Social Welfare Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

The Acting Chairman had the good luck of being in the Chair last evening when I was making my contribution. It must have been by popular acclaim that he was asked to return and listen to the rest of it. I welcome him.

Our social welfare code has two systems, namely, the benefit and allowances systems. The benefit system is insurance-based. One pays stamps into an insurance fund and when difficulties arise, such as unemployment or disability, one can draw on the fund and collect money based on stamps paid. It is like car insurance.

Last evening I was critical of the Minister as there are issues arising from this that he needs to address. If someone is in receipt of, for example, unemployment or disability benefit, one does not receive the Christmas bonus because they are not on a long-term payment. I strongly suggest that is unfair. The child dependant allowance for young people in education is not available if one is in receipt of benefit. That is not fair. Those on social welfare benefit are obviously on a low income and if one's child is in higher education, they cannot qualify for the top-up payment. A small number of people are affected and these anomalies should be sorted out. It is unfair that these should exist and I ask the Minister to examine them. While I know he will not be in office next year, I ask that he put it in train so that it may be carried on.

One never knows.

I know the Minister's potential for looking at problems and sorting them out.

Based on the insurance system, I have a problem with a number of items. The first relates to stamps or benefit-based payments. If a man works for a county council, health board or any company and pays an A stamp but, Lord forbid, dies, his wife will qualify for a widow's contributory pension based on the stamps he paid into his insurance scheme, which covers her and his children in the event of his passing on. It is a good system, although we would like to see higher payments as widows and widowers are the great forgotten people of this country. My problem is with the fact that, if the man's widow happens to work in her own right and has accumulated stamps, on reaching 65 or 66, she is entitled to an old age pension based on her own stamps. She would also be entitled to a widow's pension based on her late husband's stamps but the Minister will not pay her out of both insurance schemes. He will only pay out of one but that is not fair because if people contribute to two pension funds, which is what they are, they should be entitled to draw from them. I ask the Minister to look at that aspect.

I welcome the budget announcement that carers in receipt of a social welfare payment will receive half the carer's allowance. A couple of years ago, I put on the record the case of a widow who looked after her mother-in-law but, as well as losing her husband, she lost out on those payments. Can the Minister clarify in his response to this part of the debate whether a recipient of widow's pension and a small pension from her husband's employer — for example, a county council or a health board — who has been sanctioned to become a carer, will receive the half payment? Will the small pension she receives be taken into account or will it fall within the income disregard? The Minister may not have thought about the issue. If that is the case, I ask him to do so in a sympathetic way.

As I said, widows are the great forgotten people and the Minister could do a few extra things for them. He could give them free travel because it would be a big bonus for them. I met a widow recently who asked me a question concerning the companion pass for which I had no answer, although the Minister and his officials may have one. She has a free travel pass but wanted a companion pass. If she had a partner or husband she would receive a companion pass for them but, because she has neither, she wonders why she cannot nominate somebody else. She is condemned to be alone because of circumstances outside her control and, if she wants to travel, she will have to do so alone because of circumstances outside her control. Widows should get special treatment.

The treatment of widows in the budget not by the Minister, but by his colleague, the Minister for Finance, was an absolute disgrace. He announced an additional tax credit for widows and widowers of €50 per annum, which is approximately 90c per week and is appalling. If he was not going to do something worthwhile for them, he should not have insulted them. It was a major slip-up, one of the few in the budget, and the Minister should consider how to put it right.

Free travel comes under the Minister's remit and must be of great benefit to those living in Dublin or places where there is a good transport system. In rural areas, however, it is of limited benefit as many small towns and villages do not have a bus service or, if they have, it consists of one bus per day. What does the Minister think of free travel being dispensed by way of vouchers which can be cashed through a taxi service? Given the effect curbs on drink driving are having on rural pubs, might it not be a good idea to allow a man, who loves to visit his pub for a few pints on a couple of occasions during the week but cannot drive home, to have 40, 50 or 60 vouchers in lieu of a free travel pass, each worth €5, to pay for a taxi home which otherwise would be very expensive? That would not be of great use in cities but it would be of great benefit to rural Ireland.

How long have I left?

Three minutes.

Time passes quickly.

Carers do a fantastic job and we must support them by bolstering the services available to them. The Minister said the respite grant was now payable to 40,000 carers, including approximately 30,000 in receipt of carer's allowances plus a further 8,000 to 10,000. There must, however, be more people who qualify for the respite grant and we must make more effort to help them.

The family income supplement, FIS, is a very good system. I am glad the Minister is topping it up but why do an estimated 50% of people entitled to it not claim? We must renew our efforts to make people aware of the supplement. I know a couple who worked in NEC in Ballivor until it closed down and they were made redundant. They considered what to do with their lives and the man, who was relatively young, wanted to do something to maintain the good lifestyle he had. Accordingly, he has become an apprentice electrician, working with a local contractor. He is earning a wage and has applied for FIS because the family is on a low income. I hope the Minister will tell me a mistake was made but the FIS section told him he would be paid the supplement while he was working but that, while he completed his module at college, although still being paid by the contractor, it would not be paid. That is unfair and wrong and I hope the Minister will clarify whether a mistake has been made. If an apprentice is trying to better himself or herself — from the Minister's time in the system he knows apprentices must do a period of training — he or she is under the auspices of the local contractor. It would be wrong to shut off the payments during the training period. I hope the Minister will give a positive clarification regarding this situation.

Is it not anomalous that the Department of Social and Family Affairs recognises two people living together as a unit for social welfare purposes, such as the provision of the dependent spouse allowance, whereas the tax code does not? Is it not strange that if one's wife or husband is not working, one can get a married person's allowance, but one cannot get it if one's partner is not one's spouse? How can this be justified when those people are treated as husbands and wives for social welfare purposes? Should this matter not be addressed?

I thank the Acting Chairman for bearing with me. Yesterday, the Minister gained much kudos. In general, the budget was good and it solved some of the anomalies, but there is more to do. Perhaps it is not in the Minister's jurisdiction, but I hope someone will take the opportunity to address the issues.

I wish to share time with Deputies Dennehy and Carey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, the backdrop to which is a period of phenomenal achievement, such as major increases in employment, strong and healthy economic growth and a continuation of the low taxation, job creation and wealth creation policies pursued by the Government, which has transferred wealth to those who need it most.

Many believe that this occurs by accident. A number of commentators take our strong economic growth, low unemployment levels, strong job creation and low taxation for granted. However, this has come about due to difficult decisions made in the 1980s and early 1990s by Fianna Fáil-led Governments, which is an important point to make in the context of discussing the spending of money.

The budget pursues the policy of encouraging and fostering enterprise, keeping taxation low, providing strong economic stability and ensuring a prosperous country. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has tabled reforming proposals and has not been afraid to review some social welfare pensions and payments or to challenge us. A number of issues, such as care of the elderly and pension provisions for the public service and people without State or contributory pensions, are coming down the tracks. If the same types of policies are pursued in the coming years, the public will accept that they should be continued to allow us to address the fundamental challenges. The budget proposed the same philosophy followed heretofore.

Regarding the Bill, we are discussing a spend of €15.3 billion, a significant increase in social welfare payments during the Government's lifetime. The backdrop to this spending is 4% unemployment and strong economic growth. Many resources are going to those most in need and we will continue to target those areas.

The matter of carers stands out and I welcome the increase of €20 in carer's allowance, which is a strong indication of what we must do in respect of care of the elderly and home care. Given the recent announcements of home care packages by the Ministers for Health and Children and Finance, we will begin to realise that the best form of provision of care is in the home. While we often debate how to provide care, the facts speak for themselves and the Bill addresses the issue in a positive way. In the coming years, there will be more targeted approaches to the provision of care in the home.

The respite grant scheme is positive. In the context of the previous budget, I highlighted the respite grant in a leaflet drop, but I was amazed by how many people were unaware of it. They applied for the top-up of €2,400. Like some public representatives, will the Minister and the Department publicise the scheme as much as possible? The grant will be increased to €1,500, which is a generous acknowledgement of the worthiness of the sacrifices made when caring for people.

Due to the increase in fuel costs, many public representatives have lobbied the Government regarding the fuel and energy allowance. The doubling of the allowance to €18 is a welcome measure and an acknowledgement that we are in a position to target resources in those areas. I remember listening to people discussing increases of £1.40 in the old age pension, but we can now discuss increasing basic pensions by €20. That the Bill has many positive aspects has been acknowledged across the board.

The Minister has put the challenge of alleviating child poverty to us. Society has a fundamental duty to target significant resources on this matter, such as the family income supplement and child benefit payments. Society will do itself a disservice if we do not tackle child poverty because it will lead to cyclical problems and generational poverty, that is, people will be unable to escape the poverty trap.

The Minister has many ideas to encourage parents to take back to education schemes and to return to work. Some people left school at an early age and have poor education standards, self-esteem and literacy levels. They are unable to find the confidence to return to the education system and the workplace. Training schemes and finding employment for such people would be a positive measure. In a way, the community employment schemes served that purpose, but the best way to address child poverty is to return parents to the workplace. It requires a great deal of thought and the Minister will table more proposals in that regard.

I welcome the increase of €10 in the child benefit payment and the generous child care package. We must acknowledge that child care payments are intended for the provision of child care or related costs. While some say the Government should do more, this provision and the tax code acknowledge the cost of providing child care. For example, €15,000 can be earned tax free by a person providing child care. Given the significant increases in grants for child care spaces and facilities, we will reach an equilibrium. Child care costs should level off and people will see child care as affordable. The Government has fully acknowledged the difficulties for parents trying to find affordable child care and local authorities now recognise the need for crèches to be included in planning applications for large housing developments.

There is a problem in urban areas, where a person might want to provide a child care facility in his or her home in an estate, converting the front room or the garage. The local authorities seem to be incapable of looking at this in a positive light, where child care could be provided for residents of an estate by another resident. Local authorities should be more imaginative in granting planning permission for the change of use for child care provision in someone's home. Regulations govern crèches but this offers an opportunity for parents who want to stay at home with their own children to make use of the tax break of €15,000 on income earned from child care. Local authorities should encourage this positive development instead of forcing parents to bring their children to industrial complexes to access child care.

There has been an increase of four weeks in the paid leave available for maternity leave, bringing it up to 26 weeks, and unpaid leave has been increased from four weeks to 16 weeks, a total of 42 weeks. It is a welcome move and I urge that we continue to look at this. It is imperative that the challenges in raising children are met and families are allowed time and space for themselves.

I compliment the Minister. This social welfare package has been well received by the people and will go a long way to addressing the challenges that exist and there is more good news to come.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill 2007. Deputy Kelleher referred to the overall economic climate and it is sometimes worrying to hear so many speakers refer to the country being awash with money. One would be forgiven for thinking it came down with the rain, suddenly appearing for us to exploit. Since 1997, the Government has set out carefully to create the business environment and conditions necessary for a successful economy. That must be recognised. The country is not awash with money by accident.

I remember the Taoiseach pointed out after the 1997 budget that the best benefit we could offer anyone was a job. He also said it was necessary to create the wealth before we could divide it up. Speakers differ philosophically but we had to create the wealth first. Now problems in education, health and social welfare are being addressed by funds created through taxation or other methods. That tax would not be paid unless the country was doing very well because the necessary conditions exist nationally and internationally.

Taxation is outside the Minister's brief but I refer to my own situation, which I use as a personal indicator of how bad things were. In 1986-87, with nine mouths to feed in a single income household, I paid 67% in stoppages, getting £33 in every £100 while trying to support nine people. That was immoral, an enormous burden on larger families. I said I would fight that every step of the way when we got back in here. I have been here for some years since and my group in particular has made great headway. Comparing that situation to the situation now, I pay less than one third of the previous figure but I still make a fair contribution to the economy. We must remember that.

In the past the Opposition has objected to me referring to the record of the rainbow Government and its socialist element giving pensioners an increase of £1.60 a week but that is the only comparison I can make. I must look at the performance of that group when it was in power. We also compare favourably with the British situation in terms of pensions. It is fair to the public to point out what people did and what they would do again if they got the opportunity. The only other way to compare is to measure against the British and we have done exceptionally well under the Minister's watch. We can compare any project. Older people do much better here than in Britain and we have much higher standards.

Visitors to the country are fascinated by the high standard and availability of free travel. Free travel will always be associated with the late Mr. Haughey but the current Minister, Deputy Brennan, has put his own stamp on it. I asked previous Ministers to remove the impediment in the system that limited travel times and for a couple of years I was told it was impossible, that CIE would not agree to it, but lo and behold, the Minister has removed that impediment.

He is a mighty man. He is Superman.

He has also negotiated all-island travel. There will be a more regular transfer of people from the South to the North andvice versa. This will be of benefit because ordinary people will have a far greater exchange of views and opinions. Those of us who joined the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in 1990 were fascinated by the lack of knowledge of our counterparts in Westminster about how we live and behave in the South. The same is true of many residents of the northern part of the country. The all-island travel programme will have the added benefit of securing greater integration so we will realise we all live on the one island, are the same race and have the same hopes and fears.

I was interested that some speakers mentioned improvements that could be made to the pensions system because no one has done more on pensions than this Government. I remember adverse comment from the Opposition benches when the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, decided to put away a large amount of Exchequer funding for future pension needs. Previous Ministers had used this money for various infrastructural projects and so on in the past but the funding was put aside to meet the needs of future pensioners. I had been hearing for years about the pensions time bomb but nobody throughout Europe did anything or cared too much about it until the former Minister got a grip on it and put the money aside. Opposition finance spokespersons were hugely critical because of the downturn in the stock market, which affected equities. Property investors were doing much better and the Government parties were told they had invested incorrectly. Lo and behold, the position reversed completely and the benefit has doubled but nobody is saying, "Well done Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats".

It is the people's money.

We will get out a white handkerchief and cry.

When representatives of the Pensions Board and the National Treasury Management Agency appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts and these facts were trotted out, the committee did not comment negatively, which is incredible. I am a committee member and I have the take outlining this position.

The Deputy will hear negative comments shortly.

We are doing extremely well. The bottom line is that the courageous political decision to take billions of euro out of the economy and put it aside for the future has been taken. Opposition parties have stated they would raid this fund and invest the money elsewhere if they were in power. More needs to be done on pensions. I ask the Minister to continue to work on pension needs by encouraging younger people to take out pensions, which is difficult. When most of us were introduced to pensions when we were young, we said it was not for us and we would deal with them down the road.

The Minister should keep up the good work on the carers issue. This issue is close to my own heart and he has done tremendously well in this regard. Deputy Woods began the process and the Minister has taken it on in a big way. I ask him to maintain his work over the next four or five years and adopt a long-term programme. I would dread to think that we could lose control of that issue and carers would be back where they were ten years ago.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Durkan.

I will begin positively. I welcome a number of changes in the budget, particularly where carers are concerned. We are waiting to see what the ground rules and regulations will be but the Minister will announce them shortly.

The Minister increased the disregard for those on the household benefit scheme who were in receipt of a second pension from €50 to €100 a week, which I welcome, but the time has come to abolish the means test for the fuel allowance. If one is in receipt of a second pension from a county council, health board or the ESB, one should not be refused the fuel allowance, which is small anyway. The Minister should examine this issue.

Deputy Dennehy referred to the free travel scheme, which will operate on an all-Ireland basis. However, I would like the Minister to put a scheme in place where citizens in rural Ireland could use their travel vouchers to take taxis. There is no Luas in rural Ireland, infrastructure is poor and Iarnród Éireann provides a poor service. I have raised this issue frequently over many years. When will the Minister bring in a taxi voucher scheme for people who do not have access to public transport in rural Ireland? It is a genuine proposal, which should be adopted. Taxi use has expanded and people avail of taxis more frequently. Ten years ago we only heard about taxis in Dublin. There are enough brains and computers in the Department. Why can the officials not put a scheme in place so that people can use travel vouchers for taxis?

The Minister made an announcement in the budget debate about mobile telephones and the household package, which he has been talking about for three years. I hope the package will be before the House quickly because most people have a mobile telephone and significant numbers of people no longer have a land line. The Minister's officials and officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government appeared before the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs a number of months ago to discuss the most important issue facing elderly people, which is the cost of their refuse service. The household benefit scheme should include the cost of the refuse service. Mayo County Council handed this service over to the private sector this week and no waiver scheme will be in place for the elderly, as a result of which we will have problems down the road.

As I stated on local radio earlier, the time has come for a debate in the House on local government and democracy. If the Government continues to take away powers from local authorities, will there be any need for them? County managers are selected, not elected, and elected members have no powers. There should be a debate before the election to see which party will give back powers to elected representatives and remove them from selected officials.

I have called for the three schemes dealing with the child dependant allowance to be brought together time and again and I compliment the Minister on doing it. Children were being discriminated against with three different payments being made — €21.60, €19.30 and €16.80. The Minister has rounded the payment up to €22 and while people on the higher rate have lost out, at least the Minister has recognised that a common denominator is needed and all children are equal in the eyes of the State. I hope the rate will increase next year.

Widows have not been looked after again. They have been let down by the State for many years. They are the forgotten people and something must be done for them. Given that funding is available, it is time a pension was provided for stay at home mothers who decide they want to raise their family. They should be rewarded for the job they do in their homes and for society. They should not be forgotten and left to depend on their mean husbands in some cases. A number of women come into my clinics whose husbands, despite having plenty of money, will not give it to them or look after them. They should have a small pension in their own right. They can make an application for part of their husband's payment but they should receive a full payment if they have stayed at home to raise their families. I hope the Minister will examine this issue.

We produced a report on carers many years ago and I was delighted with the recommendation to give people in receipt of a social welfare payment an additional payment amounting to 50% of the carer's allowance. Statistics in the past showed there were more carers than there were but the respite grant scheme has shown there are not as many carers.

I thank Deputy Ring for sharing his time.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As Deputy Ring said, the legislation is a little like a curate's egg, as a number of good changes have been made, for which I congratulate the Minister. However, I support Deputy Ring's call for special recognition for stay at home spouses who, in many cases, have stayed at home for most of their working lives. They receive no recognition for their work, even though they contribute significantly to society. They act as carers, workers in the home, house minders, accountants and business managers without any recognition whatsoever. It is high time they were recognised and I fully subscribe to the Deputy's call.

Deputy Dennehy mentioned how far ahead of the British system we are but that is not an accurate observation. There was a time in this country when all payments payable from the UK, especially old age pension payments, were topped up by 25% or more on the basis of a means test. That has ceased to be the case over the years because the pension system there is weather proofed at this stage.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, referred to deprivation. Poverty comes in many shapes and forms and if the Minister visits schools in the areas that have suffered social and economic deprivation throughout the country he will see poverty. One can see deprivation in families and parents as they collect children from school. If ever there was a time to address this issue it is surely now, when a spare €7 billion is available of which Ministers were unaware. This raises questions regarding the type of accounting we engage in nowadays.

If I were the Minister for Social and Family Affairs I would not rest on my laurels as there are areas of serious deprivation in this city and in every town and village in the country. Children are going to school in the morning without breakfast, despite efforts in schools and at community level. This issue has not been addressed by the Department of Social Welfare.

Housing quality represents another aspect of deprivation. If the Minister lived in the conditions facing many children and parents, when our coffers are overflowing with money, would he be able to give his best? I do not think so. There are countless instances of children and parents struggling to survive in appalling conditions and every Member of this House should be aware of this. Deputy Ring mentioned the efforts of local authorities to improve the situation but there is a great deal of work to be done in this regard and the Minister should give it some serious consideration.

This may not seem altogether relevant, but deprivation and poverty start in the area of education. Given the class sizes that prevail in many parts of the country, is it possible that children emerging from such circumstances will have a fair chance in society and in the workplace? The answer, simply, is no. Class sizes are appalling and are as high as 40 in places. This was not previously the case in what were termed "good areas", but that is no longer so. The impact on society in the future will be colossal and the effects will be felt for a very long time.

The Minister mentioned pensions but I do not agree with his outlook in this regard. Provision for future pension needs is well within the ambit of the Minister's Department. The population of Ireland is growing and many young people will soon be making contributions, despite all we hear of the aging population. There has been a large influx of people who now pay tax and make insurance contributions and it is no secret that the same mechanism used for special savings incentive accounts, SSIAs, can be applied to produce adequate funding to meet our future pension needs. Comparisons with Germany, France and other countries are pointless as they have population problems that do not apply here.

I welcome the child dependant allowance but I do not think €22 to €25 per week will be of much use to a widow, widower or member of a single parent family. Regarding the fuel allowance, the increases in gas and electricity prices this year were appalling and without justification. I have had countless queries from constituents on how this issue will develop and I am sure the same is the case for every Member of the House, including the Minister. The increases in the fuel allowance do not cover the increases in the prices of gas and electricity.

I begin by thanking Deputies on all sides of the House for their comments on and consideration of this Bill. I am particularly grateful for the kind remarks that were made on aspects of it but I will also take account of criticisms made and questions raised. We will have a further two hours of debate later, on Committee and Report Stages, and I look forward to answering Deputies' more detailed questions at that point. We were here until 11 p.m. last night and we heard from all sides of the House where there was a broad welcome for the provisions of the legislation, with some concerns and criticisms.

Deputy Stanton asked if I would extend the back to school clothing and footwear allowance beyond September and I will consider this proposal. Some 84,000 families with approximately 172,000 children will benefit from that scheme this year at a cost of €25 million. The general consensus, until now, was that it should focus on September as that is when children go back to school. Some fears were expressed about spreading the allowance across the year, not that this is what the Deputy suggested. Perhaps one should not pay a back to school allowance in June or July, but we will consider Deputy Stanton's proposal to extend the scheme by a month or two.

Deputy Stanton also asked about the second tier in child income support and my strong view is that a second tier is needed. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has worked on this matter for some time and I urge that this work continue. In the meantime, I have tried to construct what is effectively a second tier by increasing the family income supplement and easing means tests and disregards. Most specifically on this matter, I have put almost €60 million towards CDAs, qualified child allowances, as they are now known. Through these mechanisms I have tried to construct a second tier, of sorts.

Taking into account child benefit and child dependant allowance, increases of up to €32 per month may be received by the poorest one third of children in the population. The other two thirds will receive an increase of €10 in child benefit allowance. This may not be a formal arrangement, but, in effect, it is a two tier system. I understand that Deputy Stanton is committed to the two tier system and I suggest we have commenced such an initiative as we now pay a higher rate to poorer children. I urge NESC to complete its work as this system must be constructed in a more formal manner which is interrelated with income tax allowances.

There was a general welcome for the half rate carer's allowance. It is intended that a person in receipt of most social welfare payments, excluding job seeker's allowance or benefit, who is providing someone with full-time care and attention will retain his or her payment as well as receiving the additional payment. This mirrors the current arrangements for respite care grants. The level of additional payment that a social welfare recipient will receive will depend on the person's means, with the maximum payment being the equivalent of a half rate carers allowance. We are still working out some of the details of this measure, which will come into effect in September 2007. I would like to introduce it earlier but it is not administratively possible to do so.

With regard to the qualified adult allowance, I mentioned earlier the special increase being made of €23.70. I expect that approximately 2,000 qualified adults will benefit from this arrangement in 2007 and 6,000 annually thereafter. From next September, the legislation will allow spouses and partners of State pensioners who are currently receiving joint payments in addition to qualified adult allowance as part of the overall combined personal rate of State pension to move to separate payments of the qualified adult allowance. It is intended to make the payments separately, although there will be terms and conditions in respect of dependency and it can be paid jointly if people so wish.

I acknowledge Deputy Stanton's persistence on the issue of young carers. It is important to note that the national partnership agreement, Towards 2016, commits the Government to conducting a study of the extent to which children take on inappropriate care roles in order to establish the level of impact the issue has on the lives of the children concerned. Based on the outcome of this study and an analysis of the issues identified therein, a programme of in-home supports will be developed to alleviate specific problems. That will not entirely address the concerns of Deputy Stanton, who estimated the number of child carers at 3,000. I am opposed to paying carer's allowance to such children and the Deputy has clarified that he is not asking me to do so. We will have to investigate what we can do in that area. Young children should not be forced to become carers and I do not want to do anything that might encourage more children into that role.

Deputy Penrose raised the issue of free fuel and bulk payments. A review of allowance recipients on a customer panel indicated that 58% preferred weekly payments, 22% preferred a one-off lump sum, 12% preferred direct debit to a supplier and 8% preferred two lump sum payments during the fuel season. While the review may have been similar to opinion polls in that one cannot be sure what people will think on the day, it concluded that a single payment would be administratively efficient but could present other difficulties. The allowance would be paid in advance in September or October, whereas changes in recipients' circumstances during the heating season could disqualify them from payments, with the result that they would have to refund any overpayments made. The review recommended that the weekly payment method should be retained, which is what I have decided to do. I accept the argument on the lump sum, particularly where oil is purchased at the start of the year, but the weekly system appears to be working well.

The proposals on lone parents have not gone away. A series of policy discussions was held recently, the relevant document has been published and legislation is being prepared on the matter. To the extent that delays have arisen, these are because we are trying to respond to requests from lone parent organisations with regard to ensuring services and supports from other Departments and agencies are harmonised in the legislation. I am aware Deputy Stanton has repeatedly stressed the importance of child care to this issue. However, I am not prepared to delay acting on the proposals until everything is ready because that could mean the necessary measures are never introduced.

Several calls were made regarding a cost of disability payment, which deserves further consideration.

A number Deputies raised the issue of fuel. The allowance, which had not been increased for a number of years, was doubled by this Government over the past two years. Approximately 274,000 people apply for the allowance which, at an overall cost of €32 million, is an expensive measure. A further €50 million has been allocated this year to alleviate the increases in electricity and gas prices. This year's package will, therefore, cost €90 million, which represents a significant level of support.

I am pleased we were able to increase the weekly income thresholds for family income supplement with effect from January 2007, at an estimated annual cost of €32 million. I have been urged by Deputies to encourage more people to take advantage of this payment. We have discussed ways of increasing the involvement of the Revenue Commissioners in light of the requirement that recipients are in employment. Revenue has included notices about the payment on some of its forms but I would like to work more closely with the agency with regard to improving take-up levels. A recent campaign has significantly increased the numbers in receipt of the payment to 21,000.

Several Deputies referred to the argument about whether to measure consistent or relative poverty. I will not rehearse my position because it has not changed and we already have our hands full in terms of addressing consistent poverty without responding to the 18% to 20% figures claimed by the more academic measurement of risk of poverty. Those figures are not real and I am determined to focus our energy on the actual problems which exist with regard to consistent poverty. I do not mind the measure being used but I object to its adoption as a headline poverty figure because it distracts us from focusing on the real issues and is unhelpful in terms of making policies. While we might eliminate poverty, relative poverty will always exist.

I will provide figures on Committee Stage with regard to what happens to lone parents and pensioners who receive welfare payments before engaging with various welfare schemes. I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their contributions on Second Stage.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.