Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 22 Feb 2001

Vol. 531 No. 2

Social Welfare Bill, 2001: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is generally agreed that Ireland is now one of the wealthiest countries in the European Union. Our position relative to other countries has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to genuinely share the wealth which our economy has produced under successive Governments. I regret the economic benefits which we now enjoy are not shared equally by all sectors of society.

Although a certain degree of cynicism attaches to the political process, we can point to many successful policies with which all political parties have been associated in recent years. Developments in Northern Ireland illustrate the value of the political process particularly well.

The recent transformation of the Irish economy and the availability of new resources, also has its origin in politics. We need to set a new national objective to completely eradicate poverty here over the next five years. People are concerned about the widening gap in our society.

The measures outlined in the Social Welfare Bill will do nothing to lift families out of the poverty trap. The measures put forward by the Government are simply "more of the same." The improvements in social welfare payments are small in the context of a budget surplus of £3.990 billion. This highlights the mean-spirited and fundamentally conservative approach of this Government. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and senior Ministers have been telling old age pensioners that their pensions will increase over the next two or three years. It was most insensitive to tell people that they will get £100 per week if they live for another while. This approach does no credit to any Government.

The social welfare increases in the budget of last December have not adequately compensated people on social welfare benefits for the effects of inflation. Whenever such payments are increased, local authority rents are immediately increased also. If the Government is serious about helping people on social welfare benefits, such increases in local authority rents should not automatically follow. Under present arrangements, local authorities have no choice but to increase the rent, because it is based on income. I call on the Government to change that situation immediately, so that local authority tenants will not have their social welfare payments eroded by rent increases.

I will also refer to the carers' allowance. I know of a lady who spends four to five hours daily caring for her mother who has the required medical certification, and her father, who is not so certified. The Department of Social Welfare decided that the lady would need to spend seven or eight hours per day on caring duties for her mother, in order to qualify for the allowance under present guidelines. That would amount to some 56 hours per week. I reminded the Department officials that this person is a human being, not a machine. I now call on the Minister and the Department to introduce a humane set of regulations for the carers' allowance. The scheme should make allowance for situations where carers do not live with their elderly parents and have to travel some distance to care for them. These people are not intent on defrauding the Department, they are merely trying to cater for their needs and those of their families. If the Department is adopting the type of approach to which I refer, particularly in light of our booming economy, it is a sad development. I am disgusted about the treatment received by the person to whom I referred. The case is currently under appeal and I hope that appeal is successful. If not, I will raise the matter again in the House.

Another issue of concern to me is that of free travel. In most rural areas there is no transport available for people with free travel passes. The Department should introduce a system where elderly people, particularly those who must travel to nearby towns to collect their pensions, etc., can avail of transport, for example, taxis or some other form of public transport. There is no point in having a free travel pass when there is no method of transport of which to avail. The Minister should reconsider the position which obtains in rural areas in particular because there is no transport available to elderly people who are obliged to travel to nearby towns to collect their pensions and do their weekly shopping. People in the private sector should be encouraged to provide transport in rural areas.

For the first time in the history of the State we have a great opportunity to honour the social contract. The budget went some way towards doing so but it did not honour in full the commitments that had been given to various organisations before its introduction in respect of social welfare rates of payment, etc.

There are more people living in relative income poverty today than there were ten years ago. Ireland has a worse rich-poor gap than any other EU country. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, became very excited when describing what he has done to bridge that gap but he exaggerated somewhat. He should reconsider the position and look at how policies in recent years have widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Everyone agrees with tax reductions and rewarding people at work, but we must ensure there is a balance for people at the other end of the scale. That balance has not yet been introduced.

Ireland spends a lower proportion of GNP on social welfare than any other EU country. Its contribution is 17.5% of GDP compared to an EU average of 28.2%. At his first press conference as leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Noonan emphasised the differences between the Berlin and Boston models. He pointed out that America is a nice place to live but that the social welfare benefits on offer there do not compare with those paid out by some of our European partners. We must try to achieve that European social model as soon as possible, otherwise people in Ireland will become disaffected and there will be glaring gaps between the rich and poor in society. As already stated, we have a great opportunity to do something for everyone living in Ireland. That opportunity never arose in the past due to lack of resources but, now that it exists, we must take it.

In considering the social contract, there are a number of factors which must be taken into account. For example, the housing waiting lists include many people who are in receipt of various forms of assistance. There are now 50,000 on the lists and that number is continually increasing because of the high cost of housing and people's inability to purchase houses because they cannot afford to do so or they cannot obtain a loan.

There is then the problem of young people who do not have any qualifications. The most recent OECD report indicated that 26% of young people in Ireland under 17 years of age do not possess useful qualifications and that almost one in five 18 year olds are not in full-time education. These figures were also presented to us in many pre-budget submissions by organisations such as CORI and others which provide extremely accurate information in respect of the qualifications deficit.

When one considers the third factor, namely the number of people on hospital waiting lists – approximately 30,000 – one realises this country will face major difficulties in the future. The direction suggested by Deputy Noonan will be embraced by the people. We must have a social contract. People who paid out money in the past in order to provide services in the future, when they will be old and vulnerable, must be rewarded. As far as I am concerned, the budget has not met the expectations of several groups of people throughout the country.

What about the £5 billion pension fund?

The Minister of State should allow me to conclude. However, I am glad he is listening to my contribution and reacting to it. The £5 billion pension fund was squandered in the past.

The Government decided to raise social welfare payments, for example, by only £8 per week, an increase the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs lauded, whereas the commitment given in the PPF was for a £14 per week increase. I understand the cost of increasing payments for everyone on social welfare by £14 instead of £8 would have been £150 million. I have no objection to decreasing the amount paid by people on the top rate of tax – that includes Members of this House – but a balance should have been introduced in respect of people on social welfare. What the budget has done is widened the gap between rich and poor. The relevant figures, which speak volumes, show that this is the case. The poorest people could have had their social welfare payments increased by £14 per week for a single person and by £24 for a couple for less than it would cost to reduce the top tax rate.

When we provide increases for one section of the community, we should try to counter-balance matters by providing proportional increases to the other section. In the past there may, perhaps, have been an opposite balance when we took too much in tax from wage earners and provided too much in the way of benefits to the poorer sections. Now, however, we have the ideal opportunity to get the balance right and bridge the gap.

A number of people on blind pensions contacted me – perhaps the officials from the Department will bring this matter to the Minister's attention – because they believed the rate of blind pension should be linked to that which obtains in respect of the old age pension. I understand this would mean little in terms of costs, etc., and consideration should certainly be given to creating such a link. Blind people are very vulnerable. Members will know people who are blind and will be aware that they live a precarious existence. They worry continuously about their safety and welfare. They need someone to look after them. They are vulnerable. The extra few pounds they would receive if they were on the same rate as old age pensioners would help. Perhaps the officials will bring this to the attention of the Minister. I will await his response.

The linking of social welfare payments with forestry premium payments should be of interest to the Deputies on the other side of the House. When I was in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, in order to get the REP scheme off the ground, I proposed that the first £2,000 of payments should be exempt when assessing means for social welfare. There are large tracts of land owned by old age pensioners and other recipients of social welfare. I am particularly concerned about old age pensioners because that age group still has an affinity with the land and wants to hold on to it and, in some cases, is reluctant even to lease it. Such land would be ideal for forestry, but when it is explained to pensioners that any premium they receive will be deducted from their pension, they refuse to put their land under forestry because they do not want such payments to interfere with their pension rights or security. I ask the officials to bring this to the attention of the Minister. If the first £2,000 of forestry premium payments was exempt from assessment of means, considerably more land could be put into productive use. There is no reason the precedent set in terms of REPs payments could not be applied to forestry premium payments. It is an important issue. I have discussed it with the Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Hugh Byrne, who has responsibility for forestry, and he is enthusiastic about it.

The CORI Justice Commission's critique of the budget provided us with a good assessment of the budget when it stated that the poorest people in society had been betrayed by budget 2001, that it had increased the divisions in society and that when political leadership was required in order that everyone would benefit from the country's new-found prosperity and would be treated with fairness, the Government chose instead to refuse to hear the cry of the poor. That just about sums up the budget. If the Minister has an opportunity to introduce one more budget, I hope he will rectify the imbalances and injustices he has created in this one. I hope he does not get that opportunity and that someone like Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, or even myself, will get the opportunity to undo the damage that has been done.

There is no objectivity in that statement.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Moloney.

We have all been making our annual pilgrimage to speak on the Social Welfare Bill for some time, in some cases for over 20 years. When I compare this year's Social Welfare Bill with those of earlier years, I realise how much Governments have been able to do to help people who, through no fault of their own, are dependent on social welfare payments. The benefits of the Celtic tiger in putting more people to work mean greater availability of funding for social welfare. In 1990, the amount spent on social welfare amounted to 5% of the budget; this year it is 10.3%. The reduction in the number of recipients between 1989 and 2000 has meant extra people contributing daily. Those people have a right to expect that when they retire there will be sufficient funds in the kitty to secure their pensions. For this reason the Government's action last year in placing £5 billion in the welfare funds for the future was the proper action to take.

The increases provided for in the Social Welfare Bill, 2001, include an increase in child benefit from £30 per month for the first two children in 1997 to £67.50 in 2001, an increase of £37.50 a month per family. That comes to over £400 a year for a family with two children. Despite the increases, many are of the view that we will have to give more, because the cost of rearing children, in terms of education and everything else, means that parents' costs will continually increase. I agree.

It must be recognised that the number of people entitled to carer's benefit has been doubled. We must, however, be realistic and acknowledge that there are still many people outside the net who should be included. I have said openly on numerous occasions that a non means-tested payment of £50 to £60 a week should be paid to every carer. In the long-term this would result in a saving for the State in terms of the cost of hospital or nursing home care because, in many cases, it could mean being able to afford to stay at home and look after an elderly parent or relative rather than going to work. That is an issue that should be looked at for the future. I hope that, in the context of the next Social Welfare Bill, something will be done about this.

Many do not realise that it is only because of the reduction in the number of people who are unemployed that so much money is available for social welfare, particularly old age pensions. Some on the Opposition benches laughed when the idea of increasing old age pension to £100 a week was mentioned some years ago. They said that it was an ideal and aspirational, but that the Government would never deliver it. The Government has now done it by granting a £10 a week increase in this year's Social Welfare and Finance Bills. That is a major move. Contributory pensioners and their spouses are entitled to an increase of £25 per week, bringing their weekly rate to £185.60. That is evidence that significant progress has been made in looking after our elderly.

Our social welfare system has been criticised. Recently I was part of a British-Irish delegation to review the position on social welfare in the United Kingdom. When we compared the benefits available here with those available in the United Kingdom, we realised that we were a long way ahead. That is the reason people born here, but who now live in the United Kingdom want to latch on to some of those benefits. I hope we will be able to facilitate them in terms of free travel and otherwise because, as far as I am aware, being EU pensioners they may have such a right.

Other social welfare payments have also been increased. There is an increase of £8 per week in disability allowance. Perhaps we should examine if welfare recipients might receive the same increase, irrespective of their category. While there is an excellent increase provided for widows this year, they still do not receive the same increase as old age pensioners. That should be reviewed.

When considering the future of social welfare it might be worthwhile advising people that, although they will have their social welfare entitlements, they should consider a small private pension plan if they have surplus cash available. Retired local authority workers, for example, receive a small pension on top of their ordinary entitlements. It might be as little as £20 or £30 per week, but that is a help and it would not have cost them an enormous amount of money during their working lives. People should be advised on what they can do to arrange private pensions as well as State pensions.

We should take another look at pro rata pensions. Last year the Minister made an enormous leap by introducing a pro rata system for those who did not have the required contributions to be entitled to pensions. That was much appreciated by the beneficiaries of those reduced pensions.

Our welfare payments have grown to a huge extent due to the fact that fewer people are social welfare recipients. That is the reason money is available. Approximately 10% of the national budget is devoted to social welfare. This demonstrates the concern of all Members to protect the most vulnerable in society, those dependent on social welfare. They always have been and always will be our most vulnerable. In providing for them we must ensure that if there is a downturn in the economy and the numbers of unemployed increase, the State will be in a position to fund the benefits they will need to maintain themselves properly.

The Social Welfare Bills introduced by the Minister on behalf of the Government have done an enormous amount to relieve poverty. We will only have relieved the entire poverty problem, however, when we can take into the system the young people who remain on our streets at night, who do not want to use the welfare system, but prefer to sleep rough. I hope special provisions will be made with regard to taking these young people off the streets and helping those who have hit hard times.

I thank Deputy Ellis for sharing time and allowing me to express my support for the Social Welfare Bill. The Bill addresses issues outlined in the 1997 programme for Government, such as maternity benefit, child benefit, family income support, disability allowance and so forth. These have been tackled in the last four Social Welfare Bills.

I welcome the Bill. All sides of the House should welcome the fact that the poorest in society will share the benefits of the continuing economic boom. The Bill demonstrates the Government's continued recognition of the fact that those who most need assistance with the living and other expenses of daily life will receive adequate allowances. The Bill pins that down.

I am particularly happy with the pension provisions. Again, the Government gave commitments in this regard in the programme for Government and I am delighted they are being given effect in the Bill. The Bill gives recognition to the citizens who have contributed so much over many years. We often pay lip-service to what they did, but when this country did not enjoy the economic success of today, these people were putting in the effort. These increases are a welcome recognition of their input.

I particularly welcome the extension of maternity benefit from 14 to 18 weeks and, importantly, that adoptive parents will see their benefit increase to 14 weeks. There has been an ongoing campaign to extend maternity benefit and this change is recognition of the submissions made to the Minister and Deputies on all sides. I hope the Minister will significantly increase the duration of these benefits in time.

The Bill begins to address in a serious way the position of those who provide an invaluable caring service for their loved ones. In recent weeks and before the Budget Statement we met many of the carers' groups which properly and succintly made the point that the level of care they provide cannot be quantified in financial terms. In that regard, it is most important that each budget and Social Welfare Bill recognises their commitment.

If we were to believe all the lobby groups, the Minister could wave a magic wand and provide for huge increases in social welfare payments. He has not taken that course. Instead he has adopted the prudent economic approach that has been the hallmark of the Government in the past three and half years and ensured the most needy and vulnerable are provided for. We must not forget that this Bill is just one of the promised five budgets to be introduced by the Government. Perhaps Members might delay their comments on the Government's policy to continue to increase significantly social welfare payments until the next budget when the full programme will have been delivered.

The increases proposed in the Bill are not the only provisions made by the Government. It is fair to take into account the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy's prudent investment of moneys from the sale of Eircom and other State assets in the pension fund. This will ensure the value and security of pensions can be assured for the next 30 years and beyond. "From the cradle to the grave" is a cliche, but it is a hallmark of the Government in terms of its increases in welfare payments at all levels.

I wish to refer to a number of the Bill's provisions in more detail. The most important are those relating to maternity benefit. The Constitution properly values and cherishes children. The extension of the duration of maternity benefit will be cherished by the thousands of families who will welcome a new baby into their homes this year. Many mothers have spoken about how difficult it is to leave a three month old baby with a childminder. They find it an unbelievable strain. They will welcome the extra time afforded to them. Some employers might complain, but they should acknowledge that happy and relaxed employees are more productive. The extra four weeks will give mothers cherished time with their babies. We should remember that our nation's most valuable asset is its children.

It is important and welcome that adoptive parents will also benefit from an extra four weeks leave. The Government is committed to ensuring parents are supported, financially and practically, in rearing their families. I ask the Minister to consider extending maternity benefit to cover the first year and, thereafter, providing a reduced benefit for the years up to school entry. Such benefits are available in other European countries, particularly Scandinavia. Encouraging and supporting more parents to stay at home will take pressure off the overburdened child minding services which cannot cope with current unprecedented demand. Not all parents would wish to take the full year and, as a result of having more time to organise child benefit, child care and so forth, would return to the workforce at their own pace.

In the rush to fill the jobs needs of the economy we might be ignoring the most important job in society, child rearing. We must be ever vigilant that we govern and legislate for a society, not just an economy. I hope the Minister will consider extending the benefit to at least one year and making it available to both mothers and fathers. This benefit extension should also be available to adoptive parents. It could be renamed "parent's benefit" and would be a most welcome and important provision.

Regarding child benefit, the Government is investing huge amounts of money in supporting child care. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is ensuring child care places will be increased and improved by providing up to £230 million in coming years. The number of places will be increased and made affordable.

Rearing children is expensive and parents are constantly stretched to meet the needs of growing children in the areas of food, clothing and, I presume, the occasional treat. The Minister is significantly increasing child benefit by £25 for the first two children and £30 for the third and subsequent children. These increases will make a great difference to families and will ensure parents are assisted in their efforts to support their families.

We must recognise the value and importance of carers. For too long the position of those who looked after relatives was ignored but the increase in the carer's allowance is a step in the right direction. Carers provide a valuable service to the State and should be recognised for that contribution. We must continue to support their work to ensure the objectives of the Carers' Association inform Government policy. I also welcome the increase from £300 to £800 in the respite care grant.

The changes announced in section 18 will allow for benefits to be paid to carers for six weeks after a death and will go a long way towards ensuring those who sacrificed so much in caring for a relative will have some small comfort during their transition from carer to supporting their own lives. Carers are a valuable resource and everything possible should be done to support them. The Social Welfare Bill should recognise this and we must continue to introduce improvements in this regard.

There is concern about inflation and its effects on social welfare increases. The inflation rate is continuing to drop due to Government actions, thus protecting the social welfare increases which will put more money in people's pockets. While it is important to increase welfare benefits it is equally important to ensure they are not eaten up by increases in the inflation rate.

The family income supplement is a useful tool for encouraging those on low pay to re-enter the work force. It is not possible for some people on social welfare to provide for their families, particularly if they are in jobs which pay the minimum wage. FIS allows people who wish to work to do so, but perhaps those on FIS should automatically be entitled to other benefits, particularly the medical card. Many people with families are concerned that they will lose their medical cards if they take up employment.

The provisions of this Bill will contribute to the lives of the most needy in society. The Bill is part of a package of measures to which Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are committed to introducing. I acknowledge the benefits announced in the Bill and thank the Minister for listening to the submissions he received which are reflected in the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill, 2001. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, like the Minister for Finance, gets an opportunity every year to introduce legislation in his or her area of responsibility. Unlike other Ministers, the Minister does not have to fight for parliamentary time nor does he or she have to convince Cabinet colleagues that his or her proposals ought to get priority. It is a pity that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has consistently failed to use this annual opportunity to bring about the sort of fundamental change to the social welfare system that is necessary if we are to have a fair, equal and just society.

The budget and the Bill are iniquitous in the way they deal with people and, as a result, they threaten social partnership. The voluntary and community sector threatened to withdraw from partnership because it felt the budget was iniquitous and betrayed the poorest in society.

The Deputy must be joking.

I am not joking. If the Deputy examined the situation he would find that is the case.

Deputy Fitzgerald without interruption.

Deputy De Rossa provided an increase of £1.50 in 1997.

The budget favoured the better off, increased the divisions in society and I will illustrate how it failed to honour the PPF commitments.

The Deputy is not in the real world.

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.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Browne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Will there be a vote on the Bill on Second Stage today?

Acting Chairman

Far be it from me to answer such difficult questions, Deputy.

If there is and the Opposition votes against pension increases, I will inform the public in Cork what it has done. I will tell them that the Opposition wants to deprive them of their social welfare and pension increases.

The Deputy can tell them that we want to give them better increases.

I welcome the introduction of another progressive Social Welfare Bill.

The Deputy's party betrayed the poor and made choices which were not in their favour.

Acting Chairman

One speaker please, Deputy Fitzgerald.

It is the fourth in a series of five from the current Fianna Fáil Government. Once again, Fianna Fáil is living up to its reputation as Ireland's "people politics" party. I welcome the generous nature of all the Bill's provisions. I wish to deal with three issues: pensions, PRSI and the euro. I welcome the introduction of the next phase of real pension increases.

Hear, hear.

We are introducing a £10 per person per week increase in senior citizen's pensions. Perhaps from hereon the Minister will consider calling it the senior citizen's pension, rather than old age pension, retirement pension and invalidity pension. This is a measure of our continuing commitment to distribute our new found wealth to senior citizens. No doubt, the Labour Party and the blow-ins from Democratic Left will issue election literature next year informing us how they will be the saviours of pensioners.

That is a low blow and the All-Ireland final is not on yet.

It will be the usual nonsense about how the so-called conservative parties, especially Fianna Fáil, are not distributing wealth and how they will do the devil and all for pensioners and social welfare recipients. On the other hand, Deputy Noonan, will promise the sun, the moon and the stars to pensioners just to go one better.

He is worrying the Deputy.

We are delighted.

Acting Chairman

Quiet, please.

While old Fine Gael hides behind the new facade of Deputies Noonan and Mitchell, let me remind everyone about the previous Minister, Deputy De Rossa.

Who wrote that?

For years he and his colleagues touted themselves as the only ones to distribute wealth to pensioners and social welfare recipients. Deputy De Rossa and the rest of that hastily cobbled together rainbow coalition came to power on the back of a by-election in my constituency won by what has now become the Cork North Central Labour Party, but used to be called Democratic Left, on the basis of giving out millions of pounds in social welfare payments.

Be careful.

Once he got into office, Deputy De Rossa became a latter-day Ernest Blythe and introduced the most miserly pension increases of modern times. The increase of £1.50 per week in pensions was a disgrace. That performance is one of the reasons I am addressing Dáil Éireann today on this Bill—

There is somebody down in the constituency.

Acting Chairman


—rather than the former Democratic Left Deputy who was fired by her constituents largely in anger at the miserly pension deal they received from what is now the Labour Party.

Kathleen Lynch is coming back.

Yes, she will.

That is the reason Deputy De Rossa and his colleagues from Fine Gael are sitting on the Opposition benches. It is the reason Deputy Ahern is Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. He is committed to doing his best for all our citizens.

He is not even present.

I am proud to stand before the electorate on the basis of what will be our five year record of commitment to pensioners and other social welfare recipients. I will not be ashamed to return to Cork today and say that I voted for, and was partly instrumental in passing, the Social Welfare Bill granting pensioners an increase of £10 a week this year on top of what has been given and with more to come next year.

If the Opposition votes against the Bill today, I repeat that I will inform the people of Cork that it voted against increases for the people of Cork city and county.

Kathleen Lynch is coming after the Deputy.

I wish to comment on the financial implications of the Bill in the longer term. Although it is difficult to see in the current prolonged boom, a rainy day is bound to come. Furthermore, sooner or later, our demographics will be such that the average age of our population will be higher than it is now. Other countries in the European Union are experiencing this phenomenon which they call the pensions time bomb. Perhaps Deputy Noonan will explain it in detail as he is the person who coined the phrase booby-trap budget. That term is nearly as good as the Celtic snail. Let me tell Deputy Noonan that we have defused the pensions time bomb once and for all.

Be careful of Kathleen Lynch.

It is widely recognised that our much criticised Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has, probably, taken the wisest Government decision in establishing a long-term pension fund reserve to ensure State pensions. When the rainy day comes, I predict that many will be thanking the Minister for his foresight. We can introduce an increase of £10 per week in pensions because we have provided for the long-term maintenance of State pensions. This is called strategic long-term planning, a subject entirely foreign to the short-term "power-grabbing at any cost" merchants on the other side of the House. They are only waiting to return to Government to raid the pensions reserve. I wish to nail my colours to the mast on this issue by saying, "Hands off the pension reserve". This is an election issue and any party that does not give a commitment to respect the integrity of the pensions reserve fund, established by the Minister for Finance should not be voted into office.

The one controversial provision in the Bill relates to PRSI and it is a measure of exactly where Fianna Fáil stands on social welfare that the only complaint has come from the right of the political spectrum. It is understandable that employers will object to any increases in PRSI overheads on labour costs. However, I must defend this measure as necessary to provide a more equitable contribution to the State pensions of employees. The ceiling for employers' PRSI contributions was a necessary measure in a climate of high unemployment. We have moved on to an enterprise economy where we are in the open business of wealth creation for all. We are now talking about jobs as a means to a greater end, which happens to include a good quality of life. Part of that means having a strong social safety net, including provision for pensions for all.

In a strong economy, there is no justification for letting employers in the strongest growth sector who are paying the highest wages effectively pay only a small fraction of the PRSI overhead, leaving small shopkeepers and other employers of low-skilled staff to pay the full overhead. We are trying to level the playing pitch. If the receipts from the new PRSI regime prove strong, I would favour reducing the percentage of employers' PRSI contributions rather than reintroducing a ceiling. If we should ever be so unfortunate as to develop serious unemployment – it will not be as a result of this or any other Fianna Fáil Government – we would have to revisit the measure and, possibly, reimpose the ceiling.

The third issue with which I want to deal is the introduction of the euro. We all know pensioners, in particular, keep a close eye on the figures. I emphasise it is imperative to present the euro changeover as it relates to social welfare in general and pensions in particular in as transparent a manner as possible. We all know pensioners will not lose a penny over the euro changeover, but we need to convince every pensioner of that. I ask the Minister and his officials to consider the feasibility of introducing explanatory leaflets from the Department to explain the euro changeover and the difference that will mean in the currency for all recipients of social welfare pensions and other benefits. I also appeal to all Deputies to avoid using the euro as a political football to cause confusion and noise during the next 12 months in the election year.

That is a new one for Fianna Fáil.

Given that all the parties are almost all committed to the euro, it would be irresponsible, and political point scoring of the worst kind to play on people's fears.

The Deputy's party would not ever have done that.

Any Deputy who plays on the fears of vulnerable people over the euro changeover should be shown the red card at the next election.

I congratulate the Minister on the crackdown on those who have been cheating taxpayers over a long period by drawing money under false pretences and depriving those in genuine need of social welfare payments of the moneys we are now able to give them. Those guilty of that offence have deprived genuine social welfare recipients of hundreds of millions of pounds. I noted this week that a number of people have been taken out of the social welfare system and several hundred millions of pounds have been saved. I congratulate the Minister, his officials and the staff in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs on the work they have done in this area over the past 12 months. It will make a difference as there will be more money in the kitty to provide for those who are genuinely unemployed, sick of disabled.

Many people who were genuinely out of work have been given the opportunity to return to work. The rate of unemployment at 4% is at its lowest, and that reflects fantastic success in that area. I congratulate the Government, business companies, the workers of Ireland, politicians on all sides of the House and everyone else for helping to create the economy we have today, which is the envy of Europe.

(Wexford): I thank Deputy O'Flynn for sharing his time with me.

I compliment the Minister on introducing a caring Social Welfare Bill, particularly in regard to the manner in which it deals with pensioners, people with disabilities, people in receipt of an invalidity pension, widows and other social welfare recipients. That is as it should be, as those people made tremendous sacrifices over the years when times were not as good as they are now. It is only right when the economy is booming that we afford those people the opportunity to enjoy a decent standard of living. The Government must be complimented on the increases in pension benefit ranging from £5 to £10 per week compared with the insult of increases of £1.50 per week and less given under the rainbow coalition Government. Having been a former Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare, Deputy Durkan must get embarrassed at times when he reflects on the miserly pension increases that were given during that time. He was hamstrung by having an ex Democratic Left Minister, Deputy De Rossa, in that Department.

It is embarrassing to see how insignificant such increases are afterwards. I will tell the Deputy all about it.

(Wexford): Those very small increases were an insult at that time. We hear the Opposition, particularly the Fine Gael Party, claiming all the credit for the booming economy we are currently enjoying. The economy was also booming in 1996 and 1997, yet the former Minister, Deputy De Rossa, then a member of Democratic Left, decided to give very small increases to the less well off in our society, despite championing himself as the great saviour of the less well off at that time.

Some provisions in the Bill are particularly welcome, including the increase of £6 in the living alone allowance for recipients of disability allowance and invalidity pension who are living alone. People living alone certainly need that extra money, as they are generally living on a very low income.

The Acting Chairman, myself and other Members have made a case for widows during previous budget debates. They have been the unsung heroes of this country for many years, yet they got very little social welfare benefit. My mother was widowed at a very young age and reared eight children. The amount of money she got from the State during that period was an insult and life was very difficult for her. There were many such mothers throughout the country. It is only right that widows and widowers should be entitled to a decent income. I welcome that the Minister decided to substantially increase their social welfare benefit. I hope he will go a step further in the next budget and make life easier for those people who have put a tremendous amount of time and effort into rearing their families in difficult circumstances and made a valuable contribution to the State.

A good deal can be done for families by granting increases in child benefit. I welcome the increases in that benefit and I hope they will continue. While a debate is taking place on whether payments of child benefit and the provision of child care should be matched or left separate, increases in child benefit allowance is probably the best means of ensuring families have a decent income and standard of living.

I disagree with the Minister on some aspects of the Bill. The carer's allowance is a very good scheme, but the income threshold for means testing is too tight. As a result the allowance is not effective in helping many families who should benefit from it. The income threshold for means testing should be substantially increased. When one considers it can cost £1,000 per week or more for a person to be cared for in a hospital, for a very small amount of money many people would be prepared to look after an elderly relative at home, if they were entitled to a decent carer's allowance. This scheme needs to be seriously examined.

The introduction of a granny carer's allowance scheme, although that might not be the title it would be called, should also be considered. A number of my constituents in receipt of old age pension are still looking after a handicapped son or daughter who may be 35 of 40 years of age, but they have been told they are not entitled to a carer's allowance as they are in receipt of the old age pension. Those are the forgotten people.

I know of a widow in my town, who has been a widow for as long as I can remember, who reared a physically challenged daughter for the best part of 40 years and who for most of her life could not get a carer's allowance because such an allowance was not in place. She is approaching pension age and has been told that she does not qualify for any type of carer's allowance. That is not good enough. She has looked after that child through thick and thin for the best part of 40 years. The anomalies in the system need to be addressed. If that widow and others who look after physically challenged people were given even a small allowance for caring for them, it would be the difference between their having and not having a decent standard of living. I ask the Minister to reconsider that scheme and provide for those carers who have been completely forgotten.

I have had many arguments with the Minister about the free fuel allowance scheme. The allowance should be at least doubled to £12 per week and the free ESB units should be doubled for the winter months, given that the price of oil, gas and coal has shot up dramatically in recent years, which has been a severe burden for old people. They often remain in bed many days during the winter because they cannot afford to cover their heating costs. The Minister should address this issue in the next budget and double the free fuel allowance and the free ESB units for the winter. I made this case on a number of occasions, including to the Minister at an all-party committee. He increased the number of weeks covered under the free fuel allowance scheme this year, but he should go a step further in the next budget and substantially increase the free fuel allowance.

I have no problem with the crackdown on fraud, but I have a serious problem with social welfare officers removing from the system those who are genuinely entitled to social welfare payments. Some social welfare officers are decent but there are others who should attend a course on how to be consumer-friendly, on how to deal with the public and on how to adopt a different attitude because their attitude towards social welfare recipients is appalling. People are frequently asked how they can afford a new television or a new carpet. Do community welfare officers want people to live in abject poverty?

The manner in which people are removed from the social welfare system is disgraceful. They are told they are not looking for work even though they might have sent out 20 letters seeking employment or they might be 55 or 60 years old and have difficulty securing employment. The role of community welfare officers needs to be seriously examined because more often than not they undertake an interrogation of recipients rather than an investigation or a friendly chat. That is not good enough. There is a serious need to establish a course for such officers on how to deal with the public and on how to assess people. I have met many individuals over the years whose social welfare payments were stopped even though they had applied for numerous jobs and had undertaken FÁS schemes as soon as positions became available.

When an individual appeals a decision of the community welfare officer the chief appeals office usually concurs with the officer. I appeal to the Minister to take action to speed up appeals. In my neck of the woods it takes between four and six months for appeals to be heard in regard to unemployment assistance and benefit and disability benefit. People should not have to wait that long to have an appeal heard. If there are staffing or other problems, they should be addressed. While the chief appeals office is an independent body, the Minister of the day is responsible for providing adequate resources to these offices.

I generally welcome the social welfare increases but some anomalies need to be addressed and I ask the Minister to take them on board.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Durkan.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I compliment Deputy Browne on his contribution. Similar contributions should be made by both Government and Opposition backbenchers because if we, as backbenchers, do not alert the Minister to the anomalies we encounter in the social welfare system, we fail in our duty. Government backbenchers should not come into the House with prepared scripts praising the Minister. That is not the function of back benchers and I compliment Deputy Browne on his solid contribution, of which I am proud.

(Wexford): I have no chance of being promoted.

Deputy O'Flynn is ahead of the Deputy.

I refer to the Minister's contribution to the budget debate. In the first paragraph he stated:

In the area of social, community and family affairs this budget is radical, progressive, a bold statement of action and a declaration that the wealth and resources of this country are to be directed as never before towards the needs of the poor, the underprivileged and the aged.

I thought this was a Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis speech because he mentioned republicanism seven times in the first four pages, including comments to the effect "republicanism . . . moulds our policy" and "republicanism is about the people of Ireland".

My duty, like that of Deputy Browne, is to deal with the anomalies in the budget and to highlight where resources are not directed towards the needs of the poor, the underprivileged and the aged. The Minister, in his contribution to this debate yesterday, stated: "In 1997, we spent almost one pound in every four of total social welfare expenditure on employment and unemployment supports. Today, that is down to one pound in every seven". While that is welcome, it underlines the phenomenal resources available to the Minister to address the anomalies to which Members have drawn his attention in the past few years.

For example, disabled drivers were in receipt of a mobility allowance of £45 per month prior to the budget. The Minister made great play on increasing the allowance to £90 per month, but from 1 April disabled persons in receipt of motor vehicle tax concessions will not be eligible for the allowance. They will lose the mobility allowance which they enjoyed previously. Only 2,600 people are in receipt of the mobility allowance. I do not know how many people are in receipt of motor tax concessions but I am sure the number is smaller than that. The Minister has created a mean spirited anomaly in the budget and I hope I have the support of Deputy Browne and others in ensuring he eliminates it.

The Irish Wheelchair Association, in particular, was concerned about the withdrawal of some people's entitlement to the mobility allowance. It stated:

The mobility allowance is currently paid at the maximum rate of £45 per month by the relevant health boards to compensate people, who are permanently unable to walk, for lack of accessible public transport. The criteria for eligibility for the mobility allowance are so stringent and only applied to 2,600 people in receipt of this allowance last year. The criteria include the degree of disability, age limits, mean testing which is currently set at the lowest level, in other words basic invalidity pension or disability allowance. The health boards also have to decide if a person will benefit from occasionally leaving their home.

The criteria for the allowance are stringent. I cannot understand why the Minister wants to disallow disabled people from receiving the allowance because they are in receipt of motor tax concessions.

The Minister has also made great play on the increases in social welfare payments, including the old age pension. However, there is an anomaly in regard to an old age pensioner or any other social welfare recipient who lives in a local authority house. They were elated by the increases announced in the budget and promulgated by the Minister but following the next review of local authority rents the increase will be taken by the local authorities. The Minister should address this anomaly because he cannot say he will give people an increase if the local authorities legitimately under the rents criteria take that money from them.

The Minister wants to help everybody and he has highlighted the carer's allowance. However, there are many anomalies in this regard, some of which Deputy Browne mentioned. I will mention some others. I am sick to death of trying to have the anomaly in regard to widows corrected. I have raised it with the planning unit in the Department. Both Deputy Durkan and myself have raised it with officials of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs when they have appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts. I have also raised this anomaly during Question Time, in letters to the Minister and during debates on Social Welfare Bills over the past two or three years.

I have dealt with a case in Galway of a person who cared for her husband's doubly incontinent, bed-ridden father in their home. She was in receipt of the carer's allowance because her husband was a small farmer with an income of less than £150 per week. Unfortunately, her husband passed away. She is still a carer 365 days a year but is no longer in receipt of the carer's allowance because she qualified for the widow's pension. I am sick of trying to have that anomaly corrected. Nobody takes any heed of it. There is another anomaly in the carer's allowance that I came across yesterday. If somebody qualifies for the carer's benefit, it is guaranteed that his or her job will be held for 15 months. This week I dealt with a case of a married nurse who came home from England to mind her mother who had had a sudden stroke, and a mentally and physically retarded person who her mother had been minding. She applied for the carer's benefit to get time off. Because we do not have a bilateral agreement with Britain, which pays the person receiving the care rather than the carer, the woman cannot get the carer's benefit. Her husband's income in England is being used to deny her the carer's allowance in Ireland. She is willing to forego her job in England to mind her mother if she is given the allowance.

A bilateral arrangement should be put in place to guarantee the job of a person receiving carer's allowance in another EU state. A person from Cork who goes to Mayo, Galway or Donegal would receive this guarantee. These anomalies should be looked at by the Minister. There are only 17,000 carers in the State who get benefit. The Minister spoke of his free transport initiative, but it is of no use to people where no public transport exists, for example in Lettermullin, Rosmuc or Ballyconneely in my constituency. The Minister should allow hackney concessions or taxi vouchers for such people. Carers now qualify for a respite payment, to allow them take a couple of weeks off in the summer. There are 60,000 carers in the country who do not qualify for the carer's allowance, but should be entitled to a respite grant.

I do not intend to take advice from Deputy O'Flynn, who is concerned that Members who vote against the budget are voting against the interests of social welfare recipients. We vote against it because increases are not high enough and the Government did not respond fast enough. I reject the suggestion that payments during the previous Government did not have the same impact as they do today. The reverse is true because social welfare increases during that time were at least comparable to inflation, which was minimal. Taking the increases of the past four years and taking into account the annual inflation rate, one will find that the increases now given are barely covering inflation.

This is a cause of serious concern to those who depend on social welfare payments.

I remind the Minister, who looks deeply concerned, that this Government's election manifesto said everybody would have £100 per week. Although this was held up as a carrot for the electorate to aspire to, it was nothing extraordinary as social welfare would have risen to this level to stay above inflation in any event. I remind the parties opposite we have had the highest inflation level in the Euro zone for several years. I am aware that they are in election mode, but I would not like to see that go to their heads as it leads to serious exaggeration. I am delighted to see that the Minister responsible has now arrived in the House to take control of this disastrous situation.

Deputy Durkan is legendary in the Department.

Deputy Browne of Wexford mentioned something—

The Deputy certainly left a mark.

The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern is not famous for coming into the House for Adjournment debates. Deputy John Browne blamed social welfare officials for extraordinary interpretations when examining regulations concerning various allowances or payments applied for. I do not blame the officials as the Minister has absolute and ultimate control and gives the instructions. When someone on this side of the House puts down a question criticising the Minister's activities, he says he has no function in the matter and his hands are tied because decisions are taken by officials in his Department. Such decisions are only taken on the basis of the Minister's instructions, as has always been the case and always will be.

The Deputy is misleading the people.

If the Minister is suggesting that he has no function in that area, I wonder what he is doing there. Is he merely a figurehead? Has he no function in the matter at all? Does he not accept any responsibility for decisions taken by the Department? This is a rare opportunity to query the Minister on social welfare. He has never been here for the Adjournment debate, as far as I know. Although I hate to be critical, it is a fact that the Minister needs to take on board. We regard the little job we do in Opposition as serious. To treat it with contempt by refusing to come in to answer questions on the Adjournment is beneath contempt, and I want to register my protest in the strongest possible fashion. The Minister knows what I say is the truth.

It is not correct.

It is correct. Many people seem to think that social welfare recipients are well off, and should be grateful for what they get. We are supposed to be riding a Celtic Tiger around the countryside. Everywhere one is supposed to hear the roar of the tiger and experience the ambience that goes with it. What happens to those who are dependent on social welfare payments? They become more and more conscious of their dependence on social welfare, on a fixed income. If anything beyond the run of the mill goes wrong, they are in deep trouble. If the ESB bill or chemist's bill is higher than usual or a medical card is not restored on time, they are vulnerable.

I do not wish to repeat the points made by Deputy McCormack and others in relation to carers. There are up to 100,000 people caring for others, but only about 11,000 receive an allowance. Qualification for the carer's allowance should not be income-related. The numbers are not as important as the degree of attention required by the person being cared for, which should be rewarded in almost all cases. In a competitive labour market, it is of acute importance that this point is taken on board. Previous Ministers tried to do their best. The area needs to be more closely considered. I am conscious of the time, as I would love to have an hour to unburden myself of my many whinges in this area. Many such concerns were there before I entered the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, and many remain.

The Deputy did not make much of an impact in the Department.

Action should be taken on the issue of bilateral arrangements whereby a person's contributions are collated with contributions in another country. Processing such applications takes too long. More often than not a person is dead before retirement pension is processed. People live in hope due to bilateral arrangements. They are supposed to expedite the examination of a person's entitlement, but it cannot be done with Belgium, an EU state, or the United Kingdom, our neighbour. Bringing the process to a conclusion requires a visit to the country concerned. With our workload in this House, we do not have time for that. Something should be done to eliminate the glitches in the system.

The Government should not gloat over the impact made on old age pensioners, widows and widowers by improved benefits. Public expectation is higher than before. Average incomes have dramatically increased. An increase of £5 or £10 per week is not extraordinary. It is short of what would be expected by comparison with the consumer price index and incomes generally.

I do not have time to comment on the various free schemes, or child benefit on which I hold strong views. A future social welfare Bill from the Government, if there is one, must address the needs of social welfare recipients and contain less rhetoric on how well it has done compared to previous Administrations. That was then, this is now.

I commend the Minister and his officials on this important, comprehensive Bill which contributes to the construction of a new Ireland and delivers on the promises and commitments made in the Government's programme, the Fianna Fáil manifesto and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. It is part of a comprehensive plan to improve the lot of pensioners, families, women and the disadvantaged. The Government values the contribution that every citizen can and is entitled to make to society.

The Bill promotes inclusiveness, particularly for the disadvantaged. The Government is improving the quality of life for all citizens and will not be deflected from this purpose. The Opposition parties are so obsessed with other issues that they have lost touch with the bread and butter concerns of ordinary people. The Labour Party criticises the Government for reducing tax rates and failing to spend money on people and services, but the Government is correct to reduce the tax burden on the ordinary worker to enable him or her to retain more of his or her own money and exercise freedom of choice in spending it. This policy has benefited the Exchequer, the economy and individual workers.

The Government has not abandoned its commitment to social solidarity. The Bill ensures the benefits of economic progress will be distributed to everyone. The Opposition forgets that wealth must be created before it can be shared. The Government has a vision of society and will ensure all citizens realise their potential and enjoy a better quality of life. That is what social inclusion and partnership mean.

The electorate will ask how we handled the politics of success. The Opposition never faced that question as it never made a success of the economy or society. The social welfare increases they introduced while in office were so small as to be unnoticeable. They disappointed recipients. These increases are the largest ever introduced by a Government. Fianna Fáil is proud to deliver to the people.

The full year cost of improvements in 1998 was £225 million, in 1999, £316 million and in 2000, £403 million. The full year cost in 2001 will be £850 million. Benefit increases have outstripped inflation in successive years, which means recipients have received real increases. Total expenditure was £4.5 billion. This year's estimate is £6.2 billion. Almost one million pensioners and qualified adults will receive increases. An estimated 530,000 families will receive an increase in child benefit. Over 132,500 families with three or more children will receive an extra £80 per month. A total of 17,500 low income families will benefit from the new threshold for family income supplement. Carers are supported through increases in their allowance. This is an important element in encouraging the exercise of individual, social and family responsibilities which are threatened by recent social changes. The Carer's Leave Bill is a welcome initiative of a consistently comprehensive Government policy.

The Minister is rightly proud of his record. The lot of carers has been improved. There are more than 16,000 in receipt of carer's allowance.

There were additional budget increases in 1998 for carers aged over 66 years and free travel passes were made available for anyone in receipt of the allowance. In the 1999 budget, among other items, carers received free telephone rental. The relaxation of the full-time care and attention rule permitted allowance holders to take up paid employment for up to ten hours a week. The allowance was extended to individuals caring for people aged between 16 and 65 years and those caring for recipients of domiciliary care allowance.

The respite care grant of £200 was increased to £300 under budget 2000. In addition, the back to education allowance was extended to carers after their caring responsibilities ceased. A carer's benefit scheme was introduced and the free electricity and free telephone allowances were extended to all carers in receipt of the carer's allowance. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has commissioned a consultancy study on the future financing of long-term care to help shape future policy direction in this area.

In budget 2001, the carer's allowance was further increased by £10 for people aged over 66 years and £8 for people under 66 years. The income disregard for means assessment for the allowances was increased from £75 for single people and £150 for couples to £125 for single people and £250 for couples. The respite care grant was further increased to £400 and two grants will now be paid to carers looking after two or more people. These are practical, caring measures and it is extremely important that these supports and benefits continue to be allocated to carers.

Nobody on the Opposition benches can credibly claim in the face of such evidence that the Government is uncaring. The Government is committed to social inclusiveness and improving the conditions of those who are disadvantaged. It has constantly and determinedly applied resources towards the creation of a better society for all. The benefits have not only been substantially increased, but payment dates have been brought forward as promised. Increased benefits will now be paid from the first week in April. This is four weeks early and this policy will continue when the tax and social welfare codes are fully aligned with the calendar year from January 2002.

I draw the attention of the House to the major increases in maternity and adoptive benefits. These additional commitments to family support will be welcomed by mothers with young families or women planning families. The duration of maternity leave and benefits has been increased from 14 to 18 weeks while adoptive leave and benefits has been increased from four weeks to 18 weeks.

I thank Deputy Johnny Brady for sharing his time. I congratulate the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on continuing the outstanding progress being made during his tenure in the Department. He has proved himself a reforming and caring Minister who is capable of bringing forward a range of innovative ideas to further develop the extensive services provided by his Department.

The background to this debate is the announcement of the latest unemployment figures which show unemployment at an all time low. This is a tremendous achievement for everybody because all sections of society have made a significant contribution to reaching that worthy objective. This must be considered in view of the fact that there is no longer any involuntary emigration. Instead, there is significant net immigration with people returning to Ireland to develop and further their careers and raise families. The nation can be proud of what has been achieved in recent years and the Minister for Social, Community and Fam ily Affairs has made a significant contribution to that progress.

There continues to be a hard core of long-term unemployed and these people will need special care and attention and special intervention measures on a one-to-one basis. The Minister is working closely with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and her Department to try to reach out to people who perhaps have not ever worked and who find it increasingly difficult to return to work because of complex social reasons. However, we cannot allow those people to be forgotten. This is why I particularly welcome the recent announcement by the Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Eoin Ryan, in relation to the proposed development in the 25 RAPID areas throughout the country which require special intervention and investment.

The investment offered is significant and it will make an impact in areas of particular disadvantage. For a variety of reasons, these areas have been neglected by the State in recent years, but they are beginning to come into their own. The Ballymun area is a prime example in that regard and there was the recent announcement in relation to Fatima Mansions. These places and parts of my constituency are beginning to make significant progress in terms of infrastructure, etc, and this will impact on the lives of the people who chose to continue to live there through thick and thin. This is why I particularly welcome the recent announcement by the Taoiseach.

The Government must be prepared to say that certain areas require special attention. It must be prepared to name those areas and invest in them. This is happening at present and it will make a significant difference to the lives of people in those areas of extreme disadvantage. Other areas were successful in developing their infrastructure and providing jobs, schools and recreational facilities over the years because they were stronger and had access to more resources from within their communities. It is now the turn of other areas which have been left behind for many years to receive the level of resources and investment to which they are rightfully entitled and which will make a significant difference to the lives of the people. particularly young people, there.

This is the UN International Year of the Volunteer and on 5 December last the Minister announced a national committee, which I have the honour of chairing. The committee represents all strands of society and has been given targets to deliver over the next two years. I wish to raise with the Minister the issue of volunteering – an issue with which he is familiar – and how his Department can impact on that activity. It is not always clear how a person can engage in voluntary activity while at the same receive a social welfare payment. There is a degree of confusion at times about this issue.

A number of people engaged with a charitable organisation found themselves in difficulty recently with departmental officers in relation to drawing down social welfare benefits. Their payments were cut off and the Minister should consider this area and clarify the rights of those involved in voluntary activity. Approximately 33% of adults are involved in voluntary activity and they contribute millions of hours of voluntary effort to society. The committee established by the Minister on behalf of the Government must try to ensure that number grows because it is important to have a strong and vibrant voluntary sector. This includes people who go abroad, but also those who remain at home and engage in community activities.

The rights and entitlements of people engaged in voluntary activity must be clear in the context of drawing down social welfare benefits. Voluntary work makes a difference to the lives of people, particularly those who have been unemployed for some time. It is good that they want to engage in voluntary activity and it makes a significant contribution in the area in which they are working. It also relates to people who have a disability. The Minister will receive proposals from the committee on this matter, but I urge him to consider making it easier for people to engage in voluntary activity. The rights and entitlement of people engaged in these activities should be made clear to departmental staff.

Significant progress has been made with regard to social welfare payments in the past few years, and that should be the case. It would be unacceptable if the Government were to give increases similar to those given prior to it taking up office. The small increases then were probably a reflection of the financial times in which we lived or of the manner in which government was run under the rainbow coalition. Nevertheless, since the Government has come into office increases in social welfare benefits have been significant.

The Minister must continue that process as we are still only catching up. Those who, for various reasons, are still in receipt of social welfare payments can look only to the Government to improve their circumstances. They are as entitled, if not more so, to receive significant increases as those in employment due to their need to catch up. The recent increases are making a major difference to people's lives. The Minister would, however, like to go further with whatever resources are made available to him.

I congratulate the Minister on his commitment to organisations in terms of grant aid and support. The lists which issue from his Department relating to grant aid and support in the areas of counselling, family services, infrastructure and services show the commitment of his Department to these areas. Grants and supports have been flowing from his Department in the past few of years. This has made a tremendous difference to people's lives, particularly in disadvantaged areas and in communities at a loss in terms of raising resources to provide the services they need.

This is the fourth of a successful series of budg ets and we look forward to the next one which will continue to develop and support the good work already done during the Minister's tenure.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Healy.

I, too, compliment the Minister on some of the provisions he introduced in the Bill. As an Opposition Member, however, there are also measures with which I do not agree. Deputy Flood spoke about the long-term unemployed and I concur with many of his comments regarding the need for the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs to ensure consultation with these people on a one-to-one basis in as far as is humanly possible. When a person has been unemployed for a long time, he or she does not have the confidence necessary to return to the workforce. I have witnessed this when dealing with groups in my constituency in the past few weeks. These people do not believe any person would employ them. The onus is on the Minister to ensure facilities are available within his Department and throughout the country to provide such people with the expertise from relevant personnel to overcome this.

I welcome the dramatic fall in unemployment figures in the past few years. There are still homes, however, where neither the parents nor their sons or daughters have worked outside the home. It is often the case that the youngest child in such homes, when starting school, will not have seen anyone in the household go out to work. We, both Government and Opposition, must change that and put in place the facilities to help these people overcome this.

Previous speakers referred to social welfare officials. Part-time employees can be employed on a full-time basis for five, six or seven weeks in succession and can then be put on short-time work due solely to the financial position of the company for which they work. Many such people have not been able to draw unemployment benefit or assistance because they are not seeking work. They do not know from one week to the next when they will again work full time. Will the Minister direct his officials to permit such people to draw benefit when they are forced to work short-time. In many cases these people are in pensionable jobs, but they do not get the benefits to which they are rightfully entitled.

The appeals officials with whom I have dealt are second to none. They are to be congratulated for the way they treat people who appeal cases. I have a concern, however, regarding a person who produces eight or ten letters in relation to an appeal. Applying for a job advertised in the newspaper is not seen as having the same value as seeking employment from someone in their locality. However, I congratulate those officials on the way they treat such applicants; I have nothing but praise for them and the way they deal with each case.

Many Deputies have received a complaint from the Irish Wheelchair Association and disabled constituents regarding the mobility allowance. The allowance is set to double to £90 per month in April and compensates disabled people for the lack of accessible public transport. We are informed that, from April next, people receiving tax concessions towards the purchase of adapted private vehicles will not be entitled to the mobility allowance. Is this the case and, if so, is it another example of this Government giving something with one hand and taking it back with the other? The criteria for the mobility allowance are stringently applied – there are only about 2,600 beneficiaries. I would appreciate if the Minister would examine this discrepancy.

It is the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children.

Is it not in the Minister's remit to rectify that?

For some time the Labour Party has sought the inclusion of an inflation-proof measure in the Social Welfare Bill to protect people in receipt of social welfare payments against inflation. Although inflation has decreased in recent months, this is something which could be done to ensure that, if inflation rises again in the next year or two, at least the most vulnerable – the social welfare recipient – will not be worse off. The Labour Party spokesperson on social welfare, Deputy Broughan, will table amendments on this matter on Committee Stage and I ask the Minister to consider them.

I am intrigued by the island allowance and I welcome it. I assume people will receive it because of their isolated position, but I am sure each Deputy in this House would be able to name hundreds in their constituencies who would be in a similar position, such as old age pensioners, who reside alone ten, 15 or 20 miles from the nearest town with no means of transport and who in many cases endure extra electricity costs in order to provide their own water. Such people would be in a similar situation to those entitled to this allowance. I hope that matter will be considered on Committee Stage and that my party's spokesperson will table an amendment in that regard. It is good to see the provision of an allowance for people on the islands, but there are people just as badly off on the mainland because they live in secluded areas with no public transport, therefore, they have increased costs. The current trend is to move people into villages and towns, and people are being isolated as a result. In the Bill we could consider providing measures for old age pensioners in isolated areas in every constituency.

Every Deputy who contributed to the Bill reflected on the carer's allowance. Carers are unique in Irish society because they work a 24 hour day, seven days a week. Everyone here knows of cases where people are caring for a son, daughter, husband or wife in extreme circumstances. In the Bill the Minister has not met the demands of Irish society to reflect its view of what the carer's allowance should be and has not provided the help which we as a society should give to those people. I ask the Minister to review the carer's allowance when amendments are tabled on the matter on Committee Stage.

The Social Welfare Bill continues the incomes policy of the Government since it came to office, that is, that the biggest increases go to the wealthiest people and the smallest increases go to the poorest people. Between 1997, when the Government came to office, and 2001, for every £1 increase in social welfare rates, a person on the average industrial wage got £4.10, a person on a salary of £50,000 got £6.80 and someone on a salary of £100,000 got £9.80. That is what they received in tax cuts and does not include wage increases. This is obviously an unjust policy. It continues to widen the gap between rich and poor.

In recent years there have been huge budget surpluses and this trend will continue this year. Unfortunately, most of these surpluses are used to give tax breaks to the rich. If poverty is to be tackled and eliminated, it must be done now while those surpluses exist. The Government must invest in eliminating poverty and disadvantage. Unfortunately, this Social Welfare Bill does not do that. We have heard the hype about increases in weekly payment rates as if they were significant, but many of the rates provided for in the Bill are significantly lower than the recommended poverty line rate, that is 50% of the average industrial wage of £102.16. Some of them are £18 per week less than the recommended poverty line rate. For instance, the disability allowance, widow's pension, non-contributory old age pension, supplementary welfare allowance and unemployment assistance are all significantly lower then the £102 per week recommended limit. While there are significant surpluses, it is only reasonable and fair that the Minister at least should aim to reach that £102 limit this year.

I agree with the many commentators, including CORI, who have said that the budget and the Social Welfare Bill are fundamentally flawed because they betray the poorest sections in society and fail to honour the commitment given in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. If those commitments were implemented, social welfare increases of £14 per week for a single person and £24 per week for a couple would be required. The lowest rates are being increased in the Bill by £8 per week for a single person and £15 per week for a couple. Inflation, which has been persistently high, hits poor people hardest, yet they have received the least compensation.

To raise all social welfare payments to the recommended poverty line income would have cost about an additional £150 million. That money could have been got in one of two ways, from the huge surpluses, which will continue again this year, or by not reducing the tax rate on higher incomes by 2% at a cost of £163 million. A sum of £150 million would have been sufficient to increase the social welfare rates to which I referred by £14 and £24 respectively. I, like many people, do not know why the Government did not take the opportunity to do that.

Providing that additional money would have made little or no difference to inflation, but it would have made a huge difference to people on low incomes. I challenge anyone in this House to live on rates of social welfare as low as £84 per week in the case of disability allowance and £89.10 per week in the case of widow's pension. The Government should take this opportunity to look again at these rates and increase them significantly, at least in line with the recommended poverty line limit to which I referred.

Like many other speakers, I refer to the fact that the mobility allowance is being withdrawn from certain beneficiaries. The Minister said he is not responsible for this, but I would ask him to take this matter up with the Minister for Health and Children and the Cabinet. This is a particularly mean penny-pinching and discriminatory measure. There is only a small number of people involved and it would cost a very small amount of money to allow it to continue. These people are unable to walk and have no access to public transport. While they receive tax concessions for adapting their own private transport, in many cases they have raised funds, obtained loans from the credit union or received money from family members to make those alterations. This is a mean measure which should be re-examined and withdrawn.

I welcome the increase in the qualified adult allowance, but it is not extended to those in receipt of unemployment assistance. It is particularly discriminatory towards women. This is an obvious omission and, despite the lip-service the Government pays towards supporting women who wish to return to the labour force, it does not recognise women in low income households who try to do so. The qualified adult allowance should be increased in line with the provision for disability allowance announced in the budget.

Many Members referred to the fuel allowance and the fact that it has not been increased for years. While it has been extended for an additional three weeks this season, it is not adequate to provide for heating requirements, especially those of elderly people who need heating not just in the autumn and winter months, but throughout the year. The cost of doubling the fuel allowance would be about £37 million, a drop in the ocean compared with the huge budget surpluses of recent years and which we will have again this year. The Minister should examine this and increase the figure to £10 per week throughout the year.

On carer's allowance, a disregard of £50 should be allowed before means are taken into account. Carers do their job every day of the week, every week of the year and are entitled to better than what was announced in the budget.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Callely.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I join in the compliments to the Minister on the progress he has made in improving the position of what we loosely describe as the less well-off. He has been innovative and obtained the money to make vast improvements which must be compared with those provided for by the previous Administration, many of whose members have been vocal during the debate.

Deputies Quinn and McDowell should keep their hands off the pension fund created by the Minister for Finance. We have been informed by commentators for the past ten to 15 years that pensions are a time bomb waiting to erupt. The Minister for Finance has made money available to counteract this. I compliment him on being one of the few to take steps from which he will not benefit in his time as a politician. Deputies Quinn and McDowell are threatening to tamper with the fund. They should keep their hands off it. The Labour Party takes money by way of a direct levy from the 40% to 50% of Fianna Fáil supporters who are trade unionists. The members of the Labour Party should, therefore, leave the pension fund alone because it is bad enough to take people's money while they work without tampering with their pensions as well.

I am concerned about the Irish in Britain. I was chairman of one of the three committees of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and we quickly identified this as an item which had to be dealt with. That was in 1989. I am concerned that we have not advanced as much as we should have. The Minister has a particular interest in this matter because of his geographical location and I encourage him to continue to try to help the people concerned in the United Kingdom who are down and out.

As a former chairman of the Southern Health Board, I have listened for years to voluntary groups and health board officials complain about the lack of services for people with free travel passes who live in rural areas where there is no public transport. With his colleagues, will the Minister make it a priority to tackle this issue? Transport is important to the elderly, the handicapped and those who cannot avail of private transport.

The Minister has introduced the most innovative scheme about which we have heard since free travel was introduced, namely, the decision to make free schemes available to all those over the age of 70 years. I have identified one item on which I have tabled a parliamentary question. It should not be beyond the bounds of possibility for the Minister and the national broadcaster, RTE, to devise a scheme whereby those whose television licence is due to expire in March or April will receive a waiver of some description to allow them qualify for their free licence in May. It would be desperate were they to be deprived of this facility for a year because they renewed their television licence a few weeks earlier than when the scheme came into effect. Will the Minister examine that matter? It may be a small item to some, but it is important for anyone over the age of 70 years. Those in the situation I have highlighted will be unfairly penalised.

We have heard much about tackling poverty. When Fianna Fáil tackled poverty in years gone by, those who preach now about tackling poverty supported the various "isms" throughout Europe and centralised bureaucracy. Fianna Fáil tackled poverty not by treating people as a marketable commodity or categorising them using throwaway titles, but by treating them as individuals. Fianna Fáil is concerned about the less well-off and has proved this repeatedly. I commend the Minister in that regard.

It was almost amusing to hear the Labour Party spokesperson seeking inflation proofing for social welfare payments. I was not a Member when Deputies Quinn and De Rossa, one more extreme left than the other, were in power, but the figures are available for the amount of money they gave the elderly, the poor, widows and others for whom crocodile tears have been shed during the debate. They did not do the job. They talk the talk now, but they did not walk the walk when they had the opportunity. They should get real. They should forget about picketing other political parties. They may oppose, by all means, but they should have delivered when they had the opportunity. They should not think that mentioning this as a historical fact will cut any ice. Only four years ago they had the opportunity and they did not deliver. The Minister is doing so and I compliment him on it. I appeal to him to keep up the good work on behalf of Fianna Fáil and the Government.

It is important to echo what Deputy Dennehy said. When this Fianna Fáil led Administration took office it promised to combat social exclusion and marginalisation and to provide for the poor and needy. Those were some of the main issues on which Fianna Fáil fought the last election campaign. The Government has brought about change for the better in the social welfare area since coming to office, particularly under the stewardship of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern. I congratulate him on his success in this area.

The Minister said yesterday that Ireland has changed dramatically for the better over the past four years and I endorse that comment. Fianna Fáil has increased spending on social welfare on a massive scale, from £4.5 billion in 1997 to more than £6 billion in 2001, a real increase of more than one third.

In 1997 the old age contributory pension was £78 per week and we promised to raise it to £100; we have done more, as the Bill provides for a pension rate of £106. Families are the main beneficiaries of the provisions in this Bill, as the increases in budget 2001 apply in section 6 of this Bill and bring investment in child benefit in 2001 to £761 million, which is almost double the 1997 figure. This increase in child benefit is unprecedented and we on this side of the House should be rightly proud of that. The increases will help all parents with the costs of caring for their children and is a move towards ending child poverty. The Government recognises that child poverty leaves a legacy which persists into later life, as those who have had a poor childhood are more likely to have lower adult incomes. To end the cycle of poverty child poverty must be wiped out and this is a step in the right direction.

Section 7 increases the weekly income thresholds for family income support and section 12 provides for the payment of four additional weeks of maternity and adoptive benefits. New mothers will have an extra four weeks to spend with their new born infants or adopted children.

The valuable role of carers is an irreplaceable one and no other Government has been as committed as this one to supporting carers. The budget contains several provisions which support carers and after my consultations with the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Minister for Finance I see we have achieved a great deal, though they acknowledge that much more can and will be achieved.

I welcome the money allocated to voluntary and community support groups as well as the Government's commitment to substantially increase a broad range of social welfare payments across the board. Personal rates of social welfare payments apart from those for older people are being increased by £8 per week, an increase of almost 10%. The increase in weekly payments will be paid from the first week in April and will coincide with the implementation of other income tax changes.

Budget 2001 also provided for medical cards to be issued to people over 70. This means that anyone who heretofore had an RSI stoppage recorded on his or her pension slip will no longer have to pay that amount as they will now hold a medical card and the amount which was stopped was a health levy. That is another benefit.

Budget 2001 goes further than any other budget in the history of the State with its social inclusion and £2,110 million is being provided for social inclusion measures, compared with the £525 million the rainbow coalition undertook to spend on similar measures. I congratulate the Minister and commend the Bill to the House.

I thank all previous speakers, both party colleagues and Opposition Members. The latter have acknowledged that this legislation represents much progress. When a Social Welfare Bill contains an increase in spending of £850 million being in Opposition is difficult. Deputies Hayes and Broughan are full of promises but when they were in Government they did not deliver on any of the promises they had made, nor did they come anywhere near the level of expenditure we have achieved. Despite what Deputy Hayes said, we have been able to do much in this area and put money aside. I echo Deputy Dennehy's comments on efforts by one Opposition party to, in effect, raid the old age pension fund for the future.

It is their money.

The Fine Gael front bench in particular likes to ask questions but it is not too keen on answering them, as we have seen in relation to "pollgate" in recent days. Deputy Hayes proposed that increases in social welfare rates should exceed the estimated GNP growth in the economy. The public should be told if that is Fine Gael policy or just Deputy Hayes's youthful enthusiasm. Deputy Hayes does not want to pay for any of the substantial increases in the Bill because he opposes the prudent increases in PRSI charges for employers, which have to be seen in the context of much greater cuts in corporation tax.

Deputy Broughan trotted out the usual Labour Party wish list and obviously there is more to come but the people will not believe the promises they are making in Opposition. The people remember the so-called socialists and so-called "just society" party when they were in office. Pensioners got a £1.50 increase and child benefit went up by £1 just a few years ago. Deputy Conor Lenihan hit the nail on the head when he said that when they were in Government they had the chance to effect big changes but they only gave social welfare recipients small change.

Deputy Hayes referred to what he perceives as the widening poverty gap between rich and poor. The poverty proofing of the social welfare package carried out before the budget shows that half of the £850 million extra investment in the budget went to those on the very lowest level of income and that three quarters of all spending goes to the 50% of households on lower incomes. The increases, £10 for pensioners, £8 for all others, £12.90 for widows and the child benefit increases, are all in line with the National Anti-Poverty Strategy. Deputy Hayes referred to what he regarded as a mean-spirited and conservative approach by the Government in providing what he regards as a miserly increase of £8. I reject that.

The increases we have given in this budget range from 10% to 18%, which is well above the expected rate of inflation of 4.5% and the expected rise of GNP of 8.5%. The cumulative increase in the lowest rates of payments in the last two budgets is 16.6%, well ahead of the projected level of inflation in that two year period. The Opposition cannot dispute this. A couple in receipt of unemployment assistance will receive a total weekly increase of £26.40 when the massive increase in child benefit is taken into account.

Many Members, rightly, referred to carers. I challenge any Member to ask any objective observer to examine what has been done by the Government and compare it to what was done by previous Governments of different hues. No Government has achieved more than this Administration in respect of carers.

The Minister should not be so sure on that score.

For example, in the current budget alone we are increasing the amount of money available through carer's allowance scheme by £21 million. This will bring an additional 5,000 carers into the scheme.

If that is the case why are they arranging protest meetings?

As a result, the number on the scheme will have risen from 9,000 when we entered office to somewhere in the region of 22,000. During the three years when the rainbow coalition was in power only 4,200 additional carers where included in the scheme. We estimate that at the end of the year an extra 13,000 will qualify for carer's allowance as a result of the changes introduced in the budget.

Deputy Broughan referred to the payment of budget increases from 1 January. It is obvious that he is concerned about this issue. The Deputy and his party had an opportunity to take action when in office, but nothing was done.

I was not on the Front Bench. The Minister should give me a chance.

The Government is in the process of bringing back the date of payment of increases to 1 January. When we entered office, increases were paid from the end of June, meaning that recipients only benefited for a 29 week period. The current budget ensures this period will be extended to 39 weeks and the next budget will extend it by a further 12 weeks when payments will be made from 1 January. A great deal of discussion has taken place in the Department regarding ways to implement this change in conjunction with the important changeover to the euro.

Deputy Kenny referred to the public service card, an initiative similar to that of putting aside money for old age pensioners for which the parties in government will not receive a great deal of credit before the next general election. We are putting in place a huge infrastructure to facilitate the better delivery of services to the public. It is for this reason the public service card is being introduced. Deputy Kenny inquired about the future uses of the card. The measures we are putting in place will ensure those who access the public services offered by a range of Government agencies and Departments will benefit greatly from the introduction of the new card.

Deputy McGrath referred to the alignment of the income tax and calendar years and made a number of allegations in respect of what is being done. The overall effect of the changes will benefit the people. From 2001, the employee annual earnings ceiling will be increased by £1,750. There will be a transitional year because of the shorter financial year that will result from the alignment to which Deputy McGrath referred. The overall effect will be that there will be a delay in the commencement of the PRSI holiday period by nine months on an ongoing basis. Contributors will not lose out as a result of the alignment process. He or she will have two holiday periods, one in each of the calendar years 2001 and 2002. The only change will be the period in which the holiday comes into effect. I reject the Deputy's statement on that matter.

Deputy Broughan referred to a blanket refusal on the Government's part to individualise social welfare payments. No other Minister has said more than I about the need to individualise social welfare payments.

The basic payment is still £54 per week.

As Deputy Broughan is aware, some of his colleagues in the trade unions are part of the PPF under which there is a process to introduce administrative individualisation. I wanted to go further than that, however, and in this budget I have taken steps to increase the level of the QAA to the full old age non-contributory pension rate by providing for special increases of £15 in the allowance payable to qualified adults over the age of 66 years. I have no doubt that Deputy Broughan, like every other Member, will be delighted in April when couples on old age pension will receive increases ranging between £20 and £25 as a result of the changes we have made. We will continue in the next budget to grant special increases in respect of the allowance payable to qualified adults over 66 years of age.

Members raised a number of other issues, but I do not have time to deal with them. I wish to refer, however, to the matter raised by Deputy Fitzgerald, namely, the need to backdate the homemaker's scheme to the years prior to 1994. I have stated on many occasions that there is a need to reconsider the position vis-à-vis this scheme. An examination of the possibility of extending the scheme is ongoing. This issue is high on my list of priorities.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to bring forward my fourth Social Welfare Bill. Deputy Hayes tried to make a good fist of coming to terms with his new portfolio in terms of his contribution to the debate. I wish him well in his new position.

As a result of the proper management of the economy by the Government in the past four years, we have achieved an amazing turnaround in fortunes. Deputies on the opposite side of the House claimed that we are not responsible for creating the current economic climate and that this was done during the period 1994 to 1997 when their parties were in power. If that is the case, why did they only give old age pensioners an increase of £1.80 and an increase of only £1 in the last budget they introduced?

Mr. Hayes

The Minister should look at the surpluses.

The rainbow coalition only granted an increase in respect of the first two children—

Mr. Hayes

Will the Minister give way for a question?

I will not give way because I only have a few minutes left to conclude my reply.

The Minister cannot give way because Second Stage is drawing to a close.

Mr. Hayes

He is not able to answer the questions posed.

Proper management of the economy allowed us to significantly reduce the national debt, which is now one of the lowest in Europe.

Mr. Hayes

The Minister should stick to the script.

Our debt to GDP ratio is the second lowest in Europe.

The social welfare spend is the lowest.

Deputy Hayes will not remember, but when I first entered the House—

The allocation for social welfare is the lowest in Europe.

The Minister should be allowed to conclude.

—our debt to GDP ratio was 133% and we had to approach the IMF for assistance.

Tell us about the 16%.

We reduced unemployment dramatically; 110,000 have come off the live register and increasing numbers have obtained employment.

Mr. Hayes

Not all social welfare payments go to the unemployed.

The reason the level of social welfare payments in comparison to GDP is decreasing, to answer Deputy Broughan's point, is because more people are entering the workplace. We have given the largest tax relief to ordinary taxpayers, provided record increases in social welfare payments and put money away for a rainy day. Do the people know that Deputy Broughan and his party want to raid the old age pension fund?

The Minister's party raided the income tax system in order to look after its friends who would not pay their taxes.

The Deputy referred to the demographic dividend, but his party's policy document indicates that it wants to raid the old age pension fund.

Where stands Fine Gael in relation to raising the age limits applying in respect of old age pension? Deputy Jim Mitchell's brother wanted to raise the age limit. I hope the people are aware of Deputy Gay Mitchell's proposed method of defusing the demographic time bomb.

The Minister knows that my brother and I disagree about everything.

Any objective observer—

Mr. Hayes

Including the Minister himself.

—who considers what we have done in relation to tax and social welfare during our time in office will see that this Government has been the most progressive in the history of the State.

This sounds like an election speech.

I stand on my record. The Deputies opposite cannot do likewise. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.
A division being demanded, the taking of the division was postponed until immediately before the Order of Business on Tuesday next, 27 February 2001, in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day.