donegal, and in Mayo. It is impossible to get accommodation in Dublin or in the west of Ireland during the summer months. If one wants to live in these areas one must pay the going rate. I oppose the changes the Minister made. It is causing great hardship and there will be a backlash.

I welcome the increase of €30 in the back to school footwear and clothing allowance for children over 12 years of age. However, what about children under the age of 12? Given the Minister's experience buying children's shoes, she will be aware that children under the age of 12 cost just as much, therefore, she must extend the allowance to them.

The next issue is something about which the Minister can do something. I am appalled that the Department has spent more than €19.6 million in the past two years on consultants. That money could be better spent on people in need rather than on the friends of Fianna Fáil and consultants. This country is full of reports. What we now need is action on the reports and money to implement them, instead of making money for consultants and the friends of Fianna Fáil.

That is an unfortunate remark.

Last year, the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, made a smash and grab raid on the social insurance fund, to which the Minister referred in her speech. He decided to make free with her money and mine to pay for his champagne Charlie lifestyle. The party had to go on. In this case the two parties – Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats – had to go on. Nothing was too good for them, not even the money invested to look after the future needs of our children, the elderly, people with disabilities, the sick and people on low incomes. That money is not some slush for Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats or for Ministers. The money is for the future of the people of this country. The Minister should never again allow the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, to touch that fund. An independent board should be set up to oversee the social insurance fund. It should be representative of the social partners and should bring forward policies to efficiently manage the fund in order to stop the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, from playing fast and loose with the family silver. He should never again be allowed to do that.

On the PPS number being provided to other agencies – by God did we pay for that bit of information that had to be handed around the country – while I do not have a problem with it, there are dangers involved because people have a right to privacy. What people receive from social welfare should be a private matter. I am worried about other agencies being allowed to tap into the social welfare network and finding out what people are receiving. I do not have a great problem in regard to social welfare, grants and so on, but I am worried in regard to other aspects and I hope the practice will not continue.

I welcome the transfer of the orphan and foster care allowance from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the health boards. People involved in the care of orphans who deal with social workers and the health boards are concerned that the Department of Social and Family Affairs would take that into account and they would lose their social welfare payments.

The Minister in the Bill has failed the weak in society, the poor, those who need her most, the people who are now feeling the pinch of the increases in charges on a daily basis. The Minister and the Government will have to call a halt to county councils in particular in regard to charges, particularly to people on social welfare. They have gone mad, together with the Government. They seem to think they can charge and do what they want. There is a feeling among the public that this House and, in particular, the Government, have become arrogant and mean and gone against the poor, and that the Government can do what it wants because it has a majority of 15 or 16.

In 1977, there was another Taoiseach in this House, who sat where the Minister is now sitting and had a majority of 21 seats, but that was the last majority of 21 he had. The people of this country are waiting because they do not like the fact that the weak, the poor, the sick and the under-privileged are being attacked daily. In recent years people were just beginning to manage. They felt things were turning around for them, some were getting a bit of employment in their home areas and some were coming off social welfare payments. However, as soon as there was a downturn in the economy, the first thing the Government targeted was the FÁS schemes under which people were trying to get training to get back into the workplace, and the Minister targeted the back to work scheme. It is wrong to target that scheme because it was used to retrain people who have lost their jobs and who want to get back into the workplace. People are getting angry because they are feeling the pinch. They think the Government does not care about them, which is correct.

My party and I, and Deputy Penrose, will be putting pressure on the Minister and the Government to ensure the under-privileged are looked after. These people must not be forgotten because there is a downturn in the economy. People do not mind paying a few extra euro tax if the weak and sick in society, including carers who are looking after elderly people at home, are rewarded. I refer to the subvention and to nursing homes. There are not enough places, yet there are people who are saving the State a fortune by keeping family members at home and who want to do so. They are not asking the State for any real help but for a bit of support. They would like more respite care and some recognition for the work they do. Many sons and daughters will not have a night out, or a day out, this weekend or any other weekend because they will be looking after their loved ones 24 hours a day. Due to the fact that they have a few acres of land, a few cows or a small business, they get no recognition. It is time we rewarded and looked after these people who are looking after their loved ones.

I will oppose this Bill on the basis of the increases in social welfare. There used to be a budget every year but now there is a budget every hour, on the hour. People are waiting in the long grass for the Minister and her colleagues. I am sorry the Minister has found herself in this Department at this time. I suppose I should have known when I saw the former Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, running out of that Department last year. He was glad to get out of it. He knew what was coming and by God did he run fast. We will go through the Bill on Committee Stage when I will table a number of amendments which I hope the Minister will find acceptable. I hope she will look after the people who need to be looked after.

I refer to the famous horse, Rock of Gibraltar, and to the famous man, Alex Ferguson, who does not pay a penny tax in this country. His horse will go out to stud and he will earn thousands of pounds but he will not have to pay a penny to this State, yet poor creatures will be crucified by county councils as a result of refuse charges and service charges. I ask the Minister to speak to the councils, although she will say she does not have the authority to do so. It is wrong that someone should get a social welfare increase of €8 only to find the county council taking €5, €6 or, in some cases, €7.

The Deputy is on the county council.

The Government should ensure that county councils cannot calculate the increases people received in social welfare this year. It would be a simple thing to do and would protect people. Instead of doing that, the Government is giving increases with one hand but is taking them back with the other. I suppose it is the old slogan from Fianna Fáil – a lot done and more people to be done.

I am glad to get the opportunity to contribute to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003. The genesis of the Bill can be found in the December budget speech of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, that great right-wing accountant and economist. Last December's budget has been roundly and justifiably condemned by many people and organisations. People who are independent and who have no political allegiance have focused on the budget, particularly its social welfare provisions. Organisations throughout the country have been vocal on its inequitable and unjust provisions, particularly since they affect the poorest people in our society.

As I said during a contribution on the budget in December, the unemployed, the underprivileged and the socially excluded – our fellow citizens who are most in need of and deserve social support – have been let down. When the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, was in Opposition in 1997, he criticised Deputy Quinn's last budget. He said that when cutbacks in Government spending are necessary, it is always the poorest who suffer most. The Minister for Finance has amply demonstrated in this budget his belief in, and perhaps commitment to, that principle in that when he is in a corner rather than look to increase the taxes of his friends, many of whom are developers, are in the building industry and so on, he decides to cut off the poorest.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, in introducing the social welfare provisions of the budget in this Bill, has spelled out the extent of the injustice being inflicted by this Government on the weaker and disadvantaged section of this society. Deputy Ring is right in that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is a genuine person but she is responsible for putting this through. The former Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, always liked to be the good news guru. He ran to the plinth with everything and was always casting back to five or six years ago and trying to compare the situation. We are dealing with history now. The working class, the poor, the underprivileged, the marginalised and socially excluded want answers from a Government which has squandered this country's wealth. These people have not benefited to the same extent as many others. Various OECD studies indicate that is exactly what has happened. These studies do not lie because they are independent. We take heed of those studies.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs has an obligation to ensure that payments, which are necessary for people to survive, are adequate. It is up to the Minister to fight her case in Cabinet. In that respect, I would say she has failed. She told us that the Bill provides for the introduction of a range of social welfare improvements announced in budget 2003, that it provides for an increase in child benefit and improvements in the respite care grant, that it extends child dependants allowance for certain children, recipients of short-term social welfare payments and that it provides for changes in the means test for certain social assistance schemes, which I welcome.

As Deputy Ring said, the Bill provides for changes to the PRSI system by giving effect to the budget measures for the application of PRSI contributions and health and employment training levies to benefits-in-kind. That will be very tricky. I intend to table amendments on Committee Stage in this regard.

Before I deal with a number of critical points and the reason the Labour Party will strenuously oppose this Bill, I wish to say I welcome the extension of the entitlement to an increase for a qualified child aged between 18 and 22 years of age and in full-time education. I salute the Minister in that regard. I am particularly pleased that the recipients of disability benefit, injury benefit, health and safety benefit, supplementary welfare allowance and unemployment benefit and assistance will, subject to certain conditions, have these payments continued. Prior to this, it was very unsatisfactory that the increase for the qualified child ceased at 18 years of age. In some cases, these families were forced to claim supplementary welfare allowance. Previous rates were very unsatisfactory and I am pleased that section 5 of the Bill addresses this issue.

It is important to set out the reality of the increases provided in the budget. The Bill does not take into account, or refer to, other decisions – referred to by Deputy Ring as a budget every hour, on the hour – announced as part of subsequent budgets and which, with the stroke of a pen, wiped out all the increases for the thousands of recipients of social welfare payments which they should have received. Deputy Ring is right in regard to local authorities. The differential rent scheme operated since January, yet some of those increases do not come into effect until April and later. The local authorities are anticipating increases and are taking money from people. That reduces the disposable income of people who are virtually on fixed incomes. It is having a major negative impact given the many increases announced in recent months which those people must bear.

I refer to the subsequent, or contemporaneous, decision to increase the minimum contribution a person must make towards his or her rent or mortgage interest from €7.62 to €12. This is a fairly significant increase. The Minister said it is based on 10% of the social welfare payment and one can see from where she is coming. However, it is a staggering increase in the minimum contribution of almost 60% and is forcing the average family or individual to meet an increase of €4.38 at a time when the average increase in social welfare for single people amounts to approximately €6.80. The Minister, therefore, is clawing back about two thirds of the average increase.

The people to whom I refer receive mortgage subsidies and rent allowance and number approximately 100,000. The Department's abdication of its own rules in terms of natural and constitutional justice leaves something to be desired because despite the fact that this significant increase was to apply to all social welfare recipients, neither the Minister nor the people involved had the courtesy to apply those rules and notify the recipients in advance of the proposed change. The regional health boards were only notified on 31 December 2002, the very day the changes were to take effect. As a result, arrears will accrue if the regulation is implemented to the letter and customers of the Department will have to refund overpayments. I call on the Minister to give an assurance that arrears, which have accrued because of non-implementation by the health boards of the circular, will not be collected by her Department and that current recipients will not be pursued for them. That would cause an explosion because we are almost three months down the line now.

At the same time the Minster introduced other measures in circular 04/2002 on 24 December to regional health boards, which capped the rent people can receive and, worse still, provided for the refusal of rent allowance if it is in excess of the cap. Such interference in the administration of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme by the regional health boards leaves a great deal to be desired. On the basis of inquiries I have been made, there was little or no consultation with the health boards in regard to this matter.

Health boards have always operated caps and have been extremely vigilant in regard to the amount of rent they pay. They make exhaustive inquires in relation to single people who apply for rent allowance. Payments are only made when there are good reasons for people to have left the family home and, in response to the new regulation, the health boards are drawing a list of circumstances under which a person might receive rent allowance over and above the maximum allowed. As a result they will have to pay a higher rent allowance because it exists under the special circumstances. This regulation will cost more money than it will save, which was the reason behind it originally.

A related matter is the benefit on privilege in assessment of means for unemployment assistance and pre-retirement allowance for claimants residing in the parental home. Fair play to the Minister for at least having a look at this issue because it is a travesty and a bureaucratic nonsense.

That is right.

This relates to sons or daughters living with their parents. People are more comfortable in their own environment and there might be a reason they do not have a job such as the lack of availability of employment in their locality. Not all rural areas are well off and the Minister knows that better than me. However, departmental officials feel everybody should have a job, although they are still busy proposing the abolition of the back to work allowance and CE schemes.

At the end of the day people were being forced out of the family home because their social welfare payments were based on a means test of their parents' incomes, even though they were aged 18 and over and could vote, buy a house and make monumental decisions about their lives. The social welfare system treated them as children who were dependent on their parents or guardians. Apart from officials prying into the parents' circumstances, the Department was forcing these young people into the rental market. When they secured rental accommodation, they could go to the community welfare office and seek rent allowance under the supplementary welfare scheme. That cost the Department more under a different subhead than to give them a social welfare payment in their own right while living in their own homes.

I salute the Minister because at long last something is being done about this issue and she is recognising reality, which is important. One can become a prisoner of bureaucracy and unable to see the wood for the trees. Theory is all right but practice is much different when human relationships are involved and Article 44 of the Constitution promotes the family. However, there is a set of anomalies related to people who live together. They are treated as one for social welfare purposes while for taxation purposes they are treated as two separate people. There are many anomalies in the system and our committee intends to examine them. We will present a report on them to the Minister along with a good report on the position of carers in the not too distant future. In fairness to the Minister, she has begun to examine this issue. It is not enough but our feet are in the door and, hopefully, by next year the headland will have been reached with our encouragement.

We have all played a role in getting the Minister to resolve the dentists' dispute and we put a great deal of pressure on her. However, the result was a generous deal for dentists and the taxpayer has been left to foot the bill again. The family budget must cover payments for dental care, health care and increases in the cost of gas and electricity, registration fees for students, VAT and car tax. The cost of dental care has increased by 10% across the board, although I am glad oral examinations and teeth polishing and so on are still free. The dentists got their way regarding the cost of fillings. While the Minister has increased the contribution for fillings to €29 with a 15% discount for bulk fillings, there is no ceiling on the cost of a filling. The cost could vary from €50 to €80. I do not know how much they cost because I am a little squeamish about going to the dental surgery and it is a place to which I do not like to go. Nevertheless, dental care is costly and social welfare recipients will pay significant amounts for such work.

The dispute went on for two years and was a long, drawn out saga. Last Thursday I tabled a parliamentary question which sought details of the proposals to resolve the dispute. The Minister said she could not furnish them but now I can see why. The dentists did not want a detailed examination and review of the scheme because they were coming out smiling as winners. The costs have increased sharply. The cost of a filling could double or treble depending on where one resides. A total of 1.7 million taxpayers who had a contract with the State and were paying into a scheme that would provide dental benefits for themselves and their dependants were left outside the system since last August when dentists began to withdraw their services.

I spoke to a young woman who earns a reasonable income. She paid an additional €50 for dental care during the dispute and she asked me to find out whether she would be compensated. The Minister must have saved between €4 million and €5 million during the dispute because approximately 35,000 people were excluded from the scheme. If she did not, why not? As many did not take advantage of the scheme, we should ensure a proper method of paying compensation is put in place for the people concerned. As Deputy Ring said, they receive vouchers to assist them in paying their bills. While that is acceptable under the law of any land, they feel deeply aggrieved and disappointed that they did not receive any recompense for the time during which they did not receive treatment. There is a significant number involved.

The cost of living is spiralling out of control. Recent surveys demonstrate high prices have rendered our standard of living as the fifth lowest in the European Union. We are continually hit with increases. The 10% increase in the cost of dental treatment is another financial burden which families must bear.

The social welfare increases announced in the budget were a pittance and will be completely obliterated by spiralling inflation. Deputy Boyle and I have spoken before about the 30 cent increase for the unemployed. CORI carried out an assessment of the increases within a week of the budget announcements. What has happened since the budget was introduced two months ago? The people concerned are in a negative position in real terms. An unemployed couple with one child will gain 25 cent a week. Children are getting a real increase of 54 cent a week. The Government broke its promise to complete the three-year programme for increasing child benefit and only delivered one quarter of what it promised to deliver this year.

We have only to look at the papers presented by the tax strategy group to the Department of Social and Family Affairs recently to reveal the true extent of broken promises in a number of areas. They detail the increases in social welfare required for the Government to meet its many commitments under the programme for Government, the revised national anti-poverty strategy and the PPF. Comparison of the figures with the actual increases announced in the budget shows the full extent of the Government's breach of faith. It broke the contract it made with the people.

The necessary weekly increases in old age pensions, supplementary welfare and child benefit payments to meet the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats promises as calculated by the Department of Social and Family Affairs were, respectively, €13.20 with €10 given, 24% less than that promised; €10.10 –€15.40 with €6 given, 41% to 61% less than that promised; and €31.59 with €8 given, 75% less than that promised. This information is not provided by my think tank machines but supplied by the Minister's officials. The extent to which she ignored advice on the need to meet election promises has been clearly outlined. Election promises mean very little. Once the Government took office it was a case of bye bye electorate.

We are all aware of the situation regarding medical cards and affordable housing, on which we could write a book. The Minister for Finance boasted that during his term of office pensions had increased by more than 50% but the old age pension is now a smaller percentage of the average industrial wage than it was in the late 1970s. Thus, many pensioners without occupational pensions have suffered a sharper and real drop in their disposable income on retirement than they would have 20 years ago. That is the real measure of the Government. Let us stop bluffing and running out on the plinth trying to fool the people who will no longer be fooled. They feel betrayed by the Government for the reasons outlined. It would be better if it did not make promises but simply said what it would do to help the poorest in our society. It should forget those who have done well, of whom there are many.

What the Minister for Finance promised with the one hand he took away with the other whenever he could. Ireland's domestic inflation rate is double the EU average because of the Minister's profligacy and recklessness in previous years when times were good. It is this inflationary increase that completely dissipates the increases in the Social Welfare Bill. Many social welfare recipients, as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul acknowledges, will be worse off as a result of the recent budgetary and social welfare measures. Many increases will be clawed back by changes in rent supplements which have rightly been condemned by housing groups and community welfare officers.

There is a commitment to poverty proofing in the revised NAPS. What this means is that policy proposals will be analysed to see what affect they will have on the poor. The poverty proofing process outlined in the recent budget was ambiguous to say the least. The biggest source of disappointment was the increase in child benefit.

As I said last December during the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, the mark of any society is how it treats the elderly and those with disabilities. I am on record as saying I would pay an extra 1%, 2% or 3% to ensure such people were taken care of and carers were given due recognition for the heroic role they play in society. The manner in which they have been treated is an indictment of us all. They work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I acknowledge, however, the increase in the respite care grant. How does one tell a widow whose husband died unexpectedly four years ago and who is in receipt of widow's pension that she cannot get the grant for taking care of her 35 year old child? She told me that if she could get it, she would be able to employ somebody to help her.

We should give her a break.

Yes. We must look at the saving to the State in that person not having to go into residential care. With the other 120,000 carers, she is saving the Government millions of euro per annum. We have failed to recognise this. Only 20,000 carers receive support from the State because of the restrictions imposed on the means test by Revenue. In this regard a case was successfully pursued through the Ombudsman in 2001. We will have to drag the Government into the 21st century and get it to acknowledge that the sum of €129 does not represent a gravy train. Carers are saving the taxpayer millions of euro. We do not have a proper nursing home subvention or enough places available, many of which are out of the reach of ordinary people. Some have given up the opportunity to return to employment to take care of their loved ones. They are not seeking reward.

I am not sure if the Minister of State has read the Labour Party document, Caring for the Carers. We might make a submission to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs which will soon undertake a review of the plight of carers regarding the abolition of the means test and the development of a carer's payment linked to average earnings and a dramatic expansion of respite care services. These are fundamental issues. We must continue to press for the implementation of such a programme even in the face of the Government.

Section 13 amends section 179 of the principal Act of 1983. The net effect of this provision will be to prevent asylum seekers who enter the State seeking refugee status obtaining the right to claim a rent supplement. This provision is ill-conceived and not well thought out. It appears that the Minister and Department have been sold a pass by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform into a system where they believe this provision will stem the flow of asylum seekers into Ireland. I am sure the Minister of State has read what Mr. James Stapleton of the Irish Refugee Council had to say in that regard:

It is extremely disturbing that proposed Government legislation will deny rent allowance to all asylum seekers, regardless of their medical or other circumstances. This legislation is a crude attempt to prevent people, regardless of their need, from finding suitable housing. It also risks leaving asylum seekers, who are evicted from the centres, homeless and destitute.

In November 1999 the Government introduced a system of direct provision whereby asylum seekers denied the right to work were denied full social welfare payments and offered €19.10 per adult and full board in a communal accommodation centre. However, numerous medical practitioners recognising the potential damage that this system has caused to the mental health of many asylum seekers, have recommended that hundreds be granted financial assistance towards providing private accommodation.

The suggestion that the administration of asylum seekers' welfare benefits should cease to be the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and should be taken over by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is an alarming one, as it will mean that the experience and expertise of officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be lost. The establishment of a parallel social welfare system will waste a significant amount of resources that could be spent in other areas. It is extremely worrying that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which is respon sible for the security of the nation's borders, will have to attempt to meet the welfare needs of asylum seekers. There is a clear conflict of interest.

The Irish Refugee Council has expressed its concerns to the Minister and, as Deputy Ring has said, many other bodies have concerns in relation to this matter. Who is going to deal with hard cases? Who will deal with genuine people who may be suffering from anxiety? What will the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform do with such people? What level of consultation has the Department of Social and Family Affairs had with the health boards? Will people remain in direct provision or will they be forced into homelessness? I do not doubt that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be forced to purchase further accommodation centres. It will difficult for this plan to succeed and we must ask why it is being done. Is it being done for economic reasons or to create more efficiency in the system? Is it being done to act as a deterrent so the word will go out that one cannot escape direct provision and one must live in the centres? A number of important points need to be made. There will be difficulties in relation to the operation of certain sections of the Bill.

Section 9 deals with the orphan's allowance. The Minister has received submissions from the Irish Foster Care Association. It is important to understand that foster care involves a child-centred partnership. Those involved in foster care, such as children, birth parents, foster carers, health boards and the IFCA, need to have a genuine sense of being involved. The suggestions of the Minister of State formerly responsible for this area, Deputy Hanafin, in July 2001 were contentious and created problems for many of those involved in the important work of fostering. Will section 9 allow a reversion to a payment that stands alone as a foster care allowance? Does it include discretionary payments that are intended to meet the day-to-day costs of looking after a foster child? Is the foster allowance now regarded as a separate matter, entirely distinct from the payment of foster care allowance?

There are many points to be made. What is the position in relation to sections 9(1) and 8(2)? Were the views of the Irish Foster Care Association considered? Foster carers received from the health boards a weekly foster care allowance, which was intended to meet the day-to-day costs associated with caring for a foster child, until the middle of 2001. Foster carers could also receive discretionary payments from the health boards for additional expenses that were incurred. The working group recommended that the best way forward was to increase the foster care allowance appropriately and to absorb the discretionary payments. Foster carers who are disadvantaged because of the reduction in eligibility for grants for education purposes, or for social welfare purposes as Deputy Ring pointed out, as a result of being in receipt of social welfare allowance, hope this Bill will address their problems. Many foster carers have lost out already and are aggrieved as a result. I hope the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, will examine this matter, which I will raise again on Committee Stage.

I wish to share time with Deputies Cowley and Crowe, with the agreement of the House. I presume the Government breathed a sigh of relief when the most recent inflation figures were released, indicating that the annual rate of inflation has decreased from 5% to 4.8%. Its relief might be short lived, however, as the biggest factor in the decrease was the reduction in mortgage interest rates and clothing prices during the January sales. The inflationary trend is particularly worrying when one examines the underlying figures for various types of inflation, such as health inflation, which is 10.4%, and education inflation, which is 8%. There is not much to give comfort to the country, given that health and education are vital for those who depend on the social welfare system.

There have been further developments since the budget and the House's discussion of the Social Welfare Bill 2002. The Children's Rights Alliance has challenged the Government to go further than it plans in terms of the elimination of child poverty. The alliance chided the Government for its retrograde steps in this budget and claimed that the Government is starting from two steps behind as it tries to eliminate child poverty. I would like the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, to outline the Government's response to the voluntary organisations, which make a compelling case. Ireland's position as a country that treats child poverty as a problem of far worse effect, compared to other European countries, cannot be denied under present circumstances.

This Bill reinforces the Government's failure to meet its three-year commitment in terms of the child benefit increase. The Government should be given credit for trying to deal with certain anomalies in relation to the extension of entitlement to qualified children in certain welfare categories. The problem is that the Minister is failing to address other anomalies, such as the different types of child dependent allowance and the fact that the system is being made even more complicated. Deputy Penrose referred to the small, but welcome, increase in respite care. The Minister should have gone further in this regard, as the respite care system recognises that certain carers deal with more than one person. If the grant itself recognises this fact, why does the direct payment to the carer not recognise it? The Minister should be trying to bring about this very real reform.

I welcome the increase in the island allowance, which not only benefits the Minister's constituents but also benefits some of my relatives. Part of the role of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is to recognise that many people are isolated geographically in terms of those who live in remote rural and island communities, and socially in terms of those who live in urban com munities. I know the Minister's heart is in the right place, but I fear she is representative of a Government that has sustained the concept of the deserving poor. I hope she challenges this notion, which I do not attribute to her, as she grows into her Ministry. I attribute it to many elements in the Government and it is a malign influence which should be constantly challenged. We have discussed the capping of rent allowance on many occasions, but the Minister has to understand that it will have the detrimental effect of helping to increase homelessness.

The proposals in relation to asylum seekers and refugees, who are being removed from the responsibility of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, are counter-productive. They will cost the State more in terms of increases in direct provision, through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A lack of joined-up government is constantly evident in immigration matters. I do not doubt that there are arguments in relation to where people come from and their direct entitlements, but if it was properly addressing this issue, the Government would look at the prospect of allowing people to work directly while their entitlement is being assessed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This would not only have the benefit of saving money for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and several others, but it would also earn money for the Exchequer through taxation and social insurance. The fact that the matter is not being dealt with in such an integrated manner means that the Government is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

I am grateful that the rumoured changes in relation to child benefit, which may never have crossed the Minister's mind, have not been included in this Bill. One of the good effects of the Supreme Court judgment, which made such measures impossible, is that people who are born in this country are seen as Irish citizens and are entitled to benefits as such. The Minister seems to have pandered to some of the opinions of ill-informed people who think that refugees and asylum seekers are getting, or are entitled to, benefits to which other people are not entitled. That has never been the case. The Minister is making that a physical reality the other way around in that there will be payments to which asylum seekers and refugees are not entitled. That is not a good principle, particularly because Ireland has international agreements as to who payments should be given to and how that is done. It is interesting that people from Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland are entitled to these payments in these circumstances because they are from the European Economic Area whereas those from impoverished, underdeveloped countries are not, whatever the circumstances. This is something the Minister should discuss at the Council of Ministers.

The Opposition is restricted with regard to amendments to the Bill in that it cannot propose additional payments or anything that would make Opposition Members popular with their constituents. However, amendments to the text should be considered to make the Bill more humane and improve delivery systems. There are continuing anomalies in the social welfare system and, though I realise the Minister is unable to tackle them all in one go, the Opposition will co-operate in a constructive fashion in working to remove them.

The putative agreement at the national partnership talks should be discussed in the House. It deals with social welfare increases running at twice the rate of inflation for the remainder of the life of this Government. Will the Government make this commitment and, if so, will that be couched in caveats and talked about in terms of ability to pay? If the Government is able to deliver on this, there will be a chance to catch up with social welfare payments that lag considerably behind. I look forward to the debate when the Minister is able to bring that information to the House. In any case, the House will consider how the Bill can be improved on Committee and Report Stages. I look forward to making the Minister's job easier.

I am happy to speak on this Bill. A spokesperson on yesterday's television news on RTE said that the massive profit made by the banks was good for Ireland. I found that statement amazing considering that the profits will not go towards making life easier for the citizens of Ireland. I presume, therefore, that the spokesperson was talking about corporate and big business Ireland, not Sean Citizen. That is a pity because there is great need which requires a Government courageous enough to bite the bullet and give to those with that need. This Government seems unprepared to ask what this issue is about, namely, people, not robbing Peter to pay Paul or being disingenuous.

It is not right to play games with people, particularly the old and vulnerable. It is unfair that older people are told they are to get a €10 pension increase but later realise that their rent allowance has dropped by the same amount. That undermines confidence in the body politic and the system. There should be a consistent policy on social welfare increases and rent allowances. A review is needed on how rent allowance is calculated for vulnerable people and the pension increase for an elderly person should not be used in the calculation of the rent allowance. Increasing the pension by €10 and clawing back the same amount in the rent allowance is wrong and out of date for a modern and equitable system. Reform is needed because the vulnerable are suffering.

I feel strongly about the use of sheltered housing and the need to support people in their communities, and I am involved in that area. It is important that, no matter how old or disabled, people have the opportunity to stay in their areas. There is a problem with access to sheltered housing for older people – those with nothing and those with a little. There is an access scheme cat ered for in the budget and I hope it can be extended to older people. Home is best but, where that is not possible, sheltered housing is a good option. Few alternatives have been given to older people in the past except to follow a medical model of faraway institutions and nursing homes. Those options are fine when there is no alternative but there should be an alternative. Institutions are an inappropriate catch-all and many people in them should not be. Treating old age as an illness rather than a natural state is wrong. The old should not need doctors and nurses any more than young people – they need them only when they are ill.

Sheltered housing, with its magnificent potential, could be described as the Cinderella of the housing system. It is always talked about and brought to the ball, but nobody takes poor Cinderella home. Until Government faces up to the reality that funding is required for sheltered housing initiatives, nothing will change. Communities are eager to keep local people in their areas if that is possible and if it is supported. There is Cabinet support but the ongoing revenue cost is a difficulty. There is a clear lack of leadership in the failure to bring forward such a defined revenue funding scheme for sheltered housing and I hope the Minister addresses this issue. A sense of responsibility is needed. It is only common sense but there are none so blind as those who will not see. I hope the Government sees because the situation is as clear as day.

Up to €17 million is paid to nursing homes by way of subventions. Older people could be placed in low-support housing in their communities for one tenth of that cost. The nursing home market is supply led compared to demand led sheltered housing. It is necessary to build big nursing homes to make them pay by packing people in. Some 4,000 elderly and disabled people are languishing on waiting lists who have no realistic hope of ever getting a house because they need sheltered housing, and that figure is a gross underestimate of the real need. There should be a St. Brendan's village in every part of Ireland and the cost of that would be very economic.

It is important that bricks and mortar are a part of housing policy but needs other than those of the able bodied must be addressed. There must be more thought on the development of housing for the vulnerable and those who cannot take care of themselves – that is the balance required.

There could have been far more in this Bill for the unemployed. The increase for those on unemployment assistance was only €10, which is very little for a couple. There should always be an incentive to work and it is demoralising not to have that. It would be good if this Bill was going to change that but I do not think it will.

I have great time for those working in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. They work hard, are very courteous and provide good information, but there is too much bureaucracy. A person who tries to go back to work for a few days is faced with such stringent paperwork to sign off for those days that there is no incentive to work. It is easier to take the dole and do nothing, and that is bad. Each week, people are obliged to sign off and bring written proof to the social welfare office of exact earnings from an employer. It is hard to chase after employers to get that information and it must be easier to devise a document which a prospective employer can sign to indicate that a person had called looking for work. That would ensure a humane system.

The family support payments are very low and it must be difficult to cope on them. The fuel allowance of €9 is very low, particularly for pensioners. A bag of coal could not be bought for that and the allowance should be about €25 per week and paid all year, rather than from October to April. There are 14,500 people with arthritis in County Mayo who need heat all the time. Those on supplementary welfare allowance will not qualify for disability allowance which requires an illness lasting one year or more.

Debate adjourned.