Social Welfare Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Deputy Ulick Burke was in possession and is sharing his time with Deputy Ring.

I am very angry and disappointed the Minister is not present this morning because the budget did nothing for the poor in society. The Minister is acting like a general in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. He has issued a directive to his officials throughout the country to target the poor at any cost. He attacked the farmers and 1,100 people on farm assist lost money. I want the Minister of State present to convey a message. I know officials from the Department, some of whom are entering the Chamber at present, receive a reward for removing the poor from social welfare.

The Deputy is not in order in referring to officials in the House.

I think I am in order.

The Deputy is not in order in referring to officials.

I will refrain from doing so. They are the people who run the country and that is the sad aspect to it. The Minister has issued a directive telling his officials to target the poor. Some 1,100 people lost money when they applied for farm assist. This was the great scheme the Minister announced would help the poor.

The Minister referred yesterday to a new system operated by Department officials whereby people registered as not available for work are seen as not genuinely seeking it. Some 8,014 people were taken off social welfare payments between January and June last year. Twenty-six per cent of those who appealed that decision are in receipt of payments again. A category of people exists who are unemployable and who should be in receipt of disability benefit etc. The social welfare system is attacking such people.

I noted from the Minister's recent report how proud he was to take money out of the pockets of poor people. That was a great achievement. Why does he not attack those who defrauded the State of money? The Government will not do that. The motto is to always attack the poor and the weak in society and keep them down. The people are unhappy with how they are being treated. I would not like to be the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, when he next goes canvassing. The people of the west are waiting; they are angry. There is nothing in the current budget for them. Why is this Government coming down so hard on the poor, the weak and the sick? People are being taken off social welfare benefits on a daily basis. The officials are operating the system in an arrogant manner and are being rewarded for doing so by those at the top. I would not wish to make money off the backs of the poor. It is sad that the system operates in this way.

I am not afraid to speak out about what I am witnessing on a daily basis. A man came to see me last week at my clinic who had letters from three different companies stating they had no job vacancies. Yet he was taken off social welfare benefit. He is living in a rural area where there are no jobs. Something like that would not happen in the Third World or in Russia, during its worst times. That man will have to appeal the decision. We all know the reputation of the appeals system. As far as I am concerned the appeals officers and the Department are working together on this. We should appoint an ombuds man for the poor who could adjudicate on matters related to the social welfare system. The current system is not working.

Some of the increases announced in the budget will not come into effect until September 2000. Why did the Government not introduce such increases in next year's budget? It is outrageous that people should have to wait until September this year for these increases. That is an attack on the poor. Tax breaks for the rich announced in the budget will come into effect in April. Why can social welfare increases not be paid at the same time as the tax breaks are introduced? Why should the poor have to wait until September and the rich gain in April? That is wrong and we must do something about it.

I was disappointed with the increase in child benefit. Families have never found living as hard. The spin doctors are being paid very well – if this Government is good at doing one thing, it is good are employing spin doctors. In some cases they are being paid more than politicians. They are being rewarded very highly for what they are spinning out. A number of Fianna Fáil back benchers had better watch out at the next election. The people on the ground will spin these spin doctors at them and show them what they think of this Government.

A number of cases have been brought to my attention recently. In the case of couples, on the death of one of the partners who because of a disability, for instance, was entitled to the free scheme, the remaining partner, who is not of pension age, loses entitlement to that scheme. It is reasonable to request that the Department should continue to pay such people under that scheme for at least 12 months. People suffer terrible trauma on the death of a husband or wife. It would not cost the Department a fortune to do this.

The free fuel scheme is outrageous. If we are lucky we might get 12 or 13 days a year of sunshine in Ireland. This scheme operates only from October to April. It should operate throughout the year because elderly people need to light a fire every week of the year. Such an improvement would be well received by the elderly who deserve more from us.

The carer's allowance is a good scheme but one should not be means tested for it. People over the qualifying means should receive some recognition for taking care of relatives at home, perhaps £50. The Department needs to be more generous. It is more costly for the State to look after a person in a nursing home. If a family member or relative is prepared to take care of the person at home the least the State can do is give them some recognition. The carer's allowance is not even of much benefit to those in receipt of social welfare payments. The measly increase is no good. The Minister should give top priority to this area. We should take care of the sick and elderly in society. It is wrong that those who care for sick or ageing relatives and who are saving the State a fortune should be treated in this way. The last place sick or ageing people want to go is into a home. The Minister should take another look at that scheme because its rules and regulations are too severe.

The Minister also needs to look at local authority rents. Different local authorities operate different schemes. The Government should bring all rents into line. A man who will receive a £3 or £4 increase as a result of the budget told me he will lose £2 of that to the local authority as a result of a rent review. He qualified, as a single man, last year for the medical card by £2. This year a couple can earn a further £1.50 and their entitlement to a medical care will not be affected. The Minister is not living in the real world. People in receipt of pensions should pay fixed rents of approximately £10 or £12 a week. They should not be means tested. They have contributed to society and should be taken care of in their latter years. There should be a common rent payment throughout the country.

I spoke earlier about the appeals system. I am unhappy about the length of time people have to wait for appeals.

It is wrong that people have to wait six, seven and eight months for appeals and then a further month or two for a judgment on whether they will be left on social welfare.

Widows and widowers have been badly treated by all Governments since the foundation of the State. It is wrong that lone parents are better looked after than widowers and widows. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moffatt, to rectify this because he has responsibility for the elderly. Many widows and widowers have been left in poor circumstances. The system is against them and that is wrong, particularly when they have lost a loved one. I know many widows or widowers who have reared young families on poor incomes. Their good work and the challenges facing them have not been recognised. It is outrageous that they have suffered in our society.

I hope when I have finished my contribution Deputy Ring will realise I live in a part of the country which gets co-operation from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

That is great news.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Martin Brady.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This is the most wide-ranging Social Welfare Bill in the history of the State. It delivers on key commitments made in An Action Programme for the Millennium and Partnership 2000. It exemplifies our commitment to an inclusive and caring society.

The Bill signals a dramatic re-evaluation of the method of assessing social welfare entitlements. New income supports have been put in place for carers. New widowed parents grants, special pensions for those with pre-1953 social welfare insurance and a new and fairer method of assessing capital for social insurance purposes have been introduced. In future certain low paid employees will enjoy exemptions and there are improvements for those who move from social welfare to the many jobs currently available as a result of a strong and vibrant economy. Changes have also been introduced to the means assessment for farm assist and for fishermen on low incomes in receipt of unemployment assistance.

Those in need of social welfare in the early days of the State were left under no illusion as to their low status. Those administering the system took great pains to make them aware of their dependence on the State which doled out their meagre subsistence. Social welfare was used to ensure that people did not live in abject poverty and that they did not starve. It was a means of providing people with clothing and essential household goods so they could maintain a certain lifestyle. However, recipients were always made aware that they were beholden to the social welfare system.

The State was a self-righteous benefactor of those who could not afford to look after or feed themselves or their families. Those who administered the system were often more interested in correct book work and accountability than they were in the people who needed them. There was a judgmental aspect to the administration of social welfare which inflicted severe lifelong psychological damage on those in receipt of the paltry benefits. People will say times were different then and that people had different attitudes, values and needs, which is true. However, it is sad to think back to those times.

The poor law unions and dispensaries are part of our history. Old people were put into the unions when their health declined and relatives were no longer able to care for them. There are few in this House who do not have sad memories of a relative or a friend of the family who was put into these unions because they had no other place to go. Visits were always a great source of distress and one always left the overcrowded wards with the pleas of people wanting to go home ringing in their ears. I am glad those days are long gone.

I also remember tales of visits to public dispensaries where cough bottles and tablets were grudgingly doled out to those who had to suffer the Dickensian system. People who wanted a cure for a hacking cough often went home with a bottle of coloured liquid which did not seem to help. I am sure the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moffatt, remembers those days. It was a common belief at the time that the basic ingredient in those cough bottles was water. I am glad dispensaries are a thing of the past.

Many people reared families of seven on the 30 shillings a week they got on the dole.

They had to go to England.

Those who qualified for unemployment benefits were often forced to stand in long queues and to be subservient to those who stood on the other side of the counter. Those who had the temerity to ask questions were publicly reprimanded and humiliated by persons employed to serve, help and advise them. I am glad that attitude does not exist today. It has been confined to the graveyard of many of our past anti-social public service practices.

I am in daily correspondence with officials in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs who are helpful and co-operative. The aim of the Department is to help and serve the public. That is the Minister's approach to his brief.

It also takes money off people.

I recently visited the social welfare office in Cork where I met the manager and his staff. I was glad to see they had placed job advertisements in the office so people could apply for them. I congratulate Pat Cochrane and his staff for the excellent way they deal with the public.

The increased budget allocation of £428 million is the largest to come before the House. The substantial reduction of £103 million in PRSI and health contribution levies for low paid employees is also welcome. Additional spending in the budget amounts to £531 million, which is more than double the figure of £228 million in last year's budget.

I am pleased to support the recognition of the role of carers in the Bill. They are a first class dedicated group of people without whom our society could not function. They provide high levels of care at home to both old family members and neighbours, those who suffer disabilities and those who are terminally ill. Carers make it possible for those in care to avail of an improved quality of life in their homes. They are on call 24 hours a day and they give freely and unselfishly of their time and expertise.

The work done by carers is often not fully appreciated or recognised. One of the reasons is that they blend into the family life of those for whom they care. They are seen as part of the family unit rather than as people who nurse or tend to the elderly or ill. Their commitment and availability means they are often taken for granted, but not by those for whom they care. Society does not always fully appreciate their vital and outstanding contribution to the welfare of those they help. I am glad the Minister shares my esteem and appreciation for carers.

The Bill provides for the introduction of a new social insurance scheme for carers benefit. It will facilitate people who wish to leave the workforce on a temporary basis so they can care for older or disabled people in need of full-time care and attention. Separate related legislation will be introduced by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, which will be enacted to protect the employment rights of carers in receipt of carer's benefit. This benefit will be payable for up to 15 months in respect of the same care recipient. The Department will pay a weekly income support payment of £88.50. This will not be means tested as it is a social insurance benefit. It will be paid provided the relevant PRSI contribution conditions have been met. I am glad the role of the carer is now being given the recognition it fully deserves.

The increase for old age pensioners embodied in this Bill means we are well on the way to delivering on our commitment to increase the pension to £100 over the lifetime of the Government.

As a matter of fact, we are ahead of schedule. The increase of £7 per week in the old age contributory pension will bring it up to £96 per week, which is just marginally short of the target we set when we took office in 1997. We have delivered on our commitments to old age pensioners. The widows' or widowers' contributory pension for those who are 66 years or older has increased to £89.10 and the old age non-contributory pension has increased to £85. These figures mean that those categories of pensioners are on line to achieve the target of £100 per week by 2002.

The above increases are real increases, they are a big improvement on the minuscule increases granted by previous Governments. I remind Deputy Ring that, approximately two and a half years ago when he was Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa gave old age pensioners an increase of £1.75.

Deputy De Rossa looked after the family.

The increases to which I refer will come into effect in the first week in May, two months ahead of schedule.

Why could they not come into effect in April?

It is the Minister's intention to implement future increases at the start of the new tax year in April 2001. I welcome this initiative. I know these increases will be welcomed by everyone.

Why can they not be implemented in April this year?

The increase in child benefit does not come into effect until September.

The Minister has done a fantastic job in bringing forward the commencement date for these increases by one month each year.

Loads of money but only crumbs for the poor.

By the time the Opposition parties return to power the increases will probably be effective from 1 January.

I welcome the many positive provisions in the Bill. In my opinion this legislation gives concrete expression to the pragmatic philosophy which underpins all the Government's actions, namely, that the benefits of our extraordinarily successful economy should be shared by all citizens and sectors of society. I particularly welcome those specific provisions which target the socially excluded and those with disabilities in a manner designed to improve their conditions and, where possible, to enable them to participate actively and fully in contributing to our society and economy.

Government policy is designed to enable all citizens, regardless of their capabilities, to make the fullest contribution consistent with the talents they possess to the society in which we live. The Government's stated policy in improving the lot of the major categories of welfare recipients is clearly and irrefutably evidenced by a comparison of its three budgets with the three introduced by the rainbow coalition.

Let me provide some of facts and figures which speak volumes. Under the rainbow coalition, between 1995 and 1997, there was an increase in the old age contributory pension of 9.9%, while under the current Government, between 1998 and 2000, there has been an increase of 23.1%. Under the rainbow coalition, widows' contributory pension increased by 10.2%, while under the current Government it increased by 14.1%. Unemployment disability benefit increased by 10.7% under the rainbow coalition, while it increased by 26.7% under the current Government. Long-term unemployment assistance increased by 10.7% under the rainbow coalition, while it increased by 14.8% under the current Government. Short-term unemployment assistance increased by 11% under the rainbow coalition, while it increased by 16.2% under the current Government. Those statistics refute some of the points made earlier by Deputy Ring.

The comparison of these figures is most instructive. The Government has kept its promises and will continue to do so. We are within striking distance of £100 for the old age pension, as promised, and we will also continue improvements for all categories of recipients. In all instances we have provided much better increases and, in the case of pensioners, over twice the level provided by the rainbow coalition. In addition, the rate of inflation has been lowered in the past three years so that the real level of increases to recipients has been, in all cases, even higher again.

The social provisions of the budget that are incorporated in the Bill show clearly that this is a caring Government which keeps faith with the old and the disadvantaged through the better benefits and service provision. The Bill also pro vides £530 million for people on low incomes, including measures over and above those announced in the budget. These are central to the comprehensive framework of policies costing £1.5 billion which the Government is introducing to combat social exclusion in the coming years and will ensure full participation by all citizens in society.

These measures have been widely welcomed by the social partners and they are a cornerstone of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The programme, the latest in the series initiated by a Fianna Fáil Government in 1987, will continue the process of transforming society and will provide the mechanisms, structures and schemes for the distribution and sharing of the benefits of wealth creation among all citizens.

PRSI exemption for employees is to be extended. Those earning less than £226 per week and paying class A and class H contributions will be exempt from PRSI. As a result, over 460,000 workers will gain an additional benefit of up to £5.67 per week. The earnings limit for exempting workers from the 2% health contribution is to be raised to £280 per week from £217, bringing the exemption up to £14,560 per year. This will mean an additional benefit for these workers of up to £5.60 per week.

Reduced rates of old age contributory or retirement pension are also being increased by between £7.50 and £12.20 per week. The minimum family income supplement is being doubled to £10 per week, benefiting 1,000 families. The farm assist scheme for low income farmers is being improved. I am glad that these benefits will also be extended to low income fishermen. I have a particular interest in the welfare of these people because the port at Howth is in my constituency.

The new carer's benefit to which Deputy O'Flynn referred is being extended to 15 months from the original budget proposal of 12 months for carer's with at least three years contributions who are employed for a minimum of 38 hours per fortnight. These people will now be able to take up a job-protected leave of absence with the financial support of this new benefit. That is a welcome development because the people to whom I refer do a tremendous job in the community.

There are also many welcome improvements in schemes which are designed to encourage people to return to work. The number of places on the back to work allowance scheme is being increased from 29,000 to 34,000 and the scheme is also being extended to cover people in receipt of invalidity pension or unemployment supplement. A range of additional educational supports will also assist and encourage people to acquire the necessary qualifications to enhance their prospects of gaining and maintaining full-time employment.

The number of people on the live register has been reduced by the Government's policies to 171,786, of whom 142,900, 83%, are in receipt of payment. This is the lowest figure in 17 years. The numbers on the live register have fallen by over 80,000 since June 1997, when the current Government took office. Our policies are obviously working, although to listen to Deputy Ring – I do not know what planet he is on – one would not believe that to be the case.

Substantial changes in the arrangements for retention of rent and mortgage supplement on their social welfare allowance for people on community employment schemes, the back to work allowance scheme and the revenue job assist scheme are being made as follows – the current £250 limit will be abolished; the back to work allowance and family income supplement payments will be disregarded in assessing gross income; the withdrawal of the supplement will be phased over a four year period – 75%, 50%, 25% and 25%; the additional income payable to recipients on improved training courses will no longer be counted as means; a disregard of £25 per week is being introduced for part-time workers from April; an additional £100,000 will be provided for the scheme of grants towards the development and promotion of second chance education opportunities and a pilot project for early school leavers on the live register will be introduced to improve their employability.

This list of measures is by no means exhaustive but it clearly illustrates the creativeness and thoroughness of the approach to bringing the excluded and disadvantaged into the workforce by giving them the incentives and the training to make a contribution to their own and the common prosperity.

All these measures and many others contained in the Bill to which I have not referred must inevitably reduce the number of those unemployed and move us towards our goal of full employment. There are now jobs for all who want to work. The Government is committed to the removal of all educational, structural and cultural obstacles and impediments to employment, and the elimination of those conditions which prevent citizens from contributing actively and productively to our society.

Deputy Ring accused civil servants of not performing their duties in a fair way. I disagree with that and I take exception to anyone referring to civil servants and officials in the way he did. The social welfare office in Kilbarrack in my constituency does a tremendous job. The officials are very helpful and caring. They go out of their way and act above and beyond the call of duty.

I congratulate the Minister and his officials on the content of the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Deputy Ring was complaining about the political direction of the Minister.

Dr. Upton

I wish to share my time with Deputy O'Shea.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Dr. Upton

This Bill is a missed opportunity to introduce some real equality in our society. As the country is garnering wealth and riches, we are reminded daily of our great economic success. However, this success is measurable only for those who can go into the workplace and help drive the economy to even greater success. The benefits of the thriving economy do not seem to be making their way to those most in need.

I wish to speak in particular about the lot of carers and how they have been considered in this Bill. While the increases in their weekly allowance are to be welcomed, the overall concessions given to this group in the Bill fall far short of the recognition they deserve. The nature and quality of the service they provide continues to be seriously underestimated. An affluent society has no right to ignore or dismiss the valuable contribution of these people who have given so much so willingly and for such little reward. Carers look after those who cannot look after themselves. It is estimated that 100,000 people currently provide care for family members in their own homes. The commitment of carers, the sacrifices they make and the expenses they incur in carrying out their work have never been meaningfully recognised.

The failure of the Government to reform the means test for carer's allowance is unacceptable. The new carer's benefit is designed for workers who leave their jobs on a temporary basis to care for a relative. It only lasts for 15 months and will not offer a single benefit to existing carers. It ignores the needs of those who find themselves in the incredibly difficult situation of trying to decide if they should give up their job and forfeit their benefits. This category of carer needs special consideration. For them, caring is their life and their career. No real value is being placed on this commitment. In effect, they are being told they must either give up their caring role within 15 months or they will lose out. The new measure will be of help only in a situation where short-term care is needed and where the carer has the expectation of returning to work within the relatively short period set aside, that is, 15 months. The Bill does nothing to take account of the circumstances of a carer looking after someone who, although in need of care, has a long life expectancy.

At current levels of costing, the cost of funding all full-time carers would be £150 million per year. This figure is not unrealistic when we are running a budgetary surplus of £6 billion. The Government does not seem to have taken account of what the real cost to the State would be if carers decided to let the State carry the burden of providing accommodation and nursing care, sometimes on an around the clock basis, for those in need.

It appears from the Bill that only those who can, or wish to, go out to work every day are to be valued. A woman – it is almost always a woman – who decides to give up a well paid job to become a full-time carer is neglected and deprived by the system. For example, a woman who has chosen to give up her well paid nursing job to look after her dependent 20 year old son who was injured in a car accident can expect little or nothing from this Bill. She has chosen to look after her son at home. She has given up her job and relinquished her long-term pension rights. She has, in effect, taken on a 24 hour caring role. Her leisure time is no longer her own and there are many other hidden personal costs to her. However, for all this sacrifice and taking on a burden of responsibility that rightly belongs to the State, she receives a miserable allowance which goes nowhere towards meeting the real cost of looking after her son. Her career prospects are also ended. No account is taken of either of these facts.

The message from this is that the Government values only those people who can join the booming economy and help promote it, that is, those people who go out to work each day outside their home. This is unfair and is another example of discrimination against women in particular, who are almost always the carers.

I also wish to raise the issue of the bureaucracy associated with the claiming for and payment of social welfare allowances. Those who need to claim social welfare allowances are frequently vulnerable and frightened and are often upset at the very idea of having to make a claim in the first place. They are intimidated by what appears to them to be a frightening number of application forms, in which they seem to have to provide endless personal details and proof of identification each time they make an application for an allowance to which they are fully entitled. They are confronted by what they perceive as officialdom and sometimes a lack of discretion and understanding by the system. They live in fear of their benefits being reduced or removed. Surely, in this age of information technology, it is possible to streamline the application and identification system to allow people to claim their allowances with dignity and without fear.

This Bill is delivered to us in a time of plenty. There is small comfort in it for those who are marginalised in any way when they look at the material benefits and affluence which prevail. I gave the position of carers as an example of how this Bill has failed those most in need. It does not serve to promote the values of this society, which is supposed to be caring and concerned, and it attributes little value to the meaning of the word "equality". The improvement in the standard of living of those whom the Bill is intended to serve will be barely detectable in the light of the new allowances. It will serve to once again highlight the gap between the haves and the have nots in our society. This is happening at a time when the Government had an alternative and could have been much more generous.

Tá áthas orm seans a fháil labhairt sa díospóireacht tábhachtach seo ar an mBille seo. The Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill are inextricably linked each year. I want to make some points on what is not contained in this Bill.

When we look at the benefits that accrued to taxpayers in the Finance Bill, we see that a single earner earning £50,000 per year received an income increase of £32 per week while a single person earning £10,000 per year received an income increase of £4 per week.

A 60 year old man who is within the age group for pre-retirement payment came to discuss his case with me recently. He works three days per week and receives social welfare unemployment assistance payment for the other three days. His income was means tested in 1996 and a new test was carried out recently. The net result is that he is losing £5 for each of the three days he is in receipt of unemployment assistance. The only increases he received in the period between the two means tests were those he received under national pay agreements. This is absolutely appalling and is not dealt with in the Bill. It is time to look at the means test limits and formulae. Is it good enough that, at a time when a single earner earning £50,000 per year is receiving an increase of £32 per week, the person on social welfare who came to speak to me is losing £15 per week?

I acknowledge the increase in unemployment assistance which amounts to the princely sum of £4 but this anomaly must be addressed as it is inequitable, unfair and part of the Government's ethos of focusing on the better off in society.

I am aware of a recent case concerning a 78 year old widow with two intellectually disabled children, one of whom died in 1998. At that time, this widow received a carer's allowance and a half carer's allowance. When her daughter, who was an adult, died she lost the half carer's allowance and was then subjected to a means test. This woman receives a UK widow's pension. When the first means test was carried out the exchange rate was very different and there have been improvements in her UK pension since. However, the net result is that she has lost her carer's allowance. She is 78 years old and caring for an intellectually disabled daughter. Her daughter is a large person and caring for her involves physically demanding activities such as bathing and washing her hair which are becoming more difficult as this widow becomes older. However, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has decided not to help her and is not interested in her problems.

Butter vouchers may seem a small issue and the argument can be made that it is an EU scheme which operates from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development for which the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs acts as an agent. These vouchers have been removed. The scheme involves only 36p per month but it is 36p for the poorest in society. Even though the EU source of the butter is gone the Department should not have allowed a situation to arise where the least well off in society are losing 36p per month while a single person on £50,000 per year will gain £32 under the provisions in the Finance Bill. Where is the equity in this scenario? I implore the Minister to re-examine this situation and make good the loss suffered by those who had been receiving butter vouchers.

I wish to address the issue of occupationally induced diseases under the occupational injuries scheme as they relate to disability benefit. I recently dealt with a case involving an individual who was a hard worker but now suffers from osteoarthritis. This individual's GP is convinced that this problem is due to his occupation. However, osteoarthritis is not a prescribed ailment but it should be viewed as an occupational injury. I am not sure to what extent the legislation will cover this issue. However, where there is no doubt that a disability which prevents someone from working was induced by their work, surely it is inequitable, unjust and unacceptable to deny disability benefit to sufferers.

I have spoken previously in this House and in the Seanad of the attitude adopted by medical referees. Last weekend I dealt with an individual who was upset at the treatment he received from a medical referee. There should be a fast track independent appeals mechanism for those who feel upset, offended or concerned at the way they have been treated by these referees. During appeal hearings the appeals officer asks people if they are satisfied with the examinations carried out by medical referees. However, this process takes too long. Deputy Ring referred to the fact that it takes forever to arrange an appeal hearing and the Minister must take urgent action to speed up the appeals process.

I am also concerned about the length of time it takes to process applications in Sligo. There is a need to bring in consultants or whoever to examine procedures and to provide extra staff if required. It is taking far too long to process applications and something must be done about this problem.

The Bill provides for a PRSI exemption limit of £226. However, there is a cut-off point. If the figure is £226.01 the person pays the normal rate of PRSI. Surely we should not have such a cut-off point and there should be an incremental entitlement. Such an incremental scale would provide that a person only has to pay three-quarters of the rate for a certain level over £226, tapering to a half and a quarter. Arbitrary cut-off points where a few pence make the difference between whether one pays PRSI are not acceptable and a more consumer friendly approach is required.

The carer's allowance has been adequately dealt with by Deputy Upton. The much vaunted old age pension of £100 will be effective from 2002. However, as a millennium gesture, and in the context of the huge budget surplus, this should have been introduced this year as a once off measure as expected by some senior citizens. The Minister should re-examine this issue.

I have long had grave concerns about the treatment of widows and widowers. They constitute the worst treated group in receipt of social welfare. To lose a partner is an enormous trauma but it also has a significant effect on income. People find themselves cut off from so many props of their existence. I welcome the introduction of the widows grant of £1,000. I would like to see a monetary recognition of the position of widows. Perhaps the Minister will examine the idea on Committee Stage.

At this time of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity the challenge of effectively dealing with social inequality must be at the top of the national agenda. At its extreme, inequality and lack of opportunity can lead to poverty and profound social deprivation. Social research has continually shown that the effects of exclusion are deep and wide, with increased vulnerability to unemployment and homelessness with its wide ranging consequences, including substance abuse and involvement in crime. When society does not provide the full range of supports necessary for an individual or family the effects can be oppressive and may last for several generations. The only responsible way to approach budgets or financial proposals for social support must be to assess if the benefits are likely to provide substantial improvements in the short-term and to act as pillars in the long-term establishment of social justice.

Taking into account the provisions of the Social Welfare Bill, 2000, and the wide ranging initiatives of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, since his appointment in 1997, I have no doubt that he will make a major contribution to the vital task of eliminating poverty and social exclusion in the State. His commitment to the cause of equality and his ability to address this enormous task are abundantly clear. The wide range of provisions in the Bill satisfies the twin needs of immediate improvements for those in greatest need and the progressive introduction of features which support longer term social improvements and growth. The unprecedented scale of the Minister's proposals is evident from the size of the package, approximately £428 million, a clear reflection of the level of commitment of the Taoiseach and Cabinet to the objective securing social justice.

I congratulate the Minister on the basic sense of fairness which runs through many of the provisions in the Bill. He is delivering a major programme of improvements for older citizens and is well on the way to providing a basic support of £100 per week by 2002. Similarly, the rate of progress in the vital area of support for carers is most welcome. The total number of people in receipt of carer's allowance has increased by 60% since the Minister was appointed. This is reflected in the doubling of the funding for the scheme from £36.5 million to £78.3 million this year.

The sensitivity of the Minister is evident in the provisions for pensions for those people with pre-1953 insurance. Equally, the new payments for the widowed parents and to help with after death arrears are certain to provide much needed extra assistance to families at a time of great distress and pain. These proposals will have a positive, far-reaching impact on society by tackling our greatest social need in a manner which addresses the full range of requirements in an integrated, effective and compassionate manner. The Minister has taken another major step towards giving effective voice to the aspirations of the Constitution, which orders that each person is treated equally.

The road to comprehensive social justice and equality in society is long and difficult. It would be dishonest to suggest that problems and imbalances which have taken decades to manifest themselves are amenable to overnight resolution. Anyone who takes such a position is by no means making a contribution to the most noble of social and political causes. Real progress only comes on the back of sustained commitment, creative planning and substantial resource allocation. Taking into account his excellent achievements to date, I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern's, contribution to the cause of social inclusion and meaningful caring will be effective in the short and long-terms.

Despite the many wonderful measures introduced by the Minister for Finance in his recent budget, all attention was focused on individualisation. This Bill has given Members an opportunity to look at social welfare and for the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs to explain the major improvements made in the recent budget. The Bill will give effect to those changes which will account for more than £400 million in a full year.

This Government acknowledged at an early stage that the largest problems it faced were the construction of an inclusive society and tackling poverty. It is committed to improving the living standards of all. We may read everyday about Internet millionaires but we must not lose sight of the fact that there is still a great deal of poverty. Standards must be improved, we cannot let these people be forgotten.

All social welfare recipients will receive more. Fianna Fáil gave a commitment that old age pensioners would receive at least £100 per week before the Government finished in office. With recent increases to the old age contributory and retirement pensions raising payments to £96 per week, our target of £100 is on course. It is not, however, something about which we should clap ourselves on the back. Governments are judged by how they look after those who cannot look after themselves. When we gave that commitment we were berated by the media and the Opposition but we have delivered.

Deputy De Rossa is lucky to be in Europe. When he was Minister for Social Welfare recipi ents expected great things from him. When his record is compared to that of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, he will probably go down as one of the meanest Ministers for Social Welfare ever.

Has the Deputy forgotten about his neighbour?

The Government realises the important role child benefit plays in providing financial support to families, particularly mothers. Child benefit is collected by women for the needs of their children. The changes announced in this year's budget will mean a 23% increase in the cost of the scheme and families of three children will now get £141. That is substantial but we must improve it if we are to deal with poverty. I am delighted that the Minister has chosen to take that approach.

The carer's allowance was introduced by the Minister, Deputy Woods, some time ago. It is a wonderful idea and all Governments since have tried to expand and improve on it. Since 1997, 5,000 more people have received the carer's allowance while the cost to the scheme has doubled. It again demonstrates that the Government is committed to acknowledging the tremendous contribution carers make to society and that it is prepared to reward them financially.

I am sure all in the House who deal with carers on a regular basis and are aware of the difficulties and hardships they face would support my view that the conditions attaching to the scheme are too restrictive and that insufficient numbers qualify. Greater flexibility should be introduced to allow more people to avail of the scheme.

It was a wonderful idea to introduce the free travel scheme. Many elderly people avail of it on a regular basis. However, to benefit it is almost necessary to live in an urban centre or near regular transport facilities. The many elderly people who live in rural areas are largely excluded. The Minister should introduce a voucher system to enable people use taxi services as there is hardly a village in the country without one. The change in attitudes to drink driving has resulted in an enormous increase in the number of taxis. A voucher system would give elderly people an opportunity to travel and do their business, whether it be attending church or shopping in the local town. It would give them an independence they do not have at present.

Deputy Ring castigated social welfare officials. He appears to use the same speech to criticise everything. He should not tar all officials with the one brush. Not everybody should be blamed if he or one of his constituents has had a bad experience. If I had a bad experience with a Fine Gael Member of the House I would not like to take it out on everybody else.

That would be impossible.

Deputy Allen referred to the donation offered by J.P. McManus for the proposed national stadium. Most ordinary decent people would applaud his tremendous generosity in providing sporting facilities for us all. Deputy Allen's attitude to this is despicable. I know many of his party colleagues do not agree with him. I appreciate Mr. McManus's generosity and I thank him for it.

Some parts of the media portrayed the budget as one for the rich. However, the facts tell a different story. There will be significant changes in social welfare payments. It is clear to all that the Government cares for the country and for all the people.

I support Deputy Power's proposal on extending the free travel scheme. He rightly points out that people in rural areas do not have access to public transport. If a voucher scheme could be introduced it would be very beneficial. The Department operates a scheme with the private bus operators, but to my knowledge most of them do not avail of it. Perhaps it would be possible for the Department to encourage them to make more use of it. This is important because it would help pensioners and other social welfare recipients.

I commend the Minster on introducing this very innovative Bill. Deputy O'Shea rightly said the Finance and Social Welfare Bills are inextricably linked. We cannot view them in isolation from the national development plan and the recently negotiated Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. Over the years there have been clear social and economic benefits from the partnership agreements. Today there are 600,000 more people in employment than was the case ten or 12 years ago. This makes it possible to distribute wealth. The Fianna Fáil Party adheres to the philosophy of striving to achieve a fairer and more inclusive society. It is, therefore, important that the growing wealth of the country is distributed fairly.

Deputy O'Shea referred to the position of low income workers. The Minister has introduced innovative measures, especially with regard to social insurance contributions. Since the Government took up office in June 1997, some 135,000 people have been taken out of the tax net. By definition, they were on the low income scale. A comparison of this and the previous Government's record on increases in social welfare payments shows that in the period 1998 to 2000, non-contributory pensions have increased by almost 27% while contributory pensions have increased by in excess of 23%. Over a similar period under the previous Government, non-contributory pensions increased by only 10.7% while contributory pensions increased by less than 10%.

It is only right that there should be proper and generous increases in the various social welfare benefits and the Government has rightly set an objective of ensuring that all social welfare payments reach at least £100 per week. I welcome the Minister's success in securing additional funding for the budgetary measures to deal with social welfare recipients and those on lower incomes. The Bill provides for reductions of almost £103 million in PRSI and health contribution levies for low paid employees. That is very important and a welcome addition for lower income groups.

All speakers made understandable reference to the carer's allowance. We welcome the improvements to the scheme. Its importance is demonstrated by reference to the numbers availing of it. At the end of February 14,200 people were in receipt of the allowance, an increase from 9,200 in the middle of 1997. The extension of the free schemes to carers is very important and the new carer's benefit is an innovative, necessary and welcome measure. We all know people who have had to give up employment to care for a parent, son or daughter. The uncertainty of future employment prospects places an additional burden on them.

The residency requirement of the scheme was changed a number of years ago, but it could be relaxed further. The carer not living under the same roof as the person being cared for must live nearby. The cases of those who are constant visitors and who give constant attendance to a person in need of care should be examined favourably.

The unrealistic assessment of returns from capital has been raised many times in the House when debating Social Welfare Bills. I welcome the Minister's decision to have the first £10,000 of capital disregarded, both for the assessment of pensions and unemployment assistance. In our work as public representatives we constantly meet people who think they need to keep some savings for unforeseen expenditure or burial expenses. As a result, they often deprive themselves of a pension payment or they only receive a small pension. I also welcome the improvement in the farm assist scheme which is so important in rural areas and which the Department introduced a year ago.

I wish to refer to RSI as it affects meter readers employed by the ESB. I understand meter readers pay class S rate contributions. They are not regarded as employees by the ESB but as contractors. However, in terms of RSI and income tax they are paid as if they are employees. This issue has been ongoing for some time and the relatively small number of people affected by it are anxious to have their contribution changed from class S to class A. I hope the officials and the Minister will make progress in this regard.

I compliment the Department on the grants scheme it operates for voluntary organisations. All of us are aware of the very valuable work undertaken by community and voluntary groups in urban and rural areas. The grant assistance provided makes the difference in the provision of facilities, which groups might not otherwise be able to provide, which may be used by elderly people on a once a week basis as a day care centre etc. I hope the Minister will extend this scheme over the coming years.

I wish to share time with Deputies Gerry Reynolds and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This morning all speakers referred to carer's allowance and the wonderful work being done by carers. I am sorry the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is not present, although I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt. Carer's allowance has been a hobby-horse of mine. I spoke on the Social Welfare Bills in 1998 and 1999, and the record will show that I gave practically the same speech on both occasions. I am beginning to wonder about the relevance of Deputies, particularly Opposition Deputies, speaking for the ten minutes allocated to them and giving vent to experiences in their constituencies, while the Minister and his officials do not take one blind bit of notice of the message which Deputies have gathered from meeting people in constituencies and clinics. We are only participating in a farce if nobody is listening; we are only speaking for the record to show to our constituents. If this continues, one of the functions of backbench Deputies will be eliminated as there will be no point in them raising their experiences with the Minister in the hope of getting action on anomalies which arise in the social welfare system. I have been raising the anomalies in relation to one simple matter for two and half years.

I would like to have one glaring anomaly in carer's allowance corrected. I have brought this to the notice of the Minister who can refer to my parliamentary question tabled in October 1997 when I first brought it to his attention. Since then I have written letters continuously to the Department and have raised it at every possible committee, at every public forum and in debate on the two most recent Social Welfare Acts. Initially I was told a review group was examining carer's allowance and that it would report in a year. I made submissions to the review group and stated the case very clearly, but no corrective action was taken. I am beginning to wonder if we are talking to ourselves or if anybody is taking a blind bit of notice of issues raised constantly by backbenchers in the House.

I am talking from personal experience in my constituency. I am familiar with a carer who is caring for her husband's relative in their own home. The relative is incontinent and bed-ridden 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. She qualified for the carer's allowance because her husband's income was less than £150 per week. Unfortunately, three years ago her husband was killed in an accident. She continued to care for her husband's relative and now qualifies for the widow's pension of £73.50 per week to compensate her for the loss of her husband's income. The week she got the widow's pension, the carer's allowance was taken from her. I have asked the Minister to address this problem. It is criminal, sinful and anti-social that a carer who receives a widow's pension to compensate for the loss of her husband loses the carer's allowance while continuing to be a carer.

At various times I was told that giving social welfare recipients a carer's allowance would cost a huge amount of money. In reply to a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Creed, in October 1999, the Minister said that from the commencement of the carer's allowance in 1990 until 15 December, a period of ten years, the total number of persons refused for the reason that they were already in receipt of a social welfare payment was 214. If these 214 people were allowed receive the carer's allowance, it would have cost the State about £800,000 a year. However, it would cost the State more than £800,000 a week if those cared for were in institutional care – it would cost over £4 million per year. I am not referring to all social welfare recipients, although a case can be made for them. I ask the Minister to examine the situation whereby carers who become widows can continue to care and receive the carer's allowance while being allowed to draw the widow's pension, the only compensation for the loss of their spouse.

I ask the Minister of State to please bring this message back to the Department, see what the review group did about it and find out what the Minister and his officials will do. I should not have to come back to the House to give the very same speech on next year's Social Welfare Bill as I have given for the past two years. We want action and a little bit of fair play for people in the community who are doing wonderful work, as everybody says, caring for relatives and neighbours, rather than having those people ending their days in institutional care. Carers existed before the Celtic tiger was invented, and will continue to do so. I ask the Minister to please give carers the recognition due to them, particularly in the case I mentioned.

I wish to raise another anomaly regarding a carer who qualifies for carer's allowance on the basis of caring for a person in her own home and whose spouse is in receipt of the old age pension. The spouse immediately loses the claim for his wife and his pension is reduced by £41.23. The carer qualifies for a carer's allowance of £73.50, which gives her a net additional income of £35. Such a full time carer, therefore, only qualifies for £35 per week. However, a similar carer in another situation will qualify for the full carer's allowance of £73.50.

I will refrain from speaking about any scheme other than the carer's allowance. I want carers compensated for their caring, without it affecting the widow's pension or the spouse's pension.

The carer should be compensated for caring without affecting in the case of a widow, her pension, and in the case of others, their spouse's pension or social welfare entitlement. If the allowance for a worker is £150 per week, why should such an allowance not apply to those on social welfare? The Minister should address that problem. The Carers Association Limited has expressed its disappointment because there has been no extension of the means test for the carer's allowance. Will the Minister examine this?

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have been a Member for a number of years and no matter which parties have been in Government, whether it was Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats Party or the Rainbow Coalition, they have always outlined the wonderful job their Minister for Social Welfare has done. The Minister made some decent changes, which I welcome. They were necessary and it was time they were made.

However, he missed opportunities and I will focus on a number of them.

If an economy is creating jobs, as is the case in Ireland currently, an incentive should always be given to people to work. For a number of years, there was such high unemployment that it was probably right to provide people on social welfare with a decent income. However, now that there is a labour shortage, people should be given incentives to take up employment and it should be better for them to work than stay at home. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment stated that Ireland must take in 200,000 immigrants over the next number of years to address the labour shortage but a large number of people are still available for work and they should be given incentives to do so.

The Department should examine unemployment assistance in a regionalised manner rather than taking a global attitude to it. A large number of people are unemployable. One cannot look in isolation or globally upon somebody in their early 20s on unemployment assistance in the same way as somebody in their late 50s approaching retirement. There are differences which should be taken into consideration under the scheme, but that is not the case currently. For example, an individual who has farmed for 20 or 25 years and does not have a formal education could be refused unemployment assistance because he or she did not state that he or she was available for work. There is probably no work available which would suit such individuals and a different attitude should be adopted to deal with them in comparison to those in their early 20s who are seeking work and are capable of doing it. That concept should be taken on board by the Department when it assesses unemployment assistance.

My colleague, Deputy McCormack, and others have dealt extensively with the carer's allowance. I welcome the changes to it but it must be examined in an economic rather than an emotional context. Carers is an emotional issue but, from an economic standpoint, I agree wholeheartedly with Deputy McCormack's comments. Every incentive should be given to people who are willing to look after members of their own family at home or near their homes because the cost of institutionalising those who need full-time care and attention or of hospitalisation is four times the cost of caring for them in their own homes. That does not even take into consideration the emotional factors, such as the fact that people feel much more comfortable in their own homes. This must be examined in a different light.

Departmental officials ask applicants for carer's allowance to prove that they cannot afford to look after these family members and why they should give them the money to do so. The attitude should be different. Carers should be commended for looking after their parents, children or other relatives and the officials should ask them what help they can provide to sustain them and keep their dependants in their own environment rather than putting them into hospitals and private nursing homes. I ask the Minister to examine whether incentives could be included for the carer's allowance to keep them at home.

I am aware of a young lady who suffers from Crohn's disease. She could not attend college for a year and a half as a result. She applied for the disability allowance but was refused after two different medical examinations and appeals. That is unjust and I have raised this issue through parliamentary questions on a number of occasions. Individuals with such disabilities should receive a fairer crack of the whip. I find it extremely difficult on medical grounds to understand how any medical referee could not award a disability allowance to anyone suffering from this disease.

I support the call for voucher schemes for free travel for people who live in rural areas. Public transport is not available in many areas. A voucher scheme would enable such people to hire taxis to take them to the nearest public transport point so that they could avail of free travel.

This Bill is yet another disappointment and yet another missed opportunity by this Government. In 1986, long before the Celtic tiger, the Commission on Social Welfare recommended minimum levels of welfare payments. It was only 13 years later, in 1999, that those levels were finally reached. What happened in the interim is the question. After a period of mass unemployment and emigration and the devastation of communities, we saw an economic upturn which reduced unemployment and emigration but which has not eliminated poverty.

While many have benefited, the gap between those dependent on social welfare and their fellow citizens has widened in this economy. The economic upturn has been built on the efforts of workers, a majority of whom in a survey published in November 1999 favoured social spending rather than tax reductions as a means of achieving a more egalitarian society. The budget and the social welfare Bill go in the opposite direction.

I will now move to some of the specific provisions in the Bill. In regard to the increase in the personal rates of social welfare payments, the Bill generally continues the policy of recent years. Similar to last year and the previous year, the elderly are singularly prioritised. The Bill provides for increases of £7 per week in the personal rate for pensioners aged 66 and over and for people on retirement and validity pension aged 65 and over. As in the past five or six years the increase in other social welfare payments is somewhat higher than inflation but lower than the growth in average incomes.

We must certainly provide these increases for the elderly and, indeed, more, but the key point is that the incomes of other social welfare recipients – the unemployed, ill, disabled, widows, widowers, lone parents and carers – are being allowed to lag behind. The Economic and Social Research Institute has repeatedly warned that a continuation of this general policy will see an increase in relative poverty.

The fact that those on age-related payments will receive larger increases than those on other social welfare payments will create a two tier system and treat one group, namely older people, as deserving and the other group, comprising unemployed people, lone parents, widows, widowers and the other people I mentioned, as undeserving. That must be addressed. Let me state clearly and without equivocation that I welcome the special increases for pensioners which are in line with the commitment made in the review of An Action Programme for the Millennium. We must wait until May before the contributory old age pension will reach £96. However, for those in receipt of non-contributory old-age pensions, the figure will only reach £85.50 in May. It is expected that we must wait until 2002 for the level of income recommended for those on the lowest level to be guaranteed.

The Bill provides for an increase of £8 per month in child benefit for the first two children and £10 per month for each subsequent child. While larger than last year, these increases cannot be expected to have a substantial impact on child poverty.

I want to refer to an anomalous aspect of the Minister's budget speech. The Minister is a spin doctor in his own right. Take, for example, his over-sell of the increase in the threshold below which people on low pay are exempted from the health contribution. The Minister made much of the fact that the increase from £217 per week to the new threshold of £280 per week would allow for benefits of up to £5.60 per week at a cost of £52.6 million in a full year. The Minister misrepresents the facts because raising the threshold from £217 to £280 only confers an additional benefit of £1.26 per week or 2% of the £63 difference, not the erroneous claim of £5.60 per week which equates with 2% of the entire £280 sum. We were not all asleep when reading the detail of the Minister's speech.

I propose to share time with Deputies Kenneally and Aylward and possibly Deputy Matt Brennan.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Briscoe): Is that agreed? Agreed.

I compliment the Minister on the many imaginative provisions which he is introducing in this Bill. Expectations are very high among the electorate at present. As a public representative, I find it is becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy people's new demands. In the past, many groups and organisations simply put up with a bad situation as the State did not have the necessary resources to deal with their problems. That is no longer the case. These groups and organisations are now demanding action to address their concerns, posing a challenge for all of us involved in public life.

The Minister is responding to people's concerns in a positive and imaginative way. Groups such as the elderly, carers, parents and the low paid are targeted to great effect in this budget. Many of the Bill's provisions arise from the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness which I welcome. Social partnership is the key to our economic success. The programme will bring about a more inclusive society and I hope it will be accepted in due course by all concerned.

I welcome the fact that social welfare increases will take effect from May this year. In the past, social welfare claimants were rightly furious that in some cases they had to wait until July to receive their increases. Other budget measures are generally implemented at a much earlier date, some coming into effect from budget night. Social welfare claimants were very annoyed by this and the Minister has done a good day's work in rectifying this grievance once and for all. Next year, the implementation date for social welfare increases, will coincide with the start of the tax year in early April.

I welcome the Bill's provisions in regard to child benefit. All the reports indicate that the best way to deal with child poverty is to increase child benefit which also has a major role to play in addressing the child care issue in a fair and equitable manner. Child benefit is a means of demonstrating positive support for families. Following the enactment of this Bill, child benefit will increase to £42.50 for the first two children and £56 for the third child and subsequent children. I welcome the Minister's commitment to continue to provide substantial increases in child benefit with a priority focus on £100 per month for the third child and subsequent children.

I want to raise the position of lone parents who are in receipt of rent supplements and the lone parent allowance. There is a great disincentive for them to obtain full employment as they would lose their supplementary welfare allowance were they to take up employment in the private sector. They would also incur huge child care expenses. In effect, they are trapped. I appreciate that incentives already exist and that more are provided for in this Bill to assist people to transfer from welfare to work. However, they are inad equate in regard to lone parents and the issue should be given further attention.

I welcome the Bill's provisions in regard to the elderly, particularly the £7 increase in the old age pension. Much progress has been made on medical card eligibility for the over 70s. The Minister for Finance announced in a previous budget that income guideline eligibility would be doubled over a three year period. That is to be welcomed although this issue should be revisited with a view to reducing the age to 66 years.

The Bill provides for data sharing whereby the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs would provide local authorities with landlord details of tenancies in respect of which rent supplements are payable to allow them to fulfil their statutory responsibilities in regard to fire safety and accommodation standards in private rented accommodation. Many landlords are simply not registering with local authorities as they are obliged to do under housing regulations and their failure to do so has consequences for the condition of our private rented housing stock. I welcome the fact that the data sharing provisions will ensure that landlords will comply with the law.

A great deal has been said about carers and means testing. It seems that the complete abolition of the means test would cost taxpayers in the region of £200 million and that their money might not be best spent in that way. Perhaps the Minister will consider this issue with a view to increasing the income disregard in future budgets. On which Department should pay the carer's allowance, there may be some merit in the view that the allowance should be paid by the Department of Health and Children which is involved in all aspects of citizens' health and which would have the wherewithal to deal with the complexities associated with carers and the people they care for. Perhaps the Minister will consider that in the coming year. I welcome the Bill.

I am pleased to support this Bill because, despite the empty rhetoric and negative comment from the Opposition, this is a positive measure and a realistic improvement in the circumstances of those who draw social welfare benefits. The theme of the Bill is positive and demonstrates that this is a caring Government, continuing its traditional support for the less well-off. While the Opposition may try to represent our policies as neglecting low earners, the level of support for the new pay agreement clearly shows that a majority of the social partners do not feel the less well-off are being left behind. They are not being neglected by this Bill and I am happy to support the Minister's proposals which give significant increases across the board and especially where they are needed most. I need hardly go into the record of our predecessors who, when necessity was greater, chose to make their savings at the expense of the people who could protest least.

In the past three years, this Government has given the long-term unemployed a composite 14.8% increase in times of low inflation, while in the previous three years, under the rainbow Government, the corresponding figure was just 10.7%. Old age pensioners got a 23.1% increase from this Government while the rainbow Government managed only a 9.9% increase, a miserly sum, even in less prosperous times. The short-term unemployed received a 16.2% increase from this Government and an 11% increase from the rainbow Government. Percentage increases, which translate into money in pockets, are the only yardstick and in the past three years we have done extremely well by those people who get some or all of their incomes from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.

The significant increase in child benefit of £8 per month for the first and second children and £10 per month for the third and subsequent children is generous and represents a realistic improvement in a payment which penetrates right to the heart of the family. I have spoken to the Minister many times about the need to review the free fuel scheme. The payment of £5 per week is outdated. While I accept it is paid for only half the year and granting an increase may cause curtailment in another area, it should be increased. This would be a positive and significant benefit to those who would receive it. We find it difficult to understand how a bag of coal often represents a measure of comfort for the old.

I thank the Minister for his support of an initiative in Waterford city – the Waterford Student Mothers Group, with which I am glad to be aligned – which was founded by Bernadette Phillips and Teresa Casey. They decided to give young student mothers, who under other circumstances might feel the opportunity for education had passed them by, another chance in the classroom. I had the pleasure of launching its first annual report recently, at which I said that of all the desires of humankind over the centuries, education must rank as one of the highest. Of all the necessities of this modern, highly technical and technological age, education is one of the most important, but also one which can bypass the individual who is not, for a variety of reasons, able to avail of what is on offer.

A new horizon has been created for young student mothers because of the work of this group and their lives now have a new and more positive meaning. I thank the Minister for his assistance in bridging the gap over the many Departments dealing with this area and I can report positive results from Waterford in this important field. This is effectively a pilot project which will give hope to those in other areas of the country who need it. In terms of value for money, solid achievement, or however one decides to quantify the work of this group, the participants, administrators and the State come out ahead. The Waterford Student Mothers Group initiative is, by any standards, innovative and I know other areas are looking closely at it. There is a growing feeling that the Waterford experience is worthwhile and has much to offer the individual and the community in the long-term.

One of the most innovative and valuable schemes ever produced by the Department is the student summer jobs scheme. It has been excellent in terms of value for money and in terms of the genuine contribution it has made to the communities in which it operates, it has had few equals. The scheme has benefited the students and the communities in which they have worked. Any suggestion that it should be abolished in the present prosperous economic climate should be quickly discouraged. While its original purpose was to benefit students, a succession of worthwhile projects have been quietly and efficiently brought to fruition under its aegis, to the benefit of a broad section of the population.

The number of coaching schemes, summer camps, educational projects, minor building works, club development programmes and local authority schemes which have benefited will never by fully appreciated. However, many groups which have come to depend on this welcome subvention dread the thought that it might be abolished now that times are good. I urge the Minister to allay their fears and confirm that the scheme will operate again this year. Far from it being a drain on people's pockets or Exchequer funds, there is a measurable net gain to society and individual communities know that.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing up to date another element of the social welfare code. Heretofore, contributions made prior to 1953 were of no benefit to people returning to the workforce but now, under section 16 of the Bill, they may be used to help applicants qualify for a special rate of pension. This is long overdue and I thank the Minister for making this change and the other measures implemented in the Bill.

I also welcome the Bill and I compliment the Minister on correcting many anomalies, as he has done in previous Social Welfare Bills. It is heartening that the money saved in certain parts of his Department is being given to those most in need. As politicians we are quick to criticise but I wish to compliment the departmental officials. When I became a Deputy, the Department of Social Welfare was not my favourite. However, in recent years it has become one of the most efficient Departments in dealing with the concerns of and representations from public representatives.

The carer's allowance is the most common issue with which I deal. The means test is still far too rigid. I can quote numerous examples of people with modest incomes where the partner has no choice but to stay in the home to look after their children and their elderly relatives. They are not prepared to put their elderly relatives into nursing homes, and they should have this choice. This needs to be looked at before the next Social Welfare Bill. In many cases these people are not entitled to a respite grant.

The care of the elderly needs to be addressed immediately. Thankfully, people are living longer. However, there is no proper policy to deal with this. Subvention to nursing homes costs the State a huge amount of money. However, this does not go far enough to provide for a person in a private nursing home. We should look at how programmes operate in other countries. We should encourage families to keep their parents and relatives in the family home. This would relieve the pressure on nursing homes and public hospitals which are doing excellent work, but which, unfortunately, do not have enough places.

One of my hobby horses, of which the Minister is aware, is the extension of the free fuel scheme to widows and widowers. I have said for many years that this is an anomaly. I have listened to the Minister's arguments about why he cannot extend the scheme. However, an exception should be made and the free schemes for electricity, television licences, free fuel and so on should be made available to widows and widowers. We should realise that people are at their most vulnerable when they lose a partner and we should do something about their position.

The fuel allowance is currently £5 per week during the winter months but it is time we seriously examined that figure. I suggest the Minister should pay £25 per week throughout the year. In latter years, with the inclement weather, people often have to use fuel during the summer. It is a bit of a contradiction that the fuel allowance is payable only during the winter months. I realise there is a serious cost involved but rather than praise all the positive aspects of the Bill, I want to identify the areas where improvements should be made.

Another matter which concerns me is that when pensioners and social welfare recipients get their increases at budget time, the local authorities are the first in with increases of their own which absorb most of the increases provided for in the budget. We have raised this matter with members of local authorities on numerous occasions but they seem to immediately take advantage of the increases granted to pensioners.

Coming from a rural constituency I welcome the slight improvements in the farm assist scheme but, for whatever reason, the administration of the scheme on the ground, particularly in the Leinster region, appears to make it more difficult for farmers experiencing problems to qualify under the scheme. Some social welfare officers seem to be of the view that if a person comes from that part of the country they have bigger farms and larger incomes, but we still get the same price for cattle and sheep, and that was not particularly good in 1999. Perhaps the Minister might advise social welfare officers that they should be a little more lenient towards farmers in that region. They tell me it is much better in the west, but then they always take a different approach to matters in the west. The people there seem to get a better hearing when it comes to anything related to agriculture.

When a person is certified unfit for work through long-term illness or whatever and is in receipt of an invalidity pension, he is summoned on a regular basis to appear before the medical referee for reassessment. Where medical evidence is submitted and is of a permanent nature, people should not be called before a medical referee on a regular basis. I know there are reasons for doing that in many cases, but it is done too frequently.

Another matter of concern to me is that there is no public transport available in rural areas, and since the national car testing scheme commenced, many people who depended on transport in rural areas are no longer car owners. That issue has to be examined. I appreciate my time is exhausted. I compliment the Minister on another good Social Welfare Bill. I hope he will take on board the points I made which will make a good situation better.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Boylan, Naughten and Creed.

Acting Chairman

That is agreed.

The interest of all Members of the House in the Social Welfare Bill is understandable. I congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward. I am sure everybody here agrees with most of what is contained in the Bill but our job is to highlight some of the problems that still exist and request action on them.

I am sure it is like a long-playing record, as far as Deputy Ahern is concerned, but I must speak about the carer's allowance. It is time the Minster sat down with his colleague Deputy Martin, in the Department of Health and Children, and examined this problem as part of the overall approach towards care of the elderly. If a proper scheme is put in place and properly managed, the carer's allowance issue will play a major role in the care of the elderly into the next two or three decades when this issue will be one of the major problems facing the country.

The income disregard and the current means test has not changed for years. That is unacceptable at a time when the economy is so strong. The Minister must address the question of the income disregard and examine the issue of the means test. I recognise that abandoning the means test will put a major financial burden on the State but I would point out to the Minister that many of the people being cared for in their own homes by their own families, who in some cases receive a modest carer's allowance or none at all, would cost the State a much higher level of expenditure if they had to be hospitalised in district hospitals. I hope the Minister will give serious consideration to dramatically changing the means test system for the carer's allowance.

Arising from recent discussions, which my party, and I am sure other parties, had with the Carers Association, I ask the Minister to examine the position faced by old age pensioners and, in some cases, widows who are caring for disabled sons, daughters or other relatives. If they claim the carer's allowance and are carrying out full-time caring duties, they lose their original pension, be it old age or widow's. We have to do something for that group. There is a system whereby a person caring for two people can receive a 50% addition to the carer's allowance entitlement. If the person involved in the caring is already a social welfare recipient, we should try to put that system in place for that person. It is not an advantage for a person to give up the old age or widow's pension to take up the carer's allowance. Old age pensioners and widows or widowers who are also carers are the most disadvantaged and I ask the Minister to be more generous in terms of that sector.

I compliment the Minister on introducing the carer's benefit, which is an excellent idea, but I am sure all of us will be made aware of anomalies in that scheme over the coming months when the application forms are made available. I ask the Minister to also examine the position of people who gave up full-time employment a year to two years ago to provide full-time care and attention to a relative. Those people paid full PRSI for many years and, to the best of my knowledge from reading the legislation, they may not qualify now for carer's benefit. I hope it can be backdated in such a way that people who had sufficient insurance paid last year or the year before when they gave up work will qualify for the benefit. I agree with the comments made about the fuel allowance which requires attention from the Minister.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Social Welfare Bill but I hope people on this side of the House are not wasting our time. This is an opportunity for the Opposition to highlight the inequalities in the Bill. The impression has been given by the Minister and the Government that they intend to eliminate social exclusion. I welcome and support that objective but how can they deal with a problem if they do not understand it? The people in this Government do not understand the problem of social exclusion or the difficulties being experienced by social welfare recipients. They are riding on the back of the Celtic tiger and they are enjoying every minute of it, backbenchers included. They are not aware of the problems of the people who are trying to catch the tail of the Celtic tiger. Old people, who lived through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and who handed this State to us, are being hounded. A directive from the Minister's office to crack down on social welfare—

The Deputy is talking nonsense.

Deputy Brennan should keep quiet. A directive came from the Minister's office to crack down on social welfare recipients. There have been savings of £120 million on social welfare.

That is the Celtic tiger.

That is the policy of this party. They go after the poor and the vulnerable but not the people with the wealth. They are their friends and supporters. It is objectionable, it is not acceptable and it is wrong but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I was delighted to hear Deputy Aylward recognise the problem that we on this side of the House understand. The sooner there is a change of Government the sooner the people who handed down this State to us will be looked after. I see a smile on the Minister's face. He is listening and I hope his officials are listening. It annoys me intensely to see social welfare workers going around counting the eggs—

Will the Deputy give way? Is he saying it was any different in his time?

Yes, it was. We made improvements but those improvements are now at a standstill. Unfortunately, with inflation, we are back to where we were. Where is this country going if we have social welfare officers going around counting the eggs on the dresser? Raising poultry is therapy for old people, a few hens and some chickens or turkeys for family members at Christmas. They have no income.

It is time to recognise and appreciate the contribution of people in receipt of social welfare and old age pensions by giving them £100 per week across the board. We must stop investigating their means. What is £15,000 or £20,000 of savings? Does the Minister understand the mentality of an old person? They are saving for their final days, the rainy day or so they can be given a decent burial. Funerals at present can cost up to £8,000 in Dublin. There is also the cost of a burial plot and headstone. What is left? That is the mentality of these people. They do not wish to be a burden on their family or others and the Minister should recognise that.

I am conscious that two other Deputies are waiting to make their contributions. There is so much to be said on the Bill that I regret it is being rushed through the House. It is an important debate. Another issue is the bus pass. It arrives through the letter box and is, supposedly, a big deal. What good is a bus pass in Cavan, Monaghan or other parts of rural Ireland when there is no bus passing the door? People may have a piece of paper but it takes them nowhere. However, there is a transport service provided by hackneys and taxis. Why does the Minister not extend the use of this bus pass? I am not seeking an open ended extension. Twice a week, for example, the bus pass could be used for a taxi or hackney to take people to collect their pension or to their place of worship or to visit the doctor. If the Minister did that, I would be able to agree that he understands the problems of old people and is prepared to do something for them.

There is a great deal more to say but if the Minister takes this much on board, he will have made a good start.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill. I am disappointed the Minister failed to tackle a number of the anomalies which Members on both sides of the House raised during the debate. With our buoyant economy we now have the opportunity to do so and bring balance into the system.

The Department is anxious that lone parents improve their standard of education and, to this end, lone parents are eligible for the back to education allowance which applies to people participating in specific courses. Lone parents participating in these schemes continue to receive their lone parent payment and a cost of education allowance at the start of the academic year and they retain any entitlement they might have to secondary benefits such as rent allowance. However, a FÁS course is not a recognised course which qualifies for the back to education allowance.

Take, for example, the case of my constituent Yvonne, a lone parent who is participating on a foundation certificate course with FÁS. She is receiving a training allowance of £76.30 per week in addition to her one parent family payment of £88.70 per week. FÁS training allowances are assessed in full as means for the purpose of determining entitlement to rent supplement. There is no automatic retention of rent supplement. Yvonne's rent is £85 per week. She was entitled to rent supplement until she decided to go back into the education system. She is now financially better off to the tune of £6.30 per week. However, this does not take into account the cost of child care, transport, school materials and so forth. How can we claim to encourage the unemployed to train and upskill to gain employment when the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs discriminates against them?

The second matter I wish to discuss is the child dependant allowance for children between the ages of 18 and 22 years in full-time education. Frank is on unemployment benefit at present because his FÁS community employment scheme has ceased. He has a daughter attending a third level college but because he is not considered long-term unemployed by the Department he is not entitled to the child dependant allowance. Frank believed he was doing the right thing when he was paying his stamps. However, other people on the scheme had other ideas and they have ended up better off.

How can the Minister discriminate against people who are long-term unemployed? When a person tries to retrain through a FÁS scheme, he or she is discriminated against by the Department. How can we meet the skills shortages, fill job vacancies and reduce the number of long-term unemployed when people who take the initiative and try to break out of the unemployment cycle are knocked at every possible opportunity by the social welfare system?

Finally, I wish to deal with the carer's allowance. There are thousands of carers who, under the current regulations, are not eligible for the carer's allowance. The Minister has made some positive changes in this scheme in the past but to compensate for this, the Department has rigorously challenged the medical evidence submitted to it by utilising a policy of "If in doubt, rule them out". Take the example of Marion's father who is doubly incontinent. She has been refused the carer's allowance as the Department claims he is not in need of full-time care. Margaret has two disabled children, one of whom is disabled following a car accident. She has been granted £3 per week for one son by the Department. It has questioned the need for care for the son who was involved in the car accident.

The current system of medical assessment is inadequate. I fully endorse the comments of Deputy O'Shea on this issue. If a carer is unfortunate enough to lose their spouse, they lose the carer's allowance and are not entitled to social welfare payments. Deputy McCormack has elaborated on this issue. These people have an increased financial burden. They must try to survive without their spouse but were unable to work outside the home due to the need to care for another person in the home. They are left high and dry.

Peggy is a widow and has to take care of her seriously disabled adult son. She provides 24 hour care, thus saving the State a small fortune for residential care. However, she receives no recognition from the State for this care. She has to get up between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. to bring her son to the bathroom. If she sleeps through due to exhaustion, when she gets up at 6 a.m. she is faced with a wet bed. She must then change and wash her son and change the bed. This mother and many others are committed to a lifetime of care, not just for a few years as is the case for most parents. She receives £76.50 per week.

The system for the disabled is an all or nothing one. If they are within a service, the supports are provided but if a parent wishes to take care of their children, they receive no support. The current situation puts increased demand on residential care but this silent group of parents who are taking care of disabled children has been forgotten. I urge the Minister to reassess the situation and deal with discrimination in the social welfare system.

I thank my colleagues for sharing their time with me. I was doing research recently and came across a staggering statistic with regard to the overall spend on social welfare. In the mid- 1980s, when there was a considerable economic recession, there were three dependants for every person working. Today there are approximately 1.5 dependants for every person at work. While the graph in terms of spending is moving in the right direction, our relative capacity to pay more to people in need of social welfare is significantly greater than what we are delivering. Relative to our overall wealth, we are not distributing sufficient amounts to those most in need.

That masks the fact that certain people are defrauding the system and claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. I welcome the Minister's efforts to tackle that. However, it is not matched on the other hand by increasing the payments to people who are desperately in need. Reference has been made, in particular, to single elderly people living alone. They are living on approximately £70 per week. That is an appalling amount.

My constituency colleague, Deputy Michael Moynihan, in his contribution on the Bill referred to social welfare officers in the constituency. I wish to dissociate myself from those comments. He accused the officers of harassing and criminalising applicants. I have received the utmost courtesy and co-operation from social welfare officials in the constituency. If these employees are asking questions, they are the questions which applicants for the schemes are obliged to answer.

If there is a complaint in that regard, rather than shooting the messenger at constituency level, which is the local social welfare officer, Deputies would be better employed taking it up with the author of the schemes, namely, the Minister and his departmental officials. I found that especially offensive.

I have raised previously the delays in dealing with applications. Huge additional responsibilities have been thrust on social welfare officers by changes in farm assist, the carer's allowance and other schemes, without additional resources. Applicants must wait six months or longer for decisions on their claims and that is unacceptable. There are charters of rights for patients and farmers. Perhaps there should be a charter of rights for social welfare recipients under which they would be entitled to a decision on their claim within a set time. There are undue delays in dealing with appeals in the Department. If a decision of a social welfare officer is appealed, it can take up to six months before a decision is made on the appeal. That is unacceptable. When there are declining numbers of people in receipt of unemployment assistance, it should be possible to speed up the decision-making process. I can instance numerous cases in my constituency where decisions submitted for appeal took up to six months to be decided upon. That is unacceptable.

There are a few other points I wish to make. The fuel allowance has been set at £5 for so long it is a joke. Perhaps the Minister will tackle that by tabling an amendment on Committee Stage. If people entirely dependent on the non-contribu tory old age pension save something from it, they find on reassessment that the capital they have saved reduces their overall entitlement. That is the meanest form of penny pinching. If a person qualifies from the beginning because he or she has no resources and has not had any windfall gains, his or her savings from the pension, which is meagre enough, should not be used against them. There is an argument for a unit straddling the Departments of Social, Community and Family Affairs and Health and Children to deal with the carer's allowance and the nursing home subvention from health boards. It is something which should be examined because the level of subvention is a joke. People are disqualified from the carer's allowance because of spurious determination of means. Perhaps the Minister will examine the question of care of the elderly.

I welcome the Bill which is a caring one. The Minister cares for the underprivileged. I do not wish to say much because the Minister has everything under control. However, I would like to raise a few points. Regarding the widow's pension and widows about the age of 60 who live alone, if their late husbands were not entitled to free schemes, those widows are also not entitled to them. Perhaps the Minister will examine that at some stage to ensure that widows are cared for, especially when their families leave and they live on their own. They are not entitled to these schemes while others are and I would welcome a change in that regard.

I am concerned about ESB meter readers. They pay the full rate of PRSI but are not entitled to benefits. I understand that in my area they are asked to take eight weeks off work because of cutbacks in the ESB. They will not qualify for unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance because their contributions do not qualify them to claim those benefits. This is something which must be examined. The ESB is making an enormous amount of money and these people are not well paid for their work. If they live in rural areas, they often have to drive their cars on poor roads. Their motoring expenses for the year, taking into account tax, insurance and depreciation, are approximately £6,000.

I welcome the £7 increase for old age pensioners. I also welcome the fact that the Minister has allowed them to have £10,000 in the bank without any means test being applied. If a person has £20,000 in the bank, he or she is assessed at £1 in every £1,000. This is a step in the right direction. Old people kept money in their homes because of the absence of this concession.

The changes the Minister has introduced to the carer's allowance are a credit to him. The allowance was introduced by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, when he held the portfolio and it has been much improved by the current Minister who is doing an excellent job. Where a carer lives within four miles of the person for whom he or she is caring, the carer should be entitled to the allowance, especially if he or she is a son or daughter.

I thank all Members who contributed, especially those who made temperate remarks – there were some intemperate remarks which were unwarranted. One Opposition Deputy said I did not take one blind bit of notice of anything he said. That is not the case. Every representation made to me by a Member is treated in the same fashion, irrespective of which political party he or she is a member. Many Opposition Deputies will be able to confirm that any time they have approached me on any issue, I have always been amenable. There may be reasons I cannot do something and people should appreciate that and not make political capital out of it. I suppose we can all play politics with this issue. Deputy Boylan, who has been a Member of the House longer than I have, tried to make out that the system of social welfare inspectors has dramatically changed since I became Minister and that they are in some way becoming much more aggressive. That is not the case. They do their job irrespective of what Government is in power or what Minister is in office. I am surprised someone with Deputy Boylan's experience would say such a thing.

Many Opposition Deputies referred to the fact that we have endless amounts of money and that we can do many things. These are the same Deputies who cried over the years that the economy was going down the tubes and that we were spending beyond our means. Even the least objective Opposition Deputy would acknowledge that when times are good we must be more prudent with taxpayers' money than when times are bad in that it is acknowledged that the rainy day will come. We must strike a balance between caring for those who are less well off and looking to the future, and the Government has done that.

The new Programme for Prosperity and Fairness is the epitome of the outlook of this Administration for the next three years. I assure Deputies it will be this Government which will deliver on the vast majority of the proposals in that programme. In the area of social inclusion alone, £1.5 billion will be put in place over the next two years and nine months from the start of the agreement. The amount put in place under Partnership 2000, which was negotiated by the main Opposition parties when they were in Government, was only £525 million over a three year period.

More than three times the amount for social inclusion will be made available in the new partnership arrangement.

Tell that to Sister Celestine.

Many Deputies raised the issue of carer's allowance. I wish to place on record that no party in Government has done more than mine on the carer's allowance which was intro duced by my predecessor, Deputy Woods, in 1990. He provided £100 million for carers in the Department's Estimates that year. When I took office £35 million per annum was being spent in this area. As a result of changes made in previous budgets the figure will increase to £78 million in the year 2000. That is a 45% increase.

The Minister got the money out of the insurance fund.

There has been a 60% increase in the number of people in receipt of that allowance since I took office. Some 15,000 carers were in receipt of that allowance at the end of January 2000, 80% of whom receive the maximum rate.

The issue of paying the carer's allowance to a person in receipt of another social welfare payment was examined by the review group. Most Deputies raised the issue of the carer's allowance but I would hazard a guess that most of them have not read the carer's review which took place about a year ago. I suggest they read the review which explains in detail all the aspects of that allowance. The means test for the carer's allowance is one of the most generous in the social welfare system in terms of assessment of household income. I compliment Deputies on the opposite side of the House for raising this issue. Deputy Creed said there should be a better connection between health board subvention, the carer's allowance and the home help scheme. Deputy Crawford asked me last week to discuss this matter with the Minister for Health and Children. I discussed the matter with him. It is an area which requires medium and long-term discussion because it will remain on our agenda irrespective of who is in office.

The issue of a person receiving two payments was raised by a number of Deputies. This matter has been causing some difficulty. Deputy McCormack said I do not take a blind bit of notice of what he says. That is not the case. I responded to him on each occasion that he raised this issue.

Not favourably.

This issue was discussed by the joint committee. The example given by Deputy McCormack was that of a woman in receipt of the carer's allowance who on becoming widowed qualifies for the widow's pension and loses that allowance. This policy is in keeping with the primary objective of the social welfare system which is to provide income support. As a general rule only one social welfare payment is payable to an individual. Deputy McCormack perceives widows to be a specific and worthy category who should receive two social welfare payments. We can all empathise with that but it would be difficult to justify paying two payments to widows and not to old age pensioners, lone parents and other groups who are equally entitled to such treatment. Where would we stop?

The Minister should not exclude the poorest of carers.

If we changed the policy for one category we would have to do so for all the others. This issue was looked at by the review group who came down in favour of the current practice being retained. That review noted that the carer's allowance is an income support payment and is not a payment for caring. They stated:

The allowance was never intended to be a compensatory payment for earnings foregone nor as a payment by the State for services rendered nor could it ever be.

The Minister should increase one of the payments if he is not willing to pay the two.

A number of Deputies raised the issue of carer's benefit. I surprised people by bringing this benefit forward so quickly.

In October?

Yes. Some Members questioned why it is not being introduced until October. Again, those who raised that point do not understand the system. We have to change the employment legislation to protect people's rights so we could not introduce it any earlier. Deputies profess some ignorance in that respect. I obtained Cabinet approval to extend the period of payment of the carer's benefit from 12 months to 15 months to bring it into line with similar schemes. We looked at the possibility of extending it for a longer period but, because of the difficulty of retaining employment rights over a period of 15 months, a compromise was reached.

A number of Deputies raised the issue of child benefit. This year's child benefit package was the largest in the history of this State. It increased the budget spent in this area by 25% in one year to £106 million to bring it up to £775 million. Deputies McGrath and Noel Ahern raised the issue of a single rate for all children. The reason for more than one rate is that it is accepted that families with greater numbers of children are at greater risk of poverty than smaller ones. This is why the payment is weighted in favour of larger families.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe referred to changes in capital assessment and stated that in his opinion persons with capital of £30,000 would be heavily penalised. He is wrong. Anybody with £10,000 or less will no longer, as Deputy Brennan said earlier, have their capital assessed. This accounts for 88% of all old age pensioners. A married old age pensioner with a qualified adult dependant who has capital of £40,000 would have an effective assessment rate of 1.3% on their capital and will gain up to £24 per week as a result of the changes made.

Deputy McGrath asked why we did not rationalise the rates of child dependant increases. I, with the previous Government, have been reluctant to increase child dependant allowances; we have concentrated on increasing child benefit. The loss of child benefit by social welfare recipients taking up employment can act as a disincentive to their taking up available work opportunities. I am disappointed with some of the comments made by Deputies, Deputy Moynihan-Cronin in particular, about PRSI improvements. Is she suggesting that a measure which will benefit 460,000 employees who will gain about £5.60 a week should not be introduced?

Deputy Ó Caoláin lectured us about spin doctoring. I would hazard a guess that his party are past masters at that.

So is the Minister's party.

He said our figures on this were wrong. Deputy Ó Caoláin should recheck his information. If he has any difficulty doing so he can check with my officials. His figures are wrong. Approximately 660,000 people will benefit as a result of the PRSI and health contribution levy changes.

People on low income will gain a minimum of £12 extra per week as a result of the negotiations on the new partnership agreement. They will gain extra money on top of the £12 as a result of tax changes in the budget and measures which I am introducing in this Bill. People on the basic low income will receive a minimum of £20 extra per week as a result of all those changes.

As far as I am concerned this Social Welfare Bill and the new partnership agreement herald a new era for people on low income. This Government will deliver the commitments in the new agreement in the years ahead.

It is not enough.

Deputies on the opposite side should get used to sitting there because they will remain there after the next general election.

A sum of £74 a week is not—

The Minister continues to—

Acting Chairman

As it is now 1.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with an Order of the Dáil of this day, "That the Bill be now read a Second Time". Is that agreed?

No. Vótáil.

Question put.

Ahern, Bertie.Ahern, Dermot.Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Andrews, David.Ardagh, Seán.Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Harry.Brady, Johnny.Brady, Martin.Brennan, Matt.Brennan, Séamus.Briscoe, Ben.Browne, John (Wexford).Byrne, Hugh.Callely, Ivor.Carey, Pat.Collins, Michael.Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.Coughlan, Mary.Cowen, Brian.Cullen, Martin.Daly, Brendan.Davern, Valera, Síle.Dempsey, Noel.Dennehy, John.Doherty, Seán.Ellis, John.Fahey, Frank.Fleming, Seán.Flood, Chris.Foley, Denis.Fox, Mildred.Gildea, Thomas.Hanafin, Mary.Harney, Mary.Haughey, Seán.Healy-Rae, Jackie.

Keaveney, Cecilia.Kelleher, Billy.Kenneally, Brendan.Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Séamus.Kitt, Michael.Kitt, Tom.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McCreevy, Charlie.McDaid, James.McGennis, Marian.McGuinness, John.Moffatt, Thomas.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.Ó Cuív, Éamon.O'Dea, Willie.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Donoghue, John.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Hanlon, Rory.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Keeffe, Ned.O'Kennedy, Michael.O'Malley, Desmond.O'Rourke, Mary.Power, Seán.Roche, Dick.Smith, Brendan.Smith, Michael.Treacy, Noel.Wade, Eddie.Wallace, Dan.Wallace, Mary.Woods, Michael. Wright, G. V.


Ahearn, Theresa.Allen, Bernard.Barrett, Seán.Bell, Michael.Belton, Louis.Boylan, Andrew.Bradford, Paul.Broughan, Thomas.Bruton, John.Bruton, Richard.Burke, Liam.Burke, Ulick.Carey, Donal.Clune, Deirdre.Connaughton, Paul.Coveney, Simon.Creed, Michael.Currie, Austin.D'Arcy, Michael.Deasy, Austin.Deenihan, Jimmy.Dukes, Alan.Durkan, Bernard.Enright, Thomas.Farrelly, John.Ferris, Michael.Finucane, Michael.Fitzgerald, Frances.Gilmore, Éamon.Gormley, John.Gregory, Tony.Hayes, Brian.Higgins, Jim.Higgins, Joe.

Higgins, Michael.Hogan, Philip.Howlin, Brendan.Kenny, Enda.McCormack, Pádraic.McDowell, Derek.McGahon, Brendan.McGinley, Dinny.McGrath, Paul.McManus, Liz.Mitchell, Gay.Mitchell, Olivia.Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.Naughten, Denis.Neville, Dan.Noonan, Michael.Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.O'Keeffe, Jim.O'Shea, Brian.Owen, Nora.Perry, John.Quinn, Ruairí.Reynolds, Gerard.Ring, Michael.Ryan, Seán.Sargent, Trevor.Shatter, Alan.Sheehan, Patrick.Shortall, Róisín.Stagg, Emmet.Stanton, David.Timmins, Billy.Upton, Mary.Yates, Ivan.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies S. Brennan and Power; Níl, Deputies Barrett and Stagg.
Question declared carried.