Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2004

Vol. 594 No. 4

Social Welfare Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

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

I referred to the provision of child care in communities and highlighted the difficulties facing people trying to access it. The extra provision in child benefit alone will not address the problem of the scarcity of child care facilities. The lack of such facilities is predominantly due to the scarcity of resources in this area. If we continue to invest in child benefit without providing sufficient child care places, all we will do is inflate prices and price providers of such facilities at the lower end of the scale out of the market. I urge local authorities to ensure that planning permissions for such facilities are expedited and that people are encouraged, through whatever mechanism possible, in urban and large residential areas, to apply for planning permission for a five or six place child care facility to enable them to provide such facilities in their communities. We have focused for too long on large-scale child care facilities. If we go down the route of encouraging the provision of such facilities in communities, it would be more beneficial. The Government has decided that child benefit provision is the way forward in accessing child care facilities, but until such time as we address the shortage of spaces, a major problem confronts us.

Having regard to the context in which the budget was introduced, we must pay tribute to the Minister for Finance, in particular, for the provision for people with disabilities. That must be acknowledged in this House. While I am dealing with the child care provision, the budgetary package for people with disabilities is a positive step in addressing the myriad problems faced by parents with children with an intellectual or physical disability. This package is worthwhile and welcome. The Minister said such provision will constitute a guaranteed fund for the years going forward. That will enable people in this area to make budgetary plans. It will enable the Department and the health boards to ensure that people in this area who need support can access it on an ongoing basis. People in this area simply voiced their concern on many occasions over the years because they did not have the necessary resources or time to be more involved because of the difficulties they faced in putting their children through education and raising them as best they could. I pay tribute to the Minister for Finance, in particular, for the provision for people with disabilities.

Many people have admitted that this social welfare package has been positive in that it seeks to address those who are most in need. That has been acknowledged by many people, including Opposition members.

The Deputy should not count in the Opposition on that. He should not spread the blame.

We are trying to be socially and politically inclusive on this occasion. The fruits of the healthy economy created over the past seven years can now be distributed in a manner that can lift people out of the poverty trap.

The Deputy should tell us how he will distribute it.

Allow Deputy Kelleher to continue without interruption.

The debates on this Bill and on the budget indicate that there is a perception that we can continually fund social welfare. Equally, we must ensure we have a mechanism in place to finance it. The Government has been very positive in ensuring that we have a vibrant economy, low unemployment, low taxation and an incentive to work, invest and create employment. It has taken steps to ensure that the moneys raised can be distributed as outlined in the package of social welfare improvements delivered by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan.

I refer to one or two points made by the Labour Party. I have a major difficulty with its description of the new medical card as a yellow-pack medical card. That is an affront to anybody who is finding it difficult to access primary medical care. There are 100,000 medical cards in place that allow people to go, free of charge, to their GP and access advice and medical care. Statistics show that many people do not have to go further than a consultation with their GP and are happy to be secure in the knowledge that they can go to their local GP whenever they have a major health concern. It is totally disingenuous of the Labour Party to dismiss this as another stunt. If we are serious about being socially inclusive, we should try to ensure that as many people as possible can access services when they fall on hard times. Equally, there are many people who fall just above the threshold of eligibility for a medical card, and the announcement on medical cards will be welcomed by many families who are finding it difficult to afford primary medical care.

It will not.

This point was made by the Opposition, Fianna Fáil backbenchers and people of all persuasions. If people are sick they can now access their family GP free of charge. That is a wonderfully positive step. I encourage the Government to ensure on an ongoing basis that as many people as possible are included in that scheme. Moreover, more than 30,000 people hold medical cards in their own right.

There are 300,000 less than there were five years ago. That may be strange but that is the way it is.

Allow Deputy Kelleher to continue without interruption.

Deputy Durkan analyses issues negatively and we analyse them positively. That is why he is over there and we are over here. The reason there are fewer people with medical cards is that more people are at work. More people are above the threshold for qualification simply because they are in a position to generate their own income.

I have heard that argument before. People are so well off they do not need a medical card.

Allow Deputy Kelleher to make his contribution without interruption.

He has upset me.

One could cut back other things as well by being positive.

Deputy Durkan bases his analysis on the negative aspects. I say it is necessary to have a positive outlook. We have a positive outlook, and most of the people out there have a positive outlook. Statistics confirm that while fewer people are in receipt of medical cards, more people are at work generating their own income and are outside the guidelines.

Are they healthier?

Another positive and welcome development is that all those on the minimum wage have been taken out of the tax net. That puts paid to the lie that the Government does not cater for people on low incomes. It introduced the minimum wage, which was a positive step. It has now achieved a situation where nobody on the minimum wage is in the tax net. That should be welcomed by everybody.

Social housing was mentioned. Politicians of all hues have responsibilities in this area. There are cases across this country in which public representatives are the ones delaying the delivery of social housing. I have been at meetings where public representatives objected to the provision of social housing.

Not on this side. It was not objections that stopped the provision of social housing but the inability of the Government to provide it.

Will Deputy Durkan please allow Deputy Kelleher to continue without interruption or the Chair will be obliged to give some of the Deputy's time to Deputy Kelleher?

I apologise.

All parties have a duty to send out the message to their councillors and representatives on local authorities that social housing must be provided for. I know of local authority members who say they will accept affordable housing but not social housing. It is damaging local authorities' ability to draw down funding from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for social housing. That attitude is negative and it is creeping into all political parties. A previous speaker mentioned that the provision of social housing has been delayed. I know, not only from anecdotal evidence but from direct involvement, that representatives from all political parties are involved in trying to play all sides of the scrum. That issue must be addressed.

The issue of carers has been debated for a long time. Everybody acknowledges that those who care for the elderly and those with disabilities make a huge sacrifice. They also give service to the State. Any person who gives service to the State in an unselfish manner should be rewarded. Changes have been made. The respite care grant has been increased to €1,000. The issue of carers must be addressed on an ongoing basis. Everybody acknowledges the work carers do in their homes in caring for their loved ones. That they are providing a service for the State must be acknowledged. I am sure that over the next few years that will be done.

We must accept some important facts. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has sat through this debate and listened attentively to all sides. One common idea has come out in this debate and that is that if we continue to pursue the policies this side of the House recommends, they will go a long way towards achieving social inclusion. If we pursued the policies advocated by those on the other side of the House, we would have a chaotic situation regarding public finances. Some parties say the Government is spending money in a way that is not achieving the productivity levels they would like. Other parties opposite are selectively saying they will be the de facto opposition. It is timely to remind people on that side of the House that they have a duty not merely to criticise, undermine and make accusations, but to put forward policies and prioritise the areas in which they are interested.

We have heard that story before. Who is in government? Deputy Kelleher should accept responsibility or back off. The Government should have a general election. That would solve the problem.

Deputy Kelleher, without interruption.

I wait with bated breath for the day that Fine Gael, Labour, the Green Party and some Independents come here and put forward a coherent package that addresses the problems of social inclusion, as the Government has done.

We do not have to. The Deputy's party is in government.

What is the Government doing?

We always look on the positive side. Deputy Durkan is falling into that old trap of highlighting the negative.

Negativity is something people over there would know nothing about.

Will Deputy Durkan allow Deputy Kelleher to speak without interruption, and will Deputy Kelleher address his remarks through the Chair?

I will have to continue in the same vein of emphasising the negative aspect of the Opposition regarding all the packages, the budget, alleviation of the burden of tax on the low paid, major increases in social welfare, capital expenditure on education——

The lack of it.

——the whole area of disability and all the other areas such as the provision of medical cards to enable people to see their GPs free of charge.

They are dancing at the crossroads with delight.

The Deputy is dancing at the crossroads since he joined the Fine Gael Party. I remember some of the Deputy's campaigns when he was dancing at the crossroads on his own but now that he has found fortitude——

The founder of Deputy Kelleher's party would have us all dancing at the crossroads if he had his way.

Deputy Kelleher, without interruption.

The overall context of this debate is about social inclusion. It is about the measures that have been put in place by the Minister to help people who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves. Reference was made to the important point that these are not just handouts but entitlements. Irish citizens are entitled to the support of the State, the taxpayer and the Government to ensure they can live their lives if, for whatever reason, they fall on hard times. The Minister made reference to this important message in his contribution when he stated this issue is not about statistics or throwing out facts but about real people and the impact payments have on their lives. This often gets lost in debates. We talk about statistics, figures and facts but what we are trying to do is ensure that——

They are thinking of the next election.


——measures are put in place so that if a person falls through the net or suffers hard times, for whatever reason, a mechanism is in place through which he or she can address his or her problems. It is not a handout but an entitlement.

The savage 16 cuts dealt with that.

The Minister made reference to this on a number of occasions. I am satisfied that he is reviewing some of the cuts and has changed more of them with regard to the issue of housing-——

He reversed none of them.

The Deputy should study the facts. He should reread the Minister's speech. I know Opposition Members like to read horror stories as opposed to good news stories.

The Minister did not reverse all the cuts. He reversed four.

There is room for improvement.

On this side of the House, we will continue to promote a socially inclusive society.

There is much done but more to do.

We will continue to make decisions in the interests of Ireland as a whole and ensure there is a vibrant, dynamic economy. However, decisions must be made. The issue highlighted by Opposition Members is that, effectively, they would be incapable of making decisions at any time because there would be such a myriad of opinions, they would not be able to agree.

There is no need to. The Government has the monopoly on this. It is punishing the public.

Deputy Durkan, please allow Deputy Kelleher to speak.

We have made proactive decisions over many years. I pay tribute to the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, in regard to an area in which I was interested, that of pensions provision and savings.

It is the first time he has been mentioned.

People of my age and younger came through the Celtic tiger years thinking they would never see a poor day again. Encouraging people to save and make pension provisions, and ensuring they will have a reasonable standard of living in their later years, are positive developments. However, they have been completely overlooked. While I listen to Members asking why we have not done one thing or another, the savings scheme is a positive step and a measure which has encouraged people to save. In years to come we will reap the dividends of the fund for public service pensions. We must consider the issues in the context of today but must also analyse the figures going forward to ensure we have an economy that can support an ageing population as demographics change.

There is no need to get personal.

I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Brennan. His vigour and interest in this area has come to the fore in that he has achieved substantial increases in basic social welfare provisions and many other areas. I commend the Bill to the House and congratulate the Minister on bringing forward what I consider a socially inclusive Bill.

I wish to share time with Deputy Paul McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed. The Chair requests that Deputy Durkan refrains from interrupting Deputy McGrath.

I will do my best. The Bill is extraordinary. I listened to Deputy Kelleher extolling the virtues of the current Minister and the former Minister. I should not mention that there might be some ideological block between the two. Nonetheless, I congratulate the incoming Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, on the red colour of his tie, which I am sure is an indication of an ideological intention that was not shown in the Bill. I presume he has intentions to produce other social welfare Bills but on the basis of this performance, he could be in difficulty.

There is blue in my tie also.

I know that. The Bill is unique because it comes as a result of the miracle of Inchydoney, where Fr. Seán Healy spoke to the multitudes. The multitudes were convinced that the people had been wronged. Why else would Fr. Healy have been asked to talk to the multitudes, calm them and assuage their fears? It went throughout the land that there was a problem and that somebody should come to help. Lo and behold, along came poor Fr. Healy. Now, however, Fr. Healy is being blamed for the budget and for the lack of delivery on social welfare and every other area. How did the Government plan this and get away with it? Why should poor Fr. Healy, an innocent victim of circumstances, be blamed for the inability of the Government to deliver on its promises, which is what it amounts to?

I believe in the Damascus-type conversion, so far as it goes. I believe in the conversion of the Taoiseach and the equally incredible conversion of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to socialism.

It is a temporary little arrangement.

While I did not believe it at the time, I presume the evidence which has been lacking will be presented in due course. However, I cannot understand why everybody is under the impression that all issues have been resolved, including those in regard to housing, social welfare and inequity. Nothing has been resolved because, sadly, everything is the same.

The budget and the Bill are non-events, but this fact will not percolate to the people for a couple of weeks. However, after Christmas, when the public suddenly discovers what this means for them, they will find that the social welfare increases have long since been eroded by increases in the cost of living which are now regarded as incredible.

Inflation is decreasing. There is a 9% increase in social welfare expenditure.

Allow the Deputy to speak without interruption.

The Deputy referred to social housing. I am amazed that a Member on that side of the House would refer to it. The Government is good at giving history lessons in regard to 1997. I am surprised it does not go back to 1977, 1877, 1677 or earlier because the comparisons it makes do not relate to the present. The Government boasts about the country being awash with money and having money to spend on anything. What does it spend, however? Nothing. It has delivered nothing in regard to social housing, affordable housing or carers. The general public and people with disabilities will have to wait three more years before the Government is out of office and any delivery is made.

I will address the savage 16 atrocities committed against the unsuspecting Irish public one year ago. A series of cuts were enforced by Government across the board. What happened? In the past week, I received a request from my local health board, as agents for the Department of Social and Family Affairs, to find accommodation for €500 per month for a person with a serious illness. The only accommodation I could find in my constituency for €500 per month was a condemned house. What does this mean and what does the Minister think of it? Why was no direction given in the budget to address this serious issue caused by the cuts imposed one year ago which have not been reversed? The Minister knows well they have not been addressed. He was a brave man who set out his stall and proclaimed himself a born again socialist, like his leader.

He was ahead of his leader.

He had the bravery to do this but did not have the conviction to follow it through. Neither does his leader. Who will suffer for this? The public will suffer, the people who are in the worst position to bear the burden, who are at risk all the time, the elderly and vulnerable, those who have no way to fight their cause. There is no one to whom they can talk and anything they say or do will have no effect on what happens to them.

The 16 cuts were allegedly reversed in the budget but, sadly, they were not. That is in keeping with most of the Government's performance. Everything it has promised in the past seven years has not been delivered. It has failed under every heading. It has claimed anything positive which has happened in the past seven years to be of its doing. The only thing for which the Government did not claim responsibility was the good weather last summer.

Deputy Durkan was Minister of State at the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

When I was Minister of State, one could buy a house in this country for £70,000. One will pay €350,000 for a house now if one is very lucky and if one's parents are prepared to support one. If Deputy Kelleher wants to go down that road, I am the right person to whom to talk. Unless some attention is paid to that area, the next generation will be added to the 100,000 or so people who are desperate for a house. I do not know what will happen in the next generation nor do those opposite because the problem is dire and it will get worse.

When I first got involved in public life, people lived in caravans in the hope that they would get a local authority house. The only thing which has changed is that people are living in high rent accommodation and they are getting no support from the Government, and they will be there for the rest of their lives because they will never be able to buy a house——

Which is better, a caravan or an apartment?

——as they are paying somebody else's mortgage. They are paying the mortgages of fellows who will be in the tent in Ballybrit. All the socialists in the world can assemble in the tent in Ballybrit and celebrate as long as they like, but they are not addressing the issues of the people. I am not a socialist but I believe in social justice. Instead of those opposite professing socialism, it is about time there was recognition of the need to apply social justice.

The Special Olympics were held here a year ago. There is talk of the emphasis of the Government on the needs of people with disabilities and their carers. I am afraid the Social Welfare Bill and the budget were a disappointment in that respect. The people with disabilities include the elderly who have urgent needs. If they manage to live for another three or four years, there might be some recognition of their position by whatever Government is in power then. I know what it is like for people who are elderly, who have urgent needs and who may not have a long time to live. Some time ago, I dealt with a case of a person who had a pressing need for the disabled person's grant which required a report from the occupational therapist in the local health board. Eventually the grant was refused on the basis that the person was not in dire enough need. Subsequent to my objections and those of other public representatives, including Members opposite, a visit was made to the individual concerned who was told that her need was not sufficient to warrant the granting of a disabled person's grant at that stage.

In a country which professes to be among the top ten wealthiest countries in the world——

The Deputy has used ten minutes of the slot.

I will cede to my colleague who is better equipped than I to deal with that situation. It says a lot about our society, a bureaucracy ridden society, that we have reached a situation where we are not able to come to the aid of a person with a serious, terminal illness, and nothing in this Social Welfare Bill will do anything about that.

I thank my colleague for sharing time. I am glad to have the opportunity to address the Social Welfare Bill and that the Minister is here because in my 15 years as a Member of the House, he is one of those who listens to and takes note of what people have to say and may make changes on the basis of what they say.

There are many pleasing aspects to this budget about which many people have spoken glowingly. This budget was well designed to appease many of the interest groups and to get them off the playing pitch so that they would not criticise it. However, there is a number of items in the budget we should note and about which we should ask the Minister to give an explanation as to why he took certain decisions and what amending decisions he might take.

I do not understand why, when the general social welfare increase was €14 per week for individuals, old age pensioners received an increase of only €12. The Minister might say the difference between €12 and €14 is not much, but it is €100 per year. Why are we treating elderly citizens, the people who have built this country, differently from everyone else on social welfare? Most people on the old age pension are getting contributory pensions. They have paid for them by paying their stamps. They are drawing on the insurance scheme to which they contributed over the years. Why are they not entitled to a suitable increase like everybody else? The Minister should note that the social insurance fund has a surplus of €1.6 billion and it will have an even greater surplus this year. Why did the Minister deprive the pensioners of that measly €2 extra per week?

The child dependant allowance has been raised by many commentators and was flagged clearly in the run-up to the budget as an issue about which something needed to be done. The child dependant allowance has remained the same since the early 1990s. There is a number of anomalies in respect of it. The first ridiculous one is that there are three different rates —€16.80, €19.60 and €21.60. On the face of it, one might say that is not much of a difference, but it makes a difference to families. There can be a difference of €250 between what is paid to one family to look after its child and what is paid to another family to do likewise. Strangely, it is based on the payment made to parents. If one is unemployed, one's child is worth €16.80 per week, if one is a widow, one's child is worth €19.60 per week and if one is an invalid, I think, one's child is worth €21.60 per week. When I raised this before, the Minister got a note from the officials to say that it is not too bad because there used to be 35 different rates of child dependant allowance and now there are only three. I hope the Minister does not give me that response again.

Another answer which is sometimes given is that it was a disincentive to work, but I do not accept that. Perhaps at one time it was a disincentive but then we introduced the back to work allowance which the Government has tried to cut back. The back to work allowance took into account the child dependant allowance and it was a bonus for those going back to work because they received 75% of that allowance for the first year. It was not a disincentive to people going back to work so we must scrap that idea. All the independent commentators have said the child dependant allowance should have been addressed. Why was it not addressed? Will the Minister do so on the next occasion?

I outlined the situation in respect of carers the last day. Carers feel terribly let down but there is light at the end of the tunnel. As I read it, the Government has given absolute guarantees, if they are worth anything, to give anyone who is a full-time carer and not working outside the home the respite care grant of €1,000 per year even if they are not getting the carer's allowance. The Carers Association says there are approximately 140,000 carers in the country. We are recognising something like 22,000 people through the social welfare system. By increasing the income disregard, the Minister will take in another 1,000 or 1,400. If 25,000 are covered in that way it will leave about 115,000 or 120,000 who will receive nothing, although according to the association they are carers. If we take what the Minister is saying at face value, he will give those people the respite grant. If that is the case, it will cost him €120 million per annum but he has allocated only €9 million. On that basis, the Minister will be providing the respite grant to 9,000 people.

He is not sure about that.

How will he differentiate between the 9,000 to whom he will give the respite grant and the 100,000 or more who, according to the Carers Association, are carers? This matter will exercise many minds.

Even the Minister's.

We need to have answers.

The Minister will have to call in Fr. Seán Healy again.

The Minister has provided an increase of €10 per month in child benefit. We get all sorts of history lessons here about what happened in 1997 but the Minister should look back to what occurred in 2001 and what the previous Minister committed himself to at that time. He said that was stage one of a three-phase payment that will raise child benefit to a particular level. The commitment was honoured in the first and second years but in the third, fourth and fifth years the level has not even reached the original commitment for year three. That is very disappointing.

We need to examine what has happened regarding the so-called savage cuts. The back to education scheme was tremendously successful but the previous Minister, Deputy Coughlan, messed it up. The new Minister has gone some way towards mending it. I ask him to take the final step back to reinstate the six-month eligibility limit.

Unemployment benefit is an insurance scheme. People agree to pay stamps towards the rainy day when they might be unemployed. The savage 16 cuts reduced the amount of time one can draw on one's stamps from 15 to 12 months. That is an insurance scheme and it should not have happened. It is a bit like paying car insurance and discovering that when a crash occurs the insurance company will not pay out.

It is a breach of contract.

That is what the Minister has done. As my colleague says, it was a breach of contract.

I wish to refer to a matter that I do not think has been raised so far in the debate. There is a number of people in my age group and the Minister's, or perhaps a little older, who will shortly be reaching pension age. They have been home-makers and home-carers for most of their lives. Years ago, they became housewives when they had to give up work, compulsorily, on getting married. They worked for a short time but the stamps they paid at the time are no longer worth anything. They are now approaching an age when they will be seeking pensions and they feel let down.

Rightly so.

Having been forced out of the workforce, they cannot get any recognition for a pension. The Minister should devote his energies to researching that matter to see what proposals he can bring forward to deal with it.

Hear, hear. Marxism — the Minister should try it.

I wish to share time with Deputy Callanan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity of contributing to the debate on the Social Welfare Bill. At the outset I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Brennan, on his input into the Bill, which is welcome. I wish him the very best of luck.

The socialist outburst caused a chill.

Statistics demonstrate that our population is ageing, so we must look after the elderly. This is one of the most important issues facing the nation as it moves forward. One of the difficulties that arose a number of years ago and which has now caused anomalies in the social welfare system, was that PRSI contributions should not be paid into savings. As a result, people's pensions were affected. People were advised not to pay PRSI and now end up not being able to obtain a pension because they have capital assets that are worth more than the level permitted by the State.

In recent years, a number of measures have been included in the social welfare code for the elderly or for young people to make pension provision for their later years. Such moves are to be welcomed and public representatives should encourage them at constituency level to ensure that people make proper provision for pensions.

I welcome the increase in the old age pension provided for in the budget. We are well on the way to reaching the €200 per week target in the programme for Government. Pensioners across the country are being looked after by the Government. They welcome the recent increases not alone in this budget but also in the preceding ones. As a nation, we will be judged by how we look after our elderly citizens and those most vulnerable in society. I also welcome the increase in child benefit, as well as the €14 increase that was given to all social welfare recipients.

Compulsory PRSI contributions for the self-employed were introduced in 1988. A small number of people are now receiving a pro-rata pension that was introduced by the Government in 1988. It was for people who had five years or more PRSI payments so that they would receive a pro-rata pension. What they are actually getting is a half pension, however. I have discussed this matter with the Minister and he has said he will examine it with a view to introducing it in five, six or seven parts. Issues have arisen concerning self-employed people who did not pay PRSI contributions prior to their 66th birthday. At this stage, they may have made nine or ten PRSI payments, yet they cannot get a pension.

Up to last year, missionaries who returned from foreign fields were able to benefit from the old age non-contributory pension. I know it was not the Government's intention but because of an amendment that was introduced last year, these retired missionaries are unable to obtain pensions. They should be entitled to an old-age pension. They have given a life-time's work to the foreign missions, some of them for 40 or even 50 years. I know them personally. They have been great ambassadors for Ireland but for one reason or another they changed citizenship while living abroad. They were advised to do so when living in South America and Africa but having returned to Ireland, either on holidays or to retire, they now find they must be living here as citizens for two years before they can be considered for a pension. The Minister should examine this matter to ensure that retired Irish missionaries are looked after when they return.

The Deputy's Government did that.

I accept that but I know the matter will be re-examined.

It has not happened now, though.

As I said previously, it was not the intention to do so.

It happened.

The issue will be re-examined, however. I also welcome the increase in the family income supplement. The carer's allowance and the disregard relating to a spouse's income have been increased in recent years and again in this budget. We are now in a position where the recipient of a carer's allowance can come into the tax net. We must rectify this issue in the future. It would cost little to the Exchequer to ensure that the carer's allowance is taken out of the tax net. Many of the means-tested allowances are now technically taxable. There is an opposing argument that the means-test prevents such allowances from being taxable. However, we must consider the approach of removing all means-tested allowances from the tax net.

There have been many improvements to the carer's allowance since its introduction. Free travel to anyone over the age of 66 is automatically extended to his or her spouse. For those in receipt of the carer's allowance and the free travel scheme, free travel should be extended to their spouses or partners.

Another issue has been brought strongly to my attention in recent weeks. When I was growing up, I had a neighbour who was deaf and had a speech disability. People had to learn to communicate with him through sign language. I recently was in communication via text messaging with a friend who is deaf and has a speech difficulty. He explained that the invention of text messaging technology has changed his life completely in terms of his ability to communicate with others and conduct his life as a "normal" person. For teenagers with similar difficulties, the advent of mobile telephones has changed their situation entirely from that experienced by this man at the same age. We should consider the possibility of providing persons in this situation with a free text messaging service. Such a scheme would have a significant impact on their quality of life.

Many health boards and county councils have installed storage heating for elderly people under the disabled person's grant and the provision of housing aid for the elderly. Much of this storage heating works on the night-rate electricity. Up to last week, free electricity credits and units were given to elderly people against the standard rate. Those using the night-rate electricity for storage heating could not avail of these. I welcome that the ESB has decided to introduce a new billing system, whereby credits can be used by night-rate as well standard-rate users. This was a concern because storage heating is an economical and safe way of providing heating for the elderly. The change is good news and will boost the confidence of those elderly who have been advised to install storage heating.

I am concerned that the capital disregard for means-testing has been increased for all capital schemes except the social welfare allowance scheme. This is a problem for people who have had capital over the years in that such capital is heavily penalised in calculating the disregard that allows people to avail of some form of payment from the State.

I welcome the increase in the respite grant to €1,000 from 2005. Many of the changes introduced in the budget and in the Social Welfare Bill 2004, especially with regard to the carer's allowance, are welcome. I congratulate the Minister on the good job he has done and thank him for the many times he has given us a listening ear in terms of the various schemes we have tried to put forward. As public representatives, we have close contact with people and knowledge of the anomalies in the system, which cause difficulties from time to time. I am delighted the Minister has been willing to listen to our representations on these issues and look forward to further increases in the area of social welfare in future budgets.

I congratulate the Minister, a caring Galway man, for looking after those who are less well-off.

The Minister is blushing.

I welcome the increase of €12 for old age pensioners, which brings the weekly rate to €179 and ensures we are on target to achieve the Government's commitment to increase the old age pension to €200 by 2007. The increase of €14 in all social welfare payments is welcome. Child benefit is also increased by €10 for the first and second child, and by €12 for the third and other children. This brings the rate of payment for one child up to €141.60 per month, while the parents of four children will receive a monthly payment of €637. Likewise, family income supplement has increased, as has maternity benefit.

There is also good news for carers. The income disregard for a single person is increased to €270 and to €540 for a couple. This means that a wife whose husband's income is €540 per week can qualify for a full carer's allowance. The respite grant has increased to €1,000 and carers will qualify for this grant regardless of income. It is expected that this grant will be paid to an additional 10,000 carers.

For social welfare means-tested payments, the capital assessment is eased because the first €20,000 of capital is disregarded. This means an old age pensioner can have a considerable amount of money but still qualify for a full pension. Other changes in the Bill will help many people. Of every €4 the Government spends in 2005, almost €1 will go to social welfare recipients. We have reduced poverty to historically low levels. The rate of consistent poverty has fallen to 5.2%, down from 15% in 1994, equating to approximately 71,000 households. In addition, there has been an encouraging drop in the figures for consistent child poverty. This rate has decreased from 17% in 1997 to 6.5% in 2001. We have implemented the most significant series of social welfare and child benefit increases in the history of the State. Social welfare payments have increased by 27% above the increase in the cost of living from 1997 to 2004.

This Bill aims to make significant progress in delivering the commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government and the Sustaining Progress social partnership agreement, relating to pensions and other social welfare provisions. This Bill is part of a package that aims to make a real difference to those at risk of poverty, especially families, the unemployed and those unable to work because of age or disability, both in terms of income or in terms of other supports given to them via the social welfare system.

We are also keen to recognise the contribution of carers and the demands on them. As a result of the 2005 budget, all those aged 66 and over will be €12 per week better off than at present, with weekly rates of €166 for non-contributory pensioners and €179 for contributory pensioners. These will come into effect on 1 January next. Maternity benefit will increase from 70% to 75% of reckonable earnings. There will also be an increase of €14 per week to €165.60 in the minimum rate of maternity benefit and adoptive leave benefit.

We have a particular concern for the older generation who have made invaluable contributions to the well-being of the economy and society. All our budgets since 1997 have included measures to improve the income situation of those on pensions. At the previous general election, we promised to increase state pensions to €200 per week. Last year's budget provided for an increase of €10 per week while this budget provides for a further €12 rise, showing clearly that we will deliver on this commitment. There is another substantial rise in the level of income tax exemption for pensioners, up to €33,000 for a married couple. We are on target for achieving the Government's objective of having basic state pensions of €200 by 2007 and we remain committed to doing so.

A particular effort has been made in this budget to address the needs of those on the lowest rates of social welfare. Some have seen real increases in recent years which have been somewhat below those of others. The increases are a significant step to enable recipients to live life with dignity and is in line with our commitments under the national anti-poverty strategy and Sustaining Progress.

The family income supplement, which is paid to working parents in low-paid employment, is being increased to an unprecedented €39 per week at a full year cost of €15.3 million. This will result in an increase of €23.40 per week for most of the 14,000 families receiving the payment and will make another 2,600 families eligible for it. The family income supplement is an important scheme because it encourages people to enter and remain in the labour force. It not only gives them an adequate income but also puts them on the road to economic independence and enhances their human dignity.

I appeal to the Minister to contact local authorities to ensure these high increases to pensioners and the unemployed are not siphoned off by county councils increasing the rents on council houses and differential rents, thereby leaving tenants less well-off. It is important that this point be made.

I have promoted the cause of carers all my life. I thank the Minister for what he has done for carers this year. Nevertheless, there is more to be done in this area. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs has studied the issue of carers for the past 12 months. We have found that a problem exists for carers who are widows or widowers. I urge the Minister to accept the recommendations of the joint committee and pay approximately half the rate of carer's allowance to a person in receipt of a widow's pension. At present, a person in receipt of a widow's pension does not qualify for carer's benefit. These people feel they are not being treated equally. I accept that this measure would be costly but we must move towards it. The Minister has moved some way in this direction by giving the respite grant to all full-time carers. However, carers need recognition. Anyone who looks after an elderly person in his or her home does great work for the country. An elderly person should always have the choice of being cared for at home rather than going into a nursing home. I have nothing against nursing homes but the choice should be available. We must do everything in our power to ensure that carers are well looked after.

I wish to share time with Deputy Wall. This is probably the smallest Social Welfare Bill I have ever seen. It does not even merit a centre page. I am sure Deputy Brennan is hearing language he never heard before. He has never needed to hear it.

Whenever I consider Ireland's social welfare system, I recall a story told to me by a friend of mine. He went, full of excitement, to America where he was welcomed at the airport by his uncle. Instead of telling him he was glad to see him and asking for news from home, his uncle told him that, above all else, he should not get sick. That advice shaped his view of America. His ambition was never to get sick. He knew that if he was not able to look after himself, he would be in serious trouble.

Our social welfare system is developing in that way. Few people are now dependent on social welfare, unlike the 1980s and early 1990s when we had high rates of unemployment. For that reason, they receive less attention. However, those who go out to work and also depend on social welfare for support payments are being treated very badly. Will the Minister take a long look at this question? I recognise that he has not been in his portfolio for long and will have to become familiar with certain areas. When he does, will he take a close look at the question of lone parents who work?

A few weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question about the overall figure for social welfare fraud. I was told that fraud to the tune of €28 million could be attributed to lone parents who worked. That seemed a very high figure. When I looked at it, I discovered that the so-called fraud is not fraud at all. The rules relating to lone parents had changed. Until the introduction of the 16 social welfare cuts by the former caring Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, lone parents who went out to work could earn €293 per week. For anyone to try to live and rear a child on a gross income of €293 per week is beyond my imagining but that is what they were required to do. A lone parent who exceeds that amount now automatically loses the half payment of lone parent's allowance which he or she had received until that point. Unfortunately, no one told lone parents about this change. A lone parent might have been in receipt of the half payment for anything up to three years without knowing he or she had exceeded the limit. One young woman thought the €293 limit referred to net and not gross income and had always been careful to keep her earnings under that limit. She suddenly received a letter from the Department of Social and Family Affairs saying that she owed €17,500. She was expected to pay that sum immediately before the Department decided whether or not to take court action against her. This young woman was left with a gross income of €310 per week, she owed €17,500 and she had a young child to keep.

The €28 million was not fraud. It was not claimed fraudulently. Fraud must involve deliberate intent, and this did not. This had nothing to do with fraud, which is a matter to which the Minister will need to give serious consideration. I have an entire file with details of young women, one of whom owes €19,500 and has no idea how she can pay it with very a limited income. However, that is the type of letter being issued which shows the kind of impersonal contact with people who have very real lives and are desperately trying to keep their heads above water. They could have sat at home and decided to rear a child up to the age of 18, but did not do so and decided to get back into the workforce.

I ask the Minister to consider another area, which was not affected by the budget but should have been, namely widows under the age of 66. Deputy Callanan spoke glowingly of how Fianna Fáil looks after the elderly. A similar line used to be trotted out about Fianna Fáil looking after widows. Widows under 66 with young families represent a group that has not been looked after. A strong case exists for giving them secondary benefits. They have a lifestyle based on the expectation either of staying at home while their husbands went to work or of having two incomes and that expectation completely changes. However, they get none of the secondary benefits that all other social welfare recipients would get in such circumstances. At this stage something should be done for them.

The budget failed to touch another group, those who rely on the fuel allowance to heat at least one room in the house. The fuel allowance has not increased in years while the price of coal has. I recently spoke to a coal merchant who told me that coal is now regarded as a luxury item.

All Deputies have at some time asked MABS to look at a budgeting problem of a constituent on a very low income. MABS is an excellent organisation, which really brings matters under control and brings a degree of certainty and security to people with financial problems that have got out of control. It was an insult to give €700,000 to MABS to help it alleviate hardship nationally. People working in that service might well have felt better if nothing had been given. It is beyond me how this could happen. MABS works with people in dire straits. I am sure the Minister in his constituency work has referred people to the service.

I hope that when the Minister gives detailed consideration to what he will provide, he addresses some of these matters. The Social Welfare Bill really only addresses the increases. I hope the detail will have some more meat in it and will address some of the difficulties I am discussing. I am not alone and all Deputies have their own hobbyhorses.

In the main young women are getting up from the fireside and going out to make a life for themselves at work. They are being hit by bills and then to add insult to injury told that they have made fraudulent claims, which total €28 million. That matter needs to be seriously reviewed. I do not want to have to continue to appeal such cases and I am sure the same is true of other Deputies. The Department of Social and Family Affairs needs to take action to address this problem.

I thank Deputy Lunch for sharing time. Everybody concentrates on his or her own particular aspect of this Bill. Recent figures from the CAO show that 5% fewer students now attend third-level institutions. While the Government White Paper has a target of 15% participation by adults at third-level, the reality is closer to 5%. Earlier this month a FÁS report based on CSO figures stated that nearly half of the 380,000 who left school with only a primary education are sadly unemployed. The argument for cutting the back to education allowance by the former Minister for Social and Family Affairs was fraudulent use of the scheme. No Government should ever take action that prevents people from participating in education regardless of stage of life.

Hear, hear.

The Celtic tiger was formed around education. Education has been the soul of the country in the past ten years. With the help of God the trend shown in the CAO figures of a 5% reduction in third-level participation will be reversed. The Minister did not do what he should have done on the back to education allowance. He should have reversed it and perhaps even decreased it further to give others a chance.

The figures are before the Minister. FÁS believes that most of those who are unemployed are people who left school with only a primary education. Who knows what sacrifices they had to make that prevented them from going to second and possibly third-level education? It could have been pregnancy, personal illness or illness of a loved one that prevented them from such an opportunity. However, the Minister has taken steps, which ensures they will not have the opportunity that he and others had. I ask the Minister to make the back to education allowance his top priority. We have heard of various aspects from Deputies on both sides of the House. However, we must never prevent people from bettering themselves and this can only be done through the education system.

Opportunities exist in ITs, universities and other third level facilities. The international business community looks to Ireland as having a pool of well-educated people. However, simply because the Government was unable to pick out the bad apples that destroyed the scheme in the first place, the previous Minister for Social and Family Affairs took the opportunity of cutting everybody's chance by changing the system. I ask the Minister to make this his top priority and give people back the opportunity to educate themselves. No Government, including this one, should deprive our sons and daughters of the opportunity of improving themselves. We must ensure that the educational level of our employees and potential employees is not in any way diminished. If the Minister does that, many people will say it was a great decision and colleges and universities will say it was a positive move. The cutback was made to remove fraudulent applicants from the system but it was a failure. The fraudulent applicants should have been sorted out and the back to education allowance improved in the budget.

The same applies to the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. I will not be critical of the Social Welfare Bill because there are measures in it that I fully support but this scheme differentiates between the person on social welfare and the person on a good income. The back to school clothing and footwear allowance has not changed in years, it is still €80 for a primary school child and €150 for a secondary school child. That would not buy a pair of shoes now. A recent Labour Party study showed — it was not refuted — that it costs €1,000 per child to go back to school in September. That applies to high earners and social welfare recipients, but we only offer €80. That will not improve standards in education. We wonder why children do not finish their schooling but young children cannot face up to going to school because the clothing they wear makes them appear second class to their peers in school. That has not been addressed in this Social Welfare Bill. It is an aspect of the education system that falls within the Minister's remit and if he changes it, we will see a better attitude to education. We must never lose the opportunity to improve the educational chances of our children but while we have raised other amounts, we have done nothing about the back to school clothing and footwear allowance.

The cost for families with two or three children going back to school in September is high. Parents find themselves in difficulties with moneylenders and we have to send them to MABS to get them back on the straight and narrow. This happens between September and Christmas, the tough period for any family on social welfare, when they are under most pressure to provide for their loved ones. That is when they must pay for the children to go to school and prepare for Christmas, matching the children's peers in school.

This is the pressure children and families on social welfare face. The matter should be investigated. Unemployment is falling but there are too many still reliant on benefits and we should improve matters for them. If we improve educational opportunity for people in the system, we will give them a new respect for themselves. That respect will rub off on the children, ensure they match others in the school and achieve employment when they complete their education.

Child care is also a major problem. People travel 40 miles in the mornings for child care. Surely that is not beneficial to family life. The Minister should examine this area.

There is much in the Bill that is admirable but I cannot support it. I hope that the Minister will look at the items I have mentioned and do something to address them.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and wish the Minister every success in this portfolio. It is impossible to satisfy everyone but he has made a number of positive moves in this Bill. It is a substantial package compared with last year's Bill and the rowing back on some of last year's cuts is welcome.

The Minister focused on carers in his speech. Carers are mainly women and the Minister acknowledged that we have an obligation to them because their job lasts seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They make huge sacrifices and are under massive pressure. I welcome some of the changes the Minister has made for carers in the Bill.

The extension of the respite grant must be commended. The number of carers who come to my clinics who are not entitled to this grant is astonishing but that has been addressed in this Bill. I would like the Minister to address the forecast of an extra 9,000 carers availing of the grant. There is some discrepancy in the figures for the number of carers who will qualify for this. The Minister might indicate how he has arrived at the figure of 9,200 full-time carers receiving the grant for the first time. Any ambiguity must be ruled out because this is a positive measure to address a situation we come up against every day in our clinics.

I also welcome the fact that the grant has been increased to €1,000 and that it now applies to every person being cared for. In many households two people are being cared for and it is good that has been recognised.

I compliment the Minister on removing the condition that a recipient of carer's benefit must have been in employment in the three months prior to the commencement of full-time caring. Many people have argued that a carer's allowance should not be means tested. Huge costs are involved and this is the first in a series of measures the Minister hopes to bring into play for carers. We have not seen the end of the benefits to be rolled out in the years ahead.

Widows' inability to obtain social welfare benefits and the carer's allowance should be examined. Widows, particularly those involved in caring for someone, have had a raw deal in the social welfare system. A widow should be entitled to a social welfare benefit and qualify for carer's allowance. Perhaps the Minister would look at that issue.

I shall refer to some of benefits removed last year, which the Minister has seen fit to reinstate, one of which is the back to education allowance. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on the matter in November and while I accept he has rowed back from 15 to 12 months, the reality is that on 1 September 2004, the time was increased from six months to 15 months. While it has been improved by three months I ask that it be rowed back to six months, as applied originally. As has been articulated by many Members the back to education allowance has been of enormous benefit to many. I tabled a parliamentary question recently in which I asked the numbers who availed of the back to education allowance and the number is massive. It is important to address the issue of those who have been denied the opportunity to get an education for whatever reason. This is an allowance of which we will reap the benefits because these people go back into the workplace and pay their taxes. On a cost benefit analysis it is a measure that must be extended.

Last year the six months rule with regard to the rent supplement caused hardship for many. I welcome the fact that the Minister has reversed that decision and that the six months rule to qualify for rent supplement has been removed. I am aware that if one argued one's case with the community welfare officer one could avail of the rent allowance. The reality is that it was a discretionary decision on the part of the community welfare officer. Once it has been established, as the Minister has made clear, that a person has a local authority housing need, he or she should be entitled to the rent allowance with immediate effect. I welcome that decision and applaud the Minister. The Government tried to defend the cut at the time but it caused much hardship. To say it did not work and that the decision should be reversed is commendable.

On the issue of turning down two offers of a local authority house I welcome the fact that the offer has been extended to three refusals. Some may say that if one has been offered a local authority house one should grab it. However, the reality is, and it happens in my constituency, that many local authority houses may not be fit for habitation and it may not suit the circumstances of the individual to be located in a particular area. In that case it is important that they be given a chance provided their reasons for refusal are reasonable. In most cases they are reasonable. I appreciate the leeway being given in regard to the refusal of a local authority house.

I welcome the return of the crèche supplement and the diet supplement, the cost of which probably was not huge. For those availing of them they were welcome benefits. The issue of child benefit is a matter on which I have strong views given the cost of child care. I recognise the Government's policy is to provide for child care through the child benefit. I recognise the points the Minister made in his contribution that this is a fair and equitable system and treats everybody equally right across the spectrum and that it does not discourage anybody from taking up employment. The massive 250% increase in child benefit from 1997 to date has to be acknowledged as it has been extremely generous. I spoke with a lady recently who has three children, two of whom are twins, who receives €564 in child benefit per month, which is a significant payment. However, the cost of child care for the month was in excess of €1,000. The reality is that, generous as child benefit is, for many women who might like to go out into the workplace, the cost of child care is so prohibitive the option is not open to them. What is the best way around this issue? I realise the Government's policy is to provide for child care through the child benefit, whether that means increasing child benefit at a greater pace to cover the cost of child care or looking at other avenues. Something has to be done to make it more attractive for women to go out and work if that is what they want. I do not know how the Government intends to address the issue. A case has been made for the child dependant allowance, an issue to which the Minister referred. It could be argued that it provides a benefit to those who are in receipt of social welfare where it is most needed. The policy of going the child benefit route is a good one but the level of payment will have to be increased.

I tabled a parliamentary question on the money advice and budgeting service recently, on behalf of a colleague, the response to which was that the number of inquiries has exceeded its original expectations. My understanding is that there has been a huge increase in the amount of money spent on the money advice and budgeting service. While the Minister has provided an additional €700,000 this year, the amount being provided to the service is much greater. If the Minister were to expand on that issue it would clarify some of the points raised.

I thank Deputies who contributed to the debate, which has lasted almost seven hours. I have listened to the debate with the exception of approximately ten minutes and have taken careful note of the points made by all Deputies but particularly those made be the Opposition spokespersons who represent their parties. We shall have four hours on Committee Stage tomorrow and I shall use that forum to tease out some of the technical aspects and specific questions put to me. I am confident I have presented a fairly balanced set of changes and substantial improvements. As there is only so much one can do in any one budget I will have to continue to work on the issues in the year ahead and to use whatever mechanisms are available to me to make improvements.

Out of every €3 the State spends, €1 goes to social welfare entitlements. An estimated 970,000 persons on average are expected to claim weekly social welfare payments next year. That affects approximately 1.5 million people, including dependants, that is, two out of every five people in the State. That means we are dealing with the quality of life of many people. I am conscious of the importance of these issues for families, individuals and children all over the country.

The increases of €14 and €12 in social welfare payments are three or four times ahead of the expected rate of inflation. I wish they were more but they are significant. Social welfare spending has more than doubled from €5.7 billion in 1997 to €12.25 billion next year, an increase of €1billion. We will spend more than €1 billion more in 2005 than we spent in 2004. I agree with Deputies who say that while it is called spending, it is people's entitlement. It is no thanks to the State or the taxpayer, these are payments to which people are entitled.

I refer to the issue of carers given that many Deputies raised the matter. The reality is that I am continuing to do more in this area. The package being provided in the budget is an extra €40 million to enhance support for carers and to allow more carers qualify for entitlements. I made eight changes in the budget, each of which was an improvement. Carer's allowance and carer's benefit were increased by €14 per week. Many Deputies mentioned that the respite grant was increased from €850 to €1,000, which is expected to benefit approximately 33,000 full-time carers.

The respite care grant has been extended to include all carers who provide full-time care, subject to employment related conditions. If one receives unemployment benefit and is therefore available for work, one will not be included under the terms of this provision, which is one of the most significant developments in the recognition of carers since the benefit was first introduced. An additional 9,200 full-time carers will receive the grant for the first time. I am changing the system so that the grant will be payable in respect of each person who is being given care.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn asked me to indicate how I have determined that 9,200 full-time carers will receive the grant for the first time. I may speak about this matter at greater length on Committee Stage. The Central Statistics Office census contained some interesting figures about the number of hours of unpaid care provided by carers. Some 84,000 carers provide up to two hours of care per day, 15,000 carers provide between two and four hours of care per day, 7,957 carers provide between four and six hours of care per day and 40,000 carers provide over six hours of care per day. The 150,000 figure, which was referred to by many Deputies, is reached when one adds the number of people in all four categories. The majority of the 150,000 carers provide less than two hours of care each day. While I do not deny the value of the care they provide and am grateful for it, it cannot be said that they are full-time carers. Approximately 48,000 carers provide more than four hours of care per day. Some 23,000 carers who work more than ten hours per week receive carer's payments. Therefore, a balance of approximately 9,200 remains. I can give more details of the figures on Committee Stage. An additional 9,200 people will benefit.

Many Deputies spoke about widows who are not given any additional carer's allowance when they start to do some caring. I would have liked to have included an extra 50%, as the committee recommended, but I chose to take the respite route this year. The widows in question will each receive the respite grant of €1,000 for the first time. I consider it to be a recognition, not a payment. It does not pay for much, but it recognises that the widow or old age pensioner is doing some caring work. The payment is not means tested; it is simply given for doing the work.

When one examines all the changes I have made in the provisions for carers, one will see that they are worth over €40 million, which is significant. I would like to do much more in this area. As a result of the changes I have made, a couple who have two children and earn up to €30,700 can receive the maximum rate of carer's allowance and a couple who have two children and earn up to €49,200 can receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance as well as free travel, the household benefits package of free schemes and the respite care grant. That is a significant improvement.

I do not agree with the Labour Party's proposal to abolish the means test. I am not making a political point, but merely stating the opinion I have formed having listened to the Private Members' debate and thought about the matter. It has been estimated that the cost of abolishing the scheme would be approximately €160 million. If I had €160 million to spend, I would focus on the rates. It costs approximately €50 million to change the rates by €1. It is obvious that the Labour Party's proposal would change the rates for everybody by €3 or €4. One must engage in a trade-off in that regard. While it is important that we should make substantial improvements in respect of carers, if we had €160 million, it might be more appropriate to spend it on improving the lot of carers in need. We should find a way to recognise the work of carers. If carers do not need a particular financial support, we should recognise their work in another way. We plan to do much more in the area of carers. We have put in place a €40 million package, extended the €1,000 grant to a further 9,200 carers and raised the income disregards so that a couple who earn up to €49,200 can receive the minimum rate of carer's allowance and a couple who earn up to €30,700 can receive the maximum rate. The substantial improvements we have made this year will help many carers.

I do not want to get argumentative about the so-called 16 cuts because I am not trying to play politics with them. I have examined nine of the cuts in detail and will examine the remaining cuts in the months to come. I have made changes to all the nine cuts I have considered. I will not engage in discussions about whether I have reversed the cuts. Having examined the cuts to see what difference they have made to individuals, I have eased them, amended them or reversed them. I have made all the provisions much more useful and appropriate to those affected by them. For example, the weekly income threshold for the half-rate child dependent allowance in respect of certain benefits has increased from €300 to €350.

I appreciate the comments of Deputies about the back to education allowance, which I will examine. It has been strongly argued to me that evidence is available to demonstrate that the change to six months led to many applications from nationals and non-nationals who went on the register deliberately to gain the allowance which one can receive for many years while one is in third level education. I will keep the matter under review because I accept the point, made strongly by Deputies Wall and Stanton, that we need to make it easier to move from unemployment to education. I have gone some of the way because it has been strongly argued to me that there is hard evidence of substantial and deliberate abuse of the scheme when the line is drawn as low as six months. I will review the evidence to see if I can change the threshold further when I have been convinced that the abuse I have mentioned is under control.

I have provided that the one-parent family payment provisions will continue to include a halfway transitional payment for six months. One-parent families will continue to be paid for six months as they move to employment.

I have removed the six-month rule from the rent supplement scheme. That does not mean that we can be careless about it, however. Deputies have argued that we need to ensure that people need the accommodation and that they entered into rent agreements honourably. If they are genuine, the six-month rule that I have removed completely will be examined on the merits of individual cases. I am satisfied that those who need rent supplement will get it. I have no desire to stop people from getting rent supplement. They will continue to get it as long as they can demonstrate they need it. It will be quite easy for them to demonstrate that at the relevant offices. I have increased the income disregard for rent supplement. I have decided not to increase the minimum contribution of claimants from the present €13.

A number of Deputies asked me about the money advice and budgeting service. Deputy Lynch took me to task about the fund of €700,000 I have provided for. The Deputy may have confused the House somewhat because the service's actual budget for next year will be €12.6 million, an increase of €1.2 million or 11% on 2004. The €700,000 fund has been allocated over and above the budget I have mentioned because the service lost €700,000 as a result of a change that was made. I have restored the €700,000 in a different way, as Deputy Penrose mentioned, by giving it to the service to use as it sees fit. I will not tell the service how to use the fund. It can make such decisions on the basis of the expertise it has developed from its day-to-day operations. I am sure it will use the money to help those who need it.

I accept the argument that we will have to be careful to ensure that the fund of €700,000 is not just given to banks which can well afford to help the people in question. Banks should not soak up the fund as a direct subsidy from the State simply because it happens to be available. I have put back exactly the same amount as was taken from the system.

I have made it clear that the crèche supplement has been restored. Any individual who can demonstrate to health service personnel that he or she requires the crèche supplement will receive it. That was the original intention behind the supplement and it remains so. The same holds true for the diet supplement. I have restored this year that supplement which existed one or two years ago.

I am not making an issue of these measures. However, I have changed nine of them substantially and I will continue to review those nine and the remainder and make practical, sensible changes thereto as best I can. None of them is fixed in concrete.

As it is now 10.30 p.m, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 69; Níl, 55.

  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Breen, James.
  • Brennan, Seamus.
  • Browne, John.
  • Callanan, Joe.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Collins, Michael.
  • Connolly, Paudge.
  • Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cowen, Brian.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cullen, Martin.
  • Curran, John.
  • de Valera, Síle.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Dempsey, Tony.
  • Dennehy, John.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Glennon, Jim.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Jacob, Joe.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • McDowell, Michael.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McHugh, Paddy.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Donal.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghail, Seán.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Dea, Willie.
  • O’Donnell, Liz.
  • O’Flynn, Noel.
  • O’Keeffe, Ned.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Malley, Tim.
  • Parlon, Tom.
  • Power, Peter.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Dan.
  • Walsh, Joe.
  • Wilkinson, Ollie.
  • Woods, Michael.


  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Harkin, Marian.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Padraic.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Paul.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Morgan, Arthur.
  • Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.
  • Murphy, Gerard.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Shea, Brian.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Pattison, Seamus.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Ryan, Seán.
  • Sherlock, Joe.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Upton, Mary.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Kehoe and Stagg.
Question declared carried.