I would like to share time with Deputy Paul McGrath.
Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
How much time have I left?
The Deputy has 16 minutes in total.
We have 18 months left.
Is that a promise?
When I last spoke on this Bill two weeks ago, I referred to the back to education and foster care grants. I hope the Minister, Deputy Brennan, will respond to my comments, particularly in respect of the foster care grant, when he brings this debate to an end. I referred on that occasion to the case of four children in my constituency whose parents died of cancer within two years of each other. The children applied for the back to school clothing and footwear grant, but they were told they did not qualify. I reiterate my appeal to the Minister to examine the decision made in that case. It does not make sense that four children who do not have a mother or father are exempt from the back to school clothing and footwear scheme because they are in foster care. I ask the Minister to look into the matter. I also referred two weeks ago to the problems being encountered by two young mothers who are trying to return to the educational system, but have been told they are not entitled to rent allowance. I have written to the Minister about the cases. If we are serious about the back to education scheme and helping people to escape from the poverty trap, we should assist them in every way, with the eventual aim of helping them to leave the social welfare system.
I would like to ask the Minister about the free schemes. The previous Minister sanctioned many reports about the free travel pass, for example. We are living in a supposedly more modern society, but people in rural Ireland cannot avail of many of the advances which have been made in the public transport network, such as the Luas. Many people who are given free travel passes are unable to use them. The Minister agreed he would investigate the possibility, as suggested in a report, of introducing a scheme whereby pensioners could collect travel vouchers on the same day they collect their pensions. People who decide to participate in the voucher scheme would not be eligible for the free travel pass, which cannot be used in parts of rural Ireland where there is no public transport. The Department should be able to issue a travel voucher to be used to pay for a taxi, which is the only transport service in most parts of rural Ireland. I am also concerned about the free telephone scheme. I remember when the newspapers reported the announcement made by programme managers, public relations personnel and departmental officials that the scheme would be extended to cover mobile telephones. Although the media ran with the story at the time, there is no sign of the promised extension of the scheme. I would like the Minister to explain what has happened to the proposal. It seems some misinformation was spread at the time — I will not use the word "lies" because the Ceann Comhairle would rule me out of order.
It was just a wrong number.
I would never use the word "lies", which is a terrible word. I would like to know how the Department got it so wrong and how the media was taken in by it. I have all the newspaper cuttings from the time in my office and at home.
The wires were crossed.
People rang me to ask where they could get the application forms to try to get mobile telephones under the free schemes. They were waiting to find out when it could be done. The Minister, Deputy Brennan, has been responsible for social welfare for almost 15 months——
He has been there for a long time.
——but we have not heard anything more about it. Some people have moved on since then. The person who spun that story was good. He must have done a great deal of work on a mobile telephone.
He is staying. He is not going to Brussels.
He ran out of credit.
That is right. I ask the Minister to re-examine the matter.
Deputies make representations about the fuel scheme, which does not cost a fortune, at this time every year. The duration of the scheme was extended by a month in the last budget, so that it now runs from October to April. It should be extended further, however, so that people are given fuel vouchers for the entire year, especially as the cost of fuel has increased significantly in recent months. The Department continues to give the recipients of fuel allowance a few measly euro for a limited number of months each year, even though the cost of coal and gas has trebled. This is Ireland, not Spain — we do not get the kind of weather that means we do not have to light a fire every day of the year. The two things elderly people are most concerned about are safety and ensuring that their houses are heated. I ask the Minister to extend the scheme in this year's budget for once and for all so it is made available all year round. He needs to amend the fuel scheme to compensate and assist people, particularly pensioners, who have been badly affected by inflation, stealth taxes and the increases in fuel charges. It is wrong that some elderly people are unable to warm their houses because they cannot afford the increased price of coal and gas. Something needs to be done about this problem.
I am sure the Minister attends regular meetings in his Department about the unemployment benefit scheme, to which people who have paid their dues are entitled. People make PRSI and pension contributions so they can avail of unemployment benefit for 15 months if they lose their jobs. Having encountered many cases in my constituency of people who have been denied unemployment benefit, I wonder whether a new directive has been issued by the Minister or the Department. I know of many people who have applied for the benefit but have been told they are not looking for work. I have written to the Minister to ask him to investigate the case of an individual I met last week. The man in question, who is a sub-postman, has been working regularly because he has taken every job opportunity he has been offered. When other postmen go on holidays or are missing due to illness, the man to whom I refer takes the work he is offered. He has been lobbying hard for a full-time job. I have sent the Minister details of the man's PRSI payments over the years. When the man in question goes to the labour exchange, he is told by an official that he is not actively looking for work, even if he submits letters from a number of local employers from whom he has sought work. It is wrong that the man is not given any money in such circumstances. I ask the Minister to investigate the case and other similar cases, which seem to have arisen on foot of a new departmental directive. It seems officials in unemployment exchanges have been told not to give people unemployment benefit, even though it is their money — they have paid that money into the system so they can access it when they are out of work. I do not refer to people who are looking for basic unemployment payments, but to people who are looking for unemployment benefit on the basis of their stamp money. I ask the Minister to investigate it.
I hope the media will support the final point I would like to make. I understand that appeals officers overturn between 42% and 44% of the decisions made by officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I tell people every day to appeal decisions which are made against them to appeals officers. When people claim unemployment benefit, they are told by the lady or the man behind the desk they are not actively looking for work, even if they produce three or four letters. I ask the Minister to tell me what else such people can do, if they have already produced the necessary evidence. If a person produced evidence in a court of law that he or she had been actively looking for work, the case against them would be thrown out immediately. Many people are angry, upset and annoyed because they are not treated favourably when they apply for unemployment benefit of the basis of the money they have paid into the system over many years. I ask the Minister to investigate this phenomenon.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Ring, for sharing time. I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005. I am glad the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and his senior officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs are present for this debate. I am sure some of the officials who have heard me talking about various matters over the years could predict in advance the comments I am about to make. I will repeat those comments in the hope that, at some stage, what I say might be heard. In regard to the child dependant allowance, for the benefit of those who do not know, if one is in receipt of social welfare and has child dependants, one gets a rate of payment to help look after the children. Believe it or not, three different rates of payment apply depending on the status of the parent. If the parent is on unemployment benefit, the rate of payment for looking after a child is approximately €16 per week, but if the parent is on lone parent allowance, the rate of payment is approximately €19 per week and if the parent is on disability or invalidity allowance, the rate of payment is approximately €21 per week. How does the Minister justify having three rates of payment for looking after children? He is discriminating against children based on the status of the parent. That is unfair and should be put right.
The Minister will not put it right because the vast majority of parents in receipt of child dependant allowance receive it at the lower rate of €16. Therefore, any change would increase the cost because, as it would not be possible to reduce benefits, it would be necessary to bring all up to the top rate. This situation is grossly unjust and needs to be put right. The Minister should not respond with the standard reply that a higher rate could be seen as a disincentive to return to work, which is rubbish.
The second issue, touched on by Deputy Ring, concerns what are termed short-term payments and long-term payments. Within the social welfare code, a number of payments are classified as short-term, some of which are insurance or stamps based. One such payment is disability benefit. Although the Department of Social and Family Affairs classifies this as a short-term payment, it is possible to stay on disability benefit for the duration of one's life. A person can receive it once he or she has 260 stamps paid, which is a total of five year's payments. Therefore, it is possible to receive disability benefit from, say, the age of 25 and for a further 40 years. Yet, lo and behold, the Department of Social and Family Affairs classifies this as a short-term payment.
Why am I ranting about this? It is because of the consequences for other benefits for those in receipt of short-term benefits. One benefit affected is fuel allowance but another has far more important consequences the Minister must consider. We all know the benefit of having young people go to college, namely, if they receive qualifications, they are likely to get employment and break out of the social welfare net. However, it is realised that it is difficult for a child to stay at college if his or her parents are on low income. Therefore, if a child of parents on social welfare goes to a higher education college, a top-up grant is available to help pay his or her way. The threshold for qualifying as a low income earner is close to €15,000. However, it is remarkable that a person on disability benefit who receives less than €15,000 — I know of a case where the person has a total income of €14,500 for the year — will not qualify for the top-up grant for his or her child at higher education because the Department classifies disability benefit as a short-term payment. That is wrong.
I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Brennan, is present because my experience of him has been that when he has seen genuine problems, he has put them right.
To be fair, we acknowledge that.
He is a great Minister.
Those comments have put it up to him.
When he has seen wrong, he put it right. I am sure the Minister will thoroughly consider this issue.
Another issue that requires urgent examination is that of grant aid to community groups for pendant alarms, security chains and door locks for elderly people. I do not know if the Minister is fully aware that he has halved the amount of funding available for community groups to do this important work in the past two or three years. Pendant alarms, security chains, locks and the idea of security in the home are crucial for the elderly. It is a shame the funding available has been reduced during the Minister's watch. He should consider the matter carefully. It is a good scheme which works well and efficiently, and gives a great feeling of security to the elderly.
The Department of Finance answered a recent question of mine in regard to employers who have not paid their PRSI contributions. The amount outstanding is approximately €170 million. That is a great deal of money but, remarkably, the Minister for Finance who answered the question, referred to it as a small amount of money. This is like the position of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, who, when referring to the €150 million wasted on the health service, said it was not much money. The €170 million should be in the social insurance fund but it is not, yet it is said to be a small amount.
It would pay for the fuel scheme all year.
They are looking through the telescope in reverse.
Yet, if somebody goes to a social welfare office to seek a payment, he or she will not get it. A hospital looking for additional staff will not get it. However, when it refers to matters the Government is not coping with properly, such as the €150 million wasted in the health sector, the €50 million-odd wasted on electronic voting and the €170 million that has not been collected for PRSI, these are said to be small amounts that do not matter much. This is a terrible attitude for the Government to have and it needs to be changed.
The Deputy's time is concluded.
In case the members of staff who will write up the Official Report think I missed it today, I must raise the question of child benefit. There are two rates of payment for child benefit. If one is a first or second child, one gets a certain rate. However, if one is the lucky third, fourth, fifth or sixth child, one gets a higher rate of child benefit. How can it be justified that the third child in a family is worth more than the second child?
The Deputy has made his point. I call Deputy O'Connor.
It is a shame we had to stop Deputy McGrath. I join him in praising the Minister, Deputy Brennan. I agree with the Deputy that the Minister is doing a wonderful job. He has revolutionised the Department of Social and Family Affairs since his appointment as Minister one year ago. The interesting point about this Minister is that he is listening, both to Fianna Fáil backbenchers and those happy people on the Opposition benches.
This is excellent.
Having listened to Deputy Durkan earlier, I am glad the Opposition is so happy. Just 600 days from the general election, it is clear they know the country is in good shape.
The Deputy is whistling past the graveyard.
The economy is performing extremely well. The times are good and I am glad the Opposition has no real issues to deal with.
It is the feel-good factor.
With regard to the Bill, I often take from my life experience when dealing with Dáil business. I was interested in Deputy McGrath's point about children. I am the eldest of a family of five. As I have four sisters, I was never spoiled and was always happy in my family life in Crumlin. Since I moved to Tallaght in 1969 I have interested myself in many community and family issues. The Minister has taken a particular interest in the issues colleagues have raised in regard to lone parents, pensions, child poverty, child benefits, child care and carers since he took office over a year ago.
I am not normally parochial but I live in Tallaght and represent Dublin South West, which embraces the major population centre of Tallaght plus Brittas, Greenhills, Templeogue and Firhouse. I spend a lot of time in my constituency, although I received a call from somebody this morning at 8.30 a.m. asking me where I was and saying he had not seen me for a while.
Deputy O'Connor is slipping up.
All politicians face that challenge. I spend as much time in my constituency as possible. I only come into Leinster House on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when I must. However, I listen to what people say. Of course, there are concerns. The Tallaght Welfare Society of which I am a board member, which is based in Tallaght village and which was set up in 1969, presented a submission in respect of this year's budget to the Minister at a session on Monday. It was very impressed by his response.
In regard to what the previous speaker said, issues of security for the elderly were raised in The Echo this morning and I hope the Minister considers them.
The Minister will know the Taoiseach visited Tallaght a week ago and not for the first time. He is a regular visitor to Tallaght and we are happy with his support. He visited Jobstown in Tallaght west for the launch of the Childhood Development Initiative report, which has been mentioned in the House and which falls under the remit of a number of Ministers, including the Ministers for Education and Science, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs. I am anxious the Minister and his officials consider that report. The Minister was kind enough to respond to a parliamentary question tabled by me on the subject. It is a radical report with a number of important proposals for children in the Tallaght west area, including Fettercairn, Brookfield, Jobstown and Killinarden. I would be very grateful if the Minister could investigate that report because it is the type of project which would not only be good for my community in Tallaght but which would set the tone for other such schemes throughout the country. Great credit is due to the organisations which came together in respect of that childhood development report. It is something which could be duplicated throughout the country and I hope the Minister will seriously consider it in that respect.
I refer to some of the issues of which the Minister is taking particular care. I am a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs and I am the secretary of the Fianna Fáil policy group on social and family affairs and, as a result, I have much contact with the Minister. I am not being patronising but this Minister has shown——
We will blame Deputy O'Connor if things do not go right. I have a list here.
——a genuine concern for those in need. I am glad the Minister of Finance confirmed during the week that the budget will prioritise health, education and social welfare. Fianna Fáil has a proud record in those areas dating back long before my time.
What about housing?
It has looked after the disadvantaged. I am strongly committed to social inclusion and I am following in the footsteps of my colleague, former Deputy Chris Flood, who I succeeded in the Dáil three years ago. Chris Flood did a tremendous amount of work on social inclusion not only in Tallaght and Dublin South West but throughout the country. I am glad the Minister has been very understanding when dealing with social inclusion. I am glad to have Deputy Durkan's support in that regard.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs, under the chairmanship of Deputy Penrose, whose work I compliment, has considered many of the issues which would be raised in any debate on social and family affairs.
I have received correspondence recently from a number of constituents who are particularly interested in carers, their needs and concerns — this is an issue that will have crossed the Minister's desk on a number of occasions. Members will know the Carer's Association of Ireland is based near Tallaght in Clondalkin and I have always gone out of my way to support carers, as we all should. I have often made the point that I had experience in this area when my late father was unwell and ageing. My sister looked after him, raising issues and challenges in respect of carers. I have also had much contact with other families in a similar situation.
Many people want the Minister to re-examine the issue of carers. In the context of this year's budget statement, I believe the Minister will consider all the issues of concern to all of us and the interests of carers will be looked after.
It is no secret that the political issue these days is child care. I have attended a number of hearings organised by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. There is an issue about where child care should sit as far as the Government's responsibility is concerned. It spans the justice, health, education and social and family affairs areas. It is interesting to listen to the debate on this issue and I have already praised last week's "Prime Time" programme which organised an interesting debate between those who strongly believe assistance should be given to those want to go out to work and those who want to stay at home. I wish the Minister for Finance and his colleagues well as they grapple with that issue.
Child care falls under the remit of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs in that it is important to remember disadvantaged families, including lone parent families, who do not have the means to access child care. The Minister is considering the whole question of benefits for lone parents. We must try to create a positive situation whereby we can help them out of the poverty trap and back to work. Each week young people tell me they want to go back to work and have an opportunity of employment but for one reason or another find it difficult to do so because straightaway their rent subsidy and other benefits are affected. Good child care must be provided to enable them to go back to work. We should make a commitment to helping those families caught in that trap and who genuinely want to progress.
I am always impressed by young people who are single parents and who genuinely want to provide for their child, do the best for their family and go back to work. We all know there are problems as far as benefits are concerned. While some efforts have been made, there should be a sliding scale so that we encourage people to return to work and create an environment to enable them to do so. It is not only an issue in Dublin South West but throughout the country. The Minister would have all-party support when dealing with it, as he would when dealing with care.
Deputy Durkan copped a headline this morning which is good but we are all entitled to make political points and, as I keep saying, there will be many of them over the next 600 days. Good things are being done and we should be brave enough to acknowledge that. The Minister understands there are issues of concern to colleagues on both sides that we want him to tackle. I am glad he is listening and I am confident about what he will do in the immediate aftermath of the budget, as I was last year. He will have much support in that regard.
This week, the Minister stated that the blight of child poverty must be eliminated. He will receive much support in that regard. While I do not want to paint a negative picture about any estate in Tallaght, some are disadvantaged. In west Tallaght, there are estates where special attention must be paid to the issues concerning many families. Last week, I visited the junior school An Chroí Ró Naofa in Killinarden which is involved in the Early Start programme. While these matters relate to the Department of Education and Science, there is no question but that we should be helping those families who have particular difficulties and challenges.
The word "challenge" often comes up in my contribution because the whole question of the delivery of social and family provision is about dealing with challenges. People will always have different views and priorities on this. However, many children do not have the same opportunities as others in education. We must see how to deal with the poverty issues in this area. Every child must have an opportunity of having a normal life and of having a proper breakfast in the morning before going to school. The Early Start programme in Killinarden, and elsewhere, provides that environment. It is amazing when speaking to the children involved, victims of poverty, who are being helped. I pay tribute to the educationalists and others involved in these schemes.
It is important for the Minister to understand that in Ireland of the 21st century, where many of us have been fortunate enough to reap the benefits of living in a country that has witnessed great surges in economic growth in recent years, there are still problems in that regard. The Minister will receive much support if he deals with these issues. While he has been busy throughout the year, the Minister will have several challenging weeks ahead as he deals with the Estimates. I hope he will bring forward some of the radical proposals he has already signalled. I look forward to the Minister's announcements after the budget. I hope he will put flesh on some of the policies he has talked about in dealing with social welfare issues.
The Minister's proposals on pensions are of interest to everyone. We are looking at the experiences in Britain and elsewhere where there is much debate about future pensions. The Minister was right and brave to raise this issue. He is certainly far-sighted in looking down the road at a time when we will all have passed on and where future generations will have particular challenges with pension provision.
Are we looking down the road now?
It would be very easy for the Minister to ignore the far future. I am glad that Deputy Durkan is in agreement.
The Deputy should not go near the port tunnel when looking down the road. He will be looking down a small tunnel.
The Deputy is clearly happy with what the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has achieved. I am glad that has been said from the Opposition benches.
It will be a tunnel with trucks stuck in it. We will have to grease the trucks to get them through it.
I am glad Deputy Durkan agrees with me that not only does Fianna Fáil care about the present but also the future. The Minister has shown particular interest in the area of pensions.
Much has been said about child benefit and people have differing views about what level it should be at. The child benefit scheme has served the country well over the years. I remember, when as a child living in Stephen Street, I used to go to the local post office in Aungier Street with my mother when she collected her child benefit. In those days, she saw it in a positive way. Under successive Fianna Fáil Governments it has increased greatly over the years. There will always be an issue at what level it should be at and whether everyone should benefit from it. The Minister has talked about looking at the question of child benefit for those families who are particularly disadvantaged. It is important to remember the ethos of social inclusion. The Taoiseach made the point that at a time when all boats are rising, we must not forget the little boats. There is an issue of varying levels of child benefit for those families in particular disadvantage. It is about creating an environment where disadvantaged people can be assisted in bettering themselves. We should not be keeping people in poverty traps but helping them out of them. The Department of Social and Family Affairs has a large remit and responsibility in this regard but has great potential to tackle the poverty issue.
I am always happy to promote and support the social welfare office in Tallaght. It is modern and one of the best in the country, as it should be in a major population centre. Over the years, there have been social welfare difficulties in Tallaght. Now it is a thriving economy and people are working. Next Sunday marks the 15th year of the opening of the Square which started all this.
I compliment and wish the Minister well on the work he is doing. I give my support to the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Bill.
I hope the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is not embarrassed by all these tributes heaped upon his head. We know he is sensitive about these matters.
He is doing his job.
I compliment Deputy O'Connor for being so optimistic and generating a feel good factor. However, one issue that immediately comes to mind is that the number of people depending on social welfare for housing rent has not gone down. These people are not as enthused about the situation. Other matters that come to mind do not necessarily relate to social welfare. Any given Friday, one can park for as long as one likes on the M50 for free. However, one has to pay a toll to get out of it. We will have to grease the Dublin Port tunnel to get the heavier vehicles through. Letting the air out of their tyres is not an option. There are other issues such as the ballot boxes that do not work with huge cost to the unfortunate taxpayer. The overruns on every single project come to mind. Crime is at an all-time high with shootings, killings and stabbings every day and night. The 2,000 gardaí that were supposed to come on stream never appeared. They are invisible like the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The postal service is in disarray. To cap it all Ireland, a leading country in modern cutting edge technology, is now being passed by every other developing country. According to an OECD report we are 19th out of 22 in the development of broadband technology. At this rate we will soon be last. We are working on it. I compliment all on the other side of the House for generating optimism in the face of all the problems. To be optimistic in that context is like a man whistling in the dark to allay his fears.
Whether we like it or not international experts have deemed us one of the wealthiest countries in the world. One of the things expected of a wealthy country is that in an exemplary way it should look after those who depend on social services. We should set an example not only to European countries but to all countries. I am not sure we are doing that.
A small proportion of carers receive payment at present. We should recognise that carers take the place of nurses, doctors or hospital attendants. Because of today's employment climate where everybody wants to work or is forced to because they have a mortgage, carers now fulfil an unprecedented role by taking the place of an institution such as a hospital and the doctors, nurses and medical attendants who work in it. They save a considerable and quantifiable amount of money for the State. Given the problems we have with bed spaces in our hospitals and nursing homes, it is long past the time for the Minister to look at the issue with a view to increasing the number of people who will qualify for carer's allowance. Carers care not just for elderly people but for children and people with special needs. The greater the degree of care required the greater the saving to the State by these carers being in position. There has been insufficient investigation of the full extent of the alleviation of costs to the Exchequer due to carers.
I have dealt with rent support on many occasions. We heard the argument last year and the year before that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is responsible for housing, while the Department of Social and Family Affairs is responsible for welfare payments. We started to describe public authority housing as social housing and that is a grand name to give it. The way it works is that there are now considerable numbers of people who are trapped in so-called social housing, namely rent supported housing. They cannot leave the rent supported housing, because if they do and they go to work they will be saddled with a very high rent that their salaries will be insufficient to meet. As a result they remain in a poverty trap indefinitely, in rented accommodation, in some cases paying €1,300 to €1,400 per month, depending on the size of the family.
In recent times an arbitrary attitude has emerged among people who assess rent support entitlements. I have dealt with several cases and I do not wish to personalise them at this stage, but I warn that I will if I must. I do not accept that somebody should suffer hardship because of the attitude of a person in a position of control and authority. I will not accept abuse of authority and I stand four square behind the people who have become victims of it. Following some of these arbitrary decisions the response has been that applicants can appeal. Appeal to whom? The same people who made the decision in the first place? I am aware that rent support is administered by the Department of Health and Children on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs but it would stand the Minister in good stead if he examined what these people are doing. It is particularly noticeable in the case of a person who applies for rent support for the first time. It almost seems that somebody makes an arbitrary decision that the applicant is late and will have to go on a very long list. I will give the Minister details of that type of thing any time he wishes.
There is a poverty trap there. People who wish to work cannot get a local authority house because the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is not providing them and will not for the foreseeable future. They are stuck whether they like it or not. Without exception, single mothers want to work to improve their circumstances and their education. I will give an example which is not an isolated case. In recent weeks a woman with a baby wanted to go back to college. She ought to qualify for rent support while she is at college as she would if she stayed at home and depended on social welfare for the rest of her life. However, she wants to better herself, get a degree and improve her contribution to society. What is she told? She is told she cannot get rent support. This is incorrect, as I know from past experience, but to get the message through the bureaucracy in the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive which carry out the function on behalf of the Department of Social Family Affairs is a virtual impossibility. Experts emerge every few minutes who seem to know more than the people who have been involved for years.
I urge the Minister to look at what is happening. A person has the option to improve by getting an education to become self-sufficient or to do nothing. They should be not be penalised for wanting to improve. It does not cost the Exchequer any more. It costs the Exchequer exactly the same in both cases. What is the difference between having a young mother on one parent family payment and rent support and a young mother on back to education allowance and rent support? Which is the better of the two from the point of view of the State? There is no doubt as to the answer.
Certain Departments are responsible for the collection of PAYE and PRSI contributions. That has always been the case. A number of cases have recently come to my attention where people who had applied for benefits were refused because their contributions had not been paid. They were told they should contact their employer. They do not have to contact their employer. They only have to contact the Department of Social and Family Affairs because they are entitled to their payments whether or not their employer has paid. It is for the Department to pursue those contributions. Recently that has happened a number of times but it should not happen. It is an established fact for as long as I can remember that if somebody is in contribution-related employment and becomes ill he or she is entitled to benefits. The fact that contributions have not been paid is another issue for another agent. I would be grateful if the Minister examined the issue, which has been referred to by Deputy Paul McGrath already. It is more serious than we have been led to believe.
Daft decisions come around every so often, and although I will not go into too much detail, the Minister and his officials will probably know some of the issues I am thinking of. Occasionally a decision is made that is based on stupidity with nothing to back it up. I am thinking of the equality decision made some years ago that would have cost €9 million at most if paid in the first instance. It cost €300 million by the time it was finished because somebody failed to make the correct decision at the right time. The case went through the courts here and the European courts, costing much money. If a decision does not appear to stand up, it should be examined.
All Ministers have taken the attitude in recent times that they do not have a function in a particular matter. That is a dangerous phrase, the Minister is in some way responsible for any legislation that is approved in this House as long as his party is in power. The Minister should ignore people telling him that he has no function in a matter as he knows differently. Although the Minister might not be able to intervene directly he has to be able to stand over decisions that are made. He should be able to say to anyone making a decision that it must be in accordance with the law and policy. My advice to the Minister is to keep an eye on such matters.
Child care and child benefit are related issues. Every once in a while I get a chill in my spine when I hear statements about child benefit being biased in one direction or another. Mothers of any age anywhere in the country, regardless of economic or social background or income, feel that the small recognition given by child benefit is welcome. A time comes around every so often, around the time of the budget, when wise guys — and they are usually guys — get together and argue that the burden of child benefit should be shifted. The Minister should not entertain such an idea. It would be a sad day if he did, but there would be many sad days afterwards also.
I agree with women who state that as they all gave birth to children in the same fashion, they should be entitled to some small recognition as a result. This is not merely monetary compensation but a well-meaning gesture from the State. Child benefit should remain and should be escalated considerably to ensure that provision is made for child care also. I am not affected by child care anymore but we all have to go through that phase, and the newer generation in the House will experience it. When their children are small, people will have their own opinion on how best to apply child care policy. This is now a big issue and is getting bigger, as everybody in the household must work or people will starve or be unable to pay their large mortgage. In some cases, child care costs are as high as the mortgage and this area needs to be examinated and regulated. The increasing of child benefit is as fair a means as possible of doing this, in conjunction with the availability of pre-school child care and crèche facilities.
Child care facilities should be in residential areas rather than three or four miles away. They should be at the centre of a residential area, so that when an estate of houses is opened a child care facility is available for every 30 or 40 houses. All the families would be the same age at the same time. However, if planning permission is sought for such a venture it is refused automatically. This type of situation is a paradox. Provision should be made in the design of estates to give the chance to incorporate a single child care unit in the development as long as it does not stand out from the rest of the plan. It could be placed in the estate with a design similar to an ordinary dwelling house, for example. Action needs to be taken on this issue at an early date.
Non-nationals are in many cases being quite harshly treated by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
This is due to directions from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and a lack of co-ordination. Some extraordinary cases exist. There are children with Irish accents who have been educated here——
When will they start playing with the Irish soccer team?
We need them now. These children are to be deported, or their parents are to be deported or they are all to be deported. This is daft as the children have been educated here. It is only when one speaks with these people that one realises how daft and paradoxical their cases are. The residential clause introduced by the Minister stipulates that if one of these people has been out of the country in the past 12 months for any period, they do not qualify for social welfare or residency status. This is stupid as these people may have had compelling reasons in some cases to leave. If such harsh legislation was needed to facilitate the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, there should have been some mitigating factor stipulating that if one was out of the country for compassionate reasons or for a similar cause, some flexibility would be afforded. The residential clause is causing unnecessary hardship and trauma.
If all races on the Earth were brought together, there would be no race with a greater knowledge of immigration than the Irish, who have gone all over the world. Some may say that the Irish went to work, which we did, but the people who come to Ireland do so to work also. We should not punish those who fall by the wayside. Some of the rules and regulations currently being applied by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, if challenged by European courts, could be overturned. These rules are extraordinary, and the Minister knows this.
I am not filled with the euphoria that was generated from the benches on the Government side, despite the best efforts of the Minister. The slogan in the last election was "A lot done, more to do" but there is little done and much more to do.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a contribution on the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005. I did not expect to be entering the debate so soon on such an important Bill. It is an affront and totally unacceptable that Fianna Fáil and Government backbenchers are not present in the Chamber, with the exception of Deputy Charlie O'Connor, who made a contribution. Is he speaking for all the backbenchers? It is a further indication of the lack of interest in needy people that those backbenchers have not got the guts to come in to this House and speak on the Bill.
As one who contributed to the debate on the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993, I am well aware of the amount of work involved to get the current Bill to its present stage. I compliment all concerned in getting to this stage. The social welfare system has been ineffective in tackling high levels of poverty and inequality. In saying that, I acknowledge that some progress has been made in recent years. One of the main mechanisms for tackling poverty is the tax and welfare system, which has been the core of various budget policies over the years. I was recently informed by the Combat Poverty Agency that almost one quarter of the population, or nearly 900,000 people, still live in income poverty, which is a European measure. Income poverty is an income of less than €192 per week in 2005 values. Furthermore, 9% or 375,000 are living in constant poverty.
The Minister refers to relative poverty when it suits him. In my contribution to the Combat Poverty Agency submission on this year's budget to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, I stated that ordinary taxpayers tend to get confused when economists and people within the poverty areas give different statistics which basically turn people off. We need a uniform system of valuation and then attack the cause of poverty. This is our task as legislators. We must try to make everyone aware of the harsh realities of life for so many people. The Combat Poverty Agency made a very important contribution to this issue on the best way of addressing poverty within the welfare tax system. It is worthwhile putting on record the tax welfare allocations in the budgets of 2003 and 2005. In 2003, the total allocation was €716 million, with €530 million of that, or 74%, going on the social welfare allocation while income tax was €186 million, or26%. In 2005, the total allocation was €1,570 million, with €874 million, or 56% of the total, going on social welfare and €694 million, or 44%, on income tax. Between the two budgets, the total allocation went up by 119%, social welfare went up by 65% and the income tax element went up 273%. There is an element to these figures on how to deal with poverty on the basis of tax and welfare. On the basis of this, the Minister should give serious consideration to the distributive impact of the Combat Poverty Agency budget proposals for 2006 compared with the conventional 50:50 tax welfare budgets which have been the norm in recent years.
Our social welfare system is over reliant on the complex means testing which is burdensome and lacks transparency. We should rationalise and simplify means testing so that it is easier to administer and understand. We should reduce our reliance on means testing by extending coverage of the social insurance system. In this country, a job is unfortunately not a guaranteed route out of poverty. There is evidence of a growing pattern of working poverty with up to 157,000 people affected. We must enforce an adequate minimum wage and if necessary supplement the income of families in low paid employment through refundable tax credits. In addition the situation can be addressed by improvements in the family income supplement and secondary benefits such as medical cards and housing benefits.
The high cost of private rented accommodation is often crippling and the rent supplement system creates unacceptable unemployment traps. I appeal once again to the Minister to amend section 12 of the Social Welfare Act 2003 in respect of rent and mortgage supplements. That section amends section 179 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993 to extend explicitly this exclusion in respect of rent or mortgage interest supplement to the spouse of a person in remunerative work. The objective of the section is to restore the position that previously obtained; that rent or mortgage interest supplement would not ordinarily be paid to a household with full-time employment. Since Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats came to power, there has been a shortage of local authority housing on an annual basis. There are between 45,000 and 50,000 people on housing lists and they will be waiting for years. A house is an important element in the lives of married or cohabiting couples with children. If we try to get people to move from welfare to work, we must look at housing. People in my constituency, who are waiting years for a house from the local authority, can avail of the rent supplement. The average cost of rent in north Dublin ranges from €1,000 to €1,200 per month. The recipient of rent supplement can receive up to €275 per week. An unemployed person with a child can get €264.30 per week.
To take another example, what happens when people avail of a job opportunity? All Members accept that the way to deal with poverty is to encourage the unemployed to enter work or education. Currently, people might already have a family and a home before being offered the possibility of taking a job. On numerous occasions on the radio and elsewhere, the Minister has asked why so many Irish people are unemployed when people can come in from overseas and secure work. As many jobs currently pay the minimum rate, people earning €9 per hour will receive €351 per week. A family income supplement payment of €50, which is not the lowest possible rate, would bring them to €400 per week. Under this order from the Minister, such people cannot be provided with any rent supplement and consequently are required to pay €275 per week for a house. Who can live on €125 per week? The net effect is that people will tend to avoid stating that they live together, which has an adverse effect on their family unit and children. This must be considered.
Apart from getting a job, other people try to improve themselves through education. Currently the community employment scheme helps to provide that element of education. However, after a short period, a person who participates in a community employment scheme is no longer entitled to the full supplementary welfare allowance. While I do not expect such a person to be entitled to the full amount, I want to read an example into the record which reflects the experience of many people in community employment schemes:
I am on the council housing list. In the interim period while I await an offer of housing, I rent private accommodation for which the health board contributes €277 monthly. My rent is €1,000 monthly. I am a single parent with two children working part-time on a CE scheme since December 2004. Prior to this, the health board were contributing €736 monthly to my rent.
By furthering myself and finding work, I now find myself with a reduction in rent allowance of €459 monthly. My financial situation is extremely difficult and is causing me undue stress and worry which I am sure you will agree is not very conducive to raising my children, staying in employment and maintaining a household.
I spent two years prior to employment on a VTOS scheme training in computers, health and safety, communications etc. I now intend to commence a JEB diploma in ICT under my CE scheme. This I hope will enable me to gain good employment and hopefully, as my children get older, back to full-time work. I feel a certain discrimination having to struggle in this way as my situation is short term. In the past four months, since my rent allowance has been reduced, I have incurred debts of €2,000 due to the reduction.
The person in question has taken out credit union loans to keep going. People want to get back on their feet and out of poverty by participating in community employment schemes, educating themselves and preparing for employment. Something is wrong when under this directive, those people who are not accommodated in local authority housing will not receive any money.
What is the alternative? We will return to the vicious circle whereby people take stock of their position and question the potential benefit to themselves and their children of making the effort, because by so doing, they encounter a brick wall. They would be better off sitting at home in receipt of unemployment benefit without making any effort. That is the position and it was necessary to outline these examples of situations which are widespread. Possibly the Minister and his officials are not aware of this harsh reality and I ask him to do something about it.
Our social welfare system embodies outdated notions about "a woman's place" and is out of step with the reality of modern life. We can promote gender equality by abolishing the limitation rule and recognising the validity of choosing part-time employment which will enable women to access individual social welfare payments. The level of payment of maternity benefit and paid parental leave must be adequately addressed and the Labour Party is committed to this objective. Our policy document, Putting Children First, will be launched later today and will deal with parental leave.
The Minister has made various contributions and statements in respect of one parent families and how he proposes to tackle this issue. While there has been much talk and many media headlines, I am disappointed that we still await his detailed proposals. The one parent family payment traps lone parents in unemployment or underemployment and creates a barrier to the formation of stable relationships. We must reform the social welfare system so that all qualifying adults receive an individual payment by exempting those with parental obligations from seeking employment, should they so choose.
In a statement issued recently by the Minister, he mentioned the issue of child poverty and his plans in this regard. I look forward to hearing his detailed proposals. Some 23% of our children live in income poverty while 15% live in constant poverty, that is, are deprived of basic necessities. The possibility of merging the child dependent allowance and family income supplement into a new child benefit supplement to enable better targeting and support of families in employment should be examined.
People with disabilities and their carers are not given the support they deserve. I support the concept which has been put forward by various groups dealing with poverty of the provision, on a universal needs basis, of a cost of disability payment to cover equipment, mobility, communication and additional hidden costs. As a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs I was delighted when, under the chairmanship of my colleague, Deputy Penrose, it produced a document on carers. Given the contribution carers have made on a voluntary basis to the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people being cared for through the years, it is unacceptable that only 15% of carers qualify for carer's allowance.
Representations have been made by many people to all Members regarding the living alone allowance, which must be addressed. I cannot see a reference in the Bill to deserted wives' benefit. There are 300 or 400 people still in receipt of this benefit. It is of no use to say it was incorporated in other legislation as there is no reference, good, bad or indifferent, in this Bill. Will the Minister check this matter for me? If there is a reference he can correct me but the Bill should be amended to incorporate this category. I look forward to further debate on Report Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words in this debate. In September 2005, the Economic and Social Research Institute published a document called Trends in Welfare for Vulnerable Groups, Ireland 1994-2001, which examined how such vulnerable groups as children, the elderly and unemployed have fared in our society. In the words of Mr. Christopher Whelan of the ESRI, "Ireland remains a profoundly unequal society". He goes on to state, "A question of justice arises if this persists" and:
If the income gap is big enough across time, there can be potential future problems... People should be able to participate in society at some minimum level without a sense of shame.
What we have created in this country is a profoundly unequal society and it is time we address this to ensure we reverse these trends and commence putting in place a just and fair society.
Since 1998, the rich-poor gap has increased significantly in Ireland to a figure of over €300 per week or over €15,000 per annum. This is not a situation that should continue. The gap has increased at every budget over the past seven or eight budgets. As Mr. Whelan of the ESRI said, everyone should be able to participate in society without a sense of shame and, if this does not happen, there will be profound problems of anti-social behaviour, criminality and social exclusion, with all the difficulties they give rise to down the road. We have all heard that a rising tide lifts all boats, which it does, but if one does not have a boat, one is overpowered by the tide. Unfortunately, a significant number of people in our society have no boats and, as the tide rises, their exclusion from society becomes more deeply entrenched. We have many problems and, unless this trend is reversed, we will have even more serious problems.
It can be different. We have the resources to ensure this is so. We must prioritise people and human services, such as health, education, housing, social welfare and Garda resources, instead of roads, bridges and broadband capacity. Today's priorities are building roads, bridges and broadband capacity and not, unfortunately, human services. This is a social and economic insanity and a very foolish policy. I submitted a question to the Minister for Finance last week and he told me that, over the past eight years, there was a Government surplus on Revenue's accounts amounting to €39.3 billion, which I already knew. In 2004 alone, the surplus was €6.7 billion. The problem is that these surpluses, which were brought about by income over expenditure on a day to day basis, are being spent on roads, bridges and broadband and we are not investing them in human services.
Will the Minister speak with his Cabinet colleagues and suggest that the reasonable social and economic policy would be to build the roads, bridges and broadband capacity out of prudent capital borrowings, which we can do well within European Union guidelines? I am sure we will be told we nearly bankrupted the country by borrowing. Fianna Fáil nearly did this previously but that was borrowing for day to day expenditure. What I or any reasonable and commonsensical economist will tell the Government is that it should borrow for capital projects and we should use the large surpluses of recent years to invest in human services and ensure we start building a fair, just and reasonable society.
The most important infrastructure in a country is a healthy, well educated and well housed population. We need a population in which everyone can play a part and feel a part of society. Unfortunately, this is not the situation at present, which is reflected across a number of areas in the social welfare field. It is particularly evident in the area of child poverty. We have encountered figures from various agencies, including Barnardos, which inform us that nearly 15% of children, or 148,000, live in consistent poverty, a population comparable to the total population of north and south County Tipperary, and a total of 242,000 children live in relative poverty. This occurs at a time when the country is awash with money.
In the forthcoming budget, will the Minister target the whole area of child poverty, particularly increases in child benefit payments? As he knows, the Government reneged twice on promises it made concerning them. Together with many Deputies and agencies, I ask that child benefit rates be increased to €155.92 for the first two children and €192.85 for third and subsequent children in families, and that it be index-linked. The child dependent allowance has not been increased since 1994, 11 years ago. No one seems to know the reason for that or does not want to tell us. The Minister should act on Deputy Seán Ryan's suggestion that the child dependant allowance should at least be doubled in the forthcoming budget.
I have indicated that if we want to use the large surpluses we have at our disposal to prioritise human services, they should be used to properly fund education. We should have reasonable back to school clothing and footwear allowances, of perhaps approximately €200 for a primary school child and €250 for a secondary school child. A once-off grant should be available for children entering first year in secondary school because of additional demands.
Many people are discussing child care and recommendations by various agencies that free child care should be provided in the year prior to attending primary school. I would prefer to see a publicly funded and operated child care facility provided. All children should have medical cards because illness can mean enormous costs. The resources and money are available and whether these services are put in place is a matter of political will.
The social welfare fuel allowance of €9 per week has not been increased since 2001. I bought a tonne of coal and ten bales of briquettes last week. The coal cost €12.70 per bag and a bale of briquettes cost €3.20. An old age pensioner cannot afford a bag of coal with an allowance of €9. As we all know, energy prices have increased enormously recently. Since 1 October the price of gas has increased by 25%, the price of electricity was increased three times during the past two years and the price of home heating oil increased by approximately 50% since this time last year. I hope the Minister will address this issue in the budget. It would not be expensive to do so.
The Minister should focus his attention on carers. I hope the campaigns of the Carers Association will bear fruit in the budget. Everyone knows the situation of carers, but perhaps I need to repeat it. Carers work approximately 6 million hours and approximately 25% of carers are paid. Some carers lose their social welfare payments as a result of being paid and end up caring for a husband, wife, father, mother or relative for approximately €5 per week. I welcome the respite care grant, which has been increased significantly. Carers do an important job on behalf of society. If those elderly and infirm people needed to be cared for in hospitals, nursing homes or long-stay institutions, it would cost the Exchequer enormous amounts of money. The Minister should take on board the case made by the Carers Association and ensure that every carer gets a carer's allowance, and that carers in receipt of social welfare payments are entitled to retain those payments.
I echo the sentiments expressed by Deputy Seán Ryan on the manner in which rent subsidy is dealt with in the case of lone parents who take up part-time employment or a community employment scheme. Numerous individuals fall into this category and they find that having taken up a work opportunity to improve their situations, the rent subsidy is either withdrawn completely or significantly reduced to the extent that working does not benefit them. Most find they cannot continue to work and will revert to the original situation. It is wrong that someone who is prepared to go out to work to better themselves, increase their income and support their families finds the system works against them and they might as well have stayed at home because they would have had the same income. The Minister must examine that.
I know the Minister is not directly responsible for housing aid for the elderly. However, it impinges on this debate. Excellent work is done on a small amount of money to ensure the elderly can live in some comfort. Perhaps a person might need a back door or a window replaced, a roof repaired, a walk-in shower installed or redecoration. Money invested in this area would repay society. Although funding for this scheme has improved during recent years, it needs a significant increase in resources. Throughout the country, applications for this year are either not being examined at all, or have not been examined until now. They will not be dealt with this year. Enough money should be provided to enable examination of all current applications.
I hope the Minister with his Cabinet colleagues will give more priority to human services than to the roads, bridges and broadband. It is a tragedy that roads and broadband are given higher priority when we can achieve both. There is more than enough money. If we use the surpluses on human services such as social welfare and prudently borrow for capital purposes, which is the practical economic norm, then both priorities can be dealt with.
I warn the Deputy coming after me that I will not be long. I did not expect to be speaking on this Bill. I am glad to have the opportunity, nonetheless, because I received a call from my secretary an hour ago on a specific issue. It drew my attention as five people have come to my office this week with the same problem as regards rent allowance. I am not an expert in this area in any sense and I will attempt to explain the situation to the House as best I can.
In each case the people were told that they did not qualify for the rent allowance. I take it they had moved to different addresses and were over the thresholds. The appendix to the Department's circular explains the thresholds in each particular category. For a single person it might be €80, so that if someone rents a place for €90, he or she does not qualify for the rent allowance. I understand there are very good reasons for these thresholds, so that people will not be setting exorbitant rates or ripping off the system.
However, what has happened is that rental prices have increased and in some cases around the country there is a limited supply of rental accommodation. The difficulty is that while social welfare officers are enforcing the regulations in line with the circular there could be a significant increase in homeless people. Three lone parents have come to my office this week having been told they will not qualify for the rent allowance. If I get one or two such cases a week , a parliamentary question might be justified. However, when I get five, it is a serious problem.
The Minister needs to look at the rental market around the country. Rent values have gone up but the thresholds in his Department's circular have not increased sufficiently. People are being deprived, in some cases, lone parents. That is the only point I have to make. It is probably material for a Dáil question. I thought I should bring it to the Minister's attention, however, while this Bill was before the House.
I particularly welcome the fact that this is a consolidation Bill. That is infinitely preferable than attempting to trawl through 20 different Acts to find out about entitlements. Quite obviously much work has gone into the Bill's preparation and I commend those who have worked on it.
The Minister told the House that a record €12.25 billion was spent on social welfare in the current year and said it was the Government's aim to protect the living standards of social welfare recipients. He said that for every €3 of Government spending, €1 is accounted for by social welfare. That is impressive until one examines the detail. For many decades social welfare payments related in particular to unemployment. They were seen as payments for people out of work because there was no employment for them. However, such payments also relate to other categories such as child benefits and invalidity payments, so that their remit is much broader. Pensioners, for example, have paid their contributions over the years in the context of their working lives. In effect, they are getting back what they have paid in. Given the growing cohort of older people, in ten years time the spend of €12.25 billion will probably seem to be quite small. We need to look less at the global spend than what is being spent individually if we are to measure accurately how people are functioning.
Far too much is expected of child benefit. I was a member of the Commission on the Family in the mid-1990s when child benefit was thoroughly debated as a response to the increasing cost of maintaining a child. However, that was prior to the major increases in accommodation costs, for example, which have generated significant extra burdens on a typical family in terms of child care arrangements. Too much is expected from child benefit, which was designed as a policy response towards covering the cost of child care so that parents who stayed at home were not disadvantaged. We have moved on from that. It came across clearly on the doorsteps last March that the issue is not perceived as being properly responded to by this measure alone.
Increases in child benefit have been substituted for increases in the child dependant allowance, which, as Deputy Healy said, has not increased since 1994. That is one of the reasons why families are falling so much further behind, particularly those on social welfare, and why the gap between rich and poor is widening.
The area that features most prominently in any of the statistics on poverty relates to lone parent families and units where there is a number of child dependants. It is the one area which needs particular focus and I hope the Minister will concentrate on it especially in preparing the Estimates for next year's budget. The whole area of child dependence needs to be looked at and indeed the entire spectrum of family supplements.
A targeted response is needed to make a meaningful difference. Poverty is one of the most limiting conditions and something can be done about it. Barnardo's has launched an advocacy campaign, which is very welcome, that focuses on the priorities. It highlights the fact that one in seven children lives in consistent poverty in Ireland — 148,000 children, equivalent to the entire population of Galway. If that figure was isolated in a particular region, it would bring into perspective what needs to be done on a daily basis. Yet when spread across the country, the problem is more diffuse and less obvious as a chronic issue. We appear to have a fixation as regards sorting matters out on a geopolitical basis.
I am almost ashamed to quote the statistic that Ireland has the highest rate of relative child poverty, 23%, in the EU 15. This amounts to 242,000 children, equivalent to counties Galway and Louth. Children in households where parents are unemployed, ill or disabled — where there are three or more children — are particularly at risk, according to Barnardo's statistics. In 1994, one in 20 households in consistent poverty was headed by a lone parent. By 2001, this figure had increased to one in five. We are not making the progress that is required and possible in this area. The wealth created in the economic boom of recent years must be targeted at need.
The Carers Association made an excellent pre-budget submission. The 2002 census of population indicates there are 150,000 family carers, a figure equivalent to the population of Galway and an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Based on the census criteria, a full-time carer is someone providing more than 42 hours of care in the home per week who is, as a consequence, prevented from engaging in full-time employment outside the home. Less than one in six carers receive the carer's allowance of €153.60 per week. On the basis that the weekly cost of care in residential homes ranges from €600 to €1,300, depending on an individual's condition and level of dependency, the Carers Association estimates that its members save the State roughly €1.5 billion per annum.
Fuel poverty carries a hidden cost. For a pensioner living on the State pension, the fuel allowance of €9 does not cover the cost of a bag of coal, particularly given the recent significant increases in fuel prices. By taking shortcuts in this area, we will create problems elsewhere. For example, if pensioners try to be frugal with their income — most of them have no choice in the matter — they will decide not to turn on an electric heater or put on an extra shovel of coal on the fire. If they sit at home in cold conditions, however, they may store up health problems which will require intervention by the health system at a later date, even if that response is not terribly good. It is short-sighted not to properly resource the fuel allowance scheme.
Too often, our focus is on those who make fraudulent welfare claims. While I do not defend this practice, the number of eligible people who do not take up social welfare schemes is a more significant issue. Family income supplement is a case in point and I ask the Minister to examine it to remove impediments which prevent people from applying for it. This is a good scheme, which could make a meaningful difference but is frequently misinterpreted.
A pilot scheme is under way for the new rent assistance programme and some families have been transferred from the community welfare officer administered payment to the scheme. However, full implementation will take another four years, which means some people on the current scheme will not benefit from the new rules on differential rents for up to four years. I meet people every week who want to go to work because they feel they are not using their skills. Most of them are lone parents who are often depressed about their circumstances because they are being prevented from playing a meaningful role by embarking on a career, paying tax and contributing to society. The current rent support system creates a poverty trap which the Minister must address by taking short-term measures to overcome the problem caused by the differential rent payment for those who do not have a local authority home.
The Minister, when he informed the House that the projected level of social welfare expenditure this year is more than €12.25 billion, noted:
This level of expenditure is the highest ever on social welfare 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 this Government's commitment to addressing the needs of people with disabilities and their carers, children, the elderly, widowed persons, the unemployed, those who are parenting alone and many others who are disadvantaged, vulnerable or on the margins of society.
The truth is that the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005 merely consolidates a range of inequalities and insufficient attempts to help people who are deserving of our assistance. The House is spending time consolidating a series of Acts into a single large Bill, which will be so complex that a lengthy explanation will be required to make it clearly understood. The Bill does nothing to address the plight of those who are dependent on social welfare. I understand a consolidation Bill does not allow for significant amendments to be made to social welfare legislation. Surely the time debating the Bill would be better spent discussing ways to assist those who need our help.
Ireland still has unacceptable levels of poverty, including a shameful incidence of child poverty. According to the Combat Poverty Agency, poor children have been found to be at a threefold risk of social exclusion from schools, their peers and social-cultural norms. As well as immediate social costs, poverty generates long-term economic costs in terms of low productivity, more unemployment and additional social provision. This problem needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency. Although the Minister has pledged to work on the issue, he must place it at the top of his agenda if those living in poverty, who are among the most vulnerable in society, are to be helped.
The Minister referred to his commitment to carers. I am committed to the work done by carers and praise them for the unselfish manner in which they dedicate their time and resources to caring for people. Carers save the Exchequer a fortune and more must be done for them. While the grant introduced last year will help, more needs to be done. We must recognise the role played by carers and ensure they are adequately resourced to continue their valuable work. The Minister should respond immediately to the call by the Carers Association for a national strategy for carers.
The means test for carers must be abolished. The Minister will claim he does not have sufficient money in the coffers to fund such a measure but they have never been so full. In light of the recent wastage of vast amounts of taxpayers' money by the Government, it is disgraceful that carers are being treated so harshly. The Government pays lip service to carers. It would cost the taxpayer in excess of €1,000 per week to care for somebody in a residential care setting, yet those willing to provide full-time care for a loved one in their homes, a preferable scenario for the person in care, are paid a pittance of an allowance which is means-tested before they obtain it. The treatment of carers does not make economic sense and is certainly not moral or just.
More than half of full-time carers are effectively ignored and left to make ends meet on their own. This is disgraceful behaviour on the part of the Government and I demand that the Minister take immediate action to remedy the situation rather than spending valuable time on consolidating previous Acts which do not do enough to help those in need. I put it to the Minister, who would have to agree, that the fuel allowance is too small and inadequate for people to survive.
There is the matter of appeals on which I will question the Minister. It takes four months for an appeal to go through. This causes significant trauma and anxiety for the people who are appealing the fact an entitlement is being taken from them.
I spoke to the Minister last year about the anomalies in the Bill, whereby when a carer travels from Ennis with a child under the age of 16, the child is paid a fare allowance and the carer travels free. Surely this is an anomaly which must be addressed.
When a farmer in my constituency, who paid his PRSI contributions on his farm but who in the past ten years took up insurable employment for three weeks, applied for his pension he was told it would be reduced by 50% as a result of having three weeks' insurable employment. That is not right or fair. That man needs to get his entitlements for which he paid on his farm over the past 12 to 15 years.
Where a father and mother who are married and caring in their home for a loved one who has a disability, if the father dies his widow is not entitled to claim carer's allowance despite the fact she enjoyed the allowance when her husband lived. That should be changed.
On child poverty, one need only walk the streets of this city any night to see young lads, who have been tossed out of their homes, sleeping on door steps. What is the Government doing about it? It must be tackled as a matter of urgency.
The Minister is sincere in his efforts to tackle these problems but they must be tackled now, not in the future. I am confident the Minister will tackle them. The money is there, if the will is there.
In the context of the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill I want to raise an issue which has been raised already in the debate but about which I feel strongly. I am not sure whether the Minister knows I have been raising it in written parliamentary questions to him over a number of weeks. Quite a number of very elderly people in my constituency contacted me in the past few weeks to say their fuel allowance was being taken from them. I found this quite incredible, first, because I thought the Minister was attempting to be progressive in his role as Minister for social welfare and, second, like many others I am one of those sick listening to us being told that Ireland is now one of the richest countries in the world. I fail to understand in that context how the Minister could agree to a situation where elderly people who have been in receipt of a fuel allowance for many years and who have grown dependent on that allowance are, through some brilliant initiative within his Department, having that allowance removed.
Over my years in this House I have been involved with the Minister's Department on a number of occasions. I remember being involved with it when there was a major heroin problem — I am sure the Acting Chairman, Deputy Costello, will remember this also — and I was anxious that the social welfare investigation branch would deal with the problem of drug dealers who, while buying houses, going on foreign holidays and having all the trappings of wealth, were collecting social welfare. Unfortunately, the investigation branch of the then Department of Social and Family Affairs on that occasion over a number of years was, perhaps for good reason, lax in its pursuit of heroin dealers. It is only when it was shamed and embarrassed into taking action and, unfortunately, when Veronica Guerin was murdered and the Criminal Assets Bureau was set up, that we got any sort of action. Against that background, it is a bit of a bad joke to have the investigation branch of the Department of Social and Family Affairs busying itself getting lists from Dublin City Council and other local authorities of elderly people in their 80s who happen to have subsidised heating.
In that context, I refer to Dublin City Council because the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which was introduced in response to the drugs crisis provided for co-operation between the city council and the then Department of Social Welfare and other Departments, again to go after serious criminals who were defrauding the Department. It seems, from some of the replies I received on this issue over recent weeks, that the co-operation between the city council and the Department now is aimed at elderly pensioners to take away their fuel allowance.
I find all this quite despicable because people have contacted me directly. These are elderly persons, some of whom are in poor health. They have had — this is, of course, the kernel of the matter — what is called subsidised heating available to them and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, on discovering this dreadful matter, would immediately take steps to remove a fuel allowance from those elderly people who had become dependent on that allowance over many years. I have the replies here. I see the Minister shaking his head. If he wants me to read replies I would be quite happy to do so in specific cases where the fuel allowance has been withdrawn. One elderly woman living in the Ballybough area who had her fuel allowance withdrawn is approximately 80 years of age. In any case, considering the Minister shook his head, I would be delighted to hear, if these people have had their fuel allowance withdrawn, that they will get it back. He might review some of the written parliamentary questions I tabled on their behalf and reinstate their fuel allowance. I will proceed on the basis that their fuel allowance has been removed, however, and just argue the case that whereas to the best of my knowledge the contributory old age pension is €179.30 a week and elderly people living alone would get a living alone allowance of €7.70 a week, the fuel allowance is €12.90. This sum is provided, not all year round but from the end of September to 24 March. Meanwhile, the persons concerned pay €5.84 every week of the year to the city council for their subsidised heating.
The Minister is busy being advised by his officials on this issue but I hope he listens to the case I am making as well as to the case being made by the officials. The case I am making is that it is a totally unnecessary measure to introduce after people have become dependent on an allowance over a number of years and that the people who have been in touch with me are, by and large, local authority tenants who are in schemes that now include some form of subsidised heating.
As the Minister knows, local authority tenants are the poorest people in the State, particularly the elderly. When people get old they feel the limited central heating supplied is inadequate for their needs, perhaps for reasons of age or ill health. They become dependent on electric fires and use them regularly. This is common among the elderly. They pay their bill for the electric fire and, in addition, they pay a subsidy of approximately €6 a week every week of the year on top of their rent for the subsidised heating. In these circumstances, a dependancy on the fuel allowance has arisen among these people as a result of being in receipt of it for years.
Furthermore, they pay for the provided heating 52 weeks of the year. To totally remove the fuel allowance is uncalled for. The attitude seems to be, to hell with them, let them pay their supplement for heating 52 weeks of the year out of their meagre old age pension. The message going out is that the State will not help them at all.
This is the message elderly people got when they went to their post offices over the past few weeks. When they were told they would no longer get their fuel allowance they rang me and other public representatives. This has been happening for some weeks. What will people in the wider community think when they hear that the strongest economy in Europe, the richest country in the world, cannot permit these people to hold onto an allowance of €12.90 over the winter months?
I have made an effort to make the case in a reasonable fashion. I feel strongly about this issue, although not half as strongly as the elderly people who have become dependent on the allowance. I hope the Minister takes another look at the issue. To remove the entire allowance in such an arbitrary fashion, thereby giving the impression that the heating needs of these people have been catered for fully and that they do not have to pay, is wrong. The fuel allowance is only payable for a few months of the year, yet these people pay a subsidy for 52 weeks of the year towards their heating.
Elderly people form the poorer sector of society, many would be in ill health and they need to use electric fires in the bedroom or sitting room to which they are more or less confined 24 hours a day. The Minister is a reasonable public representative — I have never had any reason to believe otherwise — and I hope he will look at the issue again in the context of what I have said. He should check the number of people who were in receipt of a fuel allowance over the past number of years but who have been told in the past few weeks that they will no longer get it.
I have raised a number of cases of people who have been rejected with the Department. I raised the case of one elderly woman from the Ballybough area who did not get her fuel allowance a few weeks ago and was informed in a written reply that she had subsidised heating and would not get it. Tough luck was the general gist of the reply. I find this unchristian, unnecessary and wrong. I ask the Minister to look at the issue again.
I thank Deputies for a fine debate. I had the pleasure of hearing all of it and greatly appreciate the contributions made. There is much expert advice available in the social welfare area and much research has been done, but it is particularly interesting to listen to Deputies who have people come to their clinics week in and out with real on-the-ground problems.
I have taken careful note of what Deputies have said, something I believe necessary. We are all at the coalface. I hold a clinic also and people come to me with their bits of paper from my Department to show me the replies they have received and the details of the schemes. This is not a platitude. I mean it sincerely that the experiences Deputies have on the ground in the welfare area are critical to the job I am trying to do. I acknowledge that and thank Deputies for sharing their experience.
As Deputy Gregory is in the House I will address the matter he just raised. I will review the situation and have a close look at the issue — I had a meeting on the matter in the past few days.
Reviews take place regularly in the Department. An area is selected every so often and all applicants for the scheme in question are examined to see if there is any duplication or overlap. The reviewers came across 237 individuals in receipt of the fuel allowance who were also in the subsidised——
This is not the Ansbacher list but elderly people in corporation accommodation.
It is not, but if the Deputy has that list, I would not mind looking at it. The 237 individuals identified were in receipt of fuel allowance as well as being on subsidised heating. There are approximately 4,000 people in receipt of subsidised heating from the city council and the 237 found were also in receipt of fuel allowance. That was an error. Under the law of the land — criticise it as the Deputy will and seek changes as is his duty — the regulations are that this group is not entitled to a fuel allowance. They pay approximately €6.50 a week towards heating to the city council. The fuel is supplied and paid for and these people are not affected by, for example, the recent quite enormous upsurge in oil prices. Successive Ministers never intended that this group would qualify for the fuel allowance because fuel is supplied — the price of oil does not affect its price — and members pay €6.50 a week towards it.
When the Department review group did the trawl, it found that 237 out of the 4,000 in the group had been receiving the allowance in error. As I understand it, those people were informed the error could not continue and would have to be corrected. The people in question were told there was no question of having to pay back the money——
Maybe the Minister would have sent them to jail.
I must deal with the law as it is. The recipients were told that from the start of the next season the error would not be continued. I suppose there are a number of ways out of it. We cannot continue to pay all 237 people without paying the 4,000 other people. We cannot tell the 237 people in question that they can keep the allowance because they got it in error, but the people down the corridor will not get the allowance because they have never been in receipt of it. Deputy Gregory knows as well as I do that we could not do that. It has been suggested that we pay the allowance to all 4,000 people and amend the regulations accordingly. That is an expensive proposition that will be considered in a budgetary context.
I regret that 237 people in various local authority complexes have to endure this change. I have instructed my officials to contact the people in question and to give them every possible support. It is not open to me to restore the fuel allowance to the 237 people without offering the scheme across the board. I take the Deputy's point that such an explanation is not of much assistance to the 237 people who were getting the allowance for a long time before it was suddenly withdrawn from them. I will examine the matter again to see how it can be sorted out. While I do not want the 237 people in question to suffer, I must take cognisance of the fact that they erroneously received an allowance to which they were not legally entitled. They were protected against increases in fuel prices in any case because fuel was being supplied to them. I have outlined the current circumstances. I invite Deputy Gregory to suggest a neater solution than the extension of the fuel allowance scheme to people who are in receipt of fuel. As that does not seem like a sensible route, I would like to be convinced of a better route. I am not in the business of annoying 237 individuals who find it hard enough to live without such interference. I will do what I can to be of assistance to them. I have listened to Deputy Gregory's comments and I will examine the matter.
It is worth taking a broader view of this legislation, which is the first social welfare consolidation measure since 1993. I am glad the House is giving this Bill, which contains nothing new, a speedy passage. I thank the officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs who worked so hard on this fearsomely difficult and tedious consolidation process. I have seen the blood, sweat and tears of the experts who have advised us as part of this awesome task. The House should acknowledge that this legislation will consolidate in a single Act all the changes made to the social welfare code since 1993. The consolidated legislation will be very useful for Deputies and customers alike.
According to the Central Statistics Office, over the last decade inflation has run at approximately 32%, gross industrial earnings have grown by 68% and social welfare rates have increased by almost 82%. Every effort has been made to ensure that social welfare rates have stayed well ahead of inflation and the increases in gross industrial earnings. It is obvious that we have a distance to travel in that regard. The thresholds used in the risk of poverty indicator have increased by approximately 140%. A fair effort has been made to increase social welfare rates.
A number of Deputies, including Deputy Paul McGrath, expressed strong feelings about the child dependant allowance. As I have said previously, the Government continues to pursue a deliberate policy of concentrating on child benefit, rather than tackling the child dependant allowance. I listen carefully to the views of groups like the Combat Poverty Agency, which recently made a presentation to me on the matter. There is a growing view that I should re-examine the child dependant allowance in the context of tacking child poverty, to which we are all committed. I will certainly do that. Deputies are aware that I am committed to trying to bring together the child dependant allowance and the family income supplement to create a new second-tier child benefit allowance, aimed at the bottom 10% or 20% of low-income families, after I have received the final report of the National Economic and Social Forum on the matter. If we can bring the allowance and the supplement together, as we are trying to do every day, there might then be a case for a re-evaluation of the Government's policy on child dependant allowance, as an interim measure. Such a change will only be made in the context of the creation of a new second-tier allowance.
Deputy Ring asked about the inclusion of mobile telephones under the free schemes. His assertion about the telephone allowance was broadly correct. I am anxious that those who are entitled to the allowance should be allowed to claim it in respect of mobile telephones or land lines, depending on which they prefer. I do not intend at this stage to allow people to acquire mobile telephones in addition to land lines under the scheme. I am satisfied that it is appropriate to allow the fixed-rate allowance that is available at present to be used in either case. We have been making some progress in this regard.
Deputy Durkan was anxious to emphasise the importance of carers. He will be aware that the long-term care working group, chaired by officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and involving officials from other Departments, particularly the Department of Health and Children, was established on foot of the Mercer report. Significant improvements have been made to the carer's allowance and, particularly, the carer's benefit schemes. The Deputy asked me to consider the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs that carer's allowance be paid in conjunction with widow's or widower's pension. The cost of paying the carer's allowance at half-rate in conjunction with another social welfare payment would be approximately €30 million, which is a significant amount of money. The principle followed at present is that one should receive just one payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I would be reluctant to enter into unknown territory by compounding a primary payment by making a second payment. Deputies are aware that the respite care grant was increased to €1,000 last year. Of the 29,000 people who have been awarded the grant to date, some 5,000 people have benefitted from the enhanced grant arrangements. The Department continues to receive and process application for the grant. I am anxious that the grant be paid to everyone who is entitled to it. The Department has taken some steps to bring the existence of the grant to the attention of carers.
A number of Deputies spoke about rental assistance arrangements, including the rent supplement scheme. I will examine the cases highlighted by Deputy Ring as examples of anomalies in the system. The Department transferred funds of €19 million last year from the rental assistance scheme to support a new scheme being organised by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am anxious for that Department to accept more responsibility in the housing area because the short-term rental allowance was never meant to be a permanent means of meeting housing need. The allowance is a short-term measure, at best. The provision of proper housing needs to be the long-term solution to housing problems.
Deputy Durkan asked me about the effect on immigrants of the habitual residence requirement, which is under review in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This is a sensitive area, as Deputies are aware. While we are anxious to be fair to everyone who comes to our shores, we cannot have a completely open-door policy in respect of social welfare. We need to strike a balance, as other EU member states have done. Ireland's welfare stipulations, as they relate to immigrants, are probably more lenient than those of most other EU member states. That said, I am particularly conscious of the need to consider the effects of our policies on children. We take a much more lenient view in respect of child benefit as it applies to immigrants. This entire area is being kept under review. There is no hard and fast two-year rule in this regard. A number of matters are taken into account when decisions are made about applicants, including the length and continuity of their residence in a particular place, the length and purpose of their absence from Ireland, the nature and pattern of their employment, their main centre of interest and their future intentions in respect of this country. Full consideration has been given to all those issues. It is not accurate to suggest it is simply a black and white two-year rule or that a person is out of the net if he or she does not meet the two-year rule. Other measures are as important as the two-year rule in making a decision.
I have dealt with the issue of child poverty, which was raised by a number of Deputies. It is very much on our agenda, especially in respect of the child dependant allowance.
Deputy O'Connor referred to child care. It is important we do not let it become only a middle class or middle income issue and that we do not only see it in the context of people who commute, pay large mortgages and place their children in child care. Some 70,000 to 80,000 lone parents, most of whom are not middle income earners, as well as the many who choose to stay at home for various reasons, must also be considered. I would not like it to become a mark of our 21st century progress that we would spend significant amounts of money on child care.
I warn Members, including those on this side of the House, that if we decide in the next 18 months to turn child care into an electoral auction, all of us will regret it. It is a complicated, sensitive area. We need to work through solutions with some urgency and ensure child care applies to all sections of society. Members may plan to outbid each other in the next 18 months, some saying they will give €1 billion, some €2 billion, another promising tax breaks and another promising to make child care universal because all the children of the nation must be treated equally. However, if we go down that road, we will regret it. There is no major political advantage for anybody in doing this.
Deputies Healy and Catherine Murphy referred to the fuel allowance, which is between €9 to €12 and has not increased for many years. The reason it has not increased is deliberate policy and not because funds were not available. When I came to this post last year, the expert advice to me was to put funding into child benefit and the rates we pay on the different schemes. Last year we gave increases of €14 virtually across the board. However, with regard to the funding for the secondary schemes, whether fuel allowance, telephone allowance, travel allowance, the allowance for the over-80s, the living alone allowance or otherwise, it is necessary to decide whether to spread the funding available by increasing all the allowances, which would leave less funding available to increase the main rate. The increase to the main rate last year would probably have been €11 or €12, not €14, if I had agreed to the requests to increase the secondary benefits.
Members might think it is possible to do both. In reality, it becomes a trade-off. The view taken over the years, not only by me but by almost all my predecessors over the many years the fuel allowance has not increased, was that it was better to give the money directly to the recipient in the main rate. Recipients can then make their own choices on spending rather than the Government deciding this for them by providing a lower main rate while increasing the secondary benefits. That said, fuel is a particular problem this year given the rise in oil prices. In that context, the Minister for Finance and I have agreed to give the matter special consideration.
Deputy Ring wanted vouchers for taxis in areas where access to public transport is difficult, a case that has been made many times. It would be difficult to implement such a policy. It might be better if we worked through the rural transport initiative.
A number of Deputies raised issues with regard to unemployment benefit. I will consider these as we go forward.
Will the Minister comment on the rent allowance?
The Deputy said he dealt with five cases.
I have dealt with five cases so far this week.
I will examine the issue. In recent weeks we put new maximum amounts on rent allowances in an attempt to keep rent prices down. If rents were €600 and we agreed to pay rents up to €800, rents would rise to €800 to match what we would pay. We must be very careful in this market because the rent supplement accounts for 40% of the rental market of the State. When we impose a cap, we must be very careful that it does not result in pulling costs up. I am not sure what effect the changes have had but I will reconsider the matter.
I take the Minister's point but the flip side is the hardship this is causing to some people.
I will reconsider the matter.
I thank the Minister.
The caps were imposed for a good reason. If we pay more, the market will rise. That is why we have tried to hang back.
That is what is causing the problem.
The statistics suggest that rents are mainly static or levelling off. This is probably because of the great number of new apartments being built.
I am simply asking for some leeway to be granted in cases where there is hardship, in particular for those who have received rent allowance for years but are told they will no longer get it, which is particularly difficult for lone parents. Social welfare officers should be given leeway in those cases. I have dealt with five such cases so far this week.
I will get the details of those cases from the Deputy to ascertain what is the problem.
I thank Deputies for their contributions. I will take on board the points made.
In accordance with Standing Order 139, the Bill, with the concurrence of both Houses, will be referred to the Standing Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills. I understand that the motions of referral will be moved shortly.