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.