Amendment No. 1 is in the name of Deputy Ring. Amendment No. 2 in the name of Deputy Seán Ryan is related. Therefore amendments Nos. 1 and 2 will be taken together by agreement.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003: Committee Stage.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall, as soon as may be, after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report:
(a) contrasting the increase in 2002 of the Consumer Price Index with the increases paid to the entitled persons under the Act of 2002;
(b) evaluating the suitability and appropriateness of the items and weightings used by the Central Statistics Office in computing the rates of increase in the Consumer Price Index to the needs of the principal categories of entitled persons under the Principal Act;
(c) setting out the Department’s assessment of those groups potentially most seriously affected by significant inflationary pressures which may arise because of internal and external factors in 2003.”.
I welcome the Minister and her officials. There is concern being voiced by people on social welfare, particularly following the recent increases in the cost of living. At this early stage of the year people are finding it difficult already to manage with the recent increases in social welfare.
People are feeling the pressure. With the increases about to be introduced, prices are increasing on a daily basis and people are just not able to meet the demands placed on them. I want the Minister to tell us how the Department calculates inflation and what measures, if any, it has in place or will put in place to deal with this problem where people are finding it difficult to manage with the increases.
We will get the usual answer that increases cover inflation and that they have done this over the past number of years. However, there has been an usual development this year, with increases in electricity charges, the cost of food and other goods. The VAT increase of 1% has caused a problem.
I want the Minister to tell us how the Department calculates inflation and what it will do about the people who have lost out due to the recent charges and the new local authority increases. Local authority rents have been recalculated and people must pay increased rents. The social welfare increases have been eaten up already. All State agencies are saying that there is a problem already. I want to know how the Minister will deal with that and then I will have more to say.
I support Deputy Ring's amendment. I want the Minister to justify the mechanism for evaluating the rate of increase for social welfare recipients. The philosophy of Governments over the years has been to endeavour to deal with poverty and reduce the elements of poverty, and one of the major tools in dealing with that is social welfare payments.
In the context of trying to achieve an inclusive society, how can the Minister justify the payments introduced in the budget and in the Bill, where an unemployed couple with one child could gain €25 a week in real terms? That takes into consideration only the projected rate of inflation of 4.8%. All of the indications to date have shown that the rate of inflation will increase. The increase for an unemployed person is 30 cent a week.
Could the Minister take into consideration the consumer price index or the views of the people involved in providing the services such as the Combat Poverty Agency and the voluntary agencies dealing with people in need or on social welfare, who have strongly recommended that the Minister would link the increases to gross average industrial earnings? That is the only significant way to deal with this. Why have the Minister and her officials not met their commitments and examined this issue in the context of the consumer price index?
Social welfare recipients are on fixed incomes and, therefore, on tight budgets. That is accepted but nobody in the history of the State has offered as much support to this category of people than the Minister and her predecessor. When Opposition members were in a position to respond to these people, they failed miserably. When the rainbow coalition was in Government, social welfare recipients were given an increase of £1.50 a week. This legislation provides for an increase in child benefit that will affect 500,000 families. Over the past four years, the Minister and her predecessor have done more in terms of support for those in the fixed income category than anyone in the history of the State and I compliment them. We are experiencing more difficult times this year but an approach should be taken whereby the contribution of the Government and its predecessor as well as future contributions are taken into account.
None of us wants price increases and I question a number of them that have nothing to do with the Government. However, greed is a factor in many cases, particularly on the part of those who abused the euro changeover to line their own pockets without justification. I condemn those who have done that. Various committees of the House debated this issue many times prior to the introduction of the euro and called on all the relevant authorities to ensure that such abuse would not take place. We received assurances from various organisations regarding that matter but they did not live up to them.
The price of certain products has increased by between 20% and 30% to the detriment of the purchasing public. It is unfortunate that people would only think of themselves in terms of availing of an opportunity to generate increased profits on the sale of their goods.
I support the amendment. I am sorry I was not present at the beginning of the meeting but I was trying to sort out social welfare problems.
It is not easy.
The previous speaker referred to the external bodies which were responsible for the mishandling of the euro changeover and said people were led astray by them. People were never led as much astray as they were by the Government in the run up to the election. Those who live in rural areas have experienced significant cost of living increases.
The Deputy's party did not do too well.
At least we did not get elected on the basis of lies but that is another story. The cost of motor tax and insurance has increased. Insurance may not be the responsibility of the Government but the Tánaiste made many promises about what she would do in this area and she is still making the same promises. Increases in bank, credit card, bin, ESB, bus and television licence charges were instigated by the Government. Many of the problems faced by those on low incomes and in receipt of the minimum social welfare payment are the responsibility of the Government. Supermarket owners and others may have jumped that gun but the Government led the way in introducing price increases. The cost of the television licence has increased by €43 while bus fares for the average family have increased by €100 per year. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment.
I am pleased to be before the committee again and I expect us to have a fruitful debate. Neither I nor my officials determine inflation. The consumer price index is published monthly and it is a complete and concise way to determine the monthly and annual inflation rates. The CPI is professionally reported. The index is a collection of 55,000 prices covering more than 1,000 different items and it is available to all Members. It is also designed to measure the change in the average level of prices paid for consumer goods and services by all private households from a representative basket of goods.
The Opposition will focus on only one side of the argument whereas I prefer to take a more balanced view. It should not be forgotten that prices also decrease.
They must be going down only in Donegal.
The most significant monthly price change, for example, has been in clothing and footwear, the cost of which has decreased by 7.8%. Likewise, the price of furnishings, household equipment and routine household maintenance has also decreased by 0.4% while I accept there have been increases in the cost of food and services. There is, therefore, a balance between the number of decreases and increases. It is wrong to suggest that everything is on the increase because prices do fall and Opposition members should accept that is the case.
The inflation rate is 4.8% and it was in this context that funding was provided to social welfare recipients. I appreciate Opposition members will not agree with that but that is their problem. The increases provided in the budget protect the real income of social welfare recipients. The make-up of households must be examined in this context as different households have different needs and they must be targeted. People not only get a social welfare benefit, they also get additionality. We have a great ethos. Over the past number of years, we have encouraged people to go back to work, maintained secondary benefits, increased disregards, run schemes such as the footwear allowance and school meals scheme, which was widened today, expanded free schemes for the elderly and introduced the household budget package. All of those are taken into consideration. Other payments are also important to families. Before Members stomp over and say we did not deliver on what we said we would, they will see that over the last two years and the next two years we will have had an impact on the real income coming into households. We are not just talking about financial supports but additional supports. There are also significant community supports made available to people who find themselves in difficulty - MABS and other services are supported by my Department.
I do not accept the reasoning of the Opposition because an amalgam of everything must be taken into consideration when one looks at the money made available to social welfare recipients. I appreciate there are stresses and strains on people who are limited to living on social welfare, which is true, and I also appreciate that people have difficulties outside their own personal control such as marital problems or alcoholism. However, there are support networks for people who are in difficulty.
We as a nation must look at money management. I am a great one to talk as I worry from time to time about my personal money management. However, MABS supports those in financial difficulties by helping them to budget. We in the Department have worked with county councils, for example, in providing a service whereby essentials are paid out of a person's social welfare payment. We help people budget for the ESB, county council rents and so on. I therefore cannot agree to the amendments put forward by the Deputies. Naturally, through the social inclusion unit and NAPS, my officials and I will always look at the impact inflation has on our customers, particularly those who are more reliant than others on social welfare payments. Overall, we must take into consideration the checks and balances as well as price increases and decreases and at present many social welfare payments are above the rate of inflation, while others are within the inflationary measures in place. It is a nice way of saying no.
Regarding the CPI, which determines how inflation is reckoned, will the Department consider a survey for those on social welfare? I know such a survey is done for the rest of the country - I read it the other day. It states that those on social welfare spend 10% of their money on recreation and culture but I do not think they are spending 10% of their money on equipment for sports camping. There is also a section on garden plants and flowers. There is no way people on social welfare are paying 10% of their money on such outgoings - that would mean they are paying more for such things than on health or education. As Deputy Crawford said, motor tax is up by 12% and TV licences up by 40%, while bus fares in Dublin have increased by 9%. The recent VAT increase is also putting more pressure on families. Something will have to be done. I do not agree with Deputy Finneran as he is not living in the real world. One can go back to 1997 but one could go back to 1916 if one wanted; one must live in the year one is in and people are feeling the pinch.
Will the Department survey those on social welfare so we will get a real breakdown of what people on social welfare are spending their money on? The CPI survey does not make sense. People may think those on social welfare are spending more on recreation than on health or food but I do not. The Department should have a separate survey for those on social welfare.
The recent increase of €10 in payments to those on CE schemes means they are losing €60 in other payments. That affects many people and is bringing them into the PRSI net. Every time the CE scheme payments are increased the PRSI threshold is also increased but this makes no sense for lone parents on CE schemes——
A later amendment deals with that.
I will discuss it later. However, one cannot stand over the CPI survey. It deals with the whole country and there should be a separate survey for those on social welfare.
I was disappointed by the Minister as I thought we would have more positive interaction this afternoon to try to deal with some important issues. We raised an issue earlier which the Minister completely disregarded.
The intention of the amendments is that she, her Department and the various agencies involved in poverty, provide a report on the increases in each payment under the principal Act, as amended, net of the changes in the CPI and they should further compare the level of increases with that of gross average industrial earnings.
There is no point in the Minister for Finance saying on budget day that social welfare payments are to be increased by €10, €8 or €6, that this will deal with people's problems and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs then saying the same. We are trying to put a mechanism in place which will evaluate in a real way the impact not only of this budget, but of future budgets. We want an evaluation process in place which will outline the real benefits of a budget to the most marginalised people in our society. That is not unreasonable, given all the support services and expertise the Minister has in her Department. We should link that to the various increases and then we can see what is really being done. It is fine for the Minister to say that perhaps in Donegal there are no real increases. However, for others in the country as a whole, it is a fact that inflation is twice the EU average since the general election - that was not long ago. An extra €274 is being charged in college registration fees and an extra €72 on ESB bills. The latter bills affect everyone but particularly those on social welfare. It also costs an extra €8.30 to visit an accident and emergency department, which is another area which affects those on social welfare, another €40 on gas bills and an extra €43 on television licences. There is also another 1% VAT on fuel, hairdressing and cinema tickets. There are increases in people's basic requirements as well as increases in cinema tickets even if people can only go once every six months. We are talking about vicious increases. Those who do not have a medical card have to pay an extra €200 per annum for prescription fees.
In the amendment before us we try to be just and fair by linking increases to inflation and wages but the Minister just smiles and says no. In my first contribution I referred to gross average industrial earnings that the Department and other agencies use to deal with increases but the Minister did not refer to them. We should try to deal with problems in society in a meaningful way.
It is easy for Deputy Seán Ryan to pontificate without making any pragmatic proposals about where the money would be found or what he would change.
We will do it when we are in Government.
The Opposition could not do it when it was in Government and it certainly cannot do it now.
It is not our duty to do it.
It was the Opposition's duty when it was last in Government and it made a dog's dinner of it. The master of social deprivation gave a couple of measly pence when it came to it.
These are different times.
I am glad they are. At long last reality has hit Fine Gael. When it comes to poverty, every item in my Department is poverty-proofed, as is every item that goes before Government. That is why the concept of poverty proofing exists.
We have a social inclusion unit and NAPS is currently being revised. Then we will see what has been achieved and what we have to achieve. Those are the parameters. It does not seem to dawn on the Opposition that we are looking at our own Government's policies, not the policies of the Labour Party or Fine Gael. We have set out our agenda in black and white. Much of it comes from NAPS, the PPF, the new partnership agreement and listening to others, including the Opposition, community groups and officials in the Department. If I had the money, like any Minister, I would do it all but I have to take into consideration a number of factors, such as inflation. It will determine the base line for social welfare recipients.
It is wrong to say that because I come from Donegal I do not appreciate people from the inner city. There is no Department located more centrally in the inner city - on top of Busáras - than mine. I was not a week in the job when I took the opportunity to go to St. Andrew's Resource Centre where I met people who have to deal with poverty issues and listened to what they had to say. No one has the right to say that I do not appreciate poverty. We must also, however, talk about social welfare with a more global focus. There are people in receipt of social welfare who are on contributory pensions or who are entitled to work, not just people in receipt of means tested payments. There are hundreds of thousands of people paid by my Department every week.
We have guidelines and aspirations. The first kick of the ball does not determine the final score. We have five years to achieve what we want. We discuss every aspect of social policy, including gross average industrial earnings and other indicators. We could get into a philosophical discussion about determining poverty indicators and base lines. We could ask what disposable income is needed to support people who cannot manage and see how much must be spent on essentials. There is no reason for specifically reviewing the household budget survey because it takes into consideration all of the issues Deputy Seán Ryan has mentioned. It might not be perfect but it is a wide parameter for the determination of a household budget and inflation.
Every household has different needs, depending on number of children in it and where it is located. There are items some might think are essential that are unnecessary for others. These issues must be considered. We have a level which we feel people's entitlement should reach.
We must also look at other issues such as the change in trends of employment. My job would be easier if we still had the huge growth of the last five years. Now we have to make decisions and arrive at targets. That is my job and my target in the next five years will be to address child poverty, support for the elderly and carers.
That does not take away from other issues. We cannot take a narrow focus, we must take into consideration all of the schemes administered by my Department. The best independent guidance I have is that we should, and will, work within the anticipated level of inflation alluded to in the budget.
This is an important debate. Deputy Seán Ryan said he was disappointed that we are not going down a constructive road, then demolished his case by making a political speech. That is his job - we do not expect him to agree with us.
I have spent my political career working for the disadvantaged because that is my own background. The Department deals with 55 million transactions a year. Various schemes have been used by successive Governments to assist people. Child benefit, dismissed by many, has been of huge assistance to thousands of families. Only eight years ago there was no comparable assistance.
There are people in the community who will always need our support but we must be big enough to recognise the work done by the Minister and her Department. I have been around a long time and I know the Department has tried to see how people can be best supported. We can all rhyme off the list of increases of this and previous Governments but that is not why we are here. We must at least give them some recognition and hope our contributions make some impact for the benefit of the people in future.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the level of increase in each payment under the Principal Act as amended net of changes in the Consumer Price Index, and shall further compare the level of increase with that of gross average industrial earnings.".
I must leave for another meeting. Amendments Nos. 3, 4 and 20 are related and are to be taken together.
Deputy Donal Moynihan took the chair.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on promises made by Government in the Agreed Programme for Government and the National Anti-Poverty Strategy, the average annual increase in payments which would be required to meet the NAPS promises by 2007, and whether in any case this level of increase will be met in 2003, and if not what proposals if any are envisaged to phase in the increases required.".
This amendment seeks a report on failures in An Agreed Programme for Government and the national anti-poverty strategy on the part of the Government on the average annual increase in payments which would be required to meet the NAPS promises and whether these increases will be met in 2003. If not, what proposals, if any, are envisaged to phase in the increases required? The importance of NAPS has been acknowledged by the Minister and a review of the strategy was published towards the beginning of last year. Its general objectives were to reduce consistent poverty to 2% among all groups and ideally to eliminate it; to build an inclusive society; and to develop social capital, particularly for disadvantaged communities. In determining how to meet those objectives between now and 2007 it is important to look at the commitments which have been made by the Government - the programme for Government states the basic State pension will be increased by €2,000 by 2007 and in the same category the Government promises to work to generate the resources to achieve a new benchmark level of €150 for social welfare payments. The rate of contributory pensions was to increase by €17.20 per week in 2003 and there was a commitment of an €8.20 increase per week in the lowest rates of payment if PPF commitments of €127 per week were to be met on schedule in 2003. There was a further commitment of a weekly rate of non-pensioner's QAAS having to increase by either €8 or €11.70 in 2003, depending on whether the benchmark was updated by reference to price or average industrial earnings. We know from what the Minister said that the Government is not interested in trying to deal with problems either by reference to prices or average industrial earnings.
In that context, the Government has failed miserably to meet any of those commitments regarding NAPS or national agreements. If we are to go down this road it is important to put down markers. It is no good saying to the media that NAPS is to be implemented or promising pension increases of €13 per week. I am the first to acknowledge that the increased payments to pensioners have been some of the more substantial of recent years but the Government has failed in its commitments in other areas.
How can we put down a marker on the Government's undertakings to various categories of people covered by this Department if we want to bring some equality to society? When the Minister says she does not have the money at her disposal to meet the promises, then choices have to be made. Unfortunately, the Department of Finance controls the level of expenditure in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The former Department is clearly saying it will not adhere to these promises but those promises were made in good faith to various groups. What was the advice the Minister received from her Department on the increases to meet the obligations mentioned? I look forward to her response. I also ask her to read the report I mentioned so we can see where we are going, what kind of society we want and whether we will meet our commitments. To date, she has failed.
I support the amendment. As I said in the Dáil, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul carried out a survey which announced the Government had fallen short of its targets regarding child poverty. According to that organisation, thousands of children are going to school hungry and many families are suffering hardship in trying to buy uniforms, shoes and school books. It said an obvious way to prevent child poverty and to raise standards of living for all would be to increase child benefit; all reports have shown that child benefit is the one benefit that is spent on children. We were told by the fantasy document from Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats that child benefit would be looked after but the first downturn in the economy meant the first people attacked were lone parents and others with children. The first attack was on child benefit, which was foolish, although I accept that for the past few years those on child benefit were doing well.
A recent survey showed that the extra cost to the family of sending a child to school was €1,000 per child. For those on fixed or low incomes to spare even €1 is a lot of money. These are some of the facts. Child poverty in Ireland ranks sixth highest of the 23 OECD countries. Some 29% of lone parents and 19% of two parent households live in poverty. The cost of rearing a child up to five years of age is €35,000 according to the Barnardos report, Parents Under Pressure 2002. The Children's Rights Alliance described budget 2003 as a series of broken promises to children, particularly those living in poverty. The increases in child benefit in 2003 of €8 for the first child and €10 for the third and subsequent children was wrong and the Government should have honoured its commitment in the budget. The year before the election there was no difficulty in making provision, but as soon as the election was over the first to be attacked were children.
All the State agencies with an involvement in this area asked that child dependent allowance be increased to €25 per child. However, it was not increased by €1 but remained at the old rate. That is wrong. As Deputy Ryan has said we have to deal with the most vulnerable in society, namely those on low incomes. Those who have school going children are finding it very difficult given all the increases. All reports have shown that child benefit and child dependent allowance are actually spent on children. If we want to target poverty that is the area at which money should be targeted. The Government will have to put a report before us to show the consequences of the increases in relation to inflation, price increases, food increases and so on. I would like to know where the Minister is buying the cheap clothes as they are certainly not in Mayo. I do not know about Donegal but perhaps there are many large supermarkets there. Media reports indicated that prices were reduced during the sales. A pair of shoes for a child under or over 12 years of age costs almost the same as for an adult. The same applies to clothes, which are quite expensive. A supplementary budget may be needed this year because people cannot manage due to the spate of price increases. To target poverty the money must be given to the women in the form of child benefit.
As Deputy Ryan has indicated, following a considerable amount of time and consultation, we produced the NAPS agenda - Building an Inclusive Society - in February 2002. That set out the policy goals and the parameters we wanted to achieve. Deputy Ring asked for a report on what has been achieved. We are in the process of preparing that report with the new NAPS that must be produced for the European Commission in July 2003. It looks at what has been achieved and what needed to be achieved. As well as my Department, the Departments of Education and Science and the Environment and Local Government are involved. One of the policy initiatives of NAPS was to reduce to 2% or, if possible, eliminate consistent poverty. During the period of NAPS we have halved consistent poverty but would like to eliminate it. Some of the targets have been achieved while some are in the process of being achieved. The target is for 2007 but there is no specific target for each year. One does not have to take the target and divide it over the five years and say this is what has to be done. There is flexibility. The bottom line at the end of the programme is to achieve the targets that have been set. In some areas we will reach the target, particularly in the area of pensions, to which the Deputy has alluded.
This year we have been able to give €10 and we have been able to address a number of anomalies in the pensions area. Like other members I would have been concerned about the differential in the widow's pension. I hope to have that anomaly addressed in full next year and perhaps we will then look at widows and widowers under 66 years of age. For those over 66 years of age there was a problem with the amount of money being made available. We have tried to address a number of anomalies and difficulties. Ideally, it would be my intention that over the period of the NAPS we would achieve what we have set down as being our goals. A new social inclusion unit has been set up in my Department and staff have been appointed. Its role is to look not only at what I do in my Department but to row in with the other Departments to make sure they are equally pursued in achieved the NAPS target.
The Deputy will have an opportunity on Committee Stage to look at what is being done. Further consultation will take place. There will be a number of regional meetings where we will listen to people. If the select committee wishes to make its views known on NAPS and what it would like to see, and revisions thereof, I am sure that can be taken into consideration. We hope to have the review and the new NAPS targets available for the European Commission in July. That opportunity is available if the select committee wishes to take it on board.
Deputy Ring alluded to a number of voluntary organisations that have their own targets, some of which may not be happy with what has been done. Each year I meet all the groups involved and they sought €3 billion more last year than the previous year. Realistically, it is impossible to deliver that amount of money unless one wants to get rid of every other Department. I agree with some of their views and have taken them on board. We look to new and existing initiatives to deal with child poverty. From what I can ascertain every Member of the House believes child benefit is the way forward whether in addressing child poverty or child care provision. I appreciate people were disappointed this year but in the previous three years a huge amount of money was made available to child benefit. If we were to deliver on the proposals an additional €400 million would have been provided in last year's budget. I was able to negotiate a package of €530 million. It is incumbent on me to ensure other people relying on social welfare also receive funding. We have delivered on one third of the last part of the package and it is my clear intention to deliver on the rest of the package of child benefit. I agree it is the only tangible way of addressing child poverty.
The Government has taken social inclusion very seriously. That is the reason we have a Cabinet sub-committee dealing specifically with social inclusion where we have almost as our bible the NAPS performances which we review on an ongoing basis. We discuss them with other Departments and push the agenda of social inclusion and delivery of the programme.
I ask Deputies to avail of the opportunity of our consultation process over the next two to three months for the revision of NAPS and what has been achieved, and the setting of new targets will be taken into consideration. I should say to Deputy Ring that I do not see the necessity for another report given that we are in the process of revising the NAPS strategy.
I welcome the fact that a review of the NAPS is taking place in the Department but if we take up policy positions on implementation of the NAPS or enter into national wage agreements, it is important, in terms of continuity and confidence in the system, that those promises are implemented. Commitments in many areas have been made but, as the Minister acknowledged this afternoon, some of them have not been met to date. While they do not have to be achieved until 2007 - the Minister might say we have a number of years to catch up in that regard - the Department and most of those involved assumed incorrectly that the increases would be paid on an equal basis each year.
I would like the Minister to outline the way the increases will be phased in for the remainder of this period to 2007. That will be vitally important. I would also like to hear her ideas on how the shortfall can be made up and all the increases implemented by 2007. Those directly affected are looking to the Oireachtas for a specific commitment and if we cannot stand over these commitments, the Minister will be wasting her time drawing up report after report which will end up collecting dust. We must be honest with the people and tell them we will honour these commitments by 2007 and outline the way we envisage implementing them.
I want to comment on two issues. I welcome the commitment by the Minister and hope she will treat young widows and widowers in the same way as those over the age of 65 years. I have raised this issue at every opportunity because it is the younger people who have to bear many of the major expenses.
While the Minister has said that under the current agreement interdepartmental discussions are taking place on the various difficulties, I want to raise the issue of medical cards which are essential to those on lower income levels. There has been no increase of any significance in the means test limit, which does not even take account of current social welfare commitments. A commitment was given to provide an additional 200,000 medical cards. While this does not come under the remit of the Minister's Department, it is part and parcel of the overall difficulties being experienced by young families, in particular.
The Minister will be as aware as I am that in rural Ireland the medical card scheme does not take into account the medical needs of families, that it creates the means whereby other forms of help can be made available. Those on low incomes can avail of free school transport, clothing and other allowances. I hope progress can be made on this area at the interdepartmental committee.
Will the Minister comment on an issue I have raised previously with her, namely, the anomaly in child benefit in that twins only receive 150% of the normal rate while in the case of multiple births the rate is 200%? This is something the Irish Multiple Births Association has sought to get changed for many years. The Minister will understand twins can be a major cost on a family. I accept they receive 150% of the normal rate of child benefit but a couple with three or more children are entitled to the 200% rate. While some years ago the rate was increased to 150%, this anomaly should be addressed by bringing the rate paid for twins to 200%. There is a massive cost involved in rearing one child but in the case of twins the cost can be enormous in that a family must buy double of everything. I ask the Minister to examine this.
When the Department has concluded its report, perhaps it will give us an indication of the number of multiple births in the State, the numbers being paid at the 150% and 200% rates and the estimated cost of bringing everyone to the 200% rate. I do not believe it would involve a major cost but it is an area the Department should examine and try to resolve before next year's budget to be fair to multiple birth families.
Does the Deputy have any intention of adding to the family in County Mayo?
No but I have to declare a conflict of interest.
I will do likewise. I have twin nieces.
During the budget preparations last year the association was in touch with me regarding child benefit. Unfortunately, I was not then in a position to look at the issue which will have to be addressed in consideration of the budget.
With regard to the specific information sought by the Deputy, we will try to get it for him. I do not have it——
The Minister can send it on to me. There is no problem about that.
I know the Deputy is very good at tabling parliamentary questions but if he waits until we get him the answer, it will save him having to table the question.
It keeps minds in the Department off other schemes.
Not at all. My officials work very hard, as I am sure the Deputy will agree.
With regard to the NAPS, Deputy Sean Ryan is right. It is a 2007 achievement, no more than the PPF or partnership agreements which have a beginning and an end date. There is no technical instruction - if I can use that word - which states that if we want to achieve a figure of €100, it has to be €20 every year. We can front-load - previous Governments in which I worked always had the flexibility to move figures up and down every year. This is something that will happen when we look at achieving the target date of 2007. We have a budget envelope and certain targets to reach which are taken into consideration first. We then look at additionality in terms of what is contained in the budget envelope. We are working towards achieving the recommendations, some more slowly than others. While others are on target, we will move towards achievement of the 2007 target date.
There is an issue with regard to widows and widowers under the age of 66 years. Many concerns were brought to my attention by members of my parliamentary party. I am sure there are also concerns on the other side of the House. Widows and widowers constitute a group of vulnerable people whom I wish to support and I will be examining how better to do so. I appreciate many such people would have been used to having two incomes in the household, yet they now find themselves facing equally difficult commitments without the additional income, not to mention the huge personal loss they have suffered. My officials would risk having heart attacks if I were to target just one group, because there is always a knock-on effect, but there is a case to be made for widows under 66. We have addressed the issue of widows over 66 and I would like to complete that process next year when I will be able to examine the case of widows under 66 who constitute an important group that must be looked after.
Every two years, by statute, we must review the achievements of the NAPS strategy. I have taken into account what Deputy Crawford said about health issues, all of which come up regularly during the social inclusion discussions. We wish to drive the agenda as much as possible concerning vulnerable people's access to health, welfare, housing and education services. I hope the achievements will be accomplished by 2007 and those are the parameters within which I am currently working. Next year there will be a further opportunity to examine how we will work towards achieving the target figures for 2007.
It is a pity the Minister cannot give a commitment for Report Stage in even one of these areas. I am taking into account what she said about an evaluation taking place and we look forward to the outcome. Hopefully the committee will have an opportunity to evaluate it. When does the Minister think the report will be ready?
It should be ready at the beginning of May. When the public consultation is over we will have an opportunity to prepare it for submission to the Council of Ministers and the European Commission in July.
Perhaps we could look at child benefit next year.
We will have a discussion about that and I will meet the Deputy's relations.
It would be something.
Yes, I appreciate that looking after children is not easy and it is harder with twins. There has been an increase to 150% of the child benefit allowance, which is double the one and a half times rate, so there is a recognition of the increased cost of bringing up twins, but I will re-examine the matter this year.
There is an anomaly in that child benefit is paid at the 200% rate for triplets or quadruplets.
A woman who has three wee ones should get a medal.
They are many of them out there who need support and help.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the issue of having regard to the reference in NAPS to increasing the lowest social welfare payment to €150 per week in 2002 terms, whether the expression 'in 2002 terms' means indexation of the target to wages or prices.".
Will the Minister outline how the Department calculated the NAPS target on lower social welfare rates, which have to be met by 2007? Is the Minister talking about indexation in the context of wages or prices?
Is the Deputy referring to the calculation of the €150 figure?
Yes. How was that calculated?
The Department will not determine it; it will be a Government decision. When it came before the Commission on Social Welfare it looked at inflationary measures such as the existing indexes which were used as a basis to determine what exactly the real value of €150 would be in 2002 - in other words, the purchasing value of €150 in 2002 terms. That was the calculation but it has not been decided yet.
Will it be estimated on average gross industrial earnings?
No, it will be based on purchasing power relative to the consumer price index.
I still think the calculation should be assessed on some element of industrial earnings in the period 2003-07. Even though the Minister may not have made the final decision on that matter, the Labour Party would recommend it as a meaningful way of dealing with poverty.
In case people think it does not happen, we have had real increases well above the rate of inflation. If one looks at the figures one can see quite clearly that has occurred. The Deputy would determine social welfare payments based on a percentage of the gross industrial wage.
There are other ways in which we calculate how to achieve percentages, and they are based in the main on purchasing power.
From your officials' point of view it will be whatever is the cheapest for the Department.
No. I would not agree with that at all. If the Deputy was at some of our meetings he would see that agreement is not easily reached on a number of those issues. My Department has a very democratic way of looking at how things are done. We listen to all staff members who are dealing with social welfare schemes and related issues. Many of them put forward proposals that are well above what people might anticipate. It is a question of methodology: the Deputy has one way of approaching the issue and we have another. We examine purchasing power while the Deputy would consider a percentage of the average gross industrial wage. I am sure the same issue was discussed at the partnership talks, although I was not there. However, the Deputy's suggested method of calculation has not been forcefully proposed. When we started on the short-term rates of payments - I am talking about the CPI versus average industrial earnings - we started in 1993 at 100. The CPI to date is at 136. Gross average industrial earnings is 151 but what we have achieved is 176. We are actually above the rate.
We were coming from a very low base.
Yes. It is a methodology as well as a comparison used. There is not a huge differential between the CPI and gross average industrial earnings - 136 to 151. We are at 176. Families are at 197. The other figures relate to a single person.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on expenditure on social protection in the State relative to that of other EU member states and particularising the precise statistical impact of the lower number of elderly and unemployed people in the State on the State's relative position as the member state with the lowest such expenditure.".
The purpose of this amendment is to try to link our commitments to social protection vis-à-vis our colleagues in Europe. We are looking for a report on expenditure on social protection in the State relative to that in other EU member states providing the precise statistical impact of the lower number of elderly and unemployed people in the State on the State’s relative position as the member state with the lowest such expenditure.
On 13 February last a news release from EUROSTAT stated that in the EU, the share of social protection expenditure in GDP fell from 27.5% in 1999 to 27.3% in 2000. It has been falling steadily since 1996 when it was 28.4%. The relative importance of social protection varies considerably from one member state to another. In 2000, one of the most prosperous years for our economy, the lowest share of GDP attributable to social protection was in Ireland at 14.1%. Spain was next at 21%. The highest figures came from Sweden, France and Germany.
We are living in one of the riches countries in the world, yet our Government spends the least amount in Europe on social protection. These figures relate to Ireland at the height of the boom. Since then the Government has placed even tighter restrictions on social spending and, like other Deputies, I see evidence of this on a daily basis in my clinics. Working people are being made to pay for the mistakes of the Government. We can try to quantify the percentage of supports to deal with poverty and people on welfare and we can use statistics to say how great we are, but compared to some of our colleagues in Europe, we are at the lower end of the market. It is an appalling situation.
Deputy Penrose took the Chair.
I disagree with the points made by Deputy Ryan. It is not as simple as making comparisons. There are many factors in other countries which do not apply here. I come back to the point about what we have achieved over the past five or six years. Listening to Deputy Ryan, one wonders how people lived a few years ago when his party was running the show because there have been major increases - I am not saying I am satisfied with them - over the last five or six years in all these areas. We must acknowledge that. It is not fair to try to compare one state with another. There are many factors in each of those states which do not apply to this one.
As Deputy Ryan rightly said, the EUROSTAT report on social protection expenditure in EU member states, the primary source of statistical information on the subject, covers income support schemes administered by the Department, health care, support with housing and other social and family services.
Deputy Dan Wallace alluded to the fact that it is important to note that although there is a reasonably close relationship between social protection expenditure protection and GDP per head, different expenditure levels among member states does not necessarily reflect accurately the differences in the spending priorities assigned to the well-being of citizens. We must recognise that these differences also reflect variations in living standards, in national social protection systems and in the demographic, economic, social and institutional structures of each country. Moreover, gross expenditure measures can often distort the real picture in the country. For example, they do not take account of social charges or taxes which may be levied on benefits. We do not tax child benefit, but other countries do. It does not include the likes of transfers made by means of tax concessions and allowances as opposed to direct cash payments. There is, therefore, a danger in ranking member states according to their level of social protection expenditure and inferring from that data alone the relevant impact on citizens and the economy.
Over seven years from 1990-96, EU protection expenditure as a percentage of GDP rose on average by 2.9% from 25.5% to 28.4% as a result of the slower rate of economic growth and rising unemployment during that period. Four years on, the percentage declined slightly to 27.3% in 2000 due to the renewed economic growth and the actual decline in social protection expenditure in some countries, some of which would be attributed to the decline in unemployment.
In comparison in Ireland in the same period, expenditure on social protection as a percentage of GDP fell slightly from 18.4% to 17.8%. By 2000, this figure had fallen further to 14.1% reflecting unprecedented levels of economic growth and job creation. Annual rates of growth ranged from 8% to 11% in the period 1994 to 2000 and, as members know, the level of unemployment declined from 14.3% to less than 4% over the same period.
Taking those comparisons, the main difference is the fact that Ireland is a young nation in the EU and that is why we have low expenditure on old age and survivors' pensions as a percentage of the total social protection expenditure at 25.4% in 2000 compared to an average of 46.4% in the EU. It is because of the necessities of other countries that one sees the percentage being spent on social protection as part of GDP. That explains the comparative nature between the EU and ourselves. It also means that more of this expenditure is available for other categories than is the case in other EU countries. For example, the most recent figures show that Ireland spent 13% of its social protection expenditure in 2000 on child and family benefits, the third highest in the European Union, and 41.2% on sickness and health care benefits, the highest in the European Union. It is a question of addressing the concerns that arise from a country's demographic profile. A number of other EU countries have to provide more funding for social protection for the elderly, an issue we will have to address in the near future. In the meantime Ireland reflects well in terms of the funding made available for child and family and sickness and health care benefits.
It is to be expected that the Minister will support her argument with statistics and point out that the numbers of elderly and the unemployed in Ireland are lower than in other EU countries. Will she outline in precise terms the impact of these factors? Sweden, France and Germany are the countries with the highest levels of expenditure. They have made specific commitments in terms of higher taxation to ensure extra spending on social welfare and poverty. While we can disagree on what the statistics tell us, we are not making the desired progress in this area consistent with our status as a relatively rich country - much richer than many of those at the top of the league in terms of spending. We should be doing something more positive to address these problems.
The Minister and the Department like to use statistics when they suit their argument. The figures show that the Government is spending less on social protection than any other EU country. There is no shortage of spin doctors in the Department and while they can spin the argument any way they like, the Minister has let the public down. This is apparent in the treatment of the various schemes managed by the Department, including the social employment and back-to-work schemes.
The Government is polluted by the Progressive Democrats who want everybody to work, become millionaires and buy taxi plates to use bus lanes. However, the figures indicate that the Government has not protected the most vulnerable in society. Over the past five years a single taxpayer became better off by €100 per week. Those on social welfare did not get this.
I thank you, Chairman, for allowing me to attend this committee and participate in the debate. Deputy Ryan's amendment is worthwhile. Like her predecessor, the Minister is good at using figures to suit her argument. We need to make fair comparisons between this and other EU countries in terms of social welfare expenditure. That would allow us to draw conclusions. However, the Minister does not want to proceed on that basis because of her concerns that they would not be interpreted correctly.
Sweden spends more on social protection than any other EU country, even though it does not have a very elderly population. The United Kingdom also spends heavily, including on old age pensions. Every woman over the age of 60 years and every man over the age 65 years in Britain qualifies for a pension irrespective of his or her income. Many in this country cannot qualify for a pension for various reasons. If countries like Britain spend much more on their elderly, that must be taken into account.
The Minister rightly pointed out that the country's demographic trends differ markedly from those in all other EU countries. This means we can afford to be generous. Some years ago a former Oireachtas committee on the family commissioned a report on the elderly by the ESRI. It concluded that over the next 25 years the welfare system in this country could afford to be generous because although the elderly population was increasing, the young population was declining with the result that the overall dependency ratio would remain constant. More crucially, the working cohort will continue to enlarge which will allow for greater expenditure on pension provision. This is borne out by the social welfare fund. Last year it had a surplus of €1.2 billion. Despite the fact that it is made up of money paid by workers in the form of social insurance, the Minister allowed the Government to claw back €635 million. It is not fair to argue that the money is not available. It is but the Minister is not prepared to spend it. Nor is she prepared to set priorities and targets.
I do not greatly admire the Swedish model under which people must pay 64% of their income in tax.
At what level? The Minister throws out a figure but does not put it in context. It is a different story if the rate is not to be paid until earnings exceed €100,000.
Sweden operates under a totally different ethos and modus operandi of government. For example, the EUROSTAT figures take no account of the issue of tax reliefs for pensions. Anybody from the west and north-west knows that the pension in Britain is worth less than the Irish one. Generally, British pensioners living here are eligible for a top-up payment under means testing provisions.
In Britain they are entitled to subsidised accommodation.
Nor do they have the other supports relating to energy, telephone and travel.
Was that not the Deputy's job when he was a council member? We have adopted the good aspects of the British system. However, the financial worth of British old age pensions is much less in comparison with ours.
On the other issue the Deputy raised, it would be very easy for me to put my hand in the social insurance fund. It would be no problem and I would be a hero. After that, I would have to explain myself to my Government colleagues and then the Committee of Public Accounts. It is my job, as Minister, to ensure the fund is protected. The actuarial review, to which I referred and a copy of which I am sure I sent to Members, although I think another copy is needed for them, indicated serious choices to be made. The Deputy will see——
What is the timescale?
By 2011, by which stage there will not be a farthing left to pay the Deputy's pension, a matter about which we will have to do something.
That is a very pessimistic outlook.
There is good and bad news and there are facts. A number of proposals have been made arising from the review which we must examine and address if we are to reach the targets set for us. It is very easy to say we have a pot of gold but in a number of years people will rely on the fund. That is the reason we decided to assure pensions and introduced the new pension fund which addresses the issues of concern.
How many hundreds of millions were lost by investing in equities?
It is important that the fund is protected. There is no way I would find myself dipping into it for short-term gain when I appreciate the long-term difficulties. The Deputy may have to deal with them if he is Minister at that stage.
It did not work out the last time.
Other choices may have to be made. I am certainly not going to dip into the fund. In comparative terms, it is an issue of different demographic bulges in each country and the different ways people deal with these matters. We have analysed the issue of pensions which will be a topic for discussion at the European Council where it will be seen people take different approaches. I am still firmly of the opinion that our model is best. The statistics indicate the different demographics in this country.
What is expected to be the surplus in the social insurance fund for this year? Was 1998 the first year it went into surplus? That was the year after we left government. We put it right for the Government which followed.
It was €1.2 billion at the end of 2002.
It was €1.273 billion.
What is the projection for this year?
I do not appear to have it.
It is a little more.
No, it is not. It depends on the number who draw from the fund.
That includes the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. He drew heavily on it. He had a large bucket.
We are not going to get into that. I do not have the figure.
The Minister will come back to us with it.
The latest figure I have is €1.273 billion. The figure for this year will be available in the revised Estimates which Deputies will receive in the next two to three weeks from which they will be able to work it out.
Amendments Nos. 6, 10 and 11 are related and can be discussed together. Discussion can revolve around all three but only amendment No. 6 can be moved at this stage. The other two will be moved at a later stage but discussion on them can take place now. Members may discuss them individually or collectively. Amendment No. 6 relates to means testing for carer's allowance, the other two to the respite care grant and an extension of carer's allowance. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 6, 10 and 11 should be discussed together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of abolishing the means test for carer's allowance and introducing a top-up carer's payment for those in receipt of another social welfare payment.".
In moving this amendment I hope the Minister will take on board the thrust of the three amendments. Reference was made in a paper submitted to the tax strategy group by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to a wide range of recommendations under which commitments had been entered into. Reference was also made to other structural issues and reforms. Among the commitments entered into under APGs was a commitment to expand income limits for carer's allowance in order that all those on the average industrial income would qualify. This would not go as far as we in the Labour Party would want. We want to see the abolition of the means test. However, that was a commitment entered into by the Department under APGs. Another was the implementation of significant increases in the value of the respite grant for carers.
We have already heard from the Minister that she had choices to make. Choices are the relevant fact and consideration. One of the reasons money is scarce and will become more scarce in future is the recklessness shown by the Government and the Minister for Finance, in particular, in introducing special savings incentive accounts. The Minister ignored his officials' advice and went out on his own. He told the House that it would cost €127 million per year but on the basis of replies given last week the annual cost will now be €535 million or €2.6 billion over five years. It does not end there. Between now and the end of the scheme people can invest more money which could result in a €4 billion expenditure by the end. We talk about making choices. No choice is made by the 140,000 carers who look after their loved ones for 24 hours a day and who save the State more than €2 billion per year. The Government's response is to make minimal increases this year. Approximately 20,000 carers who receive a modest allowance will now receive €129.60 per week, even though each carer saves the State at least €400 per week on alternative residential care.
Notwithstanding what the Minister says, there has been no acknowledgement of the role played by carers in our society. They want their role to be acknowledged in a meaningful way and this is not happening. Accurate statistics are not available on the number of carers who work 24 hours a day and who are seeking minimal respite for themselves and their loved ones. Even of those counted in official statistics, only 20% are receiving assistance.
We had a long debate on this subject on a previous occasion and I do not intend to continue in this mode. The Oireachtas must show its commitment to carers who are providing care for their loved ones throughout the country. We can do that in the ways outlined in these three amendments. We can make a real impact by giving a specific commitment to do something about this matter. The Minister's predecessors put their heads in the sand. I have known the Minister for a number of years and I hope she will consider the concerns of Deputies on all sides of the House that something be done to help carers. Let Deputy Coughlan be the Minister who, in conjunction with this committee, did something about this. She should make a name for herself and put her commitment on record.
It is hard to follow that.
I am surprised to hear that.
I agree with Deputy Ryan. The former Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, ran out of the Department because he knew the good news was coming to an end and he could do no more. I believe he begged to get out of the Department and I can understand why.
He was Minister for five years.
I am sorry the current Minister is faced with such difficult decisions. However, Deputy Ryan is right. The Minister could make her name on this issue. She could say she is going to be the most compassionate Minister ever in her Department and the one who will deal with carers, once and for all.
Of the 120,000 carers, 20,000 get some kind of payment from the State. There are three anomalies which must be looked at. First, people who do not qualify under the means test must get some recognition for the work they do. Second, people who are already getting a State pension must also receive some payment for their work as carers. Third, a number of people have come to me who had been looking after loves ones until their death but are not paid the respite grant because they had not been caring for a complete year. This is a mean provision and should be changed.
We do not have sufficient beds in hospitals, public nursing homes or even in the private sector. Thousands of people are doing a wonderful job for the State. The Ombudsman has made it clear that every person who has a medical card is entitled to a State bed, yet people who are prepared to look after their loves ones at home get no assistance from the State. If the Minister, with this committee, does nothing else apart from dealing with this anomaly she will be a heroine. Of course, the real heroes are the people who do this work. With every other elected representative, I know these people. I can recognise a carer as soon as he or she comes into my clinic. I can see the stress in the face of someone who looks after a loved one 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks of the year, gets very little help or respite from the State and no financial recognition. It is not that such a person has a lot of time to spend extra money but some recognition should be given. Members on all sides of the House have talked about this matter but the time has come to do something about it.
I assure the Minister of full support from her side of the House and from the Opposition. The Opposition will be the first to congratulate her if she takes action on this issue. A number of anomalies exist which should be dealt with. These people should be looked after. I know the Government spent a fortune on advertising the changes in the budget.
The changes were needed.
How can the Minister say an increase of €7 for carers under 66 and €10 for carers over 66 is a recognition of the work they do? The time has come to recognise those people who receive no recognition at all. I know it will not be long before we get rid of this right-wing Government because the people are telling me so. When that happens Fine Gael and the Labour Party will deal with this problem if the Minister has not already done so.
Deputy Ring will be in Europe by then.
Deputy Carty has great confidence in me.
The Minister has already made her name. She is seen as a caring Minister, particularly on the issue of the carer's allowance. My family was in this situation a few years ago and we knew there was no point in applying for the carer's allowance because the discard was so low. Many of the people who now come to my clinic qualify for carer's allowance because the discard had been increased to €420. If the discard is further increased in the next four budgets, 90% of carers will qualify.
I am not convinced that the means test should be abolished completely. Should the State pay very wealthy people, of whom there are some in this country, for looking after their elderly people?
They can put them into private homes.
I am a firm believer in home-based subventions, which would give a person the choice of staying at home or going into a nursing home. It would also introduce competition into the nursing home business. When the nursing home subvention is increased nursing home prices are increased accordingly. I am convinced that many elderly people would pay for private care in their own homes if they received a subvention.
I am satisfied with what is happening at the moment. I urge the Minister to continue what she is doing in the next four budgets. Anyone who is looking after an old person at home is entitled to recognition.
Deputy Callanan said it would be great if 20% of carers received payments. I do not agree with that.
Deputy Ryan said the Government should not have introduced the SSIA scheme. It did so to help it get elected on the last occasion and in the hope it will get re-elected when the money is being paid out in five years.
If people have not lost their money.
Did the Deputy open an account?
I did not given what happened with the Eircom shares.
The Deputy is a bad judge.
Did Deputy Crawford get caught on that deal?
We are dealing with carers and respite matters, please do not deviate from the subject matter.
We need to look again at this situation. I was a member of the previous committee on social and family affairs, as were others. We started from a low base but we have moved up. Different Governments and Ministers have been involved in changing things. A great deal of anomalies remain. A widow or widower in receipt of the carer's allowance is unable to obtain that allowance on the death of his or her spouse because he or she is in receipt of a contributory pension. If such people had not cared for their loved ones be it a spouse, parent or otherwise, they would have been able to take up a job while in receipt of their contributory pension. Having stayed home to take care of their relatives, they are not entitled to any other payments.
A single person taking care of two people is entitled to one and a half times the carer's allowance. I suggest, as a first step, that people in receipt of a contributory widow's or widower's pension should at least be considered eligible for half the carer's allowance if they can prove they stayed at home to take care of their relatives. Doing so costs them dearly because they are unable to earn money elsewhere.
A new situation has arisen whereby people in need can no longer depend on home help and carers. This time last year one had to wait for someone to die to become eligible for a carer or home help. Working hours for carers and home help assistants have been halved by the Eastern Health Board. This is putting tremendous pressure on families. The carer's allowance will have to be looked at as a package to ensure elderly and disabled people are not victims of the cutback structure.
The last speaker also spoke about home subvention. That would be great but subvention is no longer payable. People are coming to our clinics with letters telling them their form has been received and the matter will be dealt with in the normal way and if considered eligible for subvention they will be put on a waiting list. People at risk of a stroke or with cancer are being told they have to go on a waiting list. This is intolerable.
Many people are taking up valuable hospital beds because the home help, carers and home subvention system is not working. I urge the Minister to look again at this area. She said earlier that Ireland has had less elderly up to now than other countries. The situation is changing and we need to take a more comprehensive and sympathetic look at this issue.
We agreed to take a break from4.15 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. to allow members to attend the Order of Business.
Before we suspended, Deputy Finneran indicated he wished to speak, but he now has another engagement. I ask the Minister to reply to some of the points made earlier.
We had a fruitful discussion on carers during the passage of the last Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The committee decided it would investigate the issue of carers. I enjoyed the bit of charm from the boys on the opposite side in saying I would be the greatest thing since sliced bread if I did certain things. I know they mean that.
Everyone would agree that the role of carers is very important and has heretofore not been recognised. Some people regard the carer's allowance as a payment towards caring for people. I do not know how anybody could pay for someone to care. It is a key part of a person's life and takes individual dedication when someone close is ill and has to be cared for.
In the programme for Government we outlined our intention to increase the numbers of people in receipt of carer's allowance. In recent years we have introduced carer's leave, carer's benefit and a number of other benefits including the respite care grant. We committed to increasing the respite care grant and we have done that, which has been very helpful to many people. I agree it is important to continue with the respite care grant because of its benefit to the carers and the variety it can offer to the person being cared for.
At present 21,000 carers are in receipt of carer's allowance. That represents a huge increase because of the increase in the disregards. One of difficulties we have is that we do not know how many people are caring as they are not registered anywhere. It is estimated there are 52,000 carers providing full time care, of whom 31,000 are not getting the carer's allowance. I have increased the disregards this year to include more people in the carer's allowance scheme and, for some people, that has increased their actual allowance. We have certainly gone a long way. There are other issues with regard to caring which are outside the remit of my Department. I agree that in the long-term the financing of care will be a challenge to all of us. I will shortly publish a report on the financing of long-term care, taking into consideration the health strategy which was published in 2001 and how we might reform the current situation. We have to consider the options, including carer's allowance as such or an amalgam of carer's allowance and the home subvention scheme which, in my view, has been very successful. We also have to consider additional beds for people in nursing care. In Dublin, from the information available to me, residential care is difficult to come by at present.
There are a number of Departments involved in the issue and my Department will be to the fore in relation to the issue of people's allowances, PRSI, the carer's benefit and carer's leave. In the coming years, the targets set in An Agreed Programme for Government will be reached in terms of including more people involved in caring in the carer's allowance scheme. I will look again at the issue in relation to respite care grant which I agree would make a difference to many people. I acknowledge that the proposal which has been put forward is very positive and, indeed, it has also been put forward by my parliamentary party. While I cannot give a commitment now, I will look at in the context of the budget and the choices which have to be made. I agree that this allowance has given considerable support and transformed the situation of many people. The combination of carer's allowance and household benefit package has helped people who find themselves in economic difficulties as a result of not being in a position to go out to work. There is also a facility for people to take some therapeutic time out from work while still retaining the carer's allowance. Those issues will be ongoing. I appreciate the sincerity of the contributions to this debate, which I will take into account in looking at the priorities for dealing with carers.
We will have to break shortly for a vote in the Dáil.
I wish to conclude on the carers' issue, which we have covered fairly well. In relation to the case I described, involving a woman looking after a very severely handicapped relative, what reassurance can the Minister give me to convey to that person? She already has a widow's pension. Apart from the actual payment, it is a matter of recognition of work done. Could the situation of such people be considered on the basis of a payment and a half?
The estimated cost of paying carer's allowance with another social welfare payment is around €50 million annually for this group alone. The full overall cost would be very significant. I appreciate the Deputy's point. I am aware of the ethos in the west of Ireland where a widow may be caring for a mother-in-law or father-in-law. Perhaps I can look at it in terms of recognition of respite care grant to allow people a break.
That would be of some help.
I was approached about a case involving a widow whose husband died four years ago. She has looked after a relative for 30 years and cannot get the respite care grant because she has a widow's pension. An allowance for even a limited period would allow her some respite. I urge the Minister and her officials to consider that situation.
We will examine it.
We will suspend now and resume immediately after the vote in the Dáil.
The Minister had just finished speaking about the fact that certain people who receive a social welfare payment are denied a respite care grant. Has Deputy Ryan concluded his remarks on amendments Nos. 6, 10 and 11?
I hope the Minister can examine the respite care services in the context of the second benefit. I have no alternative but to pursue this amendment given that totally inadequate commitments have been made in relation to respite care.
Amendment No. 6 relates to the abolition of the means test for carer's allowance and amendment No. 10 deals with respite care payments.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of funding and extending school meals programmes to the extent sought by the Combat Poverty Agency.".
The school meals programme deserves a great deal of attention, as it is an important element of the development of the country's children. The Department has not placed enough emphasis on it. This amendment calls on the Minister, after this Bill has been passed, to "prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of funding and extending school meals programmes to the extent sought by the Combat Poverty Agency". The CPA has sought major investment in the meals scheme as a multifaceted intervention to support low-income families. As somebody who is aware of the difficulties associated with truancy and getting children from disadvantaged areas to go to school, I feel that the Minister's response - providing further investment of €2 million this year - is totally inadequate.
The Combat Poverty Agency has made a reasonable request for €15 million to enhance the content of school meals and to increase the take-up of the school meals scheme. What does the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, believe to be the core cause of the limited take-up of the scheme? Perhaps her answer will be informed by the comments of her officials. A quality meals service is necessary to provide a better quality of food to children based on recommended nutrition requirements. Breakfast and a hot lunch should be part of the scheme and the variety and presentation of food should be improved. The opportunity to eat a hot meal should be an incentive for young children to go to school. This area, which the Government has failed to address in a meaningful way, should be re-examined. I am appalled that the Government's response to the CPA's recommendations has been to provide a mere €2 million, a figure which will not go far in developing and extending the scheme.
I have dealt with many schools in my time. Does the school meals scheme relate to cities or is it a national project? I do not know of any school in the west that is involved in the scheme. How much money is spent on the scheme each year? How many schools take part in it? Is every school in the State entitled to take part in it? The Department has publicised the scheme in the last week or two, but people are still telling me it is not provided in schools. How can one qualify for the scheme? Who is involved in it? Why is every school in the State not part of it? Is it restricted to certain schools?
The wind has been taken out of my sails. Members who watch "Six-one" this evening will see that the report was launched today and I assume it will be laid before the Oireachtas in the normal manner. The scheme, which had not been reviewed for 90 years until this extensive report was published, was introduced in the same year as the Dublin lock-out as a short-term measure. There are two types of schemes, one which is 50% funded by my Department and 50% by the local authority and one which involves "breakfast clubs". The latter schemes are mainly found in the cities, are organised by community groups and are funded by the Government. The possibility of amalgamating the two schemes is under examination.
Deputies Seán Ryan and Ring alluded to the fact that the school meals scheme is available in urban areas only and not in county council areas. There was a scheme in Gaeltacht areas between 1930 and 1991, but it was discontinued. We have decided to roll out the programme over a number of years. I have emphatically stated that I cannot change all aspects of the meals system immediately. I provided an additional €2.4 million to assist the roll-out of the improved programme at the beginning of September. The Department of Education will advise me of the schools in greatest need at the moment. Some 400 schools and 60,000 children are participating in the scheme, but we are trying to reach a cohort of about 263,000 children.
The nutritional aspects of the meals, which I have been advised are inadequate, are also being examined. It is intended to contract out some of the meals, as certain schools do not have kitchens, so that a cold meal that is more valuable in terms of nutrition can be provided. It is difficult to provide kitchens in schools, as various environmental and health regulations have to be met.
They are generally full of pupils at the moment.
Many food provision facilities are in place elsewhere and other organisations are capable of providing school meals for children if they acquire a contract to do so. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is keen to ensure there is more variety in children's diets, as the advice it has received indicates that children need nutrition to learn. We are targeting the programme and looking at a new way of delivering it. Many schools in rural areas are unaware that the free milk scheme still exists and have not bothered to apply to the Department of Agriculture and Food. It is important that there is co-operation between teachers and the relevant Departments. The review of the school meals scheme has shown that it receives great support, despite its many faults. I hope that the revised programme will be accepted with enthusiasm. We would like the programme to be rolled out in the next few years. There have been three very successful pilot projects, one in Dublin 17, one in Louth and the other in Cork, all of which have worked very well with the children involved attaining better qualifications. The programme will be rolled out to second level as well as primary schools. Therefore the Deputy has achieved his objective in spite of himself.
Someone suggested to me that the low take-up of the scheme among schools could be rectified by linking the entitlement to school meals to, for example, eligibility for clothing and footwear schemes. While there may be no problem identifying students in the context of the clothing and footwear allowance, if one starts to identify particular students, say 6%, 10% or 20% of a class, who will receive free meals——
We will not do that.
Will everyone in the school receive free meals?
Yes, the school, not its pupils will be designated as disadvantaged and every pupil will get free meals. The experience in Britain has been that categorising young children does not work. Therefore, schools will be designated as disadvantaged by the Department, primarily by taking into consideration rates of early school leaving. While we do not have leagues, there are many parameters within which disadvantaged status is defined. These will be used to designate a school and once this is done every pupil will be entitled to free meals. I agree that differentiation would be the wrong approach as it makes children feel different.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of rectifying the position whereby improvements in social provision are being clawed back through higher rents.".
This is an ongoing problem. Inflation and its impact was referred to in the earlier contributions on the allocation of benefits under the social welfare code this year. I am not certain whether this matter is a responsibility of the Minister. Her Department and the Department of the Environment and Local Government need to link up to try to arrive at a position whereby the basic increases in social welfare payments are not eroded by increases in rents for local authority housing.
In my local authority we endeavoured to rectify this problem and I am pleased that most of the rent increases this year have been in the region of 30 or 40 cent per week. It took a great deal of battling to bring this about and it is not the case in other areas. It has been brought to my attention that increases in rents for local authority tenants in some areas were a multiple of the increase in the rates of social welfare payments. Something has to be done about this.
We will not make inroads into eradicating poverty when one arm of the State is meeting the basic requirement to match social welfare increases to inflation, while at the same time rent increases in local authority houses, admittedly a local responsibility, exceed inflation. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government can issue a directive to local government managers at will and he can change the relevant legislation to suit his purposes. We must take a strong line on this matter by adopting a policy position which ensures it is dealt with in a positive manner.
I support the amendment. The scheme operated by local councils is fair in one way and unfair in another. When a person receives an increase in his or her social welfare payment from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the first letter he or she receives is a message from the Minister announcing the rate of increase. Within days, however, he or she will receive a second letter, this time from the council, inquiring as to the value of the increase. It is unfair that county councils claw back increases in social welfare payments by means of rent increases.
These are difficult times. The Minister should press the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to raise this issue with county managers. The scheme needs to be reconsidered. An example of its unfairness is the fact that an elderly couple, both of whom receive pensions, must pay a fifth of their allowance for their council house.
Rent increases eat up social welfare increases. While I am aware that local authorities are being starved of funding, it is wrong for them to take from the most vulnerable in society, namely, people living in council houses. This is not the reason the scheme was established. It was introduced to try to help people on low incomes, yet now that they are receiving social welfare increases, they are having them taken away by local councils. The committee should lay a report before the committee and raise the matter with the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, who, instead of trying to get rid of the dual mandate, would be far better off addressing the business of his Department.
As Deputies will be aware from their extensive experience on county councils, the differential rent scheme is run by the local authorities, which have sole responsibility for it. That said, a circular has been issued to local authorities by the Department of the Environment and Local Government. It states:
It is particularly important that authorities should ensure that rent increases do not absorb an excessive amount of increase in income of tenants on low incomes, dependent on social welfare payments, in particular on old age pension payments. As a general guideline it is considered that no more than 15% of any increase in such pension income should be absorbed by an increase in rent.
We already have a policy on this issue.
Can I have a copy of the circular?
Yes. The Departments already consult to do exactly what the Deputies are calling for.
No. The Minister has clarified the matter somewhat. I was already aware of the circular. The problem is that not all local authorities adhere to it. Notwithstanding this document, I ask that officials of the Department send a message to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government requesting he issue a reminder to the local authorities.
Amendment No. 22 is related to amendment No. 9. Is it agreed to take them together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of extending the social welfare free schemes to widows and widowers who do not currently qualify in that regard.".
This amendment concerns provision for widows and widowers. Although we have made cases on behalf of various groups this afternoon, one group which is treated particularly badly by the Department is widows and widowers, particularly those under 65 years of age. The least we can do is try to regularise the position pertaining to widows and widowers under 65 years and those over 65 years. I ask the Minister to work towards this objective. The Minister's response to many of the issues raised is that something is being done to try and resolve the problems that have been identified. I accept that this matter cannot be resolved this year but I hope that the difficulties experienced by this group can be looked at in a fair and equitable way, which is not the case today.
I agree with that. Widowers have suffered in this State for a long time and their problems have not been addressed. It is the one issue with which we are confronted on a daily basis. In cases where one partner is older and qualifies for the free schemes, following his or her death the bereaved person has to do without them. This is wrong. I am aware that the Department is leaving such schemes in place for a five or six-week period after the qualifying partner has died but regardless of the age of the person left behind he or she should be left with the benefits he or she previously enjoyed.
Another anomaly exists in regard to the free travel allowance. In rural Ireland people do not have access to public transport. I am aware that the Department previously produced a report examining the possibility of a voucher scheme that would allow pensioners to get a taxi in order to get their pensions. It would not be too much to ask the Department to give them an allowance for taxis in the absence of public transport. People are using taxis more than ever. Free travel is of no benefit to the elderly in rural areas because it is not available. It is different if they are travelling to Dublin or another urban centre. The Department has spent a great deal of money on its computer system and there are many bright people in it so it should not be too difficult to facilitate such people with some form of voucher scheme.
Other anomalies exist. Are we now concentrating just on those in regard to travel?
No, the Deputy can continue.
There is a further anomaly is the case of lone parents who are affected by the recent increase——
Sorry, I thought the Deputy was still dealing with the same area.
That is fine. I will leave it until later.
There will be an opportunity later for Deputy Ring to discuss that subject. Before the Minister replies, I wish to make a point.
Coming from a remote rural area, I too have an interest in the free travel pass scheme. It is a great initiative and everybody over 65 years qualifies for it. The Minister will be more aware of the situation than anybody else.
It is very traumatic to lose a spouse in one's 30s or 40s and such people can feel left out of the system. If they have a car it is not too bad but if they are living in an isolated rural area such schemes can be a tremendous boost especially if there are dependent children. We need to reach out to them at such a vulnerable time. Perhaps initially a scheme could be implemented on a pilot basis. Will the Minister get her officials to calculate the cost of extending the schemes over a period of six months or one or two years? She referred to a sum of €50 million for one proposed scheme which is a significant figure and it made me sit up.
Deputy Ring is correct in regard to the dubious benefit of the free travel pass in rural areas. This is not a party issue and I said it when my own party was in Government. Some people put it on the mantelpiece where it gathers dust or throw it into a drawer. In rural areas it amounts to damn all as there is no public transport. At one time Bus Éireann used to cover more places than it currently does.
There are pilot schemes in rural areas such as the integrated one covering Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan which is to be extended to other areas. It would be helpful if the Minister could complement such initiatives. I am not a proponent of private transport. As a member of the Labour Party, public transport is my number one priority but if some form of voucher system could be put into operation we probably will have to deal with some private bus operators and taxi companies. I appreciate that it would have a limited value. We cannot have an open season in regard to this but it would allow people with free travel passes to get some value from it. If one happens to be near a good public transport system one automatically has an advantage over someone in an isolated rural area. I accept that the Minister is trying to tackle remoteness and accessibility with the free travel pass but it does not achieve its objective. I am making this point in a non-partisan way.
A project set up by Meitheal Mhaigheo, involving three or four parishes in the Claremorris area, might be worth examining.
The rural transport issue is one we have previously discussed. There is a new rural transport initiative for which I made €6 million available through ADM. We also provide for the use of the travel pass on private buses that are registered with the Department. In my part of the country McGeehan coaches provides this service and I am sure it is the same in Mayo, Cavan and all over the country. In spite of the Chairman's philosophical difficulties, he will accept the tremendous service such companies are providing. We have looked at that issue and agree that coverage may be difficult for some people. While there may be mainline bus and train facilities in the nearby town people cannot get into town to access them and that is why we launched the pilot schemes. I launched two schemes in Donegal which have worked very well. They allow people to travel to Letterkenny to go to the hospital or go shopping or whatever else they wish to do. It augurs well for an expansion of this scheme. Deputy Sean Ryan has an advantage in being in Dublin, he can get a bus outside the door unlike the rest of us.
Not in the rural part of my constituency. They would not know what a bus is.
We are addressing this issue and in regard to the matter of a voucher system I would prefer to see how we get on with the current system. I do not want to bring taxis into the equation. There will be difficulties in regard to whether they are taxis or hackneys, if they are registered or have C2s or even what their tax situation would be. By the time we have trawled through all of those issues we would have the cost of the scheme spent on administration, so I would prefer to look at how the current scheme is operating. I assume that Meitheal Mhaigheo is part of it and will be allocated money.
It is a very good way for older people, in particular, to get out and about. A good number of people seem to get great usage out of their free travel pass. I meet many constituents who are in Dublin for the day just to see what is going on. Fair play to them, they are entitled to it and should use it.
The other issue that was raised was in regard to widows and widowers. In response to Deputy Ring, that scheme has been changed and will become operative in a couple of weeks.
Is it for over 60s?
Yes, it is for people over 60 years of age. That is a change because before that it was lost and they could not keep the household package.
I know that. There would not be a huge number of people to consider in this regard. If somebody is married to a person who is entitled to free schemes and he or she dies then the bereaved person loses out if he or she is only 55 or 56. There would not be many such people and once they have it they should be left with it. In cases where the remaining partner remarries it is automatically lost anyway. This matter should be examined.
If they automatically tell the Department.
They do in Mayo, whatever about Donegal.
It may not necessarily be so. We do not want a disincentive for remarriage.
While I could quote a colleague of the Minister's it would not be politically correct to do so.
The cost of this is €32.7 million for widows or widowers under 60.
This answers Deputy Ring's question in an indirect way. The cost of extending this would be €32.7 million.
That is not an awful lot of money when one considers the money the Minister is spending on consultancy in her Department.
If we are down to this——
Deputy Ring, I will not allow you to go into that.
That was a provocative comment. Deputy Ring is personally invited, as are all members, to come to my Department and see where the money is spent. They will see the tremendous IT developments we have made. It is only when one is on this side of the table that one appreciates the work that goes in to making sure payments are made on time.
While I know the staff work very hard, I also know they get paid for the job they do. I have not yet met a civil servant that does not get paid. This is what I always tell the county manager. They are not doing their jobs for nothing.
The Minister for Transport is talking about making major changes to the transport structure. He plans to rationalise it and is putting pressure on CIE and other companies. I hope the Department of Social and Family Affairs will be part of the overall review. I do not want to see private operators coming into operation that do not work under the social welfare scheme.
My Department is part of this review.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the implications of extending respite care payment to those in receipt of another social welfare payment which does not currently attract the respite care payment.".
I move amendment No. 10a:
In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:
"3.-The Minister shall as soon as may be after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the operation of the community employment job initiative and back to work allowance and their relationship with current thresholds for lone parent payments and other payments.".
This concerns a different category of clientele. I am seeking a favourable response from the Minister in dealing with the anomalies that have developed. This deals with community employment schemes, the social economy programme and the manner in which lone parents have been affected by the failure to raise the threshold for these schemes. Some of this is not in the Minister's area of responsibility, but the Government decision to decimate the community employment schemes is having a negative effect on communities. We were told the climate has changed, but for people who find it difficult to secure jobs it has not changed and things are as bad as ever.
When pressure was put on the Government we were told the social economy programme would create jobs for people in disadvantaged areas and take over from the community employment schemes. I cannot get to the bottom of this and I can only assume these actions were taken for financial reasons. Managers of social economy schemes have been appointed and qualifying applicants for the schemes that were appointed were suddenly told the schemes were not proceeding.
Severe damage is being afflicted on the fabric of communities in Dublin and, I am sure, throughout the country. The viability of several community employments, women's organisation and arts organisations is under threat. For example, a company called Siscom has, over the past 12 years, provided computer literacy training for 8,500 people on community employment schemes etc. This company will find it difficult to survive in the new environment.
I would like the Minister to outline the manner in which lone parents are being affected by the failure to raise the threshold following the increase. This also puts them outside eligibility for housing rental allowance. I have also been informed the value of the increase to the average male participant on job initiatives has been reduced because it has put them into a different PRSI category. The requirement of being unemployed for five years or more in order to qualify for BTWA is cynically restricting this allowance to the least suitable candidates. While it is true that everyone is a candidate, the restrictions being put in place mean managers cannot hire the right calibre of candidate and this may result in the termination of the scheme.
These are some of the anomalies that have arisen. I know many Government backbenchers, especially those in the greater Dublin area, are under extreme pressure on this issue. While I do not suggest this was deliberately planned, action is required to put the beneficiaries of these schemes back on a proper footing.
I support what Deputy Ryan has said. This is an important issue on which I have been contacted by a number of communities. Lone parents are going to lose €60. I raised this in the Dáil last week on Second Stage. We are trying to encourage people to take up FÁS schemes with the hope that they will secure full-time employment. Many people are making an effort and have secured full-time employment. It is wrong that the threshold has not been increased. People are also being affected on other schemes where the threshold has not been raised for them to come into PRSI. These people are on the jobs initiative scheme and it would be wrong for them to be brought into the PRSI net simply because the threshold has not been increased this year and hey have received only a small increase. This does not reflect the spirit of the scheme or the reason it was set up. The Minister and her Department will respond because it would be wrong of them not to. I intend to table further amendments on Report Stage in this context. I hope the Minister will deal with the matter this evening, and certainly on Report Stage, because it is an anomaly which must be dealt with. It would be most unfair if the Minister did not deal with it. We intend to press this to a division.
I want to raise some concerns about this issue. This morning's edition of The Irish Times reported that I was in Tallaght yesterday.
What was the Deputy doing there?
I always spend Mondays in Tallaght and indeed every other minute I can. There was a positive meeting there yesterday organised by the Tallaght Centre for the Unemployed which was well attended and was addressed by politicians and others involved in the system. The issues we are dealing with now were raised at the meeting and I undertook to bring them to the attention of the Minister, which I have already done before this meeting. People are concerned because these have been important schemes to people in Tallaght. People who wish to continue in these schemes are losing out, presumably because FÁS did not consult anybody before making its decision. If that is the case, it is a pity. I ask the Minister to look at this in a sympathetic way. Deputy Ryan made the point that this is an issue in many urban areas and it is particularly so in Dublin South West.
This is also an issue around the country. It is not just confined to Dublin. Job initiative participants and lone parents are being hit severely by the failure to raise the threshold. They may well also be left outside governing eligibility for housing rental allowance. In any event, my colleagues have made the point that persons employed on job initiative schemes are paid a gross amount, which is below the threshold for the payment of PRSI. When the increase came into effect some months ago, bringing gross weekly pay up, the threshold figure below which PRSI was payable was not increased correspondingly. This is the issue which is creating difficulty.
The increases which were given have been wiped out or minimised to a couple of euros. The increases given by FÁS to keep in line with inflation have failed. The Minister knows the position.
I support the proposal by Deputy Ryan. This is causing enormous problems. I have had letters from several schemes, the promoters of which are annoyed. Anything that works against encouraging people to stay in work is wrong. Along with the effective scrapping of the back to work scheme and the cutback in CE schemes, this is creating a frightening and difficult situation for community groups as well as participants. I want to see real action taken on this and the anomaly done away with.
I am aware of the concerns. This was brought to my attention following an article in a newspaper, so Deputies are correct that I was not advised that this was being considered.
Once there is a threshold, there will always be difficulties. The threshold for the earnings disregard for lone parents is €293 per week. At the time, I probably would not have agreed that once the threshold is set, one can create a poverty trap. This is a prime example of what is happening. I advise members that in the interim we are looking at this matter and I will be consulting with FÁS but it is important that the headline in the newspaper is also disregarded. I have just done some basic arithmetic. A lone parent under 66 and over 35 with one dependent child receives a payment of €288.40 under the scheme and receives one parent family allowance of €79.10 per week, which is €367.50. With the €10 increase, the person will receive €298.40 from the job initiative payment and €39.55 from the one parent family payment per week. This will last for one year. We are looking at €367.50 per week and €337.95, so it is a real loss of €29.55. The newspaper said it was €60 per week.
That is substantial.
I appreciate that, but those are the facts. Once a person hits the disregard, he or she is entitled to 50% of the payment for one year. The trouble with this is that the scheme was only supposed to be for a year. It was to be a stepping stone to enable people to go into full time work. Once people got into a good job whose hours suited because they coincided with school times, it was hard for them to let go. That is one of the cultural problems we have with these schemes. I am looking at the implications of increasing the disregard. However, once the disregard is increased by another €10, only a couple of years later, one will have to increase it again by more and more.
We are not dealing with the bottom line when it comes to lone parents. It is an issue of grave concern which is of national rather than urban or rural importance. Many lone parents are vulnerable and isolated and have no contact with people, particularly with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. During Question Time we spoke about localising the processing of lone parent application forms. Someone said to an official in the Department "Thank you very much for the book you gave me 15 years ago. You gave me a life sentence, because I have not seen you since". That is a problem and is something we need to look at.
I read what has been written in the newspapers and I have listened to what members have said about the issue. I am looking at it and I will consult further with FÁS on the issue. This happens whatever one does. We are trying to make people better off, but by doing so, we are creating an anomaly. I will need some time but, in the meantime, it is important that we do not frighten people. The scheme is there and people are getting their money. They will not be taken out of the rent subsidy scheme because once they are getting lone parents allowance, they are still eligible. The headlines in the newspapers do not truly reflect what is going on. That is not to take away from the fact that losing €30 per week is a substantial amount for some people. There is a good disregard. There is no disregard for unemployment assistance and many other schemes within the Department are much harsher in terms of what people can and cannot earn. I will review this to see what, if anything, can be done.
Is the Minister saying that it will not interfere with their eligibility for housing rental allowance?
A person will be down €30. He or she will still be entitled to the one parent allowance but at a lesser rate of €39.55.
The point has been made. I was going to put it to a vote but the Minister has taken on board what we are saying. I want her to give a commitment to assess the implications and have a decision for us before Report Stage.
I would put it to a vote but it is not my amendment. As it is, I will be bringing the matter up on Report Stage and will call for a vote if it is not resolved. It is quite an anomaly and must be dealt with. It does not make sense to help people while taking from them. There are enough challenges facing them. It is affecting the marginal in society and must be dealt with. If I can, I will call a vote but if I cannot, I will wait until Report Stage.
Any member can call a vote.
Then I will.
I feel as strongly about this as anyone here but whether we put this to a vote, it will not be resolved. Thousands are affected by this but I am taking the Minister's word on the issue.
There are not thousands. Only 410 are affected.
That is the reason we should do something.
I am not arguing that point, I am merely saying thousands are not involved. There are 410 recipients of the one parent family payment participating in the job initiative programme. Of these, 395 will benefit from the transitional arrangements available.
As I said——
Not everybody will be over the threshold. People might have different means or be receiving maintenance.
I do not want to get into the details of who is over the threshold and who is not - subdividing the numbers into 410, 390 and so on.
I appreciate that.
There is a principle involved here and the matter must be resolved but I am prepared to leave it for now and put the matter to a vote on Report Stage if the Minister does not come up with a satisfactory response for all of us.
If the amendment is being withdrawn, it is a matter for Deputies Ryan and Ring to produce it on Report Stage.
I agree. I will be tabling my own amendment on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 8, before section 6, to insert the following new section:
"6.-The Minister shall, as soon as may be, after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report which contrasts the maternity and paternity leave provisions in Ireland with other EU member states.".
This country is the worst in Europe for maternity and paternity leave. I would like the Minister to bring before the House proposals to deal with this. When a woman is having a baby, she can take an extra month off but what if she or the child is sick? There should be provisions for partners to take extra time off. We have not been very good about allowing men to take time off. I would like to see a report showing how many have taken up the scheme, any possible anomalies and reasons people are not participating in it.
I had the opportunity of addressing the Equality Authority on Friday and this was one of the issues discussed in the context of Family-Friendly Workplace Day. As the Deputy knows, the entitlement to maternity leave is provided under the Maternity Protection Act 1994. Currently, there is no statutory entitlement to paternity leave. The provision of statutory leave to cater for family responsibilities in general, for example, maternity, adoptive or parental leave, is a matter for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Deputy will be aware that a working group was reviewing the improvements in maternity protection legislation as part of the PPF agreement. It gives comparisons among paternity and maternity leave arrangements across the European Union. A further working group reviewed the Parental Leave Act 1998 and also compared paternity arrangements in EU member states.
Part of the programme for Government involves consideration of this issue. Many groups, including the Equality Authority, have been involved in pushing the issue of paternity leave. As the Deputy knows, the Government is committed to dealing with the issue. The Minister has indicated, for example, that entitlement to leave will now be extended for those in the workplace depending on the age level of children and especially for children with special needs. Before, a child needed to be under four years of age; that has now been increased. Much of this work has been done in consultation with the trade unions and the social partners. There is not 100% agreement within the working group, naturally: I am sure the Deputy can see where the differences arise among IBEC and the trade unions. The working group is still at a consultative stage. The issue is not one for me but for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The Minister acknowledges that there is an anomaly, particularly for men.
If I may be facetious, when men have the babies, they can have the leave.
My mother always said that if a man had one baby, no other child would ever be born. She was right.
There would be no problem with child benefit either.
I accept that it is not the Minister's responsibility.
There are reports available on the issue.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 9, before section 7, to insert the following new section:
"7.-The Minister shall, as soon as may be, after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report:
(a) setting out the mechanisms by which family income supplement could be paid through the tax system, the estimated additional numbers of entitled persons who would benefit from such a change and the estimated cost of such additional take up;
(b) evaluating the potential numbers of beneficiaries under family income supplement if the self-employed persons were to qualify for participation.”.
Only 35% of those entitled to family income supplement actually claim it. Many of the people concerned who are on low incomes clearly do not wish to claim it because they see it as social assistance. As I mentioned when speaking to the Minister in the Dáil last week, they see it as a social welfare entitlement. I ask the Minister to raise the matter with the Minister for Finance with a view to having it paid through the tax system rather than those people being required to apply to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This is what is causing the problem. I ask the Minister to make some changes in regard to family income supplement. It would be easier for those people if they were to receive a direct payment rather than apply to the Department. I suggest family income supplement also be paid to the self employed. Many are involved in small industries working for themselves and if they got family income supplement they could remain in full-time employment and seek other social welfare payments.
There are about 40,000 teleworkers working from home. They have either left employment to take up such work or have come off social welfare benefit to work in this sector. If their income is low they should be supported by FIS. This would encourage those people to take a chance and support themselves and thus save the Government a great deal of money. The Digital Hub Development Agency Bill, which has passed through the Seanad, provides for telemarketing, teleworking and so on. This would help the 40,000 people working in this area. I call on the Minister to extend family income supplement to the self-employed and instead of being drawn through the Department of Social and Family Affairs that it be provided by means of a tax break. If the income of a person in receipt of family income supplement increases he or she does not lose out but if they suffer a reduction in income the FIS is not increased as it is set for a year. I ask the Minister to look at this anomaly and change it. It is not fair as it concerns those on low incomes. An extra €20 or €30 is a lot of money and I ask the Minister to consider it.
I support my colleague, Deputy Ring, on this issue, particularly the second part of his proposal, that is, the evaluation of potential numbers under family income supplement if self-employed persons were to qualify. I shall not go back to the farm assist issue but the week before last the Taoiseach welcomed the fact that Tesco was bringing in 1,500 new employees. The result of that will be that many small shopkeepers will be put under severe stress. A shopkeeper of, say, 55 or 60 years of age does not want to be seen to go out of business but many are struggling. The arrival of Tesco, Aldi or some group around the corner causes them more problems. I urge that the self-employed, and those referred to by Deputy Ring in the digital sector, small shopkeepers or those in other businesses, be allowed remain in business until they reach pension age rather than being forced into early retirement and that they be paid full social welfare and, perhaps, also be provided with housing. This matter will have to be examined. A previous Taoiseach said that accountancy was not the surest way of discovering what a person earned and one did not need to produce audited accounts. Nowadays the majority of people who produce accounts can guarantee that those accounts are their income. I see no reason why small shopkeepers and small businesses that cannot exist on their income should not be eligible for FIS. I support my colleague in calling for an inquiry into this matter. There should be some indication of the number involved and the overall cost.
The issue of the payment of FIS through the tax system is being discussed at present. It was raised in the PPF negotiations. A working group under the PPF is examining the role which refundable tax credits can play in the tax and welfare system. The work is almost completed and is expected to be finalised shortly. It is expected the group will recommend that FIS should continue to be administered by my Department with a modified system of delivery and sustained efforts to improve its take-up. Many people hold the view that if they take up FIS they will lose out. It is not taxable and it does not affect entitlement to a medical card. Many people are not aware of that so it is important to say it.
The Minister should use that to her advantage.
We will take a photograph of the Deputy some day in Monaghan. It is incumbent on us all——
If the Minister were to add Deputy Ring to the photograph she would get publicity.
Give the Dáil a ring. It does ring as well about Europe.
I would ask the Minister not to be provocative.
I will not be provocative. It is incumbent on all to get it across to people that FIS is not taxable and does not affect their secondary benefits. Deputies meet many people and we should encourage them to apply for it. There is an issue concerning swings and roundabouts. In the main people's income does not decrease - usually it increases. If it increases one still keeps the FIS payment for the year so that there are ups and downs with the scheme. In the event of an additional child being born it is reviewed. I was not aware of that previously but it does happen. Also it can be paid with DB up to six weeks. If a person becomes ill while they are working they continue to have their FIS arrangements on the understanding that they will return to work. It is an excellent scheme. If there is a proposal to refine it we will look at it arising out of the report that will be made available very soon.
On the issue of FIS and the self-employed, I agree there are many self-employed persons who may not necessarily make a great deal of money. There is the issue of equity between those in the farming profession and what determines self-employed status. I do not want to hear Deputy Crawford shouting at me. The estimated cost of extending it to the self-employed is €60 million and it would benefit 21,000 people. Within the confines of my budget I am not in a position to extend it to the self-employed. It will remain an issue for review. We need to look at the issues that will be raised by the working group under the PPF. The delivery of the scheme and an improvement in its take-up will also have to be looked at. We await the outcome of the report and what it recommends.
In regard to farm assist it was suggested that the number would extend to 15,000 whereas it extended to only approximately 8,500. That is not the reason I raise the issue. The Minister said it would benefit 21,000. Given that it is unlikely that number would claim, the figure of €60 million——
One never knows. The problem with the self-employed is that one has to get accounts for the previous year. There are a lot of difficulties for the persons concerned, so much so that sometimes they do would not bother to get involved.
I hold the strong view that it is an option that should be available to them.
It is under review.
Rather than get out of business, older people especially should be encouraged to remain in the business they know best.
A total of 21,000 people are in need of this particular scheme. If these people go on to social welfare or have to depend on some other form of payment, would that not involve a potential saving? Paying them €60 million might save quite an amount in pay-outs.
Those are the numbers that might be eligible if we were to introduce the scheme. That is not necessarily to say they would be in need of the scheme. It is just looking at a cohort to determine how much it would cost and the number of people it would affect. It is not necessarily to say that——
There is no potential saving.
No, it is a potential cost.
I have spoken to members of the committee and it is proposed to take a short break for people who have been working all day. I propose that we come back at 7.40 p.m. Is that agreed?
Will we finish the business?
We will make a strong effort to finish it. A number of amendments from the Minister are coming up which we hope to deal with quickly because they are of a technical nature. Some other amendments are substantial but the Minister may be able to consider a number of issues with a view to bringing them back on Report Stage. Members have indicated that they would like the Minister to deal with a number of aspects of section 13 in particular. We will suspend the meeting now until 7.45 p.m. I ask everyone to be back here at 7.40 p.m. sharp so that we can proceed with the business.
Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 are related to amendment No. 15. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 15, 16 and 17 be discussed together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 10, subsection (1)(a)(i)(I), line 5, after “benefits” to insert “(being benefits-in-kind of an office or employment)”.
Will the Minister outline what she envisages concerning the operation of this section?
Section 8 provides a number of amendments to the Third Schedule of the Act. The Third Schedule sets out the assessment of means for the purposes of social assistance payments. The proposed changes are: the abolition of the assessment of benefit and privilege for persons aged 29 and over for the purposes of UA and pre-retirement allowance, as announced in the budget; the standardisation of treatment of maintenance payments across the social assistance scheme by extending the arrangements currently applicable to one-parent families to old age widow's and widower's non-contributory pensions, UA, pre-retirement allowance and farm assist, as announced in the budget; and the assessment of certain non-cash benefits to be prescribed in regulation in the case of persons claiming UA, disability allowance, pre-retirement allowance, supplementary welfare allowance and farm assist. Does that explain the matter for the Deputy?
In page 10, line 5, the amendment seeks the insertion of "(being benefits-in-kind of an office or employment)" after "benefits".
There might be a misunderstanding with regard to this section which concerns benefit and privilege. For example, where someone is living at home under normal circumstances their board and lodgings are taken into consideration.
We are now saying that if they are 29 or over, that will not be taken into consideration for unemployment assistance. Over the next number of years we will bring it down to 25. It does not refer to benefit in kind, it is benefit and privilege.
That clarification was needed because I thought we were talking about benefit in kind.
No, it is benefit and privilege which, as the Deputy knows, is rent, food and other things.
Yes. It will improve the situation rather than making it worse.
Yes. The Deputy knows that many people may be living at home, yet feel they have to leave home in order to obtain a benefit. Now, what used to be assessed as means will no longer be so.
On the basis of that information, I welcome the steps taken by the Minister. I thought that property was going to be taken into consideration but it will not be.
No, it is a different thing.
I have come across such cases. One might find them living in a caravan beside the house, or else going out and availing of a rental subsidy. The Minister is making a move in the right direction.
I do not think the Minister would like to finish this section without Deputy Ring saying a few words on the amendment.
His dulcet tones.
Dulcet tones, yes. I will admonish Deputy Ring afterwards for being late.
I had a big dinner, Chairman, so I had to finish it.
Deputy Ring, without interruption.
I intend to give all the sweet stuff up tomorrow.
Does that include me?
I am asking the Minister to pay death grants with the other payments in April.
I am advised that we cannot go back to that matter.
I will beg your indulgence, Chairman, to provide the information anyway. The measure will be implemented from June 2003 at a cost of approximately €380,000. It is estimated that implementing this measure from April would cost an additional €63,000.
We have gone past that amendment, Deputy Ring, so we cannot go back to it now. Does the Deputy wish to address the general issue?
I shall let the matter pass.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 12, before section 10, to insert the following new section:
"10.-The Minister shall, as soon as may be, after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report setting out the methods by which anomalies will be addressed which arise in the regulations for the provision of an old age contributory pension which preclude the granting of a pension where a person has the requisite number of annual contributions but fails to achieve the requisite annual average prior to their 56th birthday.".
This amendment deals with anomalies of which there are many in the social welfare system. Recently, I appealed a case on behalf of a constituent, but it was not successful. The person concerned worked in this country and had stamps for ten years' contributions. They expected to receive the contributory pension but did not because they reached the age of 56 some six weeks before the scheme came into operation. It is very unfair that the person lost 50% of their pension even though they had paid for the stamps for ten years. In the past, the anomaly whereby people did not get any pension was dealt with and they received 50%.
This anomaly affects a small number of people because, by law, everybody is obliged to join the scheme before the age of 56. This person feels aggrieved because they paid ten years' worth of stamps and expected to receive a contributory pension. They received a weekly income of €53 instead of the full contributory pension but the penalty is too much. The Department should examine this matter which will not cost a fortune to rectify because it does not affect many people. The Minister may say she has brought the period up to five years, but the Department should consider dealing with somebody who has nine years and start moving down from that. It would not cost a fortune to eliminate them in that way over a number of years. The number of people so affected is minimal because now everyone has to come into the scheme.
The other anomaly is the one to which Deputy Paul McGrath refers regularly, concerning the three payments of €16.80, €19.30 and €21.60. Why can those not be regulated and all brought up to the €21.60 level? I hope the Minister will be able to do something about that. I spoke earlier about the case of twins.
It may be long past the festive season, but it is wrong that Christmas bonus payments are not made to part-time workers, even though they are contributing to the social welfare fund from which the bonus is paid. They may be in employment for eight or nine months, yet because they are off work for three or four months they will not qualify for the Christmas bonus. It is wrong to exclude such workers and I hope the Minister will examine the matter.
I shall deal with the last point first. There is an anomaly whereby somebody working on a FÁS scheme who stops work in November is established on a short-term working basis and, therefore, will not receive the Christmas bonus. However, someone who remains on a FÁS course, or any other employment for that matter, until the first week of December will automatically receive the Christmas bonus even though they may already be receiving social welfare. Over the years, I have come across a few such anomalies in the social welfare system, which are unfair. When the Minister's predecessor agreed after a long tussle to introduce a half pension, we understood from the discussions leading up to it that anyone with fewer than five years would not get it and that it would be on a pro rata basis after that. That would have solved the problem but it did not happen. When the Bill came before the House, it dealt strictly with situations where there was a half pension or no pension. We moved from a situation where if one had five years paid, one got half a pension. Those who had ten years paid, only received a half a pension if the date was the wrong side of April.
I would like this issue to be looked at again and to find out the overall cost. A cousin of mine was three days off the right date but could not get the pension, although he had paid ten years. In fairness to those who have found themselves in that situation, this issue should be looked at again.
I know a man who was born in August 1940 and entered the Irish national insurance scheme in 1957. He paid 19 contributions and there were ten credits bringing the total to 29. Like many people, including many from the Minister's county, he emigrated in 1957-8. He spent the next 32 years in the United Kingdom and returned to Ireland in 1989 and commenced work again.
His first date of entry into insurable employment here was 1957. By 2005, he will have made 679 contributions - an average of 14 contributions per year. If he retires at 65 years of age, he will not get a pension because he does not have the necessary average. If he retires at 66 years of age, he will get €78.70, whereas the actual amount should be €157.30. He is getting snookered for the 32 years he spent in England. His first year of insurable employment should be taken as 1989. He was forced to leave this country in 1957 to look for a job and, like many others, he did not go of his own volition.
He is being hammered because of this anomaly. He is not a constituent of mine but will suffer as a result of this glaring anomaly. Because he spent 19 weeks working in this country in 1957, he will be hit very heavily in relation to his pension entitlement.
What about his contributions in England?
They will be added in on a pro rata basis. He is particularly angry that he is being hit severely because of the way contributions are calculated. This is an anomaly and he asked me to see if the legislation could be amended to take account of it.
It is important to state the qualifications for the old age contributory pension. One must pay at least 260 contributions at the appropriate rate, one must have entered insurance at least ten years before one reaches pension age and one must have a yearly average of at least ten contributions paid or credited from 1953. As the Chairman or Deputy Ring indicated, one needs 48 contributions to get the full pension. In the case of a retirement pension, a yearly average of 24 contributions is required for a minimum pension.
The issue of contributions has been ongoing. The eligibility criteria has been reduced in the past number of years. More particularly, the 1953 issue was ongoing. It would be hard to believe there are as many pensions being paid under the pre-1953 arrangement. Some 13,000 people have been found eligible for pensions under the pre-1953 arrangement, so it has been quite a substantial contribution to people.
We are looking at the issue of qualifying conditions for old age and retirement pensions. The first phase of the review was completed in 2000 and we expect to publish it in the near future. It will look in detail at the operation of this average contribution test and will outline options for a system based on total contributions - in other words, not as many contributions per year will be required but the total number of contributions paid will be considered. That will address some of the anomalies people have brought to my attention. Some people will have made ten contributions one year and four another but when they add them together, they will not have the contributing years. We are trying to address that anomaly. I suppose those issues will not arise in the near future because people will have been in relatively full employment and will not have a problem.
As members know, significant changes have been made. We have worked with the UK authorities. The amalgam of the British and Irish pension has been very helpful to people. We have the same facilities in regard to America, Australia and New Zealand, so we can facilitate people when they move.
The best bet is to look at the idea of a total contribution. It is unfortunate that some people feel they are eligible for a pension. There are a number of difficulties there but the total contribution should help to address many of the anomalies to which members alluded. We will have that report shortly and we will look at how it can be implemented.
May I send this case to the Minister because the person concerned genuinely paid ten years' stamps? The only problem was that the stamps were not paid before the person was 56 years of age.
Had the person not started to pay it before the age of 56?
No. The person still paid ten years from 56 to 66 years of age. That was the only problem. To lose 50% of the pension on that basis is wrong. I am sure there is a provision in the Act whereby the Minister or her officials could make a decision.
I am not sure, but if the Deputy sends it to us——
It is very unfair. The person feels very aggrieved because he worked for ten years.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 13, to delete line 8.
This provision, which allows the Minister to prescribe bodies which can use the PPS number as a personal identifier, is in existing law. Privacy, however, is under considerable threat at present what with US surveillance post 11 September, the EU handing over data to the US, and secret Government directives to retain data on customers of telephone and Internet services, etc. It appears Big Brother is not far away. The amendment seeks to ensure that security needs of the State must be balanced against the right to privacy. The use of PPS numbers should not be used to compile a database of information on citizens to be shared by all public bodies.
The primary legislation was enacted in 1998 and it provides that the Minister must prescribe the groups that are entitled to use PPS numbers. That is under the control of the data protection officer. The information cannot be used for anything untoward. The following may access information: the CSO, the CAO, the National Cancer Registry Board, the Department of Education and Science and the National Education Welfare Board. The information that may be accessed under PPS numbers is very limited and confined to aspects of common identity, such as name, including surname and forename, address, date of birth, nationality, date of death and, in the case of person under 18 years of age, the PPS numbers of the mother and father. This information is relevant to a number of organisations. It is confidential and is not to be used other than as a public service provision. It reduces red tape.
My wife is involved in a credit union and it is not allowed to request a PPS number when considering a loan application.
Financial institutions are not allowed access to PPS numbers. They can only be used by the agencies and bodies listed in the legislation for the purposes of public and not private transactions. They would have an agreement with my Department.
The legislation provides that other persons may be prescribed.
That allows me to add other groups after consultation.
Would that not require an amendment to the primary legislation?
No, I have always had the option to extend the list.
The Minister has reassured me to some extent. However, in the context of security developments, the provision allowing for an extension of the permitted list should be subject to Dáil approval.
The Minister must seek the approval of the Dáil by way of motion before adding another agency or body. The Data Protection Commissioner would have to sanction any extension.
Last year the Minister for Agriculture and Food made commitments regarding ministerial orders, yet nothing was done. I worry, therefore, about the transparency of such orders. Will the Minister confirm that an extension to the list cannot be done by ministerial order and must be done by way of a motion presented to the Dáil?
That is the position. A motion must be presented to the House.
Does that mean it cannot be slipped through, say, on the Order of Business?
No. It requires a motion to be considered by Members of the House, who must be allowed ample time to consider the list of prescribed bodies.
I worry that private information regarding individual could become public.
The information is limited and can only be used under the terms of the data protection legislation.
Could bodies or agencies outside the country access this information?
That is not possible.
I am sceptical that the system provides sufficient protection or safeguards.
The purpose of the provision is to reduce bureaucracy. Every form requires information on a person's name, address and mother's maiden name.
I know of a person who was recently asked by an office to fill three identical forms. He was told if he did not complete them, payments to which he was entitled would be stopped.
All Departments have access to information under PPS numbers.
I am reassured by the Minister's reply.
I oppose this section because for the first time it introduces discrimination into social welfare legislation. Hitherto, nationals and non-nationals have been treated equally. It is unacceptable that asylum seekers must depend on the mercy of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend to their needs. Asylum seekers and non-nationals must accept direct provisions and this may continue for 16 to 18 months. There are many reasons communal facilities are not appropriate for asylum seekers or non-nationals who might be pregnant or who might have children. There was a provision in place whereby the community welfare officer could examine each case. The section does not provide latitude and it will be up to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to provide for their needs, giving them an allowance of €20 a week. Various circumstances may be reflected in individual cases and under the section they will have no come back, good, bad or indifferent, even if they are deemed to have legitimate grounds.
Communal facilities are provided by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but, in opposing the section, I do not suggest that all these individuals should be seeking private rented accommodation and meeting community welfare officers. However, the section removes the ability of CWOs to provide latitude and flexibility by disregarding medical or social needs and, therefore, should be opposed.
The section makes some sense in that it provides that rent supplement will be payable only where a claimant is lawfully in the State. We had to start somewhere to lay down markers. The purpose of the provision is that anybody in breach of their obligations to the State's immigration service while at the same time having their housing costs subsidised by the community welfare service will be cut off. My problem relates to those who, as Deputy Ryan said, have an illness. There were difficulties previously with people who were mentally ill and one person committed suicide. I hope the section will include the phrase "except where otherwise directed on medical grounds."
Perhaps we can discuss sections 13 and 15 because one reflects the other. Section 15 provides that the health boards will have the same discretion to pay in urgent cases claims for rent supplement for asylum seekers and people who are not lawfully in the State. That has been done to maintain consistency with existing provisions relating to other excluded categories. This will ensure that if a circumstance arises that is, in the opinion of the health board, so urgent in nature that rent supplement should be paid, then the board is not prevented from paying it by virtue of the restrictions imposed by section 13. This provision will deal with the issue.
I have had many consultations with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister has assured me about direct provision. As a consequence, I recognise the merits of the proposal to deal with the issue under the section. It is important that one Department centrally deals with all the issues relating to asylum seekers with the proviso that I am assured people will be looked after and I have introduced section 15 in that context. The system of direct provision should be examined and flexiblities should be built in whenever an emergency may arise.
If section 15 is taken in conjunction with section 13, there is no doubt the provisions are much better. It would have been better if the three lines in section 15 that the Minister read out were inserted in section 13.
Those who draft legislation are more competent in that regard. Once the section is included, it has the same effect.
Deputies Connolly and Ryan referred to people who are refused on medical grounds. Will they be given direct provision without cognisance being taken of their circumstances? I raised this important issue on Second Stage and I hope the Minister will examine it prior to Report Stage. When legislation is enacted, it is subject to literal interpretation and, unfortunately, the debates we have are not read. Sometimes, the teleological approach to the legislation works whereby the intention behind its introduction is brought to bear. However, a strict, literal interpretation is taken outside the House. Where an individual's medical condition warrants concern, cognisance of that should be taken under the legislation. Perhaps the Minister can examine this issue prior to Report Stage. This position should be examined humanely and compassionately in the context of the overall legislation.
The SWA rent supplement may not necessarily address that issue. I have been advised that ethnic background and religious sensitivities are considered and medical issues are taken into consideration when it comes to the type of direct provision to be made. Direct provision is in place, some of which is absolutely fantastic, yet people are enticed to take up SWA and often find themselves more isolated than they were previously. If there is a problem with language and so on, they end up in lonely flats in cities. Other difficulties arise and nobody has been there to support them. Unfortunately, there also has been a number of tragedies involving such people who, out of necessity, may have been safer availing of direct provision. I have been assured by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that medical, religious, ethnic and dietary issues are taken into consideration for direct provision. We have noted those discussions.
Is he advising the Minister that he is happy enough with the position?
Both the Department and the Minister. We have had bilateral meetings with the Minister and departmental officials on several occasions. I have also been advised by the Attorney General that these are reasonable provisions.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform made the point at another committee last week that the money being spent by the State on asylum seekers and refugees was affecting overseas aid. That is a dangerous statement. I understand there must be some order but, at the same time, we must be careful. Perhaps the Minister for Social and Family Affairs will provide the committee with a copy of the report to see how it is working. Legislation such as this can create problems but I understand where the Minister and the Department are coming from. There is the other argument where people come into the State and want to avail of rent supplement. This is creating problems, especially on the open market. People come to us and say they are competing with them and finding it difficult. It is not an easy one.
The Deputy is right.
I agree with Deputy Ring that it is not an easy one. It appears from what the Minister said - she can correct me if I am wrong - that her Department would be happy if the issue was directed to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deal with.
Regarding the special grounds, whether medical, psychiatric, ethnic or whatever, is the Minister telling me that community welfare officers will be told that they are not the Department's responsibility but that of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform? The information I received was that section 15 referred only to temporary provisions. My understanding of temporary provision is that one makes a case to a community welfare officer who grants a concession for a month or two and that that is the end of it. That would not be satisfactory in certain cases, for example, medical cases. If this section is passed as it stands, the situation will be worse than it is at present. The section must be amended. It is not satisfactory that cases outside the scope of section 13 will be provided for by section 15. The Minister has been informed by her official that what I have said is correct.
I am glad to see the Deputy was informed by someone else in the room.
It is just as well I was.
The Deputies are making an assumption about the interpretation the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will make on direct provision. We are saying that, in emergency situations, people can and will be facilitated. Asylum seekers will not be left on the street because they cannot be facilitated. That will not happen. It costs the State more to provide by way of direct provision than supplementary welfare allowance. We have a system of direct provision with certain standards for dealing with certain ethnic groups. It was very difficult in the beginning because we could not cope with the issue but circumstances have changed. Many of the complaints people had about processing claims have been dealt with because processing is happening much more quickly with much more support and with many more services being provided.
It has been decided that one Department will cater for those applying for asylum - the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In agreeing to allow this to happen I asked to be assured about the quality of direct provision, which has been given, and that when it came to an emergency situation, a community welfare officer would still be in a position to deal with this despite section 13 of the Bill. If it is seen in the context of direct provision that something must be done for an asylum seeker, it will have to be done.
Is there is a difficulty with writing into section 13 that it will be done clearly on medical grounds or whatever?
I know exactly what is happening in the Deputy's health board. The term "medical grounds" has been interpreted in a wide and sweeping manner, not unlike another health board. They have taken a rule of thumb which is inappropriate.
Which is inappropriate.
Yes. In other words, because a woman is at a certain stage of her pregnancy, she would be better off in splendid isolation in a flat. I would not necessarily agree with this. She might be better off in a community. The health board takes a very liberal view. Psychiatric cases as a consequence of certain difficulties present themselves and have to be dealt with in consultation with medical care personnel and under direct provision. I know medical facilities are provided. If a medical decision must be made, so be it.
When discretion is brought into play——
Greater flexibility is shown.
This would apply in the latter stages of pregnancy. I would have thought that, when one is eight or eight and a half months pregnant, one would be entitled to it.
I said on Second Stage that, once passed, the Bill would be a legislative straitjacket. Let us be honest about it in order that we know what is being passed. The points we have raised should be examined by Attorney General before Report Stage.
I asked the Attorney General to examine these issues and he advised me against some and in favour of others. If concerns have been expressed, we can bring them to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to whom I will write expressing them and assuring him that the committee will be keeping a watching brief.
This is the delicate part of the matter. Before we decide this issue on Report Stage, it is imperative we have an opinion from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Attorney General or whoever the Minister thinks is relevant.
The Attorney General has advised that it would not be his forte but rather that of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
It seems that the Attorney General is washing his hands of the matter. Preferred option or not, it appears that the Department of Social and Family Affairs wants this issue to be the responsibility of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deal with. The case made regarding medical or psychiatric grounds or whatever needs to be teased out more because the Bill, when passed, will be the bible for those operating these provisions. There is no point coming back afterwards about it.
I am not trying to fob off my responsibilities. It was a Government decision to do this and I agreed to do it. I will write officially to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform expressing the committee's concerns and seeking his assurance that they will be taken into consideration. This will not affect anyone in situ. This is a new proposal for new applicants. Anyone in receipt of SWA will not be affected by it, in case people thought they would be thrown out on the street and put back on direct provision. That will not happen. This is for new asylum applicants after 1 April and the commencement of the Bill when enacted.
Will we have a comprehensive report before Report Stage from the various Ministers involved and the Attorney General?
I will try to get a reply from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for Report Stage.
What about the Attorney General?
It is outside the remit of the Attorney General. He will advise me on the legalities of the issue. He has advised me that this can be done legally. The Deputy's concerns relate to the flexibilities of direct provision for people with particular illnesses or problems. It is entirely a matter for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The social insurance fund has been set up for 51 years. The Minister's predecessors had a more difficult time with the fund than she had because in the past it had to be subsidised by the Exchequer. Former Ministers for Social Welfare had to appeal to the Minister for Finance to top up the fund. Things have changed, however, and the economy is unrecognisable. More and more people work from home or are on short-term contracts.
The Deputy is on section 19? The Deputy opposed section 16 which deals with benefits-in-kind.
Are we taking sections 16, 17 and 18 together?
We will take them together.
The Deputy is opposing sections 16 and 17. Section 18 has been discussed with section 3. Sections 16 and 17 will be discussed together.
In 1998 the social insurance fund closed with a surplus. Last year the fund had a surplus of €1.9 billion if the Minister for Finance had not raided it of €635 million. According to the Revised Estimates for this year, the fund will close with a surplus of €1.5 million. After trying for 46 years to save the fund, it is now in surplus, which is to the credit of everyone involved. The social welfare fund was meant to be just an insurance fund. The Government and, in particular, the Minister for Finance, treated the fund like a slush fund when he raided it of €635 million. It is not supposed to be a tax but it is being treated like that. If it is being treated as a tax, then the Government should say so. In 2001 the fund had a surplus of €644 million, yet in the same year the Minister for Finance abolished the employers' PRSI ceiling, placing an extra cost on employers in the key financial services and high-tech sectors. These sectors are now suffering on a weekly basis as a result of job losses.
In 2002, the Minister said that a surplus of €1.2 billion would be a strong position for the fund to be in, allowing him to raid it of €635 million. The Minister said last year that €1.2 billion was a substantial sum, yet this year he will raise €50 million through employers. As I said last week, we are trying to encourage people to take out health insurance, yet we are increasing PRSI for employers at a time when they are finding it difficult. Companies around the world are considering what it is costing to employ people in this country, which is putting significant pressure on employers.
Why was it necessary to raise another €50 million when the Minister said last year that he was satisfied with the €1.2 billion fund? This is another tax on employers. While we want to encourage employers to insure people, they will now be taxed, which is very unfair.
Before the Minister responds, has the Deputy dealt with sections 16 and 17?
I have. I will deal with them again on Report Stage.
This section introduces an anti-avoidance measure. As the Minister for Finance indicated, people's liability was being avoided and transferred into benefit-in-kind. In order to deal with the anti-avoidance measure, the Government decided to levy PRSI contributions on benefit-in-kind.
Deputy Ring is correct in saying that the people who will be eligible to pay on this benefit-in-kind would have reached their ceiling, so it would be a matter for employers. The approximate figure involved is €41 million in a full year - €30 million this year and €41 in a full year. The matter has been given a lot of consideration and it has been decided that the measure will be introduced from January 2004. There are a number of inequities. On occasion people have tried to avoid their PRSI liability. This is one way of addressing the problem and protecting the viability of the fund.
I propose that the Minister should consider setting up an independent board to oversee the social insurance fund. At the end of the day the fund will protect all of us at a later stage in life. I am asking the Minister to set up an independent board to advise the Minister and the Government when it may be necessary to increase PRSI, or otherwise, what stage the fund is at and, if necessary, to make changes in regard to PRSI. The time has come to take this step, rather than leaving it to the Minister for Finance and the Government. We do not know when the Minister will raid the fund again. As we all know, it is not a slush fund. It is an insurance fund. I ask the Minister to introduce the necessary legislation in order to set up an independent board to advise the Minister and the Government on the changes that may be required.
It is being considered in the context of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. There have been a number of meetings between officials of my Department, the Department of Finance, trade unions and employers. They are considering constituting such a board, its role and how useful it might be. I hope we will soon be in a position to make a formal decision on the matter.
Will the Minister clarify the purpose of the amendments she proposes to make to this section on Report Stage?
As I mentioned on Second Stage, I intend on Report Stage to bring forward an amendment to section 23 which deals with occupational pensions. The amendment is technical in nature and designed to streamline and extend current provisions which protect consumers by providing for full disclosure of the financial consequences of switching between pension products. The purpose of these provisions, known in the business as anti-churning measures, is to deter pension providers from encouraging such moves in order to pick up fresh commissions and-or gain from increased charges. These protections are already in place under the Insurance Act 2000 in relation to moves between life assurance policies and under the Pensions Act 1990 in relation to moves from occupational pension schemes to PRSAs. The amendment will extend this protection to cover any moves from one PRSA to another and streamline the provisions which apply in relation to moves from a retirement annuity contract to a PRSA. This is a consumer protection measure. People will not be encouraged to move from one product to another and have to pay additional commissions, not realising the impact of the move, while sometimes having the same product available to them.
I spoke to officials of the Minister's Department regarding the pensions and co-ordinated social welfare agreement which is compulsory in some schemes and applies to local authorities, health boards and other semi-State bodies. I will propose the following amendment:
Where trustees of a scheme calculate an integrated pension prior to its commencement, notwithstanding the rules of the scheme, they shall calculate the integrated pension subject to a maximum deduction or loss of the lesser of one times the State pension or €8,180.
Where there is a reduction in the contribution rate payable to a pension scheme, twice the amount of the contributory old age pension, single rate, is deducted from the retirement salary before a member's pension is calculated. The old age pension is €157.30, or €8,180 per year. Where a person who has been a member of a pension scheme for 40 years retires on a salary of €16,000, when twice the old age pension is deducted, he or she gets no occupational pension at all.
The Minister's officials have been extremely helpful, as they always are, and pointed out that this was not intended to happen. This anomaly must be addressed. Officials from the Department's planning unit must deal with it. As the Minister is engaged in regularising pension matters, it should be addressed. It affects many people in Bord na Móna, local authorities and health boards. It particularly affects those on low incomes. A deduction of €16,000 from a salary of €100,000, for example, still leaves a reasonable income but a deduction from a salary of €16,000 or €18,000 leaves nothing.
I will examine the matter before Report Stage.
There is an anomaly which was not intended by the Minister or her officials.
These things happen.
Anomalies are occasionally thrown up and we must try to deal with them. I have given a copy of the proposed amendment to the Minister's officials.
I thank the Minister and her officials for attending and my colleagues for dealing with the many complex issues involved.
I also thank the Minister and her officials. I have no doubt we have dealt with her first of many budgets over the next five years. I also thank you, Chairman, for the efficient way you have chaired the proceedings.
I wish to be associated with Deputy Carty's sentiments. I appreciate the courtesy the Minister and her officials have shown the committee. Despite our criticism of her and her officials, I acknowledge that they do an excellent job. We must also do ours. We wish them well.
On a personal basis, I thank the Minister. Dealings with her and her officials are always satisfactory. Long may this continue. I hope she will be more forthcoming on the next stage.
There is always a sting in the tail.