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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Feb 2007

Vol. 631 No. 6

Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Deputy Crowe was in possession but is not present. I call Deputy Boyle.

Will the Minister for Social and Family Affairs be present for this debate or will one of the Ministers in attendance be present? I will continue in any case.

The second social welfare Bill after any budget is traditionally less significant in terms of its cost to the State. Its provisions in any given year incur a cost of some €260 million. Given that the budget of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is now €14.5 billion, the Government could argue that we already dealt with a large proportion of the social welfare budget in the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act 2006. The Bill under discussion affords us an opportunity to examine the principles that underlie social welfare policy and to challenge the Government on the general direction thereof since the last election. As we are now entering the end of an election cycle, this is as good an opportunity as any to challenge the Government's credentials as a caring and giving Government.

There is no doubt that social welfare provision over recent years has increased enormously but it must be asked whether the opportunity has been taken to institute the reforms required in many areas. As spokesperson for my party, I argue it has not, which view is shared outside the House. The opportunity was not taken because of a timid approach to making the changes required to bring the social welfare system into the 21st century. Unfortunately we still have too many vestiges of the Victorian notion of "the poor" in the Irish social welfare system. Acts such as the Social Welfare (Amendment) Act 2006 and the consolidation legislation passed over recent years presented an opportunity to put our social welfare policy ahead of that of many more enlightened European countries. The Scandinavian model, in particular, is one to follow.

This Bill is an attempt to remove or at least ameliorate some of the anomalies in our social welfare system, which is to be welcomed. The section in Part 2 dealing with the technical amendment to the definition of "volunteer development worker" is welcomed by my party and others throughout the House. Irish citizens who did foreign aid work found themselves unable to claim employment and PRSI entitlements as a consequence of their having been abroad. This anomaly could and should have been addressed before now but the proposal to do so now is to be welcomed.

A large proportion of the costs incurred through this Bill arise from the child benefit increase, which, given the scale of Government munificence in every area, particularly in terms of tax reliefs, seems a bit low. The €10 increase this year allows the Government to meet a promise it made on child benefit payments two years ago. Given the inflation since then, a case could be made that the increase is lower than what it should be. The rate is now over 5% and increasing. Whoever has the privilege of delivering the next budget will need to reconsider this matter.

The Government could argue that the introduction of the child care payment has provided an additional source of income for many but the real debate on the child-centred payments should focus on their universality. The Government has already chosen to tackle one element of it in that all children who are born in this country are no longer entitled to receive such a payment. This is a negative decision. It will probably carry no electoral consequences but it was morally wrong.

We see the consequences of such decisions in international surveys. Ireland ranked very poorly in a recent UNICEF study of children in the developed world. Twenty-one of the richest countries in the world were ranked in terms of children's standards of living in terms, affluence and access to services, and it is no source of pride that Ireland came 19th, followed only by the United Kingdom and the United States. It is sad that Ireland regards the social services template of the United Kingdom and the United States as one to adopt. If we really aspire to being a caring nation, we need to decouple ourselves from this form of benchmarking as quickly as possible. I hope that the Government presiding over the 30th Dáil will follow a very different line.

The measures the Bill introduces regarding illness, maternity, adoptive and jobseeker's benefits are small but they are welcome in their own right. More significant changes are made in terms of the qualification of adults for certain schemes, including the qualified adult direct payment. This is where the debate needs to be headed in terms of future social welfare provision. That Ireland is the most means-tested nation in Europe and certainly in the OECD region in terms of social welfare payments warrants change. That so many are defined as "dependent adults" within our social welfare system implies that the system is crying out for reform.

Citizens of this State should be entitled to a guaranteed income because of their being citizens and the contributions they have made throughout their lives. This is not the case for so many citizens, particularly women who have chosen to work within the home and who have not been formally employed throughout their working lives. These women have made an important contribution to society and economy but this is still not recognised in our social welfare code. Until we start tackling such issues, the pensions proposals in the Bill, made by political parties that seem to make up provisions as they go along, will not even be close to those required.

Let me address the old age pension peripherally. It is more a matter for the Social Welfare (Amendment) Bill considered immediately after the budget because it is mainly a question of qualified dependants. The Irish State pension is 33% of the average income while the EU average is 60% of the average income and there is thus a great discrepancy between the two. The magic numbers mentioned by certain political parties in recent weeks, bringing the pension from what had been lower than £100 in 2002 to over €200 this year, and the promise of those parties to increase it to €300 if afforded another term in Government, do not secure the income maintenance levels that are needed. If we are to come close to achieving the European average pension in terms of our gross national product, we should be increasing the State pensions by at least €25 per year for the next 15 years. The Pensions Board estimates that State pensions need to be increased to 40% of gross average industrial earnings, while Age Concern seeks to have the level set at 50% by 2016, only nine years away, yet despite all the boasts of this Government, the current level is only 33% of average income.

The real nature of this Bill has little relevance to financial contributions but a number of areas deserve particular consideration. With regard to carer's allowance, the principle of a second payment is being relaxed, so if someone is in receipt of a social welfare payment, the Department is prepared to allow a half payment of the allowance in recognition of the special circumstances which carers can face. However, this relaxation of what was a cardinal rule in the social welfare code will only be applied after a means test, even though the Irish social welfare system already has a higher prevalence of means testing any other European country. Many of the people concerned are receiving maximum social welfare payments that when added to the carers allowance would still not come within means testing criteria. Someone has decided that means tests must be applied across the board but what level of administrative waste is incurred from a rule of this nature? If someone is in receipt of a State payment to which a half level can be added, there is no likelihood that a means test will be failed. The only use for a means test would be in circumstances where a third payment may be involved because of an occupational pension, so I would like this provision to be relaxed.

With regard to the supplementary welfare allowance, I adamantly oppose the decision to transfer community welfare officers directly to the Department and I will use every opportunity available to me on Committee and Report Stages to amend this flawed provision.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. I commend the Minister on the progress he has made in his Department. He has proved himself to be a socially conscious Minister who has the welfare of people close at heart. I recognise that competing interests exist in the Cabinet and it can be a fraught task to come to the table with continuous demands but the people who are deemed less well off need someone to advance their case. In the Minister, they have a friend who understands them and who is prepared to put taxpayers' money where his mouth is.

However, much remains to be done in terms of meeting the benchmark of making sure everybody is entitled to a basic standard of living. Those approaching their golden years deserve decent pensions and a sense of security. In an era of great prosperity, we should provide for the future by setting benchmarks for pension provision. The Minister has attempted to focus attention on that issue and it behoves Opposition Members to take him seriously rather than play politics. The consequences for elderly citizens of not acting responsibly will be too awful to contemplate. I welcome the publication of a Green Paper on pensions and hope it will stimulate debate.

The claim that older people have free travel is a fallacy. Those who live in Dublin or other urban areas with public transport have free travel. However, those in rural areas, such as my constituency of Galway East, do not have access to public transport and so cannot avail of free travel. This is one of the most glaring examples of discrimination against elderly rural people that I can instance. This Government has made political capital from the free travel scheme and only last week it announced the expansion of free travel on an all-island basis. Such claims, however, are drivel because elderly people in rural Ireland do not have free travel. It is easy for those living in Dublin to board public transport in the morning with a packed lunch and spend the day being ferried around the city. Compare that to an elderly rural person who is theoretically entitled to the same free transport scheme but cannot avail of it because of the lack of public transport in rural areas. It is time the Government stopped practising this discrimination against older people in rural Ireland. It should not be beyond the intelligence of Ministers or their officials to devise a scheme that ensures older people can avail of their entitlement to free transport. However, every time I raise the matter with Ministers, I get the same nauseating responses. They claim the rural transport initiative is being operated on a pilot basis but that they want to make statutory provision for it and that a further study has been carried out in that regard. However, nothing is happening.

The Government should immediately introduce a voucher system for elderly people in rural areas which would allow them to avail of their free transport entitlements by hiring taxis or hackneys. These vouchers would not entitle people to pack lunches and spend their days sightseeing but it would enable them to go to the nearest town to collect their pensions or do their weekly shopping. The discrimination against elderly rural dwellers should no longer be defended by loose talk about rural transport. These people have also contributed to the development of Ireland and are entitled to the same benefits as everybody else.

Unfortunately, I face no shortage of material when speaking about discrimination against older people in rural areas. Another example of such discrimination is the refuse collection services for older people in Galway East. Refuse collection in County Galway has been privatised, with the result that pensioners and others on low incomes cannot avail of waivers to their charges. However, pensioners in Galway city can avail of waivers because Galway City Council provides the collection service there. I have repeatedly asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to introduce a universal refuse waiver system for certain categories of people but he has shown no interest in ending this discrimination. Devising a waiver system should not be rocket science and if there was a will on the part of the Minister, a way could be found. It should be possible to implement a waiver system on a universal basis whereby waste operators, be they public or private, can pass on applications to the relevant local authority for assessment. The cost of such a scheme could be met by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

While the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has no responsibility for refuse collection, he is responsible for people on low incomes and pensioners. I ask him to use his influence with his Government colleagues to address immediately this discrimination against older rural residents and introduce a universal refuse waiver system as a matter of urgency.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. In that context, when I first became interested in politics, social welfare debates in this House were cutting edge affairs. The Visitors Gallery used to be full and people used to lobby intensely in the weeks before legislation was passed or the budget in respect of social welfare increases. I make this point because it is important not to lose sight of the fact that increased social welfare payments are still integral parts of many people's lives. This debate is taking place in the context of the Celtic tiger and the job opportunities available for many. However, a large percentage of the population still depend on social welfare payments such as unemployment assistance, invalidity payments or the old age pension. Members should always focus on that fact. While they consider the relative percentages of those unemployed and those in the workplace, it is still an accepted fact that large numbers are dependent on social welfare.

In the past ten years the Government has made great strides in trying to address poverty on behalf of those who are disadvantaged and in receipt of social welfare payments. This must also be acknowledged. It is important to place such efforts in the context of what the Government and Irish society in general are trying to achieve. I refer to social welfare increases, job creation, tax reduction and creating opportunities for all. What constitutes an opportunity to an elderly person living alone in a local authority house? Does Irish society genuinely understand the needs of such individuals? In general, it does so. All political parties and trade union movements accept that the vulnerable in society must receive the greatest care.

I do not accept the argument that a particular political party has a right-wing or left-wing philosophy. In general, Irish politics and communities are cohesive. Consequently, I welcome announcements and commitments to the effect that social welfare forms an integral part of the manner in which the challenges ahead will be addressed. As a Fianna Fáil Member, I am very proud of how in the past ten years the party has fulfilled its commitments in respect of the old age pension. In 1997 Fianna Fáil promised to increase it to £100, while in 2002 it stated it would increase it to €200. Not only has the party achieved that target, it has exceeded it.

This constitutes an acknowledgement that the Government, as well as Fianna Fáil as a political party, are highly conscious of the needs of the elderly. In addition, the Government has recently introduced some highly innovative schemes which I believe to have been an important factor. However, Members should not conclude that they have achieved everything that is necessary to ensure the elderly are well looked after. I make this point because they are probably the most silent and most resilient people in our society. Although they do not protest and probably vote along traditional lines, they are the people who made the sacrifices in previous years when times were difficult. They were probably obliged to work with a single income coming into their households at a time when rearing many children and high unemployment were the order of the day. Job opportunities were not readily available. In my constituency the mother in a family often worked and reared the children because men found it very difficult to find work in the 1980s and early 1990s.

These issues should be placed in the context of our aspirations for society. In general, while our achievements should be recognised, Members should not pat themselves on the back or assert that all the fundamental issues in respect of the elderly have been addressed. There is still social exclusion which extends to an inability to interact or socialise. The issue of transport was referred to by Deputy McHugh. These are all real and tangible challenges that must be faced by the Government and society when trying to address the outstanding obstacles confronting older people.

One of the most fundamental issues at stake in this regard pertains to demographic change. The challenges ahead in addressing older people's needs will be of greater importance. In this debate Members have been discussing issues such as social welfare increases, pensions, grant aid for the elderly and rural bus initiatives. In future pressures in respect of these issues will be brought increasingly to bear on Governments as they formulate policy. I welcome any debate that sets out parameters or opens up public consciousness as to what is required for older people. We have only encountered the tip of the iceberg in terms of what must be done.

Members have encountered the lack of care for elderly persons in nursing homes, as well as difficulties regarding policing such institutions and ensuring they are up to the required standard. As the Government and society move forward, they acknowledge past deficiencies. However, Members should note that, as the population ages because of demographic factors, such challenges will become even greater. Consequently, it is important to conduct a solid and open debate on what Members are trying to achieve. Is it simply social welfare payments for the sake of providing extra money or are they genuinely committed to ensuring older people will play an active and positive role in both society and the economy?

I welcome the debate on retirement ages. For example, the State spends thousands of euro on Garda Síochána recruitment. Although Garda numbers were increased to 14,000, a mandatory retirement age for Garda members was maintained. I wonder sometimes why an active person, with considerable experience of up to 35 years working in the Garda Síochána, must retire at a certain age. Members do not expect a person of 60 years of age to be as nimble on his or her feet as would be a recruit coming out of the Garda College in Templemore. At the same time, however, forcing a person to retire at a certain stage constitutes a huge loss to the Garda Síochána and society in general. Why can such members of the Garda who have a wealth of experience not be used for training purposes, advocacy in courts or presenting cases on behalf of the State? Why can they not be used in community associations and groups or in interacting as community liaison officers? Such challenges must be discussed if Members are serious about ensuring older people will be both cared for from the perspective of financial security and will consider themselves to be active participants in society.

While I will discuss the issue of child care later, I must declare a vested interest as I have a 15 month old daughter. Recently I read projections suggesting the average lifespan of a girl born today in the western world could rise to 100 years. While this will pose enormous challenges in the future, in the interim our society must begin to address all such potential challenges and acknowledge that at present we do not do our older people justice in the sense that although many of them have a significant role to play, we do not allow it.

In respect of housing policies, many local authorities provide sheltered housing for the elderly. They may consider some areas of a city to be appropriate for the elderly, while housing lone parents with large families in other districts, thereby breaking down societal bonds. It will be important to adopt a cohesive approach to housing and the manner in which our communities will be structured. I raise this point because I am sure that most Members, especially those who represent large urban areas, will agree. For example, a young girl who may have one or two children applies to the local authority for a house. Eventually she is allocated one and shipped off to some far-flung part of the city, with the result that the supports provided by her parents and grandparents are suddenly cut adrift. It will be important to adopt a flexible approach to housing and ensure older people are part and parcel of providing child rearing assistance. They are amenable and can pass on their expertise to the younger generation. These ideas sound far-flung but being a community means passing on experience, accepting responsibilities and then passing those responsibilities on to other people. Young people acknowledge the work and commitment of older people and, in turn, look after them in their latter days.

We can become extremely rigid and say we will provide a €200 social welfare payment per week to older people which should be sufficient. We can make a commitment to raise it by so many euro per year for the next five years. However, to make the lives of older people holistic and valued, we must address this issue. On one side of the scale we discuss child care, but we must also examine this issue on the other side.

Overall, social welfare increases must be acknowledged in the context of where we stand. There is no doubt that fewer people are dependent on unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit not only in real terms, but also as a percentage of the number of those in work. It is realistic to assume that, even though we now have less people percentage wise on unemployment assistance, they feel more alienated than they did when a large number of people were on social welfare payments, particularly unemployment assistance.

We must also consider young men who drifted through school, perhaps with psychological problems, alcohol abuse problems, drug addiction or without a solid family support service which we assume exists. These young people drifted out of national school and perhaps dabbled in secondary school for a little while. They are isolated from what is the norm in society at present, which is having a job and opportunities.

They felt more at home in times past when many more of their peers were unemployed and had fewer opportunities. As their peers move on and become more successful, those people become more alienated. We have a great deal to do. Statistics show suicide is an issue among young males. One must ask why, when so many opportunities, challenges and supports exist, young people find they cannot continue in life.

I say all of this because we have the resources, commitments and abilities to solve many problems. If one stated 20 years ago that we would solve the problems of emigration and unemployment, people would have scoffed and stated it was another empty political rhetorical promise. Those issues have been addressed. However, we must acknowledge the residual problems such as young males feeling completely isolated.

One can understand the context. Young lads go to school, they grow up and their friends move on, embrace opportunities and perhaps have more supports around them. The young male feels completely at sea and isolated in the context of what is happening around him. Often, we have the tragedy of suicide, which is an ongoing epidemic in our communities and we must address it.

Many people have debated the pros and cons of child benefit. Many people ask where does the money paid towards rearing a child go. In some communities it is called "make up money". We have a universal obligation to ensure no child is at risk. However, equally and as importantly, is it fair and reasonable that those with huge resources available to them as families are entitled to the same amount of money per week as a child who is born into challenging circumstances?

We must debate this in Parliament, society and, as a member of Fianna Fáil, in my party. Are we willing to continue funding universal child benefit? We must consider and examine this issue. We must be realistic about whether child benefit goes directly to offsetting the costs of rearing a child and providing child care facilities and services for the child or whether it is used to purchase an apartment in Florida.

No matter how affluent a society is, one must ask whether it is fundamentally right and fair. As individuals and political parties it is easier to say nothing. I believe as times change resources may not be as readily available as they are now. We may have to cut our cloth according to different measures in times ahead. This could cause major financial strains and the people who will suffer most are those who have least. I genuinely believe we must examine this issue.

I welcome the increases in child benefit to date, including the once-off payment and early childhood supplement. Just like on the issue of compulsory pensions, we should have a mature debate on this matter as a national Parliament. We should not play Mickey Mouse politics with a genuine issue which could create major problems and, more importantly, make our communities and society more divided and less cohesive.

We must be under no illusion that certain individuals are quite capable and competent and have the financial resources and wherewithal from an early stage to get on the ladder and make meaningful progress. Others do not have such opportunities because of where they are born or the circumstances into which they are born. However, the same supports are given to every child. We must discuss this in a mature, calm and rational manner. Often, when it comes to these issues, rational debate goes out the window.

We must also welcome developments in maternity benefit. One states a society can be judged on how it cares for its elderly. Equally importantly, a society can be judged on how it cares for expectant mothers and families with a newborn child. During the past number of years we had major changes in the make up of our workforce with the entry of a large number of women. In this context, how do we cater for child rearing?

It is important to acknowledge the need for flexibility on how a family deems it appropriate to rear a child. Initially the mother will be on maternity leave and the father may take paternity leave. We must become even more flexible in the workplace. Many large private companies and institutions such as banks and insurance companies must become more adaptable in how they view their employees and how their manage their affairs in the context of child rearing.

The changes in maternity leave and maternity benefit are progressive. However, we should acknowledge we still have room for manoeuvre. A person may be able to work one or two days a week and need two or three days off, or vice versa. Large companies, other than the Civil Service and the public service, do not seem to have grasped the idea of jobsharing, flexibility in the workplace and part-time work. We must also consider this in the context of maternity and paternity leave.

Regarding a matter I recently raised on an Adjournment Debate, in the context of what we want to achieve as a European country, if we are to discuss social welfare payments we must also discuss embracing immigrants. We must have a mature, calm and rational debate on this issue. I proposed a forum on immigration where people with views on the matter, including employers, employees, groups representing immigrant communities, education providers, trade unions and the churches could come together for a calm, rational and intelligent debate as a mature society.

We should be under no illusions that we have often had scaremongering on the immigration issue, with talk about masses of people coming here and wholesale abuse of the system. Our people are embracing and welcoming people here, both those in the work force and those in need. It is time we sat down for a mature, calm, rational and intelligent debate on all these issues. We should formulate public policy and opinion rather than putting our head in the sand and denying that some elements of our society have views contrary to the norm. This is an aside but in the context of social welfare we have all heard rumours of social welfare cheques buying cars and paying for holidays etc. There is a slightly sinister undercurrent to this about which I am concerned.

I commend the Bill in general and wish it the best of luck. Many of the proposed changes will have a real impact on people's lives.

I am delighted to be given the opportunity to comment on the Bill. Many people seem to forget elements when speaking about social welfare and naturally enough, if I was on the Government side I would probably do what Government Deputies normally do, praise the Minister and speak of the good deeds done. There have been some good deeds and as I have been in this House a while, I fully appreciate that some matters are better than they used to be.

I wish to pose two or three questions before we run away with ourselves. We have fancy new names for welfare payments, such as the jobseeker's allowance, but we will stick to the old terms for a moment. Most disability payments, give or take a few euro, are €185 a week, which a person gets if he or she is unable to work or runs out of work and is unable to find a job. That amount would not bring a person too far in this day and age. Michéal Ó Muircheartaigh would talk about a game of two halves but we have a nation of two halves in many ways. I know people who would have no trouble spending €185 in one evening and would not find it unusual. It might be spent on a meal for two or three people. That would only be for one evening in the week but there are seven long days in the week for people on disability benefit.

There was a fair bit of hype around the country after the last budget. The approximate €200 for old-age pensioners is certainly better than €180, but to take it in the context of modern-day costs, I doubt old-age pensioners on the non-contributory pension, for example, are that much better off than they were four or five years ago, relatively speaking. The electorate knows this. When most people sat back and did the sums on their expenses, it was not as big an issue as it was many years ago. Whatever way the Government conducts its internal polls, there was probably no great bounce despite the talk of bringing the old-age pension to €200. There was a good reason for this. As every day goes by, with inflation at almost 5%, the cost of foodstuffs is rising dramatically. These are products people have to buy, such as the basic wheat products like bread or cereal products like corn flakes. This does not take into account the ESB and gas costs. These are daily items which elderly people must buy along with everybody else. An elderly person must feed him or herself and keep warm.

If we expect, as the years go by, that the majority of the elderly are likely to accept that level of pension after putting in sterling service to the State, I can assure the Government of what will happen and what I see happening around the country. I take my cap off to active retirement groups and similar bodies, which are better organised than ever. They are making a significant argument that there must be a comprehensive review of these issues. Many old-age pensioners believed what they heard on budget day but even at this stage, a couple of months later, they think they were short-changed and will so find it difficult to live. People tell me this. I would like to go into many aspects of the matter if the time was available but I assume time will beat me.

Every stratum in society has problems. We all know the real difficulties associated with the cost of child care and in buying a new home. The elderly are in no position to put up a fight where it counts, however. I am glad to see age action organisations forming part of the social pillar and I hope their say at that level of consultation with Government will increase as years go by.

A hermit might live on €50 or €100 per week and people who were in the work force in jobs that were not very well-paid might receive a contributory pension. If such people do not have a private pension they could be in serious trouble. They might have to run a car, naturally, and they may need a small holiday somewhere. It is against such a background we must judge the €200 or €209 per week, and one can immediately see a significant problem. We must figure out what level of pension a person can reasonably live on in comfort.

For many years we were not in a position to do much about pensions because the resources were not available, no matter which party was in Government. We are currently in a good position as the economy is going extremely well. More and more people are employed and we can only hope the trend will continue for many years to come. Leading from this a tranche of people are emerging as "the retired". These are not the people with a "yuppie" lifestyle of three continental holidays and two cars parked outside the door, and I am not into that at all. People at that stage of life, around age 66, also have another great anxiety. If they are unlucky enough to become ill and must go to a nursing home, €200 per week will be of little use.

Only in a thriving economy can one do certain things. As Deputy Kelleher said rightly, a nation's moral fibre is judged on how it looks after its sick and elderly. Irrespective of who is in Government, people will expect more than we have been able to give them in recent years. We have reached a stage where that is their right because the level of pensions paid here compared to the levels in many EU countries is low. There are several ways in which to measure the levels, such as wages and GDP, but we are down the ladder. Many people say it was a great day when we were able to give our old age pensioners €200, but this is the reason for the lack of jubilation for this measure around the country. Any Government would have seen it as a milestone, but there are many problems. Due to the significant increase in costs of living, we must watch this issue during the coming years.

I wish to refer to a number of issues. The question of where to put community welfare officers arose ten or 15 years ago. I spoke on this matter in the House a long time ago when an effort was made to shunt the officers back into the Department of Social Welfare and Family Affairs. They are heading for that Department again, but I do not know why. One could argue that what the officers do is closely related to what the HSE should be doing or, alternatively, what the Department of Social and Family Affairs should be doing. Those of us at the coalface know what the officers do. Wherever they end up, it is important that they be allowed the flexibility that is unique to them.

I understand the officers do not like the change, but I get my views from the people they serve, not them. Many people tell me that the officers, above all others in the community, have an absolute grasp of the family situations with which they are presented, which is important. It is like the local garda on the beat. Some official must know almost everyone with whom he or she deals. One could argue that if the officers were located in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, they would still know the people in question, but this would only be the case were their job specifications to remain unchanged. The evidence indicates that those specifications will be changed and the officers will not have their current degree of flexibility.

We must accept that in any situation involving social welfare, it is important for people paid by the State to be in a position to wear two hats simultaneously. We must ensure we pay the benefits to those entitled to them only, which is a normal concept. We hope no one will draw benefits to which they are not entitled. However, we must have a "fire brigade" system, as is usually the case, of community welfare officers with the flexibility, authority and wherewithal to help people in utter distress. If something happens at 4.50 p.m. on a Friday evening, such as ordinary social welfare payments not turning up, and one rings a Department of Social and Family Affairs office expecting its staff to do something to help during the next 48 hours, one might as well ring St. Peter in heaven. The situation is different with community welfare officers, who are in situ, available and contactable. We should never do away with people on the ground with the authority and knowledge to implement the rules. Until someone convinces me that the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be better in this regard than the HSE, the system should remain as it is.

A number of considerable anomalies have often been mentioned on the floor of the House. With all of the changes made to the various social welfare codes, it is strange that we have been able to achieve real progress. I will put on the record of the House a number of cases replicated across the country and that I hear of in every county I visit and at my clinics. Take the case of a person who was employed for three weeks in 1964 and had his or her contributions paid and recorded, but was then self-employed until 1989. Upon applying for his or her contributory old age pension, the method of calculation, which has been around for time immemorial, involves taking the date from which he or she first worked until the date he or she last worked. The number of contributions credited is divided by the number of years. In this case, there were only eight contributions per year. If someone was able to pull a leaf for the three stamps with which he or she was first credited in the 1960s, he or she would be in receipt of a full old age contributory pensions.

We must maintain the integrity of the contribution, as it would be unfair to those who make contributions throughout their lives if someone got a full pension on fewer contributions. I am arguing for a case to be made to disregard some of the years during which no stamps were given. If it was simple, it would have been done many years ago, but it is time to bite the bullet. People are being overpenalised. I do not have time to go into the ins and outs.

A cohort of people in rural Ireland, mostly farmers, were over 56 years of age on the day in 1988 that the Minister's colleague, Deputy Woods, introduced the self-employed pension. It was not their fault they were born outside that date. It meant they could not have the requisite ten years fully paid up by the time they reached 66 in order to be entitled to the full, or any, pension. A number of small changes were made, but we are at the point where there is a tranche of people who are not entitled to anything.

Worst of all is the situation where a self-employed person gets the old age contributory pension, but his wife is not entitled to anything because they own property. In other words they have means and that does not allow the adult dependant's allowance to be paid. Imagine the slur and the insult that represents to a woman after working all her life. She is entitled to no pension in her own right. It is not right, nor can it be, and I hope when the Green Paper on pensions is published this will be addressed because it is highly unfair.

I should prefer to be in Tallaght waiting to see if Manchester United might score. However, it is important to do one's duty and I was very anxious to contribute to this debate. On a sad note I went to Mass this evening because this is the 25th anniversary of the shooting dead of Garda Pat Reynolds.

This is an important debate, and listening carefully to the contributions from across the floor of the House, the Opposition is getting close to admitting that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, is doing his job. He is certainly revolutionising the Department and carrying the torch passed on by his predecessors, as even Deputy Connaughton has conceded, while at the same time taking radical measures, which is good. I am glad he is not being distracted by all the talk about a general election.

In the old days when the Taoiseach of the day called an election, all the parties held their conventions and we knocked on doors for three weeks. Nowadays, people believe there is an election pending because of the hype and it is important none of us gets distracted. There are at least 90 days to go, and indeed, the Taoiseach hinted to my constituency colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, today, that it might be even longer. That is good because it means the Government can get on with its business and Deputy Brennan can continue to introduce the reforms he wants. Like everyone else I am looking forward to the general election. I am not looking for a job. I was elected to do a job and I shall be happy for my term to continue so I may represent the issues that are of concern to me.

As regards the social welfare remit, there are issues of concern to me, as well as other colleagues. I am always happy to represent them. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. I am also secretary of the Fianna Fáil social and family affairs policy group and I get the opportunity to work with colleagues and the Minister on many issues of concern to people, which will be raised throughout this debate. I was glad of the good news last week that Deputy Brennan made what the media called the historic North-South deal to provide free travel for the elderly. As someone who meets many elderly people on a regular basis, that is something people were waiting for and have welcomed. There have been a number of such initiatives in recent times that the Minister and his predecessors have been able to introduce. It is important that should continue to be done. It is not patronising, but all Members of the House refer to the elderly in terms of being the people who paved the way for the tiger economy, and who now need special attention. I am proud of what has been achieved in recent years. This Fianna Fáil-led Government with the PDs has reached a target. There will be a good deal of talk about new targets, but it is important to assure the elderly they will continue to be looked after. As with other issues one can think about when the economy is doing so well, we should look after people and provide the necessary resources. I am glad to be a member of a party and supporter of a Government that is doing precisely that.

I listen to what people are saying as regards these issues. I am a member of the board of Tallaght Welfare Society. Through contact with the elderly in the Glenview Lodge facility and the Dublin south facility in Kiltipper Road and the other clubs around the constituency, I seek out views on what people are saying on issues concerning senior citizens. It is very important we continue to support the elderly in every way possible. There are many issues in this Bill on which one might comment. I listened carefully to the many issues raised by my colleague, Deputy Kelleher. I have a good deal of sympathy with what he said, including the point about the need for a debate on immigrants. Regarding returned emigrants, in particular, we all tend to talk about people who have gone abroad. There was a time in the last century when many people went abroad to seek employment, myself included, and my father and grandfather. Thank God those times have changed and people now emigrate because they want to. It is a choice and there are many professionals who do that. I challenge the Minister in this regard, however, and I should like his officials to take note.

People who are encouraged to come home by FÁS, or advertisements for jobs, tell me that when they go to the local Department of Social and Family Affairs office in Ireland, they sometimes find it difficult to get their message across. The Department talks about habitual residency and so on. The Department has to uphold its regulations and I have no problem with that. Frequently, however, families return home from Europe, America and other parts of the world and want to stay, yet find there is not enough time to find a job. It should be easier. I am not saying we should stand at the ports and hand out jobs, although as Deputy Kelleher said, sometimes we are told that is what we are doing for other people. We should ensure, however, that the system is fair for people who want to return to Ireland, be it to my constituency, elsewhere in the Dublin region or elsewhere in the country. I am not so sure, nor am I convinced that is happening. I hope the Minister will look at this. I am not asking him to give out freebies. However, if State agencies are encouraging people to come back from abroad, we should be facilitating them when they arrive if they need help to get them over a short period of adjustment. There is certainly some evidence available which indicates this is not happening in the manner it should be, and I want that to be examined.

That raises the point I have often mentioned in terms of the Department. I do not wish to sound patronising, but I have always said the Department of Social and Family Affairs is the best arm of Government for dealing with parliamentary questions and, I am sure, with queries from the public. It is very important we continue to say the whole question of communications is vital and the Department must continue to ensure people understand their rights.

As I said previously, I recall attending an event at which the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, made a speech about citizens information centres during which he said many people approach public representatives, particularly TDs, because the benefits to which they are entitled are not clearly set out. I often say to constituents that I cannot get them what they want, but sometimes I have to contact not only the Department of Social and Family Affairs, as the Acting Chairman will be aware, but other Departments not to seek to get people something to which they are not entitled but to make sure they get that to which they are entitled. Department's should be advised to make sure its advertising is effective and its communication system gets the message across.

I repeat what I said at an Oireachtas joint committee last week about the phenomenon of swipe cards, with which I have no problem. Like others, I recognise this is an aspect of progress. I was not being flippant when I said I come from a bygone Dublin era and that I often wonder what my granny would think of the new ways we do business today. The use of a swipe card to collect social welfare payments is a good move. I am not against progress but we must ensure that not only the elderly but people in my age group and younger are not confused by the introduction of this new system. When the Department introduces changes to the system it must recognise they will pose a challenge to people, particularly older people. I ask the Department to be sympathetic in this regard and to ensure it gets its message across in a precise manner.

The remit of the Department of Social and Family Affairs in regard to lone parents has been the subject of debate for a long period. The Minister brought forward a number of radical proposals in this regard. I attended a conference in Farmleigh at which these proposals were discussed with various groups and I assume the proposals are still in gestation in that sense. It is important the Minister recognises the challenges faced by those who wish to qualify for lone parents benefit. The Department must continue to make it possible for such people to gain their entitlements under the system. This is not only an urban problem or one facing people in Tallaght in my constituency, which is the third largest population centre in the country. Much of what happens there can be reflected throughout the country. We should ensure that people in receipt of lone parents benefit are not stuck in a poverty trap. We must help them progress. Issues are raised with many of us at our clinics regarding the difficulties faced by single parents because they have friends or even partners, around which there are issues which the Minister has promised to examine. There is also the question of how people qualify for this benefit.

When the Minister brought forward these proposals I did not believe they would be easily implemented or simply get the nod. There is a view that reform is necessary. However, we must be careful of the counter view that has been brought to my attention and that of others regarding people who have not sought to qualify for this payment and still face the same challenges. While we must be careful in dealing with this matter, there are issues to be addressed.

The Department should endeavour to create a system whereby recipients of social welfare benefit can return to work without jeopardising their entitlements. I have often said that an ever more liberal regime should prevail in regard to the sliding scale applying to rent subsidies and so on. Many young people in receipt of social welfare payments call to my clinic. They want to return to work but if they do so they face losing their rent supplement and other payments. I do not suggest the Department should simply hand out payments to these people but we should try to encourage them to return to employment.

I am pleased to represent my constituency. I was always happy to be involved in community work. I was a reluctant politician; I did not sit at my desk in school contemplating becoming one. When I moved to live in Tallaght, I did not plan to be a public representative and certainly not to be elected to this House. I became involved in my community and there were always issues of interest to people. It was said in the past that Tallaght had the population of a city but the status of village and that it had a high level of unemployment. I am glad to represent my town and wider constituency where many changes have taken place and many more people from the area are now in the workplace. However, there is still a need for the social welfare office. I am glad Tallaght has as modern a social welfare facility as anywhere in the country. It provides a first class service and the staff there answer the telephones. I was interested in what the previous speaker said. I do not have St. Peter's telephone number and I am not able to make the comparison Deputy Connaughton made. If one were to telephone my local social welfare office, as I do regularly on behalf of my constituents, one would get through to a member of staff, which is a good feature of the system.

In the next 90 days as we approach the general election, many people will say that more increases in benefits are required and that matters should be dealt with differently, and these matters will be debated. However, I am glad that issues that require attention are being ticked off. I mention in particular the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs under the able chairmanship of Deputy Penrose and Deputy Carty, the convenor of the group. We have seriously examined a number of issues of concern to people. We have reflected across party lines the issues that need to be addressed. While some criticism will be always levelled, we should continue to build on the progress made by dealing with the challenges faced by carers in recent years. We will never reach a stage where everything will be perfect and where people at risk in whatever age group will be okay. The challenge facing the economy is to ensure we continue to look after those people. I have no hesitation in saying, even from my position on the Government backbenches and I am proud to be here, that when our economy is doing well, we must continue to tackle poverty, particularly child poverty, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that tonight.

It is not good enough today that people are still poor at a time when our economy is doing well. That is the challenge facing us politically. I often quote my party leader, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, who said that at a time when all boats are clearly rising — even my Opposition colleagues no longer deny that — we must remember there will be always the few small boats. Those small boats exist in all our communities and they must be looked after. We should not be ashamed to do that. Irrespective of what people say in the run-up to the general election about who we should look after, who will vote, and so on, it is right and proper that we look after those in need in whatever category, and we should continue to do that. I hope that ideal is not lost. Social inclusion is important, as my predecessor, the former Deputy, Chris Flood, often said here. It is important in every constituency whether it be in Cork, Donegal, Mayo, Kerry or the Dublin region. As we go forward and hopefully the economy continues to improve, we should do that.

It is important that the Department does not lose sight of its remit to help people return to employment. Other agencies are involved in job creation. People are concerned about job security. Tallaght has lost jobs in the past and there will be always difficulties in that regard. Where job losses occur, of which there have been a number in other constituencies recently, the Department must respond to such challenges and provide for people who have lost their jobs. I bring to the Dáil my own life experiences. I was made redundant three times in my life and happily I survived. It is important that assistance is available when people and families are so vulnerable.

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I compliment the Minister and I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, tells him that the work he is doing is appreciated on both sides of the House. I know that from listening to the Opposition spokespersons, even though they have to make their odd political point, which is fair enough.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Dáil on this Bill. I compliment the Minister who has surely made his mark in this Department. It was said four and a half years ago that he would not want to be a Minister in this Department. The measures introduced have provided great relief to many social welfare recipients. These people include those who were taken out of the poverty trap, lone parents, pensioners and carers. Everybody received very generous increases. Social welfare payments, at a little over €15 billion, equate to one quarter of total Government spending. The Minister deserves real credit in that regard.

In dealing with child poverty, the Minister has lifted 100,000 children out of the poverty trap with the introduction of new social welfare payments and increases. He does not intend leaving it there because he recognises that childhood deprivation can leave lasting marks on children and on society. The €2.15 billion expenditure on child benefit in 2007 speaks volumes about how this Government regards our children. It is well established that child poverty is prevalent among those in one-parent families, who now make up a large portion of society. I welcome the Government discussion paper that contains proposals for supporting lone parents. It consists of proposals to expand the availability and the range of education and training for lone parents, the extension of the national employment action plan to focus on lone parents and the introduction of a new social assistance payment for low-income families with young children.

The Minister has also recognised the work of carers and the contribution they make to society. Without those people, many of our more vulnerable members in society would find it much harder to cope. Much ground-breaking work has been done since 1997 and increases have been made across the board. I am glad that recognition has been given to carers. They play a valuable role in our society and it is important that they are supported financially. Since taking up office in 1997, the Government has been committed to supporting care in the community to the maximum extent possible.

Over that period, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased. Qualifying conditions for the carer's allowance have been significantly eased and coverage of the scheme has been extended. New schemes have been introduced, such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant. As a result of these improvements, there are almost 28,500 carers in receipt of their allowance or benefit. These carers also receive a respite care grant, as do approximately 10,000 other carers. The Minister's commitment to carers speaks for itself.

The Bill provides for a number of improvements to the supplementary welfare allowance. The rent supplement scheme is part of the overall supplement package announced in last December's budget. This includes an extension of the qualifying conditions and an easing of the rent supplement means test. The key objectives of the changes are to simplify the means test, so that a rent supplement recipient can judge the impact of an offer of work, and address the disincentives and eliminate the poverty traps faced by rent supplement recipients seeking to increase their hours of work, or wishing to take up full-time employment.

There is concern about retirement income at present and for the future. The position, thankfully, will remain favourable for a number of years. Everybody is entitled to adequate income, dignity and security in their older years and the Government recognises that fact. It is committed to delivering adequate retirement income to all our citizens in a way that is economically and socially sustainable.

I welcome the efforts of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. He has made his mark in the Department and I know he will make further improvements across the board, helping lone parents, pensioners and so on. I wish him the best with those efforts and I commend the Bill to the House.

A few issues have already been discussed by some of my colleagues and I wish to return to them. Changing the role of community welfare officers is not a well thought out move. Community welfare officers play a very important role in urban and rural communities. They have built up a considerable amount of knowledge about their community and the people who live there, especially those in need. This Bill seeks to take that role from the Health Service Executive and place it in the control of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Such a move is too quick. Just like the transition from the health boards to the HSE, it has not been thought through well enough. It will lead to much confusion about their role.

Debate adjourned.