I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Social Welfare Bill 2015. This is one of the most important Bills to come before the House as it contains within it provisions that are vital for people who, for one reason or another, depend upon the State, are subject to fixed incomes and are vulnerable. It covers a significant cohort of the population and gives legislative effect to the social welfare measures announced in the Bill. I could speak for an hour on the Bill such are the very positive measures contained therein, and it would be churlish of anybody to be negative about it.
I note from the Minister that the budget provisions have been subject to a social impact assessment, which means the impact of the main tax and social welfare provisions set out in the budget for the year ahead. It estimates the impact of these policies on household incomes, families, poverty and incentives to employment because we know that a perennial focus of debates is the emergence of new or the sustaining of old income poverty traps. One notes that these results are positive from the perspective of gain and it is noteworthy that the higher average gains favour those in the bottom two quintiles. That is very important.
Ever since I entered the Dáil I have championed the cause of carers. I have been a strong advocate on their behalf and remain so. When I was chairperson of the then social affairs committee in 2003 I initiated an examination of the welfare policy, practices, support structures and education for carers, together with a review of the long-term effects of full-time caring on the physical and mental well-being of carers. That is important because carers can suffer as well.
In regard to that report I am especially proud that we did it ourselves without the aid of consultants, which was at my insistence, and a significant number of 15 or so recommendations were subsequently implemented by Government over a period of years, including the groundbreaking proposal that people in receipt of another social welfare payment will receive 50% of the carer's allowance and that the respite grant be paid to people who are caring, regardless of the social welfare payment they were receiving. That was a huge breakthrough. In regard to those who say that reports prepared by committees are not effective, I believe we proved that is not the case, and the Carer's Association and others were very pleased with the outcome of our deliberations.
We also advocated that the means test be abolished and were in favour of universality of payment for long-term care. Indeed, the Mercer report argued against means testing thus, over the past 12 years, that has not been done but in fairness to all Governments, the means test for carer's allowance is by far the most generous of all means tested social welfare schemes.
Weekly means of €332.50 are disregarded in the case of a single person and €665 in the case of a couple. As a result, a couple aged under 66 with two children earning a joint income of up to €35,000 can qualify for the maximum carer’s allowance. The household benefits package is also payable to residential carers in receipt of carer’s allowance.
There are 187,112 family carers in Ireland, of which 5,295 are based in Longford-Westmeath. Female carers provide approximately two thirds of all care. The 2011 census identified 4,228 children aged under 15 years engaged in providing care to others, accounting for 2.3% of all carers. Up to 59,380 carers receive carer’s allowance, of which 24,326 receive half-rate carer’s allowance and 1,769 receive carer’s benefit. The care provided by family and friends to the ill, frail and people with disabilities is worth €4 billion each year. It amounts to 900,000 hours of caring every day and €77 million per week. This is equivalent to one third of the total annual cost of €13.3 billion of the Health Service Executive. It is five times what carers cost the Department of Social Protection in income support, €878 million. It means that a full-time carer contributes on average, €72,500 a year.
They are the unsung heroes. I have been in contact with carers in my constituency. I know Caroline Poole, Denise Nolan and many others in the Carers Association do wonderful unsung work. They save the State billions of euro by allowing their loved ones live in the comfort, ambience and serenity of their own homes. I salute all those who undertake various fund-raising activities for the Carers Association which has many demands on its resources. In this regard, I commend the great Billy Mac, Billy McCauley, who has hosted an annual musical extravaganza for the past ten years at the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar, raising substantial funds for the Carers Association. It is in this context that I am especially glad to note the respite care grant, a non-means-tested grant paid annually in June to carers to assist them in caring for a person who requires full-time care and attention, has been restored to €1,700. The reduction in 2014 was one of the decreases that greatly annoyed me and I am delighted to see it is fully restored. The carers are quite pleased with the increase of €325 to this grant.
Will consideration be given to paying out the respite care grant in two moieties? It might better suit the needs of carers at vital times. I also welcome the fact that under section 9, the period for which the carer’s allowance will be payable following the death of the cared person has been extended from six weeks to 12 weeks. That is an important recognition of a difficult time for people.
I have been arguing for years about how unfairly the self-employed have been treated by the social welfare and tax system. I am glad a start has been made in rectifying the glaring inequality in this treatment. Self-employed people perceive themselves as being just generators of wealth and employment, tax collectors of the State and collectors of social welfare contributions for the Department of Social Protection. After all that, they have to try to make a profit, along with paying their own contributions and taxes. Despite having to invest long and arduous hours in their enterprises, be they a small rural shopkeeper, building contractor, painter, plumber, electrician or farmer, they are often victimised by the State which refused to give them an allowance equivalent to a PAYE allowance, notwithstanding the original basis for the differential treatment had long disappeared when the self-employed moved on to a current year basis of accounting for profits. They were really penalised when the universal social charge, USC, was introduced. Another significant differential, admittedly at the top of the scale, of an additional 3% was introduced solely for the self-employed. While there may well be a basis for this, one has to reflect on and consider that many self-employed small operators genuinely contribute to the economy, creating many jobs. They are especially important in rural areas where the big factories and entrepreneurs never materialise.
Worse than that was their treatment by the social welfare system when they fell on hard times, especially between 2008 and 2012. It was frightening. I witnessed it at first hand when many people were literally penniless. Despite this, they had to prepare accounts to examine their previous year’s earnings, notwithstanding that, like the snows of last winter, not a penny was to be found as it has all been spent and any savings accrued had also been spent. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, amended the system. Now, the self-employed are getting 90% of entitlement to social assistance payment without having to go through the hoops, a welcome development.
More importantly, however, would be the devising of a special PRSI rate for the self-employed to allow them contribute an additional 1.5% or 2%. If they fell ill, they would then have an entitlement to the payment as of right. Their own representative organisations need to wake up because many self-employed people I meet are eager to make such an additional contribution to the Social Insurance Fund. It is high time this was addressed.
I welcome the increase in social welfare pensions. While the €3 increase is only a start, along with the increase in the fuel allowance and the Christmas bonus, this could come to €690 per year, or €13.30 a week. It is important this increase for pensioners and others on fixed incomes continues to be improved. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection has given a commitment that this will be the case.