Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Compared to some other areas of social policy, social welfare is somewhat less contested. Many advances have been made and consolidated over the past 40 years and more of the commitments entered into have been adhered to. A basic support provided to our citizens has the first call on resources at budget time. This year and in many previous years since 2004 the amount devoted to welfare improvements exceeds the cost of tax relief, which has also been focused in the first instance on keeping those on low incomes out of the tax net.

Until 20 years ago, the issue would have been whether annual welfare increases would enable recipients to keep pace with inflation. Nowadays, percentage increases are more oriented towards growth in earnings, with a benchmark of roughly 30% of average earnings in mind for welfare payments. It is a measure of the advances made in recent decades that we now focus on relative poverty or risk of poverty, rather than any imagined absolute standard taken from memories of the dire way things were for the poor decades ago.

Social cohesion is a vital objective and it is not always easy in a rapidly growing economy, where fortunes can be multiplied rapidly at the top end of the scale, to keep the gap between rich and poor, and even the majority of people who are neither, from further widening. Practically all western governments, regardless of their political complexion or intentions, face this difficulty. Governments have discovered the hard way that raising the floor is a better objective on which to concentrate than attempting to lower the ceiling which, I suspect, is what a well-known commentator writing in today's The Irish Times would like us to do. Read the main headline in today’s Financial Times about the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a crash course in political reality: “Darling forced to retreat on non-doms. Chancellor says policy was misunderstood. Not enough to halt City exodus, say critics.”

If it came to it, it would not be the first time Ireland would be the beneficiary of what my father used to call the influx in reaction against the establishment of the British welfare state in the late 1940s — "the retreat from Moscow". I agree with the aforementioned columnist for The Irish Times that the subject he is preoccupied with is no longer even much debated in the House. If free to make a choice, most people needing State help would probably prefer increased benefits for themselves, irrespective of equality considerations, rather than a more egalitarian approach of lower incomes all round, as realised, for example, in the German Democratic Republic model, if one could forget the nomenklatura.

As a country, in the choices that we have made and have been able to make since the 1940s, we have not opted for the comprehensive system of social protection that characterises some Nordic countries. We are neither Boston nor Berlin, despite their respective attractions. Few advocate a dismantling of social protection for the unemployed or the unmarried parent, even where employment incentives are improved. The economic disincentive effect of the much higher tax levels now required to achieve a transition to Scandinavian levels of welfare tends to be ignored by those who advocate that model.

Proceeding from where we are means striking a balance between enhancing the existing provision that is made on a universal basis and more targeted means tested interventions.

An obvious example of practical choices with larger financial implications is the debate as to whether carer's benefit should remain means-tested, although a generous income disregard of up to €332.50 is made for a single person weekly, doubled for a couple. Other examples are whether certain medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, should automatically trigger the benefit of medical cards or, as suggested by the Labour Party, a free pre-school year should be provided for all.

Good cases can be made for each of these improvements in isolation. However, they are less compelling when the tax implications, in what has become a much tighter budgetary situation than 12 months ago, are taken into account. Regardless of what we may consider the people should want, most of the evidence suggests they do not want social improvements which require the payment of higher taxes.

Recent improvements in the social welfare system have focused in particular on families and older people. In the 1980s, recognition for families with children was eliminated from the tax system, while universal child support was kept at a minimal level. Where child benefit was once regarded as wasteful and ineffective because it was not means-tested, it has now been accepted as the fairest method of providing family income support. From April this year, payments for first and second qualifying children will be increased to €166 per month with €203 for subsequent children. A family of five children will receive not far short of €1,000 per month.

The early child care payment has been increased to €1,100 as a contribution to the higher costs of child care. The reform of the community child care provision, increasing the supply but making the financial assistance more targeted, does mean that some parents are likely to pay higher costs in an area which is already extremely expensive for young working couples with high mortgages. Both payments will need continued focus in future years.

The increase in the qualified child allowance recognises that, given all the changes of the past ten years, this type of targeted assistance no longer acts as a disincentive to employment. We need to recognise and continue to prioritise action against child poverty. I pay tribute to the many school principals who provide some form of breakfast to pupils who for whatever reason have not had any.

As Deputy Enright stated, the situation of carers in their late teen years should be recognised and examined. I have come across people who had to look after two families, a parent and siblings when they were young and their own children and spouse when they were a bit older.

I welcome what the Minister stated in reply to questions about getting rid of the co-habitation rule which leads to all sorts of undignified investigations.

Deputy Ring, and he was not the first on the Fine Gael side to do so, raised the issue of non-national workers' children at home being in receipt of child benefit from Ireland under EU rules, possibly even after leaving the country, and suggesting that taxpayers were being defrauded. He compared this to the investigation of participants of farm assist. At the risk of being accused by him of more professorial lectures — I am elected to this House on the same basis as he is — I deprecate none too subtle attempts to appeal to whatever anti-immigrant sentiment may be out there by focusing on hypothetical abuse of the system and pitting the interests of the indigenous population against those who have come into our midst and who contribute much to our society. I am confident the Department of Social and Family Affairs and its investigation branch has more than adequate administrative controls to check abuse arising under any heading without having to make it a political issue.

In a situation where unemployment is on a rising trend more people may rely in the short term on what is now called jobseeker's benefit. The minimum wage in Ireland has given far more people a real incentive to work. I disapprove of attempts by the Irish Hotels Federation to dispute JLC awards just above this level. To the credit of hoteliers, it must be stated that good accommodation, like the cost of air travel, has become far more affordable instead of being the near-luxury product it was in the past. As against that, anecdotal evidence exists of employees not being paid the minimum wage or being rotated rapidly as "trainees" who do not have to be paid the minimum wage. A loophole is being abused and it should be more closely scrutinized.

I am aware ferries find it difficult to compete with cheap airfares, but how many more people will be reluctant to use a service when they know the crew is not being paid even half the minimum wage? Ruthless new management-style employers should realise that the bad publicity they generate by their antics costs more goodwill and custom than they realise. Irish firms which relocate production to cheaper locations abroad, leaving a loyal workforce in the lurch need not be surprised if their home sales diminish considerably, and they should bear this in mind before making such decisions.

The Government has kept faith with older people. Credible targets for pension increases over a five-year term have been set and more than met, as will the target of €300 per week by 2012. The process of having the qualified adult up to par, or what is sometimes called social welfare individualisation, is almost complete. A welcome innovation of recent years has been to allow even those on non-contributory pensions to supplement them by up to €100 a week, enabling those who wish to work part-time to do so and usefully contribute to the community. An anomaly worth examining is the different treatment of increases for those in receipt of contributory and non-contributory payments.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the social welfare system is the realisation of many applicants that they left paid employment too early when rules were different or that they were not well-advised in terms of the amount of contributions, voluntary or otherwise, they needed to make and they are left with only a partial State payment. It is difficult to deal with these anomalies without creating precedents or upsetting a sense of equity vis-à-vis fully paid-up contributors. Properly, the situation of farmers’ wives was raised by Deputy Bannon. Whatever margin of manoeuvre or discretion the Minister and the Department have in such cases should be used in favour of applicants who find themselves unexpectedly disadvantaged.

Perhaps these issues could be examined in the context of the review of pensions. We all know that even with good increases the standard of living provided by the State pension will always be limited and that every encouragement should be given to people to enhance their pensions, as has been done. I have two comments or caveats. The State should not subsidise beyond a certain point private Rolls Royce-style pensions and limits were introduced in last year's Finance Bill. Further compulsion should be avoided which would in effect cause a rise in PRSI contributions and the cost of employment. Everything short of compulsion by way of encouragement should be used.

Support for older citizens has been supplemented by a number of free schemes, most of them originally at the initiative of Charles Haughey, when he was Minister for Finance and later Minister for Social Welfare. The present Minister has extended the national fuel scheme to 30 weeks recognising, as reluctantly do all householders, that heating is required in our climate, notwithstanding global warming, for rather more than half the year. Health and quality of life, particularly for older people, depend on staying warm. Given the increase in energy prices, some of which may be induced by environmental policy considerations, much attention will need to be paid to ensure these payments hold their value in real terms and ideally increase somewhat. I agree with my Tipperary colleague, Deputy Tom Hayes, that fuel poverty is a real problem, particularly in older damp and cold houses. Last December, the Public Health Policy Centre published a good all-Ireland policy paper on fuel poverty and health.

As a regular user of the bus when in Dublin for sittings of the Dáil, I can observe that the comfort and value of the free travel pass for older people is inestimable. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Cullen, was Minister for Transport and he was right to put the emphasis on public service rather than private competition, about which a lot of ideological nonsense is talked by economists and others who rarely, if ever, avail of the services in question.

However, in large parts of the country, including substantial towns, the only services available are the school bus and longer distance, mainly Bus Éireann, services, which cater for a different age and income group. In some areas, pilot local links services are ably championed by, among others, my constituency colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath. Many towns could do with a bus service, particularly for the benefit of older people, who would use their pass if they got the opportunity.

I am glad that time-use restrictions have been lifted, as most older people will avoid rush hour, if they are free to do so. Getting out and about is very important to the health and quality of life of older people. The system of housing aids for the elderly, as Deputy Tom Hayes has said, is also a valuable scheme.

All public representatives in south Tipperary recognise the value of the FÁS community employment and related schemes, whatever Department administers them. They are valuable not only to older individuals and those who need employment, but community organisations would not survive without them. I and my colleagues have been working for several years to avoid disruption either at a personal or organisational level with the help of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. We are doing so again, so as to avoid artificial restrictions, caps and limits that unintentionally work in an anti-social way, thereby causing such disruption.

I welcome the €900 million package presented in the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on the continuing priority given to an area of social policy that is functioning well but will always be capable of further improvement.

I wish to share time with Deputy Morgan.

The main difficulty the Labour Party has with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008 is what is absent from it. When it comes to protecting the incomes and living standard of pensioners, lone parents, home carers and those seeking work, the omissions from this Bill are a catalogue of missed opportunities.

A functioning social welfare system should protect the most vulnerable in society, supporting their search for employment where appropriate and ensuring a decent standard of living. Our social welfare system, even after a decade of phenomenal growth, fails on both counts. Among our European peers, we have one of the lowest rates of social investment. As a consequence, we have one of the highest at-risk-of-poverty rates in Europe. Our social welfare system is dysfunctional.

Another dysfunctional element of our social welfare system is the treatment of unmarried, cohabiting couples with children. The system seems designed to encourage them to live apart. Deputy Shortall cited the example of a mother whose income is taken into account in determining the social welfare entitlement of her partner. If he decides to stay at home to look after their child, he is not entitled to use his tax credits because they are not married. They are treated like a married couple for social welfare purposes and as single people for taxation purposes, but not as single people when it comes to claiming single-parent credit.

This anomaly is grossly unfair and the Bill does not address it. Our system, as Deputy Shortall pointed out, penalises lone parents who decide to work while also penalising cohabiting couples for living together and rearing their children. Individualisation in the tax code sits uneasily with our social welfare system, to the detriment of families and children. These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency.

For the past decade, employment has been at tremendous levels by historical standards. Many economists would describe it as a decade of full employment. Full employment is a myth, however; unemployment is concentrated in pockets of deep deprivation. Even at the height of our booming economy, many were left behind, caught in the poverty trap and unable to move from welfare to work. These for the most part were people who wanted desperately to work, to take up a job that was on offer, but who were prevented from doing so because of how the system was designed.

This problem has not gone away. Deputy Shortall cited one of her constituents as an example, but it is a case that is played out in many forms across the country. What is the point in taking a job if an individual and his family are going to end up worse off?

Moving from welfare to work is important for financial independence. This, however, does not hold true if taking up employment means rent allowances are slashed or medical cards withdrawn. This is the crux of our social welfare crisis. Small increases in benefits may be welcome for a time, but a new, imaginative approach to designing the system is really needed. Until we see a paradigm shift, the poverty trap will remain the cold, hard reality for thousands of people who want to work towards a better standard of living for themselves and their families.

With the housing crisis, I have encountered many people on rent supplement who are in the dilemma that if they go to work, they lose most of the supplement and the rents become unaffordable. It is a catch-22 for them.

Under the new scheme for carers, one can keep certain social welfare payments and half the carer's allowance. The Minister claims up to 7,000 people have benefited from this arrangement. I am concerned that many people, particularly those not on the carer's payment but another, may not know of this new arrangement. Has the Minister figures for the number of people who may qualify for this new arrangement? As with other welfare payments, such as family income supplement, many people eligible for it do not claim it.

More needs to be done for carers because the majority of them are slipping through the net. Many have to struggle to make ends meet, working long hours both inside and outside the home with no recognition from the State.

There are small increases contained in the Bill for pensions with scant reward for all those years of work. Pensioners, and particularly retired women who statistically live longer and would have earned less than their male counterparts during their working lives, are particularly at risk from poverty.

The medical card income guidelines have not been raised since 2005 and are not in keeping with social welfare increases. I accept people on social welfare, with the discretion of the Health Service Executive, will qualify for a medical card. It is important, however, that each year the guidelines are increased in line with pension increases. Many people will believe they are over the income limit for a medical card and will not apply. Many social welfare increases are not in line with the medical card guidelines. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, made announcements about the new GP cards in June 2006, but since 2005 she has not increased the income limits for the full medical card. It is important the Department of Social and Family Affairs makes this known to the Department of Health and Children.

While the Labour Party welcomes the improvements in social welfare payments in the Bill, our problem is with what is absent from it. Deputy Shortall will table amendments, some of which I hope the Minister will be open to accepting.

Sinn Féin made several proposals in its pre-budget 2008 submission on social welfare, very few of which were taken on board. The amendments would have gone some way towards bringing about a more efficient and better social welfare system.

We support the Bill on the basis that any increases in areas such as child benefit and the one-parent family payment are sorely needed. We will not act as an impediment to their introduction. Only last week we saw publication of a report from the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice which revealed how low-income families are struggling to make ends meet. These families could not manage in 2007 despite far higher increases in the budget for that year, so they do not have a hope this year. Budget 2008 gave the Government the opportunity to take a decisive step towards meeting the national target of reducing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012 and eliminating it completely by 2016. The Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, may have described it as a responsible budget but it was not a sensible one.

Last year Sinn Féin called for the whole social welfare system to be overhauled. We called for the Minister to iron out the many anomalies that cause difficulties by preventing people from returning from welfare to work and even from applying for welfare. We argued for the abolition of the qualified adult payment, a payment which is both too low and discriminatory. We argued against situations such as the one that pertains currently in which the equal opportunities child care scheme is being replaced with a scheme which will deprive low-income families of a child care place. This flies in the face of the Minister's proposed reforms of the lone parent allowance, under which parents will be obliged to return to work when their children reach the age of eight regardless of whether the State has enough child care places to accommodate their children. We called for simplification of the social welfare system by doing away with 12-page application forms such as that for the one-parent family payment. We wanted flagging systems put in place, perhaps through the taxation system, to advise people automatically of their welfare rights. We wanted steps to ensure a smooth transition from welfare to work by, for example, not raising the income thresholds for rent supplement, which allows individuals to earn very little before losing their allowance and potentially their homes.

We saw a number of small increases in this year's budget, some of which are being implemented in the Bill. We welcome these, no matter how small, but as I have outlined, they do not go far enough. Last December in this Chamber I got into an argument with the Minister, Deputy Cullen, about the nature of these increases. I said that I accepted not everything could be delivered in view of the economic slowdown, and the Minister took umbrage. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he retorted that the economy was not slowing down and had a go at me about how successful the economy actually was. If the economy is that successful, can he explain why this Bill only provides for €6 extra in child benefit? Why are we not increasing fuel allowance or introducing paid paternity leave this year?

I recognise that there are some improvements in the Bill — for example, in the area of payment methods. The transfer of the domiciliary care allowance from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, as other speakers have pointed out, may streamline and improve the system. I welcome the Government's commitment to the national carers strategy. Along with every other public representative, I have met many carers, and the work they do is essential to the running of our society, although it has been hugely undervalued and underpaid to date.

There are other omissions in the Bill. For example, what is the Minister doing to address the plight of elderly returned emigrants who are experiencing difficulties in accessing pension and other welfare payments due to the habitual residence requirement? The difficulties caused by the application of this requirement have been highlighted by the Crosscare Migrant Project, which has stated that the restrictions are often applied inconsistently and are a deterrent for Irish emigrants who are thinking of returning home. This issue was raised again just this afternoon during Priority Questions. Unfortunately, this Bill as it now stands will not ease the burden of the poor in society. It makes a number of changes to methods of payment but it does not go far enough in making the whole payment system more efficient. I call on the Minister to use this year to review a number of payments and the methods by which they are paid.

The present policy on pensions is neither equitable nor progressive. It is failing low-paid workers and women. Little attention is paid to the escalating costs of inequitable tax reliefs which are not succeeding in extending pension coverage among the lower paid. A wealthy minority has been able to take advantage of excessively generous tax incentives paid for by all workers, including low-paid workers, through the general taxation system. My party believes that the provision of a basic non-means-tested universal pension for all people of retirement age, funded from the general taxation system, is the only option in which the objective is to ensure independent pensions for all men and women. This would also be the most progressive and redistributive option. The amount of the pension would be based on what is necessary for a pensioner to achieve a certain, specified, decent standard of living. A second-tier pension related to social insurance contributions, under which homemaker disregards would be replaced with gender-neutral carer's credits for years spent on caring duties, should augment this basic pension. In conjunction with this, a significant and immediate curtailment of tax incentives for occupational pensions, PRSAs and approved retirement funds is required. The objective should be the elimination of these incentives and a redirection of this funding into basic non-means-tested pensions.

The state of the social insurance fund has not received sufficient attention. The main conclusion of the actuarial review of the social insurance fund, which was published last autumn but was available to the Government prior to that, was that while total income to the fund is projected to equal or exceed benefit outgoings up to 2010, the net cashflow position is projected to decline rapidly thereafter. On the basis of the central economic assumptions and benefits indexed in line with earnings, the surplus will be exhausted by 2016.

In advance of the election, Fianna Fáil put forward proposals to cut employee PRSI from 4% to 2% and to cut PRSI for the self-employed from 3% to 2%. Sinn Féin attempted to highlight the devastating impact the implementation of such proposals would have on the delivery of social protections. We highlighted the fact that there were already serious concerns about the adequacy of the social insurance fund based on the findings of the first actuarial review. The latest review has reinforced these concerns and found that, in fact, contribution rates will need to increase substantially if the fund's income is to be adequate to support the benefits being paid from the fund in the future. How much worse would this scenario be if the Fianna Fáil proposals to cut PRSI contributions were implemented?

My party believes there must be a focus on maintaining an adequate social insurance fund so that the State is in a position to improve social protections, raise social welfare rates, improve maternity benefit including length of leave, introduce payments in respect of parental leave, increase redundancy entitlements and introduce a reformed State pension. The sooner that happens, the better for all.

I wish to share time with Deputy Niall Collins.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on this generous package of measures, which represents nearly half of all additional Government spending in the budget this year and brings spending on social welfare to nearly €17 billion. That is a long way from where we were ten or 15 years ago. The Government has again underlined its commitment to improving the position of those less well off in our society. This Bill introduces a number of key improvements in the area of social welfare, including increases in child benefit, early child care supplement and the respite care grant.

We are entering into a period of below-trend growth in which matters are unstable and not as clear as they were a couple of years ago, not just in Ireland but globally. Our first priority as a Government has to be to ensure the vulnerable within our society are protected. Budget 2008 provided significant resources to allow us to address the needs of those most disadvantaged, and a number of these increases are provided for in this Bill. The approach taken by the Government has enabled us, as a society, to deliver significant improvements for people on low incomes in recent years. This continues to be the best way for us to deliver nature social welfare enhancements in a sustainable way. The key to this is sustainability. We must ensure that, into the future, whatever measures we introduce work for the people who must access our welfare system. In line with this overall approach, the improvements in social welfare benefits and, in particular, child care payments provided for in budget 2008 amount to an additional €957 million in 2008 and €980 million in a full year.

The Government has significantly increased financial support for children in recent years. It intends to continue to do so by increasing child benefit by €6 for the first and second child to €166 per month and by €8 for the third and subsequent children, bringing it to €203 per month. These increases will benefit more than 570,000 families throughout the country and assist approximately 1.1 million children. Section 3 of the Bill provides for these increases. This Bill also goes some way towards reforming income support for children in order to reduce work disincentives by making income support less relevant to the employment status of the parent. This has been a significant issue, particularly for lone parents. Welfare increases should not act as a barrier or disincentive to any parent who wishes to take up any chance they have of employment, training or education. As we know, this policy has formed an important part of our social partnership agreements. We must maintain the balance between tackling child poverty and encouraging and assisting families to access education, training and employment opportunities.

Section 4 also provides for the increase in the early child care supplement, a programme which has proved to be extremely successful. This is payable in respect of all children under six and brings the payment to €1,100 per year, an increase of €100. These increases mean that families with two children under six will receive a tax-free payment of €6,148 in 2008. This increase will benefit up to 430,000 children by the end of the year. Supporting lone parents is once again a key priority of this legislation. Increasing the upper earning limits for the one-parent family payment will help those people to access work and training that fits in with their responsibility as parents and that is in the interest of the children as well as the parents.

It also offers the best way out of the very difficult position in which people sometimes find themselves. I see this on daily basis at advice centres, particularly in inner city areas, where young parents, predominantly though not exclusively women, have difficulty in accessing any kind of training or employment opportunities they come across solely because they will lose whatever benefits they have gained as part of the system for lone parents. That is a significant worry for young people who find themselves in that position. The changes made in this legislation will help to tackle this aspect. In order to do that, we need co-operation between a number of agencies and Departments for these measures to work and I look forward to the results of the pilot projects under way in Coolock in Dublin and Kilkenny, which were mentioned by the Minister.

Sections 6 and 7 relate to transfers. For many years, particularly in respect of the Department of Social and Family Affairs but also in other Departments, the issue always arose of whether people were getting their entitlements and if they would be entitled to an increase if they changed to a different payment. Under section 6, a person transferring back to illness benefit from invalidity pension will be entitled to a full personal rate of illness benefit, assuming he or she has the required number of contributions in the relevant tax year. Section 7 provides that a person moving from disability allowance to a State pension at age 66 will not receive a lower rate of payment. Again, the emphasis is put on providing the maximum amount of payment to which a person is entitled.

There has been much discussion of carers in this debate. The Government has recognised and continues to recognise the huge contribution to society made by carers and this is evident in the increase in carer's allowance and carer's benefit by €14 per week. The respite care grant was increased last year from €1,200 to €1,500. Section 9 of this Bill increases it by a further €200 to €1,700, as announced in the budget. This measure will benefit approximately 48,200 carers this summer and underpins our commitments under the partnership agreement, Towards 2016, and the programme for Government. A simple thing like a one or two-week holiday a few times a year makes a significant difference to those people who are caring for parents or children. In some cases, it can make the difference when it comes to making the choice to put their relation into some kind of supported medical facility or caring for them at home. The respite care grant has proven its worth over the years. The changes made last year to the carer's allowance whereby recipients can receive more than one payment have benefited more than 7,000 carers. Again, this is a very simple measure but it ensures that people can choose whether to continue caring for their relations.

There has been much discussion of pensions over the past few years. This legislation deals with a number of issues in respect of pensions in general. Part 3 and sections 26 to 31 provide for amendments to the Pensions Act 1990 and some consequential amendments to the family law Acts 1995 and 1996. There has been considerable discussion about pensions and their future administration. It is an issue for everybody, not just for young people. If a young person is only starting out in their career, the last thing on their mind is whether they will have a pension when they retire. As time goes by, they realise the importance of having a pension. There are changes in this Bill in respect of how pension schemes are administered and who administers them. The proper regulation of trustees and third party administrators is crucial in ensuring people's rights to their pensions when they reach that particular stage of their lives.

Overall, the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008 provides for a number of substantial increases in social welfare. These increases are to be very much welcomed and I commend this Bill to the House.

I acknowledge the level of improvement I have seen in customer-focused delivery of service by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Revenue Commissioners and certain sections of the HSE in the short number of years in which I have been a public representative. We are often critical of what is perceived to be non-joined thinking or overlapping between particular Departments. There has been a marked improvement in the service provided by the people in these Departments who deliver the frontline services, meet the public on a daily basis and assess and advise them on their entitlements. I acknowledge this and put it on the record.

The amount of funding provided to the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Health and Children amounts to almost two thirds of the entire spending power of all Government agencies and Departments. This year, there has been a €900 million increase in the welfare support packages administered through the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008. It will deliver significant benefits to approximately 1.5 million people, including citizens of the country and others.

In particular I welcome the supports for older people. There is a €336 million package of support for older people which will benefit almost 420,000 pensioners in the State. They include rates of increase of up to €14 per week to €223.30 and non-contributory pension rates will increase by €12 per week up to €212.

As we are experiencing a brief cold snap it is worth pointing out that the fuel allowance period is to be extended by one week. Many older members of society will welcome that.

Previous speakers commented favourably about the provisions pertaining to carers, which I welcome also. The introduction recently of the half rate carer's allowance was a positive move and there has been a significant uptake on it but more must be done. People who care for elderly relatives in their homes are taking a burden off the State and our institutions.

Despite the carer's allowance and the subvention arrangements that are in place, we could go further in the future. A person told me recently they would be willing to care for their relative in their own home but the carer's allowance would not provide enough support in that regard. The person pointed out if the relative went into a nursing home the subvention would cover that but they wanted to keep the person at home. They did not understand the reason they could not have a carer's allowance equivalent to the subvention amount. People prefer to care for their loved ones at home and we must push out the boat, so to speak, in terms of the carer's allowance. I hope to see that done in successive social welfare and pensions Bills.

The respite care grant will be up to €1,700 from June 2008 and the earnings threshold for the carer's benefit will increase by €12.50 to €332 per week. That is a positive move.

Regarding supports for families with children, lower and higher rates of child benefit are to increase to €166 and €203 respectively per month, benefiting 1.17 million children. That is a significant increase. The qualified child dependant allowance is to increase by €2 to €24 per week, which is welcome also. The additional €2 million funding for the school meals scheme is welcome also.

I want to comment on the services provided under the aegis of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and acknowledge in particular the good work done by the citizens information bureaux. An additional €1.8 million funding was made available to the citizens information bureaux, which is welcome because we are all aware of the good work they do at the coalface.

The Family Support Agency has got additional funding of €1.27 million. We are all aware of the good work it does in terms of marriage and family counselling, which is all to do with the social fabric of life, and also Foróige and the family resource centres.

I acknowledge also the work that has been done by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. In my constituency of Limerick West, now known as Limerick, there is a need to roll out the service to the principal county town of Newcastle West. A comprehensive service is provided in Limerick city and MABS recently opened a new, modern facility in Charleville, County Cork, which is accessed frequently by constituents of mine. From a local point of view the town of Newcastle West is demanding that service.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill and congratulate all who were involved in it. It is a significant package and the measures in it are positive.

With the permission of the House I wish to share time with my colleagues, Deputies Sheahan, Naughten and Joe Carey.

Five minutes is a short time in which to say anything illuminating about the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I thank the Minister and the Department of Social and Family Affairs for the excellent service they provide to me and I am sure to my colleague TDs when we raise queries on behalf of our constituents. When I entered the Dáil in the early 1980s it was a Department which occupied most of our time because it was very difficult to get information about claimants. I compliment the then Minister, Deputy Michael Woods, who brought in the reforms and put in place the unit which responds so readily and quickly to TDs.

I want to raise three issues and I ask the Minister of State to bring them to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, when he is preparing amendments for Committee Stage of the Bill. The first concerns the companion pass for persons with free travel. The regulation states that if someone qualifies for a free travel pass and they are married or cohabiting, and cohabiting is defined as living with a man or woman as husband and wife, they get a free travel pass that allows their spouse or partner to join them for free when travelling. There are other regulations which allow people with medical conditions or incapacitation of various degrees get companion passes also but single people are discriminated against. I cannot understand the reason a single woman or man receiving an old age pension cannot get their friend to travel with them if they want to travel from Limerick to Dublin by train to spend a day shopping in Grafton Street whereas their neighbour can take their spouse who is under the pension age. If the neighbour has moved in with the neighbour next door and they are living as man and wife they can travel as a couple also because as they are cohabiting the companion pass applies. I do not know whether it has been tested but I do not understand how that regulation would stand up in any equality legislation.

The measure I propose would not be a major burden on the Exchequer. I am aware a settlement was paid to Iarnród Éireann, formerly CIE, for persons who travel but I ask the Minister to examine that aspect to determine if a companion pass can be awarded to a single person on the same basis as the travel pass is awarded to a married person to allow a single person travel with a companion.

Married couples often use the travel pass to go to see their grandchildren. That does not arise in the case of the single person. The single person in good health uses it to take a jaunt. They travel to another city to visit friends, go shopping or to a match but who goes anywhere on their own to enjoy themselves? This is discrimination. If it were tested in the courts it would not stand up and it is something that should be examined. The Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, knows exactly what I am talking about and I ask that an appropriate amendment be drafted or the regulations governing it altered to ensure single persons can be entitled to a companion pass.

The other two issues I want to raise arise from some of the constituency work I do. A gentleman came to see me recently about invalidity pension. He got the exemption from the Department to allow him work for 20 hours and was employed by a security firm. He was disqualified by the medical referee in Sligo on the grounds that the 20 hours had no rehabilitative effect. It cost the Department nothing. He is still getting his full rate invalidity pension. He is getting the dependant's allowance on it but he is no longer getting the 20 hours' work. He is back at home after spending five years recuperating. He will never work fulltime again. He is a stroke victim. He wanted to get out of the house and earn a few shillings. He was getting cabin fever at home, and anyone with a long-term illness will know what I am talking about, yet he is not allowed do the 20 hours work on the grounds it was not rehabilitative to work with a security firm in a pharmacy. He does not get paid for the 20 hours but he still receives the full invalidity pension.

Your five minutes has expired, Deputy.

The Chair should have prompted me when four minutes had elapsed.

I apologise. I did not want to upset your colleagues.

I acknowledge, as Deputy Noonan did, the service provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The HSE and many others could take a leaf out of its book in terms of the excellent service the Department provides for Members of the Oireachtas.

I refer to Part 3 of the legislation and pensions, specifically the case of a good samaritan case in my constituency. On 26 January 1961 a number of articles were published. One referred to 100 postmen and almost 100 telephonists absent because of flu. A great number of nurses were also on sick leave. On Wednesday, 8 February 1961 the headlines stated that flu had caused 68 deaths and, on Friday, 27 January 1961, that the flu epidemic had closed 66 schools. What does this have to do with the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008? It concerns a constituent of mine, John, who worked for a four-week period commencing on 31 January 1961 in St. Bridget's Psychiatric Hospital, Ballinasloe, County Galway. He worked for this period solely to help out with the staffing crisis in the hospital caused by the influenza outbreak that had left the hospital short-staffed. As a result, his PRSI record is averaged from that date rather than 1987, when he started paying PRSI in his own right. The only reason he worked for that period was that his sister, who was a nurse in the hospital, pleaded with him to help to take care of the patients because of the staffing crisis.

John had no qualification to work in this area and was a full-time farmer. He did a good deed to help out under difficult circumstances. He started paying PRSI in 1987 as a self-employed farmer. He had previously been on a community employment scheme. Some €2,600 per year is deducted from John for being a good samaritan and helping out those who are less able. It is a disgrace that he is being treated in this way. There is discretion under Part 2, Schedule 1 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 to facilitate John and I hope that will happen.

The Minister referred recently to single parents and the effort to get them off the one-parent family allowance. A constituent of mine applied for the back to education allowance but is denied it even though it is a HETAC course because it is a part-time course. She has four young children and is living in County Roscommon. She has a primary degree and wants to follow a course to become a teacher. She must relocate to Galway or Limerick with her four young children if she cannot receive the back to education allowance. If the Department is serious about dealing with this issue it should address this anomaly.

Where women are not employed in the State sector, they receive the basic level of maternity leave. If they are on certified sick leave they receive the full salary, yet they will receive only part while on maternity leave. There is also a problem with parental leave, which parents must take en bloc.

The Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, is aware of the issue of women who have worked in the home but receive no recognition. A simple way to rectify this problem is to give pension credits to women who have provided care for families and the elderly in the home. That provision is included in legislation enacted in 1994 and it should be given retrospective effect to facilitate those women.

I too compliment the Department of Social and Family Affairs on the prompt service it provides in respect of Deputies' questions. It is very much appreciated. However, there are a few anomalies and it would be appreciated if they could be addressed. A few principal issues which have an impact on the lives of ordinary people have been omitted. One is the means tested respite care grant, where one does not qualify if one works more than 15 hours per week. An example from my constituency concerns a bachelor in his late 50s, who is minding his 96 year old mother who has Alzheimer's disease. He claims nothing from the State but applied for the respite care grant.

Is it not the carer's allowance?

No, he sought the respite care grant for three weeks to undertake necessary work on his 50-acre farm during the summer. There is a degree of danger on the farm, with tractors collecting silage. He has never claimed anything from the State and felt he was entitled to it. I made representations to the Department and the response was that he would have qualified if he was not working more than 15 hours per week. If he worked only 15 hours per week he could not keep himself, let alone his mother. If his mother was in a nursing home it would be a huge cost to the State. The Department should examine this matter.

I refer to the disability allowance for epileptics. I understand that the disease is lifelong and epileptics are advised not to be alone at any time. A lone parent is in a relationship and has given up social housing to move in with her partner but she has lost her disability allowance because of his means. Does she have a disability or not? Either one has a disability or not, regardless of means. If they were very well off, I would not make the case but in this instance it should be examined.

At the age of 70 one is entitled to the medical card, yet one will not receive it without applying for it. The position is the same with the pension as one must apply for it when they reach 66. People should automatically receive a pension. I have met people who are unable to fill out forms and must approach me or others. Over the new year period I met a man of 72, who had never been to a doctor and did not have a medical card. No doctor would take him on. When one reaches 70 years of age the medical card should automatically be sent out, as is the case in Scandinavian countries. Why is there all this paperwork? One does not receive children's allowance for the months after a child's 18th birthday. Some paperwork could be cut out.

The next matter concerns the Minister for Finance as well as the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I cannot understand why parents of children with Down's syndrome do not qualify for the primary care certificate. Children with Down's syndrome must be brought everywhere by their parents, yet they do not qualify for relief of VAT and VRT on their vehicle. The children will never drive, nor will they be independent. Addressing this would make life much easier for those with Down's syndrome and for the ordinary people who are getting by from day to day.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill and related matters. This Bill will be remembered because of the lost opportunities to introduce real reform and changes in key social welfare areas such as lone parents and carers. Successive Fianna Fáil Governments have forgotten about carers and the new Minister has continued this trend. The Bill presented a wonderful opportunity to finally address many of the shortfalls in the support system for carers who provide a service the State would otherwise have to provide. Carers are the backbone of this country yet no serious effort is made in the Bill to give them the break they deserve.

I speak to carers on a daily basis and I recently met East Clare Caring for Carers. I pay tribute to the chairperson of that group, Mrs. Helen Kelly. The Bill has missed an opportunity to address the issue of carers in a comprehensive way. I urge the Minister to engage in direct discussions with carers' groups prior to the publication of the national carers strategy. It is important that officials engage directly with these groups because they are the people on the ground and they know the issues. It is vital that they have a direct input into the publication of the national carers strategy.

The new strategy must include a firm commitment from Government to recognise carers' health and well-being and to introduce a proper system of remuneration. The Minister should take on board Fine Gael's proposals to assess each individual carer according to his or her means. It is the carer and not the carer's partner who provides care and, therefore, the carer's partner's income should be excluded from the means test.

The Bill could also have improved the lot of lone parents but, again, this was a missed opportunity. I welcome the pilot initiatives that are ongoing in Kilkenny and Coolock that examine the individual needs of lone parents on a case-by-case basis in terms of child care, literacy and education, prior to getting them on to various schemes or into part-time work. This approach is most welcome. I urge the Minister to extend the pilot project to the rest of the country.

The current rent supplement scheme is not working. The cap does not reflect the reality on the ground. Despite media reports indicating that rents are falling, that is not what I hear in my clinics. We need to examine this whole area and get an idea of what landlords are charging in rent. It is very difficult for lone parents to get suitable housing and to find a landlord who will accept rent allowance. A co-ordinated approach needs to be taken. Rent supplements must be realistic as the current provision makes life difficult for lone parents.

There is no encouragement for lone parents to go back into the workforce as to do so would result in them losing their rent allowance. This issue needs to be addressed.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Byrne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I compliment the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and his officials on the very comprehensive package introduced in the Bill. We are committed to building an inclusive society. We have delivered unprecedented increases in social welfare and now we want to go further and end consistent poverty in Ireland once and for all. In February we launched the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016: Building an Inclusive Society, with the aim of reducing the number of those experiencing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012 and eliminating consistent poverty by 2016.

The investment of €50 billion in social inclusion over the years of the new national development plan will deliver a comprehensive assault on poverty and exclusion. This will fund pre-school education for children, provide greater support for lone parents and the long-term unemployed, help people with disabilities to secure access to employment and older people to access community care services, as well as helping communities to provide housing, health services and strategies to assist newcomers to integrate into Irish society.

We have significantly reduced poverty levels. Analysis suggests that 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, have been lifted out of deprivation and hardship since 1997 as a result of our targeted measures and supports. We have implemented the largest series of social welfare and child benefit increases in the history of social welfare in this country. This year we are providing supports and services which aim to benefit more than 1.5 million people.

Tax changes in 2008 mean that those on the minimum wage pay no income tax. The latest results from the EU survey on income and living conditions indicate that the rate of consistent poverty in the population in 2006 was 6.5%, having reduced from 8.2% in 2003. Most notably the rate of consistent poverty among older people has come down to 2.2 % in 2006.

The new Government has appointed a Minister of State with cross-departmental responsibility for older people. I am delighted my county colleague, Deputy Hoctor, has that role. We have prioritised improved support for carers, expansion of community-based supports and improvements in the quality and availability of hospital and residential care. In budget 2008 we are providing €135 million for health services for older people. In the past two years, this Government has funded the largest ever expansion in services for older people with the provision of over €400 million. This year, an additional €135 million is being provided for the introduction in 2008 of the new long-term residential care scheme, a fair deal, costing €110 million, and the provision of €25 million for complementary community support services for older people and for palliative care.

I am concerned about two issues in particular, which I am aware the Minister is examining. I refer to monitoring fees for socially monitored alarms, for which the fees vary from €60 to €90 per person, and personal information packs, PIPs. Currently, approximately 60,000 persons are supplied with socially monitored alarm systems which are funded by the community supports for older people programme through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The annual cost to the Exchequer would be approximately €4.5 million. That would be money well spent as some of the systems that are provided to households become dormant because people, for whatever reason, do not or cannot make the payment for the monitoring fee, which is only between €50 and €80.

The personal information pack, PIP, is based on the English "bottle in the fridge" programme. This is a system whereby an elderly or vulnerable person's medical history, medication etc. is recorded and safely stored within the home, usually in the fridge. It is available to the emergency services in the event of them being called to a person's home. The cost of this measure, which is a nominal €2, could be included on a person's medical card.

I am a board member of Muintir na Tíre which runs the community alert programme and I am very enthusiastic about this measure as it would cut down hugely on the critical time after paramedics are called to a house where somebody was found in a comatose state. In some cases a person can be in hospital for up to 24 hours before important medical documents are sourced.

All such documentation, with the assistance and co-operation of the nursing sector and the general practitioners, could be safely available on this legible package that is stored in the fridge and the medics would know where to look for it. I ask the Minister to consider that. I compliment him on the excellent reforms in the package and wish him well with their implementation.

I am glad to be here to welcome the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. When one considers the figure of €17 billion involved in social welfare, it amounts to approximately €50 million per day including Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays. By any standards, that is a significant redistribution of wealth from the haves to the have nots. That is to be welcomed and I call on everybody here to welcome the progress that has been made in social welfare as one part of the process of removing people from poverty. While we all have difficulties with aspects of the social welfare code which we would make clear to the Minister either here or at the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs of which both I and Deputy Mattie McGrath are members, we must praise and acknowledge the significant scale by any standards of what this Government is doing for social welfare.

I am glad to hear the Minister, Deputy Cullen, refer to the Government's discussion paper, Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, and I will speak generally about the issues arising. It is not just a question of handouts to remove people from poverty. Social welfare is provided to allow people live at a certain standard so that they do not fall behind, go without food or be without shelter. It is to give them what they need to survive and what their children need for school, and to give them an acceptable standard of living.

Eliminating poverty is about much more than that. It really has a great deal to do with education, training, the Government's economic development programme and the national infrastructure programme. All of these issues must be tied in together to eliminate poverty and to remove people from the poverty net.

The Minister specifically mentioned lone parents. In my experience it is lone parents, particularly those with more than one child, who are bearing the brunt of poverty. I pay tribute to the lone parents I meet. They do a fantastic job. Many of them are in substantially straitened circumstances. They have complaints and they need more, and we try to get them as much as they are entitled to, but they still manage to get by and give their children the best opportunities. Such children almost have a greater sense of responsibility to society in many cases because of the difficulties they face and the challenges their parents face. I pay tribute to them and I admire them because they face a tough road.

We acknowledge it is not only about money. We hear complaints here about the carer's allowance. The commitment to carer's allowance over the past ten years has been one of the hallmarks of this Government. It was a fantastic innovation and I am glad to see progress being made on that. Of course we would like to see more progress being made on that and on the fuel allowance, but we must acknowledge that people, particularly pensioners, are being looked after.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to increase the pension to €300 by the end of its term and I am convinced the Government will exceed its target, as did the previous Government. Many pensioners almost expect that at this stage, but they know we have delivered on it previously and they are happy that will happen again. Approaching the election they were happy to trust that we could deliver on that commitment as we had delivered on the previous one.

In general terms on social exclusion, there will be investment of €50 billion over the term of the new national development plan. The national development plan is obviously a lengthy document which contains many programmes and plans. I suppose the ordinary person's perception is that it is about roads, trains and transport infrastructure, but it contains much more and social inclusion is a significant aspect of it. It is good to see the Government's commitment in that regard.

I welcome the increases in child benefit. We all would like to see a much greater increase. We always would. There is never enough. As a father of four months, we recently obtained it for the first time. It is a fantastic benefit. It is not means tested, it is available to everybody and it is paid directly to the mother as well — it has not come into my hands.

One aspect of the social welfare code which has caused me concern, and on which the Government has taken action, is the position of qualified adults of pension age who really were confused and upset that they seem to be treated much differently because of circumstances which in many cases were beyond their control or were the cause of society in that women in general could not go out to work and could not raise the stamps necessary. There are changes being made to bring the qualified adult allowance up to the level of the non-contributory pension and further progress has been made this year.

Drogheda, part of which is in my constituency of Meath East, is where the Department of Social and Family Affairs proposes to decentralise. I take the opportunity afforded by this debate to welcome that and encourage the Department to move as quickly as possible, and to let the Minister know that the people I represent in County Meath and the people I know in County Louth are much looking forward to it. The communities on both sides of the county divide are making best preparations to welcome the Department and whoever the Minister will be at that time.

We also welcome what has happened in the budget. We welcome continuing progress. I particularly welcome the Minister's commitment to a broad strategy — education, training and getting people into the workforce as best we can. That is not always easy, particularly for lone parents.

At the same time, we must have the toughest possible sanctions for people who abuse the social welfare system and should not have any sympathy for them. On occasion we all meet people at our clinics who for whatever reason have claimed benefits to which they were not entitled. I suppose it is not our role to give out to them — that is for somebody else. We must be conscious that benefits are for those who are entitled to them. We should not give succour to those abusing that entitlement and we should tell them the full letter of the law will be applied to them. It is an important system involving a considerable amount of money. As I stated, it amounts to almost €50 million every day which the taxpayers redistribute to those less well off. By any standards, it is a fantastic achievement. I welcome the Bill and look forward to continued progress over the next few years.

I propose to share time with Deputies Kieran O'Donnell, Terence Flanagan and Olivia Mitchell. If they are not all here I might continue for a few minutes afterwards.

Until he runs out of words.

Deputy Connaughton might leave us with a bar of a song.

It has been known to happen.

As with all such Bills, there are good parts to this Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. I certainly welcome it. It is consistent with the thriving economy we had. It is reasonable to believe that if we live in an economy such as that to which we were used up until now, it is only right and proper that we redistribute that wealth. Unfortunately, it is not getting back all the time to the people to whom we would like.

In the few minutes at my disposal I want to speak about pensions and the anomalies that must be rectified by the Pensions Board, which is taking representations from various groups around the country. Now is the time to put right some of the problems which will arise in any social welfare code and which affect important minorities who have been left out of the loop altogether. There are approximately five or six categories and I will run through them quickly. A number of my colleagues on both sides of the House raised the structure for dealing with the self-employed introduced in 1988 by the then Minister, Deputy Michael Woods, which was as good a scheme as ever introduced. However, there had to be starting and cut-off points. As a result, when a number of people reached the age of 66, they did not have enough stamps and did not get a contributory pension.

I have spoken many times about the thousands of women who worked when they were young, then stayed home to rear their families and only went back to work in the past ten years when we had a good economy and who, consequently, have a bad contribution record. I suggest to the Pensions Board and the Government that we should put some mechanism in place whereby the years they did not work are removed from the equation and their contributions are then divided by the number of years they did work, which would give them a higher yearly average. Such a system would not involve significant extra costs.

The third group, a small one, comprises widows whose husbands worked in the Office of Public Works. By some strange anomaly, in the 1960s and 1970s there was confusion over a pension scheme. Now a group of widows is denied a pension they should have. I intend to document this issue and send the documentation on the matter to the Pensions Board.

One other group to which I wish to refer is a group involving members of the Garda Síochána, who, for whatever reason, were either dismissed or retired prior to October 1976. I understand some 82 people were concerned at the last count. No provision was made for the preservation of superannuation benefits in the case of members who resigned or were dismissed prior to October 1976, except in certain circumstances where they subsequently took up another appointment in the public service. This is a matter that needs to be considered.

Given what happened in this House some months ago with regard to retrospection of payment of pension, when a change was made for one of our colleagues in the House, we should consider the significant number of people who did not, for genuine reasons, apply in time for their pension and were penalised. That is unfortunate and unfair.

The stipulation that carers may only be employed for up to 15 hours a week in order to qualify for carer's allowance is unfair on the farming community in situations where a son looks after his parents at home. While he might not even have 15 hours work to do on the farm, he is considered to be full-time farming. This is an anomaly that should be looked at. There is not 15 hours continuous sustainable work to be done on these small farms. The issue is a matter of presence and availability to carry out the role of carer. If such farmers are not able to look after their parents, it will cost hundreds and thousands for someone else to do it.

I want to take a general view of the provisions of this Bill. While there have been increases under the budget, groups such as the old age pensioners have only received an increase of approximately 6%, with contributory pensioners getting €14 extra a week and non-contributory pensioners getting €12 extra a week. However, inflation as it affects them, in terms of food and heating, is probably approximately 14% or 15%. The increased fuel allowance of €18 is only from 29 to 30 weeks, which is just 3% of an increase. The Government puts forward the line that it is a caring Government, but when we look at the increases provided to our most vulnerable sectors, this is not borne out.

Lone parents are a cause of concern for all of us. The most recent poverty figures showed us that a one parent family with one child was at risk of poverty in 2007 if its income was below €282 a week. Before the budget such families were on an income of €258, which was under the threshold in terms of poverty. Many of us meet members of this group in our clinics and know it is very tough rearing a child alone. This is an issue we as a Parliament must consider. We must decide how to get procedures in place to allow them to get an education, work and rear their children so they can have a sustainable future. I feel strongly about this issue.

On the issue of child care costs, the Government has given an increase via child benefit of €1.38 per week and an increase in early child care support of €1.92 per week. This amounts to just over €3 per week extra. The early child care support is €1,100 a year, which is approximately €21 a week. The average cost of child care is about €215 a week. Therefore, there is a shortfall of approximately €200. People with children are aware that child care costs are very expensive.

We all feel strongly about carers, who do an invaluable job. The Government talks regularly about the primary care model and getting people back into the community. However, fewer than one in six of our 150,000 family carers is in receipt of the carer's allowance. Fine Gael put forward a practical proposal in this regard, namely, that a carer should only be assessed on his or her own income, not on both incomes in a household. This is a fair and practical proposal that I hope the Government will take on board.

The issue of old age pensions is another concern. Currently people must apply for their old age pension, but many of them are not aware of this. Neither are they aware that it may take up to five months for their application to be processed. I hope the Minister will take on board a proposal I have made previously. The Government should implement a process whereby everyone approaching retirement age is informed a year in advance that it will take up to five months to process their application. At least then they could get their pension from the time they reach pension age. Currently people who apply late for a non-contributory pension will only get paid from the date they apply. We live in a computer age, but Government expenditure in the area of e-government has borne little fruit. The Government has a PPS number for almost everyone entitled to a pension on file. It should use that information and send letters to them informing them of the requirements for receiving their pensions.

We also need to spend money in the disability area. The disability allowance only increased by €12. Our Private Members' business tonight is on the issue of autism. The Government's behaviour towards the area of disability is a disgrace.

I too welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue and wish to refer in particular to the carer's payment, child poverty and rent supplement. Budget 2008 saw an increase in the rate of payments for carers, an increase of a paltry €14 per week. The carer's allowance for those under 66 years of age is €214, and for those older than 66 years it is €232, which is a small amount for people to have to live on.

The respite care grant has been increased by €200 to €1,700, which I welcome, but it is a small increase. It is estimated that 3.5 million hours are worked by 150,000 family carers, yet less than one in six of them qualify for carer's allowance. The Carers Association estimates that the work of Ireland's family carers saves the State more than €2.1 billion per annum, a sizeable amount of money, yet carer's allowance was increased by only €14. As Deputy O'Donnell said, carers should have their means individually assessed, not their partner's. There should be no means test for this payment. Many carers find it difficult to take up part-time employment as the rules on working and receiving carer's allowance are restrictive. The 2008 budget gave the Government the opportunity to ease this restriction by raising the working limit to 20 hours per week, enabling more carers to take up part-time employment, but unfortunately this did not happen. We want carers to be allowed to work 20 hours per week and the employer to confirm that the employee would be permitted to leave the workplace without penalty to assist the care recipient in an emergency.

One quarter of families in Ireland are one-parent families, among whom there is a high level of poverty, estimated at 17% in 2006. Some 41% of lone parent households experience debt problems. They are vulnerable and need to be looked after. They receive an income of less than €282 per week, which is not enough to live on, considering the costs for their children in school, of fuel and other items. The Minister needs to do more to ease their plight.

The rent supplement is the only housing support available to many on low incomes. More than 60,000 people in the private rented sector are dependent on this payment. Preliminary findings indicate the reason landlords do not like the payment is it is paid in arrears rather than in advance. The Minister needs to investigate this issue further. The payment amount is insufficient and the processing of applications takes too long. With the increase in rent costs for households in Dublin in particular, the Minister needs to investigate the issue again. Rent caps need to be put in place to reflect this. The payment is not responsive to local rental changes and does not reflect the changes in the rental market. Perhaps the Minister could respond to this.

I support my colleagues' comments on carer's allowance which has been a festering sore for so long, not so much in the amount paid which is never enough, but in terms of the people who qualify. We must turn to individual assessment. The double income assessment is an insult to carers, many of whom are women who are assessed on their husband's salary for extra work they take on, in many cases on behalf of the State. It is an insult for that reason alone. The amount involved is not large.

Deputy Enright raised the issue of the early child care supplement which was introduced to help parents with the high cost of child care. It was linked to child benefit. It was not envisaged that it would be payable to children not resident in the State. It was an honest mistake but we must admit it is not acceptable to pay this money to children not resident in Ireland. It was not designed to deal with that problem. It is reasonable that children of parents who work and pay tax here should receive child benefit no matter where they live, but not the child care supplement which is specifically paid in respect of child care in Ireland. It was all right to pay it during the years of plenty but those days are gone. Child care costs are extremely high and there is still a need for two parents to work if they are to pay the high cost of mortgages. Those costs may become even more crippling in the months and years to come as the value of houses may drop. I hope that does not happen but it may. This is a significant issue which we should examine.

I raise the anomaly of pensioners who seek to remortgage their house or avail of equity release schemes. I have raised this issue with the Minister through a parliamentary question. These are recipients of non-contributory pensions, often elderly widows or widowers. If they sell their house to downsize to smaller premises, they are allowed to keep up to €190,000 of the difference between what they paid for the house and what they sold it for. However, some cannot sell their house, or they decide not to for good social or family reasons, or for economic reasons such as where it is difficult for people to sell their house without making a significant loss. If such persons remortgage their house or avail of a partial equity release scheme, it is regarded as means and they lose their pension rights.

This issue was raised by an elderly constituent of mine who tried to sell her house but could not get anything near its value and in response to the advertising of equity release and remortgaging schemes decided to try to get money in that way. Many elderly people live in a house they may have been able to afford when they were working. Now they may be widows or widowers and not have the same income. They may need to upgrade the house by installing central heating, improving the heating system, rewiring or doing basic, essential repairs, and it is not possible to do that work on a non-contributory pension. It is an anomaly.

I can understand if people have a huge house that the Government does not want to pay them a non-contributory pension. However, these schemes are not being engaged in by persons who are wealthy or have lots of houses. It is the family home and it runs contrary to practice in other areas where the family home is always excluded from many other assessments. In the new nursing homes Bill the home is protected even when it is no longer needed. It runs contrary to what we are doing in other welfare and health areas. I ask the Minister to do something about this anomaly. I do not expect the whole value of the house to be disregarded, but at least as much as is disregarded in a case of downsizing.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me this opportunity to speak to this important legislation, the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2008. It gives us the opportunity to examine in detail our social welfare and pensions system. It is also a chance to ensure we support the weakest sections of society and ensure they will always receive their maximum entitlements and be treated with respect and dignity. As Members of the Oireachtas, we all have a duty to ensure all those on social welfare payments and pensioners are treated with respect and dignity. To prevent poverty and disadvantage we must put education, jobs and quality housing at the top of the agenda. If we do not focus on those three issues, we are going nowhere. It is very important that we include this in today's debate on social welfare. That is why we must invest in education, make sensible investments plans and develop quality planning in our communities. I will revert to these issues later, which are all linked to the issue of social welfare and pensions.

The Bill provides for the implementation of certain social welfare improvements announced in budget 2008. These include increases in child benefit, early child care supplement and the respite care grant. Provision is also made for an increase in the income limit for the one-parent family payment and changes in the assessment of income for the purposes of qualification for the payment.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for the necessary legislative changes to the Pensions Act 1990, to allow for the implementation of the recommendations in the report of the Pensions Board to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on trusteeship.

Sections 12 to 17, inclusive, set out the necessary legislative provisions for the payment of blind welfare allowance and domiciliary care allowance by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, with effect from early 2009. These schemes are currently administered by the Department of Health and Children.

It is important to note that in the introduction to this legislation, one sees the emphasis on child care, child benefit, respite care grants and supporting one-parent families. I commend the Minister, Deputy Martin Cullen, on his work during the build up to the budget. There was much talk about the downturn in the economy and many people were expecting cuts in these areas. I commend the Minister and his staff on their work in pushing this agenda and including the weaker sections of society in their plans.

Section 3 provides for an increase of €6 in the lower monthly rate of child benefit and €8 in the higher rate, bringing them to €166 and €203 per month, respectively. The increase in child benefit will be effective from April 2008. Families who receive the monthly payment via their bank accounts will receive the budget increase from April 2008, while those who receive payment via personalised payable order books, encashable at post offices, will be paid in the first week in May 2008, backdated to April 2008. This is very important.

Section 4 provides for an increase of €100 in the annual rate of early child care supplement bringing the annual rate to €1,100 and the quarterly rate to €275. The increases will apply from the first quarter of 2008. Again, one sees the emphasis on child benefit and child care. It is very difficult for families with young children. Child care costs have gone through the roof over the past five or six years. This is an attempt to increase support for families in that situation.

Section 6 provides that a person transferring back to illness benefit from invalidity pension will be entitled to a full personal rate of illness benefit where they have the required number of contributions in the relevant tax year.

Section 7 provides that a person moving from disability allowance to the non-contributory State pension at age 66 will not receive a lower rate of payment due to a less favourable capital disregard on the non-contributory State pension scheme.

Section 8 raises the earnings limit for receipt of one-parent family payment to €425, as announced in budget 2008. It also makes provision for the income to be assessed in a manner to be prescribed by regulations. The regulations will provide for the disregard of social insurance contributions, health contributions, superannuation contributions and trade union subscriptions for the purposes of assessment of earnings for one-parent family payment.

Section 9 increases the respite care grant to €1,700 as announced in budget 2008. The increase will apply from 5 June 2008. It is important to focus on this issue as well as to commend and thank the many people involved in caring for people with disabilities and the elderly. We have a responsibility and a duty towards them. Before the budget, I heard rumours that the respite care grant would be cut, which concerned me greatly at the time. However, we can see that it has been delivered on and we will push for more in the future. It is important to ensure that we look after and support carers of the elderly and those with disabilities. I will return to the issue of disabilities later and respond to queries raised by my colleagues earlier in the debate.

Section 10 provides for the deletion of the out-dated term "penal servitude". It also provides that a person shall not be considered to be detained in legal custody for the purposes of entitlement to disability allowance when he or she is detained for treatment under an admission order or renewal order made under the Mental Health Act 2001. I welcome this section, which is important. When one is referring to social welfare and disadvantage, it is important to ensure that those in the prison system are given proper training. I am concerned about recent events where a number of prisoners who were due to be released within months and who had a record of good behaviour could not participate in some pre-release programmes. I ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to examine this issue. There are some excellent pre-release programmes in the Irish Prison Service but some constituents of mine were turned down when they applied for them. Their families were very disappointed. We must ensure that when people do something wrong, they serve their time but if they have a serious change in attitude and wish to reintegrate into society, we must do something progressive for them.

Section 11 provides that a "homemaker" may include a person who is resident in the State or who is, or is the spouse of, a member of the Defence Forces or a civil servant in the Civil Service of the Government or the State, is in the service, outside the State, of the Government, the State or an international organisation, or is a volunteer development worker. The section also provides that a deciding officer may decide the question as to whether a person is to be deemed a homemaker at any time. I welcome this section.

Sections 12 to 14, inclusive, set out the conditions for entitlement to blind welfare allowance, the rates of payment, the provisions for the calculation of means, the consequential amendments and the transitional provisions to allow for the transfer of the administration of the scheme from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, with effect from early 2009. Again, these are progressive and sensible provisions.

Sections 15 to 17, inclusive, set out the conditions for eligibility for receipt of domiciliary care allowance, the rates of payment, the consequential amendments and the transitional provisions to allow for the transfer of the administration of the payment of an allowance for the domiciliary care of children from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, with effect from early 2009. It is very important that we focus on these issues. The blind welfare allowance is very important and I commend the Minister on the major grant he gave recently to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind as a contribution towards the development of services for blind people. The domiciliary care allowance is also important and must be kept under review. These issues should never been on any list when it comes to planning the finances of the future.

Section 24 provides for the disregard for the purposes of rent and mortgage interest supplement of any amount of carer's benefit in excess of the basic rate of supplementary welfare allowance, in line with current arrangements for carer's allowance. It also provides for changes in the rules for the calculation of the income disregard. The legislation is being amended to clearly state that the disregard applies to all income and to clarify that additional income includes earnings, family income supplement and all maintenance.

The overall theme of the legislation is to support those on welfare and to support the weaker sections of society. This is very important. We should not take our eye off the ball when it comes to this type of expenditure. I know there are battles for different issues at Cabinet, but I am sure all Members of the Oireachtas support these kinds of progressive provisions.

When discussing the issue of the elderly and other matters, we must consider the overview of the budget. Spending on health services for the elderly accounted for more than one third of the extra health spending announced on budget day, a story that is not told anywhere in the media. Of the €396 million in additional spending, €135 million has been earmarked for the elderly, but not many have stated this in the House. The bulk of 81%, or €110 million, of the additional funding for the elderly will be spent on the introduction of the planned nursing home scheme, a fair deal. In contrast, just €25 million will be invested in expanding community care initiatives.

The key areas to benefit from increased spending include €10 million to provide an extra 350 home care packages aimed at helping 1,000 people to remain at home or to return home from hospital. During 2007, more than 4,000 packages were provided to assist 10,500 people. Some €5 million will be spent to provide 216,000 more home help hours than last year's figure of 11.8 million home help hours. These background figures are not heard about. Some €3.6 million will be spent on 1,100 more day or respite places than last year's amount of 21,000.

The €135 million package includes €3 million to improve the service provision of palliative care and €2 million to support voluntary groups working on delivering services in partnership with the HSE. These are progressive and sensible measures in respect of the elderly. We must focus on this matter and make no apologies when delivering the services, which should be highlighted. I commend the fact that an extra €2 million is being given to voluntary and community groups, particularly those working with the elderly and the disadvantaged. In my agreement with the Taoiseach, I pushed this issue strongly and I welcome that these types of projects are being rolled out in the budget.

It is important that we challenge those who claim that nothing is being done or Deputies who state that something is not worth the paper it is written on. Everyone welcomes the sensible investment of €2.5 million in cystic fibrosis services at Beaumont Hospital. Over the next 18 months, a project will be rolled out to deliver cystic fibrosis services at St. Vincent's Hospital. We should rally around and support this project. I welcome the €108,000 being invested in northside schools and the €88,000 in ICT grants for 18 schools in my constituency. With the €200,000 paid to the Stardust victims' committee, these are sensible and important measures. People discuss cuts in services, yet I see 117 new employees in frontline services in Dublin North-Central since 5 September, 110 staff being appointed to frontline services in Beaumont Hospital and, recently, €183,422 for the Donnycarney community youth centre and €102,386 for the women's refuge in Coolock. There is nothing wrong with these sensible, progressive and welcome measures.

I challenge those who state that nothing has occurred in respect of broader, national issues. I tell them to read the budget — €50 million extra in disability services, €25 million extra for care of the elderly and €35 million for cancer services. Another figure relevant to this debate is the additional €18 million for special educational needs. An additional €124 million and €50 million will be invested in social housing and affordable housing, respectively. I referred to carer's benefit and the carer's allowance. Despite the downturn in the economy and negative whinging from some Deputies, many have fought hard to introduce, defend and develop these services. It is a difficult battle at times, but good things should be recognised for what they are. This debate on social welfare is concerned with looking after the weaker sections of society, such as the elderly, and doing something practical. Our sleeves are rolled up and the work is ongoing.

If one wishes to end poverty and disadvantage, one needs three key elements — education, jobs and quality housing. I welcome the developments in the Cromcastle area in Dublin North-Central, such as the beautifully planned northside town centre. I challenge those who whinge about this issue, some of whom are from my constituency and stated it is not enough. The development comprises a sport and recreation centre of 2,600 sq. m, a community centre of 400 sq. m, a library of 1,400 sq. m and leisure buildings of 2,000 sq. m. These proposed facilities are approximately 6,400 sq. m in area and for the use of all communities. The community centre south of Oscar Traynor Road will be ideally situated to facilitate general community use in Kilmore West while the sport and recreation centre will be situated north of the road to facilitate Kilmore West's sporting community and other communities in the vicinity of the Northside Shopping Centre. The quoted figure of 140 sq. m is important. The new facilities will be considerably larger than those currently provided and will be ideally situated for existing user groups and the increasing population.

The sensible Cromcastle and northside town centre plan is important in terms of tackling disadvantage because the area in question needs an economic lift. I commend Céline Reilly and the staff of the Dublin North-Central sector in Dublin City Council for their magnificent work in putting this project together. I urge the Government to stick with the plan because it relates to housing and sport, community and recreation facilities. It will clean up the northside. As anyone who knows the parts of Coolock and Kilmore in question is aware, the people need a break and to get on with this investment. I look forward to these developments occurring in the next two or three years. To the cynics, I am confident it will be before the next election.

We should examine expenditure. The budget will strengthen the drugs task force by €12.5 million, which is important given that some communities are riddled by disadvantage, as shown recently. We must support communities and we need the Garda and Operation Anvil, but we must tackle social exclusion and isolation and challenge those who block such measures. Drugs comprise so large an industry and there is such a large market because many people take drugs, cocaine in particular in recent years. I challenge the people in question to cop on to themselves and to stop this nonsense because it destroys communities, blocks our accident and emergency units, causes assaults on nightclub bouncers and leads to the slaughter of people like Donna Cleary in Coolock in my constituency. It is important that we highlight these effects of cocaine and other drugs, but it is up to people to be responsible.

I welcome the main provisions and sensible proposals in the Bill, which is progressive legislation. I look forward to ensuring a fairer society. I urge all Members, regardless of politics, to build on the ethos of the legislation. We must defend our pensioners and people on social welfare payments. However, I welcome the plan of other Departments to get as many people off social welfare payments as possible and to get people into jobs. With jobs and decent houses and communities, people will grow up and have healthy and happy environments. They will make a considerable contribution to the State, as occurred in previous projects. I welcome the Bill's ethos and I will support it.

I wish to share time with Deputies Perry and Sherlock.

Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Wall has ten minutes and Deputies Sherlock and Perry have five minutes each.

I did not speak on the previous Social Welfare Bill but when we speak in the House, we rarely give credit to those who help us in our work. Through the Minister, I thank all of the officials of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, especially those who deal with parliamentary questions and Deputies' inquiries because they make our lives easier. They are always helpful and available to us. I ask the Minister to pass on these sentiments.

I am not privy to the inner workings of preparing a budget but presume in his discussions with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs either sets out the funding his Department requires for individual items or requests an overall amount. When the budget was announced on 5 December 2007, it was evident that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs was satisfied he would meet the demands made of him by various Members on both sides of the House and interest groups. We could argue over many aspects of the budget as, from a political perspective, everyone has pet projects and payments they wish to see made. These wishes may differ from those of the Minister but there was a general sense of satisfaction with the allocations made in the budget. Those in receipt of social welfare payments were able to plan ahead because of the changes made. This is where the matter of value for money enters the equation and why I sought a time allocation on this issue from the Labour Party Whip, Deputy Stagg. He was also involved in what I am about to raise.

When the Minister examined various payments, be it lone parent allowance or the non-contributory pension, I am sure a mechanism was put in place to determine the percentage increase that should be granted. This was thought to represent value for money as welfare recipients would benefit. However, in County Kildare one swipe of a pen saw every penny of the increases erased. The local authority there responded to the budget by raising the rent payable for all householders in local authority accommodation, including those on social welfare, by up to €17. The effort and time spent by the Minister in trying to ensure people would receive as much as possible in the budget were eradicated with one swipe of a pen. The extra money he allocated ended up back in the system. I disagree with some of his budget allocations but that is not my point. Is there a mechanism to ensure local authorities cannot eradicate the Minister's work for recipients of social welfare payments?

Some time ago I followed up on this issue with another local authority and was informed that it had received a letter, circular HRT 3/2002, from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Section 4 referred to rents for local authority dwellings and stated:

It is important that authorities should ensure that rent increases do not absorb an excessive amount of increase of income of tenants on low incomes dependent on social welfare payments and in particular on old age pensions. As a general guideline it is considered that no more than a 15% increase in such pension income should be absorbed by an increase in rent.

This seems logical to me as the Minister made an effort to get as big a slice of the budget cake as possible for recipients of social welfare payments — they could then plan ahead in using the money. It was never the Minister's intention that one swipe of a pen would see local authorities take back increases in payments and more besides.

This evening I was in my office when an old age pensioner from Newbridge telephoned. She is 77 years of age and lives on her own. She called to tell me that she was unable to get by on what she had as her rent had gone up by €17. My colleague, Deputy Stagg, who discussed this matter also, and I are to ask the Labour Party spokesperson, Deputy Shortall, to table an amendment to the Bill to see how the Minister can protect increases in social welfare payments in order that they cannot be eradicated with the swipe of a pen. I do not know how it will be framed but she will try. If local authorities believe the only way they can raise money is to wait for an increase in social welfare payments in the budget and then increase rents for local authority accommodation, an amendment to the Bill is necessary. It is a crying shame that public representatives in County Kildare have received such calls on this matter. Can the circular from which I quoted be applied to the circumstances I have raised? Can we ensure a certain percentage of increases in social welfare payments will be protected for the good of the recipient, rather than the financial upkeep of the local authority?

On a similar point, the Minister granted an increase in fuel allowance in the budget but, because local authorities take into account a household's total income, this allowance is included as a factor in deciding the rent a person should pay. The same goes for the living alone allowance. The increases in these payments were granted for specific purposes. For example, a person telephoned me today seeking to have the fuel allowance apply throughout the year but the allowance is for fuel and should not end up with a local authority. I ask the Minister and his officials to consider how increases in social welfare payments can be ring-fenced to be used only for the purpose for which they were originally made. I understand people must pay rent to local authorities but it should never be the case that a Minister's efforts to secure a slice of the budget cake for social welfare recipients can be eradicated in one blow.

There is an anomaly that relates to the lone parent allowance. A person who had lived with his partner for 28 years came to me when his partner died and it emerged he was not entitled to lone parent's allowance for his two foster children. Had this individual a child of his own with his partner he would have been entitled to the allowance for his foster children but because he does not have a child of his own he now lives on the funding he receives from the community welfare officer. He must find extra funding to care for his two foster children. When he sought mortgage relief, he was told he would only receive 50% owing to his situation.

I cannot understand either decision and will write to the Minister outlining the details of the case in the hope that a solution can be found. A protective mechanism is needed to ensure the fruits of his battles for increased funding are not eroded in one fell swoop by local authorities taking money from senior citizens in receipt of social welfare payments.

I thank Deputy Wall for sharing time.

This is an important debate as it relates to expenditure of €17 billion. Deputy Wall made a relevant point on local authorities neutering the positive effects of increases in social welfare payments by taking liberties and imposing higher charges. It is essential that we secure value for money from those who receive large allocations from the Department. I compliment departmental officials on the outstanding and efficient work they do on behalf of the Minister.

I ask the Minister to note an anomaly I propose to highlight. Last month the Taoiseach opened the new Irish Aid volunteering and information centre on O'Connell Street. The centre is designed to promote public awareness and understanding of development issues and the role of Irish Aid. I endorse the Taoiseach's comments at the opening on the positive impact Irish Aid and our missionaries and volunteers are making in crucial areas such as health care, housing, education and the fight against HIV and AIDS in developing countries. Many such volunteers come from my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim and do excellent work in developing countries, often in complex and trying circumstances.

One recently returned volunteer worker lost three years of her PRSI contributions through no fault of her own. This was due to a scheme operated by the Department of Social and Family Affairs under which those classified as volunteer development workers, VDWs, may qualify for credited contributions or VDW credits in respect of a period spent working in a developing country and any preparatory period beforehand. The relevant rules covering this circumstance are set out in the Social Welfare (Special Provisions for Volunteer Workers) Regulations 1985. Clause 6, subsection 2, states contributions "shall only be credited to an insured person under the provisions of these regulations for such period or aggregate of periods as does not exceed 5 years".

Some volunteer development workers work abroad on Irish Aid projects for an aggregate period greater than five years. The five year limit means that experienced volunteer development workers who continue their valuable work beyond a five year period are penalised by loss of credited contributions. Volunteer workers who have experienced this loss of PSRI credits regard it as unjust and unethical that Irish Aid would recruit people for volunteer work in developing countries and fail to value them sufficiently to cover their PRSI for the full duration of their work abroad.

Irish Aid is the overseas development arm of the Department of Foreign Affairs. With a budget approaching €1 billion this year, it is entirely reasonable that volunteer development workers who spend more than five years working on Irish Aid projects should be covered for the full period of their work in developing countries. I understand some other European Union countries which operate a scheme to provide social insurance cover for their volunteers working abroad do not have any such time limit.

In addition, volunteers should be formally advised at the start of their assignment about any term limits for PRSI contributions. They must also be formally and specifically advised of the term limits leading to the expiry of their PRSI contribution coverage. It is not acceptable that volunteers may return home to discover they have lost valuable PRSI contributions. This leads them to feel abandoned, forgotten and unrecognised.

I call on the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs, and Foreign Affairs to solve the problem of the loss of PRSI credits for volunteer workers who spend a period greater than five years in developing countries. I ask the Minister to accept that the cost to Irish Aid of paying the PRSI of volunteers working in developing countries would be minimal in the context of an overall budget of nearly €1 billion. More important, it would demonstrate that we value the work our volunteer workers do in the developing world.

A small number, probably less than 100, have already lost their PRSI credits. I am also advised of one case in which a volunteer lost 11 years' credits, a significant loss for the individual concerned. As part of an initiative to remove the five year limit, I ask the Minister to deal sympathetically with the issue of arrears, as the number of individuals involved is small. These are genuine cases.

I am aware of the issue.

Will the Minister make a commitment to address it?

Deputy Perry is eroding Deputy Sherlock's time.

I am always willing to allow Deputy Perry some latitude.

The Deputy has limited latitude as he has only three minutes' speaking time.

I will address my remarks specifically to domiciliary care allowance. The timeframe for dealing with applications for the allowance is too lengthy and causes undue hardship for those applying in respect of minors. I ask the Minister to address this issue.

In the HSE south area expenditure on supplementary welfare allowance which forms part of the rent supplement scheme amounted to €43.56 million in 2005, €46.30 million in 2006 and €49.21 million in 2007. Annual increases in expenditure in this area would be unwarranted if the Government was doing its job and delivering an adequate social housing programme. Every year the number on the social housing waiting list who contact me grows exponentially. Rent supplement is directly linked to the increase in the number on the social housing waiting list and continues to cost the State exorbitant amounts every year. The moneys expended under the scheme are pocketed by landlords. If an adequate programme for dealing with social housing was in place, the expenditure allocated to rent supplement could be redirected to more needy sections of society.

The rental accommodation scheme is one way of supplanting the rent supplement scheme. My party advocates a "begin to buy" approach which would allow more people to move from social housing onto the housing ladder. We need more joined-up thinking on this issue. While the supplementary welfare scheme may be a necessary mechanism in the short term, we must examine the reasons expenditure on it is increasing every year. More and more people are being forced onto social housing waiting lists. I ask the Minister to address this issue.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I compliment him and the staff at all levels of his Department for the courtesy and help they provide to us as public representatives in our regular contacts on behalf of our constituents. One always feels one's representations have been received in the best possible way. The ongoing contact to follow through on cases is to be commended as is the manner in which staff make themselves available to discuss individual cases, not only with us but also with our staff. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his Department are open, fair and available and long may it be so. It is a pleasure to deal with the many members of staff at local, regional and national level.

I am delighted to speak on this Bill which affects the lives of so many people around the country. Budget 2008 provides approximately €900 million in welfare payments. This includes support for 420,000 pensioners, more than 1 million children and 48,000 carers.

In Roscommon alone, more than 4,000 pensioners will be better off with the passing of this Bill. Older people represent a core priority for Fianna Fáil in Government. In 1997 and 2002, we set ambitious targets for substantially increasing what we have renamed the State pension. We not only met those targets, we have exceeded them. We increased pensions by 70% above inflation during the past ten years.

No one doubts the enormous contribution carers make to those they care for and their families. Many older people and those with disabilities depend on carers to ensure they can live at home for as long as possible. In recognition of the vital work which carers perform, the carer's allowance, carer's benefit and the respite grant were introduced by Fianna Fáil in government.

Since 1997, weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for payments have been significantly eased, coverage of schemes has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced. Of these, more than 32,400 are in receipt of carer's allowance and more than 1,980 are in receipt of carer's benefit. More than 8,000 carers also received a respite care grant in 2007.

The introduction last year of an entitlement allowing carers to retain a full social welfare payment and to receive in addition up to half rate carer's allowance was an extremely welcome development and of real significance. These new arrangements, which came into force in September 2007, apply to almost all weekly social welfare payments including State pensions and widow and widowers pensions as well as those in receipt of qualified adult allowances. Since these changes were introduced last September more than 7,000 carers have benefited.

Ireland's economic success has been accompanied by a dramatic change in the number of women at work. Since 1997, the number of working women has increased by more than 45% and the majority of mothers now go out to work. In recognition of this, and of the growing need for child care, the Government has not only provided 35,000 child care places but also dramatically increased supports for more than 1 million children and approximately 600,000 families.

Under Fianna Fáil, child benefit has quadrupled and the early child care supplement of €1,100 per year for all children under the age of six was introduced. Taken together, these payments mean a family with two children under six receive direct financial support of €6,148 every year, an increase of approximately €4,978 since 1997. Maternity leave has also increased and mothers of new-born children can now take a full six months paid, and four and a half months unpaid, leave. This is in the best interests of mothers and babies.

I mentioned a few of the groups I feel will greatly benefit from the enactment of this Bill, which will provide approximately €17 billion on social welfare expenditure this year. This is a real commitment by the Government to those in our communities who most need support. It has always been the policy and principled position of Fianna Fáil in Government that those who are most in need should be supported, in particular when the country in which we are so fortunate to live has the economic success which allows the Government to do so.

I concur with the previous speaker's remarks on the manner in which the Department of Social and Family Affairs manages its business in a humane and caring fashion. Prior to the Minister blushing with excitement I must state previous Ministers would claim some responsibility for the creation of this beauty which was born a considerable time ago. I wish to give credit to all on this matter. It is a lesson to other Departments whereby contact can be made with people in a position to progress matters. In the bureaucratic and less caring world in which we live it is nice to see personal attention and I compliment the Minister, his staff and their predecessors for it.

The Social Welfare and Pensions Bill is always interesting to discuss. A series of areas could do with examination apart from those covered and anticipated in the context of the Bill. A number of people should and could qualify for what is now known as the State pension by virtue of their contributions to the State over a period of time. I speak of people who are carers and who, through no fault of their own, have never been able to enter employment. People who have left employment are credited with their contributions.

A strong case can be made for those who never had an opportunity to obtain contributions for insurable employment outside the home. They are aggrieved their work is not recognised. People may have spent 20 or 25 years caring for a relative, perhaps in a serious case involving special needs or disability, giving of their full time and attention. They should be recognised and given credit through providing them with a minimum pension and minimum credits. They have saved the State major amounts of money as they care for somebody at home, thereby providing a service which would otherwise have to be provided by the State. In many of these cases they receive no recognition or income. When the person being cared for passes on, they receive nothing, which is the sad part. I would like the Minister to examine this issue. There are many who would benefit from a change and it would not cost the Exchequer a huge amount. One of my last proposals in the Department related to pensions. I was correct in my assessment that it would not have cost the Exchequer a great deal of money when everyone else claimed it would.

The means tests for benefits are beginning to pinch again. It is a sign of the times with the various economic twinges being experienced. The means test as a cut-off point for qualification for certain payments needs to be examined with a view to easing and improving it. The Minister is aware I tabled numerous parliamentary questions on the subject. It needs to be examined regularly, particularly in times of food inflation. The cost of food has gone up, a contradiction of what we were told would happen when the minimum prices order was abolished. Some of us knew this at the time but that is the way it is. The Minister must review the means test.

The respite care grants scheme is an excellent one, whereby recognition is given to the carer and the person being cared for in many cases. There is some small financial recompense and recognition given for the hours, days and months of caring and a break in the tedium is allowed. I am always one to bow to professionals but I also like to know I can question them. In several cases relating to qualifying for the respite grant I did not believe decisions had been made in accordance with what I remembered to be the rules, by which I mean the announcement by the Minister in the House of a scheme and the application of the rules thereafter.

In a particular case I encountered, a person was caring for two others. I found it difficult to understand how one could have scrubbed out a person caring for two people as being ineligible for a respite grant. It could have been argued that one or both of the persons being cared for was not 100% incapacitated but that should not have meant the person concerned would be disqualified from receiving the grant; in fact the reverse can often be the case. I reject the notion that in such cases a person should not qualify for at least one grant. I will be pursuing this issue until such time it is decided to review it. It is a sensitive issue. I am sure, as lightening does not strike once, there have been similar cases.

Bilateral social welfare agreements have caused me as a public representative much frustration. Our next door neighbours are not the most adept at responding to queries concerning welfare entitlements. There should be no delay whatsoever. Modern technology has improved communications to such an extent that information should be retrievable instantly. If one has a particularly sensitive case, one will be told it may be subject to calculations based on Irish and UK social contributions or requires a response from the UK authorities, taking some considerable time. It should not take so much time. The people we need to serve are those in need of the reply. A week may be a short time to some of us. An ill or incapacitated person waiting on a payment sees the cause of the blockage or embargo as a major issue because he or she is vulnerable.

It would be a good approach to examine all social welfare bilateral agreements, to find out how satisfactorily they are working. Those not working efficiently can be dealt with. By virtue of their name, bilateral agreements work in both directions. While there may be language problems with EU countries with which we have arrangements, modern technology can assist in dealing with the matter.

These are the particular issues that most annoy me as a public representative. I am sure the Minister receives the same queries, as do Members on all sides of the House. The means test for carer's allowance is an old chestnut, raised many times before. There are far more people involved in caring for others than the number who receive carer's allowance. That the means test can deprive a carer of a payment does not mean it is saving the State a great deal of money. A person who is not being cared for will have to be institutionalised. It is demeaning to the person providing the care if it transpires he or she does not qualify for the allowance on financial and income grounds. It usually means the husband or wife of the carer is earning outside the household. As a result, the family is deemed capable of providing care at its own expense.

I know the Minister is familiar with this subject but I ask him to review the arrangements. I accept improvements have been made in several recent budgets but it bears examination again. The extent to which carers are relieving the State of responsibility is much greater than the payment that would be made to them. Some may ask how that can be. It is simply because they are nursing on a one-to-one basis, a very difficult task in other circumstances, based in the community, and are available to run messages and care for the person concerned. The need question should not arise in such cases. It is because of the contribution they are making to society that we should consider their plight and recognise their effort.

I accept the Minister must work within budgetary constraints, but there are less deserving cases that receive as much recognition from other Departments. If I were the Minister I would put it high on my agenda, although I am sure he does already. I know also that when budget time approaches there is usually a scramble in the back yard to load up the wagon as it proceeds in the direction of the budget. Some things fall off the wagon altogether, never to be found again. Issues such as these require special consideration simply because the people whom they affect are vulnerable and dependent on people outside their immediate family circles.

These are a few of the things I wanted to say on this subject. I congratulate the Minister on the successes we have had to date but I strongly urge that he consider the points I raised, not necessarily because I raised them but because they are important. There is no Dáil Deputy who has not come across these issues and does not come across them on a regular basis.

I thank Deputies from all sides of the House for their contributions to this debate. I am also heartened by the fact there was generally a warm welcome for the improvements in budget 2008. The social welfare package was larger than many had anticipated and its share of the available resources was considerable. In this regard I acknowledge the support of the Minister for Finance and his commitment to this area of budget strategy. This has worked out reasonably well and has allowed a continuation of the benefits that have been accrued in recent years in many different areas.

Equally, I understand the points made by individual Deputies about specific areas in which they would like to see more done. As Deputy Durkan said, like every other Minister for social welfare, I have not had unlimited resources. We must work within reasonable constraints and try to target the resources in the best manner, particularly, as I said earlier today and in previous discussions, towards the less well off in society. I am proud of our achievements over the last number of years, particularly in the areas of pensions, resources for children, and carer's benefit — the latter of which has improved greatly in recent years — and we will continue to work on these areas in the years ahead. We said in the previous Government that we would raise the old-age pension to more than €200 per week, and we exceeded that figure. It is certainly our intention to bring the State pension to over €300 per week in the lifetime of this Government.

Many Deputies raised similar issues, so I will refer here to the principal points that were made. Deputy Olwyn Enright expressed concern that the provisions of section 6 might disadvantage a person transferring from invalidity pension to illness benefit. I assure the Deputy that this provision would be of benefit to such persons. The current position is that where a person in receipt of invalidity pension claims illness benefit, the personal rate of payment is determined in part by the average weekly earnings in the relevant tax year, which in these cases is likely to be the lowest graduated rate, as the customer would not have had earnings in the relevant tax year. The amendment will ensure the rate of illness benefit paid to those who transfer back from invalidity pension will be based on the person's earnings in the relevant tax year when they last qualified for illness benefit or the most recent tax year, whichever is more beneficial.

Deputy Enright also sought clarification on the assessment of capital for those on disability allowance vis-à-vis those on other social welfare assistance, particularly, in this case, non-contributory State pension. The relevant amendment provides that a person moving from disability allowance to State pension at the age of 66 will not receive a lower rate of payment due to the less favourable capital disregard on the non-contributory State pension scheme. Under current legislative proposals, the capital disregard applied to eligibility for disability allowance is more favourable than that applied to eligibility for non-contributory State pension. This amendment is intended to ensure that a person will not lose out if he or she moves from disability allowance to non-contributory State pension. In recognition of the particular circumstances of those on disability allowance, as part of budget 2007 a higher threshold of €50,000 capital disregard for disability allowance was introduced. This will facilitate customers to hold this amount of capital or allow a provision of up to this amount to be made for a customer without affecting the rate of payment. This measure goes some way towards addressing the issue of financial provision for vulnerable clients, particularly by way of bequests from parents.

Many Deputies spoke about proposals for supporting lone parents. There was also much discussion on this issue between myself and Deputies Enright and Róisín Shortall during today's Question Time. I will not rehash all the details as it was a comprehensive debate and we had a good discussion. However, the issue was raised again by many Deputies this afternoon. Deputy Shortall also raised concerns about activation measures and particularly the role of FÁS during this debate and also during Question Time. We had a detailed discussion on this and I provided all the figures and information requested during Question Time so I will not go over that ground again. It has been put on the record numerous times. The issue of habitual residence and child benefit was also raised by Deputies Shortall and Enright during the course of this Second Stage debate. Again, many parliamentary questions were asked on this issue today and it was discussed in some detail.

I welcome the support of Deputies for the transfer of both the domiciliary care allowance, DCA, and the blind welfare allowance to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. These schemes are being transferred on an as-is basis. We will be reviewing the operation of the schemes on an ongoing basis to ensure they best meet the needs of the recipients. Any changes required will be made in future social welfare legislation. The conditions for receipt of the payments, including the age of the qualified child in the case of DCA, will be examined in this context, as will the possibility of merging the payments with existing social welfare payments. That has been welcomed by all.

Deputy Shortall expressed concerns arising from the frequent changes to the social welfare legislation and the need for regular consolidation Acts. The Law Reform Commission has published a consultation paper on statute law restatement. The Department participated in the public consultation process leading to the paper and will continue to participate in the statute law restatement programme with a view to enhancing the accessibility of social welfare legislation. Annual consolidation of primary legislation is a matter for the Office of the Attorney General in the context of the proposals for restatement. As part of our ongoing commitment to customer service the Department publishes all Social Welfare and Pensions Acts since 2001 on its website, and will publish all similar future Acts. It would not, however, be appropriate for the Department's website to contain an informal consolidation of the Social Welfare Acts. I am sure the Deputy will understand that.

Deputy Shortall also raised the difficulties experienced by people moving from welfare to work in relation to the payment of rent supplement and their interaction with the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Overall, I consider that the current eligibility thresholds and income disregards ensure that people have a financial incentive to take up employment opportunities. Those on rent supplement who are accepted as eligible for RAS must continue the qualifying conditions of the rent supplement scheme in common with other rent supplement recipients. However, once such claimants transfer to RAS, they may avail of the differential rent assessment where appropriate. I note the issues raised by Deputy Shortall and I intend to keep the rent supplement scheme under review. The Department will be working closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in ensuring that RAS meets its objective of catering for those on long-term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role as a short-term income support.

Deputy Shortall queried the proposed amendment applying the habitual residence condition to the half-rate carer's allowance, stating it was a new development. I assure the Deputy this is not the case. Section 186A(2) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act already provides that a person must be habitually resident in order to receive a half-rate carer's allowance. The amendment suggested by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel is designed to ensure that those schemes covered by the habitual residence clause are contained in one area for the purpose of clarity. This amendment does not change practice or intent in this regard and has no impact on any claims already processed. I hope that clarifies the position for Deputy Shortall.

Deputy Enright sought clarification on the provisions relating to the transfer of contributions between the social insurance fund and the pension scheme of the European Communities Institution, and also on the mobility of social insurance contributions generally. The EU rules on social security contained in EC regulations 1408/71574/72 and 859/2003 are intended to ensure that people moving within the EU or EEA are protected in matters of social security. For the purposes of EU rules, the State pension transition and the State pension contributory are classified as old age pensions. If a person does not satisfy the PRSI contribution conditions for the State pension transition or the State pension contributory on his or her social insurance record, he or she may still be entitled to a reduced rate of pension if he or she has worked in another member state. This is made possible by combining the social insurance record in that country with the Irish insurance record. Along with the Irish pension, that person may get a pension from the other country or countries in which he or she worked. Each member state will also look at any insurance a person has in another member state. This can help him or her to get a pension or a higher pension under its own scheme. To this end, each country sends details of that person's insurance records to others.

Deputy Shortall raised concerns about barriers faced by people making the transition to work. I am sure the Deputy accepts that in providing vital income support to the unemployed and other disadvantaged people, there is a constant balance to be maintained in ensuring that programmes are developed in ways that are sufficiently responsive to various contingencies while simultaneously providing opportunities to assist people to become less welfare-dependent.

I am conscious of the need to facilitate persons in receipt of social welfare payments in taking up employment opportunities. This matter was discussed again this afternoon. Clearly, I am anxious to ensure that we end up with as smooth a transition as possible from social welfare to part-time or full-time employment in respect of people's benefits. It has been acknowledged by a number of groups that good work has been done in the past few years. It has been my wish that when we move to the new payment and deal with cohabitation issues, we can have as good a system as possible. My intention is to try to achieve this for budget 2009. That is a big ask but it is possible to achieve it and it is certainly my intention to go down that route. We discussed that issue at some length this afternoon during Question Time so I will not rehearse the debate.

Deputy Enright raised a number of questions relating to the provision of trustee training and I welcome her positive response to this initiative. Trustee training is considered important for pension scheme governance as it helps trustees to develop the skill sets necessary to perform their duties and functions effectively. Ongoing training ensures trustees are kept up to date with regulatory developments and changes in the pension landscape. The Pensions Board has also drawn up a register of approved trustee training courses, which is available on its website. Some of these courses offer the trustee a formal qualification. Overall costs of training may rise as more trustees will be trained more often. It should be noted that the Pensions Board is examining the introduction of a system of e-learning to fulfil obligations in this area. This examination will also explore certification options. This approach has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of trustee training. The new provision in respect of trustee training will commence as soon as the board has completed this examination.

In addition to the proposed amendment, the report on trusteeship also made a number of other recommendations which do not require amendments to the Pensions Act and which are and will be progressed on an ongoing basis. This training initiative will be monitored on an ongoing basis by the Department and the Pensions Board.

Deputies Enright and Shortall also argued that changes to the Pensions Act are long overdue and are seemingly being rushed through the House. I point out to Deputy Enright that since the passing of the Pensions Act 1990, a number of subsequent Bills have been enacted to amend it. These amendments have been carried out in consultation with the Pensions Board and all the key stakeholders in the pensions area. In line with the Government's policy on better regulation, the Department conducted a regulatory impact analysis in respect of the key amendments to the Pensions Act in this Bill.

On a point of clarity, I wish to point out to the Deputy that this Bill is not deleting a provision in respect of on-the-spot fines for pension scheme administrators. Such administrators are only now being brought under the remit of the Pensions Act. The new on-the-spot fine regime introduced last year will not apply to administrators. Any breaches of the Act by administrators will be considered serious and dealt with by way of a prosecution.

We are aware the Green Paper on pensions is up for discussion currently. We have already indicated publicly the number of regional meetings that are now taking place at the end of March and the beginning of April, culminating in May. I have kept to my timeframe, with the final conference on this issue in Dublin. I am glad there have been so many submissions even through the website. Many people sent in individual submissions. The time will come after that to make decisions.

Deputy Deasy raised the issue of community employment. I was not in the House as I was at a meeting but I heard some of the discourse in my office on the monitor. The Deputy spoke about the €20 increase in the community employment payment and the PRSI implications of this increase. The community employment scheme, which is administered by FÁS, is designed to assist long-term unemployed people and others who are distant from the labour force by offering them part-time and temporary work positions in jobs in local communities. Following the placement, participants are actively encouraged to capitalise on the skills and experience they have obtained through the scheme. Participants on community employment schemes are provided with an average of 39 hours per week. Earnings from this work are liable to PRSI contributions at class A. Participants with reckonable weekly pay of €352 or less are insured at PRSI subclass A8 and are exempt from paying PRSI, while participants with earnings exceeding that amount are insured under PRSI subclass A9, which has an employee social insurance liability of 4% of earnings after the first €127. In each case, the employer pays a reduced PRSI contribution of 0.5%. Participants on community employment schemes can accrue entitlement for all social insurance benefits and pensions on that basis. The requirement to pay PRSI class A contributions was introduced in the Social Welfare Act 1996 in a bid to enhance the working status of community employment scheme participants and to afford them the same level of social protection as that afforded to fully insured workers.

The point I make to Deputy Deasy is that this provision was asked for. It was requested that people on community employment schemes pay full PRSI in the same way as a normal person because the benefits that would accrue accumulatively in terms of matters like pensions or other social welfare benefits would be available to them. While the Deputy highlighted a case, and I am sure he will come back to me if I misinterpreted the point he made, the point is that by triggering over the income level, that person got themselves on to class A in terms of their PRSI contributions, which have a substantial benefit when it comes to contributory pension numbers down the road. That was the reason for it. While there might be an immediate feeling of being hard done by in respect of the contribution, it was asked for and done to enhance the approach of community employment schemes.

I think I have covered all the issues. I again thank all the Deputies and my officials for their efforts on Second Stage and look forward to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.