The budget threatened social partnership and the voluntary and community sector threatened to withdraw. That sector includes organisations such as CORI, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and groups working with the most disadvantaged people in society. Is Deputy O'Flynn suggesting that every one of those groups got it wrong? I do not believe they got it wrong. The social welfare system does not promote equality, is not family friendly, discriminates against women, does not deal properly with people with disabilities and does not adequately recognise carers.
The Bill before the House has many good features but it is narrowly focused in the sense that it contains no vision of the future development of the social welfare system and does not seem to take account of other Government policies. There is no evidence of coherence with policies in the areas of equality, health or even the economy.
This Government's policies – if the word can be so applied – in the areas of social services, the family and equality are marked by a total absence of vision and of planning to realise that vision. The measures are ad hoc and provide for once-off increases without a strategy to move towards an appropriate benchmark. I wish to highlight the issue of benchmarking payments.
Other changes address once-off issues, again without a coherent view of future plans. Decisions are made in one area without taking account of their effects in other areas. This is particularly the case in the area of medical card income guidelines which do not take account of increases in social welfare payments and the different arrangements made for carers in the tax and social welfare systems.
There is no evidence of the Government's view of how families should be supported. There is the traditional view of, "we will look after you with handouts," but there is no plan or strategy. Just as we need careful planning to implement infrastructural investment, we also need careful planning to implement coherent income support arrangements for families. We need the equivalent of the national development plan for the social services. We also need to set targets and objectives and a timetable for their achievement. We also need to critically examine all aspects of the services to ensure they promote equality and are family friendly.
I accept the structural problems within the social welfare system cannot be remedied in one Bill. This is why we need a plan. We need to decide in what direction we are going and how to get there. Instead of a self-congratulatory account of what the Minister has done, I would have preferred to hear the Minister's views on how the social welfare system should develop. Has the Minister a view on the individualisation of social welfare payments? Has he any thoughts on how the in-built bias against people in stable, permanent relationships can be addressed? A recent detailed report highlighted the situation of lone parents. It is clear that there are serious problems within the social welfare system regarding many people who wish to be in stable relationships. The system discriminates against such people but what are we going to do about it? What measures will be introduced to end this bias? The current situation is unacceptable. What plans does the Minister have to address the recommendations in the report? There is no evidence in the Bill that he intends to address this issue.
Does the Minister have an equality strategy for social welfare? Has he looked at the social welfare system to see how its underlying sexist and ageist attitudes can be changed? If so, he is very shy about sharing his thoughts with us. The social welfare system does not promote equality, is not family friendly and there is little in this Bill which will improve this situation.
Critics of the Equality Authority who have been vocal lately regarding ageist advertising would do well to examine the sexist and ageist aspects of the social welfare system and understand why we need an Equality Authority which is continually addressing these issues.
I wish to address the issue of equality for women in the social welfare system. The overt evidence of discrimination on the basis of sex has been removed but that does not mean the system promotes equality. The social welfare system treats men and women equally in the sense that all its provisions are formally gender neutral. However, women remain at a disadvantage because of the retention of the concept of adult dependency, even if the name has been changed, and because the inequalities of the past have not been rectified. The qualified adult allowance, in spite of its name change, has the effect of keeping women as dependants. It ensures certain women do not go out to work or only work for restricted hours. This system must be phased out. What plans does the Minister have to do this? Older women were discriminated against in the past and the results of that discrimination are not being addressed. I accept there is not a simple solution but I do not accept that we should not look for partial solutions.
Will the Minister consider extending the home care credit system to those who were carers before 1994? This would allow some older women to qualify for pensions in their own right and it would go some way towards recognising the contribution they made to the good of society. There is no doubt the prosperity of this generation has been built on the work of the older generation. The least we can do for these women is to recognise that and to try to rectify some of the past discrimination they suffered by giving them credits for the work they did in the home which is not recognised as far as pensions are concerned. I hope the new Pensions Bill will go some way towards addressing that.
I welcome the intention to bring the contributory widows and widowers pension into line with the contributory old age pension. The increasing duration of maternity and adoptive benefit is welcome but I regret the opportunity was not taken to increase it more substantially. Our maternity benefit is low by international standards. We should be generous at a time of plenty and it will work to the advantage of the economy. If women have more choice and are able to spend more time at home when their babies are young and when they want to be there, it will be easier for them to make decisions about rejoining the workforce at a later stage.
I regret the opportunity was not taken to introduce a payment for parental leave. We will not have genuine equality in family arrangements while parental leave remains a theoretical right because it is unpaid. I recently asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform what number of people are taking up parental leave. He was unable to give me the figures but it is clear the numbers are low because it is unpaid and people cannot afford to take it. Parental leave is paid in many other countries and we should do the same. Plans should be put in place for the phased introduction of paid paternal leave.
Why were 8,500 women excluded from the benefits of the new maternity benefit? Why did the Minister not take the opportunity to introduce maternity benefit when he introduced the budget? Why was it left until two weeks ago which meant that 8,500 women lost out on extended maternity benefit? All that was needed was a resolution to be passed in the Dáil the day the budget was introduced.
I welcome section 16 which will end the restriction which applied to married and cohabiting couples where one is receiving a disability allowance and the other is receiving one of a number of social welfare payments. This means the disability allowance is being individualised to some extent, while the means test will continue to apply to the couple. Can the Minister indicate if and when he proposes to do the same for payments, such as unemployment assistance, and if he has plans to move towards a total individualisation of means testing as well as payments? People with disabilities need a cost of disability payment to allow them to compete on equal terms with the rest of society. I am aware that the issue is one of many social welfare issues being examined under the PPF. However, having an issue examined in this way under the PPF is akin to making it sub judice. There is nothing to stop the Minister addressing this issue even if it is being looked at under the PPF. It is a convenient excuse for not addressing issues in this House.
As regards carers and how we deal with carers in our society, the major shortcoming of the social welfare system is the absence of a recognition of caring. We now have two payments for carers but neither of them constitutes a recognition that caring per se should be rewarded. One payment, the carer's allowance, is a means tested payment for low income carers, while the other payment, carer's benefit, is a short compensation for giving up work. The contribution of family carers is not recognised, much less rewarded. I heard a Fianna Fáil colleague say that if we were more generous in this area, we would save the State money. The cost of residential care is enormous. This is another instance where we need a plan for the introduction of a carer's payment which is not contingent on means or social insurance.
There is no coherence in the Bill between social welfare and tax policies on caring. The home carer's tax credit is exactly the same whether one is caring for a healthy 18 year old or an incapacitated child or adult. This credit is not available if the person being cared for is a spouse. Yet, there is a reasonably generous tax allowance if a person can afford to employ a carer to look after an incapacitated person at home. I ask the Minister to address this in the Bill. This is evidence of a lack of coherence between the different branches of Government. Carers should be rewarded through the social welfare system and tax allowances or credits are not an appropriate way to do this.
As regards equality for older people, people aged between 65 and 66 are excluded from work if they receive a retirement pension. This is a glaring inequality but it also does not make economic sense in a society where there is a shortage of skilled workers. The removal of the restriction on working would involve a relatively small change and I ask the Minister to consider such an amendment on Committee Stage. Significant changes could also be made in the pre-retirement allowance to encourage recipients to return to work. This is not as simple as the changes needed in the retirement pension but, with a little imagination, a scheme could be devised which would allow people to retain their allowance and still have an incentive to work. This should be seriously examined, given the shortage of workers and the wish of many older people to continue to make a contribution in the workplace.
It is clear it is the intention to allow child dependent allowances to wither away as they have not been increased for seven years. I agree that the best way to support children is to have an adequate level of child benefit, that is, a basic income for children. Yet we have not formulated a policy on a basic income for children or on what it should cover. It is time to examine this issue. The Government does not have a clear policy on child support. It has not stated that it intends to have a basic income for children or to abolish child dependent allowances. Why is it reticent? Why do we not have a timetable for the full implementation of this policy?
Fine Gael fully supports universal child benefit as the best means of providing a basic income for children. However, there is some confused thinking about this payment. It is a basic income for children, not a means of providing for child care. It is society's contribution to the costs of rearing children. Child care is a separate issue and should be dealt with separately. Child care is a cost incurred by parents which should be addressed in a child care policy. There is confusion about what child benefit is for. It is expected to cover everything for children. However, it is clear from the costs involved in child care that it cannot do this. The Government has singularly failed to address the issue of child care costs either through the social welfare system or through the tax system in spite of its clear commitment to do so in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.
It is well recognised that the current structure of social welfare payments acts as a disincentive to young couples to form stable households in which to raise children. There are many difficult issues to be addressed in rectifying this but we are avoiding the issue at present. It has been clearly identified in the recent report on one parent families that we need a phased programme of change in the present arrangements for cohabiting and married couples so they do not face a substantial financial penalty for raising their children together. Is that not a basic point? With the increasing numbers of lone parents, single households and the attendant risk of poverty for those women and children, now is the time for the Minister to begin to address this issue in a phased way in consultation with the many groups which have an interest in this area. Every Deputy agrees that such change is required. Every week we see couples being discriminated against who would prefer to be together, yet they cannot because of the payments system.
There is a long-standing anomaly in the PRSI system which affects women more than men – the rule that employed family members are excluded from paying PRSI. This is an anti-family policy which discriminates against women and should be changed immediately. The Minister should consider doing this on Committee Stage.
The welcome increases in social welfare payments, although not high enough, are not being matched in other areas of the social services. The medical card income guidelines need to be re-examined. There is a particular problem for those under the age of 70 years whose only source of income is a social welfare pension.
I have referred to the differences in the tax and social welfare treatment of carers and the need for greater coherence. Given the buoyancy in the economy, we have never had such a good opportunity for fundamental change, but this opportunity is being wasted. We are only tinkering at the edges. We are not laying the basis for an equal, just system, which would be an enormous contributor to economic growth. It would free people to contribute to economic growth and move more easily between the family and workplace. While the changes are welcome, if we had improved maternity leave more dramatically and had dealt with the issue of parental leave more efficiently, we would be giving parents, individuals and workers greater choice and flexibility which would enable them to combine their work and family responsibilities more effectively. In the long run this would be to the benefit of society and the economy.