Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 29 Nov 2011

Vol. 748 No. 1

Private Members’ Business

Social Welfare Benefits: Motion

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt le cúigear Teachta eile. Tógfaidh mé 15 nóiméad agus tógfaidh na Teachtaí Pearse Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald, Brian Stanley, Seán Crowe and Sandra McLellan cúig nóiméad an duine.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes recent research commissioned by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Barnardos which found that at least 96,000 children are going without the essentials needed for an acceptable standard of living such as three meals a day, their own books for reading and taking part in clubs and activities;

notes the programme for Government promise to maintain social welfare rates;

calls on the Government to exempt children from shouldering the burden of recovery;


directs the Government to maintain current levels of child benefit and other social welfare payments, in particular those impacting on children including adult social welfare payments and eligibility criteria, the qualified child increase and family income supplement.

Two years ago this week the following words were uttered in this Chamber:

Child benefit is keeping many families afloat ... Child benefit is keeping bread on the table. It is paying the food bills of a significant number of families who have had a massive reduction in their income. Often the grandparents are helping to pay the mortgage to keep the wolf from the door, put food on the table and keep the house from being repossessed. That is true of so many families in so many parts of the country to which I have spoken recently and it constitutes a kind of stimulus in the current extraordinarily difficult economic conditions for so many families.

These are laudable words. However, when one considers that they were spoken during a debate on a Labour Party Private Members' motion calling on the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government not to cut child benefit, one sees how far the Labour Party is moving to the right in its pursuit of power. Two years later, together with its collaborators in Fine Gael, it is contemplating further reductions in child benefit.

Recalling these words of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, two years ago should embolden Labour Party Members to support tonight's Sinn Féin motion. The Labour Party motion was moved by the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for primary care, Deputy Róisín Shortall, on 1 December 2009. That motion called on the Dáil to note the "ongoing high cost of raising children in Ireland today and the significant cuts that have already been made to family income". It went on to observe that "every child deserves to be cherished and recognised by the State, regardless of the circumstances of its parents". The motion called on the Government to "maintain child benefit at the current level in the forthcoming budget".

The Sinn Féin motion tonight reiterates that call. More than 205,000 children — 19% of all children in the State — are at risk of poverty. Another 96,000, or 9%, are living in consistent poverty, which means they are experiencing material deprivations such as not having a warm waterproof coat or a substantial daily meal. These figures, compiled by the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions and relating to 2009, are the most recent data on child poverty. The CSO is due to publish the 2010 data tomorrow morning. We anticipate that the numbers of children experiencing consistent poverty will have risen further in the intervening years. My colleagues and I will bring those figures to the attention of Members opposite tomorrow night in order to ensure there is no doubt in their mind as to the effect of reductions in child benefit.

The role played by child benefit in tackling child poverty is irrefutable and was acknowledged last week by the Minister, Deputy Burton, during a debate in this Chamber. In 2005 consistent child poverty stood at 11%. Subsequent child benefit increases, together with general wage increases, helped to reduce that figure to 6% in 2008. However, that trend is now reversing following the cuts to child benefit imposed by the Fianna Fáil Government. Any additional reduction next Tuesday would further accelerate this reversal. Media reports have suggested that a cut of €10 is on the cards. A monthly loss of that magnitude might sound like nothing to those on high wages, but to a low or middle-income family with three children, an annual cut of €360 is very significant. Consider, for example, that the minimum cost of sending a 12 year old to school is €815.

Not only is it wrong to cut child benefit but it is also unnecessary. A €10 reduction would save the State in the region of €150 million. However, as we illustrated in our pre-budget submission, the Government has a whole host of alternative options to choose from which would help to close the budget deficit while also protecting children. For instance, a third rate of tax at 48% on incomes in excess of €100,000 would raise €410 million. A wealth tax of 1% on assets worth more than €1 million would raise €800 million. It is a question of political choice.

Any reduction in child benefit will have a further negative impact on our struggling economy, especially locally. The Labour Party used to agree with we me on this. Its 2009 Private Members' motion stated that "cutting child benefit would be far more deflationary than alternative revenue raising or cost-saving measures open to the Government". This remains the case. Speaking on that motion, the Minister, Deputy Burton, then spokesperson on finance, said: "It should be remembered that child benefit is spent in this country — on children's shoes, food and school books. It is probably one of the best stimuli". The same could be said of all social welfare payments.

Last week the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, highlighted the multiplier effect of spending in the local economy, pointing out that a €10 spend locally generates an additional €24. Conversely, for every €10 cut in child benefit, €34 will effectively be drained from local economies. This will have disastrous consequences for local shops and their suppliers, resulting in even more job losses.

It is important to address the debate surrounding universalism versus means testing or "targeting", as it is called. To put it in context, child benefit is our only universal payment. Countries which base their social protection systems on universal payments are faring better in this time of financial crisis. Generous universal social welfare payments act as an automatic stabiliser during a financial crash. Universal payments buffer demand in the local economy, thereby protecting jobs which in turn protects state revenues. Generous universal payments also enable a workforce to be flexible, a key requirement of competitiveness.

Child benefit should remain a universal payment. Talk of targeting will merely dig us deeper into the recessionary hole. A range of child benefit reforms is being and has been considered by this and previous Governments, including means testing or taxing the payment, both of which are thankfully being deemed an administrative nightmare. If people are genuinely concerned that spending on child benefit profits the wealthy then the fairest and simplest thing to do is to maintain it as a universal payment and use the general tax system to tax wealthy people at a higher rate.

There has been some speculation that child benefit will be cut and the qualified child increase will be raised so that the Government can claim that the vulnerable have been protected. However, such a measure would be no compensation at all for the hundreds of thousands of low and middle income earners whose families do not qualify for social welfare. A move like this would also reinforce poverty traps and unemployment traps as the gap between income from outside of employment and from employment would be narrowed as a result.

I want to pre-empt some of the arguments that will be made that Ireland's child benefit rate and other relevant social welfare rates are relatively high. Someone will undoubtedly raise the fact that child benefit is significantly lower in the Six Counties. I can hear Deputy Buttimer already. We heard him spouting earlier but without any knowledge of how the Six Counties is organised. He has already wrongly charged my party with engaging in double standards.

Such an argument would be based on two false assumptions. The first assumption is that my party has fiscal powers. This is not so because these are retained by Britain, primarily because previous Administrations here did not have the commitment to support republican demands for a full transfer of powers. They could not be bothered and they have not been bothered since the founding of this State.

The second assumption is that like is being compared with like and this is not so. For example, in the Six Counties, people do not have to fork out more than €60 every time a child gets sick. Likewise, across Europe, countries may have a lower specific child benefit rate but the state contributes much more to the cost of raising the next generation in a range of other ways that far exceed the difference. For example, in Finland, which is world-renowned for its literacy outcomes, education is truly free for all. There are no school fees, books are free and a free lunch is available to all children, regardless of means. In addition, unlike many other countries, the Irish tax system does not recognise the existence of children, unless they have a serious and permanent disability. Under our tax system, a couple with a child pay the same tax as a couple without a child, despite the significant and growing costs of raising children.

It is anyone's guess whether the €10 cut to child benefit is really on the cards or if it is just another kite flown by the Government. This motion is providing Members with an opportunity tomorrow evening to make it clear that child benefit is off the table when it comes to the budget. We are offering Government Deputies the opportunity to declare that they will exempt all children from the burden of recovery. We are offering Government Deputies the opportunity to live up to their pre-election promises and to their programme for Government commitment which states, "We will maintain social welfare rates". Fianna Fáil already landed children with the burden of recovery and the sins of their cronies by twice cutting child benefit rates. The people reacted and they voted for a change in Government. I call on this Government and the Government Deputies to support this motion and demonstrate real change.

In the final days of the general election campaign, the Labour Party sold itself on a promise to protect child benefit from cuts. Speaking to a group of mothers in my own constituency at the Saint Nicholas of Myra parish centre, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, now Tánaiste, promised that his party would protect families. He stated, "[Things] like not cutting child benefit any further. Enough is enough. Families can take no more". The Labour Party made this a red-line issue pre-election. The time has come to deliver. If the Labour Party cuts child benefit or other social welfare rates which impact on children, it will commit nothing short of electoral fraud.

The Labour Party should not give us the tired old excuses such as, "no decision has yet been taken"; "we cannot disclose under the budgetary process"; "everything is on the table". Fine Gael Ministers have had no problem making unequivocal commitments not to raise income taxes on the wealthy so there is no barrier preventing any backbenchers and Ministers from voting in support of the Sinn Féin motion.

Níos lú ná 20 cent in aghaidh na huaire an chloig a fhaigheann tuismitheoirí i bhfoirm liúntas leanaí. Níl aon duine chun a bheith saibhir ar an ráta sin. Ní éireoidh na daoine a bhailíonn liúntais shóisialta saibhir, a bhfuil géar gá acu teacht tríd an gcruachás ina bhfuil siad. Smaoinigh ar na costais ar pháiste a chur chun na scoile, ar dhochtúirí, ar oispidéil agus ar rudaí eile. In ainneoin na ngealltanas a tugadh roimh an toghchán agus ó shin nach ngearrfar liúntais leanaí nó aon sochar leasa shóisialta, tá sin tarlaithe cheana féin. Tá an Rialtas tar éis sochair a ghearradh.

Impím, ar Theachtaí atá ar na cúlbhinsí ach go háirithe, seasamh linn ar an rún seo istoíche amárach.

Mar a dúirt an Teachta Aengus Ó Snodaigh, tá polaitíocht uilig fá dtaobh de roghanna. Politics is all about choices and unfortunately, the choices this Government has made are the same choices the former Government made. I am sure the Minister of State, as a former member of one of the parties in the former Government, is delighted he is now in Government with two new parties and implementing the policies he espoused a number of years ago.

Twelve months ago this week, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party handed over control of the economy to the EU-IMF. Eight months ago, Fine Gael and the Labour Party abandoned their pre-election pledges and bowed down to the diktats of the troika. It is 12 months since the troika arrived and the Government still has no strategy for altering the details of Fianna Fáil's EU-IMF austerity programme. It is clear that Fine Gael is using the troika as a smoke-screen to introduce policies it supports but for which it has no mandate. This is apparent in the dismantling of the joint labour committees and the sale of profitable assets. That the Labour Party is so willing to go along with this is shameful.

We need to ask ourselves these questions. A couple of days before this Government is considering cutting child benefit, we must ask who has benefited from the bailout. Who has been bailed out? The Government would have us believe that the money from the EU-IMF is being used to pay the teachers, the nurses, the gardaí, those in receipt of child benefit. Unfortunately, the truth is very different.

At the end of last month, the Exchequer deficit stood at €22 billion. Half of this amount, a staggering €10.7 billion, has been given by Fine Gael and the Labour Party to the banks since they came to office. This included €3.1 billion to Anglo Irish Bank and a further €10 billion was given to the banks by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in July. This is not recorded in the Exchequer figures as it came from the National Pensions Reserve Fund. A further €3.7 billion was given by Fianna Fáil to the banks in the dying days of 2010. Put simply and boiling it all down, the deficit currently stands at €22 billion but since the troika has arrived, Government parties have injected €24.4 billion into the banks.

These figures speak for themselves. The EU-IMF programme is a bailout for banks and not for ordinary citizens. They are the ones being bailed out. Who will pay the price under Fine Gael and the Labour Party? If the leaks to the press are to be believed, it will be our children who will have to pay the toxic debts of these banks. If the leaks are proved correct on budget day, it will be our children who will be forced to shoulder the burden of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party austerity programme.

Cuts to child benefit, cuts to social welfare and increases in VAT will hit children hardest and in particular the 96,000 children who today are living in consistent poverty, without the essentials for acceptable standards of living. When the Government cuts the income of the families in which these children live, how will those parents put food on the table or clothes on backs? How will the parents afford the cost of education and health care? These are the stark choices that many families are already having to make because of the failed policies of bank bailouts and austerity introduced by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party and now implemented, shamefully, by Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

Sinn Féin's motion calls on Deputies not to cut child benefit or other benefits that impact on children. We call on those Deputies who, during the election campaign, promised to protect children, to stand up, to have the courage of their convictions and to stand by their beliefs, protect child benefit and support the Sinn Féin motion.

According to the Labour Party's general election manifesto, our country's best days are yet to come. It was not enough to wish for a better future. The party told us that polling day offered people an opportunity to come together and make a decision for change. The general election of February last was to be about real, transformative change that would bring about the kind of Ireland we want to live in, not only for ourselves but crucially also for our children. Less than a week from budget day, the same party has spent the past month frightening the life out of struggling families across the State with a succession of budget leaks which would make even Fianna Fáil eyes water. Let the Labour Party and Fine Gael be in no doubt that this budget, if we are to believe the leaks, will hit struggling families the hardest, particularly women and children.

As the Minister may have noted, TASC recently undertook a gender impact assessment of budget 2011. The organisation set out to quantify the cumulative effects of the main changes to direct taxation, social insurance and social welfare payments on the income of women and men. Not surprisingly, its assessment found that those on the lowest incomes were hardest hit. Cuts to social welfare, alongside the introduction of the universal social charge, widening of the tax bands and reduction in tax allowances, had a crippling effect on those families least able to shoulder the burden. The Government could abolish the universal social charge but chooses not to do so. It could introduce a wealth tax and a 48% tax band on individual income in excess of €100,000 per annum but chooses not to do so. Instead, it appears to be intent on travelling the same path as the Fianna Fáil Party by targeting those least able to carry the burden of further cuts and tax increases.

The TASC study found that women were concentrated in lower income groups, which was not a new or surprising finding. As a result, they suffered a disproportionate impact of budgetary cuts. The group most adversely affected by budget 2011 were single people with children, 73% of whom are women. In real terms, families in this group lost on average 5% of their income. Given that lone parents are more likely to be at risk of poverty and experience consistent poverty, reducing their income by 5% perpetuates the crisis they face and places even more vulnerable families at risk. We now understand that the Government wants to go after this group again. Imposing a plethora of stealth charges, reducing social protection supports, cutting child benefit and charging for the right to have a medical card will only drive even greater numbers of women and children into poverty. While such measures could be expected from the Fine Gael Party, it is astonishing that we need to make this argument to the Labour Party.

The Government pays out billions of euro on unguaranteed speculative bonds and chooses to mollycoddle high rollers in the public sector by standing over their lavish salaries during an economic crisis. Like its Fianna Fáil counterparts, it chooses to shackle citizens with the bank guarantee.

Given that we are specifically discussing child benefit, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to families across the State. They are the unsung struggling heroes of the piece who care for their children and are barely coping but will, none the less, protect their young. They are leaders and examples whereas the Government chooses not to lead. Thanks to its failure to do the right thing, hundreds and thousands of children will be pushed further into poverty. Families cannot and should not take any more. Child benefit must not be touched.

In the weeks leading up to the budget Government Ministers have been responsible — this is what journalists have told us — for leaking a constant flow of rumour and speculation about what the budget may contain. The steady drip-drip of possibilities and rumour appears to be designed to instil fear. It appears the warped thinking behind them has calculated that the leaks will somehow soften the blow when the cuts are announced. I do not understand the psychology of those who are behind the leaks.

In the past month, the media have published stories about the annual €50 charge to medical card holders, a possible 2% increase in the top rate of VAT, an €8 cut in unemployment assistance, the reintroduction of third level fees and the introduction of water charges and a household charge of €100. These leaks have fuelled increasing anxiety among many people who are already at their wits' end and terrified by what is coming down the tracks. It now appears that an essential benefit paid to the primary carer, usually the mother, is to be cut. The majority of parents use this benefit to pay for essential items such as school uniforms, school books, new shoes, heating and electricity bills or household rent. The leakers suggest the payment will be reduced by €10 per child per month. While this figure may not appear to be a large amount to many Members of the House, it can make a hell of a difference to low and middle income families, especially if one or both parents have lost their job, spent their savings and are struggling to find employment.

The saying goes that what we experience in childhood shapes us as adults. I grew up in Dublin when there was not a great deal of wealth, poor housing was plentiful, transport links were poor, work was scarce and poverty and hunger were not far from the door of many families. I thought we had moved on as a society. It is of vital importance that any cost-cutting measures implemented in next week's budget are not targeted at children. Organisations such as Barnardos estimate that 91,000 children live in consistent poverty and the figure is likely to rise significantly in the years to come. As elected representatives, we have all called to houses where one can smell poverty on the children of the household. This is an indictment of society. If children are our future, it is unacceptable to cut the limited financial support available to them and their families. To do so will only make matters worse and result in more children becoming marginalised, excluded from opportunities and unable to break the dark cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Child benefit is a universal payment. It is a direct means of assisting low income families which offers a type of social protection that has a proven track record in many countries, especially during prolonged recession. In 2005, the rate of consistent poverty stood at 11%. Increases to child benefit helped reduce this figure to 6% in 2008. Regrettably, however, this trend is being reversed. A €10 cut in child benefit would be another serious blow to low and middle income families who are already bearing the brunt of job losses, wage cuts and rising prices even for the most basic items.

Poverty affects every aspect of a child's upbringing. It has both short-term and long-term consequences on their health and education and can cripple life chances. Consistent poverty means thousands of children are living in households where the income is below 60% of the national average, with many facing significant levels of deprivation. These are glaring facts, as the figures show. Consistent poverty can mean going lengthy periods without a substantial meal or being left cold at home because parents are unable to afford the price of heating oil or electricity.

In recent years, a number of significant cuts have been made. These have increased pressure for welfare payments and mortgage supplements and disrupted homes affected by unemployment and an inability to afford education related costs. Unemployment has increased from 4% to 14%, with children in workless households suffering most. It has also resulted in an inability of parents to afford child related costs, especially those with high educational costs.

We are often told education is a right, not a privilege. There is no doubt school can provide pathways which can greatly improve a child's future. I agree with the sentiment expressed by a Labour Party Deputy prior to this year's general election:

"First and foremost, we believe that our children should not be made to pay for the current economic crisis, and for this reason Labour will not cut child benefit, particularly in the wake of recent budgets in which family incomes have already taken a substantial hit."

I want to know whether the Labour Party will honour that commitment in government, as enough is enough. Families cannot take any more. Poverty demeans us all. Collectively, we need to wage a war against it.

When we come through the hallway at the entrance to Leinster House every day, we pass an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation hanging on the wall. It states Ireland will cherish "all of the children of the nation equally". We have come to the Chamber this evening, 95 years on, to defend universal child benefit. That an attempt is seemingly being made to diminish it shows how little progress the State has made in some respects. As the Proclamation states, we must cherish all of the children of the nation equally. That should be our mission statement. Rather than focusing on improving the quality of life of children in the State, the Government — if we are to believe the leaks — is threatening to impose a further burden on families which are struggling to survive the economic recession.

We do not have any reports from the German Parliament on this one, but media reports suggest child benefit might be cut by €10 a week. Such a cut would make little difference to some. For many, however, €10 a week is the difference between having and not having a meal, having and not having shoes, or having and not having warm clothes. How can anybody dare to threaten to take these moneys from children? The problems faced by the economy and the country were not brought about by the children who benefit most from child benefit. In 2005 the level of consistent poverty stood at 11%. We acknowledge that this figure dropped to 6% when child benefit was increased. Unfortunately, these gains have been reversed. Some 9% of people are now living in consistent poverty, while a further 10% are at risk of poverty. What is the Minister for Social Protection who represents the Labour Party doing in these circumstances? She is choosing to take the lazy and easy option of threatening to cut child benefit. It was shameful of the Minister to make such a threat.

Rather than going after high paid senior civil servants, the Government is going after children living in poverty. Rather than increasing tax on the wealthy, it is threatening to bury more children in poverty. What sort of Labour Party does this? I suggest the Irish Labour Party is doing it. James Connolly would be weeping if he were looking down on it now. From my viewpoint, it is all the more frustrating because it does not have to be like this. If the Government took the time to read the proposals made by Sinn Féin in its pre-budget submission, Route to Recovery, it would learn that other approaches are available. A growing body of economists agree that the Government cannot cut its way out of recession. The way out of it is to eliminate wasteful spending. We suggest the Government should start at the top by capping the wages of senior civil servants at €100,000, creating a wealth tax and, importantly, putting a €7 billion package in place to stimulate job creation and help the economy to grow.

Government spokespersons seem to be on the airwaves night and day. They are on our television screens on a daily basis to tell us just how bad things really are. They say we must learn to live within our means. They remind us that there is simply not enough money to go around. That is not true, however. The money is available and we can choose what to do with it. Over €20 billion has been taken out of the economy since 2009. On 2 November the Government chose to sign away €715 million to unsecured bondholders. It has promised another windfall — €1.25 billion on this occasion — for unguaranteed bondholders in January 2012. How many children would sleep safer and warmer in their beds tonight if money was put into child benefit rather than the bank accounts of unguaranteed bondholders? This time last year the Labour Party lambasted Fianna Fáil and the Green Party for cutting child benefit. It covered every part of the country, including my constituency, with posters calling on the people to vote for the Labour Party in order to protect child benefit. Where has that approach gone? I appeal to the Government, especially the Labour Party, not to cut child benefit. If it does, it will be remembered for it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this important motion. At a time when more and more families are struggling to make ends meet, the job of the Government and legislators is to ensure the most vulnerable in society are protected. The Government has a clear choice in the House tonight. I am sure Members on all sides are used to dealing with people who face serious financial constraints. We are familiar with the hardship and suffering it can cause. We have met mothers and fathers who go without to ensure bills are paid and children are fed. This is Ireland in 2011. It was not supposed to be like this and it does not have to be, as we have options.

I am sure the Cabinet has had time to consider many of the options available to it. It must decide whether to apply blunt cuts which affect everyone. By their very nature, such cuts have a disproportionate effect on those least able to cope. Alternatively, it could apply progressive measures that target those with a little more fat to burn. I do not know how more clearly I can put it. I would have thought Labour Party Deputies, in particular, would be acutely aware of the choice they face. It is a question of the difference between people having one less meal or one less holiday. Should people have to go without adequate home heating or electricity, or without the latest technology update? I implore Government Deputies to recognise the difference. I cannot believe they do not see these problems in their constituencies day in, day out. I trust they represent everyone, not just the section of society that is relatively protected. If they are more interested in the latter group, that would go some way towards explaining the options that seem to be floating about.

The ideological argument that supports cutting the welfare rates that protect the most vulnerable in society, rather than imposing taxes on those who earn more than €100,000 per annum, for example, has been rife in this country in recent years. I suggest it is a matter of relativity. The effect of increased taxes and cuts on the quality of life of individuals or families is relative and proportionate to their ability to pay. This is straightforward. There is an abundance of evidence to show this devastating recession is affecting some people much more severely than others. The figures for indicators such as mental health problems, suicide, alcoholism, depression, stress and anxiety are startling. In that context, it beggars belief the Government seems set to target children. It would be a major indictment of the Government, particularly the Labour Party — the party of Connolly — if it failed to see the inequality, injustice and unfairness of a cut in child benefit.

The Government must appreciate that child benefit is a vital source of income for many families. It contributes to paying for many of the essentials — not luxuries — in a child's life. I refer to food and drink, for example. Many families use it to meet the ever-increasing cost of school books, uniforms and lunches. Depending on the way parents or guardians organise their household budgets, child benefit can help to meet heating and electricity costs, which are essentials for any child.

It is impossible to reflect on the possibility of a scurrilous attack on child benefit without examining the broader question of the Government's less than impressive approach to children and children's rights. Like most people, I welcomed the appointment of a dedicated Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Nonetheless, I am horrified to read HSE figures on a monthly or quarterly basis that prove we are continuing to fail the country's children, particularly the most disadvantaged or vulnerable children. We are still waiting for implementation of the recommendations of the Ryan report and the long-promised referendum on children's rights to be held. Every member of the Government must examine the potential devastating effect of their decisions on the lives of ordinary people. We recognise these are difficult times and difficult choices must be made. The Government does have choices all the same. In its pre-budget submission, Sinn Féin outlined alternatives which would protect those most at risk including children. Tonight, every Member has the opportunity to show their position on this.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"recognises the severe impact on families, individuals and communities as a result of the closure of businesses and loss of employment arising from the exceptional and difficult economic circumstances;

recognises the vital role played by spending on social welfare in enabling people to live life with dignity and the importance of child benefit as a universal payment as a source of income for all families;

acknowledges the contribution that spending on social welfare also makes to sustaining economic activity in communities throughout the State and in particular notes the contribution that spending on child income support payments makes to parents raising children and the important role that these payments play in contributing towards alleviating child poverty;

notes that overall expenditure on the child benefit payment grew from just under €965 million in 2001 to approximately €2.2 billion in 2010 and that total spending on child income supports amounted to €3.1 billion in 2010;

affirms that sustainable public finances are a prerequisite for maintaining an adequate system of social protection and that with the scale of the current economic crisis, it is necessary to address all aspects of the public finances so as to ensure that they are sustainable and to ensure that fairness exists in the allocation of resources;

encourages the Government to press ahead with the structural reform of the social welfare system to help better target social welfare support to those on lower incomes and ensure that work pays; and

notes that the Government has established an advisory group on tax and social welfare to examine and make recommendations on a number of issues around the operation and interaction of the tax and social protection systems to address how employment disincentives can be improved and better poverty outcomes achieved, particularly child poverty outcomes, and that the group is currently examining the area of child and family income supports."

I am pleased to move the Government's amendment to the Sinn Féin motion on social protection payments, particularly those relating to child income supports. It is particularly interesting that Sinn Féin should be putting such a motion when its Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, John O'Dowd, is overseeing education cuts that may see 4,000 jobs lost in the next year, described by the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, as financial Armageddon. Tomorrow, public service workers in Northern Ireland are expected to take strike action over the 3.2% additional pension contributions from public sector workers. While it appears Sinn Féin is willing to take tough measures when in government in Northern Ireland, its Members here object to the reforms and tough measures that need to be taken to restore the Republic's economic sovereignty.

The Government calls on the House to reject the Sinn Féin motion for several reasons. The motion fails to acknowledge the economic situation confronting us requires us to put our public finances on a more sustainable footing so we can eventually restore our economic sovereignty, a critical issue for the future of all our children. I accept Sinn Féin Members care about children but so does every other Member. Guaranteeing our children's future starts with getting our economic sovereignty back. If Sinn Féin is so concerned about our economic sovereignty, it has never explained why it voted for the bank guarantee in 2008.

We have explained why we made that decision but the Minister did not listen.

The Minister's party recently renewed the same guarantee.

Sinn Féin Members must take responsibility for their actions and votes in this House.

The Labour Party's fingerprints are on it now.

We will see the Labour Party this week voting for the guarantee.

The Sinn Féin approach fails to accept the Government is entitled on behalf of the people to look at how taxpayers' money is spent with a view to securing better outcomes. The better outcomes north of the Border are cuts of €4 billion. We are entitled to compare North and South.

No. A leaving certificate student would know the difference.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh claimed there was better access to public health systems in the North. However, Sinn Féin has signed up to €4 billion in cuts there.

The Minister is confused. She does not understand it.

We could organise a class on comparative politics for the Minister.

This comparison does not stand up.

The Minister should remember fiscal powers.

Deputies, please. We do not want interruptions.

The Minister is encouraging us, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The Sinn Féin motion fails to acknowledge the Government's efforts will be directed at protecting those most vulnerable within the social welfare system.

It has not been done until now.

Given the timing of this motion and that I am not at liberty to discuss any of the decisions that may or may not be made as part of the budget next week——

The Minister will just leak it all to journalists instead.

——I have to confine my points to the general principles underlying the social welfare system and, more importantly, to the Government's strong commitment to tackling poverty in our society through the social protection system and other measures.

It is not tackling poverty but creating it.

There is an urgent need for structural reform of the social protection system, both its delivery and its design, so as the significant welfare budget, over €20 billion, is targeted in the best possible way. The Government has maintained its ambitious timetable for reform by establishing an advisory group on tax and social welfare.

We have asked the group to put its initial energies into examining child and family income supports.

The Government has plans to tackle poverty and promote child well-being. The Department of Social Protection provides a wide range of supports to families and their children through the social protection system.

Easily the best known is the child benefit payment, paid on a universal basis to approximately 600,000 families in respect of some 1.1 million children. The current rates of child benefit are €140 per month in respect of the first and second child, €167 per month for the third child and €177 per month for the fourth and subsequent children. In contrast, the rate of child benefit in Northern Ireland is approximately €100 per month for the first child and approximately €65 per month for each additional child. Other allowances such as family income supplement are also accessible in the Republic. The supports in the Republic are much higher than those offered in the North by the Sinn Féin Government there.

That is a fact.

It is not fact. The Minister is not comparing like with like.

The Minister is confused.

The last time I heard, Sinn Féin was very proud to be in government in the North. I have just read out the rates for child benefit there.

She forgot about fiscal powers.

What about the British Government's role in all of this?

They have a free health service and school transport.

The Minister is in possession.

Many media commentators do not seem to like the fact that child benefit is a universal payment, paid to all families with children to cover that part of their life cycle where the demand on income is at its peak whereas the capacity to earn income is often constrained through caring responsibilities. Child benefit redistributes our income from times when we have less need of it to times when our needs are greatest. It should be no surprise then that universal child benefits are strong features of social protection systems in most developed countries. I am a strong supporter of universal child benefit payments. It is an important element of our social welfare system which should be retained even with structural reforms of the system.

Some commentators also claim supports for families with children should be targeted at those with low incomes. This point seems to be made in ignorance of the fact that child benefit is not the only mechanism to support families and that an increasing part of the total amount spent on support for families is targeted in this way. The social protection system provides assistance to low-income families with children through the payment of qualified child increases to primary social welfare payments and family income supplement. Qualified child increases are paid in respect of some 500,000 children. Approximately 26,000 families benefit from the family income supplement to their employment income which provides assistance in respect of approximately 60,000 children. Our tax code does not make provision for children but it is done through the universal direct child benefit payment, a system that has been in place since the early 1970s. There used to be tax allowances for children but they were done away with in favour of a universal direct cash payment to the caring parent, usually the mother, because this was considered to be the best way of delivering capacity to her to spend for the good of her children. The payment has worked well in that regard.

The Department spends more than €3 billion on children, two thirds of which goes on child benefit. This accounts for almost 15% of my Department's spending of more than €20 billion. One of the core commitments in the programme for Government is the restoration of fiscal stability. Given the scale of the economic crisis, the Government recognises that it is necessary to address all aspects of the public finances to ensure that they are sustainable and that fairness exists in the allocation of public resources. In line with the growth in the social protection budget during the boom, spending on child income supports increased from just under €1.3 billion in 2001 to approximately €3.1 billion in 2010. This was largely driven by the increase in expenditure on child benefit, which more than doubled during the same time period from €935 million to €2.2 billion. It is right that the Government should examine all its options in assessing the best way forward.

Consequently, the transition to a more balanced budgetary position simply cannot be made without affecting social welfare spending, including child income support payments. In the long term, this will help to maintain an adequate system of social protection for our citizens. While recognising these constraints, the Government is aware of the severe impact of the economic crisis on children and their families and we are determined to protect them from the worst consequences of this deep recession. I want to be part of a Government that will grow the country out of the recession and give children whom we correctly cherish so much an opportunity to become financially independent when they grow up.

I remind the House that the EU and IMF programme of financial support commits the Government to a further adjustment of at least €3.6 billion in the budget, including a reduction in expenditure of €2.1 billion. In making the necessary budgetary adjustments, the Government is determined to do its utmost to protect the most vulnerable people in society. Our social protection system is in urgent need of both reform and transformation. Since my appointment as Minister in March, I have examined the social protection system, schemes and policies. Transformation of our system of social protection is required to ensure that it provides adequate and meaningful support to people in order that they can achieve their full potential.

Sinn Féin Members referred to income poor families. It is bad to categorise children who are brought up in poverty as being in some way or other deficient in respect of the love of their parent or parents.

Nobody said that.

Who said that?

Parents do their best for their children whether or not they are well off. We should distinguish between households in which there is an income gap and other households because most of our children are loved and that is important.

The Minister was not in the House when we made our contributions.

With regard to tackling poverty, much of the research shows that children most at risk of being in poverty are in families with low educational levels because it is difficult for the parents to get a job. The research is similar in the UK and the US and it shows that children in those families are at a greater risk of growing up and going from being a child in an income poor household to an adult who is income poor as well. As we focus on trying to improve outcomes for children, the critical issue in the budget is that the Government reforms how the society gives opportunities and options to them and their parents. I have often referred to changing our social protection system from being passive to being active and giving parents an opportunity to get back to education and training, and, ultimately, giving them an opportunity to secure a job. That, in turn, is probably the best way to assist a child to progress in school and to become a financially independent adult. I hope everybody in the House shares that objective.

I cannot comment in detail on the budget but Deputies opposite can rest assured that I have always defended the interests of children and families and universal child benefit payments. I am having conversations with my colleagues in Government and we shall see next week. Unfortunately, it will be necessary to achieve cutbacks, just as it has been necessary for Sinn Féin politicians to commit themselves to cutbacks in the North as well.

I appreciate the sentiments in the motion. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention my uncle, Micheál Ó Ríordáin, whom I buried earlier. He was proud of my achievement in being elected to the House in February. He had campaigned with me since my first election. I reflected earlier as we sat in the church about the life chance he had been given by this Republic. He moved out of the tenement house in which he was brought up to a corporation estate in the 1940s. The Republic owes a life chance to every child, regardless of who they are, where they are from, their religion, the colour of their skin or the income bracket of their parents.

It keeps me awake at night — I am sure this is shared by others — that if we do nothing in the next number of years we will take away the life chance from our children because they had the misfortune to be born over the past few years or in the coming years. We need to change the language we use to describe the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. I find it offensive that people constantly state that people who are unemployed are costing the Exchequer €20,000 a year and they are a supposed drain on the social protection budget. This is a societal cost, not an economic cost. The impact losing a job and being unable to go to work has on an individual and, by extension, on his or her children is immeasurable. It should not be measured in economic units.

I am proud to be a member of the Government because of the some of the initiatives we have taken. The reversal of the cut in the national minimum wage was not easy and it has not resulted in a huge change but we said we would do it. We are determined to defend the Croke Park agreement because it defends the rights of low paid public servants. Many Members have different views on the joint labour committee system but when we were targeted by representatives of the conservative Catholic right who suggested that members of my party and other parties were in some way anti-Catholic, I wish they had been so vociferous when we protected the rights of those who worked on a Sunday, the traditional day of rest, because they had to work to put bread on the table for their children, and ensured they would be compensated for giving up their Sundays. Commentators on the conservative Catholic right were silent on that issue, which has had more of an impact on the family unit than any of the other stuff they go on with. Poverty has the biggest impact on the family and I wish they would realise that.

I appreciate the motion and I welcome the opportunity to discuss matters relating to children. We are trying to correct the mistakes made in respect of our economy. There is only one chance to be a child. Unlike my uncle, Michéal, and my father, many children do not get the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The social welfare system does not, in many respects, act as an enabler. In many circumstances, it almost acts as a cage. Everyone knows a cage will protect one from the wolves. However, it does not enable a person or set him free. In the context of what we are trying to deliver in respect of the education budget, one of the things of which I am extremely proud is the literacy strategy. We are determined to push that strategy forward because if one cannot read, one cannot play a full role in society.

People must take the totality of what the Government is doing into account when discussing the possibility of maximising children's potential. As already stated, people only get one chance at childhood. It is not a person's fault if he or she happens to be born in the middle of an economic crisis. That fact must be taken into consideration when discussing the concerns raised in the motion. I wish that every child could have the opportunity to grasp the life chances of which my uncle, Michéal, managed to avail, to live the kind of life he lived and to maximise their potential. This is why I hope that next week we will be able to stand up and be proud of the direction the Government proposes to take.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion and on the Government amendment to it. Since the Government has taken control of the country — which was so badly let down by the previous Administration — its primary ambition has been to restore economic sovereignty and to create a nation of which our children and their children can be proud and in which they can grow up and prosper. I have no doubt that all Ministers are battling extremely hard to keep to an absolute minimum the impact of the cuts which must be visited upon the people they represent.

I compliment the Minister on what she said and I welcome her commitment in respect of reform. The recently published review on child income support makes specific reference to merging, in a more coherent fashion, the tax and social welfare systems. It also refers to the position of self-employed people in the context of accessing social welfare payments. Anyone who canvassed for support during the general election campaign and who met self-employed people will be aware that these individuals have experienced particular difficulties in accessing such payments. The Minister has referred to this matter in the past.

There are four different schemes by means of which child income support is provided. Of these, family income support, qualified child increases and the back to school clothing and footwear allowances are all targeted in nature. These three payments should be amalgamated into a single, universal payment. The ambition in this regard is to encourage parental employment and reduce the administrative burdens and stresses on families seeking to secure three different payments.

Sinn Féin's motion begins quite well and we all recognise the fantastic work being done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Barnardos. The motion notes the promise in the programme for Government in respect of maintaining social welfare rates. We all want that promise to remain intact. In the context of this motion we are dealing with a case of what I would term the pot calling the kettle orange. In the North, where Sinn Féin is actually in power——

Comparative politics for beginners.

——a rate of £13 applies in respect of the second and subsequent child. This equates to half the rate paid in respect of such children in the Republic.

The Deputy is not comparing like with like.

It is also the case in the North that if the income of a household is above £41,000, children's allowance is not paid. It is extremely rich of Sinn Féin to table this motion when in the country in which it is in power——

It is the same country.

——namely, Northern Ireland——

It is the same country.

Deputy Dara Murphy is a partitionist.

——teachers will be going on strike tomorrow and——

It is the same country.

——where only half the rate which obtains in the Republic in respect of second and subsequent children is paid. I suggest that since Sinn Féin is a single organisation, it should focus its attention on the jurisdiction in which it is in government.


In this House, it should have the maturity to acknowledge that we would be obliged to halve child benefit in order that the rate which applies in Northern Ireland would obtain here.

Comparative politics for beginners.

I hope Sinn Féin will achieve an increase in the rate of children's allowance payable in Northern Ireland because it was elected to govern in that jurisdiction.

That will happen when the Deputy's party supports the demand for fiscal power to be transferred.

The Deputy should direct his comments to Fine Gael's sister party, the SDLP, in the North. Mr. Alex Attwood, MLA, of the SDLP is the former Minister for Social Development in the North.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and I thank the Sinn Féin party for tabling the motion. I have no doubt that Members on all sides of the House and the public are in agreement that investing in our country's children, tackling child poverty and removing poverty traps from the social welfare system are issues of immense importance. During the economic boom, the overall amount devoted to expenditure on children grew significantly. However, it is now abundantly clear that simply throwing money at the problem of child poverty is not, in itself, a solution. Real, practical and structural reform is required. I appreciate the Minister's use of the term "structural reform".

Last week I visited a number of child and family resource centres and youth facilities throughout County Wicklow in the company of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. We saw first hand the excellent work being done at so many levels in communities in homework clubs, breakfast clubs, youth centres and through the provision of child care and training and further education for young parents. So much is being done by so many, often on a voluntary basis. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this in any debate relating to child poverty and the need to support this nation's children. I warmly welcome the fact that the Minister has asked the advisory group on tax and social welfare to prioritise the matter of family and child income supports. This highlights the importance the Government attaches to this issue.

I understand that the Minister and the Government are constrained in the context of the current economic situation. The Government finds itself in a position which no one would wish to occupy. We must restore our economic sovereignty and independence so that we might control our own future and that of our children as quickly as possible. There are a number of actions the Government can take if we are to genuinely tackle issues relating to supporting the vulnerable, protecting children and targeting limited resources at the areas in which they are most needed and can be best used.

I refer to three matters to which the Minister for Social Protection should give consideration. The first of these is the elimination of poverty traps in the current social welfare system. We hear about such traps each year when the budget is about to be introduced. It is time we stopped talking about these traps and began trying to eradicate them. Social welfare is there to help people when they are in need; it should not create an environment in which an individual, often a young parent, finds himself or herself unable to return to the workforce or to take up a training opportunity for fear of losing too many supports. We must assist those who are doing their level best for their families, specifically their children. I urge the Minister to consider ways of assisting people in respect of the transition from the social welfare system into the workforce. This is something positive and constructive which could be achieved within the economic constraints that apply.

The second matter relates to co-ordination between Departments and State agencies. The Committee of Public Accounts is continually being informed that various computer systems do not communicate with each other. Last week we were informed that there is not even in existence a database relating to primary school children. If we want to get serious with regard to targeting resources, tracking children's progress and ensuring that the vulnerable are protected, it is high time the computer systems to which I refer began communicating with each other. I do not know who "Mr. Systemic Failure" is but he seems to be responsible for all the problems that have arisen in this country during my lifetime.

The third matter I wish to raise is one in respect of which I possibly differ from colleagues on this and the opposite side of the House. I refer to the need to target resources. I take the Minister's point that universality is desirable and that there are other supports available. However, the blunt increases provided in recent years did not take account of the broader point regarding the need to protect children.

The opposite is also true. A blunt decrease will affect everybody equally despite the fact that some may be more vulnerable than others. This is an area at which we need to look. The Minister may tell me, correctly, that she does not have it within the ability of the current system to do it this year, but let us hope that by next year's budget we are not using the same line and there is reform to ensure that the funding goes where we all want it to go.

These are three constructive measures the Minister could take. Child poverty must be addressed comprehensively and this can not be achieved without these reforms to the social welfare system.

Like other speakers, I thank the proposing party, Sinn Féin, for bringing forward this motion and affording us the opportunity to speak in support of it.

One must look back at the history of the child benefit payment, the children's allowance as we know it. In the previous Government's time in office, from 2000 to 2009, it was raised by 330%. When we spoke about this issue and others relating to the social protection brief some weeks ago, those Governments were accused of being populist and of electioneering and so forth. As I stated then, I repeat now: that is the purpose of politics in its republican ethos in that when one has it, one distributes it. One tries to help those who are in most need and one tries to put services and programmes in place in order to help and protect the most vulnerable. There has been in this entire child protection area investment in child care and resource centres, in preschool places and in the school education system itself.

In recent times, especially in recent months, there is a new cohort which is dependant on various forms of social welfare payment. That was nowhere more evident than in the back-to-school allowance scheme. Massive numbers applied for that scheme this year and there are still some cases today being processed and awarded. I appreciate the difficulty the Department encountered in this regard and the efforts the Minister made to deal with them in so much as her Department could, based on the constraints of personnel and so forth. That, in itself, would make plain for all to see that the universal child protection payment system was never more needed than it is now. This new cohort has so many constraints and difficulties to deal with. Many of them never thought they would find themselves in that situation based on their position with work, with mortgages on their homes and with the cost of education, and the threat of being faced with more hikes in the case of the latter.

That same Government took no pleasure in the past number of years in taking almost €21 billion out of the public finances, including a 4% cut in social welfare rates across the board this time last year. That included cuts in child benefit payments. That was done in the face of an oncoming election. We most certainly could not have been accused at that time of being populist or of electioneering.

That election, many would argue, did not need the kind of rhetoric that was prevalent, especially in the final week of the campaign. When the budget was put before the Dáil last year, it was vehemently opposed by all sides other than that of the Government, but one party promised to overturn those cuts. One party then, on entering Government, promised to maintain welfare rates. One party stated in the last week of the election campaign that child benefit was a red-line issue. It was stated that Fine Gael needed to drop its stance on child benefit before the Labour Party would even begin to consult with it about the possibility of forming a Government.

The Labour Party stated that cuts in child benefit were savage. It voted against the Finance Bill and against the four year plan. Yet, many members of this Government are happy to take the plaudits of international commentators and of European partners when they are congratulated for the manner in which they have tackled the public finances and closed the gap between what we spend and what we take in.

During that election, there was much deliberation and engagement among the candidates and the public. Many of the parties made no grandiose promises and many of the candidates who voiced that opinion with those at the door were commended for their stance in that regard. In my own case, it had to be said that the gap had to continue to be closed, there was no magic fix, there was no silver bullet and we had to continue to wrestle with that prospect.

In the meantime, we have seen the interest rate applicable to the bailout funds that we have drawn down reduced. Many would argue this was by accident rather than design by virtue of the contagion that spread and so forth, but that is neither here nor there. We are in a slightly different place than we were. On the manner in which banks are capitalised, our partners in Europe have come up with a mechanism by which that can be done, contrary to the one to which the Government of which my party was a member had to adhere back then.

The Government is faced with the prospect of closing the gap between expenditure and income in this year's budget by approximately €3.8 billion. My party agrees. I believe all parties, even the Sinn Féin Party, agree with those figures but the problem may lie in the fact that the Government predicates the figure on the basis of growth next year of approximately 1.6% or 1.8%. The ESRI states that the growth rate will be somewhat less than that. The position in Europe and in the eurozone indicates further recession in many countries and that puts in grave jeopardy any predictions of that nature, despite the success of our innovators and exporters. That would mean that the task the Government envisages next year will be even greater than the one before it this year. If that is the case I shudder to think, if the past few weeks are anything to go by, where we will be halfway through next year, when the Government begins to fly kites about what is expected then because there were so many of them in the air in the past few weeks that air traffic control was having difficulty guiding planes into this country. It may be that this is merely a cynical exercise in order to appease some backbenchers.

We, as a party, do not propose to oppose for the sake of opposition. As I stated, I acknowledge we are committed to the same targets but we must seek to broaden the tax base and not to allow a narrow dependency in the future. To remain with such a narrow focus may allow us to become unstuck, and maybe that is where the Government finds itself.

The Government has committed to no increase in taxes and to no decrease in welfare rates, yet the Minister states the Government can meet the targets. The watering down of that commitment by some Government members over the past number of weeks is worrying, for instance, when one hears a Deputy state that the Government is committed to primary rates. When I and, I am sure, other Deputies meet people at clinics and on the streets and elsewhere, they tell us they are finding it difficult to survive. When they are dependent on social welfare income of any kind or combination, they do not know the difference between primary and secondary payments. Children especially do not know the difference between primary and secondary payments. They must be protected at all costs, as must the elderly.

Is it not strange to think we are talking about this issue and the threat and worries for families in fear for those funds that come into the house dedicated solely towards children's rights and welfare while, allied to that, community care nursing homes are threatened with closure throughout the country? Is that a measure of where we are before the budget?

It is a measure of 14 years of Fianna Fáil Government.

That is very predictable.

It is the truth.

It is wearing thin and it will wear thinner as the weeks pass. When the country gave the Government its mandate, it was given the authority to address the issues that will confront it. Much of that mandate was based on its canvass, its communication and the message it gave the electorate. The message that rang loud and clear then rings loud and clear now. "Child benefit is a red line issue" — the Government can prove it next week. "Social welfare rates will be maintained" — this was repeated consistently by members of the Government. To be fair to the Minister, despite many questions from me and others, she never gave that commitment. Her colleagues did, however, and her leader did, as late as three weeks ago on the plinth.

That is what the electorate will remember. For sure, they will remember 14 years. For sure, we have taken a message from the last election. Our party has many issues to address and we will continue to address them in the best manner we can. We will reorganise our organisation. We will deal with the people in trying to formulate alternative policy. We will come forward with an alternative budget setting out the ways and means by which we, as a party, feel we can achieve the same figures the Government is looking to achieve in regard to the public finances. We will put that there. It will not be plucked out of the sky. However, I can say for definite it will not involve cutting child benefit rates, although it did last year.

And the year before.

Yes, it did and if the Deputy remembers in the previous 12 years they increased by 330%. When the Deputy remembers two years, he should remember 12 as well. This Government too will be measured by the policies it implements, but it will be judged in the first instance next week on the commitments it gave, the commitments it repeated and the manner in which it sought to implement them.

I wish to share time with Deputy Joan Collins.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I particularly want to acknowledge the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organisation driven by volunteers, in the real sense of the word. The society is in a unique position to speak on poverty, the effects of the cuts to date and the potential effect of further cuts. It is not the typical lobby group whose members make their presentation in Buswells and then return to their offices and high salaries. Its members are out in the hostels and centres, in the shops and housing associations, on home visitations and working with the most vulnerable in society. I want to acknowledge its pre-budget submission.

This voluntary group had to spend €75 million last year and has told us it received an unprecedented number of calls last year. One of the most distressing figures is that in our country €9 million was spent on food by that voluntary organisation. The society acknowledges that those most in need are families with children, in particular one-parent families, people living alone and migrants. The Government must keep the commitments it outlined in the programme for Government.

I note the amendment acknowledges the importance of child benefit and social welfare spending, as part of which €3.1 billion is a very significant amount, and reference is made to sustainable public finances. The amendment also refers to ensuring "fairness exists in the allocation of resources" and I hope that is what we will see next week. Some groups are very vulnerable, in particular those dealing with mental health and disabilities, as well as senior citizens who must rely solely on social welfare and children.

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child refers to a happy childhood and the right to develop but also to the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation, medical services and education. Child benefit is important in protecting children from poverty. I accept some who get it do not need it whereas others need more, and those who can afford it should contribute more towards our economic and social recovery. However, when we look at what is facing children if this is cut, we should remember that nobody should go to school hungry, every child should be able to look forward to Santa Claus and children should not feel inadequate because they do not have the right books in school. They should all have the pre-school and after-school facilities and the clubs to which they are entitled.

A humane and civilised society would not cut the remaining supports to the poorest among us because those cuts will further increase inequalities and will lead to massive social problems further down the line.

I support the Sinn Féin motion. I raised this issue previously with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, when I specifically put the question to her on the basis of the 2010 UNICEF report, The Children Left Behind: A League Table of Inequality in Child well-being in the World's Rich Countries, and asked her whether she would stand over a cut in child benefit or oppose it if it was brought in as part of the budget cuts. She did not answer, obviously.

Welfare payments, even at the inadequate levels paid at present, play a crucial role in combatting poverty. If left to market forces, the figures show that those at risk of poverty would be 41% of the population, and an incredible 52% in the EU-27, according to an European Anti-Poverty Network, EAPN, report. When social transfers are included, the level of poverty risk falls to 16% both in Ireland and the EU-27. The role of social transfers in affecting poverty levels is further confirmed by that 2010 UNICEF report, The Children Left Behind.

Some 600,000 families with over 1 million children are paid universal child benefit, which I support. For the record, contrary to the claim that welfare in Ireland is high and a disincentive to work, welfare payments in Ireland are the lowest in the original EU-15 states and a report from the same group, EAPN, from 2009 states in regard to social protection spending in the EU-15 that while there was an average spend of 27% of GDP, Ireland was the lowest at 18.2%.

Some €809 million was cut from welfare in 2010 and €873 million was cut in 2011. Factoring in the Christmas bonus cuts and cuts in fuel allowance earlier this year, in excess of €1.7 billion has been cut, which is almost 14% in five years. This is despite what the Minister said in her contribution about unemployment having trebled and more people now depending on the welfare system.

Hands off the people on social welfare. It is impossible to see where €700 million can be cut without cutting the basic rates. We hear rent supplement being flown as a kite in recent days, another cut in lone parent's allowance has been put into the public arena and the possibility of child benefit cuts is being suggested. People are stressed out by all this talk of cuts to their income. It is imperative that a child poverty impact statement is made along with any budget deduction next week because it is imperative we know how this budget will impact on child poverty.

I am not asking the Minister to say what she is going to cut; I just want her to say that she is not going to cut in these areas, which will suffice to calm people down. There are choices. The top 1% of Irish adults hold €131 billion of wealth in this country and the top 5% hold €219 billion. That money is not being touched and they are not being taxed on their assets.

In practically every other country there is an asset tax. Why does the Minister not pursue them, make them pay their fair share and use the money to reverse the cuts, rather than impose more?

Debate adjourned.