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.