Social Welfare Bill 2006: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce this Bill, the first of two intended to implement the largest social welfare package in the history of the State of €1.41 billion announced last week in the budget. This substantial investment brings total expenditure on social welfare in 2007 to €15.3 billion. In simple terms that means that €1 for every €3 of Government day-to-day spending goes directly into welfare entitlements and supports. In total, week in, week out, some 1.5 million people will benefit from the significant increases and improvements in the budget that will protect and improve the living standards of social welfare recipients.

This budget is about delivering on this Government's commitments in the programme for Government by bringing the State non-contributory pension to €200 a week and realising the 2007 target for the lowest social welfare rates. With increases in the qualified adult allowances, a pensioner on a State contributory pension will be better off by almost €40 per week. In addition, the lowest rate of social welfare payments have increased by 12.1%, far in excess of the expected increase of 4.5% in private sector earnings and almost three times the forecast rate of inflation for 2007.

As well as massive income support improvements of over €970 million, another €430 million — nearly one third of the total package — is being directed to support a range of significant reform measures, including confronting and tackling remaining child poverty, increasing income supports for all pensioners, recognising and supporting carers and those with disabilities, and increasing the status and incomes of women. These are major structural reforms which, when taken with a number of other reforms and changes being implemented or progressed, particularly in the areas of lone parents and pensions, will contribute greatly to the overall policy reform agenda that I have been pursuing for the past two years. These reforms on child poverty, carer's support, women's incomes and pensions are about more than just increasing incomes. They are important and necessary structural reforms that create change, open up fresh opportunities and deliver enlightened social policy.

On many occasions I have described child poverty as totally unacceptable in the prosperous and progressive Ireland of the 21st century. Childhood deprivation can leave lasting marks on children by impeding their development and curbing their life chances. It is not just the child who suffers — society also loses, for children are its wealth and its future.

Since my first days in this portfolio I have been determined to make the changes and reforms that will make a lasting impact on child poverty. It is a complex area that overall requires an integrated, joined-up Government response such as that envisaged in Towards 2016, which lays out an ambitious programme of priority actions for the next ten years. In the meantime, I am determined that further progress must be made in tackling remaining child poverty. That is why at the core of this welfare budget is the commitment to an even stronger and more focused campaign. We have already travelled some distance towards eliminating hardship and deprivation. In recent years we have lifted more than 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, out of poverty, but there is still a distance to travel and now it behoves us all to redouble our efforts and complete the task.

I have long held the view that implementing a second tier of payment for children in low income and welfare families is the most effective method of confronting and significantly reducing remaining child poverty. While child benefit remains the main overall support for families with children, I now intend introducing in this Bill a new single high rate qualified child allowance, formerly known as child dependant allowance, targeted at families on welfare where children are most at risk of poverty. This involves combining the current three qualified child allowance rates into a single rate of €22 per week, which will now apply to all social welfare schemes and will be paid for over 340,000 children of welfare families. For those on the current lower rates of €16.80 and €19.30 per child per week, this represents a substantial improvement, particularly when taken with child benefit and other increases.

Child dependant allowances have remained unchanged since 1994 because they were viewed as a disincentive in moving people from welfare to work but, as we all know, the Ireland of 1994 is not the Ireland of 2006. The labour market has changed dramatically. The introduction of the national minimum wage, the national employment action plan and the re-focussing of the family income supplement scheme, to name but a few initiatives over the past decade or more, have all served to further reduce the impact of the loss of qualified child allowance in the decision to take up full-time employment. This message has been further reinforced by the Combat Poverty Agency and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and many other welfare groups, who strongly supported increasing the qualified child allowance. I view this improved and targeted allowance as representing a substantial move in the direction of a second-tier payment and that is why in this budget I have deliberately taken the decision to focus increased child supports in this area.

The budget included a number of other targeted measures to address the position of children in low income households. The back to school clothing and footwear allowance provides vital additional income support for poorer families at a particularly difficult and stressful time of the year. That is why I am increasing the allowance by €60 for children aged two to 11, and by €95 for children aged 12 to 22, bringing the rates of payment to €180 and €285, respectively, an increase of 50%. Over just two budgets this allowance has nearly doubled in value.

Another important weapon in tackling remaining child poverty is the family income supplement, FIS, which provides cash support for low earning employees with families, while at the same time maintaining incentives to enter or remain in employment. I was particularly encouraged by the impact of this year's FIS improvements, and also the response to the awareness campaign undertaken by my Department which has resulted in an increase of over 20% — to 21,400 families — in those receiving FIS. As all the evidence is that poverty is more likely to be concentrated in larger families, last year's budget re-focused the FIS weekly earnings thresholds in favour of such families and I have followed this approach again this year in this legislation. Consequently, average payments per child will increase to nearly €50. It is also anticipated that the changes in the thresholds will entitle approximately 5,600 additional families to the payment.

Everyone is entitled to a basic standard of living. All are entitled to a decent pension and security and dignity in their later years. I have repeatedly stated my conviction that this generation will be judged on how it uses the fruits of the economic miracle of recent years to help those most vulnerable in society. We have a responsibility to assist those who for reasons of age, health or other circumstances need the financial lifeline that is welfare support to help them through bad times and to offer hope and encouragement towards better times.

This Government has committed itself to delivering a number of specific and ambitious improvements in social welfare rates by 2007. At the core of this commitment was the pledge to bring the basic State pension to €200 per week. I am pleased that we are able to deliver on this promise by increasing the State non-contributory pension by €18 a week to €200 with effect from next January, and the State contributory pension to over €209 per week.

The needs of older people have been, and will remain, a priority for this Government. That has been repeatedly demonstrated by the numerous initiatives which have been taken over the past ten years or so in the areas of pensions, supports for carers and household benefits such as free electricity, gas and telephones. For instance, since 1996, and including increases granted in the current year, pensions have increased by almost 119%, or approximately 57% in real terms — faster than both price and wages growth over the period.

All the more recent indicators, including the latest EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions for 2005, show the progress which is being made in significantly improving the well-being of older people. The EU survey found that consistent poverty rates for older people were very low at 3.7%, and that was before the many benefits flowing from budget 2006, and the many and significant increases and improvements announced in last week's budget for 2007, are taken into account.

In budget 2006, for the first time in many years, I increased the basic income disregard for the purposes of the means test for the State non-contributory pension to €20 per week. At the same time, I introduced incentives for pensioners on means-tested payments who may wish to continue in employment by providing for allowed earnings of €100 per week. I am happy to be able to build on these improvements by increasing the basic means disregard to €30 per week, and at the same time building on the employment incentives provided this year by increasing the allowed earnings to €200 per week. These measures will benefit approximately 26,000 pensioners who are currently in receipt of a reduced rate of pension. They will, of course, also benefit from the general €18 per week increase in the personal rate of payment and, where relevant, the €11.90 increases in the qualified adult rate. In other words, many non-contributory pensioner couples will gain by over €46 per week from these combined measures, with effect from next January.

We all share a wish that older people have security and comfort in their later years. Meeting household heating costs, particularly through the winter months, can be a cause of concern and anxiety for older people. Increases in energy and fuel prices only add to these anxieties. That is why we have taken action to protect older people from the impact of price increases. Last year, I increased the fuel allowance by €5 a week to €14 and this year I am increasing it by a further €4 to €18 a week. Therefore, the level of the fuel allowance, which is paid to 274,000 recipients, will have doubled in the past two years.

This is not the only measure being taken to address fuel poverty and to alleviate the worries of elderly people. As the Taoiseach announced in September, from next January the number of free units of electricity and gas paid under the household benefits scheme will increase significantly by 600 units a year to 2,400 units at a cost of €50 million.

A number of other improvements have been made over the past few years to the household benefits package for older people. In this budget I am introducing a number of further enhancements which, for example, take account of changing trends in society and the impact of technology. From next April, it will be possible for pensioners and others who qualify to have the free telephone allowance paid in respect of either mobile phones or fixed land-lines. This will allow older people to have more flexibility and mobiles can also be reassuring from a security point of view. More than 320,000 people will benefit from the telephone allowance this year.

I am also extending the automatic entitlement to a free travel companion pass to pensioners aged under 75 who are medically unfit to travel unaccompanied. Early 2007 will see the introduction of all-Ireland free travel which will deliver all-island free travel for all pensioners, North and South.

The Government is concerned about retirement income now and in the future. We all know the demographic pressures our pensions system will face in the future. While we are facing a pensions problem, unlike many other countries with less favourable demographics, we are not yet facing a crisis. It is critically important that we use the time we have available to find the pensions solutions for tomorrow. Everyone is entitled to adequate income, dignity and security in their older years. I am determined that we will work towards delivering adequate retirement income to all our citizens which does not place an unsustainable burden on future taxpayers.

Pensions are now high up on the national agenda. The past two years have seen considerable movement and a completely new focus. The two reports published by the Pensions Board over the past year — the national pensions review and savings for retirementrequire serious debate and analysis. I was pleased to see pensions at the centre of the social partnership negotiations for Towards 2016. The agreement features a number of commitments in this area, including the publication of a Green Paper on pensions outlining the major policy choices and challenges which I intend to publish by the end of March 2007. After a consultation process, the Government will develop a framework for comprehensively addressing the pensions agenda over the long term.

Carers make a valued and valuable contribution to society by devoting their time and energy to improving the quality of life of others. I am determined that their dedication and sacrifice will be recognised and acknowledged through increased benefits and improved support measures. Since 1997, the Government has been committed to supporting care in the community to the maximum possible extent. Over that period, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes — such as the respite care grant and carer's benefit — have been introduced and extended. As a result of these improvements, almost 28,500 carers are in receipt of either carer's allowance or carer's benefit.

Our commitment to carers has been further reinforced in the partnership agreement Towards 2016. We are committed to the development and publication of a national carer's strategy next year which will focus on supporting informal and family carers in the community.

I am pleased to announce further reforms, increases and improvements to the income supports available to carers which builds on the significant progress of recent years. As I have said on many occasions, the primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support and the rules generally specify that only one weekly welfare payment can be paid to an individual. Until now, the rule has been that those qualifying for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. I am aware that this has been a cause of particular concern to people in receipt of one social welfare payment when they become carers. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, chaired by Deputy Penrose, made specific recommendations in this regard which I have taken into account.

Accordingly, I am introducing fundamental structural reforms in this area. In future, people in receipt of certain social welfare payments who are also providing full-time care and attention to a person will be able to retain the main welfare payment and also receive another payment, equivalent of up to half-rate carer's allowance. The reform of the system and the abolition of the old rule that one cannot get two welfare payments means that for the first time people who are caring can have some real recognition of their caring duties. Introducing the new dual payment system means we will be starting to recognise the carer's allowance less as a welfare income payment and more as a direct support for caring duties and responsibilities. I consider this reform to be an important step forward and I am determined to press ahead with other needed reforms and improvements in the caring area.

It is estimated some 14,000 people are currently in receipt of a carer's allowance who would also have an entitlement to another welfare payment, while a further 4,000 carers are also in receipt of other welfare payments. This means that some 18,000 carers should qualify for a half-rate carer's allowance of up to €109 per week. The precise details of this arrangement are currently being examined by my Department and will be set out in the next social welfare Bill.

The budget delivered an investment of more than €107 million in a comprehensive carers package. This included an annual respite care grant increase of €300 to €1,500 which will benefit almost 40,000 carers; increases of €18 and €20 in the rate of carer's allowance and carer's benefit which will directly benefit 28,500 carers; the means test for carer's allowance was eased with income disregard increased by €30 to €320 per week for a single person and by €60 to €640 for a couple, meaning that a couple with two children can earn up to €36,240 and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance as well as the free travel and household benefits. The easing of the means test will allow an additional 1,200 carers to qualify for payment and 2,500 existing carers to receive increases in weekly payments. The earning threshold for carer's benefit increased by €30 to €320 per week. Grants of €500,000 were made available for carers' organisations.

These improvements, together with the improvements in home care and related services announced by the Minister for Health and Children, represent a further advancement of our vision of a co-ordinated approach to services and supports for carers in the community.

I am pleased that with this Bill I will be achieving one of the principal commitments in my Department's disability sectoral plan. As a result of their residency, people in residential care prior to August 1999, or those who entered residential care after that date without an entitlement to disability allowance, are disqualified from receipt of the allowance. This was partially addressed in budget 2005 when I introduced a new disability allowance personal expenses rate, currently payable at €35 per week to 2,700 people in residential care. This payment replaced, at a standardised and higher rate, the so-called pocket money spending allowances which had previously been paid to some of these residents.

I am particularly pleased to now provide for the eligibility in their own right to disability allowance to all persons resident in institutions, subject only to the same conditions as apply to others. This will ensure that all persons with disability in residential care have an entitlement to an income maintenance payment and are treated in the same way as other social welfare recipients.

In further advances in the area of disability, the Citizens Information Bill 2006, which is currently being debated by this House, lays the statutory foundation for the provision of a personal advocacy service to people with disabilities. I am providing for a further €1.9 million to Comhairle, soon to be renamed the Citizens Information Board, to continue the development of this and related services next year.

In delivering on the commitment to greater gender equality in the welfare system and in making the welfare code fairer to women, the Bill includes important reforms that will lead to more enlightened social policies in the pensions area. Increasing the rate of qualified adult allowance for the spouses and partners of contributory pensioners by €23.70 per week will directly benefit 35,500 couples. It will bring the rate of qualified adult allowance payments for those aged 66 and over to 86.5% of the target rate contained in the Government commitment of bringing the rate up to the rate of the non-contributory State pension. There is now a €60 million commitment to reaching that target in the next three years.

In the next social welfare Bill, to be presented to the House in February, I intend to provide for the qualified adult's entitlement to the qualified adult allowance for the duration of the entitlement of a State pensioner. As most qualified adults are women, this decision will be of particular benefit to them as it will, in most cases, transform the payment into what is in effect a woman's pension in her own right as distinct from being a dependant allowance. I also intend to provide for this payment to be made directly to the qualified adult. It will remain open to any qualified adult to continue to have his or her portion of the pension paid jointly with that of the State pensioner if that is what they wish.

I am also proposing to significantly reform the manner in which spouses and partners are assessed as qualified adults across a range of social assistance schemes and, in particular, the treatment of part-time and low-paid work done by qualified adults. The proposed reform involves assessing both members of a couple in a similar manner, with common disregards and assessments applying to both. I will also remove the poverty traps that are present in the current method of assessment. For example, at certain income levels if a woman increases her income from part-time employment to over €100 per week, her spouse or partner can lose €1.20 from his jobseeker's allowance for every €1 she earns in excess of the disregard. Clearly this situation has no place in a modern system of employment supports.

Under the reforms proposed, increases in labour market participation will instead be rewarded and this will facilitate women in moving beyond the occupational cul-de-sac of indefinite part-time employment with earnings kept below €100 per week. Both partners will now be able to claim jobseeker's allowance in their own right. This will also facilitate women in particular to access the range of employment supports and training opportunities that go with receipt of jobseeker's allowance. I am confident that these proposals will significantly reduce the complexity in the present system, while recognising and rewarding increased labour market participation by all, particularly by women.

This Bill also introduces two beneficial measures which will assist widows and widowers at a particularly difficult time in their lives, namely, in the immediate aftermath of the death of their spouse. Financial worries add to the stresses experienced at such times. Not only do widows and widowers have to cover the cost of a funeral but often they also have to cope with the sudden loss of an income. The six weeks after death payment paid to the survivors of social welfare recipients are intended to ease this financial strain. In addition, my Department makes once-off payments to assist with immediate costs. To help ease the financial strains at this sensitive time, the widowed parent grant is being increased by €1,300 to €4,000 while the bereavement grant will be increased by €215 to €850.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 2 and 3, together with Schedules 1 and 2, provide for an increase of €16 for contributory State pensioners, widow's and widower's contributory pensioners, those in receipt of deserted wife's benefit aged 66 and over and people on State pension transition and invalidity pensions aged 65 and over. An increase of €18 per week is provided for those in receipt of non-contributory State pension and carer's allowance. Recipients of invalidity and widow's and widower's non-contributory pensions, as well as those in receipt of deserted wife's benefit and carer's benefit, will receive an increase of €20 per week. Payments such as jobseeker's benefit and allowance, illness benefit, one-parent family payment, disability allowance, supplementary welfare allowance, carer's allowance, farm assist and guardian's payment are all increased by €20 per week.

These increases will bring the elderly pension rates to €209.30 and €200, with carer's allowance recipients aged over 66 receiving €218 per week. The lowest payments, such as illness benefit, jobseeker's allowance and supplementary welfare allowance will reach €185.80 per week, with those on carer's allowance aged under 66 receiving €200 per week.

Weekly increases in respect of qualified adults, ranging from €23.70 in the case of contributory and transition State pensions where the qualified adult is over 66 years of age to €10.70 if under 66, will ensure that the existing proportional relationship between all personal rates of payment and that of their associated qualified adult allowances, is either significantly increased to almost 83% in the case of the former or maintained at over 66% in the case of the latter.

These sections of the Bill also provide for increases in the qualified child allowance rates to bring the existing three rates up to a single standard rate of €22 per week. Where reduced rates of payment apply, proportionate increases apply. All personal, qualified adult and qualified child increases take effect from the first week in January 2007.

Increases for recipients of jobseeker's benefit and allowance, illness and maternity benefit, one-parent family payment, family income supplement, farm assist and supplementary welfare payments will be paid from the first payday in January 2007. Due to the lead-in times involved in the production of personal payable orders for certain long-term payments such as pensions, it will not be possible for budgetary increases to be paid immediately, in such cases, from January next. Some 142,000 recipients of, for example, widow's and widower's, carer's and invalidity payments, will receive their new order books in mid-February. This group will receive six weeks' arrears of its budget increase, which will be included in the first order of the new book, and the weekly increase will be incorporated in their normal weekly payment thereafter.

Certain other long-term recipients, such as State pensioners and those in receipt of disability allowance — some 276,000 customers — will receive new pension order books at the end of March. This group will receive a special once-off payment in mid-February representing 12 weeks of their budgetary increase. This will cover retrospection of the increase to January plus an advance payment of the increase to the end of March. From the book renewal date at end of March, the increase will be incorporated in the normal weekly payment.

As already mentioned, section 4 provides for increases in the weekly income thresholds applied in determining entitlement to family income supplement. The new thresholds will range from €480 for a family with one child to €1,090 for a family of eight or more children. For example, a family with three children on €500, or about two thirds of gross average industrial weekly earnings, will receive €75 in 2007 compared with €39 currently — an increase of €36 per week.

Sections 5 and 6 of the Bill provide for changes in PRSI. In budget 2006 the threshold for liability to the employee element of PRSI was set at €300 per week. This was equivalent to the entry point to taxation. The measure ensured that an employee earning up to this threshold amount, which was slightly higher than the annualised equivalent of the minimum wage rate for 2006, would not be subject to tax or PRSI. With a view to maintaining this position in 2007, the weekly threshold is set, in section 5 of this Bill, at €339, which is, at €17,628 per annum, slightly above the threshold of €17,600 for payment of income tax for employees under 65.

Sections 5 and 6 provide that the earnings ceiling for employee's social insurance contributions and the income ceiling for optional contributors are increased by €2,200 from €46,600 to €48,800 per annum with effect from 1 January 2007. This is an increase of approximately 4.8% and is in line with projected earnings increases. The increase was contained in the Abridged Estimates Volume, published earlier this year.

Section 7 of the Bill provides for an increase of four weeks, from 22 weeks to 26 weeks, in the duration of maternity benefit. Section 8 provides for an increase of four weeks, from 20 to 24, in the duration of adoptive benefit. These improvements take effect from 1 March 2007.

As already mentioned, section 9 and Schedule 1 to the Bill provide for an increase of €1,300 to €4,000 in the widowed parent grant and €215 to €850 in the bereavement and death benefit grants. All these increases take effect from budget day.

Section 10 provides for an increase of €10, from €20 to €30, in the weekly means disregard for non-contributory State pension means testing purposes from January 5, the same day the budget increase of €18 per week comes into effect. This means, for example, that a pensioner with weekly means of €30 per week will receive a pension in 2007 of €200 per week instead of a pension of €172 per week in December 2006, a net gain of €28 per week, €18 arising from the rate increase and €10 from the increase in the means disregard.

Likewise, a pensioner with means of €100 per week and a pension of €102 per week in December 2006, will get €130 per week from January, also a gain of €28 per week. Nearly 26,000 pensioners will gain from the increase in the disregard.

Section 11 makes provision, as outlined earlier, for the payment of full-rate disability allowance to those in residential institutions. The legislation providing for the introduction of self-employed or class S contributions in 1988 excluded from liability self-employed workers whose total income was below a threshold of £2,500, equivalent to €3,174 per annum. This threshold correlated approximately with the rate of non-contributory old age pension for a single person. The level at which a self-employed person becomes eligible for class S contributions has remained unchanged over the past 18 years.

At the time, those who engaged in self-employment but were entitled to unemployment assistance were excluded from liability for PRSI in view of their low income levels. This principle carried over to the introduction of farm assist in 1999, when it was again accepted that a person should not have a PRSI liability where he or she was on sufficiently low income to warrant entitlement to a means-tested payment.

Over the years, the threshold for class S liability has remained unchanged while there have also been significant improvements in disregards for means-tested schemes, notably relating to farm assist. Therefore, a self-employed worker who is in receipt of farm assist or jobseeker's allowance may only maintain his or her contribution record by opting into the voluntary contribution scheme. In this context, it is desirable to improve access to social insurance coverage and enable continuing social insurance protection, specifically the accrual of contributions towards a contributory State pension, by removing the exemption from PRSI liability for those in receipt of farm assist and jobseeker's allowance. I am providing for this in section 12 of this Bill.

To ensure that the position of those on lower incomes is protected, the health contribution levy threshold is being increased by €40, from €440 to €480 per week, with the corresponding annual threshold being increased from €22,880 to €24,960. Furthermore, an additional 0.5% is being introduced in respect of income to the extent that it exceeds €100,100 per year or is equivalent to €1,925 per week. This increase, which is expected to affect only the top 10% of earners, is effective from 1 January 2007.

The Social Welfare Bill 2006, the first of two instalments, builds further on the considerable progress that has been made in recent years. It safeguards the living standards of those who rely on social welfare income and other supports and prioritises the allocation of resources to those most in need. The Bill is also about solid and fundamental structural reforms of welfare policies — reforms that will modernise, will make the welfare system fairer to all and will deliver more enlightened social policies.

I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.

As always, the Opposition assures the Minister of a constructive debate. I thank him for asking his officials to brief Opposition Deputies on the Bill, which was helpful. I hope that the practice will continue.

The Minister must be one of the happiest Ministers in history to have so much money to give away. I will not be churlish because the Bill has many good aspects. One cannot give away €1.41 billion as the Minister is doing without helping many people or making them happy. We must remember that people have paid this money to the Exchequer through taxation, particularly indirect tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty and so on. We are redistributing their money.

The Combat Poverty Agency stated that last year's package was more progressive than regressive. According to the agency, previous years' packages were regressive, but there is a trend leading away from that situation. The Opposition has sought evenly distributed payments to target the most needy, which is finally being done. I compliment the Minister in that regard.

On the first page of his speech, the Minister referred to "important and necessary structural reforms that create change, open up fresh opportunities and deliver enlightened social policies". While the Minister has gone a long way in this respect, there is further to go, which I am sure he will acknowledge.

The first issue mentioned in the Minister's speech was child poverty, which he described as "totally unacceptable in the prosperous and progressive Ireland of the 21st century". He should examine an article in today'sIrish Examiner by Mr. Fergus Finlay, the head of Barnardos, who describes an experience of a child care worker dealing with a child from an extraordinarily deprived background. Going to school at the age of four or five years, the child is already old and has been through a lifetime of awful experiences. The child is typical in many areas where streets have no signposts in order to confuse gardaí searching for drug dealers, criminals and so forth.

Today, that underbelly was evident in the shooting dead of an innocent bystander in this city. We must tackle this underbelly, at the root of much of which is poverty. While children suffer child poverty, the Minister was right to say that society also suffers in that children are society's wealth and future. Speaking as a former teacher, primary school teachers will identify the child in junior infants who will go to prison as a young adult. We must intervene before that point. We need a structured pre-school system, particularly for children lacking support at home. We need to examine the crèche system and the child care sector.

For some time, the Minister has spoken of a second tier payment. In his reply he might tell me that I am wrong but I understood that it was to be an amalgamation of the CDA, back to school and FIS payments and targeted, possibly automatically, at the families most in need of it. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to do. I welcome the Minister's amalgamation of the three CDA payments and the increase to €22, which the Opposition called for previously.

What of the Minister's other vision that he shared with the House two years ago or more, namely, a special, targeted second tier payment? The Minister obliged the Opposition's calls for advertising campaigns to increase the take-up of the back to school clothing and footwear and FIS payments. While they were successful to a certain point, some people have still not availed of the payments. A means of doing more would be to make automatic payments, which should be possible in this day and age.

Recently, I suggested that the deadline for claiming the back to school clothing and footwear payment be extended to the end of November if not the end of the year, but I was disappointed when the Minister, who I have privately and publicly said is progressive, bluntly said "No". Regularly, people attend my clinics and office and say that they never knew about the payment. They would have claimed it if they had known, but it was too late by that stage. They can apply for exceptional needs payments, but those are not the same as the back to school payment and are messier. These people are entitled to the back to school payment.

September is a busy time for parents. They must prepare children for school and there are many hassles, worries and things to do. It is simple to forget, fail to go about claiming or not to know of the back to school clothing and footwear payment. It should not incur an additional cost to extend the deadline to the end of November so that those entitled to it can make their claims. As it is an administrative issue, I do not know why the Minister said he had no plans to extend the deadline and would not consider the matter. It was unlike him and I appeal to him to re-examine this modest proposal.

If people find out about the payment — that they can get it from community welfare officers if their families are on low incomes, have a certain number of children and so on — when they meet other parents at school gates in the first or second week of October, it is already too late. I do not know whether the Minister would need to issue a directive or administrative order to community welfare officers or whether legislation would be required, but he should consider the matter.

I meant to state at the outset that the social welfare debate, what the Minister is doing and the budget are important and fundamental. Is it not amazing that this debate is taking place in the last week before Christmas, that we will continue until 11 p.m. tonight, the graveyard shift if ever there was one, and that it will be guillotined tomorrow? Reading through the Minister's speech, it struck me that certain payments, while commencing in January, will not be made until the middle of February for all kinds of administrative reasons. Why can this process not be commenced earlier than the Christmas holiday deadline? It would give us time to debate the matter and for the payments to be made in January. An election will intervene, but the issue could be examined for the future. We should not be debating the important issue of social welfare and all that goes with it while heading towards the midnight hour.

Like everyone, pensioners are entitled to a basic standard of living. I welcome that the Minister has kept his promise to increase the basic rate for those under 80 years of age to €209.30. With all the pressures and expenses that now exist, should the increase have been more? Some agencies were seeking more but it is welcome and we acknowledge that it was done. Older people need it because they worry about having enough money and the future.

I regret that another worry has been added to that list — that there will be a bill for their dependants after their deaths to pay nursing home charges. Do we really need to do that? The Government should reconsider this because it will add to the worries of those who have worked all their lives. Such a fear could cause them to hand their houses over earlier to avoid this death tax.

The fuel allowance was increased by €5 last year but only €4 this year. I expected the same increase at least this year because fuel prices have increased so much. From January, however, the number of free units of electricity and gas will increase, which is welcome. Older people need heat more than the rest of us. It has been argued that the time for the fuel allowance should be extended by four weeks, starting two weeks earlier and ending two weeks later in the year. We should consider that next year.

Pensions policy was mentioned by the Minister. It is a major issue and many models exist. The cost to the State of tax foregone through pension investment is heading for €3 billion per year, a huge amount. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs held hearings on this and some witnesses expressed concern about the way some of the current schemes are being administered. The Minister should ensure the Pensions Board has enough power to carry out its functions because €3 billion is a huge amount to forego each year. We must shine a light on this. I welcome the publication of a Green Paper on pensions but by the time anyone gets around to looking at it, we will be on the other side of the election. We must, however, debate this topic.

The Government has done much for carers. I welcome the half rate carer's allowance now payable to people in receipt of another social welfare payment, although we are yet to hear which payments will be allowed. The Minister must have read Fine Gael policy in this area because that was one of the key elements when we drafted a policy on carers. I must rewrite it now. I congratulate the Minister, however, because this will help many people. There was an anomaly that when people reached a certain age, they had to make a choice between the State pension and the carer's allowance when they were still caring for a person. It was unfair.

Carers do a great deal of work and we all agree we should try to maintain those who need care in their own homes for as long as possible. People prefer to stay in their own homes with their own possessions and live longer as a result. I visited Denmark this year and it was remarkable. The Danish stopped building nursing homes in 1997 because the home care and rehabilitation is so good. People who have a stroke enjoy immediate occupational and speech therapy and physiotherapy. The person is back on his or her feet as soon as possible. That is certainly not the case here, where the policy is to get someone into a nursing home at huge cost to the State and to the person's dignity and independence. I support the Minister for Health and Children's policy of trying to keep people in their own homes. We must refocus to make services available to allow for proper care in people's own homes. The spouse's means test removes the recognition of a carer's work, however, because the spouse's income can lead to a carer receiving a reduced amount or nothing at all. We must reconsider this.

We have called for some time for the disability allowance to be payable to people in institutions as a matter of right. The HSE takes back 80% anyway so it is a case of swings and roundabouts. Recognition of the need for such a measure is important even if the State is giving with one hand and taking with the other.

For many years we talked about the effect of the marriage bar. If it was introduced now it would be found to be unconstitutional. The Minister has not given a timetable for the introduction of the qualified adult allowance payments up to the full rate of the non-contributory State pension but it is important that a woman has a pension in her own right. Many women gave up work outside the home but worked twice as hard in the home for years rearing children and looking after older relatives. Ireland has changed and both parents now must work to keep a roof over their heads. Individualisation encouraged that system. Some people ask if that is the best for society.

Widows and widowers need support but I do not know if the Minister has considered making the household benefits package available to widows over a certain age who might find it difficult to find employment.

I was disappointed that the budget and the Social Welfare Bill do not mention support for young carers. There are 3,000 of them in the State. The Minister implied that I asked for them to get the carer's allowance but that is not the case, I asked that other support be made available to them. Ministers promised they would discuss this but these young people are out there and their schooling, social lives and entire childhoods are suffering while the Government is doing nothing to address this issue. It is not that it has not been alerted — I do not know how many times I have asked questions about it — but nothing has been done for young carers.

Young carers must help a parent or sibling in intimate tasks, such as feeding, washing or clothing, then go to school, where they worry about the parent at home, and then go home and do this work again. I do not know whether somebody comes in during the day, but the Carers Association says 3,000 young carers are affected. I would like the Minister to outline a strategy for them. The Minister might say this will be part of the carers strategy, which will be brought forward later in the year, but nothing has happened in the two years I have debated this issue and I do not know why, given that the Minister has acknowledged the issue should be addressed. Perhaps he will outline why they are being ignored.

The introduction of a national waste waiver scheme is another issue not covered by this legislation and it may not be covered by the Bill the Minister proposes to introduce next year. Every local authority does its own thing, depending on its budget but a number do not operate a waiver scheme. The cost of the disposal of household waste is impacting on older people and social welfare recipients. While this does not fall strictly within the remit of the Department, it should be addressed.

Many social welfare recipients on housing estates depend on oil heating and they receive a once off oil fill to do them for most of the year. I am not sure whether the Minister has ever considered a bulk payment of the fuel allowance rather than a weekly payment to help them pay in one go. Officials might say it should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum because otherwise the recipient could blow the money on a holiday or something else. However, this is not a total nanny State and, therefore, if a social welfare recipient would like the fuel allowance up front to pay for an oil fill, it should be examined. I do not know whether this has happened in the past and there might be an administrative issue, but I hope the Minister will examine the possibilities in this regard.

I welcome the changes to the farm assist scheme and I am pleased many farmers will have an opportunity to improve their pension entitlements, as requested by the IFA and others. The Bill has a great deal going for it as a significant amount is being given away to social welfare recipients. The job is not complete, however, and much more needs to be done. Payments must be focused where they are needed and a good start has been made with the operation of the CDA in particular. The Minister must move beyond that to provide a targeted, automatic payment to recipients and poverty traps must be avoided.

During his budget speech, the Minister referred to lone parents and the cohabitation rule, about which he has been talking for some time. When will proposals be brought before the House to make amendments in this regard? Will they be introduced in the Bill the Minister proposes to bring forward in February or will it be left until after the election? The major problem faced by lone parents is the cost and availability of child care, which prevents them from joining the workforce as they need also child care before and after school as well during school holidays. I was approached recently by a lone parent who wants to return to work. She has two girls aged nine and ten but she wanted to know who would mind her children when they are off school.

The cost and availability of housing is not covered by the legislation but it impacts significantly on social welfare recipients. They pay huge rents to private landlords. While the rental accommodation scheme has been introduced, it is not working. Its implementation has been extremely slow because property is not available to the standard required. This is a worry because that implies people are living in substandard housing throughout the State.

All of us are worried by the levels of personal borrowing and indebtedness. The Minister has quite rightly expressed alarm and concern about people who borrow money at exorbitant rates from licensed moneylenders. This demonstrates the pressure people are under and in the current era major expectations and pressures are placed on parents with children. Children go to school and if one of their class mates has bought expensive new trainers or a school bag, they want the same. Parents want to do the best they can for their children as a result. I commend the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other voluntary organisations on their work and on the millions of euro they spend to alleviate hardship and poverty.

Moneylending and debt is a problem. The Minister is probably the happiest ever holder of his office because of all the money he can give away but the underlying structural issues, which are still causing problems, must be examined. Imagination and vision are required to tackle them. Community welfare officers are in the front line trying to address hardship. They make exceptional needs and other payments to people under serious pressure. We have all been visited by such people in our clinics. However, the Government proposes to transfer community welfare officers from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I am not sure how much debate has taken place on this proposal but the Government should not tamper with their role without great care and thought because they are at the coalface dealing with dire problems.

I welcome the improvements in the legislation and the many increases that people deserve. I look forward hopefully to being on the Government benches this time next year when we will be in a position to do more for them. In the meantime, I thank the Minister for what he has done to date. His predecessor introduced 16 savage cutbacks and we have all worked hard to reverse them. The Minister has done a great deal in this regard but more remains to be done. As Jesus once said, "The poor will always be with you" and we will have to do our best for them. Every Member is committed to doing the best he or she can for people who need support and help. I ask the Minister to examine the relative income poverty model, which deals with the significant gap between those who have a great deal and those who have very little. Consistent poverty remains, although a great deal of progress has been made. Relative income poverty is beginning to surface and cause problems. The Minister has had his head in the sand in this regard for a long time. He has been in denial, saying this is not the way to consider poverty. He says he has solved the problem because consistent poverty has almost been tackled.

Significant issues related to indebtedness, credit and borrowing are being driven by relative income poverty and this must be tackled.

It is getting late and I think I have said enough so I will hand over to Deputy Penrose.

I am glad to contribute to this debate on social welfare on behalf of the Labour Party. I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, for allowing his officials give us some very useful information on the Bill earlier today and I thank those officials for their diligence and courtesy in taking us through the legislation.

I always try to be constructive and when I express a view, it is a fundamentally held belief, rather than something put forward for the purpose of disagreement or antagonism. The Labour Party feels that at times of great economic prosperity wealth should be shared generously with those most in need. I am chairperson of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and we wrote the report on carers ourselves, without input from consultants, over six or seven months down in the bunker. I wrote the part referring to the need for recognition and acknowledgement. The first thing consultants do is charge a fee for hours worked and a lesson we learned from the report, which I advise the Minister to heed, is to forget about such input and instead put ordinary people, Deputies and Senators in those bunkers to create reports. They meet real people every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in their clinics and know what is going on.

Theory should be done without as it has led the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, into a notorious mess relating to payment for the provision of nursing home care. I predict that the Minister, Deputy Harney, will sink without trace as a result of the move made yesterday which has taken the gloss off the budget. It may not have a major effect in Dublin, but in rural areas there is a great deal of dissatisfaction relating to the new scheme on payment for nursing home care. I met a man last night aged 76 who was very happy with the budget. However, he said he worked for 46 years to build up his house and would like to leave it to his daughter without a legacy of debt. For this reason, he said he hopes he never has to go into a nursing home. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, will force people to make decisions that they should never have to make. I am not here to take the gloss off the budget, but remember the words I have spoken tonight.

I congratulate the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, on this, his third budget, and the significant effort he has made to deal with some of the issues we have brought to his attention over the years. The Minister has gone some way in improving the lot of the poor and disadvantaged, a process that began in the budget of 2004 and continued in 2005. However, I disagree fundamentally with the Minister for Finance's assertion in his Budget Statement that throughout its term in office the Government has assured the less well off have shared in Ireland's growing economic prosperity. That is an effort to rewrite history. If the current Minister for Finance has forgotten the dreadful years of the regressive McCreevy budgets, the savage 16 and other insidious cuts, none of the disadvantaged, nor the groups who support them, have forgotten.

From 1997 to 2004, the gap between rich and poor widened as each of seven successive budgets gave to the rich and took from the poor, making Ireland one of the most unequal countries in Europe. As the Conference of Religious of Ireland, CORI, put it in 2004, the same year they were taken to Inchydoney to manufacture a Pauline conversion, "the rich get richer while those living in poverty still have a long way to go before they ever reach the poverty line of income". That is taken from page 41 of the Priorities for Fairness — Socio-Economic Review 2004 by the CORI Justice Commission in case anyone should accuse me of being political. Two recent budgets giving more to the poor than the rich can only go a small way towards putting right the neglect of the previous seven years and we await the outcome of the most recent budget.

I would also question the real meaning of the boast by the Minister for Finance that in this budget he is providing "the biggest package of support for those on low incomes in the history of the State". There are two very clear reasons for this large package, both arising from this Government's mismanagement of the State's finances. First, as outlined above, the Government increased income inequality and worsened the situation for the poor over the first seven years of its time in office. It will take more than two or three years of higher spending on social welfare to put right the damage done over so many years. Second, a recent economic commentator has put our current inflation rate at 4%. We have not done nearly as well as our EU neighbours in keeping inflation under control although we are facing the same international problems with rising energy prices and the fall in the value of the dollar.

With significant inflation, the Government will obviously spend more in absolute terms just to buy the same amount of goods and services this year as last year. Any Minister for Finance presiding over an economy with significant inflation can always make the very hollow boast that he is spending more than he ever did before, but this is not the same as devoting more resources to the needy. Indeed, the Government, during its entire time in office, has never spent as large a proportion of the country's total income on social welfare as the rainbow coalition did in 1995 and 1996, when social welfare expenditure accounted for 10.4% to 11.1% of the gross national product, GNP. The advent of the current Government led to social welfare expenditure falling as low as 7.5% of GNP and it has remained in single figures throughout its time in power. I have taken these figures from page 85 of the Central Statistics Office Statistical Yearbook of Ireland 2006.

Those struggling on inadequate social welfare incomes are very sensitive to every price increase, whether caused by general price inflation, stealth taxes or Government agreed increases in gas, electricity, transport and health care costs. Real improvements in circumstances are important to the disadvantaged, not comparisons and changes relating only to the previous year's financial circumstances.

The great cheer during the budget speech from Fianna Fáil Party backbenchers at some social welfare payments at last crossing the €200 per week barrier gave a clear indication that it is perceived that helping the poor might improve the party's prospects in the next election and that any social welfare payment of €200 per week solves all the problems of low income groups. Neither of these assumptions is justified.

As far as the election is concerned, let us wait for the results. As far as the increase in social welfare payment is concerned, have any of us in Dáil Éireann tried to live on €200 per week and face the price increases that inevitably come? It is, I think, unlikely. Yet the cheers from Fianna Fáil Party backbenchers at having reached this boundary for some social welfare recipients shows how little those in power know about the realities of life on the bread line.

In fact, the minimum weekly disposable income required to avoid poverty in 2006 is €203 for one adult, €270 for one adult and one child and €337 for two adults. The source for these statistics is again CORI, page 23 of a report entitled, Justice: Developing a Fairer Ireland 2006. Thus, even before the first instalment of these new improved payments has been made, the unemployed, widows and widowers under 65, lone parents, the disabled, carers and many other groups will be below the poverty line.

Before looking at some cases in detail I must say a few words about poverty in general. We are all getting tired of the way in which the Government and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, refuse to accept the fact that Ireland has poverty levels which are far too high. Instead they criticise and try to rubbish the statistics presented as being out of date, irrelevant to Irish conditions or unfair comparisons. Let me make it clear that all the references to poverty made by me today are taken from the Central Statistics Office's most recent publication on poverty, dated 16 November 2006. The CSO refers to some of the Laeken indicators, agreed by Ireland and all other EU countries in 2001 as the most appropriate methods of measuring social inclusion and of comparing the effectiveness with which different EU countries handle problems of social inclusion and poverty. These statistics show that Ireland has the highest poverty levels of any country in the EU except Portugal and the Slovak Republic.

Ireland is far less effective than other EU countries in reducing poverty levels through social transfers. Our total transfer system only reduces poverty by 18%, compared to the EU average of 25%. The unemployed, one parent families, the ill and disabled and the elderly have very high poverty levels, while a very worrying feature is that in Ireland up to one third of all children live in poverty.

I am tired of the Government closing its eyes to the real and deep seated problems of poverty in Ireland and either criticising the statistics, as if this were just a theoretical game, or trying to pretend that just one year's budget change can put everything right. If the Government refuses to accept the EU's official comparisons outlined above, it must, surely, believe the experience of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other charitable organisations. In the last year SVP spent more than €41 million giving direct help to more than 300,000 families that had been let down by the Government's social support system. Some €7.5 million of this figure was emergency support for families who had no money, no food and no resources, €4.6 million was allocated for food and €3.1 million for fuel. It is clear that fuel poverty is a big issue, and spending has been doubled in this regard in recent years, but the level of support should rise to approximately €25 over an extended period because it is a real issue throughout the country. Elderly people tend to be frugal in their budgets and often turn the heat off in their homes to save money. It is sad that people have to scrape together a few bob in this way.

If life is as good as the Government would have us believe, why do members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stand outside churches to collect the €41 million the society needs to rescue people? As Professor John Monahan once said, our ultimate aim should be to put the Society of St. Vincent de Paul out of existence. The society spent €1 million on reconnecting families to gas and electricity supplies and, in light of the continuing increases in fuel bills, pleaded with the Government for a weekly fuel allowance of €24 between September and April. However, the budget provides a mere €18 per week. More help is required if ill, disabled and elderly people and families with young children, all of whom remain at risk of poverty, are to keep warm and prepare hot food.

In 2002, there were 154,000 lone-parent families in Ireland, which represented about one sixth of all families, and one in three births took place outside marriage. Approximately 80,000 lone parents, or just over half the total number, received a one-parent family payment, which has been increased in this budget to €207.80. However, the minimum disposable income needed by one adult and one child to avoid poverty is €270, so one-parent families will start the new year below the poverty line.

What has happened to the proposals on lone parents which the Minister for Social and Family Affairs published earlier this year? Genuine concerns were expressed that elements of the proposals could result in new poverty traps. All proposals must be poverty proofed so as to ensure they do not make people worse off. There was a failure to ensure adequate access to education, which is the best route out of poverty, and appropriate child care. Nevertheless, there was considerable merit in the Minister's proposals, particularly in terms of the abolition of the long outdated prohibition on cohabitation. It is time we got over the idea that being a parent is somehow a problem and addressed the farcical barrier that prevents lone parents from entering long-term relationships for fear of losing their incomes.

One-parent families are now a significant feature of our social system and they deserve better from this year's budget increases than being left on the breadline. The problems they face in terms of caring for their children while trying to find suitable employment are exacerbated by Ireland's high child care costs and the absence of free child care provided by the State. This budget contributed little to child care and the issue remains a stumbling block for many people across the country. The exorbitant cost of child care is preventing many people from reaching their full potential by preventing them from working outside the home. The State must intervene to provide more child care places.

The Minister for Finance spoke eloquently about the national disability strategy and his intention to continue the rate of expenditure provided for in last year's budget. He failed to mention that the State's support for the disabled started from a very low base. A report published in September by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions stated that, compared with the European average of 2.2%, at 0.8% Ireland spends the smallest proportion of GDP on disability benefit in Europe. While there are some problems in terms of comparing across countries, a deficit as large as ours will not be overcome by a couple of years of increased expenditure. The report also found that the guidance and counselling services necessary for those claiming sickness and disability benefit to return to work are less accessible in Ireland than elsewhere. The right to work is as fundamental to disabled people as it is to the able bodied. Some 8.3% of the population are disabled but only 14.7% of those who can work are employed.

The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recently received a submission from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland. Multiple sclerosis, which affects 7,000 people in Ireland, is the most common disabling neurological disorder among young people, although it can occur at any age. Among the issues raised by the society was the necessity for the Government to provide a costed disability benefit. It is widely recognised that the daily cost of living for people with disabilities is higher than for the general public and many disabled people experience a lower standard of living as a result of their disabilities. Among the many areas of increased cost are transport needs, housing adaptations, disability aids and appliances, heating, care assistants and home helps. In 2005, a report from the Department of Social and Family Affairs indicated that 66.5% of people receiving disability payments fell below the 60% level of median income and 22.5% suffered basic deprivation. Current research indicates that people with disabilities are less likely to be in paid employment. A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, therefore, often means the end of paid employment. A costed disability payment should be carefully considered in the context of introducing equality to the system.

Ireland has approximately 149,000 carers, of whom one third spend more than 43 unpaid hours per week looking after elderly, frail or otherwise disabled relatives and friends. Nearly half of all carers have no paid employment but, whether in work or school, in their middle years or elderly, they sacrifice their time to care for others in their homes. They do not generally choose this role but are forced into it by family circumstances. There is strong evidence that carers suffer from stress and poor health because of the difficult 24-hour nature of their role. The NESF has calculated that all the unpaid care provided by carers in Ireland saves the Exchequer up to €2 billion per year. Unfortunately, the Government is not keen to repay carers for their vital and dedicated work. Less than one fifth of all carers receive any direct financial support from the State. The measures on increased respite care and additional payments are therefore welcome.

I know a woman over the age of 66 who looks after her old-age pensioner husband. She could have received the qualified adult dependant benefit but opted for the carer's allowance because it was financially preferable. Is she now entitled to the qualified adult dependant payment? For reasons of equity, I submit that she is entitled to receive that payment at half rate. I ask the Minister to investigate the matter.

Carer's allowance and other State supports for the disabled and carers rely on a variety of complex means tests administered by different State agencies. Apart from the demeaning nature of such tests, transparency is so lacking that few can make their way through the associated labyrinth of rules and regulations. Despite the Minister's claim that the budget offers great support for the disadvantaged, all carers receive is an increase in the carer's allowance to €200 for those aged under 66 and to €218 for those over 66. This leaves carers under the age of 66 below the poverty line of €203.

The Minister has made only minor improvements to other Government aids for carers. In 2003, the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs undertook a detailed study of carers and their problems. It was the committee's unanimous conclusion that all carers needed help and that the carer's allowance should no longer be means tested but should be made available to all carers. More benefits are means tested in Ireland than in any other EU country, yet international evidence shows that means testing leads to high administrative costs and poor social provision. The Labour Party, therefore, continues to support the provision of a universal carer's allowance. In 2003, the estimated cost was €180 million. That was probably an over-estimate, as it did not calculate the reduction in administrative costs which universalism brings.

The Government pandered to the Progressive Democrats' right-wing ideology in the recent budget by unnecessarily giving away €186 million in reducing the top rate of income tax from 42% to 41%. I will benefit from the reduction, but why should I? It would be much fairer and more socially just for Fianna Fáil, which occasionally claims to be socialist, to use this money to universalise the carer's allowance. In that way, the money would end up in the hands of those who really need it. Such people clearly deserve recognition and support for looking after people and saving the Government up to €2 billion. That is where the money should be spent. The €150 million could be used to eliminate the need for the degrading means test.

The Minister might ask me whether, as a member of the Labour Party, I have gone mad. I have not gone a bit mad. One's child is entitled to free primary school education in this country even if one is earning €1 million a week. The children of the very rich have such entitlements. A person over the age of 70 who gets a pension of €10,000 every week is entitled to a free medical card. Why should people who provide essential services be penalised for exceeding the means test limit by just €2, €3 or €10? The proposals regarding nursing home care which have been made by the Minister, Deputy Harney, are the worst I have seen for a long time. People will eventually be forced to sell their homes, through no fault of their own, even after they have left this life. It is an attack on the elderly.

If the Government were to abolish the means test, it would deal with this issue immediately. Many people would become even more encouraged to look after elderly people. As Deputy Stanton said, it has been proven in every country in the world that people are far happier in their home environment. He mentioned the wrap-around care system in Denmark, under which psychological services and care packages are provided. In Denmark, all kinds of services, such as rehabilitation services, are made available to the elderly as soon as anything happens. This proposal will put the heart crossways in older citizens who are feeling unwell. We should remember that we all will reach that stage at some time.

I reject any proposal to include the family home in any means test. The family home is not used to calculate means for any other services, such as medical cards, pensions and third level grants. Why should an exception be made in the case of elderly people who are too sick to stay at home? Old people are being singled out. It seems that their homes will eventually be sold to pay for their nursing home bills. If the Labour Party gets into government, it will set about overturning this measure. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs can beat us to it by abolishing the means test. Such a move would send an important signal. It could be an important step for the Government.

I acknowledge what the Minister is doing in section 12. I applaud him for this very good initiative. He might not think it is important. Section 12 provides that certain self-employed people in receipt of social welfare payments who are not entitled to credited contributions, such as farm assist and jobseeker's allowance, can pay PRSI contributions. It is an extremely important measure, even if he does not think it is.

We will have to do something about the averaging system. We start off on the day the ball is thrown in, there is a big gap in the middle and then comes the tail. It is a disaster. It is time to change the law to allow the spouses of farmers and other self-employed persons to make voluntary PRSI contributions so they can qualify for pensions in their own right. The Minister has admitted to me that the spouses of employed or self-employed contributors are specifically excepted from social insurance contributions in respect of their working activity with their spouses. Such spouses are effectively forgotten. They are invisible in the social welfare code. They spend many hours at the shoulders of their spouses trying to retain and build up businesses. They work extremely hard from morning to night.

Many of the people to whom I refer are shopkeepers in rural areas — I am sure it is the same in Dublin — who get up at 7 a.m. and work until 9 p.m. to provide a service that many of the whizz-kid supermarkets do not provide. Such people, who comprise an important part of Irish society, are being let go. Many of them will end up poverty-stricken. They might have an old building, but that is all they will have at the end of their time. The same can be said about farmers. This anomaly in the social welfare code relates to the spouses of farmers and shop owners, as well as people in other self-employed categories. Women who are classified as "relative assistant" and are prevented from paying PRSI cannot qualify for contributory pensions in their own right. If they work a certain number of hours in the shop or on the farm, they should be allowed to pay a PRSI contribution on a voluntary basis, as is the case with carers. It is time for this matter to be reviewed. A submission should be made and examined in this context.

I now turn to an issue of real concern to me and my Labour Party colleagues. It has been partially addressed by the Minister. Having raised the matter in this House, I have to take some credit for driving it this far. While the Minister does not tend to show much of a reaction, he is keen to listen to us. He gets somebody to examine the matters we raise, which shows he is fairly shrewd. I suppose accountants tend to have more guile than more robust people like us who are from rural areas. I am speaking about the modernisation of the social welfare system, which is full of outdated and outmoded concepts. When I spoke previously about this matter in the Dáil, I received e-mails from men saying I must be the most anti-man person who ever went into this House. While I am not anti-man, I hate inequity and inequality. I love to see it rooted out, wherever it is.

As someone who is proud to represent the Labour Party in this House, I want the 1920s and 1930s social welfare model to be overturned and reformed because it contains outdated and outmoded concepts. In so far as the model relates to eligibility and assessment, it tends to relegate women to roles within the system which are subservient to the roles of men. I highlighted an example of that when I spoke about the spouses of farmers and shopkeepers. Those who are set apart in the social welfare code are virtually not recognised. We have to bring an end to such concepts, in the interests of equality, equity and fair play.

Members should not doubt that the Labour Party wholeheartedly promotes and supports economic independence for women. If we are to achieve this worthwhile and noble objective, we must agree unequivocally to abolish the limitation rule for all payments. We should not fiddle around with it — we should abolish it. The Progressive Democrats are looking to waste money by giving people like me an additional €20 per week, but they should keep that money and use it to bring equity to the system. They might not be interested in that, however. I almost forgot that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is a promoter of inequality, so what am I talking about? I was a bit of a clown to mention it.

I would like the Minister to increase the rate of all qualified adult payments to 100% of the rate of the personal payments and to make them directly payable. While he is starting to do that, he is not doing them all together. He is going a bit of the way. I suppose he has been in politics long enough to understand that the foot in the door is a good start. I acknowledge that. Women are the qualified adults in many households. It is sometimes the case that there is no economic benefit to the household if both adults receive an individual payment. In the cases of the majority of qualified adults, their payments go directly to their husbands, which is wrong. They should get payments in their own right. If a woman's payment is given directly to her husband, it takes away from her economic independence and excludes her from receiving any payments in her own right.

As the Minister has said previously, the only way for him to address this situation is to ensure that qualified adult payments are paid directly to the qualified adults. I welcome the Minister's move in the direction of abolishing the limitation rule. We must bear in mind that 95% of qualified adults are women, many of whom are excluded from the labour market because of their caring and parental roles, to which Deputy Stanton referred. The Government gave a commitment in Sustaining Progress to increase the qualified adult payment to 100% of the full person's payment by 2007. That commitment will not be honoured, however. The timescale for the achievement of this worthy and important objective has been long-fingered.

The Labour Party is alarmed at the Government's proposal to subsume the community welfare service into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The service, which caters for the most vulnerable people in our society and operates at the cutting edge of the link between health and poverty, should be left where it is, within the health service. If it is not broken, why should it be fixed? This is little more than a craftily disguised cutback and an attack on vulnerable people in the community. This plan, which is being pushed by one or two people — I know who they are — is provided for in the Bill. The Minister should take advice from a fool by throwing this aspect of the Bill into the bin.

If the plan proceeds, community welfare officers will ultimately be reined in and prevented from providing information, advice and advocacy to vulnerable people in our communities. It would mean in effect that the most effective link that such people have to statutory health and personal social services would be severed. This is because the people whom community welfare officers serve, including those with addictions, those with mental health problems, abuse victims and people with chronic social, behavioural and psychological issues, are far more likely to access health and personal social services through the community welfare system than through formal channels because the possibility of discretionary community welfare payments provides an incentive, allows CWOs to make needs assessments and puts them in touch with appropriate health services. If the Minister allows this to go ahead, he will run an unacceptably high risk of breaking the link between payments and access to health services which will be severed over time, if not very quickly. That is because the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be reluctant to fund functions for which it has no statutory responsibility. That is the point.

The Government's policy is based on the report of the interdepartmental review group on the core functions of the health service report, which recommended the transfer. There is no difficulty with the objective of focusing the Health Service Executive's resources and activities on core health functions but the community welfare service performs a core function.

Our former leader, the late Frank Cluskey, on introducing the scheme stated it was more than a mere cash response. The service was deliberately placed within the community care structure and under the auspices of the Department of Health with the intention of delivering a local response to individual need and, crucially, providing its clients with access to a range of health and personal social services. The importance of the relationship between income maintenance and effective personal and health services, as well as a safety net separate from other social welfare payments, was clearly and specifically identified in the Dáil debates as what led to the establishment of the services.

I ask the Minister not to do this. With the exception of that, he has done a reasonably good job and I hope he takes note of the various points and suggestions I made which will get us further down the road to ensuring poverty will be a bygone in time to come.

I wish to share time with Deputies Crowe and Connolly. I am not sure whether the Acting Chairman intends to contribute at this time.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I apologise for not being able to attend the briefing on the Bill the Minister kindly organised this year, as in other years. It was due entirely to a scheduling difficulty on my part. I value such briefings and I would have appreciated it again this year. Nevertheless, I got the gist of what the Minister was proposing last Wednesday although there may be clarifications in my contribution to which he may care to respond when replying to the debate.

Opposition spokespersons are not here to bury the Minister but to praise him and to take into account much of what he has achieved in improving the standard of payments across the board. Our role as Opposition spokespersons comes into play because the Minister's artistry, like that of most of us, is born out of an industriousness rather than a sublime talent. He probably believed too readily the writing on the paint tin given to him by the Minister for Finance which stated that a guaranteed velvet texture can be applied to any surface. In reality, while he has managed to paint the wall, there are significant lumpy bits and the paint peels in the strangest of places.

As we critically examine the current social welfare system, it is valid to ask why the opportunity was not taken to correct many of the anomalies that continue to exist. There is no doubt the level of payments have been increased significantly but the categories of payments, the inconsistencies in such payments and the degrees of unfairness that exist for different categories of people who do not qualify for many of those payments are the real remit of any Minister for Social and Family Affairs. This Bill, and the Social Welfare Bills in January and February, provide an opportunity to address those anomalies.

The Minister and the Government made great play about the fact that the contributory State pension has exceeded the €200 benchmark they set out, just as they made great play about the £100 benchmark at the end of their first term of Government. While there have been large increases in the State pension and massive progress has been made, when one compares a percentage of the average income here with that in other developed countries, Ireland continues to lag considerably behind.

Despite the benchmark the Government must address immediately the partnership commitment to have the State pension at one third of average pension levels and the possibility of further increases in future budgets to help bring that about. In percentage terms, that figure is only half the amount on which people in other developed countries are living. We must debate the reason that is the case.

Deputy Stanton said we already spend more in tax forgone in giving support to private pensions. In my other role as finance spokesperson in the small party I represent, I asked the Minister's Cabinet colleague about the restriction last year regarding the €5 million limit on private pension personal plans. A total of 116 individuals managed to get under that limit last year. One individual managed to acquire a personal pension plan of more than €20 million which the State was subsidising at a rate of 42%.

What is the state of our pension policy when, on the one hand, we forgo more in tax from the richest individuals while, on the other, we make a song and dance about large increases which effectively could be doubled if we did not have a tax subsidy on private pensions? That is inconsistent and it is unfair on pensioners who have built up this country to the position it enjoys today. Unless we have an honest debate on pensions at that level, these €20 increases will be seen historically as a missed opportunity because the likelihood is the economic circumstances in which we found ourselves in the past ten to 15 years will not exist to the same extent in the next 15 to 20 years. We must have the vision to ensure those benchmarks can be reached in the future.

What is also curious about the Minister's current policy is that he mentioned the Government's commitment to making qualified adults in receipt of the State pension or the qualified dependants of State pension recipients equal to those at the non-contributory level. I accept the higher increases will allow that to happen but the fact that those on the non-contributory pension will receive a higher increase than those on the contributory pension indicates there appears to be a policy, which has yet to be stated — if it exists the Minister might enlighten us — about overall individualisation. Is it a fact that the gap between the non-contributory and the contributory pension is narrowing while at the same time the qualified adult allowance level is meeting the non-contributory level? Has some new figure to be reached at a date the Minister has decided not to tell us about? If that is the way the State policy is going, we must have that debate as well.

If that is the policy, it contradicts the way the Minister is treating the same issue in respect of other social welfare payments. For instance, the State pension for qualified adults over 66 will increase by X amount but the increase is less for those under 66. That is reversed in respect of other social welfare payments, particularly with regard to carer's allowance. Why are carers over the age of 66 getting a smaller increase than those under 66, especially when the representative organisations like the Carer's Association tell us that 50% of all carers are over 60 years of age? The likelihood is that the proportion of people who will be disadvantaged by the smaller increase are the majority of carers. Has the Minster's Department done any analysis of that figure? What is the reason for that distinction which appears to be at variance with what the Minister is trying to achieve in the general pensions area? In terms of all other social welfare payments, the way qualified adults are being treated means that gap will widen. We appear to have three distinct strands in regard to payment policy and the way qualified adults are treated.

Deputy Penrose is right. The opportunity existed in this budget to get rid of the limitation rule. At a stroke that would have abolished discrimination against the greater number of our citizens dependent on social welfare, including women affected by the socially disgraceful marriage code that existed until the early 1970s. Those people, who are becoming grandparents, are being adversely affected by those employment practices, by the State itself and by other large institutions such as banks. Until the Minister begins to recognise that anomaly, budgets which provide that the system stays the same but the benefit payments improve will not continue to keep the masses happy. Our system is creaking. It is a contradictory system that is in need of large-scale change. I would like the Minister to address that in his reply having regard to the opportunity that will be presented by the second Social Welfare Bill that will be introduced early in the new year.

The PRSI changes and the threshold applying to health insurance assist minimum wage earners, but this represents merely a widening of the band. In effect, the Department will end up receiving more money. Increasing it at the higher income end of the scale in terms of the interest that PRSI is charged at means more money will come into the Department. The same is true of the health levy, especially with the proposal for higher income earners.

The Minister might explain the changes in regard to the optical benefits. There does not seem to be a parallel change such as there seems to be in the case of PRSI benefit. Is the Minister providing in the Bill that the lower limit in regard to optical benefit will remain unchanged, and if so, why is that anomaly being created?

The health levy is a flat rate tax on people's gross income, regardless of the fact that a higher charge will apply to people earning more than €100,000 per annum, about which I will not squeal even though it will affect most Members in this Chamber. The Minister's Cabinet colleague speaks against the idea of hypothecated taxes, that taxes can be raised for specific purpose and used for that purpose, particularly in the area of the environment. Yet the health levy is meant to pay for some of the heath service inadequacies in terms of ongoing funding. Other members of the Government seem to deal more in hypothetical taxes but I do not want to bring the Tánaiste into this debate at this time.

This Bill will not be opposed by any Member of this House but in this context more imagination and efforts to introduce reforms are required. If that is evident in the second Social Welfare Bill, there will be more support in this respect from this side of the House.

This year and for the past eight years the Government has had at its disposal an unprecedented surplus. It had, if it really wanted, an opportunity to transform the Ireland in which we live. My party, Sinn Féin, argued that this year, in view of the unprecedented surplus in our economy, a historic and golden opportunity had been presented where quite literally and with the right political will, we had a real opportunity to lift children and their families out of poverty. An opportunity that no other generation had has been wasted.

Last week's budget regrettably continued down the well worn path of the well-off being rewarded at the expense of those on low and middle incomes. A fair and equitable redistribution of wealth failed to take place and a budget was delivered that will further exacerbate the gulf between the rich and the poor in today's society.

The fact remains that not everyone responsible for our economic growth is benefiting from it. Many people are being left further behind. By reducing the higher rate of tax by 1% down to 41%, the Government took a decision to once again reward those who have done well, making them even more well off, while ensuring that those on low incomes will continue to struggle to make ends meet. The tax reduction removed €186 million from State resources, money that could have transformed the lives of many people who live on the margins of society. For the same amount of money, the Government could have increased the State pension by €34.80 per week, with plenty of change left over. The fact the Minister, Deputy Cowen, choose to reward the well-off over the interests of the aged, struggling to cope on their pension, clearly reflects the Government's priorities.

Some 18.5% of the population in this State are at risk of poverty and 7% live in consistent poverty and suffer deprivation. Some 40% of lone parents are at risk of poverty while a similar number of unemployed endure poverty. These are among the highest poverty figures in the European Union in a so-called first world or developed country. I share the growing viewpoint that economic success should not be an end in itself but should create the conditions or be the launching pad to ensure that everyone has a decent standard of living. Some 100,000 children live in poverty. That is not a made up figure but comes from the Government's statistics. It is an appalling indictment of a Government obsessed with producing the inequities of wealth while turning a blind eye to exploitation, literally turning its back on and ignoring the vulnerable the most marginalised in our society.

As a society, we are continually peddled the image of success. New millionaires, we are told, are being made every day in this new Ireland. We are told that more money in one's pocket will solve everything, but it does not. If we want a first class health service, someone must pay for it. If we want a first class public transport service, it must be funded. If we want our homeless off the streets, we must build accommodation for them. If we want young people from the most marginalised of society to stay in school, we need to create the places and the necessary supports for them. If we want people to move from welfare to work, we need to support and create a safety net for that transition.

We are told by those in the leadership of one party in Government that inequities are necessary and even help drive the economy. However, for many of us and particularly those from my political background, the reality of any child, Irish or non-Irish, having had his or her life crushed and strangled by poverty while surrounded by enormous wealth is an abomination.

Children in some of the poorest one-parent families will benefit from the budget changes but not to the extent the Minister implied in an earlier speech. The increases will be seen by many as nothing more than a token gesture and will not be effective in tackling or removing any child from abject poverty.

The majority of the €20 increase in the lone parent allowance will be swallowed up by rising fuel and food costs. While Ministers continue to pat themselves on the back for their budget efforts, the reality is that trying to raise, feed and clothe a child and put them through school on €185.80 a week is no easy task. While I welcome the increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, it must increase further to reflect the true costs of sending children to school. I am also conscious of the low take-up rates of this payment and others such as family income supplement mean many of the families most in need fail to receive those vital reliefs.

Ireland is one of the most unequal societies in the world. The top 10% of earners have incomes on average five times greater than the bottom 10%. The foundation blocks of the Celtic tiger were created by the hard work of ordinary workers, a significant proportion of whom are now pensioners. The proposed increase in State pensions will ensure that many of those elderly people will remain in or on the edge of poverty. Electricity and gas price increases will ensure that social welfare increases are swallowed up, preventing people on low incomes from adequately heating their homes.

Some 44,000 families are on local authority housing lists, thousands of families cannot afford to purchase homes and more than 5,000 people are homeless. This budget has done little to ease their plight. To meet the NESC's recommendation of 10,000 social housing units per annum, Government expenditure would have to be increased to €2 billion. With an increase of just over €100 million in the budget, total Government output still lags behind the target of €1.27 billion. The 10% of households in this State living in private rented accommodation were ignored in the budget, as increases in tax relief for private renters were miserly.

There has still been no dedicated effort to improve affordable high quality child care throughout the State. Families are still obliged to fork out more than €800 per month per child on child care costs and have to use child benefit to subsidise such costs. The €1,000 early child care supplement covers only a month an half of child care costs. This was another missed opportunity to reduce the economic burden on young families.

Some 30% of adults who have only primary level education are at risk of poverty, one in three children in a disadvantaged area cannot read and write properly and 1,000 children fail to make the transition from primary to secondary school each year. This budget has done little to address the inequalities in the State and is a long way from securing Sinn Féin's vision of an Ireland of equals.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. The Social Welfare Bill 2006 gives effect to the social welfare changes announced in last week's Budget Statement. Reading through the budget, there were signs that the Minister listened to representations made in the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I spent some time on that committee and I must say that I enjoyed it. I regretted leaving it, because we were dealing with real life issues on an ongoing basis. In contrast to some of my contributions on Social Welfare Bills in recent years, I must concede that the social welfare package was one of the more welcome aspects of this year's budget. Few people realise that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is the biggest spending Department and it was heartening to see Fr. Seán Healy welcome the budget's provisions in this area. However, many people depend on social welfare and it is our job to find weaknesses in the budget.

Social welfare changes are normally calculated to ease the pain and make life a little more bearable for the most socially deprived people in our society. The question is how they measure up in the task of bridging the poverty gap between the most disadvantaged and the most privileged. It has been acknowledged that the gap has widened because of the 1% cut in the higher level of income tax, which for the most part benefits the better off. This includes Members of the House and people on a reasonably comfortable salary. It is ironic that we are giving out about such a decrease in the tax take. We also note that the increased non-contributory old age pension, which has hit the €200 barrier for the first time and which raised a chorus of war-whoops from the Government benches, is still €3.50 below the poverty line. We should acknowledge that and not jump out of our skins. Is it fair that pensions are linked to the poverty gap? The contributory old age pension, at €209.30, is just €6 above the poverty level, and clearly shows that we have a long way to go to eradicate poverty.

One yardstick by which to measure both the ongoing and the cumulative effects of successive budgets on the lives of the poor is the list of figures quoted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Calls to the society have quadrupled over the past three years, and it needs to spend over €750,000 each week to relieve both poverty and social exclusion. It is ironic that calls have quadrupled during a period in which three of our better social welfare budgets have been introduced. There are many people out there whose pride will not allow them to call the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. These people would rather keep the struggle indoors than hurt their pride, so I am not sure whether we are getting the full picture of what is happening out there. Older people often want to keep a few euro for their funeral and for the relatives who have looked after them. This fear of dying in poverty is in the psyche and some people will not spend money on themselves, no matter what is given to them. People want to keep that little bit of their €200 in reserve because they are afraid of the rainy day.

The annual spend by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of more than €39 million dampens the Celtic tiger's roar, and many of those who found it necessary to contact the society for help were in poorly paid jobs. Their low levels of income rendered them ineligible to qualify for any social welfare benefits.

Pensioners have been playing catch-up over the past three budgets from a very low base, and it is disturbing to note that our old age pension is still bottom of the EU heap, fifth from bottom of the OECD countries. To bring old age pensions up to an acceptable European level, they would need to be increased by at least €50 to take them clear of the poverty threshold. However, their increases will also come under severe pressure from increases in electricity, gas and medical bills, or merely trying to stay warm. They pay the same price as the rest of us for gas, electricity and even bread, but if gas goes up by 33%, it eats much more into their income. Inevitably, these problems hit in the middle of winter when people are more likely to suffer from hypothermia. We have been told for the past two or three years that the country has been awash with cash, so it is mystifying to consider why pensions and State payments have not been adjusted to a more realistic level before now.

A key group likely to be caught in poverty traps is that of lone parents, whose child dependant allowance, targeted at children in poverty, has not increased in 12 years. Overall, the social welfare package is to be given a guarded welcome, but to state that it completely tackles the issue of poverty is somewhat wide of the mark. We must admit that a bit has been done, while the Government must admit that there is much more to do.

A couple of years ago, the ESRI stated that any dent in the relative income poverty levels in this country would require a 9% rise in income tax. That would not be welcome in many quarters. Although we have high employment and average income has risen dramatically in recent years, the number falling below 50% of the average income is still well above the EU average. The ESRI stated that a successful anti-poverty policy would need improved education, greater employment opportunities and better income support. Many teenagers are leaving school without sitting their leaving certificate examinations. One must be educated to get into the skilled labour force. The onus is on us as a society to ensure that happens. There are many well educated people in Europe and we could be displaced if education is not kept to the fore. The budget could have made a more targeted approach to help those in need, particularly families on social welfare and those in lower paid employment.

Childhood food poverty needs to be tackled, particularly in the area of inequality. Food and poverty are intrinsically linked and we know that families on low incomes have low consumption levels of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fruit is often seen as a treat for these people. They also tend to consume more foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, putting them at risk of a poor diet, with children being the most vulnerable. Parents, however, are not to blame, since diets are strongly influenced by people's social and environmental circumstances. Low income is a major factor in this mix. Parents play a key role in providing for their children's diet, and it is important they are supported through social welfare initiatives that would improve availability and access to healthy and affordable food. There is a growing awareness of food poverty as a structural constraint of food consumption and dietary intake, particularly among low income groups. Food poverty has multi-faceted consequences for health, education and social partnership, and there is considerable scope for the Government to eradicate it.

The commitment to end homelessness by 2010 sounds like a pipe-dream. It is somewhat reminiscent of the boast by the Soviet Union that it had abolished poverty when people were begging for bread outside Russian Orthodox churches. I must mention to the next homeless person I meet that he or she has only another four years to go before the problems are sorted out. The €20 increase in social welfare rates is to be welcomed, but it provides cold comfort for those on the streets without a roof over their heads. The attitude prevails that they are victims of their own circumstances, but I do not believe that, rather they are victims of society's circumstances and we have to take it on ourselves to sort this out. Their Christmas will be spent trying to ensure they have hostel accommodation.

The measures announced for family carers in the home, while welcome, will only deliver for them a modicum of support and certainly do not go far enough to have real impact. There are 150,000 family carers in the country and the increase in allowance will provide a degree of support for them. Ireland's family carers provided over 3.5 million hours in unpaid care every week. They are the unsung heroes and heroines of family care. I come across the fraught situation on a regular basis where old people are expected to look after even older people and not enough recognition is being given to them.

I am sharing time with Deputy Johnny Brady, with the agreement of the House.

Will the Deputy mention Tallaght?

In an earlier contribution I said that with so many of my colleagues, including Ministers, mentioning Tallaght, my job was done. I am always happy, when I have the opportunity to speak, that such prominent members of the Opposition turn up to support me.

First, I want to refer to the Minister. We are all entitled to our politics across the floor, but I believe we all agree this Minister is revolutionising social welfare and taking on reforms that many of his predecessors in successive Governments over the years did not, or would not do. We should applaud the work of the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and encourage him to carry on that work.

The Deputy has done so.

I am not just saying this because it is Christmas, but I have often applauded the efforts of Deputy Penrose, who is Chairman of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. The Minister will know that he gives members of that committee the opportunity to voice their concerns. At a parliamentary party meeting last week, I said that not only is the Minister listening to Fianna Fáil colleagues, but indeed he listens to members at meetings of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs also. Deputy Stanton will nod his approval at that because I believe the Minister is listening.

He is listening too well.

Colleagues are entitled to their politics and I have no problem with that, except to say that I have been listening to all the speeches, including the recent contributions tonight. While Members make their political points, they are being honest enough to say that this has been a good, caring budget and that the job is being done. My colleague, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, said the other day that this budget is all give and no take, with which I believe everyone in the House will agree. That is fair enough. The Minister's stamp is clearly on what is before the House and I am happy to compliment him in that regard.

The question of the challenge of carers is something that has been talked about a good deal at the joint committee meetings. I frequently make the point that all of us have had opportunities within our families to observe difficulties in that regard. I often speak of my father, who before he died ten years ago was cared for by my sister. Such a role presents many challenges and it is right to highlight the needs of carers whenever possible. I believe the Minister has listened and the reforms he has introduced will go a long way to helping families that are affected. As the saying goes, much done, more to do. We should continue to do what we can for carers and the public will be very much in favour of that.

I was not going to talk about my constituency. Some Members will know I represent Dublin South-West, which includes Tallaght, the third largest centre of population in the country. It also includes communities in Firhouse, Templeogue and Greenhills as well as in rural areas such as Bohernabreena and Brittas. I read in a newspaper this evening that someone claimed not to have seen me in a while. I have walked the streets of my constituency, week in and week out, and certainly over the past week or so I have visited every part and have been listening to what people are saying about the budget. Whether Members agree, people are responding positively to what was done, particularly as regards social welfare.

At a time when the economy is doing so well, as everyone admits, we must remember that as all craft rise the smaller boats must not be forgotten. The Taoiseach has often reminded us about this and it is something I do. I always recall learning from my Tallaght-based predecessor, former Deputy Chris Flood who, as everyone will agree, put his stamp on the social inclusion ethos and got the message across both within our party and in the House. We all want to ensure that the small boats are helped. In many of the measures introduced by the Minister, he has had a clear focus on the people in need.

We are all keen that the fuel and energy challenges faced by many families are met. I am from a bygone Dublin era. When I was small, I lived around here, funnily enough, and I recall people having difficulties and challenges with fuel and energy. That seemed to abate over the years as my life developed. Now there are challenges again and I am glad the Government has taken account of them.

That was the weak spot in the budget. The Deputy should not go down that road.

I shall have to await the Official Report to find out what the Deputy is saying since I am trying to get through my few minutes and let my colleague, Deputy Johnny Brady, make his contribution. The Minister must realise there are difficulties among families as regards energy and fuel. I am glad he has been able to do something in that regard and that he has been progressive. I hope he will continue to do that.

I also want to raise the question of disability benefits. Again, we all listen to the various representations and submissions we receive from many organisations. We must be careful not to patronise such groups, but at the same time we have to understand that people want us to look after those who are disabled in our communities. The Minister has done that in successive budgets. I hope Fianna Fáil will continue to do what it has always done and look after that sector.

I support also what has been said about homelessness. One must be careful what one says. I heard Deputy Connolly refer to this, using his political perspective, and that is all right, but I hope the Government and the Department of Social and Family Affairs will continue to give every benefit available to those who look after people who are homeless. I have often spoken, for example, about Tallaght. People who are homeless there find they must leave on the bus for town to access services. That is something that must be looked at by the agencies. Clearly, the HSE in this case has a particular role to play. Tallaght is no worse than any other place, but where people have such difficulties and need accommodation and assistance, we should provide services for them as far as is possible without them having to get a bus to access services. At a time when the agencies have funds, we should encourage them to use those moneys wisely so that effective use is made of resources and people are not homeless.

This could be done in Tallaght or anywhere else. There is no harm in continuing to raise this point because people should not be homeless in this day and age. They should be able to avail of resources, such as hostels or temporary accommodation. Members should be creating a situation in which people do not live on the streets.

At a recent Oireachtas joint committee meeting, I commented that people should not be poor when the economy is thriving and there is so much money in the system. I am glad the Minister has taken particular account of the need to deal with child poverty. Many projects in my constituency are funded by the Department and other agencies. This should continue and at a time when moneys are available, we should use the resources to help those groups in need.

As I noted earlier, as the Minister is aware, there will never be enough done and there will always be work to do. However, in respect of this debate, he can be proud of his achievements. My Opposition colleagues may make political points, which is fair enough.

However, if one listens carefully, people are appreciative of what the Minister is trying to achieve. This particular Minister listens carefully to the points made by all Members. People talk to Members, who come to the House from their constituencies in Cork, the midlands, Kildare, Meath, or Tallaght to represent their cases. All Members do so skilfully. On such a night, it is a pity the Gallery is not more full.

They have more sense.

I know it is late.

Members could arrange that.

The Minister understands this is an important debate.

Even the press has gone.

Finally, in the spirit of Christmas, all Members appreciate the work done by the Minister's Department and officials. I have heard many colleagues state, as do I, that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is by far the best Department for dealing with queries.

Come on.

I have heard Deputy Durkan say so himself. In such a debate, we should not be afraid to make such a point.

Members are overcome with emotion.

I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to speak for ten minutes and I am now willing to give way to my colleagues.

With the Acting Chairman's permission, I wish to share three minutes of my time with Deputy Cassidy.

And no more.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

That is a good start. Good and short.

First, I welcome this Bill. It is a key part of the 2007 budget package, which, according to the ESRI, boosted overall household income by approximately €2.6 billion per year. The ESRI has indicated this was one of the most progressive budget packages in the past decade and a half. Poorer families gained substantially more in percentage terms than those at the middle and top of the income distribution. On average, the poorest one fifth of families gained close to 5% more from budget 2007 than they would have done from a neutral budget. In contrast, the gain for the top one fifth of families was 1%. While the cut in the top tax rate attracted attention, the sharp increases in welfare payment rates have given a greater boost to the incomes of poorer households.

This year's budget will see a rise of almost 5% in the incomes of the poorest one fifth of families. This rise has only been exceeded by budget 2006, when the large early child care subsidy gave rise to a particularly strong percentage increase in the incomes of low earners. When the incomes of low-income earners are growing faster than their high-income counterparts, the share of income going to low-income groups is rising and their incomes are rising in respect of average income.

This Social Welfare Bill will begin to put into effect the largest ever welfare budget package of €1.4 billion. This means the Government will spend almost €15 billion on social welfare in 2007. This is welcome expenditure that will make a great difference to many people's lives. The generous provisions include an increase of €20 for more than 565,000 recipients of lower welfare rates. It also delivers on the Government's commitment to bring State pensions to €200 per week, with the contributory pension increasing to more than €209 while an increase of €18 raises the non-contributory pension to €200. In total, more than 400,000 pensioners will benefit from the increases.

Overall, these substantial increases, which represent rises of up to three times the expected rate of inflation, will directly benefit some 1 million people, including pensioners, low income and welfare families, carers and those with disabilities. When their dependants are included, a total of more than 1.5 million men, women and children will benefit.

I also want to congratulate the Minister on many features of the welfare package, which include a number of significant fundamental reforms of social policy shaped and targeted directly at tackling remaining child poverty numbers——

Santa is coming early.

——supporting carers through increased incomes and supports, increasing the status and incomes of women pensioners and enhancing the incomes of older people.

The Minister has often expressed his concern about child poverty, which I welcome. I also welcome that he is acting on his concern. Specific reform measures, backed up by substantial budget investments, include combining three levels of child dependant allowances payments into a new single high rate qualified child allowance of €22 per week, in addition to the child benefit increase of €10, for more than 340,000 children of welfare families. A second tier of payment for children in low income and welfare families could be a very effective method of tackling child poverty. This improved and targeted child dependant allowance represents a substantial move in that direction and this is why the budget is focusing on increased child supports in this area.

Increasing the income threshold for family income supplement by up to €185 per week will add from €9 to €111 to the weekly income of families that receive support for employees on low income with children. A 50% increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will increase the lower rate for children aged two to 11 years by €60 to €180, and the high rate for children aged 12 to 22 years by €95 to €285. An estimated 172,000 children will benefit from the allowance in 2006. Raising the allocation for the school meals scheme by €3 million to more than €16 million will allow for an expansion in the number of schools participating. Undoubtedly, the Government is acting to help the worse off.

As for carers, I am delighted by the introduction for the first time of an entitlement to retain a full social welfare payment, which abolishes the rule that forbids two welfare payments, and in addition to receive up to a half-rate carers allowance. This is a real recognition of older people's caring duties. Under this new dual payment system, the Government will start to recognise the carers allowance as a support for caring duties, rather than as a welfare payment. I congratulate the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, on this reform. It is an important step forward and I welcome his determination to press ahead with other needed reforms in the caring area. Other excellent social welfare measures in the budget include an increase in the respite care grant by €300 to €1,500. This will benefit almost 40,000 carers.

My constituents in Kells and Oldcastle, or the new areas of north Westmeath such as Castlepollard, Delvin, Collinstown, Fore, Clonmellon or Drumcree, have complimented the Minister fully. I again compliment him on his actions.

I am sure Deputies Penrose and Paul McGrath will wish Deputy Brady well in his new constituency. Of course it is an area which is loyal to the three of us. Its people have put us here. He will continue the good work for the area, for which the three of us have been working so hard and where we have seen such changes in our time in this House.

I welcome the Bill. I have never seen such radical changes as those which occurred over the past number of years. Gone are the bad old days when one got an increase of £1.50 in social welfare. Now there are increases three times the rate of inflation, as has been stated here this evening.

Much hard work has been done on behalf of the carers by Deputy Penrose, and by Deputy McGrath, who is an expert in financial matters and deputy spokesperson for his party, to advise and assist the Minister, Deputy Brennan. He is a caring Minister who has brought in many serious reforms. Not since the days of Charles Haughey have we seen such serious reforming in the House to benefit the underprivileged and those most in need.

There the similarity ends.

I welcome the increase in allowances for senior citizens to over the €200 threshold that was promised in the programme for Government and in the Fianna Fáil manifesto. I welcome all of the increases related to child care. I welcome the additional €4 in the fuel allowance, which will increase from €14 to €18.

That is the weak spot.

I also welcome the €300 increase in the respite care grant.

I welcome the back to school allowance increases. Little was said about the back to school allowance, but this is a serious effort involving a substantial increase and I wholeheartedly welcome it. I say well done to the Minister on this 50% increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which increases the low rate for children aged two to 11 by €60 to €180 and the rate for children aged 12 to 22 from €95 to €285. An estimated 172,000 children will benefit from these allowances in the coming year.

I want to say to the Minister and to the Government that we have seen bad times in this House in our privileged term as Members. I never thought we would see the day where there would be such expenditure on those most in need. We all know of constituents who come into our clinics making heartbreaking pleas that something be done and to intercede. Thankfully, this year's budget, under my neighbouring constituency colleague and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, must be acknowledged and welcomed, and they must be congratulated, by all sides of the House. As one who is here for quite a long time, I certainly do so here tonight. I look forward, with the help of God, to many more budgets in this particular vein, and especially for those on lower incomes who have been quite rightly uplifted over the past two or three budgets.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House on the Social Welfare Bill. As the officials who have heard me on many occasions are gathered here tonight again, a certain amount of my thunder has been stolen because the Minister on this occasion has managed to unify the child dependant allowance into one payment of €22 per week. It is a matter on which I used to rant and rave over a long period of time. Lo and behold, when I stand up today I nearly have nothing to say but will find something nonetheless.

Deputy McGrath is happy.

It must be difficult for the poor Minister, Deputy Brennan, to come in here and have all this kudos heaped upon him. I could remind the Minister that a few years ago the esteemed Ceann Comhairle and former Deputy, Seán Treacy, was a bit surprised when he was stepping down and glowing tributes were paid to him from all sides of the House because the kind of bouquets thrown at him previously would not have been similar. When the speeches came to an end, he drew himself up to full height in his Chair and stated that, on listening to everybody in the House, he thought he must have passed away and had to kick himself to be assured he was still alive and able to hear what was been said. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Brennan, is wondering what has happened.

I compliment the Minister on introducing the single rate of child dependant allowance because many others acknowledged there was a gross injustice to some children who were discriminated against simply because of the category of social welfare payment their parents were receiving.

I will perhaps embarrass the Minister further. It is not the first time I have seen Deputy Brennan do something that was against the run of play. In the short time he was Minister for Education, Deputy Brennan sorted out an extremely difficult problem in my constituency with a contentious issue on which others had turned their back. It is not new that he would take steps like that and I applaud him.

That said, we on this side of the House welcome generally the measures in the Social Welfare Bill. We have a job to do as well. We must point out where we are going, where the next steps should be taken and what are the next areas to be addressed and examined. It is in that context that I will put a few points to the Minister. I am, of course, confident that Deputy Brennan will not be able to deal with these problems because he will have moved to this side of the House, but perhaps Deputy Penrose, Deputy Stanton or somebody else will be the Minister capable of implementing the reforms of which I will speak.

The first such reform, which is along the same lines as that of the child dependant allowance, relates to child benefit. There is a gross inequity in child benefit. The rate is €180 for the first and second child, and there is a much higher rate for subsequent children. That is not fair. Why should one discriminate against the third child? The ridiculous situation arises where when the first child getting a particular rate, the Department does not know what rate to give the twins who follow and, therefore, divides it between them so that they get a rate half-way between the rates applicable for a second child and a third child. The same level of payment for child benefit should apply across the board. There should not be different rates for first, second and third children.

It is important that the Minister managed to introduce a second tier of payments, to which he and others made reference. We need this second tier of payments whereby people on lower incomes will qualify for a higher rate of child benefit. It is important to go down that road and take a step towards working in that direction. I hope whoever is Minister on the next occasion — it will not be me — will start down that road.

The second issue I ask the Minister, or whoever will be the incumbent after the election, to examine is the terrible and grossly wrong discrepancy between long-term and short-term payments and the consequences flowing from being on one rather than the other. For example, a person on a long-term payment is entitled to the Christmas bonus whereas a person on the short-term payment is not. Unemployment benefit is a stamps-related payment. It is an insurance scheme into which one pays. When a person needs to draw unemployment benefit, he or she is entitled to draw down the stamps. A person who draws down his or her stamps does not get the Christmas bonus. By comparison, a person on unemployment assistance, who perhaps does not have the same level of stamps, whose stamps are old or who does not have the same contributions, gets the Christmas bonus. That is not fair.

To project that further to the children of those on unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit who attend third level, where a child attends third level a parent on the long-term payment will get the dependant allowance but a parent on the short-term payment will not. That is not fair. The Minister is discriminating against those who have contributed to the social welfare fund and who are in their time of need.

A further disadvantage arises in the case of the higher education grant top-up for those on low incomes. If one is in receipt of unemployment benefit, which is stamp-related, and one's child is in higher education, one is not entitled to the top-up payment. However, if one is in receipt of unemployment assistance, which is not stamp-related, and one's child is in higher education, one is entitled to the top-up payment.

Debate adjourned.