Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2004

Vol. 594 No. 4

Social Welfare Bill 2004: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the Social Welfare Bill 2004, which is the first of two Bills which will implement the €874 million social welfare package that was announced last week's budget. The package represents an increase of €244 million, or almost 40%, on the 2004 package of €630 million. It brings the projected level of social welfare expenditure in 2005 to over €12.25 billion, which constitutes an increase of €1 billion, or almost9%, on the allocation for 2004. That it is the highest ever level of social welfare expenditure is an indication of the Government's priority, which is to protect and improve the living standards of social welfare recipients, as well as a clear demonstration of its commitment to addressing the needs of people with disabilities, their carers, children, the elderly, widowed persons, the unemployed, those who are parenting alone and disadvantaged people. It continues the Government's substantial annual increases in social welfare expenditure, which has increased by almost 60% in the last four years. The current level of such expenditure is twice that in 1997.

The budget of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is over €12 billion, is the largest spending allocation of any Department. I wish to elaborate on what that means in real terms. For every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2005, almost €1 will be spent on social welfare payments. An estimated 970,000 people are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year. When one takes dependants into account, almost 1.5 million people, or two out of every five people in the State, will benefit from the payments. The increases of €12 and €14 in weekly social welfare payments are three to four times greater than the expected rate of inflation in 2005. The increases range from over 7% to over 10%, compared to next year's expected rate of inflation of 2.5%.

Ireland has changed dramatically for the better since the Government took office. The number of people at work has increased to almost 1.9 million and the rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically from 10% to 4.4%.

The number of low-paid workers removed from the tax net has increased and in 2005 all those on the minimum wage will be taken out of the income tax net entirely. Social welfare spending has more than doubled, from €5.74 billion in 1997 to a projected €12.25 billion in 2005. Over the past decade, while gross average industrial earnings have increased by 71%, social welfare payments have increased by between 87% and 95%, and by even more for larger families. Substantial improvements in the conditions for entitlement to a range of social welfare schemes and services have been implemented. New social welfare benefits, such as farm assist, carer's benefit, the widowed parent grant and the respite care grant, have been introduced and enhanced.

All the real improvements in social welfare in recent years have led to a significant reduction in consistent poverty. According to the ESRI, the overall level of consistent poverty in 1998 was 8.2%. This was reduced by over a third, to 5.2%, by 2001, the latest year for which figures are available.

I could spend a long time quoting many more facts and figures that confirm the pivotal role the Department of Social and Family Affairs plays in the lives of so many people and the great strides that have been made in a few years. However, the Department of Social Affairs is concerned with more than statistics. The payments and benefits it provides are a weekly lifeline for many who are struggling to make ends meet. More often than not, the Department is the last safety net for those descending towards poverty, marginalisation and economic and social distress. However, the Department is more than an efficient and effective administrative structure for processing and delivering State entitlements. Above all else, it is about people. It must be people-centered. The response of my Department must always be to shape the welfare system to meet individual needs and not to be guided only by rules and regulations that may sometimes blur the real purpose. Put simply, this means that one size welfare does not fit all.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs, while representing a valuable source of payments, entitlements and supports, must be viewed in a broader context. It is about the welfare and the overall well-being of those who are caught in the daily struggle to make ends meet, including the children at risk of poverty, the carers who look after those unable to care for themselves, the elderly, the unemployed and the many others to whom we must reach out and support. My Department must constantly monitor the pulse of our changing society and broaden and evolve to respond to changes. As I said before in this House, the economic surge during the Celtic tiger era did not raise all boats. Some got left behind. We are now enjoying a new wave of economic growth. This time around, the rising tide must, above all else, lift those who were left behind on the previous occasion.

Before outlining the contents of this Bill, let me address a few of the welfare areas that were targeted specifically in the budget. I set out to recognise and support in a special way the contribution carers make in society. Carers provide a valued and a valuable service. Everyone in this House, and in society in general, knows of the commitments and sacrifices involved. The package of measures that I agreed with the Minister for Finance commits additional spending of close to €40 million to enhance supports for carers and to allow more carers qualify for entitlements. In all, there are eight separate increases or improvements for carers under this year's budget. The carer's allowance and the carer's benefit are increased by €14 per week and the annual respite care grant has been increased from €850 to €1,000. Almost 33,000 full-time carers are expected to receive the special grant of €1,000 next year. Furthermore, significantly, the respite care grant has been extended to include all carers who are providing full-time care, subject to employment-related conditions. This is one of the most significant developments in recognition of carers since the carer's allowance scheme was first introduced. It will result in an additional 9,200 full-time carers receiving the grant for the first time. The grant will also be payable in respect of each person receiving care.

My purpose in making this provision is to recognise and acknowledge the particular challenges faced by carers who are caring for several people. The carer's package also expands the income limits for the carer's allowance so that all those on average industrial incomes can qualify by increasing the weekly means test income disregards by €20 to €270 for a single person and by €40 to €540 for a couple. This means a couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance, while the same couple can earn up to €49,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance, free travel, the household benefits package of free schemes and the respite care grant. These improvements will result in an additional 1,000 new carers qualifying for payment and 2,400 existing carers, who are currently in receipt of a reduced payment, receiving an increase in their weekly carer's allowance payment. I am committed, through these measures, to the cause of carers.

The most recent budget, with previous initiatives, went some distance in responding to the specific needs of carers. There is genuinely a lot more to do in this area and I will continue to press ahead with that work.

Let us consider what the Opposition has called "cuts", which it says were introduced last year by my predecessor.

Savage cuts.

When I took on the job of Minister for Social and Family Affairs, I indicated that if any hardship was proven, I would take appropriate remedial action. Some of the 30 or so groups involved in making pre-budget submissions told me that several measures needed easement. With that in mind and following detailed examination, I decided to ease nine of the measures at this time, while instructing that those remaining should be subjected to a continuing active review. To remove any lingering doubts, I want to make it very clear that significant improvements have been made in the following ways. The weekly income threshold for half-rate child dependant allowance in respect of certain benefits has been increased from €300 to €350. The back to education allowance has been improved by increasing the grants from €254 to €400, while the qualifying period has been reduced from 15 months to 12 months.

As an employment incentive, I have arranged that the one-parent family payment will continue to include a half-rate transitional payment for six months when employment paying over €293 per week is gained. Major changes have also been made in the area of rent supplement. The six-month rule has been removed and amending criteria applied so that people with a short-term income need will not be disadvantaged. This applies to cases of illness or unemployment, together with those who are assessed by a local authority as having a housing need, the elderly, homeless people and those who are disabled.

Previously, rent supplement was not paid to those who refused two offers of local authority accommodation. I have raised this to three offers, which I believe to be reasonable, to strengthen the leadership role of local authorities in dealing with long-term housing needs. To that end, I will discuss with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, how best to ensure housing assessments are carried out in a speedier fashion for all applicants for rent supplement. I increased the income disregard from €50 to €60 per week for the payment of rent supplement, and I have decided not to increase the minimum contribution of claimants from its present value of €13 per week. I have asked the social partners to examine the non-payment of rent supplement where either member of a couple is in full-time employment.

The money advice and budgeting service is a significant contributor to anti-poverty measures and I have recognised this by providing special funding of €700,000, in addition to the normal funding, to develop additional services. This fully restores the previous level of funding.

The purpose of the crèche supplement is to provide short-term emergency support where, for example, a parent needs to avail of a medical appointment. This is an important facility by which parents can avail of community crèches. I have ensured that existing recipients continue to receive it and that new cases, referred by health sector personal social services professionals, will receive payment. In addition, I will consult the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children, and Education and Science on the future handling of emergency crèche needs.

Correct diet is important for many people who have particular medical needs and I have, therefore, restored payment of the diet supplement, with immediate effect. The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute is completing a study of the cost of appropriate diets over and above normal food costs. My Department has commissioned this study and I will examine it over the coming weeks to determine whether further amendments are required. This will also be subject to discussions with the Minister for Health and Children.

The remaining measures will continue to be under review, during which they will be continuously monitored to ensure no disadvantage is caused. They include graduated rates of payment, the increase in paid contributions for entitlement to certain social insurance benefits and the period over which multiple claims can be linked. It is a sad fact of life that more often than not the most vulnerable in society are children. This budget set out to improve entitlements and supports targeted at directly benefiting children and families. There has been some questioning of the policy of not increasing the child dependant allowances on the grounds that these payments are made only to recipients of social welfare and, consequently, are targeted directly at those most at risk of poverty.

The Government's policy is to concentrate resources for child income support on the child benefit scheme. After this budget, child benefit will account for over 66% of child income support, while in 1994 it constituted only less than 30%. There are sound reasons for this policy. Child benefit is neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents, and it does not contribute to poverty traps, whereas the loss of child dependant allowances by social welfare recipients on taking up employment can act as a disincentive to availing of work opportunities. As a near universal payment, child benefit is not taxable, is not assessed as means for other secondary benefits and is payable to the primary carer, usually the mother. When account is taken of these aspects of payment, child benefit is more effective than child dependant allowance as a child income support mechanism. The combined child income support, that is child benefit and child dependant allowance, for those on social welfare payments will be at 33% of the lowest social welfare rate in 2005.

As part of the Sustaining Progress special initiative on ending child poverty, the National Economic and Social Council has been asked to undertake an in-depth examination of child income support arrangements with a view to considering the possibility of a second tier child-related payment targeted at low income families. This would replace family income supplement and child dependant allowances, and perhaps the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, and would have a neutral impact on employment incentives. I am particularly interested in studying the findings of that National Economic and Social Council report as it may offer a new emphasis and a new direction in the fight we all want to win against child poverty.

The objectives of the 2005 social welfare package are to: provide significantly enhanced supports to carers; increase and maintain the value of all rates of payment in real terms with a €12 minimum increase in all weekly social welfare payments; provide a substantial increase of €14 per week to those on lower payments; continue to address the Sustaining Progress and An Agreed Programme for Government commitments to increase the State pension to €200 by 2007; increase the real value of all qualified adult rates of payment and ensure that they do not fall as a proportion of the associated personal rate; and continue to make significant progress in our programme of increases in the level of child benefit.

My priority in this budget package is to make significant progress in delivering on the social welfare commitments contained in the programme for Government, Sustaining Progress and the national anti-poverty strategy. Resources will be targeted on helping those most in need not alone to raise their standard of living but also to ensure that everyone is a valued citizen who can make his or her individual contribution to society regardless of his or her circumstances.

The main provisions of the Bill are as follows. Sections 2 and 3 reaffirm the Government's commitment to supporting pensioners and, together with the Schedules to the Bill, provide for an increase of €12 per week in the personal rates of old age contributory and non-contributory pensions, and retirement and invalidity pensions. This measure will bring the rate of the old age contributory pension to €179.30 per week and the old age non-contributory pension to €166 per week. On the basis of projected annual inflation of 2.5% in 2005, these increases represent a substantial real increase.

There is also an increase of €12 for those in receipt of widow's-widower's contributory and non-contributory pensions bringing the maximum personal weekly rates for those pensioners aged 66 years and over to €179.30 and €166 respectively. Widows in receipt of those pensions aged under 66 years will benefit from a €14 increase, bringing their weekly pensions to €154.30 and €148.80 respectively. Proportionate increases will be applied where persons are in receipt of reduced rate payments.

The Government is committed to increasing the level of qualified adult allowance for pensioner spouses in the coming years to the full old age non-contributory pension rate to benefit, in the main, women in the home who do not qualify for the contributory pension in their own right. Section 2 provides for increases in the social insurance-based payments and for increases in respect of qualified adults. The qualified adult payments applicable to old age contributory and retirement pensions are increased by €9.30 per week, where the qualified adult is aged 66 years or over, and €8 per week, where he or she is aged under 66 years. Qualified adult payments in respect of invalidity pension are increased by €9.30 where the qualified adult is over 66 years of age and by €10 where aged under 66. The combined increases in personal and qualified adult rates will mean that a couple in receipt of a full old age contributory pension with qualified adult allowance rate, aged over 66, will receive a substantial increase of €21.30 per week.

In addition to providing for the increases in social assistance payments, section 3 contains the rates increases for qualified adults on such payments. An increase of €7.90 per week is provided for qualified adults of old age non-contributory pension recipients and blind pension recipients over 66 years of age. An increase of €9.30 per week is provided for all other qualified adult rates. Proportionate increases will be applied where persons are in receipt of reduced rate qualified adult allowance payments.

I am also conscious of the needs of other vulnerable groups in our society, particularly those who are unemployed or disadvantaged, those who are ill and those who provide caring support for the elderly and the ill. Accordingly, I am providing for a weekly increase of €14 in the personal rates of those payments. This will bring all the lowest weekly personal rates of payment to €148.80, including unemployment benefit, unemployment assistance, one-parent family payment, supplementary welfare allowance and farm assist. As a result of the €14 increase, the rate of carer's allowance will reach €153.60 per week while the new carer's benefit rate will be €163.70 per week.

The social welfare budget increases included in this Bill will become payable from the first pay-day in January 2005. People receiving short-term payments, such as unemployment benefit or assistance, farm assist and supplementary welfare allowance, will receive their increases immediately in the first week in January. In addition, 160,000 customers who receive long-term payments by means of electronic payment through a post office or a bank will receive their increases on the first pay-day in January. The payable order book is the payment mechanism for 220,000 persons who are, predominantly, recipients of widow's-widower's, one-parent family payment, invalidity pension and carer's allowance. The production of new order books will entail a minimal delay and the new books will be issued to all customers in mid-February 2005. These customers will receive a lump sum arrears payment of six weeks in their first payable order of the new book and the weekly increase will be included in their weekly payable orders thereafter.

A further 260,000 customers, mainly recipients of old age and retirement pensions and disability allowance, who also receive payments via the payable order book, will receive their new order books in April. To minimise inconvenience, they will, however, receive a special payment in mid-February comprising six weeks arrears of the budget increase and seven weeks advance payment. For example, a couple on old age non-contributory pension and aged over 66 years of age will receive a lump sum payment of €312 in mid-February. This will cover the increase from the first pay-day in January and include an advance of the increase to the book renewal date in April. Thereafter, the increase will be incorporated into the normal weekly payment.

Section 4 of the Bill provides an increase of €39 in the weekly income thresholds applied in determining entitlement to family income supplement, expanding the thresholds from €446 in the case of a family with one child to €623 in the case of a family with eight or more children. This will result in a weekly increase of €23.40 with effect from January 2005 for most eligible families.

Sections 5 and 6 provide for changes in PRSI. The earnings ceiling for employees' social insurance contributions and the income ceiling for the payment of optional contributions is being increased by €2,020 from €42,160 to €44,180 per year with effect from 1 January 2005. Section 7 provides for an increase in the percentage of reckonable weekly earnings referred to in calculating the rate of payment under the maternity benefit scheme. This provision increases the rate from 70% to 75% and goes half-way towards fulfilling the commitment under Sustaining Progress to raise this limit to 80% of average weekly earnings over the life of that agreement. The measure will benefit the majority of recipients and will take effect from January 2005.

I will propose an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage to ensure that the similarities in the application and administration of the maternity benefit and adoptive benefit schemes are maintained.

The proposed amendment will, therefore, provide that the increase in the percentage of reckonable weekly earnings from 70% to 75% under the maternity benefit scheme that I have already outlined will also apply to the adoptive benefit scheme from January next.

Section 8 provides for an increase of €44 per week in the health contribution threshold bringing the weekly income under which no contribution is payable from €365 per week or €18,512 per year to €400 per week or €20,800 per year. This measure, which will take effect from January next, is expected to benefit 95,000 income earners.

This Social Welfare Bill, the first of two instalments, builds on the progress of social inclusion measures adopted by the Government over recent years. It safeguards the living standards of those who rely on social welfare income and other supports and prioritises the allocation of resources in favour of those most in need. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive debate. Molaim an Bille don Teach.

It is difficult to know where to start, since the Minister's speech is unusual. He dresses up improvements, and it is more a case of three steps back than one step forward. It is supposed to be an improvement. He uses new words, speaking of "ease" and "easement". In some briefings that I have seen, he writes of amendments to the savage 16 cuts of last year. One could say that we now have a caring and sharing Government, but we will have to see. It is hard not to be cynical about the desperation that we detect following the battering that the Government received at the local and European elections. People did not like what happened last year, and they had their say, giving notice to the Government to put its house in order quickly. However, it is too late for the Government. People are now waiting for the general election to trounce Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats for the unspeakable way in which they have treated those on low incomes in particular, especially last year.

The Government keeps saying that large amounts of money are available and that we are flush with cash. If so, where was the need for all the cutbacks, and why have they not been totally reversed this year? They went down to Inchydoney in my county, something about which people keep telling us. They realised — although not fully, it seems — that they had been wrong to make those petty savings at the expense of the most vulnerable. They saved approximately €55.5 million or 5% of the total social welfare budget for 2004.

The Government sat around and agreed several vicious cutbacks that affected the most vulnerable in society, in the main those who could not fight back. I heard today that some Members involved in social partnership who did not agree with the Government last year were told to leave. It had come down from the Department of the Taoiseach that they were not wanted there, since they were giving the wrong message to the Government about some of the cutbacks and the way that homeless people in particular were being treated. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, is faced with a great challenge. He has consistently said that he will do his best and work very hard. He is very experienced and has been around for a long time. Fine Gael will back him in any efforts that he makes to help the most vulnerable, but we will not tolerate anything less.

In today's speech there was a great deal of waffle, including words such as "easement", which does not fool anyone. We know what it means — partial easement — and that is trying to fool people. At the time of the cutbacks last year the Government referred to them as "adjustments", another euphemism. In his speech, the Minister says that the Opposition called them cuts, but that is what they were. Let us use English. They were cutbacks rather than simple adjustments.

He also said that they were necessary to keep the public finances healthy. The poorest of the poor had to suffer so that the rich might benefit and the Government could buy all those electronic voting machines. It is amazing that the €55 million it saved by hitting the poorest of the poor last year was almost exactly equal to the amount that it squandered on those machines, which lie unused somewhere, and which may never be used.

We must accept — and the Fine Gael Party is the first to do so — that the public finances must be kept in order. The Government has a poor record in that regard, having squandered money when there was plenty. One must question the political choices made at the expense of the people. I mentioned the voting machines, and Punchestown has been raised by many. There are also all the spin doctors and reports that the Government has commissioned over recent years. Many of the reports lie unread on shelves and nothing has happened. Ministers have many advisers. In this democracy, we are on the Opposition benches trying to debate with the Government how best to manage the country. We have fewer resources, but the Government can simply write blank cheques to its personal friends, bringing them in as advisers, spin doctors and so on. It is not good enough, and people are waiting, having become sick of this carry-on.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, is extremely disingenuous to suggest that last year's cutbacks have been reversed. That has not happened, since there has been no change to over a third of the so-called "savage 16", while the rest have merely been tinkered with. The Minister created a great deal of hope with words such as "reversed" and "rescinded". Now he is muddying the waters, and his promises have been reduced to "amendments" and "easements". It is very unclear in some cases what the outcome of the Minister's tinkering will be. As matters stand, people will still suffer as a result of those cutbacks — not easements. The Minister must issue a clear statement explaining what exactly is occurring with each of those measures and fully outline the timeframe for the implementation of the amendments that he proposes, which is very unclear. What the Minister produced on the night of the budget seemed like something concocted in a hurry. There were not many items, and I wish to go through some.

The Minister has mentioned the back to education allowance. The qualifying period was increased from six months to 15 months for the third level option. His amendment brings that back down to 12 months. That is not a reversal since people will still have to wait 12 months before they can get involved. Surely the Minister agrees that we must try to help people back into education. No reason that I could accept was given for that cut. The scheme was very good, and people who had been out of work for six months qualified to return to education to better themselves. The Minister spoke of that, yet now they must wait 12 months. Why did the Minister not reverse the cuts and restore the six-month qualifying period? He could have done it, so what stopped him? It was an easement.

I welcome the education allowance being increased by 58% to €400, since the cost is real. However, the Minister could have reversed the other cut. There are people in my constituency and others who say to their representatives that they would like to return to education but cannot. They had made plans to return to college to try to better themselves but could not because of the cut. I will press the Minister very hard to re-examine whether he might restore the six-month period. Twelve months is a very long time to wait.

When the cut was introduced, expert advice was given saying that anything longer than six months was retrogressive. If the Minister wishes to reconsider the matter, he will have that information before him. Expert advice said that the qualifying period could be no longer than six months. On Wednesday, 19 November 2003, the then Minister of State at the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Deputy O'Dea, said before the Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights that he had not had a chance to study the changes but would speak to the Minister about them. He stated that, if the qualifying period had been extended to 15 months, he would certainly not like to see it extended any further. He said that experts had arrived at the six-month period after extensive consultation and a great deal of deliberation. It was he who had first introduced the scheme.

The other matter was the discontinuation of transitional half-rate payments for lone parents where the recipient takes up employment with earnings above the upper threshold of €293 per week. That was amended, and one-parent family recipients are now to receive a transitional half-rate payment for six months where income exceeds €293 per week. That is welcome, but one wonders once again how much was saved. It must have been very little. The rationale for the cut was not given. Before the cutback, the period was 12 months. As far as I can figure out, at that time there were only 580 claimants. Six months after the introduction of the cut, 120 people had been removed from the scheme. Perhaps the Minister might inform us on Committee Stage what the figure is now. In 2004, the minimum contribution that all recipients of supplementary welfare allowance, rent or mortgage supplement were required to make towards their accommodation was increased by €1 per week to €13. There has been no further increase in that contribution. I note this measure is to be kept under ongoing review. What does the Minister mean by the term "ongoing review"? Social welfare recipients are already paying top-ups to landlords. A family in receipt of the lowest social welfare payment must pay a contribution towards their rent and a top up payment, which can take quite a chunk out of their weekly income.

Supplementary welfare allowance is not payable to people in full-time employment. In future, if one of a couple is in full-time employment, both will be excluded from claiming rent-mortgage supplement. This measure has been referred for review to the social partners. This cut will hit people who are unemployed. It is a swingeing cut into which no real thought has been put. There is no change in that regard. Threshold stated that the rule where people could not receive rent supplement if one's spouse was working over 30 hours per week discouraged people from looking for work, especially low paid work. One of the conditions for receipt of rent supplement is that the tenant must be in need of accommodation and unable to provide for it from his or her resources. For the most part, health boards decide whether an applicant for rent supplement is in need of accommodation without reference to the local authority. In future claimants for rent supplement will be referred to the local authority for an assessment of housing need in a more systematic manner. The Minister amended this measure subject to consultation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This measure was mainly needed to ensure that rent supplements are paid in appropriate circumstances. What does the Minister's so-called amendment mean? What has changed? Some of the people administering these schemes are confused. The Minister should set out in plain English what exactly is meant by this change. A clear guide on this measure is required. Many people depend on these schemes. If the Minister's officials, namely, the experts who are administering these schemes do not understand them, how can the Minister expect recipients of benefits under the schemes to understand them? We need clarity in terms of where people stand in respect of each scheme. We need the position set out in plain English rather than in glossy words such as "easement" and "amendment" used by the Minister.

Health boards will be given the power to refuse rent supplements in cases where the applicant has not already been renting for a period of six months, with provisions for exceptions in regard to people who are homeless or where there are other compelling reasons. This measure has been amended, but again the position is ambiguous. Some voluntary groups are of the view that this change will mean that an individual will have to prove some form of renting, although not necessarily for six months. This amendment does not cover one parent families, people living at home with parents who want to move out of home or people who find themselves dealing with a crisis pregnancy and a major row breaks out at home.

Homelessness is still a major issue. Perhaps the Minister will take up a challenge to work with his Government colleagues and other Members to try to eliminate homelessness once and for all. I do not mean addressing the problem by putting people into hostels, which is what is currently happening. People are being put into hostels and left there when what they need are houses — a place of their own. That is what the Government must provide for people who are homeless.

Rent supplement will no longer be paid to people who refuse offers of local authority accommodation or to people who leave local authority accommodation without reasonable cause. This change is welcome. The Government has recognised that this was a mean cut at the time. It was unfair and showed that the Government was out of touch at that time. People are afraid to move into certain areas and have genuine concerns about anti-social behaviour. The amendment to this measure has given some leeway in that social welfare recipients can still receive rent supplement unless a third offer of local authority accommodation is refused.

A supplement given to recipients of social welfare allowances who have been supported by MABS in brokering a deal with creditors was discontinued last year. That change played into the hands of moneylenders, plenty of whom are still operating. Special funding of €700,000 will be allocated to MABS to develop additional and innovative services to directly tackle over-indebtedness and the financial and emotional stress it causes families. I would like the Minister to outline on Committee Stage how that funding will be administered and implemented because that is not clear. What does he mean by the additional and innovative services to be provided by such funding? A relatively small number of people, some 370, who are among the most vulnerable, availed of this payment prior to the cutback. This action affected a small number of people and saved a small amount of money, but it created major hardship for those people and drove more people into the hands of moneylenders and loan sharks who are still in operation.

The crèche supplement was discontinued. While the Minister's change to this measure is welcome, it has made the crèche supplement more difficult to avail of than previously. It is unclear what is involved. The continuation of funding for existing crèche supplement recipients and their community crèches is positive. There will also be funding of new cases referred by health sector personal social services professionals. The Minister needs to outline exactly what criteria govern the scheme. What are the guidelines for eligibility? We need to see those because we want to be able to debate them. My fear is that they could be restrictive, but I hope they are not. The Minister has not made those clear.

We were told last year that the diet supplement was outdated and was being phased out. However, now it is being restored and a new revised report is being prepared on it. We do not know when that report will be published or how long after its publication the Minister will take to act on its recommendations. The Minister should restore the supplement at the level it was at, wait for the publication of the report and then act on it. Why should people have to suffer in the meantime? I believe the Minister would agree that makes sense. However, we are another report away from action being taken on this measure, which is long-fingering the process. The fear among the people in question is that it could result in a reduction or restriction in the payment of the diet supplement.

Last year we learned that the entitlement to half-rate child dependant allowance in respect of unemployment benefit and disability benefit claims would be discontinued where the claimant's spouse-partner has weekly income in excess of €300. There is a change to this measure in that there is an increase in the income threshold for entitlement to half-rate child dependant allowance with unemployment benefit, disability benefit, injury benefit and health and safety benefit by €50 to €350 a week. We were told that by June of this year, six months after the introduction of this cutback, the number of people receiving such a payment was reduced by 17,000 from 63,000 to 46,000. In his press release on budget day, the Minister said the amendment would benefit approximately 4,600 families. That is a 30% reversal in that respect and the figure could be much worse given that the latest available figures for this cutback are only for the first six months of the year. Will the Minister provide up to date figures on this measure? How many people have been affected by it? What was the effect of it and what will the effect of it be in the future? I am sure the Minister will accept the easements proposed are vague and difficult to understand. He needs to do much more to clarify them.

Another cutback was an increase in the current weekly earnings threshold for the purposes of payment of reduced rates of disability benefit and unemployment benefit. It was argued that the measure was a serious disincentive to employment. There is no change in this measure, which will be kept under review. When is a person entitled to a half rate payment of disability benefit or unemployment benefit? This measure does not directly affect the rate of benefit payable but it may cause entitlement to be exhausted earlier. Widows and widowers were affected by this measure last year, but that was amended after must pressure.

It was proposed to increase the underlying number of paid contributions required from 39 since first entering insurance to 52 for entitlement to disability benefit, unemployment benefit and health and safety benefit. This measure is designed to more closely relate the contribution conditions for those benefits to the level and duration of the benefits being provided. There is no change to that measure, which will continue to be reviewed.

I could refer to a number of other measures, but I wish to deal with an issue arising in respect of child benefit. While we welcome the increase provided, in the 2001 budget the then Government promised to spend €1.27 billion on child benefit over three years. The then Government delivered on that promise in 2002 which was an election year, but it broke that promise in 2003 and promised to deliver on that commitment in 2004 and 2005. In 2004 child benefit was increased by less than half what was required to keep pace with the commitments made in Sustaining Progress, leaving a gap of €18.30 and €20.10 to be filled. Yet again the target date for meeting Government promises has been pushed back, bringing it closer to the general election. Is it the intention to give a huge increase in child benefit at that time? That is my guess, and that is what people have become used to. However, I will not accept those shenanigans and use of people's money to buy votes.

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance was not increased, and that surprises me. The take-up of this allowance is low. More needs to be done to ensure that people are aware of it and can avail of it. The Minister is being very strict regarding the deadline — if people do not apply by a certain date they cannot get it. Perhaps the Minister will examine that aspect.

The family income supplement is good, but it could be better, and it is still not getting to the people who need it. That is a big issue. The Department is running an advertisement of carer's benefit on radio. The advertisement mostly states what a caring Department the Minister is running, given how much money it pays out. There is a small bit in the middle to the effect that people might be entitled to certain benefits. Perhaps the Minister will examine the content of that advertisement and change it so that it spends more time giving information and less time praising the Department. That might be more beneficial. It is necessary to inform people of their entitlements, particularly to family income supplement.

I am interested in what the Minister intends to do to bring together in one payment the clothing and footwear allowance, the FIS and the dependant allowances in the form of a second child-related payment targeted at low income families. That is an interesting idea. It is one that Fine Gael has also advocated and one that would be less difficult to administer, provided people were aware of their entitlements. I await the Minister's proposals in that area.

The increase in carer's respite is welcome. Much was expected regarding carers. A person in receipt of an old age pension who suddenly has to care for a dependent spouse or child does not get anything extra for doing that. If they are in receipt of a carer's allowance and become eligible to claim a pension, they lose the other allowance. However, the amount of extra work they do and the amount of money they thereby save the State is enormous. There was an expectation that they would be entitled to even half the carer's allowance, although I argue they should get much more than that. That has not happened.

I welcome the removal of the anomaly whereby a person caring for more than two people could not receive a grant in respect of each care recipient. It is time that was addressed.

Will the Minister clarify the extension of the respite care grant for carers who would not qualify for the carer's allowance. In the budget fact sheet it is stated that the respite care grant will be extended to all carers providing full-time care to an older person or a person with disability, regardless of means and subject to certain employment-related conditions. What are these employment-related conditions? Does this mean that all full-time carers will be given the respite care grant? I would welcome clarification of that from the Minister on Committee Stage.

I welcome the disability package. There was no mention of a personal advocacy service for persons with disability, which was announced in July and September this year. A press release issued on 27 September, two days before the Government reshuffle, suggested the new personal advocacy service would be put in place after the Comhairle Bill was introduced into the Oireachtas in October. Following the publication of the national disability strategy the previous Minister met the Chairman of Comhairle to discuss the implementation of the personal advocacy service. This gave the impression that the service would be up and running once the Bill was passed. However, I recently learned that this might not happen until 2008. I would like clarification of this from the Minister.

There was no mention of a cost of disability payment. I am sure the Minister realises that if somebody has a disability the cost of living goes up. The person cannot go to the local large supermarket to shop but may have to shop in smaller shops nearby, which increases costs.

I mentioned previously that beneficiaries of community employment schemes would be entitled to family income supplement if they were working in the labour force. The Minister promised to examine this issue when I raised it by way of parliamentary question, but he has not done so. People whose income is from community employment schemes are not entitled to a top-up, even though if they were in the labour force they would be so entitled. I again ask the Minister to examine this issue.

The removal of those on the minimum wage from the tax net has at long last happened. However, it has been suggested that people on the minimum wage may find themselves being taxed again later this year when there is an increase in the minimum wage. We welcome the increase, but if someone is on the minimum wage they should have that amount to live on and nothing should be deducted from it.

Many groups wanted an increase in the child dependant allowance but that has not been given. The Minister stated that such an increase could act as a disincentive to availing of work opportunities. However, research has indicated that is not the case. There is disappointment that the Minister did not increase the allowance. Although he did not mention it on Second Stage, the Minister often refers to consistent poverty. He must surely be aware that this definition of poverty is outdated and that all across Europe and even in the agencies in Ireland poverty is defined in terms of relative income poverty. Neither has the Minister mentioned the new phenomenon of the working poor that is emerging in Ireland. What does the Government intend to do to assist such people given that 35% of children who experience poverty now come from families that are in employment and where people are working they are often cut off from many supports and benefits administered by the Department? This is something the Government must address very soon because people are experiencing serious hardship.

The cuts implemented last year have not been rescinded. People who were affected last year are still affected. The Minister put a spin on this when he spoke about easement today and about amendments on the night of the budget. However, the cuts are still in operation and people are suffering as a result. The Minister must do better. At the moment I would give him three out of ten for delivering on a reversal of those cuts. The other improvements are welcome. However, we must bear in mind the people who are most vulnerable, the people who have no voice and who have no one to fight for them. These are the people the Government targeted last year to save €55.5 million. He has done precious little this year to reverse that. He could have done a lot more.

The Minister has been only a short time in office and has promised much. In fairness, the jury is still out. However, he was in the Cabinet when these cuts were introduced. We still have the same circus on the other side of the House but the clowns have been moved around. We must wait to see whether the Minister can do better than he has up to now. At this stage it is probably too late to do better, given that Committee Stage is to be taken tomorrow. He could burn the midnight oil and produce amendments to the Bill tomorrow. Some aspects are governed by regulation and the Minister could, perhaps, examine those to see whether it would be possible to introduce regulations later this year or early next year to address some of the cuts that were introduced last year.

The Minister might also give consideration to some of the other suggestions I made today. The problem of homelessness is a major issue and must be addressed. Single men in particular who become homeless find it very difficult to cope. They need assistance and a leg-up to get back on their feet and find a place of their own. That is not too much to ask. The local authorities and health boards must be engaged with to ensure this happens.

This is clearly an opportunist election budget focused on trying to undo the damage done to the Government parties by the succession of budgets of the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy. I welcome the increases in social welfare and pensions and the care package for the disabled. However, these measures are in line with what has been set out in Sustaining Progress and were advised by the Combat Poverty Agency, in particular in regard to increasing personal rates by a minimum of €12, increasing the qualified adult rate by €9, which was not achieved in some areas, and reforming the means test and income disregards.

With regard to the money advice and budgeting service, the level of spin has caused many to accept the situation. Some commentators appear to have forgotten the essential principle that the best way out of poverty is through employment and removing the obstacles to getting into employment. As I will illustrate, the budget did nothing for lone parent families. The smoke and mirrors and spin will not conceal the fact that the budget tried to give the impression that all is well at the castle. Nothing could be further from the truth. While most of the cuts were last year visited upon the marginalised and those who could ill afford to bear them, I was the subject of abuse from Fianna Fáil backbenchers and Ministers who stated the cuts were not taking place. It took me 72 hours to sieve out the fact that there were 16 savage cuts, although it was stated that this was nonsense. The former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, stated that I was engaging in sensationalism and that the cuts would have no impact. However, I brought the various community and voluntary organisations to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, which I chair, where they pointed out the impact of the cuts. Despite this, it was still stated there were no cuts.

The former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, would not give the former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, the €58 million she wanted. She should have fought a harder battle and the Labour Party indicated it would support her in that. She did not fight, however, as I anticipated and expected her to for the people she represented.

The former Minister, Mr. McCreevy, was the author of the dirty dozen cuts, so, by implication, he became the grandfather of the savage 16 cuts. I was not surprised because they were in line with the ideology on which the former Minister articulated his economic philosophy. It was the ideological bent of the Government, which then went to Inchydoney to be converted. Fr. Healy might think he has changed Government policy and he was delighted to be in a position to welcome a budget for the first time in 19 years. However, he did not delve into the interior of the budget to assess the insidious nature of some of the measures which will impact on the very poor and which will not facilitate the transition from unemployment, which is the best way out of poverty, for many, including lone parent families who require assistance with child care costs to alleviate their burdens and facilitate their progress into work.

After so many budgets favouring the rich, horses and greyhounds, it was obviously impossible for the new Minister to put right all the damage in one year, which I accept. However, this is especially the case as the only source for increasing social expenditure arises from the buoyancy of the economy, which is not predicted by the Department of Finance unless it has its figures very wrong. Improvements in the equity of the tax system to ensure that millionaires make an appropriate contribution to society are put on the long finger with talk of a review of tax breaks and with some progress possibly to be made in next year's budget. With such a light-hearted conversion to socialism this year, we have every right to ask how long this will last. If general economic circumstances are less favourable next year, will the Government revert to its normal approach and let the most vulnerable once again bear the full burden of any shortcomings on revenue, which was the case in 2003 when the Estimates were announced?

We must examine the context of the budget and social welfare changes if we are to determine the true situation. With regard to relative income poverty, 22% of the population live below the 60% median, an increase from 16% in 1994. The depth of relative poverty has increased, a higher proportion of people live in long-term poverty and Irish performance in this regard is among the worst in the EU. To ensure that those in low-paid employment are looked after, we must focus on the facts. Employee households account for 17% of the poor and 35% of poor children are in working households. These are the issues. There is a higher poverty risk for welfare recipients of between 40% and 50%. Welfare increases have lagged behind income growth, although this was once referred to as the only way to ensure the poor would not fall further into the poverty trap.

Ireland, one of the most prosperous countries in the world, has the highest relative income poverty rates in the European Union and has held this position of shame throughout the 1990s. The EU joint report on social inclusion, published in 2004, stated that during the period of the Celtic tiger, with high economic growth and falling unemployment, poverty in Ireland rose, with 21% of people in poverty in 2001 compared with the EU average of 15%. The comparison between Ireland and the other EU member states in terms of our payment for social protection is a shocking indictment of the commitment we have to alleviating poverty and, in particular, ensuring that the deprived and marginalised get help when they need it most.

In 2001, Ireland spent less than 15% of its gross domestic product on social protection while the other 14 member states of the EU, as it then was, spent 20% of GDP. No amount of spin doctoring by the Government can conceal this reality, although Inchydoney man might try some tricks to indicate that the Government is ameliorating the situation. The Government is partial to using a different measure of poverty, consistent poverty, developed by the ESRI in 1987 to characterise the predicament of the disadvantaged. Members may have guessed the point, namely, that consistent poverty has been reducing in Ireland. The Minister made the point again this morning, as does every Minister at every possible opportunity. However, if one were to ask how consistent poverty is faring in other EU member states, nobody knows. Why? It is because this measure is peculiar to Ireland and does not allow for inconvenient international comparisons. Enough has been said. As used to be written, QED.

The savage 16 cuts can be divided into three groups. The first two groups are payments enabling and supporting progression to work for lone parents and to education for all adults. What has happened? The cuts have been tinkered with at the margins. Why was the qualifying period increased from six months to 15? It was stated that there was some abuse but no evidence of this was presented. Instead, the claim was just trotted out. One should not deny support to those in need. If a few people abuse the system, they should be dealt with but the entire system should not be cut off. No evidence was presented for the claims which were simply trotted out when convenient. While it is stated that the system has now been eased or amended or otherwise, the English language is precise. The system was emasculated. However, the Government, in trying to draw back from the river of destruction, has brought the qualifying period back to 12 months. What about people like the young girl about whom I spoke in this House going back to third level education? The best way out of poverty is through education and work and by providing for this country by becoming a teacher or whatever. However, this girl will not qualify. Let us call a spade a spade. Nothing has been done. Like that girl, everything is in the doldrums.

The transitional half rate for lone parents is to be discontinued where a recipient of one-parent family payment takes up employment and where earnings are in excess of the upper threshold of €293 per week. People used to get it for 12 months, but now they will get it for six months. They say half a loaf of bread is better than no bread where I come from, but let us be clear about a few things. I was told I was being alarmist and sensationalist about these cuts and that they did not mean anything. I wanted to know who they would affect and if we had the statistics to indicate how many people would be affected. Fair play to the Minister in that he came into the House and told the truth. He was not able to answer those questions, yet his predecessor said they would have no major global effect even though we said they would have. We were right.

If the Government was working in line with Sustaining Progress, all those policy changes and instruments used to effect policy changes would be poverty proofed. The Government did not do that or if it did, it was done incorrectly because the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Minister would not be here today saying he is amending or easing those cuts if they did not have the impact we predicted and set out in clear and concise fashion. We were right and the Government and all those around it were wrong. We must give ourselves a small pat on the back, not that we deserve it, for trying to ensure the poor were not forgotten in the rush to ensure the rich were always insulated when cuts had to be made. I am proud of the role the Labour Party played. We led the charge and others joined in. We were right from the beginning, from November 2003, and we launched a campaign in December 2003, although not too many people were behind us in leading the charge to ensure those cuts would be reversed.

The big problem is the €293 — the cut off point — which has not been touched since 1997. I think it was my colleague, Proinsias de Rossa, who introduced this in 1997 and it was innovative at the time. At that time the regulation allowed lone parents to work and earn up to €146.50 per week without losing any of their allowance and it later allowed them to earn up to €293. However, that figure has not been increased in the past seven years despite repeated requests from OPEN, the One Parent Exchange and Network, seeking to have the amount of income increased, which can be earned before the State payment is lost. If the amount was index linked, it would be €350 or €360. This is an insidious cut. As we have pointed out over the years, we are not fools.

In 2000 the Irish Congress of Trade Unions pointed out that child care costs had doubled between 1997 and 2000. It can be safely assumed that like a balloon, once they have gone up, they will never come down. Child care costs have obviously more than doubled again between 2000 and 2004. The effect of these developments is that lone parents wishing to work are in an impossible position. They lose all their State payments when they go above the limit — well before they earn enough to cover Ireland's extremely high child care costs and before they address their own living expenses. This is a situation into which some of the great organisations evaluating this budget have not looked.

One lone parent with two children stated: "I got paid on Thursday, did a big shop, looked out for special offers and bought the basics but there is usually nothing left by Wednesday — maybe some mince in the freezer or sausages or soup and bread." These are real stories and are not made up. Those who are very rich and who do well out of this Government, and who will continue to do so, might not know much about that, but I have never forgotten from where I have come.

Let us look at the eight supplementary cuts. There have been no clear-cut reversals. Two of the cuts are subject to further consultation.Crèche and diet supplements are a little bit better, but are narrow in focus. The rent supplement change is limited to those who have lost employment through illness or disability. Let us look at the six month criterion to ensure that people who have a short term income need, such as people who have become ill or unemployed, are assessed by local authorities as having a housing need are not disadvantaged. The best way to deal with this is to ensure adequate housing is provided for those people. We have always said that. However, as Deputy Stanton said, not enough money is being provided. There is no clear-cut reversal of those eight cuts. Some of them have not been touched, while others have been tinkered with to give the illusion of a reversal.

Let us look at the six benefit payment cuts that are weakening the PRSI system. One cut had been amended before the budget, one has been slightly improved, although the principle of the cut remains intact, and there have been no changes to the other four, nor has there been any explanation to justify why there is no intention to change them. The entitlement to half rate child dependent allowance in respect of unemployment and disability benefit had been discontinued where the claimant's spouse or partner's grossly weekly income is in excess of €300, but it has been increased to €350. That is not a reversal but a slight improvement. The current weekly income threshold for the purpose of payment of reduced rates of disability and unemployment benefit is being increased from €88.88 to €150 per week.

Entitlements will be discontinued for new claimants to half rate of payment of disability and unemployment benefits where the recipient is already in receipt of the widow's or widower's pension or one parent family payments. That was amended due to pressure from the National Widow's Association of Ireland and Joe Duffy on the national airwaves. There has been an increase from 39 to 52 in the number of paid social insurance contributions for entitlement to disability, unemployment and health and safety benefit. There has been no change. There has been an increase from 13 to 26 weeks in regard to the period where claims for unemployment and disability benefits were linked. The maximum duration of unemployment benefit will be reduced from 390 to 212 days. This reminds me of the three card trick where one always thinks one is winning but no matter how well one watches the cards, one never picks the queen. There is nothing in the proposed measures in that they only tinker around the edges.

The Minister was not in a position to find the €50 million needed to reverse those cuts. No amount of Inchydoney spin or any other sort of spin doctoring will disguise the fact the Minister could not get the €50 million to reverse the social welfare cuts. The former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, is gone but his ghost lives on here. It would have been an awful insult to what he stood for if the Minister had succeeded in getting that money.

Let us look at some of the other cuts. There is nothing under direct provision for asylum seekers. There has been no change in that since 2000. There is nothing on child care in the Social Welfare Bill, which I pointed out in regard to one-parent families. The number of one-parent families is not small. There were 150,634 lone parent households listed in the 2002 census. Lone mothers accounted for 85% of that total. Some 79,915 lone parent families were in receipt of State support. These are unvarnished, public statistics. However, census statistics and figures do not reveal how vulnerable lone parents are or how their predicament in a prosperous country is getting worse rather than better. Therefore, there is nothing for them in terms of child care and nothing either in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. A recent Labour Party study showed that it can cost up to €1,000 to send children to secondary school in September. The €80 primary school allowance is paltry, as is the €150 allowance for secondary school, which is designed to meet the cost of school books, uniforms and other school equipment. One would not get a pair of decent runners for that price, however, so let us be clear that nothing has been provided in those areas.

In addition, nothing has been provided in the child dependant allowance, although I appreciate that the Minister has indicated he is examining that matter. It is part of the MABS proposal which has also been raised by the Combat Poverty Agency. I can see the Minister's approach to the matter, which may be broadly termed a child benefit supplement, amalgamating the family income supplement and the child dependant allowance. That is a sensible way to proceed in dealing with child poverty. We cannot disguise the fact that it is a major issue.

The argument made by independent commentators in favour of the child dependant allowance is that it is much more targeted. Surely the Department of Social and Family Affairs could devise some system to prevent people from losing out on secondary benefits. Most of the departmental officials are very diligent. I thank the Minister for his help yesterday when we received an excellent briefing on the Social Welfare Bill. His staff were very co-operative and I deeply appreciate that. Some of the officials are beginning to know us well. They know more about our idiosyncrasies than we do ourselves.

Since 1994, there has been no change in the threshold for secondary benefits, which now stands at €317. Because the threshold has not altered for ten years, there is downward pressure, which means that more and more people are flowing out of the system because they do not qualify. Those areas must be examined, otherwise people will end up with less and less.

The income eligibility limit for medical cards should ensure that people in receipt of increases, such as invalidity or other allowances, are not denied medical cards. The eligibility limits, including income criteria, should be raised to ensure that all those who receive an increase will not lose their medical cards.

I refer to the MABS service and the crèche supplement. We were promised by the Minister's predecessor that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform would look after this matter. The Department of Social and Family Affairs probably thought that nothing had been done because the matter was fobbed off to another Department. The crèche supplement is critical in the context of facilitating people's participation in the workforce and ensuring they get such opportunities. The situation is similar with regard to the dietary supplement. An average loaf of bread may cost approximately €1.60 but a gluten-free loaf for someone who is a coeliac can cost €4.60 or €4.80. The supplement was important for such people, particularly those on low incomes who want to live normal lives yet require help due to the additional demands on their income caused by medical problems.

The €700,000 supplement provided under the MABS service is a pure cop-out and it has not been reversed. MABS does not provide money but it provides important advice. However, the financial safety provided for thousands of people in debt has now gone. Some such people were in the grip of moneylenders and may have found that, following an assessment of their household income and expenditure, they were €25 or €30 short. That money was provided by community welfare officers. The sum of €700,000 is nothing — it concerns the examination of methods to avoid poverty, but MABS cannot solve the poverty issue. It is trying to help people to deal with their income shortfalls and has been doing so successfully. I compliment the representatives of MABS in that regard. They appeared before the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and gave a wonderful presentation of their work. They were seeking improvements in the system, however.

The Combat Poverty Agency suggested that MABS should provide SSIAs as part of its service for indebted households. In other words, if people are encouraged to accept a scheme under the MABS criteria whereby they can save €100 per year, why does the State not give them an additional €400 in the same way as well-off people receive money through SSIAs? Why can those who are most in need not be helped by such an innovative scheme, as proposed by the Combat Poverty Agency? It is incumbent upon the Minister to consider the advice of an independent agency that was established to advise the Government.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul spends €32 million annually to deal with poverty by providing food, clothing, furniture, fuel and cash. The society's expenditure is up 7.5% on last year.

Before concluding I must speak about my favourite topic of carers, to which I have devoted much time. As chairperson of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, I am appalled by the Minister's failure to deliver anything of significance to carers. I have received a news release from the Carers Association which is disgusted with the Government's failure to deliver on its pledge to support them. The association's news release states:

It is vital that the needs of all family carers are recognised and that the necessary support structure be put in place through the development of an all-inclusive national strategy. The Government must formally recognise the extensive contribution made by family carers. A national strategy will contribute to improving the lot of a very vulnerable sector of society, ease pressure on the health service and, for minimal investment, lead to actual savings in the health budget.

Hear, hear to that. The joint committee did a lot of work on this matter and produced a unanimous report. No consultants were involved, it was produced by Deputies and Senators. According to the statistics, 148,800 people are classified as carers, although the Minister is working on the basis that there are just 50,000 full-time carers. I have been informed by the association in Clare, Caring for Carers Ireland, that there are approximately 300,000 carers. That is because many people have not classified themselves as carers, even though they may work through the night to look after their infirm relatives. It is the human, compassionate and familial thing to do and all they want is recognition from the State for their efforts.

For €220 million we could abolish all the form filling for the means test, which creates a barrier to people receiving a carer's allowance. The work of those carers is saving the State over €2 billion, so on a cost-benefit analysis they provide a nine to one return. The Government has been remiss by failing carers in this way. If the State paid them an allowance it would be but formal recognition of their contribution. The Minister has missed an opportunity to do so.

I am glad to see the respite care grant has been extended but, while I acknowledge that increase, how will the Minister evaluate the 9,000 people concerned? The Minister thinks there are 48,000 carers, of which 14,000 or 15,000 are working while another 10,000 are working ten or 12 hours per week in the home. I know what the Minister is trying to do but it is the wrong way to go about it.

The report by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recommended that half the rate of social welfare should apply for widows or widowers working as carers. Such carers should be entitled to receive a dual application of social welfare payments. The current system is artificial and should be abolished.

When one contrasts the treatment of carers with that of high income earners, some of whom do not contribute tax revenue, it is clear that the Taoiseach's professed socialism is totally spurious. I hope the Minister will re-examine the position of carers who deserve no less.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.