Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Ar dtús báire ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil lúcháir orm bheith ar ais arís sa Seanad agus an Bille seo á chur os a chomhair. I am pleased to bring this Bill before the Seanad. As has been the case in previous years, this is the second of two Bills to complete the implementation of the €630 million social welfare package of budget 2004, which brings the projected level of social welfare expenditure this year to over €11.26 billion. This is a 7% increase over and above the allocation for 2003.

Senators will recall that a separate Bill was enacted in December last to give effect to the increases in weekly social welfare payments from the beginning of January. In addition to a range of other measures, this Bill implements a number of key improvements in social welfare schemes, including increases in child benefit; improvements in the carer's respite care grant; increases in death benefit pension payable to recipients aged 80 years and over; and improvements in the payment after death arrangements.

I am proud to say that this Bill is yet another step in the Government's continuing commitment to fostering an inclusive society. Tangible evidence of delivering on this commitment includes a massive increase in spending on social welfare to more than €11.26 billion in 2004. This is almost double that available in 1997. It also provides substantial increases in child benefit resulting in the rates of payment being more than three times that payable in 1997.

It also includes real increases in social welfare pensions, with old age contributory pensioners now receiving €167.30 per week compared to the equivalent of €99 in 1997, as well as an average real increase, over and above the CPI, across all social welfare schemes of 3.43% since 1997.

I am providing for significant amendments to the social welfare code and the Pensions Act 1990 in this Bill. These include the introduction of an habitual residence test for certain social welfare assistance schemes and child benefit, the definition of "qualified adult" for administrative schemes and provisions to ensure equal treatment in occupational pensions schemes.

Senators will be aware of concerns regarding access to the Irish labour market and the social welfare system following accession on 1 May 2004. Ireland is in favour of enlargement of the European Union. We are champions of enlargement, as we have experienced at first hand the opportunities accession to a greater Europe have presented to our country. I have no doubt that a similar opportunity will present itself to the ten accession countries and, equally, we too will grow economically and socially as the EU horizon stretches further eastwards.

After 1 May, citizens of the new 25-state European Union will be free to travel anywhere within that union. Workers will be free to travel to any other member state to improve their own social condition, to earn a wage and to contribute to their new country of residence. Ireland is a growth economy, with a need for workers, and those new workers are welcome to come to Ireland.

The Government gave a commitment that EU citizens who want to come and work here from 1 May can do so and we will honour that commitment. However, the Government has decided to take certain prudent measures to ensure that the social welfare system does not become overburdened. The introduction of an habitual residence test will act as an additional condition to be satisfied by a person claiming a social assistance payment or child benefit and is designed to restrict access to such payments for people from other countries who have little or no connection with Ireland.

For the purposes of the social welfare code, the definitions of the words "spouse" and "couple" refer to a married couple or to an opposite sex cohabiting couple. These definitions apply both to the statutory schemes, such as weekly social welfare payments, and to the non-statutory schemes such as free travel, free electricity and free telephone rental allowance.

In general, when entitlement to social welfare benefits, whether statutory or non-statutory, is determined, members of same sex couples are treated as individuals. In other words, entitlement is assessed without any reference to the claimant's partner, which, in the main, is more advantageous to the person concerned. In 2003, however, a case was taken against my Department by the Equality Authority on behalf of a same sex couple, where the claimant was granted a free travel pass in his own right, but had been refused a married-type pass which would include his partner. The basis for the refusal was the definition of a couple contained in the social welfare code, which does not extend to same sex couples. Legal advice indicated that this refusal amounted to a breach of the Equal Status Act by discriminating against the claimant on the grounds of sexual orientation. It was considered that my Department was according differing treatment between opposite sex and same sex couples in the free travel scheme. In this instance, a married-type travel pass was issued. The net effect, however, is substantially differing treatment of couples, depending on whether the benefit at issue is non-statutory or is provided for in legislation. This position is not sustainable and must be addressed and I am doing so in this Bill.

I am also providing in the Bill for amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. In particular. I am providing for an amendment to Part VII of that Act, which deals with equal treatment between men and women in occupational pension schemes. The amendments to this section are intended to meet this State's obligation to implement European Community initiatives provided for under Council Directives 2000/43/EC and 2000/78/EC adopted under Article 13 of the EC Treaty, in so far as they relate to occupational pensions. Senators will already have debated the Equality Bill, which provides for the transposition of these directives with regard to other employment matters.

Council Directive 2000/43/EC, the race directive, sets out the framework for combating discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin in both employment and non-employment areas. Council Directive 2000/78/EC sets out the framework for combating discrimination associated with employment and occupation on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation.

In addition to these six grounds, and in line with a commitment in the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, it is also proposed to extend Part VII of the Pensions Act to include the marital and family status and the Traveller community grounds. Taken together with the provisions of the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, which prohibit discrimination in employment and access to goods and services, the amendment to Part VII of the Pensions Act 1990 ensures a coherent and consistent approach to equality across the legislation.

I now wish to outline the provisions contained in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004. As Senators will already have considered it in detail, I will focus on the key provisions.

Child benefit is a universal payment made directly to families and is the most efficient and effective way in which the Government can channel support to children. The rate for the first two children will be increased by €6 per month and for the third and subsequent children will increase by €8 per month. These increases, provided under section 3, will bring the monthly rates to €131.60 and €165.30, respectively. From next month, a family with three children will receive €428.50 compared to the current payment of €408.50. This marks an increase of €20 per month. These increases will mean that since 2000, child benefit rates will have risen by €77.64 per month for each of the first two children and by €94.20 per month for the third and subsequent children. This measure continues the strategy of reforming income support for children by making child income support more neutral in the context of parental employment and reducing employment disincentives. An estimated 524,000 families with more than one million children will benefit from these increases in 2004.

Over successive budgets the Government has introduced measures to develop the services and supports which provide practical assistance to carers. An Agreed Programme for Government included commitments to expand the income limits used to determine entitlement to carer's allowance and to increase the value of the carer's respite care grant. Measures aimed at addressing these commitments were announced in the budget and, accordingly, the amount of income disregarded in the means test will be increased to €250 in the case of a single person and to €500 in the case of a couple. These improvements will be provided for in regulations due to be published next month.

In section 4, the Government is continuing to honour its commitment to support the valuable work undertaken by carers by increasing the annual respite care grant by €100 from €735 to €835, while carers looking after more than one person will receive a grant of €1,670. This marks an increase of €200 which will take effect from June next. This measure, highly valued by carers, will benefit some 24,300 carers and will cost an additional €2.48 million per annum.

The six weeks payment after death arrangements were designed to cushion and support the financial transition for the surviving spouse or partner following the death of a recipient of certain social welfare benefits. Currently, payment of the existing rate of benefit or allowance to the spouse or partner of the deceased continues for the six weeks immediately following the death of the recipient. While these arrangements are applicable to the majority of social welfare schemes, there are a small number of exceptions. In these circumstances the surviving spouse or partner may not be in a position to benefit from the scheme. As the final part of my ongoing efforts to reform this scheme, all such anomalies will be removed from the governing legislation. Accordingly, section 5 provides that the six week payment after death will be extended to those benefits and allowances which would heretofore have been excluded from this payment arrangement. This provision will come into effect this June and completes the scheme's restructuring.

Section 6 provides for an increase in the death benefit pension for recipients aged 80 years and over to €173.70 per week. This increase harmonises the rates of death benefit pension, widow's contributory pension and widower's contributory pension for pensioners aged over 80 years with effect from this May. Section 7 provides for an increase in the minimum amount of unemployment assistance payable where the claimant's means are derived from parental income. The payment is increased by €8.20 per week, bringing the minimum amount payable from €31.80 to €40.00, provided that the claimant establishes an underlying entitlement to unemployment assistance. This measure will come into operation shortly.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform established a working group to review and make recommendations on improving maternity protection legislation. On foot of the group's deliberations, the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 was published which providesinter alia for a range of improvements in the maternity leave arrangements. It is my intention that these improvements should be reflected in the social welfare code. Accordingly, the Bill provides for a number of amendments to the maternity benefit scheme operated by my Department, consequential to the amendments to the maternity leave arrangements. Under the proposed new leave arrangements, the minimum period of maternity leave that must be availed of before the expected date of birth of the child will be reduced from four weeks to two weeks.

The maternity benefit payments are scheduled to coincide with the maternity leave timeframe. Section 8 of the Bill provides that a similarly amended arrangement will apply to maternity benefit payments. The section also provides for the power to make regulations, when an infant is hospitalised, to permit the interruption of the normally continuous period of maternity benefit payment. I plan to bring the measures into force by means of a commencement order, timed to coincide with the implementation of the amended maternity leave arrangements.

The maximum duration of adoptive leave is linked to the maximum duration of maternity leave excluding the period before the birth of the child. As a consequence of the proposed reduction by two weeks of the minimum period of maternity leave required to be taken prior to the expected date of birth, the maximum duration of adoptive leave will increase by two weeks, from 14 weeks to 16 weeks. Section 9 provides the legislative basis for the consequential increase in the duration of adoptive benefit, which is the income support payment paid by my Department to qualifying adoptive parents. The amendment will be brought into force by means of a commencement order, timed to coincide with the implementation of the amendments in the adoptive leave arrangements.

A person's entitlement to short-term insurance-based social welfare schemes, such as unemployment or disability benefit, is determined on the basis of social insurance contributions paid during the course of the "contribution year". The contribution year did not coincide with the calendar year before the alignment of the income tax and calendar years, with effect from January 2002. Special arrangements were put in place to secure the continuity of entitlement to short-term benefits following the alignment of the tax and calendar years. Section 10 provides for the continued application of the arrangements for the purposes of the social insurance schemes.

In An Agreed Programme for Government, the Government agreed to modernise public services to make them more relevant to citizens. We promised to improve access to public services by providing them electronically. The progress of the use of the personal public service number as a public service identifier is a key element of the e-government strategy. In that context, section 11 of the Bill provides for four new agencies to be added to the list of specified bodies that are authorised by legislation to use the PPS number during their customer business transactions. The new agencies are the Companies Registration Office, Enterprise Ireland, the Private Residential Tenancies Board and Coillte Teoranta.

The Pensions Act 1990 requires employers who do not provide a pension scheme for employees to facilitate access to at least one standard personal retirement savings account for such employees. Section 12 provides that when a social welfare inspector is conducting a PRSI investigation, he or she will also investigate compliance with the requirement to facilitate employee access to a PRSA in accordance with the requirements of section 121 of the Pensions Act 1990. Where necessary, the inspector will report issues relating to non-compliance to the Pensions Board.

Budget 2003 proposed the application of PRSI to benefits-in-kind granted to employees, with effect from 1 January 2004. The provision is important because it enhances overall equity and improves the coherence between the PAYE and the PRSI systems. Section 13 provides for technical amendments to the definitions of PRSI contained in social welfare legislation.

Sections 14 and 15 of the Bill provide for the charging of PRSI in cases when an employer has reached an agreed settlement with the Revenue Commissioners in respect of benefits-in-kind that are irregular in nature and minor in monetary terms. Contributions paid in accordance with that provision will not be reckonable for the purposes of establishing entitlement to benefits under the social welfare code because they will, in general, reflect an underpayment of PRSI for which a contribution has already been recorded.

Section 16 of the Bill provides for a minor technical amendment consequential to the change to the definition of PRSI contained in section 13. As I have already outlined, the provisions of section 17 and Schedule 1 to the Bill are designed to limit access to certain schemes. They will entail the application of a new habitual residency test. which will become an additional qualifying condition for the purposes of child benefit and certain social assistance payments. Claimants will be required to provide evidence that they have been habitually resident in the State, or within the common travel area of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for a substantial continuous period. If they have been present in the State for less than two years, they will be presumed not to be habitually resident and the onus will be on them to prove otherwise. If they have been in the State for more than two years, they will still be required to satisfy the general habitual residence requirement.

The application of a residence condition is not exceptional in Europe, as most countries implement a form of it. The UK has operated an habitual residence test for some ten years. The European Court of Justice has set down the various factors which would have to be taken into account in assessing habitual residence. In implementing this provision, my Department will consider the applicant's length of residence in the State, continuity of residence in the State, employment prospects, reasons for coming to live in the State, future intentions and centre of interest such as family, home or other connections in the State. Those who claim social assistance payments but do not satisfy the habitual residency test will be assisted to return home and the necessary arrangements will be made in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

As I outlined, a key objective of the Bill is to remove the difference between the statutory and administrative schemes in the treatment of couples. Sections 18 and 19, which define "spouse" for the purposes of both scheme types, are designed to restore the position which obtained before the decision in the free travel case I mentioned earlier. I stress that the measure is an interim solution, pending an extensive review of the social welfare code in the context of the principles of the equal status legislation. The purpose of the review will be to ensure that any difference of treatment on any of the discriminatory grounds are justified by a legitimate social policy objective and that the means of achieving that objective are necessary and appropriate. It is expected that the review will take some years to complete, as it will examine complex issues with potential implications for matters outside the scope of the social welfare code. The review will be conducted in consultation with interested parties, including other Departments. The proposed format will be agreed with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Sections 20 and 21 mirror the provisions regarding the assessment of cases where an employer has reached an agreed settlement with the Revenue Commissioners in respect of benefits-in-kind that are irregular in nature, minor in monetary terms or involve non-cash remuneration. The sections in question amend the Health Contributions Act 1979 and the National Training Fund Act 2000 to facilitate the application of health contributions and training levies to the settlement figure agreed.

Section 22 of the Bill provides for a number of amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. Part VII of the 1990 Act is being extended to apply to eight additional grounds: age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, race, marital status, family status and the Traveller community ground. The extension of the equal treatment provisions is required under two EU directives and on foot of a commitment in Sustaining Progress. Where feasible and appropriate, section 22 implements the directives in a way that applies their provisions consistently in respect of occupational pensions and other conditions of employment.

Occupational pension issues are different from other conditions of employment, however, and certain practices will continue to be permitted, notwithstanding the prohibition on discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, marital and family status. Occupational pension schemes will continue to have the scope to set the length of service, for example, or the age for admission to the scheme or entitlement to benefits, such as normal retirement age. The schemes will be able to use age in actuarial calculations and to set age or service-based contribution rates in defined contribution schemes. An employer may increase contributions in line with an employee's age, for example. Similarly, the provision will apply to accelerated accrual based on service or age in defined benefit schemes. Occupational pension schemes will have the scope to pay survivor's benefits to the legal spouse only. If a scheme pays to partners of the opposite sex, it must also pay to partners of the same sex. The schemes will be able to pay enhanced benefits to persons retiring early on grounds of disability. The practice of permitting payment only to the legal spouse will be reviewed,inter alia, in light of the outcome of the review of this issue in public sector schemes announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, at the time of the budget in the context of the report of the Commission on Public Service Pensions.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to ensure a coherent and consistent approach to equality both in our legislation and in the way our legislation is administered and enforced. For this reason I have provided in the Bill that pension scheme breaches of the principle of equal pension treatment will be dealt with by the equality tribunal, the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations, under the procedures and machinery used for dealing with employment matters. This will result in a seamless approach to complaints irrespective of the area of employment to which they relate. However, pensions can be complex and require specialised knowledge. For this reason I have provided that the pensions board will provide technical assistance as required.

So it can discriminate even more.

That is what the Minister is saying. It is a disgrace.

Please allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

That is not what we are doing.

I will now deal with the matter of redress. Pensions are exceptional in that what we do today affects our future entitlements rather than current or historical ones. Therefore, I have provided in this Bill that where a rule of a scheme is found to be in breach of the equal treatment principle, it will be rendered null and void and the more favourable provisions must be retrospective to December 2003 or July 2003 — the dates from which the directives apply.

It is not appropriate to have any time limit for initiating a claim while a person is still in the employment to which the claim relates. Therefore, the only time limit I have introduced is six months from the date that employment ends. This is consistent with the provisions of domestic pension law and with law stated by the European Court of Justice.

It is profoundly in breach of equal treatment principles to change the law retrospectively.

Allow the Minister to proceed without interruption.

If the Senator had been here for my initial comments he would understand what is going on. It might be best if he was careful in his consideration of the complexities of equality on the basis of equal treatment. Many people who thought they were in a particular position changed their points of view when I indicated to them that it may be detrimental to their interests to have the ethos of equality administered. It is on that basis that, as I indicated in my speech, I will be reviewing this issue in its entirety, taking into account its complexities and its relevance not only to the social welfare code but to tax law and many other legislative provisions within the State.

I am providing in section 23 and Schedule 2 of the Bill for additional amendments to the Pensions Act 1990. These are mainly technical in nature and a number of them are consequential on the equal treatment provisions.

This Bill builds on the progress made in the area of social inclusion by this Government. It is based on objectives contained in the programme for Government and the commitments made in the social partnership document, Sustaining Progress, and reflects the principles of the revised national anti-poverty strategy. It also contains measures designed to ensure prudent management and robust safeguards for the social welfare code. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.

I welcome the Minister. In November 2003 the Minister announced 16 cutbacks in various social welfare benefits. We on this side of the House highlighted the difficulties that would arise as a result of many of these cuts but she ploughed ahead. Typically of this Government, the Minister targeted the less well-off and marginalised sectors of the community while creating tax breaks for the rich and powerful. This is par for the course for Fianna Fáil and, of course, the PDs, whose members do not even pretend to have a social conscience any longer.

Widows and widowers are often forgotten people in this country. What was the Minister thinking when she slashed — she may prefer the word "adjusted" — the allocation for widows and widowers? This will cause hardship for more than 2,000 people. Working widows who are paying full PRSI contributions should be entitled to full disability or unemployment benefit when they need it. Entitlement for new claimants to the half-rate payment has been discontinued, which is an absolute disgrace. This will result in estimated savings of €5.8 million in 2004 and €12 million in a full year. How can the Minister justify this action when the social insurance fund is €1.3 billion in surplus and when public finances were found to be better off by €500 million a week after the announcement of these cuts?

Is there any sense of justice or fairness left in this Government? Even at this stage the cutbacks targeting widows and widowers could be reversed. Surely the Minister or her masters in the Department of Finance must recognise that this cutback is not fair. The National Association of Widows in Ireland has vowed to take this issue to Brussels if it does not obtain satisfaction. I appeal to the Minister to have a heart and admit she made a mistake. I understand from today's newspaper that she is meeting the widows' association today. Perhaps she could let us know the outcome later. I hope she will reconsider her decision.

The Minister also withdrew certain social welfare entitlements from same-sex couples recently. The change goes against the High Court ruling which resulted in gay couples winning the same entitlements to non-statutory benefits, such as free travel and free electricity, as married couples. In statutory payments, married couples are also discriminated against. If both partners are in receipt of benefits, one partner receives significantly less than the other for no other reason than that he or she wears a wedding ring. Same-sex couples both receive 100% of statutory benefit payments. It is of little comfort to widows, widowers and lone parents to know they are not alone in being discriminated against by the Government. They are part of a much larger and fast-growing group of forgotten people who are suffering the brunt of the Government's pre-election spending binge. I implore the Minister to reconsider her decision and reverse these shameful cutbacks, which will inflict much hardship on the poorer sections of our community.

The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has some very positive aspects which are to be welcomed, although it is my duty as Opposition spokesperson to highlight its inadequacies and raise issues which require greater priority and attention. I particularly welcome the extension of the period in which benefits are paid to a surviving spouse on the death of a person receiving benefits. That income was withdrawn immediately upon the death of a person receiving benefit added to the grief of the surviving spouse and resulted in many cases in economic hardship for the household. In section 8, which deals with maternity benefit, I welcome the reduction of the period of pre-confinement from four weeks to two weeks. The suggestion came from this House during discussion of the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill. I am glad the Minister is prepared to listen to the laudable and constructive suggestions made in this House.

One of the most neglected groups in society, which also suffers the greatest stress, consists of those who care for ill and disabled family members. The financial and social sacrifices they make save the Exchequer billions of euro because without their care, love and hard work, many more people would have to be cared for in Government-funded care facilities. The increase of €100 in the respite grant is welcome, as is the doubling of this figure for a person caring for two people. In some cases people look after three or more people and I ask that they also receive apro rata increase. It would be extremely unfair if this did not happen. For the amount of people involved, the cost would be negligible.

The cost of buying a week or fortnight's care in any nursing home is increasing at an alarming rate at a time when the Government is giving generous tax breaks to developers of private nursing homes. While this policy may address the lack of capacity in public hospitals, some mechanism must be found to compel the people who benefit from these tax breaks to cap the amount they can charge for beds in these establishments, especially for relatives of people in receipt of a respite grant who require a badly needed break and at a time of the year when they see fit to take such a break.

I am firmly of the view that there should be a shift of caring resources towards home care and that a home-based subvention system should be established. It would be far better for sick or disabled people to be looked after in their own home and environment with a proper support system.

The current system has an in-built bias towards institutional care. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs which produced a report on carers in November last year. It forcefully recommended the need to introduce an integrated care subvention scheme to maximise support for home care. This recommendation accords with the view of the Government as expressed in the health strategy documents but action rather than words or reports is now required.

The increases in child benefit amount to approximately 20 cent a day. This Government and the Minister for Finance, in particular, gave a solemn commitment to increase child benefit rates by 2005 to €149.90 for the first and second child and €185.40 for the third and subsequent children. The gap to be filled in budget 2005 is €18.30 and €20.10, respectively, and I hope this promise is honoured and not abandoned like so many other promises made by the Government.

The real value of the increase in child benefit can be judged after taking into account the effect of inflation which according to the budget will be 2.5%. Looking at the rates for the first and second child, inflation erodes €3.14 of the monthly increase. The real increases for children is therefore only €2.86 a month, which equates to 66 cent a week and 10 cent a day. I ask the Minister if this is a suitable response to Ireland's child poverty problem.

To quote the Children's Rights Alliance, "Despite the availability of resources, Child Benefit was increased less than half of what is required just to keep pace with the commitments made in Sustaining Progress." The negative impact from failing to provide the necessary child income support to meet the 2007 child poverty target is aggravated by the 16 cuts the Minister is implementing and the failure of the Government to meet the commitment contained in the health strategy in 2001 to extend medical card eligibility to a further 200,000 households. There are thousands fewer people eligible for medical cards now compared to when this commitment was given. The Taoiseach gave a commitment prior to the last election that 200,000 extra households would be eligible for medical cards. This is another promise on medical cards which has not been fulfilled.

The cuts in supplementary welfare allowances such as rent, crèche and diet supplements further compound the income poverty and lack of access to services experienced by many Irish children. The child dependant allowance, which is targeted at children in families in deepest poverty, was frozen for the ninth consecutive year. According to the Combat Poverty Agency, the value of the child dependant allowance has decreased by 25% in real terms since 1994.

I will not deal in detail with each of the 16 cuts the Minister signed into law in January but each and every one of them is inflicting unnecessary hardship on the weakest members of society. It is the Minister's duty and that of this House to ensure these people are protected. I suggest that the Minister is failing the poor and the marginalised in this instance.

On the issue of the personal public service number, I welcome the inclusion of the additional agencies outlined in section 11 which are authorised by legislation to use the PPS number as a public service identification. I hope the personal information contained will continue to be confidential and used only by agencies for the purpose for which it is intended.

As our population ages, successive Governments have been making provision for the increasing numbers in the pension age group over the next 20 years. The PRSA scheme has been put forward as the main solution to the pension problem. While it is early days yet to have any definite news on the uptake, I ask the Minster to indicate the compliance of employers in providing access to PRSAs for their employees.

This Bill is very comprehensive and very technical in many areas. The sections which affect individuals and families will be those raised at politicians' clinics around the country. "A lot more to do" is certainly an apt slogan where social welfare is concerned.

I listened with interest to the words, "discriminated", "forgotten people" and "pre-election binge". The empty rhetoric that comes on occasions from the other side of the House is amusing.

I was thinking about the empty promises made.

Allow Senator Cox to continue without interruption.

There is a package of €11.26 billion for 2004 going into social welfare.

And €12 million could be taken from the widows of Ireland.

That expenditure of €11.26 billion by the Department of Social and Family Affairs could in any way be put in a context of discrimination, forgotten people or a pre-election binge is absolutely ridiculous——

The Senator should ask the widows and the forgotten people.

Allow Senator Cox to continue without interruption.

I look forward to dealing with that issue. With respect to some of the issues raised by the Senator, I intend to speak about child benefit later in the debate. In 1996 when the Opposition was in Government, the child benefit increase in that year was £2 on £36.82, which is an increase of €2.54. Unfortunately, I do not have my calculator with me but that amount is a lot less than five or ten cent a day. If the Opposition Members are complaining about what this Government is introducing, they should leave child benefit alone——

The Government should stick to the promises it made.

——because this was the Government that three years ago brought in the single biggest increase ever in child benefit, a measure of which I am particularly proud. If the Opposition wants an argument, it should argue about other issues.

We will see if the Government will honour the promises in next year's budget.

We should not argue about issues like child benefit.

Allow Senator Cox to continue.

This Minister has brought before the House a Bill that deals with the single biggest expenditure on social welfare packages since 1997. Child poverty is being addressed by this Government not just by means of the child benefit payment. The Government is examining a range of measures directed at child poverty. There are issues such as uniform allowance and direct payment for provision of food for children at school. These payments are directed to the family. Child benefit is a family payment, directly focused on the cost of child care. It benefits 524,000 families and approximately 1 million children will benefit from this increase. This is something of which we should be proud. The child benefit payment has been increased and is greater than inflation when calculated on a daily basis.

We have also examined the carer's respite grant. This Government introduced the carer's allowance and has now introduced the carer's respite grant.

Not only has carer's respite grant been introduced but we have also introduced carer's benefit. We brought in innovative legislation which dealt with the fact that many people, who are in receipt of social welfare payments, choose to take time off from work. With the agreement of the employer, if they have the appropriate number of social welfare contributions, they may apply for carer's leave and maintain all their social welfare, pension and employment rights and, where eligible, be paid carer's benefit. Those who are not working may claim carer's allowance. I wish we lived in a world where all carers could be paid all the money but we do not live in such a world. Every year choices have to be made. We live in a country that is bound by the global economy. Ireland generates its wealth from its economy and we must decide how to spend that wealth.

Some €15 million on Punchestown.

We must create an economy that can sustain our commitment to looking after the less well-off, the poor, those with a disability and those on their own. The Minister has increased the carer's respite grant to €835. That grant is one of the most welcome cheques in any household in a year. It is not just a grant that goes directly to the carers of older people, but to the parents of children with a disability. It can sometimes pay for a most needed weekend away. The income disregard has been increased to €250 per week or €500 per couple. That means more people are receiving carer's allowance on a weekly basis. It would be great to get rid of the income disregard and to give carer's allowance to everybody but that is not possible. Every year we chip away at ensuring that more people are eligible to claim carer's allowance.

The death benefit pension is being increased to €173 per week. In association with the Department of Health and Children, the Minister has taken on board many innovative projects in the area of home care for the elderly. These are being examined and pilot schemes are taking place in the north west and in the Western Health Board region. These pilot schemes are examining how we can look after our people and make the best use of either subventions paid directly to nursing homes or, instead of being paid to a nursing home, to carers as a way of setting up a system of care where people would not have to go to nursing homes.

The social welfare system is about looking after people in most need. That is what this social welfare system does. We provide unemployment assistance, unemployment benefit, disability benefit, carer's allowance, carer's benefit, child benefit, sick pay benefit and pensions. We have not forgotten promises made. They were not empty promises. We talked about changing maternity leave. Senator Cummins is right that the improvements in maternity leave came from here. That was because Members, and especially the female Members, stood together in the debate with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, and asked him to stand up against what was coming from Europe in terms of improvements in maternity benefit.

The Senator should stand with the widows now.

It is Senator Terry, and not Senator Cummins, who should take credit for any change in that area.

I did not take credit for it. If the Senator listened he would know I said it came from this House.

Senator Cox without interruption.

The social welfare system has seen an improvement of services and reform of the system. The Department is taking a pro-active role on how to make its information widely available. It contacts people in receipt of benefits to ensure they are receiving the correct benefit or if it is possible to receive a different benefit or allowance that would suit them better. They are invited in to discuss these issues with the Department. I welcome that change.

The Minister was here a few weeks ago when she brought the Civil Registration Bill before the House. There is an improvement in the delivery of services in the social welfare system. There have been savings of €300 million regarding fraudulent claims in the social welfare system. That money is being put back into the system to improve matters.

On the issue of widows, I agree with Senator Cummins. One of the difficulties I have had for many years with the social welfare system is the rule whereby a person in receipt of one social welfare payment cannot be in receipt of a second social welfare payment. This is not new. Since I became a Member in 1997 I have been aware of the problem. In the past, if one was in receipt of one payment one could not get a second payment from the Department. There are certain situations where people are discriminated against by virtue of the fact that they are either a widow or widower. I say to the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance that this issue needs to be re-examined.

Hear, hear. Well said.

Hear, hear.

It is not fair to say we will make this change and that it is justified to save €6 million. It is not justified. The Minister is meeting with the widows' association. It is a challenge for us on this side to speak to those involved in this decision to see what can be done to have it reversed. I intend to do my utmost to have that change brought about——

Good for the Senator.

——and the anomalies in the system which mean that those in receipt of social welfare, where they are discriminated against by virtue of the fact that their husband or wife has died, cannot access additional payments. It is important to look at it. I appeal to the Minister to have another look it as I am aware she promised to evaluate the system. Perhaps before Committee Stage we will be able to make those changes.

A social welfare package of €11.26 billion cannot be scoffed or laughed at. An extra package of €630 million in 2004 or a 7% increase on the 2003 figures, which was agreed in the budgetary framework of 2003, is something of which we should be proud. It is geared towards looking after the less well-off in our communities, the unemployed, child benefit, respite care, respite grant, death grant and so on.

I welcome the Minister and I am pleased the Bill is before the House. I look forward to the passage of Second Stage this evening and, in the context of the next Stage, the possibility of reversing some of the changes not only in this Bill but in previous Bills.

I wish to share time with Senator Henry.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I salute Senator Cox for her brave and honourable contribution here because she did a decent thing when she said she would argue and lobby for certain changes, especially in regard to the most vulnerable and particularly widows. This is necessary. We are disgracing ourselves. I do not ask the House to listen to me or Members of the Opposition but to the Supreme Court because this case was visited in the Supreme Court some years ago. The name of the woman was Susan McHugh. The judges of the Supreme Court found that where this was attempted it was unconstitutional, disgraceful, mean-minded, immoral and unjustifiable. That is the highest court in the land. It is not a partisan attack. I regret that a decent woman, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, has been put in this position but she did not get into it by herself. I have been around this place for a long time. She got into it because of pressure from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Finance. It is outrageous to introduce discrimination against some of the most disadvantaged widows and gay people. It is discrimination.

I was proud on a day some years ago in this House when a Fianna Fáil Minister, Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, enunciated a principle that should continue to exist in this House, that she would not introduce discriminatory measures unless there were clear, coherent and consistent reasons for doing so — none had been advanced by the Opposition at that stage. That was a decent line to take.

The amounts saved in this pettifogging, disgusting exercise are marginal. How can it be justified that approximately €6 million is robbed from widows — the widows' mite — and a tiny, insignificant amount is taken from gay people? While the Minister said this is done for consistency, I do not believe it.

Does the Government have a commitment to equality? Why has it appointed to the Equality Authority a gentleman who gave vent to his not very positive feelings about the rights of gay couples on "The Late Late Show"? What is the Government at?

I wish to comment on the Minister's speech. I was absent for part of her contribution but left a very important meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs to come to the House because I feel so strongly about this issue. The Minister's explanation was as follows:

In general, when entitlement to social welfare benefits, whether statutory or non-statutory, is determined, members of same sex couples are treated as individuals. In other words, entitlement is assessed without any reference to the claimant's partner, which, in the main, is more advantageous to the person concerned.

Fine, but who says it is more advantageous? What about human dignity? Is it all just about money? Is it not about entitlements to equality? I do not believe the Minister is saying that she wants to give some kind of financial advantage to those in gay relationships or that she prefers that situation to marriage and thinks it should be rewarded by the tax structure. That is rubbish and she knows it, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley.

Was there consultation with gay groups? I have not heard of any. However, I have been briefed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and its equality groups, and received a letter from the Equality Authority which included the statement:

Niall Crowley, chief executive officer of the Equality Authority, expressed concern at the decision of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to amend the Social Welfare Bill. This marks a significant reversal in the work to create a more equal society for gay and lesbian people. The early settlement of the case by the Department of Social and Family Affairs had reflected a valuable recognition for same sex couples. This has now been reversed. The claimant now stands to lose his bus pass.

How mean can one get? The entitlements affected by the cuts represent a catalogue of shame and include the free travel scheme. Does the Government think travel narrows the mind or that people should not be able to get to Dun Laoghaire? They also include the national fuel scheme — should people be kept cold so that they will be more moral? — the part-time job incentive scheme, the back to work allowance, the smokeless fuel allowance and the household benefits package. It is outrageous. One would need to be Jonathan Swift to do justice to this kind of thing.

The Minister referred to a court judgment, as she did in regard to widows. The equality tribunal was set up and the Minister stated in that regard:

...a case was taken against my Department by the Equality Authority on behalf of a same sex couple, where the claimant was granted a free travel pass in his own right, but had been refused a married-type pass which would include his partner. The basis for the refusal was the definition of a couple contained in the social welfare code, which does not extend to same sex couples. Legal advice indicated that this refusal amounted to a breach of the Equal Status Act by discriminating against the claimant on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Following the passage of this mean amendment, there will still be discrimination but it will be legalised by this House. I am, therefore, ashamed to be in this House today and to be told that the few cent being thrown at gay people will buy them off, which is rubbish. Half the countries of Europe have faced this issue but have not behaved in this way. Israel, which has a stronger religious ethos and from where this discrimination came, has settled a case on this basis and accepts these grounds.

The Minister continued:

It was considered that my Department was according differing treatment between opposite sex and same sex couples in the free travel scheme. In this instance, a married-type travel pass was issued. The net effect, however, is substantially differing treatment of couples, depending on whether the benefit at issue is non-statutory or is provided for in legislation. This position is not sustainable.

The Minister should do something about it. I have almost finished the preparation of a domestic partnership Bill and look to the Government and this House to support it and, if the Government will not support it, to introduce one of its own. The Bill is important and will address issues to which I have referred.

The Minister said the measures are temporary and will be reviewed. While I accept the Minister is a decent woman, she is under pressure from the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, from where the mean-mindedness comes. It is dreadful and psychologically traumatic to introduce temporary discrimination.

I wish to record some of the comments made about the Bill. The Equality Coalition states:

The amendment to the Social Welfare Bill is discriminatory against gays and lesbians and will affect in particular older couples. The amendment would mean that the Irish government is the only EU country to have introduced deliberately discriminatory legislation.

The Government can wriggle as much as it likes but the legislation is discriminatory. It is said that the discrimination is in the interests of those targeted but I do not believe it. This is the first European government in a decade to again begin discriminating and this is to overrule a court judgment. While I will not rehearse the case itself, we are travelling in a totally different direction from the rest of Europe.

A consideration of the case under the European Convention on Human Rights states:

Article 8 of the Convention provides that everyone has a right to respect for private and family life. In a seminal case, Karnerv. Austria, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that discrimination suffered by same-sex couples was illegal. Siegmund Karner lived in an apartment in Vienna with his male partner who had started renting the apartment a year earlier. His partner died and left the lease on the apartment to Karner. The landlord tried to terminate his residency and ignore Austria’s domestic legislation protecting families renting property, which allows persons living as life partners to leave rental leases to each other. When the case went to the Vienna Regional Court, it decided the legislation in question extended to homosexuals.

The Austrian Supreme Court ruled in favour of the landlord in 1996 and decided not to extend the legislation. However, last year, the case was decided in Strasbourg and the European Court of Human Rights discovered there had been a breach of Article 8. In its judgment, the court stated:

For the purposes of Article 14, a difference in treatment is discriminatory if it has no objective and reasonable justification, that is, if it does not pursue a legitimate aim or if there is not a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised. Furthermore, very weighty reasons [This is the same argument as that made by Mrs. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn] have to be put forward before the court could regard a difference in treatment based exclusively on the ground of sex as compatible with the Convention. Just like differences based on sex, differences based on sexual orientation require particularly serious reasons by way of justification.

The British Government just last year, in the Queen's speech, opened up the whole question of same sex relationships, so we are wildly out of sync.

I am asking, as Senator Cox did in the context of widows' entitlements, for this to be re-examined in consultation with the Government's Equality Authority, the decision of which it over-ruled and which it is now trying to over-rule legislatively. I would also like the view of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to be taken into account.

I am astonished that this should happen. I remember arguing a similar case in this House following one of the budgets of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. I instanced a case of two men who had lived together in Cork for 40 years. One was 80 years of age and the other was 70. The 80 year old got Parkinson's disease and, being a caring spouse, partner or whatever one calls him, he put the house in the name of the younger man, who then got cancer and died. The older man was left with a bill of £350,000 for continuing to live in the house in which he was born. On that occasion the Minister understood the human dimension of the discrimination and I am glad to say, with the support of the House, ameliorated that situation.

I find this a very insulting element of a Bill which otherwise does some good things, like increasing social welfare payments. While I do not know whether decent people on the Government side can vote against the measure, they could lobby to reverse the measure and to support the Minister of State's Department against the mean-minded begrudgery of the Departments of Finance and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. They have shamed themselves and the country and they have made me ashamed to be in the Chamber today.

I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time.

Something that concerns me about the presentation of the Bill is that it seems to be taken as though it is in isolation and does not affect people in any respect other than through increases which are definitely being given. I am most concerned with the appalling decline in the number of people who now have medical cards, and as a pharmacist the Minister of State will know this very well.

Ten years ago 35% of the population was covered by medical cards and now we are down to 29%, despite the fact that everyone over 70 years is now included as a medical card holder. When the Department of Health and Children was calculating how many people would be entitled to cards it decided it would be between 30,000 and 40,000, though as the Minister knows it was nearer 70,000 people. Despite this huge increase in numbers we still have a drastic fall in the numbers entitled to free medical treatment and the Minister of State will know that is hitting people very hard.

Married couples earning just over €206.50 per week have to pay €40 to attend a general practitioner and some of them simply do not go because they cannot afford to. There are still people on low pay in the country who would have been covered some years ago, but despite the increases a section of the population is worse off now for health cover than ten years ago. For example, even people with medical cards must pay to see a chiropodist. As the Minister of State knows, it is ten years since there was an increase in the amount of money given to chiropodists for visits by medical card holders. The equivalent of €18 may have seemed fine at that time, and whatever the Minister may feel about people not deserving an increase for their services — I doubt he feels that — materials have increased enormously in cost. Older people must now pay a top-up fee to many chiropodists and this is not helped by the fact that there has been no agreement since 1997 on what qualification for chiropody or podiatry is recognised by the Department of Health and Children. These matters are hitting very poor people.

There is also an increase in the amount people must pay per month — €78 — if they are on long-term drug programmes. Many people who are just outside the medical card threshold are affected by this. Those earning approximately €220 per week have to pay one fifth of their wages for a visit to the doctor while payment for drugs, if necessary, will account for another fifth of their monthly earnings. Those are very large amounts of money for some people and I wish such a huge chasm was not developing between the Departments of Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs. Those two Departments must work together.

The Government is proud of the increases it has introduced, which have been very good. At the same time, the cases of those who are losing out must be examined. I remember a triumph for those on low incomes who did not receive the benefits of those on State payments, such as the free telephone allowance. This was when Proinsias De Rossa was Minister for Social Welfare and I explained to him that many people on private pensions got little more than those on public pensions and got none of the benefits. I was glad he extended some of those benefits to private pensioners within 20% of the State pension and I am pleased these have not been touched, as such a move would have been very regressive.

I have always admired the staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs in that they try to understand that there are people trying to exist on very limited sums of money. I realise the Government is trying to do its best for them but one Department must look at what is happening in other Departments. People are becoming marginalised and there are problems such as the serious decrease in the number of medical card holders.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Malley, and I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, on her excellent speech. As she said, this is the second of two Bills which are necessary to implement the €630 million social welfare package of the 2004 budget. A separate Bill came before us in December which gave effect to significant increases in weekly social welfare payments and allowed the increases to take effect from the beginning of January.

Since 1997 social welfare payment rates have increased by 62%. If we cast our minds back to 1997, though some on the Opposition benches may not want to do so, the total budget for the Department of Social Welfare for the year was €5.7 billion. This year over €11.2 billion will be spent on social welfare payments, the highest amount in the history of the State.

The Bill implements key improvements in social welfare schemes including increases in child benefit, improvements in the carer's respite grant, increases in death benefit pension payable to recipients aged 80 years and over, improvements in the payment after death arrangements and a range of other measures. Child benefit payments have more than tripled since 1997. Senator Cummins used figures and statistics so I feel it is necessary to point some out also.

And promises.

We will do that later. Since 1997 child benefit has tripled.

One would think the Roman Empire began in 1997.

Senator Wilson without interruption.

This year over €1 billion will be spent on child benefit. The number of people who qualify for carer's allowance has increased by almost 140% since the Government took office. The Bill also provides for amendments to Part VII of the Pensions Act 1990 which deals with the equal treatment of men and women in occupational pension schemes. The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government promised to increase pensions to €100 per week when it came into office. We have exceeded that figure and we are on target to provide a pension of €200 per week by 2007. Taken together with the provisions of the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, which prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment and access to goods and services, the amendment to Part VII of the Pensions Act ensures a coherent and consistent approach to equality across our legislation.

I am delighted the Minister has addressed concerns raised by Members of both Houses about the labour market and the enlargement of the EU. The Government has given a commitment that any EU citizen who wishes to come here to work after 1 May can do so freely. The economy is strong and we will welcome people who wish to come here to work. Last year, 47,000 work permits were issued to non-nationals to help Irish businesses to meet their labour supply requirements. I personally know of many businesses in my own area of Cavan which have employees from the four corners of the earth and pay them well. They are a great asset to the companies for which they work.

The Minister is correct to say that the Government cannot allow our social welfare system to become overburdened. The Government has a duty of care both to social welfare recipients and those who fund such payments — the taxpayers. The Minister has moved to protect our social welfare system as we approach the enlargement of the European Union on 1 May. The sensible, prudent, fair and reasonable measures the Minister proposes to introduce will ensure that our social welfare system is not overburdened.

I agree with Senator Cox that the situation concerning widows should be re-examined. Vulnerable widows and widowers are depending on payments they receive from the Department. It is neither fair nor reasonable to cut them off. I welcome the fact that the Minister is to meet representatives of the National Association of Widows in Ireland this evening. The issue needs to be re-appraised.

The facts are clear — the Fianna Fáil-PD Government increased spending on social welfare this year by 7%. For every €10 spent this year, €4 will be spent on social welfare. Never before in the history of the State has any Government put such an emphasis on the social agenda. This week and every week, approximately 970,000 people on average will claim a social welfare payment. The number of low-paid people removed from the tax net has increased. This year, one in three people will pay no tax at all. The Government is putting more money where it is most needed but the Minister cannot do so if there is abuse of social welfare schemes or if money is being wasted. The Minister has engaged in reform to copperfasten the gains already made in our social agenda and to ensure that we will continue to support those who are most disadvantaged and, therefore, most in need of help. Following the budget, the Minister instituted reforms so that taxpayers' money is spent on alleviating poverty and disadvantage. In budget 2004, the Minister introduced reforms but she was criticised for putting a cap on the multi-millions given to landlords in rent supplement grant payments. However, as a result of the reforms, rents stabilised or came down. The Opposition predicted dire consequences from the further reform of rent supplements, which are set to cost the taxpayer approximately €325 million this year, but those consequences have not yet materialised. That money goes straight into landlords' pockets and was never intended as a response to long-term housing needs. The Minister is working to reform the system, bring this problem to an end and achieve better housing for those in need of rent supplement.

I recall that in a previous contribution, Senator Cummins mentioned the lack of finance for housing. However, €1.9 billion is being invested in housing this year.

And there are more homeless people than ever before.

There are fewer homeless actually. The Senator should check his facts.

Let us cast our minds back, seeing as Senator Cummins is good at history——

Senator Wilson is not.

Senators should speak through the Chair.

In 1995, the Labour-Fine Gael-Democratic Left Government was given the opportunity to put its rhetoric into practice. That famous man, Proinsias De Rossa, who is now pontificating about security and co-operation in Europe and trying to disrupt the calm waters of this country, allocated a £1.80 increase to old age pensioners. They were the people who contributed to establishing and building this State to what it is today.

I am no apologist for him, but he did not take €12 million from widows.

Over three budgets under the control of that so-called socially-minded rainbow Government, the total average increase in pensions was €2.95.

They could afford to live then.

God help us whatever the next one will be like, in about 20 years' time.

I am glad the Senator realises there will be another one.

Was that part of Senator Wilson's speech? Such spontaneity in one so young.

Order please. Please allow Senator Wilson to complete his contribution without interruption.

I congratulate the Minister on securing €11.26 billion for her departmental budget this year. That underlines the Government's commitment to the elderly, children, the less well off——

And the widows.

——the sick, those unable to care for themselves and the unemployed. If I were in the position of Opposition Senators, I would be welcoming these increases, especially those in unemployment benefit, because after the next election some of them may have to sign on for it.

These departmental speeches are excellent. Can we have some more?

I thank the Minister for her presentation earlier, and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, to the House. The Minister said there was a need for foreign workers, who are welcome, but the habitual residence test sends out a different message. I wonder if such a test is required. Perhaps the Government should have waited to see what measures were actually required to address any social welfare abuses that may arise. Will such a test deter people from coming here or result in some people being sent home whom we should not repatriate? We have made mistakes in the past in our treatment of people coming here to work, such as nurses, because we did not allow their spouses to work here also. As a result we lost foreign nurses whose expertise was badly needed here.

Workers from the new accession states will not be tied in to the work permits system so they should be able to change jobs. However, anyone who changes job can be unemployed in the interim, so where will such people stand? They and their children will be discriminated against under the social welfare system. I have no problem with measures aimed at tackling social welfare abuses but I wonder whether the Minister's proposals will deal with such abuses or will penalise workers from the accession states while social welfare abuses by others continue.

I also wonder about the tests involved, including employment prospects. The situation concerns people who might be here for more than two years; will they also be subject to tests? Who will be affected by these provisions and will they be more far-reaching than the Government intends them to be? The proposal should be reviewed because it is premature.

I support Senator Norris's comments concerning the qualified adult administrative scheme. There is an anomaly in the legislation in terms of making a moral judgment. We have no problem in recognising unmarried, mixed sex couples, yet we are not prepared to do the same for same sex couples. Senator Norris outlined the moral reasons for not having this provision but there are also social reasons. People in mutually supportive relationships should be looked after but this provision is a backward step as it undoes a court judgment which found, for good reasons, that the State should act in a particular way. I refer to amendments to inheritance tax provisions. If one member of a same sex or opposite sex couple dies and they have lived in a house for a specific period and fulfilled certain requirements, the surviving member does not pay inheritance tax. There are social reasons for this apart from compassionate reasons. A person should not be thrown out of a house he or she shared with his or her partner because he or she had to pay a major inheritance tax bill. That was a progressive step and nobody complained about it. Similar logic should be applied to this provision. The people involved in such long-term relationships are vulnerable and dependent and we must look out for them. Discrimination should not come into play.

This provision also differs from the Government's approach to pension provisions. Where a scheme pays partners of the opposite sex, it must also pay partners of the same sex and the Government is doing this for social reasons. It is positive from a societal point of view to look after those who have been in supportive relationships, regardless of their sexual orientation. The Government is prepared to do this in regard to pensions. However, in general, couples who are not married can be discriminated against and the Minister said this would be reviewed. I would very much welcome a review as soon as possible.

She also stated this provision is an interim measure and the Government will review it but that may take years. I urge that it be reviewed as soon as possible. While I do not agree with it, I do not understand why it should take years, given that the Government introduces other radical measures quickly when it wants to. I do not understand the reasoning behind that.

Opposite sex couples can take up various schemes that same sex couples cannot but such couples often lose out in terms of social welfare because they are treated as a unit. Same sex non-married couples do not benefit from the tax breaks to which married couples are entitled and that needs to be examined down the line. They are penalised in two contradictory ways.

I welcome the increases in income limits for eligibility for carer's allowance and so on. However, four months after the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recommended the means test for carer's allowance should be abolished, the Government did nothing and it should give priority to this recommendation.

Reference has been made to the 16 savage cuts, including those being implemented against widows and lone parents. The savings made by these cuts will be minimal and the cost of reversing them would be minimal. I urge, therefore, that the Minister should, like the Minister for Education and Science, ask the Government and the Minister for Finance to find the necessary money to reverse them.

Hear, hear.

When the Government wants, it can do so. I welcome the provision for payments after death. I dealt with a constituent recently who lost out on the six week payment covered by the provision. Under the legislation, she will not be paid retrospectively and I ask that such people should receive the payment retrospectively. There was an anomaly in the previous legislation which resulted in unfair treatment of certain people. While it will be reversed under this legislation, people who have lost out over the years should be recompensed retrospectively.

I welcome the Minister of State. I warmly welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and her Department on continuing to build on the solid foundation stones laid by the previous Government. While there were restrictions on budgets, the Minister managed to secure a 7% increase across the board, which is a phenomenal achievement. Many lives are touched by the social welfare system and employment opportunities have improved significantly. The taxes generated as a result have been re-invested in the welfare system. Many countries, particularly in Europe, look with envy on Ireland when they see how it was done and how the population is benefiting.

Romania, is it?

The Department's budget for 2004 is €11.26 billion, which is a significant amount, and it will be directed at children, pensioners and people who for whatever reasons cannot gain employment.

I refer to the widow's pension. The Government and its predecessor have been the only ones to take on the concept of social inclusion. A Cabinet sub-committee on social inclusion is in place, which is chaired by the Taoiseach. It meets regularly and is attended by the Tánaiste. Nobody has done more for pensioners in the past seven years.

The Government cut €12 million from the budget for pensioners.

Order please.

The people appreciated the increase and in 2002 they renewed the mandate given to us in 1997.

They are delighted to have a sub-committee. It is fantastic.

I would not take bets. The Government will change its mind tomorrow.

Senator Brady, without interruption. Senator Brian Hayes will have an opportunity to contribute in a few minutes.

The people who benefit from these schemes decide who is in Government and they made a statement two years ago.

I refer to changes in work permit provisions and people entering Ireland from the accession states. A total of 16,500 of the 47,000 permits granted last year were issued to EU citizens. Following enlargement on 1 May, the population of the EU will expand significantly and it is essential and prudent to protect our welfare system. Every other member state has done so and the Minister should be congratulated on introducing the necessary changes. The introduction of the habitual residence tax will provide an essential protection and it will be applied evenly and impartially. It can only benefit the system as a whole.

I warmly welcome other measures in the legislation such as the equal treatment of men and women in terms of pensions. Ireland is complying with its obligations under EU law. A great deal of work has been done in terms of equality throughout society, particularly in the area of employment. When the Taoiseach was Minister for Labour, he departed completely from previous policy and there was a fight to achieve equal benefits and pay for women. That was not long ago and we have not come that far since but it is great that when the State is in a position to address equality issues for all, it takes them on.

I refer to the provisions to combat discrimination on race or other grounds with particular reference to the Traveller community.

This touches on very vulnerable sections of society. It proves the Government's commitment to social inclusion and the welfare of the most vulnerable in society. The increases in child benefit have gone a long way towards creating a level playing pitch, particularly in vulnerable areas. For many years whole sections of the community in the north inner city were devastated by the effects of drugs, unemployment and lack of education. Anyone passing through areas such as Sheriff Street and the north quays will see the dramatic improvements. If one were to suggest less than ten years ago that a third level institute would be located within walking distance of one of the most deprived communities in the country, one would have been laughed at, but that is now a reality with the National College of Ireland located there. Dramatic changes in housing conditions and educational and employment opportunities have meant that from a base where generations of local families had not been in a position to gain employment, their children now are aspiring to work in major banks in the Financial Services Centre. The welfare system played a huge part in those communities.

Some commentators on child poverty and child care use statistics to back up positions for their own benefit, be it political or financial, which annoyed people in these areas. Child benefit is equitable and fair and the consistent increases in the past number of years has been proven in those areas where it is most needed. I congratulate the Minister on bringing child benefit so far and I urge her to continue this good work.

Following the payment of a death grant, payments of all benefits and allowance will be extended for a further six week period. After a death, people are at a vulnerable stage and are under severe pressure. Extending all payments for a further six weeks is indicative of the way the Government looks at people's lives and takes account of what every family will experience at some stage. The maternity benefit changes are welcome, in particular in the case of adoptive parents. For many years adoptive parents were ignored and were not granted the same benefits as other parents.

Senator Norris raised the issue of same sex couples. We have to be progressive and consider the issue because the vast majority of countries in Europe have dealt with it. I think that slowly but surely it will be examined.

The equal opportunities child care scheme, which is under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has made a serious impact on the provision of affordable child care in areas where the only option for young people with young families was to have the grandparents look after the children, but now, because of this and other schemes, people can afford to have their children looked after in good quality affordable child care centres. All the grants and benefits ensure that the playing pitch has been made more level and people are able to avail of the benefits due to them because it is easier to apply for them.

I congratulate the Minister on her swift response to the current postal strike and the measure she has put in place for people to collect his or her benefits. This is a sign of the Department's proactive role.

Senator Wilson seems to believe that politics and the Holy Roman Empire only started in 1997 and before that it was some kind of economic wasteland.

The Senator may go back further if he likes.

Whatever the position of pensions since then, they could afford a great deal more before 1997 than they can afford now.

Senator Wilson has made his contribution.

The Government's inability to manage the economy——

Alice in Wonderland.

I always enjoy Senator Wilson's contribution because I know it has the heavy hand of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

We do not have the benefit of spin doctors in our organisation. We are able to do our own work.

I recognise the Department's speech. It is joined up writing in comparison to Senator Wilson's hieroglyphics——

It is Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats policy. We are all in harmony.

——that we normally contemplate.

Senator Hayes is doing an injustice to Senator Wilson, who does a fine job.

I am seeking protection, a Chathaoirligh.

The Senator will have the protection of the Chair, but he should not provoke Members.

Senator Brian Hayes does not need protection. He is doing really well.

I am replying to the rather partisan remarks of my colleagues. I thank Senator Wilson for his single transferable speech that could equally be given at his party's Ard-Fheis. In spite of what he states, this is not the land of milk and honey that he presents. A wise Minister for Social and Family Affairs — the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is wise — will reflect on this debate and come to the House to roll back on the position on widows and widowers. Fianna Fáil is a bit like the Stazi Party in the former East Germany which spoke with one voice.

Not like the Blueshirts.

It is clear that a climbdown is coming as all my colleagues opposite are bleating about the plight of widows.

The Senator should listen. That is not what we said.

A climbdown is coming and I welcome it. I predict that in 24 hours the Government will come out with a statement — knowing the fixer mentality of the Taoiseach — that the cutback is wrong and will be changed. I welcome the support from the Members opposite.

Two weeks ago, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs stated it would be re-evaluated.

I thank Senator Cox for the social commentary, which is very worthwhile.

This is one of the worst cutbacks to have come to the attention of the House in recent years and there are many others that I will go through in a calculated way.

The sum of €2.54 in child benefit in 1995.

Look at the muppets battling away over there.

Senator Hayes without interruption.

Other speakers referred to the fact that, in a global context of expenditure of approximately €12 billion, to take €6 million from widows and widowers in a social welfare code is outrageous. There are more than 120,000 widows and widowers and until now they were entitled to obtain half rate benefit on unemployment benefit or disability benefit as well as the widows or widowers pension. I know that a principle of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is that one cannot claim two benefits, but the essence of a flexible system is to be able to respond to the needs of people.

Widows and widowers have paid into the social welfare fund, which my colleague informed the House is in the black by almost €500 million this year, and we have built up substantial reserves every year in the past ten years. Having been in a very difficult position ten years ago, the fund is now in a very favourable position. We want the Government to give way on what amounts to almost €6 million to ensure people can continue to claim half-rated benefit under unemployment or disability benefit. This is not asking too much. I was heartened to hear the contributions of the Fianna Fáil speakers this afternoon who urged the Government to perform a U-turn on this issue. A wise Minister for Social and Family Affairs would comply as there is no support for this measure in the country. It is a niggardly proposition and it will be completely opposed here and in the Dáil. I predict that come lunch time tomorrow the Minister will issue a statement indicating her intention to perform a U-turn. She realises, as do many others, that the cutback is utterly unfair and wrong.

I have two points to make on child benefit and one on child dependant allowance. I recognise that there have been significant improvements in child benefit in recent years largely as a result of two national wage agreements put in place by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition. The issue five years ago was whether working people would be given a tax break on the cost of putting children into crèches or a child benefit payment. I accept the argument in favour of a general increase in child benefit for everyone rather than simply providing a tax deductible credit for those who have to pay a considerable proportion of their incomes to provide child care. Despite the resources we have, child benefit was increased by less than half the sum required simply to keep pace with the commitments made in Sustaining Progress. These were absolute guaranteed commitments the Government entered into for the life of the programme. This year alone we have not seen the increase in child benefit promised under Sustaining Progress. To make the increase next year, we will have to travel a considerable distance.

Looking at the rate for the first and second child, after which one takes inflation into account, the real increase is only €2.86 per month. In Senator Wilson's parlance, this equals 66 cent per week, or less than 10 cent per day.

It was €2.54 in 1996.

Allow Senator Hayes to continue without interruption.

Not for the first time, Senator Cox has the wrong end of the stick.

It is Senator Hayes who has it.

You have not factored in inflation Senator Cox. Do your sums again.

Comments should be addressed through the Chair.

When the Senator has done the sums again, she will come to the conclusions I have just outlined.

The €2.54 was per month, not per day.

Once again, Senator Cox is wrong. I would not be part of the Sustaining Progress partnership programme if I did not believe the Government was sincere in its commitment on child benefit. However, a huge commitment will have to be made next year because we failed to make the full commitment this year. That must be understood by Senators opposite when they rise to speak on this matter.

The Government to which I belonged before 1997 decided not to increase child dependant allowance on a yearly basis. That was a wrong decision by the rainbow coalition as it has been the wrong decision by this and the previous Government since 1997. The only way in which to target additional resources at poorer children is through child dependant allowance. As colleagues will be aware, there has been no significant increase in the allowance since 1994. I disagreed with the rainbow Government's decision and I have continued to disagree since. It is necessary to have some means of reaching out to the 150,000 to 200,000 children living within the poverty trap. Despite the fact that the way to do this is through child dependant allowance, this has not been increased in any Social Welfare Bill brought before this House since 1994. I very much regret that.

Senator Wilson and others failed, of course, to mention the significant cutbacks which have been made this year. These real cutbacks affecting real people include the crèche supplement for child care which has been discontinued. A total of €2.3 million has been lost by the 1,600 families directly affected. The intention to phase out dietary supplement is another point Senator Wilson failed to bring to the attention of the House. It is a further example of the very negatives cuts being made by the Government. Half-rated child dependant allowance is to be discontinued in the context of unemployment and disability benefit claims where the claimant's spouse or partner has a gross weekly income in excess of €300.

Despite the argument presented by some of my colleagues opposite to the effect that this is a land of milk and honey, circumstances are not as rosy as they would like to pretend. The most sensible way for the Government to proceed on the unjustified cutbacks in the provisions for widows and widowers is for the Minister to fold on the issue in this House tomorrow. I predict she will.

The measure of a Government's caring philosophy is not just found in a Finance Bill, but also in the detail of its annual social welfare provisions. Notwithstanding the grandstanding of certain Opposition Members on a number of issues, a social welfare budget of €11 billion is a remarkable achievement by any yardstick, particularly in the context of the economic uncertainty obtaining when the Estimates were being drawn up. That fact should not be lost on those who criticise from the sidelines. I do not mean to suggest criticisms, particularly of social welfare provisions, are not justified at different levels. However, I have every confidence that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will robustly defend her position and answer those of her critics who have singled out various aspects of the budgetary proposals which affect her Department.

My colleagues have outlined the details of the various increases. The word "increases" is bandied about a great deal when talking about the budgetary provisions of all Governments. The devil, they say, is in the detail although that is more of a legal term than anything else. When one examines the detail of the provisions before the House, one sees the increases are, in many instances, quite substantial. I have benefited as a parent of five children between the ages of eight and 16 from the massive increases in child benefit since 1997. More accurately, my wife has benefited from the increases as she has ring-fenced the money as most mothers and wives do. Indeed, I suggest that is in keeping with the original concept behind what was known as "women's money". I welcome, applaud and support these provisions. If I did not, it would not make a blind bit of difference as my wife would not let me see a euro of the money anyway. I have noticed in terms of house management the manner in which my wife manages child benefit to the advantage of our children. I am sure the same is true of households across the country. The money is used wisely. Notwithstanding minor income from other sources, I rely as a full-time public representative on the good offices of the Minister for Finance each year to provide an extra few euro. The child benefit which is provided to our house is an essential plank of our housekeeping budget.

I applaud the Minister who managed to fight her corner successfully at a time when most Departments were under severe threat. Last July, Ministers and their Departments set about formulating a draft of the annual Estimates. Things looked fairly grim at that time and growth was not buoyant. Economists, who usually differ more than Cheltenham racegoers, were united in not knowing what way the economy was going to bounce. To have secured significant increases across the board and an overall budget of more than €11 billion in such an environment is a magnificent achievement and one on which I congratulate and applaud the Minister.

As someone like me, who was reared in the snipe grass of the north west, the Minister knows the value of a euro.

We had no grass.

Neither do we, although we have lots of rushes.

I wish to dwell on the carer's respite care grant. I am pleased to note that the Minister has yet again increased this grant. While the Minister has had more experience of dealing with the families of carers than me, I know of a family in my home town with two severely handicapped children struck down by a rare disorder. The local community voted the parents of these children people of the year last year. If ever there were saints on earth, these people are certainly saintly. The family gets great support from the community and they welcomed the provisions contained in the budget. The increase is to €250 for a single person and to €500 for a couple. Concerns have been expressed about the respite grant. I hope the Minister takes account of the need and value that is placed on this grant. When she fights for funds later in the year, I hope she continues to fight for increased funding in this area.

If my memory serves me right, Senator Cox was on the battlements a couple of years ago over the question of means tests for carers. The debate centred on whether the Government should abolish means tests for carers. The financial implication of abolishing the means tests was the main obstacle. While there is no means testing for child benefit, one could argue, perhaps even with greater justification, for the introduction of it. Despite my earlier comments on how essential the increases in child benefit were to my family, my wife and I have discussed this and we feel we could accept the introduction of means tested child benefit. We believe it would help those less fortunate than ourselves and less able to cope financially. Carers have to give commitments that are far beyond the call of duty. The commitment is borne as much out of love and affection as it is out of obligation. The Government should have a soft side. It should say it cherishes carers, ensure money is not a problem and dispense with the means test. I have made this case in the past and I know the Minister is aware of the difficulties facing carers. This care is reflected in the increases introduced this year.

I welcome the manner in which the Minister moved so quickly to respond to the current postal dispute. I have no doubt that when social welfare recipients, particularly those on the lower socio-economic level, saw the dispute escalating over the weekend, they must have been horrified at the prospects of a nationwide dispute and feared their payments would be denied. The Minister used the media and moved quickly to reassure social welfare recipients their weekly or monthly allowances would not be denied.

I am glad of the opportunity to compliment the Minister on the provisions contained in the social welfare budget. I look forward to hearing her rebut some of the criticisms that have been made of it. We have found that some of the earlier criticisms were inaccurate and I hope the Minister has an answer for the criticisms that have been made more recently.

There is extraordinary capacity for self-congratulation among Government Members.

We missed the Senator.

The Senator was not here to listen to all of it.

I am sure the Senator will rain on our parade; I would be disappointed if he did not.

The winds of change are on the way.

Order, please. Allow Senator Ryan to continue without interruption.

We are trying to knock the Senator off his train of thought.

While I know the Chair was not reprimanding me on this occasion, I had hardly opened my mouth before the Members opposite started telling me I was wrong. I appreciate the status they give me.

The Senator should speak only about the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Do not worry — he will get to it in about five minutes.

People throw out figures and then wave them away. I appreciate that certain things have been done. While child benefit has been increased, it has not been increased by as much as was promised.

That will be reached in 2005.

We now know the Government does not feel bound by its promises and I suppose this is one of the reasons the Members are prickly. Depending on his audience, the Taoiseach was in favour of the war, against the war and in favour of the war again. If positions on something as profound as war and peace can be revised three times in 18 months, then minor matters such as social welfare are hardly worthy of consideration.

I cannot find a European country where an EU citizen or legal resident must wait two years for child benefit.

The Senator should look at Britain.

Order, please.

Britain is the last place I would look. This country has spent too much of the last 60 years aping Britain——

The Senator said he could not find a country. Now that I have pointed one out to him he ignores it.

The Minister was not consulted by her British counterpart in advance and the idea of a Fianna Fáil Minister jumping at the word of a British Minister and doing what he did is one of the most wonderful images I have picked up in the past six months.

It is republicanism gone wrong.

Fianna Fáil, the republican party, jumped because Jack Straw said jump. It is quite an image.

It is incorrect.

The Minister should not push me.

The Senator should not push me either.

I would love to spend my allotted time talking about the Fianna Fáil in which I grew up. The last thing it would have done was jump because a British Minister said so.

That was the policy only when Fianna Fáil was in opposition.

We are not here to discuss Fianna Fáil but the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004.

I am sorry, but I was invited to refer to it.

I wonder if Government Members understand how child poverty is defined. It is defined relative to children living below a certain proportion of the average income of a State. On this index, we should be profoundly ashamed of ourselves. For a country so awash with the rhetoric of children and family, we have one of the highest incidences of child poverty in western Europe. We are obliged to have that as a necessary condition of the way the Government operates to maximise inequality. Figures are quoted, such as the €150 pension figure, or whatever.

The Senator should not throw allegations around like snuff at a wake.

I will begin to get a power complex, because the very presence of my personality seems to provoke people. This could go to one's head.

I enjoy listening to the Senator's rubbish.

Senator Ryan seems to be provoking interruptions.

He has even got the Chair going.

Provoking interruptions is the last thing I would do. The truth is that the party which can effectively bury £50,000 in 1989 now thinks that €200 is a large sum of money, depending on who gets it. One sum can be forgotten while news of the other is sung from the rooftops.

€1.80 was the increase granted in 1996 by Proinsias De Rossa, the esteemed president of the Senator's party.

Senator Cox told me one day in this Chamber that it was a good thing that the proportion of the population in receipt of medical cards was decreasing because that was reducing dependency. That was an immortal saying of Senator Cox.

One of the more disgraceful aspects of this country, which has made the lives of working families increasingly difficult, has been the deliberate attempt to squeeze people out of the medical card system. As I noted in my minor run-in with the Cathaoirleach on the Order of Business, this issue is bigger than social welfare. It is about values. The fundamental value in this instance is about whether one believes we have a society based on solidarity or one based on the notion of "winner takes all". The Fianna Fáil view of the latter notion, which is perhaps even more extreme than that of the right wing in the United States, is that it takes everything and everyone else must put up with it.

One cannot argue with €11 billion.

The Government took part of it from widows.

I always love how Fianna Fáil finds the anomalies at the bottom end of the market. The widows issue was an anomaly. Some other issues were anomalies. There are huge anomalies at the other end. It took 12 months' digging to extract from the Minister for Finance a report about the super-rich who were paying no tax, even though his officials had gathered that information.

Most of them were members of the Labour Party.

The smoked salmon people.

One of the other problems that Fianna Fáil has is that while the party has learned to live well, it still cannot acknowledge the fact. The party blames everyone else for eating smoked salmon, as if it were a mortal sin.

It was far from smoked salmon that Senator Ryan was reared.

When the Minister for Finance entertains his very rich friends in the K Club, that is seen as a sign of the country prospering, but when someone from a different political party eats smoked salmon in a small quantity, that is regarded as a sign of some betrayal of some principle or other. I do not know what the unfortunate fish ever had to do with principles, but it seems to provide Fianna Fáil with endless entertainment. I wish the party would find something new. The notion of smoked salmon socialists is about 25 years old.

The Senator is keen on many things that happened 20 years, and never stops talking about them. He is like a worn record.

The smoked salmon remark was funny 25 years ago. Nowadays it is beginning to bore everyone. The Fianna Fáil party should move on.

The Senator should consider his own position. It is time he moved on.

Smoked salmon is a little dated. If the men in this Chamber did their own shopping, they would know that smoked salmon is far from the most expensive commodity. The real problem is that most of the men on the other side of this Chamber would not recognise smoked salmon in a supermarket because they remain traditional men, who believe shopping is women's work. They do not know what is going on in the world.

What is the Senator talking about?

The rhetoric I listened to about child poverty showed an oblivion to the standard way in which it is measured. The Minister might tell me if we have opted out of that. If she accepts the universal index of child poverty used in Europe, Ireland lies towards the bottom of the list. We have remained there as we got rich. Moreover, our expenditure on social protection dropped as we got rich. While other countries use their riches to improve social protection, we have used our riches to look after certain groups which this Government decided were deserving.

Nonsense.

Does the Senator want to take back the pension money or child benefit?

Order, please. Senator Ryan's time is up.

As the Cathaoirleach can see, I would enjoy entertaining the people opposite.

This is not a house of entertainment.

Those opposite appear to be deriving entertainment from it. The increased benefits such as those for the old age pension and child benefit are very welcome. The tragedy is that up to now, huge gaps were left in our system of social protection and the Government made the gaps wider this year. It did not abandon certain people which it had looked after over the past six years, but various groups were targeted which were all vulnerable, small and largely inarticulate. The situation is now rebounding on the Government, which does not like it.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Coughlan. She said in her statement she is proud of the commitment to fostering an inclusive society. If this particular Social Welfare Bill is her contribution to an inclusive society, what about the 16 cutbacks included in it? Considering any one of them, or all together, if this is what inclusiveness amounts to in the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats agenda, then God help those who are really in hardship.

It is obvious from what we have heard from the Government representatives here today that there are winds of change, particularly in the situation of widows and widowers. It would be great if the Minister would clearly indicate in her concluding speech at the end of Second Stage that she will change this aspect, which for very many people is a serious encroachment on the inclusivity to which she referred. The Minister is causing great hardship, particularly to vulnerable people. She might indicate at an early stage that she is changing her mind, because many of the Senators who contributed on the Government side of the debate clearly do not agree with the current situation. They do not know what will be done, but will impress their feelings on the Minister when she decides to change that aspect of the Bill. We would greatly welcome the change on this side of the House. The hardships resulting from this aspect of the Bill have been highlighted in the media, in this House and in the Dáil.

The Minister has all but abolished the back to education allowance scheme. It was a very valuable scheme, of great benefit to people who perhaps in the past were, for some reason or another, excluded from the education system, or who have had to leave it because of the inadequacies of the support mechanisms there for the underprivileged and disadvantaged. I do not know how the Minister can reconcile her abolition of the back to education allowance scheme with the stated policy. Without a doubt, the scheme has now been effectively abolished. How can the Minister for Social and Family Affairs reconcile this with the stated policy of the Minister for Education and Science who wants to bring disadvantaged people back into the system? On the one hand, the Minister cannot say he wants to bring people back into the system while another organ of Government excludes people from it. People are too alert to this Government doublespeak.

In his 2003 budget speech, the Minister for Finance announced a rural social scheme. It was not to come under the brief of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, but of the other coastal and island Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. However, when I tried to ascertain at the Departments of Finance and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs what has happened to this scheme, I discovered no one knew about it and that there are not even application forms. Instead, we are informed it will shortly come before Cabinet. The Minister for Finance in December 2003 announced a scheme that people believed was prepared and agreed by various Departments. However, there is no sign of it. It will happen sometime in the future as the Department of Finance, in a cynical way, informs us that Cabinet will agree to it in late April or early May. Lo and behold, it will be announced and put into action just before the local and European elections. If one wants to be cynical about Government schemes, that is the way to go about it. There was to be €10 million available for this scheme yet other sources inform us that it will be far more than that figure. As to how many would take up the scheme, the number of applicants was put at 2,500. Now we are informed it could be far more than that. When can we arrive at a consensus as to what is involved in this scheme, rather than it being another political ploy and promise for which there is no basis? I have never seen a scheme announced on such a basis that then takes four months or more to put in place.

The criteria given for this scheme are that one has to be a herdowner, on low income and receiving farm assist. It is all about social inclusion.

On a point of order, what has this got to do with the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill?

Senator Cox might not understand this because of her urban background. However, I remind her that if she wants to be facetious, as she can be, she should return to her statement in the 2002 election when she told people if they needed support for elderly people they should go elsewhere, as these people would die anyway. Subsequently, she was silent for the rest of the campaign and that is why she is now with me in this House. If we want——

On a point of order——

——to talk about arrogance——

I wish to hear the point of order.

Is it proper and appropriate——

That is not a point of order.

I understand political discourse but when it goes into the personal——

I was talking about a political statement made by Senator Cox. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.

I ask all Senators to keep to the debate.

That remark should be withdrawn. I understand what aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile means. I ask that the Senator be asked to withdraw that particular remark.

Senator Ulick Burke to conclude.

If we are talking about inclusiveness in this Bill——

I have also spoken about inclusiveness. Will the Senator withdraw his remark?

Senator Ulick Burke has the floor. He has one minute left to conclude.

The 16 cutbacks in the social welfare budget have been already mentioned, particularly the cutbacks in widows' and widowers' benefits. However, with regard to the back to education scheme, at the invitation of the Leader of the House, the Minister spoke on it recently and gave undertakings for its future. Yet nothing has been seen since. I hope in her summing up the Minister will indicate her intentions for the scheme and will show her commitment to inclusiveness.

In the last two years in the Western Health Board area more people have lost their medical card entitlements than ever before. This is not due to anything the Government intended to do, but rather what it did not do in order to bring the limits within reasonable standards. It is serious when people on €160 a week are excluded from medical care. I ask the Minister to reply to the issues raised in an open manner and not to add further confusion.

There were some serious abuses of the back to education scheme which were damaging to the overall scheme. This was a successful scheme that enabled many people to get back into education, gain qualifications and play a meaningful role in the economy and enjoy fulfilment in their careers. However, a small number of people abusing the system brought it into disrepute.

Abuses are what they are called now.

Were this not dealt with, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs would have seen the scheme entirely terminated. It is most unfair to make attacks on particular aspects of this scheme without looking at the overall picture. This scheme made a valuable contribution and I compliment the Minister for Social and family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, on her innovative way of addressing it.

The Minister has made an enormous contribution to the overall development of the social welfare code. Over the last number of years, enormous increases have been made to the social welfare budget. Up to 1 million people now benefit from these substantial increases in one kind or another. This year alone up to €11 billion will be spent on the budget. I recall when I was Minister in the Department for a short time a number of years ago, we would not have contained ourselves if we had that kind of budget. Again, there is this picking on small aspects of the budget and counting the number of cuts. We had a dozen cuts before. No matter who is Minister in the Department, they will always have to apply certain restraints in spending. Otherwise, the future of the social welfare fund itself would be put in jeopardy. I compliment the Minister on the innovative schemes she introduced in this budget. While all Members welcome the increases made, there are limits to what can be achieved and delivered within the spending restraints of each Department. With the guidelines set down by the Government, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has done remarkably well in her welfare brief. The majority of the public is grateful to the Minister for the work she has done in this area.

I would like to speak about a few aspects of the Bill. I hope the Minister responds to my comments if she gets the opportunity to do so. I am not aware of the current value of the training fund to which we have been making contributions since 2000. I do not know what benefits are accruing from it. The Bill makes provisions in respect of the fund. I am not sure if the Minister has already commented on the matter. I would like the fund to be expanded because funding and innovative training schemes are needed, especially in the high-tech area. Many young people require additional training to help them to make a more meaningful contribution to the economy. I would like the Minister to state what use or benefit is being derived from the fund. What amount of money is currently in the fund? I would like to know if the fund can be expanded, even if it means that bigger contributions have to be made.

Section 22 inserts new provisions into the Pensions Act 1990. The new section 81E of the 1990 Act, which relates to equality in pensions, is the most cumbersome procedure I have ever seen. It mentions the Director of Equality Investigations, the Circuit Court and the Labour Court. If an issue needs to be addressed or redress needs to be provided, a less complicated procedure should be put in place to that end. I am sure the new section 81E has been included for a reason, but it seems cumbersome. It may be expensive for one to get redress in such a way, especially if one has to use the Circuit Court. I ask the Minister to examine the section to assess whether the overall issues can be addressed without having to involve the Labour Court, the Circuit Court or the director of pensions.

I pay tribute to the regional offices for the work they are doing in dealing with specific cases. There has been a dramatic improvement in the performance of the local offices since I have been in the House. I pay tribute to the staff of the local offices for their courteous way of dealing with the public. We should acknowledge the dramatic change in this regard in the last few years. I pay tribute to the staff of the Department for the invaluable work they are doing in guiding and helping people, especially with some of the complicated issues that are involved in this area.

I cannot finish without referring briefly to the grievance felt by widows and lone parents, in particular, because of proposed changes that relate to a date in January of this year. There are approximately 2,000 lone parents and 3,000 widows in County Clare, although they are not all affected by these changes. It seems somewhat unfair that if one has a claim in existence, one does not have an entitlement if one makes a claim after the January date. This sets up a form of discrimination because widows in equal or similar situations will have differing levels of payment. People who have contributed to schemes will receive half of the disability or unemployment payment that was made. The amount involved is not very significant in the overall context of the budget under discussion.

While it may not be possible for two payments to be made from the fund, it may be possible to devise a form of allowance that could be paid in the same way as supplementary welfare allowance is paid. This might help to retain a balance between people who have made claims and are drawing down the benefit and those who will be deprived of the benefit as a result of certain circumstances in which they will find themselves in the next few months. I would like the Minister to re-examine this matter before we conclude our consideration of the Bill. Is it possible to find a way of remedying the grievances of widows and lone parents? It is possible to help them without massively disrupting the social welfare budget or discommoding the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

I compliment the Minister on the magnificent work she has done in all aspects of her complicated portfolio. The Bill makes provisions in respect of 50 payments of various kinds. The improvements that have been made recently, which have been acknowledged by the public, exceed greatly the expectations of many of us. I did not think that pension payments would reach their current levels. I hope the Minister will find a way of making adjustments to deal with certain anomalies before the House concludes its consideration of the Bill.

While I welcome the Minister, I have to express grave concern about the cuts provided for in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004. Many of the cutbacks have been mentioned by previous speakers, particularly on this side of the House. I hope I will be able to thank the Minister when she changes her mind about the proposed cutbacks in the disability and unemployment benefits paid to widows and lone parents. People on the other side of the House have told me that they agree the cuts should not be implemented. All of the cuts proposed in the Bill affect the most vulnerable people in society. We will be judged by how we look after such people, but the Minister will not be looking after them if she implements so many of these cuts.

The Government promised before the 2002 general election that it would provide for 200,000 additional medical cards. Fewer people than before have medical cards, however, because the eligibility levels have been increased. The Government has not met its promise to provide 200,000 additional medical cards.

That is not in this legislation.

I believe there are cuts in the number——

There are no cuts in this legislation.

It is part of the rest of the measures——

Senator Terry should be allowed to continue, without interruption.

I acknowledge that child benefit payments have increased significantly in recent years — the benefit has certainly increased since I was drawing it — and that is welcome. Many organisations that deal with children and poverty will state that child poverty is a problem and should be recognised as such, but I do not believe it is being recognised. It is reprehensible that some of the cuts in this Bill will affect children and families.

There have been reductions in the back to education allowance and the crèche supplement. Why is the Government cutting the allowances being paid to people who are trying to improve their lot? Lone parents are being hindered at every turn as they struggle to improve their circumstances. That is wrong and I ask the Minister to reconsider it. The phasing out of the dietary supplement will affect many people but will save just €1 million, approximately. Why do we try to save small amounts of money in areas that have serious effects on individual lives? There are a number of other cuts, including in the area of rent supplements. This will affect many people. There is a serious housing shortage and people are finding it extremely difficult to obtain their first homes. There are also many who will never aspire to owning a home. Now these people cannot even obtain rent supplement without a further delay.

There are many issues to be discussed and five minutes does not give me enough time to cover all of these, although many have been raised by other speakers. This Bill is an indictment of the Government and will have a serious effect on our society. We will be opposing the Bill.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht. Is mór an trua nár léigh cúpla duine an Bille a bhí os ár gcomhair mar ní faoin dtaobh den Bhille a bhí siad ag caint ar chor ar bith. É sin ráite, is polaiteoir mé féin agus gach aon duine atá anseo agus sin an saol atá os ár gcomhair. Sin an fáth go raibh díospóireacht againn a d'imigh taobh amuigh den méid a bhí le rá faoin Bhille féin. Má amharcann duine ar a bhfuil sa Bhille, feictear go bhfuilimid ag caint faoi Bhille a ritheadh sa Seanad agus atá sínithe ag an Uachtarán. Ar ndóigh, níl mise ábalta athrú ar bith a dhéanamh ar rud atá déanta ag an Dáil agus ag an Seanad agus atá sínithe ag Uachtarán na nÉireann.

A number of issues have been raised and I will discuss these in general categories rather than dealing with each contributor's particular viewpoint. It seems to be unanimously agreed that home-based care is very important. It is on that basis that I will shortly launch the issue of long-term care funding. This will be part of a discussion with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs. We will be seeking points of view and I would appreciate it if Senators took ten minutes to participate. Dealing with the carer's allowance and the home-based subvention scheme within the health sector is probably the best way forward on the basis that the majority of people would prefer to stay at home. A small monetary token can be beneficial.

This is an issue we will need to consider, particularly in view of major changes in society that have resulted in two people working in most families. This creates many difficulties within the caring profession. The issue will remain important. I welcome the proposals of the Oireachtas joint committee in this regard. The Chairman has been most vociferous about these matters in the other House. Only last week I provided the Carers' Association with funding for the provision of an information booklet, which was one of the recommendations of the committee. I was delighted to do this. We are considering the possibility of a care strategy in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children. This will take time, but it is worth it. We will need to consider how to provide funding in this area in the future. We will need to put our hands on our hearts and decide whether we want to pay for it.

The issues of child poverty and child benefit were mentioned. Everyone agrees that the provision of child benefit as a universal payment on the basis of a child poverty initiative and a child care initiative is the best way forward. It deals with the issue of women in the home and women who need child care as well as those who need income support for children. There has been a major investment in this area. We will soon reach the target of providing €2 billion each year in this area.

Senator Ryan spoke of the academic discussion that takes placead infinitum about the indicators known as consistent poverty, relative poverty and at risk of poverty. We do not use the at-risk-relative poverty indicator in this country, although others do. It is all relative. We are dealing with consistent poverty; in other words, there is an immediate interaction with those who are poor. The results of the statistical analysis of the at-risk and relative poverty indicators are due to the fact that so many people are now in employment and have been removed from unemployment. Naturally, this cannot continue for ever because this in itself creates a greater disparity of income, which we must look towards in the future in ensuring that the gap of relativity does not expand considerably. However, it is important that we deal with the issue of consistent poverty. We must deal with the people who have an immediate problem, not with the academic discussion of what might be a problem in terms of an at-risk register.

The rural social scheme was announced at the time of the budget. There have been many discussions between my Department, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment about this initiative and we are currently approaching a conclusion. I am working closely with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, on the methodology of payment and the numbers of people that could be accommodated on the scheme. It is a rural-based scheme aimed mainly at people on farm assist, many of whom are over 55, which is a group about whom we are particularly concerned. We hope to come to a conclusion on this issue shortly.

I am sorry Senator Norris is not here to discuss the issue of same sex couples. I listened to his comments and his view is that I am creating an inequity within the social welfare system even though there is a blatant inequity in determination. For example, in regard to a married or cohabiting couple, both of whom are entitled to unemployment assistance, one person receives the full rate while the other receives a qualified adult rate, as it is a means tested scheme. In the case of a same sex couple, each will receive the single rate. The converse of that is found within the administrative schemes. The Senator's point of view is valid, but we must all accept the realities of life. If we want to be treated equally we must accept equal treatment. Some people do not like equality if it affects them personally.

We must come to a decision on this issue at long last. I am wholeheartedly in agreement that we need to consider not only the social welfare code, the changing of which would have major implications, but also the taxation system and the justice system. All of this must be dealt with in a proper review. I have spoken to the Senator and I am sure he will be vociferous in putting forward the viewpoint of his constituency. I will listen carefully to what is said. I assume there will be participation by a number of organisations in this review. Results will not be achieved instantly, but we must deal with the issue once and for all. We must have universal administration of these issues under the entire ambit of Government if we are to have true equality.

Senator Daly raised the issue of the training fund. The total value of the fund is currently €1.628 billion, which is a post-budget cumulative surplus. He mentioned pension provisions and the changes within the Pensions Act 1990. We may discuss this tomorrow as it is a technical matter. The issue of the habitual residency test was also raised. It is incumbent on me to consider the protection of the social welfare system. I did not follow the British system. That system has gone well beyond social welfare and is inclusive of labour issues as well as access to social assistance. The UK, like many other European countries, has had an habitual residency requirement for the past ten years. This is the first time the requirement has been introduced in Ireland in primary legislation. It applies to everyone.

I have confirmed the methodology that will be used by the officials of my Department in determining habitual residence. The requirement will be dealt with on an individual, case by case basis. If a person is unhappy with the decision based on the guidelines that will be issued by my Department, it will be a matter for the individual himself or herself to prove his or her situation.

In my view and in particular given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, as a very vulnerable country within the European Union and the only one that had not addressed the issue, I felt it was incumbent on me to include it in the social welfare system. I reiterate that we are encouraging people to work in the labour market.

The matter of changes to widows' benefits was raised. It is unfortunate that this discussion did not take place when the legislation was before the House last December. One has very difficult choices to make. One of the parameters of the social security system has been that an individual only receives one payment, whichever payment is financially more supportive to the family. That has been the case with social welfare for a considerable number of years. The number of people affected is very small and it involves a very small amount of money but if it is taken in the context of the overall discussions at budget time with regard to the preparation of the Estimates, it was incumbent on me, given the particular circumstances, to find a certain amount of money so that I could significantly increase the base line payments of up to €630 million this year for all those in receipt of social welfare payments, including widows and widowers who received an additional entitlement of €10.

I appreciate that Senators have expressed very emotional views which they are entitled to do and reflected what has been said in their constituency clinics, correspondence and in telephone calls. I am meeting the National Association of Widows in Ireland in about two minutes. I am going with an open mind to discuss the issue and perhaps there might be a more progressive and long-term way of dealing with what I and all of us accept are the difficulties which widows and widowers experience. Not only do they find themselves in a financial difficulty, with an income-related problem, but they also have an emotional issue with which they must deal. One of the major difficulties and one of the biggest frustrations for any Minister for Social and Family Affairs is the fact that when one tries to support one particular group within the social welfare code, it must be done for everyone. The consequences are very difficult from a financial perspective.

We have done much in terms of supporting widows aged over 66 years. Part of An Agreed Programme for Government was to address an anomaly and that has been finalised this year. As I stated in the other House, I will examine specifically the issues pertaining to widows under the age of 66. It is my view that, if it is at all possible, a programme of supports for widows and widowers should be introduced. It is not long ago since we introduced a widower's pension in this country. We introduced a bereavement grant which is very progressive and supportive. The taxation system has been very supportive in addressing the concerns of many widows and widowers. A widow or widower who is in employment does not pay any PRSI on the first €289 of either their pension or their financial income.

I appreciate the sincerity of those Senators who have spoken and I know about the issue and care about it. At the mouth of an abyss we might perhaps come up with a better solution to support very vulnerable people, especially young widows under the age of 66 who have children. Those are the people who are most vulnerable. The Senators should note the statistics which show that the greatest number of widows are aged over 66 years. We need to be aware of the facts but I appreciate the sincerity of the remarks made by Senators. I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to wander for a few minutes. I sincerely thank all the Members of Seanad Éireann who decided to participate in the debate.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 15.

  • Bohan, Eddie.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brennan, Michael.
  • Callanan, Peter.
  • Cox, Margaret.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • Dardis, John.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Fitzgerald, Liam.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kett, Tony.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Minihan, John.
  • Mooney, Paschal C.
  • Morrissey, Tom.
  • Moylan, Pat.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Browne, Fergal.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Henry, Mary.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Norris, David.
  • Terry, Sheila.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Cummins and Tuffy.
Question declared carried.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 24 March 2004.