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.