Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Tuesday, 13 Jun 2006

Vote 38 — Social and Family Affairs (Revised).

This meeting has been convened for the purpose of the consideration by this committee of Revised Estimates for 2006 — Vote 38 — for the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I welcome the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, and his officials. With the agreement of members, we will operate according to the timetable circulated, unless we make greater progress. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I call on the Minister to make his opening statement.

I thank the committee for convening to consider the Revised Estimates for my Department. Total expenditure on social welfare will expand from €12.2 billion last year to €13.6 billion this year, an increase of €1.4 billion or 12%. That expenditure, the highest ever, will form approximately 28% of gross Government spending and more than 9.4% of GNP. Every week payments are made to 960,000 people, while some 545,000 families receive monthly child benefit payments. This money is spent on those who need our support, including children, carers, the elderly, those who are ill and the unemployed.

The annual budget is the main instrument for social welfare spending. Last year's budget focused on improving the circumstances of older people by providing them with a decent income, on removing the blemish of child poverty, aiding lone parents and supporting carers.

The committee will be aware of the social agenda I am pursuing, at the core of which is an active rather than a passive social welfare system. That active approach to social welfare support systems informs everything I do in the Department and I think the committee is supportive of my agenda. The budget process for 2006 provided an additional €1.4 billion to address disadvantage among the aforementioned groups. My Department provides a safety net for thousands of people. We must remain flexible and sensitive in developing policies.

I am determined to meet the challenges of 21st century Ireland, as is the committee, by being creative and innovative, looking after carers, developing strong initiatives and rewarding employment and enterprise. This was the philosophy behind the improvements in the budget last year. The lowest rate of social welfare was increased by €17, or 11.4%. This increased the payment to €165.80, with proportionate increases in the qualified adult allowance. Means-tested old age pensions were increased by €16 to €182 and the contributory pension was increased by €14 to €193. I deliberately increased the non-contributory pension by an additional amount for the first time to improve the position of those benefiting from that payment.

The lower rate of child benefit increased by €8.40 and the higher rate by €7.70. This increased the rates to €150 and €185, fulfilling the Government's child benefit commitment. Fuel allowance was increased by €5 per week, as requested by the committee. We allocated €42 million to the budget strategy on fuel allowances. Maternity benefit was increased to 80% of reckonable earnings.

The Government is committed to increasing the basic State pension to €200 by 2007. At €193 in respect of the contributory pension, it stands close to that figure at present.

The budget package focused on carers and on 1 June the respite care grant increased from €1,000 to €1,200. I hope to run an information campaign for carers to highlight the availability of the scheme. This campaign will be similar to the recent campaign relating to family income supplement. Hopefully, this will attract more people to the scheme. Income disregards for carer's allowances have increased to €580 per couple. Other changes have also been made to the carer's allowance programme. Older carers are now entitled to an allowance of €200 per week, the largest single allowance paid by the Department. This is appropriate in light of the valuable work they do. One of the changes we made was to allow those in receipt of the payment to work for 15 hours per week outside the home. This was increased from ten hours per week, allowing the carers to mix with others and have balance in their lives.

We introduced a number of tapering arrangements. We are trying to encourage people to work by bridging the gap between welfare and work. A tapered withdrawal rate for disability allowance was introduced, with a 50% withdrawal of earnings between €60 and €90 for persons in receipt of rent and mortgage allowances. The spouse's income disregard was also increased, from €88 to €100 per week and an increase of €30 to €250 for entitlements to a tapered qualified adult allowance. Family income supplement, a scheme to which I am committed, was also modified. As a result, the payment to a family with four children has increased by €64 per week while the payment to a family with six children has increased by €117 per week.

The period one must have been on the live register in order to access the back to work or back to enterprise allowance has decreased to two years. The tapering and the improvement of disregards is designed to bridge the gap between welfare and work. I will continue to pursue that approach.

I was particularly pleased with one reform that we were able to complete this year, namely, the increase in the weekly means disregard to €20 per week from €7.60 for pensioners. The latter figure dated back to the late 1970s and I introduced a special earnings disregard of €100 per week to replace it. The thinking behind that was quite simple, namely, to allow pensioners do some work without having their pensions curtailed. As a direct result, over 30,000 pensioners who were on partial payments will now be entitled to full payments and will receive increases.

Overall, it is worth reminding ourselves that in eight or nine years the taxpayer has invested heavily in the social welfare area, from a figure of €5.7 billion to one of €13.6 billion. The figure has doubled in that period. That is a significant amount of investment by the taxpayer in respect of people who need support and also children and young people. In a period of eight or nine years, there have been substantial increases. The old age contributory pension, for example, increased by 95% at a time when inflation was approximately 40%. The same has been the case across the board, although I will not go into all the areas.

At present, most of our money is being spent on old age pensioners, widows, one-parent families, child-related payments, child benefits, illness and disability payments, caring, employment support schemes, free schemes, supplementary welfare allowance, treatment benefits, etc. The €13.6 billion is spread across all of those areas.

The largest single category is child benefit, for which €2 billion is provided. The next largest category is the one-parent family payment, for which €847 million is provided. The third largest category is disability allowance, for which €737 million is provided. Obviously, supplementary welfare allowance comes next, at €734 million, and then unemployment assistance, at €742 million.

Of the €13.6 billion in expenditure from the Department, over €6.6 billion comes from the social insurance fund. I mention this so that the committee will be aware of its source.

I am merely making initial comments. Full details of the Revised Estimates are contained in my script. The matters to which I refer merely struck me as pertinent.

In line with the timetable, we will deal with the Revised Estimate under the various subheads. That is a more efficient way to proceed. The first subheads we will examine are those relating to administration, subheads A1 to A11.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Brennan, and his officials. I thank the him for the briefing notes.

I will begin with an overview of the Minister's philosophy and policy. While my party agrees with the Minister's stated intentions, his overall philosophy is possibly flawed. By ignoring what many commentators across Europe and in this country say about poverty, the Minister is starting from a flawed base. If he disregards relative income poverty, as he has on many occasions, he immediately consigns a considerable number of people to what he calls the safety net of the State. At a time when we never had so much money, ever-increasing numbers of people are relying on the State to survive. Whereas the Minister stated that relative income poverty does not matter, I put it to him that it matters a great deal if, as illustrated by figures from the Combat Poverty Agency, the EU and other agencies, the gap between the very well off and the very poor continues to widen and deepen under his administration.

Not only has the Minister failed to grasp this matter, he dismissed its relevance on more than one occasion. Would he agree that it is time to examine the disparity between the increasing number of people who rely on State support as a safety net and those who are extremely wealthy? We should be trying to bridge that gap by helping people to help themselves, rather than continuing to offer safety nets and little else. Government policies should start to take account of the gap, which seems to be growing wider.

In 2005, a saving of €6 million was made under the terms of the administrative budget agreement. However, the early child care supplement scheme, which is administered by the Department on an agency basis for the Office of the Minister for Children, was estimated at €6 million. The qualifying criteria for the early child care supplement scheme and for child benefit are the same, so children under the age of six who receive child benefit will also receive the child care supplement. The Minister might explain why the scheme will cost €6 million to administer. According to subhead A1, the salary costs relating to the implementation of the scheme are €1.44 million, while an increase in postal costs is also noted. Subhead A7 makes reference to consultancy services in respect of the implementation of the scheme. Can the Minister indicate the nature of these consultancy services, the cost for which increased from €3.8 million to €11.5 million? In light of the fact that the eligibility criteria are the same, €6 million could have been saved by simply increasing child benefits because the consultancy fees and postage and overtime costs would not have been incurred. A great deal of money has been wasted because of the way in which the scheme was implemented.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, issued letters to advise people about the scheme but 4,500 of these were returned. I presume that the people concerned were identified through the database of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and are currently in receipt of child benefit. The Minister of State maintains that significant savings stand to be made in respect of recipients of child benefit who are no longer residing at the addresses supplied to the Department. Can the Minister clarify that matter? It seems that the savings, which could amount to €8 million, will only accrue if payments are discontinued. Will that be the case? The return of 4,500 letters is a serious matter and threatens to turn the scheme into yet another debacle.

The Minister of State spent €750,000 on informing people about the allowance. Was that money provided through the postage budget for the Department of Social and Family Affairs or did it come from the Office of the Minister for Children? If it did, that would mean more money was spent. Changes in IT are necessary to make the payment. Much administrative and additional work is involved in this but could have been avoided.

Will the Minister provide an update on the decentralisation programme? The section dealing with the one parent family payment has been decentralised. What other sections, if any, dealing with other payments will be decentralised? What is involved in phase 2 of service delivery modernisation? How many more phases will there be? I raised this matter last year when the programme cost €4.9 million. What programmes are being implemented in the regions?

Home travel costs have increased by 32%, attributed mainly to travel and subsistence costs in anti-fraud activity. This arises from a commitment to undertake a number of fraud surveys. When will these take place? Are they specific to certain payments or schemes? Last March the Minister informed me that 600 members of staff were employed in anti-fraud activities and 80 in special education units. Are these figures correct and up to date? The money recouped is greater than the amount lost in recent years but there have been few prosecutions. Does the excess consist of fines?

Advertising, cleaning services and conference costs have increased by 186%. We sought increased awareness of the family income supplement. Is the cost of other campaigns included in the advertising figure of €300,000? Is the cost of the advertising campaign for the early childhood scheme, €250,000, included, or was it funded by another Department?

Will the Minister explain how telecommunications costs have increased by 74%? Will he provide a breakdown of the increase of 195% in payments for consultancy services? Will he also explain the overpayment in the debt management project? Will he provide additional information on service delivery modernisation and the document recorded information management project?

In the Estimates debate last year the Minister advised that 31% of payments were made by electronic funds transfer, 11% by cheque and 58% via the post office. What are the current figures? Has the number of payments by electronic funds transfer increased? Has there been a change in the manner in which contracts are awarded to An Post? A debate took place on how the European Commission would view this. The development of the Reach services website was expected to be completed by the middle of this year. Will it be similar to the website www.oasis.gov.ie? Will the Minister describe the public service identity service and consumer object development and the public service card? When will the latter be introduced? The Minister stated discussions on ensuring consistency in standards were under way with the Department of Finance. I look forward to finding out more about this.

No figure has been provided for the second tier payment which the Minister has been flagging for some time. When I raised the matter last year, he stated he was working with the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, in considering whether child dependant assistance and family income supplement should be amalgamted. At that point he had met it twice and was making steady progress, despite the serious issues that had to be reconciled. Will he update us and elaborate on the serious issues involved?

Last year the Minister stated there were 263,000 recipients of child dependant assistance, with 93,000 of these at half rate. Will he update this information? How many children are included? Up to 333,000 could be involved. Are no new claimants being accepted for pre-retirement allowance?

Deputy Stanton has raised valid questions which I will go through as quickly as possible and will then return to the detail, if he wishes.

I would never want to be quoted as stating relative poverty does not matter. I am determined that in tackling poverty we focus on something and the issue on which to focus is consistent poverty. No matter how one measures it, all the studies show that the level is approximately 6%. However, the figure for relative poverty is high, at 19%, 21% or 22%. For example, the other day I saw an OECD chart which showed the United States as almost the poorest country in the world in terms of relative poverty. Nobody believes this, although there is poverty in the United States.

Relative poverty is a measure on which I would like the academics to work and produce more research but in tackling poverty my first responsibility is to deal with the hard core consistent poverty level of 6% or so. Given that the figures for relative poverty are so large and that the concept is unproven, I suggest it is a substantial distraction for policymakers to be hauled down the road of tackling it at the same time. The relative poverty index is more about lifestyle than poverty, a point I have made publicly on many occasions. According to departmental figures, in the past decade 250,000 people, including 100,000 children, have been lifted from consistent poverty. We are making good progress in tackling poverty but it would a distraction to have to start trying to deal with a definition covering 25% of the population.

The Government considered addressing the issue of early child care supplement through child benefit. That would also have involved costs, although perhaps not of the scale of the set up costs of approximately €6 million we are incurring in taking this route. However, it is a better route to take because a separate system targeted at child care is being set up. It is not meant to be the same as child benefit. This money is meant to specifically repay individuals for the time and energy they put into child care. In addition, given the enormous demand for child care places, the country is entitled to a transparent child care payments system which may be amended without interfering with child benefit.

Although I cannot confirm for Deputy Stanton that 4,500 letters were returned, each time my Department writes to those on its database, as it does from time to time about new schemes, it receives valuable information, as anyone in the political world who sends a circular to a couple of thousand houses will know. It discovers the names it got wrong, the households that are empty, etc. Although I cannot confirm the figure, I did see it in the media. If it is correct, it would not surprise me. There are 350,000 qualifying children for the BCS in 259,000 families. If one wrote to each of those 259,000 families, a return rate of about 4,500 might not be unusual. Every one of those 4,500 letters will be examined to see if there is information the Department can glean from it.

If the Minister's correspondence to the electorate was returned, he would not be happy.

But it does.

Not to the same extent.

The point made by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was that when one wrote to a large number of people, one received useful information such as that the house was empty, there were new residents, or the people concerned had moved away.

The people concerned must have been in receipt of child benefit payments because otherwise they would not have received the letter. For how long have they been paid? Is the electronic funds transfer system failing in some manner? Does the same issue arise in other schemes? At least 4,500 child benefit recipients live at addresses unknown to the Department. They may have left the country, changed address or be dead. How can they be traced if their addresses are not known?

The Department's anti-fraud section is powerful and very active. Each of the 4,500 people concerned, if that is the correct figure, will be investigated to ensure fraud is prevented. That is the ongoing responsibility of the Department in this and many other schemes. We conduct surveys to elicit this information and act on any issues that arise.

As regards the figure of €6 million, €1.6 million of this money is spent on pay, €20,000 on travel and subsistence payments, €555,000 on incidentals, including training, €320,000 on postage and telephone charges, €525,000 on computers, machinery, photocopiers, equipment and stationery, and €40,000 on premises, furniture, energy and maintenance costs. Some €2.2 million is spent on consultancy fees in respect of information technology. Bering Point, the consultancy company which developed the original child benefit computer system for the Department, is adding a system for the child care supplement scheme at a cost of €2.2 million. We are all becoming aware of the extraordinarily high costs associated with information technology. We intend to begin payment of the first part of the child care supplement in August and to pay the remainder in December. It will then be paid on a quarterly basis.

The Department has been substantially decentralised, with almost 50% of staff located outside Dublin. The sections dealing with pensions and one parent families are based in Sligo and with people with a disability in Longford. Other offices are located throughout the country. It is proposed to transfer 300 staff to Drogheda, 120 to Buncrana, 230 to Donegal, 225 to Carrick-on-Shannon and 100 to Sligo. The Combat Poverty Agency, with 25 staff, is to be transferred to Monaghan and Comhairle, with 85 staff, to Carrickmacross. Under the current programme, it is proposed to decentralise a total of 1,085 staff.

The Department has been informed by the OPW that a site has been purchased in Buncrana to accommodate a new local office. The completion date for construction is 2009. The OPW has indicated its intention to take accommodation in a new town development in Carrickmacross, the completion date for which is late 2008. Construction work in Carrick-on-Shannon is well advanced and the OPW has indicated that the building will be ready for occupation in early 2007. Staff assignments have commenced but the matter has been complicated by the fact that the majority of applicants are based outside Dublin, mainly in the Department's Sligo and Longford offices. Work on the extension to the pensions service office in Sligo is under way and estimated to be completed by 2007. It was decided to fast-track the relocation of the section dealing with supplementary welfare allowance to Sligo and some 15 staff members were relocated in July 2005. The assignment of staff to other sections in Sligo is advanced and all sections will be staffed in time for the move in early 2007. The programme which is moving ahead is part of the overall decentralisation programme under the auspices of the general Government committee.

Deputy Stanton asked about the home travel budget, which it is proposed to increase by 32%, from €3.5 million to €4.6 million. This is due to support initiatives rolled out in the regions. In addition, a more targeted approach will be taken to control activity. In this context, we have made a commitment to undertake fraud surveys this year. Expansion of the investigator's role in debt management, personal public service number allocation and an increased emphasis on home visits are also planned, contributing to the increase in respect of home travel.

Another question was related to family income supplement. The campaign to promote the supplement cost €300,000. Approximately 5,000 applications will be received. While one cannot attribute these directly to the campaign, many will hear about the supplement without applying for it.

In 2005, 440 cases of fraud were passed to the Office of the Chief State Solicitor for prosecution. Some 270 cases were finalised in 2005 with a variety of penalties imposed. At the end of that year 922 cases were awaiting finalisation in court. In response to the value for money evaluation of control activity undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2003 the Department will develop new performance indicators to measure fraud in the social welfare system. The rate of fraud in the disability allowance scheme is 2.3%; in respect of child benefit, 2.3% and family income supplement, 0.9%. There is also an error rate, amounting to 9.8% in respect of disability allowances and 1.6% for family income supplement. I do not have the error rate for the child benefit scheme but it seems to be zero. The fraud and error figures can be combined, depending on one's view of fraud and the level of error.

Some 329,000 claims were reviewed in 2005 as part of the anti-fraud strategy. In addition, some 5,500 inspections of employer records were carried out. Overall savings from these control activities amounted to €406 million. Of this, €395 million was attributable to claim reviews and €9 million to arrears of PRSI and PAYE.

Deputy Stanton also referred to consultancy payments. The Estimate for consultancy fees in subhead A.7 is €11.4 million. The proposed increase of €3.8 million is skewed by fact that the provision for 2005 was €8 million. We spent half of this amount, giving the impression that there is an increase of 195% but that is not the case. If we had spend the sum of €8 million in 2005, we would have sought an increase in the figure from €8 million to €11 million. Instead, it appears as if there is an increase in the figure from €4 million to €11 million. There was a variety of reasons for not making the investment last year, some of which were related to IT. Members will appreciate that we must deal with it on the basis that it is provided. The increase relates to the implementation of the new early child care supplement, that is, the €2.25 million about which I was asked, the bringing forward of the implementation date of the overpayments and debt management system from 2007 to quarter three of 2006, the carrying forward of savings on the service delivery modernisation system from 2005 into 2006 and the allocation of €1 million to enable progress to be made on document, records and information management programmes.

Virtually all of my consultancy budget is spent on information technology. There are one or two other small items, such as a medical referral assessment review costing €169,000, and, although it comes under the miscellaneous subhead, an approximate figure of €300,000 that the Department pays to the ESRI for an ongoing programme of social research. The latter item is not included in consultancy for historical reasons but it is listed under the miscellaneous subhead. Other than that, the Department does not employ consultants other than IT consultants and the ESRI.

I welcome the Minister. At the outset, I wish to record my appreciation of the service provided by the officials in the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It is excellent and is comparable with the best of the Departments. If, as no doubt is the case, the service provided to Deputies is also being provided to the general public, it reflects well on the Department and its staff.

On subhead A7, consultancy service, the Minister stated in response that some of last year's money was not used. Where is that shown in the Revised Estimate? In subhead A7, the outturn for 2005 was as predicted. Although I stand open to correction, it is not stated anywhere that €4 million was not utilised. Perhaps the Minister would clarify the matter.

The 2005 Revised Estimate volume showed a figure under subhead A7 of €8 million. That is what we intended to spend in 2005. When we finally obtained a figure for what the Department did in 2005, the actual expenditure — known as the outturn — came to €3.894 million. That is what happened in 2005. In 2006, we require €11.492 million. That is an increase of €7.5 million, €4 million of which we are planning to spend in 2006 and were not in a position to spend in 2005 because the systems were not mature enough to do so. It is purely an issue of timing.

In the context of all the consultancy services in the IT area, is the Minister satisfied that the equipment being provided in all the offices throughout the country is up to date and of the best standard?

On subhead A8, is the Minister expecting an extraordinary epidemic to hit the country because he appears to be expecting an increase in the volume of medical certificates and reports required? In this regard, could he outline the payments made to certifiers, that is, general practitioners? How much does a doctor receive per certificate issued? In that context, are detailed negotiations ongoing and does the Minister expect a significant increase in the payments relating to issuing medical certificates?

I commend the Minister and his officials on the work they do for the elderly and those who are less well off. I welcome the increase in the carer's respite grant.

We are discussing a different subhead. The Deputy, if he does not object, may speak later about the matter he raised.

I will discuss it later.

I join colleagues in expressing appreciation for the work of the Department's staff. I have regular dealings with officials based in Longford, Sligo and Letterkenny, all of whom are forthcoming and helpful. They represent a good advertisement for the objectives of decentralisation. I have never had to table a parliamentary question in this area because they have always responded promptly and courteously to my inquiries. I do not doubt that the Department has taken customer care to a new level because the people with whom I have had dealings go out of their way to ensure good service.

As someone from a rural background, the Minister will be aware of the importance of pensions and social welfare allowances to rural post offices. However, these post offices are under threat. I was not surprised to read in a Sunday newspaper that a shop disappears every day. That is a frightening indictment of the system. We are sleepwalking away from rural Ireland and into a disaster zone. I urge the Minister not to contribute in any way to this process because the cheapest may not be the best in terms of overall quality of life. Fancy supermarkets are all well and good but these are located in major urban centres and are only open during certain hours. My local rural shop is open from 7.30 a.m. until 9 p.m. but, as is the case with rural post offices, the owner will open at 8 a.m. or 10 p.m if a customer needs to buy a pint of milk. Some owners are even prepared to make deliveries to elderly people.

We have decided to divest ourselves of those values but we will regret the price we will be obliged to pay for centralising everything. I ask the Minister to prevent his Department from participating in this process by ensuring that An Post continues to make social assistance payments. The electronic transfer system was established somewhat hastily and, while I understand the Minister's intentions, he is forcing many people into the clutches of greedy banks that will impose charges for walking through the door and for saying hello or goodbye.

I do not wish to see these institutions benefiting from the electronic transfer of funds. People appreciate the tactile element and the social aspect of walking into a post office. I refer, in particular, to post offices in rural areas, where everyone knows each other and where one person could provide another with a lift home, if required. In these areas, the postman or postwoman fulfils an important role in social discourse, such as delivering the local newspaper. There is European pressure to remove this function from An Post but I urge the Minister to resist it in whatever legal format he can devise. Many people are trying to impose the European model on us but, as a Deputy representing a rural constituency, I resist and resent the application of a one size fits all policy. We should not follow this route. I seek the Minister's assurance that his Department will support An Post in its provision of these payments. It is important that An Post should keep its doors open to members of the general public, particularly elderly people in rural areas. It is an essential service but it is also vital in social terms.

Deputy Seán Ryan asked about medical certificates. The cost for issuing a medical certificate is €8.25 and the cost of a medical report is €44.44.

Does it cost €44.44? Are such reports part of the appeals system?

They are ordinary medical reports. A total of 2.5 million medical certificates and 60,000 reports were required by the Department. The statutory basis for these payments is set out in section 280 of the Social Welfare Act, which provides that the Minister may arrange for the issuing of medical certificates free of charge and that the expenses incurred shall not exceed such sums as may be agreed between the Minister for Finance and himself. The 2006 Estimate is €29.15 million. This covers the cost of paying doctors for the issuing of medical certificates and the completion of medical reports in respect of illness, disability and carer schemes administered by the Department. The sum has increased by €5.5 million because we have made provision for an estimated increase in the level of fees payable to doctors, including possible arrears, for the completion of medical certificates and reports. This also takes account of the growth in the insured population. The Department's agreement with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, for the payment of fees expired on 30 June 2004 but fees continue to be paid while a new agreement is being negotiated. Both sides agreed to an approach suggested by the Labour Relations Commission.

Regarding the chairman's comments on An Post, 55% of customers choose to receive payments through local post offices, 9% are paid by cheque through the postal system and 36% have chosen to be paid by electronic transfer to a bank or building society. Some 54% of those in receipt of the old age contributory pension, which will be referred to as the State contributory pension from September, choose to receive it by electronic funds transfer. The corresponding figure for non-contributory pensioners is 13%. This reinforces the point made by the Chairman. One can see there is almost a cultural divide. It shows what is happening. The divide is also probably rural Ireland based. Those statistics are of the full stock of people.

Some 67% of new applicants for contributory pensions and for child benefit have chosen to be paid directly to their bank accounts. Although 54% of persons in receipt of the contributory pension have chosen to receive payment through their local post offices, the figure has jumped to 67% in the case of new applicants. Customers are voting with their feet and the choice must be theirs.

The State is the largest single customer of An Post. We are well aware of our responsibility to do everything possible to keep the network open and alive everywhere in the country. This Department, in particular, appreciates the extent to which the post offices are a social network for people but, as the committee can see, members of the public are increasingly making their own minds up about how they want to be paid. There are security issues involved also.

The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and I met the post office workers' unions, the Irish Postmasters' Union and management on one or two occasions in the past year and we discussed all this with them. I have stated that I will do what I can, within what is available to me, to support the post office network as best I can. I stress that 67% of new applicants opted to be paid directly to their bank accounts.

I thank all Deputies who complimented the staff of the Department. Needless to say, I fully agree with that assessment.

I asked three questions on that subhead which have not been answered yet. First, I asked whether the issue of the EU Commission's involvement in the awarding of contracts to An Post has been resolved. Many sub-postmasters are working for well below the minimum wage and are under terrible pressure. If they are forced out of business, there will be fewer outlets for social welfare customers to get payments even if they choose to go that route. I understand quite a number of post offices have closed. Where post offices are closing and there is no post office in an area, it may leave people no choice but to opt for the electronic fund transfer method. There is a knock-on effect which the Government should consider.

The other issue I mentioned was Reach, the information society and the development of the website. Will the Minister tell us a little about that and what it will do?

What about the e-government related projects? What is the public services card and what is its purpose?

A hearing of the EU case took place in Luxembourg on 4 April 2006. On a date to be confirmed, the advocate general to the court will give an opinion on the case in the coming months. The court will later provide the final decision. The advocate general's opinion is usually indicative of the court's decision but, of course, the court may take a different view. That is the current position on the EU case, a hearing took place and we are awaiting a date for an opinion to be given.

What is the Government's position on the case? Was the Government represented at that hearing or did it put forward a case?

Between August 2002 and February 2003 the legal arguments continued. In 2003, the DG Internal Market made a formal proposal to the legal service to refer the case to the European Court of Justice. The Chief State Solicitor's Office, following consultation with the Department and the Attorney General, lodged defence papers with the court on 20 February 2004. In short, the Government has taken the view all along that we try to continue our arrangement with An Post. That is our position. We want to continue the arrangement we have with An Post. It is not actually a contract; it is an arrangement.

Deputy Stanton asked about Reach. As he will be aware, Reach involves more than my Department. This is a project that has been given to my Department to manage but it is a cross-Government initiative. The Estimate for 2006 is €11.5 million, whereas the outturn for 2005 was €14.3 million. The substantive element of the building and development programme commenced in 2004.

The implementation of Reach will provide a single point of access, via a website, for personal and business customers of on-line services provided by agencies throughout the public sector, for example, the Revenue Commissioners and the General Register Office. During May and August 2005, Reach deployed a production level site, www.reachservices.ie, as an integration and messaging framework, with personal account, case management and secure identity authentication capabilities. The service will provide a quick, secure and reliable exchange of data between relevant agencies and will, therefore, allow for the speedier provision of services. It will also provide for a reduced dependence on paper forms. The current phase of development will conclude in mid-2006, at which point phase 1 of the project will be fully functional and will offer a number of additional services, including identity management for on-line Revenue and PAYE services.

As is common with many information technology projects, consultants and review groups have proposed a number of additional functions. However, once the project is completed, we will have a very fine service. I have asked my Department to examine the project carefully and to compile a report with regard to its future use.

I ask the Minister to outline the provisions for a public service card.

This refers to the SAFE programme and public service identity numbers. The Department has a broad role in supporting the use of PPS numbers across Departments.

I am asking about subhead A11, which relates to the public service card.

The SAFE programme was established to progress the development of a standard for a public service card. During 2006, work will be done on the development of a unified registration service and the functional specification of a new public service card. The Department is committed to the introduction of this card in 2007 in order to provide easier access to public services for customers. The main area of work in 2006 will be the development of a national identity management and privacy protection policy.

Three projects are ongoing in the area of e-government, namely, the SAFE programme, the public service identity service and the central records system, which will establish information technology systems for centralised records.

We will now discuss subheads B to X.

On subhead D, will the Minister indicate the status of the second tier payment. With regard to subhead E, unemployment assistance, the NESC report, the Developmental Welfare State, criticised the high level of long-term dependency on social assistance payments. The new parental allowance boards make reference to the fact that parents can at present receive one-parent family payment for a maximum of 22 months.

Only €120,000 is invested in employment support services, even though many people are availing of back to education and back to work schemes. Perhaps increased investment in employment support services would defray the cost of long-term social assistance for the unemployed.

Can the Minister advise if the pre-retirement allowance scheme is no longer accepting new claimants? What specific employment support is available to those over 55 years of age?

Under subhead L, the Estimates provide for an average of 17,500 recipients of the family income supplement, an increase of 1,800 on last year. Does this refer to the number of new families eligible following the raising of income limits? That does not appear to be a large increase in light of the national media campaign to raise awareness as a result of the estimate that only 33% of eligible families avail of the scheme. More work must be done in respect of this matter. Some 45,000 families should be classed as working poor, suffering relative income poverty or consistent poverty. Has the Minister further plans to assist the working poor to ensure the family income supplement is available to them? Is he satisfied that the maximum number of eligible people are in receipt of it?

The rent supplement scheme, subhead N, has increased out of proportion. The Minister referred to criticism of the operation of this scheme in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report for 2006. Over €51 million will be given to community welfare officers for administration of the supplementary welfare allowance, in addition to the €19 million allocated last year and this year for the rental accommodation scheme. Can the Minister provide an update on this scheme, under which it was hoped that 5,000 recipients would be housed? In fact, only 550 were initially housed under the scheme. In the first quarter of this year, only 800 were housed. It is obvious that the scheme is not working to the extent that was originally envisaged. The Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out that when rents decreased the Department's payments did not reflect this. Could the Department, as a result of the shortage of social housing, be responsible for the increases in rents and house prices?

There are proposals to transfer community welfare officers to the Minister's Department. Will this result in changes to working arrangements or patterns?

Subhead R refers to funds for the money advice and budgetary service, in which there is an increase of 21% to further develop the service. What are the Minister's plans to do so? Can the Minister provide a breakdown of the Estimate of €16 million? What is happening as a result of it and how many people have been assisted? Has a review been carried out in respect of its effectiveness?

Subhead U, grant to Comhairle, shows an increase of 16%. We are still awaiting the Comhairle Bill. I do not believe the committee is delaying it. Does the Minister have plans to bring it forward this year? What is the cost of rebranding the citizens information service and when will the latter take place?

Subhead W refers to the school meals scheme. The allocation thereunder has increased by €2 million. In this year's Estimate, the allocation to local school meals projects is €9 million, with a further €1.3 million provided for the urban and Gaeltacht school meals scheme. Is the full allocation for the school meals scheme expended each year? Some of it was returned to the Department several years ago.

Subhead W also relates to funding for the national pensions awareness campaign and an additional €500,000 has been allocated for this year. Has this campaign worked?

As the Minister indicated, the social insurance fund continues to be self-financing, with an estimated surplus of almost €380 million. Receipts under reciprocal arrangements are estimated to decrease by 54%. Will the Minister explain the reason for this? The estimated number of people permanently off work due to illness or disabilities appears to be high.

On subhead N, I refer again to rent supplement and a difficulty arising as a result of mortgage interest payments. I am aware of a number of people who are living in poverty due to particular family circumstances. The families in question have lived in their houses for a long time but receive only interest relief on their mortgage. This causes great hardship, albeit for a minority of people. When one considers the benefits available to those living in rented accommodation, those who have mortgages are not given a fair crack of the whip as mortgage interest relief amounts to a small amount of money. I ask the Minister to examine this issue.

I wish to highlight a practice engaged in by firms of estate agents in certain areas, some of which are located in my constituency. This involves increasing the rent of a house or apartment when it emerges that the prospective tenant is in receipt of rent supplement. I have personal experience of this scandalous practice from telephone calls I have made to estate agents. It is unacceptable to the State that cowboys are policing schemes. I ask that the matter be addressed.

As the Minister has noted on several occasions, the working poor and those living in private rented accommodation who wish to work cannot secure a local authority house. Although he has taken some measures to address this issue, it might be worthwhile to allow those in receipt of social welfare payments to work eight or ten hours per week. This income could then be taken into consideration with a view to enabling the people in question to secure accommodation. While I accept that the Minister has made some changes, they do not go far enough and further adjustments are required.

On the free travel scheme, I welcome steps taken by the Department and the Department of Transport to require transport companies to allow those availing of the scheme to access public transport at peak times in the morning and evening. I hope further action can be taken in this regard.

In light of how helpful it is for elderly people to carry a mobile telephone, does the Minister plan to extend the telephone allowance scheme to mobile telephones?

How effective is the pilot rental accommodation scheme? Will it work? While I am aware the scheme is still in its infancy, what has been the feedback to date? I have reservations about whether it will work in some larger population centres.

I note that respite care grants have increased by 33%, from €1,000 to €1,200. This is a welcome measure, as is the increase of 31% in the general allocation for carers. A vast improvement has been achieved in this area in recent years. The discard of €580 for a married couple has resulted in many more people qualifying for carer's allowance. Previously, virtually everyone with an income automatically became ineligible for carer's allowance. I heartily welcome recent changes in this regard, particularly given the committee's consistent work on behalf of carers. I hope the current trend continues.

I also welcome the provision to allow those in receipt of pensions, including the widow's or widower's pension, to earn €100 without it impacting on their benefits. Many of those retiring at 65 or 66 years cannot be considered old in view of the lifestyles they lead. The new disregard is particularly welcome in the case of widows and widowers. It was unfair that a widow on a contributory pension whose children had not left home could earn as much as she liked without affecting her pension, while a widow in the same position but in receipt of a means tested widow's pension would have all income deducted from her pension. The introduction of the disregard is, therefore, welcome.

I also welcome the tapering of the earnings threshold for those in receipt of disability allowance. In addition to a disregard of €120, the means test now includes a tapered reduction in the disability allowance where the recipient earns between €120 and €250. This allows people with disabilities to increase their incomes and work more hours.

Finding employment is very difficult for many people with disabilities. We must discover ways to encourage employers to employ people with disabilities, many of whom are anxious to work. Employment also provides a good form of therapy for those with disabilities who are able to work.

Unemployment assistance for younger persons living in the family home is a hobby horse of mine. When a person aged under 27 years lives at home and applies for unemployment assistance, the means of his or her parents are taken into consideration in calculating the level of assistance. This practice needs to be reconsidered because it results in many young people moving out of the family home into rented accommodation in respect of which they receive rental allowance. In some cases, they even move into caravans and then qualify. A person aged 24 or 25 is independent of his or her parents and may not have much contact with or receive financial assistance from them. It is, therefore, an area that should be examined. I compliment the Minister and his staff on the great work they are doing. I welcome the decision to allow people to earn more and retain their entitlements. This is the best possible way to take people out of the poverty trap.

I welcome respite care grant of €1,200. This committee has strongly advocated the cause of carers in a sustained and progressive way. We should not be lauded for that. We only did our duty as public representatives. We have failed carers and abused them by our failure to recognise that they are working on the cheap. It is estimated that even though an allowance is paid — the Minister is trying to extend it to more people — carers save the State approximately €2 billion per year that would have to be paid out if everybody who is cared for at home was put into a nursing home at a cost of €600 or €700 a week. That is what people who are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes 52 weeks of the year save the State. That is why the respite care grant of €1,200 is very important. It is a small recognition of the work carers do.

Carers are not seeking the minimum wage. They are merely looking for acknowledgement of the tremendous service they are providing. Many of them do it out of love and affection for their loved ones. We have always argued that people are better off in their own homes. They are more comfortable in their own environment, with their neighbours and old friends dropping in, and that contributes to creating sustainable communities. We must ensure that the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Social and Family Affairs provide complementary services and bring them to the people. There is a model in Holland that is working very well. It involves the provision of what are called wraparound services. Although we are often criticised in the media for going on trips, we should, as a committee, travel to Holland to see how the model works and bring back the best aspects of it for the benefit the many people involved in caring. People in rural areas should not be forgotten just because they live outside the Pale.

I received a letter from a woman in Wexford to whom I spoke today. She is in her late 50s and is caring for her mother who is 87 and who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. The woman in question and her husband have organised their working hours as best they can. She works approximately 25 hours a week. She does not receive a carer's allowance and she accepts that. She would probably disagree with my view that carer's allowance should not be means tested. That is the Labour Party position on this matter. The Minister put forward very solid arguments in favour of the other side. I appreciate those arguments. I do not deny that, like my arguments, they have some validity.

Abolishing the means test for the carer's allowance would make it easier to administer. The allowance would still be a pittance but it would represent a recognition of the work people do. I spoke to the woman to whom I refer at length. She informed me she had reduced her working hours from 25 and that she did so for her mother — just as anyone present would do for his or her mother, father or in-laws — but she would love to get the €1,200 respite care grant, which would be a small morsel of recognition. I did not think too much about it when the number of hours a carer could work in paid employment was increased from ten to 15 from 1 June. That woman was not complaining or crying, she was, rather, making a serious point. Why should we deny her the respite care grant? People can work up to 15 hours and still receive carer's allowance, provided they meet the income criteria, but why should a woman of 57 or 58 years who works five hours a day and has an arrangement with her husband in looking after her elderly mother not receive the allowance? That family is ensuring its elderly relative lives out the rest of her life in her own home. Her quality of life is tremendous because her own family is looking after her. Given that she is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, she qualifies medically. She also qualifies on the basis of her age. The only deterrent to paying the €1,200 is that the carer works ten hours outside the limit. The Minister may reply that my plea, although not eloquent, is compassionate but that there must be limits. To that I reply — the Minister, being an accountant, will take this on board — it would cost much more if we had to find €600 or €700 a week to keep the woman in question in an institution. That would be very cheap. I believe that in Dublin one can pay €900 or €1,000 per week.

It would be €1,200 per week.

In the Westmeath and Longford area the figure is between €480 and €600. At €500 per week, it would come to more than €30,000 per year. It should be possible to find some mechanism, whereby the husband and wife in question who are doing the State a great service could be paid the respite care grant of €1,200 to buy in two weeks' respite care or whatever they want. It would be a morsel of recognition for their work.

The Minister has taken this subject to heart, as the committee acknowledges. He has made changes. It would be churlish of me as Opposition spokesperson not to acknowledge this. Therefore, I will not be churlish, as we must be fair to one another. There are enough people condemning us. However, we must find a way of dealing with this problem. The woman concerned came to me at 2.45 p.m. today and I tried to deal with the matter on the telephone. I was moved. This is a subject that would move anybody, unless they had a heart of stone. Having said that, we welcome the steps the Minister has taken but he needs to go further. The situation for carers is open-ended. Every day we encounter new difficulties. We can walk away but those at the coalface cannot escape. It often happens that in a short period the carer falls into a worse state of health than the caree as he or she tries to provide the necessary help and service.

Another topic dear to my heart relates to widows and widowers under the age of 45 years. It is the most vulnerable time for many. If one loses one's spouse or partner at that age, given that there may be two or three children, the schemes could be a vital crutch and of great benefit. I appeal to the Minister to examine the possibility of providing some help, even for a limited time, say, three or four years, while they get back on their feet and perhaps return to work — the Minister has recently incentivised this — when people are at their most vulnerable having lost a partner or loved one. Perhaps they have young children to care for, the bills mount and they have lost one income. We, therefore, need to reflect on the realities of the difficult circumstances in which people find themselves.

The free schemes include free travel which my colleague, Deputy Stagg, fought to make available to Irish people living in Britain, to whom the pre-1953 pension has been of significant benefit but free travel would be the icing on a cake they helped to make through their remittances. They would have preferred to remain in this country but the economic conditions of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s forced them to go abroad and help to build Britain, Australia and America. I am aware the Minister has good intentions in this matter but is experiencing a range of legal difficulties. His attempt to resolve the issue through the pre-1953 payments ran into difficulty in terms of legal provisions preventing discrimination between citizens of EU member states. We must continue to focus on this problem until we find a solution.

The Department's position on firemen does not seem to accord with the views of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We salute the work done by members of fire service in saving lives in the most difficult of circumstances. The importance of employing local people cannot be overstated. However, the social welfare system disagrees. Firemen have to be employed locally because they are required to respond within five minutes of being called, for example, to bog fires, a number of which have broken out in the midlands in recent days. However, if a fireman becomes unemployed, the Department of the Social and Family Affairs will demand that he actively seek work beyond the local area before paying unemployment benefit. It is all right to take this attitude in a big town but in a rural area there may only be two or three employers. I have encountered one such case of a refusal by the Department to pay unemployment benefit.

Regulations laid down by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government require firefighters to be within close contact. Proper training is required and not everybody can do this job. I could not become a firefighter tomorrow because it is a restricted and skilled occupation. Firefighters can face difficult and tragic situations. I want the Minister to ensure that his Department understands that these people are actively seeking employment within their local areas. Firefighters cannot be told, for example, to travel the ten miles from my home village of Ballinacargy to Mullingar because it would take 18 minutes — which is longer than the three to five minutes set down by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government — to return to Ballinacargy should a fire break out. Sometimes we lose the plot, with the result that joined-up government goes down the drain. On behalf of these firefighters, I appeal to the Minister to address this bureaucratic hurdle.

Firefighters seek jobs in their local areas that allow them to fulfil their duties. Employers accept the importance of this work because they realise they also may be obliged to seek help from the fire services. If it is true that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is placing these demands on firefighters, I call on the Minister to change the policy without delay. If we are obliged to pass a special regulation through the Dáil, we would have the support of all our colleagues in doing so. Paying lip service is no good. We must recognise the work done by members of this country's fire services, rather than placing unnecessary burdens on them. The Department is telling them to forget about their jobs in the emergency services and travel 15 miles to work, even though their fathers and grandfathers may also have been firefighters. Rules and regulations are often passed which pay little heed to rural Ireland. I speak as a person from a rural community and I am not ashamed to do so. For the sake of the people of Ireland, who have been well served by the fire services, I urge the Minister to change his Department's policy.

Deputy Stanton inquired about employment supports and FIS. This year, we will spend €120 million on a range of employment support services, including back to work allowances, part-time job incentive schemes, assistance towards training and business-related expenses, credit union loan guarantee schemes, grants for small projects, special payments for lone parents and the long-term unemployed and grants towards the development and promotion of second chance education opportunities. We have also introduced a range of back to work and education initiatives.

The Deputy also inquired about the proportion of people of working age in receipt of weekly social welfare payments. That has remained at a fairly constant level of 20% for the past 15 years, which is somewhat surprising in light of the strong growth in the economy during that period. The number of unemployed has fallen but the numbers of lone parents and people with disabilities have risen, which is partly the result of societal changes and improvements in social provisions such as the introduction of disability allowance and so on. In our attempts to get people back to work we have introduced tapering allowances and disregards. Let me give an example. A person in receipt of a rent allowance is allowed to hold on to 25% of the allowance for up to four years following his or her return to work. As Deputy Callanan stated, all our social policies, whether for people with disabilities, lone parents or the elderly, are informed by the benefit people derive from being back at work. We are trying to design the system by using tapering allowances, disregards and means-testing to ensure the transition from welfare to work is smooth.

Family income supplement, FIS, to which Deputy Stanton alludes, is a major instrument of the system. We currently have 18,737 claims in payment and another 5,127 in hand, making a total of 23,000 claimants. Of the 5,127 claims in hand, 2,574 are first time claims, while the remaining 2,553 are renewed claims. The current average weekly payment is €111. This year to date we have received almost 6,000 new claims, an increase of 89% compared with the figure for the same period last year. In the case of renewals, we have received 9,000 claims, an increase of 31% compared with the figure for the same period last year. Family income supplement is a very important instrument in helping those on low pay not to slip back into the welfare system.

Deputy Stanton was interested in the comments of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the rent allowance scheme. The Comptroller and Auditor General shared my concern about the increasing numbers claiming under the scheme but the increase in population and other factors account for this. His main criticism of the Department, to which we responded, was that at a particular moment we could have reduced the cap but decided not to do so. When one looks at a graph of rents during a ten year period, one sees the volatility of the market, with its peaks and valleys. Our response has been to hold a steady line as we make up almost 40% of the rental market. We wanted to keep it capped in order that we would not be chopping and changing every couple of weeks. We have been able to convince others that by holding a steady line we have managed to do our part to hold down rents.

The correct answer is the rental assistance scheme, in which Deputy Stanton was also interested. The provisional figures at the end of May showed that almost 1,200 tenants had been accommodated under the scheme and that a further 600 had been provided with a local authority house. I transferred €19 million in 2005 and will transfer a further €19 million this year. In recent days I have had a lengthy meeting with the Minister and Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government to see how we can speed up the process and make more progress on the rental assistance arrangement. We have also been looking at whether some of the money could be used in a mortgage support system for those on welfare but as of now we have not made much progress on this.

Deputy Ryan asked whether persons in receipt of rent allowance could work. For rent support purposes, the first €60 per week is disregarded. Under the provisions of the 2006 budget, the next €30 is assessed at a rate of 50%.

To return to the remarks of the Comptroller and Auditor General, what proves our point is that we are constantly asked to raise the cap in order that one can claim the total rent. We have consistently refused to do this and kept a tight cap on it. We are convinced that people will be able to find accommodation at our capped price. The market tends to charge what we are prepared to pay. We are the market leaders. I assume the Comptroller and Auditor General is satisfied with our response.

On the question of the changing status of community welfare officers, the excellent work they do will not change when they revert to the Department. Some fear that the Department may interfere when they exercise their flexibility and discretion but that will not be case. These very important front line staff deal with issues day in day out and it is critical that they retain their flexibility, discretion and sensitivity to their clients. Obviously, IR issues remain to be worked out.

Deputy Ryan also asked about the Comhairle Bill. The Cabinet approved a new Citizens Information Bill 2006 which subsumes the Comhairle Bill 2004. I hope to have the Bill published in the next week or two and will try to bring it to the Oireachtas before the summer recess. Members will then have an opportunity to see how I am restructuring and redesigning the Bill to include an advocacy service.

We are expanding the school meals service by making an additional allocation of €1 million. An additional €500,000 has been allocated to raise awareness of pensions. The Pensions Board does a very good job in this regard and the number taking out PRSAs has increased. There is also greater awareness of the pensions issue nationally. It is one of the major issues in the partnership talks. In so far as one can measure a pensions awareness campaign, I would say the money is well spent.

Deputy Ryan also raised the question of issuing free mobile phones. It is our intention that the use of mobile phones will be covered to a certain limit. The Department is in discussions with suppliers to work out a scheme that will come into effect. The multiplicity of suppliers of mobile phones has made it more difficult than dealing with one during the Telecom Éireann days. Obviously, people will have the option of using a landline or a mobile phone up to an agreed limit.

Deputy Callanan raised a very valid point in regard to taking parental income into account when assessing a son or daughter for unemployment allowance. We have reduced the age limit to 25 years and will continue to do more work on the scheme. The Deputy also made a plea that those in receipt of disability payments who would like to do some work should be encouraged to do so for their own sake. We have given many exemptions in order that those in receipt of disability payments can do some work and are examining what else we can do.

Deputy Callanan's comments on the respite grant are appreciated. The Chairman raised the same issue. I accept the Deputy's point. The Department has not yet extended eligibility for carer's allowance to part-time care. This is the issue around which the entire argument revolves. If we were to include part-time care in the scheme, it would open up a new vista and while I do not suggest it would be wrong to do so, it would create a new burden. The number of people covered by the scheme would not be 30,000 or 40,000 but 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000. The question, therefore, is how does to define part-time care. I am grateful that the Deputy acknowledged that we increased the threshold from ten to 15 hours. Can one further increase it to 25 hours and, if so, why not to 26 hours? At that point, the scheme would cover part-time care.

I accept, on an individual level, the case the Deputy makes about a woman who is doing her best, providing care and helping the country. Technically, however, unless the Department makes a policy decision, the care provided by the woman in question is adjudged to be part-time in nature. To take a policy decision to extend the scheme would be a major departure. I acknowledge the commitment and passion members have shown towards the work of carers and I will try to respond to their interest in due course.

The Chairman asked about the free travel scheme. I am making some progress in this regard. I favour extending the scheme to those in receipt of Irish pensions who live outside the State but I am satisfied I cannot extend it to every citizen aged 66 years and over living outside the country because the number of people qualifying would be too large. I await further clarification from the European Union on whether I can extend the scheme as outlined and hope to be able to make an announcement in this regard in the coming weeks. I am increasingly hopeful that the issue can be satisfactorily resolved and I will shortly inform the committee of the position.

I do not know what to say on the matter of firefighters and employment. Perhaps we need to consider the possibility of introducing a special measure ring-fenced for members of the emergency services. I do not believe one could apply, as a general principle, the right of people to insist on working within a particular radius of their homes. However, firefighters are public servants who provide emergency services and perhaps we could consider introducing a sub-clause applicable only to emergency workers. The same case could be made in respect of lifeboat crews. I will examine the issue but I cannot make any commitments in this regard.

I seek only that the Minister consider emergency workers as a specific subgroup.

That is a legitimate approach and I will have the matter investigated. If I have omitted to answer some of the Deputies' questions, I am available to provide clarification at any time.

Deputy Stanton referred to the social insurance fund. His predecessor was always amazed at the surplus in the fund. I note that the Department even receives revenue from Bus Áras.

The cumulative surplus in the social insurance fund at the end of 2006 will be €2.7 billion. The surplus this year will be €380 million.

That is the projected surplus.

Yes, they are projected figures.

What was the actual cumulative surplus in 2005?

In 2005, the cumulative surplus was €2.4 billion. An annual increase in the surplus of €379 million is projected for 2006. I wanted to unearth an interesting figure regarding the number of months in respect of which the Department must pay out. The figure I cited would cover less than six months of payments. The point I am making is that while the surplus appears to be large, it accounts for less than six months of payments.

Has an audit or actuarial study been carried out of the social insurance fund to project future income? I accept this would be a difficult task to undertake. In the light of the aging population, will the amount in the fund decline to zero at some point in the future?

Prior to 1997, the Government had to fund a deficit in the social insurance fund.

It was raided by a former Minister for Finance several years ago. Will the Minister remind members of the amount the then Minister took?

The then Minister, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, indicated that it was not a raid but was done with his eyes open.

Was this money withdrawn in lieu of the moneys paid into the fund by the Exchequer in previous years?

Are we to have a debate on how we would describe the former Minister's actions?

The first actuarial review of the fund was published in 2002 and covered the period 2001 to 2056. It used a number of assumptions regarding demographics, inflation and economic growth and considered the impact of increases in benefits, earnings and so forth. The preparatory work for the next review which is to be completed and published in 2007 began in earnest in March under the guidance of the actuarial review steering group. Clearly, therefore, the Department is active in reviewing the fund from an actuarial point of view.

Did the 2002 review make any bottom line finding in terms of projections?

I do not believe it resulted in any significant concern that the fund would dry up but I will check the matter. It did not set off alarm bells vis-à-vis the size of the fund which I am informed depends on increases in pensions in budgets and so forth. No red bell has gone off.

While I do not want to open a debate on the fund, it is interesting that we pay unemployment benefit to people who are reasonably well off and contributory pensions to hundreds of millionaires. People with BMW and Porsche cars receive payments under the fund. On the other side of the coin, we still insist on means-testing until death those in receipt of non-contributory pensions. Deputies will be aware of what happened with the electronic funds transfer mechanism. This is a sensitive political issue and I do not propose to dive into it. At some stage, however, the social insurance fund, a taxpayers' fund, will need to be closely examined and sensible conclusions made on which persons should be helped in this area. I am not happy with what I have seen since taking office less than two years ago. The argument is made that those who paid into the fund should get something out of it. We also pay tax but I am not allowed to start that debate.

I will not allow the Minister to start it. It is a special issue in all parties which may need to be examined in the future.

On a minor point, is the rent received from CIE fixed or does it vary from year to year?

We think we are lucky to get it. I am informed a fixed rent figure is laid down in legislation, no doubt in a partnership deal.

I have a further question on social insurance.

The Deputy may raise it now.

I return to an issue I have been trying to clarify with the Minister for the past two and a half years. Before I develop it, I want to raise the issue of deserted wife's benefit, of which, according to the report, there are approximately 9,870 recipients. How many relate to the period 1992 to 1997 when the income limit was abolished?

I will have to obtain that information for the Deputy.

Let me put it another way. If the Minister wants to abolish deserted wife's benefit in favour of the one-parent family payment, he should say so. It seems to be the policy of the Department to encourage those in receipt of deserted wife's benefit to opt instead for the one-parent family payment. That is not fair. There is a decreasing number in this group. It is one group in the social welfare system which has not received a real increase since the new system was introduced in 1992 when the existing limits were established.

The Minister stated in response to a parliamentary question that the scheme for deserted wives under social insurance had been retained to the extent that existing entitlements acquired in August 1992 when the earning limits were introduced for new claimants and in 1997 when the one-parent family scheme was introduced had been preserved. These payments have not been preserved, given that there has been no increase in the limits since 1992. Let me give one example. From 30 June there will be a new means test for the one-parent family payment. A person in receipt of the payment who earns €320 per week will receive €85.80, plus €19.30 per child. Someone in receipt of deserted wife's benefit with the same earnings will only receive €34.30.

I have raised this matter time and again. In the Dáil Chamber and at committee meetings the Minister stated he accepted there was an anomaly and that he would endeavour to do something about it in the Social Welfare Bill. The best he can do is mention that there is a mechanism, whereby it can be changed by regulation. It is accepted in all the documentation and by all the officials in the Department that there is this anomaly. I have given the Minister information on top of that which shows that there is an anomaly. Will he do something about the matter and not try to force people out of a scheme by not increasing the benefit, as has been the case since 1992?

Deputy Ryan has raised the issue on numerous occasions.

We are wasting our time here playing politics. I have highlighted an anomaly in the system. It is not fair to me or anybody else that it is not taken on board.

I have not rejected it. There are always opportunities, between budgets and Social Welfare Bills, if a case is consistently made and it is examined. The fact that we missed a few buses in this respect does not mean we will not catch a bus one day. This payment was discontinued for new claimants in 1997. I accept the Deputy's point which he has put very strongly that the limits have not been changed since 1992. This was examined in the context of the 2006 budget. I cannot recall the reason we did not try to sort it out, but the matter became complicated. The possibility of a legal issue was also raised. I accept the Deputy's point and will return to the matter.

How many are involved?

Approximately 3,000. I will continue to examine the matter. That is the best I can do. I appreciate the Deputy's passion for the subject and know he will not go away.

The Minister can be sure of that.

Can something be done before I leave this meeting?

The Deputy is going voluntarily.

Are we talking about the Ryan amendment?

If the Deputy gets this, he might not go away.

We have had an extensive and comprehensive discussion on the Vote for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and examined all the subheads. I thank the Minister and his officials for answering the various queries raised and Deputies Stanton, Ryan, Moynihan and Callanan for raising various issues. They went through the Vote very thoroughly, demonstrating their detailed knowledge of the subject which is very important. All members of the committee have encountered the various issues raised and tried to ventilate and articulate them to the best of their ability on behalf of the people they represent. We ask that the Minister take note of the various anomalies. As a lawyer, I am aware that every time we close a loophole another opens up. It would be dishonest of me if I did not say this. There are always problems. Nevertheless, we made a strong and detailed case on various issues. Members were not being political, although they made their case with passion. They have said nothing of a personal nature but articulated what we know is happening on the ground.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance and diligence in dealing with the various points raised.