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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 16 Dec 2005

Vol. 182 No. 9

Social Welfare Bill 2005: Committee and Remaining Stages.

Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1:

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

"4. —The Principal Act is amended in section 242 as follows:

(a) in page 177, line 1, by deleting subsection (1)(a), and

(b) in page 177, after line 28, by inserting the following new subsection:

(4) Where a social welfare recipient is in receipt of a payment for a qualified adult or other dependent relative, that payment shall be paid directly to the qualified adult or dependent relative and shall be in his or her name.".

I will not labour the point because we briefly discussed the matter yesterday. However, I want to make a pitch on behalf of these qualified dependants, most of whom are women. In terms of pension payments, if we look at the profile of women who do not have their own social insurance records, it is more than likely that they had to give up their jobs when they married. According to the culture of the time, many stayed at home to rear their families, to look after their husbands and to keep house. They performed those tasks very well and we have all benefitted from their work.

While caring at home, however, they did not have any independence. These were women who could not even take out a loan. I remember an issue from many years ago where some individuals wanted to buy washing machines from the ESB but could not do so without the signatures of their husbands. They had no rights and, now they are in their twilight years, still do not have independence. With this measure, we could recognise the work they have done and give them some independence. As the Minister for Social and Family Affairs noted yesterday, an optional arrangement has been provided for with regard to this matter. The Minister and I realise that few women have managed to take it up and we will have done a good day's work by making it mandatory. He said that he does not need to provide for that in this Bill but I understand from his comments that he will consider it favourably and will make arrangements for it in the future.

I indicated yesterday that I am interested in this subject and that I have held a number of meetings in my Department with a view to progressing it. The Senator will recall that, in 2002, a working group recommended the introduction of arrangements that would pay for the splitting of payments on a consensual basis. That is now up and running.

Measures have been introduced over a number of years to ensure that as many people as possible qualify for pensions in their own rights. These include the reduction of the yearly average of contributions required for pension purposes from 20 to ten, the half-way pension for the self-employed and the special pre-53 pensions.

In 1994, a homemaker's scheme was introduced which provides for a disregard of up to 20 years of homemaking when determining the yearly average test for old-age contributory pensions. The Senator's amendment specifically concerns making the payment a direct one on a mandatory basis. Serious administrative and policy issues arise in that regard but, if I can resolve these, I will try to progress it over the coming months.

I thank the Minister and hope that he will be able to resolve the issues holding this up. The homemaker's scheme, which was only implemented in 1994, will benefit many women in the future but it does nothing for the women who are retired or close to retirement and who spent 20 years or more caring for children. While it may not be appropriate at present to ask the Minister to consider the matter, it would be welcomed if the scheme could be backdated to 1974. By that means, the work done by these women in the home would be recognised. Is that possible and, if so, how much would it cost the State?

There would obviously be substantial financial implications in adding 20 years to the scheme. I will examine the matter but I do not want to make any commitments at this point in time. The scheme was established in 1994 and has been welcomed. Any changes made in these areas tend to be like pulling a string because the whole garment can follow and, as many schemes are interrelated, unintended consequences often arise when a scheme is changed. One must fully assess the knock-on issues. I do not have a figure in terms of the cost of adding 20 years but I will revert to the Senator if I can determine it.

Is Senator Terry pressing the amendment?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 4 agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 4, before section 5, to insert the following new section:

"5.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within three months of the commencement of supplement to this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the review the family income supplement.".

This amendment proposes to bring a report on the FIS to the Houses within three months. As we noted yesterday, FIS is a good scheme and its enhancement in the budget is welcome. We want to ensure that as many people as possible can avail of the supplement and, in that regard, the Minister indicated his plans for a national advertising campaign to ensure that people know their rights. I would appreciate a report on the scheme within three months because it would be helpful to know its performance and degree of uptake.

The family income supplement is an important measure to help people on low incomes. This year, we spent an extra €25 million on it. Whereas previously it was paid evenly, we changed the rules so larger amounts went to the larger families. That was a substantial change. Not enough people are aware of the FIS and in view of this I plan a substantial campaign to bring it to the attention of those who need it. A number of suggestions on how we might do that have been made. Given our database we can communicate with large numbers of people, particularly those who are likely to need the FIS. We may do that and we will advertise it on radio and television. I share the Senator's support for the scheme, which makes a significant difference to people on low income. As I mentioned yesterday, a couple with two children under six years of age and on a salary of €20,000 would receive €4,233 on FIS. That helps people move further from unemployment. A family with four children and the same salary would receive €7,900.

Apart from putting the extra €25 million in this year we have weighted FIS in favour of larger families. That is significant although not widely known and I intend to bring it home to more people. In addition to the FIS, families would also receive child benefit and if the children are under six years of age they would also receive the new child care allowance, therefore, quite an amount is available.

On 31 December 2003 there were 12,317 recipients of FIS. In November 2005 there were 16,650. More people are becoming familiar with it but I need to promote the scheme because it is real money for people. We have discussed child dependent allowances. FIS is the bridge that takes people to the workplace and prevents them falling back to unemployment benefits. I share the Senator's enthusiasm and will try to promote it.

On my amendment, will the Minister lay a report before the Houses of the Oireachtas in three months?

The Senator knows these amendments are pro forma; the standard wording requires a Minister to lay a report, so while I cannot formally accept the amendment a simple motion or request will bring me before this House to report on that matter at any time. While for technical reasons the wording of the amendment would cause me all sorts of problems, I have no problem reporting on the progress of the scheme, which is what the Senator wants me to do.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
Section 5 agreed to.
Section 6 agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 7 stand part of the Bill."

I received the Cathaoirleach's note telling me why amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are out of order on the grounds that they will involve potential charges on the Revenue and I accept that. The Minister will remember that we discussed this on Second Stage. This is a live issue for many women who are or who are about to go on maternity leave. Given that the substantial and welcome increase in the entitlement to leave will have a significant impact on families at the most important time of a child's life I felt it was important to table the amendments. When I did so I was not aware that they would be ruled out of order. Will the Minister could take it to his Cabinet colleagues and agree an amendment in the new year, perhaps under the Finance Bill? It is very important.

Yesterday, I complimented the Minister on the €1,000 payment for children under six years of age and the maternity leave extension and I do not mean to be critical. While everybody will know that an extra four weeks' leave will be granted from March 2007 and can plan their families around that, many were taken by surprise by this announcement. When we increased tax on petrol and alcohol it was implemented from midnight on the night of the budget. I plead with the Minister and in doing so I reflect the wealth of feeling among women on this issue. I thank the Minister for this co-operation and his acceptance of my bona fides in putting it before the House.

The Senator has raised this a number of times, I know her commitment to child care and this area and she exhorts the Government to make it easier for employers to introduce work-friendly and flexible child care systems. The present budget arithmetic is based on starting this in March. I have listened carefully to the Senator's suggestion that it be implemented in January. I have asked my Department to examine the potential cost and the mechanisms that might be available although I am not in a position to introduce an amendment on this today. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has a role since it is the prime legislator in this area. While we can examine it I am reluctant to upset the budget arithmetic, which is very finely balanced and the result of major negotiations over many months between me and the Minister for Finance and our Departments. The Minister for Finance would not thank me for doing that. I need to know the kind of funding that would be involved, although it does not sound like much. I will take a view based on that amount.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 5, before section 8, to insert the following new section:

"8.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on maternity benefit.".

I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on this amendment.

The entitlement to maternity benefit is contingent on entitlement to maternity leave and the legislation on it is the preserve of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The maternity benefit scheme has been significantly improved over the past four years in terms of both the duration and level of payment. In 2001, improvements were made to increase the core maternity leave which attracted an entitlement to maternity benefit from 14 weeks to 18 weeks and the period of unpaid maternity leave was also increased from four to eight weeks, bringing the total period of maternity leave to which a woman is entitled to 26 weeks. More recently, maternity provisions were amended to provide for the postponement of receipt of maternity benefit in instances where the infant is hospitalised. Similar improvements are now being provided for in section 8 of the Bill.

The estimated cost of the maternity and adoptive benefit schemes for 2005 is €137 million, an increase of €59 million since 2001. These figures represent the extent of investment and the pace of progress in these two schemes over a short period. The improvement provided in the Bill before the House will further extend the duration of entitlement to maternity benefit to 22 weeks from March. There will also be improvements in the rate of payments as the percentage to be applied to reckonable earnings has increased from 75% to 80%. That was contained in the budget and arose from our commitments in Sustaining Progress.

Entitlement to maternity and adoptive leave is provided in the 1994 and 1995 Acts. I do not know if the Senator wants me to go into further detail. I have reams of material about the usefulness of maternity benefit but I doubt if she wants me to go through it. She knows how useful it is.

I welcome these benefits, they are an improvement on what we had and I hope such improvements will continue in the coming years so we can enable women to stay at home for up to a year in the long term. We also want to see fathers being more involved and would welcome paternity leave. I am concerned, however, about delays with the Parental Leave Bill. All of these measures are of benefit to parents but we must build on them in coming years.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 8 agreed to.
Amendment No. 7 not moved.
Section 9 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 6, before section 10, to insert the following new section:

"10.—The Minister for Social and Family Affairs shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on benefit for one-parent families.".

This benefit greatly helps one-parent families who are vulnerable because of their financial situation and the fact they are alone. It should ensure parents and children are not left in poverty. We have received many submissions from groups that work with one-parent families and it is our duty to ensure no child lives in poverty, although we know that is not the case. The overall measures in the budget and this Bill should help to alleviate that problem for many people.

There will, of course, always be some people left in poverty for one reason or another because of social circumstances in families so we must strive to ensure there are no anomalies and that every child gets a good start in life. That means leaving home having eaten breakfast in the morning with warm clothes to wear.

We must also recognise the stresses and pressures for parents. Getting them back into the workplace is vital and is the main way to protect people from poverty. There is no point in parents working, however, if the money they get does not supersede what they would get in benefits. The Minister is helping to address these issues and we must continue to work on them.

Almost 80,000 people were in receipt of one-parent family benefits at the end of last year. It is a significant sector.

The changes in the Bill are twofold. It increases the upper earnings threshold by €82 per week to €375, the first change in the threshold for many years, and the rates being paid will be €16 and €17 per week. That will help considerably.

In January the Cabinet will finish its consideration of the report I am putting to it on reforms of the one-parent family area. I hope to publish that document then for consultation because the issues are emotive and complicated and I am anxious that any changes we make enjoy the maximum possible consensus.

There are many issues in this area. I must look at the question of maintenance in the coming year. The report before Cabinet examines the issue briefly. At present, up to 50% of maintenance from the other parent can be disregarded under the means test. Additional allowances are made for up to €95.23 per week of maintenance paid in respect of vouched housing costs. As we reform this area, it is not enough for the State alone to take responsibility, fathers must also take responsibility. The figures are not impressive if we look at the amount of maintenance being paid and the income it generates for lone parents as a proportion of their other income. That area must be worked on.

There is a social aspect to this; it is important that fathers have contact with their children and if there is no financial connection, it is harder. I want to examine this area in the coming year to ensure maintenance payments for children from the father are reasonable. Any objective person looking at the area now would conclude not enough is being done and it must be studied.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I agree that more work must be done to pursue fathers to ensure they contribute to the maintenance of their children. Can he tell us about the work being done in the area? What measures does the Department take to pursue fathers and how successful is it? Obviously it is not very successful so where are we falling down?

It is not just about maintenance, it is about the social aspect of having fathers involved in the upbringing of their children. It is important not just for the children but for fathers. The child, however, should be at the heart of this and that must be our starting point. I support the Minister in doing whatever he can to improve this area so we can come to a successful conclusion for both the father and the child, ultimately helping the mother and reducing the cost to the State.

I will have to get back to Senator Terry on the precise figure in this regard. I understand some 14% of fathers are making payments, an alarmingly low figure. We only deal with those persons on welfare because there are many private arrangements about which we know nothing, involving people who are not customers of the Department. One of the reasons this figure is so low is that many of the fathers, like many of the mothers, are in receipt of welfare. The Department has not done much in the past, as an administrative matter, to pursue fathers who are themselves on welfare. We have not taken a hard line on that. Whether we should or not is something we must discuss.

The Department's records indicate that approximately 9,600 recipients of the one-parent family payment are in receipt of maintenance from their spouse or the other parent of their children. Many other recipients, however, could be in receipt of maintenance and still qualify for the maximum rate of one-parent family payment as a result of the provision allowing claimants to retain 50% of any maintenance received. It is an important point that they are allowed to keep 50% of any maintenance received without it affecting their lone parent allowance. We would not want maintenance to become an issue in reducing people's lone parent allowance. This does not detract from the fact that the number of fathers contributing in the welfare area is alarmingly low. It is something I intend to look at in the new year.

I have a supplementary question. A figure of 14% is very low. In respect of one-parent families, in what percentage is there recognition of the father on the birth certificate? I understand a mother can choose whether to include the name of a child's father on the certificate. Is there a large percentage of unknown fathers who cannot be pursued?

I do not have a figure for the Senator.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 10 and 11 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 9:

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

"12.—The Minister for Social and Family affairs shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the review of social welfare payments for carers.".

The Bill ensures far greater support for carers and means they will be allowed to earn more before their grant is affected by their income. How many are in receipt of the carer's allowance and what increase will they will receive?

The budget package of €30 million in this area is designed to increase the level of support for carers. This increase makes the carer's allowance the largest single welfare benefit in the State, apart from the provision for the over 80s. The allowance rises to €200 a week, an increase of 17%, and the respite care grant increases by 25%, from €1,000 to €1,200. The income disregard for the carer's allowance is also increased so that recipients can earn more income.

A number of speakers asked me on Second Stage about the complete abolition of the means test. This has been costed at €140 million in a full year and it is debatable whether it would represent the best use of resources. I made provision in the budget for an increase in the carer's disregard. From April 2006, the disregard will increase to €290 for a single carer and €580 for a couple. This will ensure that a couple with two children earning a joint income of up to €32,925 will qualify for the maximum carer's allowance. A couple with two children and an income of €54,400 will qualify for the minimum carer's allowance, the household benefits package of free schemes and the respite care grant.

The carer's allowance means test is one of the more flexible tests in terms of the assessment of household incomes. We are always prepared to make any changes necessary to existing arrangements where they are for the benefit of carers. I have continued to review the issues raised by the Carers Association, the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and other bodies. The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and I met with the representatives of the Carers Association before the budget and they explained their priorities. They were particularly interested in a carers' strategy and we were able to tell them we had no difficulty in agreeing to a strategic approach to improving the position of carers. The more one does for carers, the more is done for those who require that care, which is the objective. These changes make the carer's allowance the largest single allowance in the State, ahead of unemployment support and pensions.

Senator Cox gave the example yesterday of widows who take on a caring role and are unable to get the carer's allowance without forgoing their widow's pension. This restriction is based on the doctrine of one payment per welfare recipient. I looked closely at this issue because I had intended to move in the direction of introducing a half-rate carer's allowance for persons such as those in receipt of the widow's pension. When we examined this issue, however, it opened up the vista of an entire range of other situations where one could argue for half-rate payment for those already in receipt of another welfare payment. There are serious difficulties in this regard.

Instead, I decided to make the carer's allowance the largest allowance. We will try to keep it well ahead in years to come so that people will move to it from other rates because they will receive substantially more. Heretofore, the carer's allowance was less than other allowances and there was no incentive to take a caring role. It is a better approach to ensure that carers move off their other allowances and receive the carer's allowance and the associated additional funds. This is the first step in providing adequate provision for carers. I previously believed pensions would increase to €200 per week long before that figure was achieved for the carer's allowance. In the circumstances, however, it makes sense that the carers got there first.

I understand the arguments in favour of the suggested half payment. However, such a provision would cause many difficulties throughout the system in breaking with the doctrine of one payment per welfare recipient. That principle must be retained or the entire system will come into considerable disrepute. The best way to recognise carers is to allocate significant funds to the carer's allowance. The funding of €30 million makes it the highest allowance in the State, with the exception of the allowance for the over 80s.

I was one of those who asked on Second Stage that the Minister would advance this matter further and reconsider the means testing of the carer's allowance. I note with interest the figure the Minister is putting on the removal of the means test which will amount to approximately €150 million. Is that the cost of paying the full allowance to the present recipients of a carer's allowance, people who may be on a reduced rate, or is the expectation of what a carer's allowance would cost if a relative of everyone who was being cared for at home received the allowance? From where did the Minister get the sum of €150 million? Is he basing it on bringing all present reduced rate recipients up to the full rate of carer's allowance or on the fact that he would expect thousands of extra successful applications for a carer's allowance?

Regardless of whether the figure is €150 million or more — I suspect it would amount to more to remove the means testing element of the carer's allowance — the issue of a carer's allowance is not just a financial matter. It is a philosophical issue about where we stand in regard to care of the elderly. It is the view of most politicians, and I hope all political parties, that the majority of elderly people, in as far as possible, should be allowed to remain in their own homes and to be looked after by their families. This would be very possible with the additional help of some financial incentive. Given the various reviews that are under way in the Minister's Department, perhaps over the next few months he will consider removing means testing for some carers, not just from a financial perspective but from the point of view of the Government making a strong philosophical statement about what we want for the elderly in our community.

We know from studies and surveys that the majority of elderly people wish to remain at home. In many cases, their families can provide help or assistance. Under the new regulations, neighbours can also qualify for the carer's allowance. It would make a significant difference to a great number of people. It would make very good social policy and social care of the elderly to extend the carer's allowance to the maximum. This can only be done by removing means testing. I concede it would be the only social welfare allowance in the State without a means test. However, it is a unique allowance to provide for our elderly who built up this country and made it what it is. We should not be afraid to invest in the elderly.

I welcome the improvements to date but we need to take this step. It would make a strong philosophical and policy statement on what we as a country think of our elderly. I ask the Minister to put that issue back on the table for discussion in the next couple of months. Notwithstanding that, I genuinely welcome the budgetary advances for carers. The fact that the allowance is now higher than any other allowance is a positive development and a sign of the Minister's commitment in this regard. However, a further step must be taken to remove means testing and bringing many more people within the ambit of the carer's allowance scheme.

I am pleased the Minister addressed the issue I raised yesterday on the second payment to widows, in particular, or widowers, who are moving into the caring profession. I accept his suggestion that it is a good idea to make the carer's allowance the larger payment so that people will be encouraged to become carers. It is always difficult to try to change the status quo. In order to achieve equality and equity, it should be changed for people who are in receipt of a widow’s allowance, in particular, namely, a widow who receives an allowance by virtue of her status versus a person next door who has an income disregard of €570, or a household that can earn €30,000 and receive the maximum payment and €54,000 and receive the minimum payment.

There is no justification for not making the system flexible. I do not have the answers but I have no doubt there are serious issues involved. I accept the Minister's bona fides, but there is a fundamental issue of equity in regard to income disregard. A widow or widower may have lost a husband or wife and must be cared for. In some cases people may have to care for the in-laws of the deceased. This policy does not seem to be fair. While it may be difficult, if a review is taking place, the Minister should keep this issue on the agenda. There is always a way to deal with issues. It is just a question of finding the particular path.

This discussion has been worthwhile because it is one of the most important issues with which we are dealing. We must ensure that as many people as possible remain at home. Unfortunately, one of the problems in our hospitals is that too many people are in hospital because they do not have someone to care for them. Given the improvements in the budget, many people will make themselves available to care for the elderly. The fact that it does not have to be a family member, and that someone who lives close by can care for a person, will make it more attractive to become involved in caring for people. It is a worthwhile allowance. We should continue to make improvements in this area.

Other Senators and I said yesterday that the respite grant should be doubled to make it possible for people to go into a nursing home for two weeks rather than one week if they so wish. Many carers who carry the heavy burden of caring for people with disabilities or elderly people who need full-time care would need a two-week break. The respite grant would be one way of helping to deliver this. While I accept it cannot be delivered this year, perhaps next year the Minister will consider providing the equivalent of two weeks in a nursing home, taking into account the varying costs throughout the country. This would be of great benefit to carers.

On Senator Bradford's point about the cost of €140 million to remove means testing, this is calculated on the basis of it becoming a universal payment. The reason the figure is lower than the Senator might think is that people must qualify under other conditions. One might think the figure should be much higher for a universal payment. However, if one removed the means test, one would not remove the other conditions.

Full-time care and attention.

The figure of €140 million relates to the means test. The other conditions include being available to give full-time care and attention, apart from the 15 hours which is currently the case.

Will it include the additional people?

Only if they meet the conditions.

Will the €140 million to €150 million include additional people?

The assessment is that it would. This is where the main cost would be involved. It would include people who are not currently in the net. People who failed the means test up to now could come back in.

It would be a modest cost.

Yes, but the other conditions are equally important. I took the view this year that it would be better to put the money into respite care, making it the largest payment in the system, and putting the money into getting the allowances and the disregards up. This package cost €30 million this year. We could have done none of this and used the €140 million to remove the means test. While it would cover some of these people, it would not do much for the rate of payment. More people would be included but they would receive less money.

I am always nervous about removing means tests. The distribution of taxpayers' money must be done on the basis of people's needs.

What about child care?

I knew the Senator would refer to child care.

Will Fine Gael introduce a tax on child benefit?

I wish to outline some interesting figures. The Central Statistics Office indicates that the total number of carers is 150,000 but the total number caring for more than four hours a day is 49,000. Of these, the number caring for more than ten hours a day is 16,000. While there is the headline figure of 150,000 carers, when one inquires about carers in terms of the number of hours of caring per day, the number caring for a long number of hours is much lower. For example, last year some 24,892 recipients received the carer's allowance. That is the number of carers to which that 150,000 whittled down. I do not expect there would be 150,000 full-time carers if the means test were removed because according to the figures given, that number of carers are not available to do the work.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 12 to 14, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That Schedule 1 be Schedule 1 to the Bill."

Regarding the old age contributory pension, I draw the attention of the Minister to several complaints I received during the years relating to loss of income incurred by self-employed people. I do not wish to delay the House on this issue. I will supply details to the Minister as I have received considerable correspondence on this matter. To be honest, I am not fully clear exactly what I am seeking. With 1988 being set as the date for qualification for self-employed contributions, there appears to be an anomaly which discriminates against certain old age pensioners in that they cannot get their average contribution up to a level that would enable them to qualify for the higher rate of pension. I will supply some details and the Minister, when finalising the legislation, might examine the question of self-employed contributions, especially in the case of people who have been self-employed for many years and have been taking care of their families who seem to be discriminated against.

I will do that.

Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Minister and his staff for their considerable work on this worthwhile Bill. The payments under the Bill should improve the position of many and keep people out of poverty. That is the indicator we need to monitor to ensure we are doing what we are supposed to do in terms of helping many of our elderly people and those who are unemployed.

I thank the Minister for the work he has done, congratulate him on the work he has put into this Department since he took office and look forward to his further work in his area in next year's budget. I wish each and every one here and my colleagues a very happy Christmas and a well deserved rest.

To follow up on Senator Terry's remarks, I thank the Minister and his officials for their work on this Bill. As I said yesterday and as the Minister would have said, a social welfare package of an additional €1.5 billion on top of last year's package of €12 billion is a great deal of money. It will make a real difference to every person and family in this country. This is the one Department that impacts on everybody from the moment we are born and throughout our lives until we pass away. I thank the Minister for his reflections on issues raised by Senator Terry, the Labour Party and Senators on this side of the House. I compliment him on his openness to at least consider change. His legacy to the Department will be that he was a Minister who was willing to listen and implement change where possible. He referred to this as a two-part package. We look forward to next year and have no doubt that the package introduced then will be one of which we will also proud.

I wish everybody here a happy Christmas.

I add my voice in thanking the Minister, Deputy Brennan, for his contribution. He has been very receptive to all of our comments, particularly mine. I thank him for the great work he has done during the year. He is the talk of the country at this stage. I wish him and his family a peaceful and happy Christmas.

It would not be the first time I was the talk of the country. I note the seasonal spirit is breaking out.

I thank Senators for their support. I regard public representatives as being close to welfare issues because of their work. I learn a great deal from listening to such debates. I thank the Senators for the constructive debate we had on this Bill. Between us we got the legislation through expeditiously and I want to acknowledge that we learned something in the process.

This Social Welfare Bill is historic for one main reason, namely, that apart from the huge increases in rates, it has a special €300 million social reform package at its heart. I am particularly proud of that. It will bring people to a better place. I hope to continue that in the year ahead with the support of the Senators. I want to say a special word of thanks to the Acting Chairman and the staff in the Seanad. I wish them all a happy Christmas and new year.

Turning to my own staff and those in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, I am surprised we are all still even talking to each other because we have had a hectic few weeks with the budget, consolidation Bills, this Bill within a week of the budget being passed and preparation for the February Social Welfare Bill. There is no unemployment at the Department of Social and Family Affairs. We are blessed to have such very fine public officials who got us to this point today. I thank them all and wish them a happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.