I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Following Deputy Kelly's contribution, I could go on for a considerable time but I will try to keep within the 20 minutes. I acknowledge the work of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We are all blue in the face hearing calls for public service reform. If a leaf, however, was taken out of the book of how the Department of Social and Family Affairs and its officials function, it could be used as a blueprint for public service reform. While I accept there are current staffing difficulties, down through the years it has been the most proactive Department in getting information to the public and the best in customer service.
The IFA made a pre-budget submission concerning the exclusion of short PRSI contribution periods in the calculation of a State contributory pension. While the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, may not be aware of a case regarding a constituent of mine that I raised in the House last year, the departmental officials will recall it. I will put it on the record of the House once more.
In 1961 there was a 'flu epidemic with a large number of deaths and many people unable to work. My constituent worked for four weeks, commencing on 31 January 1961, at St. Brigid's psychiatric hospital, Ballinasloe. He did so, solely to help out with the staffing crisis in the hospital caused by the influenza outbreak. As a result, his PRSI record is averaged from that date rather than 1987 when he started paying PRSI in his own right as a self-employed farmer. Previous to that, he had been on a community employment scheme. The only reason he took on the month's work at the hospital was that his sister, a nurse in the hospital, pleaded with him to help her to take care of the patients because of the staffing crisis. The man had no qualifications to work in the area but did a good deed to help out under difficult circumstances. Some €2,600 per year, however, is being deducted from his pension entitlement because of this favour. I do not believe that individual should be penalised as a result of this. The IFA argued in its pre-budget submission for the exemption of employment periods of up to one year. While I accept that might be too extensive, my constituent, who was only being a good Samaritan, is being penalised. It is an issue that needs to be examined.
The other issue I wish to raise is one the departmental officials are blue in the face from listening to me talking about. It concerns the non-contributory State pension, a means-tested payment. In 2006, it had an employment earnings disregard of €100 per week which was doubled in the 2007 budget. However, the self-employed and farmers do not qualify for the disregard. Young and elderly farmers have already been penalised in this budget with the changes to the installation aid and the early retirement scheme. A small change in how the non-contributory State pension is calculated for farmers could encourage the release of farming land to non-blood relations.
There are no difficulties with calculating the pension when a family member takes over a farm, as it is deemed no income is generated. When a farmer leases out his land, however, every cent he receives is deducted from the non-contributory old age pension. Amending this would be a mechanism in releasing land on to the market which would help retiring and start-off farmers. The Ceann Comhairle would have similar experience from his constituency. I hope this anomaly in the system will be examined.
A perennial issue in pension entitlement is that of women who worked in caring duties in the home. A calculation was built into it from 1994 under the home-makers' scheme but for those prior to 1994 there was no recognition. Again, a small change in the legislation would be very beneficial to those women who were the backbone of rural Ireland.
The current economic conditions are as a result of our mistakes, not because of the international credit crunch. In 2006, the Exchequer had a surplus of €4 billion. By the end of next year, it will be €12 billion in the red. That means that in the intervening 22 months, €10 million a week will have been misspent. The Government is responsible for this but I had hoped it would live up to that responsibility when it decided to present the budget. We all expected large changes and prepared for difficult decisions to be made but it was a disappointment. I acknowledge difficult decisions must be made but the budget did nothing to deal with the issues of trying to encourage people off social welfare and back into employment through re-training, re-skilling and returning to education.
My colleague, Deputy Olwyn Enright, has highlighted the problems with the back-to-education allowance. Another issue concerns the lack of language skills. A sizeable percentage of people on the live register are not Irish citizens — they are from the EU and outside it — who do not have basic English language skills. They will never fill out a job application form or get an interview if they do not have basic English language and communications skills. There is also a similar issue with our own population and the lack of literacy skills. We should be targeting these elements of the live register to tap into what is a valuable resource and ensure those people have the ability to fill out application forms, properly communicate at job interviews and get the opportunity to get back into worthwhile employment.
Section 24 amends the Civil Registration Act 2004. It is an issue close to my own heart as the General Register Office is based in my home town, Roscommon. The civil registry authorities in the office and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform have been very critical of a recent Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform claim of 1,000 sham marriages in Ireland, marriages of convenience to facilitate residency in Ireland or the EU. Little seems to have been done about this. Section 58 of the Civil Registration Act 2004, which will be amended by this Bill, allows a person to register an objection to a marriage before it occurs if they believe there is some impediment to marriage. If the Minister for Social and Family Affairs or the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform are so concerned about what they believe are statistical anomalies, surely they can use their good offices to cause the occasional objection to be submitted. Officials at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have stated that they are being told by staff at the General Register Office that couples are coming in to register their intention to marry who cannot even communicate with each other in a common language. If that is happening, why is section 58 of the legislation not being enforced? Instead, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is saying he will make his own provisions in this regard. The law is not being enforced.
I ask the Minister to consider this issue before Committee Stage and, if the legislation is not working efficiently at the moment, to deal with it by introducing an amendment. However, there is not much point in talking about sham marriages if there are so many taking place that even people who cannot communicate with each other are registering to marry. There are provisions in the legislation to block such marriages, but that is not happening. Why not? I hope the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will respond to this when she returns to the House.
Another issue I have raised on a number of occasions is the habitual residence condition. Approximately 1,700 Irish citizens, including religious missionaries, have been refused social welfare benefits since this condition was introduced in 2004 to deal with welfare tourism. I accept that provisions have to be put in place to deal with this and that for the staff who are dealing with it on a day-to-day basis it is difficult to obtain clarity. I have spoken to such staff on a number of occasions. However, surely we should be trying to support people such as Irish citizens who have been residing in the United States and have come home to take care of elderly relatives.
The Department would say it takes a flexible approach in this regard, but one of the things required is proof that all links with one's former country of habitual residence, in this case, the United States, have been severed. That is all well and good if one was legally in the US — one will have one's bank accounts, social security documentation and so on. However, many of our citizens in the US are illegal. They do not have bank accounts and cannot get driver's licences. Thus, they are not in a position to prove through documentary evidence that they have severed their links with the United States because they cannot have documents in the US in the first place.
Carer's allowance applications have also been refused on the basis of the habitual residence condition. I accept that there are good reasons for this condition, but these should not apply to the carer's allowance. If someone is prepared to care on an ongoing basis for an elderly or disabled person, his or her country of origin should not make any difference. One already has to prove one is providing full-time care and attention and that the person requires full-time care and attention. Surely that should be enough. If the person is doing that he or she should be entitled to the carer's allowance.
We are not concerned here with a large number of people. Approximately 40 applications for carer's allowance are refused each year. I suspect the vast majority of these are from Irish citizens who have come back to care for their elderly parents, perhaps without severing their links with their former country of residence. If they have decided to come home and take care of parents who are no longer able to live on their own and cannot afford to go into a nursing home, they should be entitled to the carer's allowance on that basis.
In this legislation we are tinkering again with the early child care supplement. It galls me to think that the Irish taxpayer is funding child care costs in Warsaw, Tallinn, Riga and in every European country. The child care supplement was introduced to deal with a specific problem that exists in this country — the astronomical cost of child care. I cannot understand why we have not introduced amending legislation to deal with this issue when €1,100 — from now on, €1,104 — per year is going out of the country for each child receiving child care in another European country. There is an issue with regard to child benefit and there is not much we can do about that. However, there are major issues not only with regard to migrants claiming child benefit but also with regard to tax entitlements for individuals and couples; these are currently before the Supreme Court. This must be examined so we can resolve the anomaly. Things are far easier in the UK where a different system is in place. Perhaps with some ingenuity we can consider ways of dealing with some of the anomalies that have been created.
The Minister is very strong on anti-fraud initiatives and introduced the conditions for jobseeker's benefit. However, the Department of Social and Family Affairs is being defrauded of €36 million in child benefit, €30 million of which is in respect of Irish citizens. It should be easy enough to trace this with current technology, including the computerised register of births, marriages and deaths in the General Register Office. Another €5.4 million of this total is in respect of children who do not exist in other countries. Again, with the technology available we should be able to deal with this. It is frustrating that early child care supplement must be paid in respect of children in other countries, but we cannot continue to brush under the carpet the fact that the child care supplement is being paid in respect of children who do not exist. While the Minister is strong on talk when dealing with issues of fraud, her actions have been very slow and we have yet to see the colour of her money in this regard.
The Irish Refugee Council raised the issue of direct provision to asylum seekers in Ireland. Again, we do not want to encourage welfare tourism, but €9.60 per week is the current payment to a minor in hostel accommodation. These children are going to local schools, some of them in my own constituency. Given that their parents do not have the necessary resources and because the community welfare officers are snowed under dealing with other cases, they are not given assistance in paying for school tours or activities such as swimming. We cannot expect schools to bring half the pupils swimming or on a school tour and leave the other half behind. As a result, schools are not going on school tours. They cannot go next year in any event because of the cutbacks in education, but they have not been going up to now.
I had hoped the Minister would take into account the submission made by the Carers Association. One issue I wish to mention in this regard is the possibility of increasing the number of hours people can work outside the home to 20. One example is that of a mother who is caring for a disabled child and is working outside the home during school hours. She is providing full-time care and assistance while the child is in the home but while the child is at school she is disbarred from taking up employment for between 15 and 20 hours because of the rules that pertain. Surely where a child is in full-time education we can get around this obstacle. There is an issue with regard to elderly people but it is not just elderly people who receive care. There are also young people. In addition, let us not forget the large cohort of 5,000 young carers who are being ignored at the moment.