Deputy Haughey was in possession and he has 19 minutes remaining.
Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).
I wish to share my time with Deputy Keaveney. I stated before Private Members' Business that Fianna Fáil has delivered on its commitments on social inclusion across a range of Departments. I refer in particular to the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation and the work of former Minister of State, Deputy Flood, and his successor, Deputy Eoin Ryan, in the promotion of drugs task forces. I also refer to the work of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and, in particular, the many imaginative initiatives brought forward by the Minister in regard to the social welfare system generally.
The Department of Social Welfare became the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs in 1997. The name change reflected the Department's new role in tackling social exclusion in our society. Improvements have been made for the first time in the areas of child poverty, child care, carers, widows and old age pensioners. In addition, the lot of married women working in the home became a priority and new measures are being put in place to improve their position.
The report of the working group on administrative individualisation under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness has been published and the Minister is studying it. This is the first step in achieving the goal of full individualisation of social welfare payments. Qualified adult allowances have been increased substantially since 1997 and the payment of QAA directly to an adult is essentially what is involved in this regard. In the long-term this split in payment should be mandatory and on a 50-50 basis from an equality point of view. This should take a few years to implement so that the change will be fully appreciated and understood by all claimants.
The provision of affordable child care has been a major priority for the Government. This has been tackled through the equal opportunities child care programme of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and by giving unprecedented and substantial increases in child benefit. The approach of increasing child benefit was correct. Increases in child benefit help to tackle child poverty directly and to alleviate the cost of child care, which is expensive. Tax relief on child care expenses, which was advocated in the past, was not the way to go given that it would be seen to be divisive as it would discriminate against the woman working in the home. The Minister has adopted the correct approach on child care and I welcome his commitment to maintain this approach and to continue child benefit increases if, and when, we are returned to Government.
A wide range of improvements to the carer's allowance scheme has been introduced since 1997 and, in addition, the child benefit scheme was introduced in October 2000. Much of the debate on the future development of the carer's allowance scheme relates to the means test and there are some who advocate its abolition. However, I do not recommend that the Minister should pursue this course of action as such a move would not lead to a targeting of resources at those most in need, a view which he also shares. Increases in income disregards for qualification purposes, therefore, are the way to proceed and I welcome the improvements made in that regard in recent years.
Fianna Fáil made a commitment on the rate of payment of the old age pension and this has been more than honoured. Many improvements have been made in the schemes that cater for the elderly and they have been welcomed generally. I also pay tribute to the Minister for Health and Children for making medical cards automatically available to the over 70s. These measures have made a real difference to the elderly and they have generally been appreciated. Similarly, the position of widows has much improved over the lifetime of the Government. I particularly welcome the new measures announced in budget 2002 which will benefit widows.
Section 12 deals with the use of personal public service numbers and the introduction of the new concept of a public service identity. I welcome the rationale behind the introduction of the section in that it will lead to increased efficiencies for the users of public services generally. However, the concept of the PPS number has not struck home among the public as people continue to use the term "RSI Number". Perhaps more promotion is required to inform the public that this change has been made, the reasons for it and the advances which are proposed in this section.
I welcome the move by the Minister to bring forward child benefit increases to January and April. The one thing that annoyed people was that benefits announced in the budget were not granted until July or sometimes September. The Minister has done a good day's work. I ask him to proceed in the same way as he has on all the major policy initiatives. He has been an imaginative Minister. I congratulate him on his success to date and wish him continued success in the reform of the social welfare system in the future.
I am glad the Minister is here this evening to take the praise that should justly be heaped on him for having done so much in his term of office as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. We have reached the sixth Social Welfare Bill and people laughed here when we talked about the first of five. A package of €850 million is to be implemented as a result of budget 2002. The previous Bill dealt with increases in social welfare payments that came into effect in January and PRSI changes which will have effect from March. I have been at a number of old age parties, Christmas parties and all sorts of gatherings where the Minister's name and the virtue of what he has done were extolled. People appreciate that they are much better off than ever before.
Earlier I heard the Opposition parties talking about the Minister appearing in advertisements. Jealousy is a terrible thing. They will have more to be jealous about as this Bill goes through. The Opposition has been great at misleading people not just about the implications of this Bill but also about other Bills. One such shameful and scandalous claim resulted in people coming to my door and to other people's doors worried that they would lose their medical cards because they were getting an increase in their social welfare. I am glad to reaffirm the assurances given by the Minister that social welfare increases will not lead to people losing their medical cards. The Minister said his Department advised health board chief executive officers that medical card holders would not lose their cards on account of the budget.
It is very poor form for anybody to mislead the poorest in society into feeling they will be done out of the record increases in social welfare payments, just because the Government recognised their need for more. Increases in child benefit, improvements for carers and many other facets of the Bill are very important and will lead to jealous glances from the Opposition benches. My first year here was in opposition and I remember the £1 per month that was given in child benefit. At that time it would not buy a Mars bar and at this stage it definitely would not do so.
A Mars bar is more expensive now.
Unemployment is continuing to reduce. The unemployment figure for my local employment exchange in Buncrana in 1994 was 2,237, in 1995 it was 2,283 and in November 1996 it had risen to 2,407. Despite many serious setbacks, I am glad that the unemployment level, which peaked in December 1997 at 2,424, had reduced to 1,862 by December 2001. Unemployment in Letterkenny dropped from 3,073 in December 1997 to 2,387 in December 2001. The reduction nationally has been replicated in my constituency. I agree with the Minister that despite the number of people who have left the live register there is an increased spend on social welfare payments from £4.5 billion in 1997 to £7.4 billion. This represents a 66% increase for the most needy in society.
I welcome the substantial increases in child benefit rates. The trebling of the amount paid in 1997 has had a huge implication for those in receipt of it. I welcome the substantial increases in old age contributory pensions. They are now £116 per week compared to £78 in 1997. I welcome the fact that 19,500 people qualify for carer's payments compared to 9,000 when we came to office. It is an extremely important area that has been very well addressed by the Minister. We take it for granted that there is a respite grant, which was increased to £500, or €635, this year. Many people do not realise what life was like without it. I again commend the Minister on this initiative. The respite grant for carers was urgently needed and long awaited. I welcome the introduction of the new family services to protect the family and support the stability of family life.
Payment of child benefit is the most efficient and effective way to get money directly to help children. While we can talk about the £1.14 billion in 2002, the increases of £25.05 for the first two children and £39.01 for the third child and subsequent children brings it home clearly to people. From April, a family with three children will get £301.24 instead of £221 at present. That has big implications for the income coming into a household. This payment is being made a number of months earlier than it was when Fine Gael and Labour were in power. The £1 increase I mentioned earlier was announced in December 1996 but was not paid until September 1997. At that stage the Mars bar would have increased in price.
The incoming Government said it would increase it but it did not.
The entitlement to child dependant increases payable with short-term social welfare payments such as disability benefit and unemployment benefit is a good initiative. The increase in the age limit from 18 to 22 for child dependant benefit moves towards what was promised in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. I look forward to the Minister returning to his portfolio after May so that he can continue with these very worthwhile endeavours.
We could not have that.
There is a problem that some people do not qualify for carer's allowance. There is an argument to drop the means test, but if this is done, those who are well off will not spend the time caring for others but will employ someone. However, I can see the need for focused payments. Increases have been given to 2,300 carers and 3,400 extra carers will now qualify for payment. We should try to bring in as many more carers as possible. We have already seen an increase from 9,000 to 19,500, which is a fair improvement in a short time.
As regards the health strategy, I am pleased the Minister wants to maximise the support for home care. Cross-departmental work and co-ordinated action plans are very important in meeting the needs of older people and the disabled. I welcome the rural transport initiative, but it has a long way to go before it is rolled out in my constituency. I look forward to the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, expanding the number of projects.
I would like to see Buncrana get an ambulance to support the NoWDOC. I commend the Minister for the amount of money he is making available to the volunteers who want to help. I hope he continues to listen and react to the tremendous work they are doing. We need an integrated approach to improve services for all these people.
It is impossible for me to cover everything in this Bill in ten minutes. The Minister is making important changes to the pre-retirement allowance. I welcome section 11 which exempts retirement savings accounts from PRSI. Although the Minister is modernising the public service to make it more relevant to the citizen, there is a long way to go. Perhaps there should be a link with the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in terms of the national identification card and the ability to prove one's age when buying drink and cigarettes. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this. It would be great to reduce the bureaucracy and eliminate red tape.
I welcome section 15. As regards the civil registration service, the Minister is planning to computerise the system of registering life events. It might be vital for us in the House because the electoral registers are badly askew. Anything which improves the collation and availability of information is to be welcomed. I commend the Minister on the work he is doing and look forward to him being Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs for a further five years.
I compliment the Deputy on her performance on the "Tonight with Vincent Browne" programme last night. She and her colleagues did themselves proud. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has not been on it yet, but I do not have any doubt that, based on his performance and speech tonight, he will do equally well. However, I am not here to compliment him.
If a psychiatrist arrived in a number of Departments with a brief to find out the reason Ministers are preoccupied with 1997, they would have to lie down on the couch and be hypnotised. I am sure you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, know from your medical experience that the process would begin by bringing them back to 1997.
I would not let them near the place.
Why is the Minister preoccupied with 1997? Why is he not preoccupied with 1977?
I was hardly born then.
Why is he not preoccupied with 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994? The psychiatrist would come to the conclusion that, unfortunately, the Minister or Ministers were showing signs of schizophrenia. He or she would be apologetic and helpful and would offer the Minister or Ministers assistance. I have no doubt he or she would tell the Minister that he must recognise reality. It is time for the Minister to confront himself, be hon est with himself, stop deluding himself and stop deluding or attempting to delude the public. However, that has not yet happened, although I know it will.
I must give the Minister full marks for his performance in self-promotion. Not only does he rely on spin doctors, like everyone else in government, but he gives them a headache and vertigo by deciding to go on an advertising campaign.
I do not have spin doctors.
Never before in the history of the State have so many Ministers decided to go into the area previously covered by actors. I am not surprised because they are actors; all they are doing is acting out. They pulled one stroke in 1997, which they should remember, when they decided to promise the public that they would deliver £100 a week in certain social welfare payments. However, they did not tell the public that was the normal expectation or that the cost of living would increase by 50% in the meantime.
The Deputy must be joking about 50%.
After four years of doing almost nothing, the Minister wants to bask in the reflective glory of the great Government and stand forward and take the full credit. He believes that if he does not get sufficient recognition for his efforts to date, he will do the advertisements. I give him ten out of ten for pursuing this.
The Minister said tonight that in the "past two budgets alone child benefit increased by £50 overall, 118% for each of the first two children and by £60 overall, 107% for the third and all subsequent children." I thought we got rid of the pound and were dealing in euros. Surely there is sufficient flair in the Department to talk about the euro. Why is the Minister always thinking about the past? He was talking about 1997 and the pound. He also said that if "returned to office, we will continue to give record increases in child benefit." Have we heard that before? I am surprised the Minister said it. He should apologise to the House for including it in his speech. He should have done what he was going to do after five years in office.
We did. We gave record increases.
He should leave it to the next Government, if it has the money available, to spend it. Unfortunately, the Minister failed to tell the public and the House tonight that there will not be any money next year because it will have already been spent. He is rushing around every parish pump in the country to spend every brass farthing he can find as quickly as possible. I know he is doing that because of his deep concern for the public and the fact he wants to help everyone.
He is a nice man.
I know it has nothing to do with the possibility of a general election. I am sure the election is the last thing on his mind. I am certain he has been moved by the plight of the people and wants to help them along their way.
That is the message.
That is rubbish and humbug. We have heard it all before. Does the Minister know that by this time next year there will be approximately £3 billion of a Government deficit? Where will he get the money? Will he resort to the tactics to which the Government resorted in 1977? Will he make promises to the people? Will he tell them it is all right? Will he psycho-analyse them?
It is a bit like Eircom and the taxis.
I will deal with Eircom and the taxis shortly. Will you go back to the psychiatrists I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution and tell them to analyse—
Deputy Durkan to continue without interruption. I ask him to address his remarks through the Chair and then he might not provoke interruption.
I will do so, but can barely contain myself because I see the unfortunate people being sidelined by the Minister who is about to call in the psychiatrist once again and this time the public will be on the couch. He will tell the public to relax and think back and forward. What will it be like in a year's time? Where will the money be to pay for the promises? What about the £3 billion of a Government deficit? The public on the couch will twitch at that stage. The Minister will have a twinge of conscence, but will not get upset because everything is all right.
I am delighted to say I will be a Minister then.
The Minister will be in opposition at that stage and will not worry about it at all. That is the fun part of it. The unfortunate Joe or Sheila citizen will have a rude awakening when the psychiatrist snaps his or her fingers and says it is time to wake up to reality. The end will have come and it will be payback time. I will give the Minister ten out of ten for promotion and advancing his own cause. There is a phrase in the legal profession about being a judge in one's own court with which the Minister is familiar. I hope it stays fine for him.
The Minister said he is proud to say that during the Government's period in office unemployment has been reduced to one of the lowest levels in the European Union. However, he fails to recognise that when he came to office in 1997 unemployment was falling at a rate unknown in the history of the country and envied by everyone in the European Union. He also refers to spending in pounds. I cannot understand the reason he keeps referring to pounds as I thought we had changed over to the euro.
That was then.
The psychiatrist might be able to tell us the reason the Minister is preoccupied with the past. Why does he continually refer to 1997? Why not go back to 1992 and the famous Social Welfare Act of that year? I am not surprised he does not refer to that Act because it involved what became known as the "dirty dozen" cuts. I am amazed the Minister has not once stated that the Government has addressed the "dirty dozen". He has not stated, nor has encouraged any of his colleagues to state, that they have been buried. Why? Is there some underlying reason about which we are not aware? I believe it is because he is looking forward. The Minister is no fool and knows full well that whoever holds his office next year will receive one hell of a rude awakening.
When the psychiatrist to whom I referred earlier arrives on the scene, he or she should have in his or her possession the correct medication to ensure that the awakening of the Minister's predecessor is neither too rude nor too sudden. If it is too rude or too sudden, the first person on whom his eyes will unfortunately fall when he wakes will surely be his tormentor. He is bound at that stage to launch an attack on the Minister who will, by then, be on the opposite side of the House and who will claim that he has no responsibility.
For the job he has done and the panache with which he did it – he has not shown even a twinge of embarrassment – I would give the Minister ten out of ten for basking in his own reflected glory. I compliment him for being able to do so. That is about as far as I can go in terms of offering compliments. I hate to be critical or negative at a time like this because I know the Minister feels otherwise. I am aware that, recalling the "dirty dozen", he does not want anybody to contemplate what might happen in the event that he is returned to Government. If that happens, he will be required to tell the people what he intends to do. What about the aspects of the "dirty dozen" that were not extracted in the past five years? Will they be trotted out again or are they still being trotted out?
When one tables a question to the Minister and chides him on the harshness of policy under his direction in the Department, he says "I have no responsibility in this matter. This is a matter for a deciding officer in my Department." This is the first occasion on which I have come across a Minister who is not prepared to accept his full responsibility and stand over the actions of his Department. The Minister likes to off-load his responsibility on to some unfortunate civil servant who is then obliged to carry the can. The Minister says "I have no responsibility in this matter. I cannot intervene."
Quite rightly. I do not hoodwink the people in the way the Deputy used to.
Who the devil is responsible for what happens in the Department? Is it not the Minister? Does he not have ministerial powers and responsibilities?
The Deputy hoodwinked the people.
If he does not take on such powers and responsibilities he should surrender his office to someone who will, who cares, who is compassionate and who will intervene when it is needed. I am concerned about the way Ministers state that they have no official responsibility to the House or that they have no responsibility in a matter because it is dealt with by someone superior to them. Either Deputy Ahern is Minister or he is not. It is high time he accepted everything that goes with his office – the brickbats as well as the glory. It is fine that the Minister basks in the reflected glory he receives by appearing in newspapers, etc. He is, however, keeping actors out of work as a result, which is not fair.
And I do it for nothing.
I accept that fairness and inclusiveness is part and parcel of the policy he has embraced. If that is the case, why does he not allow actors to appear in the advertisements?
It would cost too much.
Why deny them employment? As stated earlier, the time has come to change the law, in particular, the Broadcasting Act, in order to facilitate Ministers who until now have only been compelled to appear in lowly advertisements. Surely they could read the news or give the weather forecast, particularly if the outlook is good.
The money is all gone.
What does the term "social inclusion" mean and for whom does it have meaning? It is a phrase that is much bandied about at present and essentially what it should mean is that everybody should feel part of a great and caring society and that if things go wrong, somebody will protect them. I am sorry to see the Minister is leaving. I hate to waste my sweet words on his colleagues, no disrespect to them, and I plead with him to remain for a few moments more.
I have to leave. I could not stick having to listen any further.
I know the harsh realities have suddenly and glaringly appeared in front of the Minister and that they have had a serious impact. However, I will return to the subject of social inclusion.
In my time in public life I have not seen more social exclusion than at present. A great deal has been made about carer's allowance and the number of additional carers the Minister claims to have brought into the system. In reality, unless the Minister was a complete Thatcherite he could not but bring more people into the system because it is geared towards ensuring that more people are included as time passes. He stated that the number of people in receipt of carer's allowance has more than doubled from 9,700 to more than 19,000 and that expenditure has been increased by 180%. The Minister is very good at quoting percentages when it suits him to do so. There are approximately 100,000 carers which is an indication of how far the Minister still has to go. If he wants to go towards including these people, now is the time to do so. We are, after all, on the run-in to an election and surely he is in a position to inform the general public that he will show he has the courage of his convictions by dramatically increasing the number of people in receipt of carer's allowance. Why not take a first step by increasing the number on the scheme to 50,000 or 60,000 and thereby recognise the people, most of whom work without recompense, who are making a major contribution to society by caring for their relatives and friends? If these people do not provide such care the State will be obliged to do so.
The people to whom I refer are relieving the State of its responsibilities and, to date, they have received no recognition from the Minister. If the Minister wants to continue to bask in his own reflected glory, he should take a leaf from his own book and bravely inform carers that he will change the system, increase the number of people in receipt of the allowance dramatically and give to those who have cared for people with disabilities, etc., the kind of recognition they deserve. He should not again refer to 1997, 1977, 1992 or any other year in the last century. He should be brave, break new ground and do his job as it should have been done in the past. However, the Minister will not do this. He will not appear on television or take out a newspaper advertisement to announce an expansion of the carer's allowance scheme. He will not deprive the actors of their slice of the action in respect of this matter.
The Minister will not say anything about this matter because he is fully aware that by the end of the year people in his Department and in other Departments will have to face the music. They will be obliged to ask "From where are we going to get the money we were promised?" Will a deciding officer be blamed for the lack of money? Will an unfortunate deciding officer be obliged to come forward and accept responsibility? I hope not, because that would be the original cop-out. However, such behaviour is neither unusual nor unknown.
It used to be the case that, on leaving office, a Government could look back and state that it had improved on its past performance in office. It could also state that it had done as much as possible and that no one could better its performance. That is not happening now. On reaching the end of its five years in office, the Government has committed to unveiling a ten year plan. I hope there will be no five or ten year plan attaching to the to the anti-poverty strategy which is supposed to be unveiled shortly. That is telling the public now, in advance, what they should have heard five years ago but did not hear and have not yet achieved. It is unique, it is excellent, it is definitely fancy footwork and no spin doctor could complain about how it works.
The Deputy has one minute remaining.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Much as I enjoy what I am doing, I have not even remotely described the full extent of the damage due to the regrettable con job on the unfortunate people of this country by the Minister, knowingly, blatantly, with his eyes wide open, and we have not seen the last of this. In 1997, what was known as disabled person's maintenance allowance became disability allowance and unfortunate people have been visited, on the Minister's instructions, in pursuance of departmental policy. There is no point in blaming deciding officers or anybody else. The people concerned have discovered how the new strategy operates – it works against them. It would take much longer to address all the misinformation contained in the Minister of State's speech but, unfortunately, I do not have that luxury. I congratulate the beneficiaries of the Government's largesse in the current year and I hope they will not pay the price for that next year.
For Deputy Durkan's benefit, I recall an incident in this House some years ago when a rather loquacious speaker was told by another Deputy that, although his mouth was in full drive, his brain was in neutral. It seems Deputy Durkan was in neutral for the past 20 minutes.
The Deputy should avoid making excuses for the mistakes of the past.
Deputy Durkan followed the example of quite a number of Opposition spokespersons in recent weeks in terms of obfuscation, misinformation and scaremongering. That is unworthy of a man of his experience and length of service in this House. I know he has served the people of Kildare very well—
—and I hope he will be back here again to discuss the details of the Bill on another occasion. In terms of scaremongering, the impression was created by Members on the Opposition side to the effect that all and sundry would be deprived of medical cards following the very substantial increases given in the Social Welfare Bill. That has been cleared up by the Minister for Health and Children and, of course, it was not going to happen. It was a low tactic, for the Opposition's own political purposes, to strike fear into vulnerable people who are most likely to be hurt most by such suggestions.
The Deputy should acknowledge the serious error made by the Government.
A social welfare system should have clear underlying principles, including adequacy, redistribution, comprehensiveness, consistency and simplicity. Over the past 20 years since I came into this House, I have seen great change in the Department responsible for social welfare whereby those principles have been followed to a much greater extent than before. That was due to improvements in the economy and, in fairness, the work of all Governments over the past ten years in particular. Adequate funding is now available to provide reasonable and decent social welfare benefits across the board. While the money is available, it depends on the will of Government to use it properly. Over the past five years the Government has utilised the available funding to improve the lot of those who are not in a position to provide for themselves. All benefits have been increased substantially during that period, especially for widows, widowers and old age pensioners. All those in receipt of those benefits have acknowledged the substantial increases and the results will be seen after the next election. It is not for election purposes that increases should be given, but rather because people need them.
Entirely coincidental, of course.
The Government has delivered, year on year, and I am sure Deputy McGrath would acknowledge that in his better moments, but just now I am not surprised at cynicism from across the floor. This Bill brings into operation certain elements of the budget announced before Christmas, including the increases in child benefit, the respite care grant, the widowed parent grant, disability benefit and so on, which I will deal with later. I agree with the Minister's statement this morning that during the Government's term of office it has more than fulfilled its commitments on social inclusion in the programme for Government. Over those five years, unemployment has been reduced to one of the lowest levels in the EU, with almost 100,000 people taken off the live register.
Despite that, there has been a massive increase in social welfare spending, from £4.5 billion to £7.4 billion this year, an increase of over two thirds during that five year period. Since the number of recipients has decreased, the share of the cake has increased for those now in receipt of benefits. Child benefit rates have trebled over those years and there have been substantial real increases in social welfare pensions, with old age contributory pensioners now receiving £116 per week. That is greater than what we promised five years ago. There has been significant improvement for carers so that 19,500 people now receive carer's payments, compared to 9,000 in 1997. New family services have been introduced to protect the family and support the stability of family life.
Those are some of the successes of the Government. There are many other areas in which the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs has demonstrated his expertise and care. An additional £500,000 has been allocated to family support services in this year's budget. Family resource centres are giving tremendous service in many villages and towns throughout the country, particularly for the benefit of children. In my area, the resource centre provides a study period, cookery lessons and family budgeting courses. Those services are operated by local community organisations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in my village, providing services which were unheard of ten years ago for families in local housing estates. That has improved their quality of life and has given children a good environment in which to study. We also have the voluntary and community services money advice and budgeting service and Comhairle which operate under the aegis of the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. These services are as important to the development of our communities and improving the welfare and quality of life of our citizens as any other elements of the social welfare budget.
In relation to child benefit, the Government has decided to significantly increase the benefit which goes directly to the family. It is non-means-tested and in many cases goes to the mother of the household and is used by her, in the majority of cases, for the benefit of her children. Many argue that benefits should be given through the taxation system, but that would not help thousands of people. We have reduced the number paying tax by about 300,000 with the result that there are now something like 600,000 not paying income tax. If benefits were given through the taxation system, that number of people would lose out. In this instance we have a system that reaches everybody. In the budget we increased the monthly rate for the first two children by £25 and for the third and subsequent children by £30.
Why does the Government treat the second and third child differently?
The Deputy should ask Deputy De Rossa why he did so.
I am asking the Deputy.
From April next, a family with three children will receive £301.24 compared with £221 at present, a substantial increase which fulfils the commitment the Government gave in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness to move towards a figure of £100 for the third and subsequent children. This payment will be introduced in the first week of May.
There has been condemnation by people asking the reason the Government did not pay this immediately.
I remind the doubters that, when we go back to the previous Administration, payments were made in the month of September. The Government brought the payment date back to the month of June and is now bringing it back further to the month of April, a five month improvement. The rainbow Government gave increases of £1 for the first two children and £5 for the third and subsequent children.
I also welcome the decision by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs that if a child is in full-time education on reaching his or her eighteenth birthday, the increase will continue until the following 30 June. Not having a cut-off point in the middle of the school year is an issue about which we have spoken many times. This is a step in the direction of implementing the commitment of the Government to increasing the age limit to 22 years, something I am sure we will be here to do.
The Government has always had a special concern for carers. Deputy Woods was the first Minister to introduce a carer's allowance scheme, which has been improved during the years. In the last five budgets the number of carers receiving carer's allowance and carer's benefit has doubled. The amount spent has increased by 180%. Any fair-minded commentator would say that this is a substantial improvement and substantial expenditure in a short space of time. In the Bill the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is honouring his commitment to support the valuable work undertaken by carers. We are all aware of the tremendous service to the community and the country that they are giving in caring for their sick or elderly parents, brothers or sisters.
We would like to see more being given to this scheme. The aim is to ensure all carers whose joint family income is at average industrial earnings qualify for carer's allowance at the maximum rate, the direction in which we are moving. In the Bill the Minister has increased the disregard to €382 per week, which will increase the payment to 2,300 carers and bring in an additional 3,400 carers who will qualify for payment. This measure will be implemented by him by way of regulation. In years to come I hope a means test will be unnecessary, but we have to be realistic. Nobody would thank us if multi-millionaires also qualified for carer's allowance as it would mean there would be less to go to those who really deserve it.
The Government would give them medical cards.
There must be a means test, but we must also move to a realistic level.
The Minister has again looked after carers in the grant given for respite care which is being increased to £500 this year from a figure of £400 last year. Where a person is looking after two patients, the figure goes up to £1,000 with effect from June 2002. The grant was very small two or three years ago and has seen substantial increases beginning at £200. There is a need for an integrated approach in caring for people with disabilities and illnesses through the Departments of Health and Children, Social, Community and Family Affairs and Education and Science which must come together to work in line rather than pull against one another.
Like other Members, I have experience of trawling through Departments trying to find out which one deals with a certain matter – running from pillar to post. Streamlining has increased and there has been more co-ordination between Departments and better relationships between them. I hope we will continue to move in that direction.
Section 5 is also welcome as it provides for the linking of disability benefit claims of five years duration or more for up to 13 weeks in relation to periods of incapacity for work. The section will assist those who return to work after a period of illness and become aware after a few weeks they cannot continue working and have to reclaim disability benefit. We are aware there was always a question of requalifying and satisfying the conditions.
There was much bother involved, as people had to be means tested and stay on employment assistance in the meantime. I am glad the Minister has changed this as it was plain to see there were just and deserving cases for disability benefit but because of the system they were not getting it. I welcome the progress on that front.
I also welcome Section 6 where any two periods of retirement not separated by more than 52 weeks shall be treated as one continuous period of retirement. This is a sensible decision by the Minister. The changes the Minister has made over the past five years, and especially over the past year, have shown him to be a caring Minister who understands the problems of society and the needs of people. He will be remembered as a caring, honourable Minister who did his best for the people he was there to serve.
I will take up the theme on which my colleague, Deputy Michael Ahern finished – for what will the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern be remembered. He will be remembered as the Minister who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds promoting his name around the country. "This is a message from the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, TD," was heard 1,100 times on the airwaves. His photograph appeared on television as messages went out. He appeared in colour photographs in all the national newspapers. All of this was at taxpayers' expense. The Minister will be remembered as the person who promoted himself and used taxpayers' money to do this around the country. It is the first time I can remember a Minister embarking on such an individual campaign as that. What he did was shameful. It is also worth noting that he did it in an election year. He did it for his own gain and for the Fianna Fáil Party. That is one of the major things for which he will be remembered.
The Minister is a very clever person who tries to pull fast tricks on people. His self-promotion was one of them, but the second one was the lump sum payment of arrears and forward money by the Department on Saint Valentine's Day, 14 February. This turned out to be very disappointing from his point of view. Not one of the people I spoke to around the country and especially in Westmeath, mentioned the payment to me. It came and went without registering at all. It did not have the desired effect. It may have been an each-way bet in case of an early election to have doled out some money.
It is the first time in the history of social welfare that advance payments have been made. I have not heard of it happening before. This love bomb from the Minister came on Saint Valentine's Day.
And to Dáil Deputies at Christmas.
Unfortunately, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs does not pay Dáil Deputies. Maybe it will give us a bit of a bonus in future – it would be very welcome.
The Minister will also be remembered as the great social welfare historian. He could not make a speech without saying "And this is what I have done and compare this to what happened in the rainbow coalition. They gave this, but I was the great man and I, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, have given this amount, which is so many per cent more than that."
Is it not true? The facts speak for themselves.
This is his mantra time after time. We hear the same old story being trotted out again and again. Unfortunately, the Minister did not have the vision some people attribute to him and in his time in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, he failed to address many of the anomalies that are there. I can see the officials smiling as they have heard me say all this before. I will keep saying it and I hope I will be in a position one day to put it right.
Like the Acting Chairman, I have more than two children in my family. I have four children thanks be to God. Is it not amazing that for families that are getting child benefit there is one rate of payment for the first and second child and a different one for subsequent children? Why should first and second children be discriminated against? This ridiculous situation also pertains to twins. Which is the second child for that rate of payment and which is the third child? Why can there not be one payment across the board for all children? Let us treat all the children of the nation equally.
Why has the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy's crusade for individualisation of the tax codes not followed through into the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs? Why are people not treated equally there? Why are adult dependants not treated the same as the major recipient? We will purify ourselves, but not just yet. We will do it on the tax side but not on the welfare side. Likewise with child benefit, where one rate is given for first and second children and a different rate of payment for the others.
Deputy McGrath must be finding it very difficult to put his argument together tonight.
I have no difficulty at all. I am glad to have the opportunity and as a Member of the House I am entitled to make my point.
The Acting Chairman, as a busy constituency Deputy like me, has come across many of the same type of cases as I have. Let us look at the child dependant allowances that are payable with social welfare payments. If the major recipient is on unemployment assistance or benefit then his child is entitled to a payment of £13.20 per week – unfortunately I am in the old money. If the major recipient is on invalidity pension or widow's pension there is a different rate of payment. So too for those on lone parent allowance. There are three different rates of payment for the child dependants of those on social welfare; £13.20, £15.20 and £17.00. I have asked the Minister several times to put that right.
Why should one child get one rate of payment and another child get a different rate of payment when we are supposed to treat all the children of the nation equally. The problem is that there is only a very small number on the £17 rate and a slightly bigger number on £15.20 rate, but the bulk of the children are getting child dependant allowances of £13.20. This Minister, being the cute man he is, would not want to reduce the payments to anybody so he would have to bring them all up to £17 and that is his problem. He does not have the commitment to do that and sort out that anomaly that still exists after his five years in office.
There are other anomalies I am sure other Deputies have come across as well. Family income supplement, FIS, is an excellent scheme that helps out families on low incomes who otherwise may well decide that it is not worth their while to work as they may be better off on welfare. The FIS system is a great boost to those people, but let us take the example of two families living next door to each other. The earner in one house makes £12,000 a year working in a shop. He is a PAYE worker with three children. His neighbour owns the village post office and also earns £12,000. The family of the PAYE worker will get a family income supplement from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, but the family of his self-employed neighbour will not. Upon probing further to find out why this is so, one discovers that the Department does not believe that the self-employed are truthful about their incomes. It believes the second household has more money than they declare. Yet the Revenue Commissioners accept that the income details submitted by the family are in order. The Department and the Minister have simply decided not to pay family income supplement to the self-employed.
The same problem exists in relation to farm assist, and I am sure the Minister, being from a rural constituency, has experience of that. On applying for farm assist a farmer is visited by someone from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs who wants to know how much livestock he has, how many acres he owns and what subsidies he has been given. The farmer offers to save the official a lot of time as his accounts have been completed by an accountant and the figures have been sanctioned by the Revenue Commissioners, but he is told that those accounts are not allowable. The official has to compile the information in accordance with the Department's own procedures. The Department makes its own computation of the farmer's income. It is unfair that things should be done that way. It is something the Minister could have done something about during his term of office, but he chose not to.
Another anomaly exists, this time for young people setting out in life. Our benefits system contains very good dental provisions which work very well. However, there is an anomaly whereby the number of stamps required to avail of dental services increases dramatically once one is over 25 years of age. Those who have been working since the age of 19 or 20 will have managed to accumulate the stamps without any problem, but it will have been impossible for those who have been to college. There is no system of credit for the time spent at third level and even though a person has paid into the scheme for two or three years, he or she will not receive dental benefits. That is not fair and it should be sorted out. If the crusading Minister had lived up to his promise, he would have addressed that problem.
Deputy Michael Ahern made a scathing comment about people pointing out that social welfare recipients might lose their medical cards. I must confess that I was one of those who pointed out what had gone wrong. There have been fine social welfare increases, but another arm of Government had no contact with the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs in calculating the new income limits for medical cards and the guidelines they published described rates which were below some social welfare payments.
That was clarified.
There was a danger people would lose their medical cards so we kicked up a row.
Did the Deputy and his colleagues find the hypothetical cases?
Thankfully, the Minister came to the rescue and increased the limits, which was the right thing to do.
There was no danger.
Had we not been alert and had we not raised the matter, it could have caused consternation for many. I am glad we were sharp enough to see the problem and to put it right.
I have heard various Members opposite talking about carers and carer's allowance. They have welcomed improvements made in that area, but have any of them read the document published by the Carers Association after the budget? The Carers Association is certainly not pleased with the improved provisions. Carers feel entirely let down and disappointed by the Government, which has failed to give them many of the things they sought. Income limits were increased, which is welcome, but that did not make a huge difference to many. There are about 100,000 carers, 19,000 of whom get some payment from the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. However, not all of those 19,000 carers receive the full allowance. Many of them are on reduced payments.
Is it right and fair that only a small proportion of the carers who do such a tremendous job should be rewarded? If those carers ceased to provide care, what would be the cost to the State in terms of nursing home care and hospitalisation? Carers should be rewarded. I suggest that the Minister looks at the respite grant payable to carers. That grant, which has been increased from £500, is only made to those in receipt of some other payment. The Chair is familiar with nursing homes and will know that you cannot buy much time in one for that money. You would scarcely get a week at this stage. We are offering perhaps one week's respite care to a small proportion of carers. Why not give a respite grant to all carers, even those who do not get another payment? That would recognise the tremendous work they do.
Reference was made to commitments made by Fianna Fáil in its election manifesto and we heard from many Members that it lived up to and surpassed them. I did not hear one Deputy say that Fianna Fáil's manifesto stated that the social insurance fund would be safe if it were in government. I suppose the Minister of State did not get around to reading that, but it is there and he should look at it carefully. His party has raided the social insurance fund and robbed it of £635 million.
How much did the Deputy's party take out of it?
It has done so for political expediency. Why did the Government not live up to the commitment it made in its manifesto? It is marvellous to hear people come to this House time after time to describe how such commitments have been honoured, but that is one which the Government has decidedly overturned. It is a move for which the Deputies opposite will feel the wrath of working people when they go out to knock on doors. Robbing £635 million from the social insurance fund is no way to do business.
The plight of widows is dear to my heart. Widows are the forgotten people. They are faced not only with the trauma of losing a partner but with picking up the bills thereafter, trying to establish a new way of life and trying to cope with the level of income which can be dramatically different to what they had previously. If any of us were to die our widows would get a pension of a quarter of our income. Even if a widow is lucky enough to have been married to somebody entitled to a pension from employment, how will she survive on a quarter of their previous income? If the husband was not entitled to a pension through employment and the widow must depend on social welfare – to extend that example further – how can somebody survive on the current social welfare payment of about £90 a week? If the widow has children, she will get additional payments. However, widows deserve a special place in society. They deserve to be looked after compassionately and I am disappointed the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs did not find a way to give increased payments to them.
I have the utmost respect for Deputy McGrath.
I thank the Deputy.
He has for a long time been a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Family, Community and Social Affairs of which I am a member. We in the committee always labelled him "Mr. Anomalies" because if there was an anomaly in the system, he always found it.
That is my job in Opposition.
I am not being critical of the Deputy. His points are always interesting. No doubt the system is rotten with anomalies, but those are the sorts of issues which arise and we all come across interesting cases from time to time. When we look at these cases from one perspective they may look stupid, but when we look at the same issues the following week or month from another point of view they are often put in perspective. If the officials set out to design a new system today, I am sure they would not end up with the current one.
Be that as it may, I will address a few of the points raised by Deputy McGrath. He is from a constituency with a mixture of rural and urban areas. It is usually the urban people who raise the issue of the extension of the family income supplement to the self-employed or the farmers. That is an issue which has been discussed by different Governments, including the rainbow government. At that time the Minister, who came to the issue from an urban perspective, won the day. The FIS was brought in to help low-waged people before the introduction of the minimum wage. As a Deputy from an urban constituency, I am glad the FIS is still in place and I hope it remains as an allowance for urban-based people. If it were thrown open to farmers and other self-employed persons, it would be very hard to administer and it would not target those for whom it was intended initially.
A few Deputies, including Deputy McGrath, have spoken about people who might lose their medical cards and I commend them for managing to put the fear of God into many people. However, nobody produced evidence of one person who lost or was threatened with losing the medical card. It was a purely hypothetical case on paper.
The Deputy is out of the traps quickly.
I am quite sure the officials of the health board have a bit of common sense and would have been reasonable in dealing with people who were £1 or £2 over the qualifying threshold. The cases outlined were hypothetical. Even if that letter was issued by the Department, Deputies would not have found a case where somebody would lose the medical card.
However, there is a recognition implicit in the Deputy's complaint, for which we thank him. He basically congratulates the Minister by default by saying the huge increases in social welfare payments in recent years have brought about that anomaly. On medical cards, the Government, for good or ill, set a five year programme targeting people over 70. It exceeded its promise. Five years ago it merely talked about doubling the guideline limits for people over 70. However, it went further and went the whole hog. It is now up to all political parties in the run up to the general election to lay out their strategy for medical cards for whatever other category of people over the next five years.
Deputy McGrath mentioned raiding the social welfare fund and the reaction of workers. Workers are fair-minded people. The fund was topped-up over the years with something like £1.1 billion, if I remember the figure correctly, or £11 billion – I forget—
There is a big difference.
—but they do not mind when only a fraction of the amount given to the fund in the form of a top-up in recent years is taken out.
In a way I am concerned about the fund. Fifteen or 20 years ago, people paid PRSI contributions in order that the payments they would receive would be greater than the social welfare rate, in other words, it was a social insurance fund. The Opposition Members have not been complaining about this but if I were to complain and find something wrong with this year's budget in the case of social welfare, it would be that the ordinary unemployed person who had worked for a number of years will get an additional £8 whereas the person on the lowest payment will get £9.50. This has come about as a result of pressure from certain lobby groups and from the mad push by the benchmarking and indexation group to get the lowest social welfare payment linked to the average industrial wage. That lobby group is not necessarily correct. I would have more concern for the worker who has paid PRSI for years and is on unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance or disability benefit. That person is losing out slightly this year because of a vociferous loud-mouthed lobby group which has managed to get its policy across. It looks like the Minister is partly taking on board its point this year and it looks like other parties may do so in future, but it is not necessarily benefiting everybody. There are winners and losers in every case.
Recently the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs invited the Combat Poverty Agency to make a presentation. The agency gave a fair, balanced and complimentary report on this year's budget. Its representatives spoke about developments in the past two budgets where there have been huge increases in child benefit. He spoke of how the past two budgets have done more to address poverty than any previous budget. I was pleased to hear this from representatives of the Combat Poverty Agency because I would not always have regarded them as reasonable or fair in the past, but they were very complimentary of the Minister and his officials this year.
However, that policy of giving huge increases to child benefit has just been established by the Department over the past two years. Before we have made a great deal of progress on it, however, other groups are pulling the Department away from giving increases in child benefit. They want to increase the lowest adult payment rate.
What groups are those?
One cannot have it both ways. Although it has been agreed at one level that the best way to handle poverty is to target increases at child benefit, before we get through our initial three-year programme these groups are moving on to target the person on supplementary welfare benefit, long-term unemployment assistance or whatever. Although we had reached a certain agreement, that the real poverty was to be found in poor families and had just gone through a small portion of our programme and targeted child benefit successfully for two years, it concerns me that we are suddenly being pulled off in another direction. I hope political parties stick to giving payments to families – the best way of doing that is through child benefit – rather than being dragged away by the lobby groups who are trying to establish their policy under the benchmarking and indexation group. Theirs is not necessarily the most needy claim. By all means, I would like to increase the lowest rate of social welfare payment, but not at the expense of families.