Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to introduce this Bill to the House. It is important and unique legislation. Social welfare legislation was consolidated on two previous occasions, 1981 and 1993. Since 1993, 18 Social Welfare Acts and a further eight miscellaneous Acts amending the provisions of the 1993 Act have been passed. Deputies will recall that the Social Welfare and Pensions Act which I brought forward and progressed through this House earlier this year contained a range of pre-consolidation amendments in preparation for the publication of this Bill.

Social welfare primary legislation is currently contained in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993, and 26 additional enactments. In view of the extent of the amendments effected during the past 12 years, I consider it appropriate that a further consolidation of the legislation be undertaken at this time.

The purpose of the consolidation Bill is to provide, in a single accessible document, the principles governing the application of the social welfare code, with regard to the social insurance fund, social insurance-based benefits, social assistance schemes, child benefit, the control and application of these schemes, and a number of other matters which come under the aegis of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

The social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, contains commitments to delivering quality public services and, in particular, to modernising laws and regulations. Consolidation is the traditional tool for making legislation more accessible and coherent. This Bill addresses my commitment to enhancing customer service and will go some considerable way to meeting my Department's commitments to regulatory reform.

The primary purpose of a consolidation initiative is to consolidate all the existing statute law on a particular subject matter. The only amendments to the Bill which are permissible in the course of its progression through the Oireachtas are those designed for the removal of ambiguities and inconsistencies, the substitution of modern for obsolete or inconvenient mechanisms or the achievement of uniformity of expression or adaptation of existing law and practice. In this regard, I propose to introduce a number of minor, mainly technical, amendments on Committee Stage to ensure that its contents are as up-to-date and relevant as possible.

Deputies should note, however, that substantive amendments to the text of the Bill cannot be made in either House or a consolidation Bill cannot make any substantive amendments to the law. A consolidation Bill must be certified by the Attorney General to be a consolidating measure and this Bill has been so certified.

The projected level of social welfare expenditure this year is more than €12.25 billion, which is the highest ever and is indicative of the Government's priority to protect and improve the living standards of social welfare recipients. It is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to addressing the needs of people with disabilities and their carers, children, older people, widowed persons, the unemployed, lone parents and many others who are disadvantaged. The budget for my Department is the largest spending allocation of any Department and for every €3 that will be spent by the Government this year, almost €l will go on social welfare entitlements.

Every week, more than 960,000 welfare payment supports issue from my Department that directly benefit almost 1.5 million men, women and children. In addition, each month, more than 545,000 child benefit payments are made in respect of more than 1 million children. The statutory provisions underpinning the range of schemes from which this significant proportion of the population benefit should be as accessible as possible.

Since the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993, 18 Social Welfare Acts have been passed by the Oireachtas. These amending Acts have provided for major developments in the social welfare code. Significant enhancements over this period include a range of supports for carers, farmers, older people, lone parents, widows and widowers and people with disabilities. A programme of specific and targeted interventions, which has proven very successful, has been developed and implemented by successive Governments.

The adoptive benefit scheme was introduced in 1995, and it provides for payment to an adopting mother or a single man who adopts a child. It is available to both employees and self-employed people who satisfy certain PRSI contribution conditions. It is payable for a continuous period of 16 weeks from the date of placement of the child and the rate is earnings-related. Some 40 beneficiaries claimed this benefit in 2004 at a cost of €600,000.

The Social Welfare Act 1996 enhanced existing provisions and further recognised the position of home makers in the social welfare code. It allowed for the disregard of certain periods of time, up to a maximum of 20 years, spent in the home as a home maker, for the purposes of establishing entitlement to old age contributory pension. The home maker must look after children aged up to 12 years or age or if over that age, the child or person being cared for must require full-time care and attention. To date, almost 14,000 people have registered as such with the Department.

A number of measures have been introduced to enhance supports available for carers. Carers provide a valued and a valuable service. Everyone in this House and in society knows of the commitments and sacrifices involved. As Deputies will be aware, I am committed to the cause of carers and developments in this regard are of particular interest to me. The package of measures which, for example, I agreed with the Minister for Finance for 2005 commits additional spending of close to €35 million to enhance supports for carers and to allow more carers qualify for entitlements. The respite care grant scheme was first provided for in the Social Welfare Act 1999. The annual grant, which is a payment to carers who look after certain persons in need of full-time care and attention, was increased from €835 to €l,000 in 2005. The grant scheme was also extended to include all carers providing full-time care, subject to certain employment-related conditions. Up to this year the grant was payable to any one carer in respect of a maximum of two care recipients, but with effect from June 2005 the grant is now payable in respect of each care recipient. This year to date, almost 29,000 persons have been paid the grant.

Carer's benefit, which was first introduced in the Social Welfare Act 2000, provides a payment to insured persons who leave the workforce to care for a person or persons requiring full-time care and attention. I have provided this year for the enhancement of the scheme in two significant ways. I have increased the earnings threshold for carer's benefit recipients who work outside the home for up to ten hours per week by €120 to €270 per week. I have extended the entitlement to the payment to those who are in employment of 16 hours per week or 32 hours per fortnight for eight weeks, consecutive or otherwise, within the six-month period prior to the claim. The latter provision will help people with atypical work patterns to satisfy the qualifying conditions.

The farm assist scheme, which was introduced in the Social Welfare Act 1999, represented an important development in the provision of income support for farmers. The impetus for the scheme stemmed from the difficulties which were being experienced by low-income farmers at the time. The scheme has provided and will continue to provide a valuable support to small farmers whose incomes are insufficient to meet their needs. The scheme allows for generous income and family disregards. Some 8,000 farmers benefit under the scheme. Expenditure on the scheme in 2004 was estimated to be approximately €66 million.

The Social Welfare Act 2000 provided for the payment of special pensions to people who commenced insurable employment before 1953 but who failed the yearly average contribution test for qualification for old age contributory pension or who qualified for a minimum pension only. The pre-1953 pension scheme provides for the payment of the old age contributory pension if the claimant has attained pensionable age, was an insured contributor under the National Health Insurance Acts 1911 to 1952 and has a minimum of 260 paid contributions since he or she commenced insurable employment. The rate of pension payable is 50% of the maximum personal weekly rate of old age contributory pension, with corresponding payments for qualified adults and children where relevant. As a result of this enhancement, some 29,000 people receive the pension and an additional 4,500 people benefit as qualified adults or children.

The Social Welfare Act 2001 provided for the introduction of the island allowance scheme under which an additional weekly payment of €12.70 is made to assist elderly people living on islands off the coast of Ireland who are in receipt of social welfare payments or corresponding payments from other EU countries. The scheme recognises that people living on islands which are not connected to the mainland face considerable extra expenses when availing of basic services such as hospital appointments simply because such services are not available to them locally. Such people must also provide for their own essential services, such as private electricity generation. Such services entail additional expenses which are a particular burden on people who are most vulnerable financially, such as the elderly. Almost 580 persons are in receipt of the allowance at present.

The one-parent family payment scheme, which is an integrated scheme, was introduced in 1996. Under the scheme, payments are made to men and women who, for a variety of reasons, are bringing up at least one child without the support of a partner. A person is eligible to apply for payment under the scheme if he or she is unmarried, widowed without entitlement to a contributory widow or widower's pension, married to a prisoner, separated, divorced or if his or her marriage has been annulled and he or she no longer lives with his or her spouse. The payment is subject to a means test but has generous income disregards, particularly with regard to earnings and maintenance payments. If the means test limit is exceeded, payment at 50% of the rate continues for a further six months. Some 80,000 people are in receipt of the one-parent family payment.

The widowed parent grant, which was introduced in the Social Welfare Act 2000, provides a once-off grant of €2,700 to a newly widowed parent on the death of his or her spouse. The purpose of the grant is to help to alleviate the income support needs of widows and widowers with dependent children following the death of a spouse and to provide a cushion in the immediate aftermath of the bereavement, as the widower or widow adjusts to his or her situation. The payment is made by cheque. Some 1,380 widowed persons benefited from the grant in 2004.

The Social Welfare Act 1999 also introduced the bereavement grant, which replaced the death grant scheme. This grant, which is PRSI-based, is payable on the death of an insured person's close relative and is aimed at supporting the bereaved at a vulnerable time. The current rate of the grant is €635 and was paid to more than 22,500 insured persons in 2004.

The disability allowance scheme, which was introduced in 1996, replaced the disabled person's maintenance allowance scheme, which was administered by the health boards. It is a weekly payment made to people with a disability who are aged between 16 and 66. It is subject to medical suitability and a means test. Almost 77,500 people are in receipt of disability allowance at present. Some €544 million was spent on the scheme last year. As Deputies are aware, I introduced a significant enhancement to the scheme earlier this year. Disability allowance is not generally payable to a person who is residing in an institution. I provided in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2005 for the introduction of a means-tested payment of up to €35 per week for persons excluded from the disability allowance scheme by virtue of their residence in an institution. The payment, effective from last June, is expected to benefit some 2,800 people.

In addition to the range of schemes I have outlined, a number of significant cross-departmental initiatives have been provided for since the enactment of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993. The introduction of a legislative basis for the personal public service number initiative is a good example. The Social Welfare Act 1998 established a framework for the development of an integrated approach to the administration, delivery, management and control of publicly funded services. It formed a basis for the standardisation of the personal public service number system, the introduction of a public service card and the application of technology to cards to develop new methods of paying social welfare benefits via electronic means. The Act also facilitated the sharing of information between relevant agencies for the purpose of determining entitlement to and control of publicly funded schemes in particular.

While the legislation provides that the bodies or agencies which can use the personal public service number as the key identifier may be specified by ministerial regulation, it is my practice to provide for such bodies or agencies via primary legislation. That is an indication of the level of importance attaching to this matter and the degree of care and consideration necessary to provide a means of secure access to a range of public services.

Deputies will agree that the social welfare provisions which have been introduced over the past 12 years, of which I have outlined a sample, have had and will continue to have a significant and positive impact on the lives of thousands of people. The measures have significantly altered the provisions of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993. As Deputies are aware, the consolidation Bill before the House, which is the largest to date, consists of 366 sections as well as various Schedules. It is of utmost importance that legal provisions which are of significance to such a large proportion of the population are accessible. Therefore, I intend to publish a guide to the Bill, when enacted, which will describe its provisions in as simple and straightforward a way as possible. While the guide will not be intended as a legal interpretation of the Bill, it will go a considerable way to assist the layperson in understanding what the Bill is about.

I will briefly outline the structure of the Bill, which has 13 Parts. Part 1 contains the Short Title of the Bill and the necessary definitions of the terms used in it. It also contains the main provisions relating to the power to make regulations. Part 2 contains the provisions relating to social insurance. The chapters in this Part cover the social insurance fund, the insurability provisions relating to 2.6 million employees, self-employed persons, voluntary contributors and optional contributors. Part 2 also contains provisions in respect of the range of social insurance-based schemes, including short-term schemes such as disability benefit, maternity benefit, health and safety benefit, adoptive benefit, unemployment benefit, carer's benefit and occupational injuries benefit. It also provides for long-term schemes such as old age contributory pension, retirement pension, invalidity pension, widow and widower's contributory pension, orphan's contributory allowance and treatment benefit schemes. The provisions relating to the bereavement and widowed parent grants are also contained in this Part.

Part 3 contains the main provisions relating to the social assistance schemes of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, such as unemployment assistance, pre-retirement allowance, old age non-contributory pension, blind pension, widow and widower's non-contributory pension, orphan's pension, one-parent family payment, carer's allowance, disability allowance and the farm assist scheme. The primary legislative provisions underpinning the supplementary welfare allowance schemes are also found in this Part of the Bill. Parts 4, 5 and 6 provide for payments under child benefit, respite care grant and family income supplement respectively. Part 7 provides for the continued payment of the qualified children scheme. Part 8 provides for the payment of island allowance to recipients of certain payments from EU member states.

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. Part 10 contains provisions governing decisions and appeals in respect of social welfare and the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. Part 11 contains provisions governing overpayment, repayment and suspension of payments. Part 12 contains the provisions regarding liability to maintain the family and related measures such as payments under attachment of earnings orders. Part 13 contains the necessary provisions relating to the Bill's commencement, repeals and continuance.

There are seven Schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 relates to employments, excepted employments and excepted self-employments for social insurance purposes. Schedule 2, which is in tabular format, sets out the range of social insurance benefit payment rates as provided for in Part 2. Schedule 3 contains the rules as to the calculation of means for social assistance schemes as provided for under Part 3. Schedule 4 sets out the range of social assistance payment rates. Schedule 5 contains the list of bodies specified to use the personal public service number as a unique identifier in accessing public services. Schedule 6 contains the provisions which have not, to date, been commenced. Schedule 7 contains the list of enactments it is proposed will be replaced by this Bill.

I advise Deputies that following this Second Stage debate I will seek to have the Bill referred to a standing joint committee on consolidation bills, as provided for in Standing Orders. To assist the committee in its work, the Bill is prefixed by a memorandum, as required by Standing Orders, which shows the enactments it is proposed will be repealed and the sections of the Bill in which these enactments are reproduced. Deputies will appreciate that this is important legislation which makes the law on social welfare more accessible. The Bill, when enacted, will be of great benefit to the Members of the House and to everyone else with an interest in the area of social welfare.

I thank the Parliamentary Counsel in the office of the Attorney General and the officials in my Department who have made a tremendous effort over many months to bring the Bill before us. The production of the Bill has taken an immense effort by a range of experts in the Department and legal services. In many ways it is not work that gets notice or headlines because it is consolidation work but it is very important to many people. I thank all those who worked hard, if quietly, over many years to produce this consolidation Bill. The last Social Welfare Consolidation Bill was produced in 1993 but today, in 2005, we are bringing up to date all social welfare legislation and consolidating it in one Bill. For that reason, I look forward to a constructive debate and commend the Bill to the House.

I will begin my contribution where the Minister left off. I commend those who worked hard behind the scenes to produce the Bill. It is obvious the Minister did not do it all himself.

I did very little of it.

The amount of work and detail involved is staggering. Everybody involved must have put in tremendous work over many months, as the Minister stated, and should be thanked. The work was done behind the scenes and is of a type that does not get headlines but is very important. It makes the complex social welfare system more accessible to all. I welcome the Minister's commitment to produce a guide to the Bill. He stated he would bring forward amendments to change anomalies and simplify the language of the text, which is welcome. The simplification of the language in legislation has been called for by many people for many years. We need to move in that direction as soon as possible.

This is a consolidation Bill. In one sense, it could be argued it is not supposed to do anything except to bring all legislative provisions together in one document. Over 12 years, much has been done by successive Governments but, as the Minister acknowledged, much more needs to be done. The main reason for a social welfare system is to support those who need support, such as those suffering from poverty — in a modern democracy that is how it should be — and to help people to help themselves. We are all aware of the problems that can be caused by poverty traps and we work hard to ensure that people are not trapped in poverty because of the provisions of a scheme the House might bring forward. We work to support people but we must accept there is an element of social engineering — a terrible term — in social welfare enactments to encourage people to help themselves.

The Minister brought forward the Bill and outlined what has happened in this regard in recent years. Much has happened. The economy has powered ahead, mainly due to the hard work of the people. If one drives at 6 a.m. one will see traffic everywhere due to the massive increase in the number of people travelling to work early. In the evenings, the traffic is also intense as people make their way home. This shows the high level of economic activity but also indicates the pressure on people in society to survive, rear their families and keep a roof over their heads. We live in a high-cost society. In such a society, the marginalised and the poor get left further behind.

The Combat Poverty Agency came before the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs yesterday to make a presentation on its budget submission for 2006. I commend the agency for bringing its submission to the Houses of the Oireachtas and for making its announcement here rather than elsewhere. Ministers could take note of this and perhaps more announcements could be made in the Parliament rather than at press conferences on a Monday morning or Friday evening, when Members cannot be present.

The Combat Poverty Agency referred to the working poor. It stated that 9% of those in employment could be classified as working poor and gave a figure of 160,000 workers earning less than 60% of median income. This poses a major challenge. We must recognise that an issue needs to be addressed and that some people work extremely hard just to make ends meet but are not able to do so because they earn a very low income.

We await the Minister's announcement on the family income supplement, an issue to which we have often referred. The Combat Poverty Agency claimed that family income supplement is only taken up by 50% of those entitled to do so and that the position is similar for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. The Minister referred to the bringing together of a number of these schemes, such as the child dependant allowance, the family income supplement and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, in one second tier payment. He has an opportunity to achieve this in the upcoming Social Welfare Bill. We await the Minister's proposals.

Members on this side of the House cannot do this. We can only state there is a need to ensure that those who depend on such payments get them. The methodologies of applying would put accountants off, never mind those who are already struggling to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads. I encourage the Minister to bring forward a system which ensures that those who are entitled to and need these supports get them, and to do so in a way that is simple to administer and does not require the filling out of acres of forms and does not have deadlines. For example, if one misses the deadline for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, one does not get it.

Another issue I raised at yesterday's committee meeting and again on this morning's Order of Business of which I ask the Minister to take note and which is under his remit from the point of view of poverty is the administration of the education grants. I and my colleagues have encountered situations where people still have not got the money in June and July of the following year. Perhaps the Minister will bring this issue to Cabinet. Why, for instance, is it not possible for the calculations on the administration of the education grants to be carried out earlier in the year? The tax year finishes in December and the Department of Education and Science usually produces the scheme the following July and then the vocational education committees and the county councils must try to get their act together. There are seven months in which much work could be done.

The reason I raise this is that it is quite possible that this area could end up in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It might not be a bad idea if it did because the Department already has much of the expertise and information which is being collected a second time by the VECs and county councils to support families which need it through this scheme. Perhaps the Minister will take that on board and suggest it to Cabinet. In fairness, the administration of schemes by his Department has improved immensely over the years. If any of us contact officials in the Department about an issue, they are very efficient in coming back to us with an answer which is how it should be. Education is one sure way out of poverty. Work is certainly important but education is more important.

That leads us on to child and income poverty. We have debated how we measure poverty and so on but I think we all agree child poverty exists even today, as does consistent poverty which means people go without food. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other agencies are working hard and struggling to try to ensure families have something to eat and can heat their houses but they should not have to do that. Another challenge the Minister must face is dealing with child poverty. In fairness to him, he has said time and again that he is committed to dealing with this issue. He has talked the talk and the challenge in the coming months is to walk the walk. Let us see what the Minister will bring forward in the budget and the Social Welfare Bill.

The Combat Poverty Agency said yesterday that its study found that poor children were at triple risk of social exclusion from school, their peers and from social and cultural norms and that as well as the immediate social costs, child poverty generates long-term economic costs in terms of lower productivity, more unemployment and additional social provision. That is an area which must be tackled soon because there is no guarantee that the money will be in the coffers in the years ahead given the growth of other economies and the challenges our economy faces with the cost of oil, energy and so on. The Minister should consider the rising cost of energy which is impacting negatively on people who depend on the fuel allowance which has not been increased even though people pay much more for oil in particular. He should act in that regard soon because it is having an impact.

The Minister referred to his commitment to carers. We are all committed to and laud and appreciate the work carers do. It has been argued that they save the Exchequer a fortune and we need to do more for them. The grant brought in last year was definitely a help but more needs to be done. We will support the Minister in anything he does to assist carers in their role.

I bring to the Minister's attention the role of children who care. The Oireachtas committee, which my good colleague, Deputy Penrose, so ably chairs, has considered the role of children who care. The child caring for a parent who is ill must go to school, cope with education and return home in the evening and mind the parent or whoever is in the house. That is an area on which the Minister should focus to see if anything can be done to support children who are carers. The Carer's Association of Ireland has called for a national strategy for carers, which is not a bad idea. We should look at everything to see if we can come up with a strategy for caring. It is cross-departmental.

I said earlier that perhaps money will be in short supply. We are all a bit concerned about what we see as money being wasted by the Government which could be used to help those who need support. I recall a number of months ago having a debate with the Minister about the back to education allowance. We debated the need to reduce the qualifying period which had been increased from six months to 15 months. The Minister brought it back to 12 months but we suggested bringing it back to nine months. I welcome the fact he did so recently, although it took quite a while.

At the time of the debate the Minister admitted he could not change it because there was a shortage of money. Now we see that hundreds of millions of euro have been squandered by the Government, yet nobody is accountable. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs whose remit is to help those in poverty told us he did not have the money, yet his colleagues were squandering it willy nilly. Nobody is accountable for all this money which has been squandered. The Minister should ask questions about what is going on. He admitted he did not have the money to change the qualifying period but, thankfully, he eventually found it. Despite this, his colleagues were squandering money left, right and centre.

I refer to the need to be aware of what is happening in rural Ireland. I spent three 12-hour days at the ploughing championships last week listening to farmers talk about the issues and problems they face, the fact their income continues to decline and the concerns they have about the future. The Minister referred to a number of schemes which assist farmers, and rightly so. However, the take-up of these schemes could be better, particularly the farm assist scheme which perhaps should be expanded because rural Ireland is getting an awful hammering. If the sugar beet industry is not supported and safeguarded by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, we will see many people in serious trouble. The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Power, knows that is a serious issue, particularly in the south of the country. I call on the Minister to look at that area.

On many occasions the Minister has acknowledged the difficulties of the one-parent family scheme which he mentioned. I hope that in the coming weeks he will bring forward his long awaited, promised amendments to the scheme. We are not sure what they are yet but no doubt he will announce them in some newspaper and they will appear some Sunday morning. We will see the headline "Brennan has new scheme" or whatever instead of "Brennan thinking or talking about new scheme". The Minister must have a hotline to the various Sunday newspapers because almost every Sunday morning, one sees headlines such as "Minister thinks about this or that". One of these days we will see a headline that the Minister has done something. That will be a change. Perhaps some of the reporters might ask him what he is actually doing.

The one-parent family scheme supports individuals rearing a child on their own, which is important. However, given the mechanics of the scheme, very often the partner cannot live in the house or else does so by sneaking in at night and leaving in the morning. The inspectors must keep an eye on this even though, as the Minister said on a number of occasions, it is not really their role. A mechanism must be found to tackle that and to see what can be done with this scheme.

I refer to the school meals scheme. Several years ago there was an issue over the take-up of the school meals scheme. Will the Minister speak to his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, to ensure moneys made available for the scheme are used? We know how important breakfast clubs are and some years ago several agencies made a presentation on food poverty in Ireland to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. It is frightening to think that people in Ireland today are suffering from food poverty, particularly children going to school. From my many years in the classroom, I know if a child is hungry, he or she cannot function. Many families on low incomes cannot buy nutritious food. If a child's diet is poor and he or she is allowed to drink soft drinks and eat sweets, the child can become hyperactive in the classroom. This causes problems for teachers and I have some grey hairs that will testify to that. Other Ministers too need to examine this area.

I welcome this consolidation Bill and agree with the notion of a guide for it. Having legislation in simple English is laudable. We look forward to amendments the Minister may introduce to make it more accessible. The Minister has been in office for a year in which he has issued many statements on his thinking. In a way he has generated debate on many issues which is laudable. We now wait to see what the Minister will bring forward after all his pondering and musing. I hope it will not be like the mountain groaning only to produce a mouse.

The child care issue is one all Members are tackling. It is causing a major financial headache for many families and leading to poverty. Many parents must go to work and yet they are doing so to simply pay for child care. This area needs to be examined as we are behind the rest of Europe in the provision of quality child care. Recently I spoke to a young man in Dublin who told me the most stressful time in his life was when finding a childminder for his new-born son. He spent months searching for a quality childminder as his wife had to return to work because of the huge mortgage they were paying on a modest house in the capital. The Government must address these issues because families are at breaking point on it.

What proposals will the Government bring forward for pensions? I am not happy with the idea of mandatory pensions which the Minister has suggested he will examine. This is an area one has to be careful about. However, at the same time we need a system whereby people will have adequate income in their old age. I do not believe making pensions mandatory is the way to go. When the Minister introduces his proposals, they will be debated hotly and heavily in the House and various experts will advise the social and family affairs committee. Demographics are changing at such a rate that it is hard to keep up with what is going on. With new people coming from other countries, the birth rate is growing. We have a situation where more people must work. Flexible working times also need to be examined.

It was rumoured the Minister would go to Europe. However, he has decided to look after the home turf for another while. He will not escape the musings and the schemes he has promised us. In the next six months we hope to see these come to fruition. I look forward to debating them with him.

I compliment the Minister and his officials for bringing forward the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005. There is a significant corpus of social welfare legislation, the Minister referred to 16 enactments, since 1993. This consolidation Bill is important from a lawyer's perspective as one will be able to go to one corpus of legislation and extract what is required. It is also important for the layperson to know his or her due entitlements. The Minister stated he will bring forward an explanatory memorandum to get around the need for reliance upon archaic language which bedevils all legislation brought to the House. Simplified and codified legislation is an extremely important aspect of ensuring the citizens for whom legislation is introduced have access and know its contents and the entitlements derived therefrom. In conveyancing law there is a requirement for archaic terms such as "fee tail" and "fee farm grants" that go back to feudal times. However, in social welfare legislation it is important to simplify its terms.

This morning I examined the 2001 decision by Mr. Justice Niall Fennelly which gave the then Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs the legal basis to claim back moneys it was due beyond the six year statutory period which would be the normal contractual situation. I want to ensure people who may be due moneys from the Department are allowed to go back beyond this six year period. Sometimes the Department of Social and Family Affairs has a habit of pulling down the shutters to preclude people from their entitlements because of a cut-off period. A case concerning entitlements was brought to the Ombudsman who gave short shrift to the arguments made by the Department. I am often bemused that if one's application for a bereavement grant is beyond the six months specified time, one must give an explanation as to why it is late. Bloody hell, it is not the Department's business as to why it is late. If one is entitled to it, then that should be it. Cut out this erecting of a Berlin Wall around entitlements.

Many people do not know their entitlements. I am shocked that in affluent Ireland, although we are still living in a level of poverty as we heard from the Combat Poverty Agency yesterday, a significant body does not know its exact entitlements. We have failed as legislators in ensuring the information is imparted. If an individual is due an entitlement back for six or more years, he or she must get it and be on a level playing pitch with the Department which received that power from Mr. Justice Niall Fennelly's judgment in 2001. While we cannot introduce amendments to consolidation Bills, in the forthcoming social welfare Bill I will pay particular attention to this area.

Enactments laid down in a statutory framework bring certainty but can also introduce inflexibility and eliminate discretion. I wish to illustrate this with regard to a representation from a man in County Kerry regarding his entitlement to credited contribution in respect of his carer's allowance. He looks after his wife who has motor neurone disease. The Department informed him that to qualify for carer's allowance credits, a person requires a paid and credited employment contribution that is reckonable for benefits, that is class A PRSI contributions, in either of the two complete contribution years immediately preceding the date of the award of the allowance. This individual is a self-employed person who has given up his employment to look after his wife. The Department informed him that regrettably, as his last PRSI contribution prior to the award of his carer's allowance was paid as a class S PRSI contribution, he does not qualify for carer's allowance credits. Class S PRSI contributions refer to self-employment and are reckonable for contributory old age pension and contributory widow's or widower's pension but are not reckonable for benefits. Hence, someone who is in receipt of carer's allowance, who previously paid self-employed stamps, is not entitled to credits as a carer.

We pay lip-service to carers. How much would it cost the State if that man sought to have his wife placed in an institution? I know from the experience of my wife's elderly great-aunt in Dublin that it can cost up to €1,000 per week. In the midlands it costs between €450 and €600 per week. We should give people like that man the credits. We should salute a person like that and say "Well done, good and faithful servant", to use a biblical quotation. He has adhered to the matrimonial commitment for better or for worse to the nth degree. He has left his self-employed job to look after her, for a carer's allowance of some €150. Yet he does not get the credits because previously he only paid Class S1 PRSI contributions. That type of anomaly or rigidity and stupidity is what leads to someone being placed in an institution. Even though that option costs €600 or €1,000 per week, the carer's allowance only costs the State €150. That individual saves the State an enormous amount, but we will not give him the credit.

A former Fine Gael politician, who is no longer with us, used to claim that he was "an idea a week" person. The Minister is an "idea every three days" person. I grant him that. Compared with his predecessor, he does not seek photo opportunities. He does not cost us too much money in consultancy fees. Like me, he submits an old photograph and if it is accepted, it is good enough. Like the Minister, I do not overly mind whether my hair is combed. At least the Minister does not cost us too much money in that regard.

He is forever youthful.

That is true. If he dyed his hair it would look great.

It is good that the Minister is innovative, has ideas and thinks out loud. Yesterday at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, I paid tribute to the Combat Poverty Agency, as did Deputy Stanton. It was great to see the agency bring its report before the committee. Like us or lump us, we have been elected by the people. This is the sovereign Parliament of the Republic and Members are entitled to have such matters brought before them. The report has also been brought to the Minister's attention. We debated with the Combat Poverty Agency representatives and sometimes disagreed with them. It was not simply a love-in. The point of such meetings is that there should be tensions and good debates. It is not to pat one another on the back. At the same time, the fact that matters are brought before the joint committee and are debated is an acknowledgment that the primacy of the Oireachtas is important. The Minister's colleagues will let him know what transpired.

I wish to refer to another issue. Lately, I have spoken about the fuel allowance. I do not speak about matters lightly and am not an alarmist politician. That kind of politics did not get me elected, so I am not interested in it. However, when I feel strongly about an issue, I talk about it, although it may cost me votes. So be it. What about elderly people living in sheltered housing? One week before such people were due to receive their much needed fuel allowance, the Department of Social and Family Affairs notified them that it was being withdrawn from those who need it. This occurred when the weather was turning cold and on foot of a report from the British Meteorological Office stating this might be an especially cold winter. The allowance comes to €9 per week and many elderly people were distressed. This issue applies to Dublin in particular and may also apply to people in Cork living in sheltered housing. It does not apply so much to people in rural areas. These people will not receive the €9 fuel allowance, which came as a bombshell.

This is a disgrace. Most of those people pay an additional €6 per week because their fuel is provided as part of the local authority shelter. A sum of €6 paid 52 times comes to €312, while a sum of €9 paid 29 times comes to €261. This affects the Minister's constituency more than my own. In south-eastern Dublin, my colleague, Deputy Quinn, was extremely annoyed about it because it came as a bombshell to those people and to their elected representatives.

Yet again, a sneaky question on a form was responsible. I continually return to the root of a problem and wonder what great intellect came up with it. The form asks whether the applicant lives in local authority accommodation with central heating provided. If one is in sheltered accommodation, some heat is provided. However, there is no such a thing as a free lunch as far as the service providers are concerned. The people in question pay an extra €6. They used to receive €9 for 29 weeks while they paid an extra €6 for 52 weeks. They actually lost out.

I ask that we take the bull by the horns and restore the allowance. Not many people are involved. I believe the Department is saving something like €1,500 per week. That decision came from the Minister's Department. I believe the pension services office in Sligo was responsible. I have been informed that in the same week the notification arrived, the Department was trying to install three separate mobile telephone antennae on the roof of the pension services office in Sligo. I am sure the installations will generate some revenue.

Sheltered housing is to be found in cities rather than rural areas. These people have made a valuable contribution and expect that we will at least look after them by providing them with some heat. This decision should be reversed immediately. I ask the Minister's officials to take careful note of this. It angers me considerably to see the Department behaving like Inspector Clouseau by making savings of a miserable few shillings from elderly people who have put their backs into this country. This leaves such people exposed.

The fuel allowance has not been increased since the beginning of 2002. As I stated, it currently stands at €9 and does not cover the cost of a bag of coal. The recent dramatic rise in the cost of fuel means that €9 is worth much less than it was two months ago. Home heating oil has increased by 21%, the cost of gas has increased by 25% and the price of electricity has also risen. I merely reiterate comments made by the Minister's colleagues. We must increase the fuel allowance in this budget. The Combat Poverty Agency made that point yesterday in its presentation to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. This must be done because it is extremely important. As Deputy Stanton noted yesterday, there are two ways of doing this. One can elongate the period of time or increase the amount. I favour increasing the amount.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.