Social Welfare Bill 2003: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): Tá lúcháir orm a bheith ar ais sa Seanad go gcuire mé an Bille seo ós a chomhair.
I am delighted to introduce the first of two Bills intended to implement the €630 million social welfare package announced in the 2004 budget. This sum represents a €100 million increase on the 2003 package of €530 million and brings the projected level of social welfare expenditure in 2004 to more than €11.26 billion, a 7% increase in the allocation for 2003. This level of expenditure is indicative of the Government's priority to protect the living standards of social welfare recipients at a time when difficult decisions have to be made in managing the public finances. It is a clear demonstration of this Government's commitment to addressing the needs of the elderly, widowed persons, carers, the unemployed and the disadvantaged. It represents year-on-year increases by this Government in social welfare spending. In 2001 the social welfare budget totalled €7.8 billion, but in 2004 it will be in excess of €11.26 billion.
I am pleased to have secured an increase in the social welfare budget this year, which underlines this Government's commitment to those for whom the support of the State is vital. The budget at my disposal means that for every €3 spent by the Government in 2004, almost €1, or one third, will go to social welfare recipients. Increases over the past three years have been directed at improving the rates of payment in line with Government commitments. An estimated 970,000 people are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year and almost 1.5 million people, including dependants, or two out of every five people in the State, will benefit from these payments. The increase of €10 in all weekly social welfare payments is ahead of the rate of inflation. It represents increases ranging from 6% to 8%, which in the case of the lowest payments is more than three times the expected rate of inflation of 2.5% next year.
Since the Government took up office, Ireland has changed dramatically for the better. The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.8 million while the rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically from 10% to below 5%. The number of low paid persons removed from the tax net has increased, and in 2004, 35% of all those on the tax record will pay no tax at all. Social welfare spending has increased from €5.74 billion in 1997 to a projected €11.26 billion in 2004. This is almost double the rate of inflation. Payment rates for both recipients and their families have improved considerably in real terms. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits such as farm assist, carer's benefit, widowed parent grant and respite care grant have been introduced and enhanced.
These real improvements in social welfare have led to a significant reduction in the consistent poverty measure. According to the ESRI, the overall level of consistent poverty in 1998 was 8.2%. This level has been reduced by over a third to 5.2% in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available. This social welfare package has been assessed in line with the poverty-proofing guidelines set out in the national anti-poverty strategy. I am satisfied that the level of spending at my Department's disposal in 2004 will have a meaningful impact on poverty rates by reducing consistent poverty further. The Government is most anxious to continue to protect and support the weak and vulnerable in society and to safeguard the progress made in building social inclusion.
The objectives of the 2004 social welfare package are to increase and maintain the value of all rates of payment in real terms with a €10 minimum increase in all weekly social welfare payments. It aims to provide increases to those aged 66 years and over, and in particular, to meet the commitment to increase payments to widowed persons who have attained pension age. The package will continue to address Sustaining Progress and An Agreed Programme for Government commitments to increase the State pension to €200 by 2007. It aims to increase the real value of all qualified adult rates of payment, to ensure they do not fall as a proportion of the associated personal rate and to continue to make progress in our program of increases in the level of child benefit. In this context, I remind Senators that in the 2001 budget, the Government committed to investing an equivalent of almost €2 billion in the child benefit programme. To date, when the full year costs of the 2004 improvements are included, more than €1.775 billion or 89% of that commitment has been achieved.
I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 2 and 3 reaffirm the Government's commitment to pensioners and, together with the Schedules to the Bill, provide for an increase of €10 in the personal rates of old age contributory and non-contributory pension as well as retirement and invalidity pension. This will bring the rate of old age contributory pension to €167.30 per week and the old age non-contributory pension to €154 per week. On the basis of projected annual inflation of 2.5% in 2004, this represents a substantial real increase. Special provision is being made for an increase of €11.50 in the personal rate of widow and widower's contributory pension and deserted wife's benefit for those aged 66 years and over. This fulfils our commitment, announced in budget 2001, to increase the level of these payments to that of the rate of the old age contributory pension.
This 7.4% increase on current rates represents a real increase for over 62,000 widows and widowers and deserted wives on full rates with proportionate increases for a further 10,600 on reduced rates. There is also an increase of €10 for those in receipt of widow's and widower's non-contributory pension bringing the maximum personal weekly rates for these pensioners to €154 for those aged 66 years and over and €134.80 for those aged under 66. The Government is committed to increasing the level of qualified adult allowance for pensioner spouses in the coming years to the full old age non-contributory pension rate in order to benefit women in the home who do not qualify for the contributory pension in their own right.
Section 2 provides for increases in the social insurance based payments and in respect of qualified adults. The qualified adult payments applicable to old age contributory and retirement pension are increased by €7.70 per week where the qualified adult is aged 66 years or over and €6.70 per week where he or she is aged under 66. The combined increases in personal and qualified adult rates will mean that a couple in receipt of full old age contributory pension will receive a substantial increase of €17.70 per week.
In the case of invalidity pension, a very significant increase of €16.10 per week is being provided for the qualified adult where he or she is aged 66 years or over, bringing the rate to €129.20 per week. This increase brings the invalidity pension qualified adult rates for those over 66 years into line with those paid for qualified adults of old age contributory and retirement pension. An increase of €7.10 per week is being provided for qualified adults of invalidity pension under 66 years.
In addition to providing for the increases in social assistance payments, section 3 contains the rate increases for qualified adults on such payments. An increase of €6.60 is provided for qualified adults of old age non-contributory pension recipients and those qualified adults aged 66 years or over whose spouses or partners are receiving a blind pension. All other qualified adult rates are, likewise, being increased by €6.60 per week. Proportionate increases will be applied where persons are in receipt of reduced rate qualified adult allowance payments. As a result of these and previous increases, the qualified adult allowance rate for a person over 66 years will rise to over 77% of the old age contributory pension in 2004.
The Government is also conscious of the needs of other vulnerable groups in society, particularly those who are unemployed, disadvantaged or ill and for those who provide caring support for the elderly and the ill. Accordingly, we are providing for a weekly increase of €10 in the personal rates of those payments. This will bring the standard weekly personal rates of carer's allowance to €139.60 and €134.80 for unemployment benefit and assistance and disability benefit.
We are also committed to protecting the real value of other social welfare payments such as one-parent family payment, supplementary welfare allowance and farm assist. Over the period from 1997 general social welfare increases have been well ahead of inflation. In the budget we are maintaining the value of these payments ahead of inflation by providing for an increase of €10 or 8% per week in the personal weekly rate.
The social welfare budget increases included in the Bill will become payable from the first pay day in January 2004. Those receiving short-term payments such as unemployment payments will receive their increases immediately in the first week in January. In addition, some 160,000 customers who receive long-term payments by means of electronic payment through a post office or a bank will receive their increases on the first pay day in January.
The payable order book is the payment mechanism for 224,000 persons who are, predominantly, recipients of widow's or widower's one-parent family payment, invalidity pension and carer's allowance. The production of new order books will entail a minimal delay. The new books will be issued to all customers in mid-February 2004. These customers will receive a lump sum arrears payment of six weeks in their first payable order of the new book, and the weekly increase will be included in their weekly payable orders thereafter.
A further 261,000 customers, mainly recipients of old age and retirement pension and disability allowance, who also receive payments via the payable order book will receive their new order books in April. To minimise inconvenience they will, however, receive a special payment in mid-February comprising six weeks arrears of the budget increase and seven weeks advance payment. For example, a pensioner couple aged over 66 years will receive a lump sum payment of €230.10 in mid-February. The lump sum will cover the increase for the first pay day in January and include an advance of the increase to the book renewal date in April. Thereafter, the increases will be incorporated into the normal weekly payment.
Section 4 provides for an increase of €28 in the weekly income thresholds applied in determining entitlement to family income supplement, expanding the thresholds from €407 in the case of a family with one child to €584 in the case of a family with eight or more children. This will result in a weekly increase of €16.80 with effect from January 2004 for most eligible families. I have also increased the minimum level of FIS payment from €13 to €20 per week to ensure that even those pushing at the edges of the increased thresholds will increase their return from employment.
Sections 5 and 6 provide for changes in PRSI. The earnings ceiling from employee's social insurance contributions and the income ceiling for the payment of optional contributions is being increased by €1,740 from €40,420 to €42,160 per year with effect from 1 January 2004.
Section 7 provides for a €200 increase in the widowed parent's grant, bringing it to €2,700. This increase will be applied with effect from budget day, 1 December 2003.
I have on previous occasions referred to my commitment to the prudent management of the social welfare budget. My personal objectives include taking the steps necessary to ensure value for money in the provision of income supports and maximising resources to address poverty and disadvantage. One of the mechanisms used to achieve these objectives is the ongoing review of the support schemes administered by my Department. The purpose of such reviews is to ascertain whether individual schemes have attained optimal effectiveness, or require adjustment to afford maximum benefit to social welfare customers. Consequently, the Bill contains a number of additional measures which provide for amendments to certain social welfare schemes and reform of the social welfare code.
Section 8 provides for the linking period between unemployment benefit and disability benefit claims to be increased from 13 to 26 weeks. The principal advantage of claim linkage for the recipient is that he or she may retain some or all of the entitlements associated with the initial claim, for example, continued entitlement to relevant secondary benefits. This provision will be effective from 19 January 2004.
Section 9 provides for an increase from 39 to 52 in the number of paid social insurance contributions required to satisfy the conditions for entitlement to disability benefit, unemployment benefit and health and safety benefit. This is designed to ensure entitlement to such benefits reflects a reasonable degree of attachment to the workforce. This measure which will apply to all new cases with effect from April 2004 will mean that those with fewer than 52 paid contributions from the time of their entry into the workforce will no longer be entitled to these insurance-based benefits. They will, however, be entitled to apply for supplementary welfare allowance or unemployment assistance as appropriate, the maximum rates of which match disability benefit and unemployment benefit payments.
Section 10 provides that with effect from 19 January 2004 an increase in respect of a qualified child will not be payable where the income of the spouse or partner of a recipient of unemployment benefit, disability benefit, injury benefit or health and safety benefit exceeds €300 per week. Existing claimants, while they remain in continuous receipt of their benefit payment, or those with spouses or partners earning less than €300 weekly will not be affected by this provision. It is estimated that the majority of claimants affected by this measure will be those whose spouse's or partner's earnings are considerably in excess of €300 per week. This measure will facilitate a refocusing of resources to low-income families.
Section 11 provides for a reduction in the maximum duration of unemployment benefit from 390 days, or 15 months, to 312 days, or one year, where the claimant has fewer than 260 or five years' PRSI contributions. This measure acknowledges a sustained connection with the social insurance fund by ensuring a substantial and continuous contribution is reflected in the duration of entitlement to benefit. It also mirrors the qualifying conditions applicable to disability benefit. The section comes into operation for new claims with effect from 19 January 2004.
The purpose of supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, is to provide a safety net for those unable to provide for their own needs. SWA is not payable to those in full-time employment. This exclusion is set out in social welfare legislation and has been a feature of the scheme since its inception in 1977. In addition to the other qualifying conditions for the scheme, the employment status of the head of the household is a determining factor in establishing entitlement to SWA.
In future if one of a couple is in full-time employment, both will be excluded from claiming rent or mortgage supplement. This measure gives effect to the original intention that SWA should not be paid in cases where there is full-time employment in the household. Accordingly, section 12 provides that where one of a couple is in full-time employment, SWA rent or mortgage supplement will not be payable. This measure comes into effect from January 2004. It will also facilitate more appropriate decisions and responses in the assessment of accommodation requirements.
Sections 13 to 15, inclusive, provide for a technical amendment to existing legislation which allows for PRSI, health contribution and national training fund levies to be charged on benefits-in-kind as announced in last year's budget. Over the course of the past year a number of spending items have been reviewed and areas of potential savings identified to ensure sound management of public funds. The savings found have been recycled back into the total allocation to my Department which will spend a record €11.26 billion in 2004. Any changes to SWA schemes will only affect new applicants.
Rent supplement was never intended to meet a person's long-term housing needs. While the scheme is not a housing programme, in practice over the years it has become such. Rent supplement will continue to be available to those with housing needs whose safety or well-being is at risk such as people with disabilities, the elderly or those experiencing severe social problems. These measures will not affect those who are on local authority waiting lists; those who are homeless, as defined by the local authority under the Housing Act; those who are tenants for six months; or those receiving rent supplement. Full and sympathetic consideration will be given to the needs of people in implementing the new rent arrangements with the involvement of the housing authorities.
Crèche supplement was designed to provide assistance for parents who, in the absence of such a service, would not otherwise be able to avail of particular supports such as counselling services or addiction treatment programmes. Officials of my Department which provides this short-term payment are in discussions with the health boards and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure appropriate long-term measures are put in place to address crèches which rely on this SWA payment. No crèche will close as a result of this measure.
Similarly, the diet supplement is being restructured to take account of changes in the level of social welfare payments generally. The current basis for calculating the amount of supplement payable in individual cases was put in place in 1996. Since then, costings have not been updated, the assessment of means has not been adjusted and effectively the amounts paid have not changed. Over time the gap the diet supplement was intended to address has narrowed. In future diet supplements will be based on the current cost of special diets, the current income of claimants and the premise that one should not have to pay more than one third of one's income towards food costs. Existing recipients will continue to receive their current payment until there is a change in circumstances which would warrant a review of entitlement.
The Social Welfare Bill, the first of two instalments, builds further on the progression of social inclusion measures adopted by the Government in recent years. It safeguards the living standards of those who rely on social welfare income and other supports and prioritises the allocation of resources in favour of those most in need. Molaim an Bille seo don Teach. Tá súil agam go mbeidh díospóireacht chuimsithe air.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister. Traditionally, Ministers with responsibility for social welfare come to this House after each budget declaring that record increases in the Department are the order of the day. This will always be the case, as there are pay increases, benchmarking and increases in social welfare. I acknowledge that the increases in social welfare payments were well above the rate of inflation, which is welcome. However, I cannot understand the reason the Government decided to cut €58 million in spending on poor and vulnerable people through what is referred to as the "savage 16".
I wonder if the Minister responsible for what was called the "dirty dozen" cuts some years ago has again used his heavy hand to attack people on the margin. He has no problem in looking after the Punchestown set and very wealthy people who could bear the burden better than those targeted with these cuts. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs failed to have them reversed, even when the Minister for Finance announced a windfall of €500 million from capital gains tax before the budget.
Clearly, financial rectitude is more important than real people who may need a diet supplement, a supplement from the money advice and budgetary service to help them to get out of the clutches of moneylenders and a host of other measures punitive on those in need. The Minister failed the people concerned by not having the cuts reversed. While she used phrases like "phasing out of benefits", "maximising resources", and "adjustments", they all have the same result. The poorest people were targeted and the Minister has no intention of reversing the cuts, despite condemnation by a wide range of organisations representing single parents, the homeless and the poor. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul stated the number of people coming to it for assistance last year had practically doubled
Despite the Government's stated commitment to plan for combating poverty, removing secondary benefit poverty and unemployment traps, the action taken in the budget falls way short of what was required to achieve these goals. Only two years ago the Minister for Finance gave specific commitments to increases over a three year period. However, he has not delivered. This represents another broken promise added to the litany of broken promises by the Government. I believe Mark Twain referred to "lies, damn lies and statistics". If he were here now, he would probably say: "promises, promises and Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats promises". We are seeing spin rather than substance.
As the Minister knows, our level of spendingper capita on social welfare is one of the lowest in Europe. Rather than giving us meaningless statistics about how much was spent in 1997, she should consider factual information which has seen the level of homelessness increase by 109%, from a total of 2,501 to 5,234 in that period. Local authority housing waiting lists have increased by 80% in that time. There are 50,000 households on local authority waiting lists, affecting over 130,000 people. I have outlined the Government's record and the legacy it will leave behind after a period of unprecedented economic growth. We are talking about real people, not statistics. The Government lacks the vision, purpose and policies to solve the problems of certain unfortunate people.
I wish to discuss the proposed changes in social insurance contributions. If one has missed a contribution in the relevant tax year, will one be ineligible to claim for unemployment and disability benefits? Rather then needing 39 stamps, one will now be required to have 52 stamps. This major change in the system is grossly unfair. This mean change in the rules will deny people their entitlements. The Minister also proposes to reduce the term of unemployment benefit from 15 months to 12 months. What is the justification for this? People paid into the schemes and will continue to pay into them on the basis of certain benefits being available to them. The Minister mentioned in her speech that the changes will apply from April 2004, but I would like to know the rationale behind decreasing the benefits from 15 months to 12 months. It is another cut, or another example of "financial rectitude" as some people prefer to say.
It is hard to believe that the Government has not increased child dependent benefit allowance, which has stood still since 1994. I question the policy of having different rates for different children, given that the Constitution states all children are to be treated equally. This Bill sends out an anti-family message. If a spouse or partner of a claimant for child dependent allowance earns more than €300 per week, the claimant will no longer be entitled to child benefit allowance. This constitutes another attack on the poor because, in effect, it eliminates half of the child dependent allowance payments to families on low incomes. Similarly, it is regrettable that the Government has failed to increase the back to school and clothing and footwear allowances for 2004, especially because the stealth taxes that are introduced almost on a daily basis affect the poor more than most. There have been increases in electricity charges, television licences and hospital charges. Those on the lowest incomes are most affected in this regard.
I cannot understand why the Minister has proposed changes in the rent supplement provisions. How can she expect someone in receipt of social welfare to be able to find six months' rent? The introduction of such an unreasonable and unworkable restriction is absolutely despicable. The number of homeless persons is already scandalously high, but this provision will drive many more people out of their homes. The Minister will be responsible for such a development if the Government persists with this dreadful change.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, which recently gave the Minister a report on full-time carers in the home. One of the report's main recommendations was that the means test for carer's allowance be abolished. Carers receive little or no recognition for looking after people who are incapable of looking after themselves. Most people ask how much would it cost to abolish the means test, but I wonder how much full-time carers are saving the State. Caring is a labour of love, which takes its toll on the lives of carers over many years. We should consider the saving to the State as a result of the work of carers, rather than the cost of abolishing the means test.
The Minister's Government colleagues obliged her to engage in a cost-cutting exercise. This must have been hard for her to accept in the weeks before the budget. The cutbacks show where the Government's focus lies. It is certainly not focused on the less well-off in the community. It has missed a unique opportunity to build a fairer and more inclusive society in which everybody can have enough and can be respected. The Minister has missed the opportunity to make people's lives better in many areas. There has been an attack on the poorer sections of the community. It is understandable that the Minister did not refer to the savage cutbacks to any great extent. Is there a better way of spending the increased funds that are available to the Government as a consequence of increased receipts from capital gains tax than to give more money to the poorer sections of the community? The Government should reverse the recent cuts, which will take their place in history with the dirty dozen and the savage 16. That is the legacy the Minister will leave behind.
Dr. Mansergh: That is what the Senator wishes.
Mr. McCarthy: They should be called "the shocking 16".
Mr. Cummins: I have outlined the legacy that will be left behind by a Government which was in office at a time of unprecedented economic growth.
Mr. Wilson: I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, and her officials to the House. I am delighted to support the Social Welfare Bill 2003, which she has brought before the House. The Bill provides for a series of improvements in the social welfare code, which were announced in the budget two weeks ago. The Minister has done a marvellous job by securing an increase in her budget, which will be over €11 billion this year. She has been given an increase of €630 million, or 7%, to spend on a social welfare package. When I was at school, I learned that if there was a percentage increase in a figure, it meant that the initial amount had been added to. I congratulate the Minister.
The level of social welfare expenditure is indicative of the Government's priority, which is to protect the living standards of social welfare recipients at a time when difficult decisions have to be made about the management of the public finances. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, published another great budget two weeks ago. The Opposition agrees with me.
Mr. Cummins: We are suffering over here.
Mr. McCarthy: Senator Wilson should keep his eye on the page.
Mr. Wilson: The Government has demonstrated, through action rather than words, its commitment to addressing the needs of the elderly, widows and widowers, carers, the unemployed and the disadvantaged. Members on the Opposition benches are still recovering from the knock-out punch delivered by the Minister for Finance, who gave wonderful news to every person, family, townland, parish, village, town and city.
Mr. McCarthy: Is the Senator talking about rural electrification?
Mr. Cummins: He took €58 million from the poor.
Mr. Wilson: Does the Opposition intend to vote against the €10 minimum increase in all social welfare payments?
Mr. McCarthy: We will vote against the 16 cutbacks.
Mr. Cummins: The savage 16.
Mr. Wilson: Does it intend to vote against the increase of €11.50 per week for widows and widowers aged 66 and over in receipt of contributory pensions? Does it intend to vote against a €6 or €8 increase in child benefit, effective from April 2004? Does it intend to vote against a €28 increase in family income supplement thresholds and a €100 increase in the respite care grant? What exactly do Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the rest of the crew which straggles the whinging benches of the Oireachtas—
Dr. Henry: I have never been called "the rest of the crew" before.
Mr. Wilson: —find so wrong with increasing the level of payment to widows, widowers and deserted wives to that of the old age contributory pension? That is exactly what the Social Welfare Bill 2003 sets out to do. In monetary terms, it will offer parity of esteem to over 62,000 widows, widowers and deserted wives. I will take no lectures from Senator Cummins or his colleagues in the Opposition who are more concerned with sounding like they care—
Mr. Cummins: We have not lectured at all.
Mr. Wilson: —for the worst off than doing anything about it. I do not doubt that many of them agree with what we are doing and share in our commitment to supporting those most in need in all sectors of life.
Mr. McCarthy: Where are they?
Dr. Mansergh: That is the point.
An Cathaoirleach: Order, please.
Mr. Wilson: The Minister, instead of running to every available microphone and photographer to highlight what must happen, has chosen to consult widely with her colleagues in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party who represent every county and parish.
Mr. Cummins: They have emptied their hearts as usual.
Mr. Wilson: She ensured she had a very strong case to put to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, regarding the allocation for the social welfare budget. She has been very successful.
Mr. Cummins: He let her down.
Mr. Wilson: This is real politics and real action rather than the half-hearted politics of the Opposition. We are a party which delivers to the less well-off in society.
Mr. Cummins: Promises, promises.
Mr. Wilson: Thankfully, the people gave the Government an increased mandate in June 2002 to come back and finish the job started in June 1997—
Mr. Cummins: Which they regret.
Mr. Wilson: —after the disastrous years of the rainbow coalition. It is no wonder that Senator Cummins does not want us to go back as far as 1997.
Mr. Cummins: The level of homelessness has increased by 109% since.
An Cathaoirleach: Order, please.
Mr. Wilson: Once the people had booted out Deputies Bruton, Spring and De Rossa, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats came in to manage the country. Since then, the less well-off in society—
Mr. Cummins: Are worse off.
Mr. Wilson: —have benefited. I heard the Minister mention before the budget that it should not be seen in isolation. It is part of a five year programme the Government has set out. In 2007, when the programme for Government is complete, I hope Senator Cummins will be man enough to come and congratulate the Minister on a job well done.
Mr. Cummins: She has reneged already on the issue of child benefit.
Mr. Wilson: A Deputy from County Mayo, whom I cannot name—
An Cathaoirleach: Yes.
Mr. Wilson: —has consistently been shouting for the Minister to apologise. She should be complimented on securing the largest ever social welfare budget in the history of the State.
Mr. Cummins: Any Minister responsible for social welfare can say that.
Mr. Wilson: Surely the Senator and his colleagues are not saying the Minister should apologise for giving over the figure of €1 billion in child benefit. As I pointed out, when I was at school, which was not that long ago, an increase meant just that.
Mr. Cummins: If an increase is an increase, what is a cut?
Mr. Wilson: To listen to the Senator, and in anticipation of what Senator McCarthy is going to say, one would almost think that payments had been reduced.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Wilson to continue without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: Perhaps, instead of Irish classes, there should be maths classes for Senator Cummins and his colleagues.
Mr. Cummins: The sum of €58 million is just that.
Mr. Wilson: The Social Welfare Bill 2003 contains several minor technical amendments to the legislation governing the application of PRSI, health contributions, the national training fund levy and benefits-in-kind. I point out to the Opposition that this budget, worth over €11 billion altogether, is the biggest in the history of the State.
Mr. McCarthy: It is a disappointment.
Mr. Wilson: Deputy Coughlan who has been in her job for only a short time is already the best Minister for Social Welfare this State has ever had.
Mr. Cummins: They dropped her in it and did not dig her out.
Mr. McCarthy: How many scripts are there?
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Wilson to continue without interruption.
Mr. Wilson: I have a point of information. We have to write our own scripts in our party. We do not have spin doctors.
Mr. Cummins: They have more spin doctors than us.
(Interruptions).
An Cathaoirleach: Order, please.
Mr. Wilson: The sum of €58 million has not been cut from the budget. It has been redirected, and it was €55 million. I have been corrected by the Minister. Senator Cummins mentioned Mark Twain.
Mr. McCarthy: The Senator is inviting interruption.
An Cathaoirleach: Please do not invite interruption. Senator Wilson hesitated as if he were looking.
Mr. Wilson: I was trying to gather my thoughts and hold back the laughter. Mark Twain was mentioned by Senator Cummins who wondered what he would write about now if he were here, suggesting that it might be cutbacks upon cutbacks.
Mr. McCarthy: The pension rate.
Mr. Cummins: Fianna Fáil promises.
Mr. Wilson: He might like to concentrate on the Fine Gael Party – the few who are left – and write the up-to-date version of "A Family at War". We could call it "A Family Still at War".
Mr. Cummins: Rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Mr. Wilson: Senator Cummins mentioned homelessness. Under the Government, a sum of €1.9 billion has been allocated for housing.
Mr. Cummins: I suppose they will have an 80% increase.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Cummins has already made his contribution, and I do not think he was interrupted even once.
Mr. Cummins: The Senator is inviting it.
An Cathaoirleach: Let Senator Wilson continue on the Social Welfare Bill 2003.
Mr. McCarthy: Will we have injury time?
An Cathaoirleach: No.
Mr. Wilson: I congratulate the Minister on her excellent Bill and budget. I am proud to stand here to support them and wish her well for the future. In anticipation of Senator McCarthy's comments, I will try not to laugh.
Dr. Henry: I have never been called a member of "the rest of the crew" before. I am not speaking on their behalf but Senator Wilson will be pleased to know that we have recovered from the knock-out punch of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. He is extraordinarily fortunate to have the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, to send here today. I have the greatest respect for her and know that she will do the very best she can for all those under her care. We welcome all of the improvements in social welfare payments and so forth. However, there must be aspects of the Social Welfare Bill 2003 with which she is disappointed. I will certainly not ask her to enumerate them. I know that she has tried her best to shield people in areas where they have been removed from social welfare allowances or assistance.
It would be very sad in this day and age – though a report today states our competitiveness appears to have gone badly compared with the rest of the European Union – if we were unable to improve the situation regarding social welfare allowances. I am even older than Senator Wilson who was only recently at school. I campaigned not that long ago for optical and dental benefits for the wives of insured workers. It was about 20 years ago when such matters were staggering. There have been great improvements since. I welcome the ones made in the budget but we have come from a very low base. It is great to see the improvements in the country which have allowed for this. I take seriously the warning about our apparent lack of competitiveness. I am sure the Government will do everything in its power to rectify matters.
I recently attended a meeting of the International Medical Parliamentarians Organisation in Bangkok which was addressed by an economist from the Philippines. He referred to the Asian tiger and how the economies in the Far East changed so much approximately 15 years ago. He stated that the latter had resulted from a change in the fertility rate among women in the Far East. Women in that part of the world began to have smaller families and were able to go out to work as a result. Perhaps someone will compile a thesis on the change in the fertility rate among Irish women between 1970 and 1990, when it nearly halved. Not long after 1990, the Celtic tiger arrived. I know the Minister will take particular account of the contribution women have made to the great improvements we have enjoyed in the past ten years.
I wish to refer to the disallowance of rent allowances for the first six months after people rent flats. The Minister, who has spoken at our meetings, is aware that I am president of Cherish. Knowing her concerns about this area, I am sure she has read the Crisis Pregnancy Agency's recommendations. One of the most important recommendations is that we should ensure that people in crisis pregnancy situations – even in this day and age such people are still being thrown out of their homes – would not resort to abortion due to a lack of accommodation. A crisis pregnancy cannot be planned. It is a contradiction in terms to state otherwise. An important part of Cherish's strategy is to be in a position to inform people that they will be able to get into accommodation and that they will be paid an allowance. The Minister stated that she would consider the position of those who are experiencing severe social problems. However, I am concerned that many young women who become pregnant will think that the safety net has been removed and resort to having abortions in England. I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter to see if she can rectify the position. We are spending a great deal of money on the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and we state that we are committed to reducing the abortion rate in this country. However, that rate will not be reduced by failing to provide accommodation.
Some people seem to believe that women get pregnant in order to get houses. During the recent debate on homelessness, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, admitted that the vast majority of people on the housing list are single. He did not specify whether these individuals have children but they are not doing well in their objectives if they are still on housing lists. I have been contacted by very angry individuals who informed me that because they are single mothers people seem to think that they obtain accommodation very easily. However, this is not the case.
I am also concerned about crèche allowances. I was one of those who welcomed individualisation with open arms because I paid heavy tax. Until the advent of individualisation, I paid tax at the top rate for all of my married life. A girl must think of herself occasionally, so I was delighted when individualisation was introduced. However, it is disappointing that neither child care nor care of the elderly is allowable for tax relief. If an initiative were taken in this area, it would offset the fact that there is no social welfare allowance for crèches. I spend a great deal of time trying to encourage single mothers to try to obtain employment because regardless of how generous are the social welfare benefits they receive, they will do much better if they obtain decent jobs and can manage to make their way in society. I ask the Minister to reconsider the position in this area.
I am also disappointed about the positionvis-à-vis medical cards. I am aware that the number of people over 70 who would not be means tested for medical cards, and who applied for and received them, was hugely over-estimated. We are now faced with the iniquitous situation where doctors are paid a higher rate in respect of richer people over 70 than for their poorer counterparts, who may require more of their care. There are a number of strange anomalies in this area and I would be grateful if the Minister would give consideration to them. People with very modest incomes cannot obtain medical cards and everyone knows that being poor is not good for one's health.
The Minister has made improvements in respect of the disabled. However, I again bring to her attention the review in respect of disabled drivers and passengers. I first raised this matter in July 1999. I was informed at that stage that a review was under way. After four and a half years I thought it reasonable to inquire again about the position, particularly as some people who had bought cars at the time had asked me whether anything could be done for them. The allowances for disabled drivers and passengers, which relate to VAT, motor taxation, etc., are very worthwhile. Some people who are well deserving of assistance – this is recognised by those who decide who should receive help – are not in a position to receive it due to the outdated restrictions that are in place. This matter has been under consideration for four and a half years. When I contacted the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I was informed that the report is being reviewed.
Mary Coughlan: The Department of Finance.
Dr. Henry: The review could go on and on. A man who is thinking of changing cars contacted me in the autumn to ask if I thought there would be any improvement in the position. I ask the Minister to look into this matter.
The number of children still considered to be living in poverty is disappointing. I was surprised to hear a Member on the Government benches recently refer to the NGOs who look after these children. I thought these organisations were called charities. It is important to remember the number of people in this country who will rely on our excellent charities, which deserve our support, this Christmas. I was saddened when I heard a woman on radio earlier this week state that the only new clothes her children had received in the course of the year were their school uniforms. I know the Minister does not want such situations to continue to obtain.
The Minister will receive great support from the rest of the crew in her further negotiations with the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. We have not been floored by the knockout punch. I am sure the Minister made great efforts in her earlier negotiations with the Minister for Finance. I am particularly concerned about single mothers and the fact that we are investing a great deal of money in the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, the recommendations of which are not being taken on board as a result of what is happening with the social welfare system.
Dr. Mansergh: I wish to acknowledge the important role Senator Henry played in securing optical and dental benefits for spouses. That was a real social improvement at the time. I was a member of the tax strategy group and I recall that, year after year, we wrestled with the question of disabled drivers. It is not easy to deal with this matter and if the scheme could be targeted properly, improvements would be easily made.
Dr. Henry: Exactly.
Dr. Mansergh: The difficulty is how to target the scheme in order that we do not spend vastly greater sums than intended.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on an excellent social welfare package. Unlike most of my colleagues, I do not come from a traditional Fianna Fáil background. One of the reasons I belong to the party is that it is socially progressive, in delivery even more than in oratory. If people doubt this, they may wish to cast their minds back a few years. I will not go back as far as 1995. During the budget debate, Senator Ryan castigated me for again reminding people of the 2.5% increase in social welfare and the £1.80 increase for old age pensioners. I will not revisit the 1995 budget—
Mr. McCarthy: Boohoo.
Dr. Mansergh: —I will instead concentrate on the budget that was introduced in 1996.
I will do this to remind people of how things were and to put some of the criticism into context. Let me quote from the 1996 Budget Statement of Deputy Ruairí Quinn who was Minister for Finance at the time. He stated: "In addition to these employment related measures, I am providing for a 3% increase in all personal social welfare weekly payments and adult dependant allowances from mid-June 1996." Regarding child benefit, he stated: "On this occasion, I am providing for an increase of £2 per month in these rates with effect from September next." That brought the rate to £29.
Mr. Cummins: That is meaningless in 2003.
(Interruptions).
Dr. Mansergh: It is a revolution, perhaps, in meaningless rights. It is not meaningless.
Mr. Cummins: It is utterly meaningless.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Mansergh, without interruption.
Dr. Mansergh: The Minister went on to state: "The total cost of the social welfare package [in 1996] which I have outlined today will be £80 million this year—
Mr. Cummins: Bingo.
Dr. Mansergh: —and £161 million in a full year." The problem is – I refer not just to Members in this House but also to people who write columns – that there has been much socialist rhetoric and very little socialist delivery during the last two periods in which the Labour Party was in Government.
(Interruptions).
Dr. Mansergh: I am a fair-minded person. I pay due respect to the memory of Frank Cluskey who was in office during the 1970s. However, there has been precious little delivered yet. Frankly, the "right-wing ogre and ideologue", the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy—
Mr. Cummins: Fianna Fáil ideology is rampant with it. We had to clear up the rubbish Fianna Fáil left behind on too many occasions. The Government must clear it up itself now.
Dr. Mansergh: —has beaten the rainbow coalition hands down in terms of social provision in budget after budget.
Mr. Cummins: The Senator should listen to CORI and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. What he is saying is rubbish.
Dr. Mansergh: The Senator can listen to all the rhetoric he likes, but the delivery is made.
It is a ridiculous position – it was a position never adopted by either a Fine Gael or Labour Party Minister for Finance – that one could never make any changes in the social welfare system. One had to stick strictly to the status quo. While one could add to it, one could never alter or subtract from it. I am glad to hear from the Minister, if I understand her correctly, that no existing claimant will be affected by the changes. Any Minister, even in relatively prosperous times, has a right to retarget resources.
The idea of social welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and GNP is an old chestnut. I do not hold by it. The question is, what are the real resourcesvis-à-vis people in need? If there are only 4% to 5% on the live register, the Minister does not need the resources necessary when there were 11% to 15% on the live register. Nonetheless, social welfare spending has increased very considerably in spite of this. That has been a product of the economic policies of the Government.
I wish to comment on the recent ESRI review which tends to be popularised and distorted. I do not doubt the continuing existence of poverty. Even 1% in poverty represents far too many people. However, it is a gross distortion of the report to represent it as stating poverty increased from 1994 to 1997 to 2000 to 2001. There is a difference between relative and consistent poverty. Compared to 16 years ago the numbers under the various lines have been cut by about four fifths. The number below the 40% line was 5% in 1994 and 1% in 2001. The number below the 50% line in 1994 was 17.4% and 2.4% in 2001. The number below the 60% line is reduced from 30% to 6%. We have made progress. Many get annoyed and frustrated when people not merely deny that social progress is being made but actually allege we have been galloping backwards. I ask people to read the reports properly, not just pull out—
Mr. U. Burke: Tell that to the recipients.
Dr. Mansergh: I accept that relative poverty and increases in relative inequality must be taken into account. That is bound to occur at periods of high growth. One needs to take corrective measures. However, the question is whether people at the bottom end of the scale want concrete improvements in the standard of living—
Mr. U. Burke: Imaginary ones.
Dr. Mansergh: —or whether they are merely interested in their relative position. There is no question but that they want real improvements. There are probably times – I would like to explore this in more detail in another place on another occasion – when absolute or consistent poverty is reducing while relative income inequality is increasing.
Mr. U. Burke: Tell that to the person who is poor.
Dr. Mansergh: However, crude oversimplification should be avoided. While immense social progress has been made, I would be the first to acknowledge that much more needs to be made. The Minister is doing her best to continue along the path of greater social inclusion. Much has been done and, of course, there is more to do.
Mr. McCarthy: I welcome the Minister. There is one issue on which she deserves to be congratulated, that is, her nomination this morning as the best Minister of 2003.
Mary Coughlan: That will do me some good in Donegal.
Mr. McCarthy: It is worthy of note. It was in a national newspaper. Given her professional background, parliamentary experience and reputation, I believe – it is a measure of the generally held opinion of her – that the Minister is a caring and committed politician. In a Government with Deputy McCreevy as Minister for Finance, it is not easy for a Minister to always get what he or she wants. They can make requests and demands. I can only imagine the Minister's difficulties in trying to amass the budget for her Department.
The increases are welcome, although there are points with which I fundamentally disagree. The problem is the right-wing axis which has characterised the Government over the past seven budgets.
Dr. Mansergh: That is a figment of the Senator's imagination.
Mr. McCarthy: CORI's analysis of the budget was that the Government had missed seven unique opportunities to address the rich-poor gap in society, one of the widest in Europe.
Dr. Mansergh: They got €6 million all the same.
Mr. McCarthy: This is not merely a political point being made by me. It is the analysis of CORI, an organisation committed to this area. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is telling us the same. It had frightening statistics. The number who seek assistance from it has doubled in a 12 month period. That is a shocking indictment of any Government. Between publication of the Estimates and the budget, the Taoiseach was dismissive of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's figures for the number of children living in the poverty trap. That in itself reflects a certain attitude. Dismissing the statistics provided by an organisation which does such an amount of work is indicative of a right-wing axis which is composed of the Ministers, Deputies Harney and McCreevy. It is deplorable.
To address the point my colleague made regarding social provision, there is none. Senators may study what documents they want but I will save them the time. There is nothing in the budget which assists those on low incomes. The most vulnerable people have been consistently hit by this Government. How can that be reconciled with the election in 2002? We all recall the daily press briefings, the most notable made by the Minister stating that no cutbacks were planned, secretly or otherwise. That is not the case as we have seen in the past 18 months.
Mr. U. Burke: Senator Mansergh was not in the House that day.
Mr. McCarthy: A short time after the formation of this Government, memos were sent to Departments asking Secretaries General to cut expenditure. This was in blatant contradiction of the briefings in which commitments were given to the public that no cutbacks were being planned.
Dr. Mansergh: The Senator does not remember real cutbacks.
Mr. McCarthy: What has happened? In 1992, the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy McCreevy, who went on to a bigger and better Department, introduced what became known as the dirty dozen social welfare cuts. The savage 16 cuts now being introduced have replaced the dirty dozen cuts which took some beating. These cuts will be forever associated with this Government and this year. One cannot justifiably argue that this Government is taking care of those on lower incomes as it is not, rather it is hitting out at them.
Mr. Cummins: Of course they are.
Mr. McCarthy: They are hitting at those who suffer most, those who need assistance most and those who depend on this State for whatever reason. I am sure such people do not like having to depend on the State. However, when they turn to this Government for assistance the door is shut in their faces.
One could also hold the view, when this Government is so public in its castigation of those on lower incomes in terms of the cruel and vicious manner in which the savage 16 cuts are being introduced, that a golden circle exists in this country. Those of us not in that circle are not in the club. We need not look far from this city for multi-millionaires who do not pay tax on their earnings. It is inequitable, unfair and unacceptable.
It is an absolute disgrace that this Government aims cutbacks at the Department of Social and Family Affairs which deals with those on low incomes and single parents when trying to save money by pulling back savings from different Departments.
Dr. Mansergh: That Department is receiving €630 million—
Mr. McCarthy: What this Government has done to those on low incomes is deplorable. The people who support these cuts—
Mr. Cummins: They are the millionaires.
Mr. McCarthy: This Government, which supports the cuts, has rolled out a cynical election ploy called decentralisation. They are going to decentralise jobs to Macroom where the Taoiseach and the Tanáiste, flanked by Fianna Fáil candidates stood in front of an empty unit and announced 350 new jobs for the area.
Mr. U. Burke: All smiling.
Mr. McCarthy: Two years following that announcement, not one new job has been created.
Mr. Cummins: Not one job has been created.
Mr. U. Burke: And it is not likely any will be created.
Mr. McCarthy: The Government then has the contemptuous arrogance to roll-out decentralisation and to expect people in that area to throw rosebuds in front of Fianna Fáil Deputies. That is despicable and unacceptable. We are all pro-decentralisation but in this case it is ill-thought out, lacks consultation, has no clear costings and was only devised by Deputy McCreevy to disguise his boring, unimaginative budget.
Mr. Cummins: The spatial strategy has gone out the window.
Mr. Wilson: It was a knock-out punch.
Mr. McCarthy: There has been much talk since then about decentralisation. The budget was boring and unimaginative and was mostly about stealth taxes. The people are now expected to believe decentralisation will go ahead. This proposal is being introduced six months before local elections. How cynical is that? This is the fifth time such a scheme has been announced in as many years and twice in election years. People know the promise of those jobs is married to the next general election.
If the school of mathematics in Leinster House, as proposed by Senator Wilson, were to teach us anything surely it would teach that those mathematics are not convenient. That campaign was orchestrated. It was initiated by the author of the dirty dozen, the man responsible for the savage 16 cuts now being introduced. These decisions were made by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the Ebenezer Scrooge of Irish politics.
Dr. Mansergh: He is not a Scrooge towards social welfare recipients.
Mr. McCarthy: The Minister for Finance does not consider it worthwhile to take care of the worst off in our society. It is disgraceful that Members of this Government, who support these cuts, will be knocking on doors next June.
Mr. Wilson: They will be proud to do so.
Dr. Mansergh: The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, compares well with Deputy Quinn any day.
Mr. McCarthy: The general increases fall short of the amount needed to meet commitments to income adequacy as set out in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. While Senator Mansergh made some valid points on poverty, he missed the most important one, namely, that relative poverty has increased in recent years. An increase of one percentage point is too much.
The way to tackle child poverty is through education and child benefit. Commitments on child benefit have not yet been reached. We know it is a five year plan and that this Government will most likely be in office for the full term. If the Government leaves meeting any more of its commitments until its last year in office, it will spend the final 12 months in Departments trying to meet them. That would be a crime. Imagine the electorate in Donegal not seeing their local representative because, like her Cabinet colleagues, she will be spending all her time trying to roll-out a five year plan in one year.
Mary Coughlan: I am there every weekend.
Mr. McCarthy: It is not helpful for the Taoiseach to make statements which directly contradict statistics as provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It is a shocking indictment and a reflection of the attitude of right wing politics in this country. We must acknowledge that Ireland is one of the most right wing countries in Europe. It makes a mockery of the political system for a right wing party to complain about left wing politicians.
Dr. Mansergh: The Labour Party is moving in that direction.
Mr. McCarthy: I suggest that the next time our colleague is so hard up for something to read he might resort to theBeano or the Dandy which are representative of cloud cuckoo land.
Mr. Wilson: The Labour Party manifesto.
Mr. McCarthy: Senator Wilson's outlandish statements are unhelpful and are a reflection of right wing ideology. The right wing axis of this Government is ably supported by the apostle of fiscal rectitude, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the Kildare stud. Surely all democratic political parties have a system which ensures one is aware of people's requirements through attending one's clinics and by listening to those who elect them. It is surreal that some of my colleagues to my right—
Mr. Cummins: Appropriately.
Dr. Mansergh: I often think we are a bit to the Senator's left.
Mr. McCarthy: —have a clear campaign against right wing ideology. That manifested itself in the latest budget. I look forward to other Stages when we can exchange points on view on the Bill. The total savings in the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be €58 million.
Mary Coughlan: It is €55 million.
Mr. McCarthy: Surely there are other methods of raising much needed finance. I do not have a list of solutions in my pocket to rectify the situation. We have one of the most unfair tax regimes in Europe.
Dr. Mansergh: The EU Commission said that low income groups are treated better here than in any other European country.
Mr. McCarthy: That is absolute rubbish. They boast of having low tax regimes. The current budget introduces many stealth taxes.
(Interruptions).
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator McCarthy, without interruption, please.
Mr. McCarthy: The Minister for Finance is introducing stealth taxes which affect the worst off in society and is boasting about having a low tax regime. How can he expect anybody to believe our tax system is the fairest in Europe?
Dr. Mansergh: At least the PAYE person is not crucified as he or she was in previous years.
Mr. McCarthy: There is not a week that goes by that something is not increased.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator McCarthy, without interruption, please.
Mr. McCarthy: Does my learned colleague make pre-budget submissions—
Mr. U. Burke: He does not understand.
Mr. McCarthy: —or does he accept the Minister for Finance's right wing ideology? Surely the Senator's conscience might lead him to think the Minister has gone too far on this occasion. The Government should look at the broader picture and seek other methods of raising finance. It should not attack the worst off in society such as single parents, pensioners and homeless people, which is precisely what it is doing.
I have already mentioned the savage 16, which will come to occupy the same place as the dirty dozen and the author of one is responsible for the other, namely the Minister for Finance. Most of the cuts have been signed off at this stage. To qualify for the third-level back to education allowance, social welfare recipients must now be on welfare for 15 months rather than six months. This is particularly cruel and nasty. Cutting this allowance is not indicative of a Government that wants to tackle poverty. Experts have told us that poverty can be tackled through education. This was a valuable scheme that was taken up by many people, giving them a standard of education that allowed them to better themselves, enter the workforce and have dignity and a better quality of life. This concept is so far divorced from the political reality in the Department of Finance and its head honcho that the allowance has to be cut.
The dietary supplement was an important payment to people that required it. Surely such a scheme should not be cut back because it had a good take-up. The good take-up demonstrates the requirement for this payment. Instead of promoting the service, the Government has cut it back.
The Minister is adamant that no crèches will close. We intend to nail this myth.
Mary Coughlan: The Senator does not know what he is talking about.
Mr. McCarthy: We would be interested if the Minister will share her pearl, or pebble, of knowledge on this issue.
Mary Coughlan: The rock is on its way.
Mr. McCarthy: I look forward to debating this with the Minister.
Perhaps our learned colleague might readDas Kapital the next time he is hard up for something to read. If he did this, he might really understand what left wing politics and socialism represents. The savage 16 certainly does not represent it. When the Senator is canvassing with candidates for the local elections—
Dr. Mansergh: The Labour Party is not strong in Tipperary.
Mr. McCarthy: —his slogan will not be "guaranteed Irish" but rather, "committed to the savage 16". It represents a right wing ideology that would make the Minister for Finance proud. The Tánaiste also prides herself on being on the extreme right of the Irish political spectrum. The Government must be really proud of its representative in Tipperary South.
Dr. Mansergh: Fianna Fáil has been to the left of the Labour Party for the past 20 years. What about the minimum wage?
Mr. Scanlon: I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the improvements in social welfare contained in the budget. The social welfare improvements in this year's budget will cost €630 million in a full year, a massive increase of €100 million on last year. I do not know where the Senator heard about cutbacks.
Mr. McCarthy: I will give a Senator a copy of the savage 16.
Mr. Scanlon: The €630 million figure for this year stands in stark comparison to the €273 million increase in the rainbow Government's last budget in 1997.
Mr. Browne: Is the Senator talking about the present or the past?
Mr. McCarthy: History will see the rainbow Government as the good Government it was.
Mr. Scanlon: Social welfare expenditure in 2004 will be almost two and a half times the level set by Labour and Fine Gael when last in Government. Furthermore, as a result of changes made in budget 2002, all social welfare weekly increases are paid with effect from 1 January. As a result, increases for those dependent on social welfare are payable more than five months earlier than when Fine Gael and Labour were last in Government. These facts must be appreciated and we should commend something when it is being done correctly.
For every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2004, almost €1 will go to social welfare recipients. An estimated 970,000 people are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year and almost 1.5 million people, including dependants – two out of every five people in the State – will benefit from them. The increase of €10 in all weekly social welfare payments is well ahead of the rate of inflation. It represents an increase ranging from 6% to 8%. In the case of the lowest payments, this is more than three times the expected rate of inflation of 2.5% in 2004.
The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.8 million and the rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically from 10% to 4.3%.
Mr. Cummins: The number of jobs has also fallen dramatically.
Mr. Wilson: There has been an increase in jobs.
Mr. U. Burke: The Senator must be referring to the promised figure.
Mr. McCarthy: The Senator is quoting from the election manifesto, a fundamentally flawed document.
Mr. Browne: The IDA has revealed that 12,000 jobs have been lost and only 9,000 have been created.
Mr. Scanlon: Social welfare spending has increased from €5.74 billion in 1997 to a projected €11.26 billion in 2004 – almost double and well in excess of the rate of inflation. Payment rates for both recipients and their families have been considerably improved in real terms. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits, such as farm assist, carer's benefit, widowed parent grant and respite care grant, have been introduced and enhanced.
The budget increased the personal rate of disability and unemployment benefit by €10 to €134.80. In its last budget, the rainbow Government increased this by a mere €3.81. The respite care grant will be increased to €835 per annum from June 2004. Any improvements that can be made in this area are to be welcomed. The widowed parent grant was increased to €2,700 from budget day.
According to the ESRI, the overall level of consistent poverty in 1998 was 8.2%. This level has been reduced by over a third to 5.2% in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available. I am a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in my local community. It is a fantastic organisation and has done much good work. It has been my experience that poverty in a household is accompanied by an underlying problem of either alcohol or drug abuse.
Mr. Cummins: The Senator should tell the Taoiseach to believe what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul says.
Mr. Scanlon: It is an excellent organisation and has done a lot of good work. I have years of experience in the organisation and have seen the problems that exist. There is always an underlying problem, usually alcohol, in poverty stricken households that require help from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
No Government has increased children's allowance as much as this one. A recent television programme interviewed parents and asked them about their young teenage children. Even though it was a school day, the children were running wild. Those children are supposed to be in school until they are 16 years old. Children must stay in school if they are to have any chance of having a good life. If there was a connection between children attending school and the payment of children's allowance to parents, would it make a difference? We should examine this because it is wrong that children are not in school. Whatever opportunities they will have in life will be afforded to them through education. It just might make a difference.
I wish the Minister and her officials well and everybody a happy Christmas.
Mr. Browne: I was not planning to speak on this Bill today but when I heard Senators Wilson and Mansergh, I decided I would have to introduce common sense to the debate.
Mary Coughlan: The Senator cannot contain himself.
Mr. Browne: I was at a wedding recently in Senator Wilson's home county of Cavan and spoke to a gentleman who works in France. I asked him what he thought of France and whether he was thinking of returning to Ireland, to which he replied that he had bought an apartment situated one hour from Paris for £100,000 and that there was an excellent transport system in the area. He joined the local soccer team and had to do a medical examination—
Mr. Wilson: They do not play soccer in Cavan.
Mr. Browne: The medical examination cost him €20 but he was able to reclaim €15 of this sum immediately—
Mr. Wilson: That is the reason they are nearly bankrupt.
Mr. Browne: —and write off the remaining €5 against tax. This is indicative of a really decent PRSI system that affords real benefits.
I was intrigued by the debate between Senators McCarthy and Mansergh about right-wing and left-wing politics. We give both styles of politics a bad name in Ireland because we do not have either. We have anà la carte approach and choose some policies from both. Consider the increases in children's allowance, for example. They may not be as significant as those promised before the last general election but they are increases nevertheless. However, some children are still being taught in substandard schools, some are affected by very poor infrastructure in terms of broadband communications and transport while others are forced to sleep in substandard accommodation every night. Therefore, the Government is providing children's allowance but ignoring other factors. It is not very good at painting the overall picture.
"Poverty" is a very interesting word. I was a member of a delegation which visited Lesotho in Africa last week on a trip organised by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Kitt. There is no doubt that there is genuine poverty in Lesotho. Poverty in Ireland is of a different nature, such that we can nearly predict how children of seven or eight years will end up. I rang the office of the Minister for Education and Science recently and was intrigued to discover that an ex-student of mine worked there. He used to attend a certain school in Dublin where I taught. We discussed how other ex-pupils were getting on and, unfortunately, I was able to predict fairly accurately what they were doing with their lives, even though I had not met them for seven or eight years. According to the governor of Mountjoy Prison, Mr. Lonergan, a high percentage of people from certain areas in Dublin end up in jail while those from other parts do not.
This is not just an urban problem. Great strides have been made in recognising that it also affects rural areas but huge challenges still remain. In some respects, rural poverty is worse than urban poverty. In Carlow there is a new bus service that serves many remote rural areas. At times we forget people might not have access to cars, other forms of transport and communications facilities.
We should be targeting resources where they are needed most. Those responsible for social welfare have made a few major mistakes lately. One was giving medical cards to those over 70 years. This sounded lovely and everyone welcomed it but nobody had thought it through as it was discovered that there were many more over 70 years than was originally envisaged. Furthermore, it is ridiculous to think that millionaires such as Michael Smurfit who are over 70 years are entitled to medical cards. A man who attended one of my clinics recently told me his daughter had an over-sized kidney and that he was having seizures, yet he has been refused a medical card. All of us involved in politics, irrespective of whether we are on the right or left, are involved to make life better for people but one questions this when one encounters such cases.
Consider the way the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has handled immigration. It has forced immigrants to avail of social welfare, although, in many instances, they do not want to do so. Most immigrants are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers and want to earn money and have a better quality of life. Instead, they are stopped from doing so. If I was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I would issue a temporary work visa to such people immediately which would allow them to work and play a positive part in the economy while their applications were being processed. This is not how the current system works and it causes huge resentment among the public, particularly the working classes, who sometimes believe people from other countries are receiving all of the benefits. We have all had conversations with constituents which began with the line, "I am not being racist, but . . . , " and ended in a tirade of abuse. We hear stories about refugees getting cars and houses but this is not the case.
As I stated, we should be targeting resources where they are needed. Not every 70 year old needs a medical card. They may have millions in their bank accounts or may not have medical conditions that warrant their being issued with a medical card. We must also accept that 70 years is no longer considered to be a great age.
The Committee of Public Accounts revealed that the Office of Public Works had bought premises throughout the country for asylum seekers. These premises have been empty for months, if not years, and considerable sums are spent on security alone. They have never been used for asylum seekers, yet when we seek money for projects in the areas we represent, we are told there is no money available. It is a question of targeting resources where they are needed most.
I referred to a man living in France who was making PRSI contributions and did not object to doing so. He had received real benefits as a result. When I started teaching in 1995, I believe I was among the first to pay the full rate of PRSI for which I received benefits in terms of dental and medical care. Before 1995, graduates were paying PRSI but not at the full rate and were getting nothing in return. They were receiving no dental or optical care. The Minister should examine this. People have no objection to making PRSI contributions if they receive real benefits, to which they are entitled.
Senator Mansergh was certainly very passionate about poverty and relative poverty. However, I am getting tired of hearing criticisms of the rainbow Government a year and a half after the general election. It is time to move on. In 1995 and 1997 it was far easier to afford to buy a house. At least people had some chance of doing so unlike today. Most of us considered buying a second property in Dublin when we became Members of the Seanad but I found it amusing to see the price of property in the property pages. I would hate to be a member of a young family trying to buy a property in Dublin because it would cost at least €300,000. The Government has made a bags of the housing sector and is forcing families to move further and further from their extended families. They are being forced out into the suburbs. This will create further social problems.
I taught in both Dublin and Carlow and discovered that although there were the same problems in both areas, they were less pronounced in Carlow because the students had a family network in the area. In Dublin, when there was family breakdown, poverty and no extended family to look after those affected, the problems were more serious.
Senator Scanlon mentioned education for schools. The Government's record in this area is atrocious. It took the power away from the Garda and created education and welfare officers without funding them properly. There was a dispute in Dublin which may now be resolved but for about a year there were no education welfare officers working, which meant children were mitching from school.
The Minister may be better qualified to deal with the next matter, because as far as I know I have no offspring.
Mary Coughlan: We hope.
Mr. Browne: I am told that if one has four children one gets a certain rate for the first child and increased rates for the second, third and fourth. When the first child turns 16 or 18 the second child goes on to the first child rate. Just because one child turns 16 does not mean one suddenly has one child less and mothers have asked me why they are discriminated against. They still have the first child, even though he or she is over 16 and does not count for children's allowance, but the second child moves up to the first child position. Does the Minister understand my point?
Mary Coughlan: Yes.
Mr. Browne: The parents get a reduced amount in children's allowance. They are already at a loss on one child and then they are at a further loss as their other children change bracket.
Mr. Cummins: The Senator will have to start soon.
Ms Feeney: I welcome the Minister, who seems to be spending as much time here as some Senators. That shows the kind of Minister she is. She gives us a lot of time which we appreciate. It is an honour for us who have taken part in today's debate with her, as we know her as a caring and compassionate Minister.
Mr. U. Burke: If she was giving out more.
Ms Feeney: This is because she is a young wife and mother. I was not due to speak but I heard Senator Browne on the monitor in my office. He said he wanted to put some sense into the debate and I was so incensed that I decided to contribute.
Mr. McCarthy: And make the debate sensible.
Ms Feeney: I do not know about that.
I heard Senator Browne talk about the French medical and social welfare systems. Senator Browne should get real and compare like with like. He and I know what one has to pay for that in France and other European countries. It is much more than we pay here.
Mr. U. Burke: We are catching up fast.
Ms Feeney: Under this Government and its predecessor social welfare payments have outpaced inflation to a significant degree. All our European partners are on record as saying they would love to be in our position.
I speak with some authority on child benefit. As a mother I do very well out of child benefit, for which I thank the Minister. I have four children.
Mr. Cummins: Well done.
Ms Feeney: I am delighted and I do not feel at all discriminated against if my first, second, third or fourth child move on at age 16, when one reapplies for child benefit. I do not feel incensed or hard done by when they reach 16, as I continue to claim for them until they are 18 provided they are in training or in full-time employment.
Anyone would be proud of this Bill. It provides for an increase of €28 in the weekly income of a household and expands the threshold from €407 in the case of a family with one child to €584 in the case of a family with eight or more children. The improvement in the minimum level of family income support is up from €13 to €20 per week, another integral aspect of a welfare programme which is committed to ensuring those on the brink or getting into difficulties are well looked after.
Recent improvements in child benefit are complemented by the provision of an additional €1 million for the school meals scheme, which again focuses on children who are disadvantaged or who have special needs. At roughly this time yesterday we were discussing the Ombudsman for Children, and these initiatives, which are working in tandem, provide for children who are victimised or whose families are under pressure.
On completion of this project we will see Government investment in this scheme raised by an additional €1.27 billion. This represents a considerable change from when the Opposition was in Government in 1997 and child benefit was €38.09 for the first and second children, and €49.52 for the third and subsequent children.
Mr. Cummins: Here we go again, for the fourth time.
Ms Feeney: No wonder the Senator is muttering when he is ashamed of where he is coming from. Now we see—
Mr. Cummins: We are counting.
Mr. U. Burke: That is the fourth time.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Feeney without interruption.
Ms Feeney: There is no need to point fingers.
Mr. Cummins: We are just counting.
Ms Feeney: As I told the Senator previously, if Members opposite listened to us they would not be half as vexed with us.
Mr. Cummins: That is four times already.
Ms Feeney: I will repeat it though I might sound a little boring.
Mr. Cummins: That is five times.
Ms Feeney: We have set the supplement at €131.60 to €165.30, respectively, from next April. I do not know anyone who would be unhappy with that. I am delighted with the increase and I do not know anybody who is not. This massive investment will bring child benefit expenditure to €1.75 billion in 2004. As I said, I am delighted with this wonderful Bill and the Minister's compassionate, caring personality comes across in it. It comes from someone who is a mother and knows about running a family herself. I am delighted to support the Bill and I do so in the knowledge that once again Fianna Fáil is helping the youngest and most vulnerable in society. I say to the knockers to go and enjoy Christmas.
Nobody is listening to those seeking to belittle us in Government, not even the electorate.
Mr. McCarthy: CORI and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are listening.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Senator Feeney without interruption.
Ms Feeney: The Opposition hates to be reminded of what we say in Fianna Fáil: a lot done, more to do.
Mr. Cummins: Everyone is done at this stage.
Ms Feeney: We are still on target and we are still on line. It was said to Fine Gael yesterday that it has RIP over the door. Fine Gael would want to cop on and take the hint.
Mr. Cummins: Rumours of our demise have been greatly exaggerated, as I said previously.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the Minister to the House. I realise that if she had access to funding she probably would have introduced a different Bill. Opposition Members would then not have to highlight the reality facing so many people in poverty in both urban and rural areas.
Senator Feeney spoke about the wonderful increases in child benefit. Does she realise the increase amounts to 20 cent a day? What does that mean in reality to a household in poverty?
Ms Feeney: It is 20 cent more than the Senator's party ever gave.
Mr. U. Burke: Such a family must pay for clothes, food, ESB bills, gas bills, television licence and insurance and tax for a car. I tolerated listening to Senators Mansergh, Feeney and others, who are not in need, but for a reliable assessment of the budget one must turn to CORI or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Senator Scanlon said he was a member of that society, and I acknowledge the great work that organisation does, but is he influenced in any way by the recent statement by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that it has never experienced such need or so many people looking for direct finance, food vouchers or other forms of aid? We accept the underlying factors as stated by the Minister but we must face the reality of poverty and try to address it. That need has not been matched by the budget.
I realise the Minister cannot extricate herself from her straitjacket. She is limited and restricted no matter how willing she is to change things and fulfil the promises made before the election. When I see a scramble by Senators to go back and quote statistics from 1997, it is a sure indication of their vulnerability and the reality of today's situation. It is a damning indictment of the failure of this Government to acknowledge the poor. The gap between the rich and poor has widened substantially – by €249 – during the seven years of this Government and will grow further if the Government sustains it proportionately until 2007. This illustrates the myth of the promises given in past agreements as to what the Government will have achieved by 2007. We have had this experience time and again in every area.
Within the next three weeks, before we return to this House, we expect another major issue to arise. Many people have to visit the doctor's surgery over Christmas because someone in their family is ill but many of them have no medical card because they fall outside the new guidelines. In the run up to the election, 200,000 extra medical cards were promised. Will the Minister cushion these people and provide medical cards to those in need? Chief executive officers have discretion to provide for special needs at local level but no funding is being made available by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, to provide a special need category medical card.
Last year's guidelines on medical cards were insignificant and increases in the gross wage were very small. A single person living at home on an income of €123 per week is not entitled to a medical card. Do the Minister and Members on the other side of the House call that progress or an advance on the situation we had in 1997? Let them look at the numbers who had medical cards then relative to today's numbers. We can talk about relative poverty but there are greater numbers of people in need today than ever, whatever the reason.
We talk about the word inclusion but each of the 16 savage cutbacks goes some part of the road towards excluding greater numbers of those who need support. I have referred before to the situation regarding child benefit. If we examine the cutbacks one after the other, we come to the issue of rent supplement. I believe the Minister was forced into a situation where she had to make cut after cut. She was to hit every supplement.
Focus Ireland put it best and its comments put beyond contradiction the impact of the rent supplement measure introduced to accrue savings. Focus Ireland maintains that the Government has used the opportunity of the Book of Estimates to introduce a number of hard-hitting changes in social welfare that will affect those most in need in our society. It states that the most alarming of these changes are to housing income support under the SWA rent supplement scheme which could force thousands of people to become homeless. That is the reality. It points out that currently 60,000 people rely on SWA rent supplement to keep a roof over their heads. It states that overall the cost of the scheme has risen to €330 million in 2003 but the Government has now decided that rent supplement is only to meet income maintenance needs and not long-term housing needs.
Will the Minister allow this to continue and drive thousands more people out on to the streets to live in cardboard boxes – something we can witness any night on our streets? I am delighted to see the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Treacy, in the ministerial chair. If he can sit into his car to drive to Ballinasloe and ignore the reality on the streets of this city and many other cities and towns in this country, the callousness of the Government towards the need of the people is beyond doubt. The Minister of State too will have fallen into the callous disregard of people in need here.
Mr. Kitt: I welcome this Bill. Senator Ulick Burke spoke about cutbacks but as there has been an improvement of €100 million since last year, I fail to see how he can use the term "cutbacks".
Mr. U. Burke: There have been 16 savage cuts.
Mr. Kitt: The total figure for social welfare improvements is €630 million this year. When the rainbow Government was in power the total spend for a year was €273 million. There has been a big change in the amount provided.
Mr. Cummins: One would expect that over seven years.
Mr. Kitt: Senator Ulick Burke mentioned poverty. We can all argue about the relative figures on poverty. The best judge is the ESRI which has clearly stated that consistent poverty fell from 15.1% in 1994 to 5.2% in 2001. In addition, consistent poverty among children has been reduced from 17% in 1997 to 6.5% in 2001. That is independent data which is informed by the development of the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. These figures were submitted to the EU earlier this year. The data is verified, we can stand over it and I am glad the Minister mentioned it.
There has been some criticism of the budget. Fr. Seán Healy of CORI mentioned a number of measures which should be taken and I agree with many of them. If we had enough money, we would like to tackle every issue. We have a number of years to go yet in Government. Fr. Healy welcomed the significant increase in the respite care grant. A new rural social scheme is being introduced under the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Farmers on farm assist will be eligible to participate in that scheme.
There has also been an additional allocation for carers under one of our most important schemes. In cases where there are two pensioners in a household there is an increasing tendency for one of them to apply for carer's allowance, principally because he or she is doing the work of a carer and will get greater benefit from the allowance. That is very welcome. I greatly welcome the increase in the allowance, particularly the respite grant. I commend the Minister on what she has done in that regard. The improvement for old age pensioners, with the increases for widows and widowers, has been very positive.
In the short time available to me I wish to refer to some services of the Department which are often taken for granted, particularly in the community resource area. In addition to grants for toddlers' groups and women's groups, there are now grants for men's groups also. There are several schemes in operation. I compliment the Minister on implementing and advancing them. Last Monday a new resource centre was opened in Ballygar in my constituency by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Treacy. He said, on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, that there was additional funding available, particularly for the Family Support Agency. I received a letter of thanks in recent days for my contribution towards securing funding for the centre. I have been informed that money has been sent to it to cover the shortfall in rent, legal and accountancy fees and the cost of the alarm system.
The funding provided by the Family Support Agency for resource centres is very important. There has been an issue in connection with the salary levels of staff at such centres. There appears to be a difference in the level of payment, although I am not familiar with the details. Perhaps the Department will investigate the reason salaries are not at the same level for all those working in the centres.
I was greatly impressed by the range of information available at the new centre in Ballygar. In the words of the director of the Family Support Agency, information empowers people. That type of empowerment, especially for women's groups and those living in disadvantaged areas, has been of great benefit, enabling those concerned to take a greater part in community activities.
Perhaps the issue of medical cards is somewhat outside the scope of this debate. However, in response to Senator Ulick Burke, medical cards are issued on the basis of guidelines – there are no hard and fast rules laid down. Issues involving illness and financial circumstances should be looked at. A medical card provides access to many other benefits. Perhaps the Minister or one of her ministerial colleagues will consider the issues involved.
I am glad the Minister has brought this Bill to the Seanad. It has been greatly welcomed throughout the country, with particular reference to child benefit which will increase by €6 or €8, depending on the number of children in a family, as from next April. Provision for child care has been increased substantially over the period of office of the Government.
In complimenting the Minister I ask her to look again at the back-to-education scheme, in which there have been changes. On a previous occasion in the House I drew her attention to difficulties people might have in returning to education. While the matter has nothing to do with the budget, I raise it as a general issue, in terms of making this move as easy as possible. While some schemes may be subject to abuses, I have had no indication of any significant abuse of the back-to-education scheme, to which the reaction has been strongly positive. It has enabled people to progress through the education system and secure employment through schemes such as the rural social scheme and the various FÁS programmes.
One of the measures of the Government's success has been the substantial increase in employment in recent years. I hope the Minister will continue her success in securing extra funds for social welfare schemes such as the additional €100 million for improvements this year.
Mr. Mooney: I am honoured to have the opportunity for the first time in recent years to speak on the annual Social Welfare Bill. An innovative and visionary architecture has been applied to this Bill by our Minister. I use the term "our Minister" in a collective sense on the basis of the proximity of my county, Leitrim, and the Minister's area of south Donegal. I am reminded of a well known ballad sung by Bridie Gallagher some years ago entitled "The Girl from Donegal". I hope the Minister will be remembered in song at some future time as well as in story.
Mr. Cummins: One hopes the words will not be written by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy.
Mr. Mooney: Although I have introduced a note of levity to the proceedings, there is a very serious underlying edge—
Mr. McCarthy: Perhaps the Senator will mention the Minister on his radio programme.
Mr. Mooney: I will be happy to play a request for her at any time.
Other colleagues, on all sides of the House, have dwelt on the broad thrust of the Bill and its specific impacts, as perceived in the course of their work as public representatives. I wish to focus specifically on the funds made available for carer's allowance and the respite care grant which has been increased by €100. It may be said no amount of money is adequate in that regard. At the risk of using a cliché, I refer to the words of Our Lord in biblical times that the poor will always be with us. Far be it from me to go down the clerical road but I presume the intended meaning is that, despite the best efforts and most noble aspirations of any Administration, there will always be people who will fall through the net.
Mr. Cummins: That is certainly happening now.
Mr. Mooney: One attempts to address the poverty situation as one moves on. In that regard, I find it quite amazing to note the somewhat illogical stance taken on the so-called cutbacks of €58 million. I know that people have to score political points. No doubt, if the Minister was on the Opposition side of the House, she would have to look through the detail of this social welfare Bill to find something one could latch onto in terms of criticism as has been done in this case.
The Minister has very clearly spelled out how her decisions will impact on the vulnerable and less well-off sectors. To quote a legal term, "The devil is in the detail". One will find that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society are still being looked after and their concerns addressed. While I understand the Minister has a long menu of replies to the debate so far, perhaps it might be helpful to indicate – in net terms, if possible – what the actual cutback will be. On the face of it, the figure of €58 million, from an overall budget of €11.4 billion, seems very small. Nevertheless, it has created more dissent and controversy than if the Minister had not received an extra €100 million and had cut €200 million or €300 million, or a higher percentage.
Mr. Cummins: The Minister should explain it to those who will be affected.
Mr. Mooney: Perhaps the Minister will specify, in net terms, the actual impact. It is important that she and those of us who believe what she has done this year is for the benefit of people who are economically and socially excluded should have this matter clarified. We should make the case that when one looks at the detail, the impact will be minimal. To be brutally frank about reforms in the social welfare code, every Minister in every Administration has looked at ways of maximising the amount given to social welfare recipients and ensuring an efficient system. The one area in Government in which there must be constant monitoring of the State's money is social welfare expenditure. That accountability rests ultimately with the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Human nature, being what it is, will encourage people to bypass the system or take advantage of it. It happens in law, with tax experts and throughout the fields of human endeavour. People will always try to get more than they are entitled to or attempt to bypass the regulations to keep money in their pocket. Why should it be different for social welfare where the human condition is at its most vulnerable? People put a value on small amounts of money and will attempt to manipulate the system. It is incumbent on the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to ensure that the money is spent wisely—
Mr. Cummins: We are not talking about manipulating the system.
Mr. Mooney: The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, has already spelled it out, but it is important that she continues to do so.
The message should go out from this House that this is one of the largest Votes that has been given to the Department of Social and Family Affairs in the history of the State. It has come at a time when we have been told to tighten our belts due to the worldwide economic downturn and when the big spending Departments' budgets get hit. I know the then Minister for Social Welfare in the rainbow Government must be bored out of his mind hearing this again, but he had the opportunity to do something real, imaginative and positive for the social welfare code. However, look at his record and the amount of money he gave in his last year.
Mr. Cummins: He had to clean up the mess left by Fianna Fáil.
Mr. Mooney: Here was a man who spent all his life fighting for the underprivileged and the socially disadvantaged.
Mr. McCarthy: He still does.
Mr. Mooney: Yes, and I have great admiration for him. However, in a purely narrow political context, he was given the top job where the buck stopped with him. In his discussions with the then Minister for Finance, it was down to him where spending would be prioritised that year. One only has to look at his record and contrast it with that of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan. She came into her job, after watching and observing the political scene as a backbencher, with a vision of what she wanted but also the political nous—
Mr. McCarthy: More like a noose from the Minister for Finance.
Mr. Cummins: He landed her in it.
Mr. Mooney: —to know what to do and where the most vulnerable in society needed action.
I hope the Minister will return next year with a more significant increase in the respite care and carer's allowance. It is difficult to be objective on this issue and I will confess to being subjective. I am aware of a family in my area in which there are two severely disabled children. Those are their only children and I understand the difficulty facing that family in trying to raise these two pre-teen children. Can Members imagine being hit not once but twice by the same severe condition? I am not suggesting they are crying about their position. However, people such as these who are among the most vulnerable in our society need to be nourished, protected and encouraged in whatever way the State can with the means available.
While I fully understand that the increase in the carer's allowance is approximately €100, this is an area where the Minister for Social and Family Affairs can make her mark. We have had several debates on this issue in the Fianna Fáil Party through the years. I am on the side of those who argue it should not be means-tested. I understand this creates enormous difficulties in the Department. However, when one considers the number of people involved, what they experience and what they have to give up – in some cases women give up the flower of their youth – to look after people in unfortunate conditions, the State has an obligation to be generous, not penny-pinching. A means-test in this area with certain generous qualifying conditions should be applied.
The Minister for Social and Family Affairs should be rightly proud of this Bill. She has fought within and outside the party for it. At a time when there was belt-tightening and when the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, was perhaps not at his most generous, she significantly improved the budget to her Department. She also discharged her responsibility to ensure that public money was spent properly. I applaud the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and wish her well.
Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mary Coughlan): Gabhaim buíochas do na Seanadóirí uilig a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo. B'fhéidir go raibh muid ag dul amú ón ábhar fána raibh muid in ainm is a bheith a labhairt. Sin ráite, tá seo fite fuaite le daoine le míchumas. A number of issues were raised on Second Stage by Senators on both sides of the House and I appreciate that time was against us. It is best that we stand back from philosophies, whether we are right, left or centre, because it does not serve any purpose but only aggravates Members on all sides of the House. Pontificating is a waste of our failing reserves of energy on the last week of the House sitting.
There has been much discussion on the removal of the means-test for the carer's allowance, the cost of which is €180 million this year. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs has carried out an extensive analysis of this and a number of practical recommendations have been forwarded to my Department. Following a number of discussions, I have indicated to the committee's chairman that the Department will look specifically at a number of these proposals. It is incumbent on us to evaluate matters, particularly when we examine the issue of the means test.
Many Members spoke about giving medical cards to those in the over-70 age group and claimed it was a misdirected use of resources. That argument can be made for the removal of the carer's allowance from people able to support others in a caring capacity or to purchase care. It is often asked why they should be allowed to access resources which were difficult to obtain. On the basis of an overall evaluation of caring, long-term care and subvention, we will have to look at those issues.
The Government promised to progress in this regard and this has been achieved this year. Up to 1,700 new applicants will come into carer's allowance and 2,100 persons, already in receipt of the allowance, will get an increase. The respite care grant has been more than beneficial and supportive to people acting in a caring capacity. We will never be able to pay people sufficiently to provide care. Payment is only a token towards the emotional strain that caring can cause. Care provision can be fulfilling but as we must prepare to pay for care. Senator Browne spoke about the French model for care which my Department will examine it when considering the ring-fencing PRSI contributions for long-term care. The Mercer report, which I published alongside the report on home subvention with the Minister for Health and Children, will undergo a consultation process in my Department at the beginning of next year. A working party will be set up to evaluate the best way of proceeding on the issue of caring. The harsh reality is that over the next 20 years we will have an ageing population which means we will not be adequately prepared to support the elderly and the disabled unless and until we have a long-term care strategy. I have asked the committee to evaluate the report – Senators may have the opportunity do so also in due course – and make recommendations on the best way forward.
Ultimately, we must look at income support methodology. How this will be done is a matter we must decide as a nation, not necessarily based on our political perspectives. It will be pursued and will provide great challenges for us but what is good about it is that we are not in the same position as many of our colleagues in the European Union who have great difficulties with pension provision. While we talk about cuts, I am glad I am not the German Chancellor or German Minister for Social Welfare, neither of whom has the resources to pay pensions. We do not want to go down that road. Pension provision is a matter on which we must grasp the nettle, which is what we have been doing in recent years. Thankfully we have been afforded the opportunity to prepare for the necessity of additional pension costs.
Caring is a very emotive issue which touches all of us as public representatives, one which I will be fully pursuing during my sojourn as Minister for Social and Family Affairs. I appreciate that people have seen improvements. It is not that long ago when there was no carer's allowance, carer's benefit and respite care. We have seen and will continue to see progress, although there are a lot of concerns about the age profile of carers, many of whom are over the age of 65 years. There are also questions about position suitability and second payments. I know from all of the debates held in the recent past that the issue of carers has been to the fore.
I have had a protracted discussion over the last two to three weeks in the Lower House and the select committee on the issue of child benefit and the promises made. If one looks at the figures for the target set ourselves in government, one will see that in 1997 we provided €500 million for child benefit. The present target is €2 billion. In 2004 we will spend a sum of €1,750 million. This leaves us with a figure of approximately €250 million. It is a target that can be and will be realised. While for some the timeframe is disappointing, I will not apologise for what has been achieved through child benefit – a child poverty and child care initiative – the only universal payment that takes away from the pull and drag discussions on the question of women in the home and at work. It is an excellent support. It is our intention to progress and reach the €2 billion investment shortly.
We will not have time later to analyse, line by line, the supplementary welfare allowance changes. All Members of the House, the largest portion of whom were county councillors, realise that rent supplement was not designed as a housing initiative but as an emergency initiative in the 1970s to support single men. It has now progressed and been expanded in recent years to the extent that over 50,000 people are now receiving it. Over €350 million has been made available out of a total of €530 million in the SWA budget.
Rent supplement is not serving clients for a number of reasons, foremost among them being it is an emergency measure for those who have had a change of circumstances. Those on the housing list and receiving rent supplement do not have equal opportunities to move to long-term housing as they are perceived as being adequately supported in the housing market. They find themselves in a trap. They are doing their utmost to stay in good quality accommodation but cannot be supported by the county council, which is wrong. There is no universality of implementation of the scheme. We discussed this matter during the debate on the Estimates when it was indicated that in County Tipperary one had to be on the housing list or assessed by the housing officer in order to receive rent supplement, which is not the case in many other counties. I have indicated that applicants must be assessed to be eligible.
Those in receipt of rent supplement will not be affected. Those over the age of 65 years, whether renting for six months; in receipt of disability allowance, invalidity pension or blind pension, regardless of the six month provision; determined as being homeless under the NAPS definition of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; on a housing list, regardless of whether they have been renting for six months, will not be affected.
I am sorry Senator Henry is not here to hear what I have to say about emergency circumstances in cases where there are particular social problems, perhaps involving a psychiatric condition, an alcohol related problem or a crisis pregnancy. There is and always will be flexibility in the regulations for those who find themselves in trouble, regardless of the six months provision. We will be taking the opportunity of informing community welfare officers about the implementation of these changes in the regulations and reiterating a number of concerns raised in this House, the Lower House and by a number of organisations which I met yesterday.
The only real change in the diet supplement relates to the methodology by which eligibility is considered. Anyone in receipt of the supplement will not be affected. There has never been a change in the methodology used. The cost of keeping to a particular diet has not been considered since 1996, nor have the increases in social welfare payments but only the methodology is being changed. People will still be entitled to a supplement if they need it.
It is important to clarify what crèche supplement is. It is an emergency measure. It is not a supplement paid to the crèche but rather to a woman who is but not always a parent and who has particular circumstances that warrant the child being in a crèche. She may, for example, be in recovery or have to go to hospital. In Dublin some 90% of crèches are being supported by the Department of Health and Children. The SWA budget is used to top it up. I have said, however, that this is not the way forward. We have negotiated with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Health and Children to find a better, long-term solution for a number of the crèches in the city. In an emergency parents will get an exceptional needs payment to support them. There cannot be inequity within the system. In three health board areas only one person was receiving the supplement. Up to recently most Members of this and the Lower House had never heard of it.
Mr. McCarthy: We always knew it was available.
Mary Coughlan: It is important that we highlight the facts on the floor of the House. It is not a supplement paid to the crèche; it has been designed to provide emergency support for a parent in particular circumstances where it is best that the child is cared for in a crèche. We have targets set under NAPS and under the programme for Government. They are well within our reach over the next three years. The additional €630 million that has been provided to my Department will have a significant positive bearing on those who are in receipt of social welfare benefits. These are not done in isolation from the many other supports provided by my Department, for example the school meals scheme, and the €20 million that is provided to the Family Support Agency to give families support in counselling and in family resource centres. All of these in addition to the income increases give more support to those who are less well off.
I agree with one thing that was said, namely, while I have not been a Minister for very long, if I am not entitled to review and change policies, there is not much point in me being here.
Mr. McCarthy: Hear, hear.
Mary Coughlan: My duty is twofold. I must support the less well off and we may disagree on how to go about this. I also have a duty to make the best use of the resources available to me. I must do both in parallel and this is my intention. I also intend to look at the overall social welfare package. The huge funding provided in social welfare ten or 15 years ago was aimed at those who were unemployed because we had so much unemployment. We now have low unemployment and significant expansions of many schemes. It is unfair to claim the supports are not real as they are real supports and increases. While people may not agree, I believe it is preferable for a person or family to have a better basic payment than to be reliant on many of the little additions to which they become attached and which can change. In the case of a diet supplement, is it not preferable to have a better purchasing power within the basic payment than to rely on a small additional payment of 5, 10 or 30 cent?
We must consider this and new directions within social policy. We must also be entitled to review, restructure and ensure value for money while at the same time supporting the less well off.
Mr. Mooney: The €58 million has disappeared.
Mr. Cummins: The Senator should talk to the people who were in receipt of that money.
Question put and agreed to.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Dardis): When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Mr. Moylan: Now.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.
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