I agree with the assertion by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs that we have a booming economy. He argued it is only just that the people who helped lay the foundations of our current prosperity are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the advances the country has made in the last ten years or so. I have pointed out areas that still remain to be addressed.
The National Disability Authority, NDA, appeared today before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and laid out a number of issues which worried committee members from both sides of the House. The NDA informed the committee that more than twice as many people with disabilities are in the income bracket termed ‘at risk of poverty' by the EU. One in seven people with disabilities experiences basic deprivation and goes without basics such as heat or proper meals or gets into debt with regard to daily costs. The NDA argued that this was double the rate found among other adults and that the extra costs of living associated with having a disability were likely to be a factor. The authority also argued that people with disabilities were twice as likely to be consistently poor, that is, to experience a low income and basic deprivation. It argued that consistent poverty among people with disabilities remained virtually unchanged throughout the years of the Celtic tiger, although it halved for other adults between 1995 and 2001.
Many people with disabilities have talents and abilities and we should focus on these and see what supports we can put in place to encourage and help these people to gain employment. Many people with disabilities want to work. The NDA maintains that in seeking to reduce poverty among people with disabilities, the main issues for the social welfare system are promoting employment and financial independence for people with disabilities who can work, maintaining adequate levels of income for people with disabilities who depend on social welfare and assisting with the extra costs associated with having a disability.
The NDA spoke about a cost of disability payment, which the Minister for Social and Family Affairs might consider. A review of illness and disability payments schemes carried out in 2003 by a working group in his Department concluded that the costs of having a disability should be met separately, rather than through higher basic income maintenance payments, which would not be targeted at those individuals whose needs are greatest. The working group stressed the importance of meeting the costs of disability in a way that is less dependent on labour force status if people with disabilities are to be given the opportunity to participate in the workforce. The Bill and the budget have not adequately addressed this area. We should now do so because the reports, research and political will on both sides of the House and across the political divide are there. The challenge is for the Minister, whose term will probably last for at least another year, to take this on board. I know the Minister listens to arguments put to him and I appreciate the fact that he takes part in debates in this House and in committees.
I understand that the living alone allowance has been left untouched by the budget. Perhaps the Minister will explain the reason. It has been brought to my attention that many widows and widowers in their late 40s or early 50s face terrible financial pressure. The problem mainly affects widows because there appear to be more of them and it can be particularly marked for widows who did not work outside the home. Secondary benefits would be of great assistance to these people, yet widows and widowers must be over 66 years of age to access these benefits. The issue of secondary benefits for widows and widowers under 66 is not covered in this Bill but could possibly be examined by the Minister in the future. These people have lost their spouse and the accompanying financial support and could have small children to raise.
Women whose maternity leave begins in January 2006 or slightly later will not benefit from the additional four weeks. Could the Minister examine whether such women could receive this extra leave? They feel short-changed and have lobbied Deputies on the matter.
The increase in child benefit is less than the actual increase last year so we seem to be going backwards. The question arises as to whether this is related to the extra €1,000 payment for children under six years of age. The Exchequer has only a certain amount of money, which it must allocate to different areas. It is not clear whether the Department of Social and Family Affairs or another Department will administer this payment. Involving another Department will add another layer of bureaucracy. Could the Minister tell us which Department will administer the payment? He appears to have taken some credit for it in his speech, which I welcome, because children under six years are expensive. The Minister and I both know, as fathers, that in some cases children get more expensive as they grow older and expectations increase. Perhaps the Minister had a certain amount of money and decided to increase child benefit by €8.40 for the first two children instead of last year's increases of €10 for the first two children and €12 for the third and subsequent child. He could possibly revisit this area.
Travel passes for people in rural areas are not addressed in this Bill but should be considered. These people face major problems in accessing free travel because there is no public transport available. People who live in towns or villages are within easy reach of shops but those in remote rural areas with no public transport and who do not drive face problems in reaching towns to shop. These people can avail of free travel if they can reach a bus stop or train station but the problem lies in getting there. Many people with free travel passes frequently use public transport but many others cannot. It might balance matters if people in rural areas at a considerable distance from a bus route received vouchers which they could use once or twice a month to access local hackney services.
The Minister is probably aware that private refuse collection service charges often eat away at the increases he awards. Perhaps he could discuss with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the introduction of a waiver scheme for people using private refuse collection services.
When people living in local authority houses receive social welfare increases, the local authorities sometimes increase the rent, negating the benefit of the increase. A directive from the Department stipulates that it should not happen, but we know it is happening and that local authorities are strapped for cash. The Minister is giving this money for people to live, yet the rent goes up automatically as a result of getting it. He should find out what is going on. He could write to the local authorities or contact the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It seems that various local authorities have different ways of doing this.
The Minister is a great man for getting his picture on the front page of the Sunday newspapers as he is very photogenic. He also gets to state his thoughts for the week.