Social Welfare Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the additional £40 million provided for child benefits in the Bill and the provisions for improvements in the family income supplement scheme to ensure families are better off at work. Our policies have always embodied the provision of support for families, and we are delivering on those.

There have also been changes in PRSI. The ceiling for the employee's contribution has been increased, the earning limit for employees exempt from the health contribution will increase, the weekly earnings threshold to which the lower rate of employer's PRSI applies has been increased, the employer contribution ceiling has been increased substantially, the employment and training levy will be abolished from 6 April 1999, and the annual PRSI contribution ceiling for the self-employed has been increased.

Section 212 of the principal Act is amended under section 26(1)(a) and 26(1)(b). I understand the need for the provisions under section 26(1)(a) and support any action taken to eradicate tax evasion and tax fraud. The Minister should, however, revisit section 26(1)(b). There is no reason for social welfare inspectors to use Garda roadblocks to perform their functions. Previous legislation has already given them power to stamp out fraud. The information which can be gathered at roadblocks can already be ascertained through visiting sites, factories, etc. We are all aware of the public outcry when news of the prospect of roadblocks manned by gardaí, social welfare inspectors and Revenue staff was first reported. The phrase "police state" was frequently and indignantly used.

The critical views I have heard expressed come from many sources. I have heard from the unemployed, and I was contacted by those fortunate enough to be at work. They all expressed a common and deep resentment at this proposal. They see it as another measure designed to harass people from all walks of life, especially the unemployed. I know the Minister does not intend to offend law-abiding, compliant taxpayers. It is important to note that many of the people who do not currently work are anxious to return to the workforce. They do not carry a burden of guilt because they are unable to find employment. In the opinion of those who contacted me, this measure is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I was also contacted by a few members of the Garda Síochána who are opposed to the concept. They said these measures would send out the wrong message at a time when they had succeeded in building up public confidence in, and support for, the force through its outstanding work. The Minister, who has made a number of public statements, should revisit the issue I have been asked to raise by my constituents. Staff of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs should be removed from roadblocks in experimental areas. There should be a reversion to the resources available.

The Social Welfare Bill is often ignored by the media and economic commentators. It is perceived as an administrative Bill providing for increases in social welfare payments. It is, however, about much more than giv ing the green light for increases. In previous Social Welfare Bills power was given to make regulations governing such matters such as entitlement to payment. I hope the Minister noted carefully the comments of his colleague, Deputy O'Flynn, about section 26 which extends the powers of social welfare inspectors to stop vehicles and question passengers. This is ill-conceived. Social welfare inspectors have adequate powers under section 212 to which the Minister referred.

At Dublin Castle the Moriarty and Flood tribunals are investigating the ripping off of the State on a colossal scale. There is clear evidence of a golden circle. In the last Dáil I indicated year after year at the Committee of Public Accounts that social welfare fraud, which we are in favour of rooting out, accounted for 0.5 per cent of the social welfare budget. The Revenue Commissioners estimate outstanding tax liabilities at between £2 billion and £5 billion. There is no will to tackle tax fraud.

Less than one year ago I asked the national bureau of fraud investigation to investigate allegations that the State had been ripped off to the tune of £200 million by way of offshore accounts. Its response was that it had not received a complaint, I presume from the Minister of Finance or the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners.

Or the then Minister for Justice.

The Minister was in power one year ago. It is extraordinary that the Government is not prepared to take action to root out fraud on a massive scale against the State.

What about the evidence at the Flood tribunal? The Deputy cannot have it both ways.

The Minister is the famous Inspector Clouseau who was dispatched by the Taoiseach shortly after the general election to investigate certain matters—

The Deputy appears to be wandering a long distance from the Social Welfare Bill.

Did the Minister bring home the goods?

All he had to do was ring the Garda Commissioner to obtain what the Cabinet needed to take action.

The Deputy will have egg on his face in relation to that remark. He does not know what he is talking about.

A sense of perspective must be maintained. The House should dedicate itself to rooting out tax fraud which amounts to many billions of pounds. We will have to revisit this issue.

On 3 December the Minister said the 1999 budget was about building an inclusive society. Last week he said an extra £317 million was being made available for 1.3 million members of society and that the Bill signalled a radical shift in the way we look at social welfare.

It has increased since then.

The Bill has some good features. While the Minister has listened to groups such as the Carers Association, he has not provided firm foundations for an inclusive society. For those living on the margins the budget did not deliver. When the provisions of the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill are implemented the gap between the haves and the have nots will increase. According to the ESRI, there are now more people living below the poverty line than ten years ago. Given the predicted growth rate of about 6 per cent until 2005-06 the gap will continue to widen.

The 1999 budget presented an unprecedented and unparalleled opportunity to make an impact on poverty. As I indicated in the debate on the Finance Bill, the Minister had an extra £1 billion to spend. While it is the Government's tactic to refer to what was implemented by the previous Administration, our economic circumstances are much different. The economy is growing much faster than anyone predicted.

In the days following the announcement of the 1999 budget, Government spokespersons attempted to overstate the fact that all social welfare payments are now above the recommended minimum level. This could not have been avoided in the context of the commitments given in Partnership 2000. Given our outstanding economic performance, fulfilling the commitments given in Partnership 2000 was the least welfare recipients could have expected.

An increase of £3 is provided for in the Bill. This means social welfare recipients will be worse off in real terms. Prior to the budget the ESRI pointed out that there was a real need to link welfare increases with real wage increases. Otherwise they predicted a widening of the gap between rich and poor. In terms of the adult dependant rate, for example, the increase was even more disappointing. As I pointed out to the Minister at Question Time recently, the adult dependant rate has fallen behind the level recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare 11 years ago. That day the Minister discussed at length with me the issue of equalisation, but I still return to the basic point I made two weeks ago: who in society can live on £43.20 per week, the adult dependant rate over which the Minister will preside?

I am genuinely disappointed that the Social Welfare Bill contains no provisions to address the inequalities in the social welfare code and end long-term discrimination against women, who form the bulk of adult dependants. During my time as Labour Party spokesperson for social, community and family affairs the issue of equality for women in the social welfare code will be one of the key issues which this House must address. I know I will have the support of all the social partners in campaigning on this particular issue.

The £6 increase in the old age pension has been put forward as one of the main selling points of the budget, but people should not be deceived. That increase will only apply to the main pensioner. The adult dependant, usually the woman, will only receive half of that.

The budget did nothing to address the issue of means testing for social welfare payments. We have long been aware of the fear faced by many older people about the impact of small nest eggs on their social welfare payments. The Minister has made some gesture towards retired small business people who often barely meet the means test levels and end up losing out on basic provisions. Previous Governments introduced savings disregards for people in this situation, but this year the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, ignored it.

The importance of child benefit in eliminating child poverty can never be overstated. Over the past year the Commission on the Family, the Combat Poverty Agency and a host of lobby groups have made a credible case for increasing the rate of child benefit. Child benefit of course does not create poverty traps and this is important in creating a welfare-to-work friendly society. In certain cases child benefit is the only payment which goes directly to the mother in a household. The payment, according to the Commission on the Family, allows people to make choices. They can put the money towards child care or use it to supplement the household budget.

In the context of the debates which took place in the run up to the budget on both child care and child poverty, the increase in child benefit was disappointing. The Minister will be aware that six years ago at the start of the partnership Government my party had a target of £20 per week for the first two children. I notice that another party in this House has come around to our point of view. I am not sure if this Government understands the rationale behind the policy of freezing the child dependant allowance over recent years while increasing the rate of child benefit. Unless it begins to show an understanding of this policy, it should simply revert to increasing the child dependant allowance.

In terms of some of the other payments addressed in this Bill, I will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage to eliminate anomalies and to ensure clarity and greater consistency in the system. For instance, the Bill allows for regulations to be drawn up to extend the carer's allowance to people who may not be living in the home of the person being cared for. The Minister deserves commendation for providing for that in the Bill, given the fact that 45 per cent of carers are in this situation. I welcome this important provision, which should be written into the Bill rather than implemented by way of regulation. This would allow all Members of the Dáil to table amendments, if appropriate.

Is the Minister satisfied about the timing of the payments in sections 4 to 7, inclusive, in which he outlines this year's basic increases in social assistance and social insurance payments? The social insurance increases come into effect on 6 April, 27 May, 31 May, 3 June and 4 June. There are similar dates for the social assistance increases. Famously, child benefit increases come into effect on 1 September. In answer to a written parliamentary question a couple of weeks ago, the Minister estimated the cost of paying these social welfare increases, except child benefit, on 6 April, that is, the cost of having the tax and social welfare years operating from 6 April, as being in the region of £350 million. We could make a huge case, in equity, for doing so. If the Minister wants an inclusive society, surely it means that the income of all of the population should be regulated at similar times and in a similar fashion.

The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, in his contribution on the Finance Bill, stated that his target is to bring all the tax regulations and Finance Acts into force according to the calendar year so that we will operate in budgetary terms from 1 January to 31 December. That being the case, there is an overwhelming case, from the point of view of inclusion, to allow all citizens acquire their social insurance or social assistance increases at the same time. There is little the Minister can do about it this year. In future years, if the Government survives, he could look seriously at ways of bringing forward the date of these increases. The partnership and rainbow Governments put in place a programme to move the date of payment of those increases towards April and for some reason this Government stopped it. I would ask the Minister to look at that and, indeed, the September date of payment of child benefit. Many of us are canvassing for the forthcoming local elections and this is one of the complaints which one hears constantly when one talks about budgetary provisions.

I have already referred to the problem of income adequacy. It is a huge area which the Minister tried to address to some extent in his Department's strategic document. He stated that adequate rates of payments should be a central objective of income support, but when one sees the unemployment assistance increase for a person with two children from £136 to £141.60, a widow from £70.50 to £73, and the payment to a lone parent with two children which has increased to £103.90 – the social insurance rates are little better – one must ask the stage which we have reached in providing adequate incomes for a third of the population who depend on these payments.

When the Government was elected it made some gestures towards Fr. Seán Healy and others who were interested in presenting in programme for a basic income and we heard that there were interdepartmental working groups, etc. This House would like to know the Minister's thoughts on this issue. It seems to me and the Labour Party that a civilised society must be one in which all citizens have a basic income.

I am grateful to have been allowed to speak first, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I think it arose because my dear colleague, Dr. Pat Upton, died last week. He was a great family man and a member of the Labour Party. He was a great social democrat and representative of Dublin city. One of his chief attributes was a raging determination to alleviate the great difficulties of many of his constituents, particularly in the south inner city, who were on inadequate incomes. This is an area in which he was deeply and profoundly interested. He did not get an opportunity to represent the Labour Party on these matters in this House, but it was something which moved him greatly. It is appropriate that I mention him as I make my way through the contents of the Bill.

The measures in child benefit are disappointing. When the expert group on child care reported recently under Partnership 2000, the Minister and his colleagues sent the report, as he has done with so many issues concerning his Department, to another interdepartmental group to consider the tax and other issues involved. I know the central issue is to be fair to parents doing home duties as well as to working parents, but the Government does not appear to have any clear idea of the areas in which it will make progress.

I will refer briefly to the representations the Minister received from the National Association of Widows in Ireland. Neither the Bill nor the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Finance, seem to address the fundamental issues, particularly those affecting working widows and widows attempting to return to work. The Government's ambition is to reduce the poverty index from 9 per cent to 15 per cent of our population to between 5 per cent and 10 per cent by the year 2007, but with the enormous rises in social welfare we will have to do much better in terms of our approach to this legislation and to provision for the poorer sections of our society.

In relation to section 7 and the family income supplement, I will attempt to amend some of the provisions in the section, for example, the difficulty of workers who no longer work 38 hours per fortnight. My party made a series of proposals recently on the back to work allowance and the area based allowance which we would like the Minister to consider. Those proposals have merit given that the scheme for the self-employed has had considerable success. The Labour Party in particular is interested in merging the two schemes and the extension of some income support measures such as FIS to new entrepreneurs coming off long-term unemployment benefit. We are also concerned that the unemployment duration period for the back to work scheme remains at one year. We see no reason it should not be reduced to six months.

The Minister's Department and his colleagues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment should be encouraged to extend the back-up facilities in terms of advice, financial support and the whole facilitation network in the local employment service and in the partnership areas. The success achieved so far could be improved in the future. Perhaps the Minister might study the document published by the Labour Party entitledFrom Unemployment to Self-Employment and give us his response to some of the proposals.

I have not seen it. Perhaps the Deputy will send it to us.

We will do that.

In relation to section 10, which deals with carers, there is a broad welcome in our society for the measures the Minister has taken on the representations made by groups such as the Carers Association and CROSSCARE. I note in the recent bulletin Deputies were sent by the carers, that there is serious dissatisfaction among them. For example, they asked the Minister to effectively double the number of carers receiving the allowance to 23,000. Despite the Minister's improvements, they estimate that fewer than 15,000 carers – or one in four – are being facilitated. They asked for an increase in the carer's allowance to £100 per week. They want the means test for full-time carers to be abolished; they believe there is no fundamental change in that except for some single carers. They welcome the provision for people caring outside the home. They asked for a carer's benefit for carers who had to give up paid work to care for relatives at home who do not receive anything. They asked for the carer's allowance to be extended to the 9,000 parents of children with severe disabilities. So far we have gone only quarter of the way towards that. They also asked for free medical cards for full-time carers as well as free medical examinations, but they were disappointed in that. The most important request was for a £45 per week carer's financial support to meet the additional costs of caring, but again they were disappointed.

The general reaction of many people who have profound admiration for our fellow citizens caring for severely disabled citizens is that the Minister has moved some of the way towards meeting the urgent needs of this section of society but that he must go much further. That will mean the provision of significant extra financial resources but the Minister said he wanted to put an end to carers being taken for granted. If the Minister really wants to do that I urge him to go much further in this. If my party gets an opportunity to be in Government in the coming years I hope we will do what we are being urged by the carer groups.

I welcome the introduction of the farm assist scheme. Has the Minister indicated in the Bill the way the basic income of farm families will be means tested? What will be the timeframe because it appears there is none in the Bill. That is something we may suggest on Committee Stage. Given the current crisis in farming affecting 150,000 families and associated families throughout the country, and the grave threat to the livelihood of rural Ireland, I hope the Minister will interpret the farm assist scheme in a generous way. The Minister has set out detailed elements of the way the scheme will be administered in the Bill but he should do that in the broadest terms.

Like the Minister, I represent a number of fishing communities which were a little envious of the developments in farming. While welcoming some of the provisions they believe the Minister should have expanded on this area.

Section 21 deals with pensions. I welcome the attempt to move towards the £100 per week target on which commitments were given some years ago to the Irish Seniors Citizens' Parliament and to the trade union seniors group. Many people are anxious to know the input the Minister had into the extraordinary changes the Minister for Finance is making in this area. In May 1998, following the pensions initiative, the Minster sent us an interesting briefing on action on pensions relating in particular to the personal retirement savings account. Did Deputy McCreevy take any notice of some of the ideas in the pensions initiative and on which Deputy Ahern said he would take certain action? The Minister is being pre-empted in this area by Deputy McCreevy and I wonder who is speaking for the Government. Is it the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, as the person with primary responsibility for pensions, or is it the Minister for Finance, for reasons of his own?

I welcome the provisions for more flexible pensions for the self-employed but that should be happening in an integrated way. Why have a Pensions Board if its members are not listened to, particularly in circumstances where the Minister for Social Welfare is listened to? The Minister must not allow himself to be ignored by the Minister for Finance. While we are opposed to all fraud, section 26 should be looked at again. The existing powers are perfectly adequate. Taxpayers should be on a level playing pitch with the former members of the golden circle and the 1.3 million citizens who live on social welfare, often in difficult and straitened circumstances. The vast majority of social welfare recipients depend on this House.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on his excellent stewardship of the Social, Community and Family Affairs portfolio. He is doing an excellent job and deserves our acknowledgment.

We can have many philosophical debates about the social welfare system and its impact on the economy but the most important aspect of the system for those dependent on social welfare payments is the money they receive. This Govern ment is committed to real and substantial rates of social welfare payments and this is reflected in the increases in social welfare payments across the board announced in the 1999 budget. The hallmark of the Minister's stewardship of his Department is the movement towards a new definition of social welfare as responsive, flexible and designed to help individuals and groups express their potential, make their contribution and, most importantly, know they are valued by this changing nation.

Members of this House are aware of the dilemma some people in our constituencies experienced in deciding whether to take up a job opportunity or continue to receive a social welfare payment. That has changed. The significant increases in child benefit along with the increases in family income supplement weekly income thresholds and the period of retention of other secondary benefits go a long way in addressing the difficulties that would have arisen. I welcome these changes and I support relevant initiatives in making participation in the economy attractive.

As a result of recent measures there is great confidence in the economy and the market place. The Irish spirit of determination and enterprise faces the challenge to succeed at home and abroad with the benefit of EMU and the enlarged European Union. At a time when the economy is doing so well it is hard to comprehend that 200,000 people are still unemployed. Given our economic success, we are experiencing a people shortage in the workplace. While we have increased employment by approximately one third since 1987, with more people in jobs than at any time since Independence, we have sufficient work for almost everyone who wants to work and is willing to participate. I support the view that taking a job, long-term, is the only way to better one's living standard. The best route is to take a job and training is available for all those who need to gain the necessary skills; especially given the social welfare and secondary benefits which can be retained.

We must try to resolve some of the difficulties experienced by young parents in the workforce. As a young parent whose wife also works outside the home, I am conscious of the budget for outgoings in our home. As most people acknowledge, the two big outgoings for young parents in the workplace are mortgage and child care costs. I have raised the issue of child care in recent years and I welcome the fact that we are moving closer to putting the appropriate measures in place. We can address this problem and we must do so in a fair and even manner to ensure that all parents benefit, whether they work at home or in the workplace. I give an early but cautious welcome to the suggestion that, to fairly address this matter, a generous increase in child benefit to all recipients is the answer. As I have been working closely with the Minister for Finance on this question, I welcome the Minister's determination to have all the relevant reports back to him as quickly as possible to put appropriate and fair structures in place.

This Government is equally strongly committed to the goal of providing an old age pension of £100 per week. From June of this year the old age contributory pension will be £89 for those under 80 and £94 for those over 80. This is welcome. Older people have made this country what it is today. We owe it to them to make it a good country for older people. It is imperative that they enjoy a fair and generous share in increases in the national wealth arising from the current economic boom. A comprehensive and detailed review should be undertaken this year, the International Year of Older Persons, of all benefits and supports available to older persons in our community with a view to making fundamental improvements in such benefits and supports.

I salute and pay tribute to the work done by voluntary and community groups and I acknowledge the role of the Citizens' Information Centres and the National Social Services Board.

I will mention three areas. First, the benefits accruing from the home help service should not be underestimated. There is a clear need to develop this service on a structured basis. The hourly rate of pay, weekend and unsociable hours, PRSI and PAYE deductions, entitlement to social welfare payments all warrant clear guidelines. The job description needs clarification and the required training and support need to be put in place for those working in this service. This wonderful service merits a total overhaul, additional funding and a clearly defined policy statement.

Second, the potential of an appropriate carer's scheme has not been tapped. I welcome the improvements in qualifying criteria for payments to carers and I acknowledge the submission of CROSSCARE. An immense fund of goodwill exists in our community. We must approach the carer's scheme in a radical and practical way, drawing from the experiences of our communities. Why do we allow an elderly person, not fit for discharge due to social or domestic reasons, to be discharged from an acute hospital? The elderly person may be occupying an acute bed but is it right to discharge such a patient? Why do we allow local authorities to build senior citizen complexes without resident wardens? Why do we pay nursing home subventions and buy contract beds in nursing homes at enormous cost when we all know, in certain circumstances, that it is not necessary? The three Departments of Social, Community and Family Affairs, Health and Children and the Environment and Local Government should together radically overhaul their positions with a view to introducing a new and appropriate carer's scheme.

Third, I request the consideration of a new companion scheme. I envisage such a scheme encouraging elderly people, living alone, to consider living together. Consider, for example, an elderly person living alone in the community, dependent on family, friends, home helps, public health nurses, meals on wheels and so on. This person may be living in the old family home, too big for current needs and too expensive to maintain, heat and repair. Next door or just around the corner there may be another elderly person living alone and equally dependent on services. Imagine the multiple benefits that could occur if people in such circumstances lived together. Why not, albeit on a trial basis, encourage elderly people to live together by introducing a totally new and innovative companion scheme with a payment of, perhaps, £50 per week? I have an instinctive feeling that such a companion scheme would be a catalyst for change in our changing society and would release pressure on the provision of services across the community. I earnestly ask the Minister to look at this matter. I assure him of my assistance and of the benefit of my experience as a member of a health board and a local authority and as a legislator.

I welcome the additional income limit for the fuel allowance from £15 to £30 per week and the £500 bereavement grant which replaces the £100 death grant. I tabled a motion on this matter to my parliamentary party. I also welcome the increase in the number of people who will qualify. Recently, to my surprise and disappointment I came across a person who did not qualify for the death grant because the person who died was born before March 1901. I do not understand why this provision was allowed to remain in place. I am pleased to note that the Minister has indicated to me that he intends to table an amendment on Committee Stage to address this issue. While I welcome this, I ask the Minister to bring the £500 bereavement grant forward. A previous speaker spoke of bringing pension and child benefit payments forward to an earlier date than June of this year. I know it is the Minister's intention to bring forward the payment date for increases in benefits. That will involve major budgetary implications. He announced the introduction of a new bereavement grant on 18 February. I ask him to bring forward the payment date of the new grant to 1 January 1999, if not earlier. That would involve a relatively small outlay and demonstrate his determination to bring forward the payment date of all the increases in benefits.

We have adopted a compassionate and step care approach to building the tremendous social welfare system we have. It has a solid foundation and we have the ability to make it even better. We can all share in it and none need feel alienated from it. Those who have been or are abusing the system are coming under pressure. I have no doubt all Members would agree we must guard against any abuses and call for constant vigilance and positive action in cases of abuse.

I am concerned about the level of moneys being spent in supplementary payments. Some people, who do not have a right to be here, avail of such payments. A major challenge facing us is the issue of illegal immigrants, which we must address in a sensible and reasonable, but proactive, way to prevent people putting their lives and that of their families at risk by being smuggled into this country. Under EU, UN and international regulations and conventions, those people do not have a right to come here. I support measures to assist those in need. We should concentrate our efforts on helping those who are entitled to claim benefit and to have their needs addressed.

I am also concerned about the level of expenditure on rent supplements and rent deposits. I urge the Minister to adopt the practical recommendations I put forward in this regard.

It is a sad reflection on our society that we do not have adequate services to respond to the needs of the homeless, the number of whom has escalated. We have begun work to address this problem, but we need to do a good deal more.

I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy Pat Carey.

That is agreed.

I compliment the Minister on introducing a wide range of enlightened measures in the social welfare area. It is no accident his Department is called the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. The measures introduced since he took office are focused and interlinked and they are having a significant and positive impact on families and on the community.

Having listened to Deputy Broughan's contribution, one would be forgiven for thinking that improvements had not been made since the rainbow coalition left office. He seemed to forget that the old age contributory pension is now £89 per week. It has increased by £11 since the Government took office compared to an increase of £7 when Deputy Broughan's party was in power. Child benefit has increased by £3 in respect of the first two children and by £4 for each subsequent child. That represents an increase of £41 million in a full year compared with £25 million in the last year the rainbow coalition was in office.

I compliment the Minister on establishing the interdepartmental review group on the carer's allowance. That was an important initiative and resulted in a number of important improvements. I particularly welcome the initiative whereby those who care for children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance will be eligible to qualify for the carer's allowance and eligibility will also be extended to the carer of anyone between the ages of 60 and 65 who requires full-time care and attention. The residency conditions for receipt of the allowance and the full-time care and attention rules will also be relaxed.

Other speakers referred to the problem of isolation experienced by carers and by those for whom they care. I am glad the Minister was able to extend the free telephone rental scheme to all those in receipt of the carer's allowance and to extend the free travel scheme to carers of those in receipt of the constant attendance allowance and the prescribed relative's allowance. One of the most important changes for many carers will be the annual payment of £200 as a contribution towards respite care for all qualifying carers.

Deputy Callelly adverted to the bereavement grant. I compliment the Minister on introducing that scheme, which has been well received in my constituency. It is extremely welcome that the Minister secured an additional £10 million from the Government to improve a scheme introduced in 1970. Ten thousand grants are payable annually, which involve a total cost of £1 million from the social insurance fund.

Section 9 introduces three significant improvements to which the Minister adverted. I welcome the Minister's proposal to address the qualifying conditions for the old age pension. He set up a committee to undertake a comprehensive review of the qualifying conditions for entitlement to old age and retirement pensions. I note from a reply to a question I tabled that the committee is due to report in the first quarter of this year. I am particularly anxious that the pre-1953 contributions issue should be addressed. I appreciate we are not comparing like with like in terms of those and current contribution. Entitlements were different at that time. The pensioners in question are elderly and they subscribed to that scheme in good faith. They thought it would benefit them to a greater extent than it did. It is regrettable that such elderly people are disqualified from full participation in their pension schemes because of what they perceive to be an anomaly or a change in regulations. I urge the Minister to carefully examine the pre-1953 contribution scheme to ascertain what can be done to bring it into line with the current regulations.

I compliment the Minister on a measure that may have passed unnoticed, although a number constituents have contacted me about it – the announcement that there will be a special backdating of pension payments, which will benefit approximately 5,000 pensioners. A total of £10 million will be paid to the recipients of widow's, old age and retirement pensions who have delayed entitlement applications. That is greatly welcomed.

I am interested in the community aspect of the Minister's work. I compliment him on the support scheme for voluntary and community organisations. The community development projects which he and his predecessors funded have a major impact on communities. There are three such projects in my constituency, the Finglas South Community Development Project, Project West in Finglas west and a project in Ballymun. They provide an engine to drive major change, development and activity in the community. For a relatively small amount of money these targeted projects generate a major spin-off in terms of facilitating the participation of marginalised groups, including lone parents, women and older people in community programmes.

I compliment the Minister on the support he has given to the INOU centres for the unem ployed. I also welcome the setting up of a helpline for the elderly – an issue extremely dear to my heart and even dearer to the Minister's heart – funded by his Department based in Summerhill, County Meath. That pilot project should be developed elsewhere.

I also compliment the Minister on securing Government agreement on drafting legislation to give effect to the establishment of Comhairle, the new agency that will be responsible for the provision of independent information, advice and advocacy services for citizens. It will take over some of the functions of the NSSB and the NRB. That type of independent advice ought to be available to all citizens and it may help alleviate our burden of work.

Free bus passes are issued annually for Dublin city buses. Pensioners and others who use them are entitled only to use the bus pass after 9.45 a.m. and before 4 p.m. I know it is a battle between Dublin Bus and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. However, many hospital appointments, particularly those of elderly people, are before 9.45 a.m. I ask the Minister to review that option at a convenient opportunity.

I compliment and congratulate the Minister on a job extremely well done. He has introduced a wide range of targeted and focused measures. I hope he is office for a long time to come so that he can introduce more of them.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Crawford.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Is this Social Welfare Bill a fair response from a Government which declared itself to be a caring Government, concerned with people's welfare and the needs of those below the poverty line? At a time of plenty, it is a paltry response to the need to alleviate the difficulties and hardships faced by people dependent on social welfare. There is a cynicism in the community, particularly among those who are dependent on social welfare, about what is happening and what has preoccupied the media for the past six or eight months.

It is incumbent on the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to respond much more positively than he has in this Bill. There is an average increase of between £3 and £3.50 in all the schemes mentioned in the Bill. That is totally inadequate if we are to bring people above the poverty line and out of the hardship in which they find themselves at present.

How widespread is social welfare fraud? The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs initiated a programme of inquiry several years ago and the inspectors found that many people stopped claiming social welfare as a result. The programme was deemed a success for that reason. The Department's inspectors have adequate powers to successfully pursue those making fraudulent claims. I was amazed to hear the Minister say in his speech that the pilot schemes in the seven counties mentioned were initiated at the request of the Garda, in co-operation with other Departments.

If the Garda have suggested they have no work to do, other than pursue social welfare claimants whom it is believed are making fraudulent claims, I remind the Minister that in Athenry in east Galway raiders spent last weekend within a financial institution until they eventually succeeded in breaking through to an ATM, without the presence of the Garda. I raised in this House last month that there are no gardaí on duty in Athenry from 7 p.m. until duty begins the following day. I was told by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform that there were adequate policing systems. We now find that not only are gardaí escorting money from one financial institution to another, but their time is to be taken up policing a social welfare scheme. I do not think that is necessary.

The Minister said in his speech that particular attention is being paid to commercial vehicles. He is less than forthcoming in identifying the people he wants to target in that instance. Many people who use commercial vehicles in their everyday work are to be the target of these inspectors and checkpoints. That is totally unfair and unjust. The Minister should use other methods available to him to identify those making fraudulent social welfare claims.

The home of an elderly person was raided in Eyrecourt, County Galway, the week before last. The raiders got away with a substantial amount of money, much of it in the old denominations. They were only caught because they tried to pass off this money in certain establishments later that evening.

I earnestly ask the Minister to consider allowing elderly people to retain increased amounts of savings while still being allowed to claim the old age pension and other entitlements under the Social Welfare Act. There are people who can readily identify elderly people, particularly in rural areas, who because they are afraid to disclose their savings, small although the amount might be, retain them on their premises. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs must take some blame for the fact that many elderly people are being attacked in their homes. When the efficacy of these checkpoints is assessed, I hope the Minister will dismiss them and give the inspectors the powers they need to root out people making fraudulent claims.

The farm assistance scheme appears to be a duplication of an existing scheme. Unless there is a huge change in the conditions for assessment, other than a reduction from 100 per cent to 80 per cent of the assessment, I can see very little benefit for the farming community. Farm families throughout rural Ireland are in decline. Their incomes have been seriously slashed because of the crisis in agriculture caused by the fall in prices. This farm assistance scheme is nothing more than a rehash of the old assistance scheme; the difference does not make it worthwhile going through the procedures.

I hope that if the Department and the inspectors who will carry out the assessment are to show any leniency they will relax the demands which have been in place heretofore, so that claims could be easily assessed and claimants will not have to produce their telephone and electricity bills and other receipts in order to qualify. The mountain of red tape will have to be eliminated before anyone can benefit from this scheme. The Minister appears to be making people undergo an endurance test in relation to how long they can wait for subsistence farm social welfare payments. Very few people will benefit from that. I urge him to reconsider allowing elderly people greater flexibility to retain savings in a legitimate banking institution without being penalised for it.

I thank the Minister for the many valuable changes outlined in the Social Welfare Bill. Information centres and so on are now more readily available to people than they were in the past.

I welcome the £6 increase in pension payments. However, although rent levels have increased for many elderly people, the increase will not come into effect until June. The cost of waste collection has also increased. Those in receipt of disability or invalidity benefit will only receive a £3 increase and widows and widowers will also receive a mere £3 increase. Where is the Celtic tiger for these people? I will cite the example of two good friends, one of whom is in his early 60s and is on crutches. He is lucky enough to have a friend living next door to him who is in receipt of a contributory old age pension and who can offer assistance to him in many ways. The contributory old age pensioner received an increase of £11 in the past two years but the person in receipt of the disability payment, who must pay for everything, only received an increase of £6. Where is the justice in that?

I welcome the improvements in the carer's allowance, the change from domiciliary to carer status for those under 16 years of age and the fact that people aged between 60 and 65 years may be eligible under the scheme. I also welcome the £200 respite payment. Above all, I compliment the Minister on displaying leniency in regard to residence. In rural areas especially, a young couple may build a house close to elderly relatives to offer help and protection to them. That is now being recognised and I hope there is no small print involved there which would prevent them receiving the proper allowance or availing of the benefit of a free telephone.

In the two years the Minister has been in office, there has not been any increase in income disregard levels for the carer's allowance. Five years ago, £50 of a person's income was disregarded; over the following two years, the figure was increased to £150 but it has not increased since. I accept that single people have received an allowance but if we are to make the carer's scheme work, it is important to recognise the valuable service carers provide which prevents many elderly people having to go into nursing homes and so on.

The issue of voluntary housing must also be given urgent attention by the Departments of the Environment and Local Government, Health and Children and Social, Community and Family Affairs to ensure that elderly people receive meals and have a warden service, thereby avoiding the necessity for many of them to go into long-term care.

The crisis in the farming sector is an issue of particular concern to me. The Minister has promised to provide a new farm assist scheme to replace the family income supplement payment. The payment will come into effect on 1 April but will not be paid until June.

The Minister referred to the fodder scheme. I tried to raise this issue on the Order of Business today. In the first week of October, farmers were promised assistance. Some of them received it but the majority of those entitled to it still only have a promise. A promise does not provide meal, fodder or straw for dying animals. The people looking after such animals are under severe pressure and some are almost suicidal. Yet, we appear to be waiting for the crisis to pass or for the farming community to address it. The Minister should urge his colleagues to implement the fodder scheme immediately.

The Minister must also consider the issue of means testing in regard to the farm assist scheme. The scheme does not appear to make any allowance for decreases in income, cattle prices and so on. I have three lists of farm profiles outlining many people who have tried to get on to the scheme and others who have got on it but have been put off again. One person was found to be ineligible because his son lives with him and under TB regulations – which have nothing to do with income levels – he is not allowed a second herd number. The community welfare officer accepted that the cattle belonged to the man in question but had no way of proving it because all of the animals were in the one herd. This is bureaucracy gone mad. If we are to ensure the survival of farmers, we must change that regulation.

I welcome the increase from £100 to £500 in the bereavement grant and the inclusion of children under the scheme. The Minster stated that he introduced the increase because he had encountered a case of severe hardship. There are many such cases and the Minister must take them into consideration. We have a Celtic tiger economy and many people are in employment. Surely we can help those at the lowest levels of our society?

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe raised the issue of people who had paid PRSI for a number of years. Those payments will now be recognised and I thank the Minister for taking action in this area. People who have paid between five and ten years' contri butions will receive a 50 per cent allowance. It will be very difficult to tell someone who has paid almost ten years' contribution but who is two days away from a particular date that he or she will be treated in the same way as someone who has only paid five years' contributions. I urge the Minister to consider some kind of compromise in this area in the final draft of the Bill.

Deputy Roche has spoken a great deal in recent days about tightening the screws on people who have money in financial institutions. The rule introduced by the Minister for Finance is certainly sending out the wrong message. People are now afraid to keep their money in banks. I want to ensure that fraud is tackled but it is important that those at the lower end of the scheme are not forced to keep money in the house rather than in the banks, building societies, etc. It is difficult to explain to somebody with a couple of thousand pounds in the bank that he will be investigated, when we see tribunals discussing millions of pounds and people being handed £50,000 for nothing, for which we are told, no service was given.

I urge the Minister to re-examine the position regarding money which people are allowed have in institutions and not to scare them. The system of interest charges is wrong.

I wish to share time with Deputy Foley. I welcome the Social Welfare Bill as it implements the changes announced in the budget which will cost £317 million in a full year. I compliment the Minister for ensuring that people who depend on social welfare for their livelihood will benefit from the success of the economy. I have known the Minister for a long time. He is compassionate, caring and concerned. It is obvious from his work since his appointment as Minister that he has targeted available resources towards the people who need them.

We have a higher standard of living then ever and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who are now retired, the elderly who, in many ways, have made a great contribution to our present prosperity. I am glad the Minister recognised this and that in two budgets he has been responsible for an increase of £11 per week in old age pensions – an increase of £6 per week this year and of £5 per week in 1998. It is reasonable to compare that with what the previous Government did, when old age pensioners received an increase of £7 per week over a three year period. Since Deputy Ahern became Minister, a married couple, for example, is £15.50 per week better off. We are moving towards the promised rate of £100 per week by 2002, the final year the Government will be in office.

I also welcome the decision of the Minister to provide pensions for the self-employed who were 56 years of age in 1988 when the new scheme for the self-employed was introduced. I listened carefully to Deputy Crawford and Deputy Jim O'Keeffe. I do not know whether Deputy O'Keeffe raised this issue when his party was in Government a short time ago, but the previous Government did nothing to alleviate the difficulty which existed for the self-employed who did not qualify because they were over 56 years in 1988.

I welcome the many beneficial and enlightened changes in the carer's allowance, costing £18 million, an increase of 40 per cent. I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of disregarding further income – indeed all income – where the person being cared for is totally dependent, as in the case of somebody suffering from Alzheimer's disease or paralysis. Such people need attention 24 hours a day, with feeding and everything having to be done for them. The number of people who would qualify in this category would be small. There are precedents for taking high dependency into account in legislation covering private nursing homes. From time to time one sees people, generally women, looking after elderly persons, perhaps in-laws, who are totally dependent and the carer is unable to leave the house. Because the husband is a garda or is earning more than £300 per week the carer does not qualify for the carer's allowance. Perhaps the Minister will examine this issue.

I particularly welcome the farm assist scheme and the decision of the Minister to bring forward the date of implementation to 1 April. The scheme will be very beneficial to the farming community. We all recognise – particularly those of us representing rural constituencies – the current difficulties being experienced by small farmers as a result of the economic crisis in Russia and the bad weather which resulted in the fodder crisis and which created extraordinary difficulties for small farmers. Section 16 sets out the method of assessment for the scheme. It provides that a farmer's income will be assessed at a rate of 80 per cent, while £100 will be disregarded for the first two children and £200 for each child after that. This will be very much welcomed.

The rural community and farmers have always been suspicious of investigating officers. The overwhelming majority of people have nothing to fear. In my experience as a medical doctor and a politician I know that many such people do not apply for the benefit to which they are entitled because they fear the investigation. We must ensure that people who need the extra income provided by the farm assist scheme apply for it. In that context I welcome the decision of the IFA to appoint liaison officers who will try to ensure farmers apply for the scheme.

On the capital moneys people have in banks and the method of assessment, the Minister explained this a number of times during Question Time and I do not have a difficulty with that. However, I have a difficulty with the banks. It is wrong for a bank to invest capital from the sale of a farm – perhaps the result of the farmer moving to a town – at less than 1 per cent. Current interest rates on medium or long-term deposits are low enough, but it is wrong for a bank to take £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000 from a small farmer who, perhaps for the only time in his life is involved in a major transaction, without telling him he can invest the entire amount or a portion of it for six months, 12 months or five years at a higher interest rate. Farmers who are not told this find they receive a negligible sum in terms of what is necessary to live while they are not entitled to receive social welfare benefit due to the capital invested.

I welcome the 500 per cent increase in bereavement grant and the fact that people who left employment before 1970 and who were not previously included will be included in the scheme when they fulfil the other conditions.

I welcome the relaxation of the rules for lone parents who are temporarily absent from the State. I ask the Minister to examine the conditions for receipt of benefit, particularly in the context of deserted wives.

While I fully support any efforts the Minister takes to eliminate fraud from the system – I know schemes are liable and that we must always be on the lookout for fraud – I am satisfied that a considerable number of lone parents, particularly deserted wives, are not able to meet the conditions, especially the condition of having to pursue their husbands because they do not have the resources if they have three or four young children. Free legal aid is not easily available and, in some instances, because of domestic violence in the past, they are afraid to pursue their spouse. Will the Minister see if something can be done to ensure lone parents who are entitled to the benefit receive it without the type of difficulty I described. I compliment the Minister on what is an excellent Bill and I have no doubt many people will benefit from it.

I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Hanlon, for sharing his time.

I congratulate the Minister. He is a caring Minister and he has proved this by introducing this comprehensive and positive Bill which gives effect to the substantial improvement in the social welfare rates of payments announced in the budget. Included in the Bill is a major package of improvements for carers. It also introduces new income support measures for farmers and fishermen on low incomes as well as increasing the bereavement grant from £100 to £500. This is a substantial increase as 10,000 grants are payable each year.

Under section 4, the Minister has provided that the funeral grant payable under the occupational injuries scheme will also be increased to £500. He is extending the scope of the scheme to include other insured persons such as the self-employed and those covered by the modified rate of social insurance, for example, public servants. At present, the scheme is largely confined to employees who pay the full rate of PRSI contributions. It makes no sense that people in such categories cannot qualify for a death grant but may qualify for a widows or widowers contributory pension.

I welcome the easement of the contribution condition so as many people as possible can qualify under the scheme. The present conditions require the insured person to have a minimum of 26 contributions paid since starting work or since 1 October 1970 and to have either 48 contributions paid or credited in a recent income tax year or an average of 48 contributions paid per year since October 1970 since starting work. The death grant should be payable to insured people with a minimum level of contributions paid under the social insurance system.

I also welcome the recent changes to the social welfare system which will benefit low income/self-employed fishermen and take effect from the first week in April 1999. This major change has come about following detailed discussions between the Minister and the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Woods. They have agreed to the new arrangement which will be known as fishing assist. Fishing assist is a substantial response from the Government to the difficulties experienced in the fisheries sector during periods of prolonged bad weather, mainly focused on fishermen who operate out of small inshore boats, the group most seriously affected by adverse weather conditions. They are the most vulnerable people in our coastal communities and both Ministers are to be congratulated on bringing forward a scheme to assist these fishermen.

The provisions include changes to the income support arrangements for fishermen which are as follows: 80 per cent of all income from self-employment will be assessed rather than 100 per cent as has been the case heretofore; child related income disregards of £100 per annum for the first two qualified children to £200 per annum for the third and subsequent children and relaxation of the signing on arrangements. It is expected that some 500 low income self-employed fishermen will benefit from the fishing assist measure which will cost up to £1 million in the full year.

The farm assist scheme for low income farmers is to be welcomed. The new scheme is designed specially for farmers on low incomes and replaces the existing small holders assistance scheme. The scheme will be means tested taking into account both the farm income and off-farm self-employment of farmers and spouse. Farmers will not be required to sign on to avail of the new scheme. Eligibility will be based on the actual income assessed being within the specified income threshold. As in the case of fishermen, only 80 per cent of income assessed will be taken into account and there will also be child related disregard.

Existing farmers can apply at any time to have their means reassessed for small holders unemployment assistance if they consider that their income position has deteriorated since their means were last reviewed. The new farm assist scheme will benefit in the region of 13,400 farm families. This includes the existing 6,600 small holders and a further 6,800 low income farmers.

As regards pensions for self employed,pro rata pensions will be made available to many self- employed persons who were over the age of 56 when social insurance was extended to the self-employed in 1998 and who, as a result, did not qualify for a contributory old age pension. The new pension will be paid to self-employed persons with at least five years contributions since becoming self-employed contributors. It will be paid at 50 per cent of the personal rate plus 50 per cent of the qualified adult allowance and child dependant rates, where applicable.

A couple will, for example, receive a pension of £72.25 per week. This scheme will be introduced in October 1999 and will be back dated to April as arrears of payment from April to October, where due, will be paid at that stage. This group of pensioners will now also have access to the free schemes. Up to 10,000 people approximately, 8,000 pensioners and 2,000 qualified adults, will benefit from this measure at an estimated cost of £18 million in a full year. The total estimated cost of this measure in the future will be £170 million.

The carers allowance has been boosted by £18 million on top of the existing £45 million. The fundamental proposals include: carers allowance to be extended to carers of children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance; carers allowance to be payable subject to a means test to carers of all people between 16 and 65 years of age who require full-time care and attention; an annual payment of £200 towards respite care for all qualified carers; free telephone rental allowance to all qualified carers and full-time care and attention conditions relaxed. Other proposals include: carers to have income disregard in their own right; carers social insurance records to be preserved and free travel scheme to all qualified carers, including new categories.

In the programme for Government, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats clearly outline their determination to address the issues of exclusion and poverty. This Bill is a reaffirmation of the commitment and addresses a wide range of improvements for older people, carers, families and communities and measures to help the long-term unemployed back to work.

This Bill also contains an amendment to Part VIII of the Pensions Act, 1990, to prevent companies taking advantage of increases in social welfare. This amendment has been welcomed by SIPTU as it will act as a safeguard for employees concerned that their State pension might cause employers to reduce pension provisions for employees. The personal rate of old age contributory pension and retirement pension have been increased to £89 per week. Disability, unemployment, injury and health and safety benefits have been increased to £73.50 per week, and the weekly allowance paid with these benefits has been increased to £43.20 per week.

Part-time workers – up to ten hours – who are resident carers will not be disqualified from the carers allowance. The new means testing arrangement will allow for a carer to earn up to £75 per week and still avail of the carers allow ance. Other improvements include free travel allowance for those in receipt of carers allowance. Those providing care to those in receipt of constant attendance allowance or prescribed relatives allowance will qualify for a free travel pass. There will also be an increase in child benefit and family income supplement, FIS. Those in receipt of child benefit rates will receive £34.50 each for the first two children and £46 for the third and subsequent children. The increase in the weekly rate of maternity and adoptive benefit to £86.70 will come into effect in June 1999.

As regard people with disabilities, the back to education allowance will be available from age 18 onwards. People going into hospital or institutional care will still receive disability allowance. The number of places will increase from 27,000 to 29,000. The special project fund will be increased by £100,000. The national pilot programmes for those unemployed for five years or more involves six weeks on-the-job training with a £25 weekly travel and meals allowance and 1,000 back-to-work allowance places will be reserved for people on pilot schemes. This will include those receiving one-parent family payments, disability allowance and blind persons pensions.

PRSI changes include the abolition of the employment and training levy from 6 April 1999. Educational allowances for those returning to education will increase from £150 to £200. Section 23 provides that lone parents who are absent from the State on a temporary basis for less than 12 months will continue to retain their entitlement to social assistance under the scheme of deserted wives' benefit and allowance and prisoners' wives allowance.

Section 26 strengthens the powers of inspectors and social welfare officials to remove and secure –

The Deputy's time is up.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Mitchell and Belton.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is in the House to hear the response of Deputies from all sides to this Bill and it is to be hoped an even more positive Social Welfare Bill will appear next year. We fully support the Minister in his role following the introduction of this year's budget. We are on the brink of Agenda 2000 and of creating a new national programme which is expected to tackle mainstream social exclusion and inequality. We have a burgeoning economy which allows us to plan, support and provide subventions which could not be provided previously.

The brunt of the sacrifices in the past were made by the disadvantaged. Social welfare, encompassing issues of family and community affairs, must be about social inclusion. Social inclusion strategies must target groups identified in the national anti-poverty programme – the unemployed, particularly the long-term unemployed; children, particularly those in large families; single-adult households and households headed by a person working in the home; lone parents; those with disabilities; travellers; older people and women.

The Minister will agree that these categories impinge more on women, on the sacrifices made by women and on the disadvantages they subsequently suffer. Many women cannot seek employment or training because they do not qualify as they are not on the live register.

Many Deputies have correctly stated that we owe our economic success, welfare and the standards and values of our society to those who went before us. It should be particularly noted that we owe a debt of gratitude to women who, for a long time, had no choice but to work in the home and who did so at great sacrifice to their social welfare entitlements. This is the area on which I wish to concentrate.

Women are top of the list of categories identified by the national anti-poverty strategy. They have contributed at every level but have gained the least financially. There must be a concentrated effort to provide access for women to training schemes, employment and mechanisms of upskilling their current positions which may be the cause of their becoming redundant. Avon Arlington in Portarlington is in a sector which has traditionally employed many women as it was seen as women's work. As a result the impact of the closure of this and many other industries, such as those in the textile sector, has a far greater impact on women. We must make a concentrated effort in terms of social welfare and employment and training to ensure that these women are quickly, efficiently, effectively and positively included in a system in which they are needed.

I will continue to argue in this session about the issue of child care and the misinterpretation and lack of understanding of this issue. I have heard middle class pundits and journalists dismiss the debate on child care as a middle class concern by well-heeled, working parents who, presumably, are considered to be top of the heap and should not be asking for any concessions. I am disappointed that much of the critical analysis of the national child care strategy was negated and sidelined by editorials and journalist who only concentrated on what they viewed as a privilege. Their assessment seems to be that properly qualified, registered child care is a privilege which would apply only to some and would heavily disadvantage others, particularly women in the home and those in poor households.

On the contrary, the first concern of the Goodbody report, and the report of the expert working group on child care, was that this issue should be Government policy and that it was a matter of social justice. Both reports noted that large sub ventions, particularly from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, would have to be invested to ensure good quality child care.

The main recommendations of the child care group are: to support low income families not in the tax net to access quality child care services; to support low earners who would not benefit from the tax relief measures recommended in the report; to increase ceilings for lone parents payments and to remove disincentives for lone parents who cannot afford child care. This deprives the child of the social and educational development it rightly deserves but also prevents lone parents from seeking employment and independence outside the home. I wish to express the indignation of many homemakers at the fact that we seem to believe that good quality child care is an extra and an appendage. One psychiatrist has stated that such child care services would represent the State taking over the care of our children and I will not even bother commenting on that suggestion.

The Goodbody report, and the recommendations of the expert working group, noted the benefits to be derived from investing in children, particularly those from disadvantaged areas, from an early age. They stated that we should provide qualified, registered child care which an increase in child benefit will not provide. An increase in child benefit is required, but that would merely recognise and, to a certain extent, value the work of parents in the home. There is a need to consider childcare as a right in the same way as primary school education is recognised. It must also receive investment.

Long term monitoring was carried out in the United States of the development of disadvantaged children who availed of pre-school classes, usually from the age of three. Their development was tracked up to the age of 28 and it was established that the programme provided significant benefits in terms of lifetime earnings and reduced crime. Overall the evaluation found that the cost-benefit ratio was in excess of seven, that is, for every dollar spent on the programme, the economy benefited to the extent of $7. It is also worth noting that the benefits to the taxpayer arising from reduced criminality, higher tax payments consequent on higher incomes and reduced expenditure on education accounted for 80 per cent of the total benefits.

I appeal to the Minister to make a big investment in this area. The interdepartmental committee that has been established, in which his Department is involved, should radically and fundamentally change our attitude to childcare, which is in crisis and a national disgrace. It should not be necessary in the next budget debate to try to validate the real needs of and the crisis in childcare. It should not be necessary to seek value for the women who give so much of their time as parents in the home and who do not even have contributions in their own right which will give them a pension. I will return to this matter. I have fought that case since I was first elected to this House but, sadly, it still needs to be addressed.

Several of my colleagues referred to the carers allowance. I welcome the announcement of the £200 respite care allowance. However, on further reading it appears it is only available to qualified carers. To be a qualified carer, one must be in receipt of a carers allowance. I have been in politics for some time and I have not met many people who qualified for a carers allowance.

I knew a person whose receipt of the allowance resulted in her husband's pension being reduced to £3 a week. She considered this so demeaning to her husband that she returned the allowance. We can do better. The man involved worked all his life for his pension and then helped at home in caring for a handicapped son over many years. This is not how carers should be treated.

The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, and the subsequent carers report, recommended two types of payment to carers. The first could be means tested and the other would disregard income and be a recognition of the contribution and work of carers in the home, who are primarily women. We could begin by giving the £200 respite care allowance which makes such a difference. It may be only a few hours respite a week or a few days a year, but it makes life bearable for people who are caring 24 hours a day. I ask the Minister to consider this aspect.

I again ask the Minister to consider the anomaly which exists for public service pensioners of which many people may not be aware. These pensioners are discriminated against because for many years they paid a modified amount of PRSI. They were not allowed pay any more and as a result they do not qualify for a social welfare pension. They do not expect to qualify for that pension, but it is the qualifier for all the non-cash benefits, such as free electricity, free television rental, free telephone and a medical card. Many of these older pensioners live in very poor circumstances and as they get older, their health costs increase.

This problem was recognised by the former Minister, Deputy De Rossa. He raised the eligibility threshold to the level of a social welfare pension plus £30 a week. It is time to increase that allowance and, perhaps, abolish the financial qualification. Given the continued growth of the economy, we can afford to give all our pensioners these non-cash benefits. It could be introduced on a phased basis by allowing people over the age of 75 who are living alone to qualify. It is inherently unjust that 80 year old public service pensioners are paying tax, PRSI, health and training and employment levies while their next door neighbours are in much better circumstances with occupational and social welfare pensions and also qualify for the non-cash benefits. I ask the Minister to consider this matter. These benefits should be a right for all our older citizens.

The rent and mortgage assistance scheme is payable to people who cannot afford to house themselves. This is a very good scheme and much money is spent on it. It is an efficient way of providing housing to people who cannot house themselves. However, from my membership of the county council and the health board I am aware of major problems in the implementation of the scheme. One relates to the overall maximum which is payable in a given week or month and the other is that it is only payable to people who are unemployed.

IBEC and the Small Firms Association complain that they cannot get workers although many people are drawing unemployment benefit. However, this is one of the reasons. People will not only not take up jobs, but they are leaving jobs because of the rising cost of rent and the difficulty of securing housing. If we want to reduce the level of social welfare payments and the number of people on the dole, provide workers for the economy and solve the housing shortage, the problems with this scheme must be examined. The underlying principles of the scheme are good, but it is not operating as it was intended in the new context of much higher rents and the housing shortage. I ask the Minster to reconsider this issue.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ardagh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis an Aire as an méid atá déanta aige sa Bhille seo mar, ar ndóigh, tá roinnt mhaith de mhuintir na tíre ag braith ar leasa shóisialaigh, agus ba cheart dúinn tacaíocht an-mhór a thabhairt dóibh.

A Bill which promises an extra £305.5 million in one year is a recognition that everybody in our buoyant economy is being helped. Some people are capable of earning more but everybody depends on getting more. In many cases, the State provides for those people. In our Action Programme for the Millennium we talk about an inclusive society and meeting our commitments under Partnership 2000. An inclusive society does not mean setting minimum standards. It does not mean bringing people up from the dregs of poverty, and it does not mean basic payments. It means sharing the benefits of our economy with everybody, recognising the contribution people make to our society, and identifying need and valuing everybody's role.

Some aspects of this Bill which have been highlighted by other speakers are worthy of being highlighted again. Taken in conjunction with the Finance Bill, the measures introduced for the elderly are particularly welcome. There are major improvements. We are definitely on the way to a pension of £100 per week for our senior citizens. The fact that the Minister has given an increase of £11 over two years is a fitting recognition of our senior citizens. It is a real increase, unlike previous ones, and it values people's role.

What I am impressed by – although it does not come under the Social Welfare Bill, it does deal with the elderly – are the changes in the medical card guidelines. The cost of medical care, particularly for the elderly, has escalated beyond control, to the extent that in my constituency a doctor in one area will charge £20 for a visit and the same doctor, when he moves his clinic to another area in the constituency, charges £25 per visit. This is beyond the reach of people, particularly the elderly. The extensive changes in that area and in pensions within this Bill are therefore to be welcomed.

I ask the Minister to look at another scheme under his control, that is, security measures and socially monitored alarms. Even though there has been a reduction in crime, elderly people still feel vulnerable. They are not influenced by figures. They are influenced by their own fears and inhibitions. A Chubb lock on the door – it does not have to be a full scale alarm – gives the necessary confidence and reassurance to old people. I would like the Minister, where possible, to continue to extend the security scheme and the funding he gives to different groups.

When the history of Irish women is written, I have no doubt we will find that in almost every family in Ireland was one woman, unmarried, who dedicated her life to caring for elderly parents. Which of us in this House does not have an aunt or other relation that we can identify as being in that position? The tradition developed over the years of people devoting their lives to looking after disabled adults and children and becoming full-time carers but never getting proper recognition. The recognition given in this Bill is a major step forward, particularly now that 3,500 carers will receive benefit for the first time.

I am particularly interested in carers of children who are generally mothers. They will now be eligible for the first time. The mother who had to pay her own bus fare to bring her Down's syndrome boy to a match will now qualify for free travel as well. These are small benefits that make life more bearable and comfortable for people. I remember attending a meeting in Dunmore House with fellow Deputies at which the parents talked about respite care. The £200 being provided will certainly help, but I appeal to the Minister for Health and Children to ensure that places are available. The £200 will go some way towards helping to pay for much needed respite but not if there are no places.

In regard to families and children, child benefit is being increased to £34.50 per month for the first and second child and £46 for the third child, and this is a welcome increase. However, given that the cost of full-time day care for a baby is £115 per week, that is, £460 per month, £34.50 does not go very far. The advantage of child benefit is that it goes to the mother. Whatever is being considered in regard to child care and child benefit, I hope that aspect will not be changed, because there is no guarantee that any of the income of a spouse, where there is a spouse, goes to the mother.

There is a crisis in child care which needs to be recognised immediately. I do not mean to be divisive, but if parents were cattle and children fodder the crisis would have been recognised long ago and something would have been done about it. It is a multi-departmental issue and needs to be dealt with on that basis. I held a meeting in Dún Laoghaire, at which we could not agree on any one approach to child care. Neither can the national childcare strategy agree on an approach. Even within my own party, there are members who say child benefit is the way to go, because every mother benefits, yet the national childcare strategy does not recommend that as the way forward because it is expensive, not targeted on child care and not guaranteed to increase the provision of child care places or to improve the quality of child care without a parallel investment.

It does not value it either.

They are recommending a wide range of measures which I would support. These include child care subsidies, family income support, increasing the income ceiling for one-parent family payment, personal tax relief, removal of benefit-in-kind and so on. When the report came out we were all critical that no immediate action was taken. As I learn more, read more and listen more, I understand that the best way forward is for the interdepartmental group to work together. I look forward to their recommendations. This is a complex area and child benefit is just one aspect of it. It is at least a help to parents who can decide how best to spend the money, whether it is on putting food on the table or on care outside the home.

It is interesting to note that there is no division between mothers working full-time in the home and mothers working full-time outside the home. At least 17 per cent of mothers working full-time in the home avail of care outside, so this is an issue which affects everybody. What is divisive in this debate is that the costs in rural areas are less than in the city. Equally the facilities in rural areas are very bad compared to those in the city, and much work needs to be done on that.

I sincerely hope the Minister for Social Community and Family Affairs will play a strong role in the debate at the interdepartmental committee, because so much of the work which has already been undertaken is being done through his Department, helping young parents who are taking part in educational schemes or who are in receipt of the family income supplement and so on. Without being critical of the Minister, I would highlight that child care is an issue about which we will hear much more.

Deputy Barnes focused particularly on women. I hope it is not just the women in this House who focus on women. In talking about carers and child benefit we are talking about women and at last that has been recognised.

I welcome the Bill and, in particular, the increases for senior citizens and carers. The increase of £6 a week for pensioners aged 66 and over and for people on retirement or invalidity pension aged 65 and over is most welcome. This represents an increase of between 7.2 per cent and 8.3 per cent, a multiple of the rate of inflation. We must also take into account the increase in the income guideline for medical card eligibility. Over the next three years the guideline will double; one-third of the increase will be implemented this year from 1 March. In one ward of my constituency, more than 29 per cent of the electorate is over 65 years of age so the change in the income guideline is extremely welcome there.

Moreover, it is amazing how well received the training on computers for the elderly scheme was and is being received. The Department will probably find that the money allocated for the scheme will be used quite quickly and I hope further allocations will be made as the need for the scheme is further demonstrated.

There is an increase in the income threshold for the family income supplement of £8. This, combined with the use of net income, after payment of tax and PRSI, rather than gross income in calculating the weekly income will result in a significant increase in the family income supplement payable to many families. However, there are still many families who do not avail of the supplement. Mechanisms must be put in place in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Revenue Commissioners to ensure that all potential participants in FIS are informed of their rights, assisted in applying for the scheme and are helped in every way to ensure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

In addition to praising the Minister for the many good provisions in the Bill, I am obliged to draw his attention to a number of anomalies which I hope he will address. There is an anomaly within the FIS system which should be dealt with. A mother of seven children in my constituency who is on a community employment scheme and receiving social payments is earning slightly less than the recommended income level for a family with seven children. We are prepared to accept tax from that person, in the amount of £40 per week, yet she is unable to benefit from the family income supplement. The Minister should consider this problem and find out if appropriate changes can be made.

Another anomaly which came to my attention is the payment of a late spouse's pension after death. Widows or widowers with spouses who were in receipt of non-contributory pensions receive six weeks payment of a late spouse's pension while widows and widowers of spouses who were in receipt of contributory pensions receive nothing. This is a most unfair anomaly, particularly when one considers that the recipients of contributory pensions paid for their benefits while recipients of non-contributory pensions did not. The Minister should give his attention to this matter at the earliest convenience.

Deputy Hanafin expressed the hope that men as well as women would espouse the causes of women in this debate. Since I was first elected to this House, I have taken every opportunity to raise the issue of fairness and equity in the treatment of married mothersvis-à-vis unmarried mothers. While I would never deny unmarried mothers the benefits and payments they receive through the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, the community employment schemes and the health boards, I wish to ensure that married mothers are treated equitably and that the benefits and opportunities for married mothers do not compare unfavourably to those for unmarried mothers.

I rang the Department today on this issue. I had tried its website for the past two days but could not get through. There appears to be a problem with it which is unfortunate given the introduction of this legislation in the House. However, I was told by the Department that it receives an enormous number of telephone calls from married mothers complaining about the unfair treatment they believe they receive.

It is generally agreed that it is more economic to care for two adults in a family than for one adult. For this reason it is normal that a 60 per cent basis applies to adult dependants, who are mainly married mothers. In the economic circumstances that pertain at present, where budget surpluses are the norm, there is an opportunity to increase that 60 per cent ratio and to give married mothers an increase which would accord them the recognition and status their contribution deserves.

There is no doubt that the family unit is the basis of society and that this unit must be supported and maintained. Unmarried mothers are entitled to earn up to £230.76 while retaining some of their benefits, albeit on a graduated scale. Married mothers, however, are only allowed to earn up to £105 while retaining some of their benefits. There is a further anomaly. For every £5 that an unmarried mother earns above £115, she is allowed to keep a further £2.50 of her benefit whereas a married mother is allowed to keep only 50p for every extra £5 she earns over £60. That is unfair and inequitable and must be tackled.

By using the 60 per cent ratio of the £230 an unmarried mother is allowed to earn, the amount a married mother could earn without her benefits being fully removed should be at least £138 per week. Furthermore, as I suggested earlier, the 60 per cent threshold should be increased, probably to 75 per cent. The child dependant allowance for an unmarried mother is £15.20 per week whereas the child dependant allowance for a married mother is £13.20. I cannot understand that. Every child needs the same amount of food, love and attention. That anomaly should certainly be addressed.

There are also anomalies with regard to the community employment scheme. A married mother who has looked after her children and put them through school might wish to return to working outside the home. In many cases, particularly where the women are from low income families or from families dependent on social welfare, the skills of the married mother would not be in the super technological bracket. Many of the community employment schemes, therefore, would be ideal placements for these women. However, they are not allowed to participate in such schemes because they have not been in receipt of a social welfare payment.

Today, I learned about the spouse swap scheme.

The Deputy will have to be careful in describing that.

Instead of the husband receiving the full benefit payment plus the adult dependant allowance, the married mother gets the major amount and the husband gets the qualified adult allowance. The spouse, in this case the wife, is therefore on a social welfare payment and would be entitled to go on a community employment scheme. It should be easier for married mothers who wish to return to work to get on community employment schemes.

I wish to make a further suggestion – that on a once off basis unmarried mothers, should they marry, receive a dowry from the State. This dowry would consist of graduated payments over the first five years of their married life ranging from 100 per cent of the one parent family payment in the first year, 80 per cent in the second, 60 per cent in the third and 40 per cent in the fourth to 20 per cent in the fifth. This is not a new idea. It is not long ago that women who left the Civil Service received a marriage gratuity from the State.

That was because they were not allowed to work.

This would encourage marriage and families, the basic unit which is so important in society today.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Perry and Belton.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The budget was introduced in early December and we are now dealing with the Social Welfare Bill. However, it is shameful that social welfare recipients will not receive the benefits of the budget provisions until May, June and, in some cases, September. At a time when our economy is doing so well and we had a billion pound surplus in the preceding year, we should have made an effort to implement the social welfare increases more quickly. Already, the rent of some local authority houses has increased. When these tenants receive their increase in social welfare, about 50 per cent will already have been clawed back by local authorities through increased rent. This is not fair to social welfare recipients and I hope the Minister will do something about it.

In Britain, social welfare increases announced in the budget are in the pockets of those entitled to them much sooner than here. I do not know why this is the case. Perhaps it is because traditionally we have a long lead-in time; it has nothing to do with printing books etc. as that can be done quickly. It is very disappointing.

On the carer's allowance, there was disappointment among carers when the budget was announced. There were a few fringe benefits for them; the respite care allowance of £200 per annum is worthwhile. However, carers are disappointed there was no substantial increase in the allowance paid to them for the tremendous work they do. There are still some anomalies in the system. For example, a case I encountered recently is with the Department and, perhaps, some of the officials present will take an interest in it. It relates to a bachelor in my area who is terminally ill. He has two sisters, one lives in Florida and the other in Kildare. For many months they have taken turns to mind him. They live in his home and look after him for two months at a time. The American has applied for the carer's allowance. She has to meet huge additional costs to come to look after her brother; the return airfare every eight weeks and also costs relating to her family in Florida. A retired nurse she is of reasonably modest means. However, she does not satisfy the Department's means test.

I asked the Department to take a special interest in this case and I will be interested in its response. Will it stick rigidly to the guidelines or will a certain amount of flexibility be applied to such a case? These ladies are giving up a substantial amount of their family time at great inconvenience to themselves to honour the wish of their brother who wants to remain at home, come what may. I hope the Department will take a sympathetic view of their case and, perhaps, the senior officials present may have an input in deciding, with compassion, the merits of it.

I regularly come across people who work part-time while looking after a moderately incapacitated relative in their own home. They may work outside the home, at night or when someone else is present with their relative and, because of that they are barred from availing of the carer's allowance. Amendments have been tabled to the Bill and I hope they will improve it. To allow someone work outside the home for ten hours is a small concession. I hope the Minister will look at this to see what can be done.

I wish to deal with some of the anomalies which exist in the social welfare code. I compliment Deputy Ardagh on his contribution. He made a valid point about the treatment of women under the social welfare code. Often, married women feel they are discriminated against. Deputy Ardagh eloquently outlined some of the anomalies and how they impinge financially on those women. He mentioned the FIS. One anomaly in the FIS should be highlighted. If a person in receipt of FIS gets a wage increase, there is no benefit whatsoever within certain limits, because he or she is usually in the small income discretion range of income tax, paying tax on 40 per cent. The FIS payment is clawed back at the rate of 60 pence in the pound so an increase in wages does not give him or her a net benefit. This anomaly, which has been brought to the attention of the Department on many occasions, should be dealt with. Although the system has improved these anomalies still exist.

There is a further anomaly as regards old age pensions. I received a letter from a constituent who retired four years and is in receipt of the old age contributory pension. He is entitled to a maintenance allowance of £52.50 for his wife and a total of £135.50 for both of them. His wife is entitled to free optical benefit and a hearing aid grant on his PRSI contributions. In December 1998 his wife reached 66 years of age and was entitled, in her own right, because she had some social welfare contributions – for an average of 16 paid weeks she paid PRSI – to the old age pension at the rate of £62.30. This gave a combined pension for both of them of £145.30. However, the sting in the tail came on 1 January 1999 when his wife applied for a hearing aid grant and optical benefit. She was informed that because she had a pension of more than £60 per week, she was not entitled to claim on her husband's PRSI or her own PRSI because she only had an average of 16 weeks' PRSI and she would need 48 weeks to qualify for such benefits. Had his wife applied before 31 December 1998 she would have qualified for the benefits on her husband's PRSI. However, because she waited until she had her own pension, she is no longer entitled to them. Is it fair that this woman should lose out on those benefits because she is receiving a contributory pension? This should be looked at. I referred the case to the Department and I hope something will be done about it.

I regret that the increase in child benefit is negligible. Various studies have shown that child benefit is the best method of giving money to less well-off families and is more likely to be used to benefit children. It is an excellent way of getting money to people who need it badly. Unfortunately, this Government has not seen fit to increase child benefit. This should be looked at and, perhaps, the Minister will relent at this late stage and grant an increase in child benefit. In recent months, I came across a statistic which showed that about 60 per cent of the recipients of child benefit have that as the only income in their name.

Debate adjourned.