Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I spoke earlier about the desirability of consolidating legislation into one Act, for everyone's ease and convenience, particularly consumers. Then I pointed out the anomalies which grow from that. I hope that the Minister would look at some of them, one of which is the fuel allowance, particularly for those living in sheltered accommodation. He can remedy that matter with approximately €50,000, as I explained to his officials afterwards. The second anomaly relates to credits for carers, particularly those self-employed S1 contributors. That is an extremely important point because the Minister must recognise that caring is an important area.

The Minister seems to have taken a greater interest in caring but we must support the Carers Association. Mr. Enda Egan, its chief executive, has made a forthright and comprehensive presentation on a national strategy for carers, whereby all aspects of caring are examined in the broadest way. It must be underpinned by the legislative provisions that exist in Northern Ireland and England.

I brought what I believe was a worthwhile Bill to that end before this House and it was not worthwhile just because it was introduced by the Opposition. Needs assessment in respect of caring is important. It is important to know the needs of the carer as well as those of the person being cared for, so that legislation is integrated. The Carers Association made a comprehensive and precise submission to the Committee on Social and Family Affairs in this regard. Change will not happen overnight, but we should make a good start.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs has focused on the issue of carers and it will not go off our agenda as long as I am around. We should acknowledge that in the past caring has been provided on the cheap by carers who have done a tremendous job for us. This recognition is what they want. The monetary compensation, some €150 odd, is only peanuts in the overall context for the 23,000 carers, only a few of whom get full carer's allowance. It is important we recognise fully the tremendous contribution they make, that we do not just utter platitudes but acknowledge carers through the necessary coherent strategy. The Minister should consider this.

People often come to our doorsteps expressing concern about widows and widowers under 66 years of age who are carers. For example, a person's partner often dies young — there was a funeral today of a young man 40 years old — and this leads to a reduction of up to 60% in income. This is a vulnerable time for the spouse who may be left at home with young children. We should examine the provision of a household benefits package for such people. When everything has been going well for a couple for some years and then in their mid or late 30s one partner dies and the other is left with young children, the surviving parent is very vulnerable. The wife may, for example, have been providing care to in-laws and have qualified for the carer's allowance. However, when she qualifies for the spouse's survivor pension, she loses the carer's allowance and no longer has her husband's full income. Her income is down by approximately two-thirds at this most vulnerable time. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs recommended a carefully thought-out strategy in this regard and suggested widows or widowers should get 50% of the appropriate pension in recognition of their situation.

The Minister has been doing some work with regard to the free travel concession for Irish people in Britain. There is a difficulty with this in the European Union context. We cannot be like ostriches, but must deal with reality. While the Minister is making an effort, he needs to accelerate his effort and formulate some policy to provide this concession for our emigrants. Deputies Stagg, Lynch and I, and other members of the Labour Party, visited emigrants in Britain last year. The Labour Party has done much work on this issue and was the first to introduce a debate in the House on the position and treatment of emigrants.

Our emigrants want something tangible. It is no use coming in here full of piety and platitudes acknowledging the €8 billion or €10 billion they sent over to keep us. Our emigrants were the real foundation stone before the European Union was around to give us money. They were the bulwark on whom we depended for our survival and free travel would be a small acknowledgement in return. In the context of this debate on the consolidation of a wide range of legislation it is important this concession is introduced soon. We must ensure it is.

My colleague, Deputy Stagg, has been very vocal on the importance of the extension of our television service into the homes of our emigrants in Britain. I was listening to a Ronan Collins programme recently and heard people ringing in from Britain. Many of our emigrants listen to Irish radio and it is an important contact point for them. RTE and the deflector system are issues for them. According to Deputy Stagg's information — this may test the will of people who may have turned somewhat greedy — it would only cost 15 cent a week extra on the licence to provide a service to Britain. Have we become so mean that we are not willing to pay that much extra on the licence to ensure our people in Britain get access to our television? Let us put the people to the test and explain to them the reason we want the extra money so that our emigrants get the opportunity to watch all-Ireland finals or whatever else they want. These people feel Irish and many of the programmes we do not bother about would mean much to them. If this is what is needed to ensure they are provided with a service, let us do it.

I acknowledge the Minister has tried to do something in the area of the one-parent family payment. This is a difficult but important area. Changing one base may mean people in normal relationships are being penalised. The two areas must be examined together. I will not try to convey the impression that this will be easy. It will not.

The Minister is a bit of a socialist.

I am glad of that. When he got into this area he put on a bit of a socialist coat, although he was not like that when he was in the Department of Transport. Perhaps we converted him and clothed him when we got a hold of him. However, we did not manage that with his predecessor.

There are too many socialists in Government.

She will always be remembered for the savage 16 cuts. The Department of Social and Family Affairs handed back €840 million to the Exchequer over eight years. I would not mind if that happened as a result of savings. However, the Minister's predecessor visited €55 million worth of cuts on the most vulnerable people in the country at the time that money was being handed back. This is to her eternal shame. That record will be recalled in 2006, 2007 and the coming years. She let down the most marginalised people in the country. She told us she could not stand up to the Minister for Finance of the time, Mr. McCreevy. We tried to give her some backbone, but she failed the test.

There are still huge problems with regard to the anomaly of rent allowance. I see Deputy Fleming is here. I am sure he is aware there is a different measure in Laois and Offaly than in Longford and Westmeath and that he has spoken to community welfare officers on this matter. Deputies are not elected without speaking to such people. People are asking why, in the name of God, rent allowance in Laois and Offaly is €100 and in Westmeath and Longford it is €10 less. This legislation is trying to bring a level playing pitch, to ensure the same interpretation, and to ensure that people are not disadvantaged because of their geographical location. However, the system in operation is different in regard to the rent allowance. It is important to deal with this area.

The Minister referred to the family income supplement earlier. I understand he is examining child dependant allowance and working on a new extra child benefit. That is a good route to take. However, we must be honest. The Combat Poverty Agency made a very interesting observation yesterday about the skewing of the figures. It said the Minister will take a 25% hit if he takes the agency's advice about reducing the number of people. The agency's delegation spoke yesterday about the number of children living in poverty. If those comments had been made by representatives of the Labour Party, Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, or by Independent Members, the Minister would have jumped on them. The agency reported that 23% of the population, or more than 900,000 people, is living in income poverty. I refer in that case to the EU measure of income poverty. Some 9% of the population, or 375,000 people, are experiencing both income poverty and deprivation of basic necessities. In that case, I refer to the measure of consistent poverty used here.

The figures given by the Combat Poverty Agency in respect of children are most worrying. According to the agency, 15% of children — twice the adult rate — are suffering from the most severe form of consistent poverty. Some 120,000 people under the age of 15, or the equivalent of 145,000 people under the age of 18, are deprived of basic necessities. I know the Minister has targeted the figure of 60,000. I would favour a target of between 60,000 and 90,000. That is the most important place. The Minister is aiming at the right target, broadly speaking. In relation to one-parent families, it has to be done and I will outline how it can be done. In the past, the Government has shown a fondness for individualisation, particularly in the tax code. It abhors individualisation in the social welfare code, however. In that instance, it prefers to treat everyone in the same lump, as the fellow says, because it saves the Government money to do so. When it was able to take tax moneys by means of individualisation and getting people out to work, it was a different thing.

The abolition of the limitation rule, which prohibits families from claiming two unemployment benefit payments even if both adults satisfy the criteria for the payments, might be the best way to proceed. Many lone parents feel that the regulations which prevent them from cohabiting represent a restriction on their lifestyles. They are stopped from developing more stable family lives. Most people value the independent income that accrues to them from the social welfare payment provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I forget how many people are affected by this provision — perhaps the Minister mentioned a figure of 80,000 earlier. Such people are reluctant to become dependent on their partners for their economic security. A lone parent who wants to cohabit with a person who is in receipt of unemployment assistance finds that the couple's combined weekly income decreases by approximately €50. The two separate adult payments are reduced to a single combined payment, comprising one adult rate and one qualified adult rate. Both payments are made to the male partner.

Part of the problem we face in the social welfare code is that we have an old-fashioned view. The code was introduced in the 1950s when the male half of a couple was the predominant breadwinner. The Minister has to try to overturn the perception within the social welfare code of the male as the overall breadwinner. That perception has not changed since the 1950s because everything is aimed at trying to get the qualified adult dependant rate to 70% and things like that. I am trying to deal with this difficult issue, with which the Minister is grappling. As I have said, I do not mind seeing the Minister's picture because I know he is not looking for consultants to put it in the newspaper. I read the Minister's ideas with interest, funnily enough. We all need to give the Minister a hand in that regard. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs is willing to try to grapple and wrestle with this difficult problem.

I would like to speak about the habitual residence condition. As I hate to say "I told you so", I will not say it to the Minister on this occasion. However, I am prepared to say "I told your predecessor so". I understand the European Commission has put the Government in a tight hold in respect of the habitual residence condition. The records show that we warned the previous Minister that pressure would be applied at EU level. We told her that the predicted big influx would not happen — it has not happened — but she would not listen. Migrant workers suffer under the provisions of the habitual residence condition. The burden of proof falls on the applicants, who are assumed not to be habitually resident unless they can prove otherwise. The burden of proof is very high — one must prove that one intends to live in Ireland permanently. If one has a close family member living in another country, one is deemed to maintain habitual residency in that country. It is causing extreme hardship to people in dire circumstances. I refer to people who have lost their jobs, had accidents or become sick. Such events merit a response from our social protection system. A migrant worker who is not protected by the social insurance system because his or her employer has gained an exemption is refused any support from the State. We know about what has been done by some of the boys who have gained exemptions.

I ask the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to act before he is forced to act. I remember warning his predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, that what has happened would happen. I will conclude by reminding the Minister that we are not all fools on this side of the House.

I propose to share time with Deputies Finian McGrath, Crowe and Connolly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The consolidation of any legislation is always to be welcomed. It should be undertaken in far more areas. As Deputy Penrose has said, difficulties arise in the consolidation of legislation if there is in place a set of principles that subsequently proves to be difficult to adapt and modify without the introduction of new legislation. If one examines the trend that is developing as we commence the third consolidation of social welfare legislation, it seems that another dozen years will pass before we get a chance to consolidate it again.

In this Bill, we are setting in stone the principles which underpin the social welfare system. While we would like to pretend otherwise, it seems, unfortunately, that the system continues to be informed by the Victorian notion of the deserving poor. We categorise people and ask them to jump through hoops to justify their poverty and their degree of need. The Bill before the House represents an opportunity to introduce an entitlement-led system of social welfare, as we should have done before now. I favour a system that offers a safety net to people who have a temporary need for social welfare, rather than a system that places a social stigma on them.

Thrusting capitalism is a feature of contemporary Irish society in the wake of the Celtic tiger. It is hard to determine the exact nature of the underlying philosophy of the Government of this era. It seems to move from favouring rampant capitalism to favouring socialism or social capitalism, which is the Taoiseach's preferred model of today. The values articulated in the writings of Professor Robert D. Putnam, the latest guru by whom the Taoiseach professes to put his store, are as far removed as possible from the basic tenets of our social welfare system.

National and international organisations, including UNICEF and Barnardo's, have published statistics about the reality of poverty in Ireland today. The statistics suggest that the nature of our society is not as it should be. According to the ESRI, Ireland has a high level of relative poverty. I do not intend to start that debate with the Minister again, other than to state that many of our citizens are failing to maintain 50% or 60% of average income levels in their everyday circumstances. The ESRI has also stated that a tiny downward adjustment in Ireland's economic circumstances would lead to up to 400,000 of our citizens being exposed to relative poverty. Many of those people belong to vulnerable groups in society, such as senior citizens, the very young, women and people who are disabled. In such circumstances, we need to add something more appropriate than this Bill and the overall proposals emerging from the Minister and his colleagues to the general body of social welfare legislation.

As it strives to introduce real reform, I would have hoped the Government would have tried to eliminate the poverty traps caused by the welfare system itself. It is quite Dickensian that means testing, which is a crude mechanism, provides that a person who has one penny too much is happy and a person who has one penny too little is in misery. Many people's application for certain entitlements are refused because they are slightly above a means test level or their circumstances have changed. Why has the Government decided not to introduce staged or staggered payments? People should be able to receive 90%, 80% or 70% of the maximum payment if their circumstances change. We need such imaginative measures if people are to have confidence in the social welfare system.

This Bill represents a missed opportunity to integrate the social welfare system with the taxation system in the manner that is necessary. The Green Party has articulated the need for refundable tax credits to be used, where possible. It has indicated that such credits can be used to respond to difficulties in the child care system or to assist carers. They can be used imaginatively, even in areas we still depend on to meet most of our social services, such as in the declining use of volunteerism, for example. Yet, there has not been that type of innovative thinking a Department of its size and annual expenditure should bring forward when bringing about the type of change needed.

There is a political cost to leaving open the question of whether social welfare payments can and should increase in any given annual Social Welfare Bill. The Minister would like to retain that power. The ability to introduce increases above the rate of inflation must be admitted for recent years but that will not be possible every year. I would like a situation whereby the consolidated legislation puts formulas in place so all social welfare payments would be index linked. I accept this can only be achieved when the Government comes close to meeting the national partnership recommendation that social welfare payments and State pensions should somehow be linked to the average household income, which it is still a long way from achieving.

The issue of pensions is a major area the Minister has tried to address recently. However, given that this is a consolidated Bill drawn up following work with other Departments, it should have been clearer and more innovative. It is a scandal that the State pays more in deferred tax payments to people who are better off in their retirement years than is paid to those most in need of pensions because of their dependence on State pensions. I see nothing to suggest the Government is prepared to tackle this anomaly in the system. Not only has the economic success of the past ten years brought about a division between the very wealthy and those without in our society — those who cannot aspire to reach the average never mind the higher sums of wealth available — but Government policy is perpetrating inequality into the retirement years and until the eventual death of many of our citizens. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has a responsibility to tell his colleague at the Department of Finance before budget day and the subsequent Social Welfare Bill to begin tackling this anomaly because it cannot persist. Not only is it unfair, it is unsustainable in the long run, which the Minister realises.

My next point also refers to index linking but particularly to energy. The resumption of this debate was preceded by questions to the Minister for Finance, including on the ongoing concern about the rise in energy costs. Deputy Penrose referred to the fact the fuel allowance has been removed from people living in sheltered housing, which will have a detrimental effect. The fuel allowance has not increased since 2002 — a period of the highest fluctuation in fuel prices, which have risen by more than one-third. There is an onus on the Minister to address this matter in the forthcoming Social Welfare Bill and the budget, if he has the opportunity.

On a related matter, given that child dependant allowance has remained unchanged since 1994 — its existence is being set in concrete in this Bill — and given the tiny take-up of family income supplement, Government policies in regard to family support are failing, unfortunately. Not only is there a problem in that people who must work two jobs to pay high mortgages are not able to support their own families in the ideal situation on that end of the wealth scale, there is also a problem in that those who for other reasons choose to remain at home with children are offered the minimum of support from the State. There is a series of contradictions and missed opportunities which, unfortunately, this consolidation Bill is setting in stone. I hope these anomalies will not exist when the next consolidation Bill is before us.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is an important debate because of its connection with welfare and poverty issues. It is also an opportunity for the House to reflect carefully on the direction our country and society is taking. When the word "welfare" is used nowadays, it is often as a derogatory term or as if it is a dirty word. It is important to record that Deputies should always ensure that legislation looks after the weak in society. I say to those in economic and social circles who seem to have a problem dealing with the reality, that people in this society need our assistance and support and they should have it as a matter of right. We should not make any apologies for this.

I am delighted the Minister is present to listen carefully to the views of Members on the opposite side of the House. In particular, the Minister should target social welfare increases at tackling child poverty. Some 148,000 children need our help immediately and the Government should target resources at these needy people. The Minister should also target resources towards the elderly, who have served the wider community for many years, and on providing the back-up and support for people with disabilities, whether intellectual, physical or otherwise. It is important when discussing the Bill that we focus on these three main areas. With regard to child poverty, when Barnardos, the children's charity, begins its campaign in the next few weeks, it will be important that we listen to its views and conclusions and support it in the build-up to the budget.

Many people in Irish society think that because we live in a very wealthy country, everybody is suddenly very well-off. That is not the reality. I remind the Minister that 52% of children in some disadvantaged estates on the north side of Dublin are not ready for primary school. The Minister, with the Minister for Education and Science, should declare war on educational disadvantage, beginning at the pre-school level. There is a major crisis in some areas of Dublin city and other areas of the country in that children are not ready for school. Children must live in homes where heating and dampness are still major issues while some 26% of children display significant problems of conduct before they start school — I refer to children from poor or dysfunctional families. Moreover, some 20% of children from some estates on the north side of Dublin have major eating difficulties and dietary problems while 31% are constantly missing school.

This is where resources must be focused. I realise that others will demand that budget resources go in other directions but it is now time to act. The debate about the economy is over; the debate is now about how we distribute the fruits of the economy. Given that unemployment is low — a great achievement for any state — it is important we use the extra resources to assist and support these people.

To move to the detail of the Bill, Part 9 contains the general provisions governing social welfare payments and insurability, including provisions relating to claims and payments, the appointment and duties of social welfare inspectors and provisions relating to offences, penalties and legal proceedings under the code, and the alienation of books and documents. Part 10 contains provisions governing decisions and appeals in respect of social welfare and the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. This Part also contains provisions governing the social welfare tribunal. These are important sections. When the Minister looks at the statistics and listens to the different lobby groups, I urge him to ensure he listens to the people who speak on behalf of the unemployed, poor, elderly and disabled.

The Minister outlined that it was back in 1993 when the last Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill was initiated. I join with other Members who congratulated staff who pulled this Bill together. If it simplifies and helps people to understand their rights and entitlements in plain language without the legalese, then it will be a more than worthwhile piece of work. If it leads to the removal of anomalies in the system, then it will be more than worthwhile because we, as elected representatives, are usually left to try to sort through anomalies. In many cases, anomalies also highlight the unfairness of the system.

I also welcome this Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill if it means a reduction in the bureaucracy faced by people trying to make or access a claim but I do not know if it will do so. Anyone who has ever claimed or tried to access social welfare will be familiar with the story of being sent from pillar to post and back again only to be told they had the wrong form or needed to get another one signed and stamped. I hope the streamlining of this legislation will result in an easier passage for those interacting with the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

I am also concerned about the failure to take-up many benefits under the remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and I have raised this issue with the Minister on a number of occasions. I do not know whether this is the appropriate area. I have spoken before about people having personal public service, PPS, and revenue and social insurance, RSI, numbers. A computerised system should be able to indicate when people are entitled to benefits. It is unfortunate that many people who are entitled to take up benefits are not aware of their entitlements. There is a 30% take-up of the family income supplement, so 70% are not taking it up. There are other areas where 20% to 25% fail to take-up their entitlements. If we are talking about consolidating legislation and moving things forward, we need to introduce a system to ensure people get their entitlements. There is controversy at present over new technology in the Health Service Executive, but it can be a positive way to move things forward and ensure people get their entitlements.

I would like to think the Minister shares my view that root and branch reform is needed in various areas of social welfare. I look forward to seeing legislation on how he proposes to streamline the social welfare system which will reflect the needs and aspirations of those who have been left behind over the wealth-producing years. There is a need to respect the dignity of those forced to claim benefit. Why then in this era of new technology must people queue outside post offices in all weathers to collect their entitlements?

Many more substantive issues have been mentioned in this debate. There is the scandal of the paltry back to school clothing and footwear allowance for which not even all those on family income supplement qualify. This is a scandal when one thinks that the cost of sending a child to primary school is now €357 and that it can be as high as €547 for a student going to secondary school. When people on low incomes cannot even receive the paltry back to school clothing and footwear allowance, is it any wonder that the recent vocational education committee survey found that an area such as Rathmines has a 60% third level progression rate but that a working class area such as Finglas has a 7.8% rate?

I support the call of the respected children's advocate, Barnardos, for an increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance to €150 for a younger child and €200 for older children as an absolute minimum. I also call for an immediate increase in the income threshold for those who qualify for it. At present not all those on family income supplement qualify for the scheme. This puts a severe financial strain on those in low paid work, especially when it comes to sending a child to school. It is very unfair that the financial pressures on parents would have a negative impact on a child's education, yet the figures from the recent VEC report state exactly that.

Does the Minister intend to take action on the fuel allowance? A sum of €12.30 would not heat a home for a single person, let alone a family. Is the Minister aware of the difficulties being experienced by recipients? Has he spoken to anyone trying to manage on social welfare? The price of fuel has rocketed due to various events and I assure the Minister that the ESB has acted accordingly with a 25% increase in the price of electricity. Will the Minister respond to this new reality for social welfare recipients? If he does not, even more people will be vulnerable to fuel poverty this winter, particularly the elderly and the young. Recently three homeless people died on the streets of Dublin. Do we want to see even more vulnerable people die in badly heated accommodation? I do not think so.

There is also a need for a much more holistic and interdepartmental approach and for greater joined-up Government to tackle poverty and its causes. Some 77,000 children in this State go to school hungry. Will the Minister give a commitment to increase liaison with the Department of Education and Science to find new ways to address this growing crisis?

As regards bringing people back into the workplace, the Minister will be well aware of the types of obstacles in people's way such as child care, finance and transport. Figures show that lone parents have much lower levels of educational attainment and it is a major factor in condemning those mothers and their children to a life of poverty and social welfare dependency. Surely the most effective way to address this and to ensure fewer people find themselves in that position in future is to increase the current levels of support for and investment in education schemes aimed at that group.

A recent report on the social situation in the European Union identified one of the reasons for the poverty gap as a lower spend on job training, start-up schemes and programmes to integrate those with disabilities into the workforce. This State invests less than 2% of gross domestic product on such initiatives which does not lead me to believe that we are serious about reducing inequality.

The statistics on access to third level education I quoted earlier show the role disadvantage plays in inequality. It is also clear that no one Department can deal with this problem. To this end, I ask the Minister for a commitment to support an initiative which will start next year. Atlantic Philanthropies has pledged half of the €5.6 million needed to implement the project. It will look to the Minister's Department and others to make up the difference. The project involves monitoring 140 children from the estates of Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview. It is designed to maximise intervention from the appropriate bodies, one of which will be the Minister's Department, to identify problems before they occur and to prepare the children for school up to the age of five. I hope the Minister will support this scheme.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to the promised legislation which will begin to address seriously the inequalities in society. Other speakers spoke about imagination and vision which are badly needed in this area, as is a fresh and innovative approach.

I too welcome this Bill. It is the first consolidation Bill in the area of social welfare since 1993 and collates the various Acts which have amended the 1993 Bill in the interim. The officials and framers of the Bill are to be complimented on bringing together in excess of 60 various social welfare enactments.

Social services are for all of us and at any one time, more than 250,000 people rely on their help. Most of us at some stage in our lives may need to turn to social services for support, whether on our own behalf or that of a family member. In our practice of the profession of politics, we are constantly in communication with social services. We make necessary representations on behalf of persons suffering perceived injustices, perhaps owing to some insensitive administration of some social welfare schemes. Often people think the rules and regulations are designed to frustrate them and to do them out of their entitlements. We need only look at the guidelines for medical cards. If they were strictly implemented, possibly half the number of people with medical cards would have them. Were it not for the good sense of community welfare officers extending those guidelines, the numbers with medical cards would be greatly reduced. I note inconsistencies in the percentage of people with medical cards in different areas. If one examines counties with the same demography, the percentages of people holding medical cards should be the same. The Department of Social and Family Affairs must look at various systems for those counties not as well-offper capita. Some form of instruction must be given to community welfare officers to relax guidelines, which many people would welcome.

Often representations will be made at a time of personal or family crisis, such as the onset of mental illness, the birth of a disabled child, a family break-up or a death which may leave people without the care on which they had come to rely. We all depend on good social services to be available at such times to help us make the right decisions and work out what needs to be done. More widely, we all benefit if social services provide good effective services to those who need them. Any society that purports to be decent must make provision for those who need support and are unable to look after or provide for themselves. One of the greatest tests of a civilised society is to see if it can look after those less well-off. Breakdowns in services for young offenders, homeless people or people with mental health problems can have damaging consequences not just for the individuals concerned but for whole family networks and others.

Factors such as demographic changes, as well as changes in the patterns of family life, mean the need for social services will increase in coming years. With recent advances in health care, more people, including those with profound disabilities, will live longer. They rely on effective social services for more fulfilling lives. Social services do not just support a small number of social casualties but are an important part of the fabric of a caring society. It is everyone's concern that social services provide the best possible service.

Unfortunately that objective is not being met despite some excellent service provision in many places with high appreciation by users. Social services often fail to provide the support people expect. In many cases, children and vulnerable adults have been exposed to neglect and abuse by the people who are supposed to care for them. Members will have read tragic stories in some of these cases, which makes very sad reading. Inspections by social services have found examples where protection systems have failed. This does not only include instances of abuse, but also children identified as at risk not being monitored by social services. Equally worrying are cases where people with learning disabilities or elderly people are neglected or mistreated, or live in intolerable housing conditions. Any decent society owes to every child a safe and secure upbringing, and to every elderly or disabled man or woman the right to live in dignity, free from fear of abuse.

Regarding co-ordination, in many instances the various State agencies put more effort into arguing with each other over the administration of the schemes rather than looking after people in real need. I see this on a daily basis when, for example, seeking a disabled person's grant. The application is made to the health board which then sends it on to the county council. One is tossed about and at times it suits the various Departments and agencies to do this. While this is occurring, people are falling through the net. Often I make representations for individuals in their 90s for whom time is of the essence but they are put through the wringer. In some cases, they are trying to shoulder some of the caring the State should provide. Many elderly people want to live in their homes. They may have coped for several years but eventually it comes to the point where they must make an application for a downstairs bathroom. To be tossed about in such a way is grossly unfair.

Frail elderly people can be sent home from hospital or do not receive the support or service they were promised and are entitled to expect. Many of these people are referred to, disrespectfully, as bed blockers. Services need to be developed for these cases, so as to free up hospital beds. If one has the ability to mind an elderly relative at home, people will choose to do so. However, many are forced to remain in limbo while different agencies argue about arranging the services required. There are numerous examples of poor co-ordination between local authority housing and social services.

I welcome this consolidation Bill and hope it will remove the overuse of legal terms, making it more understandable and usable.

This is the first consolidation Bill in social welfare legislation since 1993. There have been umpteen Bills since then. It is important that there is one overall Bill that can be the reference point to which people can go to ensure they understand all available social welfare schemes. While this will be of major benefit to citizens' information centres and advocacy groups, it will be of particular benefit to the staff in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is important the information from this Bill is disseminated down the line in the Department to ensure a consistent understanding among social welfare officers of the various schemes available.

In recent times, I have been disappointed in the measure of inconsistency in the decisions of deciding officers. I know of individual cases where if the deciding officer does not receive the information required, the file is closed and the payment refused. In many cases, it then goes to the appeals officer who grants the payment. While it is important to have an appeals system, I am disappointed by how many original decisions are overturned on appeal. One can either come to the conclusion that an appeals officer is right or wrong. If an appeals officer is right, it means the original deciding officer was wrong. I am upset by poor people in a tight situation having to wait several months before getting a decision. If an independent appeals officer can overturn a decision it means there was a basis to arriving at a different decision in the first place.

Some time ago I dealt with a case that eventually went to the Ombudsman who was critical that different officers within the system could come to different decisions although the same facts and circumstances were presented to them. While we have consolidation of social welfare legislation, I want to see a consolidation of information to ensure it works for the people at local level.

Since the last consolidation Bill, many new elements have come into the social welfare arena. Under Sustaining Progress, a commitment to make social welfare legislation available in a single and accessible document was made. Various Departments that introduce annual legislation must have a default system whereby when such legislation is passed it automatically is consolidated within existing legislation. For example, each annual Social Welfare Bill must be consolidated into existing legislation rather than simply having a merry-go-round and returning on anad hoc basis every ten years to rectify the matter.

More than 1 million people benefit from social welfare on a weekly basis. The improvements which have been introduced since the last consolidation Bill include carer's allowance, carer's benefit, the farm assist scheme and another which I was very keen on and which I called thepro rata pension for old age pensioners. It affects those mainly self-employed people who did not have up to ten years of PRSI contributions. All Members have encountered cases of people with nine years and 51 weeks of contributions but who received nothing until that legislation was introduced, giving them a pension of 50%. They would like a pension of 99% but a pension of 50% is a major step in the right direction.

I welcomed the introduction of other legislation in this area which attracted much criticism. That disappointed me. I refer to the pre-1953 pension which allowed people who had worked in earlier years to qualify for an old age pension. As their working career took place so long ago, their annual average contributions may not have qualified them for a pension under the traditional rules. Consequently, the Government introduced the pre-1953 pension. A total of 29,000 people now benefit from it which is to be welcomed.

However, most of the debates in this House and in the committees about that scheme centred on its cost. People said it cost too much, the original estimate on budget day was one figure while the final outcome was a much greater figure. It demonstrated some begrudgery, mainly on the part of the Opposition, to the effect that this scheme was a waste of money because the estimates were wrong. It was stated that the Government got it wrong because the original estimate was X while the final cost per annum was Y. The hidden innuendo in that type of remark was that perhaps we should not pay that money in the first place.

The Government should use its new HSE computer system.

That is the point. Now the Opposition Members are trying to blame it on the computer system. However, that indirect innuendo is a dig at the recipients of the pre-1953 pensions. Every time a Deputy criticises the pre-1953 pension scheme in this House for whatever reason, he or she shows insufficient respect to the people who receive the pension and who are entitled to it. I ask Members to be more careful when they criticise such pensions in future and to think of the recipients. It is easy to have a cheap shot at the Government, which is fair enough. However, there are also other consequences.

I want to see better integration dealt with by future consolidation legislation and in social welfare Bills. The House is dealing with consolidation today, but to me, integration is much more important. For example, if a person receives the old age pension and his or her spouse has a small pension, they lose the qualified adult allowance if the couple's income goes above a certain figure. This can have severe consequences. I encountered a case last week where a couple's income was over the threshold figure by €1.52 per week because of income from a private pension scheme and consequently they lost €16 from their qualified adult pension.

Another area which requires integration is the handling of the farm retirement scheme by the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Agriculture and Food. I have had detailed correspondence with both Departments in an attempt to knock some heads together on this issue. However both Departments ultimately stated that each was responsible for administering its own schemes. As Members are aware, when a person is in receipt of the farm retirement scheme, when they reach the eligible age for receipt of the old age pension, their farm retirement scheme payment is automatically cut by the amount of the increase in the social welfare payment. As such individuals receive a payment from the State through two different Departments, they do not receive an increase in their net weekly income. While their old age pensions are increased, it is automatically deducted from the farm retirement scheme.

I am trying to persuade the Ministers to bring the two sets of payments together. These people's pensions have been frozen for a number of years and it is not good enough for Departments to claim they are responsible for their own operations and that someone else should examine the issue. There should be joined-up thinking at Government level.

Another example is when someone goes on family income supplement. By definition, they have a low income. What happens next? Their council rent rises. There is a lack of co-ordination and integration with the Department of Social and Family Affairs in respect of some of these issues.

These are some of the points which I want to see highlighted during this debate. While we discuss consolidating the legislation, I want greater clarity in respect of information within the Department of Social and Family Affairs so that decision making is consistent at all stages. Moreover, while joined-up Government between the Minister's Department and other Departments is difficult to achieve, it is important that it is done. This consolidation Bill will help us to concentrate on these topics. I hope the passage of the legislation will lead on to some of the points I have made.

I wish to respond to some comments made by Deputy Connolly a few minutes ago when he outlined the difficulties caused by running between the health board and the county council for essential repairs grants or disabled persons grants. One is sent from Billy to Jack andvice versa. The Deputy should ensure his local county council puts sufficient money in its estimates for the essential repairs grant. For example, County Laois is probably similar to County Monaghan in terms of size. Laois County Council pays out approximately €2 million in essential repairs grants and disabled persons grants each year. Two thirds of the funds come from the Department, but the council must put up one third to draw down the rest. If a council does not do so, it will not receive money from the Department. Consequently, Deputies from these counties come to the House and whinge at a national level when the problem lies in their local council chambers and within the control of local politicians.

This is not the Government's fault. I hear this complaint from representatives of other counties all the time. When one asks how much is provided at local level to draw down the central funds, one finds the local allocation to be miserable. The Government is expected to provide everything while they contribute little from their own estimates. If they did so, they would be taking better care of people at a local level and this House would not hear the hue and cry from Members in such counties. Some counties get allocations each year under this heading but do not draw them down because they do not put up their own matching funds. I wanted to put that on the record because I repeatedly hear that it is all the Government's fault. Much of the problem occurs at local level.

I thank the Minister for introducing the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill and look forward to it passing through Committee, Report and Final Stages in the coming weeks.

I hope Deputy Fleming has his PRSI contributions paid up because the people will put some of the Government party Members on short time after the next general election. If he cannot see anything wrong with this Government, he should check that his social insurance stamps are up to date because he will need them. Mr. Flanagan will be elected in his constituency in the next election and the Deputy will be put to the sidelines. He does not even see where the Government is going wrong. This Government no longer knows the difference between right and wrong.

I wish to warn the Minister. As I read the newspaper yesterday——

The Deputy should address his remarks through the Chair.

I read the newspapers yesterday and noticed another of the Minister's ideas being floated. He is good at them. One is in respect of the potential taxation of child benefit and taking it from women. I warn the Minister that if he touches child benefit——

I do not intend to do so.

He had better not. There may be wealthy husbands who are mean to their wives. It is the only income such women have to take care of their children.

I do not intend to do what the Deputy read about.

I read yesterday of that idea being floated.

I intend to increase child benefit.

I warn the Minister, that if he thinks the protests outside the gates of Leinster House last week were serious, when women begin to march, and I will lead the campaign with them, they will run the Minister from office.

I do not intend to do what the Deputy read about.

The Minister should not make that mistake because that is the only income many women get into their hand. It is the only income they spend on children and I do not want it to be touched.

I will not touch it.

I am glad the Minister has clarified the matter. Was his public relations machine wrong this time?

I will increase it.

I am delighted to hear it.

I thank the Deputy.

The Minister's predecessor broke a promise in 2001, so the Minister should make sure that it is increased to the promised level. The last time there was a downturn in the economy, child benefit was one of the first cutbacks. I will monitor this issue in December when the budget is published to ensure the Minister gives what he promised. I hope this will be done.

I want the Minister to examine another issue. It is a simple issue. I encountered an anomaly during the summer in respect of foster care involving four children. Their parents died of cancer within two years of each other. The four children applied for the back to school clothing and footwear scheme. I appealed on their behalf to the community welfare officer. Because they are exempt from the legislation, they are not entitled to avail of the back to school clothing and footwear scheme. This is a household without a mother and father and with four children. However, they do not qualify for this scheme. I ask the Minister on his return to his office this evening to sign an order permitting community welfare officers to pay foster children under this scheme.

The Minister should not use the excuse employed by the Health Service Executive which was that the non-payment is due to their existing payments. This is supposed to supplement existing payments for children when they return to school. I ask the Minister to deal with this matter immediately. It is an anomaly which must be dealt with quickly because there is no point in having a back to school clothing and footwear scheme when one has four orphaned children with only a young woman to look after them who do not qualify. I ask the Minister to deal with that, to get his officials to look at it and to sign the necessary regulations so that these people can be paid.

Another issue I have come across recently has been that of lone parents. I hope when the Minister responds, he outlines how he might be able to do something for them, possibly by putting a scheme together so that lone parents may be able to live with their partners without losing their lone parent allowance. However, there is another anomaly in respect of young girls who have had children and who have gone back to education. This year I have encountered two such cases one involving a young girl of 17 who had a baby and wants to go back into full-time education. When she went to the community welfare officer looking for some assistance with rent allowance, the officer would not give it to her. If we are serious about poverty traps, then surely such a girl should be helped, as she wants to get back into education so that she and her child will not be dependent on social welfare for the rest of their lives. If such people do not get a bit of assistance, they will not be able to stay in the education system. The State will suffer as a result because these people will remain in the poverty trap, uneducated. At least they are trying now, by going back to college with a view to entering the workplace afterwards. I hope the Minister looks at these cases immediately. Due to regulations from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the community welfare officers have the right to make their own judgment in certain cases, but in these cases they claim it is due to legislation.

Debate adjourned.