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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."

Before the break I was praising the Minister with a little banter. Any time I make a contribution in the presence of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, I always mention Luas but it is Christmas and I forgot to do it earlier. I am happy to compliment the Minister in that regard.

It is right that we acknowledge and appreciate the Minister's budget announcements about lone parents. Many people have welcomed the fact that the upper income limit for one parent families has been substantially increased by €82 per week to a new limit of €375. Of the approximately 80,000 lone parents in receipt of the payment, it is estimated that 60% are currently in full or part-time employment. The increased income limit will allow several thousand people become eligible for payment and all those recipients who are working will be in a position to increase their earnings further. Further reforms in the area of lone parents have been mentioned by the Minister and I hope those will be considered by the Department.

We all take an opportunity at every level — in the Oireachtas joint committee of which I am a member and in my party's social and family affairs policy group — to raise with the Minister various concerns of which we become aware. In terms of lone parents the Minister has been particularly open and has listened carefully to what has been said.

There is a suspicion that I am on the socialist wing of Fianna Fáil. I would be proud if that is what is being said about me but on this issue it is important, and I know the Minister agrees with me, that we must continue to do everything possible to ensure that those who want to return to work are facilitated in every possible way. In my eight weekly clinics which I hold throughout Dublin south west, people make the point to me that if they take up employment they will be caught in various poverty traps. While there have been some improvements in that regard, which are welcome, we must continue to examine the situation of lone parents. People find it difficult to take up jobs because it will affect their payments or rent subsidies. We must be careful to ensure people are not left in poverty traps. We must encourage them, where possible, to return to the workforce.

I hope the Minister will continue to examine this area in an innovative way and ensure that the processes are such that people can respond. I am aware the Minister has undertaken a particular study in that regard and I wish him well. I hope he will listen to what people are saying and I appeal to the various organisations representing those concerned in the matter to outline to us what they see as the solutions. I hope the Minister will then examine all those issues to determine what can be done.

In addition to the general rates increases, I refer to the €28 million the Minister mentioned which is being invested in a range of new and enhanced support schemes that promote activation and offer opportunities and choices to welfare recipients, in particular the unemployed, to ensure the potential and contribution of each individual is fully recognised. The Minister made the point that a tapered 50% withdrawal rate for disability allowance will be introduced where the recipient is engaged in employment. As a significant activation measure, the qualifying period for access to the back to work allowance for employees has been reduced from five to two years on the live register and, in the case of the self-employed, from three to two years. Those measures are welcome.

In regard to publicising the various schemes, we often hear people say that they do not know their entitlements. I attended a function many years ago at which the then Taoiseach, Garrett FitzGerald, made the point that much of the work that crosses the desks of public representatives on any week relates to the fact that people do not know their entitlements. I acknowledge that major progress has been made over several years in that regard and the citizens information centres — there is one in the main street in Tallaght village, where I have my full-time office — do tremendous work but people continue to tell us that they are unclear about their entitlements. I hope the Minister will publicise that area as much as possible because people should not be unclear about their entitlements. If they are genuinely in need and vulnerable and if families are in crisis or under pressure, they should be able to easily access the assistance that is available to them.

I made the point earlier that we often come across people who believe, for one reason or another, that the local office is being a little more difficult — I will be careful about the phraseology — than it should be. The system must not be abused but people must be cared for in a way that respects their dignity. People who need assistance are vulnerable for a variety of reasons and we must ensure that we are sensitive to their needs and help them. Unemployed people looking for assistance sometimes find some of the regulations harder to understand than they should be. I have intervened in a number of recent cases where the social welfare office did not accept the assurances of the applicants in question that they were genuinely seeking work. I have no difficulty intervening in such cases. We should ensure that the system remains consumer-friendly.

Section 1 contains the normal provisions for defining certain terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for increases in social insurance-based payments with effect from January 2006. I am glad these increases include a €14 per week increase for recipients of the old age contributory pension and the widow-widowers contributory pension, recipients of the deserted wife's benefit who are over 66 years of age and recipients of the retirement pension or invalidity pension who are over 65. This brings the weekly rate of payment to €193.30. The Bill contains an increase of €17 per week in the personal rate of all other insurance-based payments, resulting in a new weekly rate of unemployment, disability, health and safety and injury benefit of €165.80.

There will be an increase of €10.80 in the qualified adult allowance payable with the old age contributory, retirement and invalidity pension where the qualified adult is over 66, while the increase in the qualified adult allowance payable with the old age contributory or retirement pension is €9.30 for a qualified adult under 66. This results in new weekly rates of €149.30 and €128.80, respectively. The increase in the qualified adult allowance payable with invalidity pension is €12.10 for a qualified adult under 66, resulting in an increase in the weekly payment from €110 to €122.20. The increased amount payable for a qualified adult over 66 is €149.30. There will be an increase of €11.30 per week in the qualified adult allowance payable with all other social insurance payments, resulting in a new weekly rate of €110.

Members have highlighted in many debates the importance of looking after elderly people. I will not make a political point as it is Christmas except to say that Fianna Fáil has always been rightly mindful of the needs of older people. I have been privileged to serve as a member of the board of Tallaght Welfare Society, which caters very much for elderly people. A number of celebrations have been held in Glenview Lodge day care centre in Tallaght recently where benefits for elderly people were welcomed. We should be open to the needs of elderly people throughout the year, not just at Christmas. We should pay particular attention to their needs during the winter with the onset of cold weather. Without sounding patronising, I hope all of us could find a way to visit elderly people in our communities who live alone and could experience loneliness over the coming weeks. They must be careful about who they open their doors to but they always welcome company. I hope we are all good neighbours and convey to all our communities and constituencies the positive message that neighbours should look after elderly people.

I welcome the Minister's additional initiative regarding the fuel allowance. The international community has experienced considerable difficulties with regard to oil prices. Fortunately, the fire at Buncefield oil depot in the UK does not appear to have affected supply. We should extend our sympathies to all those affected by this disaster, which highlights the vulnerability of fuel supplies and fuel prices. The Minister has paid particular attention to what was needed this year and I hope he will continue to monitor it. Unfortunately, the situation developing across the world is not positive although I do not wish to give a negative speech on international affairs on the second-last day of the session. We all understand the considerable degree to which international affairs and difficulties relating to fuel prices affect us. The budget for social welfare will be challenged regularly in this regard and we expect the Minister to continue to monitor developments.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to comment on the Bill and I wish the Minister well. The increases and initiatives he has announced and his general attitude to the Bill have been warmly welcomed in many communities throughout the country, including Dublin South West, which I am proud to represent. I am unafraid to state, as a Fianna Fáil Deputy, that there are challenges which must be addressed. I am confident the Minister will continue to listen to people's problems. It is important to send a positive message to those who must draw social welfare benefits. We should and do treat families in need in a very caring fashion. We should help them as much as possible, ensure they know the benefits to which they are entitled and deliver these benefits as easily and quickly as possible. The Minister has re-examined service delivery since assuming his post and has made good progress in this regard. I look forward to working with him for the next 450 days before the next general election and beyond. If I am not breaching protocol, I would like to wish the Minister a happy Christmas.

I wish to share time with Deputies Healy and Gogarty. The Social Welfare Bill 2005 is set in the context of the budget. The first conclusion I drew from the budget was that it was not written by one person. This was not because its language varied but because concepts varied throughout. I did not believe it was necessarily about winning the next general election. The budget showed that the Government was trying first to test and then tap into the mood of the public. Two very distinct views are evident in this budget, one of which is found in the section dealing with social welfare and social affairs.

The budget and this Bill do not merely concern gains and losses, rather, they concern political and social mapping. The fact the Government's one major achievement has been the rolling out of the economy poses difficulties for it because this success story no longer resonates with the public as the primary delivery function when it is presented to them year after year. The public wants to see a hands-on Government and better delivery of public services, be they health, education, transport or social welfare services. We are now living in the post-Celtic tiger era, although we are not living in a post-Celtic tiger economy. The agenda has changed for a cohort of young parents, homeowners and commuters who might have been footloose five years ago. These people do not see themselves as workers with children; they see themselves as families connected to their chosen communities and which have matured. They are concerned about the shape and direction of their social and physical environment.

Child care was the centrepiece of the budget. There is a considerable difference between a child care policy that puts children centre stage and one whose aim is to encourage both parents to continue working. The former policy prioritises child protection and welfare and regards child care as more than mere child minding. Such a policy recognises the importance of preschool education and the role of the community.

The budget represented a missed opportunity, although I accept it could not deliver everything in an area neglected for so long. The extension of maternity leave in 2006 and 2007 is very welcome. The unpaid weeks for both paternity and maternity leave are of dubious benefit. They are obviously beneficial, but many people simply cannot afford to take unpaid time off. The child care supplement had to start somewhere and the under fives was where the primary focus obviously lay. While there may be some acceptance of that, there was little expectation that it would be done in such an exclusive way. For parents who are paying the equivalent of an additional mortgage each month for child care, there will be disappointment with the overall level of support, particularly for those whose children are aged over six.

I also have concerns about the €10,000 exemption from tax and PRSI levies for child minders who mind up to three children. It raises serious issues about child protection, given that there is no registration required. In Scotland, carers who care for children for more than two hours per week are required to register and there is a training and vetting requirement as well. The county child care committees are to have a co-ordinating function, but they have an absolute minimum of resources. We would divert the small amount of training that is currently being carried out if these committees are given this co-ordinating role without additional resources. The child care sector needs to be structured and that means charting careers. It is appropriate for child minders to see their job as a career. However, that would also include pensions and that is an area that should be examined.

Reliance on grants and a market response is not enough. A major initiative is required in developing community based facilities in every community. A portion of child care facilities are required to be built in large residential areas for every 75 houses. Essentially, the community cannot make the large rents that are charged. A significant number of non-profit community groups could be brought into the equation. Many communities are interested in running multi-use child care facilities, including after-school care. That may be particularly appropriate for lone parents. It has the effect of cutting down the cost of child care, while continuing to provide a high level of service in a child centred environment. It represents an opportunity that must be taken. The Minister should speak to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about Part V of the Planning Act 2000 as amended in 2002, especially where houses will not be delivered. It is an important area of social progress.

Much of what has been announced will not be delivered by this Government, but will be delivered by the following Government. I welcome many of the increases in social welfare. Small changes are meaningful, such as the right of carers to work an extra five hours. That provision could go a little bit further, especially for those who are caring for children with disabilities. I was very disappointed that child dependant rates were not specifically addressed. This area needs to be tackled urgently.

I am delighted to have a few minutes to speak on this Bill. I welcome the increases in benefit that have been announced. However, when one looks at the situation and pulls back the veil of hype, one finds that the increases are not enough even to begin the reversal of the profoundly unequal society the Government has created over the past nine years. The gap between rich and poor has widened to more than €16,000 per annum over that period. This budget does nothing to begin that reversal. It is simply a budget that marks time.

Some aspects of the Bill and the budget are particularly disappointing. In the past three or four months, there have been a number of high level reports, such as a UN report, an ESRI report and a Barnardo's report, all of which indicate that we have created a profoundly unequal society in recent years. The Barnardo's report confirms that there are 148,000 children living in consistent poverty, while there are around 242,000 children living between consistent and relative poverty. That is sad in a country that is so rich and has so much money available. That the child dependant allowance has been frozen for 12 years is very difficult to understand. I ask the Minister to increase that allowance. All of the various agencies dealing with children had indicated that the child dependant allowance should be raised to €30 per week. The formative years of young children are very important for their future development. The area of social inclusion in the community must be addressed properly. The applicant rates for widows and widowers under 66, as well as for people on invalidity pension under 65, are very small.

The Minister should also look at the fuel allowance. I accept that there has been a €5 increase, but we have seen huge hikes in the price of fuel, be it coal, gas or electricity. A €14 allowance per week will not even buy a bag of coal and a bale of briquettes. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul rightly suggested that the allowance should have been increased to at least €18 per week. That is particularly the case for elderly people who need heat for the winter period. The fuel allowance should have been increased significantly and it could have been done at very little cost to the Exchequer.

There is significant concern and even anger across the country about the capping of the community employment schemes. I attended a meeting last week in the village of Dundrum in south Tipperary. There were 550 participant sponsors and supervisors at that meeting. The capping of those schemes is putting them in danger. A significant number of participants are being let go before 13 January. A third of the supervisors will lose their jobs in that period. The value of these schemes to local communities is huge and covers everything from tidy towns committees to meals on wheels, sports clubs, health related matters and the whole gamut of community work. This is very good value for very little cost. The cost of keeping a participant on one of these schemes is only an additional €20 per week. Such schemes should be continued. We should ensure that the capping is removed and I ask the Minister to talk to his colleague about this. These schemes are necessary, valuable and give very good value for money. There are various other areas I could refer to, for example the carer's allowance and the bereavement grant. However, I am thankful for the opportunity to have said these few words.

I have only six minutes, so I am going to try to talk very quickly. I have much else to say but I cannot, because of time constraints. A couple of years ago I was castigated for describing the Government's treatment in terms of social welfare and pension payments for people living in disadvantaged areas as a "urination", for which I got a rap on the knuckles. Having looked at matters over the years, I was too soft. I should have said that people were being pissed on by this Government and I have no regrets for saying that.

There is a Celtic tiger that is gorging selfishly on the largesse it has been fed and this time I will not use such terms. However, the gorging is creating the few scraps that are being divvied out to those less well off and people are supposed to feel grateful. In setting that context, I welcome some of the increases that relate to old age benefit, maternity benefit and carer's allowance. They are nowhere near enough, however, to tackle the poverty gap.

The Minister has been quoted as stating that education is the way out of poverty. In terms of collective responsibility, while the small increases are welcome, the Department of Education and Science's refusal to properly fund the National Educational Welfare Board and the lack of an adequate school meals system throughout the country, is leading to children leaving school too early to ever meet the income requirements they will need, thus putting pressure — from a PD perspective — on the social welfare system. The only way to bypass that is to invest in breaking the cycle at an early stage. The National Educational Welfare Board is the only body with the statutory obligation to do that and it is not getting the funding. While a few euro may be divvied out here and there the root causes will not be tackled unless an holistic approach is taken on an interdepartmental basis.

Because of time constraints I can only allude to some aspects of this legislation. In general, I welcome sections 2 and 3. The carer's allowance, however, is still not enough. More needs to be done as regards the issue of paid respite care.

I have a query as regards pensions. Where a pensioner has a spouse who is in receipt of a pension, he or she is not entitled to a contributory pension and must depend on a partner. Constituents in this position tell me they need to be recognised and given dignity in their own right even if they are only entitled to half a pension. Perhaps the Minister might look at this. As regards maternity benefit, constituents have also asked me why, for example, the amendments consequential on the extension of paid maternity leave by four weeks will take effect in March 2006, given that the increase to 8% in reckonable weekly earnings will come on stream from 1 January. People who are due to take maternity leave shortly are concerned that they will not qualify because of the March 2006 start date. Perhaps the Minister might clarify this and have some type of transition period.

I am quite critical of the supplementary welfare allowance because even as regards people working on CE schemes, as is mentioned in the legislation, an amount over the €60 gross income from earnings is disregarded. In section 12 there is an improvement, indicating that half the gross earnings between €60 and €90 may be disregarded. If the Minister wants to have any effect and allow people to do a little part-time work, he should have taken the whole amount up to €90. As the EU survey on income and living conditions shows, almost one fifth of the population is at risk of poverty. The people most at risk are lone parents. They have an obligation to look after their children but might want to better themselves by doing CE schemes, engaging in part-time work to top up income etc. Because of the half gross weekly earnings stricture of between €60 and €90 they will not be helped much. They should be able to get a leg up to enable them to get out of the poverty trap entirely, becoming taxpayers over a period of time.

I also want to comment as regards the closure of social welfare offices. An example quite close to Leinster House is Oisín House in Pearse Street, which deals with everything apart from unemployment benefit. People go to these types of offices who, for social or stigma reasons, will not enter an unemployment benefit office. Staff there have ready access to people's data. Elderly people in particular can ask about their situation and get a one-to-one personal interface. This is in sharp contrast to telephoning an office in Sligo, which might have 100 or 200 people, but will not provide the one-to-one service that vulnerable people need. I would like the Minister to comment in his final contribution on how many of the local offices will be closed. Does he recognise the value of having local offices for people to drop into?

Finally, I raise the issue of the fuel allowance. As my colleagues, Deputies Boyle, Sargent and others have pointed out, globally fuel prices will continue to rise. We could even have shortages eventually. I will not go into that issue except to comment that the Government tax strategy appears to be to let the taxpayer pay through carbon trading rather than to implement the full whack of fuel price increases to encourage efficiency. By lowering taxes on income and making allowances payable to people on unemployment benefit through refundable tax credits, a rise in fuel could be sanctioned that would encourage everybody to be more efficient in its use. At the same time a proper fuel allowance could be provided for the elderly and disadvantaged. Even if nothing is done about the carbon trading issue, the doubling of the current fuel allowance is derisory in terms of the price increases that have occurred. I ask that something be done in next year's budget in that regard because fuel prices will continue on an upward spiral. Unless we give our elderly people some type of solace for the cold winters that lie ahead, the position will continue to worsen.

I welcome the opportunity to make a short contribution to this Bill. I will be sharing time with Deputy Kelleher.

We see in this Bill the implementation of a €1.12 billion social welfare package, which was announced in the budget. That is an enormous amount of money. No matter what we do, however, there will not be sufficient to satisfy everybody's needs. There will always be need and some will always see themselves in a category of greater need than others. We have seen enormous changes as regards social welfare, first as regards the amounts and the percentage increases. I recall when increases of 2% or 3% were seen as phenomenal. In some cases little or no increases were seen as a major achievement in terms of being able to sustain the social welfare budget for certain sectors. We have, thankfully, moved on from that. Because of our economy, a greater contribution may now be made towards people who are less well off and in need. We have to welcome the fact that one of the highest rates of increase this year, €17, will go to those on the lowest level of payment. That is to be welcomed. I was surprised to hear that CORI was shocked at learning its full request had been fulfilled through the €17 increase given to people in those categories.

The old age pension has reached €193 for a contributory pensioner, with the fringe benefits of fuel or living alone allowances. In effect, we have reached the €200 pension that had been talked and dreamt about for many people down the years. As we reach that level, people will argue there is still need for further increases on an annual basis. The rate of increases across the various sectors in this year's Social Welfare Bill is noteworthy. The 11% increase in widow's or widower's contributory pensions rise is significant. The biggest increase is in the carer's allowance which is an allowance that should be targeted. People who care for their elderly family members at home make an important contribution to society but their contribution is even more important to the person being cared for. People are given a right to remain in their own family surroundings as long as possible. It may not be possible for them to remain there all their lives and they may require institutional care but the carer's allowance has encouraged people for the first time to look after their elderly family members.

I am aware of some cases of people who had been refused the respite care grant. I compliment the Minister's Department because it responded very well to the inquiries. The grant had been refused for minor reasons and in one case had been refused because only one half of the doctor's certificate had arrived with the application.

These grants and allowances encourage people to look after their elderly. Any society that does not look after its elderly is neither a just nor a fair society. The most vulnerable people in any society are the old and the young and they have been looked after reasonably well in this Bill and in the budget.

The increases will help parents to care for their children. We would all have liked to see a greater increase in the rate of child benefit but there is a limit. The targeting of the sum of €1,000 per year for children under six years of age will help parents to cope with young children. Such young children need parental time and care. The changes in maternity leave will be welcomed by every parent in the country. It will give parents the opportunity of staying at home to look after their children in the early months of life and is to be welcomed.

The fuel allowance has been increased significantly by €5 per week. This increase is at a cost of €42 million. There is also the benefit of the change in the rebate on household fuel. I hope this will be passed on to the consumers as soon as possible. It may not be possible to do this immediately in some cases, despite the fact it has been cleared by the House in the excise duties.

We must continue to target the people who need social welfare most, the young and the old. In between is a category of people who also find themselves in hardship. They may be those on disability benefit or those who lose a job and are unable to find another one and they must be supported. Whether it is by the use of the family income supplement as a mechanism to support them back into the labour force or by means of the other schemes available, it is important that these schemes are made as accessible as possible to the public.

Many people are not aware of their social welfare entitlements and do not believe they can learn anything from the citizens information centres. They often turn to the local politician or councillor. It is a sad fact that these people are ignorant because of a fear of social welfare. A stigma is attached to social welfare in some people's minds. They believe it downgrades them but I do not share this opinion. Social welfare is a provision whereby the rest of society supports those in need. Any one of us could find ourselves in need at any time in our lives and that is when one appreciates the people who offer support. In this case the State is supporting these people. There will be one more social welfare Bill in the lifetime of this Government. This should provide for some of the people who have been left behind in some form.

The elderly must continue to be the number one priority. They are the people who must be kept in their communities for as long as possible by means of social welfare payments, given the cost of residential care for older people. It is traumatic for an elderly person to be forced to go into residential care. We must concentrate on ensuring that as many people as possible can remain in their communities for as long as possible or for their entire lifetime if possible. There is a duty on families to support the elderly within the community for as long as possible. Elderly people were discarded in some cases and put into institutional care when there was no need for it. The supports now in place would have helped them continue in their communities.

The changes in this year's budget will benefit the young. I hope that the child supports which have been introduced will be increased in the next budget. I would like to see the child benefit increased from the proposed €150 to at least €160 or €165 for the first child in next year's social welfare Bill or budget.

I wish to bring a parochial matter to the Minister's attention. As Members will be aware, a section of the Department of Social and Family Affairs has moved to Carrick-on-Shannon. I would appreciate if the Minister would use his good offices to ensure that the office is up and running by the proposed date of early 2007. The Minister is committed to decentralisation, as is the Government. However, in some cases, the groups responsible for assisting decentralisation have been quite slow in taking action to ensure that the section of the Department and other Departments are decentralised.

It is the Progressive Democrats again.

That party should not be blamed. We are not blaming anybody. The commitment to decentralisation should be fulfilled as far as all areas are concerned. I am sure Deputies Paul McGrath and Penrose are looking forward to the Department of Education and Science arriving in Mullingar.

We will be there to cut the tape.

I support the provisions of the Social Welfare Bill and the budget. Like previous speakers, I acknowledge the major advances in recent years in social welfare payments. Behind the figures and statistics the lives of people are being transformed by the provisions in the Bill.

The situation of carers has been highlighted for many years and the desired advances were not achieved for a long time. I acknowledge the changes that have been made. These have an effect on people's lives and lifestyles, acknowledge the contribution made by carers to society and show that care of people in the home by family members and the extended community is a positive aspect to be welcomed and encouraged at all times. I hope that whoever sits in the ministerial chair over the next few years will advance that commitment. I refer to the commitment made by the Government to increase the old age pensions which has been achieved. Many people who are carers have suffered for a long time. The Government has acknowledged that action was necessary. It has established the supports and services to encourage and allow people to care for their loved ones in their home.

The respite care grant has been increased from €1,000 to €1,200 and the carer's allowance has been increased from between €20 and €40 a week with a single person receiving up to €290 and €580 for a couple. These changes make a tangible difference to people caring for people in their homes. We talk about statistics and outline the huge package of €13.5 billion, but behind all the statistics genuine people are striving to make ends meet. This assistance and these acknowledgements of their difficulties will go a long way to meeting their needs.

We often get caught up in this House with debate and some people comment on the value of €14 or €17 a week extra. We must remember that many people are living on the breadline and that €14 or €17 a week extra makes a significant difference in their household budget. Many of those who report on the provisions of a budget or social welfare Bill do not understand the reality of what is happening or that some people must try on a daily basis to make ends meet. An increase of this nature makes a significant impact on their quality of life. Some people dismiss the fuel allowance with a comment as to the benefit of another €5. To people already on the margins, €5 with the other increases can transform their quality of life. I am hopeful that over the coming years we will continue to strive to ensure that people dependent on social welfare are looked after.

When I first entered politics in 1992 as a public representative, social welfare was a significant issue of debate, primarily in the context of unemployment and people being unable to express themselves through work. Thankfully, we have moved on from that and people who are capable can find gainful employment and make a contribution to society through their taxes. Those funds can then transfer to people on social welfare. However, there is begrudgery among some people that those on social welfare are a thorn in the side of the community, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Most people on social welfare are people who have made a genuine commitment to society over many years, in particular the elderly who worked through lean and hard times and raised families. Now that they are coming to the end of their lives, they are entitled to enjoy the benefits of a booming economy, one that has strong employment, good tax receipts and the transfer of that to people who deserve it. People do not just need it, they deserve it. Sometimes when we debate social welfare provisions, some people begrudge those payments.

The Government has been very conscious of the need to ensure that those who made sacrifices, worked hard for many years and reared families in difficult circumstances enjoy in their latter years the gainful support of society. I compliment everybody involved in past years in this Government who acknowledged in particular the contribution of older people and who moved swiftly towards meeting the target pension of €200 a week. This target is not set to make a political point, but because these people deserve it. We can come in here and speak platitudes and slap people on the back, but the Government and all of us know these people are entitled to our support. People appreciate the move to deliver the €200 a week old age pension.

Child care is an issue that has been discussed at many fora throughout the country by people with different perspectives. I declare a specific interest in this area as we had a baby girl recently and I will, obviously, benefit from the packages announced in the budget. In these days of political correctness, I want to declare that specific interest.

Just in time.

It is equally important that we acknowledge that many different elements make a family. Some people want to stay at home, some want to work. It would pay some people who go to work better to stay at home, but they want to work. The provision of €1,000 per child up to the age of six is a tangible acknowledgement of this. We often hear people say the State does not do enough to allow people the choice to work or stay at home. No Government could satisfy all the various viewpoints on this issue. The Government has, however, taken a step in the right direction by supporting the child, the central person in the issue of child care.

Child care is not about providing income for parents or those caring for the child, but about providing income supports for the child. This has been forgotten in many debates on this issue. Child care is about addressing the needs of the child. The overall supports and increases, in particular the €1,000 for those under six and the increases in child benefit and family income supplement, benefit families with a number of children. As the number of children increases, so do payments. If we are serious about addressing all the supports a child will need during its life, we have made a significant step in the right direction in this Bill.

Child benefit has been debated ad nauseam. People ask what is the best way to direct payment at the child and some people complain there is no means test for child benefit. We must acknowledge the core principle that the benefit is for the child. It is up to the parents and guardians to decide where the money is spent. Many people can probably afford to spend it in areas that do not directly impact on the child’s welfare on a daily basis. The general principle of treating all children equally is positive. Over the coming years, as a result of changes in child care support, demographics and the workforce we will see a greater need to advance the issue of flexible child care.

We are only just beginning to tap into and acknowledge this issue, which is pertinent on a number of fronts, primarily with regard to changes in the workforce and the desire of parents to work. Parents are entitled to work, even if they work for less. Work may be therapeutic for them, it may be what they want or that they interact with others. The provisions in this Bill are a positive step to encourage as many people as possible to work, without putting obstacles in their way if they want to stay at home.

Overall, the Minister can look back on this Social Welfare Bill and say that the Cabinet debate was successful in delivering a tangible benefit to individuals. The Bill is not just about a €13.5 billion social welfare package, but about what it delivers to individuals and how it changes and enhances their lives. I commend the Minister and this Bill to the Dáil.

I thank the Chair for the opportunity to address the House on this Bill. It has been a long day for everybody and I am sure the Minister is getting tired of hearing everything being said——

Tired of all the praise.

——and of being praised so much, although I am sure he takes it in his stride.

The only way he can go is down.

I see his poor officials are here with him. I saw a wry smile appear on their faces when I appeared tonight because I have probably been giving the same speech for so many years that they could write it for me at this stage.

A single transferable speech.

They probably feel I will say the same again tonight. Some of what I say will be the same, because they have not changed. Let me begin by giving out the plaudits and saying that much of what has been achieved in the social welfare budget is very good. The Minister has managed to provide reasonable increases for many of the vulnerable in society, the elderly, carers etc. These have got reasonable increases, no more than they deserve.

This social welfare budget is not a grandiose handing out of benefits but gives people that to which they are entitled. In many instances it just repays the confidence they showed in the system through the contributions they made over the years. Therefore, they are entitled to what they are getting.

My role is to point out the shortfalls in this social welfare budget. There is a glaring shortfall in the area of child dependant allowance. This allowance is targeted at vulnerable people and provides for families in receipt of social welfare payments. I see a smile appearing on the officials' faces because they know what I am about to say. The child dependant allowance is very targeted in that anybody in receipt of it has already qualified through making contributions or by passing a means test. The allowance has not changed since the early 1990s. Not only has it not changed, it presents a great anomaly because there are three different payments. The response the Minister's officials will pass to him is that this is not too bad because there used to be 36 levels of payment. I am not interested in that and do not want it said by the Minister for the 93rd time. It is not right and not in accord with the policy of treating children equally that there are three different payments.

There is not even consistency regarding the composition of the payments or what they relate to. If one is in receipt of unemployment benefit, one has paid into an insurance scheme called the social insurance fund by way of one's weekly PRSI contributions at work. When one needs to get a payment from this fund, one applies for what is called unemployment benefit. If one is on unemployment benefit and has a child dependant, one gets €16.80 for the child per week. If one is on disability benefit or in receipt of the old age non-contributory pension, which is not insurance-based, one gets €16.80 per child per week. Furthermore, if one receives a pension for the blind, a widow's or widower's non-contributory pension or the carer's allowance, one gets €16.80 per child per week. Some of these payments are based on paying into the social insurance fund and others are not, yet all entitle one to €16.80 per child per week.

If, however, one receives an old age contributory pension, which comes out of the social insurance fund, one gets €19.30 per child per week. If one receives invalidity pension or the one-parent family payment, one gets €19.30 per child per week. There is no consistency as some of these payments are made from the social insurance fund while others are not. A widow or widower on a contributory pension receives €21.60 per child per week. The difference between the top and bottom rates amounts to €250 per annum and this simply cannot be justified.

One of the major criticisms of the budget and the social welfare package was by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as the Minister knows. It criticised him for doing nothing in respect of the child dependant allowance. It asked him to increase it to €30 per week because it is a targeted payment. Not only was it not increased, the anomaly I have mentioned was not removed from the system. This is a mistake and missed opportunity and the Minister should address it soon.

It is not right that children who are equal can be treated differently. There is a great deal of money in the social insurance fund and the last time I noted its size, it was approaching €2 billion. The Minister could therefore take the major step of equalising the payments. I know what will happen, however. Most children are on the lower payment and the Minister cannot decrease the payment to anybody, thus implying that he would have to pay them all at the top rate. This would cost a great deal of money and this is probably why the payments have not been equalised. However, that is not an excuse for tolerating inequality in society, including inequality in the way in which we treat our children.

The script for my contribution on child benefit could probably be written by others as they have heard these points before. The Minister has provided for an increase of slightly in excess of €8 in this benefit. Just to keep pace with the promises made in the budget statement of 2003, the increase would need to amount to €40 per month; this has not happened. I always ask why one's third, fourth and fifth children receive a higher rate of payment than the first and second children. How can one justify this? What is special about child three that he should receive a higher rate of payment than child two? If one has twins, there is — I almost used an unparliamentary word — a non-standard payment that bridges the gap between the two payments such that a kind of hybrid payment is made. Why should there be any difference in treatment?

This problem stems from the old days when child benefit was first introduced. The Minister and I are old enough to remember what my mother used to call the half crowns. Deputy Penrose once spoke about it.

I was the eldest; I got the half crown.

The Deputy did well out of it.

It was a great bonus that came every month and families were delighted with it. By the time I arrived — I was fairly late on the scene and was the tenth child in my household — no payment was made in respect of me at all. If one had only one child, one did not get the payment. The great day came, in the 1950s or 1960s, when there was a payment made for one child. It amounted to 10 shillings and we were in clover. It made an awful difference.

This is why there are different child benefit payments for different people. In the interest of equality it is not justifiable to have one rate of payment for the first and second children and another rate for further children. This needs to be addressed by the Minister.

A very interesting fact that the Minister should note when considering child benefit — the figures have changed over the years — is that 22% of recipients receive no other form of income in their name. These recipients, amounting to approximately 110,000, are virtually all women. It is very important that this payment be maintained at a reasonably high rate. The Minister should consider this.

I believed this Bill would address the habitual residence clause in so far as it applies to social welfare payments because what is happening at present is grossly unfair. In recent weeks I have come across a number of European nationals from Poland and other such countries who have suffered in this regard. They have come here to work and have been working, mostly in the construction trade. If the weather deteriorates in the approach to Christmas, many people in the construction trade close up shop. If this occurs, the immigrants, who are probably on the minimum wage, get turfed out because they have no work. They go to their local social welfare office to try to get a few shillings but cannot do so because the habitual residence clause is applied. They are told they have only been in the country for ten months, a year or a year and a half and have not been here for the magic two years required under the clause. They are therefore turned down.

What are they supposed to do? Many sleep rough in this city because they cannot afford to pay the rent. This is not right. We allow these EU nationals to work in Ireland, which they are entitled to do, and they pay their taxes. I have heard successive Ministers say the immigrants have increased the competitiveness of our economy, yet when the chips are down and they need a little help to tide them over the Christmas period, we apply the habitual residence clause, wish them good luck and give them nothing. This is not right.

Compare the circumstances of these immigrants with those of our relations and everybody in this House who worked abroad in different periods, especially in Britain. The way they were treated in Britain in terms of welfare and housing puts us to shame. When our economy has lifted and we have a few bob, people who paid into the insurance fund, which contains a great deal of money, are told: "Goodnight. Get out. We do not want to know." That is not good enough. I would be frowned upon if I said that in a Christian country we should do something like that, and that this is what we are about. We are supposed to be a hospitable people yet we turn the hard hand on these people, and tell them that we have this rule. It is not good enough.

Will the Minister reconsider the issue of long-term and short-term payments? Unemployment benefit runs out after 15 months and recipients must find some other income, which is fine, as many of those on unemployment benefit move on to another payment or find work. However, a terrible anomaly arises in that disability benefit is classified as a short-term payment. As such, recipients do not get the Christmas bonus or the child dependant payment while a child is at college. If they happen to be unfortunate enough that they require unemployment benefit for the period when a child is at college, they are given the run around and will not get the payment. That is not fair. It bears repeating — the school teacher in me is coming out — that unemployment benefit comes from the social insurance fund, which contains almost €2 billion. These people paid their insurance so why are they not entitled to the payment?

I am harping on many of these issues because I am very conscious that Deputy Penrose is present. As he is a prospective future Minister for Social and Family Affairs, it will save me saying this to him at that time.

That is the kiss of death.

The Minister must consider long-term and short-term entitlements.

The Minister could put the worst anomaly right at the stroke of a pen and at little cost. I have come across it in just two cases in my career, both involving disability benefit, which is a short-term payment. The families involved had children in higher education and qualified for the higher education grant. A top-up grant is payable by the Department of Social and Family Affairs if one's income is below a certain income threshold, which is approximately €15,500 per annum at present. The problem is that a person can be in receipt of unemployment benefit or disability benefit, which is below the threshold of €15,500, but because that payment is a short-term payment, the person is not entitled to the top-up grant.

This cannot be justified given that the student is at college and the parents are struggling on welfare payments to keep him or her there. If they were on long-term welfare payments, the Department would give them the top-up grant because they are below the threshold. However, because they are on short-term payments, it will not do so. Surely the Department could pay them for the year they are on the short-term payment and then let the case be reviewed if the parents return to work or otherwise. When there is a crisis in a family, its members must be looked after.

It is positive that the carer's benefit has been extended to 24 months but the Minister might address one query. With regard to a carer who has cared for, say, an ill mother for the current 15 month period, if there is a further requirement to look after the ill mother to get her through a difficult period, can the carer access the additional nine months of carer's benefit? This might apply to a small number of cases and it is only reasonable that it should happen.

It should be allowed.

The Minister might consider the matter.

It is welcome that maternity benefit, which also comes from the social insurance fund, has increased to 80% of gross earnings. When one pays car insurance, one is fully covered in case of an accident. Why only give those on maternity benefit 80% of their income from two years previously, which in many cases would be much lower than their current income? They should be given 100%.

I welcome the increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which is a good idea. In July and August every year I am pestered by people with regard to the nominal income threshold for this allowance. If a family is above the income threshold, it does not get the allowance. There is no excuse for somebody who qualifies for family income supplement not qualifying for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Qualification for family income supplement automatically suggests that the State acknowledges that a person is on low income. Nonetheless, if a person is above a certain threshold, he or she does not qualify for the allowance. There should be a clause in the Bill whereby if one qualifies for a family income supplement payment, one automatically receives the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. An automatic payment would save the Department's officials endless hours of trying to find ways to make people qualify and would speed up the process, as well as bringing clarity and fairness to the system.

The Government's child care package has gone down reasonably well but I see one major flaw in it, namely, the question of a person being able to earn €10,000 tax free by virtue of looking after children in his or her own home. While I stand to be corrected, it is the only payment within the State, apart from the rent a room allowance, that is not subject to tax. To take an example, if my wife looked after two or three children at home, she would not necessarily have to be qualified or have met the relevant health and safety standards. At the same time, my daughter might have qualified from child care courses and work in the local child care centre, which is subject to inspection. She must pay tax on every penny she earns whereas, in theory, my wife could earn €10,000 tax free. What will be the result? Staff will be sucked out of the child care sector, in which the Government has invested substantial capital spending, and put into the uncharted waters of the black economy. A system will develop to the detriment of the provision of child care spaces elsewhere. The issue must be carefully considered.

Is cúis áthais dom deis a fháil labhairt ar chúrsaí leasa shóisialaigh. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil an tAire i láthair. The background to the social welfare provisions in the budget and the legislation arising from it must be put in context following the fanfare indicating the budget was going to deal with child care and resolve many problems faced by people, particularly parents. In 2005, disability issues were the hook on which the Government hung the budget, and in 2004, decentralisation was the issue. We cannot state that any of these issues have been resolved or that there has been a universal welcome. That is quite ironic given the reaction to decentralisation in particular, and the manner in which disability groups have continued to lobby for a rights-based approach to the issues that need to be addressed. There was further lobbying for this budget by disability groups which felt they were not getting the core funding required to lift them out of dependency and community employment schemes. That is still an outstanding issue.

I appreciate the Government has endeavoured to raise in general the payments being made and to introduce some other measures, particularly in the area of child care. This was an effort to get the main pressure off its back with regard to these issues. However, the wider issue that should be borne in mind is that personal debt is rising. The Government has a responsibility to come to terms with this and address the matter. All the social welfare measures in the world are not going to relieve problems if personal debt is growing and outstripping those increases.

I realise the Government is not in a position to provide a nanny state and tell people not to get into debt. The matter must be addressed when the Government, on the one hand, is stating that balance of payments are in a healthy position nationally, while at the same time the ratio of household credit to disposable income is estimated to increase from approximately 112% of disposable income at the end of 2004 to 133% at the end of 2005.

In the national picture, the Government is stating it has everything in order. I dispute this but I will not get into too much detail as we are dealing with social welfare. However, for every €1 of disposable income, the average person will owe €1.33. Over the next three years the Central Bank expects €1.60 to be owed for every €1 of disposable income. There is a trend against which social welfare payments must be taken into account. In contrast, ten years ago Irish people owed just 48 cent for every €1 of income after tax. This indicates some of the difficulty that is faced by the Government. When it considers this, it may wonder why there is not a fulsome response from all concerned despite the budget being so generous. One of the main criticisms of social welfare payments and the child care package is that it was so general and across the board in a society which is very divided. In European and world terms we have a reputation, or perhaps infamy, for being a divided society.

The reaction of Barnardos is that the budget does not reflect the reality of bringing up children. The National Women's Council has stated its disappointment that the new child care supplement is not index linked. ICTU, with tongue slightly in cheek, has stated it was underwhelmed. IBEC stated the measures do not focus enough on making child care affordable for parents working outside the home. The Children's Rights Alliance is concerned about the lack of focus on quality child care and will look closely to ensure that children's rights are central to the roll out of the child care programme. The Combat Poverty Agency stated its concern that child dependant allowances, which they hoped would be targeted at the poorest children in the State, remain frozen. The Simon Community voiced its concern that the Government did not prioritise housing, although I know that is beyond the Minister's brief. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul stated its disappointment at the lack of targeted payments for poor families. The One Parent Exchange and Network had a similar response.

In general there is a pattern running through many of the reactions from people who are at the coal face, dealing with various disadvantaged groups and people in society. They are stating that wealthy families that could easily go without will be receiving child care and child benefit payments of almost €2,550 per child next year, while families at serious risk of poverty receive the same amount. They believe the Government should have linked payments to earnings far more decisively.

One could ask why, and the Minister might have his own answer. There is an impression that a large pot of money was to be spread out as much as possible with a view to giving everybody something so they might feel they were being looked after. It is a sad fact that many of the poorest people in our society do not vote. I wonder if there was some motivation in that regard. Perhaps that is something which will change in the next election, and it certainly needs to change for democracy to be seen as effective.

The social welfare system is so complex that problems in administration are quite likely, whatever about sums of money involved. I have an example of a conscientious landlord who contacted me. He provided accommodation for people who were on rent supplement, for example. The sum involved would be €737 per month. However, last June that landlord found he was to sell the house being rented. He gave notice to his tenants, who departed and got other rented accommodation. The landlord let the social welfare authorities know he was no longer renting the property. However, payments were still being received three months later. He rang me to find out who he could give the money back to, as money which he was not entitled to was being sent to him. The person in question knew he was not entitled to the money but it was arriving for him without any questions being asked.

There is a need to cross-reference, check and put in place balances that will ensure that not only is the money given to those with greatest need, but that it is given in a way that is above board and will not tempt people to hold on to it if they are not entitled to it. This was the case outlined above. Has the Minister come across this before and has he advice on the matter? I also ask how the checks and balances can be put in place, given that much money is being paid out. It appears from time to time that such money is paid out in error. It is not helping those with the greatest need if the Government is claiming that a certain amount of money is being spent, when it is not being spent in a targeted or correct way.

Tá litir agam mar gheall ar mhná den chuid is mó atá gan phinsean. Tá mé ag ceapadh go bhfuil fadhb ansin agus gur cheart don Aire díriú uirthi. Tá fear ag scríobh chugam mar gheall ar ghrúpa — nach mór é— de mhná atá in aois an phinsin ach nach bhfaigheann pinsean ar bith. Deir an fear seo liom:

In ainneoin Alt 41.2.1° de Bhunreacht na hÉireann tá na mílte ban atá 70 bliain d'aois nó breis agus 70 bliain d'aois lonnaithe ar fud na Poblachta gan phingin rua de phinsean ón Stát. Seanmhná is ea iad seo a streachlaíonn leis an saol gan mhaoin, gan sealúchas, gan phinsean dá gcuid féin — iad ag brath ar dhaoine eile dá gcothú.

Ar meán d'oibrigh na mná seo 124 míle uair i rith a saol: iad i mbun tí agus ag tógáil clainne.

In Alt 41.2.1° den Bhunreacht deirtear:

[A]dmhaíonn an Stát go dtugann an bhean don Stát, trína saol sa teaghlach, cúnamh nach bhféadfaí leas an phobail a ghnóthú dá éagmais.

In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

Measaim nár mhiste d'aon Rialtas sóisialach liúntas beag, pearsanta seachtainiúil a bhronnadh ar gach bean nach bhfuil pinsean á fháil aici agus atá 70 bliain d'aois nó níos mó.

Is mór a chuirfeadh sé lena neamhspleáchas, lena gcaighdeán maireachtála agus lena ndínit.

Dealraíonn sé nach eol don CSO cruinnuimhir na mban i gceist, i.e. uimhir na mban nach raibh acmhainn don teaghlach [leathchoróin, mar a dúirt daoine eile] á n-íoc acu go deonach ón mbliain 1961 AD amach (tuigim go bhfuair thart ar 87% de mhná na hÉireann in aois a 70 nó 70+ pinsean sa bhliain 2003).

Ag cur san áireamh go bhfuil Éire ar cheann de na tíortha is saibhre ar domhan anois, tá súil agam go mbeidh tú sásta brú a chur ar an Rialtas líon na mban i gceist a nochtadh don bhliain reatha agus liúntas pearsanta caoi a bhronnadh orthu mar cheart!

Seans gur féidir leis an Aire a rá go bhfuil plean ag an Rialtais díriú ar an gceist seo. It is very obvious that, for all the complexity and cross-referencing that goes on in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, there is a group of people that falls through the cracks because they have worked to raise a family and now, aged 70 years or more, are not entitled to any pension. This is shameful. They may have a spouse on whom they depend but that is not always the case.

It is strange that the Central Statistics Office does not have accurate figures. These people are out of the Government's sight and mind. I will give the Minister more information about this after the debate, if he needs it. This issue points again to the need to achieve a balance between the complexity of the system and its simplification so that it does not give rise to such injustices.

Fr. Seán Healy has made presentations to Fianna Fáil on many different issues, including probably the principle of refundable tax credits and the more developed system of a guaranteed basic income. Without going that far, it is unjust that some people receive tax breaks and others receive nothing because they are not in a workplace where they receive pay. A refundable tax credit could deal with that.

Has the Minister given time and thought to refundable tax credits and brought the idea to the attention of his colleagues in Government, particularly the Minister for Finance? If so has there been any progress on that proposal? Meanwhile, I urge the Minister to take on board the injustice of the case I cited and the clear but unintentional abuse of the system whereby rent supplements are paid where there is no need, for example, if there is no tenant in the house. I would like the Minister to address these issues when summing up the debate.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá mar gheall ar an gcás sin. B'fhéidir go ndéanfainn scrúdú faoi leith air, más mian leis an Teachta an litir sin a thabhairt dom. Is éard atá i gceist ná liúntas faoi leith tar éis é a bheith 70 bliain d'aois nó níos sine. Déanfaidh mé scrúdú faoi leith ar sin.

More than 22 Deputies contributed to this debate and I thank every one of them for doing so. I particularly thank the main spokespersons of the Opposition parties who sat through the entire debate, or as much of it as they possibly could. Public representatives have a special knowledge of welfare because of the number of people they meet in their daily work.

I thank Deputy Stanton for his constructive approach to the Bill. He suggested that I set targets to eliminate poverty instead of relying on certain percentages. I would like to discuss this proposal further. He asked me to develop the family income supplement, which I certainly will do.

He took me to task for not getting on with the second tier but the National Economic and Social Council is considering ways to pull that together. Meanwhile, I have increased the family income supplement by €25 million which is the start of that process. He asked me to examine secondary benefits for widows and so on, and I will continue to keep that under review. He also suggested a voucher type of system as a travel pass for rural areas. That is complicated but we can continue to review it.

I was particularly taken with his point about local authorities' differential rent. I agree with him that when we make increases in the budget, local authorities claw them back by changing the differential rent. I will discuss this issue with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to see whether we can make progress on it. I am not sure of the scale of the problem but I receive many complaints about it. We need to establish whether this can be standardised throughout the country. That, however, is complicated because local authorities have their own statutory authority with which it is sometimes difficult to interfere.

Deputy Stanton asked me to enforce further the maintenance from fathers. I am conscious of that issue. He also spoke about the quality of child care centres and so on. I acknowledge those points and will work on them.

I thank Deputy Penrose for chairing the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. He put it to me, without his tongue in his cheek, that I swiped many of his ideas. I do not often acknowledge theft on the floor of the House but the Deputy brought to my attention many anomalies, especially in the lone parent's benefit, to which I have tried to respond. I was impressed by his proposals on individualisation and the need to treat every social welfare recipient as an individual and would like to move on that premise. In effect it involves individualising qualified adult allowances and paying them directly.

We have had several meetings in the Department on this issue. I will see if further progress can be made on the matter. Many Members asked why the Government did not increase the child dependant allowance.

I took careful note of the warning on the poverty trap that could be created by people losing benefits because they return to work. I am conscious that as welfare payments are increased and the gap between the benefits of welfare and work is reduced, a clutch and accelerator type approach is required. This should allow people to move from welfare to work without suffering a drop in income. I have inserted new thresholds and new tapering reliefs and reduced the slope in this Bill. For example, recipients of rent allowance, when they return to work, are allowed to hold on to it for a longer period than before. It is the same with disability benefits. People must be eased off allowances as they go back to work. The family income supplement will also help in this regard.

Deputy Penrose always asks me about abolishing the carer's grant means test. I was briefed that it would come to approximately €145 million.

It is approximately €200 million.

The complete abolition of the means test for the carer's grant will have cost implications, estimated at €140 million in a full year.

That is not as bad as I thought.

While I respect the Deputy's view, I am surprised how easily he feels this can be done. This would be a move towards a universal carer's allowance. At the risk of being shot, if the Deputy was beginning from scratch with child benefit, would he make it a universal benefit?

That is a fair point.

Would the Deputy be then careful about taking universal routes for other benefits as many people may not need benefits? I will continue to examine the affordability and the practicality of means-testing the carer's allowance. However, it is not at the top of my priorities. I prefer instead to increase the thresholds, bring more carers into the system and increase allowances and benefits.

Deputy Boyle asked about abolishing dependence status and individualisation, a direction the Women's Council asked me to take. I am working on this issue. The Deputy asked me about indexing the fuel allowance. The allowance was increased by 55% this year and a €2 million package was introduced for home insulation. The fuel allowance was never meant to be other than a contribution to costs. No one pretends it pays their fuel bills.

Deputy Sargent raised the issue of increasing levels of individual debt and indebtedness in society. The money advice and budgeting service does a superb job in dealing with people on lower incomes with debt problems. I am indebted to it for the work it does.

The Bill increases benefits by 10.5%, four times the expected rate of inflation, and benefits 970,000 people. People on lower rates will receive an extra €17 a week, while a special €16 a week payment goes to people on non-contributory pensions. A sum of €14 a week goes to other pensioners, who are not means-tested. This time, I believe we have got it the right way around. The higher increases have been given to those on lower incomes and vice versa. The child benefit package amounts to over €100 million, which will be paid to 545,000 families, with payments increased to €150 for the first and second child and €185 a week for the third child and subsequent children. The fuel allowance package amounts to €42 million and will begin in January. Up to 274,000 households will receive the fuel allowance.

I am pleased there is a €300 million package for social welfare reforms as opposed to the price of the rates, which amounts to €800 million. I fought hard to ensure that on top of the rates, a special fund was introduced to reform the system. This is to recognise carers, increase the income for vulnerable older people and introduce specific measures to tackle child poverty issues. It will also aim to empower lone parents and introduce measures such as changing the back-to-work regulations so that an individual only has to be unemployed for two years instead of five to claim the allowance.

These measures will promote activation by encouraging people to get back to work, training and education opportunities. All Members have a duty to tackle the social issues behind the payments, not just focus on the payments themselves, valuable as they are. We have to help people move, if it is appropriate, from welfare dependency to financial independence. We must help them make that journey, not just trap them in a welfare dependent position. This philosophy is at the heart of the budget presented in this Social Welfare Bill.

At the cost of €20 million, a new enhanced State non-contributory pension will be introduced which will transfer 35,000 pensioners on partial payments to full entitlement. This has been brought about by increasing the means disregard of €7.60 to €20. On top of this, people on non-contributory pensions will be allowed to earn up to €100 a week before we touch their pensions. The current level is €7.60 assuming they have no other means. This is a signal to people that when they start to get their pensions, they do not have to stop earning funds for fear of their pensions being taken off them. It will allow and encourage older people to take up employment without losing their pension at an early stage.

This is a threshold I would like to see increased on a regular basis. Contributory pensioners are fully entitled to earn what they wish without any interference with their pension. It is important that non-contributory pensioners are allowed to do the same. Up to 100,000 people are locked in the position where if they earned over €7.60, the State took their pension from them, assuming they had no other means.

I am pleased a special effort was made in regard to carers. The allowance was increased by €30 a week, bringing it up to the top rate of €200, an increase of 17% on last year. We often speak of increasing pensions to the €200 a week mark. I am particularly pleased the top rate of carer's allowance is now €200 a week. This makes it the largest single welfare payment in the State, leaving aside the special case for the over-80s. The respite care grant has been increased by 25% to €1,200. This year 33,000 carers availed of this grant.

The child care package is dedicated to measures to alleviate child poverty. The specific measure was to increase the family income supplement by putting in an extra €25 million. We have increased the amounts from €19 to €282 per week. This year it will be targeted at larger families. I will give the House some of the figures intended in this measure on another Stage. When the figures are in the public arena, Members will note the strong effect this change will have on family income support. It will mean larger families, who are most vulnerable to poverty, will gain substantially from the new family income supplement. The measure is a direct assault on child poverty because it will result in people on low incomes receiving top-ups from the State and being allowed to earn more while keeping their benefits. In addition, larger families will receive more than smaller families.

On the issue of child poverty, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which benefits 160,000 children, has been increased by 50% or €40 per child, bringing the rate up to €120 for children aged under 11 years and €190 for eligible persons aged up to 22 years. Moreover, funding for the school meals programme has been increased by 25% or €2 million.

I ran through these figures to demonstrate that when one examines the combined effects of the new child care package and increases in child benefit, social welfare rates, the fuel allowance and pensions, one finds that the ESRI's view that the budget is targeted at the lower paid and its benefits reduce as income increases is true. The progressive nature of the budget has been confirmed by the ESRI poverty model which indicates that the bottom fifth in society gained substantially more from the budget measures than the other four fifths of the population.

Deputies mentioned lone parents. I increased the upper earnings limit for lone parents by €82 per week to a new limit of €375. As a result, several thousand people will become eligible for a payment and lone parents currently in work will be in a position to substantially increase their earnings. Allowing people to earn more money before their allowance is touched and removing the allowance at a slower rate to ensure recipients find a solid footing will assist people in avoiding the poverty trap to which Deputy Penrose referred. The jump in the limit by €82 per week or more than €4,000 per annum will be helpful.

Specifically on activation measures, I noted the introduction of a tapered 50% withdrawal rate for disability allowance and the reduction in the qualification period for back to work allowance from five years to two years on the live register. This, too, is part of the philosophy behind what I am attempting to achieve, namely, to recognise carers, support older people, ensure activation is at the heart of the budget and, specifically, target child poverty. In this regard, I was pleased to note from the CSO's EU survey that consistent poverty, to use the words of the CSO, has fallen from 8.8% to 6.8% in one year. While the latter figure is still not acceptable, the budget will reduce it further because we have forcefully targeted poverty.

Many questions were asked about the child care supplement. The supplement will be paid by the Department on behalf of the National Children's Office because the Department has the relevant records and is, therefore, in a much better position to make the payments. The supplement will be paid quarterly in arrears for the second, third and fourth quarters of 2006, with three payments of €250 issuing over the year. The first payment will be made in the summer of 2006 when the necessary processing systems and procedures are in place. Full quarterly payments will be paid in respect of each child who was under six years and had an entitlement to child benefit at any point during the relevant quarter. The date of a child's birthday during the quarter is irrelevant.

I asked a question about rent supplement which was wrongly paid for three months after tenants left a dwelling.

What was the Deputy's point?

A landlord contacted me pointing out that despite informing the Department that tenants had left a rented property, cheques for rent supplement continued to arrive for three months. Is it possible to stop such wrong payments which were neither expected nor due in the case in question?

The Deputy is referring to a specific individual who received rent allowance from the Health Service Executive in error.

Yes. Who should the landlord contact to have the cheques stopped?

While I presume the landlord should contact the Health Service Executive, if the Deputy supplies my officials with details of the case, it will be addressed.

It is a flaw in the system.

It is unusual to be pressed on how to give back money. If someone wishes to return money, I promise the Deputy we will find a way for him to do so. I am sure the HSE would be glad to have the cheque returned.

A number of speakers, albeit none of the Deputies present, used phrases such as "pittance" to describe increases in social welfare. I will outline some examples of how the increases will affect families. A family with two children under six years with an income of €20,000 will receive €2,000 in child care allowance, €3,600 in child benefit and, most important, €4,233 in family income supplement, as well as €240 back to school allowance. In summary, the family will receive a total child support package of €10,073, whereas the equivalent figure for last year was €6,400. I will publish these figures in due course.

I do not wish to try the Acting Chairman's patience but I wish to outline a further example. A family with four children, two of whom are aged over six years and two under six years, with an income of €20,000 will receive, in round figures, child care payments of €2,000, child benefit of €8,000, family income supplement of €8,000 and back to school allowance of €480. In total, the family will receive additional social welfare, specifically for children, of €18,000 on top of earnings of €20,000, bringing its income up to €38,000. The equivalent figure for last year was €12,000.

The previous figure referred to a family on low pay in receipt of family income supplement. A family with two children aged under six years in which the parents are unemployed will receive unemployment assistance of €16,000, child care allowance of €2,000, child benefit of €3,600, fuel allowance of €406 and back to school allowance of €240, giving a total income from the State of €22,335. Last year, this ordinary family with two children would have received €18,000 from the State.

If an unemployed person had four children, two of whom are aged under six years and two aged over six years, the family would receive €17,000 in unemployment assistance, which includes child dependant allowance, €2,000 in child care allowance, €8,000 in child benefit. Taken together with the other smaller allowances I mentioned, this gives a total income of €28,000, as compared to €24,000 last year.

I accept the point made by many Deputies that social welfare payments are made using taxpayers' rather than Government money. An unemployed person who received €18,000 social welfare last year will receive €22,000 in social welfare after this budget. In another scenario, a family in which the parents are unemployed will have its income jump from €24,000 to €28,000. I will try to publish these figures in some format in the future.

I do not propose to take Deputies through figures on pensioners but they are equally dramatic. For example, in the case of one pensioner, income will increase from €1,800 to more than €8,000 due to the new disregards introduced in the budget.

I thank Deputies for considering Second Stage and look forward to their contributions on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?