Social Welfare Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I am glad to have the opportunity of contributing to the Social Welfare Bill on Second Stage.

Deputy Creed quoted a sentence from the Minister, Deputy Hanafin's, speech but he never finished the sentence. He quoted what suited him, which is an old trick in parliamentary debate. I listened to the debate and the Minister stated that a couple of hundred euro did not seem much but it was enormous to the person who got it. She said that from the bench where the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, now sits. Of course somebody had told Deputy Creed to use a glib Marie Antoinette name tag and in his rush to get to use it, he quoted half her sentence deliberately and left half of it unsaid deliberately, in which case of course it appeared uncaring. It is an old mean trick and I thought Deputy Creed was up to more than that.

We are debating Second Stage of the Social Welfare Bill and a welfare bill which has increased by 20% from 2008 to 2009. One of the Sinn Féin Deputies stated the Bill was miserly and niggardly. How can one call a 20% increase in social welfare expenditure niggardly and miserly just like that? This also is completely erroneous and of course it does not stand up to scrutiny whatsoever.

Often on radio programmes such as Sam Smyth's "The Sunday Supplement" or "The Marian Finucane Show", a pundit or an Opposition politician says the money was squandered, and yet nobody can ever say where it should not have been spent. There were year on year increases in social welfare. Was that money squandered? I do not think so. I was at Cabinet between 1997 to 2002 and every year the emphasis was on us wanting to give more, and how much more could be given each year to OAPs and in child benefit, which used to be called children's allowance. Each year increases far beyond the rate of inflation were given to welfare recipients, who well deserved it. It was given, that is the point. When people shout squander mania and that the money was all lost and squandered, do they mean old age pensions should not have risen from €113 to over €230? Do they mean child benefit should not have risen from €44 to €166 per month? Do they consider that squander mania?

In the past two weeks, in particular, I have been in many households in which parents — lone parents in many cases — have said strongly that they were thankful child benefit was not touched.

That was part of the spend-free budget.

Part of the next budget.

Does Deputy Carey have something to say?

The next budget.

He is looking forward to the next budget.

There are warnings for her.

Will Deputy Carey keep his enthusiasm in check? I feel strongly that this is the way these points should be answered.

In a provincial town recently I saw where the local election candidate, bless her ankle socks, stated there should have been far more spending taken out of the budget than was put into it. I rang her. I do not know the woman at all, but I saw her name on the newspaper and telephoned her. I asked from where she wanted the spending to come and she replied she did not know. She stated it could come from anywhere really, but there should have been far more, that there should not have been all these levies, and it should be taken from the spending. Is it not jolly to be in the position where one can say more money should be taken but never state where it is to be got or what is to be put to one side if one takes more money? It is quite hilarious really and most irresponsible of people.

I would not like to be in opposition. I am very happy——

It might not be long.

It will not be long until she will be in opposition.

The Deputies have a while to whistle in the dark yet. I call that whistling by the graveyard——

Wishful thinking.

——when people are trying to keep up their cheerfulness.

The Deputy passed a few bodies lately.

I am happy to be back in Dáil Éireann, delighted to have been returned by the people of Longford-Westmeath second from the top in the poll where I never was previously.

Wait until after the next one.

Deputy Burke should be happy too and he ought not to be giggling either.

I am happy to be here and also happy to be part of a Government which is endeavouring to fix the finances of the country——

They are great.

——and which is not going on its silly way of never putting forward an option.

Oddly enough, one knows how all the newspapers stated we would be scorched at the doorsteps and people would slice our heads off, give out to us and say this and that, but nobody has attempted to give out to me, to slice my head off——

They are afraid of her.

——or to do anything of that nefarious nature. They, in fact, have been most warm and welcoming.

Deputy O'Rourke is an exception.

All comments, no matter how inspired, must be addressed through the Chair.

Nobody has sought to say how dare I come to his or her house, which was said to a particular Fine Gael candidate in my town — I must say he was at a real Fianna Fáil house.

That explains a great deal.

They asked him what he would have done and where he would have got the money. He replied he did not know where he would have got the money, and asked how would he know that. All he knew was it should not have been as it was. It all shows an extraordinary lack of responsibility or forethought before Fine Gael rushes in to make decisions as to what it says.

This Bill is dealing with an increase of 20% in the social welfare budget. I would like to know where the Opposition believes cuts should have been introduced. Last year, there were generous increases of 3% in social welfare payments which many believed would not happen. It behoves us all, however, as the Minister said, to ensure value for the moneys spent. Various precautionary measures have been put in place to unearth social welfare fraud and ensure that those who need it most get most. That is the essence of social welfare. It is about giving to those who do not have. Significant numbers of people in this economy can be described as "have nots". For a public representative to demand all sorts and yet never explain where they expect it to come from, is, in my mind, reprehensible. It is not suitable to us public representatives as public servants.

The Minister spent much time working on the details of her Estimates and where best she could use the moneys she had been given. These are generous moneys, given by the taxpayers. They know in their hearts they are giving it to those who most need it and the most vulnerable in society. In so doing they are fulfilling their social justice thrust.

None of us knows how long more it will take. I do not know how long more we will be able to mind our own ship of state. If we do not have control over what we are doing in our bailiwicks, we will not be here debating another social welfare Bill of the magnitude of the Bill before us.

I am happy to record the Government has given an increase of 20% in the social welfare budget in less than a year. Long may this continue.

I wish to share time with Deputy Joe Carey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

If one was to accept Deputy O'Rourke's claim of a 20% increase in the social welfare budget, one would imagine it applied to every social welfare allowance. Deputy O'Rourke, however, has not recognised the significant increases in unemployment rates across the country. The greater proportion of the budget increase, other than the 3.8% provided in the October budget, is going towards unemployment allowances. For the Deputy to make such a statement and walk away from it, leaving it unexplained, is part of the Government sides' spin on the current economic circumstances to which we have become accustomed in this House.

Earlier, the Minister said in the context of the current economic circumstances, it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure to restore stability to the public finances. However, if there were a plan to stabilise the public finances, the recent demeaning statements by a US economist about the Irish economy would not have been made. I accept some cuts had to be made to make some effort to tackle the problem.

The tragedy, however, is that the Government can see no other way to stabilise the public finances other than hitting workers and taxpayers. I am not referring to high income workers but those with incomes as low as €15,000 per annum, those earning the minimum wage. Deputy O'Rourke claims there is no other alternative but it is obvious she had not listened to the Fine Gael Deputy Leader and finance spokesperson who outlined an alternative budget in this Chamber in which the majority of necessary savings could have been found by elimination of waste in and reform of the public service.

While the Minister claims there has been a 20% increase in the social welfare budget, she does not realise that this has gone towards payments in the unemployment blackspots across the country, particularly in the west. The main concern of most of those who have contacted me about this Bill is about becoming homeless. Many organisations which help the disadvantaged are concerned about the capping and reduction of rent supplements. The Government has again taken the soft option of reducing the cap on rent supplement to save X amount. The reality is that rent allowance recipients, already at their wits' ends, will have to top up their payments. In a Department of Social and Family Affairs context, this can be seen as an illegal top-up. Does the Minister want to see an increase in homelessness? I hope this provision in the Bill will be amended on Committee Stage.

The replacement of the early child care supplement with a free preschool year would have been fine in the good times. However, where is the educational infrastructure to safely accommodate these extra children? What about the supervisory and educational personnel for this scheme? Will they be trained? We are concerned here with a number of people who will have to go into a new situation dealing with the children. There are dangers involved in this provision if it is only half thought out, as I believe it is, and it will come home to haunt the Minister unless it is done properly. I do not believe it can be achieved in a proper manner in such a short time. I hope the Minister will address this.

It is deplorable that the Minister saw fit to reduce the early child supplement by half until the end of the year and to totally abolish it thereafter. That payment has been important, particularly to single parents who are on very tight budgets, but the Minister has decided that from January it is to be eliminated altogether. That is a very serious step. Tragically, I am sure there will be a very serious fallout from that situation.

Everybody welcomed the additional funding that was made available to FÁS for training places and further education. However, we cannot say we will do that and at the same time have an embargo on recruitment, particularly for trainers. I will give one example. Tragically, 198 jobs were recently lost at Sigma in Loughrea. To be fair to FÁS, it immediately came on site and provided for training for some of the employees as they became redundant. However, I was told only last week that FÁS will no longer be able to recruit trainers for the remaining people who are leaving work and who could avail of further training on the premises. It cannot do so because of the embargo on recruitment. As I have said to various Ministers, there should be a derogation in the case of recruitment of trainers in FÁS, which is delivering a very important service that cannot be delivered without properly trained people.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this latest Social Welfare Bill. The Government through this Bill continues to attack the families of Ireland. The very people who were left untouched by the Celtic tiger era are now being hit by the savage cuts in social welfare contained in the Bill.

I look forward to voting against the Bill for the following reasons. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I find it very difficult to support the non-payment of the Christmas bonus, which was raised by the Labour Party earlier. The sheer meanness of this measure is incredible as this money means much to families during the festive season.

The Government is asking citizens to take pain on behalf of the country in order to ensure a proper future for the next generation. What is it that the Government is actually doing? What did it do today, for example? Seven junior ministers were removed from Government with a reported golden parachute of €53,000 each. Government backbenchers use phrases such as "Let them try to take it off me" in regard to the long-service payments. We have the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance using words, phrases and semantics in trying to wriggle their way out of a stated intention in regard to the double payments to Oireachtas Members. How can a Government such as this have any credibility when its members steadfastly refused to lead by example? It is another classic example of the Government following the philosophy of "do as I say but not as I do". It is very interesting to compare this scenario with the position of a person who is looking forward to getting a Christmas bonus that will not arrive this year. It is a damning indictment of the Government and all the Deputies who comprise it.

The plan to reduce rent to landlords under the rent supplement scheme is a proper and sensible move. However, the implementation of this policy shows just how detached the Government and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs are. To quote the Minister, the "expectation" on landlords to automatically reduce rents is totally unrealistic. It is not happening. It has been my experience in County Clare in recent months that in terms of both business and private rented accommodation, landlords are happy to sit on the property. They are not willing to budge and are charging the same rents to businesses and individual tenants.

The responsibility for renegotiating rents should not be placed on tenants and should be provided for by community welfare officers or staff of the Department itself. The State must take on the responsibility in that area. For years, the only requirement was to hand out money, which is what has got us into the situation we have today. Much of the responsibility rests with the State and its agents to ensure that what they spend represents proper value for money but this is not incorporated in the Bill. If the community welfare officers or someone from the Department was made responsible for delivering better value for money, this would work better.

The squeeze on middle income earners is an issue the Government will eventually rue. We have passed the psychological barrier of 50% of income returning to the Government, and a family may now have to contribute 51% to the Exchequer. Some 41% will go in income tax, 4% in PRSI, 4% on the health levy and 2% on the income levy, which serves to disincentivise people in employment. The Government cannot continue to squeeze this sector and not expect a fall-off in economic productivity and activity. The possibility of this being further compounded by additional taxes on property and the reintroduction of third level fees next year would indicate that people will not be able to tolerate this approach any longer.

The equation is very simple. There were two aspects to this budget, namely, to increase the Government's income and to deliver value for money in how public services are provided. The Government chooses to ignore the second part of that equation. This is ultimately unsustainable and will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

The scrapping of the early child care supplement and the hasty introduction of the 38-week free preschool support bears all the hallmarks of the Minister for Transport's proposed introduction of five penalty points for not having an NCT certificate for one's car in that it is badly conceived and not properly planned. It remains to be seen if the places are available or will become available but I do not believe they will.

The Department is to a large extent depending on the voluntary sector in regard to child care provision. The vast majority of the funding under the national child care investment programme, NCIP, has been used by the voluntary sector. This sector once again steps up to the plate in order to provide a service that has been ignored by the Government. These are the very same people who also feel the new pressures from the Government in regard to their jobs, mortgages and careers yet they are now expected to take up the slack. I suspect this 38 week free preschool is just a sop. The Government should look more closely at its subvention programme for child care facilities. This scheme is cumbersome and unwieldy, and needs reform.

At this point the Government should not tinker with the back to education allowance and the back to work enterprise allowance. In their current form these schemes are restrictive and the Bill's proposals do little to facilitate people who want to avail of them. Both schemes offer the opportunity for motivated people to improve their circumstances yet the Government chooses to place many obstacles in the way of potential participants. These schemes should be more responsive. There is an obvious benefit that could accrue to the individual and the State if the schemes could be operated in a more responsive manner.

It is critical that Government policy seeks to minimise the duration for which people are unemployed. Long-term inactivity diminishes work skill and makes re-employment more difficult. It is vital, therefore, that access to education, training and employment programmes is enhanced so that barriers to employment are removed. In County Clare, for example, unemployment has soared to almost 10,000 people. Dole queues have increased fivefold. Unemployment in Ennis has increased by 81% in the past 12 months alone. The potential for the economic cancer of long-term unemployment taking hold in Ireland is becoming more of a reality. The Bill does nothing to tackle this issue and will only add further to our drastic unemployment problem.

The Bill will have a devastating impact on middle income families and represents a savage attack on low income families. The ordinary people are waiting in the long grass for the Government. I do not know what doors Deputy O'Rourke is knocking on, but I am knocking on completely different doors. The people are waiting in the long grass to run the Government out of office. This is a shocking Bill and the Minister will pay the price for it.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Clearly we are in difficult and challenging economic times. The decisions we will need to make will be very difficult but they will need to be made. Of course it is never easy to take money away from people or reduce their income, but that will need to be done across the board, because we need to make ourselves more competitive in a global context. We are not doing it just for ourselves. We are doing it to ensure that other countries, international markets and international political institutions realise that Ireland can and will make the difficult decisions. While geographically we might be an island, politically and economically we are not. We export 80% of all we produce. Our relationship with other countries is vital and their perception of us is vital. With this budget the Government has grasped the nettle. As has been said it will be the first of five difficult budgets with four more to come. It will not get any easier in the short term. It could be said that if we do not take the unpleasant medicine now we will be taking much more unpleasant medicine for significantly longer.

There are a number of aspects to the Bill, one of which relates to rent supplement. As it stands 84,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement, which is a very large number of people. That rent supplement provides support for those for whom local authority housing is not an option in the short term. It also acts as an umbrella for those at risk of homelessness. A previous speaker mentioned that landlords would be happy to sit on their flats or apartments without having tenants and getting rent. I do not believe that is the case. Landlords with property will want to rent it out. They are pragmatic and if that means they will be renting it out at a reduced rate, they will do so. They certainly become more pragmatic when the banks are chasing them down looking for their payments. Landlords will not happily refuse to reduce rents and have a vacant flat rather than getting some level of income, albeit somewhat reduced. An occupied flat with an income coming through is the likely result.

Like other Deputies, I have received a number of e-mails stating that the reduction in rent supplement should not lead to homelessness. It is exaggerating to suggest that this measure would lead to homelessness — I do not believe it will. There may be individual cases where landlords refuse to reduce the rent. However it is not beyond the wit of man, the local authorities or social welfare to deal with the consequences of a few belligerent landlords. The State should not be held to ransom to line the pockets of a few landlords who do not believe they should move with the times and reduce rent. Landlords are pragmatic and will reduce rents when it is put to them. The State is spending more than €490 million on rent supplement and it is vital that we get value for money. It is necessary for us to cut our cloth to measure. Landlords cannot be allowed to get away with charging high rents.

Today I spoke to private tenants who are moving from a very small flat with two single bedrooms. They had a contract from over a year ago and were being charged more than €1,500 for that flat. They are taking their time in moving because there is a significant reduction by landlords in the rents they are charging. They are looking at a large two-bedroom apartment in a very nice area in the docklands in my constituency of Dublin South-East which is available at €1,100.

There is, therefore, a significant saving. I see no reason the State should not benefit from a reduction in rents, particularly when costs across the economy are reducing. I see no reason that some landlords should try to hold onto the higher rents or imply they might make people homeless. They should not be allowed get away with that. The State cannot base its legislation on being held to ransom by such landlords.

Another aspect of the Bill is the imaginative and innovative proposal to provide a free preschool year for children. The early child care supplement that preceded this cost the State €480 million in 2008. We must cut our cloth to measure and ensure that we get value for money. The early childhood care and education scheme does this in an innovative way. There has been much discussion about the loss to families caused by the loss of the supplement. It seems to me that does not focus on the purpose of the exercise, namely, care for children, as evident from the term "child care".

That is not the purpose; it is to save money

The State is seeking to ensure that children get quality child care.

It is not doing anything about providing quality child care. It is washing its hands of that.

The aim of the scheme is to provide one year of quality preschool education to children for the year prior to entry to primary school.

Maybe the Deputy should correct the record. That is not actually the aim; it is to provide a subsidy towards child care.

It is to provide quality child care.

No, it is nothing to do with quality. It is to provide a subsidy.

I believe the child care providers in the State are very good, particularly community child care providers. They provide quality child care to our children right across the community. A former Labour Party handler stated recently that any savings made from the cuts to the early child care supplement should be ring-fenced for funding quality half-day preschool places for every child for the year prior to joining primary school. He said that on Wednesday, 25 March 2009. Mr. Fergus Finlay and Barnardos have been very successful.

I do not think the Deputy understands what his colleagues are doing.

This is what we have done.

The scheme will benefit parents who would otherwise have paid for this service. It will also benefit disadvantaged children whose parents would not be in a position to pay for their attendance at preschool. The scheme also safeguards jobs in a sector that is likely to be hit hard by the economic downturn. Most facilities have small margins and low pay and are very vulnerable to a reduction in the number of parents who send their children to child care facilities following a reduction in their incomes. Therefore, we are bringing about value for money with this innovative scheme. This is something the Children's Rights Alliance welcomes.

Mr. Fintan O'Toole, another great advocate for social justice, when writing inThe Irish Times on the morning of the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan’s first budget on 14 October, asked what the budget did about early childhood care. He said that instead of getting a universal preschool system for €136 million a year, which was the NESC costing, we were spending €406 million on a private system that did not work and that, therefore, there was a simple test for the Minister for Finance’s first budget. If it contained a commitment to scrap the early child care supplement and to create a universal preschool system, we had intelligent government.

It is not doing that. The Deputy does not understand.

The Deputy can take the argument up with Fintan O'Toole. He clearly believes ——

Deputy Andrews clearly does not understand what his own cousin is doing.

Deputy Shortall should not be so patronising.

Deputies should address their remarks through the Chair. Deputy Andrews is in possession.

Is Deputy Shortall allowed be patronising and wag her fingers about cousins?

Deputy Andrews is in possession and should proceed.

He is trying to explain the reason he gave a standing ovation to the budget on the day.

Deputy Bannon will get his opportunity to contribute and I will try to protect him then.

If Members have a difficulty with what Fintan O'Toole said, they should raise the issue with him. I was interrupted when I said he said that if we had the commitment, we had intelligent government. He went on to say we could therefore expect to see a similar approach in other areas. I think that is true. We can expect to see a similar approach and innovative decisions being made.

The Labour Party's most recent policy document on child care and preschool education dates back to approximately 2005 and probably needs some dusting down. That document argued for an early year's care subsidy that would cost over €1 billion per annum and also wanted a year of preschool education costing €163 million per annum. When those documents are dusted down, the Labour Party will realise our current proposal is a good and innovative scheme.

A significant number of community child care facilities are in place. For example, not far from here we have the St. Andrew's Resource Centre and the centre at City Quay. These provide an excellent service for young people and have given a broad welcome to this proposal. We have yet to see the detail, but if people try to work with the proposal we will see positive results. The recent National Competitiveness Council report on education and training suggests that pre-primary education is a key determinant of student performance at all levels of education, as it leads to improvements in students' skill levels, motivation and the propensity to learn, which in turn raise the private and social returns from all future investments in their education.

The scheme, therefore, is about ensuring that children get care at an early stage. People from disadvantaged areas or areas where children are at risk of becoming involved in antisocial behaviour often say they spotted this when a child was as young as three years old. We need intervention when the child is that age. This scheme is part of early intervention and of ensuring that children get a good start in life so that they are well prepared to go into more formal education later. The real winners from this scheme will be the more disadvantaged and marginalised children in society who do not currently benefit from preschool care and education.

Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance have welcomed this scheme. In a debate on the issue, the Children's Rights Alliance asked what costs more, maintaining and developing early years education or not doing so at all. For every euro spent on early years education, a return of up to €7.10 can be expected. Investing in such education has proved effective in the long run in terms of promoting social skills, improving the life chances of children born in disadvantaged communities and reducing criminal activity. What could be a smarter investment? These comments were made on Thursday, 2 April and the situation has not changed since. We must give our children the best chance in life that we can.

For a child brought up in a chaotic family, going to child care providers might be a respite. We used to send my two children to pre-school for three hours per day. It was beneficial for them because they learned how to socialise and about boundaries. It prepared them for primary school.

I welcome the Bill. The reduction in the rent supplement is good, as it will ensure that landlords cannot hold the Government and the economy to ransom. I happily support the Bill, which is imaginative and clever governance.

The next speaker is Deputy Sheehan. I understand that he wishes to share his time with Deputies Bannon and Clune.

Perhaps the Acting Chairman will give us an extra minute.

I will do my best to Chair. Unfortunately, I am not a referee.

We have now had four budgets in less than nine months, as many as the Minister for Finance's predecessor had in four years. At around this time last year, Deputy Brian Lenihan had the misfortune to become the Minister for Finance, as he claimed himself. We had his first step last August, then some premature efforts in October last, followed by the pension levy and now this "hole in the bucket" budget. The Government might claim this is a worldwide problem, but no other Minister for Finance has needed to present four budgets in nine months.

In my speech to last October's budget, I quoted Winston Churchill, who said: "We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle". Every person knows that, after the Government reduces their incomes in this budget, they will need to cut their expenditure to match their incomes, particularly those in receipt of social welfare payments. Last weekend in Bantry, a small business man told me that if his sales go down, he does not increase his prices. Instead, he tries to cut his costs. What the Government attempted in this budget did not do that.

The Minister for Finance claimed that his budget was based on six essential steps. He stated that he wanted to stabilise our public finances. He has made four attempts and has only succeeded in increasing the debt placed on every man, woman, child and grandchild. He stated that we must restore our damaged banking system, but giving it more money will not be a cure. The taxpayer needed to bail AIB out of its ICI difficulties at a cost of £400 million or nearly €500 million. The AIB DIRT tax settlement was £90 million while that for Bank of Ireland was £30.5 million. In the Faldor scandal, AIB executives were fined over €320,000 by the Revenue Commissioners. What of the losses racked up by John Rusnak of almost $700 million for AIB, nearly 20% of the amount that we, the taxpayers, have invested in AIB? Does the Government remember AIB's scandalous overcharging of €34.2 million on foreign exchange transactions and €8.6 million on every other type of account? AIB settled a £1 million overdraft with the late Mr. Haughey in mysterious circumstances. In 2004, the chief executive of Bank of Ireland resigned overnight.

I was not surprised when, on researching this subject, I read, not from the last century but from the one before, that in 1885, the Munster Bank failed due to mismanagement and fraud and was liquidated. Out of the ashes, the Munster and Leinster Bank commenced operations. Eventually, it became the largest of the three banks.

The Minister for Finance placed €1,651 of capital investment in AIB and Bank of Ireland on behalf of every man, woman and child. In his budget, he proposed to underwrite a further €90 billion of developers' debt to secure these banks. How much more does he intend to put into this bucket full of holes while cancelling the Christmas bonus to old age pensioners, on which the Deputies opposite must vote tomorrow?

I propose that the boards of the banks might, as a gesture of contrition and gratitude for the €100 billion that the taxpayer has put up to bail them out of their mess, sponsor the Christmas bonus. I call on those appointed by the Minister for Finance to table such a motion at board level.

The Minister also stated that he wanted to protect jobs by investing €50 million per year over two years. This is the cost of approximately 2,400 unemployed people, approximately the same number of people who have lost their jobs in the past two weeks. Will this tiny effort be targeted at, for example, the unemployed turf accountants? In the Minster's efforts to support and stimulate economic confidence, he proposed assistance to second-hand car dealers with their tax liability. Arthur Daly, that infamous car dealer, would be proud of him.

What did the budget do to stimulate economic growth? Did it do anything to stimulate employment or promote tourism or agriculture? Did it do anything for those on social welfare? The agricultural community suffered a 17% reduction in the REPS 4 scheme, an 8% reduction in forestry premiums and the abandonment of the fallen animal and farm retirement schemes and the farm installation grant. Did the budget do anything for the people of west County Cork?

The Government has been found out and the people know what it did to them. They are going to do the same to it. I do not see a soft landing for those on the Government benches. Their days are numbered, unlike their management of the public finances.

This Bill could be more aptly described as the "Hanafin Anti-Welfare Bill 2009". It is an exercise in removing essential allowances for low and middle income families. To make good the gaping hole in the Exchequer caused by blatant Government squandering and mismanagement of the country's public purse, the Minister for Finance has once again hit those least able to bear the brunt. This is evident on doorsteps throughout the country. The Government should be ashamed of how it is treating the most vulnerable in society.

Since the emergency budget, the Government has shown itself to be out of touch with the reality of people's lives. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance seem incapable of singing from any hymn sheet other than the one that advocates screwing the low and middle income groups so far into the ground that the life blood is squeezed out of them while leaving the high earners relatively unscathed. I was sickened and outraged to hear Deputy O'Rourke supporting the screwing of the poor and the less well off, many of whom are in our constituency of Longford-Westmeath, which probably has the country's highest unemployment rate. Since this time last year, Longford-Westmeath's unemployment figure has increased by more than 88%. This shows how out of touch she is with the realities of the constituency that she was supposedly elected to represent.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher stated, "I believed passionately that the Government should never have too much power because if you give them too much power they meddle in everything, make a mess of it and make wrong judgments." That is what is happening with the present Government. This country is suffering from the effects of a Government that has been in office too long, is too committed to cronyism and is too wrapped up in the trappings of power to see the plight of the ordinary worker. It is a Government that has fallen into every trap of crisis management and is compounding one mistake with another as it tries to run for cover at every opportunity. It is digging a hole for itself as I speak and the electorate will testify to that on 5 June next.

Mrs. Thatcher's words are extremely apt when one thinks of the fall-out since the 2009 budget last October and the compounding of the problem with the latest emergency budget. It is shameful that low-income earners, such as those on €15,000 per annum, are subject to a 2% income levy by a heartless Government showing how out of touch it is with the ordinary man and woman in the street. Moreover, low-income earners on €25,000 will be further hit with the doubling of the health levy to 4%. What form of anti-poverty strategy is this? So much for promises to protect those who are at risk of poverty or are below the poverty line. The Government is doing absolutely nothing.

In an extremely anti-child and parent budget, the early child care supplement and child benefit have come under severe attack. Child benefit is the bread and butter for many parents who find the current economic crisis hard to cope with. For many women, the loss of child care benefit will prevent them from working outside the home as they will not be able to afford child care. This will increase the risk of poverty. I again ask whether Deputy O'Rourke understands that moves to tax or means test child benefit will pit woman against woman in terms of opportunity and will open the doors to wider social inequality.

Every day in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, I see at first hand the lack of regard the Government has for children and their parents. In a move calculated to leave hard-working and hard-pressed parents without help in caring for their physically disabled children, the Health Service Executive, HSE, is closing Teach Solas, the Longford respite centre and handing it over to an outside agency. Many of the workers and parents received notification to this effect yesterday. What reward is this for parents who save the State millions by looking after their children at home and deserve and need the chance of a break while their children are being looked after by dedicated staff in such a facility? What has happened in this regard constitutes shameful and disgraceful carry-on by the Government. Were this to happen in Russia or other countries, Members would condemn them for so doing. However, I am sorry to state that this is taking place in the heartland of Ireland. These parents now are angry and frustrated and fear that the new service provider will enforce charges for this care, which they urgently need for their children. I am disappointed with the Minister who I thought was a more caring Minister who was more in tune with issues in respect of women, children and those who work in a voluntary capacity in society.

How can the Government justify the cruel withdrawal of the Christmas bonus for the most vulnerable in our society? The pressure on low-income families during the festive season is unbearable. Without the additional help of the bonus, many will be unable to withstand the commercial pressure. Older people, many of whom live alone in fuel inefficient houses, will be colder and poorer next winter unless this heartless decision is reversed. Even Charles Dickens could not have envisaged a Government policy that would, Scrooge-like, take a little Christmas cheer from those in poverty, while avoiding hitting the well-off with measures such as reduced tax relief on private pensions. In effect, the elimination of the bonus is akin to a 2% cut to the most vulnerable.

The crumb of hope held out by the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, that the Christmas bonus will be restored if there is a windfall in the Department's coffers is akin to holding out a straw to a drowning man or woman. According to John Curry, social policy is defined as: "Those actions of government which deliberately or accidentally affect the distribution of resources, status, opportunities and life chances among social groups and categories of people within the country and thus help to shape the general character and equity of its social relations". The Celtic tiger served to make the rich richer and those who never benefited from the boom years now are being forced to pick up the tab of the Galway tent cronies and champagne guzzlers who still exist within the Fianna Fáil Party.

The two main elements of the Social Welfare Bill 2009, namely, the doubling to 4% of the health levy and to 2% of the income levy, will have a severe impact on low-income and middle-income families. People earning less than €15,000 per annum will be subject to the income levy. In other words, those who earn the minimum wage or less will be brought into the tax net, while those earning more than €25,000 will face the doubling of the health levy. These measures come from a Government that claims to be protecting low earners and those who are at risk of poverty. However, the impact of both levies certainly will ensure poverty will visit many doors on foot of its introduction in less than two weeks' time on 1 May. As I noted, these two aspects of the Bill are extremely disappointing and Fine Gael certainly will not support and will vote against these elements of the Bill.

I wish to tease out matters pertaining to the early child care supplement. The Minister stated in her contribution that it will be replaced by the preschool provision and this already has raised serious questions about how it will be implemented. In general, the early child care supplement was perceived as a means of paying for child care for women who were working. I acknowledge it was available to women regardless of whether they were at home or in the workplace but the €20 per week was highly valuable. While I support preschool and acknowledge getting children to school early has a value, I would not replace one with the other. A mother with a six-month old baby who wishes to work will not receive any support from the State until the child is eligible for preschool, assuming the Government will implement its proposals, which I cannot envisage being in place before January. However, I will give it the benefit of the doubt in this regard. However, the supplement of €20 per week has been highly important to people, especially those with two or three young children. It constitutes a very important contribution towards child care. The cost of child care has not gone away. It still is a major issue for people who are on low to middle incomes. It comprises a major chunk of their take-home pay and the impact of this measure on parents of young families, combined with that of the levies, will be significant.

The Government should reconsider this decision because the supplement is of relatively recent introduction and has been of benefit to working parents. There always was an expectation or hope it would increase rather than being abolished. The parents of young children in child care will always require support because while the costs are not excessive, it is an expensive product in respect of the regulations that must be adhered to, the cost of premises, the staff-child ratio and so on. These elements add to the cost and many of those running crèche or child care facilities constantly work to keep charges down. They work with parents to ensure the latter can see where the monthly payment is spent. I have spoken to many people on this issue in the past three weeks. There is a consensus that this will drive child care into the black economy. People will not be able to afford to use a crèche and will depend on relatives if they are lucky enough to be in that situation. The crèche, which can be expensive, will not be an option for many. I ask the Government to hold its fire on the early child care supplement. It will have a severe impact on working parents of young children.

I appeal to the Minister, who was in the Chamber earlier, to examine rent supplement and, with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, to work with local authorities to advance the rental accommodation scheme. It is of great value to tenants and those on local authority housing schemes. It gives security to tenants and there is much property at the moment for which this scheme could be advanced. It is a matter of providing the staff and resources at local authority level to ensure the product on offer is advanced. The scheme gives security to the tenant, who is dealing with a local authority, and the standard of accommodation has been improved. It has been a success and people are happy with it. It is not moving as quickly as it would if resources were made available. There is so much accommodation available to local authorities. It is an attractive proposition for landlords, who are guaranteed rent for 12 months or three or four years depending on the arrangement. It is a useful product and I appeal to the Minister to work with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local authorities to ensure it is advanced.

I will speak on the Christmas bonus tomorrow.

As there are no Government speakers offering, I call on Deputy Higgins.

I propose to share time with Deputy Morgan. It is appalling that the Government has not provided speakers for the slot allocated to it. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, for whom I have the greatest respect and whose presence I welcome. It is a terrible indication of a lack of concern. Even as many Government Deputies will be whipped into coming into the Chamber and voting for Second and Subsequent Stages of this Bill, they will hear from the people affected by the proposals at their constituency clinics.

I have a particular view on social welfare, which I wish to address first in order to be consistent. The background to this Bill is the crisis in the public finances, the collapse of a revenue base that was excessively reliant on transactions in the property market, which in turn had been grossly exaggerated by bad regulation and irresponsible lending by the banks. One gets an idea of this in respect of the property base of the economy. In 1981 it was €39 billion, by 2006 it was approximately €553 billion. Without creating any real wealth in the social sense, the property base of the economy had been revalued, driven on a speculative engine. This has created an entire distortion of the banking sector.

I quibble with some of the figures in this morning's report and observations by international bodies such as the IMF but they speak of an extraordinary proportion of Irish GDP being allocated to stabilising the banking system. They suggest that before we are out of the wars in respect of banking stability it will have cost us €24 billion, some 13.9% of €171 billion of GDP. That is important as background context. If we were not facing this appalling failure in the public finances at so many levels we would not be turning to those dependent on transfers such as social welfare for reductions.

The term transfer is incredibly important. I have been in the Dáil for over 20 years and usually when people speak about transfer payments, they concentrate on social welfare recipients. They are far more reluctant to examine the transfers that take place every year in the Finance Bill to those taking advantage of tax breaks. They are of a particular kind. I refer to tax breaks associated with car parks and spas. In that category, 86% of them apply to people earning more than €200,000 a year. The figure for the subsidy of interest relief to landlords is some €400 million in a half year. There is a long list of these transfers, which were driven on by the Commissioner, Mr. McCreevy, who liked introducing them and followed the poisonous policy, that infected the Government from the Progressive Democrats, that there was something backward about paying tax. Therefore, we had to be a low tax economy and one was encouraged to say the money was one's own and one should be entitled to decide how to spend it. The grandmother of all that, Mrs. Thatcher, said there is no such thing as society. Transfers went on all the time.

Those on the left made mistakes and assumed the right was anti-State. It was not that, it was that they were in favour of the State regularly transferring benefit after benefit as they went on, so that one gets to a point where one could socialise all the costs of existence and privatise all of the income. That model has wreaked havoc in terms of poverty across the world. Ideology flows from this. It would like to prop up a low wage economy.

With respect, there are assumptions in the Minister's speech. I want to be polite about this but I was a sociologist for 20 years and challenge her to produce the evidence behind some of the statements in her speech. An example is the assumption made about young jobseekers. Where is the published research or evidence to suggest that young jobseekers are deliberately choosing social welfare payments over work? I assert that the research is not there at all.

There is a cock and bull story about a pilot scheme in Letterkenny, the reports back from which the Minister refers to in her speech. She says that some "candidates did not wish to participate" and became unmanageable. Another phrase used is "difficult to manage". Some years ago we would be regaled by Fianna Fáil speakers and Ministers or former Ministers would speak about what they called "our beautiful youth". Suddenly, these young people are very problematic.

Earlier, the Minister outlined her reasons for reducing benefit for people under 20. She stated:

The rate of jobseeker's allowance that will be paid to new claimants under the age of 20 is being reduced from €204.30 per week to €100 per week, with effect from the first week of May 2009. When a person on the reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance reaches the age of 20, if he or she still qualifies for the allowance, he or she will be entitled to the full adult rate.

She went on to detail the full adult rate of the relevant schemes in certain categories. The assumptions in all of this in many cases is the following rationale. The Minister stated:

The rationale for this change is straightforward. Receiving the full adult rate of a jobseeker's payment at 18 years of age without a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training can lead to welfare dependency from an early age.

I challenge that assumption and I challenge the Minister to produce a jot of published refereed evidence for it. The Minister continued:

While many young people with low levels of education and training were able to get work in construction and other areas when the economy was doing well, they are likely to find it much harder to get work over the next few years. If they do not improve their skills, they are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed from a young age.

I agree with that but where in this Bill is the facility for a speedy return to education? Why should such people have to be unemployed for two years? If the Minister and Government are so concerned about young people, why are they requiring them to be unemployed for two years?

The Minister continued:

They are considered to be at greater risk of having difficulty securing a job than older jobseekers who might have low skills but who at least have some work experience. Therefore, it is considered necessary to provide 18 and 19 year old jobseekers with a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training or to take up employment that pays more than €100 per week.

This is the evidence of a low-wage economy. I could go on quoting the Minister's speech but she would have had support from the Labour Party if there had been specific measures for changing the administration of all of these young people who are really casualties of the economy rather than people who are choosing to be idle. What runs through the speech is the old deadly ideology that unless we make young people do something, they would prefer to be idle. I challenge the Minister to again provide evidence on this point. The Combat Poverty Agency used to be separate and independent in doing studies but it has been absorbed lest it give any jot of independent criticism. I presume there is a research facility that would be able to address this issue and I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

The Bill also makes proposals relating to lower income families. I have a fairly conservative view of family life. My own wife as an actress chose to spend her time at home helping me in my career and in the education of our children. It is an important choice to have for a male or female parent. The former Deputy and Minister, Mr. McCreevy, set his face totally against that and thus such choice was made impossible even for different kinds of couples and so forth. The idea was that there would be a form of equalisation that would make such a choice difficult.

Equally, there are other anomalies which I do not have time to go into. For example, from the Revenue Commissioners' perspective two people in a household are regarded as not being able to share their tax credits, although they can share the capacity for disqualification with regard to benefits. None of that need bother Commissioner McCreevy, who gave us the advice as we entered this crisis that we should keep on partying. That was the inspired advice of the Progressive Democrat convert, who should be ashamed to show his face in this country again.

Considering the families that will pay it, the increase in the health levy in section 12 combined with the abolition of the early child care supplement in section 8 will mean a single income family with two children under five years of age with a salary of €40,000 — which is normal enough — will lose €230 per month from net income. The income levy can be added to this, together with the abolition of mortgage interest relief if the people are in a home and more than seven years into its mortgage. Perhaps these people did not choose to live in one of those counties outside Dublin beyond Kildare. If they choose to travel to work, there are additional costs. What is proposed in this legislation will involve a cost of over €3,000 a year to the family household.

There is no attempt in the long, ideological harangue that is in the Minister's speech to assess net household impact with regard to budgeted income on the basics. These could relate to groceries, travel, electricity, gas and so forth used by model families. We used to get that from "Priscilla" and other models in the back of Finance Bill speeches relating to the budget. There is nothing in this budget which takes any cognisance of the difficulties being created for family budgets of the lower paid. Neither is there any sensitive treatment on the question of how jobs are threatened and how, in a way, this complicated and heavy administrative structure of taking from the poorest could have been avoided by looking at other more direct forms of revenue raising.

The Minister has given a very large proportion of her speech to what she calls the imaginative introduction of the pre-school year, with so many hours per week being provided. One must judge the pre-school year in terms of what people are losing in child benefit. One must also consider the people who will contract for the pre-school year in terms of their costs for insurance, lighting, heating and other things. In addition, there is the ability to control costs for the families.

Occasionally, I meet families who make representations whose child care costs exceed mortgage payments. Once again we come back to the impact on net budgets of low income families. The cost of child care has been increasing all the time, an area I could deal with at length.

There is a statistical generalisation in the Minister's speech that suggests rents have been so generally reduced that one can speak about significant reductions in rent supplement. I have seen no evidence that rents have reduced in the low end of the market. It is true that some of the sources given in the Minister's speech for the reduction in rents come from the middle to high end of the Dublin market. There is no evidence that the low end of the market in provincial cities has come down by anything, yet the reduction in the rent supplement and the increasing proportion which the person must pay has been imposed generally on the basis of an unquantified and unsupported generalisation.

To be of assistance to the Deputy, although it is not the high end of the market, rents in Clondalkin have come down.

I am delighted to hear it and I hope the Minister of State would use his influence. He is the sole representative of his party here this evening and I congratulate him on this and for standing his ground.

I ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate. He will have three and half minutes in the slot tomorrow.

I look forward to making a positive contribution.

Debate adjourned.