Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Second Stage.

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

I am pleased to introduce this Bill, which will implement the €515 million package of social welfare improvements announced in the 2009 budget. In very difficult economic circumstances, this package will bring total expenditure on social welfare in 2009 to €19.6 billion, which represents an increase of €2.6 billion, or 15.5%, over the Estimates allocation for 2008. At a time when public expenditure must be tightly controlled, this increased provision for social welfare is a clear signal of the Government's commitment to protect the vulnerable and less well-off in society.

The schemes and other supports the Department of Social and Family Affairs administers will benefit more than 1.7 million people, including 440,000 pensioners, 345,000 ill and disabled people, more than 80,000 carers, 30,000 low income families availing of family income supplement and more than 580,000 families who receive child benefit payments.

The budget includes provision for an average live register figure of 290,000 in 2009. That compares with an average of 220,700 in the 11 months to November this year. Providing for the expected increase in the live register alone accounts for €1.25 billion of the planned increase in spending for 2009.

In these extraordinary economic times, the Government has had to make some difficult decisions to secure our economic future. However, we have still provided for an increase of €2.6 billion in social welfare expenditure next year and have kept expenditure control measures in this Department to an absolute minimum.

I will outline to the House the improvements in payment rates to which the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will give legislative effect. We are all aware that the price of fuel is an issue of major concern for many people, especially the elderly and ill. I am pleased that the budget provides for an 11% increase in the value of the fuel allowance, bringing it to €20 per week from next month. The duration of the fuel season is also being extended by another two weeks from April 2009, bringing it to 32 weeks in total. These improvements to the fuel scheme, including the extra allocation in respect of smokeless fuel, will cost almost €30 million extra in 2009 and will benefit nearly 300,000 households.

The budget also provides increases of €7 per week in the maximum personal rates of payment for the contributory State pension and the transitional State pension from the start of January 2009. This will bring the new weekly rate to €230.30. The non-contributory State pension is also being increased by €7 per week bringing the new rate to €219 per week from January 2009.

While providing for increases in the State support for today's pensioners, the Government is also conscious of the need to develop a new long-term pensions framework that will serve future generations of pensioners well. I am pleased to be able to inform Senators that we are close to the end of a very protracted policy review of issues in this whole area, which started with the publication by the Pensions Board of its national pensions review and its report on mandatory pensions, Special Savings for Retirement, just over two years ago. A Green Paper on pensions was published this time last year to broaden the debate to encompass all aspects of pensions policy in this country.

The challenge is to strike the right balance between the responsibilities of all those who can contribute, including the State, employers and employees, and to ensure that whatever system is decided on reaches the group most in need of pensions coverage: low income to middle income earners. This is the challenge we are working on at present and the aim is to announce a framework for future policy shortly.

In recognition of the current market difficulties and the difficult decisions pension schemes will face, the Government has put in place a number of short-term measures to ease the pressure on schemes. It has been agreed with the Pensions Board that an additional six months will be allowed for trustees to prepare funding proposals. This will mean that schemes will have 18 months to review the situation with sponsoring employers and to formulate proposals for recovery. These actions are being taken to alleviate the current situation.

Members of defined contribution schemes have been also exposed to investment losses. In such schemes the risk is borne in full by the member. Many of these schemes are relatively immature and for many people there will be adequate time to recoup some or all of the losses which have occurred. There are particular concerns for those who may be at, or close to, retirement. Good practice would suggest a conservative approach to investments in the last number of years before retirement but anecdotal evidence suggests this may not have been applied in some cases. Members of defined contribution schemes are required to purchase an annuity at the point of retirement. In the current environment these scheme members could realise a significant loss in the value of their pension funds. In the circumstances, the Department of Finance is currently working out the details on how such scheme members could avail of a period of up to two years to purchase an annuity. The scheme was announced on Friday by the Minister for Finance and the final details will be notified through the Pensions Board. There is, of course, the risk that those availing of the deferment option could sustain further losses and this will be clearly outlined in guidance notes.

The Government is working with the Pensions Board, representative organisations and the social partners to find ways to ease the pressure on schemes by striking a balance between the long-term nature of pension savings and the need to ensure short-term security of accrued benefits. As outlined, it has already taken some short-term measures in this area. The long-term response to the situation is being considered in the context of the overall framework for pensions, that I mentioned earlier.

Turning now to social welfare payments to people of working age, the budget provides an extra €260 million for such schemes. The maximum personal rate of payment for all working age schemes is being increased by €6.50 per week with effect from the first week of January 2009, with proportionate increases applying to people on reduced rates. This brings the lowest social welfare weekly payments above €200 for the first time to €204.30. The rates of qualified adult payments are also being increased on all schemes by €4.30 except for the invalidity pension where a €4.60 increase will apply. About 733,000 people will benefit from these increases.

Budget 2009 also provides increases for families with children who are in receipt of social welfare payments. Social welfare dependent parents at present receive an extra €24 per week for each child on top of their basic social welfare payments, through what is termed the qualified child increase. This is being increased by €2 to €26 per child with effect from January 2009. Improvements are also being made to the family income supplement, FIS, which is paid to low income working families. The income limits for the FIS are being increased by €10 per week in respect of each child giving an average extra payment of €6 per child per week. It is estimated that a total of 29,000 families will benefit from FIS in 2009, and that approximately 2,000 additional families will become eligible for a FIS payment.

The income thresholds for entitlement to back to school clothing and footwear allowance are also being increased to enable 18,000 more families to benefit from the scheme. As Members will be aware, the Government decided in the budget that, with effect from January 2010, child benefit will no longer be paid in respect of children who are 18 years of age. This change is being phased in gradually and the Bill provides that a half rate payment of the appropriate rate of child benefit will be made in respect of existing and future qualifying 18 year olds from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2009.

Special alleviating measures are being introduced in respect of children aged 18 years who are in social welfare dependent families or low income families. A compensatory payment of €15 per week will be paid to families in receipt of social welfare payments which include a payment for a qualified child in this age group and low income families in receipt of FIS, which include qualified children in this age group. This additional payment will be applicable where an 18 year old is in receipt of disability allowance in his or her own right. Families with twins, triplets and other multiple births receive higher payments than recipients of child benefit generally. In the circumstances, they will face larger reductions in their payments following the implementation of this measure. The Government has therefore, decided that the weekly compensation payment of €15 will be increased by 50% for each child in a set of qualifying twins and by 100% for each child in a set of qualifying triplets and other multiple births. These increases will mirror the rates of child benefit generally provided in the case of twins and other multiple births. Compensatory payments will be paid to the person who was receiving the child benefit for the 18 year old in question.

In addition, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance will be increased by €215 to €520 per annum for eligible 18 year olds. These compensatory payments will cease on 31 December 2010. While policy in relation to the early childcare supplement comes under the aegis of the Minister of State with responsibility for children, the Social Welfare Bill will provide the legislative basis for the change to the scheme that was announced in the budget. The cost of the early childcare supplement in 2009 is expected to be €397 million. As Senators will be aware, the primary aim of the scheme was to help parents with the cost of pre-school childcare. The payment was introduced for children to the age of six, even though most children start school well in advance of their sixth birthday and the burden of having to pay for full-time childcare ceases at that point. The approach taken in 2005 was the most generous possible, to ensure that no child would lose the payment before starting school. However, it is now considered that a more targeted approach is consistent with the current economic context.

With effect from January 2009, the eligibility period for children qualifying for the early childcare supplement will be reduced from six years to five years and six months. The supplement will be paid on a monthly basis, rather than a quarterly basis, as at present. The combined effect of these measures is expected to result in savings in the Department of Health and Children Vote of some €93 million in 2009.

I should now like to outline the changes that are being made to certain social insurance schemes. Senators will be aware that Ireland's social welfare system is based on two quite different types of entitlement — a social insurance system for people who have paid sufficient PRSI contributions and a social assistance system for people without adequate contributions who have little or no household means of their own. Social insurance is intended both to enable people to insure themselves against adverse life events such as unemployment or illness and to provide for their State pensions and other benefits, through contributions to the national social insurance fund. Social insurance benefits are not means-tested and entitlement depends on having paid the required number of PRSI contributions relevant to the particular benefit a person wishes to claim.

For the past 11 years, the social insurance fund has been in surplus, with more than sufficient income in the fund to cover the payments being made from it each year, without the State having to provide a contribution. However, that is changing. As a result of further increases in the live register, expenditure is expected to exceed income to the fund by more than €200 million this year, and about £900 million next year. Although these current deficits can be met from the accumulated surplus, it seems likely that annual Exchequer subvention to the social insurance fund will be required again within a few years. In that context, it is appropriate to look at some of the instances where people with a very limited or distant contribution record have been able to qualify for very significant benefits, regardless of their household income.

At present, people who have paid just 52 weekly contributions in total can qualify for jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit and health and safety benefit. This means, for example, that recent migrants or young workers who have worked here for a total of only one year are entitled to claim jobseeker's payments for 12 months. This will change from next January, when the number of required paid contributions will be doubled to 104 for new claimants. A further anomaly that exists at present is that some people, who were previously working part-time, can receive a higher rate of payment from these schemes than what they were actually earning while at work. Again, this is considered to be inappropriate — a disincentive to employment — and so, from next January, this will be addressed by increasing from €150 to €300 per week the earnings thresholds which currently apply to the reduced or graduated rates of payment.

At present, it is necessary to have made 13 paid contributions in the relevant tax year to qualify for illness benefit. However, this condition does not exist for jobseeker's benefit, with the result that people who may not have paid PRSI contributions in the past number of years can qualify. Again, it is considered that this position does not adequately reflect the contribution-based rationale for social insurance and so from next January, the Bill provides that new claimants for jobseeker's benefit will be required to satisfy the same conditions as those on illness benefit, and must have paid 13 contributions in the relevant tax year to qualify for benefit.

The other two changes being made to jobseeker's benefit relate to the duration of the payment. Under the previous arrangements, people who have 260 or more paid social insurance contributions could receive jobseeker's benefit for up to 15 months. The Bill provides that with effect from 15 October 2008, this is being limited to 12 months for current claimants with less than six months duration on the scheme as well as all new claimants. Where the claimant has less than 260 paid contributions, the maximum duration of jobseeker's benefit will be nine months, instead of 12 months, if the claimant currently has been in receipt of benefit for less than three months, and in respect of all new claimants.

In summary, the Bill provides that new claimants for jobseeker's benefit will in future have to have paid a total of at least 104 contributions to the social insurance fund, with at least 13 of these paid in the relevant tax year, and the duration of the payment will be either 12 or nine months, depending on the number of social insurance contributions they have made in the past. I should stress that the people with limited means who will be affected by these restrictions in entitlement to social insurance benefits will be able to claim jobseeker's allowance or another social assistance payment, such as the supplementary welfare allowance. The maximum rate of jobseeker's allowance is paid at the same rate as jobseeker's benefit.

The Bill also amends the Citizens Information Acts 2000 to 2007 to enhance the functions of the Citizens Information Board through the assignment to it of responsibility for the provision of the money advice and budgeting service, MABS. MABS staff provide a highly valued service for people who are over-indebted and need help and advice in coping with debt problems. However, it has been recognised for some time that the service needs a proper legislative basis and structure.

After detailed consideration, the Government decided that assignment of these responsibilities to the Citizens Information Board would best achieve that outcome. The MABS and citizens information centres complement each other as both are involved in providing information, advice and advocacy services to the public. In addition, the Citizens Information Board has a long association with MABS at both national and local level and was involved in establishing some of the original MABS pilot projects. The proposals envisage that MABS will be a separate and distinct service within the Citizens Information Board. There will be no change in the status of the 53 independent MABS companies with voluntary boards of management, or in the employment status of their 240 employees who provide the local services.

Part 5 of the Bill gives effect to the Government decision announced in the budget to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in line with the recommendations of a review of the Combat Poverty Agency that was undertaken on foot of a Government decision on 6 June 2007. It is not my intention that the Combat Poverty Agency will simply be absorbed into the office for social inclusion in its existing form. The office for social inclusion will be dismantled and a new strengthened division will be created that will make the best use of the combined strengths of the two bodies and will seek to address the weaknesses identified by the review with regard to both. The new division will provide a stronger voice for those affected by poverty and social inclusion issues.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Sections 3 and 4, together with Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill, provide for increases in the rates of social welfare payments. These include an increase of €7 per week for recipients of pensions and carer payments who are aged 66 years and over. The Bill also provides for an increase of €6.50 on all working age payments, including jobseeker's benefit, disability allowance, one-parent family payment and carer's benefit and allowance payable to carers aged under 66 years. It further provides for increases in the allowances payable in respect of qualified adults and qualified children. These increases will come into effect in January 2009.

Section 5 provides for increases in the weekly income limits used to determine entitlement to family income supplement. The new thresholds range from €500 in the case of a family with one child to €1,250 in the case of a family with eight or more children. These increases will take effect from January 2009.

Sections 6 and 7 provide for an increase, from €50,700 to €52,000, in the annual PRSI earnings ceiling applicable to employees and optional contributors. This amendment will come into effect on 1 January 2009.

Section 8 provides that income from dividends arising from stallion fees, stud greyhound fees and profits from the occupation of certain woodlands will be taken into account in estimating reckonable income for PRSI purposes. This amendment is necessary to disregard the provisions of section 140 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 when estimating reckonable income for PRSI purposes.

Sections 9 to 11 provide for amendments to various definitions. Sections 9 and 10 provide for the amendment of the references to a reformatory or industrial school and medical practitioner, which are contained in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005, by replacing those terms with the definitions "children detention school" and "registered medical practitioner", as provided for in the Children Act 2001 and the Medical Practitioners Act 2007, respectively. Section 11 amends the definition of "widowed parent" to provide that the grant will be payable to a widow whose child is born within ten months of the date of death of the deceased spouse.

Section 12 provides for the deletion of a provision which applied to persons who were in receipt of pre-retirement allowance prior to April 1993. This provision is obsolete as all recipients of pre- retirement allowance would have transferred to State pension payments before or during 2004.

Section 13 clarifies that, for the purposes of the one-parent family payment scheme, a "qualified parent" must be the parent, step-parent, adoptive parent or legal guardian of the qualified child. It also provides for continued payment to existing recipients who established entitlement under the current definition of "qualified parent".

Section 14 provides for amendments to the provisions governing payment of rent and mortgage interest supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. It provides that the maximum amount of rent supplement will be specified in regulations. It also provides that the amount and duration of mortgage interest supplement will be determined by the Health Service Executive, having regard to the circumstances of the person concerned and subject to any conditions etc. that may be prescribed.

Section 15 provides for a number of amendments to the provisions governing the illness benefit scheme, with effect from 5 January 2009, as follows: the minimum number of qualifying contributions required will be increased from 52 to 104; illness benefit will be payable for two years, 624 days, in the case of a person who has more than 260 paid PRSI contributions; payment will continue where a person has been in receipt of illness benefit on a long-term basis, provided that the claim is not broken for a period exceeding three days; and existing special provision for claimants who participate in reactivation programmes will be maintained.

Section 16 provides for amendment to the provisions governing the health and safety benefit scheme, by increasing, from 52 to 104, the minimum number of PRSI contributions required to qualify for benefit and providing that the claimant must have at least 13 paid PRSI contributions in the relevant tax year.

Sections 17 and 18 provide for amendments to jobseeker's benefit. At present social welfare legislation provides for the disregard of certain periods where a jobseeker's benefit claimant participates in specified training and employment schemes. Section 17 provides for the extension of the linking period in respect of jobseeker's benefit to two years and six months in the case of a person who is participating in certain vocational training opportunities schemes.

Section 18 provides for a number of amendments to the jobseeker's benefit scheme as follows: an increase, from 52 to 104, in the number of PRSI contributions required to qualify for benefit; a requirement that the claimant must have 13 qualifying contributions in the relevant tax year; amendments to the duration of benefit — 12 months in the case of a person who has paid at least 260 PRSI contributions and nine months in the case of a person who has paid less than 260 PRSI contributions; and special provision for claimants who were in receipt of jobseeker's benefit on budget day, 14 October 2008.

Provision was made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2008 for the transfer of administrative responsibility for domiciliary care allowance from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs in 2009. While those provisions have not yet been given effect, section 19 of the Bill provides for amendments to the domiciliary care allowance scheme. These include reflecting the amendment to the definition of children detention school, as provided for in section 9 of this Bill and providing an increase, from €299.60 to €309.50, in the monthly rate of the allowance.

Section 20 contains amendments to entitlement to child benefit, by providing that the benefit will be payable in respect of a child up to his or her 18th birthday. It also provides that a special payment, of half the standard child benefit payment rate, will be payable in 2009 only in respect of qualified children who are currently aged 18. Special provision is made to provide for a compensatory payment of €15 per week to families in receipt of social welfare payments which include a payment for qualified children in this age group and low-income families in receipt of family income supplement which include qualified children in this age group. This additional payment will also be applicable to persons within this age group who are in receipt of disability allowance in their own right. This compensatory payment measure will cease to have effect on 31 December 2010.

Section 21 provides for a small increase in the rate of early child care supplement, to €92 per month, to facilitate transition from quarterly to monthly payments. It also provides that payment will be made monthly in arrears rather than on a quarterly basis, and that the supplement will be payable in respect of a child up to the age of five years and six months. These amendments will take effect from 1 January 2009.

Section 22 provides for the deduction of any contributions payable under the tax known as "income levy" in calculating weekly family income for the purposes of family income supplement. In anticipation of the transfer of administrative responsibility for blind welfare allowance, from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, section 23 provides for an increase in the rate of the allowance.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for miscellaneous amendments to other Acts.

Section 24 clarifies requirements for the submission of an actuarial funding certificate for new schemes commencing on or after the date of transposition of Directive 2003/41/EC of 23 September 2005. The amendments also confirm that eight named schemes shall have an effective date for the submission of an actuarial funding certificate of I January 2009.

Section 25 removes the requirement for an tArd-Chláraitheoir to consult the Minister for Health and Children when giving information to certain specified others. This change is necessitated in the context of the transfer of functions to the General Register Office from the Minister for Health and Children to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

Part 4 of the Bill, covering sections 26 to 29, provides for the extension of the functions of the Citizens Information Board to include responsibility for the provision of the money advice and budgeting service. The purpose of the measure is to ensure that the board will support the provision of the MABS. It will promote, develop and disseminate information and education about debt, money management and related matters. It will compile and publish data. It will undertake research and it will provide the Minister with information and advice on matters related to its functions. Part 4 also amends the relevant sections of the Citizens Information Act in respect of the provision of financial assistance to voluntary bodies to include the MABS companies.

Part 5, sections 30 to 38, is necessary to give effect to the Government decision to integrate the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in line with the recommendations of the review. This part provides for the dissolution of the agency, the transfer of its permanent employees who are to become civil servants, the transfer of its property and assets, any pending legal proceedings and any rights and liabilities to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. Pension and superannuation liabilities are to be transferred to the Minister for Finance. Provision is made for the final accounts of the agency to be drawn up, for any expenses incurred as a result of the integration to be met and for the repeal of the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986.

The dissolution of the Combat Poverty Agency, as provided for in Part 5, is a prerequisite to the integration arrangements and the creation of the new division. Sections 32, 33 and 35 are standard provisions providing for the transfer of property and all rights and liabilities of the agency to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs upon the commencement of the Part. Section 34 provides for the agency's final accounts to be drawn up, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, presented to the Minister and laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Section 36 contains the legal basis for the appointment of the staff of the Combat Poverty Agency to the Civil Service as unestablished civil servants. The section provides that the remuneration and superannuation terms of the Combat Poverty Agency staff will be no less beneficial on transfer into the Civil Service. They will retain their employment law rights, continuity of service and their tenure entitlements. Provision is also made in section 36 for the contracts of persons who are fixed-term employees in the Combat Poverty Agency to be transferred to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs for the remainder of the contract term. Section 37 provides for any expenses arising in implementing the legislation to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas and section 38 provides for the repeal of the Combat Poverty Agency Act 1986.

I will conclude by outlining how the payment increases provided for in the Bill will be made. Pensioners who are paid by electronic methods will receive their increase in full from January 2009. Increases for recipients of jobseeker's benefit or allowance, illness or maternity benefit, one-parent family payment, family income supplement, farm assist and supplementary welfare allowance will be paid in full from January 2009. As has been the case previously, because of the lead-in time involved in the production of personal payable orders, recipients of certain long-term payments, such as widow's or widower's pension, carer's allowance and invalidity pension, will receive their increase in mid-February, backdated to January, together with their new payable order books. Increases for certain other long-term payments, such as State pensions and disability allowance, will be paid by a special once-off payment in mid-February to cover 12 weeks' payment to the end of March, when new payable order books will be issued.

The Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will provide the legislative basis for a range of improvements next year. These include €7 extra per week for State pensioners; €6.50 extra per week for welfare recipients of working age, such as jobseekers and those on illness benefit; an extra €2 per week in fuel allowance with payment also being made for an additional two weeks; increases in child related payments to those dependent on social welfare and improvements in the family income supplement for low income working families; and 18,000 more families becoming eligible for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. As I detailed earlier, to fund these improvements, together with making payments to increasing numbers of people on the live register, it has been necessary to make savings in some areas. However, we have kept these expenditure control measures to an absolute minimum. At a time when public expenditure must be tightly controlled, the additional €2.6 billion being provided for social welfare in 2009 is a clear signal of the Government's commitment to protect the vulnerable and less well-off in society. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Sadly, the Government's target of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016 has been undermined by many aspects of budget 2009. While I recognise the Minister has managed to retain her funding, I am sorry to note the requisite imagination is missing to upskill and retrain those who wish and need to return to work. Regrettably, as 7% of the workforce now is on the live register, I believe that Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have encouraged and created a welfare state in which there is no incentive to work. The Minister and I are aware that people stand to be better off financially by remaining on welfare. This point has been confirmed in a press release issued by the Combat Poverty Agency, in which it noted that for the first time in many years, there have been great savings of €841 million on welfare and tax packages. Later in the press release, the agency stated that unemployed households recorded modest gains from the budget when compared with those at work. My point is that those who automatically are in receipt of social welfare are entitled to medical cards, rent allowance, back to school clothing and footwear allowances, as well as preschool subvention, etc. However, those unfortunate people who have low paid jobs and are PAYE workers pay all the taxes and PRSI but receive no grants, subventions or anything else.

It is morally wrong that one now can be financially better off by not working. This also is wrong from the point of view of providing an example and in respect of core values as some children never have seen their parents go out to work. Consequently, the next generation will neither know nor appreciate how important it is to be able to pay one's way or be familiar with the social advantages of being able to work, having work colleagues, etc. If their parents never worked or had access to training and are demotivated, stressed and worried about their future, what sort of example does this give to the children? I congratulate the Combat Poverty Agency. On the Minister's previous appearance in the House, I appealed to her not to merge the agency with the office for social inclusion. It has a valuable role in respect of research and I believe its independent voice will be greatly missed. It is wrong that it no longer will be able to shout loudly about the Government's actions.

I wish to highlight to the Minister the plight of a 32 year old lady who has lost her job recently having worked for the past 12 years. Although she is desperate to find a job, she is unable to find one. She visited her local social welfare office and signed on only to be told she would not receive a Christmas bonus. In an e-mail she sent to me, which I am sure the Minister also received, she noted that every other benefit, including jobseeker's allowance, farm assist, back to work allowance, back to enterprise allowance, pre-retirement allowance and so on, entitles one to a Christmas bonus. Her point is that she has paid her taxes and PRSI, as have all her family before her, and has never been out of work. However, she is one of the sad and unfortunate people who will face Christmas this year without receiving such a bonus. Perhaps the Minister would try to redress this issue.

I also wish to highlight some other issues. The Government has missed the opportunity to make changes to the back to education allowance in order that people should not obliged to be in receipt of social welfare payments for 12 months before being allowed to retrain or upskill. This is a false economy and in the long term, were people allowed to retrain and return to work immediately, it would save the State much money. The Minister's speech glossed over some hidden realities in the budget. For example, since the budget, unemployed people will be obliged to make 104 paid contributions before being considered eligible for jobseeker's benefit. Moreover, from January, jobseeker's benefit for claimants who have 260 contributions or more will be limited to 12 months. It will take some time before Ireland's economy recovers, although it is to be hoped not too long. In the meantime, however, the Minister intends to cut the length of time in which people will be able to claim the benefit of their long years of PRSI contributions, which is most unfair. In addition, jobseeker's benefit for claimants who have fewer than 260 contributions will be reduced to nine months. How will such people cope? They are without jobs through no fault of their own, are demented with worry about their mortgages, car loans and credit card bills and are going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for assistance. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has never had as many people knocking on its doors. It is an insidious underlying trend. People do not realise that their benefits are being cut from 15 months to 12 months.

The Minister addressed the area of fuel poverty in her speech. She was correct in stating that every increase is welcome, and I welcome it, but €2 is a paltry sum. As I have stated previously, there are elderly people choosing between food or fuel this winter. The price of milk, flour and food stuffs have increased. Thankfully, energy costs have fallen but there are elderly people living a miserable existence. Some elderly people go to bed early at night so they will not be cold. It is wrong that the people who spent their lives working to make the State what it is cannot live the remainder of their lives in comfort. An older person must have a temperature of at least 16°C to avoid hyperthermia and in the past few nights it was -4°C. An increase of €4 will not buy even one bale of briquettes. Age Action Ireland has stated that an additional 1,500 to 2,000 people will die in Ireland this year from the cold.

Fr. Sean Healy has identified a strong correlation between fuel poverty, poor housing standards and the 2,000 winter deaths to which I referred already. He also calculated that Ireland has one of the highest winter elderly death rates due to the cold in the EU. I welcome the Minister's winter initiative scheme, but I ask that it be rolled out to more people. The pilot schemes of Sustainable Energy Ireland and others are welcome, but they are not being rolled out all over the country.

In my dealings with the Carers Association I am aware that the emotional and physical health of carers is suffering due to lack of supports and financial assistance, yet Budget 2009 has done nothing to address their plight. Every week 3.7 million hours are worked by 161,000 carers, saving the State an estimated 2.5 billion a year, but less than one in six qualify for the carers allowance. The increase for carers in Budget 2009 barely keeps pace with inflation. The meagre increase in the allowance will do nothing to help family carers cope with rising costs of running a home and caring for their infirm loved one. Carers are disappointed in the Government's failure to reform the rules governing the threshold for paid work for carers. In my opinion, this misses an opportunity where the carer could have lightened the family's financial burden and allowed the carer to engage in work outside the home while still remaining eligible for the carer's allowance.

Since the budget people unfortunate enough to have to rely on rent supplement to meet their housing needs must pay an extra €5 per week, clawing back much of the increase in basic social welfare payment. Rent supplement is a payment made to people living in private rented accommodation who cannot afford accommodation costs. There are approximately 60,000 in receipt of this payment. At this juncture, I welcome the RAS scheme. It is probably the most positive outcome for people on rent supplement.

The Minister referred to MABS. Last week I accompanied a lady to MABS. The Minister is correct, it is a good service. However, there seems to be a log-jam from the point of view of people getting to negotiate with the banks. We on this side of the House sat here all night in the Seanad and supported the Government in bailing out the banks, and now the banks and the Government need to bail out the people. There are people in danger of losing their homes because they have lost their jobs and do not have enough money to pay their mortgages. We will end up having to provide social housing and rent supplement if we do not allow them keep their homes. Sadly, I have much more to say but that is all I can say in the time available.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, and her officials to the House. I welcome many aspects of this Bill. There are a couple of sections with which I have concerns, but I particularly welcome the increase for social welfare recipients and the fuel scheme for the elderly.

As Senator McFadden stated, the fuel scheme is a big issue with the elderly, quite a number of whom in my constituency are concerned. They cannot understand why the price of gas and electricity is increasing all the time when the price of oil is coming down. It is difficult for them to understand that. Sometimes I do not understand it myself. Perhaps that is a matter we should examine.

Under section 14, the supplementary welfare allowance scheme provides for rent supplement where the HSE is involved. The HSE is involved with some 1,600 persons in this position. It has come to my attention in recent times that there is widespread abuse of this system, for example, where persons pretending to be landlords let their houses to their partners, and both are living in the same house. They are getting money from the Government or the HSE, which ever way one likes to put it, under false pretences. That cannot be allowed continue.

There are others who will tell us that they have two or three children unemployed who are living at home, and the parents get no allowance for them. I suppose we cannot give an allowance for everything, but they make the point that if their children rent a house, the HSE will pay for it. It is a fair point. They also make the point of course, as Senator McFadden has stated, and which we hear all the time, that there are families and households which have a larger income on social welfare than a family who are working. That is a fact. I am aware of many such cases. I do not know what the Minister can do about that.

In reference to Part 4, sections 26 to 29, inclusive, the Citizens Information Board and Money Advice and Budgeting Service provide a tremendous service. It is efficient and professional. Perhaps I am wrong and I am missing some points, but I believed that when these agencies were amalgamated there would be a cost saving and that was the idea of amalgamating or rearranging them. I note that nothing really has changed. They have the same number of buildings and staff, although I do not know their grades. In Coolock, to give a typical example, we have those services all under the one roof. In other places there are three or four services such as the citizens information service, the MABS and family mediation services within a mile of each other. In making the point about this when I spoke here previously, by amalgamation, I meant that there would be a saving, there would be reorganisation and that the services would be more effective. The Minister stated that this provides for the extension of the functions of the Citizens Information Board to include responsibility for the provision of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. As far as I am concerned, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service did not need advice. It was providing a perfectly good service, in my estimation.

The purpose of the measure is to provide that the board will support the provision of the MABS, will compile and publish data, undertake research, report back to the Minister, etc. I would have thought that such would have been taking place all time, that it would be part of the management's responsibility. I now realise it is something new, which surprises me.

The Minister further stated that the Bill amends the Citizens Information Acts on the provision of financial assistance to voluntary bodies to include the MABS companies. I am a little lost as to who is doing what or why the Minister needs to have anybody at this stage doing research and publishing data, for which the board would be responsible. I would have thought that both of those agencies would have had to conform with that type or responsibility and regulation in the first place.

The Minister moved on then to the Combat Poverty Agency, which no doubt was doing a good job as well, as Senator McFadden stated. I have never had any problems with it, although others may have had.

The Government announced in the budget the integration of the Combat Poverty Agency and the office for social inclusion within the Department of Social and Family Affairs in line with the recommendations of a review of the Combat Poverty Agency that was undertaken on foot of a Government decision on 6 June 2007. The Bill provides for the dissolution of the agency and the transfer of its permanent employees, who are to become civil servants. Will the people currently employed in the Combat Poverty Agency become civil servants when they are transferred? Pension and superannuation liabilities will be transferred to the Minister for Finance. I do not wish to criticise the decision but perhaps I do not grasp the point.

On the other hand, perhaps the Senator does grasp the point.

No change appears to have been made. If I operate a business, I would integrate sections to achieve efficiencies, value for money or a better work environment for my staff. However, I would not promote people to make them happy or if they refused to move. I would like to know what grades are involved and which staff are to become civil servants. I ask for this clarification because I have concerns about the matter.

We are not getting value for money from a number of agencies. I have observed notices in the windows of some agency offices stating that opening hours have been restricted due to cutbacks. As nobody is asking questions about their behaviour, the agencies are doing what they like.

How does the Minister feel about her statement? It appears that she is ashamed of it. I have known her for a long time and she is a decent person but she is being used as an instrument in a nasty and cynical way. The reason I think she is ashamed is the extraordinary way in which copies of her statement were circulated to Members. Can she tell me what typeface was used and whether she has seen the copies with which we were supplied? Perhaps I can have the indulgence of the House to show her my copy.

Is it not? I think she should look at it, however, and compare it with the copy she was given.

I accept that.

I have macular degeneration of the retina, so I find it virtually impossible to read the script. It was not printed in this form to save money because the rear of the pages are blank. The intention was that we would not be able to follow her as she made her statement. It is a deliberate disincentive. I have no doubt it was Government policy.

If it is helpful, I am happy to give the Senator my own copy, which uses a much larger font. I accept that his copy is written in very small type.

I appreciate that. The Minister is very courteous, as always. However, while I pay tribute to her courtesy and decency, I continue to assert that she should be ashamed of her statement not only because of the way in which it was printed but also because of the underhand practice throughout this Government of swingeing the most defenceless.

I will not begin my criticisms of the Bill with the Combat Poverty Agency because questions also arise in regard to the definition of "spouse". Several years ago, a similar Bill was introduced in this House by the Minister's predecessor, the Tánaiste, on foot of a decision by the Equality Authority which held that serious discrimination against partners in a same sex relationship with regard to travel rights was a violation of their human rights and unsustainable in Irish law. The Government responded not by addressing the injustice and discrimination involved but by ramming legislation through this House to redefine "spouse" in order to deprive vulnerable people of their entitlements. For that reason, I have proposed a new definition and I will not be assuaged by being told the matter is before the courts because that is rubbish. The matter has been considered by the Colley commission, the Law Reform Commission and every other commission. I am tired of it. It is clear we have to address this issue.

The Equality Authority is being gotten rid of in a parallel measure because it was inconvenient. It is suffering a 43% cut and its staff are being decentralised to Roscrea. The people who know anything about legislation in this area are for the most part unwilling to transfer, which means they will be replaced by pen pushers from other Departments. In other words, the voice of anybody who speaks out is being muzzled.

This is an extraordinary time to introduce a Bill to destroy the Combat Poverty Agency. New financial calamities, some of which are of the Government's making, are occurring on a daily basis. Banks and stock markets have collapsed, the sub-prime scandal has erupted and now our agriculture industry is threatened with job losses and a potentially massive bill of up to €1 billion. The beef industry also appears to be affected, with further job losses threatened. What are we going to do and how will we address these issues? In a period of increasing poverty, we are destroying the agencies that protect the poor, the disadvantaged and the powerless. These are not the actions of a party of the people; they are the actions of an arrogant shambles of a Government that instead of listening to people, humbles them and muffles their voice. It is dreadful. I feel sorry for this Minister because I do not think she should have been used as an instrument in this regard.

I note the discomfort that exists on the Government side, about which Senator McFadden so eloquently spoke earlier. I intend to table amendments to redefine "spouse" and to delete the section of the Bill which abolishes the Combat Poverty Agency. Decent people on the opposite benches will be forced through the lobbies to vote in favour of the abolition of the agency despite recognising the damage they will be doing.

In an example of squalid dishonesty, the Government's decision to abolish the Combat Poverty Agency was made before the commission's report was received. How else did I receive knowledge of the decision in advance of the report? People knew about it because it was in the woodwork. I do not believe any savings will be made by the abolition of the agency. If the Minister wants to make savings, why does she not abolish the jobs for the boys and girls which were so flagrantly created alongside the establishment of unnecessary committees all over the place simply to give positions, remuneration and, perhaps, cars? What an example to show to the people. We treat ourselves with luxury and create new positions even as we humiliate the poor.

This is not the kind of behaviour I associate with the Minister. I do not intend to embarrass her personally because I am aware of her sterling qualities. I have long regarded her as a friend and she proved this by her generous gesture to me this evening. However, I would like her to take the message to the Government that those who support the Combat Poverty Agency, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and the other agencies will not be silenced. I heard a person associated with the Government, a press spokeswoman, deriding those who tried to support the Combat Poverty Agency.

What will be the result of this? What was the point of the Combat Poverty Agency? It reported from areas of our life that are often not illuminated. Once again, it published a very fine report on the special impact of poverty on the gay community. That body is gone too. The new body is supposed to be independent, but can the Minister honestly tell the House that a combat poverty element that is subsumed into a Department will be in a position to provide independent material that could potentially be embarrassing to Government? Of course it could not, and that is why it is being introduced in such a way. The new body will be neutered.

This is all of a piece. I raised this matter on the Adjournment and was able to demonstrate that many of these organs established by Government became critical — I do not mean this in a negative fashion but rather that they exposed areas that needed to be exposed — and the Government then struck them down. One cannot escape the conclusion that this has happened because they may cause embarrassment. It is the political equivalent of the Denning judgment. Apparently the Government feels there are some vistas that are too appalling to be honestly confronted and for which it has no moral stomach.

In the very difficult times in which we find ourselves, this is not the approach that a decent Government would take. In a sense I am using the Minister — I hope not abusing her — to ask her to take this very strong message from this House and note the embarrassment of decent members of her party, which they will continue to show during this debate. I ask her to reconsider the matter.

In the midst of a very despondent economic position, the Social Welfare Bill should be recognised as a significant treat in trying to meet the needs of the most impoverished in our society. This Bill proposes increases in social welfare payments that are significantly higher than the likely inflation rate next year. It gives further increases over and above the standard rate increase to identified categories, such as pensioners and carers.

There are special increases in the fuel allowance, which, in light of current crude oil prices, are more generous than was thought in the first instance. Given that we are to borrow just to meet our budget requirement in current expenditure — €4.7 billion — the ability of the Minister to secure increases for broad categories of our society is to be welcomed and this Bill is the means that helps to bring that about.

In the coming year there will be other issues that I am sure will take up the Minister's time but that will need to be resolved. These include the position of lone parents and pensions. I look forward to further debates and other legislation that will consider these issues. As a statement of intent as to where the Government is while faced with the current global economic position, the increases achieved through the Social Welfare Bill are the best possible. There should be some acknowledgement of this. Although the increases are not ideal and do not lift people completely out of the poverty in which many people find themselves, nevertheless, they represent steps in the right direction and indicate a Government approach to this issue that recognises we are in a new reality and that those who need to be protected first and most are those affected by this legislation.

I will comment on Senator Norris's contribution. I have gone on record in expressing my disappointment on the decision made on the Combat Poverty Agency, but I accept it is a Government decision that is given effect by this legislation. I would not put my concerns in the same way as Senator Norris, but the Minister, in taking this Bill through the other House and the other Stages to be faced here, might consider some of the issues being mentioned so that the new body that will operate within her Department takes on the best aspects of what the Combat Poverty Agency has represented.

We must consider rationalisation and fewer organisations. We must ensure the work done is carried out more effectively in future. I would like to see this unit within the Minister's Department having a life somewhat different from a section of the Department and a semi-State agency. It could be a new type of life form in administrative terms. It would be within her Department's budget but would have some identity that people would know the work is being done on behalf of the Minister and the Department, but that there is also other input, particularly from the social partnership process. I would like to see this unit interact with the social partners and investigate certain areas. The reports, after being made available to the Minister and the Department, could be made public.

Some indication of the name of the unit could also be helpful. There is an assumption that the office of social inclusion is taking over the Combat Poverty Agency. A new name which takes account of the Combat Poverty Agency's past would help make the transition a bit easier; a possibility would be the poverty and social inclusion unit. The ability to initiate reports through the social partnership process and make them publicly available within a set time should be given by way of ministerial indication as a possible policy direction if it is not included in the Bill.

I am not sure if the following issues form part of the Bill or the process we should be discussing here. The Minister and her officials have been discussing the idea of the transition involving people who work with the Combat Poverty Agency. I have become aware of concerns about issues such as transfer of undertakings and people being maintained in the work they were engaged in. Indications on this will help the transition go well also. It will not be possible to achieve a complete fit and some savings will be made with certain grades where work is already being done within the Department. The expertise that has developed in the Combat Poverty Agency, particularly with regard to research, should be used to its full extent by the new unit.

I look forward to the other aspects of social welfare legislation that will come forward in the new year. Sadly, there are growing numbers of unemployed, although the Government has made some allowances for those additional numbers. The Minister is also providing for staffing needs within her Department to cope with these numbers. We need a medium-term plan that will recognise the sad reality that unemployment will increase to a level that we have not seen for several years and we need the means for dealing with that.

In another recent debate I floated the idea that we should perhaps look beyond the standard and straightforward social welfare payment of the jobseeker's benefit or allowance. Perhaps there should be optional and top-up payments. Many of us who grew up in the 1980s realise the soullessness that accompanied unemployment and these extra payments could deal with meeting education and training needs or recognise work being done in the community. An optional top-up could be provided for people engaged in other work while unemployed.

We must think outside the box and more creatively about the sad reality that is ongoing unemployment. We must, first, offer people hope that there are paths to employment and, second, recognise their potential from their experience and ability in contributing to society and the economy in general. In supporting the Bill, I ask the Minister to consider how the policy direction of the Department might need to be moulded in the year ahead to face the current economic position, which many of us had not expected, at least not in the severity of its depth. I am confident that, given the Department's ingenuity and the goodwill that exists for its ability to shape humane policies, we will see new and radical approaches.

I welcome the Minister to the House, although I concur with Senator Norris about her speech, which is quite difficult to read. I do not have a problem with my eyesight but it is difficult to follow the text.

The Bill is framed in the context of rapidly rising numbers seeking assistance to make ends meet. This factor is a sad reality for many people every day. Public representatives are getting constant calls from people who are in a desperate state. The Bill represents the Government's plan for addressing lengthening dole queues, spiralling domestic debt and ever increasing rates of eviction and home repossession. People are facing an awful situation and they feel hopeless.

The legislation is the Government's financial blueprint for living on low pay or a State pension, and for coping with disability and illness. Like so much of this Government's approach to the financial crisis, however, it is inadequate, incoherent and short-sighted. For some, it will be the Government's road map to poverty because the payment increases next year are meagre. Certain people will see their payments reduced and in some cases removed altogether.

While inflation is falling now and is likely to be lower next year, last year's social welfare increases were swallowed up by inflation in the main spending areas for those on low incomes. Food inflation will be well ahead of what is likely to be an annual rate of close to 4% — if there is any food left that we can eat — and energy inflation will be almost treble that. Increases this year will not allow low-income households to make up the ground they lost last year.

This Bill cannot be viewed in isolation. It must be considered in the context of other provisions in the Finance Bill, which will cut real incomes for pensioners, working lone parents and lone parents with dependants over 18. It is likely to force people to seek welfare assistance that they might otherwise not have needed.

Thousands are in danger of slipping into poverty as a consequence of the measures contained in the Bill before us. Those in such danger face an array of problems. Some have serious debts, including those who paid enormous sums for relatively modest homes. They incurred these costs because of the Government's failure to control the property boom. Such people will now have to wait for up to eight weeks for assistance, if they get any. While the Government was quick to respond to the needs of banks that lent so irresponsibly, it has not been so quick about putting in place a scheme to protect people from repossession. It is awful when one cannot offer any solace to people who attend constituency clinics with such problems. While Christmas is just a day, it is an emotive time. Nonetheless, we must look beyond Christmas to the realities of the new year. Normally at the start of a new year there is an element of hope and people often make resolutions to give up something. These people have nothing left to give up, however.

The money advice and budgeting service, MABS, has recorded a 30% increase in clients. Meanwhile, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is stretched to the limit in some parts of the country. Not only are we likely to see a spike in home repossessions and evictions, but those managing to keep a roof over their heads are having gas and electricity cut off. I do not think I am alone in encountering such problems at my clinics.

The failure to put in place a proper scheme to avert evictions and repossessions will be paid for by the social welfare system. Had the Government treated vulnerable people with the same urgency as the banks, the Minister could afford to be less austere. She cannot fail to be aware of the impending problems, however. By shifting 115 staff into social welfare offices and setting up a unit in her Department to process the backlog of claims, there is an acknowledgement that the issue is pertinent.

Last week, the Minister spoke of the Government's work in combating poverty. She heralded the CSO figures showing a reduction in the numbers living in consistent poverty as a policy triumph, but that is incorrect. The percentage of people at risk of poverty is virtually unchanged at 16%. Older people are at an increased risk, up 4.3%, while older people living alone are now 5% more likely to fall into poverty, according to the CSO. Children make up almost 40% of those in consistent poverty.

While the Government has a strategic goal of reducing consistent poverty to between 2% and 4% by 2012, this Bill means it is now a goal without a strategy. It would seem that the Government is hoping to cover up this fact. I cannot understand why the agency established to advise the Department on poverty is now to come under its direct control. It can sometimes be difficult to ascertain all aspects of issues that affect us, and it is a good idea, therefore, to have an independent body to clarify matters that we may overlook because there is so much happening. The Combat Poverty Agency provided a real acknowledgement of shortfalls, and the system could be tweaked to make people's lives better. It was a terrific agency and I am sorry to see it being subsumed like this into the Office of Social Inclusion. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why these agencies were separate in the first place, if merging them will make no difference to their work. I would like the Minister to answer that point. In addition, she might spell out in detail how the agency's work will be continued under her direct supervision. It appears the independence of the agency's work in publicly identifying the extent and nature of poverty, and in increasing public awareness of the problem, will come to an end. It appears to be rather convenient when taken in the context of this Bill. The Minister has not allayed the suspicion of my colleague Deputy Róisín Shortall that the agency is, in effect, being abolished.

With the agreement of the House, I wish to propose that we extend our deliberations on Second Stage of the Bill until 7.45 p.m. and then review progress.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus, go mórmhór, an díospóireacht ilghabhálach a bhí againn go dtí seo. Tá sé soiléir go bhfuilimid ar aon aigne faoi staid eacnamaíochta na tíre i láthair na huaire agus na deacrachtaí a bheidh ann amach anseo. I welcome the Minister and compliment her on successfully negotiating her Department's budget. I also compliment her departmental officials. It is evident from our debates on financial matters so far, that the Government's policy of putting the most vulnerable people in society first, is still being maintained.

I thought that Senator Norris's histrionics earlier were a little over the top. I have great regard for Senator Norris because he generally takes a stand on behalf of those who are less well off. It makes no sense, however, to suggest that a Minister who delivers a speech on her portfolio is, in some way, an instrument of somebody else. As Members of the Oireachtas, we understand the system as it operates in every single presentation to this House. I must therefore question why it was necessary for Senator Norris to do that. I know this point is not central to our debate but it is important to put that on the record.

Over the years, my experience of people in receipt of social welfare allowances is that many of them would prefer not to have to depend on such payments. We all know that the unemployed would prefer to work. It is a matter of human dignity but people often find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. We should start our debate on the basis of humanity. No matter how challenged an economy is, it is vital for us to ensure the dignity of the individual. That is the bottom line but in order to do that, other people may have to suffer. As I have said a number of times since the debate on financial legislation began, those who are able to pay should do so. I do not know whether that view is palatable, but I must make the point, which is in order to ensure that others can live in dignity. In light of financial developments and aspects of other legislation, the Government's approach to ensuring that people can live in dignity has been to make cutbacks or savings in order that the most vulnerable can be looked after.

I am not able to make a case for or against the Combat Poverty Agency, CPA. While I am not familiar with what it has done, I am sure that its work has been great. I clearly recall that, when we were challenged economically, a number of people looked for a termination of many quangos. It is understandable that each termination will affect someone with an interest in the quango in question. Often, Departments can feel under pressure, but many aspects of the work would be better served and serviced by a Department. I will take up Senator Boyle's point. While I am guessing, the Department will surely provide outreach assistance if necessary. As such, the good work done by the CPA in combating poverty, which is a matter of monitoring and looking after immediate needs more than it is just a question of money, will be carried out anyway.

I welcome the reference to pensions, a matter that I have discussed several times in the House. Where something is not mandatory, it can be difficult to get a young person of a certain age to focus on the idea of contributing to a pension fund that he or she will use 40 or 45 years later. However, I have personal experience of other situations. I am old enough to look back on a period of, for example, 25 or 30 years and I know people who, at the end of that period, regret having refused their employers' offers. I look forward to the report. Despite other pressures, we should regard this as an immediate problem. In the final analysis, we must consider issues of this kind over the short and medium terms.

I will refer to a point I raised with the Minister in a different context, namely, the dignity of the individual. The Government should consider how to retain people who are upwards of 55 years of age and working on FÁS schemes until they reach retirement age.

The Senator has less than one minute remaining.

Many will attest to the fact that those people felt useful. Therapeutically, it was good for them to leave their homes each day and to have pride in their work. It has been calculated that the saving to the State is €30 per week. While the sum is €30 of €40, looking after people who will not enter mainstream employment but who have an essential role to play at community level would be radical, taking the bull by the horns and doing something exceptional. It would also maintain society's morale. I hope the Minister will consider this matter.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence. The provisions on child benefit, fuel allowance and other social welfare benefits constitute relatively good news overall, given the days in which we are living, but this is not to say that certain areas do not need attention. Nor is it to say that each Senator could not make a passionate case for people whom they would like to see getting more or for taking from someone else's pocket to help the vulnerable.

The Senator's time has concluded.

The Bill is necessary. Instead of using State assistance, we must all work in partnership to try to help those in need.

I welcome the Minister to the House. As someone who was made redundant ten years ago after working for the same company for more than 20 years, I am probably the only Senator who signed on for unemployment benefit. I received a statutory redundancy payment of approximately £6,000, a princely sum at the time. It is not a pleasant position in which to be, as one wonders where and whether one will be employed again and whether one will be able to pay the mortgage, educate one's children and maintain one's dignity. There is a feeling of hopelessness, which almost 300,000 people will feel this Christmas.

Asking thousands of people to wait eight or ten weeks or longer for their benefits to come through is disgraceful. People pay PRSI from the first day and week of work. When they become unemployed, the least that they can expect is to have their entitlements paid without delay. The Minister may inform the House that people can get interim payments from community welfare officers, CWOs, until their social welfare benefits come through, but it looks to the unemployed person like another layer of bureaucracy and another erosion of dignity.

Recently, I read with interest that people from other Departments are being drafted in to help streamline and accelerate the process. While this is welcome, will the Minister outline the current waiting time? It differs from location to location, but two to three weeks should be the norm, not the exception, for payments to be processed. The Minister must find herself in the position in question before she can understand the mixture of emotions through which the unemployed go. Senator Ó Murchú was right, in that it is a question of humanity, dignity and respect for people when they are vulnerable.

Several years ago, it was announced that CWOs would be brought under the ambit of the Department. Has the Government abandoned its position in this regard?

I would be the first to acknowledge the generous increases of recent years in social welfare benefits, particularly those paid to old age pensioners, but an increase of €6.50 in some social welfare benefits is miserly. The basic social welfare payment will increase from €197.80 to €204.30. If someone in receipt of this is also in receipt of rent allowance, the minimum payment will increase by €5, from €13 to €18. The actual increase in such a person's social welfare payments is €1.50 per week. I have been approached by three to four people who are in that position. I do not believe the Minister is of the view that this is just and fair.

With more than 300,000 people expected to be on the live register in 2009, it is time to change the rules governing the back to education allowance. In the current climate, it would make far more sense to facilitate those who wish to return to third level education in the hope of improving their skills and employment prospects instead of their being obliged to give up or remain out of employment and claim jobseeker's allowance in order to be eligible for the back to education allowance. By doubling the budget relating to the back to education allowance and extending its availability in the short term to the unemployed and to those who earn less than €12 per hour, the numbers who might take up the opportunity to return to education could be increased by in excess of 6,000. These people would be removed from the live register as a result.

Senator McFadden referred to energy poverty. There is a relationship between incomes, poor housing, energy poverty and adverse health problems. Poorer people spend more on energy because they live in energy-inefficient homes. Due to the fact that they spend so much on their energy needs, they cannot devote as much of their scarce resources to other necessities such as food, clothing and transport. In 2004-05, those on the lowest level of income spent, on average, 13% of their disposable incomes on energy, while higher earners spent only 1.7% of this part of their incomes on energy. When the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is obliged to devote €3.4 million of its scarce resources to people struggling to provide power to their houses, it brings home the message to everyone.

I welcome the Minister. Most Members have a view on the Social Welfare Bill and a significant number want to contribute to the debate on it because they are familiar with constituents who avail of the services and payments provided by the Department of Social and Family Affairs on a weekly basis. At a time of increasing unemployment, the position in this regard will be reinforced. Senator Cummins referred to the practical difficulties faced by people who have just lost their jobs. The Minister will be aware of recent evidence of delays in the processing of claims. I understand this issue is being addressed but there is a necessity for the Minister and her officials to monitor the position closely.

During the past 20 years, the Department of Social and Family Affairs — from an administrative perspective and through computerisation and other advances — has made progress in ensuring that people receive their social welfare entitlements at the earliest possible date. It must be our aim to ensure that those who are in need of unemployment assistance or benefit will have their claims expedited. Issues of this nature give rise to a great deal of annoyance. The State does not benefit financially from these delays, which are causing great difficulties for a number of people, because the individuals who are awaiting payment are usually in receipt of moneys from their community welfare officers.

The first issue to which I wish to refer in the context of the Bill is the carer's allowance. I welcome the modest increases in the rates of payment. I welcome the ongoing improvements in respect of the income disregard and acknowledge the work done by the Minister's predecessors — particularly the late Séamus Brennan — in this regard. The Bill deals with payments under the current scheme but there is a need for a substantial debate on carers and the financial parameters we have put in place in respect of these people who provide such a valuable community and social service.

The Minister for Health and Children is currently guiding the fair deal legislation through the Lower House. While I generally support the approach taken in that Bill, I still hold firmly to the view that we must try to ensure — whether it be through the fair deal, the social welfare system or the carer's allowance and carer's benefit schemes — that the maximum number of elderly people are allowed to remain in their homes and communities and in the care of their families.

It is not simply the financial aspect of this matter about which I am concerned, I am also concerned about the broader social aspect. I am interested in how we want our society to develop and how we intend to focus on the elderly. We could achieve a kind of nirvana where everyone would be entitled to a lovely comfortable bed — without being obliged to undergo any financial stress — in a local, community, district or nursing home facility. However, I do not believe we should aim for this. We should try to ensure that, in so far as is possible, the maximum number of people should be allowed to remain with their families and within their communities.

In light of the moderate budget relating to it, the carer's allowance is a tremendous success in the context of allowing people to be cared for in the setting in which they would want this to happen. I hope the Minister will devote a great deal of attention in the next 12 months to the possibility of a significant and further relaxation in the income disregard. I do not have the figure to hand but a number of years ago I discussed this matter with the Minister's predecessor, the late Séamus Brennan, and I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered at the time what would be the relatively low financial cost to the State of removing the means test in its entirety and paying the full rate of carer's allowance to all those who provide full-time care and attention to people who require it. We are not discussing opening the floodgates because to receive carer's allowance one must provide full-time care and attention to a person who requires it.

As already stated, I welcome the increases in the allowance and the income disregard. The Minister has already made her mark in many Departments. However, if she wishes to leave that mark on social policy and in the area of social engineering, she should give serious consideration to introducing a universal system or scheme for carer's allowance that would encourage people to remain in their communities. There will be a need to return to and deal with this matter in more detail at some point in the future.

On PRSI payments and entitlements for self-employed payments, in recent weeks I received a number of queries from self-employed persons or their spouses who lodged claims for disability or unemployment benefit and who were extremely surprised that as a result of the class of social welfare contributions they pay, they are not eligible for full entitlements. I accept from where the Minister is coming in the context of her financial perspective. However, further examination must be given to the question of the entitlements of self-employed persons.

I congratulate the Department on the apparent progress it has made with regard to the retrospective payment of PRSI in respect of self-employed spouses. In general, and while it may sound sexist, such people are usually farmers' wives. PRSI was introduced in respect of all farmers in the 1980s and 1990s. In general, their wives, who were vital components of farming enterprises and businesses, were advised that they need not pay PRSI and did not, therefore, enter the stream of PRSI coverage. Where it is clear a spouse has contributed in a meaningful manner to an enterprise or business, the Department is willing to consider retrospective PRSI payments. While the concept and principle is good, this requires a little more work in terms of details as claims are not being processed as quickly as one would wish.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I echo Senator Bradford's sentiments in regard to the work being done by the Department in respect of pension provision for the spouses of the self-employed and, specifically, farmers' wives, an issue which I raised in this House a number of years ago with the late Deputy Seamus Brennan when Minister for Social and Family Affairs, and one which he took on board. I am glad there is a constructive process underway in that regard.

I concur also with Senator Bradford's remarks in regard to the carer's allowance. This will be an even greater issue during the next couple of years in that children or carers previously in full-time employment and not in a position to provide their elderly relatives with necessary care and attention in the family home may in the future as a result of rising unemployment be in a position to do so. A particular issue which I believe the Government should have resolved during the period of the Celtic tiger is that of support and maintenance of carers, an issue which I have raised on a number of occasions. I believe society does not have enough regard for those people who opt to remove themselves from the workforce to care for a loved one. There is, and has been for the past ten or 11 years, a considerable case to be made for the removal of the means test in respect of people providing such care and attention. I realise, given the current financial situation, this is not likely to happen in the immediate future. However, given that, as a result of that financial situation, people will be in a position to provide that full-time care at home, a further relaxation of the rules surrounding the allowance should be considered by the Minister and her Department.

I echo the comments of Senator Cummins in respect of the back to education allowance and the changes that could be usefully made in this area at a time of economic downturn. People are seriously considering further education opportunities in terms of "upskilling", a word which, while I do not like to use, I understand its meaning. There is a strong case to be made for changes to the back to education allowance.

I wish to raise a couple of specific issues with the Minister. By and large, I welcome the Bill in terms of its extra provision for people on pensions and in respect of other specific categories. While there are some elements of good news in the Bill, as the Minister stated, it also provides for a number of cuts in various areas. In my time in the Oireachtas I have never seen, in either House, a speech produced in such a format as to make it almost illegible, a point also made earlier by Senator Norris.

While on the face of it, the €2 per week increase in the fuel allowance is to be welcomed, as Senator McFadden pointed out, this would not even cover the cost of a bail of briquettes. Also, the extension by two weeks of the period during which the allowance will be paid is, in my opinion, insufficient. While it is a tiny nudge in the right direction it is hardly fit to be termed a step in the right direction. Previous speakers, and Senator Cummins in particular, referred to the delays in assessing people for social welfare payments. I was recently presented with a case in respect of a 21 year old girl who, having worked for three years after she left full-time education, had to wait six months for the Department and, in particular the people with whom she was dealing, to process a social welfare payment. This is unacceptable, in particular at a time when, sadly, many more people will be seeking social welfare payments and unemployment assistance.

Perhaps the Minister will explain the reasoning behind the Government's decision in respect of child benefit for 18 year olds. The Government has been pretty generous in the past ten years in terms of increases in respect of child benefit. It took the decision, understandably, that the best way to remove children and their families from poverty was to increase this payment. However, the Government this year proposes to remove 18 year olds from eligibility for child benefit. Perhaps the Minister will explain the reasoning behind this. At the same time the child care supplement, which is payable in respect of children at the other end of the scale, five year olds, has been cut in half. The Government made a political decision in the past couple of years to directly pay the parents of these children additional money in an effort to remove them from poverty, an understandable decision given that the mechanism for child benefit was already in place and this would allow the money go directly to families. However, it has rowed back on that decision, which does not make any sense from my point of view. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position in this regard.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí. At the outset, I apologise for the complete illegibility of the circulated speech which contains some good news which I would have liked Members to read. However, I appreciate that was impossible to do given the manner in which it was distributed. Judging by the contributions made, Members appear to have got the sense of everything contained in the legislation.

I found Senator Cummins's contribution interesting. One rarely comes across a Member of either House of the Oireachtas who has had to sign on. It is a valuable insight to be able to give to the House. Equally, there are very few people who sign on and who end up in either House of the Oireachtas, having been elected by the people. I commend Senator Cummins on his success in turning his life around.

I noted, despite the variety of contributions, that there were some key issues on which Members focussed. The main issue of concern is that referred to by Senator Ó Murchú, namely, the dignity of the person. The concern of everyone in the Department of Social and Family Affairs in terms of our budgetary considerations is to support the dignity of people who find themselves in vulnerable situations, namely, the unemployed, the elderly, lone parents, carers and other people who find themselves dependent on the State. Protecting them in a financial way while protecting their dignity is a huge part of what we do.

The budget for the Department of Social and Family Affairs is €19.6 billion, which is an extraordinary amount out of a total budget of €55 billion to be expended next year. We are particularly conscious of the increasing number of people losing their jobs and having to sign on each week, many of whom would never have expected to become dependent on social welfare. We are conscious of the concern being expressed in respect of processing times. We do not want people to be left waiting for payments and for this reason 115 extra staff have been assigned to this area. Also, we have set up a specialised unit of 18 deciding officers who will do nothing else but make decisions in respect of claims. This is being done in an effort to speed up the processing of claims. We will keep this matter under review. Some offices around the country have received approval for five extra staff and others have received approval for one extra staff member. The processing times at some offices in respect of jobseeker's benefit and the jobseeker's allowance is good. In all cases the processing time for the jobseeker's allowance is longer because eligibility for it is subject to means testing. Issues can arise about habitual residency in the case of many non-national applicants or about trying to check their bank records at home etc. Those issues can cause delays but, equally, delays in some offices have been unacceptable and, for that reason, we have tried to organise the allocation of extra staff.

The proposal regarding the Combat Poverty Agency is an issue of concern to many people. The agency will not be suppressed or subsumed into the Department. I firmly believe there is a real need for a far better unit than the existing one — the Office for Social Inclusion — but it has good staff and expertise. In bringing the two together we can ensure we have an enhanced unit that examines and highlights the issues, carries out and publishes research, and advises on Government policies.

The establishment of the Combat Poverty Agency in 1986, by the late Frank Cluskey, was an innovative measure. It has played a strong role, but in the meanwhile other mechanisms and structures have been put in place, the most valuable of which is social partnership in which the community and voluntary groups have an active, official role. We have a Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion. There are social inclusion units in each Department. My previous Department, the Department of Education and Science, came up with a scheme for disadvantaged schools, the DEIS — which has been discussed in this House many times — focusing on people in poverty and trying to lift them out of it. There are high level groups of Government officials and a range of different structures. It was opportune that more than a year ago it was decided to review the agency to determine where it could best fit and what would be its future.

Research will continue to be carried out and such research will be published because it is important it be made public, but both groups have a good history of commissioning and publishing research. I expect them to initiate research into issues that may not have been examined previously because it is important, from a policy point of view, that we would have evidence based policy to support what we are trying to do.

One of the areas in which they have been excellent is ensuring that the voice of poverty is heard and they have worked directly with people. That has meant that if there are 300 people at a social inclusion forum in Croke Park or one is attending a high level international meeting in Brussels, we have the direct participation of people experiencing poverty because the Combat Poverty Agency works with them and it does that very well. I will ensure that work continues as I consider that to be part of the brief of the new unit.

Senator Boyle asked about the name of the new unit. One might say the name of it is unimportant, but it is important because it must capture the work the unit will do. When I recently met the board of Combat Poverty Agency, subsequent to the decision, its members suggested that it might be a good idea in the preparatory six months prior to the establishment of the new integrated unit to examine and work together to determine what best will sum up its work. There has been great co-operation with the board and while, naturally, the staff are anxious about some issues, we are working through those with them. I am satisfied that by giving a six months period, which is what is built into the legislation, we will be able to support them and to ensure that we get a smooth transition and the type of the unit we all want. The aim of combating poverty will still remain as the overall aim of the new unit. There may not be a specific agency to do it, but combating poverty is the important objective.

The back to education allowance was the second issue raised by a number of Senators. One of the most encouraging features of the CSO figures published recently regarding the live register etc. — unfortunately, there are not that many encouraging figures — is a 24% increase in the participation rate in the back to education allowance. That is encouraging. The facilitators working in the Department's local offices throughout the country do great work in making people aware of the opportunities available to them. I envisage that, not only through formal education at second level, further education and third level but also through increased participation on FÁS courses next year, we can target more people and support them through education, which is after all the best way out of poverty and the best way into employment.

Some Senators raised issues about the importance of the carer's allowance and supporting pensioners, particularly through the fuel allowance. The €2 increase in the allowance, while welcome, paled in comparison to the welcome given by older people for the additional two weeks' payment of the allowance. They appreciated that more than the increase in the amount of the allowance. It means that the fuel allowance will be given from the end of September to the end of March. It is designed to support its recipients as much as possible.

In regard to child benefit, in all other matters an 18 year old is considered an adult. Child benefit rates have been quite generous in recent years, but in the current economic climate when we have been trying to find savings it made sense to examine those areas where changes would not cause undue hardship to people whose families were in education or leaving education. In doing that, we found that more than 70% of students were under the age of 18 when they completed their leaving certificate. Another group of students would have reached the age of 18 in the few months leading up to their leaving certificate. Therefore, there is no danger of people dropping out of school because of a cut in child benefit payments. The figures I gave are based on those who did the leaving certificate this year. Others who are carrying on into further education and higher education will qualify for maintenance grants and can be supported in that way.

At the time the early childhood allowance was introduced it was a very generous scheme. One was paid for each quarter, in other words, if one's child was not born until March, one received a payment for January and February and ended up receiving a payment before one's child was born. If one's child was six years of age in January, one ended up getting the payment for the three months in the quarter. A substantial saving is to be made by paying the allowance monthly. Although the compulsory school age is six years of age, only a small minority of children are not in school by the age of five and a half. Some children around the county are in school from the age of four. We will still look after the target group of families requiring child care.

Those are the key issues speakers mentioned. I accept other issues came up but I am conscious that the Seanad has a long list of issues to discuss tonight. I appreciate the time provided to facilitate the debate and its structure.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 27; Níl, 20.

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • de Búrca, Déirdre.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Nicky McFadden.
Question declared carried.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 December 2008.