Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Questions (22, 23, 24, 25)

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

44 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the main findings of the Government’s working group on the rent supplement scheme; the changes he will make to the rent supplement scheme as a result; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15191/07]

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Eamon Gilmore

Question:

80 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if he will confirm that a review of the supplementary allowance scheme has revealed significant inconsistencies in the levels of payments made under the scheme between different parts of the country; the steps he will take to ensure greater consistency in the level of payments made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15192/07]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Family)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 44 and 80 together.

The review of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to which the Deputy refers was carried out as part of the Government's Expenditure Review Initiative. Overall the review concluded that the scheme has, over the years, met its objective of guaranteeing that every person in the State has a minimum level of income sufficient to meet their basic day to day needs.

In the case of rent supplement, the report recommends that the implementation of the rental assistance arrangements announced by Government in July 2004 should be pursued. In addition to improving the housing situation for people on low incomes and delivering better value for money, full implementation of these arrangements would allow the rent supplement scheme return to its original objective of being a short-term income support scheme, with fewer than half of the current number of recipients.

The review identified a number of issues relating to the incentives under the rent supplement scheme for those wishing to take up an employment opportunity. In Budget 2007 I specifically addressed this issue when I announced improvements in the additional income disregards for those taking up employment or training, namely, that any person who is on a local authority waiting list for accommodation under the Rental Accommodation Scheme may now return to full-time employment and be considered for a rent supplement payment under the standard means test. This new system replaces the existing special retention arrangements, that where a person is aged 65 or over and his or her combined household income is greater than the rate of supplementary welfare allowance appropriate to his or her circumstances, this no longer leads to a reduction in the amount of rent or mortgage interest supplement payable.

These are significant improvements to the rent supplement scheme. They both simplify the current assessment process and offer clear incentives to those returning to work.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, an exceptional or urgent needs payment may be made to help meet an essential, once-off cost which the applicant is unable to meet out of his/her own resources. There is no automatic entitlement to this payment; each application is determined by the Executive based on the particular circumstances of the case.

The review of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme carried out a detailed examination of expenditure and recipient trends for all elements of the scheme. The Group identified variations in the amount of expenditure per thousand of population in respect of exceptional needs payments but considered that such variations were likely to occur as these payments are made on the basis of a person's need and it was reasonable to expect that such needs would not occur uniformly across the country.

The Working Group also examined the average value of exceptional needs payments throughout the country in relation to the various different types of exceptional and urgent needs payments and found variations in the levels of payments that could not be explained by geographical cost factors. Decisions relating to the amount to be paid in respect of any exceptional need a person may have are a matter for the Health Service Executive which administers the scheme on my behalf.

The Executive is obliged, in accordance with the guidelines published by my Department, to maintain up-to-date policies in relation to the implementation of these guidelines, including up-to-date prices for items that are likely to be the subject of applications for ENPs. The Working Group noted that the various areas of the Executive showed some variations in the type of policies, including the level of detail of guidance, the types of payments covered and amount to be paid. While noting this, I am conscious that the discretionary nature of the payments, which is a positive aspect of the scheme, is in itself a contributing factor to the variation in the level of payments. My Department will continue to monitor these payments.

Phil Hogan

Question:

45 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if his Department’s review of the disability allowance scheme has been completed; if so, the findings of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15315/07]

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My Department is currently undertaking an examination of the impact of the payment of Disability Allowance from age 16 on retention rates in second level education. Following the outcome of this review, consideration will be given to a further review of other aspects of the scheme.

The current review is part of the implementation of the recommendations of the working group which examined the various State income maintenance payments for people who are ill and people with disabilities under the Government's Expenditure Review Initiative. This working group was chaired by my Department, with membership from the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Finance and the report was published in 2004. Disability Allowance was one of the schemes reviewed in this process and the recommendations arising from this report continue to be implemented.

In this regard a number of significant changes have recently been made to the Disability Allowance scheme which has included extending the eligibility of the scheme, improving employment incentives for people with disabilities and improving the means test.

As part of Budget 2007, people who had entered residential care without an entitlement to Disability Allowance became eligible for full Disability Allowance as a matter of right, subject only to the same conditions as apply to others.

In order to improve the employment incentives for people of working age and, as part of the Social Welfare Budget package, 2006, I introduced a new lower withdrawal rate of Disability Allowance, effective from 1 June 2006.

This change means that, for earnings above €120 and under €350 per week, Disability Allowance is now withdrawn at 50 cents for every euro earned, rather than the previous euro for euro withdrawal. In practice, this means that a single person can earn up to €420 per week before their Disability Allowance fully ceases, compared with the previous amount of €240 per week.

The policy in relation to supporting employment incentives for people with disabilities will continue to be kept under review in my Department and developed in line with the commitments in my Department's disability sectoral plan.

As with other social assistance payments, capital held by a client in receipt of Disability Allowance is assessable for the purpose of the means test. However, I recognise that persons in receipt of Disability Allowance may not have had the opportunity to accumulate savings or other income through participation in employment and that disability may, in some cases, hamper a person's ability to live independently.

I am also aware that in such circumstances, families may wish to make future financial provision for a child or sibling but are concerned that such provision might adversely affect their entitlement to Disability Allowance. Similarly, in cases where a compensation award has been made to a client as a result of accident or injury, they may be concerned about a reduction or loss of payment of DA and secondary benefits.

As part of Budget 2007, I therefore introduced a higher threshold of €50,000 as the capital disregard specifically for the Disability Allowance scheme. This means that a client with disability may hold this amount of capital or provision can be made for the client up to this amount while retaining full payment of Disability Allowance.

Further policy development of the Disability Allowance scheme will be considered in light of the outcome of the current research project and other aspects of the scheme.

Seán Ryan

Question:

46 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the progress made in discussions with the EU Commission regarding the possibility of providing free travel passes to Irish pensioners resident abroad; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15205/07]

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The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over. All carers in receipt of carer's allowance and carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative's allowance, regardless of their age, also receive a free travel pass. It is also available to people under age 66 who are in receipt of certain disability type welfare payments, such as disability allowance, invalidity pension and blind person's pension. People resident in the State who are in receipt of a social security invalidity or disability payment from a country covered by EU Regulations, or from a country with which Ireland has a bilateral social security agreement, and who have been in receipt of this payment for at least 12 months, are also eligible for free travel.

There have been a number of requests and enquiries in relation to the extension of entitlement to free travel in Ireland to Irish born people living outside Ireland, or to those in receipt of pensions from my Department, particularly in the UK, when they return to Ireland for a visit.

I have been advised that it would not be possible to extend entitlement to free travel simply to Irish born people living abroad as to do so would be contrary to European legislation which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of nationality. More recently, the European Commission has indicated that to extend the scheme to people in receipt of an Irish pension could also be considered discriminatory.

I have raised the issue with Commissioner Špidla and officials from my Department met with European Commission officials on a number of occasions in an effort to clarify the legal issues involved. I am keeping this issue under review.