Amendments Nos. 1 and 18 will be discussed together.
Social Welfare Bill 2006: Committee and Remaining Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
1.—The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of abolishing the means test for carer's allowance.
As the Minister is well aware, I have always unashamedly articulated the plight and championed the cause of carers, of which there are 150,000 working in their own homes and contributing to the mission statements and long-held objectives of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive to keep the people for whom they care within their own environment, where they feel happiest in the company of their own families, neighbourhood and community. It is a laudable objective for the achievement of which we must put in place the appropriate structural changes at policy level.
In this context people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year and it would be churlish, not to say nakedly political, not to acknowledge what the Minister has done. He has taken significant elements of the Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs report of November 2003 on the position of full-time carers, which made 15 recommendations. He has extended the period of carer's benefit from 15 months to two years and, for the first time in the latest budget, abolished the outdated rule that a person could not receive two social welfare benefits. The fact that a person on a widow's or widower's pension can now also receive 50% of the carer's allowance is a welcome and progressive step and acknowledges the reality of life for many people.
I remember articulating this issue previously with the story of an elderly widow who had looked after a child with Down's syndrome for 25 or 30 years and who was only entitled to a widow's pension. Despite carer's allowance being tailor-made for her, not only in terms of an income support but as an acknowledgement of her role in ensuring her young son remained with her, she was not entitled to it, so the measure is extremely important in that context.
The amendment I have tabled proposes that the Minister consider the cost of abolishing the means test. As I said last night, our social welfare system is heavily dependent on means-testing. Some of the many means tests are very complex and not as transparent as they should be. Many are a labyrinth of rules and regulations. They are very time-consuming and costly and officials who carry out the work would probably admit they would be better trying to achieve policy objectives elsewhere. The abolition of the means test would reduce net costs by allowing officials to be deployed on other work and by saving on travel costs incurred during the course of an assessment.
The crudest cost-benefit analysis would show abolition to be a positive option from every possible perspective. The National Economic and Social Forum has indicated the amount saved to society by family home carers who work without complaint and who only desire help at critical times, a need the Minister has met by extending the respite care grant and increasing it to €300. The Minister does not strangle a good scheme with the cords of bureaucracy and that is important. There are many schemes and most have worthy objectives but, from the outset, they become strangled and emasculated by a labyrinth of bureaucracy, killing the value of a scheme before it begins.
The Minister has loosened the cords from the respite care grant and it is important that, as its availability is widened and its eligibility thresholds lowered, it is advertised so the people who need it most are made aware of it. The Minister always says he tries to act in a targeted and focused way. I accept that his argument cannot be discounted at the stroke of a pen but requires evaluation. In the context of care worth €2 billion, a great saving to the State, another €150 million, following the abolition of the means test, for people spending a minimum number of hours caring for someone would be money well spent. Where otherwise would we get the nursing homes?
I strongly support massive investment in the public infrastructure to provide State-run nursing homes. I would double the funding for beds for St. Mary's Hospital in Mullingar, which I mentioned earlier and which has very good staff, attendants and doctors and provides a lovely environment in which to live. The number of beds we would have to provide through private nursing homes and State-run institutions would be colossal.
The Minister might say the universality principle is a long way from Labour Party ideals but this is fundamental Labour Party thinking. Domiciliary care, primary education and the over-70s medical card are not strangled by income-related conditions. The abolition of means testing is a very important concept and we are four square behind it. I am very proud it was a kernel of the recommendations of the all-party Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs.
As chairperson, it was good to achieve an all-party consensus. When the matter is explained to the public, they will agree with us on what the recommendation means to them. I acknowledge what the Minister has done in respect of carers in that he is one of the first Ministers to take the matter on board and make significant changes, but this change would have a long-term positive effect and be cherished.
I attended the briefing given by Mr. Enda Egan of the Carers Association in Buswell's Hotel and listened to a lady from Waterford. In a non-political way, the association made the same points as the Minister. I will give him credit for that because, when people do something well, they are entitled to acknowledgement. The woman said that she has had enough of the situation and that if she is €10 over the threshold, she will not get the payment. For her, the abolition of the means test was key to the issue. I took solace from her case, which she made in a cogent manner, but some people question the situation.
The Labour Party believes that this is matter is so important that it will be part of our electoral platform and will not be reneged upon. This worthwhile issue is dear to me. Given that cost benefit analyses did not cast some recent expenditure in the same positive light as this €145 million expenditure, it is time to take the quantum leap of abolishing means testing.
I want to speak to both amendments. Fine Gael has carefully examined the abolition of the means test and, like everyone else, has recognised the invaluable work of carers. The discussion on amendment No. 1 is timely, given that the Government unveiled its policy for care of the elderly a number of days ago. I do not know the experiences of other Deputies, but the number of calls to my office made by family members and people worried and angered by that policy is unprecedented.
While I will not go as far as Deputy Penrose and suggest the abolition of the means test, we must acknowledge the work of carers. The Minister has gone a certain way towards doing so, but we must go further. When one balances the cost of what could be possible, such as encouraging more people to care for their loved ones in their homes, with the cost of putting people in nursing homes, there is no argument. All Deputies agree that the best place for an older person is in his or her home.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has increased the carer's allowance personal rate to €200 per week in the case of caring for one person. Yesterday, Deputy Kenny cited the example of someone who is paid €100 per night to sit with an older person and do nothing more than ensure that the person does not fall over. These are the types of costs involved, but many carers do this type of work 24 hours per day, seven days per week and 365 days per year. If the older person must enter a nursing home, community hospital or elsewhere, the cost incurred by the State will be considerable, but the Minister for Health and Children's proposal to pay from beyond the grave is complicated and upsetting.
The Government should examine the option of the carer in the home. People would probably take on caring responsibilities if they were paid in their own right, which would go 90% of the way towards abolishing the means test. Retired nurses may be willing to become the carers of their neighbours if they were paid in their own right. However, as their spouses' incomes are also assessed, means testing would disqualify them from involvement and we would lose a significant opportunity.
As the Opposition cannot propose amendments that would incur charges on the State, we must table ridiculous proposals regarding reporting to the House. While there is a cost implication to the abolition of the means test, it would be balanced by what could be achieved via identifying suitable carers. For example, there must be many retired nurses in our communities who could be encouraged to become carers in their areas. We could also encourage family members who do not currently provide care for various reasons. We should examine this option carefully.
I acknowledge the Minister's statement this morning on how the matter pertinent to amendment No. 18 has been discussed by the social partners, who are the real Houses of the Oireachtas. Sometimes, I wonder which group is in charge, the social partners or the Oireachtas. It is a serious issue that we seem to be told what to do by the social partners. Democracy is not well served by such an about-turn in events. We have been elected to represent all of the people and, while I acknowledge the role of social partnership, I take issue with Ministers informing the House that the Oireachtas must accept something decided on by the social partners and the Government. It is a fundamentally undemocratic way of doing business.
However, given that this issue was not discussed here, I welcome that it was discussed at social partnership level. According to figures provided by the Carers Association, up to 3,000 children take care of older people, siblings and other family members. In recent years, I have often asked for a Government response to this issue, but there has been none and the matter has been ignored. I have challenged the Ministers for Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs in this regard.
I taught for a number of years. If a child goes to school in the morning with that type of worry and responsibility on his or her shoulders, he or she cannot study, participate or socialise properly. Socialising is particularly important for teenagers. The child will feel apart from his or her friends and peers and his or her education, social lives and health can suffer. I have called for the issue to be examined and supports to be put in place in homes and schools so that teachers and home school liaisons who become aware of children's problems and responsibilities can link up with community welfare officers, public health nurses and so on to lift some of the children's burdens. This reasonable measure has been taken in other countries. I invite the Minister to examine what is being done in Australia, which is far ahead of us.
Why has Fianna Fáil not examined the matter? Is it because there are no votes to be had from under 18 year olds? I am disappointed that nothing has been done and that the debate has turned into a talking shop. I have been involved in this issue for a number of years.
We must do more for carers. While I acknowledge what has been done, more is left to do. Nothing has been done to help young carers. That is why both amendments were tabled.
I thank Deputies Penrose, Seán Ryan and Stanton, in whose names are the amendments, for their contribution. I have acknowledged that Deputy Penrose has been a long-time campaigner for the removal of the means test for carers. I squared up to the issue and had a number of sessions with officials, and took much advice. We considered the issue very carefully and, at the end of that process, I decided to introduce different measures.
The package for carers in the budget is €107 million and the cost of abolishing the means test is approximately €140 million. With that kind of money, I could have abolished the means test but I opted instead to do other things which I thought would be more beneficial in the short term. The Deputy is aware of those measures. First, the rate of carer's allowance for those aged 66 or over has been increased in the Bill by €18 from €200 per week to €218 per week. Also, the rate of carer's allowance for those aged under 66 and carer's benefit has increased by €20 from €180 to €200 per week. That will not pay anyone for doing the caring but it is a contribution towards it. That increase will cost almost €32 million. I thought it was necessary to acknowledge the current rate of payment to existing carers.
I also considered an increase was required to the respite care grant, which is currently €1,200. I am told this grant is extraordinarily appreciated. Again, it does not pay a person but it is appreciated as an acknowledgement, which is all it was ever meant to be, and it allows a person to have a break from caring. It has increased from €1,000 to €1,500 in just two years. It is not means tested and is a universal payment. To that extent, it goes some way to meeting the Deputies' request for the removal of the means test. The increase will cost a further €30 million, so the Deputies can understand how the funds build up.
I considered that the weekly income disregard for carer's allowance needed to be improved, so it was increased by €30 to €320 per week for a single person and by €60 to €640 per week for a couple. This will take effect in April, and will have a full year cost of a further €6 million. I considered that increasing the earnings threshold for entitlement to carer's benefit should also be improved, so we increased it to €320 per week.
I then had to make a substantial choice. Taking account of the committee's recommendations, I had either to adopt the half rate proposal or choose a more dramatic abolition of the means test. It would have been much easier for me to abolish the means test, and much easier to explain, as the method I chose is more complicated. The cost of introducing a new, additional means tested payment equivalent to up to half of the carer's allowance rate for certain people with another social welfare entitlement comes to almost €57 million. If I were to remove the means test, I could not have introduced the new payment because to remove the means test would almost certainly eat up the required funds. I considered the introduction of this measure more urgent for those involved, if less politically dramatic for myself.
We have squared up to this issue and have been able to abolish the welfare rule that one cannot get two payments. This means that anybody on a welfare payment — we have yet to work out many details and I will listen carefully to what colleagues have said, as will my officials, because some of the details are difficult——
I gave the Minister a bouncer last night.
The Deputy did so. He posed a few awkward questions last night. He never gave me an easy one yet.
We must work out some details but we have provided €57 million to do this. Most carers are on some form of welfare, whether they are on pensions, lone parent's allowance or other allowances. As the Deputy knows — he brought the matter to my attention — the position previously was that if somebody wanted to become a carer, we, in effect, took away that person's social welfare and instead provided a carer's allowance. What will happen is that the carer will keep the social welfare payment and will be paid an allowance equivalent to a half rate carer's allowance. That is not to pay carers for caring but it is the beginning of the process.
This is a substantial reform in terms of moving away from simply viewing carer's allowance as an income support. It allows a carer to keep his or her social welfare but acknowledges that he or she is doing the caring, that the State will contribute towards the work and that it appreciates the work. Some 18,000 people are involved, who will be entitled to an additional €100 per week — a person on a €200 per week pension will receive €300.
This is the beginning. I look forward to working with the carers' organisations to develop a strategy for carers. As we move towards that strategy, those organisations have impressed on me the argument that carers should not be seen as people who just need income support but as people who do a job for which they must receive support. Caring feeds into the entire health service and takes the pressure off it. Another small change being made is that recipients of carer's allowance or benefit who previously received illness benefit or jobseeker's benefit will revert to that payment at the same rate as previously paid, if that is more beneficial to them.
Government, or any kind of office, is about choices. The choice I made was not that easy. I considered removing the means test. I began by wanting to do that but instead I produced a €107 million package, the largest ever, for carers. To do it in the way I have described was much fairer and more urgent. Whatever the future of the means test in the long term, it is a subject to which we can return. I do not have an ideological bent in this regard other than that, in general, I will try to focus taxpayers' funds where they are needed.
In one way, Deputy Penrose is probably correct. My officials advise me that failing the means test financially is not what is keeping people from caring. Very few people fail the means test. However, they do not apply because they do not meet the other condition, which is that they must be available to provide full-time care and attention. There are not many millionaires available to provide full-time care and attention. This is why I am mystified at the cost of removing the test, which seems to clash with my previous statement. Extreme complications arise with regard to domiciliary care allowances. Only half of the cost of €140 million is related to carer's allowance. There is a knock-on effect with regard to domiciliary care allowances, which cost a further €70 million to €80 million. This was the complication which in the end persuaded me not to make this change. I do not believe many extremely well-off people will become full-time carers as they are more likely to hire someone to support them. We end up falling back substantially on people on lower incomes who do the caring. That is why I focused the measure in this way.
Obviously, I must reject the amendment. Deputy Stanton is correct that it is a type of pro forma amendment which must be put down to allow discussion. The Deputies did not intend to put it down in this way, and they never intended me to accept it.
I thank the Minister. I am grateful and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that he said in a straight fashion that he gave time to exploring the possibility of abolishing the means test. He might have had a different view 12 months ago but I have largely convinced him of my rationale for doing this. It is generally people on low incomes who avail of carer's allowance, not the millionaires, who will buy in expensive care in any case. If money could keep people alive, they would all would be alive as they have plenty of money. They will not be at the cutting edge of this matter.
I acknowledge this issue involves a choice. The Minister made an argument with which it is hard to take issue, namely, that it would have been politically easier to abolish the means test. I intend to withdraw the amendment. However, I would like the Minister to put on his thinking cap about one other proposal. Perhaps I should not ask him as I will not pay him the same compliment as my constituency colleague did last night.
I will swipe it.
The Minister is an astute politician and he will probably hijack this proposal.
Do not tell him any more.
Deputy Penrose can introduce it in Government next year.
A compassionate care benefit scheme was introduced in Canada in 2004 where employees are entitled to receive up to six weeks employment insurance benefits, approximately 55% of their insured earnings support, when they provide care for a gravely ill family member who is at risk of passing on within six months. This issue is related to the ongoing debate initiated by the Minister for Health and Children. I will throw this issue into the pot because no party can address it on its own. I ask the Minister to consider the introduction of a similar scheme into the social welfare system. It would be similar to the current maternity leave scheme. The model is in place and it would affect only six weeks pay.
As a committee, we are greatly heartened that the Minister made our report a bedrock of his reforms. Every member, including those in his party, will acknowledge his contribution in that regard. Printing was the only cost we incurred in producing that report but many reports, which cost millions, gather dust. I never held Government office but, having attended a number of ministerial offices as part of a delegation, I have seen tomes lying everywhere. Our report totalled 100 pages and the Minister has achieved more value out of it than anybody else. Fair play to him for acknowledging the role of the Oireachtas and, in particular, his fellow parliamentarians in producing a good report. I acknowledge their role as well and I withdraw the amendment.
I acknowledge that all couples who care for relatives are not millionaires. The husband works and earns a modest wage while his wife is at home looking after an elderly parent or parent-in-law but she is precluded from the carer's allowance scheme other than the respite care grants. Issues relating to people who are involved in caring and are not supported must be recognised and addressed.
The Minister did not allude to young carers in his response, although he mentioned them in his contribution on Second Stage. He said that a group will be established which will examine and report on young carers. When will the report be made available? Who will carry it out? When does he expect action to be taken on foot of such a report, given that this is an urgent issue? I have tried as best I can to paint a picture of this issue for the Minister and his predecessors. What discussions has the Minister had with his Cabinet colleagues on this issue?
The Minister has justified his reason for not accepting the amendment. While I seldom pay the Minister a compliment, I compliment him on permitting the payment of 50% of the carer's allowance to full-time carers who are in receipt of other social welfare benefits. Deputy Penrose raised this issue during last year's budget debate but I have raised it during the past ten budget debates with the Minister and his predecessors, Deputies Coughlan and Dermot Ahern, and I was told on every occasion that the issue could not be addressed.
The reason I raised the issue is a case was brought to my attention in my constituency involving a woman who cared for her father-in-law at home. He was doubly incontinent and bed ridden and her husband had been killed in a road accident. She subsequently received the widow's pension and she continued to care for her husband's father, but she lost the carer's allowance. It was the most cruel case I ever came across in my political career. A month ago I did not intend to stand at the next general election and my political career was due to finish next June but I have decided to run again. I do not know whether I will be in the House for the next budget and if this is my last budget, I am glad I have achieved this much in my political career.
The Minister is only conceding a payment equal to 50% of the carer's allowance. However, his officials are well aware of the case to which I refer because I have raised it many times. This woman lost her husband, who was a small farmer, and she had to hire somebody to do her meagre farm work because she was a full-time carer to her husband's father in the house. She was, therefore, penalised in two respects. Where that happens, a carer who is a social welfare recipient should not lose his or her carer's allowance. It will not cost the Minister €57 million to address this. This was a cruel case and this issue will continue to affect carers who lose a spouse because, even with the change the Minister proposes, they will still lose half the carer's allowance.
I am surprised and disappointed that the change will not be introduced until next September, which is almost a year away. It is more or less a case of "live horse and you will get grass" where qualifying carers are concerned. They are being short-changed, although I will not call this mean because the Minister must work out this proposal. I have given the Government parties plenty of warning about this issue over the past nine budgets. It is nine years since my constituent lost her husband in a road accident and subsequently lost the carer's allowance because she was in receipt of the widow's pension. Although I welcome very much the changes the Minister proposes, I am disappointed he is postponing the implementation of this decision until next September. That is far-fetched, given that a general election will be held before next September. I would like this change to be implemented before the general election, if possible, for the Minister's sake and mine.
It is indicative of the way politics is evolving that the media generally are only interested in soundbites for the "One O'Clock News" and the "Nine O'Clock News" and the interactions between party leaders and the Taoiseach. One would think committee work insignificant if one were to judge by the publicity it receives but if this debate has demonstrated one thing, it is the importance of such work. I am speaking as a Deputy who will not be here for the social welfare Bill next year.
The Deputy might change his mind.
I will not change my mind. I must say I am very satisfied that issues we highlighted relating to this Bill have been addressed in one manner or another. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, was prepared to listen to us and implement ideas as we put forward general principles as politicians who saw the need for change.
In regard to carers, I sat on a committee that spanned the political divide and came forward with recommendations. We raised the subject of a second payment and were informed by officials and former Ministers that the issue was sacrosanct and could not be addressed. We have made great progress on the second payment and I compliment the Minister in this regard.
Unfortunately, I had to leave when the Minister was halfway through his contribution relating to the category of people covered by the second payment and many people will be curious to know what category is covered. Does the Minister know when a decision will be made on this matter? We have made a good deal of progress in this regard and it may be up to another Government, whatever its composition, to take this matter to the next stage. The Labour Party has always favoured disposing of the means test for carer's allowance. I take the Minister's point on the matter and understand he has given it consideration. It will fall to the next Government to take a decision on the issue and give full recognition to the role played by carers in society. In the context of the debate surrounding nursing homes, there will be a greater emphasis on caring in the home and how it is addressed. I look forward to seeing the progress made in this regard in the future.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1. —The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the redressing the disproportionate loss of income for recipients of social insurance payments to deserted wife where earnings exceed the prescribed amount.".
This relates to my contribution on the previous amendment. On Committee Stage during last year's debate I pointed out to the Minister that, for the previous three years, I had highlighted an anomaly that existed in deserted wife benefit. The Minister and his officials acknowledged the anomaly but it seemed nothing was being done about it and I threw up my arms in frustration. I am delighted to now put it on the record that the Minister has made significant moves on deserted wife benefit and I am pleased that I played a significant role in highlighting this anomaly. Some 9,000 people receive deserted wife benefit and part of the case that was made was that no means test applied to many payments from the social insurance fund.
I am delighted that from May 2007 a new single gross earnings limit of €20,000 will be introduced for recipients of deserted wife benefit which will bring substantial improvements to the lives of over 2,500 people, including constituents who have contacted me welcoming this development. When a recipient crosses the €20,000 income threshold, that person will receive a transition payment for six months to ease the impact of losing entitlement to the full deserted wife benefit. However, what would happen if the person lost that job during the six month transition? Would the person be entitled to receive deserted wife benefit again? What if a recipient of deserted wife benefit became a carer and wished to revert to deserted wife benefit on the death of the person being cared for? Is this possible?
Regarding this amendment, what would be the cost of disposing of income limits entirely and will the Minister consider this as he has already moved in this direction to an extent? Is it the Minister's intention to increase the one parent family payment every year? One of the great anomalies of this payment is that, since it began in 1992, the scale of payments has increased. I hope those in receipt of this can look forward to annual increases in the payment, mirroring normal increases that occur generally.
I thank Deputy Seán Ryan for moving this amendment. Almost every Deputy has made representations to me on this issue and I have taken the opportunity presented by the budget to address it. In case Deputy Seán Ryan is no longer in this House next year, I acknowledge his efforts in pressing the Select Committee on Social and Family Affairs to make these amendments. He repeatedly pointed out the anomalies in the deserted wife benefit at meetings of the committee and, along with Deputy Carey, played a direct role in having these changes introduced. At one stage, I tried my best to avoid meeting either Deputy in the corridors of Leinster House because I was aware they wanted to hold long discussions with me on the issue.
While I am not entirely satisfied that we have fully addressed the problems, substantial progress has been made. From May 2007, a new single earnings limit of €20,000 gross will be introduced. In addition, if a claimant's earnings go above that limit, she will be entitled to a new half rate transitional payment for six months to ease the impact of losing entitlement to the payment. More than 2,300 claimants will benefit from these provisions at an estimated cost of €1.3 million in a full year. The budget provided that, from May 2007, the four income bands will be abolished and an upper income limit set at €20,000. Deserted wife benefit recipients will be able to receive a full payment in accordance with their contributions, up to that upper income limit. The scheme remains closed and recipients will no longer qualify for payment when their earnings increase above the upper limit, as is the case for all social welfare schemes. Currently, some 300 recipients are earning in excess of the current lower income limit of €12,667.
What is the position with regard to annual reviews and how will a person who loses her job within the six month period be affected?
I understand the benefit can, like all schemes, be reviewed on an annual basis. With regard to the eventuality outlined by the Deputy, a claimant would remain on the scheme during the six months in question.
I thank the Minister for clarifying the matter and I look forward to further progress.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1. —The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on increasing the living alone allowance."
The Minister will be aware my amendment is a formal means of presenting a case. I have been contacted by several parties, including Age Action Ireland and the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament, regarding the fact that the living alone allowance has remained at the same level for a number of years. They argue that economies of scale obtain where two or more people cohabit because, for example, it is cheaper to buy in bulk or share a taxi. The living alone allowance was introduced by the Minister's predecessor to address that issue. However, the allowance has remained static, although the Minister will correctly point out that choices must be made in terms of making increases to payments and that the overall package of household benefits should be considered.
What would be the cost to the Exchequer of an additional €5 to the living alone allowance? It irritates people that this is the only allowance which has not been increased in several years. Those who live alone feel forgotten and wonder why they are left to face additional costs. I am aware I am not in a position to address the issue due to the budgetary implications of doing so.
As the Deputy noted, this is a matter of choice. I hope, however, he will accept that I am committed to using active social welfare payments to improve people's lives instead of being a passive provider of allowances. In that context, rather than being unable to afford an increase in the living alone allowance, we take the view that it is better to expand the choices available. If we spend all our resources on increasing the allowance, what happens when people stop living alone? Their lives are not over if they meet somebody or move in with relatives. They will want to have that option but they will be faced with the loss of a significant payment if they take it. This is a sensitive social issue because, while the extra costs of living alone must be acknowledged, one can only go so far in terms of incentivising that form of habitation. People may end up feeling forced to remain alone because they do not want to lose their benefits. I argue that, while the same amount of money was spent, it was invested on different ends. I made the choice to invest the extra funds in State pensions, fuel allowances and other supports for older people. I made a similar decision in respect of the over-80 allowance to spread funding across the board because it is not a means tested payment.
Currently, just over 150,000 people are in receipt of this additional payment. The estimated cost of doubling the current allowance of €7.70 is €61 million, so I thought it better to include that money in the rate. I take the Deputy's point, but I sat back and thought about it. I am not a social engineer and will not become one. However, I want to ensure that what I do acts as a signal. Critics will say that is grand but it does not recognise the reality that people must live alone and therefore should get support. I agree, but the best way I can support them is through increasing the rate directly, which was done strongly this year.
Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 13 are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a second-tier, employment neutral, child income support payment to target child poverty levels.".
We have been through these issues in some detail already. The basic issue here is child poverty, but we are all agreed that some progress has been made although we may not agree on how child poverty is measured. The Minister made clear this morning that he is not for turning on that.
Unfortunately, there is substantial child poverty in Ireland. The EU-SILC 2005 data gives a figure of 10% of children. The Minister has been promising for over two years that he will provide a second tier employment neutral child income support payment. His bona fides are good and I know he is genuine about this measure and is working hard towards it, but has run into difficulties on it. In fairness, for the first time he has increased the child dependant allowance and has amalgamated the three different levels of payments which has made Deputy McGrath very happy.
We still have an issue with regard to child poverty and still have children in poverty despite all the money available. Last night I mentioned the disregard towards pensions for tax relief which amounts to €3 billion per year, but that is another issue. When will the report be available from the ESRI and when will we see action on it? This matter has been in gestation for two years and it is important we act on it and target child poverty.
Deputy Penrose and I urged the Minister earlier in the year to increase awareness of the family income supplement, FIS. I welcome the Minister's comment this morning that he would try to link Revenue with FIS in some shape or form. If this was possible, it would mean that information on people known to the Revenue to be on low incomes could be shared with the Department of Social and Family Affairs so that a top-up payment could be made automatically. If that was possible, it would be a significant advance and would mean people who do not get the payment because they do not know about it or cannot apply for it would get their payment.
Amendments Nos. 5 and 13 are similar to amendment No. 4 and seek improved early child care income support payments. No extra payment was made for child care in the budget or by way of social welfare this year. I acknowledge that a payment of €1,000 was provided for last year. However, it has not been increased. The take-up with regard to the €10,000 income disregard provision for tax purposes did not work because it was absolutely miserable. I suggest to the Minister that child care is one of the most significant costs facing families. Other EU states are far ahead of us in this regard. The child care issue did not even get a mention in this year's budget which amazed me. I expected the early child care supplement to be increased substantially, but that did not happen.
We need to know the Government's child care policy, which almost seems to be a case of make it up as we go along. I know we now have a Minister of State with responsibility for children and his position has elevated the issue to a higher level. While I have put forward these three amendments, I will not press them because of the nature of the debate.
I broadly support Deputy Stanton's amendments although he has indicated he will not press them. The Minister is acutely aware of the issue of child poverty and I do not doubt his bona fides with regard to his efforts to eradicate it. The eradication of child poverty is a challenging objective and cannot be achieved easily. There is no one size measure to fit all that will deal with child poverty, which is part of the problem. If money alone could address the issue, the Minister would have made a good stab at it. Coming into an election year, the Government would have been very eager to obliterate the issue from the political agenda and not have people like us returning to the issue on a recurring basis.
I will not address the issues of back to school clothing and footwear allowances etc. The Minister would obviously say those allowances are significant as is the provision of school meals and the extension of that programme. I urge that fruit would be included as part of the school meals programme. Some of the schools in my area benefit from this programme and I believe the Department gets a good return from the moneys invested in it. Those involved in the administration of the scheme are top class and ensure the programme achieves its objectives and targets. This means the programme provides a good return for the moneys spent, which should be of some solace to the Minister. However, oranges, apples and other fruit should be included in the meals programme to ensure improved health and nutrition for young children. Issues such as food and nutrition are interlinked with other poverty issues. The issue of poverty is homogenous and includes various issues that the Minister must make an effort to address.
The ESRI is examining the amalgamation of the family income supplement, child dependant allowance and the various other allowances provided to help address poverty. I can see where Deputy Stanton is coming from in this regard when he seeks an employment-neutral payment. It is important that future supports be employment neutral. Whatever status a person holds, we want the Minister's efforts to achieve the objective of the eradication of child poverty to apply. The Minister has said one child in poverty is one too many, particularly in a time of affluence.
Sometimes when we change a system an unintended consequence of that action is that we create another poverty trap. This was part of the problem with regard to the lone parent proposals. I remember a paper being presented on the issue to the One Parent Exchange Network which demonstrated how we were almost sleepwalking into a minefield of various poverty traps. People would have ended up worse off and being penalised for progress. I compliment Deputy Stanton on how well he has covered that issue. I understand what the Minister is saying but it is time we examined the idea of a second tier of child benefit supplement. It is important that the universal principle of child benefit is preserved because it goes generally to the mother in the home who uses it to discharge various costs and expenses associated with the rearing of the child. Child benefit is often the only source of a mother's independent finance. Child benefit is sacrosanct and it must be protected. As the Minister said, he is increasing it and in that regard he is doing well so far.
The Minister will be glad to hear I am ad idem with him regarding child benefit supplement which must be geared to a certain income level to ensure it is targeted at the families experiencing poverty, particularly child poverty, which is the issue on which we are trying to focus. The child benefit supplement must be employment neutral but a sum of €25,000, €30,000 or €35,000 must be fixed. People must realise this is a political objective. Universal child benefit is appropriate but we are trying to come up with a solution to a problem that has been a source of great annoyance to many people and to the various organisations that have worked in this area. It is important that we focus on that, although I realise the Minister will reply to the effect that he has implemented many measures in that area.
On the child dependant allowance, my colleague, Deputy Paul McGrath, in one of his last contributions on social welfare, a subject on which he has much expertise — I bow to him in that regard because he has an intuitive grasp of the complexities of the social welfare area — was eager to ensure there would not be discrimination. If ever a person achieved objectives it was Deputy McGrath, who wore out the Minister's officials on this issue. The Minister dealt with him as spokesperson for only a few years but I worked with him for several years during which time he made a point on this issue. When the election is called, Deputy Sean Ryan and Deputy Paul McGrath will leave this House having made no small achievements. They are both parliamentarians who persisted and achieved something, and they should be proud of that.
In this context, the child dependant allowance is important because it is targeted at people on social welfare, those on low incomes and so on. As the Minister said, he eliminated the discrimination surrounding the particular type of social welfare payment being paid by the Department.
The allowance was frozen because only those who were unemployed were paid it and if somebody moved into any sort of employment they immediately lost the allowance. We went out of our minds here every year arguing with the Minister and his predecessors, including Proinsias De Rossa MEP — I will not politicise this — about this issue. That was the rationale behind all the Ministers' thoughts in this regard, and probably those of their departmental officials who considered this aspect. This allowance was part of the child support system that was tied to unemployment payments and once the unemployed person or single parent moved to employment or went back to education, they lost substantially.
The second tier payment would help those on social welfare and those who moved to employment, which is obviously the best route out of poverty. If we could devise a workable scheme which would not create a new poverty trap it would cover those people who are in receipt of social welfare payments and those who take up work. I am not talking about people earning €60,000 or €70,000 but those who might earn €27,000, €28,000, €30,000 or €35,000, or whatever the cut-off point would be. They would continue to receive child dependant allowance. That is the way to deal with poverty. Deputy Stanton used the term "employment neutral", which is an excellent phrase and one we will all borrow in the future.
The non-means tested child benefit payment is universal and is paid to the primary carer, usually the mother. It is often the only independent income the primary carer has and research shows it is almost always spent on children. It is important that we continue to pay child benefit on a universal basis and target an additional tier or child benefit supplement at those on social welfare and those in jobs with a low income base but who nevertheless are getting their foot on the employment ladder. They should not lose it immediately. The income they derive from taking up employment is negatively impacted upon in so far as they would lose a benefit they had previously. We must get to that stage and it is worth examining in terms of tackling child poverty.
Child care costs is a major issue. For many people it is the equivalent of a second mortgage. Somebody told me the other day that child care can cost €800 a month or more, which is more than the cost of a second mortgage. People living in south Dublin, south-west Dublin and elsewhere are probably more acutely aware of the cost because it is probably higher. If child care costs €750 or €800, that now has displaced the mortgage repayments as the biggest outlay one has on a monthly basis. We need people in work to sustain the level of economic activity and to ensure we continue to get growth rates of 5%, 6% and more for the foreseeable future, but the negative aspect in that regard is that a significant amount of the income people generate is consumed by the payments they have to expend on child care and on the cost of travelling to work. If the Government ensured we had a good public transport system which would get people to and from their place of work quickly, it would help both from a quality of life perspective and in ensuring people spend less on child care.
Child care supplement is an important issue yet there was not much reference to it. The Minister said it is a matter of choices but we cannot accept that. I might make a different choice and the Minister would argue, probably correctly, that I made a wrong call on particular areas but he has made his choices. Those are areas that will not go away. Child poverty will not disappear overnight. It must be a sustained and focused attack to eradicate child poverty once and for all. Regardless of when we leave this Dáil, alleviating and eradicating child poverty must be a primary focus of our political objectives. If we fail to do that, we will stand indicted in the eyes of many people, particularly some of the organisations dealing with children, including Barnardos and others, which have asked the reason we have not achieved that goal. We have the resources and now is the time to ensure the problem is tackled in a fundamental way.
I thank Deputy Stanton for tabling this amendment and Deputy Penrose for his contribution. We have dealt with this issue on different occasions when dealing with Estimates and the budget. There is nobody in this House who would not put the elimination of child poverty as the number one priority in any approach to social issues. The budget and this Bill make a significant contribution towards that, increasing the lower and higher child benefit rates by €10 a month. The new monthly rates are €160 and €195, which standardises all three qualified childhood allowances, formerly the child dependant allowances, to a single higher rate of €22 per week. In the case of family income supplement, the weekly income threshold is increased by amounts from €15 to €185, depending on family size. Increases have been made in the rate of payment in the back to school clothing and footwear allowances by €60 per child to €180 for two to 11 year olds and by €95 per child to €285 for 12 to 22 year olds. Additional funding of €3 million is provided to extend the important schools meals programme. There is a disregard on the guardian's payment, contributory and non-contributory, from assessment for supplementary welfare allowance and rent or mortgage interest supplement. There is an increase in the spouse's income threshold for entitlement to a half rate qualified child allowance, otherwise known as CDAs, by €50 from €350 to €400 per week for recipients of the following payments: job seeker's benefit, illness benefit, injury benefit and health safety benefit. They are the main changes which are targeted at tackling child poverty.
In regard to child income support generally, it is important to note that child benefit as a percentage of total child benefit and CDA rates will be 62.7%. Prior to these changes it was 67.3%. Keeping the child benefit rate above the 60% or so level will avoid any disincentives. I do not want to repeat myself but to put this in simple forms there has been a fundamental shift in this respect. We cannot simply talk about child poverty and do nothing about it, and I suppose this change is at the expense of child benefit. If this money was not put into child dependant allowance, it would almost certainly be put into child benefit. Therefore, there has been a direct shift from the top two thirds of families who have children to the bottom one third of families who have children in the addition of the new CDAs, which will also come into effect from January but the child benefit changes do not come into effect until April. There is an immediate benefit in respect of the former and the money will be targeted directly at where it is needed. I strongly believe this is exactly the right approach to take now and the time is right to do it. Many studies on child poverty have been undertaken, including those by Barnardos, Combat Poverty Agency and many other fine bodies and agencies. We must target the resources at where they are needed.
I will outline some examples, which I will circulate to Deputies, of families in receipt of welfare benefits and the value of their overall package of benefits, as we are inclined to deal with welfare items in a somewhat disjointed way. When considering income tax scenarios, charts are normally presented which set out how individual families will fare. However, charts setting out how families in receipt of welfare benefits will fare are seldom presented. I have tried to advance this process by considering real life examples. I will use the example of a lone parent with two children, a category in which child poverty is to be found as all the studies highlight, one of whom is aged under six and the lone parent earns €20,000 per annum, the amount he or she is entitled to earn without losing his or her lone parent allowance completely. Such a lone parent does not pay income tax, although there is some PRSI in this case, and the net earnings of that lone parent would be €19,000. The child dependant allowance in that case would be €2,288, the one-parent family allowance would be €3,812, the family income supplement would be €1,872, the child benefit would be €3,840, the fuel allowance, if applicable, which it would be in most cases, would be €522 and the early child care supplement for the child aged under six would be €1,000. That means a lone parent with an income of €20,000 with two children, one of whom is aged under six, has a net income of €33,000, which involves a total social welfare package of €13,564. Therefore the total earnings of a lone parent with a small income of €20,000 will increase by €13,564. Under last year's budget such a lone parent's income increased by €4,000 and under this year's budget his or her income will increase by a further €9,000. There is an enormous and dramatic shift in terms of such a lone parent's increase in earnings this year over last year, when we did not include CDAs. There is a 46% increase in income in that example. That is not a skewed example; there are dozens of examples outlined here and they are all along the same lines, when account is taken of the increased CDAs and the FIS which is targeted at those on lower incomes. With the increased CDAs, the increase in payment in respect of a child may be €22 per month in addition to the payment of €10 per month, which means the payment in respect of many children will be an increase of €32. I did not simply select a good example in the one I outlined — there are others along the same lines. I will circulate these figures to Deputies.
A couple who have four children, two aged under six and two aged over six, and who are working with earnings of €30,000 per annum will receive €44,000, which involves a total social welfare package of €15,000. Therefore, their income will increase from €30,000 per annum to €44,000 — or €45,000 — which includes additional welfare benefit of €14,000 or €15,000 per annum. That represents a 29% gain this year over last year. The CDA element and the increase in FIS have a dramatic effect on low income earners and on people in receipt of welfare benefit, much more dramatic than last year. The CDAs directly contributed to that.
Deputy Stanton asked about child care provision. All the lists I outlined of what we have been doing for children, while not specifically for child care provision, represent a substantial improvement in income for families who have children. The Minister for Finance explained that he must find an extra €100 million this year for payments under the early child care scheme because only three payments were made last year and four payments must be made next year. That will cost an extra €100 million. Such an allocation will go into the system next year. The Minister also explained that from the income viewpoint, he increased the threshold from €10,000 to €15,000 in terms of people minding children. That is an improvement. It was acknowledged that we needed to do that to bring more people into the system.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform said in his speech that my colleague, the Minister for Finance, talked about 56,000 child care places. So far, more than 32,000 new places have been created and a further 24,500 places have been supported with grant aid allocations amounting to €500 million over the past six years. He explained that to date more than 900 capital grant applications amounting to €170 million on the national child care investment programme have been invested.
I thank Deputies for their contributions on this amendment. I strongly argue that this is one of the strongest anti-child poverty packages ever introduced in this House because it makes a dramatic shift, as Members will note from the figures, from middle and higher income earners to those on welfare and lower incomes. That is precisely the right direction to take if we are to eliminate child poverty. I believe we can do this if we keep up the policies of targeting and showing preference. The easiest thing to do is to increase child benefit every year. It is politically popular and I would be much more popular in my constituency if I increased child benefit than to do what I did. I moved that €60 million down the line because of the argument made in this House that there is no point giving out about child poverty and then making universal payments to every child in the country. I made that deliberate choice and I think it will make a real difference.
I agree with the thrust of what the Minister is doing. He stated that he will circulate the document, which is very interesting. He was very careful to mention the income of €20,000 adding up to a final total of €33,000, but he neglected to point out the outgoing expenditure. If a lone parent works and must rely on child care for his or her children, then child care alone could cost €9,600 per child per annum. That takes a great lump out of a lone parent's income. We have not even looked at the cost of child care for second and subsequent children.
The Vincentian partnership recently produced a document that showed the real costs of living, with various baskets for people in different categories. The EU-SILC report for 2005 stated that one in ten people experienced debt problems from ordinary living expenses. This has been the most common type of deprivation reported since 2003 and it is particularly prevalent for households with children. In 2005, almost 40% of lone parent households reported having debt problems, along with 15.3% of other parents in other households. Among houses without children, proportions range from 4.5% for households with two adults to 6.3% for households with three or more adults. The Minister has acknowledged the fact that families are going into debt from ordinary living expenses. They are not going to Barbados, buying yachts or flash cars. They must borrow to survive and the Minister has expressed alarm at the level of debt and the interest that is being paid back. This proves that people out there are under pressure.
I welcome what the Minister has done, as it is heading in the right direction.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the numbers of eligible persons and proportion thereof availing of the Back-to-School Clothing and Footwear Allowance, among low income families."
I will not dwell on this amendment because we have already debated the issue. I want to table it because of the number of people availing of back to school clothing and footwear. The Minister stated this morning that he would look at the idea of allowing people to avail of the allowance later in the year. I suggest that people be allowed to avail of it until the end of November. For various reasons, some people fall through the net, do not collect the allowance and only find out about it at the end of October when it is too late. We want to reach out and help these people who should be getting this allowance but often find out about when it is too late.
Perhaps the Minister can tell me what is required. Is it just some stroke of a pen or does it require a regulation or legislation? How can we extend this for two months? Would it cost anything extra, other than the payments people would receive, to which they are entitled anyway? This is a practical problem that I have come across with my constituents time and again. The Minister should at least extend the deadline to the end of November and we can see what happens.
I support the thrust of Deputy Stanton's amendment. This is one of the few amendments that do not have an adverse financial impact. If it can be construed by the Minister and his officials as having such an adverse impact, he is really saying that if the Department can save money by a strict imposition of a deadline, then that is a good day's work. Things should not work like that, because the Minister and his officials are not getting paid on productivity. If a pot of money is being provided for this, why not extend the date? Deputy Stanton is absolutely right. Many people are not aware of their rights. That was the case with the FIS, which has been in existence for an age. People are even more aware of it because they are in employment.
We spoke about the carers. If someone is in low income employment and is receiving the carer's allowance for a child within the house, that allowance is calculated as income for the purposes of evaluating that person's right to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. It seems that some regulation ensured that the carer's allowance would be included as part of the income calculation. The Minister has some very competent legal people beside him to find that regulation. He should root it out and boot it out. Nonetheless, I acknowledge the increases the Minister has provided for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which are very worthwhile. It is funny that as children get older, the costs of keeping them seem to get more expensive. I feel that I had more money in 1990 than I have in 2006. Sending children to school costs more and I want to acknowledge that.
Anybody receiving the carer's allowance is not a millionaire and must have an income limit to qualify for it. Why should that allowance be calculated as part of the income calculation? It can be used to exclude people from eligibility for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Deputy Stanton's point is well made. There is no cost to anybody. The Minister should expand the deadline according to the Deputy's exhortation. It might contribute to diminishing the level of poverty. We all talk about the number of hot meals, changes of clothing, pairs of shoes and so on as the measurement of the fight against poverty. This is very important for those who suffer significant cost impositions when their children go back to school. Every change that will help in removing impediments to this scheme's availability for the people who deserve it, should be made. That is why I am very supportive of Deputy Stanton's amendment. I ask the Minister to examine the other one to which I have made reference as well.
As Deputies know, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is being increased by 50%. Another issue is whether we can extend the date and so on. In previous years the national average number of applications made after the end of September was 1.5% of the total. Based on information received to date, the number of applications received after the end of September 2006 is approximately 2,600, or 1.4% of all applications received. The majority of these would have been processed under the scheme or the Health Service Executive would have used its discretion to make discretional needs payments, provided all the conditions for the scheme were met. Nobody needs to be out of pocket but given the current arrangements they have to apply for and claim exceptional needs payments.
The 1.4% relates to those who applied late, and perhaps a great many people did not apply at all because they knew they were late. That percentage is more difficult to get because it is hard to calculate who does not apply. I told the Deputies this morning that there was an argument for keeping this tight, but I undertook to examine it, and I will, to determine whether we can extend it to October or November. The argument for keeping it tight I do not have to explain to the Deputies. They both know the social welfare arguments in this regard. The back-to-school allowance should focus on that time of the year. We should not persuade people to expect to have these funds available at other times when children are not going back to school. Although people are becoming increasingly sophisticated in handling finance, nonetheless if the payment is for a particular event, it should be paid at the appropriate time. It would be nonsense to start paying it in June, April or May. Having said that, I know that the end of September is very tight and I will examine as to whether it may be moved up a month or two.
The Deputy should realise that it is a non-statutory scheme. Therefore, this is something I might do by regulation, or without legislation. I repeat my undertaking of this morning to look at whether a month or two might be added, while conscious of the argument that matters cannot be let drift too far. There is a safety net and a fallback in that the HSE has discretion to make an exceptional needs payment if someone feels he or she has missed the boat completely. To let it wander up to Christmas might not be wise, however; therefore, I will see about extending it by a month or two.
I have suggested it should be to the end of November. I understand it is available currently from June to September. Many people would not start to avail of it until mid-August to the end of September. I accept what the Minister said as regards people getting exceptional needs payments, but a great many probably do not apply because they know they are outside the date.
It opens on 1 June.
Correct. I welcome the fact the Minister is going to look at this, which is worthwhile. As I said, many people are busy in September and may use funding to buy school uniforms etc. which could have been used for other things if they had the money. A month or two would be very useful to see how matters would work.
I am not sure whether the Minister has examined the possibility of paying this to all social welfare recipients and those on family income supplement as well, and linking FIS and the back-to-school allowance. We have had this debate already, but I just want to mention it. I shall withdraw the amendment based on Minister's assurance that he will examine the matter. I look forward to an announcement on it some weekend.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a cost of disability payment for people with disabilities."
This is quite important and speaks for itself as regards the cost of disability payment. We know people with disabilities have extra costs because of their conditions. Whether a person is at work or at home and not at work, he or she requires extra heating. He or she may not be able to go to the large supermarket where food is often cheaper and may have to go to the local shop. There are extra costs involved in having a disability. Very often where people make a supreme effort to find a job and become employed there are extra costs if they are disabled.
Great efforts have been made in this area and there was a massive debate in the Mansion House just before the last election where the other disability Bill was thrown out. Then we had the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, the Disability Act, structural plans and so on. A great deal is going on and it is only right that this should be the case. However, an enormous amount has yet to be done and we are only starting. This is one concession that has been sought for quite a number of years and I just wonder what are the Minister's views.
I agree this initiative has been ongoing. Repeated attempts have been made by various organisations dealing with disability which have aired this issue in an holistic and very vocal manner over the years. Obviously, significant additional costs are incurred by people with disabilities. I will digress for a minute and mention that I was at the Westmeath Centre for Independent Living community centre in Kinnegad the other night. One saw personal assistants there and the great work they are doing. There is a combination of FÁS and the HSE and it is important the necessary funding for those personal assistants is streamlined and put in place to assist people with disabilities. They provide them with a great sense of independence and vitality. I saw the way those people were so excited the other night in getting various certificates. These were headline achievements for them, allowing them to participate in a very full way in all societal events and tasks, in work, recreation and everything else. We should acknowledge the role personal assistants and particularly centres of independence play right across the country, especially the one in Westmeath. I salute it for the work it is doing under the chairmanship of Councillor Pat McLoughlin, with all the people involved, executive staff etc. in Kinnegad. They have a lovely place and it is important that issues as regards funding, location, their concerns for having the building for the centre over a number of years etc. are addressed. We should try to ensure resources are allocated to remove all doubts and uncertainties in this regard, which do not help in achieving the objective of maintaining a full, integrated role for disabled people within society. It was wonderful to see their achievements in that regard.
The cost of disability can be affected by many issues. There are specific transport needs. If one is in a house there are building adaptation costs, disability aids and appliances, heating requirements etc. Some people need personal care assistants and very often additional home help hours have to be paid for. They might be getting only one and a half or two hours a day, which is totally insufficient. That is one other area that must be focused on as regards providing a comprehensive care package to enable such people to continue to live a full life in society. All of this is only talk, however, unless we can address the specific area Deputy Stanton referred to, which is extremely important in the context of ensuring people can remain within the home environment. If we can address this we will have significantly ensured that people can remain in the environment in which they are happiest, and continue to work and achieve great productivity — much more than some of us. It is wonderful to see the achievements of those people.
The Minister's Department showed last year that about two thirds of people with disabilities fell below the 60% level of median income. Something like a quarter of them suffered basic income deprivation. That is an enormous number, so it is very clear in that context that this will have to be tackled in a focused and fundamental manner and that significant additional costs are associated with disability. I have quoted the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland, which made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs about six weeks ago. The society raised the necessity of the Government providing a cost of disability payment and indicated its research had shown that people with a disability were far less likely to be in paid work.
A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis often meant the end of such a person's paid employment. In order to introduce some equality and equity into the system, Members must explore the issue of the introduction of a cost of disability payment. The arguments are strong and sustained and have been made vehemently and with great force by the various organisations involved. The cost of disability payment constitutes the central core of the various reports produced on disability and it must be addressed sooner or later. People have become weary while waiting for something to happen in this regard.
As Deputy Stanton suggested, I urge the preparation of a report on this issue. I understand a sum of approximately €40 was the initial amount suggested. While that was some time ago and the amount is only pennies, the concept should be introduced. The establishment of a floor level, even one of €40, would be a start in securing recognition of the issue. This would be important in the context of ensuring that the additional costs incurred by people with disabilities are met in some way and would constitute an important first step in this regard.
I support the amendment. People with disabilities are a specific low-income group that experiences disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty. Specific measures are necessary in order to assist many people with disabilities. Deputy Penrose spoke of the cost of disability payment. I understand the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the National Economic and Social Council have recommended the introduction of such a cost of disability payment in recognition of the fact that people incur additional costs. Deputy Stanton outlined one such cost and the entire question of transport is the most obvious example. However, there are also other factors, such as heating the home and so on.
A report published in 2004 recommended the €40 payment. However, if the same report was commissioned today, it is likely the recommended amount would be higher. The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities entitled, A Strategy for Equality, also recommended this payment should be made to people with disability, irrespective of whether the person in question was at work. The latter report was published ten years ago and no movement has been seen in this regard. This was an area addressed by Sinn Féin in its pre-budget submission. It is an issue on which the State has fallen down and the Minister should consider such funding. While one may speak of rising tides lifting all boats and so on, it is clear that people with disabilities have been left behind. Greater investment and support is required in this regard and this payment would constitute recognition of the additional difficulties and costs associated with maintaining an ordinary lifestyle for such individuals. The Minister should examine this issue.
I thank the Deputy for tabling amendment No. 7. A working group chaired by the Department of Health and Children, which includes membership from my Department, has examined the feasibility of the introduction of a cost of disability payment. The working group recommended that steps be taken to improve the quality of data relating to disability in Ireland. For example, it suggested an adjustment of the existing data-gathering exercises undertaken by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, or other relevant bodies. It wishes to include questions on the numbers per household with disabilities, the nature of the disability and the severity of impairment. This will be addressed in the disability survey, which is being undertaken by the CSO following the 2006 census and the survey results will be available in 2007.
The group has also examined the scope for addressing barriers that exist for people with disabilities who wish to undertake or increase their employment, thereby moving to a position of greater economic independence. In this regard, as part of last year's social welfare budget, a change was introduced to the withdrawal rate of disability allowance for income in excess of the current earnings disregard. This means that single people can earn up to a maximum of €390 per week from rehabilitative employment before their disability allowances are fully withdrawn. Other issues concerning the cost of disability will be considered following the development of a needs assessment system provided for under Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005, which will commence for children aged up to five from mid-2007.
Similarly, the Department's disability sectoral plan contains actions regarding the rationalisation of existing allowances for people with disabilities to ensure that income supports and associated benefits do not create financial barriers preventing people with disabilities from participating in the labour force or availing of training, education or other developmental opportunities. As Members will be aware, most Departments have a disability sectoral plan that clearly lays out the work ahead of them in this regard.
A number of changes have been made in this regard in the budget. I have extended entitlement to a full rate of disability allowance, which comes to €185.80, to all people resident in institutions and Members have welcomed this measure. While it is small in terms of cost, it is significant in terms of recognition. Moreover, 80% of it will probably come back through institutions anyway. I have also extended entitlement to bereavement grants to the next of kin of deceased recipients of disability allowance aged 16 to 22. Similarly, while this is a small cost, it is a significant recognition of the issue. Personally, I felt strongly about the next measure and wanted to make a strong statement on it. Consequently, I have increased the capital disregard for disability allowance by €30,000, that is, from €20,000 to €50,000, to allow people with disabilities to have that level of funds without it interfering with their disability allowance. Additional funding of €1.9 million has been allocated to Comhairle, the citizens information board, for the development of a personal advocacy service for people with disabilities and for the implementation of the disability sectoral plan.
This is the position in respect of the cost of disability proposal. I await the disability survey undertaken by the CSO, the results of which should be available in 2007.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a national waste waiver system for all low-income households administered through the social welfare system.".
This issue was discussed previously. The idea of a national waste waiver for low-income households has been examined by the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Social and Family Affairs as a result of the Combat Poverty Agency's review of waste charges, which was carried out several years ago. While waste collection is controlled and administered through local authorities, I wish to see the introduction of some social welfare voucher system for all low-income households that could be used at national level. A national waste waiver for low-income households such as pensioners, people with disabilities, lone parents, low-income families in particular and those in receipt of social welfare payments has been supported by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Combat Poverty Agency and Age Action Ireland.
I am sure the Minister is aware the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs has held hearings on this issue. It found a hotchpotch across the country as all local authorities have different ways of dealing with it. While some local authorities have no waiver system, in others it is quite generous. It changes depending on the budgetary pressures under which they operate. Consequently, many low-income households, such as those on State pensions, lone parents and people in receipt of other social welfare payments are under pressure to pay waste charges. While I do not state the two are related, I have noticed lately a significant increase in fly-tipping, both in my own locality and nationwide. I do not state this is related to the fact that those on low incomes are finding it difficult to pay the charges. Nevertheless, fly-tipping has increased.
Some form of uniform system should be established throughout the State. At present, simply living in one city or local authority area means that one gets support in this regard, while in another one does not. The officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who appeared before the joint committee asserted that it is up to each local authority to do its own thing in this respect. However, central Government has a role to co-ordinate or at least to lay down some markers in order that all citizens are treated equally. I would be interested in the Minister's views on this area. There are many more interesting amendments to come and I will not delay further on this one.
The Department has some of the best officials in the public service. We have paid tribute to them previously and I pay tribute to them again. We get a great service from them. There is greater ingenuity in his Department in terms of seeing issues from a different perspective than in many others. The Department officials would see the benefit of this move.
Often the waiver schemes applicable to two persons living within a quarter of a mile of each other are different because they are administered by different local authorities. Some local authorities provide a waiver system and some do not, while others provide a tag system where a person is entitled to a number of free bin tags.
The Department is probably one of the best innovators in the administration of schemes. I suppose the Department administers hundreds of schemes, far more than any other Department. I realise the Minister would say that his officials are loaded down with consolidating Social Welfare Acts, to which we add every year, and with matters such as the Citizens Information Bill. It takes the Department a long time to get to the bottom of all that work. The Department's officials should be paid additional moneys for all the work they do in what is one of the more difficult areas because every day we find an issue, land it on their desk and ask them to use their discretion to deal with it as best they can.
Someone must tackle this issue eventually. If I recall correctly the presentation made at the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government met officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stated that it is up to each local authority to administer the system. That is no use. If pensioners are not gaining the benefit of a waiver, some of the few bob the Minister passes on to them is being subsumed back into the system while their neighbours across a local authority boundary a couple of hundred yards away, or on the far side of the road, may be eligible for a waiver. What is important is the uniformity of the principle of a waiver system which takes cognisance of people's income, particularly those who are dependent on social welfare to meet their basic necessities of life.
The Minister and his Department work extremely hard in that area, but it is not beyond the officials' ingenuity to draw up a solution. Obviously, it would involve a little joined up thinking between the Minister's Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the representative managers' association representing the local authorities.
We, in County Westmeath, have a fairly good waiver system where those eligible get a number of free bin tags. The tag achieves another objective because the more one recycles, the less refuse one must put out for collection. If one is good at recycling, the tags might be almost sufficient to cover the year's collection. There is an in-built incentive to act properly, taking cognisance of the environmental concern to reduce, reuse and recycle, and to achieve a national environmental objective.
This is an important amendment and Deputy Stanton must be saluted for tabling it. I support the idea in principle. While I acknowledge it cannot happen overnight, perhaps it is a matter the Minister could examine. The Minister is giving social welfare recipients what he hopes is enough for them to get by from week to week, but if they must address a cost such as this, it eats into their level of disposable income.
We had a number of meetings about this, both internally and between Departments. I acknowledge that the situation is unsatisfactory. Approximately half of the local authorities operate a waiver scheme and the others do not.
I make this point not just because the three of us are here, but the position is that 14,000 households are in receipt of a waiver from South Dublin County Council and 2,000 households are in receipt of a waiver in Westmeath, which seems to run a good scheme. Not to let Deputy Stanton off the hook——
——Cork County Council grants a waiver to 6,000 households, of which approximately half are in receipt of State pensions and the other half are in receipt of other social welfare payments. Impressively, Fingal County Council grants a waiver to 8,000 households, 2,000 of which are in receipt of State pensions and the rest of which include widows, job-seekers, one parent families, people on disability allowance and other social welfare payments. If half the local authorities in the country can do it, there is no reason the other local authorities cannot do it. Some of the local authorities doing it are not necessarily the better off ones, but they are stretching themselves and prioritising people on welfare which is what they should do.
When we came to look at this, I was faced with the conclusion that any national scheme worth its salt which I might create would cost at least €50 million. If I was to go down that road, I would be paying most of that sum back to the local authorities because half of them would almost give up what they are currently doing. If I had that kind of money, I would imagine half of it would go straight towards taking the pressure off the local authorities. The Deputies might say it is all public money anyway but if half the local authorities in the country can do it, the other half should also do it.
I do not understand why the local authorities do not make a waiver scheme a condition of contract. It is not enough for some local authorities to shrug their shoulders and say that they have privatised waste collection and it is none of their business any more. Everyone knows that when giving out a contract one is in a powerful position and the people who bid for the contract who give the best deal on waivers should get brownie points in the assessment of the tenders.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, knows my views on this area and I will do what I can to ensure the rest of the local authorities deliver. It is not fair that many people on welfare in one part of the country are entitled to waivers and others are not. I find that trying to fill the gap is complicated, but I make these comments today deliberately and will continue to see how I can be helpful in this area. What is going on is just not satisfactory.
I thank the Minister. I strongly support what he said, that local authorities should do what they can to provide waivers to those who need them in their areas. If anything, this debate at least has united us on this point and has also given the Minister an opportunity to make a strong case in the House. Perhaps my faith in the system is being restored.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on supplementary pension coverage.".
There is a Green Paper coming up in a few months time. We have been over this area.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas a report on extending the free travel scheme to include other service providers, with a view to improving free travel benefits for people in rural areas.".
This is similar to the issue addressed in amendment No. 8. I have raised the issue of public transport and the free travel scheme in rural areas with this Minister and others for some time. Despite holding free travel passes, many older persons and persons with disabilities are unable to benefit from the range of services available to free travel pass holders in cities and larger towns. I ask the Minister to look at introducing a voucher scheme which could be used in hackneys and other private transport in addition to the free travel pass for persons in rural areas. This would be of particular benefit to persons living in areas which are not serviced by public buses, or even by the rural transport initiative.
I appreciate that there could be costs involved, but I would imagine that they would not be high given the numbers of free travel pass holders in these areas. If a person has a free travel pass and cannot access free travel because there is no public transport available, this voucher system would be important. Perhaps the Minister will give us his views on it.
This case has been put forward many times and I accept that there is an issue. There are huge cost implications in trying to roll this out further than it currently extends. The Deputy will be aware that I recently abolished the restriction on peak times and that will be of considerable assistance to those who use free travel. The budget also contained provision for entitlement to a companion pass for those aged 66 to 74 years who are certified as medically unfit to travel alone. These two important changes have been made.
My Department is always willing to consider applications from licensed private transport operators who may wish to participate in the free travel scheme. I invite them to make such applications. Deputies will also be aware of the rural transport initiative, managed by Pobal and formerly managed by ADM, on behalf of the Minister for Transport. We are continuing to develop this scheme.
There certainly is an issue in this area. I had representations from County Donegal some time ago about the difficulty in accessing transport to Dublin from parts of the county. Some suggested that we should consider paying airfares from Donegal to Dublin. One can see how it quickly spreads.
As I said, the case has been made many times. We have not as yet ventured into the area of providing free taxi or hackney travel. We have concentrated on improving the bus service and the rural transport initiative. We have invited more private sector operators to apply to us for inclusion in the free travel scheme. While I acknowledge that difficulties exist in some rural areas, I do not propose to extend this into the taxi area. However, we will keep it under review.
If someone is living in an isolated rural area, he or she should have the facility to get to the nearest public transport bus stop, train station or town. Some people may only want to go to town once a week for shopping, but they cannot do so if there is no public transport or no neighbours willing to help. A voucher scheme, limited to a certain amount per week, could be put in place for this purpose. It would be hugely advantageous to people who are isolated in rural areas.
I have often raised the issue of rural poverty. It is a hidden poverty in modern Ireland. Perhaps I should not mention it, but we now also have the issue of drink driving. The only social outlet for many people was the local pub and people are now wary of going there and having one or two drinks. We are not in any way advocating that people should drink and drive. However, a limited voucher system may work in these circumstances.
I know the Minister has taken this issue on board. I withdraw the amendment on the basis of his response.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the introduction of a scheme to provide for 3 to 5 days of paternity leave and benefit, including details of—
(a) qualification criteria, and
(b) payment methods,
for the scheme, which shall be run on a similar basis to entitlement to maternity leave and benefit.".
Other countries have substantial allowances for paternity leave. Increases in maternity benefit are welcome, as is the extension of four weeks to both the paid and unpaid maternity leave entitlements. Fine Gael has advocated this for some time. However, the Government did not move to introduce paid paternity leave, or any paid parental leave entitlements which are commonplace in many EU countries. Despite increases in length and flexibility in parental leave entitlements, there are no paternity leave entitlements for fathers at all and many families who are entitled to unpaid parental leave cannot afford to avail of it.
Some provision for paid paternity leave could be introduced through the PRSI system and would go some way to recognising the importance of a father's role in his child's life. Fine Gael suggests that it could commence by giving fathers three days paid paternity leave and one week of paid parental leave. Fathers have a particularly important role to play at the time of the birth or adoption of a child. What are the Minister's views on this suggestion?
I support the concept behind Deputy Stanton's amendment. It is important within the context of equality within the social welfare system. It is important that there is equality, equity and access to the availability of all schemes. In that context, paternity leave for fathers has a role in that it would give fathers the opportunity to be present at a crucial time in the life of the child. Other European countries have adopted such procedures.
Income levels sometimes do not permit fathers to take paternity leave. While someone in a well paid job may be in a position to take time, low to middle income earners are not in a position to do so. I welcome the increases in maternity leave which saw the Government fulfilling the promise it made in 2005 to provide an additional eight weeks leave. It is hard to resist the argument that paternity leave of three days initially, and a full working week at a later point, be granted. Some people may not take the three days together. Nevertheless, the overall welfare system would at least recognise the crucial role of fathers in the family unit.
This scheme could be administered and run along the same lines as the entitlement to maternity leave and benefits. The same qualifying criteria could be put in place to ensure equity of access and acknowledgement of contributions to the PRSI system for paternity leave and benefits.
As Deputies know, while males are not entitled under Irish law to either paid or unpaid paternity leave, they may be entitled to parental leave. Parental leave entitles both qualifying parents to take a period of up to 14 weeks unpaid leave from employment in respect of children aged up to eight years of age. Paternity leave is generally understood to be the period immediately after the birth of a child and such leave is not a feature of our system.
The question of social insurance funded payment for paternity leave would be contingent on the underlying entitlement to statutory parental leave. In the absence of statutory provision for entitlement to paternity leave, the question of making a social insurance-based payment during such an absence does not arise.
It is worth pointing out that responsibility for questions relating to entitlement to paternity leave rests with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Entitlement to paid paternity leave was considered by the working group on social partnership which undertook a review of the Parental Leave Act 1998. The report was published in 2001 and dealt with the principle of paid paternity leave. It stated that the group had divergent points of view and could not reach a consensus on the issue. For that reason, no specific proposals for paid paternity leave were advanced.
Should a framework for paid paternity leave be introduced, the cost of such a scheme for three days at 80% of wages, subject to a minimum rate of €270.80 and a maximum of €280 per week, is estimated at almost €6 million. This could rise to €10 million for five days paid paternity leave. Both of those are based on the assumption that all fathers would take the leave and 95% of them would be paid at the higher rate. There are no specific proposals at this point to introduce paternity leave but I have outlined the costs and draw Members' attention to the availability of parental leave.
I thank the Minister for his response. I note that we will discuss family break-up later in the week. It is an important issue and paternity leave could help.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the social welfare support payments and availability of other departmental schemes for widows, with particular emphasis on young widows.".
This is an important issue. The National Association of Widows in Ireland estimates there are a total of 150,000 widows in Ireland, although the Minister may have more up-to-date figures. Many widows are unhappy at the lack of recognition of their situation in the budget this year. Many younger widows, who are dependent on non-contributory and contributory widow's pensions, are not entitled to any of the free schemes of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Also, widows who choose to work and receive a contributory widow's pension continue to have to pay PRSI. When they reach pension age they will only be eligible for one pension, whereas a person who chooses not to work will never have to contribute to the PRSI system and will still receive the same pension on retirement.
Widows, particularly those in their late 50s or early 60s and only a few years away from retirement, who might find it difficult to get a job, are at a particular disadvantage. I urge the Minister to consider what can be done to help this group as many suffer from poverty and deprivation. Not only do they lose a partner who has helped them for a long time, they also find their income drastically reduced. This is an area which has not received much attention in recent years.
The position of widows has been a long-standing bone of contention for me. When they lose their spouse, especially if they have two or three young children, it is a time of huge vulnerability. Having lost their main breadwinner and find their income slashed by maybe 60% or 70%, they need compassion and positive help. The social welfare system has been remiss in abjectly failing to recognise the plight of widows.
The Minister will correctly say the widowed parent's grant has gone up from €1,300 to €4,000 for 2007, which is over 300%, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge it. The household benefits package should focus above all on this area, even if it is for a limited period of, for example, three to four years, to help bereaved people until they can regain independence. They may have depended on a spouse to carry out various chores or as the main breadwinner. In that period of readjustment to a new situation they should be assisted. The general public would be supportive of any measures to assist widows in a period of great trauma, distress and loneliness as a result of losing their loved one.
The household benefits package could be usefully explored in the context of trying to provide maximum help. Bereavement is a time of great vulnerability and I have constantly agitated in this regard for the past nine or ten years and more. I have a particular interest and call on the Minister to commission a report to consider the costs associated with improving the household benefits package available to widows, even for a limited period while they readjust. It would be appropriate to do so at this moment, when we have significant resources and can afford to help people. The welfare system should be about helping people when they are most vulnerable.
Widows and widowers can qualify for a number of different schemes, depending on their circumstances. The contributory widow's and widower's pension is available to those who satisfy the necessary PRSI contribution conditions, either by virtue of their own record or that of their deceased spouse, and those qualifying are not subject to a means test. Those without the necessary PRSI contributions, which now comprise the larger group can, if they have qualifying children, receive the one-parent family payment. This is a means-tested payment which comprises an earnings disregard and is designed to assist with the extra costs those with children face in trying to access training or employment. As the House knows, up to €146.50 per week is completely disregarded while earnings in excess of that and up to €400 are assessed at 50%, an increase in the budget from €375.
The widowed parent's grant, as Deputy Penrose mentioned, has been increased from €2,700 to €4,000 and the increases in child benefit and qualifying child dependant allowance will assist widows and widowers who have children. As the House knows, we have made substantial increases to child benefit and the CDAs.
People with children under six years will also qualify for the early child care supplement. Widowed persons without dependent children, if under 66 years, may qualify for a non-contributory pension or, if they are over 66, the State non-contributory pension. When I introduced the latter in September the basic means disregard was increased by €7.60 to €20 per week while a specific, additional disregard of €100 per week has been included where the pensioner was in employment. As the House knows, I have increased that to €200 in this budget. It is intended as an incentive to facilitate non-contributory pensioners who wish to return to work.
I agree with the House that we must keep constantly under review the adequacy of payments for widowed persons and welfare recipients in general. In this budget widowed people received increases of between €16 and €20 per week, depending on which category they fell into, which is considerably above the inflation rate. There are a large number of schemes and welfare conduits to support widows and widowers, particularly those with children.
I thank the Minister for his remarks and the fact that he undertook to keep the matter under review.
I gave the Minister too much credit. The widowed parent's grant increased by €1,300, not by the amount I said, but it is still significant, with an increase of over 50%. Is that paid to every widow? What are the qualifying criteria? Is it a universal payment, providing a widowed parent has a child?
My understanding is it is universal, subject to having a child. The increase is paid from budget day. The grant was previously €2,700 and was increased by €1,300. Perhaps I did not say it correctly.
No, I said it incorrectly.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the level of work force participation and improvement of in-work employment supports for people of pensionable age.".
This amendment concerns pensioners continuing to work. It suggests the Minister prepare a report on the level of work force participation and improvement of in-work employment supports for people of pensionable age. The means disregard for non-contributory pensioners was increased from €20 to €30 per week and the income disregard for earnings from insurable employment was increased from €100 to €200, which will come into effect in September 2007. Perhaps the raising of the income threshold will do more to encourage take-up of this disregard, as it has been applied to the pensions of only 398 of the 97,411 non-contributory pensioners, some 0.4%. Will the Minister comment in this regard?
The Minister has stated many times that he wishes to encourage more people of pension age who wish to work to do so. The income disregard alone has not done anything to improve the situation. Perhaps underlying reasons need to be investigated. I have heard many people of pension age complaining of ageism by employers, which accounts for 12.5% of the cases of the Equality Authority of Ireland and the Government should take more action to combat this form of discrimination. Employment and in-work supports and education and training options for older people need to be addressed to improve the employment prospects of older people.
This amendment relates to an important issue. In reply to the Minister's statement on Second Stage, I pointed out that if we want to widen the opportunity for people to contribute to their pensions, it has been accepted that we should include shopkeepers' and farmers' spouses.
Regarding people who were previously restricted in this respect, such as those in receipt of farm assistance or jobseeker's assistance payments, the Minister has required them to make contributions under the S1 system. This is as important a change as the Minister has ever made. While it affects a small number of people, it sends a signal and provides people with the opportunity to secure their long-term futures from a pension perspective.
The number of shopkeepers has fallen significantly and many old corner shops in rural and urban Ireland are losing to apparent progress, namely, big multiples and so on. Those people served and continue to serve an important function, particularly in rural areas where newsagents, tobacconists and fuel providers were available from 7 a.m. until late at night.
Likewise, farmers' spouses have made important contributions to the maintenance and improvement of their farms. The Minister will say that their involvement in the running of their farms must be proven via joint bank accounts, which is a complex process. Rather than putting people through that onerous task, it should be assumed that farmers' spouses make significant contributions to the viability of their farms. Their roles should not be underestimated. This matter must be examined sooner rather than later if we are to introduce equality into the system.
I thank Deputy Stanton for tabling this amendment. In many ways, it is self-explanatory that policy has been aimed at increasing workforce participation among all groups in society, including older workers, in recent years. This policy extends to the lone parent system reforms in that we will press ahead with the disregards that will allow lone parents to participate in the workforce. Increasingly, people with disabilities apply for exemptions and many are taking up training and education. We can discuss this matter further to try to ensure that people with disabilities can play a stronger role in the workforce if they wish to do so.
It is clear that we should facilitate pensioners or older people who wish to continue working and we are designing a pension system that will encourage them to do so. Last year, I decided for the first time to permit someone on a non-contributory pension to earn money without its interfering with his or her pension. This year, the amount will be €200.
When one starts a scheme, people look at their side view mirrors. While they can see out the windscreen, they ask how that view can be widened. People on contributory pensions have the option to make a few bob from their hobbies or to earn money by taking up employment, but people on non-contributory pensions did not have this option because it would have reduced their pensions. We are starting to focus on employment in this respect. I do not doubt that once the administrative procedures and structures and financial issues have been resolved in years to come, the provision will include the self-employed, but it is a good start and a step in the right direction.
Someone on a non-contributory pension can earn €10,000 per year from employment without interfering with a cent of his or her pension. This sends a strong signal to the effect that, after years of building the country, a pension is a person's right. I believe strongly in this issue and have tried to advance it as best I could. A pension is a pension and we should not reduce or interfere with it by any means.
The Deputy will not press the amendment, but I have no difficulty with its sentiments.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on the option of payment of the fuel allowance as a once-off bulk payment.".
Senator Browne feels strongly on this issue, which we discussed previously. I would like the Minister to examine the possibility of a bulk payment of the fuel allowance and extension of the time limit to perhaps 34 weeks in respect of people with severe illness.
The bulk payment has been proposed because it would allow people to purchase oil for heating, which can only be bought in large quantities and poses a cost that is difficult for low income households to meet. Payment in bulk should not mean any additional cost for the Department and should be easier to administer. I know that the Minister and the authorities in Northern Ireland are examining the matter. While it is not a significant issue, it could make a difference to some households.
I have undertaken to keep the issue under review. This morning, I referred to a survey which I have just now noticed was carried out in 1998.
It was quite a while ago.
Re-examining it might be worthwhile.
On that basis, I will withdraw the amendment.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 3, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay before each House of the Oireachtas, a report on improving entitlement levels to full contributory pensions for all older people.".
While this is an important amendment, there is not much time left to debate the Bill. The amendment relates to a better entitlement to a full contributory pension for qualified adults, many of whom have been excluded from eligibility for a contributory pension as a result of the marriage bar and the failure of all Governments to introduce retrospective credits for homemakers and, in doing so, to give many women recognition for the years they spent working in the home. Consequently, many elderly women are on low incomes and are dependent on their husbands for entitlements to social welfare payments.
There are issues regarding the PRSI system, as outlined by the IFA, that make it difficult for farmers' spouses to qualify for old age or State pensions unless they become partners in the farm businesses or are paid a wage by their spouses. Many elderly pensioners on half rate pre-1953 pensioners and pro rata pensions are excluded from receiving full contributory pensions as a result of changes in the PRSI system and the fact that they needed to move abroad to get work. This relates to the famous averaging rule.
There is also the matter of social insurance changes for the self-employed in 1988 and the ten year rule, which meant that any self-employed person, in particular farmers who were between 60 years and 65 years of age in 1988, did not fulfil the eligibility criteria for a full contributory pension. The IFA has suggested that a special half rate pension be introduced for these people and a 75% pension for those aged between 56 years and 60 years of age when the change came into force.
The Minister has expressed an interest in making alterations to the social insurance system to allow people over 65 years to continue to pay PRSI and improve their contributory pension entitlements. He could also examine the possibility of allowing people to defer State pension entitlements in favour of a higher rate payment for later retirement. While we will not reach the matter of social insurance for childminders, it should be examined.
As it is now 6.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of that the section is hereby agreed to, that Schedules 1 and 2 and the Title are hereby agreed to, that the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment and that Fourth Stage is hereby completed."
I thank Deputies for their consideration of the Bill, which was constructive and of benefit to the country.
I thank the Minister for his interaction with us. We put a lot of work into this and it is important we are listened to in order that we can deal with issues on behalf of those who need our help and support. I wish the Minister and his officials a happy and peaceful Christmas.
I thank the Minister for taking cognisance of the points we made today and during the year that were reflected in this Bill and the social welfare improvements announced in the budget. We look forward to renewing battle early in the new year and I hope the Minister and his officials have a peaceful Christmas.