Social Welfare Bill 2014: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

While this is a short Social Welfare Bill by normal standards, it none the less marks a positive shift in our economic and social recovery. That recovery is now clear to see. According to the European Commission, Ireland will be the fastest-growing economy in the EU this year, with our growth rate expected to hit 4.6% compared with an average of just 1.3% for other member states. Last month the Government delivered a budget package that reduced taxes for middle-income and low-income workers and provided welfare increases in a number of key areas, such as child benefit and the living alone allowance, which are the subject of this Bill. By any standards, this is a remarkable turnaround given the economic crisis this Government inherited upon taking office. In regard to the Trichet letter, which we discussed earlier, it is important to note that at that point, the deficit was 32%. It is incredible to contemplate the level of indebtedness that existed six years ago.

The main social protection measures contained in this Bill are an increase of €5 a month per child in child benefit from January 2015; a new back to work family dividend scheme to help people back to work; support for water services for certain social welfare recipients; an increase in the living alone allowance to €9 a week from January 2015; payment of a Christmas bonus of 25% to all long-term welfare recipients in early December; and a doubling of JobsPlus places from 3,000 to 6,000 and increased funding for JobPath. In addition, the decision to discontinue application of the 0.6% pension levy will be welcomed by pension scheme members and older people in particular as providing greater certainty regarding their retirement provision. I hereby notify the House of my intention to retain the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of one-parent family payment at its present level of €90 a week, which I will provide for by way of an amendment on Committee Stage.

On the subject of Committee Stage amendments, I take issue with recent comments in a prominent newspaper by a commentator generally regarded as being fair and balanced. He contended that the amendment to the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill enacted earlier this year to allow Irish Water to use PPS numbers was surreptitiously slipped into that legislation, which had no relevance to the matter. This commentator further claimed that the Oireachtas was not given sufficient time to understand the significance of the change or debate it adequately. The legislative basis for the allocation of PPS numbers, the purposes for which they can be used, the agencies to which specified-body status is granted, and offences for the misuse of PPS numbers are set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. The extension of specified-body status to different agencies for the purposes of using PPS numbers is a common feature of most Social Welfare Bills. In the circumstances, the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2014 was the most appropriate legislative vehicle to provide for the extension of specified-body status to Irish Water.

While the extension of specified-body status to Irish Water was provided for by way of a Committee Stage amendment to that Bill, I indicated to Deputies on Second Stage my intention to table the amendment. In addition, in advance of the Second Stage debate, officials from my Department briefed the Opposition spokespersons on social protection, other members of the Oireachtas and their research assistants on the contents of the Bill, including the proposed Committee Stage amendment enabling Irish Water to use PPS numbers. During this briefing session, my officials answered questions relating to the operation of this provision. Moreover, a detailed briefing document, including information on this particular Committee Stage amendment, was given to all those who attended the briefing session and was subsequently circulated more widely to Deputies and Senators. Therefore, the contention that this amendment was somehow surreptitiously slipped by an unsuspecting Oireachtas is both inaccurate and insulting to Members. I will deal with the issue of the use by Irish Water of PPS numbers in more detail later.

In the six years since the banking collapse, very difficult decisions have had to be made in the area of social welfare provision. Nevertheless, in my time as Minister for Social Protection I have been able to prioritise the protection of basic social welfare rates and maintain a social welfare safety net that is among the most effective in the EU at reducing poverty. We are now realising the benefits of the sacrifices that have been made by the Irish people, as we emerge from the unprecedented economic crisis that impacted so significantly on the country and into which we were plunged by the fatally flawed blanket bank guarantee. Budget 2015 reinforces the improvements in the economy by sharing the gains of our recovery in an equitable and sustainable manner. My aim is that this Bill, together with the other measures announced in the budget, will begin the process of restoring living standards for families, older people and low-income and middle-income workers. I am very pleased that it has been possible, for the first time since becoming Minister for Social Protection, to provide for modest increases in social welfare payments.

In recognition of the sacrifices that were made and the difficulties still faced by families, the Government's Statement of Priorities, published earlier in the year, promised a new deal on living standards for low-income and middle-income families. In line with this commitment, the Bill provides for a €5 increase in the rate of child benefit, as announced in budget 2015. This will bring the monthly rate of child benefit from €130 to €135 per child, with effect from 1 January 2015. The Government has also committed to increase the monthly rate of child benefit by a further €5 in 2016, if circumstances allow. Child benefit has been critical in supporting families through difficult times and this increase will help families to build a better financial future and boost the recovery. This additional support for children is also in line with the key conclusions of the recent UNICEF report, which states that "increasing investment in social protection policy and programmes can reduce poverty, enhance social resilience in children and support economic development in an efficient, cost-effective way."

Child benefit, along with other child income supports paid to welfare recipients and low-paid working families, helps to prevent poverty. Following the changes we are implementing, the Government will provide a combined weekly payment of €63 for vulnerable children. These and other social transfers greatly reduce the at-risk-of-poverty rate for children from 45% to 19%. I am a strong advocate of child benefit as a universal payment because of its crucial importance to low-income and middle-income families. A crucial element of a strong and sustainable welfare system is the principle that everybody contributes and that the system is there, in turn, to support those contributors at key stages in their lives. Child benefit is one of the few universal payments in the welfare system and its universality has an important role to play in maintaining the sustainability of the system. Moreover, the fact that every family receives child benefit, regardless of employment status, ensures this payment does not act as a disincentive to work.

The live register figures for October, which were released this week, confirm the continued improvement in the labour market. In the first nine months of this year, 113,000 people left the live register to take up employment. What is more, this growth in employment was entirely accounted for by full-time jobs. Unemployment is down from a crisis peak of 15.1% to 11% now. That is still far too high, but the pace of the reduction in unemployment is accelerating. I am confident that we will get unemployment below 10% in the next 12 months.

Employment creation remains a central focus of Government policy. In particular, we want to ensure people who lost their jobs during the crisis will benefit from the strong economic recovery that is under way. A vital part of the Government's strategy is the need for additional activation measures in the interim while the economy recovers. That is the rationale behind our activation strategy, Pathways to Work. In order to support the implementation of Pathways to Work, €1.6 billion is being made available in 2015 to provide approximately 300,000 work and training places.

The number of positions on JobsPlus will be doubled to 6,000 with a focus on young unemployed people at a cost of €13.5 million in a full year. Under the JobsPlus scheme, monthly cash grants are paid to employers to help with wage costs when they recruit long-term unemployed jobseekers.

I am also introducing a new incentive called the back-to-work family dividend which will help jobseekers with families to return to work. This dividend will provide an incentive of €1,550 per child in the first year of employment or self-employment and half that amount in the second year. This scheme, which will come into operation in early April 2015, will cost €22 million in 2015 and €46 million in a full year. The necessary administrative and technical details of this dividend are being developed and will not be finalised in time for inclusion in this Bill. Instead, the required legislative amendments will be provided for in a further social welfare Bill to be introduced early in the new year with a view to its enactment by the end of March 2015 so the dividend can commence early in April 2015, as provided for in the budget. The 2015 social welfare Bill may also provide for several other changes to the social welfare code arising from policy, administrative, operational and control matters. This measure, when taken together with the employer incentives under JobsPlus as well as the activation measures under the JobPath scheme, will ensure that people who have remained on the live register for a prolonged period can also benefit from the recovery in the labour market.

The ongoing task of economic repair must be accompanied by an equal focus on social recovery. Following several budgets which required a major consolidation of the public finances, including social protection expenditure, budget 2015 provides that all social welfare payments and supports will be maintained during 2015. This means there will be no reductions in payment levels and no changes in eligibility criteria. However, the improved economic circumstances have allowed us to go beyond this. Accordingly, I am also providing for the first increases in weekly social welfare payments since 2008.

The living alone allowance, payable to some 180,000 pensioners and people with disabilities, is being increased from €7.70 to €9 a week. We are also in a position to restore partially the Christmas bonus this year. A bonus of 25% will be paid in early December to all long-term welfare recipients, including pensioners, lone parents, jobseekers, carers and people with disabilities.

While these increases are modest compared to those provided in the recent past, they are also prudent. We will not return to the recklessness of the past. Instead, we will use the economic dividend from the recovery to invest in sustainable growth, in families and communities and in vital public services.

Budget 2015 provides for several other social protection measures, including helping vulnerable welfare households to meet the costs associated with water services. In addition, my colleagues and I are looking at the possibility of further options whereby every single household receives help with their bills.

Budget 2012 provided for a phased reduction between 2012 and 2016 in the weekly amount of earnings that can be disregarded for the purposes of the one-parent family payment scheme, with the disregard due to fall from €90 to €75 next year and to €60 in 2016. I am pleased to announce that I have provided for the retention of the weekly earnings disregard for recipients of one-parent family payment at its present level of €90 a week. This measure will be provided for in a Committee Stage amendment I will be tabling. This will benefit some 28,000 working recipients of one-parent family payment during 2015 at a cost of €8 million. In addition, the back-to-work family dividend will be of significant financial assistance to lone parents looking to return to work.

I want to assure Deputies and the public about the uses that can be made by Irish Water of the PPS, personal public service, numbers that are provided to it. Irish Water has confirmed that validating eligibility for water allowances is the sole purpose for the collection and storing of PPS numbers. While the exact processes are yet to be developed, it is important to reiterate that the Department of Social Protection will not be giving any additional information to Irish Water. The intention is that the PPS number will serve as a unique identifier in the case of individual Irish Water customers. It will be used by Irish Water to facilitate and control the distribution of allowances which are subvented by the Government. The Department will simply be providing validation of information that Irish Water has collected and provided to the Department.

Irish Water has indicated PPS numbers will only be shared with the Department of Social Protection and only for the purposes of verifying the applicability of water allowances to a customer's account. This is to confirm eligibility for the allowances and to ensure a customer claims allowances only once rather than at multiple properties. Social Welfare legislation specifies that the PPS number can only be used by specified bodies and agents acting on their behalf and only for the purposes of public service transactions. Provision is also made for sharing a person's PPS number between specified bodies.

The PPS number is the unique identifier introduced in 1998 and is used to provide access to an important range of public, civic and other services. It replaced the Revenue and Social Insurance, RSI, number, introduced in 1979, for engagements between individuals and Revenue or social welfare. The introduction of the PPS number made it accessible by specified bodies, rather than just Revenue and social welfare, in transacting public services. At its core, the PPS number is a device to assist in and to enhance the efficiency of the provision of public services to members of the public. Those public services vary greatly. Accordingly, the PPS number is used widely by, for example, all employers in their transactions with Revenue and the Department of Social Protection, in the delivery of social welfare payments and services including dental, optical and audiological services provided by the private practitioners, financial institutions and the health and education sector.

It is an offence for persons other than specified bodies, their agents or those to whom the number refers, to use PPS numbers or otherwise seek the disclosure of same. The Department is committed to protecting and facilitating the use of the PPS number in accordance with the law. In this regard, it monitors compliance with legislation among the specified bodies and deals with identified and reported cases of misuse. The collection, storage and use of the PPS number is also subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Acts.

Section 1 provides for the definition of the term the "Act of 2012" which is used in the Bill to mean the Social Welfare Act 2012.

Section 2 provides for a €5 increase in the monthly rate of child benefit, bringing the current rate up from €130 to €135 with effect from 1 January 2015. This increase represents an annual increase of €60 for each child, bringing the overall annual investment through the child benefit system to €1,620 for each child. This measure will benefit some 1,171,700 children in 612,800 families. Section 2 also provides that in the case of twins, the monthly rate of child benefit will increase from €195 to €202.50 per child, while in the case of multiple births of three or more children, the monthly rate of child benefit will increase from €260 to €270 per child, with effect from 1 January 2015. Section 3 provides for the Short Title and construction of the Bill.

Despite the need to stabilise the public finances over the past number of years, the Irish social welfare system continues to play a key role in our society and I have ensured that the necessary resources have been made available when required. We have made substantial progress in repairing the enormous damage that has been done to the Irish economy and to our society, initiated by the fatal bank guarantee of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party when in Government.

The social protection measures contained in this Bill and in budget 2015 are built on the foundations of the economic recovery. It is none the less recognised that there are still many difficulties that need to be addressed. While these measures represent a modest start, we will not imperil this recovery by returning to the reckless policies of the past. Instead, we want to sustain the economic recovery and build the social recovery, so that every person, family and community feels the benefits of it.

Today saw the publication of a letter from the then head of the European Central Bank, Mr. Trichet, to the then Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan. When one sees the tone of that letter and the data pertaining to the Irish economy during that snowy winter of 2010, one has to say that they were incredibly difficult times for everybody. We have come through some difficult years but people are returning to work. In addition, our target for the budget deficit in 2015 is below 3%, at 2.7%. Compared to a period when the deficit soared to 32%, one can see the turnaround.

Many people suggested it would have been better to throw our hands up and not work to repair Irish society. We have seen examples of other societies that chose that route, but two decades later they are still in an incredibly difficult position. We are now able to raise debt on international markets at extremely competitive and favourable prices, just slightly above the German price of debt.

I realise it has been difficult for a lot of families but I am pleased to bring these budgetary measures, including the Social Welfare Bill, before the House. They are positive and hopefully will set the tone to continue our economic and social recovery. This will widen and deepen, reaching everybody and every area of the country, including cities, towns and villages.

I am opposed to this Bill, not because I object to the rate of child benefit being increased - I welcome that - but because it is a remarkable piece of legislation. Normally when we say something is remarkable, we are talking about what is contained in it. This legislation, however, is most remarkable not for what it contains but for what it omits. I will come back to that point shortly. I am also opposed to the Bill because it is an intrinsic part of the fourth regressive budget brought in by this Government. There is an old saying that two wrongs do not make a right, but four wrongs certainly do not make a right.

The Minister has announced - as did the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on budget day - that they we putting €196 million back into social welfare. What they did not mention was that over the three preceding budgets the Government took almost €2 billion out of social welfare. Outside organisations who have no particular axe to grind have said that this budget alone has widened the gap between rich and poor by a minimum of €500 per annum. As the Tánaiste said, we have just come through a massive economic recession. The people who were hit hardest in this recession are the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. One would have thought that when the day arrived when the Government had something to give back, those people would be at the start of the queue, but no. If one closely examines the provisions of the budget and the social welfare announcements, they remain where they were before - at the end of the queue.

The cumulative effect of the hits those people have suffered over several years is devastating. They represent a major factor in our considerable levels of poverty but these cuts do not tell the whole story. They must be seen in the context of cuts to public services, which have also weighed hardest on those least able to afford them.

Government spokespersons have disputed the fact that the budget is regressive. However, as a result of this budget, a single unemployed person gains €46.80 per year. A couple with two earners on €125,000 per year have gained €1,226, which is nearly 30 times more. The budget gives about 90 cent per week to an unemployed single person, and €14.30 per week to a single person earning €75,000. It certainly sounds regressive to me.

The Social Welfare Bill is remarkable for what it does not contain. The Government's main innovative proposal is the so-called family dividend, from which the Minister has generated several public relations outings, announcing that it would be part of the budget. Two days ago, however, when we got copies of the Bill we found that the proposal had not been thought out at all. It was not ready for inclusion in the Bill but will be introduced in some other Bill next year to take effect when the legislation is enacted. That does not show a particular sense of urgency on the Government's part. There are many questions about the family dividend provision which I would like to ask but I will have to wait until the new Bill is produced, whenever that may be. We are also told that changes to the Christmas bonus and living alone allowance can be made by way of regulation. Basically, therefore, we are debating a Bill the totality of which is to give an amount equal to one extra hour of child care per child, per month.

The Bill is also remarkable for a number of other things it omits. The Minister will be aware of all the submissions received by her and various other Ministers, including the Minister for Finance, in the lead up to the budget by various individuals and organisations. She will also be aware that the Committee on Education and Social Protection heard from representatives of a number of those organisations. From what they said, it was quite possible to ascertain what the main items on their agenda were. They represent those who suffered most in the recession and were the main victims of the cuts totalling almost €2 billion. The cost of heating, the fuel allowance and ESB bills loomed large on their agenda.

People are isolated because they can no longer afford to pay the rent on a landline or can only pay it with great difficulty just to have an alarm system. Lone parents wanted the disincentives to work to be removed. Carers provided some €70 million per week in unpaid work for the State. It is no exaggeration to say that not one of these demands, which were couched in modest terms and were modest reversals rather than complete reversals, have been met.

The cost of gas and electricity has escalated to the point where Ireland is the dearest in the EU. Against that background, with no increases in social welfare benefits and cuts in other aspects of several social welfare provision, the Government reduced the period for which fuel allowance is paid from 32 weeks to 26. In addition, it gutted the free ESB allowance at a time when social welfare was not increasing but gas and electricity prices were. The total amount taken from the two allowances over the past number of budgets comes to €90 million, with some €51 million off the fuel allowance and €38 million off the free ESB allowance.

Many organisations that approached us had carried out surveys. I do not have adequate time to read out all the comments in response but some said that home heating had to be reduced to save fuel so that one man's wife, who is ill, stays in bed most of the time. Another comment was that a person only turns on heating in some rooms and does everything to save heat, including extra clothing, staying in bed late and going to bed early. Another comment was that a person rarely uses the phone. That is what is happening in the real world in Ireland in 2014.

The free telephone rental allowance was also high on the list. People of my personal acquaintance find that the rent costs a multiple of what they spend on calls. I am sure the same is true of the Tánaiste.

They are being ripped off.

Many of them maintained a landline so they can have an alarm system for the sake of their security and safety. Despite protestations to the contrary, many people found that only by maintaining the landline system and paying the rental can they have a sense of security. It is important to elderly people, particularly those who feel isolated and vulnerable. There was a major push before the budget for a reversal of the €110 million taken from the allowance over the past number of budgets but no response.

Detailed submissions were made by the Carers Association. Carers contribute €70 million per week in unpaid work. If the State had to pay the bill, the 3% deficit target would be far out of sight. The Carers Association looked for a partial restoration of the respite care grant. The respite care grant is paid to people working as carers 24-7, often at the expense of their health. I know many carers whose health has been impaired by their onerous duties. The respite care grant was not a bonus, sweetener or incentive but a payment to enable those people to get away for a short time from their onerous duties and it was slashed. When making representations, the Carers Association asked for a partial restoration and a few extra days away. God knows they have onerous duties working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but there was no response from the Government.

When the Tánaiste reduced the unemployment assistance payments to young jobseekers, she did so on the spurious basis that it would be character building, that there were plenty opportunities and that these people had to be encouraged to take up these opportunities in employment, education or training. Despite that, some 74,000 young people are not in employment, education or training. Why are they enduring these penurious rates of social assistance if places are not available? It is not the case that they are not in employment, education or training by choice; the vast majority are not in those activities because there are no places.

I welcome the announcement in the Tánaiste's speech that she will partially recognise the arguments we make on the Opposition side. The last Government must also bear some responsibility for this. The income lone parents can earn without the allowance being reduced is decreasing. The age of the child under which one can receive lone parents' allowance is being reduced gradually to seven years. People who do not qualify, because they do not have a child under the requisite age, go on jobseeker's allowance at which point it is much harder to go to work because of the means test and the three-day rule. It is extraordinary that this is presented as an activation measure or an incentive to people yet the only people affected by the twin changes are lone parents who work. They are the only ones who lose out. Jobseeker's allowance is €188 per week for those over 26 years of age. The lone parent's rate is the same so the only people affected are lone parents who go to work. It seems to be based on the extraordinary proposition that the less people gain by working, the more likely one is to work.

People with disabilities made representations and came to see us on a number of occasions. The reaction to the budget was summed up by the spokesperson, Mr. Dolan, who said it completely "fails to meet people with disabilities’ ambition to live in the community with dignity and independence".

Maternity benefit has been cut and there is no restoration of it. People who qualify for the clothing and footwear allowance have had €43.2 million gouged from their payments by the Government. These are the poorest of the poor and it takes €43.3 million from the pockets of people who must be virtually destitute to pass the means test to qualify for the clothing and footwear allowance. In last year's budget, the Government announced people must provide for themselves for six days rather than three days if they are sick. This takes €22 million away from the sick. In most cases, the employer will not pay. The Government has made it more difficult to qualify for the disability allowance at a cost of €46.6 million to people on disability allowance. I do not have time to elaborate on the changes made to the farm assist scheme, to the disadvantage of recipients, the abolition of the statutory redundancy schemes, increases in minimum rent contributions for rent allowance or cuts to the exceptional needs payments. The latter was designed to help people who are virtually destitute. There is also the abolition of the PRSI allowance and prescription charges, a tax on medical card holders, cuts to medical home help hours of 600,000 hours, the gradual erosion of the voluntary and community sector, property taxes, water charges, carbon taxes, etc.

The Tánaiste has trumpeted the improvement resulting from the €196 million expenditure and one is the increase in the living alone allowance from €7.90 to €9 per week. That is a grand annual total of €67, or 20 cent per day. I do not know of any retail establishment in this country where people can buy a lollipop for 20 cent. Child benefit has given an extra hour of child care per month per child.

In its previous two budgets, the Government took approximately €213 million out of the allocation in respect of the child care. On foot of the recent budget, €72 million of this will be restored.

The back to work dividend scheme, much vaunted though it has been, seems a very insipid response to the problem of poverty traps and to the question of encouraging people - or making it worth their while or affordable for them - to go out to work. There are alterations which could be made to the social welfare system. I refer, for example, to dealing with the three-day rule relating to jobseeker's allowance or introducing a number of small changes to the family income supplement, FIS, system. Such steps could make an enormous difference. There is also the lack of refundable tax credits to consider. I could go on but I will not do so. No real attempt has been made to deal with any of these matters. What we have been presented with is, as far as I can see, a fairly minor proposal that will certainly not compensate in any way for the cost of child care incurred by someone who goes out to work. If one goes out to work and one has children, then one must obviously make arrangements for child care. However, we will not see what is proposed in this regard until some time next year.

I have no objection to an increase in the Christmas bonus. If there is money available to the Labour Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection to increase the Christmas bonus by 25% in order to give everybody a few cent, would it not be much better if she used €27 million of the money involved to restore the respite care grant and the remainder to reverse - to some extent - the cuts to the free ESB allowance? The latter would have a real impact but the difficulty is that only a certain number of people or a particular sector of society would benefit. The Government must appeal to the majority of voters and it is giving them all a few cent as a result. Its action in this regard is tokenistic.

Why did Fianna Fáil abolish the Christmas bonus?

Why is the Minister not using the money to restore the respite care grant?

The Tánaiste and the Deputy should address their remarks through the Chair.

Deputy O'Dea should tell us about Fianna Fáil's part in the story.

The Government is seeking votes by giving a few cent to everybody.

The Members of this House - those on all sides - were elected to govern a society, not just an economy. Let us take a step back and consider the type of society that exists almost four years into the lifetime of this Government and in the aftermath of the introduction of its fourth budget. According to the CSO, approximately 4.5 million people live in Ireland. As measured internationally, some 750,000 of these individuals - one in six - live in poverty. I refer here to those who are obliged to live on incomes which are below the level that would guarantee them a minimum standard of dignity. The position is worse for people under the age of 17, one in five of whom - nearly double the OECD average - lives in a state of poverty. The Tánaiste referred to the recent UNICEF report, which is extremely interesting in the context of what it has to say about child poverty. One of the conclusions reached in the report is that there are now 130,000 more children living in poverty here than was the case when the Government took office. The Tánaiste may refer to the recession in this regard but the details contained in the UNICEF report give the lie to that argument. UNICEF analysed the position in all OECD countries, including those that were as badly or even more adversely affected by the recession as Ireland, and discovered that the level of child poverty has actually decreased in 18 of them. In Poland, child poverty fell by as much as 30%. It is not just a question of the state of the economy; it comes down to the choices the Government has made. The conclusion in this regard is inescapable. As a result of the choices made by the current Administration, 130,000 more children are living in poverty than was the case when it took office.

Even the figures to which I refer do not tell the whole story. One can use whatever yardstick one likes to measure the impact of what has occurred. I refer, for example, to the deprivation rate, which is used to calculate the number of people forced to go without at least two of the 11 basic necessities of life. The figure in this regard in Ireland has reached 1.2 million. This means that 27% - one in four - of our population of 4.5 million must go without two of the 11 basic necessities of life. In the context of a just society, the most recent figures for income distribution show that last year the top 10% of households in this country were in receipt 24% of all disposable income whereas those in the bottom 10% received just 3% - or one eighth as much - of it. That certainly does not sound very fair and it does not appear that we have moved very far along the road towards creating a just society. All I am referring to here is income distribution and I am not even taking access to and control over capital into account, which remains in the preserve of those in the upper echelons in society. If one combines capital and income, then the levels of inequality, not to mention poverty, in Ireland are not just indefensible, they have become positively dangerous.

Ireland in 2014 is a country of two populations, namely, a pampered, protected and privileged elite, on the one hand, and, on the other, a huge and growing coterie of people who are shackled by poverty. The Government has no coherent guiding vision in terms of how to achieve a fairer or more just society. The tactic has been to cut social welfare provision in many different areas and then perpetrate the myth that payments have been protected and the poorest in society have been safeguarded. The obvious question that arises relates to the €2 billion cut to the social welfare budget. That must have been some sort of statistical glitch. According to statements made by various Ministers, it never happened at all. As was the case when one of the Ewing brothers on the television programme "Dallas" was shot, perhaps it was just a dream. Regardless of whether that was the case, the nightmare continues for those most affected by the cuts.

The core values of a just society should be human dignity, equality, respect for human rights, solidarity, sustainability and pursuit of the common good. The Government does not appear to have the slightest idea of how to ensure the maintenance of such values. Worse again, it does not seem to have the slightest intention of trying to do so. The budget, of which the Bill before the House forms an intrinsic part, provides no guiding vision whatsoever. It is a management agenda and a collection of miscellaneous and unconnected items, utterly devoid of social vision. It is, however, designed to have the broadest possible appeal. Effectively, it is nothing short of political lap dancing. To paraphrase Disraeli, the Government has made its conscience not its guide, but rather its accomplice. The Taoiseach is relentless in continuing to utter the mantra that his main objective as head of the Government and leader of his party is to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. That is fair enough, but it must be remembered that he governs with the support of Labour, which represents itself as a socialist party. Surely the leadership of the Labour Party should be saying to the Taoiseach that if his objective is to ensure that Ireland is the best small country in the world in which to do business, then its objective is to make it a better small country in which to live if one is poor, vulnerable, disabled or disadvantaged. There has been absolutely no sign of this in any of the four budgets considered by this House since the Government took office.

When introducing the budget, my constituency colleague, the Minister for Finance, made his usual poetic allusion by quoting Robert Frost and stating that he would not take the road more travelled.

On the subject of roads, the Irish poetess Anna MacManus - I think poetess is the correct term - wrote a remarkable poem called "The Passing of the Gael" around 15 years before the aforementioned work of Mr. Frost. The poem begins with the writer addressing Ireland by one of her mythical names: "Oh, Kathaleen ní Houlihan, your road's a thorny way". For the poor children of Kathleen Ní Houlihan, the vulnerable, disadvantaged and weakest in society, the road continues to be a thorny way. Each budget introduced by this Government has seen that road become harder.

I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom an t-ardú de €5 sa liúntas leanaí a chur i gcomhthéacs. Is é seo an t-aon rud amháin atá á dhéanamh sa Bhille seo. Is trua nár thapaigh an tAire an deis déileáil leis na ciorruithe eile a chur sí i bhfeidhm go dtí seo, nó fiú roinnt de na ciorruithe a chur an Rialtas roimhe seo i bhfeidhm. Ní hamháin go ndearnadh gearradh siar ar an liúntas leanaí in ainneoin an ghealltanais a tugadh don phobal i gcoitinne, ach rinneadh a lán gearrtha eile freisin. Cuireadh an t-ualach sin ina iomlán ar na clanna atá ag brath ar an gcóras leasa shóisialaigh agus orthu siúd timpeall na tíre atá ar phá íseal. Cé go bhfuil mé i bhfábhar cuid den mhéid atá sa Bhille seo - measaim go mbeadh sé deacair d'éinne cur i gcoinne ardaithe de €5 sa mhí a chabhróidh leo siúd inár sochaí atá ar an ngannchuid agus atá bocht - ní leor é. D'fhéadfadh an Rialtas seo dul i bhfad níos faide ná mar atá leagtha síos sa Bhille seo. Is é sin scannal an Bhille seo. Tá sé deacair tacaíocht a thabhairt don reachtaíocht seo toisc nár thapaidh an Rialtas an deis a bhí aige.

As I said as Gaeilge, I want to put the €5 child benefit increase in context. I will not rehash all of the promises made by the Labour Party before the last general election - there is no need to, as the public do not have selective amnesia. The public know what was promised and in recent elections they have shown the Labour Party what they think of those pre-election promises. The Labour Party promised to protect child benefit and made it a red-line issue; its posters stated "Every little hurts". The public will show the Labour Party what they think of those promises, because this Government is trying to spin the €5 increase as a "one for every child in the audience" giveaway for struggling families. The public are supposed to be bowled over with gratitude for crumbs from the table of the rich, but they are not that stupid. I respect the public and can see that the people are not stupid because they have shown this in elections in the past year. They can see through the lies of the last general election. The public know that the Government has targeted children relentlessly with cuts, and the consequence is that one third of children in the State experience deprivation.

The last Government cut child benefit, but not in the extreme manner of this Government - it also cut other social welfare payments. This Government has cut child benefit by between €10 and €47 per child per month. These cuts are in addition to the €100 cut to the annual back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance for poor families. Maternity benefit has been cut by €32 per week and the lone parent income disregard was cut from €146.50 to €90. Working lone mothers and fathers are down €28 per week as a consequence. During the intervening years the cost of living has risen, further eroding the value of the total child benefit payment. In this context, struggling, intelligent Irish voters will assess the value of the measure contained in this Bill.

The Tánaiste has indicated that water charges may be capped for a period - she was in the House earlier but, strangely, she has disappeared for this debate. She may have had other engagements, but that is the case for all of us. It is odd that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, is here instead, but perhaps he can use his influence to make cheap wood from the forests under his remit available to the people suffering from cuts to the fuel allowance. A total of €120 per year has been cut from the fuel allowance, which many people depend on, yet the Government trumpets the extra €60 per year that children will receive. Perhaps the Minister of State will use his position to help these people grow food; he might provide some land for this purpose by using his responsibility for areas such as horticulture and food safety.

The Minister of State may encourage this, but he is not willing to pay for it and use money to back up his words. The exact opposite is the case, as money has been taken away from people continuously over the past three and a half years.

The Tánaiste indicated that water charges would be capped at €300 - this may be the Government's line, or perhaps the Tánaiste was on a solo run. The Cabinet has repeatedly stated that water charges are modest. If €25 per month is deemed to be modest, then the €5 child benefit increase is minuscule. This matter must be examined and overcome, because the legislation before us is a disgrace. It does not deal with poverty and will not relieve the poverty and deprivation facing children and their parents. This legislation means social welfare payments will probably not keep track with inflation in the coming year.

This Bill is accompanied by an explanatory memorandum that spends more time and space referring to what is not in the Bill than what is in it. In fairness, the officials probably had to pad it out, because it is a small Bill. Despite this, the list in the explanatory memorandum gives a far from comprehensive overview of cuts in recent years. I will add to the list of budgetary cuts for 2015 that the Government neglected to mention. Further cuts will be imposed on the one-parent family scheme; this is not mentioned in any of the budget documents or in the explanatory memorandum, but they come into effect in January 2015. I debated this issue with the Tánaiste on Tuesday but she failed to answer my questions in any shape or form. She went on blathering about something else, as is the norm for her. I raised the key issue of the income disregard and asked her to address the matter. Two days later she came into the House and proved that my approach was right; she had taken the time to reflect on what I raised on Tuesday and reversed the decision made last year. However, she did not say that the other changes to the one-parent family scheme that are to come into effect next year will be reversed.

On Tuesday, before the Tánaiste came before the House with her prepared speech, I outlined the scale of poverty in one-parent families.

These are the families who are dealing with children and who are more limited than other families in terms of getting out of poverty.

While this is something that affects all families but one-parent families are most at risk, a fact accepted in every report of recent years. Those most at risk of poverty have the highest consistent poverty rate at 17.4% and a rate of deprivation of almost 50% applies to almost 30% of families at risk of poverty. When I suggest almost 50% of children in lone-parent households have experienced deprivation I am referring to children who do not have a warm coat or two pairs of strong shoes or who cannot afford to eat meat, chicken or fish every second day. These are children whose homes are not adequately heated.

The latest reprieve for lone parents is welcome and the Tánaiste referred earlier to the income disregard. However, as I said earlier, this was preceded by a relentless list of cuts in each year that this Government has been in office. I urged the Tánaiste to abandon her plan to reduce the cut-off age to seven years in 2015 for children under the one-parent family payment. If the Tánaiste proceeds with the cut, the effect will be to exclude thousands more lone parents from the one-parent family payment, meaning that an income disregard of only €60 will be available to them. The Tánaiste should reflect on that. For many, the move will negate the income disregard change announced this morning.

In 2012, the Tánaiste promised that she would not proceed with the cuts to the one-parent family payment without what she described as "a credible and bankable commitment" from the Government to put in place a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care. I am referring to the reduction from 12 years to ten year and then from ten to seven years. That has not happened. The Tánaiste can ask any parent about this safe, affordable and accessible child care system. It is not here, yet the Tánaiste had the opportunity to reverse this on Tuesday when I asked her about it. She has an opportunity to reverse it in this legislation, but there is nothing in place. I appeal once again to the Tánaiste to use the opportunity afforded by this Social Welfare Bill to address the anomaly. The Tánaiste gave a commitment not to proceed without a credible and bankable commitment from the Government to put in place a system, but that has not happened. It is another one of those empty promises from the Tánaiste.

The Deputy before me spoke about the respite care grant. We all have alternatives and an opportunity to discuss what changes can be made. When the Tánaiste introduced the cut to the respite care grant, I remember the horror from carers throughout the country, many of whom contacted my office. I presume they contacted the offices of every other Deputy as well. The fact is that this Government has targeted those who are caring for loved ones. In many cases, these people gave up full-time jobs to save this State money. They did not do it for that reason but because they wanted to care full-time for their loved ones. They would do it for nothing if they could. The answer this State gave them was a cut of €325 to the respite care grant.

The Carers Association issued a press statement on budget day in which the association expressed its anger, on behalf of all carers, that the cut made to the respite care grant was not remedied in this budget. The Government had a golden opportunity and it would have been lauded by everyone in this House and many outside the House but it chose not to take that opportunity. Instead the Government has looked after the rich in society once again. The Government has looked after companies that do not pay the full rate of tax in this country. It has also looked after companies which are now disappearing with their money to other countries in Europe that have a better tax regime.

The Carers Association described the grant as a lifeline for over 77,000 family carers. The association said it was devastated that family carers had been neglected. Budget 2015 should have included targeted relief for family carers but it did not. The Tánaiste said to me in the Chamber only a month ago that she promised carers some relief in budget 2015 but she has not lived up to that promise. A number of carers and associated organisations gave presentations at a meeting of Deputies that I organised in the audiovisual room two or three weeks ago. One carer said that when a parent gets the shattering diagnosis about her child or hears such words as, "Your child has cancer", she does not lose her intelligence or the ability to recognise condescending words when she hears them. Carers know full well that the Government did not prioritise them in this budget.

The true priorities of this Government have been exposed by the failure to address the cut in the respite care grant. Family carers have all the same pressures as the general population and then some. Mortgages or rents still have to be paid. There are rising utility bills, grocery bills, property taxes and, if the Government has its way, in January there will be water charges as well. We can add to that the cost of housing adaptations and private speech and language or physiotherapy sessions, because the State is not supplying enough or cannot supply enough because, once again, it is looking after the private sector instead. Let us not forget that bin charges include the weight of adult nappies to name but one additional cost. That is not taken into account when people get the carers allowance or the respite care grant.

The role of carer involves significant mental and emotional strain. Recent research by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland found that more than half of family carers experienced a significant mental health issue, which could include depression and anxiety. The vulnerability of carers to health problems is compounded by the financial pressures to which they are subjected. In view of financial pressures, many do not avail of medical advice or intervention as quickly as they should because they are too busy trying to ensure that the person they are caring for is looked after to the fullest. However, the respite care grant cut has meant that they have limited ability to avail of respite or any supports.

A government cannot make it all better but it can try to tackle some of the associated burdens that this Government has landed on top of those dependent on social welfare and, in this case, those who are dependent on us totally because they are full-time carers of people who are vulnerable. The Government could begin to tackle the financial burden that they must endure by undoing the €325 cut to the respite care grant, but that is only a first step. I urge the Government to reconsider the matter and perhaps bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage.

An online petition was launched recently and, as far as I know, it has almost 3,500 signatures at this stage. Many who signed it are carers. I urge the Tánaiste to study the petition and in particular the comments, because the comments are very important. Many of these are from carers. If I get the opportunity, I will read some of them into the record. It would be valuable to hear testimony from the carers themselves rather than my talking about it or trying to represent it.

The Minister has an opportunity to address this on Committee Stage in two weeks and after that on Report Stage. In that time, she should look into her soul, if she can find it, and introduce a change in the legislation.

I refer to some of the comments on the online petition, Restore Respite Care Grant. Carly writes: "I am a single mum on carers and I am finding it difficult to get by on what the government is giving me to live on think how much you are saving by the family who care for the disabled its time you realised that people can't live on what you give them." Lynn from the west of Ireland says: "This really hit the most vulnerable and must be reversed. It would cost the state so much more only for the carers." Veronica says: "I am a carer myself. I care for my son who has ASD. Life is hard and the respite care grant helps toward a holiday for my child and his sister which would be impossible without the grant." Athena says: "Like most cuts to the most vulnerable in our society, this shouldn't have been cut and it most certainly shouldn't have been ignored around the budget. The state constantly take from the most vulnerable in society and people let it happen because it doesn't effect you but it could one day and even if it doesn't it doesn't make what the government continue to do any less wrong." There are many other such comments.

There are other measures which are not included in the Bill which the Government could have introduced if it had taken heed of my party's alternative budget or the submissions made by other people before it proceeded with its budget arithmetic. There are alternatives, as we have said continuously. The Government takes the decisions and it suffers the consequences of that. My party supplied the Government with a fully costed pre-budget submission. It is no harm if the Minister looks at it, even if she might not agree with it.

Debate adjourned.