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.