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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Nov 2008

Vol. 667 No. 1

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 Tuesday, 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).

We must still continue to protect the most vulnerable in our society. This Bill does that, providing for an increase of between 3% and 3.8% in the basic social welfare payments next year. Total expenditure on social welfare next year will be €19.6 billion. This is an increase of €2.6 billion over the Estimates allocation for 2008. It is important to note that the schemes and other supports which the Department of Social and Family Affairs administers will benefit over 1.7 million people. This includes 440,000 pensioners, 345,000 ill and disabled people, over 80,000 carers, 30,000 low income families who will be availing of family income supplement and more than 580,000 families who receive child benefit payments.

Provision has been made for an increase of €2.6 billion in social welfare expenditure in 2009, and this is to be welcomed. I also welcome the fact that as we enter the winter season and those long, dark evenings, provision has been made for an 11% increase in the value of the fuel allowance, bringing it to €20 per week from January. I am pleased the duration of the fuel season is also being increased and it will now be 32 weeks in total.

Social welfare is an important part of Government. It is the duty of Government to look after those people who require assistance. There is no doubt we are living in difficult economic times. Most of the world is currently experiencing some form of economic slowdown. Now is the time for calm heads and clear thinking. The Irish people have a great ability to knuckle down and get through any difficulties or obstacles that might come their way. If we work together over the next few years, we can ride out the current turbulence we are experiencing.

We have always been a caring nation which has always been aware of the importance of looking after the less fortunate. While some may be of the view the Celtic tiger may have desensitised us to the hardship of others, I do not believe this to have been the case. In my time as a Deputy I have consistently been impressed and encouraged by the amount of good work that goes on all around the country for those who are less well-off. Much of this work is voluntary and is carried out away from the limelight. It is heartening to witness the goodwill and decency of people around the country — long may it continue.

The Bill acknowledges there are people and families who require assistance. I was delighted to see that changes to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Combat Poverty Agency were also announced on budget day. The Bill is amending the Citizens Information Acts 2000 to 2007 so as to enhance the functions of the Citizens Information Board through the assignment to it of responsibility for the provision of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. MABS provides a valuable service to people who are in debt and need help and advice in coping with debt problems.

As we approach the Christmas period, which seems to be arriving earlier every year, it is important to realise that many families will put themselves under severe financial pressure over the festive season. What should be a time of joy for people instead becomes a time of worry, when mothers and fathers will fall victim to the commercialisation of the Christmas period. I am sure we all know of constituents who have resorted to measures such as loan sharks in an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. Anything that can be done to alleviate such situations is to be welcomed.

I take the opportunity to justifiably compliment the staff of MABS in Longford, with whom I have had numerous dealings, and also the staff of the Citizens Information Board, who also do great work in Longford.

What about Westmeath?

And Westmeath also. The Deputy is a mind reader. He must have seen it before I said it. I was just coming to that.

Someone has to keep the Deputy briefed.

I also take the opportunity to compliment everybody working in those agencies in County Roscommon. Educating people regarding their finances and how to embark on good financial practice is a good first step. As I said, I have the height of respect for MABS and the work it does.

There will be €515 million worth of improvements in social welfare rates for the coming year. I believe this shows a determination to protect those in our society who most need our support, such as pensioners, families dependent on social welfare payments and those who are seeking employment. Increases have been targeted to deliver a package of supports for those who are mainly on a fixed income and are some of the most vulnerable in our society.

We are currently experiencing difficult economic times compared to previous budgets and the Government has had to make some difficult decisions in order to secure our economic future. Overall spending on social welfare schemes is greatly increased with €19.6 billion planned to be spent supporting more than 1.7 million men, women and children in our country.

It is important to bear some of the figures in mind. The coming year will see an increase of €7 per week for all State pensioners, contributory and non-contributory, along with carers aged 66 and over. Increases for qualified adults range from €4.30 to €6.30 per week for those over 66 years of age. What all this means is that a pensioner couple will have a weekly increase of €13.30 per week. Over €260 million extra has been targeted to support people of working age claiming jobseeker's benefit or allowance, which increases by €6.50 per week from January 2009. Overall, 733,000 people are in receipt of working age payments, such as jobseekers, one-parent families and those claiming illness benefit and disability allowance, as well as carers. They will all benefit from increases in weekly personal rates in the coming year.

There have been targeted increases for families with children who are in receipt of social welfare payments or low income earners through the family income supplement. Family income supplement is to 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 with children, the qualified child increase rises from €24 to €26 per week from January. There is also an extension in the numbers eligible to claim the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. It was also announced that €500,000 is being provided to the Family Support Agency to develop a programme to promote positive parenting skills. We must not forget that the family is at the centre of our society and anything that can contribute to families is to be welcomed.

I support the Bill and believe it has the interest of those most vulnerable in our society at heart. We are all human and must never forget that behind the raft of statistics and numbers we all encounter every day, there are real people. The Bill caters for those real people and understands the needs of the most vulnerable sections of our society in these changed economic times.

I welcome the news that the Christmas bonus has been confirmed for social welfare recipients

It should never have been in doubt.

I was very disappointed to hear speculation that welfare recipients might not get the 100% Christmas bonus they have received for the past nine years.

This type of scaremongering was completely unfair to already vulnerable people. I am delighted, therefore, that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, has confirmed that the Christmas bonus will be paid to a range of people, including widows, widowers, pensioners, one-parent families and the long-term unemployed. As I have already said, I compliment a compassionate and caring Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin. The Hanafin family has given immense public service to the country, which is acknowledged by all.

The Government ensured that this Christmas bonus payment would be protected as so many people rely on the extra money at Christmas and use it to plan their finances over that period. Christmas is a time of financial pressure for families, especially those who rely on social welfare payments, and the Government is keen to provide practical support where it can.

As we are coming to the Christmas period, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Naughten and the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, and all my colleagues in the Dáil, a very happy Christmas.

I call Deputy Naughten. He has 20 minutes.

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.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I am delighted my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Curran is here. I congratulate him on all the work he is doing with the disadvantaged people in our society. Speaking earlier, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, said it is always important to look after our social welfare recipients, especially in times of economic strife and hardship. Unfortunately, we have reached such a time. Not only is our public spending being tightly controlled and closely monitored, but each individual citizen finds himself or herself in a similar predicament. We will all be affected and a large portion of society is vulnerable during this downturn.

I assure people on social welfare that this Government, like all Fianna Fáil Governments, has the interests of less well off people at heart. Despite our economic downturn, I am saddened having listened to a number of Opposition speakers because they did not acknowledge the generous social welfare budget proposed by the Government.

Whatever he does, the Deputy should not say that in his constituency; he will be strung up for it.

They were disingenuous, given that the social welfare budget is €19.6 billion, a substantial increase on last year. The least the Opposition Members might have done is acknowledge that fact. We hear much from them on other issues where there is some reduction in spending.

At least the Deputy acknowledges that.

It is a fact, and of course we acknowledge it. Given the reality of our finances — tax income is down at least €6.5 billion this year and next year we will face a deficit of €13 billion to keep our economy afloat and look after the less well off in society — the Opposition should acknowledge that the Government is doing a good job. Regarding the Bill, the minimum the Opposition could have done was acknowledge the large increase the Government provided in the budget.

We acknowledge the performance of the Government, but ask where the money went.

Some €2.5 billion extra has been provided in this year's budget. Deputy Naughten conveniently ignores this, but in time he may reflect on it. The sum of €2.5 billion is a significant amount of money considering Fine Gael wants to borrow an extra €4 billion to fund its interpretation of how the country should be run. We are providing €2.5 billion extra in social welfare while the Opposition proposes to borrow €4 billion.

They are not even getting increases that match inflation. Social welfare is not increasing at the same rate as inflation and, therefore, their buying power is reduced.

It is increasing ahead of inflation next year.

Never mind next year's inflation; I am talking about this year.

We are talking about next year's payments and next year's inflation figures.

Despite being strapped for cash and under financial pressure, the Government continues to provide for the less well off in our society. That is what Fianna Fáil and its partners in Government are about. This Bill will formalise increases across the social welfare sector. The budget is €19.6 billion, some 15% above the 2008 figure. The increases in the Bill are above inflation and will benefit 1.7 million people, including 290,000 people who, unfortunately, will come on the live register in the next year.

There are 444,000 pensioners in Ireland. Fianna Fáil and its Governments have always looked after old age pensioners. Our colleagues in Fine Gael and Labour cannot look with pride on their records. Their last Minister, Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, gave a derisory increase of £1.50. Deputy Naughten would be slightly embarrassed about that and Deputy Burton is very embarrassed by it. I have seen her cringe when that has been mentioned.

At least we handed Government over to Fianna Fáil with money in the bank.

After taking the medical card from our pensioners the Government has nothing to boast about.

We are being provoked. I seek the protection of the Chair.

The Deputy will go down in history with former Minister Earnán de Blaghd.

We are being provoked.

Deputy Naughten is easily provoked.

Deputy Burton's Government is on record as giving £1.50.

Deputy Michael Kennedy is Earnán de Blaghd's true successor.

Never mind Mr. Blaghd; he is dead and gone.

He is the Deputy's great great grandfather. Does Deputy Michael Kennedy know who he is?

I will not remind Deputy Burton of VAT on children's shoes. In these unstable times, these people fall victim to those in Opposition and the media who cast the darkest light on their future. Older people panic. They rely most on our social welfare system and have difficulty fending for themselves. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to look after them. The Government is well aware of this and has striven in this budget, and all the budgets we have been involved in, to ensure the welfare of pensioners. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, has done a fantastic job increasing spending for the elderly by over €166 million, given the level of the reduction in finances. An increase of €7 per week in the contributory and non-contributory State pensions is most generous, bringing the weekly State contributory pension to €230.30 and the non-contributory pension to €219. I have met many pensioners in my constituency and was generous and bold enough to go out and meet them on the streets when they were out there some weeks ago.

The Deputy did not get too far.

Not one of them said he or she was unhappy with their €7 increase. They were all very satisfied.

They were losing their medical card for a €7 per week saving.

They are not losing the medical card. As the Deputy knows, we have looked after the 95% of people who need it.

What about the 5% who need it?

Older people rely on the fuel allowance and I am delighted the Government has been very conscious of that. It recognises that elderly people suffer the most during cold winter times. I acknowledge what the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, has done by increasing this allowance by 11%, bringing the weekly payment to €20. That forms part of a €30 million package which, in the current climate, is significant. The duration of the fuel allowance has been increased by two weeks to 32 weeks beginning next April. The Department is in the process of a policy review on State pensions. The new framework is expected to be announced by the end of the year and I look forward to it.

Some €56 million has been made available to improve the social welfare package for families and children. Over 30,000 families will avail of this increased funding. There is a €2 increase in the qualifying child payment, meaning parents will receive an additional €26 per child on top of their basic social welfare payments. All family income supplement threshold incomes have been increased by €10, bringing an additional 2,000 families into the net of entitlement under this scheme. The income threshold for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance has also increased and that allows an extra 18,000 families to benefit. While child benefit will no longer be paid to non-qualifying children over the age of 18 beyond 2009, a compensatory payment of €15 per week will be paid to disadvantaged families who receive social welfare payments for qualifying children aged over 18.

The early childhood supplement is expected to cost almost €400 million, another significant figure, with the aim of supporting parents with the expense of child care. Minor changes have been made to pay periods and age eligibility resulting in a saving to the Department of €93 million, which has been put to very good use elsewhere. A further €500,000 is to be given to the family support agency to develop a programme in support of parenting skills. Every Deputy recognises the need for such a programme in each of our constituencies.

People of working age will benefit from increases in social welfare payments. Increases of €6.50 a week will be applied to jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, disability allowance, one-parent family payment, carer's benefit and carer's allowance. An additional €4.80 will be added to all payments in respect of each qualifying adult. All Members of the House should recognise that the increase in question is substantial in the context of this country's current financial constraints. Savings are being made in other areas. Changes are to be made to the qualifying contributions of those applying for payments under schemes like jobseeker's allowance. People will have to demonstrate they have worked for a longer period of time before they are entitled to get jobseeker's allowance. That change has been made in recognition of the financial constraints on the Exchequer. I hope we will be in a position to increase the benefit again in a couple of years when the economy picks up once more.

We are all familiar with the work done by carers, often in our own families. We owe such people a great debt of gratitude for the work they do. By increasing the amount of money paid to recipients of carer's allowance who are over the age of 66 by €7, to €239, the Government has shown that it recognises the importance of the work of carers. A similar increase of €6.50, to €220.50, will be made available to recipients of the allowance who are under the age of 66. A further increase of €6.50, to €221.20, will apply to those who receive the carer's benefit and constant attendance allowances. Carers do marvellous work for the elderly and infirm in our society. I pay tribute to them because without them, society would be much less well-off.

My friends on the Opposition benches were engaging in the usual scaremongering recently when they suggested the Christmas bonus would not be paid to social welfare recipients. I am delighted the Minister and the Government have confirmed the bonus will be paid as normal. I have spoken to people who recognise the Government's generosity in this respect. Many people, including old age pensioners, were expecting a tough budget. They were worried they might not get the same amount of money in this area as they were previously getting. I thank the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, for making an expeditious decision in this regard. I acknowledge her generosity, which is appreciated by the elderly people of this State. It is nice that they got the news early to allow them to plan for Christmas.

When one examines the overall state of the country's finances, it is clear this social welfare package is most generous. It would have been reasonable to assume that no increases could be made. Many people believed that greater restrictions and reductions in benefits would be necessary. Successive Fianna Fáil Governments have looked after this country's older people. As a backbench Deputy, I think that is how it should be. The people in question built up this country to bring it to where it is. They are entitled to receive our support.

I would like to make some comments in the overall context of budgetary issues. I refer to the problems being encountered by big countries throughout the world, such as the United States, Britain, Germany and our European neighbours. Some of those problems are caused by the downturn in the global economy and the banking crisis, which started in the US. Massive corporations like Lehman Brothers have collapsed. We should recognise that these are extraordinary times. It should be acknowledged that the Government took decisive action when it put in place the bank guarantee scheme. If that had not been done, we would not be talking about increases in the social welfare package. We would have to deal with major financial difficulties. I do not doubt that our Opposition colleagues will decry the scheme. They should recognise that Fianna Fáil and its partners in government have shown leadership on the banking issue. The decisive action we have taken has saved this country's banking institutions and benefited our economy as a whole.

We will know whether that is true in about six months.

We cannot do without banks, whether people recognise it or not. When Opposition Deputies contribute to this debate, they should admit that a banking system is necessary for our trading and commerce industries. They should acknowledge that the plan the Government introduced has been copied by many of our European partners, some of which were sceptical when we proposed to introduce it in the first instance. When other countries found they had the exact same problems as Ireland, they copied the Irish scheme. That is a testament to the virtue of the action the Government was seen to take. While we have heard many criticisms from Fine Gael and the Labour Party, we have never heard the representatives of those parties proposing any solutions. I am aware of an independent economist who has said that Fine Gael's plans would involve further borrowings of €400 million. Deputy Richard Bruton, who——

Fianna Fáil will not listen to him.

——considers himself to be Fine Gael's expert on economics, has not——

At least the Deputy acknowledges that he is an expert.

——admitted that his party is in favour of more borrowing, but that is what independent economists are saying.

They respect his views.

I am not claiming to be an economist. I am merely pointing out that a recognised economist has said that Fine Gael does not know what it is talking about.

Some Fianna Fáil backbenchers think Deputy Bruton should be Minister for Finance.

Our Labour Party colleagues would tax us to the hilt and drive our economy into the ground. They have no concept of what we need if we are to get the economy moving and stabilise it. When the global economy turns around again, we will need to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to us. My colleagues on the other side of the House will have a chance to speak in the next few minutes. Perhaps they will look into their hearts and say what they would do differently. I hope they will give credit to the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, and her Government colleagues for putting together a fantastic €19.6 billion social welfare package.

Perhaps Deputy Kennedy will look into his own heart at 8.30 p.m.

Like the founder of the Fianna Fáil Party, I always look into my own heart.

The Deputy should vote with this side of the House tonight.

The public recognises that the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is good.

The Deputy should tell that to people with disabilities.

He should try telling it to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

It might not have been expected to be as good as it is, given the downturn in the economy.

I wish to share time with Deputy McManus.

It is always enjoyable to hear Deputy Kennedy contributing if that is what it can be called. Since 1996, the social insurance fund has been in surplus, as the PRSI contributions from employees and employers exceeded the payouts to people claiming social welfare or pensions. However, the Government's mismanagement of the economy has landed us in a serious and deteriorating position in respect of the fund. This year, because of increasing unemployment, it is expected the fund will have an annual deficit of €223 million and that the deficit will be at least €900 million in 2009. In other words, the shortage in income compared to expenditure will be €900 million. At this rate, the accumulated surplus on the fund could be exhausted by 2011. This year the Minister expected a surplus on the fund of €548 million but, instead, she anticipates a deficit of €223 million. This has grave consequences for future budgets and for PRSI.

The Government parties promised in their programme for Government to reform PRSI by abolishing the PRSI ceiling, currently €52,000, and reducing rates. Instead of reforming PRSI, the Government chose to introduce a 1% levy on all incomes, bar social welfare payments, below the minimum wage. Running the social insurance fund on to the rocks could have a significant impact on the unemployed and on pensioners expecting their contributory old age pension. I do not know whether the Government is planning callously to bequeath to the next Government a disastrous social insurance fund position.

Public accounting has collapsed in recent years. The Departments of Finance and Social and Family Affairs, have lost their ability to make accurate forecasts of economic activity, tax revenues or, in this case, the movement on the social insurance fund. There is a need for a public actuary, possibly based in the NTMA. He or she would prepare reliable, independent forecasts in respect of pension liabilities, unemployment liabilities and the contributions required to sustain a properly funded system. The Minister and the Government are asleep on the job regarding what is happening in the social insurance fund. It may well be that civil servants have advised the Minister but she chose to ignore what is happening to the fund. The fund was brought into surplus during the rainbow Government on a hard fought basis. When the Labour Party went into Government with Fianna Fáil in 1992, we inherited an unemployment rate of 18%. I served with the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Woods, and, by 1996, when my party was in Government in the rainbow coalition, the fund was in surplus. That is being thrown away and the consequences of the deficit being built up by the Minister are horrendous for both the economy and people who rely on social welfare payments.

The absence of a single back-to-work measure in the legislation is remarkable, despite 100,000 people losing their jobs over the past year. I do not know how the Minister could produce a social welfare Bill that does not contain a measure to encourage people who must rely on social welfare for a brief period to move into education, training or employment. Are the Minister and her officials oblivious to the plight of the unemployed? Could she not find time to introduce even a single concrete back-to-work measure? In the current economic climate, that is not only an oversight but a dereliction of duty.

The Bill contains a serious number of new poverty traps, the impact of which the Minister and her staff have the capacity to analyse, avoid or to limit. The greatest poverty trap is rent allowance because people are barred from working if they are in receipt of this allowance or mortgage subsidies. Unfortunately, many men engaged in construction are losing their jobs and this is impacting on dual income couples. They often have mortgage repayments of between €1,600 and €2,000 per month. To obtain a mortgage subsidy or rent allowance, they and all the members of their household have to be unemployed and State dependent. Thus, many people at risk of mortgage default because of a combination of high monthly repayments, negative equity and shrinking employment prospects will be encouraged to go from work to welfare and not to return to work to maintain the roof over their heads. This is one of the most pressing issues facing the Minister and her Department. This is a policy failure on her part, which will have negative social consequences. If people are unemployed for more than a year or two, it becomes endemic in families and then it becomes intergenerational. We will be back to where we started in 1992 with many areas in which unemployment is intergenerational.

I refer to the measures relating to people involved in agriculture. Many people in the west are part-time farmers and they were involved in the construction industry. They are becoming unemployed and the Government is cutting the farm schemes which allowed part-time farmers to work in construction. I am from Dublin city centre and what I know about farming would fit on a postage stamp but the Government's proposals will save very little and they make no economic sense. People will be driven back into social welfare rather than allowing them to maintain an individual income.

The Labour Party has published detailed proposals for back-to-work and education schemes, including a national insulation scheme, which would also address our carbon emissions rather than the limited, small project put forward in the budget. We also proposed a school building programme with important consequences and benefits not only for people living in towns and working in the construction industry but also for people living in rural areas. Many people becoming unemployed in the construction industry have the skills which, with training and upskilling, could become the engineers, technicians and IT consultants of tomorrow. However, the Minister's legislation does not have a visionary element, as it proposes to restrict rather than encourage.

The message from the Government is loud and clear. Fat cat bankers get bailouts, property developers get tax breaks but the people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder get a kick in the teeth. Unfortunately, the Minister is like the Grinch, stealing Christmas from thousands of hard pressed families across the country.

We gave a double bonus.

A man who came into my clinic in a rural part of Wicklow the other night said he always voted Labour for which I was very grateful, but he proceeded to tell me why. He said it was because when he was unemployed social welfare provisions were changed — I think I am correct in saying that Deputy Burton was Minister of State in the Department at the time when Labour was in Government — to enable people continue on unemployment payments while they were creating a job for themselves. The most striking aspect of the budget is the fact that there is nothing in it that one could describe as an economic stimulus. There is nothing in the budget, or, indeed, in the legislation flowing from it such as this Bill, which indicates that the Government has any intention of ensuring people end up not dependent on social welfare but employed and paying taxes, as the rest of us fortunate enough to be working are able to do.

Unemployment is the single biggest issue. It drains economic power out of people. It drains families of hope. It has significant consequences in communities. We all have been there before. We know the extent of the toxic effect of high unemployment.

The importance of dealing with unemployment and ensuring that jobs are both protected and generated is recognised in Great Britain and in the US. Facing financial turbulence, there is still the core recognition difficult that we need an economic stimulus package to ensure that people are not dependent unnecessarily on social welfare but can work for a living. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the IMF makes the point that this should be a global approach. In little Ireland, what we see is a budget that seems to determine that thousands of people will end up on social welfare unnecessarily because of a political approach so myopic it is determined to simply cut back in the case of the most vulnerable and try to weather the storm in that way.

We know what is happening. Fine Gael is the party which pointed out that every three minutes a job is being lost. Predominantly, the job being lost is in the construction industry. We are speaking about people with skills, experience and training who would be well able, for example, as the Labour Party has proposed, to participate in and contribute to a school building programme and, with a certain amount of retraining, to a national insulation scheme. A national insulation scheme would provide a double benefit. It is not just about keeping people at work. It is also about ensuring that our total energy bill is reduced.

We face a major challenge in terms of the commitments up to which we must live to tackle climate change. I have just come from the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security which heard a presentation from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is a strong argument, which I would endorse, that in no way should Irish agriculture be expected to live up to the 20% reduction. We are good at growing grass and rearing cattle and that is what we should be doing in terms of future food security. However, that means in other areas there must be even greater efforts to ensure we meet targets and, in my view, there is nowhere more beneficial than a national insulation programme.

It is pathetic the way fuel poverty is being dealt with. The provision of €2 extra and two extra weeks' allowance borders on insult to people trying to struggle with very steeply increasing fuel bills. Last week when I raised with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, the extent of the problem of people living in fuel poverty, he did not even have information on how many are affected, either by permanent or intermittent fuel poverty. Despite the fact that a fuel energy research project was set up in 2006 and the findings of that group, which is supposedly working on fuel poverty, were promised and should have been already published, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, proudly states he is part of an interdepartmental group looking at why people cannot manage to keep themselves warm this and every other winter. The answer is fairly obvious, that fuel prices have gone up, people's incomes have not gone up, there are more people on social welfare and there is a grossly inadequate provision in terms of the fuel allowance.

Age Action Ireland clearly stated its beliefs. According to data from fairly reputable sources in the non-governmental area, it would represent many of the 60,000 people living in permanent fuel poverty and 160,000 living in intermittent fuel poverty. That is a significant cohort of our people. Age Action Ireland has argued that the fuel allowance should be increased to €30, that there should be an increased payment starting in October-November, and that there should be the obvious provision made for two simple payments, in October and January, to facilitate those with oil-fired central heating.

Often people do not recognise the difficulty. We all picture the old lady trying to keep warm in her house because it is poorly insulated and because she cannot afford to put coal on the fire. However, it is reckoned that 2,000 people in a winter die from cold-related conditions. We have a high level of mortality from that kind of illness compared to other countries.

Other countries very similar to ours have done something about this. In Britain, there is a fuel poverty strategy. It has been subject to a certain amount of criticism and the British Government has responded. Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, has a fuel poverty strategy with measures in place. These measures, which take time, are beginning to be applied in a way that can have a significant impact on those who need them most.

We, in the Republic of Ireland, do not have a fuel poverty strategy. There is a pittance coming from the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, and I thank her for that. There is rhetoric from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, which is something we really must challenge. It seems that when it comes to energy the focus is totally on the environment with no emphasis on the social needs of our people. That is a distorted view of the role of political leadership. We must ensure that changes occurring, whether increased fuel prices or measures we must introduce to meet our climate change targets, are sustainable in social, as well as environmental, terms.

There is a crazy situation, which I have raised on many occasions and which the Minister is examining, where back boilers are being taken out of local authority houses and oil-fired central heating installed instead. There is no effort to introduce the high-grade insulation scheme that could make a difference. There is no effort to introduce environmentally sustainable, alternative and renewable sources of fuel. In fact, if one asks the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government whether one is allowed to install a solar panel in a local authority house, one is told one can do it but is on one's own with nothing coming from Government. That is not good policy, certainly not for people living in fuel poverty.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. In good times it is easy to put together a budget to keep everybody happy. However, in difficult times such as those we face today it is not so easy. Harsh and tough decisions must be taken by the Minister and the Government. The Minister has made fair decisions which will protect those who need protection in our society. She is following in the footsteps of Fianna Fáil Ministers for Social and Family Affairs through the years. The Minister recognises, as did her predecessors, the need, duty and responsibility to care for all those who need help and support.

Historically, Fianna Fáil has consistently delivered increases above and beyond the rate of inflation and innovative schemes which are the envy of social welfare recipients in many other countries throughout Europe.

Tell that to the pensioners who lost their medical cards.

These include free natural or bottled gas, free travel, free ESB, telephone and television licence allowances and now if people want they can switch the telephone allowance to their mobile telephone.

When I was first elected in February 1982, unemployment figures were in the region of 18%.Those figures have reduced significantly, and were at zero for a number of years. All Governments which held office since that date have been responsible and played their part in ensuring our economy was able to change from those dire days to such a success in recent years.

We are not revisiting the days of the early 1980s but the numbers in receipt of social welfare are increasing and are predicted to increase to approximately 7% this year. As we are aware, this is due to the change in the world economy. What happens in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and throughout Europe has a serious impact on our economy. We are a small open trading economy and 85% to 90% of our GDP is obtained through exports. The United States of America is the recipient of approximately 19% of our exports, the United Kingdom receives 18% and the European Union receives 40%.

The strengthening of the euro against sterling and the US dollar has made it more difficult for exporters to keep up their market share or increase exports. The recession hitting many countries throughout the EU has also affected our exports. This means a reduction in profits which means a reduction in corporation tax and other taxes being received by the Government.

The construction industry has almost come to a halt in the past year or two, reducing from approximately 85,000 to 90,000 units to a projection of approximately 35,000 for this year. A reduction of every 10,000 units means a reduction of 1% of GDP. From a 6% growth rate last year, we are at a rate below zero this year.

In light of this, the funding available to the Government this year was nothing like what it had been in previous years. Despite this, the Government decided on three priority areas which it must ensure are looked after. The social welfare budget increased by 8.4%, the education budget by 2.7% and the health budget by more than 2%. We have always concentrated on these areas, even in the most difficult times, to ensure social welfare recipients, the elderly and those in education are looked after.

The budget allocates €515 million to social welfare. This level of social welfare expenditure indicates the Government's priority to protect and satisfactorily provide for social welfare recipients. Day to day social welfare expenditure predominantly benefits the elderly and children. The budget provides for an increase of €2 billion in expenditure in 2009. These positive changes propose an increase of €7 per week for people in receipt of a State pension in their own right, an extra €6.30 per week for the qualified adults of State pensioners aged 66 years and over and an extra €4.70 for contributory qualified adults under 66 years of age.

When the budget was announced we listened to scaremongering that older people would not be looked after, particularly with regard to the Christmas bonus. It was made clear that the Christmas bonus would be granted this year and I am delighted the Minister has announced it. In addition, the free fuel allowance has been increased by €2 per week and it has been extended by two weeks. The Minister is to be commended for listening to Deputies from all sides of both Houses who made the case for an increase in the free fuel allowance, particularly given the change in climate whereby the winter tends to be longer than it used to be.

I heard Opposition Members state the increase in the social welfare package does not sufficiently match the increase in inflation. This is not true because the projected rate of inflation for 2009 is between 2% and 2.5%. The budget provides for increases of between 3% and 4% in the basic payment rate. These payment increases are in line with wage rises agreed by the social partners in the second phase of the national pay agreement. The 2008 social welfare increases far exceed the increase in the consumer price index.

All of us have been visited by and have met constituents and we have heard about people who fly in from various parts of the world every month to collect their social welfare and fly out again. I do not want to mention any nationalities but we have also heard about people who leave the country and give their PPS numbers to other people who work here. I know the Department of Social and Family Affairs has taken this seriously and has put measures in place to ensure these scams cannot be carried out in future.

In this day and age, it is important to ask people who complain about this to provide details, as I do, so the information can be passed on to the Department. Once the information is provided the Department will carry out examinations. It is incumbent on all public representatives to put that message across to our constituents and to encourage them to provide us with solid information, rather than pub talk, so any abuses can be dealt with.

I welcome the decision to treat husbands and wives equally for pension purposes, particularly in the case of farmers and sole traders. Heretofore, one spouse, usually the wife, was not treated as a person in his or her own right for the purposes of pension entitlement even though he or she may have worked as hard as the other spouse in the family business. I am pleased the Minister has seen fit to correct this anomaly.

The proposal to cut child benefit by half in 2009 for children aged 18 years and over and to eliminate it in 2010 for this age group has caused great concern. It is important to reiterate the points made by the Minister in this regard. In her speech yesterday, she said:

Special alleviating measures are being introduced in respect of children aged 18 years who are in social welfare-dependent families or low-income families. A compensatory payment of €15 per week will be paid to families in receipt of social welfare payments which include a payment for a qualified child in this age group and to low-income families in receipt of family income supplement which include qualified children in this age group.

That was a rethink.

The Minister went on to say:

This additional payment will also be applicable where an 18 year old is in receipt of disability allowance in his or her own right. Compensatory payments will be paid to the person who was receiving the child benefit for the 18 year old in question. In addition, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will be increased by €215 to €520 per annum for eligible 18 year olds.

It is important to rectify the impression being given that no parent of a child of 18 years or older will be entitled to any type of child benefit payment. As the Minister indicated, those who are dependent on social welfare will receive additional benefits.

The Minister also spoke at length on the role of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and the Combat Poverty Agency. Again, the message has gone out that these agencies will be disbanded and their staff let go. That is incorrect. This Bill will amend the Citizens Information Acts 2002 to 2007 so as to enhance the functions of the Citizens Information Board through the assignment to it of a responsibility for the provision of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. MABS staff provide a highly valuable service to people who are in debt and who need help and advice in coping with debt problems.

I can testify to the usefulness of the service provided by MABS, having put several constituents in touch with it. On all occasions, the advice provided was very welcome and helpful. We must ensure the necessary supports are in place for the staff in these agencies. Under the proposed new structure, advice will be available to them which is not available today. It is important also to point out that the status of the 53 independent MABS companies with voluntary boards of management will not be changed. Nor will the employment status of the 240 employees who provide the local services. These people are not in danger of losing their jobs as a result of the provisions in this Bill.

The Bill imposes certain curtailments in respect of such payments as jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit. Currently, people who have paid just 52 weekly contributions in total qualify without restriction for these benefits. The Bill proposes that these benefits can be claimed for 12 months, after which claimants must move onto a means test basis. Under the current illness benefit procedure, by contrast, welfare is provided without time limitations. A forthcoming OECD review identifies this provision as unusual across the OECD, and for good reason. As the report observes, there is a great risk that people in such circumstances will never return to the labour force. Therefore, the Government's proposed changes seek to provide an incentive for recipients to seek re-employment and to discourage advantageous welfare dependency.

Illness benefit is designed to provide income replacement for insured persons during short spells of incapacity or illness. It is important to note that other payments are available to people who must remain out of employment for a long period because of a disability or medical condition. However, given that there is currently no limit on the amount of time for which illness benefit can be paid to people who have more than 260 social insurance contributions, more than 28,000 persons have been receiving the payment for more than two years. The Government has decided to change the entitlement to illness benefit to two years' duration for claims arising after 5 January 2009. However, existing claimants will not be affected and their conditions will continue under the current guidelines unless they cease claiming for more than three days, wherein the new rules will apply.

Existing schemes such as the back-to-work and back-to-education schemes which are aimed at people in receipt of illness benefit for two years or more will continue as before as an incentive for recipients to return to the job market. If the employment is not successful and claimants return to illness benefit within 26 weeks, they will retain their previous entitlement to illness benefits. Existing arrangements for claimants who avail of the carer's allowance will also be maintained. Again, it is important to get the message across that people are not being thrown to the wolves and that benefits remain available to them.

The Minister has amended the previous decision on changes to the domiciliary care allowance and disability allowance. The initial proposal was to extend the age requirement in both cases from 16 years to 18 years for new claimants. I understand these changes were proposed by some within the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies who deemed the age for receipt of domiciliary allowance to be too low. They observed that it offered no incentive to children to pursue work or education options and might encourage them to "fall into the dependency trap too early".

It is interesting to note who the Deputy is blaming.

Instead, they recommended that parents should receive the domiciliary care allowance on behalf of the child until he or she reaches 18 years of age. The decision of the Minister to change the original announcement was taken following representations from Deputies on all sides of the House and as a result of further recommendations from the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies. The Minister has suspended the proposals and stated that she will discuss with the relevant groups how their concerns can be addressed.

In conclusion, I welcome the Bill. It is a balanced measure in these difficult times. When the economy improves again, the difficult decisions that were taken will be reviewed.

I wish to share time with Deputy Pat Breen.

Deputy Ahern mentioned that the Minister was following in the footsteps of her predecessors. What a terrible shock it must have been for the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, to take office in the Department of Social and Family Affairs at a time when these crude and vicious cuts were introduced in the budget. I am sorry the Minister is not present. This budget appears to target young people in particular. Deputy Ahern mentioned one of the U-turns by the Minister. We welcome that because it was a severe and devastating measure for the many people and households affected, particularly the poor.

The budget did not protect the vulnerable. On numerous occasions we have heard Ministers and backbenchers claim that the old, young and the vulnerable will be protected. That appears to have gone out the door in the 2009 budget. The working poor are a new phenomenon in Irish society. There was a time when people believed that when one had a job, one could be secure and have a reasonable standard of living. That is no longer the case. Even people on the basic minimum wage will get a wallop from the Minister for Social and Family Affairs by the inclusion of the 1% levy. To be fair, she changed her mind a little on that, when she realised the mood of people outside the House.

To return to the situation of the young, the Minister said that many of the measures in the budget were a bid to stamp out the dependency culture, especially among young people. That is when we realised she had targeted the young. There are many changes with regard to people who have been in employment for one year. She targeted them in particular. If somebody lost their job after one year, they were always entitled to get the jobseekers allowance for one year. The Minister said the budgetary measures are expected to generate €62.7 million in savings next year and €119 million in 2010 and after. She said that someone who had only been working for one year could get benefit for a year, and that she was not sure it was in the best interests of young workers, who should be encouraged to keep working: "We do not want them to develop a dependency on social welfare payments. My over-riding consideration would be to ensure we do not create a dependency culture on social welfare, particularly among young workers."

That is a terrible indictment of young people, especially today when many young people who only gained employment in the good times now find themselves the first to be told there is no more employment for them. The Minister is targeting those people. If that is not bad enough, she has provided a second blow by restricting their return into education. She will not let them back into education unless they have spent a full 12 months on unemployment benefit but she is also saying they should not be entitled to jobseeker's allowance after one year of work. How can she reconcile the two positions? The Minister of State should bring this double whammy to her attention. They are irreconcilable for young people. It is a sad indictment of a Minister who was previously responsible for the Department of Education and Science and who should have known better with regard to efforts to get young people to return to education.

There is a series of measures from the Minister. Small, simple things have happened. The consequence of her anti-youth attitude is a doubling to 104 of the number of contributions necessary to apply for jobseeker's and other allowances. There is a reduction in jobseeker's benefit from 15 months to 12 months for those with over 260 contributions and from 12 months to nine months otherwise. Everything is targeted at this group. I am not sure if she is like the many other Ministers in the Cabinet who are being presented with measures that they have not screened and who have not realised what their impact will be on the public. All Ministers have done this but very few have been so particularly focused on disadvantaging young people.

The budget has caused much agony to many people but I wish to focus on the issue of lone parents and child poverty. Lone parents constitute a quarter of all families in Ireland today, and 21% of children live in lone parent households. One parent families, particularly those relying on social welfare or low paid jobs, struggle to cope with the cost of living. Lone parent households experienced the highest levels of consistent poverty in 2006 at 32.5%. Children who grow up in poor households are at very high risk of living in poverty as adults. There is no need to emphasise further the reality of the consequences and difficulties for single parents and their children unless they are supported by the State.

Unfortunately, children from these families are the first to drop out of the education system. If they do drop out, a difficult life lies ahead of them. The tragedy is that many of them fall away from normal living, as we would call it, and get involved in crime and other social difficulties. That is rampant in many areas of the country. There has been a failure to recognise this. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs should recognise the overall cost and that there could be a dividend later on. Costs associated with rehabilitation, crime, policing and anti-social behaviour will arise later for many of these children, which is tragic. It is a mistake to claim there will be short-term savings of €62 million next year and €119 million from 2010 onwards. These are short-term gains to provide emergency funding, but we will pay a higher price later on. Lives are being destroyed also.

I refer to the cutbacks in the school books grant under the budget. It is all the more tragic that a former Minister for Education and Science will implement these cutbacks. There will be serious consequences arising from the withdrawal of this grant. Community education and other services delivered by vocational education committees and other educational bodies will suffer. The poor and the vulnerable have been targeted again. These allowances meant a great deal to many families and children. I cannot understand how a former Minister for Education and Science could target those aspects of education assistance designed to help keep so many people in the education system. It is unbelievable that the Minister could implement these severe cuts. I hope at this late stage that the Minister's conscience can alert her to these consequences and she will withdraw from making some of the drastic cuts.

I remind the Ministers of State present, namely Deputies Máire Hoctor and John McGuinness, of the comments of the Minister for Finance on budget day. He said that spending would be concentrated on schools, health services and the protection of the elderly and the most vulnerable, and the Government side of the House applauded him for these words. The Minister of States' colleagues in the Government have failed to live up to these words.

The decision to withdraw the automatic right to a medical card for the over 70s sparked the most remarkable mobilisation of elderly people in memory. The only reason there was a climbdown on this issue was because of the sizeable protest on Kildare Street. I applaud these people for their actions, but this should never have happened. No matter how the Government tries to dress it up, the universal right to a medical card for the over 70s has been withdrawn. People who have worked hard all their lives and contributed so much to the country were forced to walk the streets in protest. This is a terrible way to treat our elderly people. Many questions still have to be answered, including the matter of the commitment to index link the income limits to inflation. I appeal to the Minister to rethink this decision.

The attack on the elderly in the budget however did not stop at the medical cards. Many Deputies have already referred to the €7 increase in the old age pension, most of which has been wiped out by inflation and cost of living increases. Consider what €7 could buy today. A shopping basket containing milk, a loaf of bread, a bag of sugar and tea bags costs in excess of €7. People must also buy basic essentials such as meat and vegetables in addition to these goods. How much of a difference does €7 make? I suggest it makes no difference at all because such people will still be short of money.

The fuel allowance will increase by €2 per week from January. While I welcome that the allowance has been extended from 30 to 32 weeks starting in April 2009, the increase is inadequate. The cost of home heating oil has risen by 47% in the 12 months to May this year. According to Age Action Ireland, an increase in the fuel allowance by €12 is required to cover 70% of fuel costs for an elderly person compared to the current figure of 42%. Many elderly people will cut down on fuel consumption and will not light the fire as early as they might wish.

The Government should come clean and state it will not achieve the goals in the programme for Government, one of which is a commitment to have a State pension of at least €300 per week by 2012. This will not happen. The budget does not contain a single proposal to deal with our spiralling unemployment figures. The latest Central Statistics Office figures reveal the total number signing on for unemployment or social welfare credits has reached 260,000, which is the highest level since March 1997. In my constituency, County Clare, some 1,539 workers have lost their jobs since the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, took office. In the past 12 months unemployment has soared by 57% in County Clare with a 74.6% increase in the number of people under 25 years of age signing on. Many young people see no employment and no future here and decide to go to Australia, although not by choice. Last week the Schwarz Pharma company based in Shannon, a very good company that has invested much money in the area, announced 55 job losses. This is only the tip of the iceberg and there will be more job losses in the region. Many garage forecourts are filled with unsold cars and these firms may go out of business.

One of the greatest challenges nowadays for families is meeting the costs of daily living and coping with cost increases in food, heat and children's education. Many families will also find it difficult to keep up with mortgage repayments. As unemployment surges many families will be crying out for help. Between the end of 2007 and October 2008 the number of people in receipt of supplementary welfare allowances increased by 50%. The situation is especially acute for lower income families in which one spouse is working for low pay and the other has been made redundant. I have already witnessed an increase in the number of people visiting my constituency office to seek help and we will see more in the coming months. I urge the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to support the Fine Gael proposal and double emergency support for debt-distressed homeowners to €30 million. This money could be channelled through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service centres and community welfare officers.

The banks must also bear a share of the responsibility. They loaned money as if it was confetti at a wedding. Providing 100% mortgages was the norm. "Negative equity" has become the new buzz word but many of us know of people who bought houses at inflated prices and who have been made redundant in recent times. Such people cannot afford monthly mortgage repayments and many are in the process of returning the keys of their houses and moving into rented accommodation. The banks must play a role by negotiating in a fair manner with the families who are experiencing difficulties.

The increase in the live register figures means more and more people are now applying for the jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit. It is bad enough that these people have lost their jobs, but they are penalised further by having to wait seven weeks to have their applications processed. I hope the Minister will examine this matter. I have been inundated recently with queries from many people who have lost their jobs in the construction industry. Such people now have no income whatsoever and do not qualify for assistance. Something should be done for these people too.

According to the European Union survey on income and living conditions, published by the Central Statistics Office in 2006, persons living in households where the head of household was unemployed — some 60.8% — were most at risk of poverty. By failing to deal with these issues more and more people will struggle to make ends meet.

I welcome the Minister's decision, although it is a U-turn, to abandon the proposal to raise the eligibility criteria for entitlement to the disability allowance from 16 to 18 years of age for new claimants. Withdrawing this payment in the first place was shortsighted and would have put extra financial pressures on many families. This payment is crucial in opening the door for these young people with disabilities and to other services and allowing them to have a greater amount of freedom with dignity. For example, on receipt of this payment recipients are awarded a travel pass for themselves and a companion for bus and train journeys and a mobility allowance is also provided to enable the person to pay for taxi fares or to travel to hospital.

The greatest failure in the area of social welfare is the ongoing neglect and inability to recognise the valuable role of carers in our communities. Family carers contribute over €2.5 billion to State coffers each year. According to the 2006 census, there are 4,507 carers in County Clare alone, working a total of 99,660 hours per week. One in six of our carers still do not qualify for the carer's allowance and there is no sign of a national carers strategy, which was promised by the end of 2007. It is ridiculous at this stage that an individual assessment for the carer's allowance means test is not acceptable and that the carer's partner's income continues to be assessed to qualify the carer for the payment. The Minister must take steps to have this matter addressed.

Poverty is a human ill and we must fight it together. However, there is no fight left in this Government. The recent budget is a testament to this. It was an uncaring and savage attack on the most vulnerable people in society. The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is another missed opportunity to reduce the increasing gap between rich and poor. The most marginalised in this country have been asked to pay the price for ten years of neglect by the Government.

I am delighted to contribute to this debate. I understand we are talking about the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. In very difficult economic circumstances, the social welfare budget for 2009 is €19.6 billion, a 15.5% increase from 2008. I cannot understand how that is described as savage and vicious. It was a remarkable achievement for the Government to come out with that package for social welfare dependants in these difficult times. How could an increase of €2.6 billion be savage and vicious? These were the words used by Opposition Deputies. They feel that if they keep on saying those words, somebody will finally think there is something wrong with billions of euro. It is the most extraordinary commentary I have ever heard. One of the previous speakers spoke about the money for back-to-school allowances, but this amount has been increased enormously. How is that savage and vicious?

I deal with a great many people every weekend who want quicker access to their benefits, and who seek advice on their entitlements. Therefore, I know what I am talking about, no matter what anybody says to the contrary. I must praise the people who work in social welfare offices around the country and how quickly they respond when we ask parliamentary questions. I refer in particular to the child benefit section in the office in Letterkenny, which responds within 24 hours. One of the benefits of being a Deputy is that we can bring solace and comfort when we get a reply. Of course, that only happens when the reply is good. When I was in the Seanad, we did not have that benefit and I missed it greatly. The people in the section in Letterkenny and in other sections should be praised for the way they attend to their jobs.

Family income supplement, FIS, is a benefit that is not publicised well enough and people do not get full access to it. There is not a week that goes by when I ask somebody whether they have thought of applying for FIS. They rarely know what it is, but when I explain it to them and they give me some of their details, I tell them that I think they would qualify. A snappy advertising campaign should be conducted to promote this. There used to be such campaigns before, but I have not seen any sign of it lately. A snappy advertising of FIS is necessary so people on low incomes know there is help at hand. As far as I know, there have been increases in FIS, so more people should avail of it. However, there is a need for it to be publicised.

The carer's allowance is where the greatest disparity occurs in the judgments made on those who have applied for it. No matter what evidence is produced in support of the person applying for the allowance, it is disallowed. One has the right to appeal, but I have never seen an appeal succeed in over 20 years of public life. The exact same result occurs every time. We do not know the criteria involved, although I think there is an adjudicating officer and an appeals officer. The appeal wends its way upwards and backwards, but the result is always the same. I have had to appeal to the Ombudsman on a particular case about the disallowance of a carer's allowance. The case is clearcut to me, as the documentary evidence includes signed affidavits. The lady for whom the carer was caring has subsequently passed away, but that does not take away from the fact that she was denied the carer's allowance for two years. I do not know the grounds on which the appeal was turned down, and I simply cannot understand it.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service does enormous good, and it has taken many decent people out of a financial hole that was not of their own making. The service is clear, clinical and kind, and its staff get at the problems and make sure the people seeking its advice know what they are about. They set up a budgetary system and visit those to whom the people owe money. They set out an agenda for payments to which the people involved can adhere. They see a way through the fog, where previously there was no way through.

The Minister has brought forward a range of improvements in the Bill. State pensioners are to receive €7 extra per week. I heard the previous speaker say that was nothing, but that is not so because people are appreciative of the increase. We know it is all taxpayers' money but in a time of desperate economic straits they were glad to see such an increase — an extra €2 on the fuel allowance with two weeks extra at the end of April. All these increases begin in January. I well remember that when we came back into Government in 1997, many of these payments were being paid from April and June of the following year, which is quite ridiculous if they should be in play for a budget year. However, there have been improvements in how such things are set out.

According to the statistics, 18,000 more families are now becoming eligible for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. How can that be savage and vicious, which is what a previous speaker said? The figure is above what was eligible prior to that. I often meet with families who feel they should be eligible, but when one goes through it, sadly, they are not. Be that as it may, however, that is the extra number.

I wish to make a few general points. While I do not mean this unkindly on the two gentlemen who are occupying the Fine Gael front bench at the moment, they must feel all their Christmases have come together. All they have to do is put down a motion on whatever is the "scandal" of the week before. I do not mean to use that word in a scandalous sense——

Of course she does.

——but referring to whatever furore has arisen the week before, and hi-ho, they table their Private Members' motion. Hi-ho there they are, but we never hear about what will happen if and when — that is another big question — they get into government. Will all these fields of gold be unleashed on the land? Will everything they espouse from the Opposition benches be part of their manifesto? Methinks not. I noted an important point during the debate on the medical card issue or the education cuts, I am not sure which. Deputy Richard Bruton, Fine Gael's spokesman on finance, did not utter a word during the whole debate. That is because he is being kept in cold storage, wrapped in cotton wool in case he might have to eat his words in ten, 12, 14 or 18 years time, whenever they come into Government. It may be months, I do not know.

It may be days or hours. Beware the ides of March, perhaps after the emergency budget.

Deputy Kenny says they might cross the floor. How interesting. Or perhaps there might be a general election. He is right to have his dreams, but I would really like to know why somebody does not put it right up to Fine Gael. I guess it will be agriculture next week.

It will be about whatever mess the Government has made.

There should be a few more things lurking that the Opposition will be able to bring out from what has happened. The budget was never meant to be sunshine all the way, chums.

There is no sunshine at all.

How could it be when one must take a serious look at the economic situation? No matter how one talks about better communications, one cannot make bad news into good news. It just does not happen. If difficult decisions have to be taken, that must be said. I am perplexed, however, as to how there is no issue of accountability with the Opposition. Every week they espouse good causes and say that we are all horrible, while they are all wonderful. It is a case of goodies and baddies for the Opposition in general, but will they implement all these ideas? When they go to these large protest meetings——

The Deputy would be very good in Opposition herself.

I was great actually.

Deputy Perry will be glad to know I was very good indeed.

I do not doubt it.

The two of them are giggling like schoolboys. I think they are so silly looking, if they do not mind me saying so.

We like what she says. She challenges us.

It is a very serious topic.

At least we smile at her, unlike Albert Reynolds. We will not be spitting on the cake.

May I continue please?

Are they going to be all things to all people, or will they be in any way responsible about what they would or would not do? Just before attending the House at 5.30 p.m., I had a phone call from the principal of a secondary school in my constituency. He told me he will manage the pupil-teacher ratio by rearranging the timetable. He has already had a parents' meeting to explain it to them. However, he brought one small item to my attention, which I will bring to the Minister of State's attention. He said "I am bamboozled with telephone calls and emails from the Opposition, both Fine Gael and Labour, telling me to invite parents to protest meetings and to send children home with letters in their satchels about protest meetings, and in general to have a whip-around of incipient rebellion about education". The Opposition is urging him to do it and will attend any meeting he will arrange on these matters. Every one of us has had over 800 emails delivered to our offices on the topic which Fine Gael tabled for tonight's debate. We saw where it was sent to, so clearly there is a unit which is hard at work. I like active units, but that may be a somewhat pejorative term in light of northern issues.

Is it the Fianna Fáil unit?

Clearly, huge activity is being whipped up and people's emotions are being deliberately preyed upon and played upon in difficult circumstances.

There is an extra package of €515 million in the social welfare budget but the total budget is €19.6 billion, which is an increase of €2.6 billion, or 15.5%, over the Estimates allocation for 2008. In good, bad or indifferent times, that is a bloody good social welfare budget.

What would Fine Gael do with that budget?

I wish to share time with Deputies Deenihan and O'Dowd.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Perry might give us the timetable of events around the country.

Will he not charge Santa?

I am delighted to hear Deputy O'Rourke in such fine form. She has a fantastic understanding of all issues concerning the country at large and, generally speaking, when it comes to issues of welfare entitlements and benefits. Deputy O'Keeffe must remember, however, that Fianna Fáil is going into its 12th consecutive year of Government——

Fine Gael was in Government, too.

——so it cannot blame anybody else.

We are not blaming anybody.

They cannot look back and blame anybody else.

Deputy O'Keeffe is in shape. He must have been offered a job.

The most important thing to remember is that the €50 billion we are discussing is taxpayers' money.

We often get the impression that it is the Government's money, but the people of Ireland paid in this money. Literally speaking, it is a totally taxed economy and everybody is taxed indirectly to such an extent. When one looks at how the €19 billion is spent, one must consider the level of tax taken from welfare benefits.

There is no imagination evident in the budget on how to take people away from a dependency on social welfare payments and back into work. This has been the real missed opportunity. There is very little difference between welfare and the minimum wage. There is a 1% increase given to 2.1 million workers and pensioners with non-pension income, child benefit for 18 year olds will be halved in 2009, child care supplement will also be cut and new claimants of jobseeker's benefit will need 104 paid contributions. These measures, together with the U-turn in the eligibility criteria for entitlement to disability allowance will have an impact on people on very low incomes.

The higher VAT rate will have a direct impact. The high rate of VAT is the biggest contributor to Revenue. It is also one of the reasons people are travelling to America and Northern Ireland. The cost of doing business in this country is prohibitive. Those living in a Border county know that the level of VAT is considerably different on the other side of the Border, as are excise duties.

With regard to the role of FÁS and the back to work schemes, there is work to be done in reskilling people so that they can go back into the workforce. The higher rates of VAT and capital gains tax and the reduction of tax relief on medical expenses are all noted. The Government was given advice about medical card entitlement in 2001. The medical card entitlement and its reversal has been a fiasco.

I compliment the staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs for their excellent work. They are clearly people who react quickly to any representation made.

I wish to speak about the issue of fuel poverty as it impacts on the older people in the community. The Government's budget social welfare provisions for fuel allowance for this coming year are completely inadequate to meet the real needs of low income households and older people in particular. Budget 2009 provides for an increase of €2.20 a week in the fuel allowance with an extension of the winter months to 32 weeks. That is €640, which is minimal when considering the cost of a tank of oil.

The back to education allowance was discussed by other speakers. The minimum wage is €17,000 a year, which is €346 a week and the social welfare ceiling is €18,000, which is €347 a week, one euro greater. This difference of €1.21 creates huge disparity in education support for a full-time three-year degree course and it should be reconsidered. We have no official register of energy poverty so that we do not know the extent of the problem but it is serious. A total of 227,000 households experience some degree of fuel poverty.

This Bill has failed to deliver to the most vulnerable in society, the very young and the very old. Other Deputies have spoken about the inadequacy of the family income support. People are expected to live on €200 a week. The cost of living is rising every day and this has an impact on the weekly shopping bill. The inflationary increases in the price of oil and increases in electricity charges have a direct impact on people's ability to manage their household budget. The Combat Poverty Agency has been amalgamated with another body and this will also have a direct impact. An opportunity has been missed. The sum of €19 billion is a huge amount of money. I note the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and his special reports on certain aspects of the budget.

I will refer to a number of specific aspects of the budget. The failure to increase child benefit payments means that the value of this payment will fall by 2.5% in real terms in 2009 and this will have a negative effect on the households of the working poor. Even with the changes introduced in the family income supplement, many working poor households will see their standard of living fall in 2009. As a result of the changes introduced in the budget, there will be no reduction in Ireland's extensive child poverty. I refer to work carried out by CORI on the analysis of the budget in which this issue was emphasised more than any other aspect of the budget.

The social welfare increases are to be welcomed to some extent. However, as CORI and others have pointed out, the increases were fairly minimal when one considers an increase for a single person by just €6.50 a week and €10.80 for a couple and for those on State pensions an increase of €7 a week for a single person and €11.60 for a couple. These are very small in the context of the increases in food prices evident in supermarkets. The UK inflation rate is currently 5.6% and there is a likelihood it will continue to increase here. This will dilute the increases allocated in the budget, however welcome.

Fuel poverty was referred to by Deputy Perry. The Institute for Public Health conducted an excellent study on fuel poverty entitled, Fuel Poverty and Health, which highlighted the sizeable direct and indirect effects on health of fuel poverty. This study found that fuel poverty on the island of Ireland remains unacceptably high and that it is responsible for the highest levels of excess winter mortality in Europe, with an estimated 2,800 excess deaths on the island of Ireland over the winter months. Older people in particular need at least one hot meal a day and they need to keep warm. In many cases they cannot afford to buy oil or other fuel and so their houses and clothes remain cold and damp. I know from personal experience that this has a bearing on the state of their health.

There was an increase of just €2 per week on the back of the Fuel, Poverty and Health study despite a very strong lobby by CORI and others, including a motion in the House, and a strong demand that it should be increased. This fell on deaf ears as €2 is rather derisory in the context of what these people need. While I accept the payment was extended by two weeks, given the weather conditions and temperature levels in this country at present it should be extended to 40 weeks as it is needed most of the year. This should be a consideration for next year. It is very important that the Government would continue to increase the amount of the allowance and also the extent of time for which it is paid.

An aspect of the budget about which I am particularly concerned is that of the paid contributions required for entitlement to jobseeker's benefit. As we know, there are 251,000 unemployed at present. While the Government can rightly take some credit for the fact there are over 2 million people employed, the likelihood is that by this time next year there could be 350,000 unemployed. Although I hope this will not be case, there will be more people seeking jobseeker's allowance. The nature of employment may also be increasingly short term. The increase from 52 contributions to 104 will eliminate many people who are at present entitled to jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit. The Minister should examine this issue when considering Committee Stage and perhaps move half way in this regard. The change is penal and will affect many.

For the first time, there are over 4,000 people signing on at the social welfare office in Tralee but it does not have the staff to cope with the number of applications being submitted. I would like the Minister to examine the staffing complement and perhaps redeploy staff. There are major delays in assessing and approving applications at present and I appeal to the Minister to consider this.

I wish to highlight the excellent work done by the staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and their efficiency and accountability in terms of explaining decision making. When one goes to them on appeal, they are always flexible. I have never yet met a case where I did not basically agree with the decision they made. It is an excellent performance. If other Departments were as accountable, available, approachable and understanding of human nature as the Department of Social and Family Affairs, it would be an important day.

A number of people have come to my office recently who have no benefits or stamps because they worked in a self-employed capacity in the building industry. There is a need to do whatever one can but we also need to look to the future and introduce a scheme which would be optional for such people. While one can have private insurance, many of these are young people who started off in the middle of the boom and while they had an income previously, they now have nothing. We need to put in place a support system so they might benefit from insurance stamps for the self-employed. They could make a contribution from their wages, which would give them some assurance, if and when they lose their work, that they will have some kind of income and not be down to nothing. It is a serious issue.

Another issue resulting from the recession relates to people who are in trouble with their mortgages, particularly sub-prime mortgages. Start Mortgages is a company providing such mortgages, and one I have dealt with personally. The Minister should be aware that a person came to my office last week to show me a text reading "Final notice" because Start Mortgages had been sending out final notices by text to people who were in trouble with their mortgages. The company phoned them repeatedly over a period of days to discuss the issues with them. The problem was that the families involved were paying 8% or 9% interest, which is extremely high and almost double the normal mortgage rate.

The interventions that are needed when people get into such difficulties are not available in a structured way. There is the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, which is excellent, but we need to put in place structures so that if people get into mortgage difficulties, support is available early on, when they are, say, €3,000 or €4,000 in arrears. There needs to be a relationship between the person in trouble, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, MABS and the other relevant housing agencies. This process should automatically include a referral of the problem to MABS so it can analyse the issues and give good advice, which it always does.

The Minister should ensure that Start Mortgages and sub-prime lenders in particular are dealt with. We need to tell them they cannot just crucify people when they get into difficulties. Many such people have borrowed beyond their means and most are in negative equity. We need a structure in place to deal with this. The other lenders — the banks, the building societies and the fund for distressed mortgage holders — need to be brought into the process, which should be structured so that the families involved are offered choices.

People who are harassed, hounded and haunted have come to my office with their problems. They are in tears because they will lose their homes but it is too late in many cases because the debt is too much at that stage. Earlier and focused intervention is needed and the banks and building societies must play their part. They must consider these cases and decide whether, for example, they could offer these people mortgages at 5% if their debt was under €5,000.

The situation gets worse and worse for such families. They get more messages and harassment and end up losing their homes, as we read in the newspapers. A judge of the High Court recently made some not very complimentary remarks about Start Mortgages and he was right to do so. In many cases, that company is bleeding people dry when they cannot afford to hold onto their homes and are in total distress.

I also wish to raise the issue of fuel poverty and support the point made by Deputy Deenihan. An analysis was carried out perhaps five years ago with regard to death rates among older people in Norway and Ireland. While the population base and the climate was much the same in both countries, more older people were dying in Ireland than in Norway. The reason for this was the thermal efficiency of the homes. It is not just about the cost of fuel but also about the fuel that goes up the chimney or out the windows and the cracks in the doors. We need increased support to make homes more thermally efficient, which would make a significant difference, particularly for the elderly.

I wish to share time with Deputy Áine Brady.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is of huge importance to the most vulnerable people in our community. It shows that the Government has the best interests of the less well-off at heart.

The Bill provides for an increase of between 3% and 3.8% in basic social welfare payments next year. This represents a total spend of €19.6 billion for 2009 and an increase of €2.6 billion over the 2008 Estimates. Overall, 1.7 million people will benefit from these provisions. This includes 440,000 pensioners, 345,000 ill and disabled people, over 80,000 carers, 30,000 low income families who will be availing of family income supplement and more than 580,000 families who receive child benefit payments.

A country can best be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable, and this Bill shows our country in a very positive light. In these difficult economic times, it is important that we support those who need it most. At a time when many pensioners and social welfare recipients were not expecting increases, the Minister has provided just such increases. Many of these figures are worth repeating. In the coming year there will be an increase of €7 per week for all State pensioners, contributory and non-contributory, as well carers aged 66 and over. There will be an increase for qualified adults ranging from €4.30 to €6.30 per week for those over 66 years of age. A couple will now have a weekly increase of €13.30 per week. The 11% increase in fuel allowance to €20 a week from the start of 2009 is most welcome. I also welcome that the season has been increased to 32 weeks in total.

The Government is doing all it can to keep unemployment as low as possible but it is prudent in the current economic environment to set aside funding in case it continues to rise. The Bill sees changes to the jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit schemes.

Some people, who were previously working part-time, could receive a higher rate of payment from these schemes than what they were earning while at work. This has been recognised as being inappropriate and a disincentive to employment. From January, this situation will be addressed by increasing the earnings thresholds which currently apply to the reduced or graduated rates of payment from €150 to €300 per week. This provides an extra incentive for those seeking employment. Up to 733,000 people are in receipt of working age payments — jobseekers, one-parent families, illness benefit and disability allowance claimants and carers. They will all benefit from increases in weekly personal rates in the coming year.

Unfortunately, in these changed economic times, it has been necessary to take some steps to reduce expenditure. These have been kept to the minimum and applied in a careful manner. There was no easy way to achieve the required savings. Consideration had to be given to a wide range of changes and very difficult decisions had to be made. No Minister took these decisions lightly. The Bill seeks to ensure the most needy in our society are looked after and that they are not left behind or forgotten. I welcome the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. At a time when we are experiencing very challenging economic times, it is timely to reflect on the social welfare entitlements of those that most need the assistance from the State.

The Bill's purpose is to implement the €515 million package of social welfare improvements which were announced in budget 2009. In a very challenging economic climate, this package will bring total expenditure on social welfare in 2009 to €19.6 billion, a substantial increase over the Estimates allocation for 2008. At a time of depleting Government resources, this increased provision for social welfare is a clear and timely signal of the Government's commitment to protect the older people, those losing their jobs and other vulnerable and less well-off in society. Given the financial restrictions, however, the budget has some concrete and helpful proposals to protect the less well-off. It proposes an increase of €7 per week for recipients of pensions and carer payments who are aged 66 years and over. There will be an increase of €6.50 on all working age payments, including jobseeker's benefit, disability allowance, one-parent family payment and carer's benefit and allowance payable to carers aged under 66 years.

The budget also provides for an 11% increase in the value of the fuel allowance for our older people. The fuel allowance will be €20 per week from next January. The duration of the fuel season is also being extended by another two weeks from April 2009, bringing it to 32 weeks in total. As oil prices have significantly reduced in recent months, the increased fuel allowance will be all the more effective. The improvements to the fuel scheme will benefit nearly 300,000 households.

Since 2004, the Government has increased the budget for services for older people by €540 million. In budget 2009, €55 million will be provided to implement the fair deal while protecting the home help and home care services. It is also important to point out that over 50,000 elderly people were taken out of the tax net between 2003 and 2007.

The budget provides an extra €260 million for social welfare payments to people of working age. The maximum personal rate of payment for all working age schemes is being increased by €6.50 per week with effect from the first week of January 2009, with proportionate increases applying to people on reduced rates. This brings the lowest social welfare weekly payments above €200 for the first time to €204.30. The rates of qualified adult payments are also being increased on all schemes by €4.30, except for the invalidity pension scheme where a €4.60 increase will apply. Approximately 733,000 people will benefit from these increases.

Budget 2009 also provides increases for families with children who are in receipt of social welfare payments. Social welfare-dependent parents currently receive an extra €24 per week for each child, on top of their basic social welfare payments through the qualified child increase. This will be increased by €2 to €26 per child with effect from January 2009. Improvements are also being made to the family income supplement which is paid to low-income working families. The income limits for the family income supplement are being increased by €10 per week in respect of each child giving an average extra payment of €6 per child per week. It is estimated that a total of 29,000 families will benefit from the supplement in 2009 and that approximately 2,000 additional families will become eligible for payment. The income thresholds for entitlement to back to school clothing and footwear allowance will also be increased to enable 18,000 more families to benefit from the scheme.

I wish to highlight the work of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. Its staff provide a highly valued service to people who are in need of advice on financial issues and are over-indebted. Such people need help and advice in coping with debt problems. There are 53 independent MABS companies with voluntary boards of management, employing 240 nationwide that provide local services. I urge anyone who needs assistance to call to their local MABS office where they will get free advice on their financial situation.

The Bill will provide the legislative basis for a range of improvements next year. These include €7 extra per week for State pensioners; €6.50 extra per week for welfare recipients of working age, such as jobseekers and those on illness benefit; an extra €2 per week on the fuel allowance, with payment also being made for an additional two weeks; increases in child-related payments to those dependent on social welfare; improvements in the family income supplement for low-income working families; and 18,000 more families becoming eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. I commend the Bill to the house.

I wish to share time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This social welfare Bill is the cutting edge of the knife wielded by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government in budget 2009. It is an attack on the most vulnerable in society. Those who can least afford it are being made to pay for the failed economic policies of successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments for over a decade.

Make no mistake about it, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the hardship now faced by the unemployed, by those dependent on social welfare, by older people and by children has come about not as a result of a world slump but because of a home-grown recession. A thriving economy was built by Irish workers in the mid-1990s. The basis for sustainable growth was laid. Fianna Fáil-led Governments from 1997 had it in their power to invest in sound infrastructure, develop efficient and equitable public services, foster industry to provide employment and raise revenue through exports to create an enhanced society as well as a prosperous economy.

What did they do instead? They saw a growing economy and decided, along with their friends the developers, the speculators and the bankers, to reap the rewards through ruthlessly exploiting the increased demand for housing and commercial property. They created a massive property bubble and a perilous over-dependence on construction for employment. The result is all too plain to see. The bubble has burst. Construction employment has collapsed. Government revenue has gone through the floor. Families are mortgaged to the hilt and many are losing their homes. Negative equity is rife and the full consequences for individuals, families, companies and financial institutions have yet to be seen.

All of this was predictable. Sinn Féin and others on the left in this House, as well as independent economists and social commentators, constantly highlighted the folly and injustice of Government economic policy. Introducing the Bill, the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, said the Government "has had to make some difficult decisions in order to secure our economic future". The right decisions should have been made a long time ago. The Government of which the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, has been a member for eight years has made the wrong decisions. Collectively, it has squandered the boom and now it is making the poor pay for its folly.

In August, an all-Ireland study on health and equality was published by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland and the Combat Poverty Agency, the latter of which the Government is now silencing. The report showed that in the 26 counties, 38% of those at risk of poverty — that is, living on an income of less than €202.50 per week — reported suffering from a chronic illness, compared to 23% of the general population. In the Six Counties, 47% of unskilled workers suffer from long-standing illness compared to 30% of professionals and managers. Budget 2009 and this social welfare Bill will result in even deeper health inequalities in this State. The incomes of low paid workers, the unemployed and a whole range of people dependent on social welfare will clearly suffer.

The Bill is especially mean-spirited in its attack on the benefits available for the masses of people becoming unemployed. The October 2008 live register and the seasonally adjusted figures for people signing on were up by a massive 57%, or 94,800, compared to October 2007. Redundancy figures were up 50% on October last year to an all time high of 32,076 or 729 per week. More than a quarter of a million people are now unemployed. Against this background, incredibly, the Government is actually cutting benefits for the unemployed. People will now need to have been employed for two years to qualify for jobseeker's benefit. The payment period for this benefit has been shortened from 15 months to 12 months, after which the unemployed person must to drop to the means tested jobseeker's allowance.

Can the Minister or any of her backbenchers put themselves in the position of a young construction worker, unemployed for the first time, with a young family and a mortgage? Can any of them imagine the plight of that young person? That worker now faces the shock of the dole queue, reduced social welfare benefits, price inflation, higher costs for health care and few prospects for employment in the short or medium term. This Government's policy has created unemployment and now it is penalising the unemployed. Shame on it.

The minimum adult social welfare increase of €6.50 to €204.30 is wiped out by inflation and is, in effect, a cut. The same goes for the paltry €7 per week increase in pensions, while the living alone allowance has not been increased at all. The €2 increase in fuel allowance can be seen as nothing short of an insult. So much for the Government's claimed special concern for older people. We saw the hypocrisy of that claim in the removal of the automatic entitlement to a medical card for the over 70s, which has been long debated in this House. Another especially mean-spirited cut is the ending of child benefit for 18 year olds. This will hit low income families most badly and will have the effect of driving many young people out of education. For an 18 year old, child benefit can make the difference between continuing in education, albeit with a real struggle, and being unable to continue due to the inability of the family to support the young person through that vital year. I have no doubt this measure will result in reduced numbers completing the leaving certificate. Young people from low income families will be going into a depressed employment market without basic qualifications. It is another extremely damaging and therefore short-sighted measure. Low-income families, especially those just above the poverty line and those who do not qualify for medical cards, will be especially badly hit by the 1% income levy. The VAT increase will also have a disproportionately adverse effect on these families.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul reports that 800 people attended a crisis meeting of the organisation in Dublin last weekend to discuss how to cope with what it has described as a "soaring demand" — I repeat, a soaring demand — for its services. Calls for help have increased by almost 40% since last year. The society is an independent charity, so at least it is somewhat insulated from the ravages of the Government. These include the effective abolition of the Combat Poverty Agency, which has done so much to highlight the inequalities sponsored and presided over by this Government over many years and to advocate sounder policies which this Government has patently ignored.

This social welfare Bill is totally unacceptable and Sinn Féin will reject it at every turn.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for sharing time. I really appreciate it because, as an Independent Deputy, it is difficult at the moment to get speaking time in the Dáil.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this new legislation, the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. Any legislation or debate on social welfare is important, especially in recessionary times. It is also crucial in terms of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. That is the key to this debate. I accept that we live in difficult times, but we all have a civic and political duty to support those on social welfare and particularly the weakest sections of society. That is my brief in the Dáil as an Independent Deputy and that is the agenda I have been pushing in the Dáil. I am not going to walk away from those on social welfare, from our senior citizens or from our children in large classes.

In this discussion of the poorer sections of society in disadvantaged areas, I would like to point out that most people in poor areas do not get involved in crime. This is very relevant to the debate and also in the context of the recent horrific murder of Shane Geoghegan in Limerick. I offer my deepest sympathy to his family today and say loud and clear that this terrible, savage murder is not acceptable in any State, any area or any community. Brutality such as this is simply not on and I urge everyone to speak out.

For 25 years I worked in a disadvantaged area in which many families were dependent on social welfare, and the vast majority were not involved in crime and murder. It is important to say that in this debate because some communities are regularly labelled in a negative way. In fact, I would say to the middle classes and the wealthy who take or deal in cocaine that they are a major part of the problem. By feeding their habits they are looking after the market. I urge them to see common sense and realise the connection between their social habits and the murders on our streets today.

With regard to this Bill, we need to look at the facts and consider social welfare in the context of the real world. I welcome the positive aspects of the Bill but, overall, there are many negative aspects. While almost all groups, including people depending on social welfare payments, have experienced an increase in income, the pattern of income distribution has continued to be characterised by a high degree of inequality.

Ireland's income distribution has remained much more unequal than that of any other European state. In terms of unequal distribution, Ireland tops the list. As overall personal wealth grew during the boom, the reality of the extreme concentration of this wealth was often obscured. In 2006, some 20% of the wealth of this country was held by 1% of the population. When the wealth arising from the ownership of a home was excluded the degree of concentration was even greater, with 1% of the population owning 34% of household wealth. Where credit was vigorously marketed by financial institutions, many people met rising living standards expectations by entering into high levels of personal debt, often by availing of unsolicited loans. It is important in this debate that we mention the fact that many banks have been ripping people off for many years.

House building reached record levels but the price of housing increased, locking many out of a chance of becoming home owners and others into ownership on the basis of costly and extended mortgages, often for homes far from their workplaces. There were lengthy waiting lists for social housing. By 2005 this stood at 43,000 households as against 27,000 in 1996, an increase of 52%. Many times more houses were built as second or holiday homes or as investments than were built for social housing.

Although there were improvements in emergency services, some homeless people were unable to obtain emergency accommodation or felt they would be unsafe in the accommodation offered, and so remain on the streets. Even when emergency homeless services responded adequately, as they frequently did, the shortage of social housing and the cost of private rented accommodation made it very difficult for people to move on to a permanent home.

Significant increases in public expenditure on health services failed to make up for the deficits of years of under-investment and many people continue to be denied services or experience long delays in accessing them. However, the Government failed to seize the opportunity presented by economic prosperity to begin to change the inherently unjust structure of a two-tier health system, which I have for many years pushed for in the Dáil. This has a directly negative impact on all those on social welfare.

Despite the many positive developments in the education system, such as inclusion initiatives to address educational disadvantage, stark differences in educational outcomes persist for many children, especially from the poorest areas. I mention this because promised reductions in class size were only partially fulfilled and in recent weeks we have seen what is happening. We must reassert the importance of the values of social solidarity, fairness and compassion. That is the key matter regarding this legislation.

The Bill provides for increases in the rates of social insurance and social assistance payments and improvements in family income supplements. It also provides for certain amendments to the social welfare code, as announced in budget 2009, including to PRSI. The Bill further provides for amendments to other Acts, including the Pensions Acts 1990-2007, the Civil Registration Act 2004 and the Citizens Information Acts 2000-07. In Part 2, amendments to the Social Welfare Acts, sections 3 and 4 provide for increases in the rates of social welfare payments and these include an increase of €7 per week for recipients of pensions. This increase is unacceptable.

Some other Deputies have said this is an excellent budget but let them examine the facts, the detail and how it was handled. They should ask the elderly, disabled and social welfare recipients how they feel about the budget. I want to deal with the domiciliary care allowance issue. I was one of those who lobbied the Minister hard for days. She listened to the submissions on the domiciliary care allowance and climbed down in the end. She also had the opportunity to listen to Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and many other Deputies who pushed this issue. It is important that people realise putting on pressure delivers results, as we have seen on many other issues.

The National Council for the Blind is extremely disappointed the Government has failed to adequately protect the interests of blind and vision impaired people in the recent budget. In its pre-budget submissions it made the case for above-inflation rises to a range of benefits and allowances that would protect the people it works with from the spiralling costs of inflation. Although this is a key issue, there is no talk in this debate on inflation. With 50% of those the council works with over the age of 65, the withdrawal of the medical card for the over 70s was clearly a major concern for many blind people and legislators. Although the increase in the thresholds announced on 21 October will ensure that 95% of that population retain this key benefit, the concern and confusion caused by the controversy unsettled many people and caused them unnecessary worries about the affordability of their health care. This is particularly relevant to people with disabilities.

The National Council for the Blind also perceives a similar tampering with the medical card scheme benefits between local areas throughout the country. Some HSE regions refuse to pay for vital low-vision aids while in other HSE areas the same items are covered by the scheme. A recent report published by the main organisation providing services to blind and visually-impaired people found that 30,000 people in Ireland live with significant sight loss because they wear no prescription glasses or the wrong ones. This is a national scandal. With the number of people in Ireland who are blind or visually impaired expected to increase by more than 170% over the next 25 years, it is crucial that the Government encourage and enable people to proactively manage their eyesight and prioritise their eye health. This will require increased investment and a consistent nationwide approach instead of regional variations. It is very important I mention these issues.

I am fearful that while spending on disability services is being presented as 2% of the total health spending in 2009, in real terms we face a cut of between 4% and 6%. Cuts at this level are intolerable to our sector, which experienced a reduction in spending of over €31 million last year. It is impossible for the disability sector to observe a massive cut in funding without its having a significant impact on the quality and availability of services that will provide for those in greatest need of support in the community.

It is important we examine the details of the legislation and stand up for the poorer sections of society and those on social welfare. Society is people. Without people there is no society. I urge everybody to join in the attempt to redevelop respect, trust and community spirit by insisting on people-centred policies and actions. Sadly, this legislation is not in line with that ethos.

I propose to share my time with Deputies Tom Hayes and Feighan. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008. Budget 2009 includes no imaginative proposals on how to get people off social welfare and back to work, particularly through retraining and education. The Bill is a missed opportunity to make changes to the back to education allowance so that people do not have to receive a social welfare payment for 12 months before they can retrain or up-skill. Presumably, the Government takes the view it costs too much but this is false as it will save money in the long term to see people retrained for the modern economy.

A person in a low-income job wishing to return to education is entitled to only €4,131 per year in educational support whereas a person from a social welfare background is entitled to €25,266 per year. Over a three year degree course this leads to a €63,489 disparity in essential support. This anomaly limits the incentive for low-paid workers to return to full-time third level education to improve their skills and their future job prospects.

People who want to escape the low-pay trap are being penalised for working. When one takes up a degree course as an adult learner the level of support depends on what one did in the year before taking up the place on the course. One is disqualified from the back to education allowance if one worked in the year before taking a college place, no matter what the income level.

I wish to comment on an issue I have encountered repeatedly in recent times. I refer to the plight of self-employed people who find themselves out of work. Last week, I spoke to a small-time self-employed person who has not worked since 20 June last. When he applied for the jobseeker's allowance, he was refused it. He has been told he is not entitled to unemployment assistance. He has a wife, who works at home, and a four year old child. He does not have any income because he cannot receive supplementary welfare allowance. Any application for the allowance would be assessed on the basis of his 2006 earnings.

The earnings of self-employed people in 2006 are totally different from their earnings for the first six months of 2008. I suggest that the 2006 income should be totally irrelevant. The man in question is depending on his extended family to keep him, his wife and his child in food. Those who are assisting him have indicated that there is a limit to what they can do. In fairness to them, they have supported him greatly. When I spoke to community care officials about this case, I was told they cannot do anything about the matter. They mentioned that they are encountering more and more cases of this type. It seems that self-employed people and those running small businesses are most likely to be in dire straits.

I wish to speak about the bureaucratic problems I encountered when I tried to obtain unemployment assistance for a man. It would probably be kind to refer to him as semi-literate. He was unable to provide the level of information required of him, or cope with the level of bureaucracy demanded in his case. He was unable to obtain supplementary welfare allowance because he had been refused unemployment assistance. He has been forced to beg on the streets. The Garda asked him if he would contact community welfare officers, but they were unable to do anything for him. When he applied for unemployment assistance, he was asked to provide more information. He did not comprehend what was asked of him and was therefore unable to meet the various requirements. There must be some way of ensuring that people in such circumstances are helped. The various bureaucratic limitations in the system should be removed so it can respond to such people. I ask the Minister to examine this matter.

I imagine that the amount of people on non-contributory pensions is small and the people involved are now quite elderly. I expect that the cost of such pensions is decreasing substantially each year, as a result of the wastage associated with the life cycle. It would not the cost the State anything to introduce the change I am recommending in this area. I propose that we should give the few people on the means-tested non-contributory pension who have some means an automatic right to the pension. Perhaps we can abandon the non-contributory pension in such cases.

I refer to people who did not have an opportunity to pay PRSI when they worked up to the age of 65. The cohort of people who did not have ten years of contributions was initially quite large. The rules were then changed so that a 50% payment could be made to those with 50% of the necessary contributions. The Government should recognise that the people in question, who are well into their 80s, have played their part over the years. It should re-examine the manner in which the non-contributory pension is paid to them.

This country's 161,000 carers work 3.7 million hours every week. It is estimated that their work saves the State €2.5 billion each year. However, less than one in six carers qualifies for the carer's allowance. This year's budget provides for a minimal increase in the allowance. The increase, which barely keeps pace with inflation, will do nothing to help family carers who depend on the allowance to cope with the rising cost of care in the home. The weekly rate of carer's allowance currently paid to those under the age of 66 is €214, or €4.59 less than the median income poverty line of €218.59. The Government promised to review supports for family carers in the national strategy for carers, which was supposed to have been published by the end of 2007. Almost 12 months later, it has not yet been published.

It looks increasingly likely that the strategy will be a "yellow pack" document that does not address the key concerns identified by the groups that represent carers. The groups have called for the role of this country's more than 5,000 young carers to be recognised and supported. They want adequate income supports to be provided to carers. They have suggested that carer payments be linked to labour market rates. The groups want the Government to ensure that the minimum level of carer's allowance is not less than the minimum wage. They have demanded an adjustment in the income disregard used during the assessment of means for carer's allowance.

The carers' groups believe that the individual carer's means should be the only matter considered in the means test. They are concerned about the rules governing the ability of carers to earn income. They believe that carers should be permitted to engage in employment for more than 15 hours a week. The groups argue that PRSI contributions should be awarded to carers on the same basis as paid contributions, so that carers are entitled to the State contributory pension when they become eligible for pension purposes.

The 2006 census found that there are 5,433 carers between the ages of 15 and 19 in this country. Some 700 of the carers in question work between 29 and 43 hours each week. This year's budget did nothing to recognise the role of such carers. The Government promised, in the programme for Government agreed last year and the Towards 2016 social partnership agreement, that it would publish the national strategy for carers before the end of 2009. The delay in publishing the strategy clearly demonstrates the political inertia that exists in regard to carers. It exposes the Government's supposed commitment in this area as no more than lip service to the concerns of carers. If the Government is unwilling to publish its blueprint for addressing the provision of services, supports and entitlements to carers, it is clear that it is not truly committed to making any real improvement in the lives of carers in the near future.

I raised the issue of energy poverty during a Private Members' debate in the House some weeks ago. There is a strong causal relationship between low incomes, poor housing, energy poverty and adverse health. One of this country's shortcomings is that it does not have an official register of energy poverty. Therefore, we do not know the extent of this problem. However, we know it is a serious problem. According to Sustainable Energy Ireland, 227,000 households experience some degree of fuel poverty. The impact of fuel poverty ranges from uncomfortable living conditions to more serious negative effects such as poor physical or mental health, increased debt and a decline in the physical condition of houses. In 2006, the Central Statistics Office reported that almost 6% of the population had to go without heating at some stage in 2005 due to lack of money. Research has shown that people, particularly older people, are dying because they are unable to heat their homes sufficiently.

A strong correlation has been identified between fuel poverty, the standard of housing and the 2,000 excess winter deaths which occur in Ireland each year. It has been calculated that Ireland has the second highest rate of excess winter deaths among a sample of countries in Europe. Poorer people spend more on energy because they live in energy inefficient homes. As they spend so much on energy, scarce resources are not available for other necessities such as food, clothing and transport. Lone parents and older people are much more likely to suffer energy poverty than any other group. In 2004-05, those in the lowest income bracket spent an average of 13% of their disposable income on energy, while the highest earners spent just 1.7% of their incomes on energy. Last winter, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul gave €3.4 million in supports to people struggling in their homes.

Debate adjourned.