Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Questions (84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93)

Trevor Sargent

Question:

82 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the poverty levels, relative, consistent and otherwise, among persons with disabilities; the action his Department is taking to alleviate poverty among persons with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17141/05]

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Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

108 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on whether the risk of being in poverty has increased substantially for the ill and disabled over the past ten years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17154/05]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 82 and 108 together.

The extent of measured poverty among persons who are in receipt of illness and disability payments was considered by my Department as part of a broader review of illness and disability income support programmes. The review was carried out as part of my Department's ongoing programme of expenditure reviews and subsequently published.

In its analysis of the effectiveness of the income support system in tackling poverty, the review found that using data up until 2001 for persons in receipt of illness and disability payments, there had been a significant decline in consistent poverty from almost 23% in 1994 to just over 16% in 2001. Significantly, this fall reflected an almost halving in the proportion of those experiencing basic deprivation. The decline in those experiencing consistent poverty amongst those in receipt of illness or disability payments was reflected in the decline in consistent poverty in the population generally, from 14.5% in 1994 to just under 5% in 2001.

Subsequent to the publication of the review, the recent EU survey on income and living conditions, EU-SILC, reported the percentage of persons in "consistent poverty" classified as ill or disabled was 20.9% in 2003. The CSO indicated that because of a major discontinuity between the surveys in the measurement of deprivation and consistent poverty, no conclusions could be drawn regarding the direction or scale of any real changes between 2001 and 2003.

The expenditure review drew attention to the fact that despite falling over time, probably reflecting the substantial real increase in social welfare rates, the rate of consistent poverty for those in receipt of an illness or disability payment was more than three times higher in 2001 than the population generally and significantly higher than most other categories of social welfare recipients such as old age pensioners and unemployed persons.

The report identifies a number of factors which could be considered as affecting these trends including: the lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities; issues related to additional costs of disability; the impact of extended durations on the social welfare system compared with persons on shorter durations; differences in household composition among the group.

With regard to social welfare rates, Government policy is to increase the real level of social welfare over the period to 2007 and this commitment will be delivered. This will benefit all social welfare recipients, including those in receipt of illness and disability payments.

The report also identified a number of areas where employment support could be strengthened within the social welfare system and across Departments generally. The report will provide guidelines for my Department's future strategy in this area. With regard to the additional costs associated with disability, a working group established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and chaired by the Department of Health and Children, is examining the issues associated with the introduction of a costs of disability payment.

The report also highlights the need for better data and more research to strengthen our understanding of the links between poverty and disability. I will pursue this as part of my Department's research agenda.

John Gormley

Question:

83 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on the recommendations made in CORI’s “Pathways to Inclusion” that are relevant to his Department; the recommendations he plans to implement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17137/05]

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The recently published review by CORI "Pathways To Inclusion" outlines policies needed to ensure economic development, social equity and sustainability in Ireland. I welcome the publication of this comprehensive report. The Deputy will be aware that it was only published earlier this month and my Department will review the report in detail over the coming weeks and months.

The Government's acknowledgement of the serious and unacceptable nature of poverty in Ireland is reflected in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion which provides a clear and strategic basis for tackling the multi-dimensional problem of poverty and social exclusion. This plan contains ambitious targets across a number of areas, the implementation of which will ensure that we are brought further along the road to our overall goal of building a fairer and more equal society.

Between 2001 and 2005 spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion. During the same period there have been substantial real increases in social welfare rates, with the lowest social welfare rates increasing by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%. As a result of budget 2005, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation.

I have made a number of strong statements in recent months about my commitment to ending child poverty. This is also one of the special initiatives under the partnership agreement Sustaining Progress. The most significant measure by my Department to tackle child poverty in recent years has been the substantial increases in child benefit payments, in line with the general thrust of the CORI report. Child benefit is paid to more than 540,000 families in respect of approximately 1 million children, at an estimated cost of €1.916 billion in 2005. As it is tax free and employment neutral, it does not distort parental choice in respect of labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty. Over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit have increased by €103.51 at the lower rate and €127.78 at the higher rate, increases of 272% and 258% respectively. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government's objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

To address the situation of those children who are most at risk of poverty I will give consideration to the introduction of a second tier of supports, combining child dependant allowance and family income supplement when the report of the NESC is complete. While details have yet to be worked out this is likely to be in addition to the child benefit and other support entitlements, targeted specifically at families in greatest need.

Supporting carers in our society has also been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer's allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer's benefit have been introduced. I announced a number of improvements for carers in the last budget which will benefit existing recipients of carer's payments and will also serve to extend support to carers who are not eligible for carer's payments. I have made provision for the extension of the respite care grant of €1,000 to all persons providing full-time care and attention, regardless of their means. I am keeping the operation of the grant under review and any further improvements will be considered in a budgetary context.

With regard to measuring deprivation and poverty, my Department is currently re-evaluating this issue in the context of the data strategy of the office for social inclusion. There are many other initiatives ongoing in my Department and other Departments to address issues raised in this report. I look forward to bringing these to the attention of the Deputies in due course.

Bernard Allen

Question:

84 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs his views on whether the NAPS has not lived up to its potential as an instrument to identify and remove, in a systematic way, barriers to persons trying to break out of social exclusion into full participation in society; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17151/05]

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Seán Crowe

Question:

96 Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress which has been made to date following his commitment in January 2005 to tackle poverty in a co-ordinated and joined up way and his promise to review the way in which the Government measures and reports poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17212/05]

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Olivia Mitchell

Question:

123 Ms O. Mitchell asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs , further to his reported comments (details supplied), his views on the success of his measures and supports in providing the resources to help those in society who need it most in view of the rise in the percentage of the population who are at risk of poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17208/05]

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Olivia Mitchell

Question:

127 Ms O. Mitchell asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs , further to his comments (details supplied), the reason the number of children and others living in consistent poverty has increased in recent years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17207/05]

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I propose to take Questions Nos. 84, 96, 123 and 127 together.

The Government's acknowledgement of the serious nature of poverty in Ireland is reflected in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, NAP/Inclusion, which provides a clear and strategic basis for tackling the multi-dimensional problem of poverty and social exclusion. This plan contains ambitious targets across a number of areas, the implementation of which will ensure that we are brought further along the road to our overall goal of building a fairer and more equal society. Progress on the implementation of the plan was reported in the first annual report of the office for social inclusion, OSI, which I launched last December. Since then, my officials have held a series of bilateral meetings with the relevant Departments to examine progress on the implementation of targets contained in the plan. A report to the European Commission evaluating the implementation of the plan is currently being prepared by OSI for submission in June 2005.

The most recent statistics on poverty levels in Ireland are derived from the 2003 EU survey on income and living conditions, EU-SILC, which were released earlier this year by the Central Statistics Office. The results from this survey are comparable to the previous Living in Ireland survey, LIIS, in the "risk of poverty" measure but are not for the "consistent poverty" measure due to methodological differences between EU-SILC and LIIS. Both the CSO and the Economic and Social Research Institute, which conducted the earlier surveys, have assured me that the results of the consistent poverty measure are not comparable. It is, therefore, not possible to conclude from them how consistent poverty changed and there is no reason to believe that there has been a worsening in poverty levels in recent years.

However, both surveys identify the groups at risk of poverty, including families with children, especially lone parents and large families on low incomes, those with disabilities, the long-term unemployed and the elderly, especially those living alone, and the extent of consistent poverty among these groups. It should be noted that no one measure will give a perfect picture regarding deprivation, poverty and social inclusion. While the "risk of poverty" rate does allow for comparisons to be made across countries, it is the case that when countries experience rapid economic growth — as in the case of Ireland in the 1990s — relative poverty measures on their own can sometimes be misleading.

Using the risk of poverty measure, for example, relative income poverty in Ireland rose 11.4% between 1994 and 2000 but if we use the same measure and timeframe and increase the poverty line only by consumer prices — the "anchored poverty line approach"— Irish poverty falls by 55.9%. This clearly indicates that, when economic conditions change rapidly, relative poverty trends are not always giving a complete picture of the way that economic change affects people's lives. Similarly, this measure does not take account of the high level of home ownership, especially among the elderly, and consequently the value to households of owning their own home. It also does not reflect access to household allowances in kind such as electricity, fuel, telephone rental and TV licence.

In fact, all incomes have grown significantly, although low incomes have grown at a slower rate than higher incomes. In particular, social transfers rose substantially in real terms, so pensioners, for example, saw their living standards improve markedly but still lagged behind rapidly rising incomes from employment and profits. This is reflected in increases in social welfare spending which grew from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion between 2001 and 2005. During the same period the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%.

As a result of budget 2005, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. This demonstrates that considerable progress has been and is being made in alleviating poverty. While the EU SILC results highlighted the problems associated with the measurement of poverty, prior to the release of these results the Cabinet committee on social inclusion had approved the re-evaluation of poverty indicators and this work is now being developed as part of the OSI data strategy.

Question No. 85 answered with QuestionNo. 55.

Phil Hogan

Question:

86 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the outcome of his discussions with the Irish Bankers Federation regarding access to bank accounts for persons on low incomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17191/05]

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Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

103 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if, in view of his proposed meeting with the Irish Bankers Federation following the publication of the “Do the Poor Pay More?” report, he will also meet the Departments of Finance and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to plan a strategic initiative to tackle the issues of debt and poverty in households here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17211/05]

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Enda Kenny

Question:

120 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the measures he intends to take to improve access to bank accounts for persons on low incomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17192/05]

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I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 103 and 120 together.

The report "Do the Poor Pay More?", a study of lone parents and debt, shows that many lone parents do not have access to mainstream banking and are, therefore, more likely to be indebted to high interest lenders such as moneylenders and hire purchase companies. On publication of the research I met with the Irish Bankers Federation, IBF, and the Irish Payment Services Organisation, IPSO, to explore ways in which those in the low income bracket could access financial services.

The meeting identified a number of areas where it was felt that significant progress could be made in facilitating wider access to financial services, for example, the issues associated with identification documentation required to open a bank account and the potential for universal bank accounts were discussed. With regard to customer identification, the IBF has agreed to raise with its member retail banks the issue of customer identification requirements and to ensure that their office staff are aware of the range of documentation which is acceptable as forms of identification when opening an account. It has further committed to liaising with the financial regulator, IFSRA, about how the banking sector can assist in this regard.

The guidance notes on money laundering set out, as good industry practice, the measures to establish identity that might reasonably be expected of credit institutions. However, they state that any measures adopted should not deny a person access to financial services solely on the grounds that they do not possess certain specified identification documentation.

On the issue of universal bank accounts, the banking industry has proposed the development of an universal bank account as an integral part of a national payment strategy. The issue of a universal bank account will be considered by my Department as part of its review of current payment strategies. The IBF has assured me of its commitment in helping to deliver real progress on these and related issues. Since the introduction of the money advice and budgeting service in 1992 a good working relationship has been developed between that service and the Irish Bankers Federation.

The "Do The Poor Pay More?" report found that 59% of lone parents involved in the study were in arrears to the ESB. It also found that utility companies were not seen as being totally transparent in their dealings with low income families using pre-payment meters. People who receive their social welfare payments through the electronic payment option operated by An Post can opt to avail of its household budget scheme. Under this scheme, An Post make regular deductions of up to 25% of a persons social welfare payment towards their household costs, such as rent-mortgage payments to local authorities, ESB, Bord Gáis and Eircom. This ensures that people are not faced with a single large bill for these services.

I have invited the ESB to meet with me to discuss research carried out by OPEN. I also intend to meet with the Irish League of Credit Unions shortly on these issues.

My Department has overall responsibility for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which provides assistance to people experiencing difficulty in meeting repayments on borrowings. The MABS programme provides money advice to individuals and families who have problems with debt and who are on low income or in receipt of social welfare payments. The service places an emphasis on practical budget based measures that help people to move permanently from dependence on moneylenders and to access alternative sources of low cost credit.

The MABS has been allocated €12.62 million to ensure the continued development of the service in 2005. This represents an increase of €1.22 million or more than 10% on the 2004 allocation and will help ensure that the service continues to be promoted in an effective way.

I intend to hold a series of meetings regarding the OPEN report with financial institutions, creditors and other interested parties. As part of my examination I will engage with my Cabinet colleagues to explore the potential for developing a broad based strategic response to the issues which have been raised.

Question No. 87 answered with QuestionNo. 71.