I call Deputy Crowe. I understand there are 14 minutes remaining in the slot.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).
I wish to share my last four minutes with Deputy James Breen.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
There is little new in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003. It merely serves to put in legislative form some of the changes announced in the budget last December. Almost three months on, this legislation simply reminds us of the consistent theme of broken promises in the Government's first year in office. Many have been broken, but I have no doubt it will find more to break. If there has been any positive development in recent months, it has been the coming together of ordinary citizens, pressure groups and campaigners who are determined to highlight the record of the Government.
Recently there was the launch of Tuismitheoirí-Teagascoirí Le Chéile, a group which represents hundreds of schools throughout the country which have been ignored by the Government. Other groups such as the Union of Students in Ireland have been displaying an increased effectiveness in raising their case. We have also seen the launch of the End of Child Poverty Coalition, bringing together a wide range of groups which are committed, in a way the Government clearly is not, to eliminating child poverty. It was the Government's decision to ignore child poverty in the last budget, and in real terms that is certainly what it did. It is perhaps the most striking example of stroke politics at its worst. In the programme for Government, it promised a programme of multi-annual increases in child benefit to ensure the combined value of child support is increased in line with its commitment under the national anti-poverty strategy. The four year progress report stated that one of the key priorities is to bring forward a programme to effectively address child poverty and that the Government is committed to exceeding this PPF target by dramatically increasing child benefit over the three years of the programme.
This year – 2003 – the last year of this promised programme, should have seen an increase of €31.80 per month, €38.10 for the higher rate, in child benefit. This is an allowance which many see as the fairest and most effective way of supporting low income families caught in the poverty trap. It would also have been an ideal opportunity to remove another anomaly by making the new rates applicable from January 2003, in line with the welfare and tax year. However, the pledge to seriously tackle child poverty seems to have got lost in the Bill before us. The Government is increasing child benefit by what amounts in real terms to 54 cent a week. Yet during the budget debate, backbenchers were tripping over themselves to announce how pleased they and their constituents were with the extra 54 cent. I know the Irish are famous throughout the football world for partying, but one could hardly imagine spontaneous street parties taking place anywhere to celebrate a 54 cent increase.
The truth is that the Government chose to ignore child poverty and failed in its commitment to deliver on this area. We see the results every day. This morning, throughout the State, children went to school hungry, some of them cold and poorly dressed. Some 90,000 Irish children live in consistent poverty, and almost a quarter of a million in relative poverty, in what is supposed to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The Government has a tendency to ignore relative poverty while focusing exclusively on consistent poverty. I recall a Fianna Fáil backbencher challenging the figures of an Opposition spokesperson during the budget debate on the grounds that the figures used referred to relative poverty. Let me be clear, relative poverty means children without proper clothes or food, children who go to school hungry and who are deprived of certain essentials of life. We should ignore this artificial distinction between relative and consistent poverty, which is a distinction almost unique to this State. Poverty is poverty, and whatever name one wants to put on it, the Government will ignore it just the same. It is true that children were targeted in the last budget. They were targeted for cutbacks in the form of broken promises made in terms of child benefit and greater access to medical cards.
I welcome the move in this legislation to broaden the scope of the child dependant allowance, but it has remained at this level since 1994. According to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the absence of an increase in this allowance effectively means a 6% cut in income for the poorest families, amounting to 400,000 children. According to Focus Ireland, there are 1,100 homeless children in Dublin alone, 600 of whom are under the age of five. They are among the thousands of children forced to beg on the streets for money or to rely on charity simply for a decent breakfast. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to these charity workers, particularly the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, who fill the gap left by the State's failure to provide accessible quality public services.
On Monday, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul launched a report which highlighted the educational disadvantage many of these children experience. Low income families are unable to afford basic educational expenses such as school books and other classroom materials. The society makes the point, which has been made by others many times, including Sinn Féin, that until the unequal and unfair distribution of wealth is tackled, educational disadvantage will continue.
There are also other developments in social welfare which need to be addressed. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been contacted by students throughout the country incensed at the decision of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to scrap the back to education allowance for post-graduate students. On budget day, the Department supplied every TD with a list of increases in many social welfare allowances. While we are all grateful for this, there was no mention of the removal of the back to education allowance for post-graduates. Several students and their union officials throughout the country were surprised to learn of its removal. I have also been unable to find any mention of this decision on the Department's web page. Perhaps in future it might consider providing all the information needed by both TDs and claimants, rather than just the material on which they hope the media will focus. Some sort of explanation as to why post-graduates have been targeted and have had an avenue of access to education closed off to them would be most welcome.
The extent of the failure of budget 2003, and consequently the legislation before us, was clearly shown in a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. An internal departmental memo accepted that the increases in social welfare in the budget fell far below what was required for the Government to live up to the pledges it made in the programme for Government and the national anti-poverty strategy. The anti-poverty strategy is another objective to be piled on the mountain of the Government's broken promises.
Let us put this Bill in context. There have been substantial increases in the cost of living in the past few months. Price increases have hit households which depend on social welfare payments. Recently we have seen increases in public transport fares, the cost of private rented accommodation, a 22% increase in the monthly drug payments scheme, a 26% increase in the cost of casualty department fees and an incredible 21% increase in the cost of electricity since 2001. On Monday night we heard the news that gas prices are to increase by 9%. Together with this there are all the regressive stealth taxes introduced by the Minister for Finance on ATM and credit cards.
The Government has yet to find a CE scheme it could not cut; some 5,000 places are gone, in addition to the 5,000 public sector jobs cut by the Minister in the recent budget. These decisions will be the most difficult for the low paid and people on social welfare.
These are the people who have benefited most from CE schemes only to find these schemes abandoned by Government. The people involved in them have been treated with contempt, despite the incredible work they have done in their communities. They will be forced to rely more and more on the public sector which is not only experiencing cutbacks but is now set to have 5,000 workers thrown on the dust heap.
From cuts in the top rate of tax to cuts in corporation tax and capital gains tax over the past five budgets, the richest 10% of the population has received 25% of the benefits while the poorest 20% has received a mere 5%. While Sinn Féin acknowledges the economy is not as strong as it was 12 months ago, this State is still comparatively wealthy. The Government should have made the choice to redistribute the wealth of this State to look after those who have been abandoned by the rising economic tide which has lifted far fewer boats than the Government admits.
The gap between rich and poor has widened. Poverty is on the increase and this is now one of the most unequal States in the first world. The Government will claim there is not enough money to do all we propose. The truth is the money is there but the real question is, does the Government have the political will to deliver? Does it have the will to put the needs of the most vulnerable, the poor, the hungry and the sick before the desires of the better off in society? From the legislation necessary to enforce the decisions of the Minister for Finance, the answer is clear that it does not.
In dealing with this Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003, the Government has lost touch with reality. An increase of €6 to €11 per week for people in receipt of social welfare pensions is an insult. Since the budget was introduced last December, there have been mini-budgets on a daily basis. For instance, where councils have privatised refuse collections, where there is no waiver for old age pensioners and where the increase, in some cases, has gone from €240 to €360, what good is this increase in social welfare? The price of petrol, diesel, heating oil and gas has increased.
People with children with special needs did not receive an increase from the Department of Health and Children. The increase for old age pensions and contributory pensions should be rounded up to at least €260. Child benefit under section 3 should be rounded up to €130 and €160, respectively. In regard to the carer's allowance, the means test for people looking after loved ones in their own homes should be abolished. If someone being looked after at home was institutionalised, it would cost the State €160,000 plus per year. In areas where it is hard to get respite care and where there is no help or relief for the carer, surely the carer should be entitled to this allowance? People on long-term disability payments do not get a Christmas bonus. Also, where claims have been disallowed, people must lodge an appeal. The length of time taken to determine an appeal should be reduced.
There is an anomaly in the Bill which has not been addressed. A widow in receipt of the widow's and the blind person's pensions loses the blind person's pension when she reaches old age thus reducing her income by 50%. Given the small number involved, the Minister should allow such people to keep the blind person's pension.
In regard to dental benefits, resolution of the dispute means a further increase for people on PRSI which is totally unjust. How can those on the average industrial wage with young families afford this increase? This Government has lost touch with ordinary citizens. Will the Minister refund those who had dental treatment during the dispute and who are rightly entitled to such treatment?
In regard to the back to school allowance, will the same rate apply to all children regardless of age? Surely a person entitled to rent allowance should be able to draw this allowance regardless of from whom they rent? If they rent from a relative, they are not entitled to the allowance.
I know the community employment scheme is not under the Minister's remit but she will be left to carry the bill. Men and women employed in these schemes and who took pride in what they were doing for their communities have been plunged back on to the dole queue because of the reduction in the community employment schemes. Where is the saving to the Exchequer? Some of these people will draw social welfare payments for the rest of their lives.
After a period of enormous economic prosperity, this Government has done nothing to help the most vulnerable in our society. What plans are in place to help the homeless in our towns and villages? This is a matter which needs urgent attention. When walking to my place of rest last night, I met a young lad of 15 years of age who had been tossed out on the street by his godmother two nights ago. When I asked him where he was staying, he said he was sleeping in a doorway, yet we have plenty. I ask this Government to address the issue of homelessness in our towns. I hope the Minister will see the homeless are looked after.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Ardagh.
As the Minister said in her concluding remarks last night, this Bill builds on the work of the previous Government in the area of social inclusion, it is part of the Government's programme and it is grounded in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
I listened with increasing despondency to the contribution of Deputy Crowe. I know what Sinn Féin is against but I am at a loss to know what it is in favour of. When Deputy Crowe's colleagues were Ministers in the Northern Ireland administration, and they were very able Ministers, they were able to take decisions. They took decisions in the health area in which expenditure is limited. They took decisions not to go ahead with hospitals and to close down certain facilities. One of their members was education minister and made some very brave decisions in relation to the eleven plus examination. They are decisions similar to those a Minister in our administration must take.
We could go on for some time talking philosophically and ideologically about what the social welfare system should be about. We must strike a balance between schemes in which people are legitimately given money to take them out of poverty, whether consistent or relative poverty – it is no consolation for a sociologist to say somebody is consistently or relatively poor because they are still poor by their own standards – and schemes administered by the Department which have been introduced over the years by Members on both sides and which I regard as very enlightened schemes. I compliment people such as Deputy Woods, Deputy Dermot Ahern, Deputy Durkan and Proinsias De Rossa MEP who promoted schemes, such as VTOS, during their tenure in the Department.
We talk about social inclusion measures. This Government, as did the previous one, set up a Cabinet Subcommittee on Social Inclusion which meets regularly. It has provided significant funds to areas of considerable disadvantage. To advert to what Deputy Crowe said, does he even know what is happening in his own constituency? There are programmes such as the Springboard initiative, which provides services for parents and children at risk, and the breakfast clubs. I acknowledge the contribution made by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Barnardos and others towards the success of those programmes which are in operation in many areas throughout the country. I recognise that, in many cases, funding is relatively small but that the impact of these programmes is significant because they are delivered, by and large, by committed people working voluntarily. We should not have to hire professional full-time people to do everything. In fact, some of the best programmes are delivered efficiently by voluntary groups.
The clothing allowance, which is important particularly to people in working class areas, has been increased by €30 to €150 for children aged 12 years and over. Child benefit has gone up significantly, although we would all have liked to have seen an even more significant increase. The family income supplement thresholds have been significantly increased. All the increases outlined make a difference.
I compliment the Minister on the resolution of the dispute with the Irish Dental Association. It was unfortunate that the dispute took place but I compliment the Minister and the association on reaching a resolution. I am pleased an independent review will be carried out on aspects of the scheme. For example, price lists will be displayed, which will be important. Dentists who were quick to send letters to Members outlining how much PRSI workers paid them over and above what they ought to have, will participate again in the scheme.
I refer to enabling measures in which the Department is involved. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions centres throughout the State do great work. There is a significant network of them and in my constituency they deliver the most innovative programmes in the education sector. For example, they run the opt-in programme, which is as good as any school completion programme. Young people who would not otherwise be in the school system are supported by the programme. The money advice and budgeting service is supported significantly by the Department and it has established a number of development offices that support other centres in Leinster and help them to be more effective. These services are not recognised and they should be acknowledged as significant initiatives taken by the Department and the Government to remove people from consistent or relative poverty.
Education programmes are important and I compliment the Department for being more daring and brave than the Department of Education and Science in pushing out the boundaries in this regard. All of us know long-term unemployed people who left school early and found that the education system had failed them but who returned to full-time education. Very often they began with low literacy and numeracy skills but they went through the system completing the junior and leaving certificates over a number of years. Some have broken through the glass ceiling. I know one young lady who having left school at 13 or 14 has been called to train as a primary teacher, something to which I aspired while in school. She has deferred her training for a year because she wants to specialise in the charter of fundamental rights, which many Members might not have time to discuss. I know other early school leavers who are lecturing, practising at the bar, working in the IT sector or who have improved the quality of their lives and supported their families thus ensuring that they, in turn, can participate and remain in the education system.
I will defend the Department's interventions and its lack of capacity on occasion to deliver as much as I would like in monetary terms for certain programmes when I see the good work it does in association with the Department of Education and Science. It is a partnership, which involves a hugely influential multi-agency approach. Another enabling measure involving the Department is the support of families through the Family Support Agency. A groundbreaking survey was published recently by Kieran McKeown in association with ACCORD which identified the issues relating to family break-up and so on that need to be addressed.
The Minister has made progress in regard to the child dependant allowance. It is one issue on which Deputy Crowe and myself might agree. There is a need for further targeting of people who are not able to re-enter the workforce to take up the allowance. This issue ought to be delivered on as soon as possible. The provisions in the legislation will contribute to the improvement in the quality of life of a significant number of people and I compliment the Minister and the Government in this regard.
The Minister, in her budget speech, said the 1916 proclamation included the ideal of resolving "to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally". I am proud to be a member of the party and Government which have responded to that call and delivered on it in many respects. Between 1997 and 2003 there has been an increase of €4.5 billion in social welfare payments, which exceed €10 billion overall. This is a caring Government. We care about children, families, the elderly, carers and other social welfare recipients and the Government has done well.
The weakness of the Opposition did not create an obstacle to the social progress made by the Government. An oxymoron was published as a headline recently for an article that suggested the leader of the second least small party in Opposition, Labour, had signalled an alliance of his party with the least small Opposition party, Fine Gael, while at the same time suggesting that he would bring back a wealth tax. It is not the greatest start but it is good that he has set out his stall and there is a possibility of the two parties coming together. This is in the interest of improving parliamentary accountability and effectiveness and it would be beneficial if both parties came together to form a reasonably sized, cohesive Opposition. It would be good for all parties, the House and the nation. I wish Labour and Fine Gael well in their deliberations on that matter.
Deputy Crowe suggested the Government's theme was other than it is but there are many themes to its work. One theme is to tackle child poverty while, at the same time, giving options to parents in the provision of child care. I am delighted that since 2000, child benefit for the first and second child has increased by €71 to €125 a month and for the third and subsequent children by €86.20 to €157 a month. The draft of the new partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, contains a commitment to ensure further substantial increases will be paid in child benefit in 2004 and 2005. The footwear and back to school clothing allowances have been increased by €30 to €150, which is a substantial increase of 25% for children aged 12 and over while the allowance is €80 for children aged between two and 11. These are necessary payments for parents when children are returning to school.
Since 1997 another theme in the Government partners' programme has been to improve the lot of pensioners. Without the efforts of our senior citizens who have made a fantastic contribution over the years in the evolution of the State we would not be where we are and the Government has repaid them by increasing payments to them. The Government has also made a commitment that by 2007 the old age pension will increase to €200 per week. This provision was included in the programme for Government and also features in Sustaining Progress, the proposed new partnership agreement. Exemption limits for senior citizens have increased to €15,000 for a single person and €30,000 for a married couple. Elderly people have, since I entered politics, been wondering why they have to pay tax on their pensions given that they paid them in earlier years. The exemption limit of €30,000 for a married couple is to be admired and it is greatly appreciated by most senior citizens.
Another important provision in the Bill is that people in receipt of social welfare payments will qualify for free schemes if they are living with a person whose income is less than €203 per week. That is a laudable provision. Another theme of the Government has been the care of widows and carers. The income disregard for carers has been increased by 10% to €210 per week for a single person and €420 for a couple. That is a significant provision. The respite care grant has been increased from €635 to €735. That also is a significant increase. A carer taking care of two people will now receive €1,470. The carer's benefit, introduced by the Government in October 2002 allowed people to take a break from work to care for sick relatives. The income disregard in that case has been increased from €95 to €150. That allows the person receiving the benefit to keep in touch with work and people. That, too, is to be lauded.
Sustaining Progress also includes a commitment to make substantial increases in widow's pension during the lifetime of the proposed partnership agreement. The increases for widows contained in this Bill have been greater than in other cases. The Bill also contains a provision whereby payments will be made to a spouse for six weeks following the death of his or her partner if such person had been in receipt of a number of social welfare allowances and pensions. This, too, is to be applauded.
We have seen the value of shares and equity drop dramatically in recent times. The underlying value of pensions has also dropped. Fear was expressed that there would be a drift from defined benefit pension schemes to defined contribution schemes. This would be a retrograde step and I am delighted the Minister has included in the Bill a provision for actuaries to make reports in such a way as to ensure it does not act as a catalyst to this undesirable change. Personal retirement savings accounts now in place provide an excellent vehicle for people to supplement their employment pensions.
The PRSI charge on benefit-in-kind from 1 January 2004 is to be welcomed. It gives greater equity to the whole tax and pay related system. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, has dropped substantially during the life of this Government and the previous one. The number of people claiming social welfare payments has decreased. There is a commitment that payments in 2007 will be €150 per week in 2002 terms. That is also included in Sustaining Progress, the proposed new partnership agreement. That, too, is to be welcomed.
There are a number of other items I wish to speak about. I congratulate the Minister and the Irish Dental Association on their resolution of the dental dispute. A reasonable conclusion was reached. The PPS number will now be used by the Central Statistics Office and that is important in the interests of efficient administration. I would like to ensure that the Official Secrets Act or similar legislation will apply to civil servants who will access this information, particularly those in the CSO. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the gestures of support from the Government benches towards the new alliance between the Labour Party and Fine Gael. I assure them we will do our own thing. We may have had a difficult election and lost many seats but at least we did it honestly. We did not tell mistruths or lead people astray. Difficult as our situation is, I am proud of that.
The Deputy's party made outlandish promises.
Deputy Crawford, without interruption and through the Chair, please.
We may not be where we would like to be and are entitled to be but when I hear the Deputy speak about wealth tax and the hardship it would impose on people and when I look at all the stealth taxes introduced by the Government in the past eight months there remains very little room for talk. Let us look at what was promised before the election.
Councillors from the Deputy's party walked out of meetings.
You should look at the situation of IFI in Cork and Belfast.
Deputy Crawford, please address your remarks through the Chair.
I find it hard to accept a situation where under the British-Irish Agreement workers in IFI Belfast find themselves in a deplorable situation as employees of a company partly owned by the State. They are totally isolated. For Ministers to ignore that in a time of so-called peace and reconciliation is unacceptable. I know the Minister of State was unable to come to this House when difficulties in that regard were being expressed, but that is another day's work.
The Government has looked after horse owners and stud farms. Only last week it had to withdraw a proposal to bring into the tax net women in Gaeltacht areas who take care of students for six weeks. At the same time those who ensured Ministers such as Deputy Joe Walsh were returned to their ministerial positions walked scot free. Many people will be waiting in the long grass for Fianna Fáil. It happened to another party and I have no doubt it will happen again.
On leaving the House this morning I walked past Buswell's Hotel and on to the European Parliament office where I saw a young person lying on the roadside. That young person felt it necessary to sleep on the streets of Dublin last night. The Government says it is interested in an inclusive society and cares for everybody equally, although it is contemplating spending thousands of millions of euros on projects to boost its self-esteem, such as the "Bertie bowl" or the proposed new Government aircraft. I ask it to examine the fact that young and not so young people are homeless on the streets of Dublin and elsewhere, not because of a lack of money, but because of the way in which it is spent.
On the Bill itself, I have already refuted the claim of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs that the Government is creating an inclusive society. The great difficulties that exist in that regard are exemplified by the fact that although the Government has given an extra €6 to the unemployed and single mothers, the cost of a rented flat has increased by €4.80. It is hard to reconcile an increase of just €1.20, in real terms, with the Minister's use of the word "inclusive". We are constantly reminded that the Government's social welfare expenditure of €10 billion is a massive figure compared to the 1997 one. Deputies should remember, however, that Fianna Fáil has been in Government since 1987, with the exception of just over two years. Members of that party should not blame this country's problems on the events of the rainbow Government's term in office. Fianna Fáil has a long history of mismanaging this country's affairs. It should not be forgotten that unemployment was decreasing and wealth was being created in 1997, but we are now going in the opposite direction as a consequence of the mismanagement of the past five and a half years.
I welcome the modernisation of the general registry office for child benefit, as it means that decisions on child benefit can be made by an individual without having to go to a deciding officer. This Government has shown itself to be good at increasing the numbers involved in administration, not only in relation to social welfare but right across the community. In the North-Eastern Health Board, 400 extra people are now employed in administration and 100 extra workers, such as nurses, are employed at the coalface. I welcome anything that will improve the delivery of service and ensure that certain problems I have encountered in recent times do not continue. I know of a mother who had to wait four months to receive child benefit, but there have been improvements. Officials involved in social welfare matters are always extremely helpful when Members of the Oireachtas or their staff telephone the Department of Social Welfare. They try their best to deliver a quality service despite the fact that they are under tremendous pressure, as they will say without any fear.
Previous speakers have mentioned the increase in the respite grant in this Bill. I welcome the fact that the grant will be €735 for one person this year and €1,470 for two. I make no apology for praising the good aspects of this Bill and the Social Welfare Acts generally. If a person dies the day before the cut-off date, however, the loved one who cared for him or her will not receive a respite grant. One has to ask why. I recently encountered the case of a lady who looked after her husband for many years and who received carer's allowance for about three years during that time. Her husband died a day too early to allow her to receive a respite grant for the last year of his life. A person who becomes a carer a few weeks before 5 June receives the grant for a full year. This situation should be rectified and such small-mindedness should not be allowed to continue. I understand that the Department needs to set certain rules, but they are mad in the circumstances I have outlined. The Minister was sympathetic and gave a commitment to look into the matter when I outlined its details to her, but the lady in question has not yet received any money, which is what really counts.
The Government and the Oireachtas should be conscious of the needs of carers. The issue of subvention for the elderly was raised in the House today. The budgetary problems associated with subvention would not exist if more support was given to carers. While I appreciate that the Department of Social and Family Affairs deals with carers and the Department of Health and Children is responsible for subventions, the Government is responsible for both issues and taxpayers contribute to the funds of both Departments. It is impossible to understand why the care system is so restrictive. If the husband of a women who is looking after her parents or her in-laws dies suddenly, she falls under the contributory widow's system and automatically loses her carer's allowance. Such a person may be quite capable of working in a full-time job and retaining her contributory widow's pension, but she is not entitled to receive any carer's allowance for looking after her parents, her late spouse's parents, or anybody else. I ask the Minister to look at this matter seriously. If a carer is looking after two people, he or she receives full carer's allowance for one person and half the allowance for the other. Can the Minister not find a better solution for the relatively small number of people to whom I refer? She should ensure that people do not have to live in absolute poverty just because they are widowed.
I admire the courage of a Government Deputy who referred to major improvements that have been made in arrangements for widows. I agree that there has been a slight increase in the widow's pension, but it applies only to those over a certain age. Widows are most in need of social welfare assistance immediately after the death of their spouses, but no increase has been made in the provisions for such people. They are treated as if they are unemployed. Any benefits given to widows or widowers should be provided irrespective of age and at the time when they are most needed. I urge that the problems of widows be treated as a priority.
I welcome the important changes in the qualification of the children of those on short-term social welfare benefits. Since the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government was re-elected, without its four spare wheels, it has increased registration fees in colleges, third level education costs and child maintenance costs. Many people from my constituency had to opt for courses they did not wish to take because they could not afford to live in the city, and that can be substantiated.
I welcome that those aged over 25 years and living at home have been recognised by an independent body as people in their own right and that a living at home allowance is not taken off them for social welfare purposes. However, I find it difficult to understand why the Minister curtailed this to those over 29 years when the body concerned advised the age of 25. The Minister should explain that and outline how many people aged between 25 and 29 could benefit and what would be the overall cost.
I listened with interest to the discussion on the PPS number. Following the expected passage of this Bill, five new agencies will have access to PPS numbers. There was a massive campaign to advertise the PPS number but I do not remember the Minister mentioning, when she advised everyone to obtain a PPS number, that five new agencies would be added to those that have access to it. How necessary is this and how tight will the information be? People are concerned that personal information is freely available and that this information can be drawn down at the touch of a button in Dublin, Brussels or elsewhere, and in some cases used against them.
I recently came across an example of this with regard to the banks. Somebody signed what they thought was a harmless form to give a 20 year old money to buy a car. Two years later, because a payment or two was not made at the right time, the person who signed the form is now on a black list on a computer and cannot find a way off that list. These are serious matters and people are genuinely worried that enormous damage could be done to their futures when somebody else is at fault. It is much harder to get a name off a computer if it is there for the wrong reasons than it is to get it on for the right reasons.
I listened with interest last night to the Minister speaking on television about the Pensions Board and its problems. I wish the board well in trying to maintain the value of pensions in the current environment. It is vital that pensions, which people understood they would have for their retirement, be maintained and guaranteed. I know of a recent situation where a person who thought he was to draw €100 plus per week in a few years found that the pension is €30,000 to €35,000 short. It is difficult for a person coming to the end of a working life to find himself or herself in that situation. It is a major problem that the insurance company, which was very brave some 15 years ago at saying what the person would get, now advises the person that the lump sum will be short.
The cuts in the summer jobs scheme, CE schemes and back to work allowances are critical issues for social welfare and community structures. I have letters on my desk from community groups which are absolutely shattered by Government action. These groups were encouraged by politicians to improve the lot of the elderly and disabled, local towns, villages and rural parishes. Nonetheless, their funding is being severely cut.
Where is the Government going? Where will young people get the small amount of money from summer jobs that they got in recent years? How will communities work without CE schemes? How much damage has been done to the future for those seeking work following the removal of the back to work allowance?
I wish to share my time with Deputy Grealish, by agreement.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I wish the Minister, who is from my neighbouring constituency, well in her remit. This is the first time I have spoken on a Bill for which she has responsibility. I also wish the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, well in his role. The Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Enterprise, Trade and Employment have many links and should link more often than at present.
I arrived in the Dáil on 2 April seven years ago, so I am close to an anniversary. At that time, I was in Opposition and watched child benefit increase by £1. I remember checking the price of a bar of chocolate and an apple at that time and realising that £1 was not going to have much effect for any child. Since then, I have been proud to stand on this side of the House and watch the significant increases in social welfare. I have been proud to watch the Department of Social and Family Affairs being aided by the Cabinet with substantial budgets.
Seven years on, expectations have grown hugely and everyone anticipates that increases each year should be the same or more than the previous year. It is nearly impossible to live up to expectations. I listened to the Opposition decrying the recent increases but it is worthwhile to note the importance of those increases, including the €10 increase per week for pensioners, the €11 increase per week for widows and widowers over 66, the €8 and €10 increase in child benefit, the €7 increase for widows and widowers under 66, the €100 increase in the respite care grant and the increase in the income disregards for carer's allowance. There are many more measures that will make a difference to those receiving them. I accept that we must aspire to give the maximum possible but, if they are related to the situation over a number of years, the recent increases are an important contribution, and I congratulate the Minister on her achievement in this regard.
There are other issues to be addressed. I agree with Deputy Crawford regarding the support needed by widows and widowers under 66 when a spouse dies. I have alluded to the links between the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There should be similar links between the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the health boards with regard to considering the supports required by widows and widowers. That might be in the context of support towards refurbishing a house at the time of a spouse's death. This is a relevant issue because while it is one thing for a household to have one or two incomes, if the main breadwinner dies the means at the disposal of the family changes considerably.
The supports available for the elderly, including the housing aid for the elderly, the disabled person's grant and the essential repairs grant, are not available to widows and widowers. This must be addressed because those who are vulnerable need to be looked after, and widows and widowers can fall into this category. The Department should consult the Department of the Environment and Local Government with a view to providing them with cover under the housing aid for the elderly scheme, which is operated through the health boards. A review of possible loopholes in these kinds of schemes was undertaken and I ask the Minister to consider providing cover under this aspect.
While I am pleased that there is support for carers, the means testing thresholds for the carer's allowance must continue to fall and should ultimately be abandoned. It is suggested that if means testing is abandoned millionaires will claim allowances. This is unlikely to happen as they can afford to provide care without calling on the support of the Department. I am concerned about those who are severely disabled. A doctor's certificate should be sufficient to enable them have their needs covered.
While I would much prefer to see everybody working and paying their taxes, thus eliminating the need for unemployment benefit and assistance, I welcome the increase in the threshold for family income support. It is important because of increasing job losses, especially in my constituency. These have arisen mainly because of closures in the textile industry. In the period 1998 to 2002, 1,200 people in Buncrana lost their jobs following the closure of one factory. People in many other towns in the constituency have also lost jobs. They need unemployment assistance and benefit. Even where they transfer to lower paid jobs they need family income support and I am pleased that the threshold has increased.
I welcome the abolition of the assessment of benefit and privilege for unemployed people aged 29 years and over. People should not be penalised for trying to pursue a family ethos. At present, if a person over the age of 18 years is living in the family home everything is means tested. If the person left the house and took up employment he or she would be entitled to rent subsidy and other State supports. The Department should provide support if the person stays at home and I would prefer if the abolition of assessment applied to those aged 25, not 29, years and over. However, I accept that improvements and changes of this kind take place more slowly than desired.
I ask the Minister to look at the issue of rent allowances. Changes were introduced to address short-term problems. It is important that those in receipt of them have their accommodation inspected. This may necessitate the Department working with the health boards and the Department of the Environment and Local Government. While there is good accommodation available, some of it is substandard. It should be inspected to ensure that the rent paid reflects the amount warranted. Steps should also be taken to strengthen provisions on the registration of landlords. If, following that, problems persist the recent changes to rent allowances should be reviewed.
I strongly advocated the retention of the summer student jobs scheme and I am disappointed that it has been abolished. It is important that students are made aware of its abolition. In some areas, such as in my constituency, it can be very difficult to secure alternative employment. The Department must play a proactive role in trying to place students in summer employment. I understand that even in areas of my constituency where there is high unemployment some employers are crying out for workers. The Department should match those who need workers with those who are prepared to work.
Over recent weeks Greencastle has suffered a tough time. The Minister met representatives to deal with the question of family income support and PRSI. She is working hard to try to resolve both issues and I wish her well.
I thank Deputy Keaveney for sharing her time with me. I support the Bill. It is the second of two Government Bills to implement the €530 million social welfare package made available under the 2003 budget. It follows the Social Welfare Act 2002, which provided for increases in social welfare payments from the beginning of January 2003. When enacted, this Bill, combined with the changes effected by the 2002 Act, will bring the level of expenditure on social welfare in 2003 to over €10 billion. This is a huge figure by comparison with the expenditure of €5.7 billion in 1997. Even the members of the Opposition will be compelled to agree that it is proof of the Government's commitment to the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. Social welfare spending represents a sizeable proportion of overall Government expenditure of €38 billion.
As a member of the Progressive Democrats, I particularly support the Bill as it includes a number of measures which my party promised to implement in its general election manifesto. We negotiated hard to have them included in the subsequently agreed partnership for Government. We pledged that if elected, we would increase child benefit and the respite grant to carers, extend child dependant allowances and increase the old age pension. This Bill honours these commitments.
The Bill provides for the increases in child benefit announced in the budget. It amounts to €8 per month in the lower rate, payable to the first and second child, and €10 per month in respect of the third child and subsequent children. It brings the monthly repayment rates to €125.60 and €157.30 respectively. From next April, a family with three children will receive €408.50 compared with €382.50 at present, an increase of €26 per month. That is significant, especially for those families who depend on it. It helps with expenditure on school and clothes and provides a support to families.
This measure will mark the final phase of the child benefit investment package initiative in budget 2001. When completed, Government investment in the scheme will rise by an additional €1.27 billion. An estimated 530,000 families with 1,032,000 children will benefit from the increases in 2003. Research has shown that child benefit, as a universal payment made directly to families, is the most effective and efficient way in which the Government can provide support to children. The rate of child benefit payment is now more than three times the level paid in 1997. It is a huge increase.
The Progressive Democrats recognises the important role played by carers. Thousands of people devote a large part of their lives to caring for sick or elderly relatives, often in very difficult circumstances. They make huge personal sacrifices to provide an essential service which would otherwise require substantial Exchequer funding, and they must be complimented on their work. Many of them provide a service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
More than a decade ago, the Progressive Democrats was instrumental in securing the introduction of the carer's allowance. In our election manifesto of 2002 we committed ourselves to new measures to recognise and reward the role of our carers and I am delighted that they are being implemented. This Bill now provides for an increase in the annual respite care grant payable to recipients of carer's benefit and carer's allowance, as announced in budget 2003.
In introducing these measures we will continue to support the valuable work undertaken by carers. The new rates of grant, payable from June 2003, are €735 where the carer is caring for one person and €1,470 where the carer is caring for more than one person. This will benefit 24,700 carers and will cost an additional €2.7 million per annum, thus honouring the Progressive Democrats' election pledge.
The Progressive Democrats also made a commitment in 1997 to increasing the value of old age pensions to £100 per week. We have been as good as our word and have not only reached that target but surpassed it. The old age pension has risen by almost 50% over the five budgets since we entered Government. The old age contributory pensioners now receive €157 per week and this shows that the Government is working to ensure the old age pensioners are catered for and in receipt of adequate funding.
Our long-term goal as partners in Government is to achieve the elimination of pensioner poverty. We will build on progress made over the past five years and ensure that every pensioner has significant income to enjoy a reasonable standard of living in his or her retirement years.
The Progressive Democrats have ambitious objectives regarding the increase of pension rates. We set a target of €200 per week for the basic contributory old age pension and we will continue to campaign, as junior partners in Government, to ensure it is reached by 2007. It ought to be because of the rate of inflation.
I welcome Deputy Coughlan's provision to protect those with personal retirement savings accounts. That amendment will benefit consumers and protect people from being moved from one perfectly good pension plan to another.
The Bill amends the Pensions Act 1990 to strengthen the powers of the pensions board to allow it to respond, on a case-by-case basis, to schemes that are in funding difficulties on foot of the current downturn in the equities market. There has been much comment surrounding pensions in light of the fall in global equities markets. The impact of the decline poses sharp but, I hope, short-term problems for many employers and pension fund trustees who may have difficulty in meeting the funding standard under the Pensions Act 1990. The impact of this funding crisis must be carefully managed to avoid a drift away from the benefit of defined contribution schemes as this may not be in the long-term interest of scheme members.
The Bill extends entitlement to an increase for a qualified child aged between 18 and 22 years and in full-time education to recipients of certain short-term social welfare payments as announced in budget 2003. This extension will apply to people who have been in receipt of disability benefit, injury benefit, health and safety benefit, supplementary welfare allowances, unemployment benefits and assistance for more than 26 weeks. This measure, contained in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, implements the commitment to increase the qualified child age limit to 22 years in line with the current arrangements for long-term payments.
Other provisions include the extension of special allowances currently paid to pensioners over age 66 who are living on islands to recipients of invalidity pension, disability allowance and unemployability supplement. This allowance will be payable from April and amounts to €12.70 per week.
The Bill also extends entitlement to six weeks' payment following the death of a person in receipt of certain social welfare payments to the surviving spouse or partner who is receiving a payment in his or her own right. It provides for the abolition of the assessment of benefit and privilege for people aged 29 and over who claim unemployment assistance and pre-retirement allowance payments.
According to recent estimates by the ESRI, the number of people living in consistent poverty in Ireland fell to 6% by 2000, compared to 10% three years earlier. This is a huge fall. We are making real progress on tackling poverty and have been since 1997. Old age pension, social welfare and child benefit payments have risen, as has the respite grant to carers.
I support the Bill because it will put into legislation the commitment the Progressive Democrats made to the electorate last May and deliver on our commitment to creating a more inclusive and caring society.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Connaughton and Breen.
One must be very careful speaking about election manifestos because of the costs that have been incurred in the economy since they were first produced. Every day we hear of increases in the price of electricity and rent. The cost of everything has gone up. Also, we are dealing with a valueless currency. A sum of €100 would be the equivalent of about £60, a devaluation which has occurred over a very short period.
The previous speaker raised the issue of child care. The costs associated with this are huge. Also, we heard about the loss of the student summer jobs scheme and this heralds a return to private enterprise. Public sector job creation has increased by 6.7%, but in real terms there is a 5% drop in the industrial sector. Quarterly figures announced last week suggest there could be up to 15,000 additional people looking for work. It is very easy to create jobs in the public sector, which was evident prior to the election. When one considers the huge costs associated with job creation in the private sector, one realises it is much more difficult to create a job in this sector compared to the public sector.
On the basis of a five year review, there is an average overpayment of €26 million per year by the Department, partly resulting from fraud. How is that being addressed? It is a huge sum of money. An average of €10 million is totally written off every year and cannot be reclaimed from any source. That is also a huge sum of money. The casualties in this respect are the people in real need. How does the Department decipher the amount of over payment and the percentage of over payment attributable to fraud or suspected fraud? There has been no significant improvement in its effort to combat over payment in recent years because €26 million per annum amounts to €0.5 million per week. This money is not accounted for and its loss impacts most on those who really need to benefit from it. Personal public service numbers would be useful in trying to eliminate fraud.
Obviously, one has to operate within a confined budget, but some people are not receiving the benefits of the respite care grant. It is disappointing when senior citizens are discharged from hospitals and allowed only five hours per week of home help – one hour per day from Monday to Friday.
The provision in section 7 for making payments to spouses after death is welcome.
There is a slowdown in the economy. It is worrying that the Department of Social and Family Affairs spent almost €20 million in the past two years on spin doctors and consultancy fees covering the period from 28 November 2002 to date.
I understand that 36 reports have been commissioned. This huge expenditure is outrageous and unwarranted. I cannot understand how €20 million can be spent on spin doctors in two years. It costs money to promote the Minister and his associates on television where they announce different schemes. This €20 million plus the €26 million lost to the Exchequer through fraud or otherwise totals the very large sum of €46 million.
People are applauding increases of a couple of euro which is nothing at all when one considers the valueless currency with which we are dealing. With inflation running at 6% to 8% in real terms, there is no increase in payments to senior citizens. I read in the print media that the television licence entitlement is to be withdrawn from pensioners. Is it true that RTE is not to extend this provision to new applicants? If that has been agreed by Government, it is the lowest of the low.
The Government would never do that.
If the newspaper report is unfounded, I would like the Minister to repudiate it. At a time when the Department faces budgetary constraints, huge amounts of money are being spent on spin doctors and departmental promotion. Public sector job creation is boasted of when the small companies which have been the backbone of this economy's success are finding it difficult to be productive. It was very easy to create jobs in the public sector prior to May of last year, but the recent embargo will probably only be adhered to until the next local elections when it will be repealed to increase the Government's popularity.
The words I have heard from the Government side today ring very hollow. The rate of inflation makes a mockery of the Government's generosity. Furthermore, I dispute the inflation figures which are being published. As a retailer, I see price increases day after day.
This Bill is, like most others, something of a curate's egg in that it is good in spots. I agree with some of its provisions, but as I have only a few minutes to speak, I will concentrate on its extraordinarily lousy aspects.
A constituent in Loughrea, County Galway, contacted me yesterday to say that new applicants, be they single people or couples without dependants, do not qualify for rent allowance where rent exceeds €90 per week. If that is true, it is a disaster and I would like the Minister and his officials to take note of it. I cannot understand it. Existing recipients of rent allowance are to be treated as new applicants if they are forced to leave their current accommodation due, for example, to the landlord's desire to sell the property. I am also told that existing recipients whose rent increases to more than €90 on renewal of their current lease will have their claim referred by the chief executive officer to a superintendent of the Western Health Board. In several of the towns I represent, it is very difficult for a childless couple or a single person to find accommodation which costs less than €90. If they have to pay €91, they will be denied rent allowance. My informant went through the wringer last week with regard to this, which is something I hope officials will bring to the Minister's attention when she replies.
The suspension of the summer jobs scheme is a bad turn. Rural areas are experiencing a tormenting time with FÁS schemes grinding to a halt. The summer scheme was particularly useful for a certain type of student. It is strange that the scheme was allowed to continue while the economy was doing well and it was easy to find summer jobs for young people, yet the minute there is a downturn, the scheme is suspended. I find that extraordinary.
On balance, I welcome the introduction of the Pensions Bill, but it is full of deficiencies. The lack of a compulsion on employers to contribute to pensions will have a negative impact on the 30% of the workforce on lower salaries. I was around in 1988 when RSI for the self-employed was introduced. While the measure is not the same sort of scheme as the one in question and it had its teething problems, it proved a very useful instrument. The provisions of this Bill will not work as well because of the collapse of share prices and the under-valuation of pensions. It is a nightmare. I know several people who have come to pension age in the last year and who are not getting back what they paid to insurance companies. They are almost left without a pension. Troubles with the special savings scheme and the Eircom share price will cause people to doubt the Government's sincerity when it talks about an investment for retirement.
The Department of Social and Family Affairs must guarantee to those who are not able to join the proposed voluntary scheme that the non-contributory old-age pension will always be there. Many are afraid they will not receive a pension if they do not enter the scheme now.
I agree with my colleagues, Deputies Connaughton and Perry. Today is a sad day. This morning we heard that the Government is to spend €50 million on a new jet. The Minister for Defence has given the distinct impression that he is taking some kind of pills by lecturing RTE to the effect that Ministers are too important to travel on commercial aircraft like the rest of us.
They want three jets.
Judging by his speech this morning, Deputy Ardagh, appears to have got his hands on the Minister's pills, while the Taoiseach insulted the House by refusing to discuss this monumental waste of public money with Deputy Kenny.
A male patient has checked himself out of hospital believing that going home would be less detrimental to his health than lying on a trolley in an accident and emergency ward. He lay on the trolley for five days and was charged €200 for his trouble.