I am pleased to speak to the Bill on Second Stage. This debate was commenced early this afternoon by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. I was interested in the contributions made by the Minister and the spokespersons for Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The Minister referred to the level of increases in social welfare payments, noting, for instance, that the pension rate has increased by 120%, unemployment benefit by 130% and child benefit by 330% in the past 12 years. In the same period, the increase in the cost of living was approximately 40%. These are astonishing statistics. I was amazed, therefore, to hear the spokesperson for the Labour Party, Deputy Shortall, describe the figures as reprehensible. While she may not have used that word, that was the effect of her comments. She also stated the Minister should be ashamed of them. I was very pleased to learn of these increases as they demonstrate that when money was available we gave it to those who needed it.
When, as is often the case in interviews, the accusation is made that the Government squandered money, I always ask whether less money should have been allocated to pensioners, the National Roads Authority, special needs assistants or teachers. The figures I have cited show what we tried to do.
To be fair to Deputy Shortall, she later stated that this money could have been spent on job creation. We must first have regard to those who need State assistance or benefits of one kind or another. While we hope the forthcoming budget and four year plan will allow a much greater focus on jobs and growth in the economy, it is wrong to argue that it this money should not have been spent. It was good that those who were in need received.
I recall reading in The Sunday Times on the Sunday after the Minister’s appointment that he wished to be a reforming Minister. I welcomed his statement at the time because social welfare, or social protection as it is now known, has never been associated with reform. Various Ministers, including some who are in the Chamber at present, sought to make changes but it always was difficult to move along colossus of a Department, the job of which is to pay out and to ensure that no one is left without receiving his or her payment.
The Minister hopes that the moving of the employment and community services units of FÁS will not be a simple transfer to him but that they will be integrated fully within his Department to provide an end to end service to its customers. In other words, labour activation and the other measures will have a positive focus and an end result, in that those who wish to avail of social protection payments also will bring with them the responsibility of seeking jobs and of being actively in the market place to seek a job. It will be the remit of the Department to ensure that they will so do. There will be a new case by case management approach allowing trained staff to interact on a one-to-one basis with individuals on developing pathways to employment with clearly defined milestones and targets.
This is a very good idea and will be focused on progressing people to participation in the workforce. For decades, I have felt that no matter how much the money or the payments were needed, one should not simply hand them out without ever trying actively to help that person in a focused, integrated way. Such a person should be helped to get training and employment in order that he or she would not be caught in the trap of dependency but that he or she would have a chance to emerge from it. The Minister stated, "Such an approach not only makes economic sense but also allows our services to be tailored to meet the individual needs of each customer and to respect and enhance their dignity as individuals". This is correct and must be one of the stronger points of this approach. I believe people's dignity will be enhanced if their chances of getting a job are enhanced, because true dignity lies in being able to earn one's living and bring home something at the end of the week.
It has become fashionable to bewail FÁS and everything it did. I wish to emphasise the good that FÁS has done over the years. I do not stand over events in the latter years. All Members are familiar with them and there is no need to enumerate names or lay out where they went or what they did as that has been well done in the various reports. However, in so doing, one overlooks the great work FÁS did. Between 1992 and 1994 I worked with Deputy Quinn in the then Department of Industry and Commerce — renamed the Department of Enterprise and Employment — as Minister of State with responsibility for labour affairs. While travelling around the country, I learned of the work FÁS did in enhancing villages and towns, as well as people's capabilities for work, through the very good training it gave participants on its community employment schemes. Moreover, many of those participants then left and were able to take up full-time meaningful paid employment. I acknowledge they were also paid while engaged in community employment schemes and later on in the farm assist and social employment schemes.
However, I pay tribute to Deputy Quinn in this regard because he gave participants a gold stamp. They were not just doing a scheme but were carrying out proper work with proper training and proper payment. Many people went through those programmes and in so doing contributed to the physical enhancement of Ireland. I recall doing a video for the agency at one of its anniversaries at which I was asked to think up a slogan about community employment. I stated that FÁS has changed the face of Ireland. It had done so because there was a period when one could not go through a town or village in Ireland without seeing its red sign, as well as the work that had been done by the participants on a FÁS scheme.
These FÁS units will bring many skills to the new integrated Department of Social Protection. I am sure the Minister will look into the matter but I hope the employment rights of those who have transferred will be kept as they were and there will be no diminution in their rights as they move over. However, cometh the hour, cometh the man and I believe the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív will be well able to complete that integration and to ensure the position of those who enter this new Department.
During the summer, the Minister stated there would be 10,000 new employment opportunities on the new integrated community and social employment schemes. While I am sure it was coincidental, he again announced this in The Sunday Times. While that is a positive development, I would like to see such jobs coming about. People should begin to be employed on these schemes. I acknowledge that those who work on schemes that have access to children or with children must get vetting permission, which must issue from Thurles through the Garda vetting bureau. This can occasion some delay from time to time. However, the Minister should speed up his ambitious target of 10,000 places on a new enhanced scheme. In so doing and in so bringing people’s minds to bear on the opportunity they might have to get into employment, he should not neglect the training aspect of the employment scheme on which they are placed. It is all very well to state that one must show one is willing to work for one’s protection payment, which is quite correct. However, this should not be to the effect of waylaying or failing to fulfil their training opportunities because these should also be available. This is what will make a better person and will produce the better outcome.
The Minister stated that a rent supplement cannot be paid beyond 31 March 2012 in any case where the landlord has failed to provide his or her tax reference number. In addition, the Bill makes it an offence if a landlord does not so do. This is right and will do away with what was an ongoing mini-scandal of one kind and another, whereby people with houses to rent could offer such houses in very poor condition and could impose whatever rents they wished. This is a correct way in which to put a shape on this issue. Moreover, the introduction of electronic means of making and capturing declarations of unemployment that are required for the purpose of claiming jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance also is a very good thing.
Given that times are difficult for everyone, it now is impossible to attend a residents' association meeting, a focus group meeting or a meeting of any kind without the talk turning to fraud. People instance occasions about which they have heard, although much of this is a case of "dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi" or hearsay. People gain some kind of relief in giving out about what they have heard in respect of particular rates. People will tell one they know of someone who received a twin buggy and who, only two weeks later, got another twin buggy.