I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill 2013. My first thoughts are for the people who are, unfortunately, affected by some sections of this Bill. I empathise with them, particularly our elderly. While we go through the motions and debate this Bill, there is a sense that we are standing here with our hands tied behind our backs, bowing towards Europe or the troika, all brought about by Fianna Fáil's reckless years in government, which included Deputy Mattie McGrath at the time. They brought about the disgraceful situation in which we found ourselves when we first took office. They gambled with the futures of our elderly and our children, setting up NAMA and giving out blank cheques everywhere, resulting in us being left in the bankrupt situation in which we found ourselves, but we are slowly getting out of it under this Government. They left us with the worst unemployment crisis in the history of the State.
This budget continues the process of repairing the public finances while protecting the welfare safety net and providing a pathway back to work for jobseekers.
An additional €30 million in savings will be made through additional fraud and control measures in 2014, while €34 million will be saved through increased efficiencies in management of schemes, bringing the Department of Social Protection's overall adjustment to €290 million.
Reductions of €226 million will still impact on, and cause difficulties for, social welfare recipients. However, the lower adjustment means that payments such as the State pension, carer's allowance, disability allowance and all other core weekly payments upon which people depend are protected, for which I thank the Minister.
Carers are the backbone of our communities. I am happy that there were no attempts to reduce the already small return carers receive for what is often 24-hour and seven-day a week care of the elderly, infirm or vulnerable. This is a payment I was extremely vigilant to protect for the hardworking caring sector. The Government pledged to develop a national carers strategy to support carers and address their concerns. I am glad we are delivering on this commitment unlike the previous Fianna Fáil Government which promised but never delivered. Carers deserve a proper return for the hours of work they put in on behalf of individuals, families and the health services. Their work helps people to remain in their homes and in their communities, and frees up hospital beds and nursing home places. In addition to care in the home for our elderly, we are providing nearly 23,000 older people with financial support for long-term nursing home care, something for which the Opposition does not give us credit.
Child benefit has also been protected in the budget, and will remain a vital universal support for all families and all children. The principal reason that child benefit and the other crucial welfare supports mentioned have been protected is the Department's role in helping people back to work, which in turn has seen the numbers on the live register fall.
Crucial supplementary supports for pensioners, carers and people with disabilities, such as the fuel allowance, the energy allowance, free travel, the half-rate carer's allowance and the respite care grant have been protected. Having said this, I am disappointed that the telephone allowance was cut as it affects the most vulnerable in our society. It is of major benefit to older people who live alone in isolated rural areas. This grant goes towards the cost of a personal alarm button which operates through a landline. These panic buttons are a lifeline for many elderly people living in rural areas. In the past four or five years I have been involved in setting up text alerts in communities in Longford and Westmeath and I know the value of the scheme to those people.
Last week, I wrote to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, asking her to consider reviewing this cut. Since then it has been made known that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will consider a special fund following the abolition of the phone allowance. I ask the Minister, Deputy Burton, that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government would push ahead with this special fund and that a type of security fund be set up in order to cover the cost of the phone line for the panic alarm as this is a safety issue for the elderly. Perhaps we could get a little more clarity on this special grant for the operating of panic alarms in the homes of older people and the Minister might have something for us this evening or on Committee Stage.
Overall welfare expenditure will fall below €20 billion in 2014 despite demographic pressures in the shape of the increasing number of pensioners. By rooting out welfare fraud, the Department of Social Protection will raise a further €30 million next year through additional fraud and control measures. We simply must ensure that every cent of the welfare budget goes to those who need it most.
The strongest protection against poverty is decent, secure and fairly paid work. This budget will help more people back to work, reduce the overall welfare spend as part of the sustained effort to repair the public finances and ensure the safety net remains firmly in place for those who need it most.
The numbers in work rose by 33,800 in the year to the second quarter of 2013. The number on the live register is down by 20,000 over the past year, and will shortly fall below 400,000 for the first time since May 2009. While that is still far too high, of course, we are making firm and visible progress.
After endless representations on behalf of the elderly in the midlands I am glad that services have improved in Longford and Westmeath with the refurbished wards at St. Joseph's care centre in Longford and Lough Low House in Athlone which was downgraded by the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government. Earlier this year we opened the new 100-bed unit at St. Mary's care centre in Mullingar. These are all positive responses to my endless representations.
In order to provide more labour market activation initiatives for young people the Government will enhance and develop the range of opportunities on offer to young people in the form of internships, participation on employment schemes, subsidised private-sector recruitment and supports for self-employment. The full range of youth employment initiatives will be set out in the Government's plan for the implementation of the EU Youth Guarantee which is to be finalised and submitted to the EU by the end of the year, as part of which we will be seeking to maximise the share of EU funding allocated to Ireland.
My priority is getting Longford-Westmeath, and indeed the rest of the country, back on the fast track of economic recovery and jobs. I am determined that every opportunity will be offered and taken to reverse the job losses experienced in the midlands over the past ten years, particularly during the time Fianna Fáil was in government. After the big hullabaloo this morning, I am disappointed to see that not one Fianna Fáil Member has appeared in the Chamber for the past hour, which shows their interest in this debate.
I will be extremely pleased to welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and the economic forum consisting of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to Longford on 5 November where they will present the action plan and programme for jobs which will encourage firms in Longford and Westmeath to sell their products abroad in lucrative export markets which in turn will create jobs in the midlands.
Accessing credit remains a major challenge for many firms. I am confident this will be directly addressed by the partial credit guarantee scheme and the microfinance fund which will be outlined in more detail by the economic forum and other experts, and will in turn help businesses struggling to get loans. Inward investment such as this is essential and more than ever the lifeblood of rural areas such as Longford and Westmeath. All of this is part of our jobs initiative and the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Social Protection are interconnected.
This is the last budget that we will have under the bailout programme. Step by step the Government is undoing the disastrous policies of Fianna Fáil that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.