Thursday, 27 September 2007

Questions (101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107)

Olwyn Enright

Question:

100 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if recipients of the back to education allowance will be granted any other allowances or benefits from his Department while in receipt of this allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21291/07]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Family)

The back to education allowance (BTEA) facilitates people on certain social welfare payments to improve their skills and qualifications and, therefore, their prospects of returning to the active work force. The scheme enables qualified people who have been getting a social welfare payment to continue to receive a payment while pursuing an approved full-time education course. The payment they receive is equivalent to the standard weekly personal rate of the relevant Social Welfare payment they were in receipt of prior to participation in the scheme.

To qualify for participation in the scheme an applicant must be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment and must be at least 21 years of age prior to commencing an approved course of study. People in receipt of disability related payments may access the scheme at 18 years of age. Similarly, lone parents and people in receipt of unemployment payments can qualify at 18 years of age provided they are out of formal education for at least 2 years.

In addition to providing income support for participants on the back to education programme, the scheme also provides an annual cost of education grant of €400. This allowance is paid at the start of each academic year. A person in receipt of free travel or household benefits package prior to award of the back to education allowance will continue to receive these benefits. Participants may also continue to receive any secondary benefits such as Christmas bonus, fuel allowance, diet supplement, rent supplement and mortgage interest supplement that they may have been in receipt of prior to applying for back to education allowance.

Furthermore, from today, a person in receipt of back to education allowance who satisfies the conditions for carer's allowance may also get half the rate of carer's allowance together with their existing payment.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

101 Deputy Olwyn Enright asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if rent allowance will be granted to recipients of the back to education allowance who have not been in receipt of same prior to this allowance being granted. [21293/07]

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People in full-time education are normally excluded from receipt of rent supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. However, people participating in approved courses under the back-to-education allowance scheme may apply for rent supplement in respect of private rented accommodation if they have not been previously getting a supplement. A person who has been receiving rent supplement before taking up full-time education with the assistance of the Back To Education may retain any secondary benefits, such as rent supplements, which had been in payment prior to the commencement of their education course.

The benefit to those participating in the back-to-education allowance scheme is that their status as a full time student does not preclude them from receiving rent or mortgage interest supplements. I consider this to be a positive financial incentive to take up educational opportunities and I would regard the existing arrangements applying as satisfactory. I would encourage people availing of the back to-education allowance to contact their local community welfare officer to clarify their entitlement to rent supplement in their circumstances.

I would also encourage people who have been receiving rent supplement on a long-term basis to contact their Local Community Welfare Officer to discuss the options available to assist them in progressing from welfare dependence. Options include the Back To Education and Back To Work allowance programs.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

102 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs when rent allowance will be restored in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21306/07]

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The Health Service Executive has advised that the rent supplement claim has been re-instated in this case with effect from 1st June 2007 and that arrears of €3614 has issued to this person this week for the period June 2007 to September 2007.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

103 Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs if a one off payment to help with rent arrears will be offered in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21311/07]

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The Health Service Executive has advised that the person concerned is in receipt of a rent supplement at the maximum rate payable appropriate to her circumstances. The Executive has further advised that the person concerned should contact her Community Welfare Officer concerning any difficulties she may have concerning payment of rent arrears.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

104 Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the reason a small long-term illness pension is treated differently than other income in relation to the disregards applied to lone parent benefit and family income supplement; and his views on changes in this matter in relation to the Social Welfare Act 2008. [21313/07]

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In assessing means for social assistance purposes account is taken of any cash income the person may have, together with the value of capital and property (except the home). Cash income may be derived from a wide variety of sources including earnings from employment, income from self-employment including farming, income from foreign social security pensions and income from occupational pensions including pensions payable as a result of illness or disability. Income derived from social welfare pensions payable by my Department is not assessed, except in the case of Family Income Supplement.

In the case of One Parent Family Payment and analogous schemes such as Jobseeker's Allowance and Disability Allowance, specific disregards from earnings and tapered assessment rates have been introduced over the years. In the case of One-Parent Family Payment, the first €146.50 of earnings (and income from self-employment) is disregarded and half of any earnings in excess of this amount are assessed as means. The purpose of these arrangements is to encourage persons to enter or re-enter the workforce. Disregards do not normally apply where a person has cash income from other sources, including non-social welfare pensions.

Family Income Supplement (FIS) is a social welfare payment for low income families with children where one (or both of a couple) is in employment for 19 hours or more per week. All cash income is assessed including income from social welfare payments. A supplement is payable at 60% of the difference between the appropriate weekly income threshold for that family and the families net cash income after income tax and PRSI payments.

Any change to the current means testing arrangements in relation to income from private or occupational pensions, including illness related pensions, would have to be considered in a Budgetary context, having regard to available resources.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

105 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the cross-Departmental practices and procedures in place to ensure that welfare recipients with benefits such as medical cards or differential rents are not disadvantaged by improvements in welfare rates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21358/07]

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Improvements in welfare rates of payment are announced on Budget day in early December each year. Local authorities are responsible for determining rents payable under the differential rents scheme including the income to be assessed for this purpose, subject to broad principles laid down by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I understand that these guidelines recommend that no more than 15% of any increase in welfare income should be absorbed by an increase in rent. Around Budget time, my predecessors have, in recent years, written to the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government requesting him to remind local authorities of this. It is my intention to make a similar request this year.

The Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive monitor the number of medical cards and GP visit cards on an ongoing basis and the need for changes to the guidelines is kept under review, having regard to factors such as changes in income levels generally, the nature of typical household outgoings and also changes to the various social welfare schemes.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

106 Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the information available to his Department on the growing problem of rent supplement recipients having to supplement their rent supplement to pay the full cost of their rent; and his strategy to combat this problem. [21359/07]

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Rent supplements are subject to a limit on the amount of rent that an applicant for rent supplement may incur. Rent supplement is not normally paid where the rent is in excess of the limits. Notwithstanding these limits, under existing arrangements the Health Service Executive may, in certain circumstances, exceed the rent levels as an exceptional measure, for example:

where there are special housing needs related to exceptional circumstances for example, disabled persons in specially-adapted accommodation or homeless persons,

where the tenant will be in a position to re-assume responsibility for his/her rent within a short period

where the person concerned is entitled to an income disregard and has sufficient income to meet his or her basic needs after paying rent, taking into account the appropriate rate of rent supplement that is otherwise payable in the case.This discretionary power ensures that individuals with particular needs can be accommodated within the scheme and specifically protects against homelessness.

My Department has received no specific evidence of rent supplement recipients having to supplement their rent above the amount stated for the purpose of receiving rent supplements.

In January 2007 a review of the maximum levels of rent which a person may incur and still be eligible to receive a rent supplement was completed. The purpose of the review was to inform the process of setting new limits, applicable from January 2007 until 30th June 2008. I am satisfied that the new limits reflected realistic market conditions throughout the country. Setting maximum rent limits higher than are justified by the open market would have a distorting effect on the rental market, leading to a more general rise in rent levels. This in turn would worsen the affordability of rental accommodation unnecessarily, with particular negative impact for those tenants on lower incomes enable the different categories of eligible tenant households to secure and retain basic suitable rented accommodation to meet their respective needs.

The limits will be reviewed next year. Any revision found to be necessary will be implemented with effect from 1st July 2008.