Before the adjournment, I outlined some of the social welfare cuts the Government had implemented since taking office. They include cuts to illness benefit, the diet supplement scheme and the fuel allowance scheme. I was dealing with the fuel allowance and the household benefits package when the debate was adjourned. The Government cut these schemes, affecting some of the poorest households, including the elderly and people with a disability who depend on the fuel allowance to heat their homes. The payment period was cut by six weeks, amounting to a reduction of €120.
Even with the increase that was announced, because the weeks have not been reinstated, it still leaves those who depend on the fuel allowance at a loss of €54.50 on the payment made prior to the Government coming into office. Let us not forget that in addition, a water charge and property tax were heaped on many of the same people, pensioners who have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and who should be able to have some comfort in their twilight years instead of having to choose between heating their homes or feeding themselves. Many of those who pay the property tax have already paid several times over, in particular those who paid significant amounts in stamp duty. In addition, there are water charges. As if that was not enough, the Minister also cut the electricity and gas components of the household benefits package for pensioners by 25% and 20%, respectively, at a time when fuel prices were rising. Sinn Féin would not only abolish the water charge and the property tax but would also increase the fuel allowance by the full six weeks over a period of two years.
The telephone allowance was abolished when the Government took €271 from the annual budgets of people over 70 years of age and ensured that vulnerable older people, especially in rural areas, had to beg, borrow and scrimp to keep up the payments on the panic alarms they had got. However, that is not just a rural phenomenon as panic alarms do not just relate to anti-social behaviour or criminals trying to break in, they also give people peace of mind that if they fall they will have a connection to an open phone line. That was a poor show by the Government.
The State old age pension was, in effect, cut by 16% when one takes into account the increase in age from 65 to 68 years. In addition, by introducing new pension rate bands, thousands of people, especially women, will find they are entitled to a smaller pension than they had anticipated when they come to retire because they had based their calculations on a previous system. For the Minister to give them a miserly €3 extra a week after years of ignoring them adds insult to injury. This is an attempt by the Government to buy the grey vote coming up to the election. That group, perhaps more than most, very clearly understands how their vote works and they will not be bought by less than the cost of a cup of coffee in Starbucks. They are not stupid and they will not be fooled by empty promises.
The respite care grant was also cut. At the time I condemned and opposed the cut. While I welcome that the full rate is now being reintroduced, for many it was a cut too far and the change is a little too late. The initial cut of €350 to respite care undermined the contribution of carers to society. I accept that in most cases the grant was not spent on respite care and that it acted as a support payment to allow people to pay for expenses such as car insurance or to buy extra fuel as the fuel allowance only covers a certain number of weeks in a year but in many cases where a person is bedridden or stationary one must heat the home continuously at a high temperature. The extra money was less for the benefit of the carer than the caree.
I welcome the extension of the payment from six to 12 weeks after the death of the person being cared for as it recognises the fact that the carer is in many ways out of touch with the jobs market. I have asked for other considerations to be taken into account in the future in terms of the job activation scheme or other training schemes to allow carers to keep up their skills at least for a few hours each week. If one has been caring for a parent for ten or 15 years one will be out of touch with the workplace and in many cases it would be very difficult to re-engage at the same level at which one operated when one gave up work. The cut to the bereavement grant was one of the meanest cuts of all. I still do not understand the logic behind it.
The rent and mortgage interest supplement schemes were also cut by the Government. The contribution of tenants was hiked. Maximum thresholds for rent supplement in most parts of Dublin are too low to secure accommodation. In some ways there is a recognition by the Department that the figure is not realistic given the somewhat under-the-counter manoeuvres it makes to pay a higher rent and keep people in rented accommodation. The problem we now face is that people cannot get the accommodation in the first place. People are under threat as landlords who increase the rent are being protected to some degree. Very few so far have managed to benefit from it. The Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, appears to be saying it is 4,600 to date, whereas there are 100,000 in the scheme. I would welcome if the number of those who have been helped is higher but it does not address the fact that the problem we face in Dublin city in particular is that people find it impossible to even find somewhere to rent in the first place let alone the difficulty of paying the rent on an ongoing basis. People cannot even come up with a deposit anymore.
The back to school clothing and footwear allowance was cut in three budgets in a row, reducing it by a total of €100 and, in addition, restrictions were introduced in terms of the number of eligible children. Despite the pre-election promises made by the Labour Party, child benefit was cut severely, not just in terms of the €10 cut but beyond it. In the past two budgets the payment was restored to many beneficiaries but those with more than four children were cut by more than €10 and their payments have not been reinstated. I do not know whether that is the Government’s intention but it has still cut the payment by too much.
Instead of tackling excessive pay and pensions at the top, the Government chose to break its oft repeated promise to protect core social welfare rates. It did cut jobseeker’s allowance, jobseeker’s benefit, maternity benefit and the invalidity pension because all of those payments were subject to reductions in the eligibility criteria. The Government shortened the payment period for jobseeker’s benefit by three months which amounts to a cut of 25% and in some cases up to 33% in the core weekly payment. The number of months in which a person is entitled to gain jobseeker’s benefit has been reduced and a person will not necessarily go onto jobseeker’s allowance at the top rate if his or her partner is working.
There were also cuts to maternity benefit. First, it was taxed and then it was cut. The majority of maternity benefit recipients now see their weekly payment cut by €32. Over the full six-month leave period, that is a cut of €832, which is a substantial one for mothers with young babies.
For many new mothers, the maternity benefit was and is the only income during that time and for those mothers who are fortunate enough to have their maternity benefits supplemented by their employers, the cumulative impact of the Government's benefit cut and the tax measure has seen their payments shrink by up to €128. There is a potential loss of up to €3,276 to new mothers. I have welcomed the new proposal on paternity benefit which is something for which Sinn Féin has argued for years and which was included in its pre-budget submission.
In addition, I welcome the proposed amendment that will address the exclusion of credit unions from the household budgeting scheme. Members have discussed this issue previously and I hope this will address the so-called Lough payment and so on. This is where credit unions in the past gave payments for mobile homes which could then be deducted from social welfare payments. It was an inadvertent result of excluding credit unions in the past and, hopefully, this issue will be addressed. It is something for which the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and the credit union movement had argued and I presume the new amendment will allow credit unions to be part of the household budgeting scheme. Consequently, it will allow them to-----