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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Dec 2005

Vol. 612 No. 3

Social Welfare Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I will continue where I left off last night. The family income supplement is a benefit to those on low pay within the system, but it is not available to the self-employed. With all the supermarkets setting up and leaving small shopkeepers and others on low income, or even forcing them out of business, the FIS should be extended to the self-employed. Their books are acceptable to the Revenue Commissioners so their need of supplementary income should also be acceptable.

The idea that there would be an increase in the take up of the pharmacy scheme has also been on the go for several years. We were originally told that 40,000 would be on the scheme and later we were told that there would only be 20,000. The reality is that there are only around 8,000 on this scheme at any given time. Farm organisations stated that it should be at least twice that number. Unfortunately, there is a fear among farmers to apply for it. There seems to be an attitude among some social welfare officers — I emphasise that it is only some officers — who think that farmers should not be entitled to it.

Both the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach have mentioned the situation regarding old age non-contributory pensioners. I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for the change that allows them to earn some income without being cut. We must go back to the actions of the former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern. He brought in the half rate pension for those who had contributed for five years or more under the scheme introduced in April 1988. Those people could not pay the full ten years because they were too old at the time. Whenever Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and I tried to get the pension to be pro rata we were assured that such would be the case. In reality, when it was introduced the rate was only 50%. The Minister admits that these people have served the country well through the years and are entitled to a fair share. I urge him at this late stage to look at that. The amount of money would not be that big because some people would have paid for six years. Some people would have paid for the full ten years, but they were born a few days before 1 April of a certain year and they were not eligible to get the full contributory old age pension. Instead of getting 90% or 80%, they get 50%. These people wanted to pay but because of their age, they could not.

Other Deputies have referred to the fact that there has been a substantial increase in maternity benefit and maternity leave. Why is there no paternity benefit? It is one of the things that keeps me from doing anything like that, because one needs to be sure it is available before one does anything.

I knew that was the reason.

Other issues must be looked at as well. Deputy Keaveney mentioned the issue of people working in FÁS. Surely anyone over 55 should be allowed to remain on a FÁS scheme until he or she reaches the age of retirement. It is a good organisation which has served both rural and urban communities well. People should be allowed to work, regardless of the number of years there, once they have reached a certain age.

In the previous budget the Minister said he would be giving out respite grants of €9 million to those not already on carer's allowance. The reality is that less than €6 million has been paid. That indicates there is some money available in that area and the entire carer situation needs to be reviewed. The means test has been slightly increased, but there are still seriously ill people who require full-time care. Daughters, daughters-in-law and whatever must stay at home and look after them. I know the carer's benefit exists, but the situation is much the same in that regard.

I took a phone call a short time ago from a woman in my constituency whose husband was forced to work more overtime because of work practice changes. She has been reassessed for carer's allowance and cut off because of his overtime. She feels very aggrieved.

I welcome the increased funding for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. In spite of all the talk about the Celtic tiger and the country rolling in money, a vulnerable group still exists comprising not just people on social welfare but middle income groups as well. They are being hit by high costs for houses, cars and, perhaps, furniture on loan. The people in MABS inform me that many such people are now coming to them for help. It is therefore very important that MABS should be looked after.

A woman told me at the weekend that a community welfare officer had come to the house to see what food she had for herself and her three children before giving her €50. That is how serious some situations are. In general, I welcome the increases. A major step forward has been made over recent years. However, we need to ensure that the regulations allow for hardship cases wherever they arise.

I am delighted to speak on this very important Bill. Given that the budget has allocated €12 billion to the Department, obviously it has a major responsibility in helping families and those on low incomes. That is the essence of public service for those in need, especially those in receipt of old age pensions and social welfare, those affected by child and family poverty, and carers. That is the critical mass to be addressed. Many of those in receipt of weekly social welfare payments are on old age and related pensions. This is a major Department and an enormous amount of money is involved.

To get equity into the system, it is important to assess those most in need and decide how best to deal with the new poor in the economy. Deputy Crawford has spoken about carers. Governments have always striven to give increased benefits to carers of older people in particular and in this regard the home care package is very important and good value for money. The costs of keeping people in nursing homes are enormous, even allowing for subvention rates. Families often must come up with hundreds of euro, but in many instances they could cope if they were given an increased subvention to look after elderly parents at home. This could be easily regulated through the Health Service Executive.

The nursing home subvention is important. What is very unfair about it, however, is the wide variation in subvention rates. In Sligo, for example, it is €190 while in Dublin it can be €450. This is unfair from the viewpoint of people who operate nursing homes because costs are quite similar in many respects. Will the Minister indicate why there are different rates of subvention? If a patient is fortunate enough to get a place in a nursing home in Dublin, the family might have only to pay €200. The same family would have to find €500 for a nursing home place in Sligo. The difference is difficult to explain to nursing home operators and it is clearly not equitable.

As for other social welfare measures, the increase in the fuel scheme from €9 to €14 is welcome even though another anomaly has arisen with ESB bills. A woman told me last week her ESB bill was €108. It contained a VAT element of €14, so perhaps the Minister might look at a derogation of VAT on ESB bills for people on pensions and living alone. The fact that this VAT is not reclaimable and that it is 13.5% means it is yet another element of tax.

An enhanced carer's allowance rate of €200 a week for people aged 66 and over and €180 for those under 66 is welcome. The area of caring for people at home needs to be looked at, however. The State can get great value for money.

One of the tax incentives to be retained relates to the building of nursing homes and private hospitals. An obligation should be imposed on such ventures to provide sufficient public places as well at a fixed rate. In some cases such facilities can be very exclusive. The State should ensure that the equivalent of Part V of the Planning and Development Act which deals with affordable housing is put in place for such projects to ensure that an agreed number of public beds is facilitated. This would mean an integration of patients as well and this is to be encouraged. Availability in some of the privately built nursing homes is primarily targeted at VHI patients. If they were obliged to give 25% to the State for public beds that would ensure balance.

Caring for older people is certainly the most important issue of all and the five-year child care strategy is also crucial. I compliment Deputy Stanton on all the work he has done in this area on behalf of Fine Gael. He has clearly identified enormous issues, many of which have been incorporated into this budget. The strategy for the development of child care facilities in every town and region while encouraging people to mind people at home are examples. I see, however, that where one's income is in excess of €10,000, all of it will be taxed. That is unfair. Tax should be levied only on the income in excess of €10,000. If the facility is catering for three children, that is approximately €65 per child per week, equivalent to considerably less than the minimum wage. This situation should be re-examined.

Ireland has many voluntary groups who do fantastic work in our communities. Such voluntary groups offer support to people and create awareness of specific issues. As legislators we need to be constantly aware of the concerns of voluntary groups. We have many such groups in Sligo-Leitrim. For example, the Sligo Social Services Council has the worthy aim of promoting the justice, equality and dignity of all human beings.

Almost one in five people in Ireland are at risk of poverty and those people are living in households where the income is less than 60% of the national income. The most vulnerable people are most at risk. A massive 48% of lone parents are at risk of poverty and 36% of people living alone are also at risk. Almost 7% of Irish people are consistently poor and 47% of people who are ill or disabled are at risk of poverty.

The Celtic tiger has been beneficial in many ways but many people missed out. The Minister is doing a good job. His Department has a huge budget. As Deputy Crawford said, MABS plays an important role by helping people to manage their finances. The Sligo branch of MABS has been very effective. Sligo social services do a very good job. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is very active in the region. I compliment all on the good work. Voluntary groups are needed in every constituency and voluntarism is to be commended.

Figures released by the CSO show that the highest level of poverty is to be found in the Border, midlands and western areas. This runs contrary to the development of a booming economy. One in four people in the north west are at risk from poverty. The welfare package in the budget incorporates significant facilities such as caring for the elderly and the very young, both critical groups.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I agree with Deputy Perry on the importance of the Bill. I am glad I am not an Opposition Deputy when it comes to this Bill and the budget because it would be a difficult job. I am confident my colleagues opposite will do their best to muddy the waters, so to speak, because that is their job.

No, the Deputies opposite did it all themselves.

I note a new pattern continuing from last year whereby votes on the budget are avoided, as was the case last Wednesday. This is unprecedented but it probably indicates a certain strength in the budget in that it is difficult to argue against it.

There has been a disturbing effort by the Opposition to avoid discussion in the House on the budget. I regard this as a worrying trend. The Members opposite will forgive me if I refer occasionally to their time in office, purely for comparison purposes. The only way the effectiveness and the benefit of this budget can be measured is by reference to the past.

Deputy Crawford is usually a man who is a rock of common sense, but last night he scolded some of my colleagues who had spoken earlier in the day for, as he said, going on about the good things in the Bill. I suggest the Deputy should get real, so to speak. A total of 1.5 million people have benefited from the greatest package ever in the history of the State and, according to the Deputy, we are not supposed to talk about it. He carried on nit-picking, but I am sorry to break the sad news in his absence that I will continue along the same lines.

The only way to measure the contents is by comparison. I refer to the most recent Cabinet in which the Opposition participated and compare it with this Government's achievements, particularly with reference to the budget and this Bill. As Deputy Perry stated, these are the main issues for the year. When I made such comparisons in the past, I was shouted at on one or two occasions and that upset me——

This is pointless. The Deputy should come up to date.

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.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill 2005. I compliment the Minister on the various improvements he has made through the Bill on foot of the budget. We must acknowledge that he has had available to him the greatest amount of money available to a Minister in his position in the history of the State. There was a surplus of nearly €2 billion when the Minister for Finance set about preparing his budget. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs had a number of issues to deal with and in this context he must be complimented.

Serious consideration must be given to people living in poverty. Some 17% are in this category, which highlights the emergence of the working poor. It is important that we consider some of the Minister's statements on the budget and this Bill regarding child poverty. The reality is that between 60,000 and 120,000 children are affected in some way by poverty which could blight their lives and sow the seeds for a serious lack of labour development. The Minister referred to this. On the problems faced by lone parents, he said the 86,000 lone parents and their children, numbering up to 150,000, are especially vulnerable and at high risk of poverty.

We must return to the issue of pensions. Pensioners need to have enough money to live on when they finish their working lives. While not much credence was given to this in the Bill, I look forward to discussing and dealing with it in the future.

The fuel allowance has been increased to €14 but the basic fuel allowance for senior citizens is €9 per week and has not been increased since 2002. As practising politicians, we know the reality that domestic electricity prices have increased by nearly 44% since 2002 and that heating oil is approximately 20% more expensive now than it was this time last year. The current allowance barely covers the cost of a small bag of coal which would heat a house for two or three days per week at most. This must be borne in mind. It is in the context of the increases in energy costs that we must consider the increase in the fuel allowance. I am disappointed it has not been doubled. Perhaps the Minister will respond to this.

Let me deal with the issue of rent allowance and the need to afford people the opportunity to make the transition from welfare to work. While dealing with the Social Welfare Bill 2004 and the recent consolidation Bill in the House, I brought this to the attention of the Minister. He has endeavoured to take on board, where practical, and amend, where necessary, many of the suggestions we made on this side of the House, but if we are truly to afford people the opportunity to leave the social welfare system for work, we must acknowledge one of the main problems that exists in society, namely, the lack of housing. The supplementary welfare allowance, which afforded people in need of housing an opportunity to obtain rent supplement, was devastated by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, as part of her vicious 16 cuts. There have been slight amendments to the allowance but they do not go far enough.

In the past people tended to be married but other forms of relationship now exist. This needs to be acknowledged. While it has been referred to time and again by the Minister, he might indicate to the House when he envisages a detailed response from the Department to deal with the issue. As I stated previously, people working full-time but living on low income are ineligible for a rent supplement at a time when fewer and fewer social houses are being built by local authorities. This creates a major problem. Couples will separate and others will claim they are not living together when they are only doing so because if they acknowledge the true position, their rent supplement will be taken away. It is not good enough. The issue must be dealt with and I hope the Minister will consider it in a positive manner.

I referred to deserted wife's benefit in the context of the consolidation Bill. I was pleased that the Minister had acknowledged the anomalies with regard to entitlement and given a commitment to deal with them. Section 10 of the Bill makes reference to the status quo. I hope it will enable the Minister to make changes by regulation. However, as an anomaly arises, I intend to propose a Report Stage amendment for the Minister’s consideration. The earnings bands for deserted wife’s benefit were introduced in 1992 when the full personal rate was £60.50 per week. The bands were never changed, even following the changeover to the euro. The reduced rates of payment were set at 80%, 60%, 40% and 20% of the full rate. This has led to an anomaly whereby, as a person crosses over an earnings threshold, she loses more than she gains. The loss increases with each budget.

The current position following the 2006 budget for the aggregate of reckonable income and reckonable earnings is as follows. For earnings below €12,698, which would qualify one for the full rate, the weekly rate in 2005 was €154.30. The weekly rate in 2006 will be €171.30. Where earnings exceed €12,698 but do not exceed €13,968, the weekly rate in 2005 was €123.40. The weekly rate in 2006 will be €137. Where earnings exceed €13,968 but do not exceed €15,237, the weekly rate in 2005 was €92.60. The weekly rate in 2006 will be €102.80. Where earnings exceed €15,237 but do not exceed €16,507, the weekly rate in 2005 is €61.70. The weekly rate in 2006 will be €68.50. Where earnings exceed €16,507 but do not exceed €17,777, the weekly rate in 2005 was €30.90. The weekly rate in 2006 will be €34.30. Therefore, following the 2006 budget, for each €1,270 gross a woman earns per annum, her payment is cut by approximately €1,784 per annum. It might be argued that assurances given to recipients in 1992 that their existing entitlements would be preserved — that was the commitment given — would favour indexing of the bands in line with the consumer price index.

The Minister might, at least, as an interim measure to eliminate these anomalies, consider the following changes to the bands. Where earnings are below €15,000, which would qualify one for the full rate, the weekly rate should be €171.30. Where earnings exceed €15,000 but do not exceed €18,000, the weekly rate should be €137. Where earnings exceed €18,000 but do not exceed €21,000, the weekly rate should be €102.80. Where earnings exceed €21,000 but do not exceed €24,000, the weekly rate should be €68.50. Where earnings exceed €24,000 but do not exceed €27,000, the weekly rate should be €34.30. This minor measure, while eliminating anomalies in the short term, would still not restore deserted wife's benefit recipients to the position that obtained in 1992 as it does not take into account the rate of inflation. As the numbers in receipt of this payment are small and the number with earnings smaller, the Minister might consider abolishing the earnings bands altogether. The payment comes from the social insurance fund. The Minister suggested that if I had any ideas in this regard, I should express them and I have done so.

Some of my colleagues brought a further anomaly to my attention. They were supported by an e-mail I received last week with the following suggestion for deserted wife's benefit. Given the increase in carer's benefit, could a deserted wife's benefit recipient change to carer's benefit for a few years and then return to deserted wife's benefit when the person being cared for dies or needs nursing home care? At present this option is not available. A difficulty arises where a woman changes from deserted wife's benefit to carer's benefit while looking after a person in need of care. When the person receiving care dies, where does the carer stand with regard to her benefit? I acknowledge that slight improvements for carers have been introduced in the Bill. I support the welcome increase in the respite care grant, which was increased by €200 from €1,000.

In summing up the Minister may be able to indicate how many additional carers will be in receipt of the carer's allowance as a result of the changes. The Carers Association indicated that perhaps an extra couple of hundred will be in receipt of the carer's allowance. Considering the number of people who have provided invaluable work and service to look after loved ones, a specific commitment of the all-party committee under the chairmanship of my colleague, Deputy Penrose, in bringing out the report on carers, was to press for the abolition of the means test for carer's allowance.

Notwithstanding the actions of the Minister and some of his Government colleagues, there is a specific commitment as far as the Labour Party is concerned. If and when our party gets back into Government after the next election, we will bring about a substantial change of the mind set that seems to exist within the Department and with various Ministers.

If the Labour Party gets into Government.

We must acknowledge the role of carers throughout the length and breadth of the country. I acknowledge that certain progress has been made, but I am not convinced the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, has the commitment to go all the way and eliminate the means test for carers' allowance.

In this context, we have one of the richest countries in the world. The Minister has had much money available, and he has received a disproportionate share from the Minister for Finance in the last budget. Given the existing poverty and our record on combatting poverty, we cannot become complacent. We must get stronger, as the people we look after do not always have the strength and opportunity to represent themselves. Our test as parliamentarians is how we deal with the most vulnerable in our society. The Minister has gone some of the way, but more has to be done.

I thought Deputy Seán Ryan was about to state "A lot done, more to do", but he missed his chance. I hope it is not just the impending Christmas that is cheering the Opposition. It seems reasonably happy and I am pleased to see that. As I probably will not get an opportunity tomorrow, I wish all my colleagues a happy Christmas. I will, as always, spend my Christmas in Tallaght. I hope my colleagues have a good time.

I congratulate the Minister on the work he has done. Many speakers from the Opposition have also congratulated him. I am on record stating my belief that Deputy Brennan has revolutionised the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the short time he has been there. He is doing a superb job. Colleagues on the Opposition benches acknowledge this. The Minister listens. I am the secretary of the Fianna Fáil policy group on social and family affairs, and the Minister met us on many occasions, not only leading up to this budget but in the time since he took office as Minister. He has listened to concerns and views expressed to him. Many of the Minister's efforts regarding the announcements following the budget reflect what he heard from backbenchers, and not only from within the Fianna Fáil party.

I pay tribute to Deputy Penrose, as others have, and this is not merely in the Christmas spirit. Deputy Penrose is an excellent Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, and he is fair to members, as I would expect. I will not make a quip about lost Labour Party leaders as I may upset Deputy Rabbitte, but I notice the Sunday Independent stated this with regard to Deputy Penrose. The Deputy has been keen to support everything the members say at committee level. He has been a particularly strong advocate for carers and their needs. I am happy and privileged to support him in that.

I am pleased that much progress has been made on this issue. The Minister has considered the matter of carers and although there will always be more to do, the Minister has acknowledged this. The Minister is spending approximately €13.5 billion this year, and he has done his best. He has considered what is required and made superb efforts.

I did not have a chance to speak last week in the budget debate because of the pressure of the day and because it was important to allow ministerial colleagues to make important announcements.

Along with junior Ministers.

Yes. I am a strong supporter of all the junior Ministers, especially the Minister of State in my constituency, Deputy Conor Lenihan.

The Deputy may be one yet. Where is his constituency?

I am under pressure today as Deputy Conor Lenihan is abroad and I have to work even harder than usual. I am happy to do this.

It was good to hear people being positive about last week's budget. There will always be a need to make political points and I have no difficulty with this. People have generally been very fair to what was a good budget. The media made that point, and I even heard RTE stating it was a good budget, so it must be true. I was pleased the Government considered the needs of the elderly and those in the child care area. The various social welfare announcements were particularly welcome and helpful.

In any debate such as this, we should be prepared to make points about tweaking the system. All of us will be visited by constituents making some point every day of every month. It is in this way we often hear for the first time about an issue regarding how the system is working. I made the point on many occasions that since I became a Deputy three and a half years ago, I get far more social welfare queries than I did before, despite my having been in the local authority for a long period. That people come to their Dáil representatives to raise these issues reflects the confidence people have in the system. It is a good process as we may not only try to deal with the needs and difficulties of constituents on an ongoing basis with the Department, but we can raise these needs in policy discussions also.

On many different occasions in social welfare debates we made the point about the excellent way in which the Department of Social and Family Affairs deals with queries. I have no complaint about the Department as it does a superb job. It is important to understand that it is vital that good quick responses are made. Very often, people coming to us at our clinics and offices are those who are vulnerable and under pressure. With the current numbers availing of the services of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it is important to acknowledge the good job being done.

I hope the Minister will continue to examine avenues to satisfy this particular appetite. Where the system is not working for people, I hope he ensures that the Department will listen, respond and deal with the issues. In Tallaght we have a superb facility at the social welfare office in the Square. It is probably one of the most modern of its kind here and it provides an excellent service. If the Minister can find some time early in the New Year I will be happy to show him around Tallaght.

The Minister and I share a boundary, and I am happy to look after his former constituents in parts of Firhouse. It would be nice if the Minister came to Tallaght some day to have a look at the social welfare office.

I will go out on the Luas.

Debate adjourned.