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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Feb 2007

Vol. 632 No. 1

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

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

Deputy O'Sullivan has ten minutes remaining.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. I acknowledge the positive measures proposed in the Bill and I compliment the Minister on the progress being made. As other speakers have said, progress is required in a number of areas. More than in any other area I would hope to see a move to getting people out of consistent poverty which has not been progressed in the way we would have hoped, considering the ten years of affluence of the current Government. I note from today's newspapers that the Minister will launch a ten-year social inclusion plan to eliminate consistent poverty within a decade. I do not know whether the Minister has already launched the plan or if he will do so later in the day or whether somebody else will launch it on behalf of the Government.

The ten-year anti-poverty strategy launched in 1997 aimed to reduce the level of consistent poverty to 2% by 2007 but latest figures show that 7% or almost 300,000 people are ranked as living in consistent poverty this year. My concern is that we are not progressing quickly enough in this area. This is not solely a matter for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs but that Department would be a central part of it. I welcome the plans being announced today which aim by 2016 to reduce by 20% the number of people whose total income is derived from long-term social welfare payments. It is good to have targets but it is important to achieve them. I hope the Minister has genuine strategies to achieve these targets.

Other speakers referred to the elimination of the poverty traps for lone parents and others, particularly those who are on rent allowance. I welcome the progress being made in this regard. I ask the Minister to clarify when the changes proposed in the Bill with regard to a disallowance for a certain amount of earnings and money from community employment schemes when awarding rent allowance will be implemented. RAS is not fully up and running in several local authority areas and many people in private rented accommodation are not even aware of the existence of this scheme. Is this linked to those in RAS or does it apply to people who are on rent allowance but who for one reason or another are not yet in RAS or perhaps do not qualify or their landlord is not willing to become involved?

I share the concerns expressed by Deputy Curran and others regarding the limits for rent allowance. It is a reality that for people in certain places — mostly in cities but my colleague, Deputy Moynihan-Cronin stated that it also applies in her part of the country — the limits mean that sometimes people are unable to get accommodation. As Deputy Curran said, it is not desirable but it is the case that people hand over money to the landlord outside of the official rent and this puts them in danger of not having enough money for other bills. I support calls to have the proposal reconsidered.

Deputy Boyle and other Members raised the matter of adult dependants.

On the concept of dependency, Members on all sides of the House have at various times expressed the strong view that in a modern, civilised world adults should not be treated as the dependants of others. We need to move towards a system under which a person automatically receives a separate payment rather than having to ask for it. No adult should have to be treated as a dependant. In that context, there is much unfairness in the system, in the balance between the tax and social welfare codes and in the different ways in which people are treated.

An e-mail I received yesterday reads:

I was shocked to recently discover a blatant unfairness in the system and I wondered what is being done to address this. I learned that if you are living with a person as "married" as far as the social welfare services are concerned, you are means-tested as a married couple. This is particularly tough for a couple where one is on disability and due to the working person's income is then told they will no longer qualify because of some mysterious magic that occurs where you are assessed as having half the working person's income as means. It does not allow for the fact that the working partner, while happy to share his or her life, is not necessarily interested in supporting a dependent who cannot work. They will also lose the medical card, from what I understand. So a person who may be on a good wage for a single suddenly has a massive burden to bear. To not live together reduces the ill person's chance of living in a situation where they can be assisted, and not living with strangers to struggle alone.

So let us say the Department have a right to force these presumptions upon people, which they clearly don't. If a couple want to be married, they will get married. They should be allowed to decide their status. But the real discrimination kicks in when the exact definition of the couple according to one arm of the State doesn't apply to the other arm. So the man or woman who now suddenly supports a person who cannot work or financially contribute to the household in any way, and also has added medical expenses, is now told that, equally magically, they are not married when they step into Revenue buildings. The working person who took on the financial burden of the one on disability is now not allowed claim a cent in relation to this State-imposed predicament. This is totally unfair.

I cannot believe that there isn't an urgent reaction to put this right. You cannot have two parallel universes in Government where people are messed around like this.

The Minister can understand that this person feels very strongly on the issue, rightly so. Why should a person be treated in one way by the tax code and in another by the social welfare code, when in each case the person is disadvantaged in those circumstances? This issue needs to be seriously addressed.

As my party's spokesperson on education, I wish to address some of the issues in the Minister's brief which relate to education, particularly school meals. I note that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's in its pre-budget submission suggested there should be one body with overall responsibility in this area. The issue falls between a number of stools, including social welfare, health, education and community affairs, given that many of the school meal schemes are operated by community organisations. There is a strong argument that we need to co-ordinate the school meals service. In the context of child poverty, if children are missing out or falling between the cracks, they often go to school hungry and cannot do justice to their educational opportunities. I accept much progress has been made with school meals and a huge effort has been made by a variety of organisations. There is probably a school meals scheme in most disadvantaged areas. However, there are children who do not have the opportunity to avail of a school meals system. I support the proposal that it be co-ordinated in some way to ensure we will not have anybody falling through the gaps.

The other recommendation the Society of St. Vincent de Paul made was that there should be adequate capital provision to ensure school facilities would be available to allow food to be offered to pupils in appropriate ways. Again, strictly speaking, this is not the responsibility of the Minister, but his Department, or the Department of Education and Science, might take the initiative in ensuring we have a comprehensive school meals system in order that children will not go to school hungry.

Also with regard to education, I welcome the increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. Unfortunately, the increase falls short of the cost to families, particularly when children are making the transition to post-primary school, when there are many extra costs to be met. I urge a continuation of progress in this area.

As with other Deputies, there are many other issues I could have raised. I hope the Minister will respond to the points I have made.

I wish to share time with Deputy Callanan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I compliment the Minister on his budget and the fair way in which he distributed the finances across the board for social welfare recipients. I have little doubt that the progress he has made in the couple of years since he took office as Minister for Social and Family Affairs will increase greatly in his next five years in office.

The Bill provides for the implementation of certain social improvements announced in budget 2007. These include increases in child benefit, the one-parent family payment income limit and the respite care grant. It also provides for enhancements to illness benefit, maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and supplementary welfare allowance schemes. It further provides for the introduction of a special rate of carer's allowance which will, in specified circumstances, be payable simultaneously with certain other social welfare payments.

Supporting and recognising carers in our society is and has been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended, and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended.

In line with other social assistance schemes, a means test is applied to carer's allowance to ensure limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. This means test has been eased significantly during the years, most notably with the introduction of the spouse's earnings disregard. Following budget 2006, since April of that year the earnings disregard for a couple has been set at €580 per week which is equivalent to gross average industrial earnings. As a result of further improvements which the Minister announced in budget 2007, this disregard will increase to €640 per week for a couple from April. When this increase is in place, a couple with two children will be able to earn up to €36,240 and still qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the associated free travel and household benefits. This measure surpasses the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure those on average industrial earnings can continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance. Complete abolition of the means test for carer's allowance would cost in the region of over €140 million in a full year.

From June 2005 the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers providing full-time care for a person who needs such care, regardless of their income. Those persons in receipt of other social welfare payments, excluding jobseeker's assistance and benefit, are entitled to this payment, subject to meeting the full-time care condition. In budget 2007 the level of the grant was increased by €300 to €1,500 from June.

The primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support. As a general rule, only one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. We are all aware that this has been a cause of particular concern to people in receipt of a social welfare payment when they become carers. For that reason, I was delighted the Minister undertook to introduce fundamental structural reforms in this area in budget 2007.

From September 2007, people in receipt of another social welfare payment who also provide full-time care and attention to a person will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive a carer's payment depending on their means, the maximum of which will be equivalent to a half rate carer's allowance. It is estimated that approximately 18,000 carers will benefit from this measure at a cost of €56.72 million in a full year. The precise details as to how the new arrangements will operate are being examined and will be set out in legislation shortly.

The improvements for carers which were announced in budget 2007 will cost over €107 million for a full year. As a result of the improvements expenditure on weekly payments to carers will be in the region of €357 million in 2007. A further €64.5 million will be provided to carers in the form of respite care grants. In addition, as a consequence of the new arrangements with regard to receipt of another welfare payment while caring, 18,000 carers will also benefit from expenditure on other non-caring schemes to the tune of approximately €57 million in a full year and nearly €14 million in 2007.

We are committed to working for and with carers to deliver increased benefits, supports and services for them and their families. The improvements for carers which were announced in budget 2007 and being enacted through this Bill are further evidence of this commitment.

There has been substantial progress made in reducing child poverty. A range of measures across a number of Departments and agencies over recent years has resulted in more than 250,000 people being lifted out of consistent poverty, including an estimated 100,000 children. However, an unacceptable number of children remain in consistent poverty and we must remain focused on a further substantial reduction of child poverty. The level of commitment in this area was prominent in budget 2007, in which a range of targeted measures and supports specifically to benefit children in low income families and families on welfare was announced at a cost of over €240 million. The significantly improved and targeted measures announced in the budget represent a substantial move in that direction. This is the reason the decision was taken to deliberately focus the increased child supports in the areas where we know child poverty exists.

The measures in budget 2007 include, for the first time in over a decade, reform of the qualified child allowance, QCA, formerly child dependant allowance, which is seen as an important welfare weapon in tackling child poverty levels. The three existing rates of QCA have been combined into a new single high rate of €22 per week that will benefit over 340,000 children of families on welfare.

The rate of child benefit has been increased by €10, bringing new rates to €160 and €195 per month. The child benefit increases will apply to all children, benefiting over 560,000 families in respect of approximately 1.1 million children. The monthly rate for the first and second child in 1997 was €38. In 2007 it will be more than four times higher. If we include the new early child care supplement, when measures in budget 2007 take effect, a family with three children under six will receive direct financial support of €9,180 per annum. This is an increase of approximately €7,670 since 1997. I congratulate the Minister on the Bill.

I am delighted to get the opportunity to say a few words on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. I compliment the Minister on the excellent work he is doing as Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I am proud to be a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs at which we have many constructive meetings with the Minister.

The Minister has made great changes in the system in order to get people out of the poverty trap. He has allowed people earn more in the workplace without losing social welfare entitlements. Lone parents can now earn up to €400 per week before losing the full entitlement. Widows and State pensioners over the age of 66 can also have some earnings. Many of these people are able and willing to continue some part-time employment. They can now earn up to €200 per week and still get their full pension. This is welcome.

The provision with regard to non-contributory pensions is also welcome. Previously, a young widow lucky enough to get a contributory widow's pension could earn as much as she liked and still get her pension. However, a widow on a non-contributory means tested pension lost out. For every €1 she earned, she lost €1 of her pension which left her in a poverty trap. The Minister has changed this and these widows can now earn up to €200 without affecting their pension. I welcome the Minister's decision to increase the qualified adult allowance by €22.70 in the budget. I welcome too the fact that an adult dependant can now get an allowance on her own behalf. The increase in children's allowance is also welcome as many families depend on it.

I welcome the increase in unemployment benefit and in the farm assist payment. As a farmer, I welcome the rural social scheme under the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, which is linked to the farm assist scheme. The rural social scheme does vital work in the country, for example, village enhancement or work with the elderly. In the future, we hope it will operate a nitelink bus service in rural areas. The increase in payments resulting from these schemes is welcome. The schemes encourage people to do work that needs to be done and help create opportunities for people to get back into employment.

I congratulate the Minister on his commitment to carers as this is an area to which I too am committed. Support for carers has always been a priority for Fianna Fáil. Our policy is strongly in favour of supporting care in the community and of enabling people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. This is being achieved through our proposals. Benefits and supports for carers will continue to be expanded and increased. Carer's allowance, carer's benefit and respite grants were introduced by Fianna Fáil in Government. Since 1997, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for payment have been eased, coverage of schemes has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite grant have been introduced. Numbers in receipt of carer's allowance are up from 1,600 in 2000 to 27,000 today.

The budget introduced for the first time an entitlement for carers to retain a full social welfare payment and receive in addition up to half rate carer's allowance. This will boost the income of an estimated 18,000 carers by €109 per week. This is particularly welcome as the Oireachtas committee had been campaigning for this for some time. The Minister listened to us and said he would bring the proposal to Government and he has done that.

The introduction of the new dual payment system demonstrates we now recognise that the carer's allowance is less of a welfare payment and more of a direct support for carer's duties. This gives recognition to carers, especially widows. The situation had been very unfair. Some carers with reasonable income were getting the allowance but some widows were not entitled to the allowance because they were on a widow's pension. It is estimated that some 14,000 currently in receipt of carer's allowance are also entitled to another welfare payment. A further 4,000 people in receipt of other welfare payments are also carers.

Annual respite grants have increased by €300 to €1,500. This will benefit almost 40,000 carers. The increase represents an increase of 490% in the level of grants since the introduction of the grant in 1999. Increases of €18 and €20 in the rate of carer's allowance and carer's benefit will directly benefit 28,500 carers. Means tests for carer's allowance will increase the income disregard by €30 to €320 for a single person and by €60 to €640 for a couple. This means a couple with two children can earn up to €36,240 and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance as well as be entitled to free travel and household benefits. In addition, easing the means test will allow an additional 1,200 carers to qualify for payment and 2,500 existing carers will receive an increase in weekly payments. The earnings threshold for carer's benefit increased €30 to €330 per week.

A few years ago when this carer's allowance was introduced we had people coming to our clinics inquiring about it. If they had any earnings, we had to send them home disappointed — if we were being honest with them — because they would not get it but now a married couple earning a reasonable income of €640 per week can qualify for carer's allowance. We are delighted that most people who come to us now can qualify and we hope the threshold will increase in time.

There have been many calls for the scrapping of the means test. In line with other social welfare schemes, a means test is applied to carer's allowance to ensure that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need. The means test has been eased significantly over the years, most notably with the introduction of the spouse's earning disregard. Following budget 2006, since April last the earnings disregard for a couple has been set at €580, which is equivalent to gross average industrial earnings. As a result of the further improvements announced in budget 2007, the disregard will be increased to €640 per week for a couple from April 2007. With these increases in place, a couple with two children will be able to earn almost €37,000 and still quality for the maximum rate of carer's allowance, as well as the free travel and household benefits. This measure surpasses the commitment in Towards 2016 to ensure that all those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer's allowance.

Complete abolition of the means test would cost an estimated €140 million in a full year. The Government has an open mind on this issue, but it is debatable whether such a proposal could be considered to be the best use of resources. The view of some support organisations is that such money, were it available, would be more beneficial to carers if it were invested in community care services supporting them in their caring role such as additional respite care facilities, home helps and public health nurses.

In 2005 the respite care grant was also extended to all carers who are providing full-time care to a person in such need subject to employment related conditions. In this regard, there is a need for us to look at the case of farmers where this seems to pose a slight problem. A person who is minding an elderly person and also looking after the farm can be ruled out for the carer's allowance if he or she is not careful because the scheme provides that one may work outside the home for only 15 hours per week. As everybody knows, farming is an unusual occupation in that it could involve 15 hours one week and 20 hours the next. I ask the Minister to allow flexibility in this regard because it is causing a problem in some areas. When we ask the Minister, Deputy Brennan, to do something he always looks at it and finds a way around the criteria to ensure people get their entitlements.

Another improvement to the respite grant is that a carer who is providing care for more than two persons will receive a grant in respect of each person for whom she or he is caring. Previously, a maximum of two grants was paid.

The new social partnership agreement Towards 2016 sets out as a priority the drawing up of a comprehensive national carers strategy that would fully address the provisions of service support entitlements for carers. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has extended the care leave scheme, which allows for the protection of carers' employment, to two years. Also care sharing situations can now be accommodated on the carer's allowance support scheme. This allows two carers who are providing full-time care in an established pattern, for example, every second week, to share carer's allowance income and the annual respite grant. Both carers will also receive the household benefit package of free schemes. We have also moved to accommodate carers providing care on, for example, alternative weeks where a care recipient attends a residential institution on the other week. The increased flexibility in the carer's allowance scheme allows carers to combine the valuable provision of care to a person who requires full-time care and attention and to also participate in work if they so wish. In September 2006 the Minister launched a major nationwide awareness campaign to promote an increase in take-up of the welfare supports and entitlements available to carers. From June 2006 the number of hours a carer may work and still receive a carer's allowance or benefit has been increased from ten to 15. I welcome the Bill and compliment the Minister, a Galwayman doing a good job.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The improvements in the rates of social welfare are beyond dispute, but we should not lose the run of ourselves in estimating the sums available for people living on social welfare. When one counterbalances items like the increases in the cost of heat, light and foodstuffs, the social welfare increases will be quickly absorbed. The social partnership process identified inflation as the key issue and inflation could rapidly eat into the welcome increases in social welfare. We should acknowledge that there is still a great deal to be done in this area.

On the carer's allowance, I am dealing with a particular individual who was transferred from one benefit to another. I understood that a person would not be transferred to his or her detriment, but this individual has lost the fuel allowance and it makes quite a sizeable difference. If I give the Minister the details of that case, he might look at it. I have received replies to parliamentary questions on the matter, which affects a small group of people. I will pass on the details to the Minister because it is making a big difference to the individual to whom I refer. Even though the increases are welcome, such a predicament can have a major impact on a person's income and quality of life.

I welcome section 24 which is one of the most meaningful measures in the Bill. Almost daily I meet people on rent supplement who would really like to work but who for many years has been precluded from working because it would lead to losing rent support. The rental allowance scheme is slowly taking effect, but this measure will ease the way a little further for some.

It is also a socially progressive measure because many who might well have formed a family have been prevented from doing so because this would result in a major difference in income. We need to get to the point where people can form families where such exist. Many have not declared their position because it would place them in a poverty trap. The change to which I refer is meaningful and will make a big difference. Although I am not aware of the level of interest in the rent allowance scheme by landlords, it is certainly being pushed heavily by local authorities.

I was disappointed this year there was not further movement on the payment of €1,000 per child. Some of the child care providers increased the price of child care provision when that payment was introduced and it is disappointing the payment has not been kept in line with the cost of living. There is no doubt that there is an attempt to ensure the availability of an adequate number of places, but the cost of child care is still very substantial. We must get to grips with why it is so expensive. Commercial rates and VAT, for example, contribute to the cost. In this regard, one should bear in mind that child care providers do not earn a huge amount of money.

Has the Minister considered the new payment being made to those in residential care? Responsibility may well be transferred between one Department and the other. Under the Health (Amendment) Act 2005, people in nursing homes could be charged a certain sum every week. I do not know if it was intended to charge people with mental or physical disabilities in residential care when the legislation was first drafted. Those in receipt of a social welfare payment are now to have a significant proportion of the payment deducted. The method of extracting the money is mean and I do not believe it was the intention of the legislation. The Government may be legally right but I do not know if it is morally right.

I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill which gives effect to the changes announced in the Budget Statement last year. In spite of some of my previous contributions on Social Welfare Bills in recent years, I must concede that the latest social welfare package is one of the more welcome aspects of this year's budget. Normally social welfare changes are calculated to ease the pain and make life a little more bearable for the socially deprived. One must consider how the changes measure up in bridging the gap between the most disadvantaged and most privileged. Straightaway the gap has been widened by the 1% reduction in the higher rate of income tax which for the most part benefits the better-off.

The non-contributory old age pension payment has hit the €200 barrier for the first time. This raised a chorus of war whoops from the Government benches when the budget was announced but it is still €3.50 below the poverty line. We should look after the elderly but sometimes neglect to do so. At times we lead ourselves to believe we were the creators of the Celtic tiger; rather, the elderly were its creators and we who are merely benefactors should not leave them behind at this stage.

The contributory old age pension of €209.30 is just short of €6 above the poverty level. This clearly shows we have a long way to go before we eradicate poverty. One yardstick by which to measure the ongoing and cumulative effects of successive budgets on the lives of the poor is the figures quoted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The number of calls to the society has quadrupled in recent years and it spends €750,000 each week addressing poverty. This is a substantial sum to be required by the less well-off. The annual spend of over €39 million somewhat dampens the Celtic tiger's roar. Many of those who found it necessary to contact the society for help were in poorly paid jobs, but in employment nevertheless. Their levels of income, although low, rendered them ineligible to qualify for social welfare benefits.

Pensioners have always been playing catch-up, particularly in the past three years. The budgets for these years were coming from a very low base. It is somewhat disturbing to note that the Irish old age pension is at the bottom of the EU league and that Ireland is fifth from bottom on the list of OECD countries. To increase the old age pension to a level acceptable to the European Union and remove pensioners from the poverty trap, one would need to increase the rate by at least €50 per week. Promises were made that it would be increased by €100 per week but we will wait and see.

The increases in pension rates will come under pressure from increases in the price of food, gas, electricity and medicines, as mentioned by Deputy Catherine Murphy. It is expensive for pensioners merely to stay warm and alive. Affordable heating systems are the one factor pensioners worry about and it presents a major difficulty for them.

We are told the country has been awash with cash in the past two or three years. It is mystifying, therefore, to consider why pensions and other State payments have not been adjusted to a more realistic level before now. Noises are being made in this regard because a general election is due. The pension rate will move towards the €300 barrier which pensioners well deserve.

Lone parents comprise a key group likely to be caught in the poverty trap. The child dependant allowance targeted at children in poverty has not increased in 12 years.

Overall, the social welfare package is to be given a guarded welcome but to state it tackles poverty is somewhat more than wide of the mark. A couple of years ago the ESRI stated an 11% rise in income tax would be required to make any dent in relative income poverty. Although we have a high level of employment and average income has risen dramatically in recent years, the number whose income is below 50% of average income is still well above the EU average. The ESRI stated a successful anti-poverty policy would require an improved education system, further employment opportunities and better income supports. Budget 2007 could have adopted a greater and more targeted approach to those in need of help, particularly families on social welfare and the lower paid.

Childhood food poverty needs to be tackled, with a particular focus on inequality. Dietary habits and poverty are intrinsically linked. We know families on low incomes consume less fresh fruit and vegetables than those on higher incomes. The former tend to consume more foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, thereby putting themselves at risk of having a poor diet. Children are the most vulnerable in this regard and always seem to suffer. Parents are not to blame since diets are strongly influenced by social and environmental circumstances. Low income is a major factor in this mix. Parents play a key role in determining their children's diet and it is important that they be supported through social welfare initiatives that increase the availability of healthy and affordable food and improve access thereto.

There is growing awareness of food poverty as a structural constraint on food consumption and dietary intake, particularly among low income groups. Food poverty has multifaceted consequences for health, education and social participation and there is considerable scope for Government support to overcome it.

The Government's commitment to end homelessness by 2010 sounds a little like a pipedream. It is somewhat reminiscent of the old boast by the former Soviet Union that it abolished poverty, even though people were begging for food outside the Orthodox churches. The €20 increase in social welfare rates is to be welcomed but it provides cold comfort for those on the streets without a roof over their heads.

I certainly agree with the sentiments of the two previous speakers. They have pointed to several of the difficulties highlighted by the Bill. While the Green Party welcomes many of the measures included in it, I cannot help but believe there is a certain begrudging attitude on the part of the Government towards the less well-off. Given that 80% of the population are doing very well, there is surely an onus on us to reach out a little more to those who are not benefiting from the largesse of the Celtic tiger and who need a hand up into a world in which they will have afforded to them the opportunities enjoyed for many years by everyone else who has benefited from the Celtic tiger. The Bill could have done more for the less well-off.

Maternity and paternity benefits for parents of young children could be extended further. It is important that we afford parents as many choices as possible in their children's early years. It is crucial to get it right in those early years but I am not convinced the Minister is going as far as in many other European countries. He could certainly go further in the matter of paternity benefits for fathers who want to spend time with their young children during the crucial formative years and he could increase the period of leave because, at a time when the economy is doing well, it is important that we give parents the choice of returning to work or remaining at home.

I welcome the €10 increase in child benefit as a step in the right direction, although my party proposes we should go further. Parents are paying up to €1,000 per month for child care, which places a significant financial burden on those who return to work. The Minister and his Government colleagues should go further in providing community-based child care services. In Denmark and Germany beautiful kindergarten and child care facilities are provided in local parks or beside green areas but that is not the case in Ireland. This morning I visited a gaelscoil where the students have been housed in prefabs for the past ten years. There is an onus on the Minister to provide more for children in their early years rather than reducing them to sitting in prefabs or making their parents pay exorbitant fees for child care.

I have yet to be convinced that the Minister's proposal to move community welfare officers from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs will not create a conflict of interest. It is crucial that community welfare officers consider first and foremost the health needs of claimants rather than the financial aspects of cases. I am concerned about the transfer of staff between Departments and urge the Minister to reconsider the issue.

The Minister should also reconsider the antiquated and anachronistic language that runs through the Bill. The phrase "deserted wife" is Victorian in origin. I hope the Minister will devise a more appropriate and modern term which would better describe the difficulties encountered by parents. Other Ministers have proposed new wording when making changes to primary legislation.

I suggest a clear code of conduct be put in place for means-testing because it can be very invasive for claimants to have someone sit at their kitchen table to determine their sources of income. Improvements have been made in recent years but it is important that individual claimants are made aware of their rights. The means-testing interview can be heartbreaking. Therefore, it would be of some benefit if there was more clarity in the questions which may be asked.

I welcome some of the changes made regarding disclosure of information. While we must be careful when we allow information to be shared between Departments, it makes sense to allow for greater sharing with the Department of Finance. This is particularly the case in respect of the building industry which, by its nature, involves a very abrupt process and requires better checks and balances.

I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to the needs of cohabiting couples. The parents of more than one third of the children born in Ireland today are unwed. We have to ensure social welfare codes catch up with the reality of modern Irish life. It is time social welfare provisions reflected the many variants of the nuclear family.

By agreement, I wish to share time with Deputy Michael Moynihan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the broad sweep of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2007. A phenomenal amount of money is being directed towards those who most need it such as people without jobs or on low incomes and those who helped to create the Celtic tiger and now deserve a return on their investment.

During a previous debate on social welfare legislation I noted that the Minister had changed the rules on the back to education allowance in order to allow flexibility when people were made redundant. At the time people I knew were preparing to return to education the following September and I asked whether the provision would apply to them. On behalf of this small but appreciative group, I thank the Minister for ensuring they would be able to benefit because it would have been unfair if they had missed out just because the budget had been introduced after the start of the college term.

On cross-Border co-operation, I welcome the changes to the free travel scheme which will take effect from 2 April. I must declare my interest in the matter, as I already have an application form to give to my mother. With two relations living in the Six Counties, I am sure she will want to avail of the opportunity to travel there. I often avail of the Enterprise train service and hear people tell each other about the imminent introduction of free travel. That people can travel throughout the island without having to worry about cost is one of best aspects of all-Ireland co-operation, particularly given that many of those concerned have leisure time or are trying to escape their grandchildren in order to enjoy some peace. The Minister will be remembered for opening the Border to the elderly.

I wish to speak about the challenges faced by people who in the past had to find employment in Northern Ireland, or the Six Counties as we know it, after losing their job in County Donegal. For the people concerned, it is not a matter of referring to Northern Ireland or the Six Counties because when they lose their job, they go to Derry. I am aware of a number of people who paid stamps in the Republic but had to move owing to factors beyond their control. If they get sick, they will not be able to prove residency in the Six Counties, yet they will be means-tested if they apply for support in their home region.

The issue concerns EU Regulation Nos. 1408/71 and 574/72, which constitute binding rules whereby a person cannot elect to be attached to a member state's social security scheme to claim benefit from a state of his or her choice and pertain to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. However, I make my point in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, all-island economies, the increasing importance of all-Ireland education and the north-west region. The scenario whereby people pay stamps in this jurisdiction for 25 years, work in the other jurisdiction for another two or three years and then fall ill but are unable to draw down any supports would constitute a barrier to cross-Border working. As I have just commended breaking down such cross-Border barriers, I ask the Minister to consider this issue.

In respect of the diet supplement scheme, I ask the Minister to forward to me a guideline that outlines the changes. I have in mind the example of a pensioner who was told that she was eligible to receive €6.30 before she became a pensioner. However, on reaching pensionable age, her entitlement fell to €1.30. She is unable to understand why her need for a diet supplement decreased as she became older. Usually people become more needy as they age. This may have been a one-off problem and I will forward the details of the case to the Minister.

Regarding the transfer of the community welfare service, I accept the Minister's comments. I note the Minister mentioned that he has carried out much consultation in this respect and that he desires the maintenance of a responsible and flexible service. Community welfare officers, CWOs, play a particular role and have a wide geographic spread. They operate in places where no one else goes and provide a service that probably exceeds that which is specified in their rule book. Elderly people can bare their souls to them.

While this is hard to explain without getting the CWOs into trouble, they have been flexible, responsive and more, as well as being highly knowledgeable about the people with whom they deal. As they work in very small communities they know the people and can discern when someone tells them a long story. Similarly, they can recognise genuine cases. The transfer between Departments should not bring about a more centralised focus to this facility because this would remove visiting professionals from a region and would minimise the potential for flexibility and responsiveness. While I accept the Minister's comments, I enter the caveat that I would be concerned were any of the existing flexibility to be removed.

I chair the Joint Committee on Art, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which held a meeting with the Arts Council today. While I may be stealing Deputy Michael Higgins's thunder, artists can have very low regular incomes. Moreover, they constitute another group whose entitlement to a pension will be extremely hard to define in many cases. The Minister's officials, with the Arts Council, could consider the concept of a pension for artists. One might ask why artists should be treated as a special case. They are special in that they contribute to Ireland's culture and without them, Ireland would not be as attractive to tourists and would not enjoy such worldwide renown. While this may be a quirky request, it is as relevant as any other.

I have been informed that although the increases in the old age pension are welcome, the difference between non-contributory and contributory pensions is becoming increasingly narrow. Moreover, I understand the unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance rates are the same at present. In this context, I suggest that some people might consider they should enjoy greater entitlements having worked all their lives.

I commend the Minister in respect of his work in respect of carers, as significant moves have been made. The increase of €300 in the respite care allowance is extremely important. This is one of the best schemes available and its means test should be reduced continually until the point at which it can be removed is reached. I believe that means are irrelevant to people who are sufficiently big-spirited to look after someone they love in their home. Perhaps extremely wealthy people who were in a position to be able to do whatever they wish without worrying about finances would put a person into a home, whereas other people might chug along and keep the person in their homes. People should stay at home for as long as possible. It has been proven that people live longer and happier lives when remaining as close to home as possible.

Carers may now work for up to 15 hours a week. Why was the limit not raised to 20 hours? Giving a couple of hours each day to someone would be a positive move. The Minister should continue his important work in respect of the carer's allowance, which is progressing well.

People who are over 80 continually ask me why they have not been removed from the tax code. While I presume there are plenty of simple answers, I mention it as a query I receive regularly.

I accept the cost of fuel is rising and I trust the Minister will continue to keep that in mind. While I accept he has done much regarding the provision of additional electricity units, one must continue to focus on this issue.

Although I would like to raise many other issues, I am short of time. Essentially, I commend the Minister on the work that is under way. He spoke of paying child benefit into either the bank or the post office and I was glad to note he still included the latter, as I wish to keep rural post offices alive.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I could raise many issues pertaining to social welfare. I compliment the Minister and the Government on their excellent work and the amount of good news, in terms of increases and additional money, that has been made available through the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill and the budget. Many long-standing issues have either been addressed or begun to be addressed in this Bill and some other Bills in recent years.

I wish to discuss carers and carer's allowance. The introduction of the carer's allowance some years ago has been of great benefit because it has recognised carers. Indeed, this year's increases have provided more recognition to carers. A number of developments have taken place in recent years. For example, weekly payments have increased greatly and qualifying conditions have been significantly eased. The aim in respect of the carer's allowance to get as close as possible to disregarding means tests completely, as this is one of the extant issues. An invaluable service is provided to the State and to the recipient by those who provide care in their own homes for their elderly relatives or family members who require 24-hour care. The nation should never be ashamed to give them credit for the amount of work they do.

A number of improvements have taken place in recent years. The introduction of carer's benefit was another great initiative, as was the recent introduction of the respite care grant. In addition, the increases in the respite care grant, from €1,000 to €1,200 and to €1,500 this year by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, are welcome. It gives those who provide full-time care a once-off opportunity to deal with necessary issues and is highly significant.

The carer's allowance has been a significant issue for some time. Some other related issues should also be addressed. I refer to better provision for people with intellectual or mental disabilities by means of a non-means tested payment. I know it is a small matter. They are on disability benefit but should be on invalidity benefit on a permanent basis. I come across this from time to time and the Minister should examine it.

The increases made during the past number of years in pensions were widely welcomed. People on non-contributory pensions can have insurable employment and still claim the full non-contributory pension or the State pension, which is welcome. A number of people on the pro-rata self-employment pension do not receive the full pension. Their numbers dwindle year by year. The possibility of people with eight or nine of the ten parts paid receiving the full pension should be considered.

Many elderly missionaries are returning from foreign lands after being domiciled in other countries for many years. They must wait a number of years before they can receive the State pension. I understand why the Department introduced the regulations. However, this should be examined and regulations should be introduced to address the situation. Many of them would return home if they could receive the State pension rather than living off their house or order which they would not like to do.

Every public representative meets people who, for 101 different reasons, do not pay PRSI. Through my information leaflets I encourage people to check their records and ensure when they reach the age of State pension that PRSI has been paid. People who joined the early farm retirement scheme in the mid-1990s and who had been paying tax and PRSI on their farms were advised they no longer needed to pay PRSI. They are in their mid-60s when they come off the farm retirement scheme after ten years and realise their mistake. As no PRSI was paid during that time they are not entitled to a State pension.

A number of people are affected by this and it behoves all of us as public representatives to make these points on pensions, PRSI and social welfare at public meetings. People who earned less than £2,500 did not have to pay PRSI. When one does not have to do so one will not. One person was deprived of a State pension because of an income of £2,497. The lack of knowledge about the benefits of PRSI should be addressed.

The Bill also addresses the issue of community welfare officers. They do a huge amount of work to provide a service throughout the country. The Minister will move them from one Department to another and consultation and discussion on this has gone on for quite some time. They are the State's arm for people in huge difficulty for one reason or another. They are at the coalface and continually deal with issues. They should be complimented for the work they do and supported in every way, shape and form by the State.

It is easy to be critical and it is always stated that people live off the State and receive money for nothing. Across the spectrum, people who depend on social welfare are at the lowest ebb. The increases provided by this Government ease the pain and difficulties they have. Through no fault of their own, people have major difficulties such as family circumstances or illness. As public representatives we meet these people regularly as do community welfare officers. They must be dealt with and it behoves us as a State to look after the less well-off.

We looked after State pensions for the elderly well during the past few years. The elderly survived here during more difficult times and ensured the Celtic tiger was dreamed of and fuelled. It is important we look after them. This will be a major issue. It is great to see people living out the latter years of their lives in the comfort they deserve. For far too long concern has been raised about pensions. An issue exists with regard to the State and the provision of private pensions, which is continually discussed by the Government and proposals are put forward. The Minister is also greatly concerned about this.

The farm assist scheme, which was first mooted in 1998 and 1999, is a great scheme. Its follow-on, the rural social scheme, has done great work for the less well-off. The main issues with which I am concerned are those schemes, the pro-rata pension, carer's allowance and carer's benefit. I implore the Minister to consider the entitlement of missionaries who are abroad and wish to return home to the State pension.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for providing me with the opportunity to speak on the debate.

I will return to the issue of the farm assist scheme. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill and thank the Minister for the significant increases which were given in many areas. We are all big and realistic enough to welcome them.

Many elderly people gave a great deal of service to the country. They deserve and need the increases. I also welcome the increases for dependent children. For many years nothing happened in this area. Child poverty is still a major issue and the change made this year is welcome.

The speech made by the Tánaiste last weekend was frightening. He clearly stated that during the next five years if he is in Government he will create inflation to such an extent we will need another €100 in the pension to cover it. In this context, one must worry about what the situation will be like for jobs. The single best way to solve many social welfare problems, particularly for those who are unemployed, is to create and maintain jobs. Unfortunately, this is an area in which we are in serious crisis. If it were not for the construction and building industries it is hard to know where the country would be. Companies such as Motorola and Pfizer are clearly indicating that the cost of production is too high in this country and they want to move somewhere else. That gives some idea of the crisis we are facing.

I have a keen interest in non-contributory pensions and I tabled questions in the past asking how many people are now in receipt of such pensions. This would give some idea of whether we need or can justify the hassle associated with it. What worries me most is the Minister's change of attitude towards those on non-contributory pensions and their line of business.

If they are prepared to take up, or are already in, a PAYE scheme, people can earn up to €200 a week while still receiving the full non-contributory pension. If a person is self-employed — a farmer or small shopkeeper, for example — he or she can only earn €30 per week or it will be taken from the pension. I feel strongly about this issue and believe it is immoral and unjust to treat self-employed people in this way. I ask the Minister to seriously consider the matter.

It is not justified. A small shopkeeper could be under severe pressure from Tesco, Super Valu or any of the others but might still want to hold on to the business. It could be giving a service in a small village or rural area. If the shopkeeper holds on to the shop or business, whatever little is earned will be taken off the non-contributory pension. Another person could work at a petrol station as an attendant for a few hours a day, five days a week, earning money. It does not seem correct.

I have heard some of the Minister's colleagues mention another issue which has been raised with me on occasion, the qualifying adult support. I welcome the increases in that over the past few years, and it has been raised somewhat. There is a serious problem for those who were forced out of employment due to the rules of the State. For example, some of those in Civil Service jobs, Telecom Éireann and other places had to retire when they got married. These people are not entitled to any pension in their own right and feel very aggrieved that they have to depend on their spouse. In most cases those spouses are extremely good but some spouses are not so minded as a result of alcohol or other factors. This issue should be considered.

In the same context, some farmers' wives and those who were self-employed were never advised when the PRSI contribution was introduced in 1998 that they would have to pay it. These people took it for granted that they were covered under the self-employment scenario but found, when they were 66, that they were only entitled to be treated as an adult dependant. These people would have worked hard over their life, behind a shop counter, on a farm or elsewhere, but are not entitled to anything in their own right.

The issue of non-contributory pensions was raised by one of my colleagues at a meeting last week. The number of old age non-contributory pensioners put through reviews is alarming. Such a process is scaring the wits out of people, who worry more about these issues than is justified. I know that and the Minister knows it. If a person lives in a rural isolated area and depends on a pension, and is afraid of unforeseen circumstances, I ask that there be a bit more sympathy and courtesy.

With all due respect, some people are very good in this regard but, unfortunately, others are not the same way inclined. I have stated many times that I get nothing but the height of courtesy from personnel in the Department of Social and Family Affairs in general, but, unfortunately, it is not always the same at ground level.

I welcome any change in the carer's allowance. Colleagues and the Minister know that I have exerted pressure, through the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, to have recognition given to widows and widowers especially and people in similar situations who found themselves on a pension but were prevented from getting the carer's allowance. I welcome the change brought about by the Minister, which the joint committee unanimously asked for a number of years ago. With the election approaching, it is a good time to get it.

I cannot understand how it has been extended for another nine months. All the main social welfare increases were given on 1 January but carers, who are to get half a carer's pension along with the relevant social welfare income, will not get it until 1 September. I ask the Minister to consider it again at this late stage and, if possible, to pay it from 1 January.

Only last week a major EU Bill came before the House and we were asked to make it retrospective. In this case, the amount of money involved would be very small and perhaps the Minister could specify it when summing up. It would be an appropriate gesture to provide the money.

I listened with interest to Deputy Keaveney on cross-Border issues and I will not discuss them in the same detail. I welcome the introduction of cross-Border travel. There are some extraordinary anomalies, however. I live in County Monaghan and we do not have a full-time social welfare office, although there several social welfare offices around the county. As a public representative, I did not realise until today the technicalities of how they are named and recognised.

I learned today that a person looking for a free travel pass in the Monaghan social welfare office on Plantation Road would have to travel to Dundalk. Imagine an old-age pensioner, a disabled person or others having to travel to Dundalk to get a free travel pass. Will the Minister consider such scenarios and use a bit of common sense? He should ensure that people, be they in Cavan, Monaghan or elsewhere, can go to not just one place within their counties but a number of places to get such a service.

Those with ability can tax cars, as well as other things, on-line. Meanwhile, the oldest of our people are forced to present themselves in another county, a distance of 40 miles, 50 miles or 70 miles away depending on where they live, to get a free travel pass. The Minister should use his influence to rectify this situation.

Free travel is a great advantage to those who can use it. In that context, I welcome the initiatives taken by bodies such as the Latton Development Association which runs the BALTI bus service in parts of County Monaghan, as well as other groups elsewhere which collect elderly persons, including those with hospital appointments and so forth. We must be more forward thinking and find ways to determine how people in rural areas can use their bus passes. Several people I know are no longer provided with travel allowances by the Health Service Executive, irrespective of whether they suffer from depression and so on. They must use some of their limited social welfare payments. While the payments may look good to those who have houses and friends with whom they can live, if one lives alone and must pay taxi fares to take care of one's health, social welfare payments can disappear quickly. Will the Minister re-examine the matter and provide a subsidy to cover taxi fares?

Diet supplement was mentioned by other speakers. It is an important matter because people with long-term illnesses need proper diets, but often find themselves paying extra costs such as travel. If they do not have proper diets, the cost to the State will be greater. We must examine this matter seriously. There was a cut-back and, while some relief is provided now, it is of limited benefit.

I support the position on the family as we understand it, namely, the status of marriage and so on, but one cannot ignore the issue of co-habitation and all of the related problems. I bring this matter to the Minister's attention in the light of a couple of tragic cases I have encountered. In one case a partner passed away following a serious illness, but his partner had no legal right because there was no marriage bond. This has major implications for her and her children. In another case a young man who was killed in an accident left behind a partner and five children, but she has no rights. Given the significant number in this category, we cannot ignore the issue. If people have a family together and commitments to each other, we must find a realistic approach.

Recently a number of young people in receipt of dole payments for a few weeks or months contacted me. They are being put under tremendous pressure. I do not disagree with every effort being made to encourage them to find work, but some of the tactics being used are over the top. When people do not have money to put bread on the table, one must ask major questions. For better or worse, there are many eastern European workers in Ireland. I welcome them in the main, but some of the employment opportunities in factories and part-time jobs that used to be available to get young people started are no longer available. Businesses can get people to work longer hours at relatively cheap rates without obeying the rules.

I ask the Minister to be aware of the fact that the young people in question have lives and needs and that they need to be looked after. I say this in the context of the case of an individual with whom I was friendly. It is beyond question that he had a drink problem, but he was forced into a situation where he took his own life. This is not a joke; it is fact. I sat beside his bed with his father, with whom I spoke about the drink issue. A few days beforehand the man concerned visited my office and those of others, but our hands were tied. We must allow a degree of discretion at community welfare officer level to ensure people are not pushed over the top. To that end, I wish to remark on the matter of the transfer of community welfare officers from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I will not get stuck on what should be done, as there may be good reasons for the move, but it is causing much anxiety. Will the Minister examine all of the issues involved to ensure a sympathetic attitude? Community welfare officers have provided a significant service and, for many, are the last resort. We want to ensure the regulations governing their new roles offer freedom and common sense because theirs is an important service.

I wish to conclude on the issue of separated people. When canvassing in recent days, I met someone who needed to leave home owing to alcoholism. The support available to alcoholics is a major issue, but the HSE is not prepared to play a significant role. The accommodation in which I saw the person concerned would make the Minister's skin creep. In this day and age, living in a house with water running down the walls and sewage coming up through a lavatory adjacent to a kitchen is unacceptable. During the next five years whoever is in government must ensure sufficient accommodation is available for separated persons. Breaking up is traumatic for families. In most cases men leave home, but sometimes women leave. Leaving what is in many cases a respectable home and finding oneself in the squalor I witnessed is unacceptable in a country that is, according to the Tánaiste, rolling in money and able to throw it away. It must be used to ensure accommodation is available for those without a home and who find themselves in a difficult situation.

In general, I welcome the Bill and the Minister's efforts to improve parts of it. I hope he will take account of the issues raised by me and others in considering where further improvements can be made.

May I share time with Deputy Cooper-Flynn?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute, albeit briefly, on this wide-ranging Bill which will provide for the implementation of improvements in social welfare payments announced in budget 2007 and introduce the excellent proposal in respect of a special rate of carer's allowance to be paid to those in receipt of other social welfare payments. It is a ground-breaking initiative taken by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and will be of great assistance to many carers.

Included in the Bill are a number of positive changes to the social welfare system which I will touch on later. The package of measures introduced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, however, in the December budget, including the large increase in the State pension already agreed by this House, taken together with the provisions of this Bill, demonstrate the Government's strong commitment to the less well off in society. I welcome very much the measure introduced in the child benefit scheme allowing greater flexibility in payment arrangements by removing the presumption that a qualifying child should reside only with one parent. In modern society it is a common occurrence that children live with each parent at different times.

The increased rates of child benefit over a number of budgets coupled with the radical move in the 2006 budget to introduce the special payment of €1,000 for children under six, has meant families have been given real and substantial support in caring for their children. Among the changes proposed in this Bill is a provision which will help those in receipt of illness benefit who return to work. Should such a person find he or she is unable to continue, the Bill will now allow for him or her to re-apply for a restoration of benefit without the requirement of serving waiting days. This is a very welcome benefit as many people who have suffered from long-term illness may be apprehensive about returning to work lest they be penalised for doing so if they are unable to continue. This measure will see a net benefit to the Exchequer in the long-run, following its implementation.

A number of welcome technical changes are proposed in the areas of maternity and adoptive benefit, invalidity pension and job seekers' allowance among others. Possibly the most important change contained in the Bill, however, refers to the introduction of a new means-tested payment of up to half the carer's allowance rate, which will be payable to carers who may simultaneously be in receipt of another social welfare payment. It will be a great boost to the many carers for whom this change will have a positive effect. The work carried out by so many people in our society in caring for loved ones had been largely unnoticed and unrewarded until the carer's allowance was introduced by Fianna Fáil in Government. This measure, along with a number of other initiatives introduced by this Minister, gives real and substantial recognition, at last, to their vital role in society. Without the selfless sacrifices made by carers the State would, in every respect, have to fill this very large void at enormous cost to the taxpayer. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on this crucial initiative. In this regard I want to refer to comments by Deputy Cuffe earlier when he talked about the Government perhaps having a grudging attitude to the poor, the less well off and those in need of support. This Government has demonstrated considerable conviction, determination and focus in its work to combat marginalisation and disadvantage and no one more than the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who has been enormously effective since taking over this brief.

The change being introduced in respect of supplementary rent allowance was referred to by Deputy Catherine Murphy. This is another very positive measure in the Bill. Over the years, we as working public representatives have been constantly aware of poverty traps and disincentives built into the system. This alteration in the Bill will go some way towards removing one of those poverty traps by allowing a person to retain rent supplement on taking up full time employment. In many instances people have been forced to remain on social welfare rather than take up an offer of employment for fear of losing rent supplement. I very much welcome the Minister's initiative in this regard.

The extension of the household budgeting scheme to include telecommunications services is another positive measure in the Bill. The household budgeting scheme has played an enormous role in preventing social welfare recipients from incurring rent arrears and this extension of the scheme will be of great benefit. The Minister has seen fit to introduce a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. I welcome, in particular, the proposal to bring the trust retirement annuity contracts under the remit of the provisions of the Pensions Act.

There is no doubt the Government has put enormous resources into the welfare and pensions sector over the last ten years, and rightly so. One only has to compare the rates applicable now to those in receipt of State pensions, child benefit, carer's allowance and all those others dependent in part or wholly on the social welfare system to those that were in place in 1997 to get a picture of the radical changes and real improvements in all of these areas. This only tells part of the story, however, as all across the system new and imaginative schemes and payments have been introduced, with more included in this Bill. Others, such as the improved carer's packages and enhanced carer's and child benefit payments were included in earlier budget packages. Taken in the round, this Minister and his predecessors have much to be proud of in terms of their achievements.

I am therefore very pleased to note the Government's commitment to enhanced social inclusion in the National Development Plan 2007-2013. The emphasis in the plan is targeted at encouragement and support for those on social welfare in making that vital transition from welfare payments to active participation in the workforce. The social inclusion chapter of the national development plan contains funding of almost €50 billion earmarked for tackling the outstanding areas of poverty through targeted action and early intervention. This enormous investment is based on the approach agreed with the social partners in Towards 2016 and will be co-ordinated in a ten-year national action plan for social inclusion. I am convinced the approach will see an overall integrated and targeted approach, which I welcome. The aim of the plan is to create an environment where those currently in receipt of social welfare payments will be encouraged, supported and assisted in every way towards seeking employment. It is intended that 20% of those on long-term welfare payments will move to employment during the lifetime of the plan. This ambitious plan will, hopefully, bear fruit and go on to enhance the lives of the many currently dependent on State welfare payments.

The best way out of poverty is to get a job. As well as the positive impact such a step has on a person's quality of life and social wellbeing, it brings real benefits to the family and to the community at large. The national development plan will also see enormous investment in the back to work programme, the main element of which is the allowance scheme that encourages the long-term unemployed to take up work opportunities by allowing them to retain a reducing proportion of their social welfare payment plus secondary benefits over three or four years. This scheme has been highly successful in getting people back into the workforce and I welcome the enormous investment pledged under the national development plan to continue this excellent initiative. It is an indication of the ongoing commitment that is reflected into today's social welfare Bill.

Some €590 million is committed to the back to education allowance, designed to help people in receipt of social welfare to enhance their employment prospects by improving their education and qualifications. Again, this programme has proven very successful in lifting many welfare recipients and their families out of poverty and I welcome the Government's continued commitment in this area. I am sure there is not a Member of the House who is not conscious of the work being done in all our constituencies, in particular by vocational educational committees through their Youthreach and VTOS programmes and indeed by FÁS in many other locations, where it is actively involved in reaching out to long-term unemployed people who are marginalised in local communities, giving them the prospect and dignity of work.

As a result of the policies pursued by this Government, 250,000 people have already been lifted out of poverty, including 100,000 children. However, despite this success the challenge remains to make the extra push that will finally end the scourge of poverty and social exclusion once and for all. The national development plan has placed the objective of tacking poverty and social exclusion among its primary aims. This commitment from Government through the national development plan, working with the social partners under the provisions of Towards 2016 has ensured a wide-ranging and targeted programme, without doubt the strongest ever assembled, to fully confront and tackle the remaining poverty and social exclusion that exist in society.

The national development plan will focus large resources also on the provision of programmes and services for people with disabilities, while €12.6 billion is earmarked for enhanced child care provisions, with a further €9.7 billion set aside for programmes supporting older people. This massive investment is well justified and badly needed and I have no doubt the drive and commitment shown by the Minister to date in this area will be transferred into ensuring the plan is implemented in full.

I want to refer to two areas, to which some Members alluded, with which the Minister might deal when replying. There is widespread interest and concern about the plight of the declining number of women who had to give up employment due to the marriage bar. As a society we need to do something positive by way of providing pensions for women in that category.

I welcome the provisions for free travel and acknowledge the work done over many years to provide a free travel facility for people. However, I wish to highlight the need for a greater degree of flexibility in applying the criteria for the granting of a companion travel pass. Many people would have been able to avail of free travel had they been granted a companion pass. I urge the Minister to consider that suggestion. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Minister has been receptive to some of the ideas put forward in recent years. He has brought them to bear in this Bill, albeit not to the full extent I would like, which I will mention shortly. Nevertheless, he has been progressive. I welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I recognise this is a generous package, coupled with the announcements in the budget, and that the total expenditure on social welfare this year will be €15.3 billion, which is a huge investment in our community.

The Minister mentioned three specific areas — child poverty, carers and the status of women. The status of women and the changes he made in that respect together with provision for carers are issues on which I have focused in recent years. I spoke to the Minister about a number of provisions I would like introduced in these areas and I am glad he took some of them on board.

I recognise the increase in the qualified adult allowance, which is now 86.5% of the State non-contributory pension rate. While it is welcome, it is a double edged sword in that I am disappointed the objective in the programme for Government that it would be 100% of the non-contributory pension rate has not been achieved. The Minister went on to specify that it will take three more years before this objective is achieved. In the interests of equality, it is discriminatory that this allowance is not 100% of the State non-contributory pension rate. I urge the Minister to move forward on that target of three years and to try to fulfil the objective stated in the programme for Government in 2002.

However, I welcome that for new cases from September direct payments to qualified adults will be made in pension benefits. Section 14 of the Bill provides that direct payment of the increase for a qualified adult is payable with the State pension directly to a qualified adult for the duration of the period of the entitlement of the State pensioner. It also states that this will be applicable to the contributory State pension, the transition State pension and the non-contributory State pension, and that it will come into effect in September.

I welcome this measure but will the qualified adult portion be paid automatically? For those people who prefer the original option of having it paid jointly to the main recipient, is that something one will have to request? Otherwise it will be presumed that the qualified adult portion will be paid directly to the qualified adult. I would like that clarified and for it not to be the case that one must request that the qualified adult portion be paid to the qualified adult. If that is automatic, I welcome that change.

The Minister of State is nodding, indicating that is the case. That is hugely important. If that were not the case, this measure would be of no benefit because the reality is that, unfortunately, some women do not have an income of their own. I feel strongly about that aspect. Every woman in the State is entitled to an income of her own, even if that is by way of as a qualified adult where her husband is the main recipient. Some 95% of qualified adults are women. That is an important improvement and a matter about which I have spoken to the Minister. I am delighted he has taken this on board. It is a major leap forward in social welfare legislation.

I ask that this measure be extended to other areas over and above what is outlined in section 14. Is it possible for it to be extended to invalidity, disability and unemployment benefits? I would welcome the views of the Minister on this issue. This measure is definitely a step in the right direction and recognises the important role women play in society and that their contribution must be recognised.

One of the most dramatic changes in the budget has been the provision for carers. Since 1997, major improvements has been made in this area with the qualifying conditions for the allowance having been eased. The scheme has been extended. The carer's benefit and the respite grant have been introduced, which are welcome. These benefits improve the lot of a substantial number of carers and that must be welcomed.

Up to now a recipient could only receive one social welfare payment. A recipient of another benefit was not eligible for the carer's allowance. I welcome that a recipient can now be means tested and can receive half of the carer's allowance in addition to a social welfare payment. This change greatly benefits a large number of people. The Minister stated: "From September, people in receipt of certain other social welfare payments, who are also providing full-time care and attention to a person, will be able to retain their main welfare payment and receive another payment, subject to their means, up to half the rate of carer's allowance". What are those certain other welfare payments? Are recipients of lone parents, invalidity, disability and old age pension benefits included? It would be helpful if the Minister clarified that point. It is a significant breakthrough.

I also welcome the increase of €300 in the respite grant to €1,500 from June 2007. That has eased the plight of many carers and people who are not entitled to carer's allowance but avail of the respite grant. I know from people who call to my constituency office that it has eased the plight of many carers. It is important as a society that we recognise the great deal of work carers do in our community.

A motion dealing with the elderly in my name is listed on the Order Paper for the past two or three months. It proposes that a full Cabinet Minister be appointed to deal specifically with the elderly, given the large number of issues surrounding our elderly population and the fact that we have an ageing population. Despite the significant increases in pension benefit in the budget and in recent years, prior to the budget increases, the pension benefit was 34% of the average industrial wage. That has now increased but, compared to other OECD countries, we are way below the pension benefit paid as a percentage of an industrial wage. While we can clap ourselves on the back for the huge advances that have been made in recent years, the reality is that the cost of living is a significant issue, particularly for elderly people.

I have attended many public meetings organised by Age Action Ireland, community groups and elderly groups and cost of living expenses is the number one issue that has been raised. It is difficult for an older person today to complain about not being able to afford to live. This issue was raised by people in my town who do not have their own means of transport. They could not afford to get a taxi to the local supermarket, as the return journey would cost €20. Making that trip three times a week would cost €60, which would not leave a person in receipt of the State pension much money to spend on himself or herself. It is not trendy and certainly not cool in the affluent society we live in today to complain about the cost of living and poverty, but it is a real issue for those people. I ask that it be borne in mind and that perhaps even further advances in increasing the State pension could be made as that would be a more realistic way to address this issue.

I ask the Minister to bear in mind a proposal that the fuel allowance be paid all year round and index linked to fuel inflation. This is one of the issues raised by the elderly. If we do not listen to the issues they tell us are important to them, we are not in touch with reality.

I wish to deal with an issue mentioned by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl that I strongly support. We must find a way to recognise the years of service given by older women in the community to home duties. This should be taken into account in calculating pension entitlements. This might be a little radical, but we must find a mechanism. The Minister believes the qualified adult payment recognises that women are entitled to an income of their own. However, this is for a finite number of women. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl has mentioned that the marriage ban excluded many women from employment. We need to do something radical for a finite number of women to make sure they will have a decent pension of their own, in recognition of the child-rearing work they have done during the years.

I welcome many aspects of the Bill. Changes have been made to rent supplement which allow people to work up to a point where they can earn €200 and still claim 50% of the rent allowance. That is very important because we have been pointing out that this created a poverty trap. I hope additional improvements will be made, as this measure does not go far enough. Local authorities have readily admitted that they cannot house people in the same numbers as they did before the Government came to power. There is now a far greater reliance on the private sector. We cannot penalise people who find themselves in private rented accommodation at hugely inflated rates by telling them they cannot go to work because they will lose their rent allowance. Such persons could end up homeless or back in the family home. I welcome the improvement but it does not go far enough.

The difficulty with family income supplement is that it is not advertised widely enough and it is not clear enough for people who should be in receipt of it. Departmental officials know that these people need to be reached. The delays in assessing applications are unnecessary. There is even an eight week delay in the renewal of the family income supplement. We must make the assumption that people are honest and that they will give information on the increase in their income. They did it in the first place. Therefore, why would they not do so again? The situation does not arise where someone pays €400 per week one year and €1,000 the next, yet loses his or her job. A certain category will be in the low income bracket, which should be assumed. The renewal should be automatic.

The Minister and I have had a number of conversations about overpayments to lone parents. I have made several appeals since last speaking to him and have been successful in each one. It is a huge waste of time and resources to have appeals heard before deciding officers who recognise that the people concerned would not be before them if they had decided to stay at home and simply accept lone parent allowance. These are young women who went out to work to improve their circumstances. There were only 3,000 two years ago. Therefore, there cannot be that many now. I appeal to the Minister to take a serious look at the issue and introduce an amnesty. He would not have to do the same for another group at a later stage, as amnesties have always been ring-fenced. They are usually for persons who owe the State a vast amount of tax and deliberately decided not to pay. In this case, we are not talking about deliberate fraud, but something that was simply overlooked.

Ageism works against the young as well as the old. People who are widowed and under 65 years with family responsibilities should receive secondary benefits. It is virtually impossible to live in the circumstances in which they find themselves without these benefits. This should happen as quickly as possible.

It will be a dire mistake for the Department of Social and Family Affairs to take community welfare officers under its umbrella. Those officers are front-line staff who are doing what departmental officials cannot do. They meet people face-to-face and take all of their circumstances into consideration, with the flexibility that is necessary. I ask the Minister to take a second look at this measure and not to go ahead with it.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and those Members who took part in the debate which was very positive and informative. I will try to deal with as many of the issues raised as possible.

There was a broad welcome for the thrust of what we are trying to do in the Bill, for which I thank Members. I will be able to go into much more detail on Committee Stage when we can tease out some of the issues raised.

Some speakers talked about child benefit and the €10 payment per month. Child benefit is only one aspect of the budget which this Bill seeks to enact. However, the child dependant allowance aspect is worth highlighting. An extra €60 million was made available for targeted payments to families of 342,000 children. The increased qualified child allowance of €22 is a targeted measure additional to the €140 million child benefit package. That is important because we last touched these allowances in 1994. On this occasion I decided to provide an additional €60 million to assist 342,000 children at the lower income level. In effect, it starts a second-tier payment which the NESC is examining to see how we can bring it to fruition. The increase in child dependant allowance has given us an opportunity not to have a universal payment. The €10 payment is universal, but the 342,000 children at the bottom of the scale receive substantially more than this. I hope that whoever takes this job from me will keep up the determination to assist children on the margins, whatever resources available. We should not spread them too thinly across society. We should target them where they are most needed.

I would like to deal with the issue of child poverty, which was raised by a number of speakers during the debate. The action plan for social inclusion, which covers the next ten years, was launched this afternoon. I am aware some Deputies attended part of the launch of the plan, which pulls together the provisions of the new national development plan and Towards 2016. The new national development plan, under which €50 billion is being allocated for social inclusion, is the first national development plan to provide for a dedicated amount of money in this area and include a social inclusion package. The document that was launched today outlines how the social inclusion measures of Towards 2016 and the national development plan will be implemented. As I said at the launch earlier today, the Government has taken 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, out of poverty over the last decade. The Government has achieved its target, set ten years ago, of reducing the percentage of people in consistent poverty, under the old measure, to 2%. Similar targets for the next ten years were set today. I commend the document that was launched today to the House and to the country. I thank everyone who put so much hard work into it, including the officials in the Office for Social Inclusion and the Department of the Taoiseach.

One or two speakers asked me about the new swipe card payments at post offices. There is no question of people being unable to access their funds as a result of this computer arrangement. Payments to approximately 46,000 recipients of one-parent family payments have been made through the post office network over the past year, having been transferred from the book payment to the swipe card payment. The final group to be transferred, which took place in recent weeks, were 550 widows or widowers with children. There has been some criticism of the provision whereby swipe card payments have to be collected in post offices within 12 days of the due date.

Can the Minister extend that timeframe by a few weeks?

If customers get in touch with the Department of Social and Family Affairs in advance of their holidays, or after the period of 12 days has elapsed, arrangements will be made to reinstate their payments, as long as they continue to be entitled to them. While the Department does not think there is any evidence the 12-day rule has caused problems for customers, it is undertaking a full review of the household bill-paying system.

Does the Minister know anyone in receipt of these payments who goes on holidays for 12 days?

I will ensure that the operation of the 12-day limit is considered as part of the ongoing review. People should not lose any money as a result of the new computer arrangements. The new system is voluntary — people can get their funds in other ways. The use of the computer programme also has an important anti-fraud element, which will be reviewed. I hope nobody is disadvantaged by the new arrangements because it is not intended to withhold funds from people who are entitled to them. I will take account of what has been said in the House and amend these arrangements, if necessary.

Some Deputies spoke at length about the proposal to transfer certain staff. Like my colleagues in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, I am hugely supportive of community welfare officers, who are given a substantial budget of approximately €700 million to help people under a range of headings, including health. They distribute exceptional needs and rent supplement payments etc. It is not just a health issue — it is much broader than that. There is no question of any interference in the work of community welfare officers, who are funded through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. They will not lose any flexibility or discretion. Many speakers, including Deputy Penrose, have pointed out that community welfare officers need flexibility because they are in the front line and know what is going on. I am determined to ensure they retain such advantages. As the officers, who are paid by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, provide welfare supports and not just health supports, they have to take a broader view of who needs assistance, particularly as they deal with the challenges presented by this country's immigrant population. I do not think the question of whether they work for one Department or another should be a major issue.

It is a major issue.

There are concerns about the Department's legal-based structure.

That is it.

Community welfare officers have nothing to fear from the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

There has been no consultation.

As someone who has been in a fair few Departments, I assure Deputies that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is the most caring and sensitive of all Departments.

We know.

As Deputies have said in this House on many occasions over the last two years, the Department always approaches these matters from the customer's perspective.


It sets out to help the customer. Community welfare officers have nothing to fear from being in such a Department. As someone who faced many picket lines over the years because I successfully tried to move public servants from Departments to agencies, I sometimes enjoy a wry smile about matters of this nature.

There has been no discussion with the staff.

We are now doing the opposite, in a way — we are bringing workers back into a Department — but objections are still being made.

There has been no discussion or debate with them.

This matter has been debated for many years, since the Brennan report found that health sector management should concentrate on health issues.

That was a different Brennan.

Why does the Minister not talk to the staff?

Many studies and reports about matters like the development of the welfare state and the creation of a more inclusive labour market have been produced over many years. This concept was not dreamt up over the last couple of weeks. It is obvious that everybody is flexing their muscles as the general election approaches. Talks and industrial relations procedures are ongoing. I assure community welfare officers that they have nothing to fear from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is where their professional salaries and their clients come from. I do not understand why they might want to work for anybody else. I will use this legislation to ensure the flexibility and independence of these professional people, who provide a fantastic service, are assured.

Has the Minister met them?

I support these officials, who have nothing to fear from this process.

The Minister has not sat down to speak to them.

The Department holds regular meetings with SIPTU and IMPACT, which are the two trade unions which represent community welfare officers. The most recent meeting was on 8 February last.

Did the Minister meet them on that occasion?

There were three meetings in 2006. I have met the unions. This matter was discussed at all those meetings. The national joint council of the health sector, which involves the two trade unions, the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children, meets regularly and has discussed the matter. Officials from the Department met the entire cadre of superintendent community welfare officers in July and November of last year. A series of regional briefings for the staff of the HSE's community welfare service is being organised by the HSE and the Department. The first of the briefings, which will provide an opportunity for further constructive engagement and feedback on the implementation programme, will take place next month. I assure community welfare officers that there will be a full process of constructive engagement and consultation with them about this process, and that their independence and flexibility will be assured by this House in legislation.

Question put and agreed to.