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

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

I wish to share time with Deputy Ring.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

In my brief contribution last night I referred to the provision in the Bill to transfer community welfare officers, CWOs, from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. In effect, this changes them from public to civil servants. The CWOs are concerned by the proposal. My concern is that the transfer is being made without due discussion or consideration and we could end up with a debacle like that in the health service as a result of the too rapid and badly organised transition from health boards to the Health Service Executive. That over rapid changeover is one of the reasons we have chaos in health services throughout the country and people do not fully understand their role.

The CWOs are concerned by the proposal, which I understand was written specifically as a result of the recent public partnership agreement. It could undermine the quality and range of services community welfare officers provide to some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the country. As the Minister knows, community welfare officers play an essential role in the community. As well as making welfare payments, they provide key information, advice, advocacy and referral links to statutory health and personal social services. Their knowledge of the Department of Health and Children, as well as of social welfare services, is essential to their role.

The ability of CWOs to make emergency payments is essential to provide for weaker and more vulnerable sections of the community. They provide an essential and delicate function to a sensitive area and group in society. Any change to their role, functions and powers will adversely affect weaker sections of the community and people sensitive to changes in income or support. These people live from day to day and from week to week and never really know what food will be on the table in a week's time. Their future is uncertain. Unfortunately, we still have people in society living like this, but with the support of CWOs they have some assurance that if they are unable to put a meal on the table for their families, provide fuel or pay a bill, they can get assistance.

The proposal hits at the most vulnerable in society and will have an adverse effect on the people for whom CWOs provide. There has been a lack of consultation on the proposal which seems to have been decided by administrative officers in the Departments of Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs, without any real in-depth look at the impact it will have in practice. The community welfare service sits more appropriately with the Department of Health and Children as it links into the care strategies provided by that Department. For example, vulnerable groups include addicts, people with mental health issues, people with disabilities, single parents, victims of abuse, the elderly, those with chronic anti-social behaviour and those with psychological issues. In view of this, it is more appropriate that CWOs stay with the Department of Health and Children.

The difference of approach in the Department of Social and Family Affairs with regard to proving the right to a claim is totally opposite to the ethos in the Department of Health and Children and will cause problems if the community welfare services are subsumed into that Department. This is something the Minister should address in his response to the genuine questions raised. We all know the valuable work CWOs do and the important service they provide for the poorer section of our community.

Another issue is that of contributory pension. A woman came to my clinic recently and pointed out that in the early 1950s she did voluntary work for five weeks in a hairdressing salon and the hairdresser in question paid a stamp for her. When this woman applied for her pension, she was granted a reduced pension because that contribution was on the record. That is unfair and demonstrates an anomaly in the system which should be rectified. I ask the Minister to respond to that in his reply.

Despite the budget in December, people are feeling the pinch more than ever. Since the Minister announced his generous provisions, the increases have been wiped out by major increases in the cost of food, fuel, light and gas. People on low incomes are finding life very difficult. Every time they go to the shop or supermarket, they find there has been an increase in the cost of foodstuffs. The Minister must do something to help these people before the summer. The increased payments they received, while generous, do not cover the increases in costs and they are feeling the pinch. I am disappointed by that.

I support Deputy Deenihan on the matter of the CWOs. The current system is working and should be left in place. I will give an example. On a Saturday evening a month ago I was contacted by a person who had a hospital appointment in Dublin. The HSE refused to bring the person to the hospital despite the fact the person was in very bad health. This person had cancelled a previous appointment because he could not afford to attend. I contacted the manager of the community welfare office on the Saturday evening about the case and he contacted me later to say the person could go ahead and bring the bill to the community welfare officer on Monday where it would be dealt with. This person got very bad news when he attended the hospital. He had to deal with the stress and pressure of not having the resources to keep the appointment and almost failed to keep it because of his lack of resources. If the community welfare officer was not available, there would have been no point in ringing Sligo. I challenge the Minister to ring the Sligo office, or the Letterkenny office or the Donegal office, now or at 2.15 p.m. or 2.30 p.m. I will tell him the response he will get — Mr. and Mrs. Voicemail. That is all he will get; he will get no answers. The only time one gets answers from the Department of Social and Family Affairs is when one tables a parliamentary question. I compliment the Department in that regard. It is good at that, but it is not good otherwise.

What is this daft proposal of swipecards for the elderly which the Minister is now proposing? This is an attack on the most vulnerable and weak. It is a scandal. It is also an attack on rural post offices. The Minister is now proposing that if the Department provides a person with a swipecard and the person does not collect his or her money within 12 days, when he or she comes with the swipecard to collect on the 13th day the computer will show that there is no money there for him or her. What if that person is in hospital? What if that person is sick? What if that person has nobody to collect that money for him or her? The Minister will state it is a means tested payment, but there are many elderly persons in rural Ireland who cannot get to the post office because there is no rural transport and the Minister and his Department have failed to introduce a voucher to allow them use taxis. In a few minutes the Dublin Deputies will defend the Minister. Why would they not defend him, given that their constituents have DART, Luas and Dublin Bus? People in Dublin have everything while we in rural Ireland have nothing.

The Government has taken away the quality of life in rural Ireland. The people used be able to go to the pub. They can no longer do so because they are now being met by gardaí. Due to every kind of regulation, they cannot even go out on a Friday or Saturday night for a drink because they are afraid. If they do not get them at night-time, they will be waiting to get them in the morning. They have attacked and destroyed rural life.

Why is it now necessary to introduce the swipecard to which I referred earlier, and why is the Department not out checking the people who are defrauding the State of rent allowance? The Department should get out and attack the people who are defrauding the State, not the innocent people who cannot collect their pensions for one reason or another. I ask the Minister to get rid of that daft regulation immediately.

I heard Deputy Deenihan speak of pensions. A man who came into my clinic last week has worked for 50 years. For 42 years that man worked for an employer and he paid his full contributions. For eight years he was self-employed. He became of pension age last week. He did not get a full contributory pension — he got 98% of it. That is a scandal. That is an anomaly in the social welfare system.

In 1988, people such as farmers who never paid a contribution in their lives were allowed into a system where they paid contributions for ten years as self-employed persons and became entitled to a full contributory pension. That is an anomaly with which the Minister must deal. There are five or six persons known to me in my constituency who have worked over a 30 or 40 year period and, because there were gaps in their record of contributions, they do not get a full contributory pension. There is a man who worked over a 50 year period and who paid stamps for approximately 30 years, but, because there was a gap, the Department calculated his contributions over the 50 years. This meant he got only a percentage of a full contributory pension. This affects very few people and I ask the Minister to investigate this matter immediately.

I was disappointed with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. When the Bill was announced last week, I expected that we would see something done about a refuse service waiver for persons on social welfare. I hoped the Minister would include such a waiver in the household benefits package because a serious situation is developing among all local authorities. Incidentally, maybe we should look at getting rid of them because they are unable to run the service or do their job any longer. It appears that they cannot run a refuse service even though they were able to pick the cream of the people from whom to collect it. Every one of them is telling us that they are losing money.

These are the same officials in the local authorities who are putting levies on business, people who apply for planning permission and others. All that is wrong with these officials in the local authorities is that they never worked a day in their lives outside the public service and they do not know how to make a euro, to make a profit and to pay staff. They get their cheques on a Friday evening no matter what happens and they are the ones who are lecturing the private sector on how they may do business.

The people are angry. They are getting sick and tired of the levies and charges which are paying for benchmarking for local authority staff. They are no longer able to continue in business. People are telling me on a daily basis that they have had enough and are getting out. It is not good for the country when small businesses and enterprises trying to create employment and provide a service in rural areas are being wiped out by the State.

I am disappointed that the Minister did not introduce a waiver scheme for the elderly on €200 a week who must pay €300, €400 or €500 per year to get their refuse taken away. It is not acceptable and something must be done. I raised the matter at the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs where I brought in the officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It cannot go on. The Minister cannot give social welfare increases of €16 or €17 a week and expect these people to pay €20 or €30 per week to have their refuse collected. Something must be done immediately and I ask the Minister to deal with this problem.

There is a social welfare top-up scheme for people who have children attending third level. I raised this matter previously and I ask the Minister and the Department to look at it. There is a cut-off point for a person on social welfare who has one child and if a person goes over that cut-off point, he or she does not quality for the social welfare top-up. A constituent of mine on social welfare has three children at third level and because they exceed that cut-off point, they do not get the top-up. His wife works a few hours and that, together with his social welfare, puts them over the cut-off point for this scheme.

Why not operate this scheme like the third level grant, where, if one has one child, two children or three children, the Department increases the threshold which allows them into the system? As the scheme operates at present, there is a certain point at which one is cut off, irrespective of whether a person has one, two, three or four children at third level. People on social welfare who have children at third level are finding it very difficult. The Minister should look at this scheme immediately, particularly before we reach September when people who have children entering third level will apply for the top-up and will find it is a difficult time for them. This good scheme helps people on social welfare, but it is wrong that there is no disregard available for those who have a second or third child, and that such people are not given any increase for them.

The Minister might respond to me about the telephone allowance on which there was a number of announcements. Is the scheme whereby a person can get free mobile telephone units in place? This is approximately the 36th time this scheme has been announced by the Government. Before the local elections the Minister announced it ten times; before the last general election the Minister did so approximately 15 times and, in between, the Minister has certainly done it ten or 12 times. Will he tell me whether that scheme is in place and give me a "Yes" or "No" answer? The press officer in the Minister's office is a great man for re-spinning. There are those who are good at spinning, but his man is good at re-spinning continuously. He is from County Mayo and he is a good fellow. Anyone from there is good and I will not hold that against him. No doubt he is spinning it out on a regular basis. In any case, I want to know what is the position in that regard.

What plans has the Minister to introduce a taxi voucher for the elderly, particularly to enhance the quality of life in rural Ireland? As these people are eligible for the free schemes, they possess the free travel pass.

The Deputy has one minute left.

I am sorry that I do not have another 20 minutes because I have ten more issues to raise. I must wait for another day to get to them.

Does the Minister or the Department propose introducing a taxi voucher? Is he looking at doing so? The Minister will state that there is a considerable cost factor involved and it would take up the time of a large number of staff, but I saw the amount of money in the Estimates for computers and that raises the following question for the Minister and his officials. Are these computers working or is the Department just installing them one year and taking them out the next? Do they work? Is the Department unable to programme them? There is more money every year for computers, yet the Department cannot put together a simple scheme whereby those entitled to free travel can use a voucher scheme in rural Ireland.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill, which gives legislative effect and implements some of the social welfare changes in budget 2007. I refer specifically to the one-parent family payment, child benefit and the respite care grant.

I compliment the Minister on his work to date, not necessarily on the spending but on some of the fundamental changes. Too often we stress the increases that are made. We should acknowledge that the Minister has tried to address some of the anomalies and poverty traps in the social welfare system.

It is worth noting that the social welfare budget for this year is in excess of €15 billion. One in three euro is spent on social welfare and this comprises a substantial increase over last year's expenditure. It is therefore worth examining the level of spending. Over 1 million people benefit directly from social welfare or, if one takes their dependants into account, 1.5 million. The scale is therefore quite substantial.

I take issue with Deputy Ring who said there are major increases in food, fuel and electricity prices. He is correct that there were fuel price increases, including in the cost of gas, but the Government and Minister in particular have introduced steps to alleviate them on a number of occasions. Such steps include the increase in the fuel allowance from €14 to €18 and the additional free units. It is incorrect to say people are now worse off. The rate of social welfare increases far exceeds the rate of inflation. Some of the increases amount to €20 per week. It is incorrect for Deputy Ring to argue the effect of the increases has been wiped out. It may partly be the case but people are now better off than they were before the increases were made. It is unfair to argue that the increases, which were the most significant ever, are not benefiting their recipients; it is simply not the case.

Let us consider the main changes in the social welfare system. It is worth reiterating that the target set by the Government regarding old age pensions was achieved. Following this year's budget, the contributory old age pension has increased to €209 and the non-contributory old age pension has increased to €200. Approximately 400,000 pensioners stand to benefit from the increases. Earnings for non-contributory pensioners have been doubled to €200 per week. The means disregard for the non-contributory pension has increased by €10 per week to €30, which benefits approximately 25,000 people. Significant changes have therefore been made.

The increase in the fuel allowance should be considered in the context of the additional units that were made available. I found it hard to listen to Deputy Ring's comments that all the benefits have been wiped out. He spoke about the increased cost of living and food prices, but the reality is that CSO figures on price increases do not match what he said. His comments were incorrect.

One must acknowledge the increase in child benefit, which increased by €10 in respect of both categories. One must also acknowledge the other changes that benefit children, including the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which is used quite a lot during the summer.

The wider eligibility for the family income supplement is welcome. It is complicated to get people to engage in this issue and there is a real problem in that many eligible citizens do not avail of the supplement. However, it makes a real difference to those who receive it and it affords them the opportunity to re-enter the workforce. I do not know why all those who are potentially eligible for the supplement do not seem to get it. I have discussed this at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and with officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We are missing the target with the supplement by a sizeable margin, which is regrettable. The scheme is very beneficial and positive but, for some reason, we are not getting through to all those who should and would benefit therefrom.

Over the past decade the role of carers has changed significantly and the commitment and support they have received from the Government has increased. The weekly payments to carers have been increased greatly and the qualifying conditions for the carer's allowance have also changed. There are 28,000 or 29,000 carers and their allowances have increased. Carers often tell me the respite care grant, which is made by way of a single payment in the summer, is very beneficial and gives them a range of options. The increase this year from €1,200 to €1,500 is very welcome. In addition to carers, a group of approximately 10,000 people qualifies for the grant. It represents a very good initiative and the money can be used for practical purposes. The Minister will be surprised to hear what people are doing with their grants.

From September of this year, those in receipt of certain other welfare payments who also provide full-time care will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive another, subject to a means test, amounting to up to half the rate of the carer's allowance. For the first time, this will abolish the rule whereby one could not receive two welfare payments. Apart from the financial benefit and supports that this measure makes possible, it recognises the role of carers. It is not always a question of increases as one must also consider the direction of policy and support. An important step has been taken to recognise the role of carers and provide them with real support.

The family income supplement concerns lone parents in particular, as I note in my busy constituency office. If lone parents try to re-enter the workforce while in private rented accommodation, their rent supplement is cut, after which they must obtain the family income supplement to compensate. This seems to be cumbersome and comprises a somewhat vicious circle. Lone parents are entitled to the benefits but they do not seem to be joined up very easily. There should be a better process such that when they apply for the family income supplement, a social welfare officer could sit down with them and examine the cumulative effects. Rather than having to make many applications and changes, the applicant's social welfare officer should state he or she will be entitled to a specified family income supplement and a general package. At present, the benefits are granted on a standalone basis. The system is quite complicated and perhaps this is why people are not applying for the family income supplement.

It is important that the rent supplement does not increase the price of rented accommodation in the Dublin market. At present it needs to be reviewed because it is simply insufficient to match Dublin market prices and cover costs. This is proving to be a problem. I raise this issue reluctantly because I am conscious the rate specified by the Department can drive the market. Families who rent properties for €1,200, of which they receive a percentage in rent allowance, are being told when landlords raise the rent to either renegotiate or find alternative accommodation. However, they are often unable to find alternative accommodation in the same price category, with the result that many have to make up the difference by paying cash from their payments. This is somewhat of a bind but I do not know when the figures will be reviewed.

Certain categories, such as single people and lone parents, seem to face greater difficulties in terms of renting properties and are struggling to find accommodation. A review of property prices in Dublin is needed because we are in danger of returning to the black economy. Individuals are paying a proportion of their rent in cash because they are not eligible for anything if they tell the social welfare office their rent is higher than the guide price. I raise this issue reluctantly because I am aware of the effect of increases in the rent supplement in terms of driving rents up. However, over the past several months, I have encountered increasing numbers of people who are struggling because of their dependence on rent allowances.

An anomaly has arisen in respect of the contributory State pension. The people who are now reaching the pension age of 66 worked in a very different era. When women had children, for example, they had few options other than to leave employment. To qualify for the minimum contributory State pension, an average of ten payments is required based on a retirement age of 66. If a person began work at the age of 16 or 18 and made 400 contributions over eight years, the period would be 50 years and the average would be eight payments. However, if the same person worked over a 40 year period, the average would be ten payments. Therefore, depending on when they started work, two individuals who worked for eight years and paid 400 contributions might not both qualify for the minimum level. One person might qualify for the minimum level with an average of ten payments because the 400 contributions are divided by a working life of 40 years. However, the person who left school at the age of 16 does not qualify because the average is divided by 50. The issue, which was brought to my attention recently by one of my constituents, appears unfair and anomalous and I ask the Minister to investigate it further.

Deputy Ring spoke about computerisation. It is important that the Department of Social and Family Affairs develops close links with the Revenue Commissioners. I am aware of two cases of social welfare recipients who returned to the workforce but continued to receive lone parent's allowance despite paying PAYE and PRSI. The payments continued over a number of years, with the result that the women are now repaying more than €20,000. Even though the women are unknown to each other, neither could understand why the Department did not know they were paying taxes. They did not distinguish between the Department and the Revenue Commissioners but regarded them collectively as the State.

I acknowledge their responsibility to keep the Department informed but, given that tax was being taken from them, they could not understand why the relevant information was not automatically shared. While there may be limits in terms of data protection legislation, that type of automatic transfer of information should be in place in this age of computerisation to protect social welfare recipients, who are often not fully aware of their obligations, from building up overpayments. The women concerned honestly believed that the Department and the Revenue Commissioners had integrated communications in place.

I am aware the Department investigates fraud, which is important because people who fraudulently acquire social welfare payments take from those who really need the money. Officials in the Department should be complimented in that regard. However, it is worth investigating the issue from the point of view of building practical working relationships with other providers, such as local authorities and the Garda, so that information can be shared in a timely manner. We have all received anecdotal evidence of these issues but structured procedures should be established because, while my constituents regularly warn me when someone receives fraudulent payments, it would appear that other providers have similar information. However, the operations by which the Department detects fraud are better left unexplained.

I commend the Minister on the reforms he has made in terms of removing poverty traps and anomalies. I note in particular the extension of the free travel scheme on an all-island basis. Although the scheme is funded by the Department for Social and Family Affairs, the Minister for Foreign Affairs was also interested in it as an element in the peace process. It is welcome that it will be introduced over the next couple of months. I understand people must apply for the scheme but, from the point of view of a changing Ireland, it is a welcome development.

I wish to share time with Deputy O'Sullivan, by agreement.

That is agreed. However, I remind the Deputy that a sos will be taken at 1.30 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It will be my last time to speak on Second Stage of a Social Welfare and Pensions Bill until, I hope, I return to the House after the next general election. I take this opportunity to thank the staff of social welfare offices for the service they provide for the public and have provided for me since my election to the House. It is a testament to them, be they located in Sligo or Longford, etc., that I am seldom obliged to table a parliamentary question on such issues. While social welfare issues arise, I am usually able to rectify them by telephone or through correspondence. I thank the diligent staff.

In respect of the last point made by the previous speaker on pension anomalies, all Members have encountered such cases. I am familiar with an extreme example and although I had not intended raising it, as other Members have discussed similar cases, I will follow suit. Like others, one of my constituents had worked for most of his life and paid his stamps and contributions. However, three or four contributions were made early in his life. He intended to apply for the old age pension and before his birthday, I acquired a list of his contributions to calculate the averages. After so doing, it became clear that he would not qualify for the full pension owing to the payment of three or four stamps early in his life. I investigated the matter and was advised that he had worked for the local authority one summer. I contacted the local authority and received a letter in reply stating it had not paid any stamps on his behalf, although it had done so for someone with a similar name. I forwarded the letter to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and it was not accepted. Consequently, I intend to provide the Minister with the details of the case. As the local authority has stated it did not make a contribution for this man and the few contributions in question are debarring him from receiving a full pension, he should receive it. This is a relatively straightforward case.

I agree with previous speakers that there are several cases in which people fail to receive a full pension because a small number of contributions were made early in their lives. The number of such persons is reducing continually and I ask the Minister to form a group to consider this issue. People are of the opinion that they should be entitled to a full pension after working for 30 or 40 years and I agree. The system based on averages with which Members deal is outmoded and should be replaced.

I will take up another point raised by the previous speaker in respect of rent supplements. While this may be an issue in Dublin, it is also an issue in my constituency where the figures for rent allowance do not cover the cost of rented property. I represent towns such as Killarney, Dingle and Kenmare, in which many properties can command high rents during the summer letting season. Tenants who are not prepared to pay might be put out of their houses before Easter and few houses become available subsequently until the following October, after the summer season ends. It is extremely difficult to deal with people in this context. Community welfare officers also find it difficult because although they have guidelines, people are unable to find houses to rent within them. They are in the black economy, may not be telling the truth and issues may arise, whereby a great deal of money must be paid back. Were the Minister to decide to review the figures in respect of rent allowance, it should be done on a countrywide basis, not simply for Dublin, as difficulties are also being experienced in my constituency of Kerry South. The same is true of other constituencies in which there is a tourism element.

I wish to raise the issue of women who were affected by the marriage bar. I have met a number of such women in recent years and they feel aggrieved that through no fault of their own, they are not entitled to a pension when reaching pensionable age. Moreover, the amount they receive as an adult dependant is reduced if their husbands are in receipt of a pension. I welcome the introduction, from September, of direct payments to qualified adults. However, this measure will not make such individuals any better off. Women whose husbands have not been giving them any money might be better off, but not otherwise. Those women who stayed at home, looked after their children and could not work have a case. The State is discriminating against them because through no fault of their own, they have no entitlement to a payment in their own right.

I wish to refer to another group of women. I am moving on because my time is short and I wish to cover a number of issues. I refer to widows who are in receipt of a widow's pension and who also receive disability benefit. Should such women fall ill, they are only entitled to half-rate disability benefit for 15 months. I have encountered two cases in which widows who were extremely ill were given the money for 15 months. Thereafter, the rug was pulled from under them and payment was stopped. Payments to a widow should continue until such time as she recovers. One does not recover from all illnesses within 15 months. Unfortunately, some people never get better, while others do. It should be the responsibility of the consultant or doctor to provide a certificate to the effect that the person in question is unfit to return to work. Although many widows work, if they fall ill, they will receive a half-rate disability benefit payment for 15 months. I ask the Minister to consider this issue which should be based on medical evidence. If a widow is not better after 15 months, payments should continue until she has recovered. This is not an unreasonable request.

I support other Members who have spoken about community welfare officers. No Member, of any party or none, will state the proposal to transfer community welfare officers to the Department of Social and Family Affairs is a good idea. It is a disastrous idea because while the Minister may mean well, it will not work. When the service comes under the aegis of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it will be obliged to follow guidelines. However, when Frank Cluskey first introduced it, the element of discretion was of greatest importance. All Members have stories about clients who were able to contact community welfare officers out of hours. Such officers deal with people in a holistic manner and know them, their families and neighbours. As they work on the ground, they are able to spot the cases that are not genuine.

I appeal to the Minister not to disturb the existing system. I fear that many issues dealt with by community welfare officers at present will not be dealt with by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Consequently, people, including children, will fall between two stools and be left in terrible circumstances. People in difficulties who approach a politician are able to go to the community welfare officer. No major form-filling or large structure are involved and it is a highly personal matter. I appeal to the Minister not to disturb the existing system, as it works very well. While I am unsure who wishes to change it, it is not for a good reason.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.