Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Bernard Allen

Ceist:

125 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the cost implications of extending secondary benefits to recipients of unemployment benefit. [11604/98]

Bernard Allen

Ceist:

126 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the reason former community employment scheme workers are being denied secondary benefits, including fuel allowance and Christmas bonuses, in situations where, because of their employment on these schemes, they qualify for unemployment benefit; and the financial implications, if any, which there would be in granting them the secondary benefits. [11605/98]

It is proposed to take Questions Nos. 125 and 126 together.

The social welfare secondary benefits, comprising the Christmas bonus, butter vouchers and the free fuel allowance, are payable only in conjunction with long-term social welfare payments, reflecting the fact that the recipients of such payments face a higher risk of poverty.

The introduction of Class A PRSI for community employment workers, which was provided for in the Social Welfare Act, 1996, was designed to enhance the PRSI status of community employment workers and to put them on a par with other Class A workers.

Since former community employment workers who qualify or requalify for unemployment benefit after their period of community employment finishes are in receipt of a short-term payment, they are, accordingly, ineligible for the social welfare secondary benefits. Statistics are not available on the number of former community employment workers who would be affected.

It is not possible to estimate with any degree of certainty the costs of extending entitlement to the social welfare secondary benefits to claimants of unemployment benefit, since there is no way of knowing whether such people would satisfy the other conditions for the award of the free fuel allowance.

In so far as the butter vouchers scheme is concerned, the position is that the value of all cashed vouchers is recouped in full from the EU by the Department of Agriculture and Food. The question of extending the range of the scheme would be a matter for consideration by that Department in the first instance.

By way of illustrating the costs involved, the extension of the Christmas bonus alone to unemployment benefit claimants in 1997 would have amounted to some £4 million. It is important to recognise, however, that consideration of any concession along those lines would have to have equal regard to the position of other short-term social welfare payment recipients. There would, therefore be a very high cost associated with any such concessions and they could only be considered in a budgetary context and in the light of other priorities.

Pat Carey

Ceist:

127 Mr. P. Carey asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the cost to extend the free travel scheme to persons over 65 years of age to enable them to use public transport on an all day basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11606/98]

The free travel scheme operated by my Department is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years, or over, as well as certain people with disabilities under that age who are in receipt of certain social welfare type payments. The scheme provides free travel, primarily at off-peak periods, to eligible people on the main public and private transport services.

At the end of last January, free travel passes have been issued in respect of about 505,000 people at an estimated annual cost of £33 million.

The operation of the free travel scheme is based on the use of spare capacity and, therefore, time restrictions have been a feature of this scheme since its inception. They apply generally from 7 a.m. to 9.45 a.m. and from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, inclusive, and on Bus Éireann long distance buses from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Fridays for up to 20 miles out from Dublin, Cork or Limerick. These restrictions have been in operation since the inception of the scheme in 1967.

There are no peak time travel restrictions on DART or on suburban rail services in Dublin and Cork, or on services provided by CIE and private transport operators in other parts of the country. Time restrictions are only in place on city and provincial bus routes because the transport companies concerned are under severe pressure from commuters travelling to, or from, work or school in the morning and evening. They do not, however, apply in the case of people with mental disabilities, those attending long-term rehabilitation courses and certain other people with disabilities.

The extension of unrestricted access to urban services at peak time on a more widespread basis would cause capacity problems for CIE and would give rise to additional costs unquantifiable at this stage. However, the Department will continue to monitor the situation in consultation with the CIE group to assess the scope for improvements having regard to the capacity and cost constraints.