Priority Questions

Supplementary Welfare Allowance Payments

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection to explain the reason for abolishing the diet supplement scheme; the number of persons who will be affected by the abolition; the savings that will be made from the decision; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10611/14]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

2. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection to explain the reason for her decision to close the special dietary supplement scheme, which offered social welfare recipients who, for example, have coeliac disease or who have suffered a stroke a small contribution towards the cost of medically necessary diets, which are substantially more expensive than the typical food bills of people who do not suffer such conditions; her views on whether this will impose hardship; and if she will reverse her decision. [10608/14]

This question arises from a recent announcement on the website of the Department of Social Protection to the effect that this allowance which has been payable since the early 1990s and which was designed to assist a small group of people to purchase food which was medically necessary for them has been withdrawn.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The diet supplement, administered under the supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, scheme, is payable to qualifying people who have been prescribed a special diet as a result of a specified medical condition, at a cost of approximately €3.5 million in 2013. The numbers in receipt of the allowance have been declining in recent years, from 12,000 in 2006 to a current figure of 5,900. The scheme was closed to new applicants from 1 February 2014. Existing recipients as at the end of January will continue to receive the diet supplement at the current rate of payment for as long as they continue to have an entitlement to avail of the scheme or until their circumstances change. This will allow existing customers to adjust to the new arrangements and anticipate how they will be affected by any future change in their circumstances. It also ensures no one will be immediately worse off by the closure of the scheme.

The background to the closure of the scheme for new applicants is as follows. During 2013 the Department commissioned the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, INDI, to update previous research, published in 2006 and updated in 2007, on the cost of healthy eating and specialised diets. Pricing for a selection of foods based on branded and own label foods was surveyed in a sample of retail outlets for each diet. These outlets included large stores, large low-cost stores, medium-sized stores and convenience stores. The research shows that the range of costs associated with a specialised diet is influenced mainly by the shopping location, with the lowest costs being in the large discount stores and the highest in convenience stores. In general, choice was found to be limited in convenience stores with regard to healthier options. The more specialised the diet, for example, gluten-free, the more the individual is required to frequent the larger stores to be able to purchase the necessary food. The research shows that the average cost across all retail outlets of the diets supplemented under the scheme can be met from within one third of the minimum personal rate of social welfare payment, that is, the SWA scheme rate of €186 per week. Accordingly, I decided to discontinue the scheme on the basis of this evidence and have no plans to reverse the decision. Payment of the supplement will continue to be made to existing recipients for as long as they continue to be entitled to the payment. If cases of hardship present, officials have the power to award a payment under the SWA scheme where there is exceptional need. That is how I would prefer the matter to be dealt with should or when cases arise.

What the Minister is saying, essentially, is that we are moving from a situation where people are entitled to the allowance to one where it will be paid entirely at the discretion of the local social welfare official. What the Minister did not say, although I had included it in my question, was how much per annum the Government envisaged it would save through this measure.

Two groups are particularly affected. First, there are people suffering from a coeliac disease. As the Minister will be aware, they were entitled to get their gluten-free food on a medical card but that concession has now been withdrawn. The special diet supplement has also been withdrawn.

The second category comprises people who have difficulty in swallowing and need liquidised diets because they may be stroke victims or suffering from throat cancer. Would the Minister agree that this is a very small and particularly vulnerable group of people? If her Department continues paying those already in payment and the numbers are dropping, will the savings not be minimal? Can the Minister tell us how much the Government will save as a result of this decision?

I do not know if the Deputy does the family shopping, but if he was involved and particularly if he was shopping for anybody on a specialised diet, he would know what the report overwhelmingly shows, which is that in the larger, low-cost stores the availability and cost of the foods required has changed out of all proportion. The Deputy may be thinking of the previous situation whereby such foods were often sold in chemists at extraordinarily high prices. Currently, however, if one visits a convenience store, chain store, discount shop or supermarket, one will almost always find a significant section devoted to specialised diet food, including gluten-free foodstuffs. In addition, a number of specialised bakers make gluten-free products which are now much more widely available.

The critical issue is that the cost of such items has fallen, so they are significantly cheaper. Some 75% of people in receipt of the dietary allowance are also in receipt of a pension or disability payments, so it is well within the income range.

On 1 February, the Minister brought about this change in a quiet, slíbhín manner, discontinuing a scheme which was aimed at people with a condition, such as coeliacs, stroke victims or those suffering from motor neurone disease. The Minister cited the report but it stated that there is an additional cost which has increased as a proportion of social welfare spending.

This is a means-tested scheme which is aimed at the poorest in our society, yet the Minister is punishing those who are not only poor but also suffer from a condition. Has the Minister looked at the prices of such products, even in low-cost stores? I have done so and the majority of them charge five times as much for gluten-free pasta. Similarly, gluten-free bread is three times the price of normal bread, while gluten-free cornflakes are double the price. That places a huge burden on people who depend on social welfare.

I am glad the Deputy has acknowledged that the issue is the availability and cost of these products. They were once confined largely to chemists and like many chemist-based products in Ireland, particularly in the past, could be extraordinarily expensive. People involved in doing the family shopping will now see that nearly all stores, particularly the big multiples and low-cost discount supermarkets, have such foods available at much cheaper prices than heretofore. People with special dietary needs can obtain specific supplements via the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. That is a much better way of approaching it because the numbers availing of this scheme, as the Deputy will see from the statistics, have fallen dramatically. This is due to the availability and lower prices of such foods in the kind of stores I have mentioned.

I do not understand what the Minister is at here. She seems to be suggesting that the reason for this change, which was brought in through the back-door and not publicly announced, is to encourage people to go to the larger stores and get the stuff cheaper. Basically, however, this is a cost-saving measure. Will the Minister tell us how much she thinks the Government will save off the social welfare bill as a result of this change? Does she agree that the people being hit - a small voiceless minority - are among the poorest people in our society who can therefore least afford the change? From that point of view this change is regressive. Can the Minister tell us how much she envisages the Government will save on this change?

I told the Deputy before that 75% of the people currently in receipt of the scheme are either on a pension or disability payment. As the Deputy will know from his knowledge of social welfare, they are some of the people on the higher levels of weekly social welfare payments. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme rate is €186 per week. Somebody on an invalidity or retirement pension, or various kinds of illness and disability payments, is likely to receive significantly in excess of that in personal rates. The Deputy will be aware of that but perhaps that will clarify the matter.

Because nobody currently on the scheme is losing and they are all staying on the scheme so long as their medical circumstances indicate that they qualify for it, I do not anticipate any significant savings on this. I do anticipate a better way of dealing with this through the supplementary welfare allowance system of a special payment for people with particular needs. This does reflect changes in prices and availability.

The old saying goes, "If it's not broken, don't fix it." The Minister's own report said that an additional financial burden is being placed upon current beneficiaries of this scheme. Future applicants would obviously also have benefited.

The cost of these diets for coeliacs, stroke victims or people suffering from motor neurone disease has increased in the period covered by the report from 35% of social welfare income to 40%. That contradicts what the Minister said. Not every town and village in the country has one of these big multiples, so there is an extra cost for people who have to go out of their way to visit such outlets.

I do the weekly shopping so I know the prices involved. Ordinary pasta in Tesco costs 47 cent but gluten-free pasta costs €2.50, which is over five times the amount. I can quote similar price differentials for bread, crackers and cornflakes. Luckily there is a range of such products now, but the problem is that they still cost substantially more than normal foodstuffs. The poorest in our society are thus being penalised so I am asking the Minister to reverse this change. If the numbers applying for the scheme are dropping it would obviously be less of a cost, so I cannot see the logic behind this in any shape or form.

The weekly cost of the specialised diets in the study ranged from €35.66 to €73.97. That is a range of 19% to 40% of the lowest rate of social welfare payment, which is a supplementary allowance of €186 per week.

The number in receipt of the supplementary welfare allowance in the social welfare system is extremely small. As I indicated, almost all recipients of the allowance are on a much higher rate of social welfare payment than the minimum rate because these specialised diets are followed on health grounds. If there are cases of hardship, the individual in question should speak to officials in the social welfare service. The numbers on the scheme are falling for the reasons the Deputy outlined, namely, the greater availability and reduced cost of the relevant food items. Those who look after people with special needs will be aware that these foods used to be extraordinarily expensive and only available in specialised outlets.

They used to be available in chemists to medical card holders.

When we checked the position, we found that, by and large, those who availed of the scheme had free travel. In a significant number of cases involving individuals with a severe illness, their carers are also entitled to free travel. The report addresses all of these matters.

Rent Supplement Scheme Eligibility

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will raise the rent caps for rent allowance to reflect the rapid rise in rents in many areas across the country to address the problem of landlords refusing to accept rent allowance; her views on whether these caps are now contributing to a growing homelessness crisis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10610/14]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

5. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the current rent supplement thresholds for Dublin city and county are totally unrealistic and are resulting in increased homelessness in the city including a high level of families and will increase the threshold pending the long-awaited housing assistance payment. [11006/14]

Two years ago I informed the Minister that her decision to cut the cap on rent allowance, combined with the policy of landlords of refusing to accept rent allowance, would lead to homelessness. She responded by promising that would not be the case. I propose to introduce several people in the Visitors Gallery who are either homeless, about to become homeless or have been made homeless in the past year or two as a direct result of the current caps on rent allowance and the policy of landlords of refusing to accept rent allowance. As a result of these factors, they simply cannot get homes. I will provide further details. Will the Minister tell our visitors what they are supposed to do?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 5 together.

There are approximately 78,000 rent supplement recipients for which the Government has provided more than €344 million in 2014. While the Deputy may find it difficult to accept, there are clearly many tens of thousands of people in receipt of rent supplement. Following an extensive review of the private rental market, revised maximum rent limits were introduced from Monday, 17 June 2013 until 31 December 2014. The purpose of the review is to ensure the availability of accommodation for rent supplement tenancies, not to provide access to all housing in all areas - a point the Deputy raised on previous occasions - while ensuring maximum value for money is achieved. Despite the overall pressures on the social protection budget, there have been increases in the rent allowed in Dublin, Galway, north County Kildare and Bray.

I am aware of the difficulties facing people in sourcing accommodation and the latest Daft.ie rental report indicates that the number of advertised rental units in Dublin had declined from 6,700 in 2009 to fewer than 1,500 at the end of 2013. The report also states rent levels are static in areas outside Dublin, including Cork, Galway and Limerick cities. All prospective tenants, including those seeking to access rent supplement, are finding it increasingly difficult to secure appropriate accommodation owing to the reduced availability of rental properties, particularly in Dublin. Increasing the maximum rent limits for rent supplement will not resolve this difficulty owing to the reduced level of supply and would result in further increases in rental costs for all persons renting, including those who are working and students.

That approximately 78,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement, of whom almost 30,000 are in the Dublin area, shows a significant number of landlords are accommodating applicants under the scheme. The Department continues to monitor trends in the private rental market to determine the impact on rent supplement recipients. Departmental officials administering the rent supplement scheme have considerable experience in dealing with customers under the scheme and will continue to make every effort to ensure their accommodation needs are met and that the residence is reasonably suited to their residential and other needs.

Under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with a long-term housing need will transfer from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities. Officials in the Department are working closely with those in the lead Department, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, to pilot the HAP scheme in the Limerick local authority by the end of March, with further roll-out to selected local authorities later in the year.

That is all very interesting, but it makes not a whit of difference to the people in the Visitors Gallery. Charlene is living in Citywest and must drag her five children across town to school in Shankill every day. She has been in and out of homeless accommodation for two years. Ilona and Donatus will be evicted in the next few days and have to move to homeless accommodation. I have been in contact with the Department about the case for three weeks as it will not vary the rent cap by approximately €100. Noeleen was made homeless because her landlord increased her rent and had to move into homeless accommodation. She is now living in dilapidated, substandard accommodation under the rental accommodation scheme. Peter who has mental health problems has been in a homeless hostel for three years. Kirin, an elderly woman, has been in a homeless hostel in Dún Laoghaire for several years and cannot find a rental property anywhere.

The Minister indicated that 1,500 rental properties were available in 2013. Does she know how many of them fitted the criteria of being available to people on rent allowance or falling under the cap set by the Department? I bet she does not know that only nine of the 1,500 properties fitted her Department's criteria in the whole of 2013. What is everybody else supposed to do? People are being made homeless. I beg the Minister to do something for the individuals in the Visitors Gallery and the large number of people who are arriving in tears and desperate at politicians' clinics with their children because they do not want to end up in homeless hostels on the other side of the city or on the street.

I do not want to comment on individuals' circumstances because people are entitled to their privacy. The Deputy may speak about people in the tones he has just used, but it is not wise of him to make throwaway remarks on the floor of the House about their personal circumstances. I will not comment, except to state I do not understand, in the case of two of the people who the Deputy has indicated have been homeless for more than three years, the reason he has not been working with the relevant local authority - I presume Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council of which he was once a member - to ensure the individuals in question secure permanent accommodation under the schemes that have been developed nationwide. Is he suggesting he has in mind a particular type of accommodation that only he will authorise, rather than the various housing organisations which are providing accommodation, particularly for individuals who have been homeless for a long period? I am at a loss as to the reason he has not worked with the local authorities to seek to help people. While I understand he wishes to make big statements in the House, I would prefer if he worked with the local authority to help the individuals in question. It must be distressing to have one's personal circumstances outlined in the Chamber in the manner the Deputy has just done, without regard for privacy.

The Minister's response to Deputy Boyd Barrett is disingenuous in the extreme. To ask any Deputy from Dublin to go and work with the local authority is an absolute failure to understand that the local authorities in this city cannot cope with the problem that is being created by underfunding and under-investment in social housing. Deputy Boyd Barrett quoted figures. I will quote one that I have looked at for the last number of weeks. We are talking about families who are being made homeless, who are being put into homeless accommodation or who are being split up across relatives because landlords have sold on houses or properties are unsuitable. How many three-bedroom family properties are available in Dublin 8, 10 and 12 to those on rent allowance? There is only one, and it is student accommodation, which is absolutely useless to anybody with a family. In that area, there is none.

Thank you, Deputy.

That is the area I represent and I guarantee that every other Deputy in the House can say the same.

Waiting for three years for a pilot scheme down in Limerick is not good enough and does not address the housing crisis in Dublin. This is a crisis and I am asking the Minister if she has had emergency meetings with her colleague Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. Will she look at increasing the cap for rent allowance as a temporary measure? That is very specific. It will not address the problem for everybody, though, as there is not enough availability.

I ask Members to please observe the time limits on these questions.

I appreciate the Deputy's remarks. This is something we have discussed over a number of years. We have a problem in that a number of years ago we were building as many as 90,000 units, many of which were in the wrong places. That level fell dramatically after the crash. The critical way to resolve this crisis is for the construction industry, in particular, to return a rate of house building of 25,000 to 30,000 units a year, rising to twice that. We all know people who are having enormous difficulties at the moment. We also have a situation whereby when someone leaves a lovely home and moves to smaller accommodation when they are retired or widowed, the local authority pulls the house apart and puts up steel shutters. There it then sits. We are actually losing supply through the actions of some local authorities. I am more familiar with my own local authority in Fingal and Deputy Ó Snodaigh's in the city than I am with Deputy Boyd Barrett's. It is an issue of supply, however, and that issue will only be solved by getting the construction industry working again and developing public housing programmes through housing associations and local authorities. We are agreed on that as the ultimate response. Driving rents up is not necessarily the proper response.

I have permission from every one of these people to raise their cases. They asked me to do so. They are from Dún Laoghaire but also from Wicklow and Dublin city centre. That is how desperate people are. We have gone everywhere and they have gone everywhere, including Threshold, Focus, the local authority and welfare sections, but there are no council houses. Maura, who is in the Visitors' Gallery, has been on a housing list for 14 years and was told recently by the local authority that it would be three more years before she is housed. That is 17 years. Ilona and Donatus are facing eviction next week because the community welfare officer will not vary the cap by €100. Charlene is in a hotel with five children and does not even know if she will have that hotel room tomorrow. She could be sleeping in a car, and she has to bring those five children across to Shankill. How would the Minister feel if she were in that situation? I know that if it were me, I would not give a damn about reviews, meetings and discussions that have been going on for years or plans to get the construction industry going. I would just ask the person who has the power to do it to ring up community welfare officers and tell them to vary the caps to enable people to get a place to rent. Then, yes, let us have the social housing. We cannot wait for that now, however. We need emergency action to prevent people from being driven into homelessness. I beg the Minister to do this.

The Minister is not responsible for housing, but I asked her if she has had or will have continuous crisis meetings to address this issue. A pilot scheme in Limerick does not address it. The plan to get the construction industry going will not address it in the short term. It will take at least five years if the Government puts the money into local authorities, which it is not doing. The Minister mentioned boarding up of houses. Local authorities have not been given the money to put those properties into the condition required. Dublin City Council has a whole range of bedsits, which are now illegal under EU legislation. The council needs the money to change them.

I have asked, as a stopgap measure, that the Minister consider the threshold. I am not and have never been in favour of subsidising private landlords. I have always argued that the money should be going into social housing directly through the local authorities. It is a stopgap measure to help some families in this city in particular - I presume it is the same in some of the other cities - where matters are now at crisis point. I ask the Minister to take emergency action.

Deputy Boyd Barrett referred again to the fact that this is an issue around supply. During the boom we built too many houses, a huge number of which were in the wrong areas. Dublin now has a recovering economy with many people returning to work and many workers and students renting privately in the region. It is a major centre for students - the biggest in the country. Without a doubt, the problem is supply. I reiterate to Deputy Boyd Barrett what I have just said to Deputy Ó Snodaigh. The way to approach this issue is to increase the supply of houses.

Sure, but in the meantime-----

To answer Deputy Ó Snodaigh, the Government has undertaken a series of innovative approaches to increasing supply. We are talking about a shortage of supply, but Deputies are simply saying that the short-term solution is to increase rents to private landlords. What will be the effect for all of the people at work, many of whom are on low incomes?

It puts a roof over their heads.

Their rents will be increased by the State arbitrarily as a major player in the market. If Deputy Boyd Barrett wants to solve the problem, I invite him to sit down and work on the solution. I feel the utmost sympathy for the people who are in the Visitors Gallery, but Deputy Boyd Barrett comes in here and mentions a whole lot of very private personal circumstances. He said those people agreed that he could do that. If he wants a solution, however, he should work at it. Working at it means working at increasing the supply.

I am working at it every day. I am begging the Minister.

Poverty Data

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

4. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the percentage of the population who live below the poverty line, measured as 60% of the median income; the actions she is taking to reduce this number; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10612/14]

This question arises from the latest statistics which show that at least one in six people in Ireland lives below the internationally accepted poverty line. The Government is committed in its programme for Government and both parties' election manifestos to reducing the incidence of poverty in Ireland. I am anxious to know what progress the Government has made.

The at-risk-of-poverty rate is one of a number of indicators used to measure different aspects of poverty. It captures those on low net incomes, but on its own gives only a partial picture of poverty. The official measure of poverty in Ireland is consistent poverty, which measures individuals who are both at risk of poverty and experiencing basic deprivation.

Despite the economic crisis, the at-risk of poverty rate was lower in 2011, at 16%, than in 2007, when it was 16.5%. The Department is awaiting publication of the latest poverty figures from the 2012 CSO survey of income and living conditions, known as the SILC survey. It is a pity that, by and large, the data are only available a full year or more in arrears. A key determinant of the at-risk of poverty rate is the impact of social transfers. In this regard, the Department recently published a study by the ESRI analysing the role of social transfers in poverty alleviation. The study compares the at-risk of poverty rate before and after social transfers and has found that in 2011 the at-risk of poverty rate reduced from 55% to 16%. In other words, if we did not have a strong social welfare system and a strong level of payments, 55% of people would be at risk of poverty rather than 16%. These social transfers lifted almost 40% of the population out of poverty. This applies to pensioners, in particular. This reflects the continuation of substantial State investment in the social protection system, despite the constraints of the economic crisis. A key element of this investment has been the maintenance of core weekly rates of welfare payments since the Government took office. Deputy Willie O'Dea will know that in his party's time the weekly rate was reduced by €16.40 for everyone, except pensioners.

Last Friday I published a social impact analysis of the main welfare and tax changes to take effect in 2014. This analysis has found no significant change in the at-risk of poverty rate as a result of these measures, thereby confirming the ongoing role of social transfers during the recession. The analysis is available to download from the Department's website. The Government’s objective is to reduce the rate of consistent poverty to 4% by 2016 and to 2% or lower by 2020. That is the objective of the programme for Government.

An internationally accepted standard regards the poverty line as equivalent to 60% of average income in a society. Anyone below that level is judged not to have sufficient on which to live with a reasonable degree of dignity. The latest available figures which I agree are dated show that at least one in six people - almost 750,000 people - was living on an income below that level, or approximately €208 a week for an individual. Why are no updated figures available? I suspect that as a result of the recent regressive budgets, that figure has probably increased, but we do not know. When will the figures be available? Why did the Government decide to revise its targets for reducing the rates for those at risk of poverty and living in consistent poverty?

The figures are collected in the SILC survey of incomes and living conditions. The information is collected by a variety of bodies in conjunction with the CSO, with an input from bodies such as the ESRI and modelling by means of the SWITCH model. I would prefer if the figures were much more up to date. More recent figures such as those in this year's analysis of the social impacts with the latest modelling by the ESRI will show that there has been no significant change in the at-risk of poverty rate as a result of the measures in the budget. I refer to people in low-paid work compared to those on a social welfare income. There has been much academic debate and criticism about what is and is not included in the SWITCH model. For example, the value of having a medical card for a family on social welfare is not in our type of SWITCH model, whereas it is included in other jurisdictions. The Deputy will know that the medical card is a very valuable entitlement which is available to those on social welfare as opposed to a person on a middle-level working income.

The medical card has been valued at approximately €1,000 a year, which means that a single adult on the ordinary rate of social welfare is just on the poverty line. Does it not strike the Minister as curious that of the member states of the European Union, apart from Ireland, the last to publish this statistic did so last October, while we are still waiting? I take her point that the CSO compiles the figures.

The CSO is completely independent.

I have been reading the detailed information collated by the CSO, including numbers of animals. Does the Minister think it is reasonable that we know the number of goats in County Kerry in 2012, whereas we do not have information on the number of people who were living below the poverty line in Ireland in 2012?

I am delighted that the Deputy wants the information and statistics to be published in a more timely fashion; he is singing my song in that regard. It is important that the CSO be seen to be independent from the viewpoint of the European Union and other international institutions. It organises its work programmes according to its own schedules. I agree with the Deputy that it would be preferable to have the information published in a more timely fashion. The critical achievement of Ireland which has been noted by economic commentators around the world and, in particular, the European Union is that our strong system of social welfare payments and the Government's decision not to reduce core weekly social welfare payments means that the reduction in the at-risk of poverty rates through social transfers is among the highest in the European Union. Getting people back to work will also assist those at risk of poverty. The Department supports low-income families in work by means of family income supplement. These are the best ways of tackling poverty.

Question No. 5 answered with Question No. 3.