Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 27 Feb 2003

Vol. 562 No. 3

Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Deputy Ó Caoláin was in possession. He has indicated that he is sharing time with Deputies Healy and Joe Higgins. There are 16 minutes remaining.

I had finished addressing the Minister on the failure, when quoting statistics relating to increases in social welfare in recent years, to place them in context. I referred particularly to the failure to mention the rise in the cost of living, especially in the past year. The Government failed to mention that it is mainly people who depend on social welfare who have the worst housing conditions, who are on most of the housing authority waiting lists, who languish on hospital waiting lists, who pay the price for failure to invest in public transport and who have the worst health and lowest life expectancy. These are the realities. When quoting statistics, these are the statistics from all the agencies, from the Combat Poverty Agency to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and a range of Departments, that prove the case I make. The bottom line is that the derisory increase of €6 per week provided for in the Social Welfare Bill is unacceptable, yet this is what the Government and its backbenchers have been boasting about during the course of this debate. It amounts to less than €1 a day for the most disadvantaged people and it has already been wiped out by rises in the cost of living, many of them due to costs imposed by the Government in other areas of the budget. Given the increasing cost of living, there should have been, at an absolute minimum, an increase to €130 a week for the lowest social welfare weekly rates. The increase in this Bill is an insult. I ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, through her colleague, to explain how anyone can be expected to live with dignity on €124 a week. I would vouch that it is impossible.

Child benefit for the first and second child is €23.40 short of the Government's own commitment. For subsequent children, it is €27.70 short. The child dependant allowance has not been increased. This means an effective 6% cut for the poorest of poor families who currently account for some 400,000 children in this jurisdiction. I will continue to address the needs of the low paid worker and the social welfare recipient.

Yesterday, I reminded the Taoiseach of the commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that all children develop to their full potential, yet the Government has again failed to increase the back-to-school footwear and clothing allowance for primary school students. Does the Minister believe that €80 goes anywhere near the real cost of providing clothing and equipment for children for school, particularly for families already struggling on very low incomes or on social welfare?

A recently published survey by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul showed that many children are still going to school ill-nourished and inadequately clothed. In post Celtic tiger Ireland, the situation is such that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has proposed the establishment of book rental schemes and breakfast clubs in disadvantaged areas. Instead of boasting and rhyming off statistics, the Government spokespersons should be hanging their heads in shame that such emergency measures to alleviate dire poverty are necessary in a society where wealth is flaunted and squandered as never before.

It is no good others looking at their respective constituencies and saying they cannot see the reality. It is not that they cannot see it but that they refuse to see it. I warrant it is in every constituency represented in this Chamber and it is time people started to seriously look at the reality of poverty in their midst.

I appeal to the Minister to re-examine policy in relation to community employment. I understand that today is the day of reckoning for many of the community employment schemes. I appeal to the Government not to banish to the dump heap the people and their communities who have received great opportunities through community employment schemes. It should allow the projects to proceed and dignity to be maintained by the individual.

The background to this Bill is that over the past ten years this country has been awash with money, and it is still awash with money, despite the claims of doom and gloom and recession being made by the Government, various Government agencies and the media. There is a significant amount of money in this country. The Government books for the end of last year were in credit to the tune of €100 million on both current and capital accounts. As regards the current account, on day-to-day spending, the Government was in credit to the tune of about €3 billion. There is no basis for the miserly increases and cutbacks in this Bill. Given the details I have outlined, is it not absolutely outrageous that consistent poverty continues to run at about 10% and that relative income poverty has increased to the extent that the proportion of the population living on less than 60% of median income has grown from 16% to 22%? Is it not outrageous that one in four Irish children is growing up in a household that lives on less than half the average income?

Ireland has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the European Union. The child poverty rates in many other member states are half, or less than half, that of this country. Child poverty rates in the world's wealthiest nations vary from about 3% to 25%. Ireland is the sixth highest nation on the list of child poverty rates in 23 OECD countries. Given that we have such a child poverty problem, the fact that child dependant allowances have not been increased in this Bill – they have not been increased since about 1996 – is an absolute disgrace and is indefensible. The tenor of the Government's thought in relation to social welfare is exemplified by its treatment of child benefit, or children's allowance as it used to be known. Child benefit is always the first benefit to be cut. The Government has not kept its election promises in relation to child benefit in this Bill, although it was prepared to keep its promise to reduce tax on the profits of corporations from 16% to 12.5%, helping large companies to save €300 million.

The changes in social welfare rates in this Bill are not in line with the commitments made by the Government to the social partners. If it had kept its promises, old age pensioners would receive a minimum increase of €13.20, but the actual increase is €10. The increases in other social welfare payments should range from €10.10 to €15.40, according to the Government's promises, but the actual increase is a disgraceful and miserly €6, which represents less than €1 per day. The qualified adult allowance is €4. The €6 increase in the basic social welfare rates has been wiped out when one recalls that VAT was increased in the budget, that local authority rents, electricity and gas costs have gone up and that we have the highest inflation rate in the European Union.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has increased the payments of those on rent allowance by €4, leaving them with a net increase of €2 per week. Rent subsidies have been capped, meaning that people are unable to meet their rent payments to private landlords. The effect of these measures will be that more people will be homeless. People come to me on a regular basis to say that they are unable to meet rent payments to private landlords. It is disgraceful that community welfare officers, by direction of the Minister, are not in a position to help them. I ask the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, to make changes in this area immediately. I could mention many other aspects of this Bill with which I do not agree.

The provisions of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 and the arrangements made in the budget which the Bill enshrines should be seen in the context of the Government's record during its six years in office. Its proposals to assist those dependent on social welfare represent a continuation of the policies that have provided for a substantial shift in wealth from the working class to the very wealthy. The figures released by the Central Statistics Office since 1987, when the misnamed national partnership agreements were first introduced, show that the percentage of national income going to working people and social welfare recipients has decreased, while the percentage going to those who rake in rents, profits and dividends has increased dramatically. The Government has helped land speculators, millionaire corporate shareholders and bankers to increase massively their wealth at a cost to working people and those on social welfare who are trying to keep a roof over their heads.

It is revolting that parliamentary representatives of the Government parties who receive incomes of about €100,000 each year – Ministers, Ministers of State and the Taoiseach earn considerably more – have paraded into the Chamber for this debate to boast of their generosity to the section of society that depends on social welfare. They have trumpeted an increase of €6 per week in basic social welfare as a major boost for the recipients. Deputies on the Government side pay far more than the €6 they have awarded as a basic social increase in social welfare for a Havana cigar.

The purchase of Havana cigars helps the ideological friends of the Deputy.

The Deputy knows that they are no ideological friends of mine, as I have always been an anti-Stalinist.

I am not sure Dr. Castro would agree.

The increase in real terms of about 30 cent per week is made much worse when one takes into account the litany of stealth taxes and increased charges that have been inflicted on working class people in recent months. The increase of €6 is taken from such people before it even reaches their pockets. Fingal County Council has increased the rents of subsidiary earners by €3.70 per week, which represents 60% of the increase given by the Government. The Minister's regulation in relation to the contribution that has to be made by those dependent on private landlords before they receive rent supplements has also taken the vast bulk of the increase. When one takes account of the effect of inflation and increased ESB, television and other costs, it is clear that social welfare recipients will be much poorer, in real terms, at the end of 2003 compared to the start of the year. Is it any wonder that the Simon Community has seen through the con that is social partnership? I am surprised that other non-governmental agencies have not realised that it is a con, but I believe they will.

The denial of rent supplement to asylum seekers is mean, harsh, small-minded and absolutely deplorable. While many asylum seekers are catered for by means of direct provision, it is not always suitable.

The last few days have given us a real sense of the Government's priorities. The Government is prepared to spend tens of millions of euro on flashy new jets, while social welfare recipients suffer as a result of the measures I have discussed. Perhaps the new jet would be useful if the Taoiseach and his two Cold War warriors, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, would jet into the sunset and not come back, or perhaps land in North Korea and disappear.

That would be a useful contribution by the new jet but otherwise it is a disgraceful misapplication of public funds.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Kelleher and Devins.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I listened with interest to recent speakers, particularly the last speaker, Deputy Joe Higgins, on whose contribution I intend to comment. The Government believes that supporting older people must be a core priority. It has delivered record increases on pensions, but there has also been a lot of progress in developing new care services and extending entitlement to other schemes such as the free GP care scheme. In light of the comments of Deputy Joe Higgins, I would be interested to hear the Deputy provide comparisons with other Governments that have the record of this and the last Government.

As well as the record increases delivered on pensions, this Government wants to go further. I want pensions increased to a minimum of €200 by 2007 with higher increases for pensioner couples.

I thought next year was the target for the €200 minimum. Has the Government changed its mind? It is rowing back again.

I want to help older people to live in dignity and provide for them to receive care at home if that is what they prefer. There are a number of other commitments set out in the programme for Government.

Such as child benefit. There were to be no cutbacks.

I am satisfied the Government will be judged on its record. There have been unprecedented rises in social welfare pensions from 1997 to 2003. The old age contributory pension has increased from €99 in 1997 to €157 in 2003, a 59% increase over that period.

Deputy Dermot Ahern's scriptwriter has been busy again.

The widows contributory pension saw a 72% increase and the old age non-contributory pension saw a 68% increase over that period. The Government has also made progress in regard to private pensions and is committed to further improving living standards by encouraging private pensions coverage. The target is to increase coverage from its current level of just over 50% to 70% of the workforce. The PRSA framework was introduced in the Pensions (Amendment) Act 2002. It is significant that the first PRSA products were approved by the Pensions Board this week, and a pensions awareness campaign is planned for later this year. The Government also created the carer's allowance and the numbers in receipt of this payment were over 20,000 at October 2002.

Some 80,000 people get nothing.

The maximum weekly personal rates for old age and related pensions are up €10 from January 2003. Entitlement to the free schemes has been extended to those aged 70 and over who are in receipt of a qualifying payment where the spouse or partner is in receipt of another social welfare payment in his or her own right, and the total income of the spouse or partner is less than €203 per week. Much progress has been made on the extension and enhancement of the free schemes.

The household benefits package, which comprises electricity and gas allowance, telephone allowance and the free television licence scheme, is generally available to people living in the State aged 66 years or over and in receipt of a social welfare payment. Those aged 70 years and over can qualify regardless of their income or household composition. The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 or over.

Is this new information?

The average annual value of the free schemes is approximately €16 per week and a number of changes have been made to the schemes. The Government made a number of extensions to them in October 2000 and, in May 2001, the free schemes were extended to those aged 70 years and over, regardless of income. In May 2002, the household benefits package was introduced, providing for the streamlining of the electricity allowance, telephone allowance and the free television licence scheme into one combined household benefits package which ensured that all recipients received the full range of schemes previously available under the three different schemes. The free travel companion pass was extended for those who are unable to travel alone.

In January 2003, the telephone allowance was extended for people residing in a nursing home where they have their own telephone account.

Was it a total of 15 people who benefited from that?

The carer's allowance and benefit is an important support for older people and others. Under this Government, the number in receipt of a carer's payment is close to 20,500.

Some 80,000 people do not get it.

The lot of many people has improved. The Government introduced the annual respite care grant which has increased five-fold for carers looking after one person. Those caring for two or more people receive a double payment. The Bill which the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, brings before the House increases this grant further to €735 – a 15% increase.

On this side of the House, Members know that much has been done but that there is much to do. Our plan is to increase the basic State pension to at least €200. From 1997 to June 2002, the non-contributory pension has increased by 22% and the contributory pension by 15% over the average industrial wage. The Government intends to introduce a homemaker's pension, set at the level of a full non-contributory pension.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Minister of State's time is up.

I had not got to where I wanted.

I have heard enough as it has all been said before. It is the same script that Deputy Dermot Ahern has been using for years.

It is the same good news.

The Minister of State should put his own stamp on it.

Shortly after my appointment in June last year, I met with several representative organisations of older people. I intend to enter into a comprehensive consultative process on the impact of policy and the decision making process on the lives of older people. I intend to use this consultative process to develop an older people's strategy or mission statement – a document in which older people can have a sense of shared ownership. I appreciate the good work of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, who has done an excellent job since her appointment in the summer of last year. I compliment her on bringing forward this legislation and wish her continued success.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, and Deputy Kelleher for sharing time with me. I welcome the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003. The Bill provides for the introduction of a range of social welfare improvements announced in the recent budget and a number of additional proposals agreed by Cabinet. It provides in sections 3 and 4 for increases in child benefit and the respite care grant. It extends child dependant allowances for certain children of recipients of short-term social welfare payments and provides for changes in the means test of certain social assistance schemes. It also makes changes to the PRSI system by giving effect to the budget measure for the application of PRSI contributions and health and employment training levies to benefits-in-kind.

Section 3 pertains to child benefit and this Bill provides for increases in that benefit as announced in budget 2003. The increase amounts to €8 in the lower rate payable in respect of the first and second child and €10 in respect of the third child and subsequent children. It brings the monthly rate to €125.60 in the case of the first and second child and €157.30 for subsequent children. From next April, a family with three children will receive €408.50, an increase of €26 per month.

These measures will mark the beginning of the final phase of the child benefit investments package, which was initiated in budget 2001.

What happened to the increases promised for the third year?

On completion, Government investment in this area will increase by €1.27 billion. An estimated 530 families and more than one million children will benefit. Research has shown that child benefit, as a universal payment made directly to families, is the most efficient and effective way in which the Government can channel support to children. The Opposition was not aware of this research when it was in government. At that time, when the country was beginning to enjoy economic affluence as a result of policies pursued by previous Fianna Fáil led Governments, the so-called rainbow coalition Government provided no significant financial support to parents. It implemented child benefit increases as low as €1.27.

The Deputy has not been long a Member of the House and he has not done his research.

When we returned to government in 1997 we had to practically start from scratch. At that time child benefit was payable at a rate of €38 per child for the first and second child. It was hardly enough to feed a dog, never mind to help look after a child.

That is a good comparison to make.

We prioritised this issue and initiated a plan to invest an unprecedented €1.27 billion in increased child benefit over a number of budgets. In the past two years we achieved two thirds of the planned increase and this year, the Minister for Finance announced an additional €105 million in a full year. The Government has trebled child benefit payments since the champaign socialists of the rainbow coalition Government left office. We have proved that what counts is hard work and action, not rhetoric.

The Bill proposes to amend the Pensions Act 1990 to strengthen the powers of the Pensions Board to allow it to respond on a case by case basis to schemes that find themselves in funding difficulties on foot of the recent extraordinary fall in the global equities market. The Bill proposes to allow the board to properly manage this funding crisis to ensure that the public does not move away from their contribution schemes, which are of great benefit and in the long-term interests of participants. This measure will protect the position of those who are not pensioners but who wish to enjoy their retirement in comfort. It is another example of the Government providing for and protecting the most vulnerable in society, in this case the elderly.

All our budgets have been characterised by measures designed to improve the position of older people with regard to pensions. There has been much talk of broken promises. During the 1997 general election campaign, we promised to increase all old age pensions to at least €127 per week, and it was delivered. In the last general election campaign we promised to increase it to €200 per week and we will also deliver on this commitment during our term of office. There will be no broken promises.

What about the other cutbacks?

The so-called pseudo-socialists in the Opposition choose to forget that over the three budgets of the rainbow coalition Government, the Labour Party Minister for Finance provided pensioners with a total average increase of a derisory €2.95. By contrast, the average annual increase for pensioners under the Fianna Fáil led Government now stands at a massive €9.71. In percentage terms, the rainbow coalition Government provided pensioners with an increase of approximately 10%. Under the Fianna Fáil led Government it has amounted to approximately 60%.

Since we came to Government in 1997, we have implemented the most generous welfare provisions since the foundation of the State. The Opposition has made numerous attempts to disregard this. It likes to believe it is the left wing champions of social justice. However, the facts and the polices of the past speak for themselves, and the public knows it.

The rent supplement is allocated by the various health boards. The health board in my area, the North-Western Health Board, has increased the allowance from €63 to €77 per week for a single person. Unfortunately, it is applicable to all who live within the health board area. The rents of certain houses in the larger urban areas, such as Letterkenny and Sligo, are considerably higher. I ask the Minister to use her influence with the health board to ensure that constituents living in urban areas are granted a bigger increase. I commend the Bill to the House.

Will the Deputy vote for changes in the rules?

My colleagues eloquently outlined the positive elements in the Bill. There is an underlying problem with community welfare officers and racism. Allegations are frequently made in the media that asylum seekers are getting money from officers to purchase cars, insurance and so on. A deep and sinister element in society believe these allegations and I plead with the Department and the health boards to address the issue. They should establish a PR mechanism to enable them respond to allegations by journalists and individuals by explaining the entitlements of asylum seekers, refugees and nationals. I have encountered a number of such cases in my constituency, but despite numerous parliamentary questions I have been unable to ascertain the facts. This kind of situation makes it very difficult for public representatives to state categorically in the media that such allegations are without foundation.

This is a very emotive issue and it is being used and fanned by elements in society. The silence of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of Health and Children encourages them. It is a fundamental issue that must be addressed, especially as society becomes more multi-cultural and more people come into the country for whatever reason, be they asylum seekers or non-nationals on work permits. An element of society appears to automatically think that those who are non-Irish or non-white in colour are asylum seekers or refugees. No Department and none of the health boards appears to be willing to confront this way of thinking and explain the reality and the facts. While the anti-racism commission is active, Departments and other bodies must be proactive in monitoring the media to ensure that the correct message is conveyed.

Huge efforts have been made to address the concerns of the elderly and to ensure they have a decent quality of life. However, there is also a need to ensure that adequate services are provided, such as one-stop-shops and day care centres, to address the needs of isolated pensioners who live alone. While the Government should continue to implement its commitment to increase the weekly old age pension to €200, there is also a need to improve services, such as day care centres, which will act as a focal point where the elderly can congregate and have immediate access to medical services.

We will have to address this matter, particularly because of the demographic changes in society.

The average age is increasing. I read recently that there is one pensioner per five workers and that there will be one pensioner per three workers in 20 years' time. Therefore, there will be considerable financial strain on society. The cheaper option is to ensure that we have day-care centres and an infrastructure in place so the necessary expertise will exist when the population grows older and becomes more dependent on such services.

There are many elderly people. Society is becoming more fractured and we do not have the same community spirit that we used to have. Neighbours were able to look after the elderly in the past. We have had recent cases in which elderly people were dead in their houses for three weeks before anybody knew about it. This issue must be examined.

I compliment the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and all those involved in the dental dispute for bringing it to a successful conclusion. It was a major issue.

I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to debating the positive initiatives contained therein, which will be implemented between now and next year.

I wish to share five minutes of my time with Deputy Murphy.

I compliment Deputy Kelleher for raising the matter of migrants to our country, for being brave enough to talk about it and for seeking clarification on certain issues. It is important that it be discussed. It is noteworthy that one of the provisions in this Bill is to restrict the rent allowance paid to asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees. It is sad that we are going down that road and I hope it does not reflect a shift in Government policy, which will lead to our being anti-immigrant and anti-refugee.

On Tuesday, at a meeting of the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, the Minister for Justice estimated that the allocation of funds to refugees would cost €300 million. Subsequently, he said that the Government's overseas aid package is not up to the standard that he would like because, in considering its size, he had to take into account the expenditure on refugees. I was absolutely shocked by this statement which required clarification, but the Minister did not offer any when I sought it. He told me to talk to my constituents to see what they thought about the issue. In other words, he was saying that he is doing what he is doing because the public want him to. That is not the way to do business and I am disgusted by it. I told him so, but unfortunately the issue got no airing.

So many of the scripts that have been read by Government backbenchers seem to have emanated from the same source. We have had many statistics poured out regarding what the Government did and did not do, mainly what it did over the past five years, and what the previous coalition Government used to say. That is the approach Deputy Dermot Ahern adopted when he was Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs. He frequently gave us distorted versions of history. I am beginning to wonder if the same script writers are still at play. Will we have a repeat of this approach in the coming years?

Backbenchers should talk to their constituents to elicit their reaction. Statistics do not stick in their minds and they do not notice the percentages by which their benefits increase, but they are not happy with the increases they received in the most recent budget. They were led to believe by the Government during the election campaign that there would be huge increases. Unfortunately, they did not materialise. The Minister said there would be no cutbacks, hidden or otherwise, but when it came to the crunch we had them.

It is the job of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle to uphold standards in the House. If one examines the budget speeches of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for social welfare in the two previous budget debates, one will notice that they said child benefit would increase on a three year basis, with equal amounts being granted over three years. Is that not a case of Ministers deliberately misleading the House? Did they come in to apologise and say, "That was not the case at all. We had no right to say that."? They did not. Who will uphold the dignity of the House, ensure that standards are maintained and that Ministers do not mislead the House? A feeling obtained that one could promise anything in the run-up to an election.

What has happened in respect of the increases in child benefit? Miserly increases have already been eaten away. The minimum payment in respect of rent allowance has increased by €5. Therefore, if one has received an increase of €6 in child benefit and there is a claw-back on one's rent allowance, one is left with an increase of €1. To make matters worse, there were increases in VAT and the cost of electricity, telephony, gas and rent.

What about other changes that should have been made to the social welfare system? I am sure the officials could write down some of the things I have said and probably will repeat in respect of the child dependant allowance. Maybe I should not be repeating myself but I feel strongly about the issue. If one is on social welfare and has child dependants, one gets a child dependant allowance. The rate of that allowance has not changed since 1994, almost ten years ago. It is remarkable that neither the previous nor present Minister has done anything about it, despite the fact that many have asked them to, particularly the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is in touch with really poor people.

If a family is in receipt of unemployment assistance, disability benefit or old age contributory pension and has dependent children, each child is worth €16.80 per week. If one is in receipt of a one-parent family payment or an invalidity pension, one's child is regarded as different and is worth €19.30. That is not fair. I thought we were supposed to treat all children equally, but we do not. If one's father is on unemployment benefit the Government gives him less, but if he is on invalidity pension it gives him a little more. The child of someone on a widow's contributory pension gets even more, a sum of €21.60. There is a difference in the amount of child dependant allowance payable of about €250 per annum depending on what social welfare benefits a family receives. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul says it is unfair and should be changed to a uniform system.

Family income supplement is an excellent system, involving reasonably generous payments by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to help families whose members work to stay at work. It was introduced by a coalition Government some years ago and the rate of payment has increased gradually. It is very worthwhile for families on low incomes. There is a rule within the system that if one's income changes in the course of one's receiving family income supplement, the Department will not withdraw the payments.

A person successfully assessed for FIS, receives a book of payments which lasts for 12 months. If income increases in the course of those 12 months, the Department of Social and Family Affairs does not reassess payments, which is generous and admirable. However, if income falls in that time, the payments are not increased, which is mean. A family can experience a significant decrease in income which will have serious consequences. I am aware of a three-child family in which the father was earning the minimum wage of €235 per week and the mother was in receipt disability allowance of €50. This family was entitled to FIS of €19 each week and when the disability payments to the wife were discontinued that sum did not increase. According to the Department's FIS guidelines, the family was entitled to a substantial increase, but it would not review the case until the payment came up for renewal ten months later. Does the Minister think that is fair? It is generous to say the payment will not be reviewed if income increases, but those who have lost income and are surviving on the minimum wage have the greater need. They do not know from where the next few shillings will come. I ask the Minister to use whatever influence she has to have this matter reviewed.

It strikes me as peculiar that the self-employed are not entitled to receive FIS payments because the Department of Social and Family Affairs does not trust the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. The Revenue Commissioners are under his remit. A three-child family with a €15,000 income will receive approximately €70 per week in FIS payments if the earner is a PAYE worker, but will receive nothing if the worker is self-employed. The Department of Social and Family Affairs refuses to believe that the income of the self-employed family is €15,000 despite the fact that this figure has been assessed by the Revenue Commissioners. That is an outrageous way to do business, but it will take a political decision to change it. I have heard Fianna Fáil Members discussing this anomaly and we will give them the opportunity to vote on the matter and demonstrate where they stand. Many self-employed tele-workers, mainly women, who work from home do not qualify for FIS either despite their low incomes.

I have mentioned the matter of overpayments by the Department before, but the response I received from the Minister's office was very unsatisfactory. She is not listening to me.

I am listening to the Deputy. His renditions are like lullabies to me.

Do they put the Minister to sleep?

They calm me.

I would prefer the Minister to take action rather than fall asleep. She should disregard the path laid out by her predecessor who ran away from the Department when he knew what was coming. He ran away from the commitments on child benefit and left the Minister to carry the baby. While that was unfair, the Minister was unable to shoulder the burden.

I raised the case of a constituent previously—

I am aware of that and it was disgusting.

—but the matter was not dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Through no mistake of my constituent, an overpayment was made on foot of which we rang the Department from my office. I have a contemporaneous note of the discussion I had with an official with regard to the overpayment. We were assured that the payment was a result of an error by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and that repayment would not be sought. Despite this, repayment is now sought, but the money has been spent and must be clawed back over several years. That is unfair. When I raised the matter with the Minister's office, I was referred back to the person with whom I spoke in the first place. I would have expected a fresh view, but that did not happen.

I thank Deputy McGrath for sharing his time.

Yesterday, I heard Fianna Fáil backbenchers compare the rate of social welfare increases to previous increases which were made by other Administrations. I wonder when Fianna Fáil will understand that it will have been in power for 18 of the previous 20 years when this Dáil comes to an end. No matter how one looks at matters, Fianna Fáil must take responsibility. The party is very quick to take credit for years of power when things are going well, but when they go badly they revert to jargon about successive Governments. The Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil Ministers now refer to successive Governments over the past 30 years, having suddenly realised that they have been in control over the past 20 years and should, therefore, take responsibility for the condition of the State.

In local newspapers and on local radio, Fianna Fáil backbenchers come across as though they were members of the Opposition, yet in vote after vote they support and implement cuts in every Department. In terms of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the rate of increases would have seemed substantial were it not for the policies of the Department of Finance whose philosophy is to give a little through one Department while taking back more through another. The financial policies of the Fianna Fáil led Government have caused the rate of inflation to spiral out of control. Everybody in receipt of social welfare benefit, including the elderly, families and children, knows they are worse off despite the increases in their payments. The costs of food, heating, electricity, water, telephone, road tax, car insurance and rent have increased and the only thing social welfare recipients can be sure of is a daily diet of stealth taxes which pushes their families deeper into the poverty trap.

A satisfactory level of social welfare payments is fundamental to good Government. An inadequate rate has a negative effect on the quality of life of our less well-off and hinders the effectiveness of many programmes in other Departments. The inadequacy of the severely means tested carer's allowance shifts the onus of care in many instances from families to the Department of Health and Children and the health boards. The Department is unable to pay subventions for nursing homes and in the Southern Health Board area alone more than 500 people await approval for enhanced payments. No beds are available in community hospitals and hospital managers are seeking legal advice on how they can get rid of older patients who occupy beds for acutely ill patients.

The elderly are frightened and their families feel helpless all because we cannot find sufficient resources to adequately look after carers. It is impossible to put a price on the dedication of carers but we should be able to find enough money to ensure that carers could afford to stay at home and look after the elderly.

Another consequence of this funding crisis is the effect on the home help service. Not alone is there no money available for nursing home subventions and no community hospital beds, but less home help is available. Those receiving home help are constantly being re-assessed and, as a result, usually lose home help hours. Families are fearful of taking on the responsibility of caring for the elderly because of continuous cutbacks. A complete review of the carer's allowance system is urgently required. A re-assessment of the real value of their services to society and an introduction of a realistic system of means testing is required.

The inadequate social welfare payments impinge on the health boards in the context of the huge sums of money required for community welfare budgets. Instead of getting viable social welfare payments, recipients are further humiliated by having to go cap in hand to the community welfare officer to get the money for the ESB bill, rent subsidies or transport vouchers and to ask for help to pay for the most basic necessities of life. There should be very little need for the services of a community welfare officer.

In every town and village each week there are queues of people lining up to get a top-up on their social welfare allowance. No further proof should be necessary that social welfare payments are inadequate. The Department of Education and Science spends a fortune on back to education schemes whereas if the people had their own adequate resources, this funding would not be needed. If social welfare payments were adequate in the first instance, massive amounts of money could be saved in other Departments.

I have a different view of what the Minister is doing. I am sorry the Deputy has fallen into the trap into which some of his Opposition colleagues have also fallen of lecturing Fianna Fáil backbenchers. We seem to be an endangered species. If I had been elected last May to the Opposition benches I might have had an easier life. There is not much challenge over there as far as I can see. I am not going to sit at home in Tallaght and wait for 20 years until Fianna Fáil might be in Opposition. As far as I am concerned, I have been elected by the good people of Dublin South-West to come to the Dáil, participate in debates in this House and talk about the experience I bring to this House. I am not afraid to do that. Like my colleagues, I am not afraid to bring matters to the attention of the Taoiseach and the Government. I am a bit new and perhaps I do not know the system as well as others but I will do my job as I see it and I will make representations on behalf of my constituents.

I acknowledge that everything is not perfect in this Bill and we must fight for resources at a time when the economy is being challenged. I believe the Minister has made a great deal of progress and she is deserving of praise from all sides for the courage she has effected in her first period as Minister for Social and Family Affairs. She is a willing listener and has listened to a broad range of views on how to tackle social issues. I believe she and her officials will continue to meet the demands of our constituents, ranging as they do from child benefit to old age pension and social inclusion. I come from Tallaght and I have a strong background in understanding social inclusion. I will continue to bang on the door of Government as far as that is concerned.

I compliment the Minister in bringing the dispute with the Irish Dental Association to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. I have been asked by a number of constituents in Dublin South-West to applaud the Minister with regard to the grant to the National Organisation for the Unemployed. At a time when the economy is being challenged it is important that we acknowledge what is being achieved.

My colleagues in the Opposition consistently criticise the Government for not spending enough on particular issues but I believe it is the role of the Opposition to suggest what areas should be cut in order to pay for the increases they demand. At a time when choices have to be made and when expectations and needs continue to rise, it is vital that the Members of this House on all sides provide meaningful and effective contributions both in committee – and I am a member of the Committee on Social and Family Affairs – and in the House on all social welfare issues. We should impress upon the Minister and her officials that they should be delivering within the budgets allowed.

I respect and support the tireless contribution which individuals and families make to the care of their relatives. This Government continues to maximise the benefits paid to these unsung heroes and continues to show that their contribution is valued. The section in the Bill which increases the amount payable in the respite care grant to €1,470 for carers looking after two or more people and which takes effect from April and June, will cost €2.5 million in a full year. I commend the Bill to the House. I congratulate the Minister and assure her that she will have the support of like-minded people.

Gabhaim buíochas do na Teachtaí uilig a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht – tacaíocht ó chuid acu agus gearáin ó chuid eile. Díospóireacht breá a bhí againn idir inniu, inné agus an Mháirt. Ní thig liom dhul fríd achan rud a luadh sa díospóireacht ach rachaidh mé fríd cúpla rud atá iontach tábhachtach agus cúpla phointe a cuireadh os comhair an Tí.

I am considering an amendment to the Bill on Report Stage to clarify for PRSI purposes the position of agency workers. Deputies will recall that I have signalled my intention to bring forward an amendment to the Bill to facilitate anti-churning provisions in relation to PRSAs. I will advise the Opposition regarding the issue that has arisen and must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

I wish to be conciliatory as always and I thank my opposite number for his contributions. I will take on board some of the points he made but I want to clarify from this side of the House where we feel the priorities lie with regard to social welfare and the issue of social exclusion.

Some Members have spoken at great length about the adequacy of this year's social welfare increases. I would have preferred if additional resources were available to deal with many of the social welfare needs that have been raised in the House. The overall budgetary and economic constraints this year means that I could not do everything and I am sure Members appreciate that fact. It was very important that the Government prioritise initiatives this year, given the level of funding available. I decided to focus on pensions. This is only a first step in meeting the Government's commitments as set out in the five-year programme for Government. As one of my colleagues said, the first five minutes of the game is not enough. We have to wait until the final whistle blows before we know the final score. We will proceed with a five-year programme for Government.

That is all right unless one is put off the pitch. What happens then?

I will not be taken off the pitch. The Opposition might put in a few dirty tackles but it is up to the rest to make sure things go right. In addition to the programme for Government and the five-year programme, objectives have been reaffirmed in the most recent social partnership document Sustaining Progress.

No one can deny the facts. This Department now has a budget of over €10 billion. People come into the House and complain they only got this or that but they should look at the base line figures and the huge increases there have been since 1997. Through our priorities we are building on and will sustain that progress. One example is old age pensions which have been increased by 59% since 1997, from €99 to €157.30. That is well ahead of inflation. Short-term benefits have also been increased ahead of inflation over recent years. We will make further progress with both long-term and short-term benefits over the next five years.

A number of Deputies referred to the discussion paper that was prepared by my Department last year for the tax strategy group. There were some inaccuracies in what they had to say. The tax strategy group recognised clearly that the pace by which the commitments to improving social welfare payments would be realised over five years, to 2007, was a matter for Government. All the discussion paper did was cost the overall commitments. Unlike what a number of Deputies, particularly in the Labour Party, said, there were no recommendations arising from that discussion document. It outlined the facts about what would have to be done over five years.

Inflation and the adequacies of social welfare payments are issues that have been raised. One of the key objectives of the social welfare package over 2003 was to protect and enhance the value of all the rates of payment in relative terms. We had a discussion in regard to inflation on Committee Stage of the first Bill. I reiterate now that at budget time it was projected that prices would increase by an average of 4.8% in 2003. I welcome the recent fall in the annual rate of inflation from 5% to 4.8% as outlined in the consumer price index report of last January. Inflation is at 4.8% and all short-term and long-term payments are well above inflation.

What about all the charges?

We have taken inflationary measures into consideration. The Department of Finance gave us parameters and we alluded to them. There was a lot of criticism in regard to child benefit. The criticism was not just that the increases were €8 and €10, but people saw them as rowing back on a commitment. We had to make a decision whether to put all the money into child benefit or to put some into the other benefits on which people rely. I made a difficult decision and now we have reviewed the commitment and will deliver on it. Over the past two years child benefit has increased by €71.64 per month for the first two children and €86.20 per month for the third child and subsequent children. This may be too late for some Members. I appreciate that their children may be over the age limit and they have fewer liabilities. Child benefit is the most realistic way of dealing with the issue of child poverty. I will continue to support the necessity of addressing the issues of child poverty. Planned investment over the next two years will help us meet the commitment we have given in regard to child benefit for 2004 and 2005.

I thank Deputies for their views regarding increasing the age limit for child benefit from 18 years to 22 years for people on short-term benefits. We have delivered on that commitment. Contrary to what many Deputies think, we deliver on many commitments.

That was my suggestion. I have been pushing for it for years.

I do not recall the Deputy making that case. There has been ongoing debate about addressing the issue of child poverty and whether it should be done through CDAs or child benefit. There is a difference of opinion in the House on the issue. Concerns have been expressed that there are three types of CDA payments but this is an improvement on the previous position when there were more. I am not convinced that an increase in CDAs is the best way to address the issue of child poverty. The universality of child benefit, whether the receiver is in or out of work, is the best way forward.

The issue of rent supplement is one to which I wish to return. I have been advised that rents have stabilised and decreased over the past year. In that context last November I raised the issue in the House and advised Members that I was setting a cap on the maximum rent payable for the purposes of the social welfare rent allowance scheme. If an individual is unable to secure accommodation at or below the applicable maximum rent level it is open to health boards to provide payment above the maximum level as an exceptional measure for a limited period. I appreciate Deputy Gilmore still does not believe that so I will furnish him with a copy of the guidelines issued to the CWO. In exceptional circumstances the cap does not apply and flexibility is given to the CWO. My Department must be made aware of the exceptional circumstances but there is flexibility. It is important that people are not told they will be made homeless as a consequence of the cap. I do not accept that as there is flexibility in the system.

It is happening already.

I intend monitoring the issue and if the necessity arises I will look at the issues being raised in consultation with my colleague in the housing area. In regard to rent supplement, it is wrong for someone like myself to set the market in rent. That is what happened when rent supplement was increased on an ongoing basis. People raised rents accordingly when the supplement was raised, and that is unfair.

Other issues also arise in regard to rent supplement. For instance, many landlords are not registered with county councils. I hope to monitor those issues. I reaffirm that there is flexibility for people who find themselves in exceptional circumstances. One other issue which was raised – clarification on this is important – is the usage of the PPS number. Members expressed concern at the list of additional specified bodies that may use this number.

As it is now 1 o'clock, I am obliged to put the question.

Question put.

Ahern, Michael.Ahern, Noel.Andrews, Barry.Ardagh, Seán.Aylward, Liam.Blaney, Niall.Brady, Johnny.Brady, Martin.Brennan, Seamus.Browne, John.Callely, Ivor.Carty, John.Cassidy, Donie.Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.Coughlan, Mary.Cowen, Brian.Cullen, Martin.Curran, John.Davern, Noel.de Valera, Síle.Dempsey, Tony.Dennehy, John.Devins, Jimmy.Ellis, John.Fahey, Frank.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.Fleming, Seán.Fox, Mildred.Gallagher, Pat The Cope.Glennon, Jim.Grealish, Noel.Hanafin, Mary.Haughey, Seán.Hoctor, Máire.Jacob, Joe.

Keaveney, Cecilia.Kelleher, Billy.Kelly, Peter.Killeen, Tony.Kirk, Seamus.Lenihan, Brian.Lenihan, Conor.McCreevy, Charlie.McEllistrim, Thomas.McGuinness, John.Martin, Micheál.Moloney, John.Moynihan, Donal.Moynihan, Michael.Nolan, M. J.Ó Cuív, Éamon.Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.O'Connor, Charlie.O'Dea, Willie.O'Donnell, Liz.O'Donovan, Denis.O'Flynn, Noel.O'Keeffe, Batt.O'Keeffe, Ned.O'Malley, Fiona.Parlon, Tom.Power, Peter.Power, Seán.Ryan, Eoin.Sexton, Mae.Smith, Brendan.Smith, Michael.Wallace, Dan.Woods, Michael.Wright, G. V.


Boyle, Dan.Broughan, Thomas P.Bruton, Richard.Burton, Joan.Connaughton, Paul.Connolly, Paudge.Coveney, Simon.Crowe, Seán.Deasy, John.Deenihan, Jimmy.Durkan, Bernard J.English, Damien.Enright, Olwyn.Ferris, Martin.Gilmore, Eamon.Gogarty, Paul.Gregory, Tony.

Harkin, Marian.Healy, Seamus.Higgins, Joe.Higgins, Michael D.Hogan, Phil.Howlin, Brendan.McCormack, Padraic.McGinley, Dinny.McGrath, Finian.McGrath, Paul.McHugh, Paddy.McManus, Liz.Mitchell, Gay.Mitchell, Olivia.Morgan, Arthur.Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda. Neville, Dan.


Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.O'Dowd, Fergus.O'Shea, Brian.O'Sullivan, Jan.Pattison, Seamus.Penrose, Willie.Perry, John.Quinn, Ruairi.Rabbitte, Pat.Ring, Michael.

Ryan, Eamon.Ryan, Seán.Sargent, Trevor.Sherlock, Joe.Shortall, Róisín.Stagg, Emmet.Stanton, David.Timmins, Billy.Twomey, Liam.Upton, Mary.Wall, Jack.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Hanafin and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Durkan and Stagg.
Question declared carried.