Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 15 Dec 2004

Vol. 178 No. 28

Social Welfare Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share my time with Senator White.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, and his officials to the House. This is the first opportunity I have had to welcome him publicly in his new capacity. On behalf of the people of Cavan, in particular, I pay tribute to him for the work he achieved formerly as Minister for Transport.

The Bill provides for the introduction of a series of social welfare improvements which were announced in the budget two weeks ago. The Minister has done a marvellous job in securing the largest ever budget for his Department. He has successfully secured an additional €1 billion social welfare package in this year's budget. Next year, the Department of Social and Family Affairs will oversee an expenditure in excess of €12.25 billion. That is a very welcome increase.

The level of social welfare expenditure is indicative of the Government's priority to protect the living standards of social welfare recipients at a time when difficult decisions must be made on the management of our public finances. Following the publication of an historic budget by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, the Government has once again demonstrated its commitment, through action rather than words, to address the needs of the elderly, widowed persons, carers, the disabled and the disadvantaged.

Earlier in the debate, it was interesting to hear Senator Terry welcoming the budget. It is a first for me to hear a Fine Gael representative, particularly a Front Bench spokesperson, welcoming a Fianna Fáil budget. Senator Terry said she was glad to see this was part of the new caring Fianna Fáil. Senator Cox pointed out, however, that we are a caring party and always have been. If Fine Gael has difficulty in realising that, its members have only to examine the social welfare budget which has risen from just under €6 billion in 1997 to a current minimum figure of €12.25 billion. Senator Terry is totally incorrect in trying to mislead those listening to this debate. Fianna Fáil has always been a caring party and will continue to be so. We are the real Labour Party of this country, whether Opposition Senators like it or not.

It did not look like that last year.

It is contagious.

I remind the House that in 1995, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Proinsias De Rossa's outfit were given the opportunity to put their rhetoric into action.

Those were difficult times.

They failed to do so.

If we had had the money this Government has, we would have been able to do it.

In 1995, they awarded £1.80 to pensioners who worked hard to build the economy we have today.

This Government will not give back what it took off them today —€6,000 per annum.

Order, please.

The three budgets for which they were responsible, from 1995 to 1997, provided an average increase of €3.50 to pensioners. Let us put the record straight and cut out the nonsense. I welcome the largest ever expenditure on social welfare in the history of the State.

Your time is nearly up, Senator.

He should have used it more usefully.

The social welfare budget has risen by €1 billion, which is an increase of 8.8% on last year. The total spending on social welfare has more than doubled since 1997. Payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation.

A total of 1.5 million people will benefit from social welfare payments weekly. There has been a fourfold increase in child benefit since 1997. The increase of €10 for each of the first two children and an increase of €12 for the third and subsequent children is welcomed by the mothers and fathers of this country.

I welcome the family support agency increase of €2 million for family resource centres — we have one in Cavan town that is doing great work — the €900,000 for the expansion of the family mediation service, the €600,000 additional funding for marriage and family counselling which is doing tremendous work throughout the country, the €70,000 for the development of information dissemination, and €60,000 for the second phase of family research programmes. I commend the Minister for increasing the budget of MABS which is also doing tremendous work throughout the country helping many poor and vulnerable people. I again congratulate him on his 2005 budget and wish him well in his office.

I refer to the Minister's speech in the Dáil on 8 December when he stated:

The Department of Social and Family Affairs while representing a valuable source of payments, entitlements and supports, must be viewed in a broader context....[The Department] must constantly monitor the pulse of our changing society and broaden and evolve to respond to changes. As I said before in this House, the economic surge during the Celtic tiger era did not raise all boats.

I have known the Minister for 20 years. He has a tremendous reputation for efficiency. He is an action orientated politician and his supporters are the most loyal.

The Senator should speak on the Social Welfare Bill.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the issue of child benefit and child care. I and some colleagues drew up a document on child care for the Minister for Finance. The main instrument of support for child care to date has been child benefit. Child benefit has been increased from €33 per week to approximately €35 per week. However, the cheapest community-based crèche costs €88 per week. Therefore, the sum of €35 as the chief financial support for child care is total nonsense. Furthermore, the cost of a private crèche is approximately €160 or €170 per week.

To address the poverty trap of the future, children aged one to four years should become the responsibility of the State and the State should look after their education as soon as they come into the world. Why do we take responsibility for children only from the age of five years until they are 21 years? The former Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley, had the vision and the imagination to introduce free secondary education and that is what opened up the country. The Government must take responsibility for educating children.

I visited a community crèche yesterday run by Councillor Liz McCormack in Athboy. It is a sight to see children aged from three months and older getting stimulation in this way. Our children will not be able to hold their own either socially or economically with their competitors in other countries around the world in the future because child care is inaccessible. There are not enough places and it is too expensive. The Minister should put this high on his agenda.

Child care issues cross 11 Departments. About two weeks ago I made the point in a radio interview that child care issues should be dealt with by one Department, the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This should be the number one priority if the poverty the Minister is trying to eliminate is to be prevented. When I studied this area I came to the conclusion that many of the policies have been reactive rather than visionary or part of an overall plan. We have a very serious crisis regarding the availability and accessibility of good quality child care for lone parents, middle income parents, high income parents. They all have a problem.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I acknowledge that many aspects of the budget were welcome in that they were corrective of what was done a year ago. While Senator Wilson wildly embraces many aspects of the budget, the reality is that many of the measures in it merely compensate for the cutbacks made last year and the many stealth taxes imposed in the intervening period. The increased cost of electricity, services, gas, food and all of the other aspects of rip-off Ireland that we have heard about are the ones to which the elderly and the poor are most vulnerable. Nevertheless there are aspects of the budget that represent a welcome U-turn on decisions taken in the previous budget.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the work of the excellent personnel in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. They are more courteous and helpful than officials in many other Departments. I have noticed a very welcome change in their attitude toward people who seek help and information for them. It is very important that the people at the coalface dealing with the public should be of that frame of mind.

Other Senators referred to the issue of fraud. People who commit social welfare fraud are taking from those in greatest need. That said, there is an urgent need for training for some of inspectors working in the area because it seems their goal is to humiliate the people who approach them rather than anything else. There is a need to review the process of dealing with claimants as a matter of urgency. In one instance in County Galway they are brought into a hotel in a public manner and lined up to wait for the call which is made publicly in a humiliating manner. It is time to review that process, given that the Department has offices in practically every town in the country. If there is a necessity to upgrade those to make them suitable for interviewing of this nature that is what should be done rather than the humiliation that follows from the other process.

Recently the Society of St. Vincent de Paul indicated that it has had more calls for help this year than in any previous year. Surely that indicates that there are more people in trouble and in need of support. An organisation such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has limited resources and funding. I have had two telephone calls in the past week from people in absolute desperation. They are people to whom the Society of St. Vincent de Paul cannot provide sufficient assistance to get them through the difficult Christmas period. Many unfortunate people are being forced back into the arms of moneylenders and will find themselves in a vicious circle from which it will be difficult to escape down the line, regardless of how well social welfare schemes are resourced by the Minister's Department.

It is important that these, usually illegal, moneylenders are identified and put out of business quickly. They are the ruination of many poor people, which leads to many other difficulties in society as it may force people to turn to crime in order to access money, goods or services. The work of many other charitable organisations that support the less well-off on a once-off basis at Christmas, such as the Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs, must be acknowledged.

I welcome that the Minister has given €700,000 in additional funding to citizens' advice bureaux. However, it is easy to advise people on how best to spend when their resources are meagre. Nevertheless, the bureaux offer a helpful service to many people.

Over the last few days, and today in particular, there has been much comment on the failure of the Government to acknowledge the money that was taken illegally from many pensioners down the years. I mentioned this issue on the Order of Business and was told by the Cathaoirleach that this would be the appropriate time to discuss it. One must weigh the sum of €2,000 that is proposed to refund to each person against the efforts and endeavours of these elderly people and their families to put together savings that were taken illegally from them over a number of years in order to maintain them in long-stay residential care institutions.

No Government or Minister can stand back and refuse to pay back this money. People may say that a refund of €2,000 to some 20,000 pensioners represents a significant sum of money. However, pensioners have been paying approximately €8,500 per annum over a period of time in long-stay institutions. Money was taken from them by the health boards and other authorities through their pension books. Therefore, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and his colleagues in Government have a responsibility to ensure this money is paid back.

It is not unusual, particularly in rural Ireland, for some families to have to sell the family home in order to provide for the long-term care of an elderly relative. It is important to recognise that the health boards, through some of their officers, were enthusiastic to claim and demand that these maintenance payments were made. Assessments were made against people which meant that the value of their property had to be handed over to the health boards in order to provide the care required.

This is a serious situation. I hope 2004 will not end without the Government taking greater action than has been taken to date. The €2,000 refund is a token response and I hope the Government will go down the line and do the decent thing. If it is the case that Departments have officially robbed these elderly people, how can we point the finger at the tax collector who is going after those who have not paid their taxes? The Government is taking a major risk, as evidenced by the plea on this evening's news that people not go down the road of litigation. I hope the Government can prevent such a possibility by acting quickly in a positive way to repay the losses to so many people, particularly the elderly.

I propose to share time with Senator Ormonde.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well in office. His Department has a highly-skilled and professional staff, some of whom have been working on the complex and varied issues relevant to the Department's work for many years. These are issues that impact significantly on communities. I spent a short time in the Department and am aware of the competence and professionalism of its staff. I hope the Minister will continue the progressive work that has been ongoing for many years.

Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the professionalism and courtesy of staff in the regional offices. It is clear that the regionalisation of welfare services has been beneficial to customers. There may be a lesson here for other regional bodies that did not make such an effective contribution to improving the delivery of their services.

I support what Senator Burke has said about moneylenders. Over a number of years, the Department has given substantial funding to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and MABS to deal with the blatant abuse that has been taking place in many areas, especially under-developed areas of towns and rural areas. Moneylenders should be outlawed. They are putting significant pressure on families and are behaving in an illegal fashion. Despite the efforts made to come to grips with this situation for more than a decade, the problem is not under control. I hope the Minister will make a special effort to provide additional funding to secure a mechanism that can deal with the problem and rid the country of this scourge. Moneylenders are torturing people and driving some to near suicide.

I stress the need to review the provision of housing for the elderly. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Health and Children, through the health boards, have been given some funding to help elderly people install such basic facilities as tiles in their showers. However, there is a sizeable number of elderly people, especially in isolated rural areas, who are living alone or with elderly relatives without basic facilities such as water and sewerage services.

The Minister might use the advice he receives from the skilled staff in regional offices to work in conjunction with health boards and county councils to tackle this problem. Despite the additional funding that has been provided, there is still a sizeable gap to be bridged in this regard. The issue is not the Minister's direct area of responsibility but he should review it in the overall context of taking care of the elderly, especially those who are ill and disabled. He might consider bringing the three Departments together to make some meaningful contribution towards resolving a problem, which has existed for many years.

I compliment the Department on initiatives it has taken over a number of years in encouraging people to go back to education. Last year controversial restrictions were introduced, which militated against some people continuing in the scheme. There is a growing demand for mature students to go back to education. The Minister should consider some new initiatives in that regard, considering so many people want to go back to education to allow them to set up their own business and go back to work.

Overall the transformation in finances the Government has delivered in the past few years has been reflected in the Social Welfare Bill this year. I compliment the Minister and wish him well in the Department. I hope the benefits will continue for many years to come.

I too congratulate the Minister and wish him well. Having worked closely with the Minister in the same constituency for more than 20 years, I know his capabilities. There is no better Minister to take control of this Department and turn it around. As the Minister said, the Department of Social and Family Affairs is not about rules and regulations, but about people. Its responsibility is to reach out to those who are marginalised and disadvantaged.

The Senator should speak to the Social Welfare Bill.

I am doing that. This Bill is about helping those who cannot help themselves. The Minister has a budget of €12 billion to distribute. He has given €14 per week special increases for the lower payments, including widow's and widower's pensions, invalidity pensions, death benefits, disablement pensions, unemployment benefit, disability benefit and lone parent's allowance. He has given €12 per week increases for old-age pensions, retirement pensions, invalidity pensions, deserted wife benefit and carer's allowance. The people have welcomed these increases, which give a real safety net to those who are marginalised and cannot help themselves.

I reiterate a point made by Senator Daly. It is not possible for the Minister to work alone. He needs to work in a co-ordinated way with the Department of Education and Science and with local authorities on housing to determine how best to help those in need in terms of grants and loans. Somehow the elderly seem to fall through the net because they do not know whom to contact when looking for grants for extensions etc. I ask the Minister to consider this point. In my time as a local authority councillor I never knew which Department to approach when pursuing grants. I ask the Minister to streamline these processes to make it easier to help people get some quality of life. I also welcome the changes in the carer's allowance. There is no better way to bring some quality of life into communities again.

While the Celtic tiger was roaring, somehow, as the Minister admitted, it was not the tide that lifted all the boats and did nothing for those who could not help themselves. It did not give them the chance for a standard of living and a quality of life. However, in this budget the Minister has started to address the issue and further progress will be made in the next budget. People have reflected this in their conversations with me as a public representative.

Today representatives from the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland made a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. They complimented the Minister for making considerable progress on the matter. During the local election campaign, this was the one area that reflected badly on the Government. However, at long last we have tackled it. While the economy is growing and employment is high, a small percentage of people have somehow slipped through the net.

I welcome what the Minister has done. I have great confidence in his ability to make it work. The public are happy with what he has done. I wish him well over the next six months in continuing what he has started. This is a success story. The Minister is bringing everybody to the quality of life they want. Education is one area on which we need to focus. If they have the standard of living then they will want to go back to education because they will have the money to give them the start. I again compliment the Minister and wish him well in the forthcoming months.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I congratulate him on his new portfolio. I welcome his comments made on his appointment that he would have a more caring approach to social welfare. I hope that can be backed up with action. I have no doubt the Minister will deliver.

Every year the public is faced with many changes following the budget. The usual hit list includes increases in pensions and social welfare, which are always to the fore. How can someone in Opposition oppose increases in old-age pensions? I come from a very rural area and many old-age pensioners find themselves having to help their grandchildren pay their way at college. While pensioners are well looked after, much of the money going to old-age pensioners is going back into the system as parents find it very difficult to maintain their children at college. At one level it is good that pensioners can hand back this money, it is also a marker with respect to the pressure on parents with children in third-level education.

Child care is a major issue on which we have yet to grasp the nettle. I recently met a group from Donegal comprising women, primarily single women, with children. They do not simply need child care to allow them access to education. It is not just about getting back to education to get a qualification to allow them to enter or re-enter the job market. They need child care to allow them carry out simple tasks like going to the shop or to the doctor for a check-up. The issues raised at that meeting were child care and education. The focus has been somewhat lost. Education will not necessarily improve the way of life mean for a woman who has been in the home rearing her children on her own. It is simple basic issues such as being in a position to go shopping, to go for a social drink with their friends at least once a month or to visit their GPs for a check-up. That is the position at the margins as regards child care. There is also the issue of young couples, both of whom have to work and who are obliged to pay astronomical amounts of money in child care costs.

The back to education allowance used to last for 15 months but this has been reduced to 12 months. The allowance is welcome but I have been approached in recent weeks by many people working in low-skilled areas who have low to marginal incomes, who want to continue to work, who are not redundant or on unemployment assistance and who want to return to education in order to better themselves and obtain qualifications so they can improve their quality of life. The position regarding the back to education allowance must be reconsidered in respect of the many people on the margins and on low incomes who are interested in returning to education.

During the term of office of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, there was a great deal of bad feeling about the more radical issues that were grappled with such as widows' pensions, etc. It is not a question of disaffecting vast groups of people who are already in receipt of certain entitlements. I hope the Minister's actions will measure up to the comments he made shortly after his appointment to his new portfolio.

It is easy to label social welfare recipients and to knock those who it is felt should not be getting handouts. Greater provision should be made in terms of linking social welfare recipients and education providers and industry by means of a system which will ensure that people do not merely receive handouts. I am aware that there are many who are not in a position to work or to avail of work. There should be increased contact with social welfare recipients to inform them, for example, about educational programmes to which they might gain entry. Many social welfare recipients are obliged, for one reason or another, to remain at home. It is important that we make provision for such people, even if it is by means of allowing them to avail of e-learning programmes offered by VECs, FÁS centres or higher education institutions. Every effort should be made to help these people.

There should be more one-to-one contact with social welfare recipients. Given our bureaucratic system, there is no doubt that we have the personnel to facilitate this. It would not necessarily need to be people in citizens' advice centres or those who work in social welfare offices who offered their services in this regard. We must take a multi-agency approach which would include input from the VECs, FÁS and employers groups such as IBEC, etc., and which would cater for the needs of every social welfare recipient. People are falling through the net. There are those in receipt of social welfare payments on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis who are finding it increasingly difficult to re-enter the mainstream. Facilitating them in this regard could be as simple as getting them involved in personal development or motivational courses.

I do not believe that anybody in receipt of social welfare payments wants to continue to receive them. The Minister does not need me to tell him that. Using a multi-agency approach and empowering people who are in receipt of payments will reduce the numbers of those on social welfare.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the Bill, which is a real achievement. The Department of Social and Family Affairs will benefit from having a strong Minister which Deputy Brennan has been throughout his career.

I wish to make a number of general points. It has become a cliché that Seán Lemass said that a rising tide lifts all boats. I worked through six volumes of his speeches in the Taoiseach's office and I could find no trace of that statement. It is to be found at the back of a book written by Brian Farrell and it is the latter's summary of what he thought Seán Lemass's philosophy to be. However, there is no direct quotation to be found. The phrase, which I have seen attributed to John F. Kennedy and others, is a serious distortion of Seán Lemass's philosophy. He was not laissez faire, he was an interventionist during his entire time as a Minister. There is a quotation from Lemass which sums up his philosophy and which I will, with the indulgence of the House, read into the record. It is as follows:

All human experience bears out the lesson that social justice must be organised, that Governments have the duty to intervene to protect the common good of all citizens, without preference for any individual group, although giving more attention to the less fortunate citizens who are less able to defend their rights and assert their legitimate claims; and that unless this is done indefensible inequalities persist and tend to become more widespread, including the too ready assumption that social benefits would follow automatically economic achievements, and that they would be fairly shared amongst our community.

That is the exact opposite of the "rising tide lifts all boats" approach. Governments must intervene to lift boats that are in the channels which the rising tide will never reach.

It is a real achievement that on budget day the Minister managed to announce a package of €874 million. However, if this is taken with what is contained in the Estimates, the increase actually amounts to over €1 billion. The 2002 budget was also quite generous and provided social welfare increases amounting to €850 million. That was the previous peak and this year's increase exceeds it. Let us compare what is happening here with what is occurring in parts of continental Europe. I visited Germany in August when a debate on serious social welfare cutbacks and the implementation of the so-called "Hartz decision" by a social democratic Government of the left was raging. Obviously the amount of money available, consistent with sound public finances, is a reflection of sound management of the economy.

I am glad the Minister reviewed some of the measures that caused controversy last year. There cannot be movement only in one direction with nothing being changed or adapted. Often social welfare policies, particularly cutbacks, are inspired by the Department of Finance, not the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Early on in the Estimates process, a menu of cuts is presented to put pressure on the Department of Social and Family Affairs. One cannot assume that money is unlimited now or in the future, and we must pay attention to sustainability, but I hope during the Minister's tenure it will be possible for social welfare policy to be made in the Department of Social and Family Affairs and not in some section of the Department of Finance.

The general increases were impressive, with €12 for pensioners and a larger increase of €14 for those on unemployment assistance. These increases were criticised in previous budgets and Social Welfare Bills by Fr. Seán Healy as reflecting an attitude about "the undeserving poor". As the old age pensioner reaches the €200 per week mark, it is right to give a slightly larger increase to those on the lower payments.

The social welfare package and the tax provisions in the budget were extraordinary. They received the praise of CORI for the first time in 20 years. I recall a conversation with Fr. Healy back in 1997 about Deputy Quinn's last budget, which he condemned as he has most budgets before and since. I asked him if he could tell me of any budget in the past ten years of which he approved to which he replied that he would need notice of that question. It is, therefore, a real achievement to have overcome that barrier.

There is criticism of Government policy on children from two angles. I heard the head of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul say that more money should have gone to child dependants. That was dealt with in the Minister's speech and I recall a study done during the rainbow Government where the view was taken that the child dependant allowance created poverty traps that discourage people from leaving unemployment and that it was better to put money into child benefit. Child benefit has increased enormously — it is €100 more than it was in 1997.

We must look at child care over the next year. I understand the demand by hard-pressed parents for help with that. The problem is how we avoid the providers simply putting up the price to take account of any tax concession, as has happened with the relief given in the tax code in second-hand houses for first-time buyers? That is an argument that must be addressed.

None of us is under any illusions that even with the increases it is easy for anyone to live on welfare payments. Widows of people who contributed in the pre-stamp era in the 1930s and 1940s feel they should be brought up to parity and that is a kindness the State can afford. I ask the Minister to look at that area.

I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the Social Welfare Bill. The Minister has done an excellent job in the package he has brought forward. There is a total increase of €874 million, giving a budget of more than €12 billion for the Department. Anyone listening to the debate on the Order of Business this morning would imagine the Government does not care at all about the elderly. The Minister has shown his concern for the elderly and the most vulnerable in society in the way he has put this package together.

I was glad to see the changes in the carer's allowance. This scheme has improved immensely over the years. We all remember when the carer had to live in the same house as the elderly person and could not undertake work outside the House. I supported a constituent who went to the Ombudsman because he could not work on his farm behind the house as he had to be in the house 24 hours a day to look after the person. That regulation has been relaxed and improved every year. The social welfare officers take a liberal and fair view of carers and there are opportunities for them to take up employment or get involved in education and other courses.

If there are improvements in the carer's allowance, there must also be improvements in household conditions for the carer and the care recipient. Schemes for housing repairs operated by the local authorities often allow for a grant of €2,000 for improvements but the applicant must come up with €1,000 himself. That is not as easy as it sounds. The health board scheme is much better, where a contractor is engaged to do all the work and if there is contribution to be made, it is as little as €200. I was pleasantly surprised recently to discover that an applicant for a housing repair grant in County Galway who was asked to pay €1,000 had learned a year later that the health board reduced that contribution to €300.

Various Ministers have introduced many schemes over the years. I have always been intrigued by the free travel scheme, which is sometimes not of any use to people. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, was heavily involved in the rural transport initiative when he was Minister for Transport. I was present when he launched the rural transport scheme, which is of great benefit, in south-east Galway. It is important that buses are now available to bring people to catch trains or Bus Éireann buses. Schemes should suit people living in all areas, but the conventional free travel scheme does not always do so. A similar problem used to arise in respect of ESB units, which were not always available when they were most needed, particularly in winter.

I wish to highlight the problems faced by widows and widowers, who comprise one of the many groups of people who meet to discuss the issues affecting them, as I am sure the Minister is aware. I am amazed that such bodies do not receive as much help as people on other benefits. A farmer I know in County Galway reared five children, between the ages of two and 13, after his wife died 22 years ago. He has not received any help from the Department in the past 22 years. He was told that he would exceed the means test for a widower's pension because he has a dairy quota of a certain size. He was unfortunate because he started to pay his contributions in 1986, four years after his wife died. He will not receive a contributory pension until next year, when he will be 66. I am amazed that he was not given a retirement pension when he reached the age of 65 last June.

It seems to me that the problem is that while pensioners receive pro rata pensions, such pensions are not given to those who receive widow’s or widower’s allowances. I ask the Minister to examine this matter. We have been very supportive of pensioners. We have allowed pre-1953 contributions and contributions from Great Britain and other EU countries to be added on. That has been an effective way of ensuring that pensioners receive pro rata pensions.

Means testing arrangements have improved as a result of changes in old age pension provisions and other disability allowances. There have been good increases in schemes such as farm assist, which is a very good scheme. The Minister for Finance has ensured that it has been of great help. I would like to discuss an initiative I think I have clarified with the Department. Concern was expressed that the special savings incentive account scheme, which is an excellent scheme, might cause difficulties for people when they were being means tested. The Minister has dealt with cases of people who have no other income. That is useful because it can be difficult to tell people that a scheme of this nature, which one has endorsed, might work against them, for example by causing them to lose some or all of their payments.

The Minister might feel that people are disappointed when they receive a small pension or a small unemployment assistance payment. Those who receive unemployment assistance or farm assist payments of €4 or €5 can qualify for the community employment scheme or the new rural social scheme as a result. We should not forget that people are often happy to receive a small payment if it helps them to participate in a scheme that helps them to improve themselves. Newspaper headlines often state that certain applicants have been given just €5 or €6. While such payments are small, they are often stepping stones to allow people to become involved in a particular scheme under which good work can be done.

I welcome the comments of Senators. I hope the Minister will continue his reform of the social welfare regime. We look forward to next year, when some of the issues being addressed in the Seanad might be tackled by the Minister.

I thank Senators for their kind contributions, to which I will respond. In particular, I thank those who took the time to thank the officials and staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I support the comments that were made in that regard. I assure the House, having worked in six or seven Departments, that the officials with whom I am working at present, who are dealing with difficult matters, are of the highest calibre and courtesy. I share the views expressed by Senators in that regard and thank them for mentioning this aspect of the matter.

I reiterate that the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which has a budget of over €12.2 billion, spends more money than any other Department. Of every €3 that will be spent by the Government next year, almost €1 will be spent by the Department. It is obvious that its services are important for many people. Approximately 970,000 social welfare payments are made every week. Payments have increased by over three times the rate of inflation this year. We need to sustain these achievements into the future.

Senators Terry, Cox, McCarthy, White, Kitt and others spoke about carers. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs produced a report on the position of full-time carers, which stated, "the greatest need identified by family carers is the need for a break from caring, in home respite and respite for the dependent person." Having considered the conclusion seriously, I have announced that a grant of €1,000 will be awarded, for the first time, to all carers who provide full-time care to an older person or a person with a disability, regardless of their means. The grant of €1,000, which will not be means-tested, is a way of recognising widows and other pensioners who may or may not be in receipt of a social welfare payment. Some 33,000 carers will receive the grant of €1,000, regardless of whether they are in receipt of such a payment, in recognition of their role as carers. I have made changes to the respite care grant, which will now be payable in respect of each person for whom the carer is caring. We have altered the various thresholds to include additional people. The capital assessment sum has been increased from approximately €12,000 to €20,000 to allow extra people to be taken into the scheme.

Many Senators asked me to abolish the means test for carers, which would cost approximately €160 million. We should acknowledge that there are different opinions on the matter — I do not consider that the abolition of the means test for carers is warranted. If I had €160 million, I would use it to focus on areas in which it is needed. I would not use it to remove everybody from the means test, as that would be too crude. If we get to a point where we can afford it, we will focus the funds on those whose means have demonstrated that they require the funds. That would be a better use of such moneys. The carers' package, which is worth approximately €40 million, is the most significant that has been produced for many years. I remind the House that the €1,000 grant will be given to all carers, including widows who have made a special case for the recognition of their care, and not just to carers who are in receipt of carer's allowance at present. We may be in a position to give a top-up of some sort to widows in the future, but for the moment the grant of €1,000 is an immediate way of recognising what they do.

A number of Senators spoke about rent supplement. I confirm that I have abolished the six-month rule in favour of an assessment by the housing authority. If the authority is of the view that one is in immediate need of accommodation, one will get rent supplement. That is a fair way to do it. One used to be deemed ineligible for rent supplement after one had rejected two offers of accommodation, but I have changed that provision so that one can turn down a housing offer three times and still be eligible for rent allowance. That is very reasonable.

Many Senators referred to family income supplement, which is given to 14,600 families who receive an average payment of €72.19 each week. The Minister for Finance announced in the budget that the threshold for the benefit will be increased by €39 this year. This will result in a weekly increase of €23.40 for almost all families eligible to receive the supplement and it will enable 2,500 more families to become eligible. The tax system is not capable of identifying automatically the householders who are entitled to it but we are working on this.

The one-parent family transitional half-rate payment was mentioned by Senator Terry. Some 7,000 one-parent families are expected to benefit from the new six-month transition payment. I take the Senator's point that I did not make complete changes to some of the schemes. I amended them as I saw fit. In this case, I am satisfied that a six-month transitional payment is adequate. When a lone parent begins to work, the overlap is accounted for. A lone parent can now earn up to €293 per week and still be entitled to some element of the benefit.

The back to education allowance was discussed in the Dáil in recent days, including during Question Time today. In the budget package, I changed the qualifying period for the back to education third level option from 15 months to 12 months, which is costing €2.5 million this year. I stated in the Dáil that I would examine whether the qualifying period could, in the coming months, be reduced further to nine months, and I will do this. It is not very urgent because the academic year usually begins in September. Once we have made a firm decision by then, we will be all right. The qualifying period for entry into second level education has not been affected and remains at six months. We increased the grant pertaining to the back to education allowance from €254 to €400.

What informs my decisions in all these matters is my desire to make it easy to make the transition between unemployment and work, or unemployment and education. The transition should be seamless. Much work has been done in this area, as Senator Daly stated. However, I would like to do more to ensure that individuals are not locked in a welfare trap such that they would not benefit much if they took up employment or would not benefit at all if they went back to education. I need to remove those traps and am working on this.

Many Senators referred to child benefit. Senator Cox shared my view that child benefit is not the answer to child care. Some 520,000 families are receiving child benefit in respect of over 1 million children. The allocation for this year is €1.9 billion, representing an increase of €136 million. The child benefit is a very important income for the recipients. It is clear from the fact that no Government has increased the child dependant allowance since 1994 that a view has been formed by successive Governments that child benefit is a better way to direct the funds towards children. That there is almost €2 billion being allocated to 520,000 families means the scheme is having an impact. However, it is not the answer to child care because child care is a multidepartmental, multifaceted issue involving matters of supply and taxation and various other measures. Societal change is a factor in child care, and child benefit, or the children's allowance, as it used to be called, was not meant to deal with it. The involvement of the State in child care is partly a 21st century phenomenon.

The Minister for Finance said it was the instrument for dealing with child care.

I take the view that child benefit is directed at families as an income support. Child care is a broader issue. Child benefit may contribute to addressing child care needs but it is not the only answer.

Not any answer.

I know the Senator has done much work in this area. Child care has many aspects. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform recently announced that it has substantial funds available to lead a child care programme. The Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Finance and I need to work together to ensure there is an integrated child care strategy available to the State.

Fraud was mentioned. In 2003, savings of €306 million were achieved through the very good work of over 600 full-time staff who conducted over 320,000 reviews. They examined the files of over 7,500 employers. These figures indicate that we are committed to eliminating fraud from the system. We want to do so for the obvious reason that it will enable more money to be allocated to genuine people.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service was alluded to. This year, it has €13.62 million available to it, which is an increase of €2.2 million on the previous year. I have given the service a special grant of €700,000 to make up for last year's apparent deficit of €700,000.

I have taken careful note of the points made by Senators Burke, Ormonde and Kitt and will deal with them as best I can. Senator Mansergh has upended one marvellous myth in the Seanad tonight, namely, that Seán Lemass is not on record as having made the famous statement that a rising tide lifts all boats. I am sure many a quotation is ascribed to Shakespeare that cannot be found in his literature. If one reads carefully what I said in the Dáil when I took up office as Minister for Social and Family Affairs, one will note that I stated I disagreed with Seán Lemass. A rising tide does not lift all boats and one has to intervene. I agree with Senator Mansergh that Mr. Lemass was an interventionist and intervened in many areas of the economy. He believed in intervening where necessary, as I do, not for the sake of it or to produce the planned economy which has not been too successful in parts of eastern Europe but to lift boats that are not rising. Senator Mansergh also stated that social welfare policy should be made by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and not by the Department of Finance. I plan to make certain of this during my tenure.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 16 December 2004.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.