I congratulate the Minister for Social and Family Affairs on his new portfolio, this being my first chance in the Chamber to wish him well. I also wish my county colleague and former Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, well in her role in the Department of Agriculture and Food.
When one considers the amount of money passing through the Department and the number of people dependent on the decisions made and success achieved when various Ministers go to the Department of Finance, one sees that this is one of the most important Departments. For that reason, the success over several years in increasing funding allocations must be acknowledged and welcomed. It is incredible that there is almost unanimous support for this budget. It is impossible to please everyone, and if we think that we are doing so, we are deluding ourselves. However, people in so many quarters have found such hearty praise for this budget and, in that context, for the Social Welfare Bill, that it is disingenuous for people to try to pick holes in an extremely good package.
I always find it very easy to relate to my first day in the House, partly because the said Minister got kicked out that day on an issue regarding Luas, which he has now delivered, just as he is now delivering his social welfare budget from this side of the House. Deputy Seán Ryan complained about €2 a day being given, but in the budget at that time, child benefit was increased by 25p a week. When one considers the allocations being made to different sections of the community which deserve it, there is no doubt and one must acknowledge that there has been great success and forward movement, not discounting inflation.
Some people have claimed that the real reason this budget was so good was the local election results and people being told the Government was not delivering. In my area, with Francis Conaghan, Rena Donaghy, Denis McGonagle and Marion McDonald, we increased the number of our council seats by one and retained Rose Cullen, Joseph Doherty and Dermot McLaughlin in our urban council. People in my area recognise that this Government and its predecessor have been delivering on social welfare as much as on every other aspect. While they recognise that there are still issues to be addressed, including in social welfare, they trust and accept that this Administration has their best interests at heart and will deliver. It will not deliver to everyone at once, which is impossible because money is finite, but to all over its term of office. We were derided the first time that the former Minister, Deputy McCreevy, introduced a budget but, as he progressed to his fifth, the laughter rapidly decreased.
Some people will be happier than others, but no one can begrudge the details of the Social Welfare Bill and the budget in general which have brought radical improvements in funding for the delivery of services, especially to those with disabilities, something connected with recent Government legislation. There have been improvements in taxation policy, specifically the tax reliefs for the elderly, the disabled and the widowed, which are extremely important. The fact that 650,000 income earners on the minimum wage have been removed from the income tax net ensures, or helps to ensure, that people will be more inspired or encouraged to move into employment where it is available rather than those on lower incomes looking to the family income supplement which has been greatly improved in this budget. They may no longer have to depend on unemployment supports.
Coming from an area where there is high unemployment, I welcome the supports for those who are not in employment. However, ultimately, I would be much happier if we had no need for unemployment supports and if people currently in receipt of unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit were working.
Given that this Bill presents the opportunity to talk about social welfare matters, it would be remiss of me not to encourage the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to expedite and move forward the decentralisation process to Buncrana, to which staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs are due to transfer. Given the great strides people in the Department are making in Letterkenny and other locations, in time people will realise that we have a great natural resource in terms of people, environment and location. We have a treasure in Donegal, which we are afraid too many people might discover, but we will whisper about it at present and encourage those in the Department of Social and Family Affairs to reconsider the location and to visit the area to check out the resources available. We often use the opportunity to speak on the area to moan and call ourselves peripheral but we only do that in an effort to ensure that people do not abuse the wonderful area of Inishowen and other places in Donegal. I ask the Minister to move forward the process. The site selection process is almost at completion stage. I ask him to take a personal interest, as his predecessor did, in expediting this mission.
It goes without saying that the increases in this social welfare package are larger than in the past. A social welfare package of €874 million was announced in the budget. This represents a €244 million or 40% increase on the 2004 package. We welcomed the package of €630 million last year and thought that we were doing well, but it is staggering to have a package this year that represents an additional €244 million on the 2004 package and an expenditure of €12.25 billion. It is worth making the point and for people to realise that the Government is focusing on improving the standard of living of people with disabilities, carers, children, the elderly, widows, widowers, the unemployed, lone parents and other disadvantaged people.
Every year we have seen an increase in the social welfare expenditure, but there has been a 60% increase in such expenditure in the past four years and a doubling of what was spent in 1997. When one has been a Member of the House for a number of years and been present for the introduction of a number of budgets, one realises the number of decisions that have to be taken to ensure such expenditure is targeted at those who really need it.
The Minister mentioned a fascinating statistic, namely, that for every €3 that will be spent by the Government in 2005, €1 will go in social welfare entitlements. Some 970,000 people will claim weekly social welfare payments next year, which will benefit some 1.5 million people, if one includes dependants. It is a challenge to please all the people, but this package will please a large percentage people, given that 1.5 million will benefit from increases of between 7% and 10%, which is three to four times ahead of the expected rate of inflation for the coming year. Such increases are significant.
There is much talk about the savage cuts with which the Minister has moved to deal. He said he was moving towards keeping the whole process under review. It is important for the Department to bear in mind that life does not stand still and that the Minister has a sense of what is happening. If I was critical of any of the cuts, I would have an issue with the back to education allowance. Reducing the qualifying period from 15 months to 12 months is an important step, but it should be reviewed in terms of reducing it further, possibly to the level it was at. That is my genuine view having met a number of people who could return to education, having acquired their positions, yet the financial implications of the move means they often have to, as is proverbially said, go back on the dole for a year. That money is wasted because those recipients are taking it from the State in any event and could be participating in education and obtaining their qualifications, but all they are doing is biding time until they eventually qualify. If the reason for this measure is that it would encourage the recipients to move into employment, there might be an argument for it. However, the people with whom I have been dealing have had a clear vision of where they want to go and the need for the qualifications to which they are aspiring. To begrudge such qualification for the allowance to them for a year is not positive. However, the reduction in the qualifying period from 15 to 12 months is an important step, but the Minister might monitor it and further reduce the qualifying period.
There has been much talk of nothing having been done to provide for carers. One of the important developments in social welfare since I was elected to the House was the introduction of the respite care grant introduced by the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern. It offers carers an opportunity to have a necessary option or alternative in terms of support for full-time care. I am glad that the Bill provides for an increase in the grant by €165 to €1,000. The introduction of this grant was innovative. It is worthy of recognition in terms of an increase in this Bill. I welcome the change whereby the limit of payments of respite care grant to only two recipients will be abolished. The condition requiring recipients of carer's benefit to be in employment in the three months prior to the commencement of full-time caring is important. Another change is that the Minister has opened the scheme to allow an additional 9,200 full-time carers to qualify for the grant for the first time. Some 33,000 people are expected to receive a grant of €1,000 next year. We should monitor the issues in respect of carers, but the change in the means testing means a couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance and a couple can earn up to €49,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance and still qualify for other benefits. Carer's qualification for other social welfare supports was an issue that was regularly raised with me. If one was not entitled to the carer's allowance, one did not qualify for many other welfare supports. It is important that the Minister has opened the scheme to ensure that carers can be entitled to some welfare supports, if not the entire package of supports.
I echo much of what has been said about carers, namely, the importance of increasing, by way of financial supports, the ability of people to take on the role of recognised carers. People who are wealthy have the alternative of putting their dependants into some sort of institution or they can employ people to look after them. However, many people who are caring for their dependants are not wealthy and miss out on welfare supports. Such supports are beneficial and have made a significant difference to many people's lives.
I welcome the fact that many of the increases will be implemented from the beginning of January. In the past increases on petrol, cigarettes and alcohol were imposed from midnight on the day of the budget whereas increases in social welfare payments were sometimes not implemented until November. January, February, April and May are the only months mentioned. Bringing forward the payment of these increases and allowing people to benefit from them has been an important change over the past couple of years.
The increase in the threshold to €20,000 in assessing capital for all schemes except the SWA is also very important. There is no point in encouraging people to save responsibly by putting their money in a financial institution rather than under the bed if as a result they lose out on a vital part of their income.
Although it is not specifically related to this Bill, I welcome the introduction of the doctor only medical card. In my area there is quite a good reaction on the part of the health board to applications for medical cards made on medical grounds. It is not stressed that there are two ways of getting a medical card, on the basis of means or on the basis of need. Where there is genuine medical need, the health board has usually facilitated the provision of a medical card. It should be reiterated that if a person has a medical problem, application for a medical card should be made on medical grounds.
I have a problem with the increase in the threshold for the drugs payment scheme, particularly for people on low incomes who rely on family income supplement. I often wonder why medicine does not seem to be getting cheaper given that in the era of high technology, plasma screen televisions and computers have come down in price. I do not know anything about this area so I am shooting in the dark. Are there plenty of checks on the money being paid to pharmacies by the State under the drugs payment scheme? I do not know the answer to that and I do not have any particular agenda other than the belief that if people are going to be paying more every month, the other side of the coin is that there must be adequate checks on what it is costing to provide the service.
I agree with Deputy Moynihan-Cronin that some people who should be on long-term invalidity support are in receipt of disability benefit for a year or more. Perhaps the Minister would examine that issue so that people will be given the correct payment from the start. That would save money because it would avoid the necessity of carrying out another assessment in respect transferring to the alternative benefit.
We should try to minimise bureaucracy and red tape. Ultimately it is like dealing with the vintners in the context of the national identity card. Bureaucracy could be minimised if there was joined-up government and all the information was available in one place. Joined-up government would have been helpful in the context of the dietary supplement change, in terms of rural transport initiatives, and in so many other Departments. That issue is incidental to the Bill under discussion. There are so many issues to which I did not allude, including maternity benefit.
The package speaks for itself. It provides €12.25 billion in 2005. Many people will gain from it. They will be happy to see their benefits increase rather than remain static. I look forward to the next couple of budgets which will conclude the efforts being made on the five-year programme.