Social Welfare Law Reform and Pensions Bill 2006: Committee Stage.

This meeting has been convened for the purposes of the consideration of the Social Welfare Law Reform and Pensions Bill 2006. I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his officials. Report and Final Stages have been scheduled to be taken in the Dáil on Thursday and it will not be possible to meet tomorrow to conclude Committee Stage. There is a limit of two Bills per day to be taken in Select Committee and two other Bills have been scheduled for tomorrow.

A number of amendments have been ruled out of order because they could result in a charge on the Exchequer. Amendment No. 47 in the name of Deputy Stanton has been disallowed as it could have the effect of imposing or increasing a charge on Revenue. The amendment seeks to make social welfare payments in a different way which could impose funds transfer charges. Amendment No. 50 in the name of Deputy Cowley has been disallowed for the same reason. The amendment seeks to extend the scope of the free travel scheme. Amendment No. 53, also in the name of Deputy Cowley, has been disallowed as it is outside the scope of the Bill. The amendment provides for a disability access card scheme which would not be within the Bill's remit. Standing Order 49 provides that an amendment that would have the effect of imposing or increasing a charge on Revenue cannot be moved by a member, save a member of the Government or a Minister of State. Standing Order 125 provides that the committee shall have the power to make amendments to Bills, provided such amendments are relevant to the provisions and scope of the legislation. Veteran members will be aware of this. The Minister will appreciate that, despite our drafting skills, we sometimes get caught in the rush.

I will be strict and not allow long, rambling contributions, unless a number of topics are covered by a section or amendment. A list of grouped amendments has been circulated. A number of amendments which relate to the preparation of reports under the legislation are similar and can be grouped, if that is agreed. The Minister will probably prefer to deal with them together, rather than individually.


I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on continued anomalies affecting persons who were recipients of deserted wife's benefit.".

I am disappointed that I have felt it necessary to table this amendment. I raised the issue during the debates on the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill 2005 and the Social Welfare Bill 2005 when I welcomed the Minister's approach and complimented him on the progress he had made in addressing anomalies in the system. During my contribution on Second Stage of the Social Welfare Consolidation Bill on 8 November 2005, I was complimented by the Minister who acknowledged the anomalies. He said he had discussed them with his parliamentary party and spoken with his officials to examine how they could be addressed. He further stated he hoped to address them in a detailed way in the Social Welfare Bill 2005, the Finance Bill 2006 and this year's Estimates. However, nothing has been done.

The Minister stated that if I had any suggestions or proposals to deal with these issues, he would be prepared to take them on board. During the debate on the Social Welfare Bill 2005 I clearly outlined how the anomalies could be addressed. I stated:

Therefore, following the 2006 budget, for each €1,270 a woman earns per annum in excess of €12,697.38 [this threshold has been in place since 1992] her payment is cut by €1,784. The Minister, at least as an interim measure to eliminate these anomalies, should consider the following changes to the bands: where earnings are below €15,000, which would qualify one for the full rate, the weekly rate should be €171.30; where earnings exceed €15,000 but to do not exceed €18,000, the weekly rate should be €137; where earnings exceed €18,000 but do not exceed €21,000, the weekly rate should be €102.80: where earnings exceed €21,000 but do not exceed €24,000, the weekly rate should be €68.50; and where earnings exceed €24,000 but do not exceed €27,000, the weekly rate should be as low as €34.30 per week. While the Minister has gone some way towards eliminating anomalies in the short term, these measures would deal with the situation.

The numbers involved are relatively small and in trying to deal with the situation it is important that we obtain certain information prior to Report Stage. How many people currently receive disabled person's benefit? We are only concerned with those in receipt of it in the period 1992 to 1997 because the lone parent allowance was introduced thereafter. It was during the period in question that people's means did not come into consideration. How many people are eligible and how many of them are earning?

We all know that an anomaly exists. Are we wasting our time trying to address it? I have better things to do than spend time building up a case to try to obtain a commitment from the Minister that he will examine and deal with the situation, particularly if action is not going to be taken. As a member of the Opposition, I am frustrated. I hope this discussion will give us the opportunity to tease out this matter. If the Minister is obliged to return to the matter on Report Stage, I hope regulations within the Bill will allow him to introduce the required changes.

Many of these amendments call for Report Stage commitments and I appreciate that they arepro forma in nature. I must oppose them, not for policy reasons but on technical grounds. It is the wording rather than the actual content that I oppose, although the latter may also come into play.

On deserted wife's benefit, in the budget — provision is made for this in the BillI increased the upper earnings limit for the one-parent family payment to €19,500 per year gross, an increase of €83 per week. It is important to point out that recipients of deserted wife’s benefit with dependent children may transfer to the one-parent family payment if it is beneficial for them to do so.We will continue to review the position and are anxious that people do not suffer hardship. It is worthwhile stitching in the provision that people may transfer if it is beneficial for them to do so. At the end of December 2005, the total number claiming deserted wife’s benefit was 10,180. Approximately 28% of those receiving the payment were awarded payment on or after August 1992 and they are, therefore, subject to the earnings limits.

I take the point the Deputy made about the scale. A percentage of a recipient's personal rate is payable at different income ranges, starting at €12,697 up to €17,776, ranging from 80% of the personal rate payable down to 20%. We are still carrying out a review of this. Existing customers have the choice of applying for the one-parent family payment if they have qualified children. We will continue to monitor this area. We made some improvements in the budget, particularly with regard to the one-parent family payment and people have the option to transfer. We can change the income ranges by regulation; it does not have to be done through legislation. However, I will keep that option open in the event that anybody might lose out.

The reason some people received less may be that their earnings improved and, as a result, they fell into a different income range. In many instances it may be not the case that we took from them but rather that their earnings increased and, therefore, they were entitled to less. I suspect that is the case. It was not our intention to disadvantage anybody in the scheme. It has been a closed scheme since 2 January 1997 and no new applications are being accepted. Those in the scheme will retain their entitlements and the scheme will fade away. We will try to ensure that no one suffers in that process.

I am disappointed by the Minister's reply. The banding has not changed since 1992. Assurances were given to recipients in 1992 that the existing entitlements would be preserved. However, that has not been the case. The fact that the bands have not increased since 1992 means the commitment that their entitlements would be preserved has not been honoured.

The Minister must at some stage admit that he is not interested in the problem and that he is not going to deal with it. Certain commitments were given. How many of the approximately 10,000 people on the scheme are earning?

Most of them are earning.

How many?

Some 28% of the payments were awarded on or after 31 August and those recipients are subject to the earnings limit. Some 2,800 are subject to the earnings limit but that is not the figure the Deputy is seeking. He wants to know how many of the 10,180 people are earning.

Some 28% of the 10,180 recipients are subject to the earnings limit. How many of those people are earning.

I do not have that figure but I am advised that most of them are earning.

I was given a figure of 800.

I will obtain the figure for the Deputy.

Is the Minister saying that we are all wasting our time trying to deal with this anomaly or are he and his officials prepared to deal with it?

I take the point that the figure of €12,697 has not been changed since 1992. I will keep open the option to increase it by regulation. We are not obliged to provide for that by legislation because I can do it by regulation as the year progresses. I will reflect on the point made by the Deputy.

Will the Minister try to reflect on it before Report Stage?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the effect and operation of means tests overall in the social welfare system and in particular in relation to the carer's allowance.".

This amendment opens up the debate on the general question of the means test in the social welfare system and how it can be dealt with and improved in the context of the carer's allowance. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply before making a full contribution.

I dealt with this briefly on Second Stage and said that I had an open mind with regard to abolishing the means test. I am not convinced at this time that it is the right thing to do. Abolishing the test would cost approximately €140 million. If I had €140 million to spend, the question would be whether it would be better to use it somewhere else. Would it be better, for example, to use it to increase the carer's allowance? The largest single allowance in the State is the €200 carer's allowance. We could increase the thresholds and the amount of the allowance fairly substantially with €140 million. If we want to help carers, would the right way of doing so be to pay the money to people who, because they have substantial means, do not need it? One could have a philosophical argument about means testing versus universalism. That is a fine discussion we should all have when there is no election due for approximately ten years.

Then we would never have it.

On a practical level, I have an open mind and would consider the matter if I felt it was the right way to use resources to help people. I would wince a little at having to award the payment way up the line to those who did not need it but I am happy to continue to discuss the issue.

It is important to explain how the means test is conducted. Right across the social welfare code, it appears there are different ways of conducting it. As a result the system is not very clear. This issue should be looked at. The process should be as simple as possible in order that people understand, when they receive a note from the Department telling them they are not entitled to a payment, how the decision was reached. The system should be simple to understand in order that people can calculate whether they are entitled to something before they make an application.

Has the Government considered carrying out research or a cost-benefit analysis on abolishing the carer's allowance? Does it put pressure on certain families to place people in institutional care who might otherwise be looked after in their own homes? Such care can be phenomenally expensive, in some cases €8,000 or €9,000 per week. All Members agree we should be maintaining people in their own homes for as long as possible. Surely, in terms of cost effectiveness, that would be much cheaper and better for the older person concerned or the person needing care than imposing a means test that will force people into institutional care far sooner than if a carer's payment was available to them. We need to have the debate at that level, rather than discussing the figure of €140 million and how best we can use that money.

Deputy Stanton has made a very relevant point. The Minister's point is also well made and it is not useful to adopt an ostrich-like attitude. Carer's allowance is beneficial in terms of people's health. Dr. Maureen Gaffney told us that taking people out of their own environment has a disruptive impact, despite the fact that they may be receiving excellent care elsewhere. They miss their own surroundings and what they have been used to. With regard to the argument about the figure of €140 million, perhaps it should not be coming from the budget of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. One must look at the budget for the Department of Health and Children and the amount of money saved by that Department in keeping people at home.

The Government should enlist someone to make the calculations. I agree it is not an easy process but the overall positive impact of eliminating the means test for carer's allowance would be worth exploring. I understand the argument about people at the top end earning €100,000 or €150,000 but those earning €50,000 or €60,000 — this was seen as a lot of money at one time — would spend a lot of that money looking after the person in their care. Often the allowance of €180 or €200 is used to fund respite care. I take the Minister's point that abolishing the means test at the top end would result in a waste of resources but from the middle income band down, he should examine what impact it would have in savings for the Department of Health and Children. A significant amount of capital has been forgone by way of income tax and other reliefs for those building nursing homes. If the issue was to be examined it in that context, the figure of €140 million would represent great value. The recent Indecon report outlined how much money had been absorbed by the various reliefs.

These are the main issues but I do not want to further delay the meeting. We have a number of amendments to deal with and do not want long speeches. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that Deputy Stanton has put his finger on the most important point.

When Deputy Stanton mentioned abolishing the carer's allowance, I think he meant abolishing the means test.

I am sorry. I certainly do not want the Minister to abolish the carer's allowance.

It was a Freudian slip.

We should acknowledge, as Deputy Stanton said, that the correct direction for State policy is to keep people at home. It is much cheaper in the long run and better for the individuals and families concerned. At €140, €180 or €200 per week, carer's allowance represents great value for the State. If those being cared for were to be placed in a nursing home or another institution, the cost would be five or six times the value of the allowance. It represents excellent value, which is why we have been trying to increase it, as best we can, dramatically.

This year €223 million will be spent on carer's allowance in respect of 25,000 recipients. A further 807 are in receipt of carer's benefit, at a cost of almost €10 million. The budget for the respite care grant is now €34 million. There are 34,000 recipients. In total, we are looking at a figure of almost €270 million for carers. The Government is committed to increasing the budget and focusing the money spent. I will keep an open mind on the abolition of the means test but I need to be convinced that it would be a good way of using funds. When one has to conduct a lot of means tests and the cost involved is enormous, sometimes it is not worth the effort. We may get to that point but are not there just yet.

It may become too complex and administratively costly.

Is it possible for the Department of Social and Family Affairs to liaise with the Department of Health and Children on this issue? There is a lot of money being spent by the latter Department on subventions and so forth.

Subventions and medical cards. There is an array of schemes in place, including the home help scheme.

A tremendous amount of money is being spent. Perhaps there is a way——

We are in constant touch about these issues. The Tánaiste and I have had a number of meetings about the as yet unpublished Mercer report on long-term care and we are trying, within the confines of the proposals made, to come up with a clear strategy which would join the two Departments in tackling the issue of care of the elderly. The direction of policy is clear, that is, to try to keep people in their own communities. That is where carer's allowance and carer's benefit come into play.

The issue will remain, long after some of us have left the House, of how best to utilise the money available for those who are doing such a fantastic job, that is, carers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on introducing an earnings disregard for the purposes of social welfare benefits for relatives who assist in childminding similar to that for childminders.".

A major aim within the economy is to enable people to return to work, having had children, if they so wish. We must assist in any way possible. We welcome the developments for childminders. However, we must acknowledge those relatives such as a grandmother without whose efforts and commitment it would be impossible for a son or daughter-in-law to return to work. We hope they will be treated in the same manner as a childminder. It would be positive to have an analysis of such a disregard.

The Minister has provided an extra €100 per week to allow those in receipt of non-contributory pensions to earn up to €5,200. We are approaching the issue more from the angle that a grandparent who minds grandchildren may receive €10,000 tax free, of which €4,800 will be taken into account if he or she is in receipt of a non-contributory pension. The result affects non-contributory old age pensioners looking after grandchildren. I am not blaming the Minister but if policies are introduced that run parallel to each other, problems arise when they cross. Why not allow an earnings disregard of at least €10,000 a year, equivalent to the amount enjoyed by childminders? The extra €100 per week provision for non-contributory pensioners recognises the contemporary idea of people working beyond 66 years of age; we should move the full step to include those involved in childminding. It points out an anomaly that may come to haunt the Minister and be a troublesome provision.

This measure will have to be watched as it develops. The childminding allowance is a new provision whereby a childminder can earn up to €10,000, is permitted to have up to three children in his or her home and have this sum disregarded for income tax purposes. I have also included it for PRSI purposes, on which there is general agreement.

Yes, that is excellent.

It is not disregarded for welfare purposes. The thinking behind it is that a disregard at that level would be hard to integrate into the social welfare system. A good example is a lone parent, childminding in the home, who can earn up to €192 per week before his or her payment is affected. However, a lone parent, childminding in a creche or as part of a community employment scheme, would have his or her payment reduced once his or her weekly earnings had exceeded €146.

The disregard for lone parents stands at €146. If the whole €10,000 was disregarded, all disregards across the board would automatically come up towards €10,000. It would be very difficult to integrate it into the system of disregards. It could also lead to a poverty trap because the combined income of welfare payments and allowable earnings could remove the incentive to increase earnings beyond the threshold. Whatever about the philosophy of exempting it, in practice, it would have a major effect on the system of disregards. For that reason we are not able to make the change. It is a new scheme which will play out in the next 12 months. The Departments of Finance, Health and Children and Social and Family Affairs will closely monitor it.

We will be looking at it in detail. Today we are setting the ball rolling. On Second Stage Deputy Penrose put it up as a provision that needed to be attended to.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on a statutory indexation of disregards.".

This important provision could deal with many problems in the system. I outlined how there had been no changes to deserted wife's benefit since 1992. It would be a clear and positive step to incorporate statutory annual indexation of disregards into the legislation. Each year the Minister would know how much the previous year's allocation came to and what the level of indexation should be when it came to a battle with the Minister for Finance. It would be a positive development.

I wonder if it would remove flexibility for a Minister. For example, if Deputy Penrose, when he is Minister in time, wanted to increase a benefit above the level of statutory indexation, could it tie his hands? Other than this, it is a good proposal.

The Minister better explain it to us mere mortals.

The social welfare bill has doubled from €7 billion six years ago to approximately €14 billion. If indexation had been applied, however generous, to this amount six years ago, it would now be less than €14 billion. Many would be receiving less in benefits, although I know that is not the Deputies' intention in tabling the amendment. They have pointed out that the thresholds for lone parents and others have not moved for many years, some as far back as 1997. However, Deputy Stanton's first point is the reason I am not in favour of indexing payments.

As social policy evolves, we need the freedom to mix and match schemes, phase them out, introduce new ones and bring forward activation and better policies. Sometimes it pays to leave a disregard alone because a scheme may have outlived its usefulness and we want to move people to a better scheme. Increasing the disregard in those circumstances would only mislead, making people think they were better off on such a scheme. We are better off in practical terms with the combination of looking back on the history of increases and maintaining flexibility. I understand the theoretical argument but in practice one is better off in holding onto flexibility.

While I welcome the increases made in recent years, it is obvious they were badly needed, particularly when we consider the level of poverty and that more people are depending on the State for more social welfare payments. There is a need for that to happen. If that need did not exist, people would be self-sufficient.

Has the Minister examined the fact that as time passes, more people depend on the State for social welfare payments? It is not wrong to do so; it is just that we are meeting a huge need that appears to be growing. The gap was mentioned on Second Stage. The Minister did not quite say Mercs and perks but indicated that there is a certain amount of "in your face" wealth in existence. Is there a huge disparity between those who are extraordinarily wealthy and those at the other end who are finding it more difficult to make ends meet, particularly when one considers housing and other costs? The reports of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul each year indicate that more people are becoming dependent on it. Other colleagues and I have steered people in the direction of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the interests of their basic survival. It is one thing for the Minister to say that he is providing tens of millions of euro here, there and elsewhere, while there is a huge and growing need and a disparity in incomes. As policy makers, this is an issue we cannot ignore. However, I welcome the increases, which are important.

I understand what the Deputy is saying. We support almost 1 million people every week. I do not wish to continue repeating myself but, in the context of what the Deputy said, it is taxpayers' money that is involved. One third of all taxation collected by the State goes back out under the heading of welfare. Much of this is led by PRSI increases because wages are higher and, therefore, PRSI contributions, as a percentage, are higher. Contributory pensions have been increasing fairly dramatically and have dragged up many other payments. As I travel around the country, I am constantly asked why, at a time of full employment, I continue to spend an extra €1 billion or €2 billion each year. I explain that there is child benefit, which is paid universally — that is, the new child care allowance — and that there have been dramatic improvements in the carer's allowance and the lone parent's allowance, in respect of which enormous funds have been made available.

The Deputy is right to ask why the bill increases each year. We must ensure that any money at our disposal is focused and not spread too thinly. This goes back to our earlier discussion on means testing. We cannot have too many universal payments, otherwise the bill would be huge. We pay hundreds of millions of euro to lone parents, for example, when a stronger activation policy is needed to allow that amount to be reduced. It is correct that the Deputy should ask the question. The Department asks itself that question regularly. Perhaps at some stage we should find a mechanism to step back from all this support and take a broader look at the policy direction over a period of years and not in the heat of battle. The reason the amount is increasing is obvious because there are more lone parents and pensioners and PRSI is increasing. There are enormous demands on that front. However, all these payments must be kept under review. We must have an activation policy instead of a passive policy and must continue to review, on a daily basis, each scheme to ascertain whether it is meeting its objectives and, if not, whether we should have the courage to move to a better scheme. On the day I assumed responsibility for this portfolio I said that throwing money at these issues would not provide the final answer, although it helps the people involved momentarily.

There have been real improvements and that is why the bill is increasing. The standard of living of those on welfare has improved steadily in recent years. We are fortunate that we are in a position to afford this. If the country could not afford it and was not turning out surpluses and bringing in various taxes, the position would be much more difficult. We must, as a nation, maintain our economic performance because there are many who depend on it.

I accept what the Minister said in regard to looking at every scheme and monitoring whether it serves the purpose for which it was put in place. I listened to his comments on media spin. He and his Department continually engage in spin in respect of the issue of full employment. The media continues to say that nobody should be unemployed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the west, that is not happening in regard to regional spending and job creation. In recent days, 40 jobs were lost in Ballina and last year 500 were lost in Westport. There is a perception that, because they are employed, certain people will take up jobs to which they are not accustomed. Jobs may be available in certain towns but they are not available in every part of the country. We do not have full employment.

I wish to comment on another problem I recently brought to the Minister's attention. There are those who, in the past, could obtain employment in hotels or restaurants but that is no longer possible because they are competing with their counterparts from the accession countries. There is nothing wrong with that; it is competition. Ireland is a member of the EU and we must accept such competition. I was criticised recently by Deputy Harkin — with whom I do not agree — in respect of this issue. Our job, first and foremost, should be to protect our citizens.

There is a certain category of people with no education. When, in seeking unemployment assistance, they bring proof to show that they sought work to their local office, it is not accepted. The Minister and his Department will have to examine the position of people who are being left behind. For example, a man who visited my clinic last week had been given a form by a woman at the labour exchange. He could not read or write and she could not see that he was embarrassed by being given the form. That person cannot be sent to any job interview because he cannot read or write. He should be steered back into education, with a view to getting him on to a scheme that will help him. He called to my clinic and told me that the woman at the employment exchange had given him a form and that he informed her he could not complete it because he could not read or write. It is time we considered the position of such people with a view to helping and supporting them instead of pushing them aside and saying that there is full employment. That is something I would like to see happening.

I congratulate the Minister on taking on board an issue I raised in respect of family income supplement. I compliment him and his Department on at least trying to explain FIS to the people, outlining what it involves and indicating how to apply for it. I criticise the Minister on many occasions but he took this issue on board. There are thousands of people, the new poor, who are working but who are on low incomes and are expected to maintain a certain social status. For example, a woman who called to my clinic yesterday, whose husband is working and earns €500 per week — they have a young family — did not have the €300 for refuse services that Mayo County Council is insisting should be paid before the end of the month. Every other year, she paid the charge on a monthly basis. That Mayo County Council is getting rid of the refuse service will create a problem for the Minister, politicians and low income families. Perhaps the Minister will examine the question of a national waiver. Those on low incomes are the new poor and the media is not focusing on them. They are on low incomes, they pay their mortgages and do not qualify for medical cards. Their children attend school each day and they are obliged to raise money for them. They are the people who are suffering. I am pleased that the Minister and his Department are trying to target those who should take up FIS.

It is some achievement for the Minister to obtain praise from Deputy Ring.

It is better to be honest.

There is a first time for everything.

I do not think the praise will last. The professionals, advisers and all those who worked on the advertising campaign will be pleased to hear what the Deputy said. This is the start of a process that will continue with other schemes as we proceed. There was an immediate response to the Department from the campaign — the telephones were soon hopping. That somebody on the minimum income of, say, €16,000 a year can receive an extra €5,000 in family income supplement shows how beneficial the scheme is. It is a good scheme and we want to get that message out. I appreciate the Deputy's comments in that regard. Importantly, my officials support the campaign. I will let the committee and the House know how it is progressing.

With regard to the point on unemployment, the official figure was 4.3%. It depends on where one wants to stop. There are 60,000 lone parents and 60,000 to 70,000 in receipt of short-term disability allowance, many of whom could be in employment, although not all. Against this, the fact that all 150,000 who came here from ten member states found jobs shows that employment is available.

The Deputy is aware that I know the west. I acknowledge that there are situations which are totally out of kilter with the position in the rest of the country. I know parts of the country where employers are out beating the hedges seeking workers and others where the opposite is the case as workers have been let go from factories and local employment sources. It is not always easy to place someone genuinely seeking employment but unable to find it due to factors such as education, place of residence, family circumstances, age, physique, confidence and so on. The Department has a range of schemes in place to try to help those in this position but we need to do more. FÁS interviewed 18,000 people last year and 10,000 were placed in jobs, education or training. Good work is being done but I take the Deputy's point that there are pockets where the match is not good.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the clawback policy by the State from the estates of the deceased of non-contributory pensions where the assets were accrued exclusively or partly from savings for pensions.".

Does this amendment refer to the clawback?

Yes. The issue has refused to go away, if I can put it that way.

I know of the Chairman's interest in this issue. As I said, we will keep all aspects under review. We have greatly increased the capital thresholds. A person can have capital of up to €35,000 and still qualify for a pension at the maximum rate. The point in question is whether we recoup money due to the Department from a person's estate when that person dies or whether we sign off on the money and leave it alone. I would like to think we take a practical, humane and sympathetic approach to this issue. The reality is that where taxpayer's money is due, it must be sympathetically, carefully and courteously pursued but it must be pursued. If it happens to involve probate, a residue or an estate, it must be pursued on a sympathetic basis.

I accept that there has been movement on this issue, regarding which we had a number of recent hearings and which we examined thoroughly. The issue boils down to the point that if an older person manages to put a nest egg aside solely from his or her non-contributory pension and if that sum is declared, the clawback kicks in. I realise that the capital disregard has been increased substantially, which is welcome. However, if it is proven that the older person has saved his or her non-contributory pension to such an extent that the sum saved is above the level of the disregard, can this be taken into account? That is the moot point.

The issue is whether such savings could be ring-fenced. Where a person was able to save a sum because he or she was operating under a threshold under which he or she should not have been operating because the Department had not been informed, that extra sum was saved because the person was not meeting the legal requirements. I am not suggesting the person would have done this deliberately but the fact that he or she saved the money was facilitated because he or she was not keeping to the strict letter of the law. To what extent this can be encouraged is another issue. It is a sensitive issue and we apply the rule sensitively. We allow for some expenses and take a sympathetic view.

Mr. Moran was one of those who were very forthright in this regard. He indicated that he had appealed the case of a 93 year old farmer in the west, perhaps in the Ox Mountains, and that he had no personal interest in the case bar fighting it on behalf of the person concerned. He won the case under the independent appeals system, despite the Department not paying great attention to it.

Perhaps the Minister should consider section 249(b) of the old Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act — I have yet to get used to the new Act — which refers to new facts and circumstances which can be taken into account. The Department has not always taken into account items such as funeral expenses. While I understand the difficulties involved, it seems mean-spirited of the Department to engage in this activity. As Deputy Stanton wishes to raise the issue of overpayments later, I do not want to trespass on that area and will focus tightly on this matter. Many people will not find themselves in this circumstance, which involves people who have lived frugally, for example, by growing their own vegetables. While they might receive €160 or €180 per week from the Department, they might save €80 per week, whereas the rest of us would spend the total amount in one day. That is the type of person with whom the Minister is dealing.

A small number will be involved. It appears mean-spirited of the Department, particularly given the economic affluence and wealth of the country, to go hook, line and sinker after such persons to retrieve the money. We must consider the matter in the context of the judgment given by the independent appeals officer. We should ask why that officer allowed the appeal. If an aspect of that judgment could be incorporated into the Bill to permit this objective which we want to achieve and the case which Mr. Moran outlined to us in comprehensive detail on 17 May 2005, we should re-examine the judgment in a sympathetic way.

The value of overpayments recovered by the Department in means-tested pension cases since 2000 totals €30.9 million, which is approximately €5 million per annum in amounts recovered from estates. In the case to which reference was made——

Is the Minister referring to non-disclosure?

We call it overpayment, for whatever reason.

A variety of factors would be involved.

Yes. "Overpayment" is a good word. In the case the Deputy mentioned the appeals officer determined the balance of the facts, particularly those relating to the knowledge of the deceased of the requirement to notify the Department of an increase in means, weighed in favour of the appellant. However, it should be noted the appeals officer also determined that the original decision should take effect from the date of death of the pensioner. In other words, he did not determine that savings from a social welfare pension were not assessable.

Looking ahead, the current capital disregards are of a sufficient magnitude to offer considerable scope for pensioners to save from whatever source they wish without affecting their pensions. It is a difficult area. We try to deal with it sympathetically. A total of 2,326 cases have been dealt with. Approximately 400 people a year are affected by this.

That should decrease as the disregards increase.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are being taken together.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the social insurance treatment of self-employed people in receipt of the carer's allowance who are looking after ill spouses.".

Amendment No. 6 deals with a particular group of people. The purpose of this type of debate is to identify groups who are not seen to be receiving the same treatment as other groups. If a self-employed person gives up work to look after an ill spouse the State is saved thousands of euro. We should, therefore, consider how that person can be recompensed so that, at the very least, he or she will not be out of pocket. We should also examine in detail carer's credit to see how it can be improved.

Workers are insured under the Social Welfare Acts as either employed or self-employed contributors. Employees and their employers pay Class A PRSI contributions whereas self-employed workers pay Class S contributions. There is no provision for the award of credited contributions to those whose last PRSI contribution was in Class S. It is worth noting that self-employed people who are no longer compulsorily insured are eligible to pay voluntary contributions at €253 per annum. This enables contributors to maintain their contribution records in respect of the period for which they are not liable for paid contributions. In other words, somebody who has been self-employed and becomes a carer can voluntarily pay the €253 per annum and keep up his or her contributions as a carer. A person who was an employee is automatically entitled to credits. However, the Deputy is concerned about the self-employed.

The short answer is that they are eligible to make voluntary contributions of €253 per annum, which is €5 a week, and that gives them their contributions for the year.

The Minister is saying that for a payment of €5 a week a person who has given up work to look after a loved one——

It applies when the person is in receipt of a carer's allowance.

That is not too bad. I thought it was more restrictive.

They are eligible to make voluntary contributions.

That is useful. It covers the issue I drew to the Minister's attention where a person gives up his business to look after his wife and is in receipt of a carer's allowance but there is then a gap in his record and the question of averaging comes into play. He can now contribute voluntarily. Now that the Minister has raised the issue, it is one in respect of which he could usefully initiate an information campaign because many people are not aware they can contribute voluntarily. The Department is very flexible and there are very good officials in that section. Whenever I have dealt with them they were very helpful. I understand there is a set period within which a person can opt to make voluntary contributions.

It is 12 months.

Ignorance of the law is no defence. No one knows that better than I. However, the social welfare system can be very complex. The area of PRSI contributions, pension contributions and so on is a huge maze of complexity on which we could usefully have an information campaign or even a seminar. It might be useful for the committee to go down the country as did the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business which is chaired by my colleague. He brought his committee to Ballinasloe the other day. We should move this committee out of this building two or three times a year and go and meet the people and bring them an information campaign. We could, perhaps bring a number of the Minister's officials with us and make sure the public are educated in regard to the various social welfare issues.

The Chairman would be welcome in Mayo. There would be a committee to meet him.

That is what I worry about. I would probably never get back.

I would organise it.

Eligibility to make voluntary contributions is useful. The Minister has introduced the same level of contribution for child minders. At the same time, we tend to be remiss. We presume everyone knows his or her rights and obligations. Some people who consult us know more than we do but many people do not.

Regarding these proposed amendments, could the Minister let us know, perhaps later, how many people have opted to pay voluntary contributions?

I will dig out that information for the Deputy.

Deputy Ryan looks happy.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 7 not moved.

I move amendment No.8:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on introducing a disregard of income from Family Income Supplement when applying the spouse means test for the Household Benefit Package.".

I would like to hear the Minister's response to this amendment.

The issue here is that people who are eligible for the household benefits package would have FIS included as part of their income. Broadly speaking we are speaking about elderly people. People aged over 70 years of age can qualify regardless of their income or household composition and the package is available to people who live permanently in the State who are aged 66 years or over who are in receipt of a social welfare payment or who satisfy a means test. The people about which the Deputy is concerned would not be in receipt of FIS. It would not bite at that level. It is worth putting on the record for posterity that the bill this year for free schemes is €279 million. That comprises €88 million for electricity allowances, €47 million for free television licences, €85 million for telephone allowances, €5.5 million for gas allowances, including bottled gas, and €52 million for free travel. The package — which includes an electricity allowance of €359 per annum, a free television licence worth €355, a telephone allowance of €296 per annum and free travel, estimated at €89 or €90 per annum — can be worth up to €900 per annum to an individual.

What persons, other than old age pensioners, will qualify for the household benefits package?

In general, the scheme applies to those aged 66 years or over who are living permanently in the State, who are in receipt of social welfare payments and who satisfy means tests. Some carers will qualify on the basis of a means test.

We are aware that those aged 66 years and over qualify for the package. Who else will qualify?

Those who will qualify include persons who are 70 years of age or older who are in receipt of carer's allowance, persons aged over 70 who are in receipt of qualifying payments and who live alone or with certain exempted persons and persons aged between 66 years and 69 years who satisfy a means test and who live alone or only with certain exempted persons. The Bill also includes a list of qualifying payments from which people may benefit while qualifying for the household benefits package, namely, old age contributory or non-contributory pensions, retirement, blind, widow's, invalidity and deserted wife's pensions, one-parent family payments — in certain circumstances — prisoner's wife's allowance and so on. In addition, EU reciprocal rights apply in regard to this scheme. In certain circumstances, a person under 66 years of age can qualify for the package. An example of this would be a lone parent who would qualify on foot of a means test.

Deputy Seán Ryan earlier outlined the case of a married couple with two children, where the husband is in receipt of the invalidity pension and where the wife works for 19 hours over three days each week and is thereby eligible for family income supplement. On the other days, the wife cares for her husband. Am I correct that the husband would qualify for the household benefits package as long as his wife's earnings do not exceed a specified amount?

What age is the person concerned?

He is under 66 years of age and in receipt of the invalidity pension. His wife earns less than €220 per week and, therefore, qualifies for family income supplement. However, the income gained from FIS is then taken into account when the family is means tested for the household benefits package. That couple, as pointed out earlier by Deputy Seán Ryan, were denied the household benefits package when account was taken of the FIS payment. They were then obliged to choose between the two benefits. It is surely an oversight on the part of the Minister that those in receipt of family income supplement would be denied the household benefits package. It undermines the essence of FIS and is, I am sure, an unintended development that should be reviewed. Deputy Seán Ryan has proposed that the income from FIS be disregarded from means tests relating to the household benefits package. I believe he is correct in this regard. The case outlined by the Deputy is ongoing. I am sure other Members are aware of cases of this nature.

The Minister stated that, on reaching 66 years of age, people will automatically qualify for the household benefits package. However, a particular category, those on contributory pensions and in receipt of a second pension — even though it might not amount to much — from, for example, a county council, Irish Rail, etc., will not qualify for the package. Perhaps the Minister might consider including such people, given they have actually paid their contributions. We are penalising those who worked and paid contributions, while people in receipt of non-means tested payments will automatically be entitled to the package. Perhaps the Minister would consider including persons who do not qualify because they are in receipt of small pensions such as those to which I refer.

I believe we are correct on this matter. I do not believe that the Minister's officials will disagree with our postulation. They may already have dealt with the case outlined, the decision in respect of which appears somewhat harsh. Family income supplement is supposed to encourage people to take up employment but it is taken into account when people are means tested for the household benefits package and results in their not qualifying for it.

We will examine the case made by members.

It may involve only a small number of people.

That is the point. To qualify for family income supplement, a couple must have children.

The couple concerned have two children.

We will examine the case. I will furnish the committee with a list of the weekly means income limit and how that is calculated. An example of a calculation is the maximum rate of old age pension plus €38 and any further allowances, as appropriate. There are clear criteria for means testing. Members have stated that, in a small number of cases, FIS is included as income and that this should not be the case. It would be our view that this situation applies in only a small number of cases.

I would be surprised and shocked if it applied in more than ten cases. Members have received representations on this matter.

The Chairman must have received representations in respect of all ten cases.

I am aware of only two cases.

I support what Deputy Ring said in respect of the advertising campaign relating to family income supplement. We have for some time encouraged the Minister to go down that road and I am glad that it is now happening.

This is one of the few sections in respect of which we can refer to family income supplement. Those working in community employment schemes can, based on their incomes, qualify for FIS but they are prevented from obtaining it because of the rule that a person cannot be in receipt of two payments. It is unfortunate that a person working in community employment and in receipt of a low wage does not qualify for family income supplement. I previously asked the Minister to examine this matter. While it may not be appropriate to raise it now, I take this opportunity to again ask the Minister to re-examine the position and revert to us on it at some future date.

The position is that we do not pay family income supplement to those involved in community employment. Our thinking is that it is not an open market situation. I promised the Deputy I would take another look at the issue and I will do so. Incidentally, some 22,000 people, an increase of 400 in the past year, are currently involved in CE schemes.

I will withdraw the amendment.

Given that there is only a small number of cases involved, it would be incongruous were we to allow such an anomaly to continue to grow. Deputy Seán Ryan has agreed to withdraw his amendment, subject to the Minister re-examining the issue.

If the committee agrees, we could submit a short note on the matter to it.

Yes, the committee could provide the Minister and his officials with an example of a case.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on ensuring Parents on Child Benefit Book Payments claim their final child benefit payment.".

Will the Minister indicate the number of parents who have not claimed their final child benefit payment? What procedures are in place to ensure that people are aware of their entitlement to such payment?

Some 3,100 of the 320,000 renewal bonus books for 2005 were uncollected and returned to the Department. Of the 3,100 uncollected books, 1,800 are single voucher payment books relating to children over 16 years of age who were the last eligible child in a family for benefit. Some 19,000 single voucher books issued last May as part of the 2005 renewal. The answer to the Deputy's question is that 1,800 are single voucher payment books. Of the 540,000 child benefit customers, 43% are now paid by means of electronic fund transfers. The balance are paid by personalised payment orders. Of the 320,000 paid by personal payable orders, PPOs, 19,000 are in possession of single voucher payment books that expire in June. Of these, 1,800 vouchers went uncollected and uncashed.

As members are aware, payment of child benefit is made automatically until a child reaches 16 years of age. Payment can be extended to 19 if the child is in full-time education. When we examined the matter previously, the Department concluded that the general reason books were not collected was because a child had left education and was, therefore, no longer eligible for the benefit. If a customer contacts the Department within approximately six months and can show good reason for failing to collect the payment, the payment can be reissued.

It is an interesting figure. While I do not know the exact percentage, I imagine that a significant proportion of the 1,800 would be entitled to payments from the Department.

The payment is approximately €140 a month.

While the Minister outlined various reasons — such as their having left education — for people not being entitled to the benefit, will he indicate the percentage of the 1,800 that would be entitled to an additional payment?

They are all entitled to a payment.

Is that every one of the 1,800?

Yes. They have the vouchers.

Given that they have not applied in the first instance, it is unlikely that they will make an application within the six-month period. These people do not know that they are entitled to the payment. The Department should notify those involved and inform them that a payment is outstanding. If they owed the Department money, it would be very quick to send them letters indicating the requirement to come to an arrangement to pay it back.

While I do wish to imply that the Minister's officials are missing the point, the key issue is that child benefit books often run from June to May. A child who sits the leaving certificate examination finishes on 12 or 14 June and moves on. The usual letter of certification of attendance at school might not, in that case, be furnished to the Department. The payment could not be made if the book finished in May. We have come across these issues before; we did not pluck our examples out of the sky. We did not think that there were 1,800 cases but that is obviously the number in existence. It might suffice to place a sticker in child benefit books, although the Department's EFT already resolves many of these problems.

We are talking about 320,000 books.

I know that. Only 1,800 of them are at issue.

People are notified that the book is waiting for them but they have not cashed the vouchers.

It was explained to us in a different manner. We were informed that the book ends in May, after which a book holder is entitled to one further payment. If, as the Minister says, they are notified about the book but do not bother to collect it, that is fair enough.

If these 1,800 people are entitled to a payment, the least we can do is inform them. It should be simple to do so, particularly with the new technology that has been put in place. If it occurs when the children involved are coming to the end of their educational careers, their identities should be clear to the Department and we should write out to them to say that there is money in the post office for them.

We do that.

Is it done after the due date and within the six-month period?

They are informed that the book is waiting for them.

We should write to them again after the date the payment expires and within the six-month period.

Is the Deputy stating that we should write to them again?

We will consider what it is possible to do.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on addressing the anomaly whereby having a dependent child older than 22 years of age (i.e. in full-time education) prevents parental qualification for free schemes.".

It is important to address the anomaly whereby having dependent children over 22 years of age who are in full-time education prevents parental qualification for free schemes. I dealt with a simple example of the phenomenon during the week. For the purposes of rent supplement, a child who was still in education and over 22 years of age was not deemed to be a dependant of the applicant parent. The sum of money of which the family was in receipt was reduced accordingly and they could not pay the balance. They are trying to cope with that problem now. This is only one aspect of the anomalies that exist. I look forward to the Minister's comment on them.

We have another example of a couple who live alone, with the exception a 22 year old son who is in full-time education and who, as such, is a dependant. The couple is in receipt of invalidity pension and would ordinarily be entitled to the household benefits package. However, while dependent children up to 21 years of age in full-time education are considered accepted persons under the household benefits package, the situation changes, regardless of their circumstances, when they go beyond 21. The parents' entitlement to the household benefits package fails in those circumstances. This happens to ordinary, working class households and it is a ridiculous anomaly when one considers that if the young lad in that house is studying medicine, it will take six years for him to qualify. That will take him beyond 21 years of age. A significant number of students also take Erasmus or break years. We should recognise the reality that while an increasing number of full-time students are dependent beyond the age of 22, parents who are on invalidity benefit still lose their entitlements. The child may come home from college at weekends and be only 21 years and three weeks, yet the benefit will be lost.

The system should reflect the extended nature of study. It was introduced when most courses were of four years' duration but many now go beyond that. It is another issue we have encountered, which suggests the committee has become the reservoir of the difficulties and technicalities that arise in the system. I should forego referring to technical matters.

I do not know with whom the Chairman is mixing.

I am beginning to wonder myself.

Whatever age is picked, there will be cost implications. To qualify for the household benefits package, the rule is that the applicant must live alone or with only certain excepted persons, for example, a dependent child aged under 18 years or under 22 years if he or she is in full-time education. The question at issue is whether the age limit of 22 years should be set higher. There are other categories of excepted persons which will allow the claimant to qualify for the household benefit package, for example a spouse or partner who is a qualified adult — a person who is so incapacitated as to require constant care and attention for at least 12 months, one may need to supply medical certification — or a person who would qualify for the allowance in his or her own right, such as a person in receipt of old age pension or who is providing the claimant or somebody in that household with constant care and attention. A list of excepted persons is laid out on page 214 of theGuide to Social Welfare Services. Every extension of the exempted persons categories has a cost implication. At this point it is not proposed to extend the age limit of exempted persons in full-time education.

As we do not have the power to make this change, I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on establishing a Statutory Review process of Reciprocal welfare arrangements with other EU states.".

A review process needs to be put in place. The Minister's predecessor outlined to the committee what needed to be done, but the court found that what she proposed to do was illegal at that stage. With the accession of new member states to the EU it is important this review is put in place.

Let me give an example of a live case where an Irish person who lived in Holland qualified for the equivalent of the invalidity pension. As a result of recent reforms in these payments, her basic payment was reduced but a large top-up payment based on participation in a rehabilitation programme was paid to those who were participating in the rehabilitative programme. However, on her return to Ireland she found under the reciprocal arrangements she was entitled to retain only the reduced basic payment, which is much lower than the Irish invalidity pension. She found also that she could not qualify for an invalidity pension as she had not made contributions to the Irish system. At present we are paying a much higher invalidity pension to Dutch nationals who return to Holland than the Dutch pay to Irish citizens who return to Ireland.

In other circumstances the opposite may be the case, but there are anomalies in the system. We request a regular review of reciprocal welfare arrangements so that Irish citizens who are in such situations do not lose out.

Let me encourage the committee to keep a close eye on the evolving situation. Staff in the Department must deal with issues which did not arise many years ago. Immigration is a major pressure point on the Department which now devises ways of helping people to integrate as well as ensuring it pays what is right and proper. I encourage the committee to keep a close eye on regulation EU 14/08 as well as the Human Rights Commission, as we would all benefit from that.

The general rule is that a person is insured in the state in which he or she works, and it is responsible for paying benefits when the person becomes unemployed or ill. The regulations also provide that when entitlement to benefit is being examined, account must be taken of insurance paid in any other member state where the person worked. In the case of pensions, different rules apply and in general a person will get a pension from each state in which he or she worked in proportion to the periods of insurance completed in each of the member states. The regulations also set out a number of rules to determine which state pays family benefits. The main rule is that the amount of family benefit in the State where a person works has priority over the level of payment in the State where a person lives. If the amount of family benefit in the state in which a person lives is higher than in the state in which he or she works, the state where the person lives provides the top up, which is equal to the difference between the two amounts.

If a member state introduced a new national scheme, it has to consider the categorisation of that scheme for the purposes of EU regulations 14/08 and others and try to co-ordinate the payment of the benefit in accordance with the rules as laid down. We apply these general guidelines but there are swings and roundabouts. In view of the existing procedures for scrutinising EU proposals, there does not appear to be a need to establish a further review process at this stage. All new EU proposals are monitored by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, which in turn put forward proposals for further consideration by select committee. However that does not stop this committee from having a very close look at it.

Section 32 of the Bill, which deals with invalidity pensions provides that a person who qualifies for an Irish invalidity pension under EU regulations will not suffer a reduction of pension if he or she subsequently becomes entitled to a survivor's pension or a retirement pension under EU regulations from another EU member state.

It is a case of swings and roundabouts. Irish citizens in other member states benefit, for example people in Donegal who live in this jurisdiction and work in another. Situations like that are evolving.

The general rules I read out apply. The deciding issue is where one works and is insured.

I note the Minister's comments. We will look at it again. A decision will not be taken today and for that reason I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on addressing the anomaly whereby if a carer who is looking after his or her spouse (the spouse being in receipt of a social assistance payment) takes up the option of 10 hours of employment per week, the spouse's payment reduces.".

This anomaly arises where a carer who looks after his or her spouse takes up the option of employment and finds the net effect is a reduction in the payment to which his or her spouse was entitled in his or her own right.

As anomalies pop up we examine them and try to iron them out. In this case, provision was made in the budget of 2006 to increase the income disregard on the carer's allowance means test to €580 per week for a couple from April 2006. This will ensure a couple can have an income of up to €32,625 per annum and still receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance. The same couple will be able to earn up to €52,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance as well as free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant. As the Deputy knows, the budget also increased from ten to 15 the number of hours per week a carer can work from April next. This is in recognition of the economic and therapeutic value of such work.

It can happen that someone in receipt of carer's allowance might be looking after a person who is also in receipt of a payment from the Department. In certain cases, the carer's earnings from work can result in a reduction on the other person's payments. Various measures that will improve the position in this regard were introduced in the budget. For example, €100 of a carer's weekly earnings will be disregarded and from September next those on blind pensions who are aged over 66, widows and others will also have an entitlement in this regard. The increase in the number of hours a carer can work from ten to 15 and the €100 disregard should ease the pressure.

The case to which Deputy Seán Ryan referred involved a man caring for his wife. He was getting the carer's allowance and working for ten hours and she was in receipt of blind pension. The disregards are generous and ensure that he will not lose out but as soon as he earns a little extra, it will impact on his wife's blind pension. I hope the measure introduced in the budget, which take effect from September, will address that anomaly.

That is the intention.

I hope it will have an effect.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 40 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on clarifying the impact of the extra €100 per week in September on secondary benefits of NCOAPs."

I wish to speak to amendment No. 40, which — because members on this side are not in a position to do anything else — seeks that a report be laid before the House. The amendment reads:

In page 14, before section 17, to insert the following new section:

17.—The Minister shall, within 6 months of the commencement of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the implications of allowing—

(a) similar earnings,

(b) means,

(c) income, and

(d) capital disregards,

to recipients of the national (contributory) pension, as each is available to those in receipt of the national (non-contributory) pension, before their entitlement to secondary benefits are affected.

I am familiar with the case of a person who is in receipt of the old age contributory pension and a small occupational pension of approximately €62 and whose wife is in receipt of a non-contributory old age pension. As a result of his occupational pension, he exceeds the income limit for the fuel allowance. His occupational pension is also used to reduce his wife's non-contributory old age pension by approximately €25 per week. He is of the view the double assessment of his occupational pension is unfair.

There is also the case of capital versus income. At present, anyone in receipt of non-contributory old age pension can have capital of up to €28,000 in the bank, while a pensioner couple can have €56,000 before their entitlement to secondary benefits, such as the fuel allowance, are affected. These amounts will be raised to €35,000 and €70,000, respectively, due to changes introduced in the Bill. In order to have €28,000 in the bank — this was introduced in order that SSIA holders would not be penalised — the capital must have attracted an income at some point.

The person to whom I referred earlier is not in a position to convert his occupational pension into income. The latter pension is used to deny him the fuel allowance. Similarly, if a non-contributory old age pensioner has €28,000 in the bank, he or she is in a position to supplement his or her non-contributory old age pension by taking an amount out of his or her savings each week. This is not classified as income. If the person to whom I refer dies, his occupational pension will die with him and his wife will no longer receive it. However, if one person out a pensioner couple with €56,000 dies, the spouse can still access that capital. This is a question of capital, which is fairly substantial, versus occupational income, which is small. In the instance to which I refer, the occupational income is a disadvantage to the person involved.

With the introduction of the €100 earnings disregard, the person's wife would be able to earn €100 per week before her pension would be affected. Unfortunately, the woman in question is ill and will not be in a position to work. If the husband was in receipt of the non-contributory old age pension, his wife's earnings would not be used to reduce his pension. However, the €62 occupational pension is used to reduce his wife's pension. Similarly, €100 will not affect a non-contributory old age pensioner's entitlement to secondary social welfare benefits such as the fuel allowance. However, the occupational pension will be used to disqualify the person to whom I refer from that allowance. If he were to earn income from work, anything he earned would be added to his income, such as old age contributory pension or occupational pension, and the entire amount would be subject to tax. In this instance, a small occupational pension is causing a major problem. When it is placed against the capital allowed, it is obvious that an imbalance exists.

Deputy Stanton put forward an eloquent argument. We all welcome the fact that a non-contributory old age pensioner can earn €100 extra per week without his or her entitlements being affected. As the regulation stands, if he or she earns an extra €100 per week, it will affect his or her entitlement to a medical card because no amendment has been made to the medical guidelines to address the possible impact of this new rule. We must focus on the need for joined-up government.

At the weekend, I raised the issue of the €51 restriction. If a person has an occupational pension of €51, he or she is eligible for the fuel allowance. That amount has remained static for the past five years. If pensioners who might qualify for the fuel allowance earn, for example, €60 or €65, the head would not be worth the wash because they will lose the fuel allowance. We are not trying to be awkward but we are pointing out the difficulty. One might as well learn in June as July that there are problems coming down the track. Deputy Stanton expanded on the issue more eloquently than I would be in a position to do.

The fuel allowance is causing a problem in respect of occupational pensions, some of which are very meagre. I know people in Iarnród Éireann who receive approximately €50 occupational pensions. If they receive €52, they are not eligible for the fuel allowance. For the sake of €2 per week, that is, €104 per year, one will lose the fuel allowance and, as a result, one will be much worse off. The Minister will inform me that I am not a fool and that I know that a limit must be set. I take the point. One can make that point, which is valid, and it is difficult to argue against it.

We are introducing something which is attractive and which recognises the new reality that people are living and working longer. The Minister is providing that choice, which goes along with the individualisation arguments that were the focus of great debate in the 1990s. We must accept matters as they now stand. If the Minister is trying to help people, what will happen when they earn €60 or €70? He will state that he looked after them and observe that they are in receipt of their full pensions. However, the Minister is denying them the fuel allowance and he knows what will happen.

I do not wish to look at my colleague but I can imagine a day in October when he will be in full flight across the Chamber and when we will realise very quickly that a major mistake has been made. In fairness, he is one of the best at articulating those issues. We are trying to point out the problems to try to ensure that we will not be obliged to deal with them. Deputy Stanton made a much more expansive presentation. I have raised the matter of the fuel allowance on many occasions. It is the Minister's responsibility to unravel the difficulties involved.

The Chairman needs to take a few weeks off from his clinics.

We did not need to hold clinics in order to be encouraged to raise this matter. We are considering what might happen in the future.

While the €100 disregard has received an amount of attention, it is not nearly as beneficial as the movement made to increase the weekly means disregard from €7.60 to €20 per week. From September next, 30,000 pensioners will benefit directly from increased payments of up to €12.50 per week and, where a qualified adult rate is in payment, by a further €8.30 per week from September. Those 30,000 pensioners will get an immediate increase in September.

The €100 disregard was meant to be as much a signal as anything else and was intended to encourage recipients not to be afraid to earn additional funds. I would like to see it increase from €100 as soon as that is affordable.

The Deputy is concerned about the effect of all this on secondary benefits. We will be obliged to work our way through the issue because, as we improve incomes and the disregards and allow people to earn more, I do not want the effect to be that people will begin to lose their entitlements as they become better off under the system. As a policy statement, that is the current position.

The committee will be aware that €317 is retained, subject to a household income limit. Some years ago, we considered retaining secondary benefits such as rent, mortgage interest supplements and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. The income limit was set at €317.40 and has regard to the retention of secondary benefits. It applies to those who take up full-time employment after 12 months of unemployment or who take up certain approved training or educational opportunities such as, for example, FÁS courses or CE schemes. The €100 disregard for pensions does not apply to the €317 limit, which is an important point.

We are making a start. The €100 must come from employment. To answer Deputy Stanton, at this stage it would not count if the €100 came from self-employment, farm income, a foreign pension or an occupational pension. The entitlement is quite limited and only refers to insurable employment. I would like to reach a stage where we can broaden the entitlement but, to begin with, the process is confined to employment. I can see how this could cause misunderstandings, a point I have discussed with many Deputies in recent days.

My question referred to small occupational pensions, which seem to be causing problems for many people.

The €100 limit would not operate in that regard.

I know. It is a different issue altogether. The limit is used, for example, to reduce the non-contributory old age pension of a spouse. In addition, a person might exceed the limit for a fuel allowance if he or she has a small occupational pension. When the income limit is considered in conjunction with the capital disregard, there is a clear imbalance in that a couple could have €70,000 in the bank, while another person earns perhaps €62 extra per week from an occupational pension. The €62 per week would disallow a person from secondary benefits, whereas the money a couple has in the bank has no impact. The Minister should examine that contradiction. It is a real issue.

The increase in the weekly means disregard from €7.60 to €20 per week should help substantially if the pension is a small occupational pension. Obviously, it depends on the figures. I will consider the issue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

"1.—The Minister shall within 6 months from after the passing of this Act prepare and lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on addressing the imbalance whereby the qualified adults of old age pensioners who turn 80 do not receive an over 80 allowance whereas the main recipient does.".

An anomaly arises in this regard. How does the Minister propose to deal with it?

The Minister might claim that we are prepared to propose measures but not to cost them. On this occasion, we costed the proposal and obtained the figures directly from the Department. The cost of extending the over-80 allowance to all qualified adults on contributory old age pensions — it affects older women in the main — would be approximately €1.94 million in a full year. The cost of extending it to all qualified adults over-80 would be approximately €3 million.

I feel strongly about this issue. It is a great achievement to reach the age of 80. If funding is available, elderly people of that age, who have served the country well and contributed to the current prosperity, should not be left out of the equation. It is not a big sum of money. The proposal is worth considering and would be an acknowledgment for those aged over 80 years.

If at all possible, the Minister should consider the proposal favourably. While I accept that it has funding implications, the Minister can revisit the issue on Report Stage. His imprimatur would deal with the fact we cannot propose changes with a financial cost in this context.

Is the Chairman referring to contributory pensioners?

If the pension was non-contributory, those over 80 years would get the full pension in their own right, which would get them the allowance.

It is limited.

I had not come across this problem. The Chairman is wrecking my head.

I am glad. Our heads have also been wrecked.

I thank the Chairman for costing the proposed change, although the Department probably did it for him. At present, the over-80 allowance, which is paid to the main recipient, is an extra payment to persons aged over 80 years and in receipt of social welfare pensions. It increased from €6.40 to €10 in the budget. Some 3,700 qualified adults over 80 years are in receipt of old age contributory and retirement pensions. The cost is €1.94 million per annum and the cost of paying it on apro rata basis, assuming payment at 77% of the maximum rate, is estimated at €1.5 million per annum. I will review the matter. I take the point with regard to both parties being over 80.

We are arguing for a salute to the independence of these pensioners. It is mainly men who are in receipt of the allowance at present.

We are talking about contributory pensioners who may have other income of a substantial nature. Having said that, if one is over 80, one is over 80.

The Minister should, if possible, consider the proposal. We cannot do so. We tabled the amendment to highlight the difficulty. I hope the Minister can address it.

I welcome the positive approach taken by the Minister. We look forward to an amendment from him on Report Stage. If he feels that he has funds available for the remainder of the year, he might consider the proposal.

It is a good point, which relates to one of the many anomalies in the system. Women comprise 55% of social welfare claimants but frequently do not have access to benefits. We referred earlier to the qualified adult payment, which is approximately 70% of the full adult allowance and is paid to the primary claimant. The welfare of women is linked to this payment rate, particularly in view of the fact that they comprise 95% of all qualified adults. It is they who will mainly be affected. Reform in the area of the qualified adult rate for pensions is particularly critical for older women, who, at an age of 65 plus, have a 41% chance of being approximately 60% below the poverty line.

On a related issue, when the qualified adult payment is made to a woman's husband, her economic independence is limited. If the relationship is troubled or violent, this dependence can stop women leaving. The State does not recognise these women as individuals in their own right. They exist only through their husbands. It is the women who left work and assumed caring responsibilities in the home due to the marriage bar who are now qualified adults and face old age with little access to State pensions. Even today people who spend time caring for their young children or disabled and elderly relatives still do not earn pension credits on foot of this unpaid work. The welfare system does not enable women to provide for their old age, while society as a whole benefits from their essential care work. Although another amendment dealing with this issue was ruled out of order, we should consider the possibility of paying qualified adult allowance directly to the qualified adult in all cases should she or he wish to receive it directly. Many do not realise that this is possible.

It is an administrative rather than a financial issue.

It is purely administrative. It would mean people would be treated as individuals in their own right.

One can opt to have the allowance paid separately if the main recipient agrees.

That is the problem.

The take-up is very small. If we are serious about this — I am examining the issue very closely — we need to turn it the other way around and make the payments to the qualified adult, unless it is agreed that the payments are to be combined. That throws up other issues. There would be two cheques and the value of one would be smaller. That would create its own pressure.

I agree.

Nevertheless, it would be the right way to go. The decision to pay child benefit directly to the mother was widely approved of. I am seriously interested in making such a change in this area, but I need to examine what glitches there might be and how practical it would be.

Can the Minister do this by administrative order or would primary legislation be necessary?

It would require primary legislation.

Therefore, we will not get around to doing this until next year, unless the Minister introduces a special Bill.

That is the case, unless there is other legislation in the meantime. That could well happen.

I strongly favour such an approach. People feel they are non-persons if they get nothing and the husband receives all the payments.

The Minister has indicated he will examine all the ramifications. In fairness, he must do this before he moves on the issue.

It is right in principle. There may be some unintended consequences. We must make sure we know what we are doing and avoid upsetting people even more.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 1 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 5, before section 2, but in Part 2, to insert the following new section:

"2.—In this Act, "Minister" means the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.".

I am not sure whether this amendment is necessary or whether the Principal Act covers it. The amendment speaks for itself.

I am advised that it is not necessary because the existing Acts already define the term "Minister".

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 2 and 3 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 16:

In page 6, before section 4, to insert the following new section:

"4.—The Minister shall, within 3 months of the commencement of this Act, lay a report on the effectiveness of Child Benefit and Child Income Support as a tool for tackling child poverty, before the Houses of the Oireachtas.".

This amendment deals with the persistence of child poverty, an issue about which we are all concerned. The amendment gives us an opportunity to debate it. Fine Gael is very concerned about the persistence of child poverty in our society and the fact that if children start life in poverty and remain in poverty throughout the very important pre-school, primary school and secondary school years, their life chances are hugely diminished. We note that levels of consistent child poverty are still at 9%, even though the Government target for 2007 is 2%. This means that one child in 11 lives in consistent poverty. Child poverty is the subject of one of the special initiatives of Sustaining Progress. It must by tackled by way of an interdepartmental approach and more effort and energy must be put into tackling it. The huge increases in child benefit have not made an impact in reducing child poverty.

The Minister has been talking for some time about a second tier payment, possibly employment neutral, targeted at children living in poverty. Such a payment is needed to help fight child poverty. The national children's strategy and the national anti-poverty strategy set out the Government's plans to reduce the level of consistent poverty to 2% by 2007. The latest figures for child poverty released a little more than two months ago by the EU SILC 2004 show the level of child poverty at 9%. One child in every 11 is in dire straits. Much more needs to be done.

People living in consistent poverty are those whose household income is below 70% of the median income level and who lack at least one item from the basic deprivation list. This means, to give a few examples, that they cannot afford new clothes but buy second-hand clothes; they cannot afford a meal with meat, chicken or fish every second day, or a warm waterproof coat. The Combat Poverty Agency and Barnardos have drawn our attention to the extent of child poverty, with the number of children living in consistent poverty being estimated at approximately 144,000, with a further 350,000 at risk of poverty. The Minister has referred to child poverty as an "unacceptable blemish" on Irish society. I would go a step further and call it a disgrace that in a period of prosperity child poverty levels are so high. Ending child poverty is something we must all strive to achieve because children can become marginalised very quickly in society, unless their life chances are improved.

Child poverty is linked to other issues such as adequate housing. We have all come across families dependent on social welfare renting houses at €800 or €900 a month. Such persons come to our clinics in dire straits because, in some cases, they have not enough money to buy food. On many occasions I have had to refer people to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to enable them to get something to eat. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is not good enough that children are in such circumstances. As children enter their teenage years, they are more expensive to maintain. They demand and need more. This is an issue we must take seriously. There is no point putting our heads in the sand and pretending there is no problem. It is an issue that must be dealt with. I again encourage the Minister to bring forward the targeted second tier payment as soon as possible.

I welcome the Minister's decision to raise awareness of family income supplement. That will help. We need to focus on child poverty and eradicate it. I challenged the Minister previously to set a target date for the eradication of consistent child poverty. I again ask him to strive for this.

I support Deputy Stanton. The child benefit increases are substantial and welcome and there is no point in being petulant and not acknowledging the level of increase. The child dependant allowance was targeted directly at the well-being and welfare of the child and was paid in that fashion. It has not been touched since 1994. Perhaps the Minister would consider the possibility of amalgamating the issues involved. That was proposed some 12 months ago by either the NESC or the ESRI. Child poverty is an issue that will not go away under the policies being pursued. In a time of great wealth it is incumbent upon us to ensure the one legacy we leave behind is the eradication of child poverty. It is very sad that people are not in a position to obtain the basic requirements for life. The Labour Party will be extremely supportive of whatever measures the Minister can implement to tackle the underlying problem.

I support the amendment and welcome the opportunity to debate it. While I welcome the increases in child benefit, it must be acknowledged that we often take matters for granted. Information supplied to the committee by the End Child Poverty Coalition outlined the extent of the problem. In 2001 more than 6.5% of children were living in constant poverty and 23% in relative income poverty. It is important to note that children in families with three or more children, those living in lone parent households and children of Travellers and asylum seekers are particularly at risk of poverty. The reality is that the longer a child lives in poverty and experiences being poor the greater the impact on his or her life chances and those of subsequent families. I know this is not an easy problem to solve. However, as a nation, we must respond and put in place the resources necessary to address child poverty. It behoves us, as politicians, to raise the issue. It is up to the Minister to inform us of how he intends to respond to it.

I am aware of the committee's commitment to eradicating child poverty. It is an issue at the top of my agenda. We have made substantial progress in recent years. The latest official figure from the EU SILC survey suggests the percentage of children living in consistent poverty in 2004 was approximately 6.8%.

The figure has increased from 6.5% in 2001.

The figure I have given is for 2004. The figure for 2006 may be just under 6%, given the increases in benefits. However, it is still too high. The correct figure is 0%, a target towards which I am working, although I do not have a timescale in that regard. I will continue to address the problem until child poverty is eradicated in 21st century Ireland.

Members will be aware that, with the introduction of the new child care allowance, all other provisions targeted at eradicating child poverty, including child benefit, taxation measures, FIS, back to school and meals allowances, have been substantially improved. I have mentioned that a two parent family with two children on the minimum wage of €16,000 qualifies for a further €6,500 in FIS, child benefit of €3,600, child care allowance of €2,000, a back to school allowance of €240, giving a total amounting to some €12,500 in welfare payments. Therefore, a family with two children under six years of age on the minimum wage of €16,000 qualifies for €12,500 in welfare payments, bringing its total cash income to €28,000. There are many other similar examples, depending on the income involved. The evidence suggests children living in poverty are in large families and of lone parents. However, they are not confined to families in receipt of welfare payments but also families on low incomes, at whom family income supplement is directed. Through all these mechanisms, we are targeting the eradication of child poverty.

I remain committed to a second tier payment. In that regard, I met yesterday the NESC which informed me that the task was not as simple as it had believed and involved dealing with many issues, including integration with the taxation system and how it would affect the new child care allowance. The NESC also wants to look at how child dependant allowances can lead to the creation of a poverty trap or a lack of aspiration to work. It has not yet provided me with a proposal with which I can run. However, I am determined to push ahead with a reworking of the CDA and FIS in order that we can target the issue further down the line. The subject is a broad one which we could discuss at length.

I am concerned about the rate of progress which is slow, despite the amount of money pumped into this area during the past nine or ten years. That investment does not appear to be having the impact we would like it have. Many children continue to live in dire straits, while parents are under ferocious pressure.

I do not wish to interrupt the Deputy but some of the issues are not financial and we are trying to find a way around them. Funds are being given to parents but I do not know if they are getting any further. For example, rent allowance is available to everybody from the Department. There is no need for anyone to be sleeping rough. We may need to do more work on whether the money being pumped into this area is getting to the right people.

Statistics suggest there is now more than one mobile per person in the State. There will be anomalies where people technically living in poverty own a mobile phone. We must, therefore, take account of the famous list with which we measure poverty. It includes such items as whether one can entertain people two nights a month or can own two pairs of shoes and so on. Some of the items relate to lifestyle. Whether one can entertain people two nights a month at home is a lifestyle issue. It is not a traditional measure but is included in the list. We are not too far away from including owning a mobile phone. We, therefore, need to be a little circumspect. However, we have an unacceptable level of child poverty; whether it is 6% or 1%, it is too high. We need to be careful about how we measure poverty and our assumption that finance alone will solve the problem. We may need to make structural changes.

I agree with the Minister that structural changes are probably necessary and that finance alone will not solve the problem. However, we also need an agreed measure acceptable to all. Each time we raise this issue the Minister comes up with a different measure. If we speak of relative income poverty, the Minister speaks of consistent poverty and if we speak of consistent poverty, he speaks about whether people do or do not have a mobile phone. We are all aware from our clinics of the existence of people who have no money. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations have stated their budgets are growing year on year. We need to take this matter seriously because, as Deputy Ryan pointed out, people's lives are being negatively impacted on. Such persons do not do well in school or life. The economy demands high skills in the labour market and the lives of those who drop out of school early will be negatively impacted upon by such decisions. I do not wish to labour the point but we must come up with a measure on which we can all agree. Given ten years of boom, we should be making more progress.

The office for social inclusion based in my Department is in the process of preparing the next national action plan against poverty and social exclusion which will be submitted to the European Union in September. I am keen to ensure the new plan will continue and strengthen our efforts to reduce the levels of consistent poverty.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 17, 41, 54, 58, 64 and 66 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 17:

In page 6, lines 11 to 14, to delete subsection (1) and substitute the following:

"4.—(1) Each provision of the Principal Act and each instrument mentioned incolumn (2) of Schedule 1 to this Act is amended in the manner specified in column (3) of that Schedule opposite the mention of that provision or instrument in column (2).”.

This is a technical amendment to reflect the fact that the scheme name change provisions in the Bill apply to both the principal Act and the statutory instruments.

Amendment agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 5.20 p.m. and resumed at 5.40 p.m.

I thank Deputy Ring for chairing the meeting in my absence. I believe he did a much better job than I was doing.

I move amendment No. 18:

In page 6, subsection (3) line 19, to delete "pension" and substitute "allowance".

There is a mistake in amendment No. 18, which the Minister's officials have spotted and accommodated in amendment No. 19a. The reference should have been to line 22.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 19, 20, 26 to 39, inclusive, 42, 43, 55 to 57, inclusive, and 59 to 63, inclusive, are cognate and will be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 19:

In page 6, subsection (3), line 20, to delete "State" and substitute "national".

The Minister is proposing to change the name of the old age contributory pension, old age non-contributory pension and other pension payments to State pension. It is a good idea which reflects society's move from ageism. I also agree with the rationalisation of the schemes and the more of this the better. My question relates to how the Minister arrived at the decision to call it a State pension, as this name will remain for a long time. When we refer to the State, it conjures up a body that is impersonal, with connotations of being overbearing. For that reason I suggest we call it a national pension. Another connotation is that the State is giving something, when, in fact, this is an entitlement to which persons have contributed to or which, by virtue of citizenship, are entitled. Changing a title is important as language is very powerful. Calling it an old age pension has its own connotations and dates back to 1908. It would be less overbearing to call it a national pension.

As I told the House, Lloyd George introduced the old age pension and I have been waiting a long time to undo the title. We went through a process and considered various names such as national pension, State pension, senior citizen's pension and the aged pension. Each name had its attractions and disadvantages, for example, senior citizen's pension sounded a little patronising.

Let me tell the Deputy what put us off the word "national". My first preference was national which has a warm feeling about it until the following information coloured my judgment. The word conveys a payment based on citizenship and residence. In the context of immigration with non-nationals arriving in the country, it suggests we do not take account of persons who are not Irish citizens. It suggests 1916 and if one was not in the GPO on a Saturday afternoon, one will not get it. By a process of elimination, we arrived at the word "State". One receives a State pension because one contributed to a State run scheme by paying income tax or into a fund. It is a scheme administered by the State. Until another Lloyd George comes along, it is the best I can do.

The Minister has given a rational explanation.

It was useful to listen to the thinking behind the wording. For that reason I am happy to withdraw the amendment and the others grouped with it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 19a:

In page 6, subsection (4), line 22, to delete "pension" and substitute "allowance" .

As I would have tabled a similar amendment, I have no problem accepting the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 20 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are cognate and will be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 21:

In page 6, subsection (7), line 32, to delete "jobseeker's" and substitute "workseeker's".

The Minister wishes to substitute jobseeker's benefit in place of unemployment benefit. Again, I wholeheartedly agree with this because it is substituting a more positive word in place of one with a negative connotation and possible stigma. I respectfully suggest the word "work" is broader than "job" and encompasses a great deal more. The words "workseeker's benefit" cover people who might want to become self-employed and establish their own business rather than going out to find a job. The word "jobseeker" harks back to the 1960's and 1970's. The word "work" is broader. I looked it up in the thesaurus and it means business, craft and employment, and incorporates job, livelihood, occupation, profession, pursuit and trade. What the Minister wants to achieve by changing the word "unemployed" would be achieved by "workseeker".

My view is different from Deputy Stanton. This has a Mandelson's touch, spin. Deputies will know that I am not over-excited by the drift in thinking of the British Labour Party. It is a matter of semantics. The Minister sees the wording as reflecting reform, but I respectfully disagree. I do not see a change of name from unemployment benefit or assistance as changing the substance of the benefit. One will still be getting the same amount of money. We appear to be following the United Kingdom slavishly and it is a triumph of spin over substance. It has been proven meaningless in the United Kingdom where a similar change was made approximately ten years ago and it will prove meaningless here.

Under the provisions of section 15, unemployed persons will lose the entitlement to regard themselves as retired from the age of 55 years and no word change can disguise this fact. My view is that changing words does not change the underlying position. I grew up believing it was the amount of money that mattered, not the term used to designate the payment.

I agree with the case made by Deputy Stanton although I am aware that it does not change the situation for the recipient. I also agree with the Chairman that in the final analysis we will be judged on how we deal with people rather than whether we define them as unemployed or as looking for work.

In the UK the term "jobseeker" is used. The reason I used the term workseeker is to differentiate us from the UK. A jobseeker must persuade somebody else to give him or her a job, whereas a workseeker can work for himself or herself.

Work can be generated.

One can generate work as well as get a job. The term "workseeker" is broader.

The Minister might succumb to those very strong arguments.

They are good arguments. However, it is a question of a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet.

I agree with the Minister. Perhaps he will make our three and a half hours' work worthwhile and agree to one amendment.

There are valid arguments on the other side. First, the term used in Northern Ireland is "jobseeker". That means that on the island of Ireland, whether one is in Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan or Cavan, we are in line with Northern Ireland.

Deputy Stanton put forward very strong arguments. We want to encourage people to seek work. At one level, therefore, "workseeker" is a better term. However, using that term would open up a gap between South and North. The other issue relates to the definition of work. Many people work in the home and I do not want to go into that area under this heading. There are, therefore, two reasons why the term "jobseeker" is better than the term "workseeker", although I see the broader argument that it does not really capture the concept of self-employment. It could be argued that the second part of the word "self-employment" is "employment" so that one has given oneself a job. It is semantics, but one could argue that according to company law one is employed as the manager or the chief executive of a company. Most self-employed people are on PAYE and regard themselves as having a job. I may be splitting hairs a little but on balance, given the Northern Ireland and work in the home aspects it is safer to use the term "jobseeker".

In regard to the UK, I did not approach the issue from that perspective. The UK is a bit heavy-handed in the way it treats some of its unemployed people. That is not the ethos we have here. We have an employment action plan under which FÁS interviewed 18,000 people in the past 12 months. A total of 10,000 of those got training or employment and left the live register. We engage with people, we talk to them, interview them and help them to retrain and find employment. We help people towards employment. We do not just let them sit there. Our employment action plan has been very successful. The word "unemployment" portrays a passive situation in which someone is unemployed and being paid on foot of that. It is better to pay people to move actively towards a new situation. It is not something for which I would die at the stake. I was more interested in changing the old age aspect and when doing that I looked at other aspects. The most important thing is to bring it into line with Northern Ireland for the sake of neatness.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 22 not moved.
Question proposed: "That section 4, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Section 4(2) provides that disability benefit shall be read as a reference to illness benefit. Many people with a disability do not regard themselves as being ill. Likewise people who are ill do not regard themselves as disabled. I cannot suggest a better term. This is an issue that arose when we dealt with the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. It may arise again.

I wanted to be very careful about this. I did not want to upset people who have a disability. We are talking about approximately 70,000 people. Because we are talking about the short term, "illness" is a better definition. If we are to help such people to move back to employment — we are not doing enough to help them to access work, training and education if they so wish — we need to do more and we will never do it as long as we keep the term "disability". We would be accused of pressing people who are disabled to move to employment. That is not what I am trying to. I am trying to help people who are temporarily ill. People on disability allowance are a different matter and there is no proposal to change that title. In this instance the term "illness" is better in terms of capturing the short-term nature of the scheme. We consulted disability authorities on the issue. They had some reservations but most went along with it.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 5 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 23:

In page 7, line 11, to delete "for a contribution" and substitute "only for a single contribution".

This is a technical amendment.

I am advised that the wording in the Bill is quite clear in its intent that where a person decides to claim tax relief for child care services within the meaning of the Tax Acts, up to €10,000 in any given tax year, he or she will make one annual social insurance contribution of €253.

Can the Minister outline the benefits to which home childminders paying the €253 will be entitled?

It will safeguard entitlements to a range of social welfare benefits, including the State contributory pension, the widow's or widower's contributory pension and maternity benefit.

At the full rate?

It comes under the class S contribution for the self-employed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 6 agreed to.
Section 7 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 24:

In page 7, before section 8, to insert the following new section:

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

We have had much discussion on this already. I welcome the changes to carer's benefit and carer's leave, which increases the time limit for both. I welcome the increased number of hours a carer can work. Perhaps this should be increased to at least 18 hours to reflect the average part-time job.

In the absence of a national strategy for carers the Carers Association has developed one. Can the Minister tell the committee whether the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in conjunction with other Departments, is working on the development of a national strategy for carers?

Lobby groups have called for a payment, equal to the minimum wage, for those who care for aging, disabled or infirm relatives in the home. They also suggest that the current benefit or allowance is little more than a subsistence payment and claim that paying the national minimum wage to carers would bring us in line with what is done in many other EU countries. The argument made by Age Action in respect of paying carer's a decent wage is that it would encourage more people to become carers and, in line with Government policy, allow a higher proportion of elderly people to remain in their homes. We discussed this issue earlier.

The Minister stated that a key part of the national strategy for older people is to develop community care services that would allow as many people as possible to remain outside residential or institutional care. He also stated that the Government is committed to rolling out a further 2,000 home care packages. How many of these packages have been completed to date and what is the position in respect of them?

I raised the next issue to which I wish to refer on a number of previous occasions with the Minister. We all know that children as young as 12 years of age are missing out on an education because they are obliged to care for sick siblings or ill parents. UCC and Combat Poverty will later this year publish research on young carers, which illustrates that being a young carer has significant negative implications on a young person's life and well-being and affects his or her education, employment, relationships and health. The research suggests that inadequate information supports and professional interventions are responsible for making difficult situations worse for young carers. It also suggests that organisations in contact with young people may be unaware that they are carers. The Minister previously stated that he is aware of this problem. What action has he taken in this area in the meantime?

The recent budget provides €53 million for carers under different headings, including an increase of €26.40 up to €180 for a carer under 66 years of age and €30 up to €200 for carers over 66 years of age. The respite care grant has been increased from €1,000 to €1,200, an increase of €200. The disregards for carer's allowance have been increased — by €20 and €40, respectively — to €290 for a single person and €580 for a couple. The number of hours that recipients of the carer's allowance, carer's benefit and respite care benefit are entitled to work has been increased by ten to 15. We also extended the duration of the carer's benefit scheme by nine months to two years. The cost of all those increases to the Exchequer is €53 million. The recent budget has provided for substantial improvements in respect of carers.

A working group chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and including senior officials from the Departments of Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs and Finance discussed the subject of community care. The work of the group follows on from the Mercer and O'Shea reports. The Government is considering the report to see how best it can proceed. The number of home care packages available is a matter for the Department of Health and Children. I do not have the figure in that regard but I can forward it to the Deputy.

On the strategy, we met representatives of the carers' associations on a number of occasions. I am interested in working with them on a strategic approach to carers. I argue that much of what we are doing here is just that. The associations have made the valid point that while we do a great deal for those being cared for, we need to put in place a structure for those providing the care. I am interested in discussing that issue with them. The formal writing of a strategy is a matter for both parties. We must look at how best we can shape such a strategy.

Has there been any improvement in the position of young carers?

This matter was raised previously and the view was taken that we should not pay carer's allowance to people under 18 years of age for the very good reason that they should be in school.

That is not the issue. Young people, often as young as 12 years old, are increasingly finding themselves in situations that impact negatively on their life chances and future career prospects. It is incumbent on the State and the Government, in conjunction with all the relevant agencies, to examine how this problem can be addressed. I have raised this issue with the Minister on a number of occasions.

I know that. It is perhaps an issue the Deputy should raise with the Department of Education and Science. I would be slow to alter the age at which carer's allowance is payable.

I am not suggesting that the Minister should do so. I suggest that he put in place supports that would relieve these children of such burdens and allow them to return to education.

That is the real answer to the problem.

I do not believe that this issue is being addressed by anybody. I ask the Minister to meet his counterpart in the Department of Education and Science in an effort to find a solution to this problem, which affects hundreds of children. Catering for the intimate needs of their parents, siblings or others is an enormous burden for young children. It is not fair and the Government should try to assist and support young carers.

I will discuss the issue with the Minister for Education and Science. It is not a simple matter but the destination is clear, namely, that we should put in place supports to ensure that others, not children, should undertake such work.

I am not sure the Minister is willing to address the problem. However, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sections 8 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 25:

In page 10, before section 14, to insert the following new section:

"14.—The Minister shall, within 6 months of the commencement of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the implications of extending the—

(a) new means,

(b) income, and

(c) capital disregards,

as introduced in the new national (non-contributory) pension, to those in receipt of the retirement pension.".

This amendment deals with retirement pensions. An issue arises in that it appears the disregard changes made in this Bill only refer to those in receipt of non-contributory payments. There is to be no change in the effective means tests that apply to those in receipt of the retirement pension, the pension to which those with PRSI entitlements are entitled between ages 65 and 66 and who later become entitled to the State pension for which there is no means test. However, a person in receipt of the retirement pension will lose such payment if his or her weekly earnings rise above the €37 per week threshold. The retirement pension is paid only to those who are effectively no longer working. In my opinion, there is a gap in that this could be a major disincentive to remain in work after 65 years of age. The Minister is trying to remove that disincentive. In addition, self employed people are not entitled to the retirement pension as self-employed PRSI contributions are not counted for assessment purposes. Perhaps the Minister might consider removing this anomaly and allowing self-employed people to also qualify for the retirement pension.

We are committed to the abolition of the retirement pension, which is an anomaly in that it provides that people must retire at 65 years of age, cannot work the following year and can then take up employment again the second year after retirement. The €100 payment does not apply in this case because the person is required to be not working and, for that reason, a disregard is not appropriate. In addition, as it is a contributory pension, a means test does not apply. The position as outlined does not make a great deal of sense. I would like to remove the provision but the cost of doing so, on the last occasion on which I looked at this, was in the region of €16 million to €20 million. That is the figure I have in my head at present and members should not hold me to that. I deliberately renamed this provision the "statement payment transition" to create the impression that one is not necessarily meant to sit in retirement but that one is required to be in transition back to work. I do not know if that explains the position. The best solution, at the end of the day, would be to abolish the retirement pension.

I have also provided in the Bill — this has not been done before — for people to automatically move to contributory pension. While people previously remained on the list for many years, they will now come off it after 12 months and go on again automatically. The message will be that people are not meant to stay on the list.

When the Minister says that he is considering getting rid of it, does he mean that he wants to create circumstances in which people go from work directly on to the contributory State pension?

Yes. If a person is on a contributory pension, he or she can go to work.

The age will be 66, not 65.

That is a matter of cost.

How does cost come into it? If someone is working, he or she will not draw the transitory retirement pension and will, therefore, be required to continue to work until he or she is 66. He or she will pay taxes, etc., until that age and will be on the contributory State pension after 66 in any event so, in that respect, there will be no change. Where does the cost come into it?

We are reducing the age from 66 to 65.

It is the other way around.

I do not want to be held to that either. At 65, one obtains the retirement pension and sits there and does not work. The rate is the same as that relating to the contributory pension. In simple terms, we could just change the title of the retirement pension to make it a contributory pension and allow people to work. The problem is that the effect would be to bring new people into the scheme who would not otherwise be in it, which is where the extra cost would be incurred.

Does that mean the Minister is not talking about increasing the age to 66? When he uses the phrase "get rid of it", what does he mean?

This is why I have not done it yet. If it was easy, I would have done it last year. If I move the age to 65, everyone will receive the contributory pension at that age. We cannot do that.

What does the Minister intend to do?

I need to establish whether the people in receipt of what will be called the "State transition pension" will be allowed to work. We have taken steps to create the circumstances in which they will be able to do so by renaming the pension and ensuring that recipients will transfer automatically to the contributory pension at 66. I have not solved the problem of allowing people to work between the ages of 65 and 66 while avoiding unintentionally lowering the pension age from 66 to 65. The Deputy will be able to imagine why I cannot do that.

Is the Minister stating that he will not move the age to 66 and draw the line there?

No. Neither can I reduce it down to 65 and draw a line under the current structure at that point.

That is not the question.

The answer to both questions is no.

The Minister has raised all kinds of hares in respect of the retirement pension. One minute he says he will get rid of it but the next he is unsure as to whether he will reduce the age for the contributory pension or raise it to 66.

It is ridiculous to tell someone that we will pay him or her a retirement pension but that he or she cannot work and that at 66 we will pay him or her a contributory pension and let him or her work at that point. I need to solve the problem without opening the floodgates. If I provide that everyone will be eligible at 65, the effect will be to change the retirement age. The latter would cost hundreds of millions of euro and we are not going to take that route. If I move the age to 66, I will encounter the opposite problem and, therefore, we cannot take that route either. One step has been to change the name by substituting the word "retirement" for "transition" while providing recipients with the same amount of money. One of my senior officials has suggested that a further step might be to provide that those who take a pension at 65 would receive a smaller one at 66. The effect would be to incentivise people to wait. The Deputy may remember the broader discussion we had previously when it was suggested that if one postponed one's pension to a later date, one might receive a higher amount. We might solve the problem by taking that approach.

It will be tricky.

That is why I have not done it yet.

We will not see it this side of 12 months from next May.

I will withdraw my amendment pending further announcements by the Minister.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 14 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 15 stand part of the Bill".

Section 15 sets out important provisions and its proposals require a great deal of consideration. The Minister proposes the phasing out of the pre-retirement allowance over the coming decade. He stated on Second Stage that the reason for doing so relates to the changed environment from the 1990s, when there was a great deal of unemployment. There are approximately 11,000 people in this category but, rather than target those who are 55 years of age, the Minister should consider all the people involved. They have found it very difficult over their working lives to secure employment or to appear employable in the context of education, experience and knowledge. Many of the 11,000 are people who, in previous lives, would have been employed by local authorities to do necessary outdoor work. Due to developments since the 1990s, work in that sphere is no longer available. If we are to provide people with the skills and knowledge necessary to get them into the workforce and help themselves, we should address the matter before they reach 55 years of age. The patterns in their working lives make it easy to identify these people. Many of them are not employable but the Minister suggests that all 11,000 are abusing the system and do not want to work. This is not the case.

Many people in this category come to me and other representatives looking for ways to obtain employment. The problem is that they lack the skills and knowledge and jobs that would be suitable for them are not available. There is no need to establish this category. While the Minister said that he is phasing the scheme out and that people who are currently on it will not be affected, the intervention required for these people should come earlier rather than when they are 55. It is very late to force people who are unemployable to return to unemployment assistance and the soul-destroying weekly routine of signing on when the problem is that they are not capable of working and that there are no jobs for them. I have strong concerns regarding the real agenda behind the proposals in section 15.

Initially I was in favour of the section as I thought it would be a good move in the current climate. However, when I thought about it and began to discuss it with others, I became concerned about it. As my colleague, Deputy Ryan, stated, we have seen traditional manufacturing industries closing down and people who worked all their lives finding themselves unemployed. It is very difficult to find jobs when one has a low level of skill. My colleague, Deputy Ring, pointed out that at this end of the labour market, one must compete with people from other countries. While this is not a problem in itself, it is harder to find a job. Is this proposal going too far and too fast? One suggestion was to make an incremental change by raising the retirement age in these circumstances to 60 years.

We know people must be out of work for some time before one goes on the allowance. It seems unfair to make those aged 55 years who have been out of work for some time seek work. I know it will not affect those in receipt of the payment. As no new participants will be admitted to the scheme, approximately 2,000 will be included in the live register annually. They will have to show they are seeking full-time work. Deputy Ring has pointed out the associated difficulties, where people must go cap in hand asking employers to write a letter stating he or she is actively looking for work. To be eligible for unemployment assistance one must not only be available but actively seeking work.

What this section seeks to achieve is too much too quickly and will put many vulnerable persons under pressure at a time when they do not need it. We should encourage people to remain at work and the scheme offered a very important safety net. I accept, however, that it was introduced at a time of high unemployment as a way of managing the unemployment register but times have changed and we are moving to a high skill economy. We must be careful to ensure people with low skills are not put at a major disadvantage and need to bear in mind the impact of the closure of traditional manufacturing plants.

I support the points made by my two colleagues. I am opposed to this move and outlined my position in the Dáil. I am concerned about a very vulnerable section of society. The people concerned do not believe they have much to offer society and that they are being pushed around. Even when they provide five, six or seven letters for the social welfare officer, they are told they are not actively looking for work. I could not support the proposed change. Let me repeat that this vulnerable section of society have not been educated and believe they are being pushed to the margins and have nowhere to turn to. This is creating a great deal of anger. We all saw the violence in Dublin last Saturday week I stated a section of society was being pushed aside by the media, politicians and the community. The people concerned need to be protected. I oppose the section.

I stated that one fundamental objective of the Bill was to remove an entitlement from people. Under the provisions of the Bill, unemployed persons, no matter what new title they will have, will lose an entitlement to regard themselves as retired from the age of 55 years. No amount of spin can change this point. I indicated on Second Stage that I was not happy with this retrograde step. Deputies Ryan, Ring and Stanton outlined the issues more eloquently than I. If I were Minister, I would be very slow to go down this road.

I do not disagree with members on many issues but disagree fundamentally with what has been stated. Nobody will lose one red cent. This is not about money. I am against writing people off at the age of 55 years by not offering them employment action supports for retraining and education and offers of new employment, if he or she is in a position to take it up. I am also against offering people retirement at 55 years, asking them not to seek work again. That is the wrong way to go. This does not affect anybody participating in the scheme. Every single individual of the 11,000 participating in the scheme is exempt. It will come into effect in September, from which date no new participants will join the scheme. Instead they will receive unemployment assistance at the same rate and with support from FÁS and the Department and helped to move on.

The scheme was introduced in 1990. The age limit was reduced to 58 years in 1991 and further reduced in 1992 to 55 years. It was introduced to ensure the live register looked a little healthier——

It was massaging the live register.

The Chairman could say that but I could not possibly say it. It was brought forward for people aged 55 years who would never work again because it would be better to park them in the corner and pay them the same rate as long-term unemployment assistance. That is giving up on people. One does not give up on people aged 55 years. It does not affect persons in receipt of the allowance. Those approaching 55 years will not lose money; they will continue to receive unemployment assistance, as well as supports and helped to find the employment to which they are entitled through activation measures. If we do not do this, they might be left permanently in the position of not working and without support to move forward.

It will take ten long years to phase out the scheme. I argue strongly that what we are doing is correct. Approximately four fifths of recipients are male. This will concern those aged 54 years. Do we say to those who are 54 years that when they reach 55 years they will receive a pension. Will healthy individuals be consigned to this because they have reached the age of 55 years? I am fundamentally opposed to this because, since taking up my position as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, I have been trying to give people the option of having a better life and job, if they so choose. If a person chooses to remain on unemployment benefit because he or she cannot find suitable employment, there are procedures in place to assist them in moving to a better position. I do not know if members have misunderstood my intentions. If not, there is a fundamental difference. However, it may be that there has been a misunderstanding of what I am trying to do. This will not cost anyone one red cent. It is not fair to tell 54 year olds that they can avail of a pension at the age of 55 years, sit on the shelf and obtain help from no one. I will not go there.

I take issue with the Minister. Nobody is suggesting anyone should be left on the shelf permanently. A person who becomes unemployed at 55 years of age does not automatically enter the scheme. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong.

No, it is voluntary.

As matters stand, strict criteria apply in that regard. I have made the point that it is important there is intervention before a person reaches 55 years of age. The Minister has not convinced me that people will benefit having gone through this process. I am in favour of educating and assisting people in improving themselves but whether we like it we must accept that there are individuals who are unemployable. I do not accept that we should deal with this category by suggesting they should accept unemployment assistance and register with the social welfare office on a weekly basis.

I have listened carefully to the Minister's compelling argument but remain to be convinced that people of that age will receive the support he is suggesting they will get from the unemployment benefit and assistance schemes, given their dearth of skills and the level of competition in the labour market. As matters stand, people have a choice.

On a point of information, in the next couple of months we will be extending the employment action plan to include those aged 55 years. This is a natural progression and means everybody aged 55 to 60 years will be consulted by FÁS as part of the plan.

It would be useful to know what success FÁS is having in assisting people of that age with low skills.

They have not assisted those over the age of 55 years.

I am aware of that but is the Minister saying FÁS did not assist people over that age but that in future it will assist those up to 60 years of age?

Yes. In due course we may provide that it give assistance to those up to the age of 65 years.

That is a welcome improvement. However, even with such assistance, it will remain difficult for many to find employment. Currently, people have a choice in that they can choose to retire or to be assisted and encouraged to remain in the workforce. The Minister is removing that choice. I have stated we could have opted to increase the age at which people become eligible to receive the pre-retirement allowance. That would be a compromise. What will happen to those who find themselves unemployed at 60 years of age? Such persons will have to wait four years before receiving any assistance and will remain on the dole for those years. A compromise might be to increase the age at which one becomes eligible to receive the pre-retirement allowance to 60 years. That would provide the Minister with some leeway to consider what else could be done. It would also provide those aged 60 years with a choice. I agree 55 years is a young age at which people should be encouraged to leave the workforce. I would agree with the Minister if the PRETA allowance encouraged people to leave rather than remain in the workforce but perhaps we can reach a compromise.

I seek clarification from the Minister on the following point. Given that this provision will come into force next September, what is at issue is not those currently 55 years of age but those who have been through the FÁS process between the ages of 50 and 55 years. What will be the position of those persons aged 54 years? They are the ones to whom this will apply on reaching the age of 55 years.

FÁS involvement is not once-off but continuous. A person would not receive assistance from FÁS at the age of 51 years and not hear from it again. The assistance would be continuous.

How successful has FÁS been in obtaining jobs for such persons?

I stated that of the 18,000 people referred to FÁS, approximately 10,000 had either obtained jobs or undergone training. I presume the remaining 8,000 remain on its register.

Given that the national employment action plan will not assist those over the age of 60 years, will the Minister consider retaining PRETA in order that those who may find themselves out of work next September at 60 years of age may avail of it, if they so wish?

A person can remain on long-term unemployment assistance until he or she reaches 66 years of age, at which time he or she will receive the pension payment which is the same.

With respect, the difference is that those in receipt of long-term unemployment assistance must be actively seeking and available for work. That they must be actively seeking work creates a problem for many. It is difficult for those living in unemployment black spots to prove week-in and week-out that they are actively seeking work.

I know the Deputy is trying to be helpful but I am trying to find a solution. It is hard to change matters, given that FÁS is geared up to working with people aged 55 years and over.

I have strong feelings on this as it is a problem about which many have come to my clinic during the past four or five weeks. Only last Friday I received representations from a constituent in Tourmakeady. I can travel to north Mayo and meet three men in three clinics all with the same problem. People aged 51 years and over are, on the one hand, sick of social welfare officers telling them that they are not actively seeking work and, on the other, sick of employers complaining about them seeking letters to that effect. They are being treated like dirt and we must try to do everything we can to protect them. They are constantly being told to go away and that there is no work available.

I recently met a man in Tourmakeady three weeks before he was due to attend the social welfare office. Following his visit he returned to tell me he had been sent around the town of Ballinrobe to obtain five letters from employers stating he had been actively seeking work. Deputy Carty and I know there are no jobs available in Ballinrobe. The advance factory built 25 years ago at a cost of millions of euro remains empty. The person concerned cannot get a job there and will be unable to do so next year or the year after. As he does not have any particular skills, he asked if he could come to me for assistance in filling out forms. I told him to come visit me at my clinic. We must protect such persons and will not be doing so if we allow this to go ahead.

Nobody on the scheme will be affected in any way.

We know that. The problem is that other people will emerge who will have the same problems.

At the heart of the social welfare system, which was designed over many generations rather than by me, is an understanding that if people can get work, they should be encouraged to find it. If they cannot find it, we pay them.

We do not disagree with that.

We cannot create circumstances in which we tell people there is no work for them, that they should stop looking and that we will pay them in any event.

There is no employment in Ballycastle or Tourmakeady. The Minister is simply degrading these people.

The Deputy made the point on a dozen occasions and I understand it completely. While I am sympathetic to Deputy Ring and those he represents very well and strongly on this point, we cannot tell people that there is no work in a particular part of the country and that, as such, we will continue to pay them while asking them to desist from job seeking. If Deputy Ring was sitting on this side of the table and trying to protect the social welfare system, which has been developed over many generations, would he agree that a case could be made that there was no work in, for example, north Kerry or Cork and that he should operate certain schemes on that basis? If we endorse a position that there is no work in certain areas and remove the obligation on people to try self-employment or another approach while telling them we will continue to pay them, we get into trouble. There is no question, however, of taking payments from people.

The point is that anyone who wants to work will do so if a job is available. People are better off at work than on social welfare. Our point is that the Department's officials and those who work for us will be obliged to tell honest, decent people that these changes are the result of a ministerial directive and are not their fault.

Does the Deputy want my officials to tell people that there is no work in Mayo?

Can he imagine officials saying that?

The Minister is requiring officials to ask people for five letters that have already been accepted or to tell them to get out because they are not seeking work. That is what upsets me. They will be made fools of and told to go down the road again.

My officials are required to be professional, courteous and helpful and they meet that requirement.

The Minister should come with me for a day.

They are required to be helpful and courteous and my belief is that they meet this requirement.

If a person makes a complaint, I know what kind of reply he or she will receive. I can give the example of a person who put a complaint in writing and it was rubbished. These poor devils are not protected.

There are two points at issue. The first relates to people's perceptions of how they are dealt with in face-to-face circumstances and I contend that my officials are always helpful and courteous. The second issue, which is separate and more difficult to deal with, relates to policy. If Deputy Ring's constituents are failing to receive the proper courtesy, I will investigate the matter. They should get it. If the Deputy is looking for a policy change requiring us to draw certain conclusions from a lack of work in a certain area, it is a much more complicated matter.

As the Minister admitted, there are black spots nationally in which there is no employment. In Carrigtwohill in east Cork, there is full employment and plenty of high-skill jobs while in Youghal the opposite scenario obtains. Traditional industries, including carpet and textile manufacturers, have closed down.

Question put.
The Committee divided: Tá, 7; Níl, 5.

  • Brennan, Seamus.
  • Callanan, Joe.
  • Carty, John.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • Wilkinson, Ollie.


  • Cowley, Jerry.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Sean.
  • Stanton, David.
Question declared carried.
Amendments Nos. 26 to 39, inclusive, not moved.
Section 16 agreed to.
Amendment No. 40 not moved.

It is accepted that amendment No. 41 involves the deletion of section 17.

I move amendment No. 41:

In page 14, before section 17, to insert the following new section:

"17.—Each provision of the Principal Act and each instrument mentioned incolumn (1) of Schedule 3 to this Act is amended in the manner specified in column (2) of that Schedule opposite the mention of that provision or instrument in column (1).”.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 17 deleted.
Amendment Nos. 42 and 43 not moved.
Sections 18 and 19 agreed to.
Sections 20 to 27, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 44:

In page 18, before section 28, to insert the following new section:

"28.—The Minister shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the position of one parent families.".

The amendment relates to one-parent family payments. We have had many debates at Question Time and other times in the House. The Bill increases the upper income limit for the one-parent family payment. This is welcome and will assist lone parents into the workforce by allowing them to retain their payment for longer. In addition to the second tier payment to target child poverty, lone parents or other groups, defined by the Minister as a priority for 2006, as he stated last year in his Second Stage speech, central to alleviating child poverty is improvement in incomes and support for lone parents. Research released by the CSO clearly demonstrates that among those found to be at most risk of poverty were children living in lone parent households. Recent reports on EU SILC 2004 published last December show that households with the highest levels of consistent poverty include lone parent households at 31.5%.

I understand a report on lone parents is expected from the NESF. Perhaps the Minister would tell the committee the position on it. I understand it is promised, if not in the autumn, by Christmas. It is to include information on the barriers to employment that lone parents face and also information on cohabitation, etc. The Minister has more than once suggested that the cohabitation rule may be scrapped. Perhaps he would tell us what progress has been made in this regard.

I have been examining the issue of income disregards which have remained static for a considerable time. Deputy Stanton referred to it and we have had extensive and comprehensive discussions on it in the Dáil. I have met lone parents who, through ignorance of the regulations, find themselves in extreme difficulty because, as a result of investigations carried out by the Department, they must repay substantial sums to it. Very often the situation arises because they work long hours, often getting double time for Saturday work or double or treble time for working on Sundays and finding that the level of income creeps up very quickly. Much of the money goes towards having their child looked after. Some use the money to educate their children or get a car to go to work. They did not realise there was a cap on income or income disregards which have not been increased for a considerable time. There is, therefore, a double whammy.

Given that approximately only 4,000 people are involved, we should consider an amnesty. Many of the people concerned did not do anything deliberately but acted without full knowledge of the regulations. They are in a vulnerable position and should not have the full rigours of the law applied to them. My colleague, Deputy Lynch, has been in contact with the Minister about the matter. She has made a very solid and cogent argument as to why we should embark on this road at this time, given that only 4,000 are involved and the pain that would be inflicted on them. This is not money that has been put in foreign or offshore bank accounts or anything of that nature. It is being used within the system to meet the day-to-day demands of living as a lone parent which are severe. Lone parents face the same impositions we all face but may well have greater demands on them than many others. They must ensure their children get to school. They must then go to work and may have to come back in the middle of the working day to bring the child to sports activities and so on. There is a strong level of demand.

The income disregards are being increased. Therefore, this problem is less likely to arise in the future but if it does, obviously the Minister will have to deal with it. However, it would be worth introducing a once off amnesty, given the level of pressure on those affected. To say one young lone parent I met was distressed would be the greatest understatement I have made for a long time. She was extremely worried and traumatised by the whole event. She has two children and is working to try to pay a mortgage on a house. She genuinely did not know what the regulations were. It would be a generous, worthwhile gesture which would alleviate the stress caused to lone parents in the past two years, since the Department focused on the matter.

I will deal with Deputy Stanton's point first. The two lone parents reports are complete and the Cabinet only has to sign off on them. We should be able to publish them in a few weeks when we will debate them fully. The disregards have been increased significantly, particularly this year, from €293 to €375 with effect from July. Tapering arrangements are in place for this transition. Approximately 280 claims are included in the lone parents list every week. There are 80,103 lone parents in receipt of payment at an expenditure of €694 million, a considerable investment by the taxpayer.

In response to the Chairman's point, we are sympathetic when recouping overpayments. This does not apply only to lone parents but across the board. In all the books we issue and regular circulars we emphasise heavily the need for a person to inform us if his or her circumstances change. We cannot be expected to be inspired. We appreciate that many omit to draw this to our attention, not through malevolence but because they do not focus on the fact. We have prosecuted very few but are usually able to agree a repayment schedule with them which rarely presents a problem. I can neither confirm nor deny the figure of 4,000 lone parents cited by the Chairman but take his word for it. I will see if we can get a fix on it.

The people concerned will be treated considerately and courteously. We will try to arrange a payment schedule with which they will be comfortable and on which they will be able to live. As long as they meet us halfway, that will be our approach. An amnesty based on a few people causes major problems across the system because the same plea can be made in a range of areas. If only 1,000 are involved and we start introducing amnesties, the entire system will unravel. We will deal sympathetically with the people concerned, particularly following the Chairman's plea today.

The Minister has often mentioned the problems caused by the cohabitation rule. Has his thinking changed on this issue? This will probably arise in the debate on the reports.

This is a central issue which is fully rehearsed in the two reports to be published in a couple of weeks.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 45 in the name of Deputy Stanton appears to be linked to amendment No. 44.

I move amendment No. 45:

In page 18, before section 28, to insert the following new section:

"28.—The Minister shall, within 6 months of the commencement of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the work of the Maintenance Recovery Unit of his Department.".

The Chairman is correct, we have discussed this subject. Several issues arise on the maintenance recovery unit. I was told that at the end of December 83,000 payments were being made. A total of 903 were paid to widows, in whose case maintenance is not an issue. There seem to be many cases in which no maintenance is paid, although those who should pay do not. More often than not the onus rests on the woman concerned to chase up the man involved for maintenance and initiate court action. At that stage the relationship may be fractious, which causes various problems. That issue also needs to be considered.

A newspaper reported in January that there were plans to relocate the maintenance recovery unit to Carrick-on-Suir. What is the position on this? There are 18 staff in the unit. How many of them are opting to decentralise? What is the timescale involved and what experience is required to replace staff who do not wish to move? Will this have an impact on the work of the unit and the Department?

The Deputy means Carrick-on-Shannon.

I apologise. This headcold is blurring my eyes.

I do not know the date for the move but it remains the policy to proceed with the decentralisation. It will happen as soon as we have the numbers required to make the move.

How many staff in the unit are opting to move?

I do not have a figure but can get it for the Deputy. We are not inundated with volunteers. That is a general statement. We are trying to persuade people to go to Buncrana but the numbers are substantially lower than I expected. It looks like being a struggle. The numbers for the move to Sligo are better. I can furnish these figures to the committee.

Maintenance, first and foremost, is a private matter between the persons concerned and if they cannot resolve it, we become involved. The purpose of the maintenance recovery unit is to recover some or all of the moneys being expended on social welfare payments. In the first instance the unit seeks to trace the parent referred to as the liable relative to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to pay. The follow-up activity takes approximately two or three weeks. The liable relative is assessed and issued with a determination order setting out the amount of contribution assessed. This amount can be reviewed when new information comes to light. Decisions on the amounts assessed can be appealed by liable relatives to the social welfare appeals office.

Between January 2003 and December 2005 the maintenance recovery unit examined 56,000 cases and issued 8,000 determination orders to liable relatives. At the end of January 2006, the latest date for which figures are available, 2,193 liable relatives were contributing directly to the Department. The Department's records indicate that approximately 9,600 one-parent family payment recipients receive maintenance from their spouse or other parent of their children. As a result, they receive a reduced rate one-parent family payment. Figures are not available for one-parent family payment recipients who receive maintenance payments and qualify for the maximum rate of payment.

We have a long way to go on this issue. I am not satisfied with the numbers paying maintenance of those who should do so. This has financial and social implications which we can rehearse on another occasion. I have included this issue in the lone parents report to be issued in a couple of weeks when we can discuss the matter again.

I thank the Minister for his response. This is a major issue, in respect of which the social implications and cost are growing. It is wrong that men father children and disavow responsibility for looking after them. We need to consider this issue. It is terribly wrong that it happens. How much is owed to the maintenance recovery unit?

I will get that figure for Deputy Stanton.

The Deputy may be interested to hear that in 2005 we examined 16,591 cases. Of those, there was no trace of the liable relative in 12% or 2,000 cases. In approximately 17% of those cases, a total of 2,747, the liable relative was on social welfare. The number of cases where the liable relative was unknown amounted to 2,814, approximately 17% of the total. Based on the unit's assessment, in 39% — a total of 6,524 — of cases, a contribution was not due from the liable relative.

Why was a contribution not due?

Their income was too low. All of that can be revisited. We made determination orders in 15% of those cases, a total of 2,500. The issues which arise can be seen from those figures.

Does Deputy Stanton wish to know the number of people complying or the amount of money received?

I wish to know both.

The 2,193 liable relatives who contributed directly to the Department was a small proportion of the total. In 2005, 2,500 liable relatives were asked to contribute. The increase in liable relatives making contributions directly to the Department is 304, which indicates a compliance rate of 12%. This is a small number but it is increasing. The amount of money received was €1.9 million.

Is that the value of outstanding determination orders?

In 2005, direct cash receipts to the unit were €1.9 million. The value of one-parent family payments disallowed was €15 million. The value of reduced one-parent family payments was €561,000. That makes a total of €17 million, a figure that is increasing. We received €1.9 million and the total savings through disallowed one-parent family allowances and reduced one-parent family allowances was €17 million. As stated previously, this area requires serious attention.

The value of outstanding determination orders or contributions——

I already supplied that figure. The number of determination orders issued was 2,500. We presume that they are all being met.

Are there any outstanding orders?

No. The number of determination orders made was 2,500 and, as far as we are concerned, they are all being met. I also gave the Deputy details on the gap between those 2,500 and the overall total of 16,000. There was no trace of liable relatives in 2,000 cases, 2,500 liable relatives are on social welfare, 2,800 are unknown, and no contribution is due from a large number of liable relatives on low incomes. A total of 182 court actions have been submitted since 2001.

The major issue, which we will not discuss now, is that people are asked to pay this to the Department and we reduce the lone parent allowance paid. I must find a way for the money to be paid directly. I do not want to unravel what is in place until a better alternative is found.

This is a serious issue and I thank the Minister for his openness. We must return to it. Perhaps the committee could have a special hearing in that regard.

We could arrange a special hearing.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 46:

In page 18, before section 28, to insert the following new section:

"28.—The Minister shall, within 6 months of the commencement of this Act, prepare and lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the progress of his proposal to develop a second tier payment.".

This amendment concerns second tier payments, which we already discussed. We are awaiting the report from the NESB.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 28 agreed to.
Sections 29 to 31, inclusive, agreed to.

Amendment No. 47 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 47 not moved.

I move amendment No. 48:

In page 20, before section 32, to insert the following new section:

"32.—The Minister shall, within three months of the commencement of this Act, lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas, a report on the support provided by the Back to Education Allowance.".

The recent High Court case raises an issue on this. Will the Minister indicate the action the Department will take following the High Court ruling on the student in receipt of a back to education allowance whose summer payments were cut in 2003 and 2004? How many students are involved and how much is owed in total? Is the Minister satisfied that every student will be paid? Will he confirm that he will not challenge that court action and that he will accept it?

I hate to tell the Department that I told it so. I do not like to display a victorious attitude. I am glad Mr. Justice MacMenamin agreed with my view on the matter. The Department must be extremely careful because it is an important established principle of law in Europe that where legitimate expectation has been built up, the court will find that it must be met. This is exactly what happened in this instance.

Apart from the legal aspect, the Department acted short-sightedly and foolishly on the back to education allowance. The Minister reduced the period for which an applicant must be in receipt of social welfare payments from 15 months to nine months, which is an improvement. All we received was an excuse, not an explanation, for the changes made to the effect that it almost amounted to fraud because so many people only went back to education to receive the money. I do not accept that. As Deputy Stanton stated, the best way out of poverty is through education. This provided an ideal opportunity. I know people denied that opportunity because of the short-sightedness aimed at saving a few measly million.

The Minister's choices on the actions he can take following the judgment are limited. I hope that, in a time of plenty, he will not deny those people who are determined to improve their lot. I salute the judgment and I issued a statement welcoming it. I make no excuse for doing so. It coincided with my view, when I, along with Deputy Stanton's predecessor on the committee, Deputy Ring, warned about the impact of the savage 16 cuts, of which this was one. We all wait with baited breath to hear what the Minister will say.

This dates back to 2002 when——

It must be stated that the Minister was serving in a different capacity at that time.

——an independent estimates review committee recommended to Government that the back to education allowance should not be paid over the summer period but only during the academic year. The Government accepted that recommendation. Mr. Michael Power, a recipient of the back to education allowance at the time the change was introduced, together with five other named recipients, sought a judicial review. The total number of recipients subsequently attached to the proceedings was 173. The court action was heard on 7 February and submissions were made.

The judgment found that the evidence entitled only Mr. Power's case to be taken. The other 173 applicants attached to the case were not so entitled because it was found that it would be unjust for the respondent — namely, the Department — to resile from the representations made to the participants at the outset upon which they contended that they relied. In the case of Mr. Power, this would, in effect, mean that the Department would be obliged to provide restitution to him in respect of the summer vacation period of 2003 because he was in receipt of unemployment benefit in 2004 and 2005. The current estimate of the cost is €4,200. The judgment indicated that Mr. Justice MacMenamin will hear counsel submissions on the extent of the restitution and the ultimate form of the order. This is scheduled for Tuesday, 14 March. While the legal position on restitution is clear in that it relates solely to Mr. Power, there are wider matters for consideration by the Department as to whether the decision behoves it to re-examine all cases within the BTEA scheme affected by the change made at the time. At this juncture it is necessary for me to consider the implications of the judgment further and to seek the advice of the Attorney General before deciding what steps should be taken next.

I do not want to comment on the case but getting embroiled in legal actions would not be my normal way of dealing with issues such as this. I always seek to resolve cases of this nature in a sensible and sympathetic way rather than take up the time of the courts. However, that statement is totally without prejudice. I await the Attorney General's advice.

Does the Minister know how many students were affected overall?

A total of 173 were affected.

Is that the total number involved in the scheme?

That is the number who joined. As to the total number affected——

It is more than 6,500.

There were 7,648 in 2004. I will get the figure for the Deputy.

We can go no further until the Minister gets advice. I respect his position. However, it is only right that those who participated in the summer scheme should be repaid this money. They took up the scheme with that expectation. I am also concerned as to whether the cutback had the effect of deterring people from joining the scheme at the time. We might never know the answer to that question.

I have no doubt about that.

There was a total of 7,600 in 2004. That is the only figure I have.

We must respect that.

There is a policy issue involved, apart from the legal issue. It all comes down to resources. Do we start with a clean sheet and leave aside has happened? That is the space I am in. The question is whether we should pay allowances for back to education schemes during the summer when those involved are not pursuing courses, when they can receive unemployment benefit or get a job. I err on the side of being sympathetic and helping people to get through the education system. However, if we only have so much money, is this the right way to spend it? Should we pay people during August and July?

It might be helpful to the Minister if the committee were to examine the issue.

I thank the Minister for his openness.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 49 not moved.
Sections 32 to 36, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 50 not moved.
Sections 37 to 40, inclusive, agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 51 and 52 are being discussed together.

I move amendment No. 51:

In page 25, before section 41, to insert the following new section:

"41.—The Principal Act is amended in section 27 by the insertion of the following new definition:

"pension coverage" means the number of people who are covered by pension plans;".".

The amendment seeks to provide a definition which may or may not be necessary. In regard to amendment No. 52 which is being discussed with this amendment, there has been much talk about the pensions time bomb and pension coverage. The Minister also has received a report on pensions. It is a major issue, on which I would like to hear his up-to-date view.

I reiterate what I said on Second Stage regarding credits. The point relates to many but, in particular, emigrants who made pension contributions here before they were compelled to leave. Since making that Second Stage speech I have received correspondence from somebody in London who obviously did not know I had made that contribution, asking me to raise the issue of why we do not properly look after people who were forced into exile but contributed to the economy by sending remittances back home. When many of the people in question return, their geographical area has changed so much that they are out of kilter, they hardly know anybody and, on top of this, the averaging mechanism deprives them of a pension. I argued in favour of granting credits to emigrants, because there was nothing here for them when they were forced out of the country and they had made a major contribution to the economy. Many of the people concerned are dealt with under the lump system and have no stamps and find when they return, that their pension contributions are assessed over 40 years from the time of the initial contribution. However, there is a large gap during which they made no pension contributions. An emigrant credit which could perhaps be referred to as an EC1 would address this in order that the people concerned would not be left so exposed and their pensions so massively reduced.

The number affected is not great because there has been a decline in the numbers of emigrants returning to Ireland. I have visited emigrant centres in the United Kingdom and can assure the Minister that each time I go, whether to Camden, Cricklewood or elsewhere, the numbers will have further reduced. Much good work is being done in Coventry to keep the flag flying. The Minister should review this situation and try to address it. When emigrants return, they have to be able prove they were away and when they went. That should be easy. The Minister may say all their contributions, wherever they were made, could be combined. However, many of the people concerned made no contributions. Let us deal with reality. They were dealt with under the lump system and lived in bedsits. Many will not come home. It should be clear that we are not doing this out of sympathy but as an acknowledgement of the contribution they made to the economy. The Minister should do something for them if he can.

What is the value of the tax relief on occupational and personal pensions?

It is €2.7 billion.

Does that concur with the view of the ESRI that if the tax reliefs were abolished, pensions could be doubled without the need for tax increases?

The amount we pay out in contributory and non-contributory pensions is just over €2 billion. I do not have the exact figure. There is a coincidence of numbers.

Has the Minister a reply?

I am aware that the Pensions Board has launched a very significant report and is doing further work. I am organising a forum shortly, to which I hope to invite the committee members if they are available to attend. I would prefer to leave the issue of pension legislation until that process is complete. I am not opposed to the Deputy's proposal but would prefer to adopt a more complete approach when I finish the process. The Chairman has often spoken about what he called in the Dáil the "terror of averaging". The phrase stuck in my mind. We are keeping the matter under review, as averaging can lead to difficult scenarios, especially in respect of pre-1953 contributions. It is a significant issue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 52 not moved.
Section 41 agreed to.
Sections 42 to 44, inclusive, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 45 stand part of the Bill."

What is the Minister's rationale in changing the period for which the Combat Poverty Agency's board sits from three to five years?

There is no particular agenda; it is simply that most boards sit for five years and I want to give this one a good run at its brief. The issues are complicated and it can take a year or two for board members to get up to speed, by which time their period in office is almost up.

When will the next board be selected? Are all its members appointed together?

They do not go on the same day. Vacancies arise.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 46 to 48, inclusive, agreed to
Amendment No. 53 not moved.

I move amendment No. 54:

In page 29, line 3, column (2), to delete "Provision of Principal Act amended" and sustitute "Provision or Instrument Affected".

Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 55 and 56 not moved.
Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.
Amendment No. 57 not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 58:

In page 40, line 4, column (1), to delete "Provisions affected" and substitute "Provision or Instrument Affected".

Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 59 to 61, inclusive, not moved.
Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
Schedules 5 and 6 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 64:

In page 53, line 41, column (1), to delete "Provisions affected" and substitute "Provision Affected".

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 65:

In page 53, between lines 44, to insert the following:


Section 109(16)

Delete “and who does not have an entitlement to an old age (contributory) pension by virtue of Regulation (EEC) No. 1408/71 of the Council of the European Communities or by virtue of a reciprocal arrangement under the provisions of section 287”.


The amendment corrects an error in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 which commenced in December and reflects amendments made to the Social Welfare Acts in the Social Welfare Act 1996.

Amendment agreed to.
Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.
Schedule 8 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 66:

In page 56, line 3, column (1), to delete "Provisions affected" and substitute "Provision Affected".

Amendment agreed to.
Schedule 9, as amended, agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Title be the Title to the Bill."

Deputy Stanton asked for some information on the numbers in class S with respect to PRSI payments. The number of employees insured for all benefits is 1,961,000. The number insured for some benefits is 311,000 — class K. The number of self-employed persons insured for some benefits is 254,000 — class S. There are 1,532 voluntary contributors.

That makes our point on advertising the voluntary nature of contributions. I thank the Minister and his officials for the information and attending this long and useful session, from which we have all gained something. I hope the Minister will consider on Report Stage one or two of the Opposition's proposals suggested forcefully by members. Our job is to improve the Bill by bringing our experience to bear.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.