Amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004: Committee and Remaining Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.—The Minister shall give consideration to reversing the cuts imposed on those in receipt of widows/widowers pension and those in receipt of one parent family payments.".
This issue was debated at length on Second Stage. Several Members on the benches opposite spoke in support of the principle which informs this amendment. It addresses the disgraceful cuts which have been meted out to widows, widowers and single parents. The matter was discussed in the Dáil last night and has been debated by the public over the airwaves for the last number of weeks.
The cut involves a paltry €5.8 million yet it will cause hardship to widows. This has been confirmed by the widow's association, members of which the Minister for Social and Family Affairs met last night. I call on the Minister to consider rescinding the decision to make these cuts and returning to thestatus quo to allow widows to claim half benefit. I also call also on Members opposite to support the amendment as their remarks on Second Stage were in a similar vein to its thrust, or will they act in their usual manner by speaking for something only to vote against it? It is the typical Fianna Fáil method.
We saw it with the GAA players only last week. The Fianna Fáil Members who ran outside to have their photographs taken with the players returned to the House to vote against the proposal they told the people they would support. These circumstances are similar, which is why I ask the Members opposite to put up or shut up on this issue.
The widow's association has made its point to the Minister and we ask her to admit the cut is a mistake. She should return to the position as it was before January. It is a simple request involving a group of people to whom the Minister has said priority should be given. If we can prioritise Punchestown and other projects, surely we can prioritise widows.
The Minister should accept these amendments and return to the widows what they are due. If people pay contributions, they should be entitled to get the benefit of them.
I strongly support what Senator Cummins said. This is a mean-minded proposal. Will the Minister tell the House what is the motivation and the morality behind it? What is the reasoning and justification for it? Is it merely tidying up in order to save certain small sums of money, and they are pathetically small? The editorial in yesterday'sIrish Independent said it is taking away the widows’ mite. It really is a mean cut.
While I agree with Senator Cummins, it is a little unrealistic to say that the Government Members will speak against this cut and then vote with the Government on it. Of course they will do that. This happens with every Government and every party; it is not simply a characteristic of Fianna Fáil. Regrettably, this is the way the House works. Rather than offending our friends on the Government benches by calling them names, we should be telling them to work as hard as they can to get this changed.
We all know what is wrong. The Minister has acute political antennae and I have no doubt that she can detect the feeling among Government Members. This cut attacks the most vulnerable people in society. These are not scroungers. I saw elderly women talking about this on television. They, or their husbands, worked all their lives and paid their contributions. It is terrible that it should be taken away.
I remember getting slight amelioration in a case like this where it too was horribly mean-minded. A brilliant student from the north midlands was due to go to college. He was blind and received a county council grant to pursue a PhD in history. The student was also in receipt of a blind pension and the amount of the education grant was subtracted from this orvice versa. He was told he could not have both full allowances. Why not? While it seems reasonable that everyone should get a low level of support, if an individual deserves a little extra he or she should be allowed to have it. The Minister was able to bend the rules for the case I outlined. The same thing should happen here.
The Minister for Finance told the Dáil that lawyers at the tribunals earn more at the expense of the State in three days than a widow gets in a year. Under the Constitution we are supposed to be a Christian country. If one wanted to use perverse logic, one could take the inexplicable passage from the New Testament: to those who have shall be given and from those who have not shall be taken away even that which they have. I have never understood what it means. Perhaps the Minister feels it is her Christian duty to punch widows in the eye and rob their handbags. This is more or less what is happening and it is dreadful. The Minister for Finance knows this too; otherwise it was shameless for him to say what he did in the Dáil.
The case of a widow, Susan McHugh, has been referred to on several occasions recently and appears to have escaped the notice of the Department. She took a case against similar legislation that went to the Supreme Court. The court decided against the Department. When a measure such as this was constitutionally shown to be inappropriate and wrong, it is extraordinary that we should be trying to introduce something similar again.
I know the Minister has a sophisticated response to the issue of partners in gay relationships and therefore I will make my point briefly. While the legal apparatus of the State has determined that discrimination exists, the response of the Government is not to address the discrimination directly, but to cure it by legislative sleight of hand. For those reasons, it is bad in principle.
Based on my own instincts, I am sure the Minister is under pressure from other Departments. Instead of making party political points we should all support her in doing the right thing. I know she wants to do the right thing. I also know that my decent friends on the Government benches want her to do the right thing.
Let her do it.
She will not do it if Fine Gael keeps barking at her.
Let her do it.
We are paid to bark at her.
We must encourage her and, dare I say it, seduce her into doing the right thing.
One would have to be made of stone not to have been touched by the contributions some widows made on television programmes. There was a lollipop lady who had worked all her life and her husband had also contributed. She is out of work during the summer when the schools are closed. What is she going to do? She is badly affected by this move. An asthmatic woman from Cork was also interviewed and she too will be penalised under these provisions.
I often wondered how people could afford to buy houses in Palmerston Park. I was told they were barristers.
Senator Norris, we are on Committee Stage and I think you have made your point.
The Minister is aware that people are milking the system and earning €2,000 or €3,000 of taxpayers' money per day. Even on non-sitting days, the State is happy enough to give barristers a couple of thousand euro. We are taking a couple of cent from people to whom it really makes a difference. Further thought should be given to this provision and the one that arises later in the Bill. I know this is what the Minister would like to do.
Senator Brian Hayes, I am sorry, I call Senator Ryan. I did not see you raise your hand.
I apologise, I did not indicate. I assumed the Leas-Chathaoirleach would call me.
What was it if it was not the Senator's hand?
I could do without Senator Norris's assistance.
I was elected to this House in 1981 and until 1999 served as an Independent Member. I always refrained from claiming moral superiority. I thought being independent was a valid political role and I believe being a party politician is also a valid role. Neither is in a position to claim moral superiority over another. The only difference between Independent Members and party politicians are the issues on which people compromise and the manner in which the compromise is expressed. The suggestion, from one of most eloquent points scorers the Oireachtas has seen in the past 20 years, that attacking the Government in blunt terms is an inferior form of politics called party political point scoring is more than a little ironic. The significance of the widows issue lies first in the capacity to impose extraordinary hardship on a small group of people, which is what the decision will do. Widows to whom I have spoken foresee a future in which the income for which they planned will change spectacularly for the worse.
I am quite certain the Fianna Fáil party with which I grew up would have had the political antennae and the humanity to resist such a move. I was brought up in a Fianna Fáil household where the biggest boasts were the putting together of a basic social welfare safety net and the construction of public housing. Both these aims were denounced in academic papers in the 1930s as the manifestations of Bolshevism. One would not accuse Fianna Fáil today of the slightest leaning towards Bolshevism. Perhaps the other "ism" dominant in the 1930s shows up occasionally, but Bolshevism is long gone from the influences on Fianna Fáil.
It is a tragedy to see what was the great radical party in this country taken over by the ideology of a party which has only eight Dáil seats, but 95% influence on the Government. This is all about the politics of envy by the well-off. Many people wax eloquent on the politics of envy, but few people in our society are more envious than the very well-off. I do not mean those on significant salaries, but those who fly in and out of the country on private jets, staying away long enough to avoid paying tax in Ireland while remaining in the country long enough to claim credit for their charitable activities. These are people whose entire charitable activities in a year raise only a fraction of the tax they avoid by remaining outside the country. Their politics of envy is a resentment of those whom they believe are doing too well without their personal level of achievement. The issue before us involves one aspect of the politics of envy, concerning a group seen to be slightly better off than the rest of the poor. The intention is to equalise down, and make them all the same, though I do not know in what interest.
The Minister has frequently said the Department of Finance required certain cuts. One of my Labour Party colleagues spent a good deal of the period from 1992 to 1997 in Government. He said that one of the most awesome performances during his period in Government with Fianna Fáil was the capacity of the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Social Welfare to defend his patch against the Department of Finance. He never allowed the Department to dictate to him that sums of money should be taken from social welfare. That same former Minister is reported inThe Irish Times today as being one of the most eloquent critics at yesterday’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting of this particular nasty little amendment to the social welfare code, because he knew how to defend his patch.
A collection of cuts, each of which affected only a small number of people, was cynically assembled, on the assumption that because only small groups were involved, none would have political clout. It is an eloquent commentary on the remoteness of Fianna Fáil from public opinion that it did not understand how an assault on widows would resonate with all decent people. This is not about 2,000 people, but about all those who have seen the struggles of people, women mostly, but also men in recent years, to support their families and themselves with some pride and dignity. There was a sudden, deliberate decision to target a group within that group as a means of saving money on the assumption that a couple of thousand people would not be able to make a fuss.
That is why Senator Norris is so wrong in appealing to the goodwill on the other side of the Chamber. As these calculated cuts show, the Members over there only understand where the votes are, and how things can be done without affecting their voter base. That is why this particular issue is causing them so much discomfort. It is now reverberating through the community as an assault on people in a situation we all believe is sufficiently difficult. Living on one's own, supporting a family, struggling after one has lost one's partner in life, is difficult enough without a public statement that one is an anomaly. Whether intended or not, to say to people who have experienced one of the greatest tragedies in life through losing a partner when one is still at a working age, and often still supporting children, as a statement of support, that the situation is an anomaly is effectively to tell these people that they are an anomaly.
These people are not anomalies. They are people who struggle on, the sort of heroes who make a decent society worthwhile, people whom the Progressive Democrats, which owns Fianna Fáil, would describe in its moments of eloquence as the coping class. I do not know any people who have been better described. Widows and widowers who struggle on, who work and support a family, are by definition the coping class. They are also the poor class, and because there were only 2,000 of them, it was deemed possible to single them out for this treatment.
I do not believe for a moment the Minister will change her mind today. The Government has made a profound political miscalculation. Either it will change its mind, or the Government will be changed, and if the public decides to change its mind it will do so because it has seen the decision regarding widows as symptomatic of the fact that the Government has moved away from the priorities and considerations of ordinary Irish people, and is now totally taken over by those of the sort of class that has infected Fianna Fáil in the last ten years.
I was one of the speakers yesterday who asked the Minister to revisit this decision, which affects a small but vulnerable group of people, widows and widowers who in many cases are struggling. The saving to the Department of Social and Family Affairs is small, and the decision should be revisited. Those in Opposition know well that as Senator Norris pointed out, one can retain one's own views while belonging to a political party. It does not mean one is wrong. However, one must conform to the rules and regulations of the party. If one's Minister and the Government believe that certain measures should be implemented, one goes along with that. It does not mean one agrees with the decision.
I am amazed to hear in particular Senator Ryan, who now belongs to the Labour Party, and who is very proud of his Fianna Fáil roots——
I never said that.
That would be stretching it.
I do not know whether Senator Ryan could never achieve membership of the party for particular reasons, or if he failed to get a Fianna Fáil nomination. I will not go into that, but for him to insinuate that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is not able to fight her own battles is a bit rich.
The evidence is there.
The Minister has succeeded in getting——
Sixteen savage cuts.
——€11.26 billion for this year's social welfare budget, which is the highest allocation in the history of the State. For a Labour Party Senator to insinuate that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is not able to fight her corner is somewhat rich, particularly when we cast our minds back to 1995.
The start of the Holy Roman Empire.
Does the Senator want to go back to pre-1932?
In 1995, the then Minister for Social Welfare, Proinsias De Rossa, MEP, gave the old age pensioners, about whom Senator Ryan spoke so sympathetically——
What did the then Minister give the pensioners?
He gave them £1.80 of an increase.
He did not cut their entitlements.
If I convert that into euro it might sound better — €2.29.
They could at least live on it.
He did not take the basic rate from them.
Senator Wilson without interruption.
Before we start shrouding ourselves in pomposity and making eloquent speeches, we should remember the past.
We are living today.
That particular Government was presided over by a Fine Gael Taoiseach. We all knew the tail wagged the dog then. That does not happen with this Government.
The Progressive Democrats do.
We are getting some of Senator Dardis's deceit.
Senator Ryan should apologise to the Minister for the insinuation he made. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs listens to her parliamentary party colleagues——
Is the Senator hoping for a change of mind?
The Fianna Fáil Party has its feet on the ground. It has representatives in almost every parish——
We have representatives in every parish.
——which is more than any Opposition Member can claim.
Is the party listening to them?
I, therefore, ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to review this proposal. I know that if there is anything she can do about it, she will do it.
Senator Norris charged that we are barking in the direction of the Minister. We are doing so because we are paid to bark in her direction, while she is paid to listen and reply.
Is the Senator licensed to do so?
Without a doubt. No better woman to bark back at us. I have no apology for barking in her direction.
We are the watchdogs.
The Senator should use a better analogy.
From what some Members have said, one would think this cutback was the Opposition's idea and not the Government's. I do not believe the Department of Finance was involved in this cutback. It got through because someone did not keep their eye on the ball. The full implications were not thought out when it was delivered to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I make that charge with full knowledge of the complexity of the social welfare system, having been social welfare spokesperson in the other House for two years.
Mistakes are made and this is one of them. The proposal was not properly thought out and it must, therefore, be reviewed urgently. Last night, the Minister, after a good meeting with the National Association of Widows in Ireland, said she would come back to it. It will be fine if she says that she will move on this issue over Easter when the Houses are in recess so as not to be seen to be kowtowing to the Opposition before tonight's vote on a Private Members' motion in the Dáil. However, she must clarify the position on the cutback today, particularly in respect of the meeting held last night.
In her response to the Second Stage debate, she claimed she would look at other ways to resolve this issue. In her reply today, I want her to outline what other ways she is talking about. My prediction yesterday remains the same: the Government will cave in on this proposal. However, the caving in will happen when the House is not in session at Easter so that the full ire of the Opposition cannot be brought to bear. It is important that the widows and widowers know their position on this cutback. It is equally important that the Minister replies to this debate in that vein.
The argument the Minister's officials are giving her on this proposal is that one cannot be entitled to two schemes. The fundamental tenet of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is that one can get the highest paid scheme but not both. However, former Ministers will receive ministerial and Oireachtas pensions if they are out of the Houses at 50 years of age. They receive two pension schemes which are not delivered by the Department of Social and Family Affairs but which we in both Houses accepted. If the principle for politicians who have gone through the Houses with distinguished service is that they are entitled to an Oireachtas pension and a ministerial pension, the same principle should extend to widows.
Some years ago when I attempted to extend the free schemes for widows, I was informed that it could not be done as it would open the floodgates and one group cannot be distinguished from another in the social welfare code. If it is the resolve of both Houses that widows are a distinct group of people who must receive support from the social welfare code, then it can be done. It would be a brave Minister to stand up to the advice that she is getting on this issue. The Minister will probably say that the number of people affected by this proposal is minimal. Yet, it could have an effect on 120,000 widows and widowers. This is a growing group. While the figure is relatively small at present, there is huge potential for it to have a negative effect on a significant group of people.
Before the 2002 election, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, raided the social insurance fund to the tune of €500 million to ensure that the election was bought. If the Government in 2002 could take €500 million from a fund designated for the workers of this country, I cannot understand why it cannot give the paltry sum of €5.8 million to resolve this issue. The moneys for the social insurance fund come from PRSI contributions. Widows and widowers, as well as their deceased spouses, paid into that system. It should be there for them when they need it most, in their hour of need. This is the kind of measure that highlights that particular hour of need.
What comfort will the Minister give to the National Association of Widows in Ireland? I ask her to make a statement to the House in respect of her discussions with that group. If she is telling the House that she will make her U-turn on this issue in two weeks, that is fine. We can live with that and will be delighted to hear it on Good Friday. However, I do not want people led further up the garden path on this issue. Senator Wilson's fascinating thesis on the contrasts in the social consciences of the Fianna Fáil Party at constituency level and in the Houses is one I intend to read in the future. However, I do not want his colleagues at the weekend issuing statements to the local newspapers shedding crocodile tears on how awful these cutbacks are and how they will do the divil and all to ensure a U-turn on it while opposing my colleagues' amendments to the Bill today.
That is not the way Fianna Fáil operates.
That is exactly the way it operates.
We will see in a few minutes during the division.
We are not the party of soundbites.
We will see in a few minutes the colour of its money.
Senator Norris suggested earlier that Members should charm the Minister for Social and Family Affairs into changing her mind on this amendment. However, we are not here to charm but to use common sense and fair play on this matter. It is obvious to everyone in the House, including the Minister, that this legislative provision is grossly unfair. It constitutes an attack on the most vulnerable people in the community, particularly widows and widowers who, along with their families, are struggling to cope with the loss of a spouse. We should support such people, who may be trying to keep down a job, but under this Bill they will be punished if they become sick or lose their jobs. It is beyond belief that one should try to punish people in such a manner. Those who will be affected have certain rights because their spouse, who is now deceased, paid PRSI and they may also be making such contributions. It is unbelievable.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that the inclusion of this measure must have been a mistake, as it does not seem to have been properly thought through. It must have slipped through the net because it does not make sense that we should punish these people.
The Minister said last night that people cannot receive two payments. If that is the crux of the problem, it is very easy to address. Rather than cutting people's payments, one can ensure the benefit payment they receive is equal to the level of unemployment or disability benefit to which anybody else is entitled. I implore the Minister to address this issue. I hope she will demonstrate compassion and fair play in dealing with it and I trust that she will do so. I look forward to hearing her response, which I hope will include an indication that she intends to accept Senator Cummins's amendment.
I do not understand why the Minister stands up to say that she sympathises with the problem and with those affected by it and that she will try to address the issue in the coming weeks. It is blatantly obvious to everyone in the House that the issue needs to be addressed. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment and to move forward. She can help 2,000 people by making a change that will cost just €5.8 million. Other Ministers, particularly the Minister for Finance who holds the purse strings, are well able to give money to all sorts of people and organisations. I refer in particular to the horse fraternity and others in the sporting world. It is disgraceful that our society works the way it does — we think it is better to give money to the wealthy racing industry than to look after the most vulnerable in the community. The Minister is probably sick and tired of hearing such comments, but the comment I have made is fair and true. I ask the Minister to address this issue, to redress the balance and to accept this amendment.
I support Senator Cummins's amendment. I remind the Minister for Social and Family Affairs that this is not the first time widows have been targeted and been made beggars of. I assume the Department of Finance is responsible for the predicament faced by the Minister today. The Department has levied serious inheritance tax on widows in the past. Many widows had to dispose of their property to comply with the Department of Finance's requests at that time. Families were denied the inheritance of a property or, in many cases, a livelihood. We are targeting widows again today.
I am not sure if the Department of Finance told the Minister last summer or autumn that every Department had to bring about cuts. Did the Minister's advisors in the Department of Social and Family Affairs tell her, to that end, that double payments would have to be stopped? Approximately 2,000 widows and widowers — the most vulnerable people in society — are being targeted as a result of the decision that has been taken. Is the Minister unable to stand up and declare her independence, without being subservient to the Department of Finance? I cannot believe she is yielding to its demand for overall cuts. Somebody in the Minister's Department must have decided it is legitimate to make changes in this area in order to satisfy the Department of Finance. There can be no legitimate reason for the introduction of this cut and many others in the Bill. The cutback being addressed in this amendment targets a vulnerable group.
I doubt the sincerity of many Government Senators who say they have pity, who talk about it and who say they will look into it. Such verbiage has to be disposed of so that we can examine directly the problems faced by vulnerable people who are suffering as a result of serious cutbacks. Such people did not recognise the seriousness of the cutbacks until the day on which they received their first payments under the new system. They found then that they were affected by the implementation of the new regulations. They had not imagined that the consequences of the introduction of the system would be so serious.
It is useless to postpone a final decision or to say it will be examined in some other way. If the Government is determined and willing to recognise the hardship involved in this cutback, it is important for the Minister to indicate clearly that she will restore, by means of some other mechanism and as a matter of urgency, the income that has been lost by this very vulnerable group. For that reason, I ask her to consider seriously the amendment that has been moved by Senator Cummins this morning. The Minister should demonstrate, for once and for all, that she has listened to those who have shown their concerns in a legitimate manner by seeking to meet her. It does not happen often that a representative group wishes to meet the Minister for Social Welfare to discuss a cutback, as the National Association of Widows in Ireland has done in this instance. The Minister can walk away if she wishes.
This Bill reminds me of the infamous Disability Bill 2001. When a former Minister of State, who was responsible for disability matters at the time, met various disability groups to discuss the Bill, she dug in before she eventually had to abandon it. I think the same thing will happen in this instance. It is important that the Minister should make any announcement in the Oireachtas, rather than holding a media show outside the House. It is important that a decision that affects so many people receives the status it deserves. It should be dealt with in the Dáil or the Seanad, rather than being the subject of a press conference.
I have listened as a number of issues have been discussed. There has been an attempt to claim moral superiority. I have been compared to other Ministers.
Not by me.
No, I did not say that.
Senators have said that I do not have my eye on the ball. References have been made to the Lower House, to my personality and to the way in which I deal with things. I was not a stone the last time I looked. I have indicated that I do not hold a certain opinion of this House, as I have discovered at long last that perhaps the Upper House is sometimes more human than the Lower House. It is grand that people have expressed their points of view — people can have points of view. When we talk about moral superiority, however, that should be applied across the board. I have learned with interest about Senator Ryan's upbringing. It is obvious that he did not listen to people at home when they spoke about politics.
I listened when they spoke about values.
I do not know about anything else in life, but that is a natural prerogative of all of us.
I inherited my values.
Senator Ryan spoke about the German social welfare system.
If one does a little comparative social policy analysis of our system and that of the Germans one will notice that ours is a more caring society. It is a more caring society than that of France and most other European countries. In most European countries there is no such thing as a one-parent family allowance — it does not exist. Unemployment benefit is only applicable for a short period. There is no such thing as a free scheme in 90% of European countries, not including the UK.
We have a unique social system which reflects a major investment. If somebody asked one which Department spends the most money, one might suggest the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Education and Science, but it is actually my Department which has a budget of €11.26 billion.
We know that.
That is the reasoning behind the cuts.
That is a reflection of the €630 million additional funding which is being provided this year. This ensures that everyone is treated equally. Everyone received €10. In normal circumstances, certain groups receive more than others. Widows are treated particularly well, although the professor of English down the back will probably kill me for saying this. This reflects our support for them. We gave them a larger increase last year — €11.60. Invalidity pensioners also received more last year. This is a reflection of our priorities.
Someone used the words "blatantly obvious". I am delighted that things have become blatantly obvious——
That was in relation to a previous Bill.
——because the issue in question was contained in a previous Bill that was passed by this House and the other House and signed by the President in December last year. We could get into a discussion of whether we are even supposed to be speaking of it now.
Everyone in his heart and soul knows I cannot accept this amendment. Everyone knows that if we call a vote the Government will support the Minister.
The last time the Minister was here they did not.
There was a slight mistake, but it was sorted out the next day.
We will not go down that road.
Everyone knows one can try to persuade a Minister to change a decision. One can bark at the Minister, or bite if one feels like it.
Even the watchdogs are not doing that.
The reality of politics is often totally different from what we talk about on the floor of the House. Mention was made of the politics of envy and the targeting of widows. People's sincerity was cast into doubt. Senators talked about league tables of where people are investing. We could go back and consider where others have had the opportunity to make changes. Other Governments had major opportunities. Senator Ulick Burke spoke about taxation of widows and widowers. He is absolutely correct. That was changed by our Government, not by someone who came down from on high.
The Government had beggared a population.
That was changed by us. The Senator's party had an opportunity to change that years ago, but it did not.
The Government was busy sorting out the mess it had created.
What else did this Government do? We introduced a major increase in the widow's and widower's contributory pension and non-contributory pension. The first time widowers were recognised was 1997. I do not know, but I think we were in Government that day.
That is not correct. My father died in 1950, but if my mother had died my father would have received a housekeeper's allowance. The Minister is not correct in that respect.
The widower's means-tested pension was first introduced in 1997. We introduced a widowed parent's grant in December 1999, initially of €1,270 and which I increased to €2,700 this year. That is a recognition of the difficulties faced by certain people. The capital assessment arrangements of my Department have been completely changed to benefit widowers who have made contributions. After-death arrangements have been expanded to include everyone. Free schemes, bereavement counselling and so on have been available to support this vulnerable group.
There are 120,000 widows in this country. Of these, 70% are over 66. Very few widows are working.
Many of them were forced to give up their jobs. These are the women who have been affected by the Government's actions.
It is admirable for those on the other side of the House to bring up an issue and be cynical about how many people it affects.
So it is our fault now.
No. I took the opportunity of meeting the widows' association yesterday evening. We had a good meeting. To go back to statistics for a moment, only 7% of widows have children.
That does not change the status——
Is the Minister talking about dependent children?
They must flee the home to survive.
I had a good discussion with members of the widows' association last night. They told me what they wanted done and what needed to be changed. They recognised that the issue of widows over 66 was now being sorted out. The anomaly was dealt with in the last Social Welfare Bill. They stated, and I agree, that for widows under 66 the baseline payment is very poor. They receive €140 per week. I provided an assurance in consultation with them that we would consider the baseline payment.
Many people, from what I can ascertain, are still not aware of family income supplement. It is a very good scheme and one which I support. I indicated, given that the widows' association does not have a database, that I would use my database to contact all widows and widowers regarding this.
I was taken aback to hear that people did not feel they should apply for mortgage interest relief or rent supplement if there was a change of circumstance. I tried to allay any concerns in this regard. Contrary to how things were in the Dark Ages, these people are professional and have fine offices and applicants can be dealt with confidentially. I asked them to consider that on the basis of other changes in circumstances. I agreed to evaluate what they had to say and return to them with my conclusions. One is criticised when one does not meet people and also when one does. One is criticised for not getting back to people, but when one does get back to people one is also criticised. I met the members of the association and I promised them I would return to them personally with my conclusions and that we would have further interactions.
I meet every group in civil society at least once a year. On an ongoing basis, I have had several discussions with interested groups. I meet carers on a regular basis as I try to formulate a carers' policy. I have met the widows' association. I meet the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and all the housing organisations. I met the new organisation for one-parent families with which Senator Henry is associated. I have had many opportunities to listen to and consider people's concerns. People may not agree, but I still believe it is my duty to listen to what people have to say. I have given the assurance that I would do so. I am not in a position to do anything until such time as we have completed the Social Welfare Bill and the European conference is completed. At that stage I will return to the widows' association with my conclusions.
People have made fair points during the debate, but some incorrect facts have been circulated. Widows do not pay PRSI on any of their pension incomes nor do they pay PRSI on amounts up to €287 per week. They do not pay a 2% contribution towards the health levy which was removed by the Government. It is important that those points——
They paid into the same fund.
They did but we are talking about an individual entitlement and unlike everyone else in the State, they do not pay PRSI on amounts up to €287 per week.
I wish to refer to the question raised by the case of McHughv. the Department of Social Welfare. The case was heard in the High Court in 1990. It was appealed and a decision was handed down in 1992. It was to do with a regulation made by the Minister for Social Welfare in 1987 about overlapping payments. That case was taken and under the regulation, the implication was that they were seen as ultra vires in that the Minister did not have the power to remove an entitlement to payment which is given in the primary legislation by way of secondary legislation. That was changed in the Social Welfare Act 1991. Therefore, the primary and secondary legislation are at one. It was on that basis that a new provision was passed in the 1991 Act, where, under the Consolidation Act, new provisions provided that where a person has an entitlement to more than one social welfare payment at any one time, only one is payable. It was reverted back in that legislation.
I ask the Minister to read into the record of the House the comments of the judges in that case.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 1987 regulations wereultra vires and that the Minister did not have the power to remove an entitlement to payment which is given in the primary legislation by way of secondary legislation. In addition, the court ruled that in making these regulations which took away entitlements to half-rate DB but left entitlement to half-rate UB intact, the Minister acted in an unreasonable manner. That is a point of view.
They had a lot more than that to say.
That is all I have.
I accept what the Minister said, but it is worthwhile pointing out that they said it was mean.
Allow the Minister to continue.
We can have a protracted historical argument but, at the end of the day, the primary legislation was rectified to such an extent that the overlapping benefit regulation was encompassed in the Social Welfare Act 1991.
I appreciate that people are making sincere comments, despite the fact that we are having some political banter about a number of things. On this occasion, I am not in a position to accept amendments Nos. 1 and 4.
I listened with interest to the Minister. She spoke at length but spent very little time on the amendment which calls for a reversal of the cuts. I am delighted she met the National Association of Widows in Ireland and that it was an amicable meeting but if the Minister is saying that she will examine the base line payments for widows aged under 66 years, it will be in terms of next year's social welfare Bill, which is 12 months away.
That is correct.
There is no respite at all from the cutbacks if the Minister is trying to take the sting out of this issue by talking about the situation in 12 months time. We will not allow that to happen.
We believe this should be amended now. The Minister stated yesterday that the social insurance fund is €1.6 billion in surplus. Surely the measly amount of money that is required can be taken from the social insurance fund to pay the widows? It was raided previously for election purposes and it could be done at this stage to help widows. We intend to press the amendment.
I understand the Minister is not made out of stone. She is a very decent human being and she is a good Minister.
I am going to be hammered now.
She is in an unfortunate position at present because, unquestionably, she is being squeezed by some tough guys around the place in other Departments. I point out to the Minister that I did not engage in any partisan action and I specifically made that point.
I did not say the Senator did so.
I felt it was a mistake. We should all support the Minister in trying to get an easement of this situation. I understand that political parties would wish to do that and to exploit a situation but my concern is not with partisan advantage in which I have no interest anyway, apart from the fact that it would not benefit me one way or the other — I am quite open about it. The real nub of the question is the widows who are involved.
I am very grateful that the Minister opened up the question of the McHugh case — I referred to it as McKeown but it is McHugh. What she did not refer to — I acknowledge they were not supplied to her with the papers — were the very trenchant comments of the judges in the Supreme Court. I cannot remember the exact words of the judgment but they said it was mean, cowardly, unjustifiable and immoral. They used an extraordinary collection of adjectives to describe what the Government was then doing and the principle is exactly the same. That was found initially to be unconstitutional.
In my view, it is wrong to try to redress a situation with subsequent legislation. In my opinion, as a lay person — I am not a lawyer but I am extremely litigious — I would imagine that if a principle was found to be unconstitutional in one case and the Minister has produced a similar new legislative form, if it was tested in the courts it would be found to be unconstitutional again, as it was in the McHugh case and I do not think that has been completely addressed.
To deal with the other arguments made by the Minister, I accept there have been massive improvements. I remember the situation — I am in my sixtieth year to Heaven, as the poet, Dylan Thomas, would say — and I have seen in my lifetime massive improvements due to the work of the voluntary agencies, the Civil Service and Ministers of different complexions. However, as I understand the argument now being made by the Minister, it seems to rely almost on numbers, that there is a small number of people involved. I may be misinterpreting the Minister but she stated that there is only a small number of widows still working. I do not think it matters. If there are only five of them it would still be an injustice. An injustice is an injustice that attaches to the individual. I have never been impressed by a numbers game and it makes it worse because there is less sense of collegial grouping around the people who are victimised.
The Minister is isolating a tiny number of people. Her figures state that only a small number of widows are also working but then why does she persecute them? It is like the blasted tax laws. They go after the unfortunate little creatures who made some kind of an error and they let Goodman and all the rest of them skite off with unpaid tax bills of various kinds. It is dreadful. The Minister stated that only 7% have child dependants. That is a numbers game argument. Does it mean that one can be unjust to a number below 10%? The Minister seems to accept that there is a problem with the7% but she is saying that she has looked after 93%. It would be a good day's work to look after the 7%. The point has been made, which I regard as reasonable, that although we understand we are in a period when the Government collectively has decided it is in the best interests of the nation that there should be a cutback in public expenditure, and that is a wise decision, we need to be careful where the cutbacks fall. In a situation where the amount of saving is——
The Senator's point is well made now.
I have not finished the point so I do not know how the Leas-Chathaoirleach would know that unless he is a prophet.
But not in his own land.
I apologise for putting the Senator off his stride.
I have to admit that but it was done in the nicest possible way. To return to the numbers game, the Minister admitted that the amounts are so small that it is not even a practical saving of any real significance. When put in the context of the enormous budget which the Minister has, it is a pity that these groups are targeted. The Minister is probably correct in saying we have a more humane system here than in many other European countries. We should be proud of that and should encourage these countries to take our approach. We should not use it as a defence for cutting it back. Some European countries are awful in the way they treat their citizens and appear to be veering towards the awful American system. I do not want to go down that road.
I want the Minister to continue with the work she is doing well. In this situation a small number of people are adversely affected. I hope the Minister can see her way to examining it again. She should not think that because it affects only 7% of the population it does not matter. The Church of Ireland, of which I am a member, has been extremely well treated by the State. Why is that? We comprise only 2% of population. We could be forgotten about and written off. We do not meet the 10% requirement. Indeed, we are so well treated, for example, in terms of the provision of money for schools, that some of the others are bellyaching about it.
The Senator is moving away from the amendment.
It is a mistake to use the numbers game argument.
The only usage of the——
The Minister takes the correct position on the amendment because it will not solve the kernel of the issue. At their meeting yesterday, the Minister gave a commitment to the widows' association to look at the position. She went into the meeting with an open mind and has looked at all the issues that have been identified, including baseline payments and providing more information to people to ensure they get all the payments to which they are entitled, whether widows or not.
The point made by Senator Norris is valid and the Minister will understand it. I have no doubt it is not about a numbers game. I accept the decision was made last autumn and winter in the context of the Estimates.
It is important that all the changes made to the social welfare system are based on equity and fairness. The underlying principle which has been quoted on a number of occasions by the Department of Social and Family Affairs——
The Senator is backtracking on what she said yesterday.
—— is that only one payment can be made to an individual. That principle is not correct. I have had this argument since I became a Member in 1997. We cannot have a blanket rule such as that, especially given that because of certain and family circumstances, people have different needs. It is not a numbers game, but amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are not the solution to the problem. I accept the Minister's bona fides and her commitment to re-evaluate the position and to come back to the widow's association and the Houses on it.
In 12 months' time.
I accept the amendment will not solve it here today.
Why do we have legislation?
The issue has not gone away and we need to look at it in the context of what is just and equitable for all our people.
The Minister is among the more eloquent Members of the Government and I have always recognised that. She is also among the more likeable, which is one of her great assets.
Likeable but wrong.
She is still wrong. Either knowingly or unknowingly she walked into a position where she agreed to this. What she did not do in a very eloquent speech was say why she agreed to this. Was it because she did not notice that she was poorly advised or that it was one of the easier decisions to make? We are in precisely the same position as we were before. We do not know why this was done, we can only speculate. I have my own interpretation, as have others. I would like to hear the Minister's reason but she did not give us one.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, Fergal.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Burke, Ulick.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Hayes, Brian.
- Henry, Mary.
- McHugh, Joe.
- Norris, David.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Terry, Sheila.
- Tuffy, Joanna.
- Bohan, Eddie.
- Brady, Cyprian.
- Brennan, Michael.
- Callanan, Peter.
- Cox, Margaret.
- Daly, Brendan.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Kett, Tony.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- 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.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report:
(a) contrasting the increase in 2003 of the Consumer Price Index with the
increases paid to the entitled persons under the Act of 2003;
(b) evaluating the suitability and appropriateness of the items and
weightings used by the Central Statistics Office in computing the rates of increase in the Consumer Price Index to the needs of the principal category of entitled persons under the Principal Act; and
(c) setting out the Department’s assessment of those groups potentially
most seriously affected by significant inflationary pressures which may arise because of internal and external factors in 2004.".
The amendment is concerned with the consumer price index which, in many instances, takes into consideration luxury items such as cars and holidays. However, the increases that affect the poor are mostly increases in the price of electricity, food and other items. Those areas should be taken into account for those on social welfare and luxury items should be omitted.
We have had a number of discussions on the indexation and methodology which determines inflation and prices. The CPI has been used extensively and it encompasses a huge number of items, not just luxury items but basic items also. There are 55,000 prices accumulated over 1,000 different items so it is a very extensive methodology and we do not have the ability to prepare for any change to be made to it. It is the most appropriate methodology for looking at price indexes and any change in it would not be fruitful. We have a base line set for the CPI and we make determinations on that basis. It is levelled against our inflation figures. Given the extensive professional appreciation and acceptance of the CPI, any change in its methodology would not benefit anyone and there is no necessity at present to do so.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) The Minister shall establish an internal Departmental committee t assess the extent to which the amounts provided for insubsection (1) adequately meet or assist in meeting the costs of maintaining a child in the State.”.
The amount of money it costs to maintain a child was debated on Second Stage. We have had various reports on child poverty and we still have children who are not getting a hot meal every day. This amendment seeks to set an amount which would adequately meet or assist in meeting the cost of maintaining a child.
There is an interdepartmental committee working on the child poverty initiative which is part of Sustaining Progress. We are looking at income maintenance as part of that. Part of the Deputy's amendment is dealt with in an ongoing way because within the Department we prepare for discussions on that kind of evaluation and policy direction. That is taking place at present. The agreed view is that dealing with child poverty from an income base must take in the totality of income supports and is not necessarily just about child benefit. Though the universality of that measure benefits all children it is fairly targeted at children in poverty.
We are currently working on the initiative set on in the amendments as part of Sustaining Progress. Internally a committee is evaluating child poverty and a special child poverty initiative is also being undertaken.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 4, before section 5, the following new section:
"5.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report indicating the likely number of persons who would benefit if the carer's allowance was extended in whole or in part to persons already in receipt of payments under the Principal Act.".
This amendment deals with people on pensions who are looking after a family member. At present if they receive one payment they are not entitled to another social welfare payment, so we are back to where we were with the widows. This area should be examined, particularly the situation of carers.
I understand the thrust of Senator Cummins' amendment and it is important that this is kept under continuous review. On Second Stage, the Minister mentioned ongoing reviews and her ongoing commitment to reform of the social welfare system. We are continually looking at carers in particular and on Second Stage we discussed how we can make payments to carers — nursing home subventions, carer's allowance and carer's benefit — as effective as possible in order to reflect the kind of environment we want for our old people. This is not the vehicle for such changes. I would be delighted to discuss these issues in the future and I have no doubt the Minister would be happy to come back and do so.
We are looking at the numbers who would benefit from changes in means testing. At present the cost of abolishing the carer's allowance means test is estimated at €180 million. There are almost 21,000 carers in receipt of carer's allowance at a cost of €183 million and Senators will know there have been huge changes in the income disregards.
For the first time, as a result of the census, we have some real statistics from the CSO on the number of persons providing unpaid personal care for a friend or family member with a long term illness, health problem or disability. We analysed those figures, which were available from 15 October 2003, and we found that 40,500 people provide 43 hours or more unpaid personal help per week, or approximately six hours per day, while 23,400 provide between 15 and 42 hours unpaid personal help per week, which is between two and six hours per day. In addition, 84,900 people provide between one and 14 hours per week, which is approximately two hours per day. Currently 22,000 people receive carer's allowance or carer's benefit, which means that 34% of the 64,000 people estimated by the CSO to be caring for over two hours per day are in receipt of a specific carer's payment from the Department.
The carers issue was part of a report provided by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs and, contrary to what the Chairman feels, I took up one of the policy initiatives last week.
Do not cross the Chairman.
I am not going to cross the Chairman. He was bemused that I would not do anything but I said I would and last week I provided funding from the information side for one of the report's recommendations. We will take that into consideration for the next budget.
We are well within the programme for Government target for carer's allowance and carer's benefit and hopefully we will reach the target next year. That said, caring is a long term issue, especially in view of the huge change in the demographic profile in the next 20 years. That will not only impact on pensions but on caring. There has been considerable discussion of this issue and how to pay for it. We participated in the Minister for Health and Children's evaluation of home care and subvention. I will shortly be in a position to examine the issue of financing long-term care. The Nordic countries, for example, provide specifically for caring through the PRSI system at an older age, and I may have to evaluate that system. Recommendations have been made as to how we can fund long-term care, one of which involves a PRSI increase. I have not yet made a determination as to how we will do this. The matter will have to be considered through an evaluation, and different methodologies will not suit everyone.
We have made tremendous changes, including increased supports for carers and it is my intention to continue doing so. The increase in the income disregard this year has not only been beneficial to new applicants but, equally, it has supported people who are currently in receipt of the carer's allowance or carer's benefit, in that they may receive an increased payment accordingly. It is a big issue which we will all have to tackle, regardless of our political perspectives because at the end of the day——
Fianna Fáil will not be in Government to deal with it.
——we have a duty to deal with the issue of caring for the elderly and those with disabilities. We have done a considerable amount of work and I commend the Chairman and other members of the Committee on Social and Family Affairs for the work they have done, as I have said to the Chairman personally. While I echo some of his frustrations in the implementation of these matters, I have explained to the House the implications of the changes. For instance, we now have better information available on the number of carers.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 6, before section 7, to insert the following new section:
"7—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report:
(a) setting out the mechanisms by which family income supplement could be paid through the tax system, the estimated additional numbers of entitled persons who would benefit from such a change and the estimated cost of such additional take-up; and
(b) evaluating the potential number of beneficiaries under family income supplement if self-employed persons were to qualify for participation.”.
In referring to her negotiations with the National Association of Widows in Ireland, the Minister said many widows were not aware of the provisions in the family income supplement. Many people are not aware of how that supplement works. Rather than being considered by the public as a hand-out, the FIS should be incorporated into the tax system so that people should not have to seek such entitlements.
Under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, a working group was established to examine the role refundable tax credits can play in the tax and welfare systems. This examination included the possibility of paying FIS through the tax system. Both issues are closely related since a substantial number of FIS claimants have income which comes below the tax exemption limit appropriate to their family size. In order for such families to benefit from a tax credit system, the payment would have to be in the form of a refundable tax credit. Entitlement to FIS is not solely determined on the basis of the claimant's current earnings; account is also taken of family size, hours worked and duration of employment, as well as any earnings from the spouse or partner, where relevant. Not all of this information is currently available through tax returns made to the Revenue Commissioners. The system is, therefore, not capable of automatically identifying households with an entitlement to FIS.
In addition, the family income supplement's application is immediate whereas a return from the tax system is from the previous year. My Department has considered that point, arising from the deliberations that have taken place. We have examined ways of increasing awareness of family income supplement, which is referred to in the child benefit books. I agree with the Senator that we should state that FIS is an entitlement, not a hand-out.
Employees may be concerned that employers would know that they had made an application to the Department for a payment, but we have to get beyond that point. I have undertaken to examine new ways of encouraging people to apply for family income supplement. We have made a number of changes concerning it. For example, it is no longer taken as a means with regard to rent supplement. While all those changes are important, I share the Senator's view that we must reach out to people to ensure they will apply for family income supplement. Perhaps, as public representatives, we should re-examine this matter.
Senator Norris is not currently in the Chamber but earlier he was giving us lectures about not being too political concerning these matters. Given his capacity to politicise the most extraordinary things, however, I am not sure about that.
I accept the movement of people within the European Union, particularly the expanded EU, is an issue that needs to be sorted out but it deserves to be done by proper analysis. I want to ask the Minister about the concept of habitual residence. How does she propose to justify under European law a discrimination between how we deal with citizens of the United Kingdom and others? I emphasise the term "under European law", so let us forget about the British-Irish common travel areas. How does she propose to justify treating citizens of the United Kingdom differently from citizens of France and Denmark, for example, leaving alone the accession countries for the moment?
What about people who are here because we essentially invited them to come to do jobs that we can not get others to do? One part of the Government says that we have to accept, welcome and encourage immigration because of demographics and our extraordinary economic growth. It is a fact that there are employment sectors which are predominantly staffed by people who in some cases are non-nationals of the existing or expanded EU, and in other cases are nationals of the existing EU. Since we have an unemployment rate of 4.4%, if such people do not come here businesses will suffer dramatically. What will happen to these people if, after six months here they find themselves out of a job? Are we asking them to come here first and then telling them to go home? They will not do so, unless they are covered by social insurance in their own countries. I am intrigued to know what will happen to Danish people, for example, who do not have a social insurance scheme, do not pay PRSI and where funding is through taxation. Will Danish citizens be therefore treated differently?
I have three questions. First, what is the position on the anomaly relating to countries such as Denmark? Second, will the Minister clarify the discrimination between citizens of one EU country and the rest of the EU? I fully accept the State is entitled to treat everybody else as badly as it treats its own citizens but I do not accept the State is entitled to treat the citizens of 23 countries one way and the citizens of one country on its own another way. That is discrimination.
Third, how many other member states require habitual residence before parents are entitled to child benefit or its equivalent? My secretary contacted the embassies of member states in Dublin regarding the issue of child benefit. I am not playing poor mouth on this because I do not have the resources of the Department but my secretary and I could not find a member state which applies a habitual residence requirement for entitlement to child benefit. Anybody who is legally entitled to reside in Germany or the Netherlands is entitled to apply for child benefit immediately, according to the information supplied by their embassies. Why is the State dealing with this issue differently? Why is it saying to immigrants who travel with children or who have children when they are here, "You are different, you are not entitled to child benefit. We want you to work and pay taxes here but you are not entitled to child benefit for two years."?
The habitual residence test is available in several EU member states. However, Ireland has never insisted on legal status within the EU. For example, if one wishes to work in Belgium, one must seek permission to live there and, as a consequence, one can apply for a bank account and so on. The habitual residence test will apply to all EU citizens, including ourselves, and it only applies in the common travel area. In other words, if one has lived in the UK, that country's habitual residence requirement of two years can be taken into consideration if one applies in Ireland. This is a special bilateral reciprocal arrangement to which the State is entitled.
Is it under the EU treaty?
Will the Minister explain that?
All member states can enter into bilateral social welfare arrangements because people cannot be a burden on the state. Everyone who travels to work in Ireland and brings their families will receive child benefit.
The habitual residence requirement is not necessarily two years; that is only a guideline. Other guidelines include the length and continuity of residence, the employment prospects of the individuals, why they are coming to Ireland, their future intentions and centres of interest. For example, if a person is working on a building site, falls and breaks his leg and is out for six months, it will be expected he will return to his employment. These guidelines are based on EU judgments to evaluate habitual residence. The test will be applied on a case by case basis. If the person who is injured, for example, can show he will return to work, he will be entitled to assistance until he does so. It is on that basis the Department will deal with the issue.
Under the Danish system, people collect assistance but they are still covered by regulation 1408 of 1971, which provides that people can transfer their benefits from one country to another. The principle still applies where there is free movement of people. French and Polish people will not be treated differently. The test is being introduced as a full change under our social welfare code and not under the accession treaty, similar to several other countries.
Applicants will receive child benefit.
Why will they receive child benefit?
They will if they are working here.
It is because the habitual residence test only applies to people who are not working and wish to avail of social welfare assistance.
Child benefit is not assistance.
If one is legally working in the State, one is entitled to child benefit.
Excuse my ignorance but I cannot find that provision in the legislation.
The legislation provides for a habitual residence requirement. There will be free movement of labour and people will have the same entitlements as Irish citizens. However, if one applies for social assistance under means tested schemes, one must meet the habitual residence requirement.
All citizens of the new accession states can live in Ireland as long as they are not a burden on the State. A number may transfer their pensions with them but they will have to take other issues into consideration, such as the standard of living and housing costs. One cannot travel here and be a burden on the State. If people travel here, apply to a CWO for social assistance and are not entitled to it, they will be repatriated following consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform if that is what they want. People who travel to work here will have the same benefits as every worker in the State. The difference relates to social assistance and this is the first time the habitual residence requirement has been adopted. The UK adopted it almost ten years ago and the test is based on sound EU law.
A Council of Ministers meeting was held two weeks ago. A case was taken by an American man, Francis Brian Collins, who held Irish citizenship, to vindicate his social welfare rights in the UK and the court dismissed his legal argument. The legislation will stand up on that basis. It had been criticised on the basis that it would not stand up to scrutiny under European law.
Which court was involved?
The European Court of Justice. The decision was made yesterday. The habitual residence requirement can be introduced but it must apply to every EU citizen, including our own. Guidelines will be set and, on the basis of previous European court judgments, the Department can deal with this issue on a case by case basis. For example, Irish citizens returning from the US may be in a difficult legal position because they did not pay social insurance contributions. If they move back here lock, stock and barrel, put their children into schools and seek employment having previously had a centre of interest, they will able to prove a habitual residence requirement.
Guidelines are being determined under EU case law and departmental staff will be trained on the basis that this is a new requirement and it will be important to advise public representatives and CICs when they are finalised on what will be required to prove habitual residence.
I thank the Minister because, as she has often done in the past, she has educated me. This is complicated legislation and I do not think we have debated it excessively. I take it that the reference to section 193 in Schedule 1 to a qualified person applies to people who would otherwise be technically qualified for social assistance and that is how people who are at work are still entitled to child benefit because they are not qualified persons for social assistance.
When somebody from an accession country who comes here to work and loses his or her job after a couple of months, does he or she lose the child benefit?
The assumption is that the person would try to find another job. My view is that the majority will come here to work. They are thrifty, tenacious and vibrant workers and would be able to find other work reasonably quickly, putting some of our own people to shame. We categorise people in the labour market as active or inactive and "active" in the labour market means that somebody is available for and looking for work and on the basis that he or she lost the job through no fault, he or she would be in receipt of interim payments, similar to any other "active" citizen.
If a person loses his or her job, through no fault of his or her own, will he or she be sent back or how long may he or she stay here?
Nobody can be sent back. People who find themselves in long-term need of assistance may be facilitated. We do not interact too much with people on unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit for a period of between six week to three months. After three months, there is an application form to ensure that persons are available for and genuinely seeking work and similar provisions will apply to them. Of course, particular issues will arise, but everyone will be treated equally under the active labour market provisions.
On a separate question, is there empirical evidence that these provisions are needed, either on the experience of other countries in the past or the experience of the EU, when East and West Germany united and suddenly 20 million impoverished East German became citizens of the European Union? Is there evidence that the so-called "benefit tourism" has taken place, apart from the hysteria reported in The Daily Mail and its equivalent in this country?
I made a botún during a press conference where I wrongly accused one of the members of the press for being responsible for that hysteria. I did not mean him personally, but the reported assumption that everyone in the world would move. There was an assumption that more than 1 million people would have moved with the accession of Spain, Portugal and Greece, but that did not happen. However, a serious issue is that in the accession states, the media headline would encourage people to come without being properly educated on the cost of and standard of living, housing and so on. For some reason under accession treaties, countries may make legal changes but they do not have to advise the Commission. The Commissioner has set up a technical group to look at the full evaluation. Nobody has all the information. European Union countries, apart from Britain and Ireland, are changing their labour law as well as social welfare law. Some countries are introducing quotas or something similar to a work permit system. Based on empirical evidence, the view is that 1% of the European population will move. We would all agree that in the main the people who move are single young people looking for a job. Given that we have a common travel area with the United Kingdom, we have followed the British lead and persons must meet a habitual residency requirement in order to get social assistance.
Are there similar provisions for habitual residency in other European countries?
Other countries would have more extensive provisions in that there will be a quota on the number of people allowed to work in the country as well as major restrictions on access to welfare payments. Last week I visited Italy, where I spoke to Mr. Moroni. His difficulty is that in northern Italy, part of a town is in Italy and the rest in Albania and people walk across so he will have to seek a bilateral agreement for that. There will be idiosyncrasies everywhere. They have restricted access to labour as opposed to social assistance, because in their view labour is the issue. People in Italy are reliant on people from neighbouring countries coming to work. It is an evolving issue. Britain and Ireland are the only two countries with no restrictions on the free movement of labour.
Is section 17 agreed?
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 10, before section 18, to insert the following new section:
"18.—The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the passing of this Act, prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report setting out revised targets for the full implementation of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.".
This amendment refers to the targets for the full implementation of the national anti-poverty strategy. In Sustaining Progress it was promised that child poverty would be eliminated by 2007. We are tabling this amendment to find out if the targets have been revised and the provisions being made to eliminate poverty.
The NAPS programme was evaluated last year by the European Commission, which carried out a peer review on best practice. The European Community noted that MABS is one of best practice and a number of colleague have come to look at the setting up of the system. Last year we evaluated the entire NAPS, which includes income, education, housing and health targets. We have to a considerable extent reached some of the income related targets, for example the target that the old age pension would be increased to €200. Another target was to increase in 2002 terms the baseline payment of €150 and that is being progressed by €10 each year. We have made steady progress on meeting our targets during the lifetime of the Government. I believe one has to have targets to work towards if one is sincere in addressing the issue of poverty. A former Minister, not of my party, was the first to decide to introduce a national anti-poverty strategy.
Tell Senator Wilson about him.
One must be egalitarian at all times.
On the Order of Business, it was decided that all remaining Stages of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill would conclude not later than 1.30 p.m.
I wish to offer the strongest possible protest. This is a complete disgrace and an abrogation of democracy. We have a series of amendments, including the one I am most personally and passionately involved with, which we will not reach. They cannot be put down again.
I will ignore what the Cathaoirleach says because he is ignoring what this House is saying.
You cannot ignore me. As it is now 1.30 p.m., I am obliged to put the following question——
You are ignoring the rights of the Seanad and its function which is to examine and scrutinise amendments.
Senator Norris, I am only following the Order of Business agreed this morning. You all agreed to it. There was a vote on another issue.
I am not blaming you personally, a Chathaoirligh, but it is an absolute disgrace. You should do whatever you can in this matter because you are the person charged with responsibility for the procedures of this House. Amendments have been tabled but this House is being prevented from carrying out its democratic duty of examining them. We will have no opportunity whatever——
It was ordered that this business should conclude at 1.30 p.m. As Cathaoirleach, I have to carry out the Order of Business.
I understand your difficult position and I am sorry for it, but it is an outrage.
I can do nothing but put the question.
A Chathaoirligh, do you agree it is an outrage that amendments are not being reached?
I cannot interfere. I am putting the question now. Order, please.
I believe the Leader intended to make some proposal.
Senator Norris, you are extremely out of order.
I am sorry to interrupt. I would not dream of doing so under normal circumstances but I wish to make a point of order. The Minister is willing to discuss the particular amendment at issue. Can I vary the Order of Business? I have asked for a change.
The conclusion of this business was ordered for 1.30 p.m. and I must put the following question: "That amendment No. 11 is hereby negatived and, in respect of each of the sections and Schedules not disposed of, that the section or Schedule as appropriate is hereby agreed to in committee; that the Title is hereby agreed to in committee and that the Bill is accordingly reported to the House; Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and passed."
This is a disgrace. We are a Parliament and it is our duty under the Constitution to discuss these amendments. We are being prevented today from discussing matters which are before the House. I do not accept it. It is my responsibility as an elected Member of this Parliament to discuss amendments. If we are not to be allowed to do so, I challenge the question. I will not sit down. I ask that we take the rest of the amendments. We have put amendments down which we are not allowed to discuss. We should be allowed to table them again on Report Stage, but we cannot. I insist that we do our parliamentary duty. We are expected to examine these amendments. It is a disgrace. One can take whatever view one wishes for political reasons.
I tried to extend the time.
I do not accuse the Leader in this matter. I acknowledge her good intentions and offices. While people are entitled to take whatever line they wish when they vote on matters, they should not stop any debate. No debate should be prevented in Seanad Éireann which is supposed to be a House of revision and amendment in which Bills are scrutinised. It is an absolute disgrace. I wish to raise a point of order.
There is no point of order.
The Leader indicated that she was prepared to change the Order of Business of the House, which she is entitled to do. We have been deprived of the opportunity to discuss the amendments that are on the Order Paper. This is a dereliction of the duty of this House. I ask the Chair to respond to my point of order.
There is no point of order. The voting will commence now.
I have raised a point of order and it is a serious one. It arises because the Leader indicated that she was prepared to change the Order of Business. I understand she is entitled to do this and I am asking for an explanation as to why this did not happen. This would have rectified the matter.
There is no point of order.
I wish to seek a manual vote.
As the Senator is not a teller, will the Senators supporting his request please stand?
I wish to raise my point of order.
There is no point of order. The vote will now proceed.
I will raise it afterwards. I will stay here and continue to raise it until the cows come home.
- Bohan, Eddie.
- Brady, Cyprian.
- Brennan, Michael.
- Callanan, Peter.
- Cox, Margaret.
- Daly, Brendan.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Kett, Tony.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- 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.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, Fergal.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Burke, Ulick.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Hayes, Brian.
- Henry, Mary.
- McDowell, Derek.
- McHugh, Joe.
- Norris, David.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Terry, Sheila.
- Tuffy, Joanna.