Section 7 refers to the raiding of the social insurance fund. The section states: "In the financial year 2002, an amount of €635 million shall be paid out of the Fund into the Exchequer". With those two lines, a fundamental alteration in the social fund has been made. Under the Social Welfare Act, 1952, the Minister for Social Welfare is charged with the management and control of the current account of the social fund while the Minister for Finance has the task of managing the investment account of the fund, but sums payable out of the fund shall be paid out of the current account of that fund.
The Minister referred to this issue and a number of speakers, particularly on the Government side of the House, mentioned that raiding the fund to the tune of €635 million is, in effect, giving people's money back to them. That appears to be a logical statement, but is it? The Bill states that the money shall be paid out of the fund into the Exchequer. The Exchequer manages funding across a number of projects and a range of spending headings, including social welfare, pensions and so on, but it also covers capital spending. We do not have any indication, beyond the fact that the €635 million will go into the Exchequer, where that money will be spent and, therefore, we do not know that it will go directly back to the people who paid into it. The argument will be made, and I can almost hear it, that it will go in some way to the benefit of the people who paid into it, but will it go towards the major roads building projects or the building of hospitals? Will it go back only to social welfare recipients or to workers and employers? It is going into the Exchequer so we do not know precisely where it will end up.
I challenge the fundamental principle of taking this money in the first place and, in making the argument, I want to quote the General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, David Begg, who, on the night of the budget, when the news of the raiding of the fund was announced, reminded television viewers that the fund had been established and supported by workers and employers through their contributions for nearly 50 years. He said it provides a range of basic benefits for which workers have paid through their social insurance contributions and that by diverting the €635 million from the fund into the Exchequer, the Ministers for Finance and Social, Community and Family Affairs have attacked a key principle of social solidarity and undermined its basic purpose.
The €1.8 billion surplus to which the Minister referred offers a unique opportunity to enhance existing benefits and introduce new ones. The Minister and other speakers talked about using this money rather than borrowing. Because the fund is designed for this purpose, it could have been used in the past and, if it had not been raided, could have been used in the future to introduce PRSI funded parental leave benefit within the scope of the social insurance fund. Another suggestion made by my colleague and our spokesperson in the Dáil, Deputy Broughan, was to introduce an improvement in the homemaker's scheme. There are many other benefits, such as the contributory old age, widow's and widower's pensions, which could have been enhanced further by using the surplus in the social insurance fund.
The raiding of the fund is a very serious matter and one over which we could not stand. Now that the principle has been established in this legislation, we have no guarantee that this Administration, particularly if its ambition to get re-elected is realised, will not do it again. Has the fundamental principle of the fund been completely changed? I would suggest it has and that this is possibly not a once-off move. If this Government gets a chance, it will do this again.