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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 11 Nov 2008

Vol. 666 No. 3

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Hanafin, on 11 November 2008:
"That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
"in view of the series of measures announced in budget 2009 and proposed in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 which target the unemployed, children, the poor and people with disabilities resulting in the fact that
unemployed people will lose over €2,500 due to changes to jobseeker's benefit,
parents of 18 year olds will lose almost €2,000 due to changes to child benefit,
parents of 5 year olds will lose approximately €800 due to changes to early childcare supplement,
tenants dependent on rent supplement will effectively get no increase at all in 2009 due to increases in the minimum contributions they must now make to their rent,
fewer unemployed people will qualify for jobseeker's benefit because of new restrictions on entitlement,
fewer people with disabilities, injuries or illnesses will qualify for welfare support, and for those who do, the duration of payment has been capped,
part-time workers will receive less when they claim jobseeker's benefit because of a new cap on their rate of payment,
Dáil Éireann declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill.".
—(Deputy Róisín Shortall.)

This budget's cuts target children and I have already highlighted the cuts in child benefit. I will move on to another area in which the budget and this legislation have been very disappointing. I refer to children who could be described as the poorest of the poor — the 96,000 children under the age of 14 who are living in consistent poverty. I am thinking particularly of those children whose parent or parents are exclusively dependent on social welfare. There has been a debate about whether it is best to use child benefit to assist those children and lift them out of poverty or to increase the qualified child allowance. Over the years it has been accepted that the best approach was to employ child benefit. There is no doubt that in the past there have been significant increases in child benefit. However, in these more straitened times, given the existence of this cohort of children who are lagging way behind, there is an argument for targeting these children by providing an additional payment to them. That principle was accepted in the context of the debate that was going on a number of years ago about the provision of supports for lone parents. At that time the thrust of such proposals was very much welcomed, although the detail needed to be hammered out, and concern was expressed by some groups working in that area. However, the principle espoused in these proposals — that there should be a supplementary payment to children in poor families irrespective of whether their parents were married, whether there was one parent or two in the family home, and whether their parents were working — was precisely what was needed. It was a measure which would support children in poverty irrespective of their other family circumstances. That is still very much needed. In the absence of progress in this area, however, there is an unanswerable case for targeting those children who remain in consistent poverty with supports. For that reason, the miserly €2 per week increase in income support for those children is very disappointing.

The restriction of the early childhood supplement has been portrayed as a change that will be introduced to end the payment of the supplement at five and a half years of age. There is no basis for that decision. I do not know why it is happening and I think it is mean. However, it goes further than that. Hidden in that proposal is something that has not been spelt out by the Minister — the change in the method of payment of the supplement from a quarterly to a monthly payment. No reference at all is made to the fact that this change encompasses a particularly sneaky cut. It is not just a half-year's payment that will be lost; it is more than that. Previously, the early childhood supplement was paid up to the time the child was 75 months. Now it will be paid only until the age of 66 months. This will result in a loss of €800 to parents of children aged five and a half. This is a retrograde step and I do not know why it has been introduced. It is a particularly sneaky cut, targeted at families with small children, many of whom are on low incomes. It should not be happening. There are many other targets that could have been hit in order to make savings.

There is serious concern about the provisions regarding claw-back in the rent supplement scheme. As a result of the €5 claw-back on rent, people in private rented accommodation on rent supplement and who are in receipt of a social welfare payment are getting an increase of only €1.50 rather than €6.50 per week. I spoke to the Minister about this earlier during Question Time. She gave a long explanation after which she stated that this was entirely reasonable. It is incredible that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs would say it is entirely reasonable for a person on social welfare to get an increase of €1.50, which is what it amounts to. In real terms, this amounts to a substantial cut in these people's incomes. Rather than being entirely reasonable, it shows that the Minister is entirely out of touch. If she thinks people can survive on that level of income, she is on a different planet.

There are a number of omissions from the Bill which are very disappointing. There is no improvement in the back to education initiative and nothing on the back to work enterprise initiative. There is no mention of pension reform, in spite of promises given during the Green Paper process of firm proposals with regard to the burning issue of pensions. There is nothing for lone parents, in spite of the fact that the previous two Ministers promised changes in this regard. There is a major need for reform in this area to bring it up to date and deal with the issue of cohabitation. There is also no reform to the rent supplement scheme, despite the increase in the numbers availing of and relying on the scheme. There is a need to introduce a differential rent, as in the rental accommodation scheme — that is the benefit of RAS. This could be done in respect of people who are in receipt of rent supplement. It is extremely disappointing that in spite of promises over many years there is still no carers' strategy in place. It had been promised for the end of 2007 but there is no sign of it yet. This is yet another in a long list of omissions from this legislation. Overall, it is extremely disappointing and that is the reason the Labour Party will be opposing it.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is worth considering the size of the Bill and the cost to the State of €19.5 billion projected for 2009. As I understand it, that money supports around 1.7 million men, women and children in the State. Clearly it is not possible at this time for the Government to put in place the increases that would ordinarily be expected based on the growth rate of the economy over the past number of years. Notwithstanding that, the State has put an extra €2.6 billion into the budget this year to take account of the expected increase in unemployment. As most people in the House will know, the average number on the live register in 2008 was 220,000, while the projected number for next year is 290,000. The social welfare budget must take account of this and must put in place within the Vote the necessary funds to deal with the fallout. This has taken up much of the slack that might in the past have been used to improve some of the other elements. We must recognise that the rate of inflation has reduced considerably, and the increases in the rates of payment are commensurate with this. Therefore, while not as high as people would like, they are appropriate to deal with the increased costs faced by those 1.7 million people over the coming year.

Deputy Shortall spoke about the early childhood supplement and the fact that the scheme was being limited at five and a half years of age as opposed to six. I remember taking a keen interest in this measure when it was first introduced. Much of the talk was about a pre-school requirement for children and the call on the State at the time was to provide for children in advance of their starting school. To the best of my knowledge, most children are in school before they reach the age of five and a half; if not, they are exceptions to the rule. Many children go to school at four. This support was put in place to assist parents in providing for the relatively high cost associated with pre-school requirements for children. Therefore the five and a half years cut-off is appropriate. One must also take into account that the State has very heavily invested in the provision of child care places for children with particular needs. The approach to the provision of places is skewed towards children from lower incomes. Deputy Shortall talked about the need for child care coming from low income families. People having children do not necessarily come from the low income bracket. That is why the State's investment in the child care programme focuses on providing services for children from less well off backgrounds where the parents are primarily on social welfare. The needs are more than well addressed and it is right and appropriate that the new level be put in place. It saves money that can be used to better facilitate those in greatest need.

Deputy Shortall identified the monthly payment as a cost saving, but that money is not being squirrelled away for some other purpose. The requirement in the Department of Social and Family Affairs Vote for next year increases by €2.6 billion. While it is never easy for a Minister to have to recognise or develop changes in this way, it was the right thing to do. Money is not being taken from anybody; the scheme will end a little earlier than in the past.

The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is a clear statement by the Government to protect the most needy and vulnerable in society, whether pensioners or the unemployed. We have targeted that well in this approach, notwithstanding the very significant change in the economy. The State is borrowing to meet current expenditure. We are raising less tax than we would have in the past and the difference is approximately €10 million per day. That is unsustainable in the long term. Some of the "nice to have" measures that were there in the past, in good times, were part of the Government's commitment when it had the available resources to put them into the identified areas. When circumstances change there is a requirement to fund the areas that are most in need and that is happening in the changes in this Bill.

It is important we recognise we face many challenges. The most significant challenge is to try to control the level of public spending without taking too much spending power from the economy, which will lead to a further recession. The Government's central approach is to try to limit spending while retaining the capacity for people to work towards reversing the downward trend and moving towards growth in the economy. We all recognise this is the only way to allow for the economy to provide for itself rather than depending on borrowing.

This phenomenon is not relevant only to Ireland. To everybody in this House who looks to other countries or who spends any time reading the national and international press, the problems we encounter are being encountered across the developed world. Some other jurisdictions, particularly the Asian markets, have seen very significant changes and downward growth patterns despite the fact they did not have the same level of development in their economy. A small, open economy such as ours will have suffered to a greater extent than many larger countries. It is only a matter of time before they encounter the same levels of difficulty we have. Growth rates happened for us more quickly than others.

The challenges we face require very decisive action. This Government has the necessary experience to manage the economy in these difficult times. It is about facing up to the difficult decisions and accepting that what happened in the past has been to the benefit of this country. However, we must arrest the decline in our tax intakes and look at spending in a much more careful way. The level of scrutiny put in place by the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and Finance is right. The increases in social welfare payments are generally in line with inflation. They are not as large as anybody would like to put in place, but it is important to manage the available finances as well as possible. The increase of €7 per week for all State pensioners, whether contributory or non-contributory, along with carers aged 66 and over from January 2009 is helpful. The jobseeker's allowance will increase by €6.50 per week, notwithstanding what Deputy Shortall said, bringing that to €204.30 per week.

It is difficult for people who have to survive on that kind of payment. While the small increase will not change their lives in any real way I am less concerned about those who have been managing on it to date. The biggest difficulty will be encountered by those who over the past number of weeks and in the coming months will find themselves out of employment. In some cases redundancy payments will help them over the hump, however many people will not have that level of security. They will find themselves going from having a relatively decent income to being, perhaps for the first time in their lives, dependent on social welfare. It is projected that approximately 70,000 extra people will go on the live register. The shock for them will be very significant and will pose major difficulties for the families, particularly those who have young children, mortgages and financial commitments.

I appeal to the banking fraternity to show a level of compassion and, perhaps, support to families which find themselves in those circumstances. The Government has taken a very proactive approach to dealing with the banking crisis by putting in place the necessary security to allow banks to trade themselves out of the difficulties which they got themselves into. Some banks suggest they find themselves in this position as a result of an international problem and that is partly correct. The lack of regulation that emanated from the United States and, perhaps, was followed in other countries allowed banks to neglect the necessary scrutiny of lending they would have carried out in the past. Given the nature of competition, this lack of regulation may have forced banks to follow this pattern. That has clearly caused problems. I appeal to the banks to look kindly on people who need their support.

While it is not clear what is happening in the banking sector, from talking to people on the ground, whether individuals or small businesses, the banks seem to be trying to find their own route out of the capitalisation issue. They seem to be moving on people or small businesses who have term loans and which they believe have the capacity to generate funds to pay off those loans in a shorter term than initially agreed. That is entirely wrong. In the near future the banks will need to be recapitalised. It is not clear how that will be done. As a last resort banks should expect the State to provide that capitalisation but I encourage the Government to give it consideration in the event that it becomes absolutely necessary. The banks' lack of capital reserves, particularly in tier one capital, to provide funds not just to small businesses but to individuals who find themselves out of work, will have a detrimental impact on our economy. The basic social welfare rate would not allow somebody who is employed, has a young family with all the associated financial commitments and is paying for his or her own home, to live in any kind of normal way. A requirement for debt will be associated with that.

We need to take an approach to the recapitalisation of the banks that prevents more people from coming onto the live register. There is a considerable necessity for the Dáil, as an elected body, to deal with the capitalisation of the banks. It is difficult to communicate that with the public. There is a perception among the public that the bank guarantee scheme that was put in place by the Government involved the bailing out of the banks. It is clear that was not the case. No State money has been put into the banks. The average person on the street believes that the State has bailed out the banks and the big builders and, in return, cut social welfare, taken medical cards from pensioners and done a whole lot of nasty things to school children. Much of that perception has been promoted by certain organs of the media. All of it sounds good, but none of it is true. There has been no bail-out of the banks. This Parliament needs to grapple with that perception.

We have to be in a position to communicate with the public the absolute need for the banks to be recapitalised in a way that allows for the orderly continuance of the basic commerce of society. People who experience particular life events — the loss of a job, or some requirement relating to the health of a family member — need to be able to access short-term loans from the banks. If we are to ensure we do not end up with more people on the live register, we need to enable banks to provide funds to small businesses, thereby allowing such businesses to continue as they have in the past.

The Bill provides for an increase of €2, to €20 a week, in the fuel allowance payment. While the increase is relatively small, it is important. The number of weeks for which the fuel allowance scheme will run each year will increase to 32 from April 2009, which is welcome. I hope the levelling off in energy prices we have seen over recent weeks will continue, as it would take some of the pressure from households this winter. The 300,000 householders who benefit from the fuel allowance scheme avail of a valuable payment. While we all agree that it is not enough, it is about as much as can be done in the current environment.

An increase of up to €6 a week, per child, will be provided for under the family income supplement scheme. The payment in question is particularly useful for those who find themselves having to take up lower-paid jobs as a result of the way the economy has gone. The qualified child payment will increase from €24 to €26. While it is not as large an increase as we would like to see, it is basically in line with the expected consumer price index for the coming year.

It is important that there will be an increase in the number of people who are eligible to claim the back to school allowance. The sad reality of the debate at present is that the teacher unions are motivating parents to be concerned about class sizes. It has to be recognised that it is an important issue. Parents are concerned about it. Those who will lose their jobs in the coming months will be concerned about how they will be able to dress their children as they go back to school next August and September. They will have to meet the basic needs of their children, such as clothes and books. That has not been an issue for many such people before now.

It is welcome that more people will be eligible for the back to school allowance. The time of the year when children return to school is a difficult one for some parents, particularly those who have not had to encounter this issue in the past. It is important that the Minister has announced that a double payment will be made to social welfare recipients this Christmas. People who are out of work, perhaps for the first time in their entire careers, will be under pressure this Christmas. The kind of advertising that is aimed at young people, in particular, puts a particular strain on families as they try to keep pace with their social peers. Anything that can be done in this regard is welcome and needs to be addressed. For example, credit unions and banks may be able to assist parents in getting through the Christmas period.

I welcome the decision to reduce the qualifying period for jobseeker's benefit from 15 months to 12 months for those with 260 contributions. As I understand it, the Government is aware of the need to protect and enhance the income levels of the less well-off in society. We continue to face serious social challenges. We need to work harder to improve the lot of the many people who continue to depend on social assistance.

It is clear that ordinary families are facing many pressures, some of which I have alluded to. Such challenges are much greater than they were in the past because we have experienced a record level of employment in this country. Many jobs were created in recent years as a result of the kind of approach that was taken in 1987. That approach, which was informed by the requirement for fiscal rectitude, was supported by almost all parties in this House. Most people agreed that it was important to get the finances of this country right. The same approach is part of the framework within which the recent budget and the Bill before the House have been put together. The underlying theme is the need to ensure we balance the books at the earliest possible point and work to try to rebuild the economy in line with developments at international level.

I listened carefully to the statement made by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. I was struck by how enthusiastic she was as she explained how generously she was treating the less-well off in our community. I started to wonder whether the Bill I had read was the same document as the one to which she was referring.

On 14 October last, the 2009 budget hit us like a steam train. We knew the economy was in difficulty but we hoped the Government would try to make the best of a bad situation by protecting the most vulnerable in our society, at the very least. Sadly this did not happen. Instead, we were hit with one set of cutbacks after another. The Minister for Finance tried to convince us that his budget would protect and support those most in need. The sad reality is the only group the Government is committed to helping and supporting is the banking sector. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, referred to his budget as a call to patriotic action. In other words, we are being asked to bail out a Government that did not plan for an economic downturn but instead spent every cent trying to keep the electorate happy in the run-up to last year's general election.

In the aftermath of budget 2009, there is a feeling of anger and betrayal on our streets. Young and old people have felt the brunt of Government cutbacks in areas like health, education and social welfare. They will not easily forget what the Government has put them through. The medical card disaster caused huge upset and worry for elderly people across the country. I will never forget the protests outside Leinster House against the changes in medical card eligibility for people over the age of 70. That week, I met hundreds of people in my constituency of Dublin South Central who were visibly upset and furious with the Government. I even received a telephone call from a farmer who explained to me that he and his wife, who are both 80 years of age, have worked hard on the land all their lives to support their family. They were upset that having supported their country through tough times, a valued entitlement was being taken away from them. After much back-tracking by the Government as it tried to resolve the crisis, the situation improved somewhat, but the entire saga has left a bitter taste with people.

This Government has shown no loyalty to people with disabilities. It initially tried to remove the entitlement to disability benefit of people between the ages of 16 and 18 but later did a U-turn, following a substantial public outcry. Such behaviour is a poor reflection on the Government's commitment to disability issues. If it was not bad enough to target the elderly and people with disability, our young people are also under attack through an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, the loss of 1,000 teachers, schools building projects coming to a standstill, the axing of funding for Traveller children, the scrapping of the free book scheme for 90% of schools and the abandoning of new subjects after schools had been given the go-ahead to provide them. For example, last year Drimnagh Castle secondary school was asked to support a new technology curriculum in 2010 for fifth and sixth year students. The school was informed it would receive a grant of €40,000 annually to provide the subject. I spoke to the principal recently who said he had not seen sight or sound of the money but he is still expected to roll out the technology curriculum, which the children will sit as a first time examination subject in 2010.

While the early school leaving rate is running at 29%, in the south west inner city in my constituency, we cannot abandon our young people who have been left hanging on to the edge for too long. How can the Government seriously stand by such cuts when they will clearly have a devastating effect on the education of our children? The Government parties should have more respect and loyalty to our young people who are the future of this country, but they are being left to dig the Government parties out of the mess into which they got everyone.

The Bill is nothing to be proud of, because it contains no concrete proposals to reduce reliance on social welfare and it offers no prospect for people to get back into the workforce. Small increases in payments are provided for but they do not go far enough at a time when unemployment is increasing on a daily basis and more and more families are forced to rely heavily on social welfare through no fault of their own. A total of 250,000 people are on the dole, with predictions that this figure will soon increase to more than 300,000. The Government's response is to increase jobseeker's benefit by a measly €6.50 per week and to make it more difficult to qualify for the payment. From January, it will be compulsory to have 13 paid contributions to qualify for this benefit. This will make it more difficult for young people, in particular, who had only started out in the workforce and recently lost their jobs. This will also increase pressure on families and parents, who have to support them as best they can, even into their 20s, if they lose their jobs.

The Minister has doubled the number of PRSI contributions paid since starting work from 52 to 104 for new claimants, which also makes it more difficult to access jobseeker's payments. The reduction in the time a person can be in receipt of jobseeker's benefit means many unemployed persons stand to lose approximately €2,600. In addition, waiting times for processing new claims are lengthy. People do not know where they stand and they are being forced onto the poverty line as they have no income. The Minister said she does not want people to develop a dependency on social welfare payments, but this it not the way forward. At a time like this, we must stand and support the social welfare recipients, particularly those who are unemployed, to give them the opportunity they need.

The Government prides itself on pumping money into FÁS to put people on training courses but they want jobs. Last week, I met a man who worked for 47 years as a highly skilled bricklayer. He was made redundant and he was recently contacted by FÁS who forwarded him to the local partnership to be retrained. He felt this was a demoralising and humiliating experience. After 47 years working in a highly skilled trade, he was asked to sit in front of a computer to be retrained but there are no jobs for him and many others like him. It is humiliating to ask a man who worked hard to rear his family to go back into training. If the Government is committed to retraining, why does it insist on making it so difficult to access the back to education allowance? I strongly disagree with the requirement for people to be on social welfare for 12 months before they can claim this allowance. They should be encouraged back into education and retraining and not forced to be dependent on social welfare. Reform is urgently needed and the Government needs to carefully rethink this process and make employment the goal.

This year's budget did nothing for our children and, instead, it reduced child benefit. A parent of an 18 year old stands to lose almost €1,000 in 2009 and almost €2,000 in 2010 due to the changes to child benefit. The reduction in the age limit for the early childhood supplement from six to five and a half years is another blow to families who have grown used to this payment. Child care costs have spiralled in recent years and parents are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. That is why it is important to support families and young children.

Child poverty is a reality in our society whether we want to believe it. Currently, one in nine children lives in consistent poverty in Ireland. Poverty for children means that they are excluded from activities that are considered normal in society. Child poverty has a long-term effect. It makes a difference to children's health, their educational achievement, how long they will live, how well they develop physically and mentally, the jobs they acquire as well as their overall life opportunities. If, as legislators, we do not fight to give our children every opportunity for their future, then we have failed them and this cannot be allowed to happen.

Fuel poverty is a threat to this country. An increase of €2 per week in the fuel allowance is not enough. We have experienced significant hikes in energy costs in recent months and low income households are struggling to pay fuel bills that are increasing every month. There was a time €2 would buy four bales of sticks but that is long past. On a recent visit to my local retail hardware store, a small bag of sticks cost €3.49. This is a sign of the times and the Bill does nothing to address the serious threat of fuel poverty. When I was growing up in Inchicore, I lived close to the Fleetwood factory and every week the gates were opened on Wednesdays and Fridays in order to give broken brush handles to people. People used to come from all over, including Ballyfermot, Inchicore, Crumlin and Drimnagh, with their carts to collect the broken handles. Surely, we are not returning to those days. It is a long time since I saw people queuing to collect sticks. A fuel strategy is needed, which will deal with increasing costs and ensure the less well off do not suffer unnecessarily.

The budget was a disaster and the Bill falls short of what is needed to address the serious and urgent problems facing the vulnerable in our society. The Government rushed into this year's budget without realistic or practical plans for the year ahead.

The Minister was very much at home in the Department of Education and Science, a Ministry close to her heart. However, as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, she has left her comfort zone. The legislation shows her lack of understanding of what it is like to be unemployed or a lone parent and, especially, of what it is like to be poor and to lack what is needed to get through the day.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I do not wish to rise to the previous speaker but, as someone who mentions his constituency now and again, I am interested to hear a colleague name almost every street in his or her constituency and that makes me feel comfortable. In deference to the previous speaker, the Minister is responding to what people are saying, which is important. I repeated the other day that of all the statements US President-elect Obama made last week, one that really struck me was when he stated that he will listen to people, especially when he disagrees with them. It is important that we all follow that, and I suspect the Minister will too.

I wish the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, well. It is not easy to try to look after people at a time when the economy is so challenged. Often I have stated that I can bring to my politics in this House my life experiences. I do not want to raise any remarks from other colleagues when I say that I was made redundant on three occasions and I can relate to the people facing those challenges. In fairness, it helps me to do my work and respond to the needs and the challenges of those families.

I would hope that the Minister will ensure that the Department will continue to respond in a responsible and caring way to ensure that those families affected by unemployment, especially sudden unemployment, are looked after as well as possible. There will always be restrictions and difficulties, but I always believe that the services of all Departments, especially the Department of Social and Family Affairs, should be consumer friendly and I would expect that such should continue to be the case.

Colleagues have commented on the need to look at different schemes and tweak their provisions. Reference was made to the back to education allowance and to the training allowance. We should be open — I hope the Department will be — to deal with these issues on a case by case basis.

I do not want to ambush the Minister on the number of claims being submitted. The rising unemployment figures have created particular difficulties and different challenges and some people have been left a little while waiting. The Minister has assured me and other colleagues that everything possible is being done in the Department to correct those issues and I would hope that she would continue to do so.

I compliment the local social welfare office in Tallaght. It is one of the more modern of the Department's buildings and provides excellent service. Indeed, all those years ago when I was unemployed the people there were very kind to me within the regulations and as I said, I hope that they will continue to be people friendly.

In a debate like this a great deal can be said and colleagues have made all sorts of statements. Apart from being a Dáil Deputy for one of the Dublin constituencies, Dublin South-West, happily, I am also Vice Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs under the guidance of my colleague, Deputy Healy-Rae. I enjoy that work. I was a member of that committee for the first five years that I was lucky enough to be a Dáil Deputy and it was work I wanted to continue because it is where I am at politically. As I stated, I came from a background where, unfortunately, I and my family members faced unemployment. When I was involved in the community in Tallaght where there was much unemployment and a great need for jobs, this was a matter on which I focused. Throughout my community work and my political life, particularly through my membership of the Dáil over the past six years, I have taken a particular interest in this area and I think it is important that we would continue to do that.

The Minister will be aware that I will never be afraid to speak out on issues of concern to me. Reference has been made already in the debate this evening to fuel poverty and the joint committee will meet Department officials on that issue tomorrow. Party colleagues and, indeed, colleagues across the parties, have concerns. I am not a bit afraid to say that because it is important, especially when one goes out tonight and inhales the Dublin air. I love Dublin, by the way, and I am a true-born Dubliner, but it is very cold out there tonight and those in a vulnerable position such as the elderly and the unemployed will encounter particular difficulties and challenges as far as fuel poverty is concerned. It is important that we continue to raise this with the Minister. Former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, often reminded us that one must remember the little boats; we must do so now in particular given that even the big boats are struggling. I have always brought to my work in the Dáil my own views about social inclusion, reared, as I was, on the political knee of my predecessor, Chris Flood. It is important that we would make the point that fuel poverty is an issue which should be dealt with.

Like everybody else, I have concerns. In fairness to the Minister, she has been fair about the Combat Poverty Agency to which I heard colleagues make reference tonight. I would hope that everything will be done to ensure a transition which is to everybody's advantage and that the staff in that organisation are facilitated and their expressed concerns are dealt with. I genuinely believe there is a need in a democracy for representation that continues to focus on the issues the organisation has faithfully represented over the years. The various other organisations, including CORI, that keep public representatives and Deputies fully informed about issues and add to our knowledge base should be supported by us. I would hope that process can continue.

On the point I made about unemployment, we should not take our eye off the ball as far as the need for job creation is concerned. While there is no question that the Department of Social and Family Affairs must respond where jobs are being lost — at a time when the economy is being challenged jobs will definitely be lost — the best way out of poverty and dependence on social welfare payments will always be more job creation. Even in a debate on social and family affairs, I am sure the Minister would want me to state the importance of focusing on the need to create employment and to ensure that the services of the State in the social welfare offices and in training agencies etc. are focused on getting people back to work and looking after those who genuinely seek employment. I would hope that message will go out clearly to all of the Departments and continue to be a strong plank as we move forward.

Reference has been made in the debate to payments for lone parents. I am sure the Minister will not mind me invoking our former colleague and Minister, the late Deputy Séamus Brennan, who, when I was chairman of the Fianna Fáil policy group on social and family affairs, certainly took a particular interest in that issue on which there was a long-standing debate and proposals made. That matter, like many of the others on the Minister's desk, is a work in progress. There is a need to continue to look at the cases of people who find themselves in difficulties, and almost in a poverty trap as far as payments and rent supplement are concerned, who are unable to get back to work and, therefore, jeopardise their payments.

Other lone parent issues raised in the debate under former Minister, the late Séamus Brennan, still must be dealt with. I take the view, without being flippant about it, that it is a nonsense to have council officials hiding in bushes to see who is leaving people's houses at 6 o'clock in the morning. Those days should be well gone. There must be a better way of dealing with those matters. I would hope that the debate to which I refer is not over. It is a work in progress and it should be dealt with.

The Bill makes reference to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. I do not know whether all Members will be aware that I live in Tallaght.

Would it be a shock to many Members?

I probably do not mention it too often.

As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle may know, in Tallaght there is a Citizens Information Centre office and a separate Money Advice and Budgeting Service office. I suppose people will be wondering when this Bill has passed and these issues are dealt with what sort of relationship will exist locally, whether the services will fuse and the offices will be brought together. It is fair enough to raise local matters. Certainly in Tallaght, and in every other constituency, both organisations provide tremendous services and are very popular. There has always been a strong demand for the services provided by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and thank God it has been there in good times and difficult times to help families. Now, that times are challenging again it has a particular role to play. I hope the changeover and transition will be done in a seamless way to ensure families do not notice a difference apart from increased availability of services. I expect people want this to be the case and I state it in a clear way.

In recent times, I have had representations about pensions. Tallaght Welfare Society was one of the pre-budget and post-budget submission groups. As I stated to the Minister recently, it is interesting that when its representatives attended the post-budget submission meeting at the Department they sensed no anger or difficulties with the proposals. They do not mind me stating this. Earlier in the process they had told me that it was important to examine pensions.

I always made the point, bearing in mind the financial situation in which the country found itself, that the budget had to be about consolidation and ensuring that assistance to those in need, the vulnerable, the elderly and the unemployed would be maintained and improved as far as possible. Pensions are still on the political agenda and every family in the country is examining the issue. I suspect it will be on the Minister's desk for some time and it is important that it is done.

I have heard comments about carers and as a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I have had a great deal of interaction with carers' groups, particularly the one based in Clondalkin which operates in my constituency. Over the past number of years, we have made progress in this regard. It is like the old saying, "a lot done, more to do" but at the same time, good progress has been made. It will never be enough but we will have recognition that these services have improved enormously over a number of years. I know the Minister will want to continue to make as much progress as possible on this issue and I hope it will remain an important target for the Department.

In any debate on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 one must discuss rent supplements. I suspect the Minister sees it as a work in progress. There is no question it is a problem that many families throughout the State avail of the service because for one reason or another they do not own their own home and difficulties will always exist in this regard. I know we must have control and it will always be difficult given that it costs the State a large amount of money. At the same time, we must understand that many people are affected.

South Dublin and the areas in my constituency of Tallaght, Firhouse, Templeogue, Greenhills, Brittas and Bohernabreena are no different in this regard. The issue must be examined. The ideal situation is that some day somebody will bravely take a decision rather than pouring money into landlords' coffers. I do not want to offend anybody but there must be a better way of providing accommodation for people.

People are entitled to aspire to own their own home. If they are not able to do so through their own resources, the local authority systems are in place. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, recently announced improvements in this regard. If one goes to a housing estate one will always know which houses are rented. It is true in my constituency and in Deputy Catherine Byrne's constituency, which I know because I was reared in Crumlin. I am not picking on any of these areas but one can always spot them because in many cases they do not get the same attention because the occupiers do not own them and know they will not be there forever. There is something wrong with a system in which people in rented accommodation drawing rent supplement stay in the same property forever. There must be a better way. The Minister mentioned the RAS system which has taken off and has been quite successful in south Dublin. It needs to be rolled out further and we need to get people in more settled and permanent accommodation.

Deputy Timmy Dooley and other colleagues spoke about the good news in the Bill. People across the floor are entitled to make their political points. We are all pleased that the Minister was able to come up with the funding to ensure the Christmas bonus would be paid again this year to 1.3 million social welfare recipients. I remember that earlier in the year suggestions were made, and I do not know what silly people did so, that the payment might not be made. People are unemployed and in all our communities people need social welfare benefits. The Christmas bonus has been extremely important for families and I suspect it will be even more so this year.

Those of us who live in Dublin know there is a great deal of pressure on families. The Dublin city centre Christmas lights were switched on a little early this year to attract people in and this will put pressure on those who can afford it and those who cannot. It is important the Christmas bonus scheme is maintained because people need it, including widows, widowers, pensioners, one-parent families and in particular long-term unemployed people. It is to the Minister's credit that it has been done and I hope it will continue to be done. Any attempt to change the system would have caused a great deal of upset and bother. The Minister deserves credit and our praise.

The role of a Government Deputy is always difficult. I have often stated from these benches that sometimes — only sometimes — I would like to be on the Opposition benches for a few minutes so I could do things differently. I am never afraid to speak up on behalf of my communities and represent what is stated to me as I walk the streets in my constituency every day. People want us to be positive, look forward and ensure Ireland remains open for business and people remain in employment. At the same time, where social welfare benefits are required and where intervention is necessary for families we must ensure these funds continue to be made available.

As I stated previously, I will not patronise the Minister but like Deputy Catherine Byrne I was a great admirer of her when she was at the Department of Education and Science. This has not stopped and I wish her well. She faces a big challenge, I know she will do the job and we expect her to do so.

I will begin where Deputy O'Connor from Tallaght finished. Yesterday, I spoke to a woman I met on the street. She told me that as if things were not bad enough they have placed an eco-warrior or green tree on O'Connell Street. She said the lights were depressed like the country. Another woman told me she needs light bulbs for brightness but with the new light bulbs introduced by the Green Party she is depressed every day even with the lights on.

They take a while to light up but then they shine brighter and longer.

I can tell the Minister that they are depressing the country like the Government.

I am making an appeal to the Minister in regard to an anomaly in the social welfare system, an issue which I have raised before in the Dáil and at meetings of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. This relates to people who were obliged, for whatever reason, to cease working for a period. These individuals, who have paid PRSI over the years and made a contribution to the State, many of them commencing their working lives in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, have encountered problems, because they did not work for several years, when they come to claim their State contributory pension.

For example, a widow came to my clinic some days ago and told me how her husband had died, leaving her with a young family to support. When she sought assistance from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, she found she was ineligible because her husband was the owner of land and stock. As a result, she was obliged to go out to work in order to raise her family, which she did for many years. She was obliged to leave work for a time, after which she returned to employment. However, when the time came for her to claim the contributory pension, she found that a pro rata deduction was calculated over the 35-year period in respect of the time during which she was not in employment. This anomaly is wrong.

An amendment was made to the system some years ago whereby those who had made PRSI contributions for ten years were entitled to a full contributory pension. The woman to whom I referred worked hard and paid her contributions for longer than those who qualified after ten years. Yet a pro rata reduction was made to her pension entitlement. Will the Minister and her officials examine the numbers involved and the cost of addressing this anomaly? The numbers affected are not large and the current situation is most unfair.

The Minister is making a mistake in amalgamating the Combat Poverty Agency into the Department. The agency, which did a good job over the years in representing the poor, will now be deprived of its independence. Its representatives attended meetings of Oireachtas committees and always told it as it was. This decision should be reviewed.

I can show the Minister how she can make the savings required in her Department's expenditure. It is quite simple. I tabled a parliamentary question today on the artists' tax exemption. That scheme commenced in the 1994-95 tax year at a cost to the Exchequer of €6.5 million, increasing to €10.3 million in 1995-96, €13.2 million in 1996-97 and €19.8 million in 1997-98. By 2005, 2,220 people qualified for a tax exemption under the scheme at a cost to the Exchequer of €34.8 million. It is time these people, the patriots of the arts world, made a contribution to the State instead of running all over the world telling us how we should spend taxpayers' money. The Minister for Finance should examine this scheme with a view to amending it in the forthcoming Finance Bill. It is a large amount of money which would do much to alleviate fuel poverty, improve educational provision or enhance supports for the elderly and the sick. It is unacceptable that these people are not making a contribution to the State at a time of need.

We are back to the bad old days of queues outside social welfare offices in every town throughout the State, with the unemployment rate increasing to 260,000. I compliment the Minister for taking the advice I gave her on a particular matter, even though I was called a racist by another Minister for offering it. I was pleased the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, followed my lead on that occasion. The person who called me a racist should at least withdraw that accusation from the Dáil record. I asked the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to investigate instances of people, whether from this State or abroad, defrauding the social welfare system. I had been made aware of a number of individuals not resident in the State who were claiming social welfare payments. The Minister took my advice and the following week, she introduced a requirement that such persons must report to their local social welfare office on a weekly basis. I compliment her for that.

Any person, whether a citizen of this State, the EU or elsewhere, who defrauds the social welfare system is taking away resources provided by Irish taxpayers and which are badly needed by those in genuine need. I will not name the Minister to whom I referred because I do not want to be the second Deputy put out of the Chamber by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle today, but I call on that Minister to apologise to me in this House. I was proven to be correct in my assertion on that occasion that there were people from outside the State defrauding the social welfare system. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, proved me to be right in this regard. I call on her to put the necessary resources in place to combat fraud. Given the extent of the current pressures on the social welfare system, we need every single euro that can be saved and it is those who are defrauding the system who should be targeted for those savings.

I read in a newspaper report last week about the excessive levels of sick leave taken by staff in the Minister's Department. It makes frightening reading. There are many people making applications for social welfare benefits, including jobseeker's allowance, State pension, carer's allowance and so on, who must wait months for their claim to be processed. A constituent contacted me today who was told by the Department that his application will not be processed until after Christmas. Where there is an oversupply of staff in one section of the Department, those superfluous staff should be moved to the sections that are under pressure. Additional staff are required to deal with applications for family income supplement and other benefits. It is taking too long to process applications for pensions, jobseeker's allowance and so on.

During the summer a problem recurred that has been arising for years. I cannot understand the persistence of this difficulty given the colossal amount of money that was spent on computerising the functions of the Department. The problem is encountered by parents who come into their local social welfare office, whether in Westport, Ballina, Castlebar or anywhere else, seeking simple information on their entitlements for the purpose of furnishing that information to local authorities and vocational educational committees in respect of applications for third level maintenance grants for their children. However, local social welfare offices in Mayo were unable to provide that information and people were obliged to go to Sligo.

Any person in receipt of social welfare benefits should be able to obtain proof of that entitlement without delay, via computer, from staff in their local social welfare office. However, I am aware of cases where third level grant payments were delayed simply because the parents could not obtain that information in a timely fashion. Some of them are still waiting to obtain it. It is an awful waste of my time and the Department's resources that I am obliged to table parliamentary questions in order to obtain that information on my constituents' behalf. It makes no sense. It should be a simple matter for the Minister and her officials to address. I understand there was a problem with information being given out by staff but this was dealt with by the Department. That is not what I am talking about. I refer to information being sought by recipients themselves, which they need in order to obtain third level grants. This is not an unreasonable request.

The changes in the provisions regarding child benefit will have a major effect on the parents of 17 year olds who intend to go to third level in two years' time but who will no longer qualify for child benefit. A mother of triplets contacted me some days ago to say she will lose in the region of €9,500 as a result of this change. She was planning to use that money to put her children through third level education. This budget represents a serious attack on the family, on children and on those on low incomes. As a former spokesperson on social and family affairs, there were times over the years when it was difficult to speak against budgets which were generous in their provisions for families and children. With no disrespect to my colleague, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who is seated beside me, women in this House sometimes do not speak up enough for women. Child benefit is the one payment that women receive into their hands. As I have said on hundreds of occasions, a husband might be very rich and a great man outside the home for buying drink and dinners, but he might not give his wife or family a euro. That payment is given to a woman and it should not be touched. The money is hers. At present, there is a review of child benefit and whether everybody should be entitled to it. It is the one issue on which I will fight tooth and nail. If the Minister decided to take child benefit from women, even very rich women, I would bring the matter to the High Court. These people are paying their taxes and women are entitled to that money.

I have been a Member of the House for almost 15 years. This is a payment for women who stay at home. Many women stay in the home, raising their families while their husbands are working outside the home. It is bad enough that the State will not provide them with a pension when they reach pension age because they remained in the home. Every other section of society is looked after except the women who stay at home to look after their families. If the Minister took child benefit from such women, it would have an awful effect on women and children. It would be a bad day's work for a Government to attempt to do it. I hope that will not happen, regardless of the review.

I also feel strongly about the jobseeker's allowance. Again, I ask the Minister and her officials to review it. This is not the good old days; we are back to the bad old days. We had full employment in this country for the past number of years but we do not have it now. There are 260,000 people unemployed. That is 260,000 people who are not paying tax to the Exchequer. They want to work and would work if work was available. My point relates to when people apply for jobseeker's benefit. The Minister has decreased the payment term from 15 months to 12. That is a mistake. When a person pays their contribution, they should be entitled to draw their payment for 15 months if there is no work available or they are unable to go to work. They previously paid their dues into the system. The change is wrong.

My constituents have spoken to me about the jobseeker's allowance. When they go to the social welfare office, the officer will ask them if they have their three letters and if they have been looking for work. There is no work available. We must deal with the situation as it is. In the recent budget the Government imposed cutbacks, taking away people's medical cards in the health sector and imposing 39 cuts in education. There was not one initiative in the budget to get people back into work. There was no initiative to retrain them or to get them into the workplace.

I spoke this week about the local authorities and the State. The local authorities should be very careful or another 100,000 people will be unemployed. The Government must talk to the local authorities. At this time of the year they think they can increase rates, water charges and all other charges and that small businesses will be able to take it. I am aware of small businesses in Westport, Castlebar, Ballina and other towns that are on their knees. They are keeping people employed as a result of loyalty, because the people have worked for the business for 20 or 30 years. They do not wish to lose these employees but they are afraid that the final straw that will put them out of work will be if the local authorities decide they can impose new stealth taxes on businesses. They cannot.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs must talk to her colleague, the Minister, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to find ways of keeping people in employment and keeping small businesses operating during this difficult time. Who are the banks squeezing in these bad days? They are squeezing small businesses, the people they should not squeeze. Small businesses have been the backbone of this country since the foundation of the State. Now, however, an increasing number of small businesses are going out of business. The Tesco, Dunnes Stores and other big superstores that arrive in an area might create employment in one corner but cause major unemployment in other corners. This must be examined.

I wish to discuss the fuel allowance. The one thing elderly people need is warmth. This country gets terrible weather. It rained throughout a terrible summer and people had to light the fire in their homes. The Minister gave a small increase in the fuel allowance but she must go further. The price of fuel is a scandal. Again, it is a case of rip-off Ireland. It is a cruel country. I do not know why there is no spirit when we are in difficulty. I can give a simple example. In the case of fuel, that is, diesel, petrol and oil for central heating, we had to force the suppliers to reduce prices even though oil was never as cheap on the world market. Look at the petrol pumps. I left Westport at 11 p.m. last night. I checked the fuel prices at each outlet until I reached the motorway. Every second station from Westport to Dublin had a different price for fuel but none of them was cheap. The Government should try to do something about this, particularly the price of oil for central heating for old people. It should make the suppliers reduce the price. The price of oil for central heating in Ireland is the dearest in Europe so we must tackle that.

I usually raise the free travel scheme when debating the social welfare Bill. What is happening with regard to putting a voucher scheme in place? We have raised this matter previously in the House and in the committee. There was a review at the time in that regard so perhaps the Minister will outline the current position. I am compiling a report for the committee on community and Gaeltacht affairs on rural transport. It is a big problem because people in rural areas do not have a bus service like Dublin Bus. I put down parliamentary questions last week to find out the subsidies being provided to Dublin Bus, Luas and for all transport in Dublin. I do not object to a subsidy for transport in Dublin provided there is equality for rural areas.

There is no equality with regard to transport. It is time the voucher scheme was introduced. It would not cost a fortune to administer it. The Department could provide a voucher or find some way of providing a means whereby people could at least use a taxi to bring them to collect their pension and bring them home. At present, the health service will not even bring them to hospital appointments, which is a disgrace. These are people on social welfare and the Minister should tackle this issue.

The other point that must be raised, and the Ombudsman referred to it recently, is the waiver for refuse collection services. This should be part of the free schemes, along with the fuel allowance, free telephone and television licence. Something should be done for elderly people. This is a serious problem nationally. The Ombudsman conducted a survey on this issue and she was very critical of the local authorities for not having a proper system in place. There should be a national waiver system; it could be a simple system. Something should be done for elderly people. It is fine for the green brigade. Of course, we want to have a green country and everything to be above board but, by God, it is costing money, particularly for the poor who cannot afford it.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected. This was not a good budget for the family, children or people on social welfare. The proof of the worth of a Government and a country is how well the less well-off are looked after in the bad days. It is easy to look after people in the good days, but how they are protected in the bad days is what counts.

I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this Bill. It is probably one of the most important social welfare Bills for a number of years. The message in the Bill is that measures are being taken to ensure that those who need most support will get it. As other speakers have said, there are people who, due to events outside their control, find themselves in a position of having no option but to approach the State for aid.

Framing a budget is about planning for the forthcoming year with the resources one has. There is a general consensus that the forthcoming year will be a particularly difficult year. I congratulate the Minister on ensuring that adjustments are made to enable the Department to look after the expected increased numbers that will come to the Department for assistance. Given that an extra €1.25 billion will possibly be needed for unemployment payments alone, the adjustments in this Bill are particularly welcome. I note several details. There has been an adjustment in jobseeker's benefit which has been reduced to 12 months and a change in the required contributions for qualification — a person is eligible if fewer than 260 have been paid. This will ensure those who have contributed the most will receive the most in return. In the present climate we could not continue with indefinite payments because it is unsustainable in cases where people have means to sustain themselves. This had to be examined and now is the time to do it.

However, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has managed to balance these adjustments with continued supports for those on the lowest tier, for instance those on the jobseeker's allowance and with a supplementary allowance. Let us consider some of the details. Some supports have not kept pace with the changes in people's means in recent years. Despite this, the Minister managed to increase basic payments, including pensions and the carer's and disability allowance. This builds on the firm foundation that the Government and its predecessor built in recent years. This side of the House makes no apology for the improvements made.

Consider previous budget discussions and debates and the acrimony arising from increases in certain payments for those on the lowest incomes. We had to fight to make improvements in some cases. We make no apology for increasing the old age pension in recent years. We will continue to build on that foundation. Consider the payment of the family income supplement scheme which has increased significantly in recent years. I see on a daily basis the way it enables families to maintain a certain lifestyle. The increased limits in this Bill from €500 to €1,250 are welcome.

Even where it has been necessary to make changes, alleviating measures have been put in place. Consider child benefit and the introduction and availability of special alleviating measures for children over 18 years of age in social welfare dependent families or families on low incomes. The legislation will ensure those who need most assistance will gain most. Such a balance is very difficult to create in any social welfare Bill, but this Bill achieves that balance.

Everyone recognises the work of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and citizens' information centres. The rationalisation of these organisations will benefit and enhance the services they provide. Everyone accepts they provide a significant service to communities throughout the country and I see evidence of this in my constituency too. The rationalisation and strengthening of those organisations and the synergy between the Citizens Information Service and the Money Advice and Budgeting Service will ensure that service continues for many years.

I refer to some of the smaller details in the Bill. There has been considerable discussion about fuel poverty and ways to tackle the problem. There is an 11% increase in the fuel allowance in the Bill and an extension of the fuel season to 32 weeks. This extension and the increase will mean some 300,000 households throughout the country will benefit from these measures. There must be a wider discussion in future. The cost of fuel and the direction in which it is moving has been mentioned, including the peaks and troughs in fuel prices. We continue to support those in greatest need of assistance and these measures will ensure we continue to keep a level playing pitch in this area.

There has been an increase in the number of people eligible to claim the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, which is welcome. The family income supplement scheme will increase the earnings threshold by €10 per child, which gives an increase of up to €6 per week per child. For those in receipt of social welfare payments for children, the qualifying child increase rises from €24 to €26 per week from next January. These changes aim to ensure those who need assistance most will receive it.

I worked in employment exchanges in the Department of Social and Family Affairs during the 1980s and I recognise the difference in the past ten or 15 years in the way the Department operates and the way it disseminates funds. There have been significant improvements in the delivery of the service provided by the Department. The Department must plan ahead if it is to continue to provide that service in what everyone accepts are challenging times.

The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, mentioned pensions in her speech and providing for pensioners in future represents a significant challenge. We must tackle this issue and, to be fair, the previous Administration and this Government have taken on this challenge. A number of groups are working on these matters at the moment and are attempting to foresee how we can ensure that in future the Department of Social and Family Affairs is able to maintain people's lifestyle and ability to survive. We must take on this challenge.

The Government will spend €19.5 billion in 2009, which is an increase of €2.6 billion. The spend will support more than 1.7 million men, women and children in the country, which is a significant improvement on the position some 20 years ago. Look at how people's expectations have risen in those 20 years. This has happened because we have managed to improve the system so much over the years. However, we must rationalise it now and take account of the climate and the budgetary position in which we find ourselves.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs is one of three Departments which has an increased budget this year. Every other Department has a decreased budget. The way this slice of the budget is distributed among those who need assistance is notable. Although we have managed to provide substantial assistance this year there had to be some changes to the way some schemes were administered. Everyone accepts those changes were necessary. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs framed the changes and adjustments in such a way that those most in need are maintained, while those who can afford it have been asked to contribute more, which is only fair. People accept that changes need to be made and although people's income will be affected by some of the change, in the long run the changes will ensure we can continue to provide social welfare payments to the majority of those who need it.

There have been changes to older people's payments and benefits. The Government managed in recent years to ensure senior citizens, who built the country, would be looked after in future and it will continue to do so.

Debate adjourned.