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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Mar 1999

Vol. 158 No. 18

Social Welfare Bill, 1999: Committee and Remaining Stages.

SECTION 1.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, subsection (2), line 14, after "one" to insert "and may be cited together as the Social Welfare Acts, 1993 to 1999".

This is a technical amendment to consolidate the Social Welfare Acts 1993 to 1999. I request that it be included in the text of the Bill. It is a tightening up measure.

As I said in the other House, there is no need for a collective citation on this amendment.

Section 3(8) of the Social Welfare Act, 1993, which reads "References in any other enactment to the "Social Welfare (Consolidation) Acts" means this Act and every enactment which is to be construed together with it as one", covers this. I ask the Senator to accept that the amendment is not, therefore, necessary.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following new subsection:

"(3)The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the rationale for the differing commencement dates of social welfare and tax aspects of the annual budget.".

This is a more substantial amendment. I ask the Minister to look at the need to lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the rationale for the differing commencement dates of the social welfare and tax aspects of the annual budget and the different months in which certain parts of the budget and the Social Welfare Bill are implemented. Our tax year should be brought forward, especially as we are coming into line with the European Union, and it should coincide with the calendar year. As the budget and welfare provisions are presented in November-December of the previous year, perhaps it should be brought forward to October to ensure that all the provisions come into effect at the same time. We have the ludicrous situation where excise duties on cigarettes and alcohol are effective on the evening of the passing of the budget, yet under section 4 new death benefit rates will come into effect on 6 April 1999; unemployment benefit rates will come into effect on 27 May 1999; disability, health, safety and injury benefits and disablement gratuities will come into effect from 31 May 1999; retirement and invalidity pensions will come into effect on 3 June 1999 and disablement pensions, widower's and orphan's contributory pensions will come into effect on 4 June 1999. Other budgetary provisions are to come into effect in September 1999. What sort of parameters have been set? Previous Governments have been equally lax in implementing budgetary provisions. The last Government brought some of the provisions forward from July to June with the intention of implementing them nearer to the tax year. The diversity of dates presented to us necessitates consolidation.

The very least the Minister could do is accept our amendment, look into the matter and prepare a report on it so that we can have an objective analysis of why these diverse dates for the commencement of important social welfare provisions are necessary.

I presume the diverse dates relate to the date on which pensions are paid. Nevertheless I support Senator Costello's suggestion; there is a great element of the increases in social welfare that you "live horse and you will get grass". Excise duty on cigarettes and other taxes come into effect immediately, yet there is great delay in bringing in social welfare benefits. My only complaint about the Finance Bill is that the 5p increase on cigarettes was hardly worth the administrative cost of the change. We purchase a pack of 20 cigarettes for £1.37 less than people in Northern Ireland. We must take note of the enormous increase in smoking related illnesses and the fact that an increasing number of young people are taking up the habit. I believe social welfare benefits should be paid out immediately.

I appreciate the Minister cannot wave a magic wand and introduce all the payments on the same date. However, could we aim at a social welfare year starting on the same date as the tax year currently. Some recipients of social welfare payments are least likely to know their entitlements and there is a great deal of confusion about the increases. It would be very helpful if we could arrive at a more suitable arrangement. It is not clear when people will receive their entitlements. The information is contained in the budget speech but it would be sensible to outline a date on which all social welfare increases would come into effect, although I realise it would involve changes in work practices and so on. I support the amendment.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. As I said in reply to a similar amendment in the Dáil, one cannot, as Senator Ridge acknowledged, simply wave a magic wand. This is by far the largest social welfare package to come before the Houses of the Oireachtas in many years – the total figure on budget day was £305 million and it did not take into account the payment of an additional £10 million in arrears to recipients who, largely through no fault of their own, missed out on claiming their pensions. Since the budget, I have made a number of additional changes with the consent of the Government which bring the total full year allocation for increases to £317 million, £192 million for 1999 alone.

When this Government took office, it made a commitment to concentrate as much as possible on the older members of our society. In our first year in office, we increased the old age pension by £5 for those on the maximum personal rate. At the time, that increase was far ahead of the rate of inflation, being three times greater in some cases. This year we provided a £6 increase. Some Members of the Opposition forecast that the rate of inflation would rise to 6 per cent but in fact it was only 2 per cent, as forecast in the Budget Statement. The £6 increase, depending which heading one examines it under, is four times the rate of inflation in some cases. We provided those increases because we believed older people had fallen behind somewhat as they have not had as coherent a voice as other lobby groups.

There has been and always will be some criticism with regard to the dates on which increases come into effect. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the budget comes out in late December rather than late January and increases are not provided until late May or early June. I have a simple philosophy on this matter – while one can concentrate on one element such as the old age pension when one negotiates a budget package with the Department of Finance, one cannot overlook other recipients. It is necessary to keep a number of balls in the air in order to be fair to everyone. I could, at a cost of £4 million per week or in the region of £32 million overall, have brought the increases forward to 6 April. That would have reduced my budget package which, in effect, would have reduced the amount of the increases provided. I would rather provide a higher increase at a later stage than a lower amount earlier. When people receive the £6 increase, they will have a higher base to work from when they receive an increase the following year.

Having said that, in my first budget I brought back the dates for the increases by a fortnight at a cost of £8 million. This Government is paying the increases for 31 weeks of the year in 1999 as opposed to the best the Rainbow Coalition did during its time which was only 29 weeks. This caused an additional cost – £8 million spread over the social welfare code.

Senator Henry mentioned taxation on cigarettes. As a representative of a constituency where 1,500 people were once employed in the cigarette industry and where there are now only 67 people employed in P.J. Carrolls in my town, I have a particular interest in this. However, that was not the reason we did not impose extra taxation on cigarettes. That was on the basis of strong advice from the Department of Finance that an increase in the tax take from cigarettes and petrol would have an adverse effect on the rate of inflation. The Government chose not to impose extra taxation on these items because it was intent – as all governments should be – on ensuring inflation was as low as possible. As I stated earlier, thankfully inflation was as forecast, and not 6 per cent as predicted by the prophets of doom both inside and outside this House. During the year, there were calls on me to further increase the already fairly substantial increases in social welfare to take care of what was anticipated to be an inflation rate of 6 per cent.

It has always been my view and the view of the Minister for Finance and previous Ministers from all parties to bring back the payments to a period synonymous with taxation changes. In not so good times, Governments of all parties have pushed back the rates of payment to make the figures work out when money was not available. This Government has set out to bring back the payments and will continue to do so as far as we can.

I thank the Minister for explaining the reasons the Department of Finance did not increase the tax on cigarettes. This is always a vexed question. However it has been shown that the only thing which affects the number of cigarettes young people in particular smoke is the price. Of course the cost of tobacco induced dis ease is very high, but it saves the Minister money as smokers – particularly heavy smokers – die much earlier and then he does not have to pay them pensions. What is lost on the swings is gained on the roundabouts. I hope next year the Government will put health policy ahead of the cost of inflation. This is a very serious issue.

I could not agree more with Senator Henry's statement. There are other health costs but the number of people who die every year from the direct effect of smoking tobacco is phenomenal. I can understand why an increase in the cost of petrol would have an impact on inflation – because of the carry on effect to energy and product production – but it is difficult to understand how a few extra pennies on cigarettes – which would make them more difficult to purchase and perhaps fewer would be bought – would have any impact on inflation.

The Minister's response was not adequate. He said it would cost £30 million to bring forward the implementation dates in relation to social welfare. The Government is rolling with money at present. Surely, if it is ever to be done, now is the time to do it and, unlike previous Governments, this Government is in a position to do it. Bringing forward the budget month from September to October will delay benefits accruing to social welfare payments by almost 11 months. The increase of £6 in the old age pension is being introduced on 4 June, seven months after it was announced.

I support the Minister's view that the maximum benefit will accrue in the long term, as the following year's increase will be based on the present one but it is high time the payments were made on the same date as the beginning of the tax year in April. If it is not done now I do not see how it can be done in the future. We are not asking for immediate implementation of a standard month or a couple of months whereby the payments would be late; we are asking for an examination to be conducted and a presentation made to the Oireachtas so that we can have the opportunity of discussing the pros and cons rather than the Minister expressing his personal opinion. Let us have a full discussion and resolve to determine this issue once and for all.

I support Senator Costello's comments. Over the last few years there has been a tendency to lengthen the time between the increases announced in the budget and their implementation. This has created a perception in the minds of many people that there is an unfairness involved. While the Minister's rationale is understandable, the public do not appreciate it. For instance, by the time the increase in the old age pension is paid, it will have been almost cancelled out by other increases entirely unrelated to the budget or the Department of Social Welfare. Charges arising from privatisation, such as bin collection charges costing £80/£90 a year, have had the effect of almost wiping out half the benefit of the increase in this year's old age pension. This amendment is very rational and reasonable and we urge the Minister to take it on board.

It would be for the Committee on Social Affairs to discuss this issue. I would suggest a proper understanding of the difficulties faced by a Minister of Social Welfare—

The committee recommended that the dates would be synchronised.

That is all very well but the Senators would say – as Members in the other Chamber said – that this Government is different from any other Government in that it has a surplus. While we may have a surplus, we have to look at the long-term position of this country. It would be great if politicians were able to spend any Exchequer surplus willy-nilly but, as I stated during the passage of the Bill through the other House and on Second Stage in this House, five years ago nobody forecast our current economic position and it may not be long before we return to our former position. It is always prudent for those formulating a budget to keep an eye on the rainy day, which may come. It is interesting to illustrate that by examining the numbers of old age pensioners. Currently there are 400,000 old age pensioners while in 50 years there will be one million.

We will hardly qualify anyway.

We should look to the future as previous generations did. We should not be selfish because the ratio of workers to dependants – old age pensioners and children – in the population is between 3:1 and 4:1. This ratio will increase over the next decade to approximately 5:1 but very quickly thereafter it will reduce to 2:1. We are faced with an aging population over the next 20 years. This has already been faced by America, Japan, Germany and the UK to a lesser extent and none of them was able to grapple with it in terms of pensions and care for the elderly.

Given the experiences of those countries, we must learn from their mistakes and the wrong decisions they might have taken and plan accordingly. The Government is setting out a base. The entire £900 million surplus which the Government has could be spent on social welfare alone before the end of this debate if I were to accept all the amendments which have been tabled, and this could be done without mentioning hospital waiting lists and infrastructural requirements. The ESRI stated that over the next number of years expenditure must increase by £50 billion. It is easy to sit on the other side of the House and say that the Government should do this, that and the other. I could easily ask why Opposition parties did not do so when they were in Government.

The Government is endeavouring to be prudent, yet generous to the less well off in society. If Senators wish to be political, I recall attending a meeting of the front bench of the Fianna Fáil Party on the morning of Deputy De Rossa's first budget. A rumour circulated that he would increase the old age pension by 2.5 per cent. At the time inflation was running at 2.5 per cent. We could not believe it and hazarded a guess that it could not be true. However, the spin doctors in the various Government parties were correct. In contrast, since we entered Government we have provided a real increase between three and four times the rate of inflation; this year the increase is four times the rate of inflation.

All of us can be political and say that this and that should be done but the Government is making an effort to bring pension increases forward. We are paying the increases for 31 weeks per year as opposed to 29 weeks when the Rainbow Coalition was in Government. While we remain in Government we will continue to endeavour to keep all the balls in the air and be fair to everyone. We will endeavour to bring forward payments over the lifetime of the Government.

Amendment put.

Burke, Paddy.Caffrey, Ernie.Coghlan, Paul.Coogan, Fintan.Cosgrave, Liam T.Costello, Joe.Cregan, Denis (Dino).

Hayes, Tom.Henry, Mary.Manning, Maurice.McDonagh, Jarlath.Norris, David.O'Meara, Kathleen.Ridge, Thérèse.

Níl

Bohan, Eddie.Callanan, Peter.Cassidy, Donie.Chambers, Frank.Cox, Margaret.Cregan, John.Dardis, John.Farrell, Willie.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Liam.Fitzgerald, Tom.

Gibbons, Jim.Glynn, Camillus.Kett, Tony.Kiely, Daniel.Kiely, Rory.Lanigan, Mick.Leonard, Ann.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.Ormonde, Ann.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Costello and O'Meara; Níl, Senators T.Fitzgerald and Gibbons.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 1 agreed to.
NEW SECTION.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, before section 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.–Not less than every 3 months commencing on the passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on any provisions of the Social Welfare Acts which are not yet in force, and the plans, if any, for bringing such provisions into force.".

This amendment seeks to insert a new section which would require the Minister to lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report, not less than three months from the passing of the legislation, on provisions of the Social Welfare Acts not yet in force and to include in it any plans he has for bringing such provisions into force.

The amendment is a housekeeping exercise but one which has an important element – to bring attention to the fact that there are provisions of previous Social Welfare Acts which have not yet been implemented. That fact in itself undermines to a large extent our role as Members of the Oireachtas and our function in passing legislation. It also raises the question why any Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs or the Department would bring forward provisions in legislation which would not be implemented. If the situation has changed, those provisions should be amended or deleted in future legislation.

For example, it was brought to my attention that elements of the Social Welfare Act, 1995, which relate to social welfare provisions in the area of family law, specifically divorce, have not been implemented. A once-off report on the issue would have considerable value, if not as a housekeeping exercise, then simply to state what provisions have not been brought into force, why they have not, and why they have not been deleted or amended at the earliest opportunity. This amendment seeks to introduce the idea of a report on this issue as an ongoing exercise, recognising that a tendency has crept in not to implement certain provisions. Inserting the requirement in the legislation that in not less than three months after the passing of the Bill the Minister would prepare a report on any provisions not yet in force would be a useful exercise, the results of which I would be interested to see.

This is similar to an amendment tabled in the Lower House. As I said then, I replied to a parliamentary question tabled last June by Deputy Frances Fitzgerald indicating all the regulations which have been implemented and those which have not. Since then, a number of those mentioned as not having been implemented have been implemented. I said to the Opposition Deputies that, if they tabled another similar question, I would give updated information.

Regarding the signing into force of regulations, once the Bill is passed, I will quickly sign into force the regulations for the bereavement grant changes I announced recently. As we are introducing the farm assist scheme immediately after the passing of the Bill, I will have to sign regulations on the same day as its passing to bring the scheme into force, and the time is the same for the fishing assist scheme.

The provision in the 1995 Social Welfare Act which dealt with a number of changes in family law concerning divorce has not been brought into force either by me or my predecessor who enacted the legislation in 1995 mainly because the Department was not aware of any cases to which it would be relevant. The Department considered it unlikely that a divorced person in receipt of a social welfare payment would be able to maintain a former spouse at a level sufficient to prevent them from qualifying for a social welfare payment in his or her own right. That is logical. A divorced person in receipt of a social welfare payment would not be able to maintain their spouse to such a level to prevent them from qualifying for a social welfare payment in their own right.

There is an interdepartmental working group of which my Department is part examining the treatment of different households under the tax and social welfare systems. That report is due soon and the issue of the 1995 Social Welfare Act is being examined in that context. I ask the Senator not to press the amendment. It is an ongoing process and the information will be available in the event of a Deputy tabling a parliamentary question on the matter.

The matter is clearly in hand in the Department and I commend it and the Minister for dealing with the issue in what appears to be a thorough and comprehensive fashion. I will seek through my colleagues in the Lower House to update that information to which the Minister referred. I accept the point he made about the regulations arising from the changes in law relating to family law and divorce. It is a matter I would be interested in pursuing, but not in the context of the current legislation. Perhaps we will deal with it at a later stage. I appreciate what the Minister said about it being an ongoing process, but this amendment still has relevance and significance and would be a useful provision in the Bill.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Sections 2 and 3 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.–The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the situation of women who were formerly in receipt of deserted wives benefit and were under 40 years of age on the date of its abolition.".

This amendment relates to former recipients of deserted wife's benefit. Its tabling arises from work done by my late and much lamented colleague, Pat Upton, who identified this anomaly in the social welfare system where women in receipt of deserted wife's benefit who were under 40 years of age on the date of its abolition experienced severe problems. The amendment attempts to address that by inserting a new section before section 4 which requires the Minister as soon as may be after the passing of the Bill to lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the situation of women who were in receipt of deserted wife's benefit and who were under 40 years of age on the date of its abolition. This is only one example of the type of work Pat Upton did and, in the context of his contribution as a legislator, which was significant, his work as a Deputy and his level of care and attention to those who were voiceless and vulnerable, it would be no small monument to his memory if this amendment were at least discussed in detail. I am anxious to hear the Minister's response.

I respectfully suggest the amendment is unnecessary because I introduced an amendment in this area on Committee Stage. The history of this is that the late Deputy Pat Upton tabled a parliamentary question to me on this issue. I examined the matter in the context of the reply to that question and, although the Bill was already published, brought an amendment to Cabinet only to learn that Deputy Upton had died that day or the day before. I indicated this to my Cabinet colleagues and the Taoiseach who, in his tribute to the late Pat Upton in the other House, acknowledged that the amendment was instigated by the Government because he brought the matter to my attention.

Section 18 of the Social Welfare Act, 1996, dealt with transitional arrangements and included a saver which, when brought to my attention, I considered to be harsh in its application. I do not believe the position could be defended in view of the long established principle of preserving exist ing entitlements where changes in provisions have an adverse effect on beneficiaries. All women who were in receipt of payment at the time the scheme was abolished would have had a legitimate expectation of regaining entitlement to the benefit at the age of 40 years in the event it ceased before that date on qualifying child grounds.

The provision affected a very small number of people. One of them was a constituent of the late Pat Upton. It would have been somebody in receipt of deserted wife's benefit who would be under 40 years of age and who would have a child over 18 years of age. The saver was inserted to prevent an abuse of the system. Looking at it as dispassionately as possible, it was apparent it confined application to women who were within two years of attaining the age of 40 years at that time. I proposed an amendment, which was accepted by the Government and in view of this, the Deputy's amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

4.–The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the social welfare situation of persons resident in Ireland who are in receipt of pensions under the social security legislation of any other jurisdiction.".

This amendment asks the Minister to present a report to the Oireachtas on the social welfare position of persons who are resident in Ireland and who are in receipt of pensions under the social security legislation of other jurisdictions, specifically to consider the position of British pensioners not entitled to a living alone allowance.

Committee Stage allows us to raise issues which we come across from time to time in our clinics and in the course of our constituency work, as happened with the late Pat Upton. I am sure the Minister would agree it is our duty to raise these matters and bring them to his attention and to the attention of the House and, in doing so, to deal with anomalies and difficulties that arise, even if they only relate to a small number of people. If there is an unfairness or injustice in the legislation, it is our duty to raise it and seek to have it clarified and, as far as possible, corrected.

We are governed by EU legislation regarding the transfer of social welfare benefits from one country to the other. For example, changes could not be made to the UK position without taking cognisance of the position in all other EU countries.

The amendment relates mainly to the operation of free schemes. All of our free schemes are much sought after, not only by non-nationals but also by citizens of this State. Over the years they have been designed with a view to assisting old age pensioners and people living on their own. Amendments have been made over the years to alleviate certain aspects. For example, widows between the ages of 60 and 65 years are entitled to retain the free schemes which applied to their spouses and persons over the age of 66 and in receipt of a foreign social security pension from a EU member state or a country covered by a bilateral agreement and persons aged under 66 in receipt of long-term illness payments from such countries are also eligible for schemes under my Department, in addition to the national fuel scheme.

It would go against the practice in other countries if we were to accede to an amendment like this. We could not proceed unilaterally; it would have to be on the basis that all EU member states were doing it. It is often acknowledged that our free schemes treat citizens much better than similar schemes in other EU countries. It is unlikely they would provide such entitlements to their citizens and, conversely, give to our citizens resident in their states the entitlements that are available here.

Is the Minister suggesting it is impossible to do this?

It is not impossible. However, there is no effort to align social security systems between EU member states other than to ensure that if citizens from one member state travel to another they are entitled to what is available to the residents of that state. There is no desire to harmonise social welfare benefits, including free schemes, across the EU.

I do not have information on the numbers involved. The Minister makes the point that as people move around the EU they are entitled to what is available to the residents of the states they visit. Given that people may move around more frequently in retirement, is it not the case that if, say, a person from Britain decides to retire here should we not do what we can to provide whatever benefits and entitlements are available, such as the living alone allowance? Is the Minister suggesting this would entitle them to all free allowances and that this would create difficulties?

It would tend to create difficulties because if one concedes on one principle one must concede on them all. Some 107,000 people in this State qualify for the living alone allowance while 84,000 qualify for the over 80 allowance. It is sometimes found that UK pensioners resident here receive an overall higher payment than some Irish pensioners. However, that does not include the free schemes. The average value per week of these schemes to pensioners is approximately £11, which is a substantial addition to what will be, on the passing of this legislation, the basic social welfare old age pension of £89 per week.

The Department is conducting an expenditure review of the free schemes and these are issues which will be looked at. This is something we cannot do unilaterally. We must take into account the treatment of our citizens in other countries and also the desire of those other countries to do anything in this regard.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 6, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.–The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the level of uptake of the grant towards personal security alarms for the elderly and the extent to which this relates to the level of reimbursement available.".

This amendment relates to the grant towards personal security alarms for the elderly which, the Minister will agree, has been one of the most popular innovations in the past number of years. It is one of those grant schemes which became popular overnight. From that point of view any reduction in the grant would not be supported.

Unfortunately, in the era in which we live one only must listen to the radio to hear the extraordinary crimes which are being committed. Only today I read in a newspaper about the abuse of the elderly in some cases by members of their family.

The security of the elderly has unfortunately become a major issue in both urban and rural communities. From that point of view, the issue of the grant towards personal security alarms is extremely important at an individual level for the elderly, in particular those who are living alone or who are disabled or incapacitated. It is important to maintain this grant and I am using this amendment to raise this matter.

The crime problem is not changing and the level of crime is not reducing to the extent where this kind of grant is no longer necessary. One would wish that were the case but it is not. The need for it is ongoing. In that regard, I ask the Minister to be generous in the context of the grant for personal security alarms for the elderly.

I strongly support the amendment. I do not think I referred to it the other day but thugs are using systems of refined cruelty towards the aged. In isolated areas there is a new game – taunt the elderly – and it is quite dreadful. Anything which will help give the elderly some small sense of security would have my approval and obviously the thanks of the elderly who, by virtue of current family patterns, are often isolated in the community. Unfortunately, attempts by local authorities at mixed housing, putting together young families and the elderly, have not worked. In fact, some of the members of the young families have become the taunters of the aged. Recently I had experience of the new game which involves letting off bangers at 1 a.m. outside the homes of the elderly, who think they are gun shots. They are living in fear. I support the amendment.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. This is an excellent scheme. To give the background to my involvement in it, when I came into office the estimate in place under the multiannual three year budgeting system was £2 million. In the previous year £2 million was spent on the scheme. As the year went on – I came into office in July – the Department was worried that the estimate was insufficient and I received the approval of the Government to provide an additional £3 million for that year's Estimate. The same situation arose in the calendar year 1998, where the figure for 1998 in the multi-annual budgeting process, which had been set in 1996, was £2 million. Therefore, £2 million had been provided for each of those years. In my first year I increased the provision to £5 million and I increased it again to £5 million in my second year.

Some people suggested that I had made changes to this scheme which would restrict the amount to which people were entitled. That is not the case. I made no changes. In fact, the only change I made was to increase the allocation in the Estimate for the two years.

Since its inception and over those years, the number of people involved in this scheme has rapidly increased. In the region of 63,000 people have been allocated some assistance under this scheme. I stated earlier that 107,000 are living alone; probably more than half of that cohort have already received these alarms.

It was an ad hoc scheme. In a previous budget a tax allowance had been introduced so that old people could buy these alarms but it was quickly pointed out at the time that the tax allowance would not affect the vast majority of people for which it was intended because most people of that age would not pay tax. Therefore, a task force was set up, it reported quickly and it was agreed that it would be done this way.

The scheme is delivered through voluntary groups around the country who have given a great deal of time and energy to it because, since this is taxpayers' money, it was felt that there should be a review of the delivery of the scheme and consultants were appointed to look at it. The review, which is an interdepartmental report of the Departments of Finance and Health and Children, is an independent review of the scheme to see if it is meeting its objectives, and it will report soon. Obviously I will publish that report.

One of the things coming out of the report is that it is not so much to do with security but with peace of mind, that a person knows that, if they have this device and if they have a heart attack, stroke, etc., they will be able to activate it and assistance will come. From that point view, the report points out that it is not simply a matter of security; in fact, that is probably one of the lesser aspects to it.

Contact.

It is a matter of personal contact and personal assurance. There are suggestions as to how it should continue because it is an open-ended scheme. There are anecdotal suggestions that perhaps the scheme could be delivered in a better way but, obviously if one is asking voluntary groups around the country to deliver it and if it involves taxpayers' money, we must be careful of the way it is delivered.

This report will suggest certain solutions. Having seen a sneak preview, I am not altogether sure that I would agree with that but it is something on which the Government must decide in due course. The idea of giving such assistance to elderly people is one we recommend and obviously we will continue to do what we can in this regard.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. In the context of the interdepartmental report, I am sure he will agree it will be difficult to scale down the provision. He says 63,000 security alarms have been allocated; given the numbers he projected earlier for the older population in the long term, one would have to ask whether this is the best way to allocate this provision. However, the principle is important and valuable, not only from a security point of view but from the viewpoint of a person being ill, particularly someone living alone.

In that context I hope changes will not be made to the availability of the scheme, even if the committee recommend changes in its application or how it is delivered on the ground, it has shown its worth. In the context of how, as a wealthier society, we care for our elderly, particularly as regards the undermining of the fabric of the community and the family, the absence of supports and neighbourliness which existed in the past and a growing sense of isolation and insecurity at all levels, a scheme such as this, albeit small, is extremely important. I hope that in the long term, particularly in the context of the report of the interdepartmental committee, the scheme will be strengthened and applied more widely.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 6, before section 4, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following new section:

"4.–The Minister shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report outlining up-to-date figures for the expected current Budget surplus in 1999 and contrast these with up-to-date figures for the additional monies payable from the Exchequer in 1999 arising from measures in the Bill over and above the pre-Budget estimate for the Department.".

In view of the Minister's comprehensive reply, with which I do not necessarily agree, I withdraw this amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 6, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.–The Minister shall prepare a report on the measures required to close the differential within the rates of weekly benefits and social assistance paid to a beneficiary and the rates paid to an adult dependant and to lay such a report before each House of the Oireachtas not later than 3 months from the enactment of the Act.".

Given we have budgeted for a current budget surplus of £2.3 billion, which will in all likelihood be exceeded, and that an extra sum of £77.9 million was allocated to the Social Welfare Estimate, we are asking the Minister to remove the anomaly whereby the dependent spouse does not receive the same amount of money. The Minister will either agree with the amendment or not; I await his comments with interest.

The intention of our amendment is similar to that of the amendment put down by Senator Ridge. It deals with the differential between the rates of periodic benefits and rates of periodic social assistance paid to a beneficiary and the rates paid to a qualified adult. We are asking the Minister to lay a report before each House on this. We have all come across cases which highlight the highly complex nature of the social welfare system. I ask the Minister to consider the matter in a positive light.

Senator Ridge quoted a figure of £2.3 billion for the current budget surplus. However, this does not take capital expenditure of around £1.4 billion into account which, in effect, means the net Exchequer surplus is £900 million; that is what the Government has to play with. However, we need to be prudent at a time of reasonable well being and we must plan for a rainy day. I laughed when people criticised the social welfare provisions of the last budget because they were even better than previous years about which people were complimentary. However, because people found fault with the taxation measures, they did not home in on the social welfare provisions. This year, because nobody could criticise the tax changes, they looked for what they could criticise, which was the social welfare budget. However, the social welfare budget this year is almost 50 per cent higher than the last Rainbow Coalition package. We should maintain some perspective; the social welfare budget has increased dramatically in the past two years.

The qualified adult's allowance is generally granted to a couple in one payment and is obviously smaller than the personal rate. We increased this substantially this year, in comparison with other years, mainly because we were criticised in both Houses last year during our first budget as the QAA had decreased slightly as regards the recommended Commission on Social Welfare rate. The commission recommended the payment to a couple should be 1.6 times the commission's minimum target. We increased the QAA to meet this target.

The treatment of different households under both the tax and social welfare systems is being investigated by an interdepartmental group which will report soon. A number of alleviating measures have been put in place and extended over the years. I extended them further in this Bill, as regards social welfare payments relating to employment and the difficulty with tapering arrangements. Once the spouse of a social welfare claimant exceeded £60 per week in their income they immediately lost the social welfare payment. Tapering arrangements were put in place and I increased the £60-£90 bracket to £60-£105 with effect from next October. I was asked in the other House why we did not do this for old age pensioners. This relates to employment and spouses, mainly women, of social welfare recipients and the need to retain the QAA and work part-time. It was an anti-poverty measure as regards employment more than a measure for the elderly. For all of the reasons I have given, this amendment is not necessary.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 4 agreed to.
Amendment No. 9 not moved.
Section 5 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 10 and 14 are related and will be taken together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 7, before section 6, to insert the following new section:

"6–Not later than 6 months from the passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the need to amend and extend the social welfare free schemes as they apply to widows and widowers.".

This amendment seeks to extend the application of free schemes to widows. The Minister has referred, on more than one occasion today, to the question of the budget surplus and Government choices on the way money is spent. In a general context he is correct and we would agree with him – we cannot spend our economic wealth in an imprudent and wild fashion as if there were no tomorrow.

Our disagreement arises on the choices we make on how the budget surplus is spent and, indeed, invested. When the ESRI reports, expert views, commentators' opinions and so on are taken out of the equation, we, as politicians, must make choices. We stand at a point in our history, economically, socially and politically, where we are in a position to make choices because there is money to be spent. If that money is managed properly – we have no reason to believe that it will not – by whoever is in Government, this prosperity can continue and will reinvent itself to a large extent into the future to ensure all citizens, young and old, are cared for.

The Minister will agree that vulnerable people, who can be taken care of, should be taken care of. In that context, I raise the issue of widows. Widows are becoming one of the forgotten groups in our society. There is a group of women who have never been in the workforce and who, given their age, have no expectation of joining the workforce. It is a different matter for younger women given the changes in the make up of our labour force, and that we have more or less reached the European average for the participation of women. However, joining the workforce is not as easy for women in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

In the past year, I have met widows who are in dire straits. I met a woman about three weeks ago in Nenagh who had spoken to me previously about the condition of the road outside her house. We got on to the subject of how people get along and she confided to me that if it was not for her grown up children she would hardly be able to survive. She is a widow living alone and finds it virtually impossible to buy clothes and to keep herself in the manner in which one would expect. She said that if it was not for the fact that her daughters, who work, help her out she would be in a bad way. She is not the first widow I have met in such a situation. We must look closely at this matter and ask ourselves how well or otherwise this group of people is coping.

I do not suggest that the Minister and the Department are not doing their best in this regard, but it is time to reconsider the matter. In that context, I appeal to the Minister to examine the possibility of the application of free schemes to this group. If he has the information available, will he outline the current cost and what they will be in the future, what are the costs now and what they will be in the future? Is the cost prohibitive and is there a way of partly applying it and extending it? Are there any creative solutions in this regard?

As I acknowledged in the other House, while some changes have been made, I would love to do a lot more. I presume that in most cases the Senator is referring to widows under the age of 66 because widows over that age, many of whom would be living alone, would have received an increase of £5 and £6 in their old age pension. While the amount of money they get is not huge, they are entitled to the free schemes.

I think it is generally accepted that widows and widowers under the age of 66 are in difficulty, particularly those around the age of 40 as they may have young children. I recently spoke to such a person in my constituency office and I could only be sorry for the predicament in which he and others find themselves when they have not only lost a spouse but must fend for themselves and young children. While we must always observe our priorities and promises, this is an area where I acknowledge more needs to be done.

In that respect, in his first budget, the Minister for Finance increased substantially the tax allowances for widows. This was a good shot in the arm but, again, I acknowledge that much more could be done. To extend the free schemes to all widows and widowers under the age of 66 would, it is estimated, cost an additional £25 million. As I said earlier, we are conducting a review of the free schemes and consideration will also be given to how they are delivered, their effectiveness and extending them to other categories. If the schemes were extended to widows under the age of 66, there would be calls from lone parents and the long-term unemployed to have the schemes extended to them. That is not to denigrate the case made on behalf of widows.

I attended a world conference in Dublin Castle organised by the Widows Association of Ireland which, to a certain extent, referred mainly to those over the age of 66. The compliments we received on the treatment of widows and old people generally, was astounding. Every delegate to whom I spoke could not believe the benefits, particularly the free schemes, available to widows and old people. That is probably why they are much sought after in this country.

At present there are 116,000 widowed persons receiving a pension from my Department. These include 97,500 contributory pensioners, of whom approximately 66,000 are over the age of 66 years; 31,500 are under that age, 16,500 have qualified children. In addition, there are some 19,000 non-contributory pensioners, of whom 15,000 are over 66 years of age and 4,000 under that age. Of the 116,000, some 81,000, 70 per cent, are over 66 years of age and 35,000, 30 per cent, are under that age; 51,000 widowed persons over the age of 66 qualify for the free electricity allowance and 48,000 qualify for free telephone rental. Widows and widowers between the ages of 60 and 65 may qualify if their deceased spouses were entitled to these schemes. The free schemes were designed primarily for older people and there has been some movement of those arrangements. The review which is being currently undertaken will look at the broader issue of the delivery of these schemes.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 7, before section 6, to insert the following new section:

"6.–Not later than 6 months from the passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the classes of cases of social insurance benefit the payment of which includes an investigation of the means of the recipient.".

My amendment asks the Minister to look at means testing and to bring forward a report. I look forward to his response.

A person is entitled to social insurance benefits as of right through the payment of PRSI contributions to the social insurance fund and is not subject to a means test as in the case of social assistance schemes. Entitlement to the various benefits is based on the claimant satisfying the appropriate contribution conditions for each individual scheme.

In the case of short-term benefits, such as disability and unemployment benefit, the requirements are such that the claimant must have contributed to the social insurance fund through payment of PRSI contributions. In the case of long term benefits such as old age retirement pensions, the conditions are more stringent in that the person is required to have contributed to the fund for at least five years and have had a minimum yearly average of contributions registered during his/her working lifetime.

Increases in the rates of weekly social welfare insurance benefits are paid in respect of qualified adults and qualified child dependants. If a person is married or living with someone as husband and wife and is wholly or mainly supporting that person, then he/she is regarded as a qualified adult and an increase in payment can be claimed. If a person is divorced and claiming a benefit and is supporting a former spouse, a qualified adult allowance may also be payable. If the person is separated from his/her spouse, a claim for an increase may be made if the person is a contributing a certain amount – £41.20 – towards his/her maintenance; and he/she is not living with someone else as husband and wife. Their income may not exceed £60 per week. If a spouse or partner is receiving any of the following payments – DB, orphan's pension, death benefit or domiciliary care allowance – he/she may be considered as a qualified adult.

In relation to treatment benefit, an income qualification applies to the dental benefit scheme. An annual examination and scale and polish are free of charge to all qualified insured persons regardless of income. The Department pays a fixed contribution towards the cost of other dental treatments but the amount payable by the insured person is determined by whether his/her income is above or below £35,000. This income qualification does not apply to pensioners aged 66 or over.

Means testing is built into the system and only one scheme, child benefit, is exempt from it. There have been many calls for the abolition of means testing for the carer's allowance. That would be extremely costly – £200 million because of budgetary changes this year. Many carers' groups question the rationale of abolishing means testing in that it would mean that everybody would receive that payment irrespective of income. They feel that if that type of money were available it would be better targeted at those who are most deserving. It is easy to suggest that we abolish means testing but the whole idea of the social welfare system is to target those people who are less well off.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 7, before section 6, to insert the following new section:

"6.–The Minister shall, within 3 months of the passing of this Act, lay before Seanad Éireann a report on the implications of paying all Child Benefit for children up to the age of 5 years at the rate of £20 per week and the possibility of allocating part of the current Budget surplus in 1999 to the provision of additional centres for pre-school children particularly in areas of urban deprivation.".

The Minister made a very lengthy contribution on child benefit and I recognise the value of some of the arguments he put forward. I think the Commission for the Family's recommendation on child benefit is, for the interim, the way forward. For that reason, I will be pressing my amendment.

I dealt with the lack of pre-school places in areas of urban deprivation in my Second Stage contribution. I hope the Minister will take that on board. An article in one of yesterday's local newspapers points out that the latest statistics show that 42 per cent of working mothers have children of pre-school age. It states: ". . . . .We pay more for our child care and have the least maternity or parental leave situations in Europe." It goes on to say that the demand for child care will increase by 50 per cent over the next ten years. It also makes a very telling case for the increase in provision of child care spaces. Pregnant women who intend to remain in the workforce are forced to book the unborn child into a pre-school facility. That may sound fantastic but I know it to be true.

When we do not provide for the placing of a child in a safe facility, a socially excluded mother becomes more socially excluded and does not return to the workplace and is lost to society. I appreciate that demand has grown relatively suddenly but nonetheless it exists and it is real. I await a positive response from the Minister to the second part of my amendment in particular.

We all understand the merit of Senator Ridge's amendment. Unfortunately – and I have said this previously when we spoke about this issue – increasing child benefit payments is not the answer. Senator Ridge indicated that we have to improve the services of pre-school facilities. I do not think this falls within the remit of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. We are awaiting a report from the interdepartmental group on this issue. It is important that we try to get an overall picture. Increasing child benefit payments is only a sticking plaster measure. While we all recognise that a problem exists in relation to pre-school facilities, it is important that we do not rush in to solve it.

A great deal of money has been allocated by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and local voluntary funding towards the improvement of facilities. We could go down that road but I prefer to wait for the interdepartmental group's report.

Reports on this issue show that the earlier one treats poverty the better. The younger a child is when given the benefit of as many resources as possible the better will be the outcome. International surveys have shown that the earlier the intervention the better the outcome for the child. The child in the womb does better if the mother has adequate nutrition and living accommodation. There is a great deal to be said for trying to give as much as we can to children up to the age of five years. I understand that because child benefit is not means tested, this increase would apply to all children. It is important to make an impact at that stage in a child's life.

The second part of the amendment with regard to the provision of additional centres for pre-school children is also important. I read a report recently on psychiatric services which provided a good breakdown of areas of deprivation in Ireland. The country has been divided into the poorer west, Border and midland regions. However, parts of the Eastern Health Board area are poorer than anywhere in the west – eight of the ten most deprived direct electoral districts are located in the west of Dublin city, the area in which Senator Ridge works. We must ensure we provide additional centres for pre-school children.

Senator Leonard made a good point about voluntary contributions, but the people in deprived urban areas are not really in a position to offer such contributions. I was shocked to see how many of the worst areas of deprivation in the country were located in north and west Dublin. Urban deprivation is an issue which must be tackled and the Minister should target resources there.

I support the amendment. There is a widespread acceptance in the political system of the benefits of using child benefit to target resources at the less well off and to target poverty in general. That was the approach adopted by the previous Administration and it was supported by agencies and groups working with the disadvantaged.

I do not believe we can separate the issues of child benefit, child care and encouraging lone parents and others to engage in the workforce. The provision of high quality pre-school care is essential in any strategy to tackle poverty and disadvantage. It is not merely a question of targeting resources, through the provision of increased child benefit, at poorer families, lone parents and others. We must also provide a high quality, accessible system of pre-school child care.

Studies conducted in other countries have shown that the value of a quality child care system in poor communities is very high. If one wants to encourage a group of lone parents to participate in the workforce on a part-time or full-time basis, one must provide child care. The value for the children of participating in quality child care arrangements is important in terms of their development, participation in education – particularly beyond their teenage years – and subsequent participation in the workforce. We cannot make any better investment in terms of targeting poverty and disadvantage than investment in good quality, accessible child care.

We now have a bottleneck with regard to child care provision. We did not anticipate the extent to which women would participate in the workforce in rapidly increasing numbers over a short period of time. The bottlenecks with which we are now faced in the areas of child care, housing and transport arise from our booming economy and the rapid changes in our economic and social structure. I do not want a situation to arise whereby those who are less well off will not receive the full benefit, in the first instance, of any increased child care provision. I would like to see a strategy based on the priority of providing good quality, accessible child care in poorer areas before we move to tackle the problem on a wider scale. If we agree that the key issue is the question of resources, as the Minister says it is, we must first direct those resources towards poorer communities, lone parents and poorer families. In that regard, the amendment is very valuable.

Senator Ridge's proposal for a payment rate of £20 per week for children up to five years of age occurs in the context of child benefit being universal and we have seen the benefits of that. The amendment, if agreed to, would go some way towards meeting the difficulties encountered by all parents in regard to child care. The second part of the amendment which refers to the provision of child care centres for pre-school children, particularly in areas of urban deprivation, is also to be commended.

Senator Leonard referred to the interdepartmental committee considering the national child care strategy report. I hope the report will be published soon and will be a considered one in which priorities are outlined. I hope its strategy will be based, first and foremost, on using resources in the area of child care to tackle poverty.

I will not repeat what other speakers have said much more eloquently than I could. The amendment is a modest one; it seeks a report "on the implications of" the payment of £20 per week in child benefit. It does not call on the Minister to take action at this stage. Senator O'Meara's comments on investment in child care are correct in the longer term, but the amendment only seeks a report at this stage on the implications of an increased payment.

I have had some experience through my own business of providing centres for pre-school children. When those children subsequently attended school, their parents recognised the benefit of their pre-school activities. The Minister's heart is in the right place and he wants to do the right thing. The proposal is a modest one and I hope the Minister will consider accepting the amendment.

I am not being facetious when I say I can give the Senator a report. On the basis that there were 250,000 children under five years of age at the time of the 1996 census, it would cost £156 million per year to provide this payment. I have very strong views on the issue of child care. A recent educational report was published on this issue. We also have the report of the Commission on the Family which was initiated under the previous Government and finalised when I took office. The report is 350 pages long and contains some major proposals on this issue – one of the proposals was referred to by the Leader of Fine Gael in his ard fheis speech and has been floating around for some time.

The expert working group on child care reported very recently. To be fair, it is acknowledged by most people that the latter report had as its main remit the issue of equality of access to the workplace for males and females, and did not have as its primary responsibility the issue of women who choose to stay in the home. For that reason and because all those reports exist, the Government decided correctly we should quickly bring forward an overall view of these three reports. There were over 70 people on the expert working group and I heard a sample of six of them discussing this issue on the Pat Kenny show. It was a noisy and argumentative debate – no one could agree on the best way forward.

There are many issues involved. I agree with Senator O'Meara regarding the availability of child care facilities at the lower end of the scale, an area that is sometimes forgotten. The issue is being examined and one of the main recommendations arising from the expert working group regarded tax allowances. However, that does not take into account those who do not qualify because they have low wages or no wages at all. The issue cannot be addressed without considering the issue of women working in the home.

We also need to consider the availability of child care in the workplace and taxation. It is fitting that one of the best and biggest employers in the country, Senator Quinn, should refer to this because it is not only the Government that has a responsibility in this regard. It is also an issue for the social partners, particularly employers, who have a key role in the delivery of child care accessibility.

Conscious that this expert working group would report and also conscious that its report would not be the last word on the issue as the Commission on the Family had made suggestions in this regard the Government made changes because it anticipated one of the major issues – as adverted to by one or two of the Senators – would be the dearth of child care facilities at present. That was one of the reasons the Minister for Finance made some taxation changes in that regard to free up the supply with a view to ensuring that the interdepartmental group – of which one of my assistant secretaries is a member and she is very committed to this issue—

She is most likely a mother.

Yes, she is a working mother. This group has been given the job of reporting to the Government, hopefully in June, with a view to the Government making decisions in the following months to make a start on this issue in the forthcoming budget.

As I said on Second Stage, I agree with Senator O'Meara with regard to the delivery of assistance through child benefit as opposed to the child dependant allowances. I acknowledge the role the previous Government played in freezing CDAs and increasing child benefit. The Government has done this because it is a universal payment which is not means tested. It invariably goes to the wife in the family so it targets the stay at home mother, particularly in less well off families.

When I saw this proposal in the report of the Commission on the Family I thought it was the best way except in cases – and I said this to Senator Ridge on Second Stage – when there is a family with children aged three, four and five. In each successive year when a child reaches the age of five and goes to school, the family loses the extra payment. One might say that because they have gone to school the costs might be lower than when they were at home all the time. I am not sure that is the case. I would have thought the extra expenditure required in sending a child to school is much greater after the age of five.

Most reports state – and this was mentioned also by Senator Henry – that between the ages of nought to three and three to five, not enough is being done by the State. They are picked up by the education system after that. Sometimes we are criticised for a lack of child care. However, it must be acknowledged that in most European countries, children start school later so they must have child care systems. Historically, that is probably why most European countries have a better system than ours – their children enter school for the first time at six years of age. We all know children develop most in their earlier years and, from that point of view we are better off in this country as our children tend to enter school earlier. However, that is not to say something should not be done for those in the nought to three and three to five age groups.

This amendment cannot be accepted and a report could not be accepted until the interdepartmental working group brings forward its report, which will hopefully be in the middle of the year. It is over-simplistic to say we should pay this sum and not take into account the practical difficulty with this type of payment, such as sudden death. When I raised this on Second Stage, Senator Ridge said there would have to be a tapering arrangement. However, where do we end it? Parents will say that when children go to secondary school there are additional costs. The issue relates broadly to child care but we should not get diverted from the key issues in relation to child care, that is accessibility, availability and affordability.

I disagree with the Minister, particularly regarding children going to school at the age of five. We have a free education system and there are arrangements in place, such as the back to school allowance, for parents in difficulty. The average cost of child care in Dublin is approaching £80 or £90 per week. I am sure the Minister is aware of that.

As for having another report, we can always take refuge in further reports and, possibly, they are necessary. However, I am aware of the case of a woman – and this is not an anecdote to make my story better, it is a fact – whose husband has deserted her and she has three children, a one year old and two and a half year old twins. No pre-school facility in her area has space for her children. I appreciate that is a specific crisis for that family, but, unfortunately, I have an advice centre every Monday in a very deprived area and this is a constant problem. There is no way back into the workforce for these young mothers under the present system. We have a budget surplus and we have suggested many ways in which the money could be spent to target people but, to return to my original thesis, we can only help urban deprivation, poverty and maladjustment by starting at the very beginning. I will press this amendment.

I fully accept these cases exist, we all hear of them. However, her proposal in relation to £156 million is not really targeted. If we were really being truthful about this—

I would be happy to amend it.

—the Government and future Governments might have to look at taxing child benefit but at the same time increasing it to ensure the benefit goes to those who are less well off in our society and not become a catch-all payment which would not solve the problem.

Amendment put.

Burke, Paddy.Caffrey, Ernie.Coghlan, Paul.Coogan, Fintan.Cosgrave, Liam T.Cregan, Denis (Dino).Hayes, Tom.

Henry, Mary.Manning, Maurice.McDonagh, Jarlath.Norris, David.O'Meara, Kathleen.Quinn, Feargal.Ridge, Thérèse.

Níl

Bohan, Eddie.Callanan, Peter.Cox, Margaret.Cregan, John.Dardis, John.Farrell, Willie.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Liam.Fitzgerald, Tom.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.

Gibbons, Jim.Glynn, Camillus.Kett, Tony.Kiely, Daniel.Kiely, Rory.Lanigan, Mick.Leonard, Ann.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.Ormonde, Ann.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Burke and Ridge; Níl, Senators T. Fitzgerald and Gibbons.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 6 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 7, before section 7, to insert the following new section:

"7.–The Minister shall, within 3 months of the passing of this Act, lay before Seanad Éireann a detailed report on the implications of the extension of the Family Income Supplement to the families of persons who are self-employed.".

This amendment refers to an anomaly whereby if I were a self-employed window cleaner earning less than an ordinary worker, I would not be eligible to receive the family income supplement. FIS should be based on income and not on whether one is self-employed or an employee.

FIS for the self-employed was one of the big catch cries of farmers in recent times. It was not pushed by any of the social partners during Partnership 2000 negotiations. One of the smaller farming groups might have pushed it at one stage but it did not get much support and, indeed, it was not on the Government's agenda.

A number of factors need to be considered, such as the arrangements already in place to provide income support to self-employed people on low incomes, the practical difficulties associated with extending such a scheme to the self-employed and the cost involved. It is estimated that it would cost between £70 and £80 million for all self-employed people and, obviously, one must take into account the impact of the farm assist scheme, which will reduce this figure by £50 million. For those reasons the Government and I do not plan to change the way in which this and previous Governments have approached FIS for the self-employed.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 7, before section 7, to insert the following new section:

"7.–The Minister shall, having regard to the financial difficulties encountered by widows and widowers, prepare a report and lay same before Seanad Éireann on the feasibility of extending to all widows and widowers–

(a)the free travel pass,

(b)the free electricity allowance, and

(c)the free telephone rental allowance.".

Amendment put and declared lost.
SECTION 7.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 7, between lines 38 and 39, to insert the following new subsection:

"(3)The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the position of persons in receipt of Family Income Supplement where for a temporary period any such person ceases to be in employment for at least 38 hours per fortnight.".

The amendment is self-explanatory. What is the position of persons in receipt of FIS where for a temporary period any such person ceases to be in employment for at least 38 hours per fortnight?

The family income supplement scheme is designed to provide an incentive for low paid workers and families to take up and remain in full-time employment. An integral feature of the scheme is that once the level of FIS payment is determined it continues to be payable at that level for 52 weeks of the year provided that the claimant continues to satisfy the conditions of the scheme. One of the qualifying conditions is that the claimant must be an employee in remunerative employment for 38 hours or more every fortnight, and which is likely to last for at least three months. Where a claimant does not continue to be engaged in employment for a minimum of 38 hours every fortnight, he or she is no longer entitled to benefit under this scheme.

The amendment is based on a recent parliamentary question. Few cases are involved but it is only fair that the conditions of the scheme are such that claimants must remain in employment for a certain period over 52 weeks. That is why the condition of 38 hours per fortnight is built into the scheme. That was not met in the case referred to in the question and the individual lost the supplement.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 7 agreed to.
Sections 8 and 9 agreed to.
NEW SECTION.

Amendments Nos. 17, 19 and 20 are related to amendment No. 16 and all may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 8, before section 10, to insert the following new section:

"10.–The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the treatment of carers in the social insurance system and in particular the options in relation to introducing a carer's benefit.".

Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 relate to carers, amendment No. 19 relates to income disregard and amendment No. 20 was tabled by Senator Ridge. I wish to discuss the amendments together in the context of the issue of carers.

In the first instance we must acknowledge that we have at last started to deal with the issue of carers in the context of social welfare, that we have begun to acknowledge the contribution of carers and to support them. In particular we must acknowledge the work of the Government in this regard. It has certainly been a long time coming. We have all known of cases, in particular women, who have given their lives to the care of elderly relatives, usually their parents. We have heard stories, some of them quite harrowing, of single women reduced to penury as a result of caring full time for elderly relatives. Many of these people have given their lives to caring without any or only a paltry recognition by the State and the community of their contribution and their role. It has finally been realised that the role of carers should be recognised and acknowledged. That has begun to happen but more needs to be done.

These amendments seek to improve the position of carers and I hope that in the years to come the principle underlying our care for carers, so to speak, will be more manifest in social welfare spending. I will not rehearse the ground we have covered before with regard to political choices, but it would appear, particularly in the context of an increasing elderly population in need of care, that it makes sense to invest in the carer in the community and in the family.

Nobody who is in my position or the Minister as a public representative could fail to be unaware of the pressure on families, particularly those who have elderly relatives in nursing homes, from the cost of nursing homes and the increased cost of caring for elderly relatives in full-time nursing care. In that context we should be doing everything we possibly can to support those families who choose to care for their relatives at home, in the neighbourhood and in the community.

Against that backdrop – we have talked about this in the context of the childcare amendments – we know that the profile of families has changed and the increasing number of women participating in the workforce means that women are less available, for want of a better word, as full-time unpaid carers in the community. The Minister will agree that women are less compliant in that regard than they used to be, which is not a bad thing. Women are quite rightly asking why they should be caring for a neighbour or a relative without any expectation of support from the wider community. I support that view.

In that context I put it to the Minister that it is no small investment that it would be a worthwhile investment to do what we can to ensure that, where possible given medical circumstances etc., elderly people are cared for in the home, by neighbours and in the wider community, at a lesser cost to the State than would otherwise be the case.

If we are to ensure this will happen in the future – from a public policy point of view we should give active consideration to it – then we must look now at how we would support carers by way of respite allowance or benefit and by way of recognition that carers are doing a job for which they must be paid and in which they must be supported. Caring individuals who take on this role do not expect great financial rewards for doing it; many do it out of the goodness of their heart and out of support for their family, their relatives and their neighbours. However, it is not too much to expect that they would be acknowledged, supported and given financial support.

The wider point is the context of an increasingly older society. We must consider carefully the other less expensive solutions to caring in the community.

A Chathaoirligh, you will be pleased to know I will be brief. I refer the Minister to his own statement with regard to the increase in our aging population and I support the remarks made by Senator O'Meara. I ask the Minister to consider what is in effect his own theory with regard to our duty to the elderly and those in need of our assistance in society.

I support the amendments. As the Minister says we have an aging population. Mercifully, we also have a wave of under 15 year olds as well who will be able to look after us when we are old. However, it is not just a question of the financial implications for people who give up work to become carers. There is a huge social implication as well because, but for the improvements which the Minister has made and which were made over the past few years, they would rapidly become isolated from the rest of society. Respite care is very important. Senator O'Meara has covered all I want to say and I will not delay the House further.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. This is an area which I acknowledged on Second Stage. In the Government's first budget we made a number of amendments with regard to free travel for example, but we did not take further action with regard to carers because we were aware that a review of the carer's allowance was pending. In the intervening period that review became available and I published it. It listed a number of initiatives and in one fell swoop in this budget I have taken action on nine of the issues referred to. In some cases they were small amendments and in others fairly large ones.

With regard to the possibility of people who are in receipt of a domiciliary care allowance receiving a care allowance provided they qualify under the conditions, we estimate a cost of £9 million. That did not get any publicity because the people reading about it were not aware of the implications. The publicity focused on the £200 respite care allowance for all carers because I suppose it was easy to see in the press release.

Generally speaking, it is a comprehensive package. There are 11,500 existing carers and we anticipate that number will increase to somewhere in the region of 15,000 as a result of the changes. The expenditure in carer's allowance has gone up from £100,000 in 1990's Estimate, when it started, to £45 million last year. It will now be increased by 40 per cent, that is £18 million, to £63 million this year – in any shape or form that is a sizeable increase in the expenditure.

However, that is not to say we are finished. The Government views the carers issue as extremely important and that is one of the reasons that, largely at my instigation, we adopted what we regarded as a co-ordinated approach to it. Not only did I make those major amendments in the carer's allowance scheme, the Minister for Finance made a significant change in the taxation treatment of carers which is very pertinent to the changing work patterns of society where both spouses work and are not able to care for an aged parent.

The allowance, which was restricted to people caring for spouses, is extended very substantially to the immediate family. We decided upon this rather than what we promised in our Programme for Government, namely, the provision of a £2,000 tax allowance. The allowance we examined and changed concerns the £8,500 to the extended family which refers mainly to children but also to others. I do not think the public appreciates the major change in this respect.

Similarly, the Minister for Health and Children introduced extensive initiatives in relation to the availability of respite care. Also, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government introduced major changes to the disabled person's grant. All these constitute a co-ordinated approach in this regard.

Doing away with the means test would cost in the region of £200 million. Initiatives yet to be taken include the carer's benefit, which we estimate will cost in the region of £42 million. This scheme would allow people to temporarily leave employment to care for somebody and would be funded through PRSI. I have indicated that the Government thinks this issue should be discussed with the social partners and I have already had some contact in this regard. Concerning the longer term, the carers' review report indicated that further PRSI benefit arrangements for care recipients should be put in place, in other words, an employee would make payments to a benefit scheme in the event of them requiring care in the future. We have already established a number of initiatives in this regard in order to progress these arrangements. A consultancy study in relation to PRSI benefit for care recipients is already under way.

As regards the abolition of the means test, most of the lobby groups in the carer sector are very happy with the proposal we are progressing, namely, the issue of needs assessment whereby each person, both the carer and the person being cared for, will be assessed as to need. We are setting up a system which will examine this issue. A targeted approach on an individual basis across a number of Departments, with each case dealt with on its merits, will be examined. We are progressing this approach as we believe the issue of needs assessment on an individual basis is the way to proceed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 17 has already been discussed with amendment No. 16. Is the amendment being pressed?

Yes. I move amendment No. 17:

In page 8, before section 10, to insert the following new section:

"10.–The Minister shall consider the implications of–

(a)establishing a £1,000 Carer's Respite Allowance payable to all carers including those who are presently excluded by the means test, and

(b)increasing the present weekly income disregard from £150 to £200 per week, and shall report to Seanad Éireann on this matter within 3 months of the passing of this Act.".

Amendment put and declared lost.
Sections 10 and 11 agreed to.
SECTION 12.

I move amendment No. 18:

In page 8, paragraph (b), lines 39 and 40, after "prescribed" to insert "by Act of the Oireachtas".

This amendment is designed to ensure the definition of a carer is included in the legislation rather than in the regulation.

The qualifying condition that a carer is required to be resident is provided for to ensure the care recipient receives full-time care and attention as he or she needs. This section provides for a relaxation of the residency condition. Regulations will prescribe the conditions and circumstances in which a carer who does not reside with the care recipient may still be regarded as a qualifying carer. Detailed guidelines will be drawn up with regard to the application of this proposal. I believe these matters are more appropriate to regulations as they can easily be adapted in the light of experience of the scheme.

Other matters in relation to the carer's allowance are provided for by way of regulation, for example, the condition that a carer may not be engaged in employment or self-employment while receiving the allowance. The Deputy is basically saying that the conditions regarding residency should be prescribed in the legislation. However, that is not the normal approach and it would be far easier, in the event of problems arising, to be able to change the regulations as opposed to having to introduce an amendment to the Bill.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 19 has already been discussed with amendment No. 16. Is the amendment being pressed?

Yes. I move amendment No. 19:

In page 10, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:

"(1C)Regulations prescribing an income disregard of less than £200 per week for the purposes of subsection (1B) shall be approved in draft by each House of the Oireachtas before being made.".

Amendment put and declared lost.
NEW SECTION.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 20 has already been discussed with amendment No. 16. Is the amendment being pressed?

Yes. I move amendment No. 20:

In page 9, before section 12, to insert the following new section:

"12. –The Minister shall consider the implications of–

(a)extending payment of the £200 Respite Care Grant to all carers including those who are presently excluded by the means test, and

(b)increasing the present weekly income disregard to £200 per week, and shall report to Seanad Éireann on this matter within 3 months of the passing of this Act.".

Amendment put and declared lost.
Sections 12 to 18, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 19.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 21 in the name of Senator O'Meara is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Revenue.

Amendment No. 21 not moved.
Section 19 agreed to.
Sections 20 to 25, inclusive, agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 22 is in the name of Senator O'Meara. Amendments Nos. 23 and 25 are related. Amendments Nos. 22, 23 and 25 may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 22:

In page 25, before section 26, to insert the following new section:

"26. –Where a decision is made on an appeal under Part VII of the Principal Act, as amended, the decision shall state the reasons for the decision.".

Collectively, these amendments are designed to ensure that reasons are stated for decisions arrived at. This is a very important principle, particularly when a request or appeal is refused. The person whose appeal is refused should be given the reasons for that decision. Increasingly we are recognising that the level of accountability of State institutions, Departments, etc., requires us to give as much information as possible to the person affected. This very important principle is included, for example, in the underlying principles of the Freedom of Information Act, and it appears to me, particularly in the context of social welfare decisions, essential that this principle be underlined at every opportunity. It is because of this that I have tabled these amendments.

As drafted the proposed amendment would go further than the current position in that the appeals officer would be required to give reasons even for favourable decisions. We do not think the amendment is necessary. Such provision is already part of social welfare legislation. Article 19 of the Social Welfare Appeals Regulations, 1998, specify that where the decision of an appeals officer is not in favour of an appellant, he or she must append to the decision a note of the reasons therefor which are then sent to the appellant. A similar requirement is made of health boards under articles 35 and 39 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Supplementary Welfare Allowance Regulations, 1995, as inserted by Statutory Instrument No. 183 of 1998. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 23 not moved.

I move amendment No. 24:

In page 25, before section 26, to insert the following new section:

"26. –Section 221(1) of the Principal Act (as amended by the Act of 1998) is hereby amended by the insertion after 'persons' where it firstly occurs of 'not being providers of social welfare information, advice and assistance'.".

The amendment is self-explanatory and I wish to hear the Minister's response.

Currently under provisions in the consolidation legislation, third level educational institutions are required to provide details of students attending courses. This information is checked against the live register to ensure students are not fraudulently claiming unemployment payments. Some third level institutions were unwilling to provide such details to my Department and the opportunity was taken in last year's Bill to insert a penalty provision for not complying with such requests. Regulations made under this section have been in place for some time. Last year I brought forward amending regulations requiring certain private colleges or schools to give such information. It is not my intention to use these powers under the section to require categories or groups such as information providers to provide such information.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 25 not moved.
SECTION 26.

I move amendment No. 26:

In page 25, to delete lines 48 to 51, and in page 26, to delete lines 1 to 47.

This amendment relates to the section of the Bill which gives greater power to social welfare inspectors in terms of inspection of premises, etc. The amendment is designed to meet concerns in that regard.

I am surprised this amendment has been tabled because, when the Bill was published, while some Members found fault with the provisions for what we call multi-agency checkpoints, the Labour Party welcomed the provisions for new powers for the removal of documents. Maybe they had second thoughts when they read it a second time. Difficulties have been experienced by my inspectors where they have entered employers' premises and found documents were not readily available. In some cases they are asked to return the next week and, when they do, they are told no such documents existed. We are giving ourselves the same powers as the Revenue Commissioners to ensure employers comply with valid requests for information so that we can properly investigate whether they are colluding with and assisting others in defrauding the taxpayers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 27:

In page 27, before line 1, to insert the following:

"(14A)No information may be required under this section if to do so would require any person to give information capable of incriminating himself or herself.".

Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 relate to powers under the Bill. Amendment No. 27 is designed to prevent self-incrimination and amendment No. 28 seeks to delete lines 6 to 20, which are a comprehensive part of the Bill giving a social welfare inspector considerable powers. I would like to hear the Minister's response.

The effect of this amendment would be that no person would be required to give any information to an inspector under section 212 which may incriminate him or her. This privilege is often referred to as the right to silence. An individual is required under the social welfare code to comply with the provisions of section 212. This restriction on a person's right to silence is necessary to force compliance with the provisions of social welfare legislation. In the Supreme Court case Heaney v. Ireland on 23 July 1996, the court held the right to silence is a corollary of the guarantee of freedom of expression in Article 40 of the Constitution, but that there must be proper proportionality between any infringement of a citizen's right and the entitlement of the State to protect itself.

Senators will be interested to know that there was a provision in section 212(3) of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1993, which provided that a person would not be required to answer any questions or give any evidence which might serve to incriminate them. This section was removed as part of the Social Welfare Act, 1997, precisely because in the preceding year an individual had relied on this section to thwart an inspector in the course of his duties. To accept the Senator's amendment would cause extreme difficulty in the investigation of social welfare fraud.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 28:

In page 27, to delete lines 6 to 20.

Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand" put and declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 26 agreed to.
Sections 27 and 28 agreed to.
SECTION 29.

I move amendment No. 29:

In page 29, line 22, after "days" to insert "or such longer period as the court may by order allow an application to it in that behalf".

The amendment proposes a cut-off period for Circuit Court appeals. It is our view that it is unacceptable in any social welfare situation to have rigid time limits, even if the claimant is being pursued. We do not agree that it is a good principle to have enshrined in legislation. An appeal should be capable of being brought past a rigid deadline if there are strong reasons for so doing. It is a good idea to have that principle enshrined in legislation.

The rationale for including this was to bring it into line with existing situations. Were we to accept the amendment, it would allow people to reopen their cases long after a reasonable time. I have examined this carefully and believe the issue of an appeal within 21 days is appropriate. It is open to a person appealing an adverse decision to claim supplementary welfare allowance pending the outcome of an appeal, so they would not be in any difficulty. It is unlikely a person in genuine difficulty would neglect to submit an appeal within the appropriate time. This is an unnecessary amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

I wish to point out that amendment No. 30 is to section 31, not section 29 as appears in the printed list of amendments.

Section 29 agreed to.
Section 30 agreed to.
SECTION 31.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 are alternatives to amendment No. 30. If amendment No. 30 is negatived, amendments Nos. 31 and 32 cannot be moved.

I move amendment No. 30:

In page 30, to delete lines 26 to 32.

These amendments are designed to meet what has been described to me as a restriction being built into the legislation which gives rise to serious matters in that regard. I await the Minister's response to them.

This is a serious change. The social welfare explanatory leaflet SW 82 states that people with earnings of £12,000 or less per year will qualify in this area. This is not the same as earnings of £130.76 a week because some women will only have jobs for part of the year. They would earn much more in those weeks than in others, when they might earn nothing.

I spoke to a teacher today whose salary is just over the limit. She is earning £13,000 per annum for that part of year in which she teaches. She is paying £300 per month in child care yet gets no allowances because of her salary. She would not get them even under the terms of my amendment. At present she would get nothing for a large part of the year, even if she only earned, say, £10,000 per annum.

This is serious. We have tried to ensure that any young pregnant woman, especially in the 20 to 30 year age group, will not be much worse off in continuing with her pregnancy. This can be important when debating this issue and I ask the Minister to change this unhelpful provision. The spirit of the section is changed by putting it in a weekly basis, which I am sure is not his intention.

This section does not change current practice. When this change was proposed I could have responded by leaving well enough alone, but the view in my Department was that it was necessary to include in legislation what has been the practice from the outset. Nobody will be put at a disadvantage as a result of this because what my Department has done from the outset was, in effect, agreed with all the lobby groups at inception. Perhaps more information on this is required to ensure that nobody could take the wrong meaning from what is proposed.

The annual disregards on a one parent family payment scheme became effective with the introduction of the new one parent family payment scheme in January 1997. Prior to that, under the lone parent scheme, the disregard was expressed as a weekly amount of £24 under article 89.1 of Statutory Instrument 417 of 1994. During the preparation of the introduction of the new OFP scheme it was envisaged that most recipients would be working for a full year and that, in practice, the annual disregard was, therefore, equated at £115.38 per week.

In discussions with the various lone parent interest groups it had been made clear that the disregard was being applied in practice on a weekly basis. This position was accepted by them as being of practical benefit to clients in that situation. During information seminars given by my Department in 1997 in conjunction with lone parent interest groups following the introduction of the one parent family payment, all examples were shown on the basis of a weekly calculation.

In practice, since the introduction of the OFP scheme, disregards have been dealt with on the basis of a weekly figure and applied to any earnings of a recipient. In the majority of cases the weekly earnings figure assessed is based on the earnings shown on the payslips submitted by the claimant. In some cases the claimant may be asked to provide a P60, especially when a claim is made after the end of the income tax year. In places where the claimant's income varies significantly from week to week, a statement from the employer may be requested.

The intention in applying a weekly disregard is to ensure an alignment between the lone parent earnings and the rate of OFP and to prevent major income swings which would arise if the OFP were to be paid in full until the relevant threshold was exceeded. The weekly disregard, operated from the outset, has ensured that those concerned have benefited from having continuity of income at the appropriate rate throughout the year as a whole. The alternative of paying full rate OFP until the threshold was exceeded would result in an artificially high income early in the year followed by a significant reduction and even total loss of OFP during the year.

If the employment has ceased by the time these reductions or loss of OFP occurred, the person might well have little or no entitlement and no other income. This stop-go approach is not tenable and the possibility of it occurring has been avoided by operating on a weekly disregard basis. This approach is of benefit to the lone parent after she ceases work as it allows her OFP to be reinstated quickly to full payment, otherwise she would persist at a reduced rate for the remainder of the relevant year, even though her earnings would have ceased. The year for this purpose would be a 12 month period after she first commenced employment.

There are currently 3,638 people in receipt of a reduced rate of OFP because of earnings reported. It is not known how many of these work throughout the year but recipients of OFP tend to move in and out of employment on a regular basis. Under the weekly system which has been in operation since 1997, when it was put in place, these single parents are assured of the full rate of OFP during periods when they are not working. For all these reasons I am convinced that the weekly assessment method is probably in the best interests of clients themselves.

The Minister says his officials have been in contact with all the groups involved. Have they been in contact with Cherish?

I am unable to answer that at present. Perhaps the Senator would take it up with me in correspondence.

I again emphasise that we are not changing anything. I feared that when we made this provision there may have been an outcry on the basis that we were trying something that was not in vogue. That is not the case. This measure has been applied in this way since its inception and this was indicated to all the groups concerned. I suspect an organisation like Cherish would have been informed or would at least understand the position but I cannot confirm that.

I was alerted to this matter by an enthusiastic supporter of Cherish. I am worried this will be perceived to be a change. I do not see how leaving the words "or annual earnings of £12,000" or some such could be a problem. Concern has been expressed about this. It is difficult when supporting those involved in crisis pregnancies and there is a need to be supportive and to make matters as clear as possible. I am sure that is the Minister's wish also. In view of this, I would have preferred if the words "either or" had been included. A person may interpret it as meaning that she would be left without any benefit if she earned over a certain amount. That is unfortunate. Cherish is the oldest of the organisations concerned. It has been helping lone parents for approximately 28 years. It is a self-support organisation.

I regret the change, although I appreciate the Minister's intent. I commend the Department for the flexible way it implements measures such as this. There are no major complaints in this area. However, perception can be very important and in this instance some may incorrectly perceive what is involved here.

I was reluctant to include this provision for that reason. I considered we would have been better to leave well enough alone and continue to operate on a weekly basis as heretofore. However, my officials considered the matter should be addressed because they are subject to all kinds of restrictions, legal and other, including those laid down by the Comptroller and Auditor General. There was a view, therefore, that we should proceed with this.

The Senator can rest assured that my Department will do nothing more or less than what it has done hitherto. If she has any difficulties she can bring them to my attention and we could look again at this issue.

A little publicity to the effect that there will be no change would do no harm. I wish the Minister's view had been taken rather than that of his officials.

The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has become much better with its explanatory leaflets over the past few years. It is important to emphasise that there will be no change. For years we had to put up with the catch cry "you would be better off on the dole than working" when it was patently obvious that it was not true. It was the INOU which produced the best leaflets, showing that it really was much better to get back to work. It is much better to be in work than to live on social welfare but perception is important. I would be grateful if the Minister would try to make it as clear as possible in the Department's leaflets that there has been no change because, as I said, it has been flexibly applied.

I accept that.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 not moved.
Section 31 agreed to.
Sections 32 to 35, inclusive, agreed to.
Schedules A to F, inclusive, agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

We all make criticisms of legislation that comes before us because we want more for the people who are entitled to it. Improvements have been made every year and there are improvements in this Bill which are to be welcomed. Senator Ridge, Senator O'Meara and I tried to emphasise areas which are of great concern to many people, particularly the carers' concerns at which I am sure the Minister will look next year, and the issues involving children because child poverty is a terrible phenomenon in a country which is said to be so wealthy.

I meant what I said when I congratulated the Department on the big improvement in the leaflets it produces. At one stage one would have needed a couple of postgraduate degrees and a little Sanskrit to try to work out one's entitlements, but there is a much better attitude now. At one stage the Department used broadcast commercials on the radio giving information about people's entitlements but I have not heard them for some time. Perhaps now that the Bill is passed the Department could spend the summer telling people about their entitlements because often those most in need do not apply for what is there for them.

I thank the Minister and the officials. I am disappointed at our failure to have amendments accepted but I am a realist. I note the Minister's caution with regard to future spending. Indeed, there should be another addition to his title – he should be Minister for Social, Community, Family Affairs and Prudence because his advice is that we must be prudent in all things.

I expect, on the reception of the latest child care report, that we will revisit the issue. I hope the Minister will do something concrete on the basis of the wishes of the House.

On behalf of the Government side, I thank the Minister again for giving the House the opportunity to emphasise a number of the points about the Social Welfare Bill. I thank him for the way in which, having taken office he has prioritised a number of issues, particularly in relation to the elderly and, this year, the carer's allowance. The Bill has highlighted a number of matters which have been particularly ignored for a long time. The Minister has taken these on board and run with them. I thank him for his co-operation in the House.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in his response to all our amendments and the manner in which we have been allowed to have a fairly broad ranging discussion on at least a number of issues in relation to this Bill. I want to add to what Senator Henry said about the attitude of the Minister's Department. If only every Department was as forward looking, in terms of the speed at which information is brought forward and at which it is responded to – not that the Department is perfect in every way. There are some glitches in the system but it is noticeable that when these are brought to the attention of the Department by a Member of the Oireachtas, they are always dealt with speedily and with courtesy. I am glad of the opportunity to state that.

I endorse the sentiments of my colleagues, and especially those of Senator Leonard. The Minister has played a blinder, so to speak. He has taken action on many issues which have been hanging around for some time, especially with regard to the elderly and the carer's allowance. The latter is an area in which I am especially interested. The Association of Health Boards, of which I am honoured to be a member, took cognisance of that issue and made recommendations to previous Ministers for Social Welfare. I am pleased that the Minister has taken on board those recommendations.

I thank all the Senators for their kind remarks. As I listened, it was confirmed to me why I would rather come to this House than the other House – they tend to be much more political in the other House. I do not know why that is the case. It may be to do with the grey men there – the Senators should not tell them I said that—

It is on the record.

—rather than the ladies here. I say that with due deference to Senator Glynn.

I echo the sentiments expressed by some Senators in relation to the staff of the Department of which I am honoured to be a part. They are excellent, particularly the three officials who have been with me from the outset on this Bill and who are present in the Chamber. The amount of work done behind the scenes is phenomenal – much of it is unnecessary because many of these matters are not reached. There may be misgivings on some issues, such as multi-agency checkpoints, although that was not raised here today. I would hazard a guess that the elements of that issue for which the Department is responsible will not pose difficulties for people.

I compliment Senators for their valid and constructive criticism. I am personally committed to trying to do something on the child care issue. I cannot say we will move mountains but the Government will try before the year is out to make a start on this issue. It is an issue which transcends all political parties and all political parties have a strong view that it should be looked at as comprehensively as possible.

Question put and agreed to.
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