I was told I was dealing with history. The people who made the decisions back then are still around, unfortunately, and they would be part of any alternative administration. It is important to examine their record. One of the chief strategists from that era was holding forth on the contents of the budget last week. This was the same gentleman who was the chief adviser to the former Democratic Left, Workers Party or Labour Party Minister for Social Welfare who gave the elderly an increase of £1.30. It is far easier to talk about what people should do rather than do it.
I will make a comparison between that former Labour Minister for Social Welfare and his record and that of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, who is currently in the same portfolio. When he was first appointed to this Ministry, we saw evidence of the truth of Edmund Burke's theory that we Irish never speak well of anyone. Before he did any work we were told that he would be a disaster, and that was one of the milder terms used. The Minister's impeccable record in various previous portfolios was ignored. The vision, courage and commitment shown by him in every portfolio was ignored.
This superficial judgment of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, has been proven to be very inaccurate and wide of the mark. This judgment was not confined to Members of this House but was repeated by commentators and others who should have known better and should have bided their time and waited to evaluate his record until after this Social Welfare Bill. Those doubting his commitment will have received the final proof, if further proof were needed, from the recent ESRI report. Deputy Perry referred to other reports, including the OECD report. The ESRI report indicates that the rate of increase for welfare payments is the key driver in ensuring that the poorest 20% of our society gains seven times as much from the budget as the richest 20% of the population. This is a tribute to the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen.
I am delighted the Minister has been a success as Minister for Social and Family Affairs and I am confident the social welfare recipients are even happier. They are the chief beneficiaries of his commitment to the less well-off, children and the elderly. Comparison is the only way to show a fair picture of the achievements of the Government regarding its treatment of the elderly, its support for families and its treatment of the less well-off. The results are the same by reference to any of the issues or to the global programme. There is much higher expenditure and higher percentage increases of a multiple of the rate of inflation in all benefits.
Deputy Crawford referred to 1988. I have been accused of going back in history, but he pointed out that in 1988 a Fianna Fáil Minister gave pro rata pensions and mixed contribution pensions. The Department of Finance at the time said this was not practical, but Fianna Fáil gave those pensions. Deputy Crawford has complained that the rate is still only 50%, but he has blithely ignored the fact that while his party was in office from 1993 to 1997, nothing was nothing done about the matter. That was the time when they should have done something about it. He also referred to the carer’s allowances and complaints made about it. This Administration introduced the concept of a carer’s allowance, to which it has added steadily, and improved the attaching conditions in each budget and Social Welfare Bill. I am pleased, as I am sure every Member is, by this. We must give credit where it is due and praise when bridges are crossed. I do not wish to deal in clichés all the time, but I am concerned about a number of clichéd statements trotted out, on which I will comment.
The overall spend of €13.5 billion will benefit 1.5 million people. This sum is probably too large for us to get a meaningful picture. However, when we consider that the level of expenditure this year is double what it was in 2000, we get a fairer picture and some idea of the improvement made in the past couple of years. We should continue this as far as possible. When the overall spend is broken down into its component parts, the picture becomes clearer.
Some innovative measures, including, for example, a €28 million package for new opportunities and activation measures, were discussed during the years. If, for example, we want a tapered withdrawal of disability allowance for those returning to employment or back to work incentives, this package has been provided for in the Bill. A €30 million package has been provided for the support of carers, including an increase in rates and better respite allowances, a matter talked about previously. This is a significant package. As many of the packages provided for are lost in the whole, we need to break down the figure of €13.5 billion to get the full picture. A €150 million package is provided for to alleviate child poverty. This is in addition to the increased child benefit payments and will provide for extra benefits for low income families, an increase in family income supplement and back to school allowances.
Deputy Perry mentioned the figure of one in five at risk of poverty. I would like a debate on the issue in the House in order to ask the Minister how this figure is measured. So far, I have discovered five formulas for measuring poverty levels from five sources. I have been particularly concerned during the years about children in households with adequate finance which is spent unwisely, either on drink or other substances. Regardless of how much financial assistance we provide in such cases, the problem will continue. We must examine and deal with this issue. We need to establish criteria for measuring poverty levels in order that we can identify those who are less well off and, in particular, those at risk. We can then cater for them through providing the extra help they need. Having five groups measuring poverty levels, each coming up with different facts and figures, is no help, particularly to those who are suffering.
In addition to the €42 million fuel poverty package and the increase in pensions for older people, a separate €50 million support package is provided for the support of older people. This represents a breakthrough. The extra money will allow for an improved position in this category. However, there are other categories for which we need to cater, but the Government has taken the initiative and will use the moneys collected from the taxpayer to help those in need.
I wish to refer briefly to the programmes screened on television during the summer recess in which we were told how stupid we were to be paying so much in tax. The Minister laid it on the line when he said he had given €2 billion to older people, a further €2 billion to younger children and more to the less well-off and others and asked which portion people wanted him to cut off? We should have more discussion of how we use taxpayer's money. If we introduce innovative measures such as those mentioned and those who need help can see this happening, the people will be quite happy to pay their taxes. They are happy to pay when the money goes to the proper source. The greatest level of support for any Department is provided for the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It must continue to be innovative in the distribution of its resources and taxpayer's money.
As a founding trustee of a local pre-school and family support centre, set up over 20 years ago in my parish of Togher in Cork, I spent many years fighting the Southern Health Board for support. Although I chaired that august body for a time, it still took me years to have a budget heading introduced within the health board system for five family centres in Cork. It is for this reason I feel an innovative approach is needed. The ad hoc granting of funds, with money dribbling into schemes now and then when problems arise, is not adequate. Centres such as these need a specific budget to allow volunteers get on with their work. I can confirm that every single euro spent by the centres has been paid back one hundredfold to society. The reason I raise this matter is to point out that it should not have taken that long to secure a formal financial footing and that we must be more receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things to help solve the difficulties we face, particularly when people bring forward proposals to try to help themselves.
The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has shown a genuine willingness to meet and listen to people. I compliment him on adopting this approach. This gives the lie to those who claimed he would have no interest in his job. It is accepted that he has, but it was unfair to suggest he would not be interested before he began his work. I ask him to address the anomalies that crop up in all schemes and on which departmental personnel often give a rigid response. The bureaucrats involved must be less rigid. This may mean they require flexibility in legislation. This should be taken into account in future legislation.
I am concerned about electronic payments and how they affect people. I am dealing with a case of a widow in receipt of disability benefit. She suffered a family bereavement and was suffering from depression. She was invited to the United States by a relative who wanted to help get her back on her feet. Being an honest person, the lady concerned applied to have her money drawn down weekly. She was told she should notify the Department, but when she filled in the form and sent it off, her payment was disallowed for all but two weeks of the benefit payments due to her, even though she was certified as suffering from depression. Had she signed on to receive payment of her allowance electronically, she would have had no problem. If she had not bothered to inform the Department what she was doing, she would have had no bother. She could have taken five or six approaches without encountering a problem, but because she did the correct thing, departmental officials said the rules must be followed and that they could do nothing for her. I will recommend her to approach the Ombudsman and hope this will work for her. It is blackguarding that she was deprived of money she needed to pay her way and keep her house going.
This side of the House has consistently argued that the best way for people to benefit is to have a job. Cork City Council has produced an economic monitor report several times a year for the past 20 years or so. I was glad to read in this month's version that in February 1997, the month before we returned to this side of the House, the unemployment figure in Cork was 21,294. By this September it had decreased to 9,771. This is proof positive that our programmes are working. This happened against the backdrop of a massive increase in employment generally and an increase in the benefits that have been made available. The ultimate aim of providing benefits is to ensure people have a well paid livelihood and are treated fairly.
Over the years, each Member present has spoken about a number of specific issues pertaining to social welfare, including those concerning the elderly. In this regard, we have increased the pension and are heading for the target of €200. I am sure we will have to exceed this quite substantially next year. I hope we will achieve this.
Reference was made to children and families at risk because of a lack of finance, particularly where a family member is working. The Minister's increases to the family income supplement were a reaction not only to his knowledge of the issues that arise in this regard but also to the points made by spokespersons of the various parties.
The issue of carers first arose some years ago and we found there were 150,000 full-time carers in receipt of no benefits or recognition. A lady from Clare got the bandwagon rolling, almost on her own, and those of us who signed up to support the campaign and those who have joined since welcome what is happening. We will continue to welcome it. The issue of supplying money to carers to look after elderly people at home is very closely linked to this matter, but not all carers are looking after the elderly. However, the Minister has picked up on this very sensitive issue.
Children at risk were referred to and in this regard the Minister has tried to target those affected. We all accept the critical importance of targeted funding and the Minister has targeted funding into the areas where it is most needed.
I am sure I am speaking for the spokespersons of each of the parties in complimenting the Minster, Deputy Brennan, who is one of my own. As somebody who came new to his current brief, he has picked up the ball very quickly and has achieved a great deal in 18 months. I compliment him on the Bill and commend it to the House.