Written Answers.

The following are questions tabled by Members for written response and the ministerial replies received from the Departments [unrevised].
Questions Nos. 1 to 30, inclusive, answered orally.
Questions Nos. 31 to 63, inclusive, resubmitted.
Questions Nos. 64 to 70, inclusive, answered orally.

Social Welfare Code.

Liz McManus

Question:

71 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has received a response from Commissioner Wallstrom to the information she supplied regarding Government proposals for restrictions to social welfare entitlement aimed at persons from other EU states after 1 May 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12051/04]

John Gormley

Question:

75 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the measures being put in place to protect citizens of EU accession countries, currently availing of supports, after 1 May 2004. [12095/04]

Gay Mitchell

Question:

113 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the new arrangements being made by the Government which will affect citizens from the accession states, as well as those currently living in the EU but not resident here or in the United Kingdom, who seek to travel and work in Ireland after 1 May 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10010/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 71, 75 and 113 together.

As I outlined to the House during the course of the passage of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004, the Government has decided to restrict access to certain social welfare payments by introducing a "habitual residence condition" as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit. This is not a transitional measure under the EU accession treaty arrangement but a permanent provision in our social welfare code. This new condition is designed to safeguard our social welfare system from abuse by restricting access to social assistance and child benefit payments for people from other countries who have little or no connection with Ireland.

The new condition will require a claimant for social assistance to be habitually resident in the State or the rest of the common travel area — Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — for a substantial continuous period. If they have been present in the State for less than a two year period it shall be presumed that they are not habitually resident and the onus will be on them to prove otherwise. If the claimant satisfies the two year provision, he or she will still be required to satisfy the general requirements relating to habitual residence.

A person must establish a degree of permanence to be considered habitually resident in the State. The term "habitual residence" is well known in other jurisdictions and in EU legislation and has been clarified in an EU Court judgment. It is intended to convey a degree of permanence in the person's residence here. Clearly the duration and continuity of their residence would be important factors as would their intentions in that regard.

The following factors, as set down by EU case law, will be considered in determining whether a person satisfies the "habitual residence condition": length and continuity of residence; employment prospects; reasons for coming to Ireland; future intentions; centre of interest, for example, family, home, connections. Each case will be examined on the facts and the person's degree of permanence in the State and no single factor will be conclusive. People who claim welfare payments but do not satisfy the habitual residency test will be assisted to return home and the necessary arrangements will be made in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

These measures are being introduced to ensure our social welfare system does not become overburdened. It is a prudent and sensible measure. While the EU treaties provide for full freedom for citizens of the accession states to move freely through the enlarged EU they do not provide for automatic access to labour markets. Under the accession treaties, the EU has put in place a transitional measure, by which existing member states will be able to exercise discretion as to the extent of access of persons from the new members states to their respective labour markets. Unlike other member states, Ireland is not imposing any restrictions on the numbers of people from the new member states who wish to come here and work. This Government gave a commitment that EU citizens who want to come and work here from 1 May are welcome to do so and we will honour that commitment.

The Government has recently received a request from the EU Commission seeking information on the transitional measures introduced by the Government on free movement of workers from the accession countries. In response to the Commission's request my Department will provide full details of the new habitual residence condition.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Martin Ferris

Question:

72 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress which has been made on extending the existing free travel system for pensioners to enable them make point-to-point journeys within the Six Counties. [11950/04]

Brian O'Shea

Question:

104 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position regarding the implementation of an all-Ireland free travel scheme for pensioners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12055/04]

Arthur Morgan

Question:

111 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she is in regular contact with the Department with responsibility for regional development in regard to an all-Ireland free travel scheme. [11948/04]

Seán Crowe

Question:

140 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress which has been made on the development of a card based pass system which will enable all-Ireland free travel. [11946/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 72, 104, 111 and 140 together.

All persons aged 66 years or over who reside in the Republic as well as certain categories of people under that age are entitled to free travel in the South under my Department's free travel scheme. Under the concessionary fares scheme operated by Translink in the North, people aged 65 years and over who live in Northern Ireland are eligible to free travel within the North. Under these existing arrangements, free travel pass holders in Northern Ireland and the Republic can also avail of free cross-Border journeys on bus and rail services.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce a system of all-Ireland free travel for pensioners and other eligible social welfare customer categories. This would enable passholders to make onward journeys free of charge in each jurisdiction. I intend to have this scheme in operation before the end of the Government's term of office.

My Department is co-operating with the Rail Procurement Agency towards the introduction of an integrated public transport ticketing system in the greater Dublin area, for free travel pass holders as well as for the general public. When it becomes operational in 2005-6, this system will involve the use of smart card technology. In developing the All-Ireland free travel scheme, my Department will discuss with the participating transport operators the feasibility of using smart card technology in that context. A similar type of smart card system already operates on Translink services in the North. Each card incorporates a photograph and signature of the pass holder as well as a card expiry date. Card readers on buses and trains ensure that every journey undertaken can be costed accurately and with minimum inconvenience to the customer and the transport operators.

The use of this technology by all the operators who are likely to participate in an all-Ireland free travel scheme, including Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, would be beneficial from an administrative, accounting and control perspective. Officials from my Department have held initial discussions on the all-Ireland free travel scheme with their counterparts in the Department for Regional Development for Northern Ireland. There are a number of policy and operational issues to be resolved in connection with the new scheme, including its resourcing and the options for joint funding. My Department will continue to progress this matter with the Northern authorities this year. However, it is likely to take some time to finalise the various technical issues and agree transport operator contracts and budgetary arrangements for the scheme.

Dan Boyle

Question:

73 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason the Eircom company is allowed to disconnect phone lines for non-payments to users who have phone rental paid for by her Department. [12088/04]

Where customers are in debt to Eircom due to non-payment of their phone call bills, Eircom has a policy for debt recovery. This can culminate in disconnection of the telephone line in persistent bad debt cases. Customers then have to pay a fee to get reconnected.

In the past, this policy applied equally to social welfare customers in receipt of the telephone allowance, even though my Department was continuing to meet the standing charge element of client bills in these cases through the telephone allowance. Following discussions initiated by my Department, Eircom has agreed to revise its debt management policy regarding defaulting customers who are in receipt of the telephone allowance.

From August 2003, Eircom implemented a new debtor policy on a pilot basis for customers in receipt of the telephone allowance. Since then, any such customers are no longer disconnected but have their outward phone service barred. This restriction, known as outward service barred or OSB, means that they can still receive calls and can make emergency calls but cannot make other outward calls. In this way, customers do not add to the debt already owed to Eircom. This procedure can be invoked by Eircom where the balance on a customer's two monthly bill is over a specified amount.

Eircom has stated to my Department that if this change in policy resulted in a substantial increase in the total amount of arrears outstanding from this particular group of clients, it would consider introducing a limit on the amount of time a customer could remain on outward service barred. Following a recent review of its policy, Eircom has identified that debt levels were increasing for some defaulting telephone allowance recipients. Accordingly, Eircom has informed my Department that it intends to limit the duration that customers can remain on outward service barred to four months. This is in cases where customers refuse to make any repayment towards their outstanding liabilities. As far as my Department is aware, this revised procedure has not yet been implemented by Eircom. Ultimately, the customer debt management policies of Eircom are a commercial matter for that company to determine.

Where people are having difficulty in meeting their liabilities, they can receive free advice on managing their financial affairs and help in dealing with creditors from the monetary advice and budgeting service, MABS, which is operated by my Department. I strongly urge anyone facing this situation to contact their nearest MABS adviser.

EU Presidency.

Liz McManus

Question:

74 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her Department’s programme for the remaining period of the Irish EU presidency; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12050/04]

My overall focus for the Irish Presidency has been and will continue to be advancing the EU social policy agenda generally and, in particular, making progress in realising the ten year goals set by the Lisbon European Council in 2000.

One of the goals of the Lisbon agenda is to achieve greater social cohesion. Based on an analysis of the second round national action plans on social inclusion, 2003-2005, a joint Council-Commission inclusion report was adopted by the Council of Ministers in March and reflected in their key messages to the spring European Council. At the initiative of the Presidency, the employment and social protection committees together prepared a key messages paper on employment, social protection/inclusion and gender equality. At its meeting on 4 March 2004, the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council unanimously endorsed this paper for transmission to the spring European Council.

The four key social protection/inclusion messages relate to strengthening social inclusion; making work pay — which was the subject of our informal ministerial meeting in January; ensuring that pension systems support longer working lives; ensuring accessibility, sustainability and quality of health and long-term care for the elderly. The spring summit noted these and other key messages with approval and I was pleased to note that these messages were reflected throughout the spring Council conclusions.

One of the priorities of the Irish Presidency was to secure agreement with the European Parliament on the reform and simplification of Regulation 1408/71 which co-ordinates the social security systems of the member states so as to ensure that migrant workers, or members of their families, are not penalised in terms of social security when they exercise their right to free movement. Following acceptance by the European Parliament last week, the new regulation was deemed to have been adopted on Monday of this week after my colleagues at Council agreed to accept the two amendments proposed by Parliament.

Following the accession of the ten new member states, we will host a special conference in May, in co-operation with the Hungarian Government and the Commission. The conference will address both the implications of the current reform of the co-ordination regulations for all 25 states and the particular implementation challenges facing new member states in this field.

The issue of migration is also a priority for my Department during the Irish Presidency. I recently hosted a conference on the theme of "Reconciling Mobility and Social Inclusion". The main focus of the conference was on the role of social and employment policies in achieving social inclusion for people moving within the EU. In the area of family policy and to mark the 10th anniversary of the UN International Year of the Family, the Irish Presidency will host a major international conference the title of which will be "Families, Change and Social Policy in Europe".

The Irish Presidency will progress an initiative taken by previous Presidencies by hosting, in Brussels at the end of May, a third meeting of people experiencing poverty. Our aim is to further develop ways of promoting participation by, and consultation with, people experiencing poverty in the context of developing policies in this area. I will update my EU colleagues on the outcome of the various conferences at the next meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council which will take place at the beginning of June.

I am happy that these events represent a substantial programme of work and a significant contribution to moving forward the EU social policy agenda.

Question No. 75 answered with QuestionNo. 71.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

76 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the numbers availing of and the amount of funding involved in the farm assist scheme in each year it has been in operation, giving details on a county basis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12178/04]

Farm assist is a weekly means tested scheme which provides a payment for low income farmers. The scheme was introduced in April 1999. The amount paid to each farmer is dependent on a number of factors. These include family size, whether the spouse-partner is working and the value of means assessed. Farmers who have income from another source, such as other self-employment, insurable employment, capital and so forth, may qualify for a payment subject to such earnings being included in the means test.

The maximum personal rate per week is €134.80 with increases of €89.40 per week being paid in respect of a qualified adult and €16.80 per week for each child dependent, or €8.40 at the half rate. The average payment to farm assist customers in April 2004 was €143.59 per week. The scheme, therefore, makes a valuable contribution to supporting those on low incomes in the farming sector and to combating social exclusion in rural communities.

In respect of the statistical information sought by the Deputy, I am attaching to my response a tabular statement which shows the numbers of recipients by county at the end of each year since 1999. It should be noted that statistics are maintained only by local office catchment area and these areas do not in all cases correspond with county boundaries. Furthermore, with regard to local office areas, the only data available is about the numbers availing of the scheme. This, however, gives a reasonable indication of expenditure by county.

The highest numbers of recipients are based in the counties of Mayo and Donegal. Between these two counties recipients account for approximately one third of all farm assist recipients, suggesting that spending is reasonably targeted at disadvantaged areas. The numbers availing of the scheme have grown by 837 over the five year period since the scheme was introduced. Expenditure on the farm assist scheme since it commenced in 1999 is as follows.

Year

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

Cost

€19.9 million

€41.4 million

€50.6 million

€58.6 million

€62.8 million

It is estimated that the scheme will cost €69.7 million this year, which is a 350% increase in expenditure since it commenced in 1999 and is proof of this Government's commitment to low income families who are engaged in farming.

Farm Assist Spending (nationally) and Number of Recipients

(Breakdown by County) 1999-2003

(Statistics have been compiled from data that is maintained on a local office catchment area basis which do not necessarily correspond with county boundaries.)

County

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

Carlow

57

61

72

72

71

Cavan

306

309

325

306

313

Clare

472

478

468

467

464

Cork

469

530

551

578

596

Donegal

1071

1100

1172

1213

1220

Dublin

10

13

11

11

11

Galway

871

910

846

887

897

Kerry

759

731

732

696

698

Kildare

42

44

44

45

50

Kilkenny

84

100

111

112

127

Laois

75

85

90

96

94

Leitrim

229

241

250

252

260

EU Presidency.

Joan Burton

Question:

77 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress that has been made on the legislative priority she has set for the Irish Presidency of the adoption by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament of the proposals to simplify and modernise EU regulations on social security of migrant workers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12039/04]

The EU regulation to which the Deputy refers is Regulation 1408/71, which co-ordinates the social security systems of the member states so as to ensure that migrant workers, or members of their families, are not penalised in terms of social security when they exercise their right to free movement.

Regulation 1408/71 has been amended on many occasions to keep up with developments arising from European Court of Justice case law, various enlargements of the Union and legislative developments in member states. For these reasons, the Commission submitted a proposal to reform and simplify Regulation 1408/71 to Council in December 1998 and consideration of it commenced in 1999 during the Finnish Presidency. In December of last year, following the political agreement reached by the Council of Ministers on the proposed regulation, I made it a priority for the Irish Presidency of the Council to secure agreement with the European Parliament during second reading, thus avoiding the lengthy conciliation process.

A first step was taken towards this goal on the 26 January when Council reached agreement on a common position, which was then presented to the European Parliament on 28 January. The employment and social affairs committee of the Parliament strongly endorsed the common position, with two minor amendments, in a vote on 6 April and this was followed by a plenary vote in Strasbourg on 20 April where Parliament voted overwhelmingly to accept the common position together with the committee's two amendments. Following this, the regulation was deemed to have been adopted on Monday of this week after my colleagues at Council agreed to accept the two amendments proposed by Parliament. This adoption will be formalised later this week when the regulation will be officially signed on behalf of the Presidents of the Council and the Parliament.

This regulation is one of the most important social measures to emerge from Europe in the past number of years and will have a very real impact on the lives of ordinary citizens throughout the European Union. The adoption of the regulation, which is essential to removing barriers to free movement of persons, is a striking demonstration of the fact that co-decision can work smoothly and efficiently in a constructive spirit between the Council and the Parliament.

Given the importance of this regulation to achieving the social objectives of the Union, I am delighted to be able to announce its adoption and confirm that I have achieved what was one of my main priorities for the Irish Presidency. This is the culmination of almost five years of painstaking work by successive Presidencies and it can be a source of pride to all of us that the Irish Presidency has had such a central role in its completion.

Pension Provisions.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

78 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons who had taken out a personal retirement savings account by the end of January 2004; if she has satisfied herself with the level of take up of the accounts; her plans to promote awareness of these accounts; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12054/04]

Information on the number of personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs, opened is received by the Pensions Board from PRSA providers at the end of each quarter. The latest figures available relate to the end of December 2003 and these show that 19,022 accounts have been opened with a total asset value of €41 million. This is a significant improvement on the position at the end of September 2003 when a total of 6,707 accounts were in existence. Figures for the period up to March 2004 are currently being collected by the Pensions Board and will be made available by the board in the next couple of weeks.

The increase in the number of new accounts opened since September 2003 is encouraging and I look forward to seeing further progress when the March 2004 figures are available. We are at an early stage in our programme to increase overall pensions coverage but it is clear that certain progress has already being made. It has always been acknowledged that, given the nature of pensions, achievement in this area would be slow. In 2003, the Pensions Board ran a very successful pensions awareness campaign on my behalf to supplement the publicity effort being made by PRSA providers. An assessment of the situation at the end of the year showed a high level of awareness amongst the public of pensions issues. The challenge is to translate this awareness into increased supplementary pensions coverage. I have provided further resources this year to continue this awareness campaign.

In this regard, in early March, I launched an information booklet on pensions options for women. A series of local pensions fora were also run in March in areas identified in the CSO survey as having a low level of supplementary pensions coverage. The fora were backed up by local press and radio coverage and, indeed, they also resulted in some welcome national radio coverage. Upcoming initiatives include extensive promotion of women's pension issues as well as TV and radio advertising. It is also planned to have another pensions awareness week later on in the year.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

79 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons currently in receipt of a State pension; her Department’s assessment of the numbers of persons likely to be in receipt of State pensions over the next decade; and the provisions which are being made in that regard; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12058/04]

At the end of March 2004, there were 201,788 people receiving an old age contributory or retirement pension and 86,194 receiving an old age non-contributory pension. An actuarial review of the social insurance fund, undertaken on behalf of my Department in 2002, projected that the number of recipients of old age contributory and retirement pensions will increase to 255,000 by 2011 and 321,000 by 2016. The increase will, to some extent, be balanced by a reduction in the number of people receiving an old age non-contributory pension. The numbers receiving this pension have declined by over 20% in the last ten years which reflects improved social insurance coverage and increased labour force participation, particularly amongst women.

In common with other European countries, the population of Ireland is ageing as a result of a combination of increasing life expectancy and a declining birth rate. The decline in the birth rate is relatively recent and this, coupled with the effects of high emigration for much of the period up to the 1990s, has resulted in Ireland having the lowest proportion of older people in the EU. with 11.2% aged 65 years and over, compared to the current EU average of 16.1%. The proportion of older people in Ireland will remain at broadly the same level for the next ten years after which it is projected to increase rapidly to 15% in 2021, 19% in 2031 and 28% in 2056. A similar situation exists with regard to the number of pensioners relative to the number at work.

Ageing, therefore, presents the same challenge to Ireland in meeting growing pension costs as to other countries except that we have a longer period to prepare for its full impact. The population projections suggest that no special measures are required in the time scale envisaged by the Deputy. However, the Government is making preparations, through the National Pensions Reserve Fund, to part-fund state pensions costs from 2025 onwards.

Pensions have been an important issue at EU level in recent years. This is not surprising given that the challenges facing pensions systems are more immediate for other member states. The EU has assessed national pensions systems under agreed objectives in the area of adequacy, financial sustainability and modernisation. In this regard, a joint EU Commission and Council report, published in 2003, considered that Ireland has made good progress in ensuring both the financial sustainability and adequacy of our pensions system. The report concluded that our system appears to be, in broad terms, financially sustainable despite projected major increases in future pensions expenditure. The situation will be kept under review.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Phil Hogan

Question:

80 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will make a statement on the operation of the bereavement grant scheme and the number of grants approved for 2001 and 2002. [12176/04]

The bereavement grant scheme was introduced on 2 February 1999 as a replacement for the former death grant scheme. The scheme is designed to alleviate the cost of funeral expenses and post bereavement costs on the death of a person who has paid pay related social insurance or on the death of the spouse, widow or child dependent of such a person. There were 20,778 grants approved in 2001 and 19,553 in 2002.

The scheme is a payment based on PRSI contributions and takes the form of a once off grant of €635, payable to the person normally responsible for the payment of the funeral bill. The scheme covers virtually all insured persons, including the self employed and people covered by the modified rate of social insurance, for example, public servants. The contribution conditions generally ensure that most insured persons would have an eligibility to a grant.

In the case of persons receiving contributory social welfare payments, such as old age or invalidity pensioners and their dependants, an automatic entitlement to the grant exists. In instances where a person has insufficient PRSI contributions to qualify for the grant, they may receive assistance under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Under this arrangement, a health board may make a payment to help meet once off expenditure, for example, in respect of funeral expenses. With regard to the administration of the scheme, my Department makes every effort to ensure that bereavement grants are paid as quickly as possible after a death has occurred. In most cases, it takes an average of three weeks to fully process an application for the grant.

This grant is only one of a number of measures provided in the context of bereavement. In this regard, other supports are also offered by my Department. Where a person dies while receiving a social welfare payment the payment usually continues to be paid for six weeks after the death. A widowed parent grant is a once off payment of €2,700 designed to assist with the income support needs of a widow or widower with dependent children. This grant is payable in addition to bereavement grant. The Family Support Agency, which operates under the aegis of my Department, administers a scheme of grants to voluntary organisations including bereavement counselling and support services. Last year, €1 million was provided directly to such organisations in the context of bereavement services. My Department meets with the Irish Association of Funeral Directors on an ongoing basis. The range of post bereavement supports, including bereavement grant, are actively publicised by its members.

I am satisfied that a comprehensive range of measures, financial and otherwise, have been put in place which recognise the needs of families at this particularly traumatic time. The bereavement grant scheme is an affirmation of the importance placed by this Government on reducing the hardship and financial worries which bereavement can cause.

Family Support Services.

Seán Ryan

Question:

81 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will make a statement on the work to date of the Family Mediation Service. [12062/04]

The Family Mediation Service is a free, professional, confidential service that enables couples who have decided to separate to reach agreement on all issues related to their separation. It assists couples to address the issues on which they need to make decisions, including post-separation living arrangements, finances and parenting arrangements to enable children to have an ongoing relationship with each parent. The benefits of family mediation as a non-adversarial approach to resolving the issues that arise on separation are increasingly being recognised worldwide.

Over the past number of years there has been a significant expansion of the Family Mediation Service to meet a growing need for its service. It is now available in 14 centres throughout the country; this includes two new centres, which opened last year, in Sligo and in Waterford city.

One of the key issues raised by participants at the series of regional fora on the family, which I hosted around the country last year, were the benefits of this service for families and the need for additional centres. In response to this, I made additional funds available to the Family Support Agency in budget 2004 to allow for a further two Family Mediation Service offices to be opened this year. One of these will be in the north west, expanding the availability of the service in that region, and one in the midlands.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of couples seeking mediation, as the benefits of mediation become more widely known. Last year the service helped over 1,403 couples which compares with the figure of 250 a year who used the service from 1986 up to the end of 1997, before its nationwide expansion. I pay tribute to the professionalism and hard work of the family mediators who have made a significant contribution to the promotion of the service over the years.

In May of last year I took the development of the service one step further by establishing the Family Support Agency, which will provide a solid and secure base from which this important family service can grow and develop in the future. The Family Support Agency brings together the programmes and family support services formerly administered directly by my Department. These include services to support families in times of difficulties, including the Family Mediation Service, support for voluntary organisations providing counselling and other family supports and a family resource centre programme, which supports and develops local communities. The Family Support Agency is responsible this year for a budget of over €20 million for the provision and development of its services.

Departmental Staff.

Seymour Crawford

Question:

82 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of medical referees employed by her Department; the medical qualifications of each of the referees; if psychologists and psychiatrists are employed from the point of view of determining the medical disability of persons claiming disability benefit, disability allowance or invalidity pension on the basis of their mental incapacity; if she has satisfied herself that there is a sufficient number of persons with expertise in her Department to deal with the issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12172/04]

Where a person claims a payment from my Department in respect of illness, an opinion regarding the person's medical condition is given in the first instance by their own doctor. Where required, a second opinion is provided by medical assessors employed by my Department for the guidance of the Department's deciding officers who ultimately determine entitlement.

Currently, there are 18 medical assessors, as well as the chief medical adviser and the deputy chief medical adviser. They are recruited via the Civil Service Commission and a condition of their appointment is that they must have at least six years experience in general medical practice. They are fully qualified and experienced medical practitioners who have full registration in accordance with Medical Council criteria. Prior to qualification as doctors, each undergoes psychiatric training to the appropriate level.

Among the medical assessor cadre are individual doctors with post-graduate and higher qualifications in various fields of occupational medicine, including psychology and psychotherapy. All have considerable expertise in the area of disability assessment, including mental health and all other health related problems. Ongoing medical education in the evaluation of disability is provided by national and international experts, including distinguished psychiatrists. There are also regular meetings and seminars under the direction of the chief medical adviser where medical issues and developments in the occupational medicine field are discussed.

When a claimant is called for a medical examination, the medical assessor will have available the initial medical diagnosis from the claimant's own doctor, supplemented, where appropriate, by relevant specialist and other reports. The claimant's doctor is informed and may attend the medical examination if desired. Where considered necessary, there is provision for the chief medical adviser or the chief appeals officer to seek specialist consultant advice in individual cases. In the course of medical examinations of claimants, all relevant available medical information is taken into account. Any information provided by the claimant is also taken into account. Where further specialist advice is considered necessary, it is obtained.

I am satisfied that claimants are treated in a fair and equitable manner having regard to the need to ensure that the conditions for entitlement to disability payments are upheld. I am also satisfied that my Department has a sufficient number of medical assessors and that they have sufficient expertise to discharge their responsibilities.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Seán Crowe

Question:

83 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress she has made in recent months to address the problem of fuel poverty. [11947/04]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

95 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the extent of the fuel poverty problem in the State. [11952/04]

Paul Kehoe

Question:

99 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the numbers currently receiving fuel allowance; and the annual cost for each of the years from 1997 to 2003. [12171/04]

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

105 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has plans to extend the period during which the fuel allowance is awarded, in view of the fact that low temperatures can be experienced outside of the October to March period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12061/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 83, 95, 99 and 105 together.

My Department provides financial supports to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or health board payments and who are unable to provide fully for their own heating needs. A fuel allowance payment of €9 per week is paid to eligible households, with an additional €3.90 per week being paid in smokeless zones, bringing the total amount in those areas to €12.90 per week. These payments are made for the duration of the fuel season which lasts for 29 weeks from the end of September to mid-April. The fuel allowances represent a contribution towards a person's normal heating expenses. In addition, many households also qualify for electricity and gas allowances. The question of increases in the rates of fuel allowance or an extension of the fuel allowance season is a matter for consideration in a budgetary context.

The number of households receiving fuel allowances in the period 1997 to 2004 has ranged from 258,000 to almost 287,000. At present, approximately 270,000 households receive fuel allowances. Expenditure on fuel allowances has risen from €57 million in 1997 to an expected €84 million this year. Details of the numbers receiving fuel allowance and the annual cost for each of the years from 1997 to 2004 are set out in a tabular statement which I will make available to the Deputy.

The extent to which people on social welfare can afford fuel is kept under review in my Department. The objective of social welfare provision in this regard is to ensure that the combined value of weekly social welfare payments and fuel allowances rises in real terms, after compensating people for inflation, including fuel price inflation. Significant increases in recent years in primary social welfare payment rates, such as the old age pension, have improved the income position for people dependent on the social welfare system. Primary payment rates are payable for the full 52 weeks of the year; hence increases in these rates benefit a wide range of recipients.

Giving people a real increase in their primary payment for 52 weeks of the year is a more expensive option than increasing the fuel allowance payment rate for part of the year or extending the period during which fuel allowances are paid. However, I believe it is the correct approach to take as it gives people greater flexibility in meeting their needs. That, coupled with programmes to improve the fuel efficiency of the housing stock, will bring about the reduction in poverty levels, including fuel poverty levels, that I am working to achieve. In that regard, my Department is currently in discussion with Sustainable Energy Ireland and the Combat Poverty Agency with a view to planning a fuel poverty project. It is proposed to carry out an action research project in designated geographical areas where eligible persons will have an energy audit carried out in their homes.

The energy audit will include energy advice to the household as well as minor remedial work such as the installation of roof space insulation, draft proofing, fitting of hot water cylinder lagging jackets and energy efficient light bulbs. The project proposes to target persons over 65 years and long term disabled persons, who are in receipt of a fuel allowance from my Department. The project will evaluate the effects of the measures undertaken from the point of view of comfort levels and health effects, as well as changes in fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions. This research is not intended to measure the full extent of fuel poverty but it may give some indications in that regard.

Social Welfare Code.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

84 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if there will be development of the homemaker’s scheme, in view of recommendations of the review which was undertaken; and the recommendations of this review. [12165/04]

Measures are in place since 1994 to protect the pension entitlements of those who take time out of the paid workforce for caring duties. This scheme, known as the homemaker's scheme, allows for up to 20 years to be disregarded when a person's insurance record is being averaged to assess entitlement for contributory pension purposes.

My Department is at present finalising the second phase of a review of the qualifying conditions for old age contributory and retirement pensions which includes an examination of the homemaker's scheme. The first phase report, published in 2000, raised a number of general issues regarding the homemaker's scheme and these are being examined in more detail in the second part of the review. The main issues being examined include replacing the existing system of disregards with one based on credited contributions and the implications of backdating the scheme to an earlier date than 1994.

I expect the review will be ready for publication in the next few months and developments in the homemaker's scheme will be considered in the light of the conclusions of that report.

Decentralisation Programme.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

85 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, in regard to proposals for decentralisation, a survey has been undertaken to establish the number of persons employed in her Department and in boards or agencies operating under the aegis of her Department who are willing to move to the new locations announced by the Minister for Finance in his budget speech; the results of such a survey; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12057/04]

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

93 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the decentralisation plans for her Department following the announcement in the December budget 2003 by the Minister for Finance of the relocation of certain sections of her Department to Drogheda, Buncrana, Donegal, Carrick-on-Shannon Sligo, Monaghan, and Carrickmacross; the time scale in which she hopes the decentralisation plan for her Department will be complete; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12056/04]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

129 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will report on the situation regarding the relocation of her Department. [12099/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 85, 93 and 129 together.

Under the Government decentralisation programme, all sections of my Department currently located in Dublin will move to decentralised locations. The senior management and headquarters of the Department will move to Drogheda and other sections will relocate to Buncrana, 120; Donegal town , 230; Carrick-on-Shannon, 225, and Sligo, 100. The Department's information systems division will also be relocated, though the location has yet to be determined. In addition, the Combat Poverty Agency and Comhairle, agencies under the aegis of my Department, will be relocated to Monaghan and Carrickmacross respectively.

My Department has experience of the issues associated with decentralisation, having previously relocated functions and staff out of Dublin to Sligo, Letterkenny, Longford, Waterford and Dundalk. The new programme of decentralisation will involve major change and a key objective will be to ensure that it is implemented in a planned way and with due regard to the effects on staff and the maintenance of high standards of service. A project management structure has been established to manage the decentralisation programme within the organisation. The structure will support the two phases of the decentralisation programme, that is, the development of an overall departmental strategy and the development and implementation of plans for decentralising individual sections.

A detailed plan covering all aspects of the decentralisation process is currently being prepared. This plan will set out: the sequence of each relocation; staff placement and training plans; the estimated resources required to complete the project; the risks associated with the project and the contingency plans to deal with those risks. In addition to the preparation of this plan, the Office of Public Works, OPW, is currently in the process of securing suitable accommodation in each of the seven locations. It is expected that details of the accommodation in each of the decentralised locations will be available shortly.

As an input to the planning process, a survey of all staff in my Department was conducted to establish initial indications of interest in the new locations. There were 3,046 responses to the survey, which represents 64% of the 4,770 staff in the organisation. The position as regards expressions of interest is: Drogheda — 120 staff; Buncrana — 15 staff; Donegal town — 51 staff; Carrick-on-Shannon — 149 staff; Sligo — 24 staff; Monaghan — four staff and Carrickmacross — 16 staff. In all, 379 indicated a wish to move from their existing location to one of this Department's new decentralised office and a further 586 wish to move to a decentralised venue in another Department.

While the survey provides a useful initial indication of staff preferences, it is recognised that the decisions which people make are likely to change as the implementation of the programme proceeds. To date, staff surveys have not been carried out in either the Combat Poverty Agency or Comhairle.

Decentralisation arrangements are being co-ordinated and controlled at a national level by the decentralisation implementation group — DIG. This group recently published a report outlining the general timeframes, strategies and procedures that are being put in place to deliver the decentralisation programme. All applications for the decentralised locations will be handled by the Civil Service Commission through the central application facility — CAF. This process is expected to commence shortly. By that stage it is also expected that the OPW will have finalised the accommodation arrangements in a number of locations.

A final date for the completion of the decentralisation programme will not be known until the CAF process is completed and suitable accommodation has been identified in the decentralised locations. However, it is expected that the programme will be substantially completed by 2006. My Department will report progress on the plan on a regular basis to the implementation committee, which will report in turn to the special Cabinet sub-committee which is overseeing the decentralisation programme as a whole.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Kathleen Lynch

Question:

86 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps she intends to take to bring Ireland’s social spending into line with the European norm; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12048/04]

Willie Penrose

Question:

123 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the recent document produced by the Conference of Religious in Ireland which claimed that economic decisions made by the Government over the past seven years have been totally skewed in favour of those with higher incomes; the steps she intends to take within the social welfare code to address this imbalance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12037/04]

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

142 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has considered the CORI annual socio-economic report; and the implications this will have for Government policy. [12092/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 123 and 142 together.

These questions relate to the recent socio-economic review for 2004 published by the CORI justice commission entitled, "Priorities for Fairness: Choosing Policies to Ensure Economic Development, Social Equity and Sustainability". This document will make a valuable contribution to the debate on the development of socio-economic policy over the next few years. The report argues that the effect of Government budgetary decisions relating to tax reductions, social welfare increases and other factors, such as wage increases and the introduction of the special savings incentive accounts, has been to increase income inequality in Irish society. It also argues that Ireland's low spend on social protection, in GDP percentage terms, contributes to poverty, unequal income distribution and deficits in social provision.

I believe, however, that budgetary decisions must be viewed in the context of the wider economic policies which have been successfully pursued by this Government in recent years. These policies have seen significant increases in employment levels; reductions in unemployment, in particular in long-term unemployment; heavy investment in infrastructure and in public services; and substantial increases in real terms in household incomes at all income levels. This is reflected most clearly in the sharp decrease we have seen in consistent poverty rates. Consistent poverty — a combined measure using income thresholds and the experience of deprivation — is the measure used for the global poverty reduction target in the revised national anti-poverty strategy, NAPS, launched in 2002 and in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion — NAPs inclusion — submitted to the EU in July last year.

Consistent poverty has fallen from 15.1% in 1994 to some 5.2% in 2001. The Government is committed to reducing consistent poverty to below 2% and ideally eliminating it by 2007. Ireland's GDP percentage level of social expenditure is lower than other EU states due to a number of factors. Ireland's elderly population is a third lower than the EU average, thus requiring much lower expenditure on pensions, health care and care of the elderly. Social insurance was only extended to the full working population in recent decades, as a result of which a high proportion of current pensioners qualify for pensions under social assistance only. Ireland does not provide for supplementary pensions under the State social welfare system leaving these to be provided by private insurance, the subject of the current PRSA campaign. Expenditure on these schemes is, therefore, not included as social protection expenditure. Ireland's current level of unemployment is among the lowest in the EU, thus requiring less expenditure on unemployment related support.

Furthermore, while Ireland has had low levels of investment in social and economic infrastructure historically, we are now financing a major catch up in infrastructure with public investment running to over 6% of GDP in 2002 compared to approximately 3.5% for the other cohesion countries, Spain and Portugal and 1% to 1.5 % for developed countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the UK. The policies pursued by the Government over recent years in combating unemployment and in reducing the level of consistent poverty have brought about a significant improvement in the situation of people on lower incomes. In the period from 1998 to 2003, for example, the value of the lowest social welfare payment has increased by over 50% in nominal terms and by 19% in real terms. The Government's determination to continue to improve the position of the most vulnerable in our society is reflected in the revised NAPS and in the NAPS/inclusion which contain ambitious targets across a number of areas — including that of increasing the minimum social welfare rate to €150 per week in 2002 terms by 2007.

The implementation of these targets will ensure that we are brought further along the road to our overall goal of building a fairer and more inclusive society in which everyone has the opportunity and incentive to participate fully in the social and economic life of the country.

Departmental Staff.

Michael Ring

Question:

87 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of community welfare officers that are situated around the country; the plans in place to increase the numbers of community welfare officers; and her intentions in dealing with this matter in view of the fact that due to the shift in population in parts of the country there is a shortage of such officers. [12168/04]

Gerard Murphy

Question:

91 Mr. Murphy asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans her Department has to reform the community welfare officers’ situation in view of the fact that their workload has increased. [12160/04]

Paul McGrath

Question:

124 Mr. P. McGrath asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that there is a shortage of community welfare officers in parts of the country; the plans she has to increase the number of community welfare officers. [12173/04]

I proposed to take Questions Nos. 87, 91 and 124 together.

The supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, scheme is the "safety net" within the overall social welfare system in that it provides assistance to people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependants. The scheme, which is subject to my general direction and control, is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards. The scheme operates under the community care programme and is delivered by community welfare officers, CWOs, and superintendent community welfare officers, S/CWOs. My Department has no function in determining entitlement in individual cases.

I am satisfied that there are sufficient numbers of community welfare officers and superintendents in the overall system to ensure that the public receives an efficient and professional service. At present, there are 53 superintendent community welfare officers and 700 community welfare officers operating from approximately 1,050 locations throughout the country. Apart from administering the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, some of these officers also perform other duties on behalf of the Department of Health and Children and the relevant local authority. In such cases the Department of Social and Family Affairs is responsible for the payment of that proportion of administrative costs which corresponds to the amount of time spent on SWA related work.

Between 2000 and 2003 I have increased funding to health boards in respect of their administration expenditure by 44% — from €29.77 million in 2000 to over €43 million last year. I have also allocated an additional €4 million in respect of 2004.

Given that the responsibility for administering the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, including the assignment of staff, rests with the health boards, it is a matter for each board to respond to variations in workloads arising from population movement and changes in workloads in its functional area. Employing increased numbers of staff is not necessarily the only appropriate response when faced with workload pressures. The health boards are, of course, subject to the same restrictions on employee numbers as apply elsewhere in the public service, including my Department, and must also achieve efficiencies where possible in response to greater demands for their services.

Policy on Families.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

88 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason she believes a constitutional amendment is not needed to reflect the changes in family structures and protect the rights of children. [12093/04]

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Question:

98 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date in her review of Government policy towards the family; when she expects the review to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12053/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 88 and 98 together.

As Minister with responsibility for family affairs, I am engaging in a process of discussion and consideration of all issues facing families in Ireland today. In the light of this I intend to develop a strategy for economic, employment and social policies to support families.

The institution of marriage has been and, for a majority of families with children, still is the foundation for continuity and stability in family life. Its contribution overall to the well being of individuals and more generally to social cohesion goes without saying and it is entirely appropriate that the State should, as stated in the Constitution, pledge "to guard with special care the institution of marriage". A growing proportion of marriages, however, fail with the spouses separating to live apart. The Constitution now also recognises this reality by permitting the dissolution of these marriages in certain defined circumstances and allowing those divorced to marry again under the law and set up reconstituted families. There are also growing numbers of couples living together but not entering into the legal relationship of marriage. Changing values mean that this form of family arrangement is becoming more socially acceptable.

Given the rapid changes affecting families and family life, the State is required to provide more support to assist families in difficulties than might have been the case in the past. It is my responsibility, as Minister with responsibility for family affairs, to ensure that the well being of all individuals, especially children, is safeguarded within the family and that all families, irrespective of the form they take, receive appropriate State support in meeting their caring responsibilities.

It is also possible that State policies and programmes may not be contributing as effectively as they might to strengthening families at this time of change. It was for those reasons that I embarked last year on a wide ranging public consultation process by means of regional family fora. A report on this public consultation entitled, "Families and Family Life in Ireland: Challenges for the Future", is now available from my Department. One of the points that came through from many participants at the fora was the need for the State, while guarding with special care the institution of marriage, to bear in mind also the different forms of family in developing policies to promote the well being of individual family members.

I am now urging interested groups to use the report on the public consultation process as a basis for a wider debate on the issues raised during this tenth anniversary year of the UN International Year of the Family and to forward their views to the family affairs unit of my Department. It is my intention that this consultation process will culminate in a clear, coherent and comprehensive strategy for economic, employment and social policies to support families to be issued by the end of this year. In drawing up the strategy, I will also take full account of the findings of the international conference on families, change and European social policy to be held in Dublin Castle in May, which is being hosted by the Irish EU Presidency, with the support of the EU Commission, to mark at EU level the tenth anniversary of the UN International Year of the Family. In addition, Ireland has been directly involved in an OECD study entitled, "Babies and Bosses — Reconciling Work and Family Life." The findings of this study will also be taken into account in drawing up the strategy.

If this wide ranging review of policies to support and strengthen families and family life, currently underway, were to show, when completed, that the current constitutional provisions are a barrier to the introduction of desirable and important policies to achieve these objectives for all families, then the issue of changing or further developing these provisions may have to be considered. I consider, however, that I can make a greater immediate contribution to the well being of family members, in my role as Minister with responsibility for family affairs, by concentrating on co-ordinating the development and implementation of economic, employment and social policies to strengthen families.

Question No. 89 answered with QuestionNo. 70.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

90 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the social welfare entitlements of asylum seekers from the EU applicant countries who have been told by the reception and integration centre to leave Government provided accommodation by 1 May 2004; if her Department has had discussions with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform regarding this matter; the outcome of such discussions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12038/04]

Ten new countries will accede to membership of the European Union with effect from 1 May next. There are 330 nationals from all of the accession countries, apart from Cyprus and Malta, currently residing in direct provision centres throughout the country. These comprise 113 families.

Direct provision is a system of accommodation for asylum seekers whereby all accommodation needs together with meals, snacks, heating, lighting, laundry and other services are provided directly by the State. The centres are operated by the reception and integration agency of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Asylum seekers, who are in direct provision centres, are paid a reduced rate of supplementary welfare allowance which takes account of the value of the services provided. Asylum seekers are also entitled to claim child benefit.

From 1 May, citizens of the ten accession states will have full access to the Irish labour market in the same way as citizens of the existing member states. The reception and integration agency issued a letter to those asylum seekers who are currently in direct provision centres advising them of a change in their status from 1 May when their country of origin becomes a full member of the European Union. The letter also advised people that they will have to vacate the direct provision centres.

My Department contacted the agency as soon as it became aware of the letter and received an assurance that nobody would be made homeless or be forced into homeless. My Department also formally wrote to the agency expressing its concern to ensure that none of the individuals concerned would experience hardship arising from the change in their status. In addition, my Department met with officials of the agency and was again assured that all cases would be handled on a common sense basis. The agency advised that the purpose of the letter was to alert people to the forthcoming change in their status.

Question No. 91 answered with QuestionNo. 87.

Social Welfare Code.

Billy Timmins

Question:

92 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the status of her review of the rent supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12107/04]

Joe Costello

Question:

106 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the recent submission made by One Family, on behalf of a coalition of 39 voluntary and community organisations, expressing serious concern regarding the implications for lone parents and other persons they deal with of the changes in the rent supplement schemes; if she intends to undertake a review of the changes in view of the concerns being expressed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12041/04]

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

130 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, in regard to the recent changes introduced to the rent supplement scheme, she will withdraw the guidance given to community welfare officers that discretionary exemptions to the rules be minimal in number and also advise persons who have sought a housing assessment by their local authority, but the determination is pending, that they can receive rent supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12042/04]

David Stanton

Question:

131 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the way in which changes in rent supplement regulations recently announced will impact on applicants; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12137/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 92, 106, 130 and 131 together.

Rent supplements are paid under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards. The main impact of the measures recently introduced is to refocus the rent supplement scheme on its original objective. This is to meet immediate short-term income maintenance needs as opposed to long-term housing needs. As a result of the measures that I have introduced, the local authorities and the health boards are working together more closely to provide better housing solutions where appropriate. People applying for rent supplement will in future have their housing needs assessed by the local authorities in a systematic manner and this will increase their chances of getting social housing.

The local authorities now also have a greater say in decisions on claims for rent supplement. With certain important exceptions, it is no longer possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that that person has a housing need. However, if a person is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need, he or she will qualify for rent supplement, regardless of how long he or she has been renting, subject to the normal means and other qualifying criteria.

The health boards have indicated that the housing authorities are responding to requests for housing assessments without undue delay. If, however, there is a delay in any particular case, the health board still has the discretion to make a payment where it considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant. None of the measures which I have introduced and none of the guidelines which issued to the health boards affects the discretion of a health board to make a payment, nor do they restrict in any way the number of discretionary exemptions made. The impact of the rent supplement changes and the other measures was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation was carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the elderly and disabled are fully protected, for example, the six months prior renting requirement does not apply in their case.

The organisation One Family, formerly Cherish, has confirmed that it has not made a recent submission to my office. However, I understand that the submission to which the Deputy refers is a letter which One Family recently sent to a number of public representatives concerning the effect of the rent supplement measures.

With regard to monitoring and reviewing the effect of the changes, a working group under the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, is being established to facilitate engagement with the social partners in that regard. The group comprises representatives of ICTU, the community and voluntary pillar as well as my Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The working group is being chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach. I look forward to the report of the group, which I expect to receive later this year.

In addition, my Department has been in regular contact with the community welfare staff of the health boards regarding the operation of the new measures and has held several meetings with senior officials of the boards since the introduction of the measures in January. My Department has not been made aware of any cases of hardship arising from the application of the new measures.

Question No. 93 answered with QuestionNo. 85.

Departmental Expenditure.

Denis Naughten

Question:

94 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the expenditure on social protection as a percentage of GDP, for each year since 1995; and the EU average for each of those years. [12166/04]

EUROSTAT, the Statistical Office of the EU, publishes comparisons of social protection expenditure as a percentage of GDP across the EU. This encompasses not only social welfare expenditure but also expenditure in other areas such as health care, social housing, employment support programmes and other social inclusion programmes.

The latest EUROSTAT statistics on social protection expenditure were released last Friday and deal with developments up to and including 2001. In terms of expenditure on social protection as a percentage of GDP the figures forIreland are: 1994 — 19.7%, 1996 — 17.8%, 1998 — 15.4%, 2000 — 14.2% and 2001 — 14.6%. The equivalent EU average figures are: 1994 —28.5%, 1996 — 28.4%, 1998 — 27.5%, 2000 — 27.3% and 2001 — 27.5%. These statistics do not take into account the developments in social protection expenditure over the past two years. No comparable figures are available for 2002 or 2003.

When examining such data it is important to remember that gross expenditure measures can distort the real picture, as they do not take account of social charges or taxes which may be levied on benefits nor do they include transfers made by means of tax concessions, as opposed to direct cash payments. In fact, the EUROSTAT release itself states that: "The European average masks major national differences in the structure of social protection funding." The level of expenditure is also significantly influenced by the age profile of the population. Currently, Ireland, with one of the youngest populations in the EU, needs to spend less on pensions and health care/care of the elderly than most other member states. The extent to which the State directly provides supplementary pensions and child care are also important factors.

In addition, social protection expenditure as a percentage of GDP is significantly influenced by the pace of economic growth and the level of unemployment. The statistics show that at EU level between 1993 and 1996, social protection expenditure relative to GDP stabilised at a level below the peak of 28.8% in 1993. This was due to renewed GDP growth and slower growth in social protection expenditure, particularly related to unemployment benefits. Over the period 1996 to 2000, the EU average dropped from 28.4% to 27.3% but there was a slight increase to 27.5% in 2001.

For Ireland in 1990, expenditure on social protection as a percentage of GDP was 18.4%. This rose to 20.2% in 1993 and then declined to 14.2% in 2000. These changes mirrored the developments just described in other EU countries, except that the level of economic growth and the decline in unemployment were much greater in Ireland than in most other EU countries. In 2001, there was an increase to 14.6%.

Under this Government there have been sustained and substantial increases in social protection expenditure. The EUROSTAT report on social protection states that the increase in real terms expenditure on social protection in four EU countries, including Ireland at 4.7% per annum, over the period 1992 to 2001 was "particularly marked." The EU average was 1.9%. The EUROSTAT figures show a 40% increase in the per capita expenditure on social protection in Ireland in the period 1994 to 2001, compared with an EU average of 13.9%.

This Government will continue to address the scope for further improvements in Ireland's social protection infrastructure, guided by the national anti-poverty strategy, while at the same time continuing to take the measures necessary to maintain economic growth and competitiveness.

Question No. 95 answered with QuestionNo. 83.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Martin Ferris

Question:

96 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will be proactive in encouraging developments on foot of the report commissioned by the European Commission recommending the establishment of a senior euro pass card for member states. [11951/04]

Paul Connaughton

Question:

115 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if there is a common framework within the EU to allow persons who have travel passes in their own country to travel on same within the EU; the progress that has been made in establishing a senior euro pass card, within the EU, which would entitle older persons to concessions on various services, including travel, cultural and social activities with a particular emphasis on the benefits for Irish emigrants living in the UK and elsewhere; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12161/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 96 and 115 together.

The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over. It is also available to carers and to people with disabilities who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments. It applies to travel within the State and cross Border journeys between here and Northern Ireland. At EU level, a report "Towards a Senior Euro Pass", was commissioned by the social affairs directorate of the European Commission and published by Age Concern, England, at the end of 1997. This report recommends that EU states should move towards having a senior euro pass card which would entitle older people to concessions on various services, including travel, cultural and social activities.

The role of my Department in matters relating to the senior euro pass has been to submit observations, as required, in conjunction with other Departments and statutory and non-statutory bodies on any action taken to implement the proposals in this report, in so far as they affect the business of this Department. The introduction of a senior euro pass is an initiative which would have to be developed at EU level. While it would be a welcome addition to the travel and other concessions our older citizens already enjoy within the State, I understand that further work on this issue has been suspended at EU level.

Departmental Properties.

Dan Neville

Question:

97 Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of public offices under the control of her Department which are not accessible to persons with a disability; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12177/04]

Currently within my Department there are 128 buildings which are open to the public. These buildings include 58 local offices, 63 inspectors' offices and others such as signing centres, appeals and information offices.

Of the 128 offices open to the public, 103 are accessible to people with disabilities. Most of the other 25 offices comprise inspectors' offices in rural areas where office accommodation is limited but arrangements are made to visit people in their homes where access causes difficulty. Substantial progress is being made in improving and upgrading the general standard and access facilities of my Department's offices. Access issues are now being dealt with by a dedicated team within the Office Of Public Works, OPW, and this team is undertaking a programme, in consultation with each Department, to ensure that all buildings are accessible to people with disabilities. This programme is being systematically undertaken, within the constraints of available technical and financial resources.

In addition, where refurbishment is neither practical nor appropriate, my Department is taking opportunities to provide new accommodation at alternative locations. In any such new accommodation, the OPW ensures that compliance with standards regarding access are adhered to.

In delivering its services my Department also has available a network of 68 offices which are operated by branch managers employed on a contract basis. Under the terms of the contract, branch managers are required to provide suitable accommodation. My Department has concluded an agreement with the branch managers, included in which is the requirement that specific criteria be met in terms of the standard of accommodation provided. In this regard they will be required to make the premises accessible to people with disabilities within a reasonable period.

Question No. 98 answered with QuestionNo. 88.
Question No. 99 answered with QuestionNo. 83.
Question No. 100 answered with QuestionNo. 69.

Departmental Reports.

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

101 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the details and the recommendations of the report, “Young Men on the Margins”, as published by her Department. [12091/04]

The report in question was commissioned by the Katherine Howard Foundation and funded by my Department under the families research programme. The report highlights the fact that young men are over represented among the homeless, those involved in crime and in prison and among those who take their own lives.

It points out that the threat of marginalisation mainly affects young men who are experiencing poverty, broken homes and who live in disadvantaged areas. These are the men most likely to relate to the traditional form of masculinity — the male breadwinner in a male dominated environment. In considering the reasons for this, the report explores the changing nature of society and suggests that modern family structures, the changing nature of work — with increased female participation and reduced numbers of traditional male jobs — and differing educational participation rates and achievements have all had an impact on modern masculinity. The report states that the roots of the difficulties being experienced by marginalised men go back to early childhood. Unfortunately, they can also result from an ongoing lack of the supports needed from family, community, State and other services that would enable the men to adjust more effectively to the complex world in which we live and to reach their potential.

One key finding in the report is that the fragmentation of the supports and services being provided takes greatly from their overall effectiveness. In its conclusions, the report calls for a concerted and comprehensive approach to future family support programmes and policies. The Government is now addressing this through the national action plan on social inclusion, which outlines a clear strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion, with objectives and targets, policy measures to give effect to the strategy and institutional arrangements designed to ensure that there is close monitoring and evaluation of these measures.

In particular, there are current Government initiatives aimed at ending child poverty; tackling educational disadvantage — literacy, numeracy and early school leaving; improving care, especially for children; increasing the provision of housing and accommodation; decreasing the levels of alcohol/drugs misuse; including everyone in the information society; improving prospects for the long-term unemployed, vulnerable workers and those who have been made redundant.

I launched the "Young Men on the Margins" report last week and copies of this research project are being despatched to all Members of the Oireachtas.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Joe Sherlock

Question:

102 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to implement the commitment given in An Agreed Programme for Government to remove the requirement whereby a person reaching 65 years must first retire for a period before being able to work and retain a portion of their pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12064/04]

In addition to satisfying the relevant contribution conditions, those applying for retirement pension at age 65 years must be retired from employment or self employment. Retirement is defined as not having earnings from employment of more than €38 per week or earnings from self-employment of more than €3,174 per annum. There is no retirement condition associated with old age contributory or non-contributory pensions which are both payable at 66 years of age.

The retirement pension was introduced in 1970 and was intended to bridge the gap between retirement at 65 years and the pension age for social welfare purposes, which at the time was 70 years of age. The qualifying age for old age pension was subsequently reduced over time to 66 years of age. The Government is committed, as part of the programme for Government, to removing the requirement to retire at 65 years in order to receive a retirement pension. Progress in this regard will be made as soon as possible, having regard to the availability of resources.

Grant Payments.

Brendan Howlin

Question:

103 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of applications for grants received to date in regard to her recent announcement of funding of €1 million to mark the International Year of the Family; when it is expected that the grants will be made; the procedures that are being used to assess the grant applications; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12046/04]

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the United Nations International Year of the Family. To mark the occasion, I introduced a special awards scheme to fund projects and events to celebrate the role of family in today's Ireland. The once-off special awards are available to locally based family and community groups and to larger regional and national groups to mark the year. As a result of the postal dispute which seriously affected groups wishing to apply following my initial announcement of the scheme, I extended the original closing date to Friday, 7 May.

There has, to date, been an imaginative response to the scheme. I am to suggestions as to how family groups can mark this historic year. Each award application will be judged on its own merits. Funding will be made available through a scheme of small once-off awards, under €2,000, to local voluntary groups to assist with projects or events to celebrate family in their area. These could include facilitated discussions on family issues, workshops or local neighbourhood events. The report on the public consultation fora which I undertook last year, "Families and Family Life in Ireland — Challenges for the Future", could provide a basis for discussions and workshops. This report identified key themes for consideration during this year as parenting and childhood, balancing work and family life, relationships, family caring responsibilities and community supports for families.

More substantial awards will also be available to larger regional or national groups for once-off events or projects focusing on families and family life in today's Ireland. Preference will be given to support projects of lasting value. To date, 200 applications have been received in my Department and I expect that many more will be received before the extended closing date. Each application will be considered on its own merits. Particular priority will be given to those applications which focus on the themes identified by the public consultation process to which I referred. I expect to be in a position to announce details of the funding awarded under this scheme later this year.

Question No. 104 answered with QuestionNo. 72.
Question No. 105 answered with QuestionNo. 83.
Question No. 106 answered with QuestionNo. 92.

Postal Dispute.

Eamon Ryan

Question:

107 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the additional costs incurred by her Department as a result of the recent industrial dispute at An Post; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12096/04]

On commencement of the recent industrial dispute at An Post, my Department activated a contingency plan to ensure that customers continued to receive their payments during the dispute. This plan was in operation from Monday, 22 March to Friday, 2 April when the industrial action ceased.

Where possible, my Department's existing resources and services were used to implement the contingency plan and, therefore, additional costs were kept to a minimum, for example, social welfare local offices and branch offices were used as cheque collection centres. An evaluation of the contingency plan and the associated costs is currently being undertaken. For this reason it is possible to give only estimated additional costs at this time.

At this stage the total additional cost incurred by my Department is estimated to be in the region of €50,000. Of this, some €27,000 was spent on advertising. Costs were also incurred on items such as overtime, travel, courier services and stationery. Costs incurred during the dispute will be offset to some degree by the savings made from not posting cheques and other items to affected areas during the dispute.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Breeda Moynihan-Cronin

Question:

108 Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons receiving assistance from the money advice and budgeting service in respect of the latest date for which figures are available; the number who were in receipt of the supplement payable to persons on social welfare allowance; if her attention has been drawn to concerns that many persons may be pushed into the hands of moneylenders; her views on whether this merits a reconsideration of her decision to abolish the supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12052/04]

My Department has overall responsibility for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which provides assistance to people experiencing difficulty in meeting repayments on borrowings. There are 52 independent companies nationwide operating the service.

The MABS programme provides money advice to individuals and families who have problems with debt and who are on low income or in receipt of social welfare payments. The latest information available from the companies providing the service shows that 12,000 people are currently availing of the service. The MABS service does not provide financial assistance to its customers. Instead, the service places an emphasis on practical budget based measures that help people to move permanently from dependence on moneylenders and to access alternative sources of low cost credit.

In 2003, I provided €9.9 million for the operation of the MABS service and an additional €1.01 million was allocated for 2004 in the last budget. MABS supplement payments paid under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme were made by the health boards because the people concerned had entered into repayment arrangements that were so onerous that they did not have enough income left to meet their basic needs. Some 273 people were in receipt of these supplements at 16 April 2004, representing less than 3% of MABS customers.

At the time the decision was taken to discontinue the MABS supplement, over 50% of the MABS supplements in payment had been in payment for more than a year and nearly 25% of recipients had been in receipt of the supplement for more than two years. The duration of these payments confirms that the supplement had become a long term arrangement which is effectively a subsidy for creditors. These supplements have not been used in three health board regions and were rarely used in the largest health board region. The good practice established in these areas, which cover the majority of the State's population, is now being put in place throughout the State. I wish to emphasise that MABS supplements currently in payment will not be withdrawn. Payment of the supplement in these cases, will continue for the duration of their current term of agreement.

It is with the support and expertise of the MABS companies throughout the country that people can be best assisted in sorting out their debts. These companies will continue to provide their services to people who need it. In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the decision to discontinue the MABS supplement is reasonable and will require creditors to take a more realistic approach to the repayment arrangements a debtor can afford to make. Health boards may still deal with emergency or exceptional cases at any time of the year by way of exceptional needs payments or an urgent needs payment.

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

109 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the plans she has to make free phone allowance available to all medical card holders, especially those with disability and not assessed on income means. [12090/04]

Michael Ring

Question:

110 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider granting free schemes to all widows and widowers on the death of their spouse, regardless of age. [12167/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 109 and 110 together.

The household benefits package, which comprises the electricity/gas allowance, telephone allowance and television licence schemes, is generally available to people living permanently in the State, aged 66 years or over, who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment or who fulfil a means test. The package is also available to carers and people with disabilities under the age of 66 years who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments, such as invalidity pension and disability allowance. People aged over 70 years of age can qualify regardless of their income or household composition. Widows and widowers aged from 60 to 65 years, whose late spouses had been in receipt of the household benefit package, retain that entitlement to ensure that households do not suffer a loss of entitlements following the death of a spouse.

A range of proposals have been made to extend the free schemes to other groups. These are kept under review in the context of the objectives of the scheme and budgetary resources.

Question No. 111 answered with QuestionNo. 72.

Gerard Murphy

Question:

112 Mr. Murphy asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her plans to ensure access to the free meals scheme for all schools in disadvantaged areas; and the estimated cost of same. [12163/04]

The school meals programme makes an important contribution to ensuring that school children receive better nutrition and contributes to improved school attendance and quality of learning. The current programme provides funding for the urban school meals scheme, which operates in conjunction with certain local authorities, as well as for a number of locally operated school meals projects that are in place in both urban and rural areas.

In 2003, a sum of €3.29 million was spent on the school meals programme. It is estimated that 382 schools, with a total of over 50,650 pupils, benefited from the urban scheme while 347 schools and voluntary organisations received funding which benefited some 26,000 children under local school meals projects. Budget 2004 provided €6.08 million for the programme.

My Department is working with the Department of Education and Science to extend the school meals programme. In this regard the Department of Education and Science is using its schools completion programme and giving children an even break initiative to target disadvantaged schools. It is actively promoting the school meals programme through the local schools completion programme co-ordinators. In addition, my Department is currently contacting those schools which in 2003 indicated an interest in the school meals programme but did not submit a formal application for funding. My Department will also be issuing notifications to schools regarding the school meals programme for the 2004/2005 year in the near future.

A review of the urban and Gaeltacht schools meals schemes, which was published in 2003, made a number of recommendations to focus the scheme on areas of greatest disadvantage. This includes targeting secondary schools with the highest concentration of pupils at risk of early school leaving and their primary feeder schools. In July 2003, invitations to apply for funding under the school meals programme were issued to 217 schools as identified by the Department of Education and Science. During the current school year, September 2003 to June 2004, a total of 119 new projects so far have received funding.

The funding is being used to benefit children participating in breakfast clubs, lunch clubs and homework clubs in the schools concerned. The scheme also supports initiatives that target dispersed disadvantage and children with special needs.

Question No. 113 answered with QuestionNo. 71.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

114 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the terms of reference of the proposed review of income support arrangements for lone parents; when it is expected that the review will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12059/04]

One of the objectives of the one-parent family payment is to encourage lone parents to consider employment as an alternative to welfare dependency while at the same time supporting them to remain in the home if they so wish. It is generally accepted that one of the most effective routes out of poverty for people in the active age groups is through paid employment. Income support for lone parents is designed to assist them in overcoming the particular obstacles they may face in taking up employment or training opportunities and to encourage them to return to employment instead of remaining dependent on social welfare payments.

Ireland has among the highest percentage of lone parent families within the EU, with over 11% of households headed by a lone parent, a relatively low proportion of whom are in employment, compared to other countries. Figures from the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion in 2001 show that some 42.9% of lone parents in Ireland had a level of income which puts them in the category at risk of poverty. That is the reason I have given a commitment in my Department's statement of strategy to review the operation of income support arrangements for lone parents. This will take account of recent reports and emerging analysis in this area, such as the review of the one-parent family payment published by my own Department and a recent OECD study, entitled "Babies and Bosses", published in November 2003.

As a first step, I will be bringing together the Departments that have a role in the creation of policy around the issue of parenting alone. In the light of these discussions, terms of reference will be drawn up for a review of this issue to be carried out by the Departments concerned. These discussions will also serve to facilitate debate on the issue of parenting alone, enable networking at a policy level, and analyse and detail the progress needed to address gaps in current policy and programmes.

The intention is to have the overall review completed in time for consideration in the context of the next national action plan to combat poverty and social exclusion to cover the period 2006 to 2009.

Question No. 115 answered with QuestionNo. 96.

Interdepartmental Committees.

Kathleen Lynch

Question:

116 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the role her Department plays in the interdepartmental planning group on future rent assistance; the submission her Department has made to the group; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12049/04]

Subject to certain conditions, the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards, provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly supplement in respect of rent to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation needs and who do not have accommodation available from any other source.

In recognition of the fact that the rent supplement scheme had, in effect, become a scheme of long-term housing support for many people, the Government set up a working group to rationalise current arrangements for housing support and to ensure that long-term housing needs are addressed through providing appropriate solutions rather than through the social welfare system. An interdepartmental planning group was established to draw up detailed proposals for the implementation of revised arrangements. The group, which was chaired by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, also comprised representatives from my Department, the Department of Finance and others.

Discussions have been underway in the planning group for some time about putting in place the most appropriate arrangements to meet the housing needs of people who would otherwise have to rely on a long-term basis on supplementary welfare allowance rent supplements. My Department has played a full part in these discussions and in the research that underpinned them. Arising from the work of this group, an action plan is now being finalised. The action plan will include criteria for determining which categories of rent supplement recipient will be eligible to have their needs addressed by the housing authorities, an implementation time scale, financing and other matters.

While there is full agreement that people with long-term housing needs require a housing response rather than a social welfare payment, and considerable progress has been made in developing practical proposals in that regard, all the details of how and when the new arrangements will be implemented in practice have not yet been finalised. Discussions between my Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in that regard are continuing and I expect to be in a position to seek Government approval for the action plan in the near future.

Pension Provisions.

Joe Sherlock

Question:

117 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when it is intended to implement the commitment given in An Agreed Programme for Government to establish a group to report on options for lower income groups to ensure that they can have an earnings related pension when they retire; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12065/04]

Research by the Central Statistics Office on pensions coverage has indicated that just over 50% of workers have supplementary pensions cover. The Government aims to increase this to 70% in accordance with the targets suggested in the national pensions policy initiative. The overall objective of the Government's pension policy is that all citizens will have an adequate income on retirement, the main components being the social welfare pension and supplementary pensions.

In this regard, the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002 provided for the introduction of personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs, which became available to the public in 2003. The PRSA is a low cost, flexible pensions product which is the main instrument employed in furtherance of Government policy to increase supplementary pensions coverage. Take up of the new accounts is being monitored closely and I am encouraged by the latest figures available, which show that over 19,000 accounts were opened in the period up to the end of December 2003. This is a significant improvement on the position at the end of September 2003 when a total of 6,707 accounts were in existence. Figures for the period to the end of March 2004 will be available in a couple of weeks. An analysis will then be undertaken of the composition of the take up of PRSAs with a view to establishing the characteristics of those who have opened accounts, including, if possible, their income level.

The Government is required, under the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002, to review progress in the level of pension coverage within three years and this will include an examination of pension options for lower income groups.

Social Welfare Code.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

118 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will reverse any or all of the remaining 15 social welfare cuts introduced in the budget 2003; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12105/04]

Jack Wall

Question:

119 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, following her decision to reverse the cut of the half rate payment of disability, unemployment and other related benefits to persons in receipt of the widow’s and widower’s pension or one-parent family payments, she has plans to review the other cutbacks announced by her in November 2003, particularly in view of the serious problems being created for many recipients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12066/04]

Billy Timmins

Question:

138 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she intends to review all the cutbacks that she announced in November 2003; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12108/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

209 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will reverse all the social welfare cuts introduced in the budget; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12323/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 118, 119, 138 and 209 together.

The Estimates for the Department of Social and Family Affairs, announced last November, included a number of provisions to better target resources within the social welfare code. My Department keeps all its schemes under review so that the total social welfare budget is applied to the best effect in tackling disadvantage and to continue the Government's policy of significant improvement in basic payments to social welfare recipients, as with other improvements to the social welfare code.

I have continued to keep the implementation of all of the Estimates measures under review. In that context, I reviewed the measure regarding entitlement to certain half-rate payments and, given that my review suggested that there may be potential hardship in some cases, I decided to fully retrospectively restore entitlement to the affected persons. I have no plans to change any of the other measures implemented in the Estimates. The measures announced in November produced significant savings which, in turn, freed up resources towards a substantial budget 2004 package of €630 million. This enabled the provision of increases well ahead of inflation for all social welfare recipients of weekly payments as well as significant general improvements in social welfare provisions generally.

The record of this Government in investment in social welfare is second to none. When it came into office in 1997, the level of spending on social welfare was €5.7 billion. This year, the Estimates provide for total spending of well over €11.2 billion, a doubling of social welfare expenditure over this period. This is all the more remarkable when one takes account of the drop of 86,000 over that period in the numbers in receipt of unemployment payments, which in the years prior to 1997 accounted for a significant portion in overall expenditure.

The levels of increases provided in budget 2004, in conjunction with the levels of increases provided over the period from 1998, demonstrate the Government's continuing commitment to safeguard and enhance the living standards of the most vulnerable in our society.

John Gormley

Question:

120 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will give details regarding the impact of a recent court decision relating to absentee fathers. [12094/04]

Under social welfare legislation, there is a statutory obligation on spouses to maintain each other and their children and on parents to maintain their children. Applicants for one-parent family payment are required to make ongoing efforts to seek adequate maintenance from their former spouses, or, in the case of unmarried applicants, the other parent of their child. Normally, such maintenance is obtained by way of negotiation or by court order, though separated couples are increasingly using my Department's Family Mediation Service, which is being progressively extended countrywide. Since 2001, one-parent family payment customers are allowed to retain 50% of any maintenance received without reduction in their social welfare entitlements, as a further incentive to seek support themselves.

Where social welfare support is being provided to the one-parent family, the other parent is legally liable to contribute to the cost of this payment. In every case where one-parent family payment goes into payment, the maintenance recovery unit of my Department seeks to trace the liable relative involved in order to ascertain whether s/he is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. This follow-up activity takes place within two to three weeks of award of payment. Legislation allows my Department to seek recovery from liable relatives through the courts in appropriate cases.

At a recent court hearing in the Dublin area, four cases were heard where the liable relatives had not complied with requests from the Department for a contribution towards the cost of one-parent family payment paid in respect of their children. All four liable relatives had failed to make contact with the Department prior to the court date and also failed to attend the court hearing. The presiding judge, on hearing all the evidence before the court, ruled that orders for amounts in excess of those assessed by the Department be discharged immediately and costs were awarded in each case. These amounts ordered to be paid to the Department by each person were for €100 or more per week.

Each of these liable relatives had already failed previously to provide adequate maintenance to their separated spouse and children, forcing the families concerned to rely on social welfare for their income support. These four cases were part of an overall total of 132 cases which were submitted for court action between 2001 and 2003. The majority of these cases have resulted either in orders being written against the liable relative in court or the liable relative agreeing to pay a contribution to either the Department or the lone parent. Further cases are in the course of preparation by the Department for court action.

The Department will continue to prosecute any liable relative who fails to co-operate or who defaults on their contributions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

121 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the number of persons in receipt of the back to work allowance scheme and the numbers who availed of the scheme in 2002 and 2003. [12164/04]

The back to work allowance was introduced in September 1993 as part of my Department's programme of initiatives designed to assist the long-term unemployed to return to the active labour force. The allowance was introduced at a time when long-term unemployment stood at 8.9%. In its early years, the scheme proved effective in helping people who had been long-term unemployed to return to the labour force.

The transformation in labour market conditions since the mid-1990s has reduced the need for a back to work scheme. This is illustrated by the drop in numbers availing of the scheme in recent years. In December 2002, there were 25,076 participants — 13,510 on the self employed strand of the scheme and 11,566 on the employee strand. By December 2003, the number had fallen to 17,069 — 9,872 self employed and 7,197 employees. At present, there are 14,719 participants in the scheme, compared to 39,343 in October 2000 when the scheme reached its peak.

Question No. 122 answered with QuestionNo. 70.
Question No. 123 answered with QuestionNo. 86.
Question No. 124 answered with QuestionNo. 87.
Question No. 125 answered with Question 70.

Dan Boyle

Question:

126 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason invalidity pension remains the only such social welfare payment not awarded through the EMTS system; and when payments of this type can be made. [12089/04]

The EMTS system to which the Deputy refers is an electronic money transfer system operated by one of the major banks. It is an electronic fund transfer or EFT system similar to those operated by the other banks and building societies. An Post also operates an EFT system which it calls electronic information transfer or EIT.

My Department's payment strategy aims to actively promote the use of electronic payment methods as the preferred payment option in line with the Government's e-services policy. Of the 60 million individual payments made by my Department in 2003, 38% were paid by electronic methods, 29% were by electronic fund transfer, EFT, to banks and building societies and 9% were via An Post's electronic information transfer system (EIT) at post offices.

At the end of March 2004, there were 11,818 invalidity pensioners in receipt of payment through this method. Electronic payment methods are available to people on all of my Department's disability payments with the exception of disablement benefit under the occupational injuries benefits scheme. It was not possible to provide an EFT or EIT option for all social welfare customers. This is because my Department uses a number of different computer systems to administer the various social welfare schemes. The introduction of EFT or EIT for each specific scheme requires a considerable investment in information technology. Each scheme enhancement is a major project regardless of the customer numbers involved. For this reason the computer systems which serve the largest number of customers were the first to be enhanced to provide EFT and EIT.

The disablement benefit system was a lower priority because of the relatively small numbers of people served by the system. It is expected, however, that EFT and EIT facilities will be available to disablement benefit customers early in 2005. In the meantime, my Department offers an arrangement to disablement benefit customers which delivers some of the benefits of EFT. Customers can request that their cheques be sent to their banks rather than to their home addresses. The banks will then lodge the cheques directly to the customers' accounts.

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

127 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has satisfied herself that enough is being done to promote awareness of family income supplement, in view of the fact that there are currently only just over 12,000 recipients, having regard to the numbers on low pay and those who do not earn sufficient to enter the tax net; if there is co-ordination with the Revenue Commissioners on this matter; if she has plans to promote greater awareness of FIS; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12060/04]

Family income supplement is designed to provide cash support for employees on low earnings with families. This preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments. The number of persons in receipt of family income supplement at 16 April 2004 is 12,003, with an average weekly payment of €82.51.

The improvements to the family income supplement scheme, including the assessment of FIS on the basis of net rather than gross income and the progressive increases in the income limits, have made it easier for lower income households to qualify under the scheme. In this year's budget, I provided for further increases in the FIS income limits with effect from January 2004. These increases raised the weekly income limits by €28 at each point, adding an extra €16.80 to the payments of most existing FIS recipients. I also increased the minimum FIS payment by €7 per week, from €13 to €20.

On the question of take up, a working group, chaired by the Department of Finance, was established to examine the role which refundable tax credits could play in the tax and welfare system, with a specific brief to examine the possible payment of FIS through the tax system. While the group's final report is awaited, I understand that the principal recommendations regarding FIS are likely to be to continue payment through the social welfare system while maximising effects to increase take up.

My Department undertakes a number of proactive measures to ensure that people are aware of possible entitlement to FIS, which include advising all newly awarded one-parent family payment recipients, advising all employers annually in PRSI mailshots and examining entitlement in all awarded back to work allowance cases. Information on FIS is contained in all child benefit books and can be accessed on the Department's website. In addition, the scheme has been extensively advertised through local and national media outlets, including newspapers and radio, as well as through poster campaigns and targeted mailshots.

Every effort will continue to be made to publicise family income supplement and to increase peoples' awareness of their social welfare entitlements generally.

EU Presidency.

Brendan Howlin

Question:

128 Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will make a statement on her recent address to the Irish Presidency conference in Bundoran on mobility and social inclusion. [12047/04]

The conference in question, "Reconciling Mobility and Social Inclusion: the role of employment and social policy", was organised by my Department in consultation with the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Enterprise, Trade and Employment and supported by the EU Commission. The aim of the conference was to examine how employment and social policies and resources can best be focused on promoting the social inclusion of migrants. Another aim was to afford participants an opportunity for an exchange of views and experiences on the various aspects of this process and how such exchanges between member states could be encouraged and facilitated at EU level on an ongoing basis.

In my opening remarks I alluded to the fact that immigration accounted for over 70% of the population growth of the European Union in the last five years. The EU has over 19 million immigrants, of whom over 6 million are from other EU countries, and the remaining two thirds are from countries outside the Union. All the current indications are that the numbers of non-nationals living and working in EU countries will continue to grow and that a significant proportion of that number will be at risk of social exclusion. I pointed out that this presents member states with a challenge. On the one hand, they will need to ensure the effective management of immigration so that the numbers entering their countries are at a sustainable level and in a position to become self sufficient from employment. On the other hand, we must ensure that those admitted as legal residents are given the supports they need to realise their potential and achieve social inclusion.

I will report on the conclusions of the conference and of the other Irish Presidency conference on "Families, change and European Social Policy" to the meeting of the Council of Ministers for Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs in June. My aim is that the EU would build on the initiatives and measures described in the Commission communication on immigration, integration and employment and in the employment committee's opinions, as well as in the 2004 joint inclusion report, with a view to having comprehensive strategies on this matter in place for the next full national action plans for the period 2006 to 2009.

Question No. 129 answered with QuestionNo. 85.
Questions Nos. 130 and 131 answered with Question No. 92.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Tom Hayes

Question:

132 Mr. Hayes asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the position with regard to relative poverty levels in the State and the revised targets for the national anti-poverty strategy. [12174/04]

Seán Ryan

Question:

135 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made to date with regard to achieving the target set in An Agreed Programme for Government of reducing consistent poverty to below 2%; the percentage in consistent poverty at the latest date for which figures are available; if the results of the national survey carried out in 2003 are available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12063/04]

The most recent figures available for relative poverty levels in Ireland are to be found in the ESRI report, "Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland (Dec 2003)", which was based on the results of the 2001 living in Ireland survey. The analysis in the ESRI report indicates that the at risk of poverty rate, that is, the number of people with incomes below 60% of equivalised median income, has increased overall from 19.8% in 1998 to 21.9% in 2001. It also indicates that the risk of falling below that income threshold has increased for people who are ill or disabled, for the elderly and for people on home duties.

A number of factors contribute to this. During periods of high economic growth increases in household income can outstrip even substantial increases in the incomes of households with relatively low earnings or on social welfare. This is precisely what happened in Ireland in recent years. There were particular circumstances in the period from the mid-1990s when a combination of increased female participation in the workforce, reduced unemployment generally, tax reform and, crucially, high earnings growth caused very large increases in household income. These increases in household incomes were substantially higher than increases both in individual earnings and social welfare incomes over this period, despite virtually unprecedented improvements in employment and social provision across the board in this period.

Income is just one indicator of poverty. Other factors, not least employment rates and levels of home ownership, all of which have been positive in Ireland over the same period, also have a major bearing on a person's standard of living. While the analysis of the at risk of poverty indicator provides us with valuable information on the proportion of our population at risk of poverty, it is necessary to go further in order to define more precisely the numbers who are experiencing poverty in terms of being consistently deprived of goods and services regarded as essential for living in Ireland today.

It is with regard to consistent poverty that the Government has fixed targets in its revised national anti-poverty strategy. The target is to reduce consistent poverty to below 2% by 2007. The success of Government policies in tackling consistent poverty is reflected in the sharp decreases observed in this indicator in recent years, down from 15% in 1994 to some 5.2% in 2001.

The 2003 national survey referred to is the Irish component of a new EU wide survey on income and living conditions called EU-SILC. This replaces the living in Ireland surveys which were previously undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, as part of another EU survey, the household panel survey, which has now been discontinued. The 2001 survey was the last in the series. The Irish component of EU-SILC is being undertaken by the Central Statistics Office. Work on the new survey commenced last year and it is expected that data for 2003 will be published towards the end of this year. The ESRI will continue to carry out an independent analysis of this data on behalf of my Department.

Pension Provisions.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

133 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the findings of a recent report from employee benefit consultants (details supplied), that 80% of Irish pension funds fail to meet the minimum funding requirements; the steps being taken to address this situation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12043/04]

The minimum funding standard, which applies to defined benefit, DB, occupational pension schemes under the Pensions Act 1990, is a wind up standard. It is designed to ensure that, if a funded DB scheme winds up, there are sufficient assets to meet the liabilities at that point in time.

The survey to which the Deputy refers, included a question as to the ability of such funded DB schemes to meet this standard. It was conducted among 250 clients of the consultants, of whom approximately 188 represent funded DB schemes. It is estimated that this survey covers up to 10% of all DB schemes. The key findings of the review relating to the solvency position under the Pensions Act of the schemes covered by those surveyed indicate that: 21.4% of the schemes are over 100% funded; 60.3% of schemes are 80% — 100% funded; 18.3% of schemes are less than 80% funded.

There are no major surprises in these figures. As the authors of the report point out, the findings follow the volatility in the equity markets for the three years 2000 to 2002 and the fact that liabilities are rising faster than expected. The situation has improved in the equity markets and, with asset performance improving at present, I am glad to note that 81.7% of the schemes in question are more than 80% funded.

I have long been aware of these issues and I facilitated the introduction of some flexibility to ease employers' burdens in pension funding in the short term. Indeed, as the report of the survey states, many of these schemes are now making funding proposals to the Pensions Board under these new arrangements. For the longer term, the experience of the last few years has raised questions about the structure of the current funding standard. While it has served pension members well since 1990, it has come under considerable strain over the last couple of years and there are differing views on its appropriateness in current circumstances.

One view is that, as the vast majority of pension schemes do not wind up, a wind up standard is not appropriate for pensions which, by their nature, require long-term investment strategies. Others take the view that the only way to achieve security of members' benefits is to have a wind up standard. To deal with these issues, the Pensions Board is reviewing the funding standard in the light of experience.

Ultimately, there is no magic formula to address these issues but I believe the combination of the short term alleviation measures which allow breathing space allied to the longer term review of the funding standard is the appropriate response for now and I look forward to the outcome of that review later this year.

Social Welfare Code.

David Stanton

Question:

134 Mr. Stanton asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she has further plans to assist persons with disabilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12138/04]

My Department provides a broad range of support for people with disabilities through various income maintenance payments. These payments include, for instance, the contributory disability benefit and invalidity pension schemes and the means tested disability allowance and blind person's pension schemes. In addition, there is a further range of benefits available under the occupational injury benefits scheme for people who have been disabled as a result of an accident at work.

Significant improvements have been made in these supports in recent years. Cover for social insurance payments, including illness and disability payments, has been extended to additional groups of workers, including part-time workers and public servants. A range of improvements have been introduced in the operation of the means test for the disability allowance and blind person's pension schemes, including substantial increases in the amount of earnings from rehabilitative employment and self-employment which can be disregarded for means test purposes, currently €120 a week, and major improvements in the method of assessing capital, with the first €12,697 being disregarded. The disqualification for disability allowance purposes for those in full-time residential care has been progressively relaxed and the range of employment supports available to people in receipt of illness and disability payments has been significantly strengthened and enhanced.

In addition, the rates of payment of the various illness and disability payments have been substantially increased in recent years. The weekly personal rate of disability allowance, for example, has been increased by over €49 since 1997 to €134.80 at present. This represents an increase of over 57% or a real increase of over 26%. Further support is available to people with disabilities through the provision of support for those caring for them, for example, the carer's allowance, carer's benefit and respite care grant schemes. These payments provide financial support to people who are providing care and attention on a full-time basis.

Following a review of the national anti-poverty strategy, the Government set a target of achieving by 2007 a rate of €150 per week, in 2002 terms, for the lowest rates of social welfare payments. The achievement of this target, reiterated in Sustaining Progress, will significantly increase the value of payments to people on low incomes and at risk of poverty, including those on disability and caring payments.

Question No. 135 answered with QuestionNo. 132.
Question No. 136 answered with QuestionNo. 70.

Pension Provisions.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

137 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recent ESRI report, “Reforming Pensions in Europe: Evolution of Pension Financing and Sources of Retirement Income”; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12044/04]

The publication in question, which I had the pleasure to launch recently, is based on a series of papers presented at a conference organised by the European Network for Research on Supplementary Pensions and L'Institut de Recherches Economiques et Sociales held in Paris in October 2002.

Over the coming decades the EU faces a significant acceleration of demographic ageing due to three main factors: the baby boom generation reaching pension age; increases in life expectancy; and a declining birth rate. The number of people of pension age will increase rapidly and at the same time the number in the active age groups will diminish. Unless the situation is carefully managed, the changes in the old age dependency ratio will, in the future, place a heavy financial burden on those in employment to support those who are retired.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that countries are looking at their pension systems and are implementing reforms which, in many cases, introduce a funded element into schemes which, heretofore, have provided generous earnings related benefits on a pay as one goes basis. These reforms are attempting to strike a difficult balance between the financial sustainability of pensions systems and their social objectives. In a sense it is difficult to separate these two aspects of pension provision as financial sustainability is a necessary precondition for a system of adequate pensions provision.

The papers presented raise concerns about the reforms being undertaken as the authors consider that, in many cases, they will actually increase costs because of the tax incentives being introduced to encourage private pension provision. They also consider that pension entitlements will be less secure and the percentage of pre-retirement income replaced by the pension system will actually fall as a result of the reforms. The Irish pension system is radically different from those which apply in many other EU countries and our demographic situation is much more favourable. Although, in time, we will face similar increases in dependency ratios already being experienced in other countries, the same pressures for reform do not exist here.

However, preparations in the form of the National Pensions Reserve Fund are already in place to meet the challenge of increased costs arising from changes in our demographic situation. We are also working to improve the position of our older people by increasing the level of our social welfare pensions and also by encouraging people to supplement this by participating in occupational and private pensions. The papers presented clearly demonstrate the complexity of the issues involved in pensions reform and the dilemmas faced by policy makers in trying to balance competing objectives of adequacy and sustainability and the need to make all costs transparent.

Question No. 138 answered with QuestionNo. 118.
Question No. 139 answered with QuestionNo. 70.
Question No. 140 answered with QuestionNo. 72.

Social Insurance.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

141 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the recent call from the Civil and Public Services Union for changes to PRSI legislation to support family friendly initiatives for workers, particularly for a change in current PRSI regulations which require workers to be present on the same day each week in order to be able to record a PRSI payment for that week; her views on the call made; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12045/04]

I am aware of the suggestions from the Civil and Public Services Union in this regard. It is clear that working patterns can have an impact on the liability for PRSI contributions and the award of contributions and this applies particularly to work sharing arrangements.

Work sharing arrangements are agreed between an employer and an employee and examples can include a four day week, a three day week, a week on/week off, mornings only and so forth. In many cases, the attendance pattern will overlap with the pattern of PRSI contribution weeks and work sharers will receive contributions in respect of 52 weeks provided their weekly earnings exceed €38, as is the case with full time workers. However in some circumstances and depending on the alignment of the working week with the contribution week, work sharers may be awarded 26 or 39 contributions in a given year rather than the 52 weeks of PRSI contributions. In such circumstances employees may decide to change their work sharing patterns so as to increase the number of contributions to 52. However, they are not obliged to change their attendance patterns in these circumstances.

The link between working patterns, contribution record and entitlement to benefits is complex and my Department recently published an information booklet which specifically deals with these work sharing issues. It is acknowledged that there may be work sharing patterns where, in some years, the employee may be awarded only 26 weeks contributions or 39 weeks contributions. The attendance patterns and the years when this might occur are clearly identified in the booklet. Central to this issue from the perspective of the employee is the question of whether a smaller number of contributions might affect entitlement to benefit at some future date.

In the case of short-term benefits, such as unemployment and disability benefits, relatively recent changes in the qualifying conditions mean that an employee with 26 weeks of contributions in the governing qualification year and 26 contributions in the previous year is fully covered for short-term social welfare benefits. For longer term benefits, the potential impact on qualification for benefit is quite limited, although my Department will keep the position under review. It is important to acknowledge that if a work sharer is allocated 26 contributions in a year because their working week coincides with the contribution week, this simply reflects the fact that the contributory principle in social insurance, in general, seeks to link the number of contributions awarded with the level of contribution. Work sharers are generally awarded the same number of contributions as full-time workers despite the fact that they and their employers pay a considerably smaller amount in PRSI contributions.

The issue of the interaction between the social insurance system and work sharing patterns is one of a number being examined by a social partnership working group with a view to developing a fully inclusive social insurance model that facilitates combining work and family responsibilities. While the considerations of the working group are not yet complete, I understand it has acknowledged that any change in the present PRSI contribution arrangements, which is based on weeks of insurable employment, would have major implications for different groups of workers and alternative models could adversely affect the position of certain categories of employees. I will consider the scope for change in the present arrangements in the light of the working group's report.

Question No. 142 answered with QuestionNo. 86.

Live Exports.

Tony Gregory

Question:

143 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food his views on the detailed claims by CIWF (details supplied) that new animal transport rules proposed by the Government provide less care and protection for animals than the current inadequate EU animal transport directive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12283/04]

Since the commencement of the Irish Presidency, I have been seeking to reach agreement in the Council of Ministers on a new Council regulation proposed by the EU Commission on welfare conditions for animals being transported. The Commission proposal attracted polarised views among member states. As President of the Council, I have endeavoured to reconcile these views so that the Council could reach consensus on a compromise proposal which would result in real improvement in the conditions for animals being transported, while allowing farmers and exporters to continue to avail of vital and legitimate EU markets for their produce.

I am disappointed that the Council of Agriculture Ministers failed early yesterday morning to reach agreement on this matter, despite prolonged and intense efforts to broker a solution. I have no doubt that this proposal, involving adjustments to journey time sequences, the introduction of a satellite tracking system for transporters and improved training, enforcement and veterinary control, would have resulted in significantly improved conditions for animals being transported.

Civil Service Competitions.

Mary Upton

Question:

144 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food his views on correspondence from a person (details supplied) in County Clare. [12284/04]

The person concerned participated in a competition held by the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission, an independent body. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the issues raised by the correspondent.

Grant Payments.

Michael Ring

Question:

145 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the reason a person (details supplied) in County Mayo has had the REP scheme payment reduced by €640 in 2004. [12285/04]

In an amended agri-environmental plan received in my Department on 30 March 2004, the applicant has declared an area of 5.05 hectares of commonage as ineligible for payment. This area had previously been declared eligible. The payment that recently issued was based on the revised area declared by the applicant.

Tax Clearance Certificates.

Willie Penrose

Question:

146 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Finance if he will take steps to expedite an application for a C2 certificate by a person (details supplied) in County Westmeath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12281/04]j

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that an application for a C2 certificate was received in the Westmeath-Offaly revenue district on 25 February 2004. Additional information was required to make a decision on the application and, on 15 March, a letter issued to the tax agent seeking this information. The additional information was received in the Westmeath-Offaly revenue district on 15 April 2004.

Following a review of all the information, the application for a C2 certificate was approved and a letter to this effect issued on 26 April 2004. The C2 is available for collection by the person concerned at Westmeath-Offaly Revenue District, Government Offices, Pearse Street, Athlone, County Westmeath, and the person has been advised accordingly.

Departmental Staff.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

147 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Finance if there have been early retirement packages approved in respect of established civil servants in professional or technical grades in the past ten years; if so, the Departments and staff concerned; and the general terms of packages vis-à-vis added years service, lump sums and so on. [12282/04]

There have been no early retirement packages approved in respect of any group of established civil servants in a professional or technical grade in the last ten years. Voluntary early retirement packages have been implemented in a limited number of State sponsored bodies, for example, Teagasc, the Marine Institute, over the period referred to by the Deputy.

Tax Code.

Gerard Murphy

Question:

148 Mr. Murphy asked the Minister for Finance if a person who is leasing land has to pay stamp duty. [12286/04]

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that there are two categories, under the First Schedule of the Stamp Duties Consolidation Act 1999, for charging stamp duty on the creation of a lease of immovable property or rights relating to such property. The rate of stamp duty that is charged on the average annual rent payable for the term of the lease is 1%, 6% or 12% depending on the length of the term of the lease, ranging from one year to 100 years and over. Where the lease is for a definite term but is less than one year, a stamp duty rate of 1% is charged on the rent reserved for the definite period.

The rate of stamp duty that is charged on the premium or key money payable on non-residential property can range from 1% to 9%. The amount of the consideration chargeable to ad valorem duty is the amount ascertainable at the time of execution of the legal instrument involved. The legal instrument should contain all the facts and circumstances affecting the liability to the duty.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

149 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Finance further to Parliamentary Question No. 202 of 6 April 2004, the meaning of a phrase (details supplied) in his reply; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12307/04]

The phrase in question refers to the differing nature of the relationships involved in a legal context. On 17 February 2004, I provided a reply to a parliamentary question from Deputy Richard Bruton which set out the different treatments of separated, cohabiting and married persons under the tax code, reflecting the different nature of the relationships between the parties. My reply indicated that under the income tax code, married parents may elect for joint assessment, separate assessment or single assessment.

Under joint assessment, the couple can transfer their personal credit and part of their bands between them. In the case of a married couple, where only one spouse has income, the facility for joint assessment allows the earning spouse to avail of the married personal credit — which is double the personal credit of a single person — and an increased standard band. In addition, the home carer tax credit may be claimed by a married couple who are jointly assessed for tax where one spouse remains working in the home in order to care for children or other dependent persons.

Under separate assessment, each spouse is assessed on his or her own income but one spouse's unused personal credit, reliefs and the transferable portion of the standard rate band may be transferred to the other spouse. This means that the tax payable under separate assessment does not exceed the tax payable had that couple elected to be jointly assessed. The home carer credit may not be claimed by spouses who opt for separate assessment. Under single treatment, each spouse is treated for tax purposes as if unmarried. Under single treatment, one spouse's unused credits, reliefs and standard rate band cannot be transferred to the other spouse. As with separate assessment, the home carer credit may not be claimed by spouses who opt for single assessment.

Separated couples, whether parents or not, are generally treated as if unmarried — that is, assessed as single persons — but they may, where a legally binding maintenance arrangement is in place, jointly elect to be treated for tax purposes as if the separation had not taken place. The general position in the case of legally enforceable maintenance agreements is that where the couple are treated for tax purposes as if unmarried, a tax deduction for maintenance payments for the benefit of his or her spouse is granted to the paying spouse but the payments are taxed in the hands of the receiving spouse. However, if the couple jointly elect to be treated for tax purposes as if the separation had not taken place, the payer does not receive a tax deduction for the maintenance payments and the receiving spouse is not taxable on them. On the other hand, non-legally binding maintenance payments are not taxable in the hands of the receiving spouse but the paying spouse cannot claim a tax deduction for them.

Maintenance payments in respect of children are not taxable in the hands of the children or the receiving spouse. The effect of this is that the payments are treated the same way as if the taxpayer was providing for the child out of his/her after tax income. This is in line with the tax treatment of all other parents, where the cost of maintaining their children is not tax deductible. Parents who are separated from each other may each claim the one-parent family credit in respect of their child where that child resides with the parent at any time during the year of assessment. However, a man and woman living together as man and wife are specifically excluded by the tax code from entitlement to the one-parent family tax credit. It is possible in certain circumstances for separated persons who jointly elect to be jointly assessed for tax purposes to claim the home carer tax credit. However, in such circumstances and because of the joint assessment, the one-parent family credit may not be claimed by either parent.

Cohabiting parents are treated as single persons and there are no special income tax allowances for unmarried couples living together. The tax system treats members of cohabiting couples, with or without children, as separate and unconnected individuals. Each partner is a separate entity for tax purposes and credits, bands and reliefs cannot be transferred from one partner to the other. The home carer credit may not be claimed by cohabiting couples, as the credit is restricted to married persons who are jointly assessed for tax.

I have held the view consistently that changes in the tax code, for example, to recognise cohabiting couples, should not proceed ahead of changes in the general law. In this regard, I note with interest that the Law Reform Commission has recently published an extensive consultation paper on the rights and duties of cohabitees which deals, among other things, with the issue of taxation. My Department will be examining the recommendations contained in the consultation paper in the weeks ahead.

Visa Applications.

Seán Haughey

Question:

150 Mr. Haughey asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if visa applications by three persons (details supplied) made to the Irish Embassy in New Delhi will be expedited in view of the fact that they have valid work permits since 24 February 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12291/04]

The visa applications detailed were recently approved by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi was informed of this decision on 22 April 2004.

Services for Irish Emigrants.

Richard Bruton

Question:

151 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will consider establishing an agency abroad under his Department to co-ordinate services for Irish emigrants; if he will consider expanding the existing budget for the support of Irish emigrants who are experiencing hardship abroad to the promised level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12293/04]

I am not opposed in principle to the establishment of an agency for the Irish abroad, as proposed by the task force on policy regarding emigrants, and I do not rule this out. However, in the context of the present level of funding, it would be inappropriate to devote a large proportion of this amount to the administrative costs of setting up and running an agency. I have decided, therefore, as an interim step, to establish a dedicated unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs, when staff resources become available after the EU Presidency, to co-ordinate the provision of services to the Irish abroad and to carry forward the implementation of the task force's report.

The total allocation for emigrant services in the Vote for the Department of Foreign Affairs this year is €4 million. This represents an increase of €1 million or one third over 2003. The greater share of the €4 million, €3.57 million, will go to the DION fund for services to Irish emigrants in the UK. A sum of €400,000 will be allocated to Irish welfare agencies in the U.S and €48,000 will go to agencies in Australia. I have also made provision for grants to ÉAN, the umbrella body for voluntary agencies in Ireland providing services to emigrants, and to the Irish commission for prisoners overseas. I also hope to be able to find some additional funds through savings in my Department's Vote later in the year which will enable me to increase this amount even further.

I will continue to implement the report of the task force and to work in partnership with the governments of the countries concerned and with the voluntary Irish agencies at home and abroad to support our emigrants overseas.

EU Constitution.

Tony Gregory

Question:

152 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the incorporation of the animal welfare amendments proposed by German Federal Foreign Minister Fischler into the EU constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12305/04]

In response to the views expressed by a number of delegations in the IGC, the Italian Presidency proposed the inclusion of a new draft article in the constitutional treaty requiring the Union and the member states to pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals in the implementation of the Union's policies on agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space. Although the negotiations are being conducted on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, it appears that a broad consensus has been reached on the inclusion of the article.

Departmental Properties.

Richard Bruton

Question:

153 Mr. R. Bruton asked the Minister for Education and Science the status of lands (details supplied) in Dublin 3 in terms of ownership of same, the nature of the lease to the present users and the long term plans for the land; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12222/04]

The lands referred to by the Deputy are in the ownership of my Department. No final decisions have been taken regarding the long-term plans for the lands in question. A number of complex issues are required to be fully explored and resolved, including matters relating to the lease, before a final strategy can be formulated.

Further Education.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

154 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for Education and Science the action he intends to take to rectify the anomaly that has arisen in Drogheda College of Further Education whereby the numbers have been capped at 384 in a facility built for 500. [12225/04]

Enrolment in the PLC sector has more than doubled since 1990. There are over 1,000 courses to choose from in over 60 disciplines, delivered in a network of over 230 schools and colleges. Government commitment to the sector is evident not only in this expansion but also in the introduction of maintenance grants for students with effect from September 1998, the provision of national certification under the Further Education and Training Awards Council and the development of links with the institutes of technology.

In the current academic year, the enrolments on PLC courses in certain schools and colleges have exceeded the number of places approved by my Department. Teacher allocations for 2004-05 and capitation grants have been allocated on the basis of the approved number of places or the numbers enrolled. A total of 666 post-leaving certificate places were approved in County Louth VEC in the current academic year. My Department is currently considering appeals from the VECs, schools and colleges for the recognition of the excess numbers enrolled for the purposes of teacher allocations and grants. A decision in the matter will be taken shortly in the light of the totality of demands for teaching resources across the system.

Special Educational Needs.

Seán Crowe

Question:

155 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Science if a person (details supplied) in Dublin 24 who attends speech and language classes at Balinteer school will be permitted to remain attending these classes after June 2004 when they will be beyond the seven year old mark set in the criteria for attending this school. [12227/04]

I have asked my Department's inspectorate to investigate the matter referred to by the Deputy. A response will issue to the applicant as quickly as possible thereafter.

School Staffing.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

156 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science if and when a school warden will be appointed for Gael Scoil Camoige, Clondalkin village; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12230/04]

The appointment of a school warden is a matter for the relevant local authority and the authorities of the school should contact the local authority concerned, if they have not already done so.

School Accommodation.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

157 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science if his attention has been drawn to the fact that as of 2 April 2004, 55 persons in Limerick city still had not been allocated places in second level schools; the action he intends to take to ensure that suitable places are identified for these persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12233/04]

I am aware of the difficulties experienced by some families in Limerick city in securing a second level place for their children. Responsibility for ensuring that a child progresses from primary to post-primary education rests in the main with the child's parents. Under section 17 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, parents are responsible for ensuring that their children attend a recognised school or otherwise receive an appropriate minimum education.

The Education Welfare Board is required to assist parents who are experiencing difficulty in ensuring that their children attend school regularly and will also assist schools in fulfilling their role under the Act. Through its educational welfare officers, the board provides a welfare focused service that is accessible to parents, school and others concerned with the welfare of young people. The selection and enrolment of pupils in second level schools is the responsibility of the management authorities. My Department's main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all pupils seeking second level places in an area. This may result, however, in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice. As schools may not have a place for every applicant, a selection process may be necessary.

There are 15 post-primary schools in the Limerick city area. I am satisfied that there is sufficient capacity overall in these schools to meet the demand arising from pupils leaving primary schools and requiring second level education. Officials from the regional office of my Department and the National Educational Welfare Board met representatives of schools in the Limerick area concerning enrolment difficulties.

Section 29 of the Education Act 1998, provides parents with an appeal process to the Secretary General of my Department, where a board of management of a school or a person acting on behalf of the board refuses enrolment of a student. Where an appeal under section 29 is upheld, the Secretary General of my Department may direct a school to enrol a pupil. A substantial number of appeals under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 have been lodged with my Department in respect of refusal to enrol in post-primary schools in the Limerick area for the school year 2004-05. Each appeal will be processed under the procedures for hearing and determining appeals, as published by my Department.

I am sure the Deputy will understand that, as Minister, I have no role regarding the operation of the section 29 procedures. I cannot intervene in or exert any influence on an appeal, which is in progress as this would be to act beyond my legal power and authority. Once these appeals have been completed, my Department will be working with the National Educational Welfare Board and the relevant school authorities to address the underlying enrolment difficulties in second level schools in Limerick.

Schools Building Projects.

Jimmy Deenihan

Question:

158 Mr. Deenihan asked the Minister for Education and Science if his Department has decided to proceed with the refurbishment or extension to Scoil an Ghleanna, An Daingean, Chontae Chiarraí (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12247/04]

The large scale building project for the school referred to by the Deputy is listed in section 9 of the 2004 school building programme which is published on my Department's website at www.education.ie. This project is at stage 1 — site suitability, briefing and site report — of architectural planning. It has been assigned a band 3 rating by my Department in accordance with the published criteria for prioritising large scale projects.

Indicative timescales have been included for large scale projects proceeding to tender in 2004. The budget announcement regarding multi-annual capital envelopes will enable me to adopt a multi-annual framework for the school building programme which in turn will give greater clarity regarding projects that are not progressing to tender in this year's programme including Scoil an Ghleanna. I will make a further announcement in that regard during the year.

School Accommodation.

Finian McGrath

Question:

159 Mr. F. McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Science the position regarding the site for Gaelscoil Cholmcille, Whitehall, Dublin; the amount of public money spent on rent in 2004; and if urgent assistance will be given to this school in obtaining a proper premises in order to facilitate a quality educational environment for all its pupils. [12248/04]

My Department is considering options for the long-term accommodation needs of Gaelscoil Cholmcille including the possible purchase of a site. However, due to the commercial sensitivities surrounding site acquisitions, the Deputy will appreciate that I am unable to comment on specific site purchase issues. My Department is providing 95% grant aid towards an annual rental cost of €88,050 for the school. A recent proposed increase of €22,640 per annum is currently being examined in the school planning section of my Department.

Departmental Correspondence.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

160 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Education and Science the communications he has had with a person (details supplied) in County Dublin; the investigation he has carried out; the complaints made; the outcome of these investigations; the further actions he intends to take in the matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12249/04]

On foot of initial correspondence from the person referred to by the Deputy on 31 January 2003, I made enquiries with the Higher Education Authority regarding the complaints being made. Letters were issued from my office on 10 February 2003, 21 May 2003 and 17 September 2003 outlining progress on the matters under review by the university involved, arising from the original complaints.

In this regard, my correspondence of 17 September 2003 outlined my understanding that the board of studies for the particular programme in the university concerned had approved a recommendation of the university's audit committee on matters that were the subject of complaint. I understand this is now being implemented. No further correspondence has been exchanged between my Department and the person concerned on the matter.

School Accommodation.

Joe Higgins

Question:

161 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Education and Science the steps his Department is taking to come to an agreement with Fingal County Council regarding securing an extra classroom for Castleknock Educate Together national school (details supplied) at Beechpark, Dublin 15; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12250/04]

Joe Higgins

Question:

162 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Minister for Education and Science the steps his Department is taking to come to an agreement with Fingal County Council regarding securing a permanent site for Castleknock Educate Together national school at Beechpark, Dublin 15 at which a temporary school building is housed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12251/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 161 and 162 together.

A planning application will be submitted to Fingal County Council shortly for the provision of a new 16 classroom school and autistic unit on a Department owned site at Beechpark, Dublin 15, for Castleknock Educate Together national school

A planning application for the provision of a temporary classroom at the school for September 2004 has already been submitted to Fingal County Council and a decision is expected shortly.

Disadvantaged Status.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

163 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will include St. Michael’s infant school, Limerick (details supplied) as a designated disadvantaged school in view of the fact that the two primary schools with which it shares a campus are so designated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12252/04]

Any decision to expand or extend any of the initiatives aimed at tackling educational disadvantage is being considered in the context of a broad review of all such initiatives, which is currently underway in my Department. I anticipate that the review process will be completed shortly.

Child Abuse.

Gay Mitchell

Question:

164 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will review the case of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 24; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12268/04]

The Residential Institutions Redress Board and the Residential Institutions Review Committee are independent in the performance of their functions in accordance with the terms of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002. It is not open to me to make any comment on any individual awards that the redress board makes or to attempt to intervene in the process. In the case the Deputy is referring to I understand that the person in question has already gone through the review process as laid down in the Act.

In the event that any individuals are not satisfied with an offer made by the redress board or the review committee, they are still entitled to proceed with their case through the courts.

Schools Recognition.

Phil Hogan

Question:

165 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Education and Science if assistance will be given for the accreditation of a new language school (details supplied) in Dublin 4 in view of the fact that the project is supported by Enterprise Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12296/04]

The Advisory Council for English Language Schools, ACELS, is the regulatory body for English language schools and operates under the aegis of my Department. Its objectives are to: control standards in accreditation of EFL schools and courses; control standards in teacher training, both initial and in-career for EFL teachers in Ireland, and maintain a register of such qualified teachers; ensure the establishment of appropriate tests for EFL students and control standards in the certification of their performance; and promote an Irish cultural dimension in EFL courses, particularly in the textbooks used in its schools' network.

To obtain recognition the organisation can submit an application to ACELS, which will assess the school under the schedule of required standards and the regulations governing the recognition of organisations for the teaching of English as a foreign language. The recognition of organisations is granted on an annual basis by my Department on the recommendation of ACELS.

An application form can be obtained from the Advisory Council for English Language Schools, 44 Leeson Place, Dublin 2. No financial assistance is provided to individual language schools by my Department.

School Accommodation.

Cecilia Keaveney

Question:

166 Cecilia Keaveney asked the Minister for Education and Science the outcome of the decision made regarding the long-term accommodation needs of a school (details supplied) in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12306/04]

Before committing major capital funding to any project, my Department must be satisfied, having regard to all relevant factors, including enrolment and demographic trends, that the school in question has a viable future, thereby ensuring value for money. A number of issues remain to be explored and when these are fully investigated, a decision will be made on how best to provide for the school's long-term accommodation needs. My Department's officials are in contact with the school authorities in this regard.

School Closures.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

167 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science if he has satisfied himself with the proposal put forward by his Department on the closure of St. Catherine’s College of Education for Home Economics; his views on whether students attending the college will be in a position to obtain full instruction in teaching in the required curriculum with the reduction of staff numbers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12326/04]

Olwyn Enright

Question:

168 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science the reason his Department appears to have taken a decision that it will not redeploy persons who are employed on a temporary basis, whether full-time or part-time, at a college (details supplied); if he has satisfied himself that such a decision treats these persons in a fair and equitable manner. [12329/04]

Olwyn Enright

Question:

169 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will assess whether temporary whole-time staff employed at a college (details supplied) can be deployed to other areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12330/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 167 to 169, inclusive, together.

The issue of the future of St. Catherine's arose in the context of a decision by the Dominican trustees of St. Catherine's that, due to personnel and financial considerations, they were no longer in a position to fulfil the role of trustees of the college. Following discussions between the trustees and my Department, it was agreed that a consultant would be appointed who would meet relevant parties and prepare a report on the options available.

The consultant's report was thoroughly examined in my Department and the options for the future of the college were set out for my consideration. Having carefully considered all of them and having taken into account other factors such as the national spatial strategy, relevant costs in a time of financial constraint, a Government decision to restrict public service numbers, the need to secure value for money and a better allocation of resources, I decided that these considerations are best served by the closure of St. Catherine's and the designation of St. Angela's College, Sligo, as the sole centre for the training of home economics teachers.

The closure of St. Catherine's will be phased over the next four years to facilitate students currently enrolled in the college in completing their course of training in the college. The supply of home economics teachers will not be affected by the closure, as student intake to St. Angela's College will increase. Discussions are currently taking place between officials of my Department and the management authorities of St. Catherine's on the practical arrangements involved in the closure of the college. As part of these discussions, the issue of future staffing levels with reduced student numbers is being addressed. I understand that no decisions have yet been made on this matter.

Coastal Protection.

Cecilia Keaveney

Question:

170 Cecilia Keaveney asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources when improvements will be carried out to a station (details supplied) in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12246/04]

Consultants retained by my Department to conduct a study of the future development of the Irish Coast Guard recommended that two control centres as opposed to the existing three centres should be operated. Following assessment of the recommendations it was decided that Malin Head and Valentia would be the two centres. Coast Guard management is finalising proposals for the operation of the two centres. When these proposals have been finalised the necessary capital building programmes can be planned.

Offshore Exploration.

Martin Ferris

Question:

171 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he will make a statement on the possible implications that the revelations concerning falsification of its oil and gas reserves by a company (details supplied) has for its involvement in the exploration sector here. [12301/04]

Estimates of reserves of fields discovered offshore under authorisations issued by my Department are evaluated independently by technical experts in my Department. The issue raised by the Deputy has, therefore, no implications for exploration or production in Ireland.

Sports Capital Programme.

Finian McGrath

Question:

172 Mr. F. McGrath asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if the maximum advice and support will be given regarding funding for Casino Celtic YC (details supplied) in Dublin 5; and if he will make this a priority issue. [12287/04]

In a reply to a similar question in March 2003, reference number 7855/03, concerning this club, I informed the Deputy about the national lottery funded sports capital programme which is administered by my Department and I suggested at that time that the club could apply for assistance under the 2003 sports capital programme if it had a suitable project. The programme is advertised on an annual basis.

Projects under the programme must be directly related to the provision of sport and recreation facilities and be of a capital nature, which, for the purpose of the programme, is defined as: expenditure on the improvement or construction of an asset and includes any costs directly incurred in this process; and purchase of permanently based sports equipment, which is securely housed, and will remain in use for five years or more. The programme does not assist in the purchase of sites, premises or personal equipment, such as sports kits, gloves, personal protective clothing and so forth.

No application under the programme was received from the club in question under either the 2003 or 2004 programmes. The latter was advertised in the national newspapers on 30 November and 1 December 2003. The closing date for receipt of applications was 16 January 2004. A total of 1,304 applications were received before the closing date. I intend to announce the grant allocations for the programme as soon as possible after the evaluation of the applications received has been completed.

Should the organisation in question have a project in keeping with the basic criteria for the sports capital programme, as listed above, then it will be open to it to apply under the 2005 programme, which is likely to be advertised towards the end of this year. The club can contact the sports unit of my Department if any further information is required.

Swimming Pool Projects.

Sean Fleming

Question:

173 Mr. Fleming asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism when funding for the proposed upgrading of Portlaoise swimming pool would be approved. [12289/04]

The contract documents for the refurbishment of the swimming pool in Portlaoise, which have been submitted to my Department by Laois County Council, are under consideration. As the Deputy will be aware there are four principal stages in the local authority swimming pool programme as follows: preliminary report; contract documents; tender approval; and construction. Each stage of the process is subject to the approval of my Department and grant aid is only allocated to a project when the tender documents have been approved.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Seán Crowe

Question:

174 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Health and Children the reason a person (details supplied) in Dublin 24 was left waiting on an assessment waiting list until they were five and a half. [12228/04]

Responsibility for the provision of services to people with disabilities in the Dublin region lies, in the first instance, with the Eastern Regional Health Authority. My Department has, therefore, asked the regional chief executive of the authority to investigate the matter raised by the Deputy and reply directly to him.

Cancer Incidence.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

175 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for Health and Children if he intends to conduct an investigation into the alarmingly high number of cancer deaths in the Drogheda and Dundalk areas as stated in a recent report, Cancer Mortality and Morbidity Report in County Louth, by a person (details supplied). [12199/04]

Arthur Morgan

Question:

183 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to a report published recently that indicates a particularly high level of cancer in the Drogheda area of County Louth; the action he is taking to deal with this situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12219/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 175 and 183 together.

The National Cancer Registry has statutory responsibility for the collation and analysis of data on incidence and prevalence of cancer in Ireland. I have asked the National Cancer Registry to examine in detail the report referred to by the Deputies.

Hospital Staff.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

176 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the inadequate levels of staffing at St. Joseph’s home for the elderly, Trim, County Meath; if sufficient resources will be provided to the North Eastern Health Board to adequately staff this important facility in order that patients receive optimal care in a healthy environment. [12200/04]

As the Deputy will be aware, the provision of health services in County Meath is, in the first instance, the responsibility of the North Eastern Health Board. The board has advised that in addition to the extensive programme of modernisation undertaken at St. Joseph's Hospital, Trim, a project team has been operating to look at the hospital and overall structures. A partnership approach is being adopted to progress staffing issues, in conjunction with the continual modernisation pathway undertaken.

The North Eastern Health Board accepts that there is some shortfall of staff at night-time and states that this will be one of the first areas to be reviewed by the project team with the view to making recommendations.

Care of the Elderly.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

177 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the North Eastern Health Board has not created one extra care for the elderly bed in County Meath to meet the needs of an increasing population; the action he and his Department propose to rectify this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12201/04]

As the Deputy will be aware, the provision of health services in County Meath is, in the first instance, the responsibility of the North Eastern Health Board. The board informs me that it proposes to construct a new 34 bed community nursing unit in Navan to replace the county infirmary. This will increase the bed provision in Meath by 14 beds. In addition, a day hospital will be provided as part of the development.

My Department is examining the health capital programme for 2004 and beyond to ascertain what new projects can be progressed through either planning or construction stages, taking account of existing commitments and overall funding resources available. It is in this context that my Department will continue to liaise with the North Eastern Health Board regarding the proposed development in Navan in the light of the board's overall capital funding priorities.

Health Board Services.

Mary Upton

Question:

178 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Health and Children the position regarding the issue raised in Parliamentary Question No. 356 of 30 March 2004. [12202/04]

Responsibility for the provision of orthodontic treatment to eligible persons in Dublin 12 rests with the Eastern Regional Health Authority. My Department has again asked the regional chief executive to investigate the matter raised by the Deputy and to reply to her directly.

Smoking Ban.

Paul Kehoe

Question:

179 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Health and Children when the position with regard to hotel rooms will be reviewed in view of the fact that the smoking ban has been introduced; if the ban will be changed to include hotel rooms; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12204/04]

The smoke-free workplaces measures apply, with limited exceptions, to all enclosed places of work. These measures do not apply to hotel bedrooms as these are considered to be equivalent to private dwellings. A decision to allow the smoking of tobacco products in exempted premises is a matter for the management of the premises concerned. However, the fact that particular premises are exempted does not confer a right to smoke in that location and neither does it affect the duty of care an employer has in respect of his or her employees. Guidelines in respect of protection for staff for whom hotel bedrooms are a place of work have issued to the Irish Hotels Federation.

Health Board Services.

Michael Ring

Question:

180 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Health and Children the reason a person (details supplied) in County Mayo has not been admitted to Galway Regional Hospital. [12206/04]

The provision of hospital services for people living in County Mayo is a matter for the Western Health Board. My Department has asked the chief executive officer of the board to reply directly to the Deputy on the matter raised.

Michael Ring

Question:

181 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Health and Children when a person (details supplied) in County Galway will be admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, Dublin. [12207/04]

The provision of hospital services for people living in County Galway is a matter for the Western Health Board. My Department has asked the chief executive officer of the board to reply directly to the Deputy on the matter raised.

Homeless Persons.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

182 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Health and Children if he has received a communication from an association (details supplied) concerning the shortfall of €2 million in the provision for homeless services in Dublin in 2004; the extent to which his Department has contributed to this; the steps he is taking to remedy the problem; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12218/04]

Since 2000, €22.63 million additional funding has been made available by my Department to meet our commitments under "Homelessness — An Integrated Strategy". This is ongoing funding and will remain available to health boards for the provision of health services to homeless adults. I have received a communication from the association concerned and the matters raised by that association are being considered in my Department.

Question No. 183 answered with QuestionNo. 175.
Question No. 184 withdrawn.

Health Board Services.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

185 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the fact that some chiropodists in the Eastern Regional Health Authority area are charging medical card holders a small fee for their services; if action is being taken to counteract this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12232/04]

As stated in response to previous questions on this subject, the matter had been referred to the chief executive officers of all health boards and the authority for investigation and reply to my Department. The health board chief executive officers have responded to my Department's request for a report on the arrangements for the provision of chiropody services by each health board. The report is being examined by my officials. The need for further action will be considered on completion of this examination.

Organ Donation.

Mary Upton

Question:

186 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Health and Children his views on the introduction of an opt out organ donation scheme to increase the level of organ donation here. [12272/04]

There are two systems that can be used to ascertain an individual's wishes on organ donation: the opt in system and the opt out system. The former system, which operates in this country, requires that the specific consent to donation of each person or their relatives be obtained before organs or tissues are removed. The opt out system presumes that all citizens consent to donation unless they have specifically expressed a wish to the contrary.

The practice in this country is that where a person has indicated his or her willingness to donate organs by way of carrying an organ donor card or a driving licence marked accordingly, the consent of the next-of-kin is always sought. Even where opt out systems are in operation, the relatives of the deceased are approached as part of the donor screening process to seek a medical history of any high risk behaviour. Thus, the relatives will always be aware that a donation is being considered and can register an objection to the donation.

I understand that the European Commission is considering the question of legislation in respect of organ transplantation, including the issue of consent, and proposes to conduct a thorough scientific evaluation of the situation. It will present a report to the Council of the European Union on its analysis as soon as possible. In the meantime, I am proposing to establish, in the near future, an expert group to examine organ donation, procurement and utilisation policy in Ireland as part of the national health strategy's commitment to develop organ transplantation services with a view to increasing donation and utilisation rates. I would be happy to have the issue raised by the Deputy considered by the group in the course of its work.

Health Board Services.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

187 Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Health and Children the proposals he has to assist the Caredoc Co-op after hours service to Waterford city and county in early 2004 (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12274/04]

Between 2000 and 2003, €7.124 million was allocated to the South Eastern Health Board for the expansion of its out of hours co-operative, Caredoc. In 2004, €3.492 million has been included in the health board's base allocation for the continued provision of services under this heading. This dedicated funding is exclusive of the fees paid to participating general practitioners.

All decisions in regard to the geographical areas to be covered by co-operatives and the order of their commencement are matters for the relevant health board having regard to the range of financial and other issues involved in any such expansion.

Historic Insurance Liabilities.

Phil Hogan

Question:

188 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the recent High Court decision reaffirming the discretionary powers of the medical defence organisations; the consequences of this decision for his strategy to address circumstances in which such organisations lawfully refuse to provide indemnity to current or former members; the measures he is taking to ensure that doctors and patients here are protected specifically with regard to historic liabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12298/04]

The judgment delivered in the High Court in the case referred to by the Deputy has been brought to my attention. Copies have been forwarded to the Chief State Solicitor's Office and to the Office of the Attorney General for their observations. I do not propose to speculate on any implications of the judgment until I have received advice on the matter. My Department is actively involved in discussions with the medical defence organisations in an effort to resolve the issue of historic liabilities.

Phil Hogan

Question:

189 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Health and Children when he expects his discussions with the MDU on historic liabilities and the clinical indemnity scheme to conclude; his views on whether the matter can be resolved by negotiation; if he has undertaken similar discussions with the MPS; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12299/04]

The issues involved in my Department's discussions with the Medical Defence Union are complex. I expect the current phase of the process, which involves an independent assessment of the MDU's Irish obstetric liabilities, to be concluded shortly. I hope to be in a position to bring proposals to Government shortly thereafter. It has always been my wish that the matter of historic liabilities should be resolved by negotiation. However, the interests of patients, consultants and taxpayers have to be taken into consideration in determining that the matter can be resolved by agreement.

In parallel with the discussions with the Medical Defence Union, officials of my Department have also been engaged in discussions with the Medical Protection Society.

Vaccination Programme.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

190 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Health and Children the systems his Department is looking into in other countries with regard to setting up a compensation scheme for persons who have been brain damaged by vaccines administered in this State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12332/04]

The preliminary overview of schemes already undertaken is a working document which forms part of the deliberative process and it would not be appropriate to release the details thereof at this stage.

Garda Stations.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

191 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his plans and proposed timeframe for the replacement of the Mary Street Garda Station, Limerick, with a new station; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12264/04]

I am informed by the Garda authorities that they are currently examining the provision of a new Garda station at Mary Street, Limerick, to cater for the needs of the area. When the views of the Garda authorities are received in my Department further consideration will be given to the matter.

Accordingly, the Deputy will appreciate that I cannot indicate at this time when construction of a new station might commence. I can, however, assure her that there will be no avoidable delay and the project will be progressed as quickly as the availability of financial and other resources allow.

Departmental Properties.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

192 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has received a submission from Shankhill GAA Club proposing a GAA centre of excellence and Irish cultural centre for the former Shanganagh Prison, Shankhill, County Dublin; the consideration he has given to the proposal; if he will make the premises available for this purpose; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12269/04]

I have to date received no formal submission on the proposal mentioned by the Deputy. I have, however, already decided, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, that the property in question will be sold with the proceeds dedicated to the Irish Prison Service capital building programme. This process is now underway.

Proposed Legislation.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

193 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he will implement the recommendation contained in the ninth progress report of the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution to bring forward legislation for the abolition of ground rents; when he expects to publish legislation for the abolition of ground rents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12270/04]

The Government legislation programme which was published on 26 April 2004 makes provision for a Bill to abolish ground rents. As stated previously on this matter, publication of the Bill is subject to the resolution of possible constitutional and practical difficulties. The constitutional difficulties referred to concern the respective rights of ground rent tenants and landlords while the practical difficulties concern land law generally and, in particular, the land registration system.

I have nothing further to add to that by way of comment at this point in time other than to say that the recommendation contained in the ninth progress report of the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution will be examined as part of the same exercise.

Garda Operations.

Paul Kehoe

Question:

194 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of phone calls made to traffic watch in the past year; and the number of these calls which resulted in a prosecution. [12304/04]

The traffic watch scheme was launched nationwide on 19 February 2004 and since that date a total of 841 calls have been received. The cases where callers have indicated that they were prepared to give evidence in court are still under investigation.

Prior to the launch of the scheme nationwide, a pilot scheme was operated in the south eastern region since November 2001. During the operation of the pilot scheme, 3,800 calls were received from the public as a result of which more than 1,000 drivers were formally cautioned. There were also 30 prosecutions in the courts as a result of calls to the pilot scheme.

Local Authority Housing.

Seán Crowe

Question:

195 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will allocate funding to cover the cost of making adaptations to privately owned houses belonging to disabled persons; and if he will fast track the process in view of the fact that some persons have been waiting for over a year and a half. [12208/04]

Assistance towards the adaptation of houses for the proper accommodation of a member of the household who is either physically handicapped or suffering from severe mental handicap or mental illness is available under the disabled persons grant scheme. The administration of the scheme, including the processing of individual applications, is a matter for individual local authorities. The framework for the operation of the scheme is laid down in statutory regulations and, as far as practicable, is designed to give an appropriate degree of flexibility to local authorities.

Capital funding of €65 million has been provided for the payment of disabled persons and essential repairs grants in 2004. Returns have now been received from all local authorities detailing their expenditure on the scheme in 2003 and their estimated requirements for 2004 and individual allocations are now being finalised. It is a matter for authorities to decide on the level of funding to be provided for the disabled persons grant scheme in their areas from within the allocations notified to them for these purposes by my Department.

My Department recoups to authorities two thirds of their expenditure on the payment of individual grants. It is the responsibility of the authorities to fund the remaining one third from their own resources from amounts provided for that purpose in their annual estimates of expenditure. The improvements which have been made in recent years to the maximum disabled persons grant and the level of recoupment available have resulted in increased levels of demand with expenditure on the scheme increasing from €13 million for 2,455 grants in 1998 to €52.6 million for 5,932 grants in 2002. Figures for 2003 are currently being compiled and will be published shortly.

In line with this significant increase in my Department's capital provision for the scheme, recoupment costs have also increased from €6.3 million for 2,512 grants in 1998 to almost €37.5 million for 6,153 grants in 2003. In that time the maximum grant has doubled from €10,158 to €20,320. These significant increases in the levels of funding provided are a clear indication of the Government's commitment to the disabled persons grant scheme.

Private Rented Accommodation.

Billy Timmins

Question:

196 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding the registration of private rented dwellings; if landlords have to pay this registration in view of the recent court decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12244/04]

I refer to the reply to Question No. 816 of 27 April 2004. I am not aware of a recent court decision that has implications for the obligation of landlords to register their tenancies under the Housing (Registration of Rented Houses) Regulations 1996.

Property Transfer.

Cecilia Keaveney

Question:

197 Cecilia Keaveney asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if a property has been transferred into the State’s ownership (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12245/04]

I refer to the reply to Question No. 147 of 24 March 2004. The position is unchanged.

Archaeological Sites.

Jimmy Deenihan

Question:

198 Mr. Deenihan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government when the archaeological report on the excavation at Ardfert Cathedral will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12273/04]

Most of the specialist report on the human remains at this excavation has now been received. Given the extent of the remains, more than 2,000 burials, the information must now be collated with the general report. As promised previously, I will arrange for a copy of the published report to be forwarded to the Deputy.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Cecilia Keaveney

Question:

199 Cecilia Keaveney asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding contract documents for a group water scheme (details supplied) in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12275/04]

I refer to the reply to Question No. 577 of 23 March 2004.

Road Network.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

200 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the purpose of local improvement scheme grants; and the allocation which has been made to Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council for 2004. [12280/04]

Section 81 of the Local Government Act 2001 provides the statutory basis for the local improvements scheme and my Department's local improvements scheme memorandum, which issued in February 2002, sets out the current terms and conditions for the payment of local improvements scheme grants. Under the scheme, grants are provided to county councils for the construction and improvement of non-public roads which provide access to parcels of land of which at least two are owned or occupied by different persons engaged in separate agricultural activities, or provide access for harvesting purposes for two or more persons, or which will in the opinion of the county council be used by the public.

No applications for funding under the 2004 scheme were received in my Department from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council and, accordingly, no allocation was made to the council.

Departmental Properties.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

201 Ms Enright asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the reason for the no-hunting policy operated by him on lands within the control of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12331/04]

I refer to the replies to Questions Nos. 264, 272 and 273 of 3 March 2004, to Question No. 4 of 4 March 2004 and to Questions Nos. 467, 468, 469, 470 and 471 of 30 March 2004 in which I have explained the background to the long-standing prohibition on hunting on lands managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the reasons for continuing this policy.

Departmental Programmes.

Paul Kehoe

Question:

202 Mr. Kehoe asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the census figures which were used in order to meet the criteria to apply for funding of the CLÁR programme in 2003; and if he proposes to use the up to date figures when allocating funding in 2004. [12303/04]

The Deputy will, no doubt, be aware that I announced the revision of the CLÁR areas in January 2003 based on the preliminary results of the 2002 population census data. As the final figures, published in June 2003, are only marginally less, -0.0034%, a further revision of CLÁR regions is unwarranted.

The programme will be operated in 2004 on the same basis as last year, with all 18 areas eligible to participate in all the measures operating under the programme.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

203 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider further increases in child and adult dependent allowances; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12317/04]

Since 1994, successive Governments have held the rate of child dependant allowances, CDAs, constant while concentrating resources for child income support on the child benefit, CB, scheme. It is important to recognise that over that period, the combined CB/CDA payment has increased by more than double the rate of inflation. Child benefit is neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents and does not contribute to poverty traps, whereas the loss of child dependant allowances by social welfare recipients on taking up employment can act as a disincentive to availing of work opportunities. As a universal payment, which is not taxable and is not assessed as means for other secondary benefits, child benefit is in fact more effective than child dependant allowances as a child income support mechanism when account is taken of these incentive issues.

The Government's commitment to this policy is reflected in the substantial resources we have invested in the child benefit scheme since entering office, including an additional expenditure of €1.27 billion on child benefit when the current programme of multi-annual increases is complete. We will then have moved from a position in 1994 where 70% of child income support for a family claiming social welfare payments was in the form of child dependant allowances, to a position where child dependant allowances will account for less than 33%. The issue of increasing child dependant allowances has been raised on a number of occasions. I believe that the increased investment in the child benefit scheme which the Government has made in recent years has been of major benefit to families and is a most effective use of the resources available for child income support.

In the partnership agreement Sustaining Progress, the importance of child income support arrangements is recognised, with a commitment to examine the effectiveness of current arrangements in tackling child poverty. Budget 2004 provided for increases in the qualified adult allowance ranging from €16.10 per week, invalidity pension where the qualified adult dependant is 66 years of age or over, to €6.60 per week, non-contributory pension, blind pension and short-term schemes.

Legislation currently provides for the gradual reduction of the qualified adult allowance, QAA, for claimants of certain welfare payments, where the qualified adult is earning €88.88 or more up to €210.00 per week, at which point the QAA is fully withdrawn. The initial threshold of €88.88 together with the gradual withdrawal ensure that a spouse is not unduly penalised for taking up employment. A number of changes to these tapered arrangements have been introduced in recent years to ensure that the impact of increases in earnings are not negated for families where the spouse is the sole earner and is in low paid employment. The range of income over which the QAA is withdrawn has been progressively extended. In 1999 the QAA was withdrawn over an income range of €76.18 to €114.28. The current range is €88.88 to €210.00.

Furthermore, whereas prior to March 2000, the child dependant allowance was halved where a tapered rate of QAA was payable, full CDA is now payable in such cases. The question of increasing the QAA and child dependant allowance rates are matters for consideration in a budgetary context and in the context of priorities generally.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

204 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason an increase in one parent family or widows allowance results in a reduction in rent support for those in private rented accommodation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12316/04]

Rent supplements, which are provided for under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme are subject to a means test and are normally calculated to ensure that a person, after the payment of rent, has an income equal to the rate of supplementary welfare allowance appropriate to his or her family circumstances, less a minimum contribution, currently €13 which recipients are required to pay from their own resources.

In addition to the minimum contribution, recipients are also required to contribute towards their rent any additional assessable means that they have over and above the appropriate basic supplementary welfare allowance rate. In effect, this means that the difference between the relevant supplementary welfare allowance rate and the means which a person has also goes towards their rent thereby reducing the amount of rent supplement payable.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

205 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when she expects to liberalise means testing for social welfare payments that are subject to such tests; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12318/04]

Social assistance payments feature a means test which is intended to ensure that available resources are targeted at those most in need.

In recent years, considerable improvements have been made to means tests to allow persons to qualify more easily for payments, to retain more of their income before payments are withdrawn or to withdraw payments more gradually if means exceed a certain level. The improvements included the following. The income disregard for carer's allowance was increased from €191 to €250, single, and from €382 to €500, couple, over budgets 2003 and 2004. This amounts to a €59 increase in the disregard for a single person and a €118 increase in the disregard for a couple. The assessment of benefit and privilege for unemployment assistance recipients aged 29 years or more was abolished from May 2003. In addition, budget 2004 continued this initiative and reduced the maximum age further to 26 years, in respect of persons who are living in the parental home. The past two budgets have also allocated an increase in the income disregard for the family income supplement payment of €45, for all family sizes. In addition, budget 2004 abolished the assessment of rent supplement from the calculation of assessable income for the payment of family income supplement, thus ensuring that people in receipt of FIS and rent supplement retain the full value of their payments.

In line with the current arrangements for one-parent family payment, the treatment of maintenance in the assessment of means for disability allowance, unemployment assistance, farm assist, PRETA, OANCP, widow/widower's pension and blind persons' pension was standardised in budget 2003. Any further changes to means assessment would require the allocation of additional resources and would have to be considered in a budgetary context.

Family Support Services.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

206 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will investigate the possibility of improving the FIS; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12320/04]

Family income supplement, FIS, is designed to provide cash support for employees on low earnings with families and thereby preserve the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments.

The range of improvements to the family income supplement scheme instituted in recent years, including the assessment of FIS on the basis of net rather than gross income and the progressive increases in the income limits, have made it easier for lower income households to qualify under the scheme.

In this year's budget, I provided for further increases in the FIS income limits with effect from January 2004. These increases raised the weekly income limits by €28 at each point, adding an extra €16.80 to the payments of most existing FIS recipients. I also increased the minimum FIS weekly payment from €13 to €20. The average weekly payment now stands at €82.51 per week, with a total of 12,003 families receiving a supplement under the scheme.

The question of further improvements to the income thresholds is a matter for consideration in a budgetary context, having regard to available resources and Government commitments.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

207 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will consider substantially increasing child benefit with a view to assisting parents with high child minding costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12321/04]

Child benefit, CB, delivers a standard rate of payment in respect of all children in a family regardless of income levels or employment status. It supports all children but delivers proportionately more assistance to those on low incomes and with larger families. It does not distort parental choice in respect of labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty.

Child benefit is not intended primarily to meet child care costs. However, the substantial increases in CB in recent years can make a substantial contribution to meeting those costs. Budget 2004 provided for a €6 per month increase, or 4.8%, in the rate of child benefit payable in respect of each of the first two children and €8 per month, or 5.1%, increase in the rate payable in respect of the third and subsequent children.

Over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit have increased by €93.51 at the lower rate and €115.78 at the higher rate, increases of 246% and 234% respectively, compared with inflation of 26.9%. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

The question of further increases in child benefit will be a matter for consideration in a budgetary context.

Social Insurance.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

208 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the steps she can take to expedite the process of social welfare claims requiring calculation or contributions in more than one jurisdiction; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12322/04]

I refer the Deputy to my reply to Question No. 8035/04 and Question No. 4370/04 in the above matter.

My Department has responsibility for the administration of a range of social security benefits and pensions, including cases where social insurance periods in other EU member states or in countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement, may be combined for the purposes of determining entitlement.

In the case of short-term benefits such as unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, maternity benefit and so on, reckonable social insurance contributions in one or more EU countries may be taken into account to determine entitlement in accordance with EU legislation. The majority of these cases can be decided on the basis of current or relatively recent information, such as details of employment contributions recorded in the relevant countries during the past few years and these are normally cleared without undue delay. In some cases, the need for further correspondence with the applicant and/or relevant authorities in other countries — for example, to confirm identity and locate the correct insurance records — may delay the outcome. However, every effort is made to minimise such delays.

Pension applications require far more detailed information and may often involve considerable work in establishing a person's complete social insurance coverage in one or more countries. Payments may have to be calculated on a pro rata basis having regard to the extent of reckonable social insurance periods in each of the relevant countries. This process can be very time consuming, particularly where investigations may be required to establish the full and correct employment records. Delays in processing applications do not result in any loss of payment to the pensioners concerned as claims are backdated in accordance with the normal provisions. Also, in the majority of cases, the applicants may be in receipt of a basic pension while the broader EU or bilateral aspects of their entitlement are being examined.

The processing of pension claims, and in particular, the collation and exchange of social insurance data in a timely manner, is a matter of concern at EU level. Work is ongoing to identify ways of simplifying and streamlining the administrative procedures to improve arrangements for the award and payment of social security benefits. Officials from my Department are currently involved in a working group which will draw up a plan of action for data exchanges, identifying concrete ways to EU wide progress in this area. It is expected that a plan of action will be ready for presentation by the end of next year.

Question No. 209 answered with QuestionNo. 118.
Question No. 210 answered with QuestionNo. 70.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

211 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if she will extend the scope and scale of optical and dental benefits; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12325/04]

The treatment benefit scheme operated by my Department provides to insured persons and their dependent spouses a range of services in the area of dental, optical and aural benefit. The availability of these benefits is subject to certain PRSI contribution conditions. The PRSI contribution classes which qualify for treatment benefit are A, E, H and P.

The operation of the schemes is subject to ongoing monitoring by my Department. I have no proposals, at present, for amending the dental and optical benefit schemes and any changes would be a matter for consideration within the constraints of available resources.

Community Development.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

212 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the amount allocated to Comhairle in the years 2003 and 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12333/04]

Olwyn Enright

Question:

213 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the amount allocated to Comhairle in County Laois for the years 2003 and 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12334/04]

Olwyn Enright

Question:

214 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the amount allocated to Comhairle in County Offaly for the years 2003 and 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12335/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 212 to 214, inclusive, together.

The funding provided to Comhairle in 2003 was €17.011 million and, in 2004, is €17.826 million. This funding is for the ongoing implementation of Comhairle's strategic plan and includes the ongoing development of the citizens information services; contributing to the development of social policy; the provision of a range of information and training services and the promotion of equal access to the broad range of social services.

Among the functions of Comhairle is the provision of support to community information centres and other local organisations providing service related services. Funding allocated by Comhairle for services in County Laois in 2003 amounted to €156,982. This consisted of an operating grant of €5,500 for various projects in the county. Funding of €163,450 has been allocated for 2004. Services in County Offaly received funding of €197,220 in 2003, consisting of €175,115 towards operating and running costs and other grants totalling €22,105. Funding of €198,020 has been allocated for 2004.